How to experience Italy like a local: tips & advice from Italians
This article is part of our Traveler, Not Tourist series where Tour Directors, who lead travelers like you on our tours throughout their home countries, provide valuable cultural information and ways you can better respect the local customs while exploring the world.
Ask almost any traveler for a list of their favorite places or where they hope to go someday and we’d bet you a plate of homemade pasta that Italy is on the list. “Every region [in Italy] has its own character, language, food, mentality,” added Tour Director Enrico. “That’s why Italians aren’t very nationalist. Italians are mostly proud of their city or region rather than of their country.”
Whether you’re counting down the days until your Italy trip or daydreaming about visiting the land of la dolce vita, we tapped into the network of Tour Directors (like Enrico!) who lead our Italy trips and asked them to share their expertise on the culture, traditions, and history in their home country to better prepare travelers for a tour of Italy. Here’s what they had to say!
Day-to-day etiquette in Italy
Of all the things to know about Italian culture, one of the most important is that each day is meant to be enjoyed. Whether you’re sipping an espresso at a cafe or listening to an accordion player in a piazza, Italians relish in the every day moments and you should too! Here are a few etiquette tips for Italy so you can fit in as you travel throughout the country.
- Always buy food or a drink if you need to use a cafe’s bathroom. Unlike in North America, popping into a coffee shop to use the bathroom without buying anything is considered rude in Italy—especially if you show up with food or drink you purchased from another establishment. “Restrooms are reserved for customers who consume drinks or food in the place,” said Tour Director Misia. “Often public restrooms are not available—actually the last ones we saw were the Roman public baths!”
- Come to the hotel lobby ready for the day. Keep your shoes on in the lobby (and all public places!) and make sure you’re dressed to impress. Leave what Tour Director Sabra describes as “just-out-of-bed outfits” in your hotel room. Also, make sure your hair is dried—Tour Director Christian said Italians never go out with wet hair. Another good reminder is to keep your feet off coffee tables and chairs as you’re waiting to leave for the day.
- Fill up your water bottle in your hotel room. “The tap water on tour in Italy is safe and good to drink,” said Tour Director Christian. “Bottled water is expensive at hotels, so you don’t want them to be your official supplier of drinks for daily activities.”
- Learn how to use public transport. “Make sure you buy the ticket before you get on board and you validate it once you are on board for buses and before you get on board for trains,” said Tour Director Gabriella.
What to wear in Italy
Italians have impeccable fashion sense, so while you may not be able to match their chic style to a tee, here are some steps you can take to look like a local. Bonus tip: If you’re planning to shop for clothes and want tips for Italy from an Italian local, follow Tour Director Filomena’s recommendation. “Italy is the land of fashion, so be ready to feel the different fabrics before you try them on!” she said.
- Remove your hat when you enter a church. “It’s a well-established tradition in Italy that’s written in a letter by Saint Paul,” said Tour Director Gabriella. “The hat, in the past, was a sign of belonging to a certain class and when you enter a church, you’re supposed to be all the same. Now, we just keep it because… traditions!” Similarly, Tour Director Jacqueline said to remove your hat in restaurants and cafes, too.
- Leave your shorts in your suitcase. “Italians don’t wear shorts in the city,” said Tour Director Enrico. “It’s not considered stylish, and you should only wear them to the beach.”
Read our ultimate packing guide for Italy travel for more tips on what to bring in your luggage >
Italian restaurant etiquette
Eating in Italy is an art form. “Italians don’t go to the restaurants or cafes only to eat and drink but also to spend time together, so do not expect a quick service—you order, you wait, and talk about your life with your friends,” said Tour Director Gabriella. “If you’re in a hurry, it’s your responsibility to let the waiter know. Don’t be shy. Just smile and ask if they can help you. In Italy you get more with a smile than with anything else!” Here are a few ways to fit in while eating at restaurants throughout Italy.
- Make your way to dinner between 7:30 and 8:30pm. “Italians don’t normally have dinner until late in the evening,” said Tour Director Giorgio. “In order to feel more like a local, avoid looking for early dinners at 5 or 6pm, as many restaurants will be closed at that time with the exception of those really touristy places. Instead, choose a restaurant and book a table starting at 7:30 or 8:00 pm.” Thinking you’ll be hungry between that lunch and dinner lull? You can take part in aperitivo. Here’s everything you need to know about this pre-dinner snack and drink tradition.
- Look for places tucked away from the city center. “I would avoid very big restaurants and look for little ones a few blocks away from the main monuments. You can still find a lovely little square surrounded by ancient buildings with better prices and better food. Just follow the locals,” said Tour Director Gabriella.
- Opt to try a first-course before your main course. Pasta is a typical first-course, but it’s not the only option. Tour Director Filomena recommended all travelers order the soups, too. Tour Director Christian said ribollita is a must-try if you’re in central Italy. If you’re lucky, you may stumble upon a restaurant serving zuppa inglese and it’d be a sin not to order it, according to Tour Director Gabriella. “Zuppa Inglese is not very easy to find, but if it’s on the menu you are in a very typical Italian restaurant where locals go,” she said.
- Leave your leftovers at the table. “Don’t use your hotel room minibar or refrigerator to store doggy bags, like leftovers of an expensive Fiorentina steak,” said Tour Director Sabra. You won’t find a microwave to heat up your food, and eating cold meat sounds… well, not that yummy.
- Ask for the check when you’re ready to leave. Politely wave to your waiter to let them know you’d like the check. Getting their attention by pointing or waving your index finger is considered disrespectful. Also, don’t ask for separate checks. “It’s simply uncustomary to pay exactly for what you ate,” said Tour Director Giorgio. “Instead, just split and divide the total amount into the number of people who’ve enjoyed the meal together.”
How to eat and drink like an Italian
So you know that you have to try wine, pizza, pasta, and gelato while in Italy, but do you know where to order each one, or better yet, how to eat them? These tips for Italy from an Italian local will help fit in as you dig in to your homemade meals.
- Get used to sipping your water without ice. “Asking for ice is almost an impossible mission,” said Tour Director Laura. “I guess we follow the rule of our mothers: Drinking a cold drink with too much ice is bad for you—even when we have 100-degree days!”
- Savor your wine. Wine is meant to be slowly tasted, not finished as fast as possible. “Even though it’s not forbidden in Italy to drink alcohol in the streets like it is in the U.S., Italians would never walk with a beer through the city,” said Tour Director Enrico. “Drinking is a social thing, therefore accompanying food or in bars.”
- Twirl, don’t cut, your spaghetti. “Don’t eat spaghetti with a spoon or use a knife to cut them. Italians eat spaghetti by rolling them on the fork,” said Tour Director Filomena. Check out our pasta shapes guide for more tips.
- Be picky with your pizza. “If you sit at a bar or a fancy restaurant, the pizza will not be the best option. If you want to have a good pizza go to a pizzeria,” said Tour Director Filomena. Also, it’s best to save the pepperoni pizza for when you’re back home. “When it comes to pizza toppings, pepperoni pizza is likely to be served with peppers on top, rather than slices of hot salami,” said Tour Director Giorgio.
- Avoid the gelato displayed in big piles. “The natural ice cream doesn't have bright and shiny colors,” said Tour Director Filomena. Look for shops storing the sweet treat in smaller metal tins, sometimes covered with lids. If the gelato is leveled off at the top of the tin, rather than piled as high as the sky, it means it’s fresher. Want some city-specific recs? We asked Tour Director Sabra for her best tips on where to get gelato in Florence.
- Don’t try to order chicken parmigiana, chicken alfredo, or fra diavolo. While you’ll find these foods at many Italian restaurants in North America, you won’t see them on any menus in Italy. Members of the Italian diaspora in America created these dishes and they don’t exist in Italy. If you find yourself traveling in Southern Italy, opt to try melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmesan) if you want the local take on chicken parm.
- Bread, oil, balsamic vinegar, and parmesan won’t be served to you while you wait for food. “Italians eat bread, oil, and tomato (the famous bruschetta!) in the afternoon like a snack,” said Tour Director Misia. They also don’t dip bread into their pasta and the oil-and-vinegar-combo is instead drizzled atop an after-dinner Italian salad. That’s because the vinegar changes the taste of the wine Italians drink with their meals, according to expert Tour Director Vicky.
- Never mix dishes served to you on separate plates. “Different dishes are served on different plates and Italians are very proud of their food,” said Tour Director Giorgio. “It would be almost, not only offensive, but outrageous to mix dishes.” So, if you have the impulse to mix pasta and meat on your plate, follow Tour Director Christian’s advice: “Your belly is your body's DJ: let it mix them for you after your meal.”
- Respect the table layout and coat service. “In restaurants and cafes, don’t move tables and chairs around in a 'help-yourself style' to fit the party,” said Tour Director Sabra. You should also take advantage of the available coat hangers, especially if a waiter asks to hang your items up for you. This is customary in Italy and you won’t find locals keeping their jackets, scarves, and hats on their chair or table.
How to order coffee like an Italian
“An Italian bar is like a coffee shop, but you can also find alcohol and often food,” said Tour Director Vicky. Be sure to order and sip your coffee while standing at the bar. “If you sit down you pay, very often, a bigger price and you miss the chance to talk with a perfect stranger—Italians are very social!” added Tour Director Gabriella. Get even more tips in our guide to drinking coffee in Italy.
- Pay at the counter. Once you order, you’ll pay, wait, and enjoy your coffee at the bar. Just don’t forget to grab your receipt.
- Learn the Italian equivalent for your daily coffee order. If you order a latte in Italy, you’ll be served a glass of milk. Tour Director Giorgio recommended ordering a latte e caffe, latte macchiato, or a caffe latte if you’re looking for coffee served with a splash of milk. If you’re traveling in Northern Italy, be sure to order a marocchino. It’s made with espresso, cocoa powder, and frothed milk, so you know it’s delicious.
- Cappuccinos are (mostly!) enjoyed in the morning. This coffee drink is most commonly served before lunchtime, but even our Tour Directors sometimes break the rules! “If I sleep in and get up very late, I may have one at the nearest cafe without any form of embarrassment or I may shamelessly indulge in that type of comfort in the middle of a tough afternoon without feeling any bit less Italian for that,” said Tour Director Sabra.
- Don’t sip espresso with your food. Our Italian Tour Directors agree that you should save the coffee until after your meal. Espressos are a favorite after-dinner drink, but a limoncello or grappa work well too if you want to opt for a non-caffeinated digestif.
What to eat and drink in Italy
“Food and wine wise, very little can be defined as Italian at large. The most authentic specialties in Italy are regional,” said Tour Director Sabra. That means one of the main things to know about Italian culture is that where you’re traveling in the country will determine the best food and wine to order. Our Tour Directors share their favorite foods to try based off where your tour of Italy takes you.
- Grappa or limoncello. These after dinner digestifs are a staple. Limoncello is made on the Amalfi Coast, so be sure to order that if you find yourself in the region.
- Local wines. “When it comes to wine in Italy, it is all about territory and local flavor,” said Tour Director Gabriella. Always sip something that features grapes grown in the region. In Tuscany, Tour Director Filomena recommended branching out from Chianti and trying Brunello di Montalcino and one of the Super Tuscan blends. If you’re into bubbles, Prosecco is a must especially if you’re in the Veneto region where it’s produced. For more info, read our spotlight on Italian food & wine.
- Aperol or Campari spritz: Tour Director Misia said there’s nothing better than heading to a cafe in Venice’s Piazza San Marco to sip an aperitif or bellini. “After a long day of exploring cities, a spritz is delightful, refreshing, and relaxing. A bellini is perfect for the middle of the afternoon or after dinner,” she said.
- White truffles and risotto in Northern Italy. Tour Director Christian recommended having them in Langhe, Piedmont—the mecca of white truffles. This region is also famous for risotto, so try to find a truffle-flavored version of the famous rice dish to try both foods at once, or opt for a classic like risotto Milanese.
- Florentine steak in Tuscany. This meal is an investment—we’re talking upwards of 60 euros for two pounds. Before you order it, you should also know that it’s served rare and this is part of the reason it melts in your mouth, so don’t ask for it to be cooked very well done. Read our Florence Travel Guide for more tasty eats in the region’s most popular city.
- Lampredotto in Tuscany. If you’re feeling adventurous, give lampredotto a try. It’s the meat of a cow’s fourth stomach and is served inside a sandwich.
- All the pastas in Rome. Some Tour Director favorites include pasta carbonara, cacio e pepe, and amatriciana. Head to the Jewish Quarter for a great selection of restaurants serving traditional Roman recipes and scroll through our Rome Travel Guide for more dining tips.
- Fried artichokes in Rome. Speaking of the Jewish Quarter, it’s also the best neighborhood to try carciofi alla giudia (fried artichokes). Take a self-guided walking tour in Rome’s Jewish Quarter to find the best place to get fried artichokes.
- Supplì in Rome. “These fried rice balls are filled with mozzarella cheese, peas, or tomato sauce,” said Tour Director Gabriella. “They’re tasty, absolutely Italian, but not touristy.” If you’re looking for even more flavorful, fried foods try zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella—yum!
- Bottarga in Southern Italy: Tour Director Christian calls this “Sicilian caviar” and said the best way to enjoy it is by grating it over your pasta.
- Polpo crudo and lumache crude in Puglia. Lovingly known as the heel on Italy’s metaphoric boot, Puglia has a sprawling coastline and is the perfect place to indulge in polpo crudo (raw octopus). For travelers looking for something meat-free, try lumache pasta, a shell-shaped pasta that resembles the look of a snail.
- Sweets in Sicily. Try pistachio gelato and almond pastries (like a cannoli!) while you’re here. For more tips on what to eat in Sicily check out our Sicily Travel Guide.
Plus, here are 15 more Italian dishes that are worth the flight >
What to watch and read before a trip to Italy
Flip on these films and series, or pick up a book if that’s more your speed, as you daydream about your upcoming trip to Italy.
- The Medici series on Netflix. Tour Director Robert recommended this well-produced historical drama, which follows the rise of the Medici family during the Renaissance and their power and legacy in the city of Florence.
- Bread and Tulips film on Netflix. Tour Director Gabriella likes this Italian romantic comedy, which you can watch with English subtitles. “It’s a romantic and funny comedy that starts with a group of tourists on a bus and continues in Venice.”
- Welcome to the South film. Tour Director Filomena and Gabriella both suggested travelers watch this movie, which showcases the Italian biases between the north and the south in a lighthearted, easy-to-understand way.
- The Agony and the Ecstasy by author Irving Stone. “It’s a great lecture and introduction into the Renaissance period,” said Tour Director Enrico.
- La Bella Figura by author Beppe Severgnini. Tour Directors Gabriella and Christian both recommended this book, saying it’ll give you a good look into the culture, humor, and etiquette in Italy. Tour Director Filomena also suggests reading An Italian in Italy by the same author.
- Italians Dance and I'm a Wallflower: Adventures in Italian Expression by author Linda Falcone. Adapted from a popular magazine column in The Florentine, this book highlights stories that showcase the intricacies of gestures, words, and body language in Italy. “The author was raised in a bilingual family and lives between the USA and Italy,” said Tour Director Gabriella.
Italian language tips
“Learn two or three words that would help create a nice connection,” said Tour Director Filomena. Phrases like grazie (thank you), buongiorno (good morning), and per favore (please) will take you far while on a tour of Italy, as Italians love exchanging pleasantries with one another. These are some of the language basics our Tour Directors recommend you brush up on before you hit the road.
- Ciao (pronounced: tchow) vs. buongiono (pronounced: bwon JOHR-noh) “Ciao is an informal way to greet people,” said Tour Director Enrico. “You use it just for friends and kids. If you don’t know the person you should say buongiono (good morning) or buonasera (good evening) [from late afternoon onwards].
- Beh vs. bah vs. boh: “I highly recommend mastering the use of ‘beh’ (uncertainty), ‘bah’ (perplexity) and ‘boh’ (cluelessness),” said Tour Director Sabra. “To surf Italian communication, tune in, draw a smile, and break the ice!”
- Dov’è il bagno? (pronounced: doe-VEY eel BANH-yo) Where is the bathroom?
- Il conto, per favore. (pronounced: eel KOHN-toh, pehr fah-VOH-reh) The check, please!
- Sono allergico a… (pronounced: so-no a-LAIR-he-co ah…) I’m allergic to…
- Grazie mille per l’aiuto. (pronounced: GRAHTS-yeh ME-lay pehr lay-U-toe ) Thank you for your help.
- Per favore vorrei… (pronounced: PEHR fah-VOH-reh, vor-RAY) Please, I would like…
- Come va? (pronounced: koh-meh VA) How are you?
- Sono americano non parlo Italiano. (pronounced: so-no a-mare-e-KAHN-o non par-lo E-tal-e-on-o) I’m American and don’t speak English.
- Grazie mille (pronounced: GRAHTS-yeh Me-lay) Thank you so much!
- Ho bisogno di aiuto (pronounced: O b-zone-yo DEE ay-U-toe) I need help.