These morsels of wisdom will mean the difference between showing up in Italy like a total newbie, or walking in with a little bit of savvy know-how and confidence.
Let’s start with a couple of personal rules of thumb that I think it pays to adopt during your time in Italy.
First of all, smile. Always smile. A genuine smile. Remember, you’re in Italy, living your dream. Don’t let anything spoil that. Not even a mean shopkeeper or a rude person who slams into you and doesn’t apologize. And remember, stepping in dog poop is considered good luck in Italy, and so is being pooped on by a bird. If that happens, buy a lottery ticket.
The Art of Manners
Always say salve (which means hello), buongiorno (good morning) before noon, or buona sera (good evening) after noon, when you enter a shop. (I don’t know why they don’t really say good afternoon. I’ve been trying to make it popular but haven’t succeeded.) Always say per favore (which means please) when you request something, and always finish your request with grazie (thank you). When you leave a shop, always say arrivederci (meaning we’ll see each other again) or arrivederLa (I’ll see you again) if it’s one person. Manners will get you so many points and so much kindness because not enough people — including Italians — say good morning, please, and thank you anymore. Your politeness will stand out.
Pickpockets, Oh Pickpockets
Keep your valuables as protected as possible, especially in crowded areas, on train cars and platforms, and on buses and at bus stops. The closer they are to your body, the better. Pickpockets have mastered every trick in the book, from distraction to elaborate multi-person schemes, to separate you from your valuables. We’ve all heard stories about thieves whizzing by on motorbikes and ripping bags right out of people’s hands and thin-strapped purses off of their shoulders, or snatching smartphones from unsuspecting selfie-takers and running. Now, I want to assure you that I have never personally experienced anything like this in Italy, nor has anyone I know. But vigilance should always be a key word when traveling. This doesn’t mean that it will happen to you, so don’t live in fear — just be smart so that you don’t have to! This also means never casually leave anything lying around. Don’t lay your phone or wallet down at the cashier to pay for something — someone in line could either slip it away or cover it with something so you don’t notice, and then take it.
Don’t Forget Your Receipt
At the cash register, don’t get distracted and always count your change. Remember how much money you put down. If you pay with a single bill, a merchant will often leave your bill in view while he/she provides change. This is to protect you and them from any nonsense. Tricksters like to offer a small bill, then claim it was a very large bill. The merchant who doesn’t leave the bill in view while counting change can then fall prey to this scheme. But the opposite is also true — the ill-intended merchant can claim you provided a smaller bill than you did. Trust, but verify.
Always ask for a fiscal receipt FROM THE CASH REGISTER (it’s called a scontrino fiscale in Italian). This is your obligation and theirs. Why? Because there is so much tax evasion in this country that the burden also falls on the consumer to keep merchants honest. Can you believe it?
You are required by law to keep your receipt for 250 meters from the point of purchase (coffee included!). If the fiscal police stop you and you do not have a receipt to prove you legally paid for your purchase, they can fine you up to 250 euro on the spot, and the merchant is audited on the spot as well. If the merchant put the receipt near the cash register, you didn’t take it, and you get stopped, only you get fined. A friend of ours worked at a gelateria in her early years in Italy, and she personally witnessed the police fining the gelateria customers who had not been rung in at the till.
You can’t predict when the fiscal police will be around — they are usually dressed in plain clothes. You can live your entire life and never encounter them, or you can get unlucky. Merchants, such as coffee bar owners and restaurants, often try to take advantage of the fact that you’re a tourist and avoid giving you a receipt (they don’t have to pay taxes on under-the-table income). But don’t be fooled — cashiers don’t just forget. Every Italian shopkeeper is highly tuned into whether what they’re doing is “in nero” (under the table) or not. It’s like a religion — seeing how much you can put in your cash register without punching it into the till.
Spending Your Mornings at the Bar
No, we’re not talking about hair of the dog. What they call a “bar” in Italy is what we consider to be a café or coffee shop, not a bar the way we understand the word bar. So when you want a cappuccino or breakfast or a cup of tea, you ask where the nearest bar is. You also shouldn’t expect to-go cups in Italy, though if you like your coffee to go it’s worth asking if they have any paper or styrofoam ones — many bars (in the Cinque Terre, for example) are starting to cater to tourists in this way.
Extra Restaurant Charges are Legit
What about cover charges at restaurants? Visitors to Italy are always surprised to find this on the bill at the end of a meal.
There is something called a coperto, which is just a charge you must pay for sitting down in a restaurant (or trattoria etc…). It covers the cost of the linens, the glassware, the cutlery, and any other overhead. Whereas in North America the food costs might be slightly higher because they’ve factored those costs in (something we of course don’t really consider or think about), in Italy they are separate and no one balks at the extra charge for those things in addition to the food ordered (except tourists, who see it as sneaky or scammy). It’s not a rip-off thing, it’s just a different way of breaking down the costs of running a restaurant thing.
Typically, a coperto is 1 to 2 euro. Not all restaurants charge it, but touristy areas do tend to have higher ones — like 4 euro. Sometimes you’ll also see a service charge on the bill, which is like a baked in tip of 10%. Both of these charges must be displayed on the menu (they usually appear in very fine print at the top or bottom of the first or last page of the menu) — if they are, then it’s perfectly legal for them to add these charges to your bill, and legally you must pay them.
In Rome, the coperto has allegedly been done away with but ha! — that doesn’t mean you won’t see it. You just need to pay it and move on. At a restaurant that really wants to gouge, sometimes they charge a service charge AND a bread charge per person in addition to the coperto. It’s highway robbery of course! So always read the fine print before you order, or ask the manager. And if you refuse the bread, you should not be charged for it. The bread basket often sucks anyway.
If you feel like you’ve found yourself in a place where you’re getting worked over, read your bill and verify all your charges. Make sure that the amounts that are on the bill correspond to what you ordered. Often a waiter will memorize the prices of a few things on the menu and just write those down, and the named dishes won’t correspond to what you ate but the total price will. That’s ok! It’s also ok to ask them to explain anything. And again, make sure you get a real receipt from the cash register like I just talked about.
Visitors to Italy also always want to know about this. In Italy, waitstaff receive normal salaries and aren’t expected to survive on tips. Most Italians I’ve been with do not tip. Foreigners who live in Italy for a long time won’t tip either. Or they will tip a euro and that’s ok too. I tend to leave a tip, but that’s just a personal preference. If you feel like tipping, a few euros on the table is fine.
Italians are great at many things. Gauging distance is not always one of them. Our Gigi Guides Rome editor, Kristina, was stopped on the street once by an American who asked where Villa Borghese was. He was an elderly man. Villa Borghese was literally a five-minute walk away, but because of the rise in the street, you couldn’t see it from where they were standing. She told him it’s five minutes away, and he exploded. He said he had been walking for almost two hours with everyone telling him it’s five minutes away, just a couple hundred meters! He wanted to take a cab. He was right. If you ask an Italian for directions, everything is two minutes away, 100 meters away, just around the corner. Even the signs at the airport telling you the walking distance from point A to point B are grossly underestimated. This also applies to apartment listings and locations. Apartments listed as “Close to the Colosseum” may be an hour away on foot. Always check and re-check your map.
Our best advice is to find a nice-looking hotel, walk in like you own the place, and find the bathroom. They’re always clean. Bars are required to have bathrooms for customers as well. There are different attitudes toward whether they must allow people to use them without purchase, but I tend to buy a glass of water (that shouldn’t cost more than 50 cents) or buy something you legitimately need, and head for the bathroom. They are often in the most inconvenient locations, down narrow flights of stinky stairs, but when nature calls, what can you do? Don’t expect toilet paper. A savvy Italy traveler would be armed with tissues, wet wipes, hand sanitizer — whatever floats your boat — because sometime bathrooms in Italy can be a post-apocalyptic type situation.
It’s always great to end an article talking about toilet paper, so this is where I’ll wrap it up 😉
In the comments below, please let us know which tip was the most surprising. Or what tips you want to add to the list. We would love to hear from you!
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Image Credits: Image 2,4 Leela Cyd & Image 3 Caroline White