Wanderlust [/ˈwɒndəlʌst/]: a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about.
It is perhaps fitting that this concept should be so aptly expressed by a loanword, that has “traveled” from the German to the English language. Unlike this term, which has moved across languages and remained unaltered in the process, smart travellers know that the best attitude you can adopt when visiting a new place is an open-minded and permeable one. What’s the use of seeing the world if, by the end of the journey, we have not allowed any part of this experience to have an effect on us? In the past decades, tourists have made the easy mistake of overestimating the effects of globalisation and just assuming certain customs and habits to be universally spread. That is, of course, not the case. While Italy is not exactly uncharted territory – with its major cities ranking regularly among the most popular tourist destinations in the world – it is nonetheless common for tourists visiting Italy to find some of the local customs puzzling. If you want to experience and understand Italy fully and blend in with the locals, you should watch out for these common mistakes. Spoiler alert: we will not be discussing tipping in this post, having already established that, in this particular instance, globalisation has been effective. Tipping is appreciated in bars, restaurants and hotels and no-one will get offended.
1. Expecting refills
This is a common mistake, particularly if you live in the US, where the whole experience of having coffee is completely different to what you might expect in Europe in general and in Italy in particular. If you are having coffee in a bar, even when you sit down at a table to be waited on, you will not get refills. The very concept of a coffee refill does not exist, it is not applicable and no-one will understand you if you ask for another hot drink and expect not to pay for it. You will notice that in Italy coffee is always made fresh on the spot and never kept in a jar or – perish the thought – re-heated. Furthermore, unless you are ordering coffee in a restaurant after a meal, your caffeinated drink is likely to be the most important part of your order. Our coffee is also likely to be stronger and more bitter than you might be used to and it would not be healthy to have multiple ones in a row.
Our tip: sit down (or stand), enjoy your cappuccino, make it last and cherish the social ritual that comes with it.
2. Expecting complimentary water
While you will get free glasses of water in an increasing number of bars and clubs, water in restaurants is a proper drink and you will be expected to pay for it. It will come in a bottle – not a glass – and it won’t be accompanied by either lemon or ice. If you are a wine enthusiast, chances are that you will be visiting some of the regions that produce your favourite vintage: in this case you might skip water altogether and go for wine alone. However, you’ll find that the locals tend to also order water with a meal, even when there’s wine on the table. Sugary drinks at mealtimes are less common and hot drinks alongside your meal are the liquid equivalent of a loud “tourist warning” alarm going off.
Our tip: if your sightseeing schedule is packed with must-see landmarks and museum visits, staying hydrated is actually a great idea and hot or sugary drinks just won’t cut it. If you are wandering through the streets of Venice or Florence on an early afternoon, after a lengthy lunch, you will be glad you ordered water with your meal.
3. Attempting to buy a ticket on public transport
If you are using public transport, you will be expected to buy your ticket before boarding the bus or tram. Failing to provide a valid ticket upon request of the inspectors will get you a fine. You will find no ticket machines on board or at the bus stop and the driver can’t print your tickets for you. Ticket machines are usually found in the main stations, but most newsagents will also sell public transport tickets.
Our tip: depending on how long you are planning on staying in each city, you might want to purchase day tickets or just buy several tickets in advance and keep them with you at all times. They will not expire, as they need to be validated when boarding public transport. After being validated, tickets can be used for 75 minutes to two hours.
4. Expecting to be able to use your credit card everywhere
While credit cards are the standard means of payment in the shopping districts of the main cities, it is not unusual for small establishments to be unequipped or unwilling to accept them, particularly for small amounts. If you are an American Express user, you might find it even harder to use your card in small shops and restaurants. If you are unsure whether or not your card is accepted in a particular establishment, the safest course of action is to check their website in advance or simply ask. If you are not comfortable carrying cash, just keep a few Euros and your ATM card in your wallet.
Our tip: attempting to pay for coffee with a 50 € bill will get you pretty much the same dark looks as whipping out your credit card. Before making small purchases, such as coffee, bus tickets or postcards, always make sure you have enough change or 5 to 20 € bills.
5. Failing to take into account afternoon and weekly closures
In major city centres shops will stay open at lunchtime, but this might not be the case in smaller towns or suburban areas. Daily and weekly closures vary from city to city and sometimes from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, if not from shop to shop, and they don’t stay the same throughout the year. It’s not a siesta, nor is it a lunch break: shops simply plan their opening hours according to their customers’ habits. In summer, for instance, shops are likely to be closed between lunchtime and 4 or 5 pm, particularly in the central and southern regions. This is due to the sheer heat of the season, which makes it unlikely that anyone will venture out to buy anything during those hours.
Our tip: try to adjust to the local pace. If you want to know in advance which shops will close at lunchtime and which will stay open, simply ask the locals.
6. Waiting for the bill without asking
Once you have been served your meal in a restaurant, the waiting staff is unlikely to accost you again unless you call them. They are not ignoring you or being rude, they are simply respecting your privacy and allowing you to enjoy your meal without rushing you. If a waiter were to stop by a table multiple times, ask how everyone is doing and if they like the food or need anything else, that would be perceived as anything from mildly annoying to downright rude. A very limited number of restaurants have introduced this custom in recent years, and it is widely understood to be a way of pressuring customers to leave the table as soon as they are finished with their meal, which most Italians find annoying – and that’s why you are unlikely to find any locals in those particular establishments. In the vast majority of restaurants in Italy it is perfectly normal to linger at your table and chat for a while, even after you have finished your meal and downed your coffees and digestives. When you are ready to leave, just wave at a passing waiter and ask for the bill.
Our tip: enjoy the little scraps of time that do not fall into any defined category. The laid back chat after lunch or the quick coffee that you consume standing up at the bar: those moments will turn rapidly into pleasant, stress-relieving habits that you will find yourself wanting to hold on to.
7. Wearing the wrong clothes at the wrong time
While it’s true that Italians generally don’t wear tracksuits out of the gym and won’t even walk to the shop round the corner without being appropriately dressed for the outdoors, this doesn’t mean that we live on a never-ending catwalk. There is a time and a place for formal attire and uncomfortable shoes and overdoing it can be extremely uncomfortable. If you are going on a walking tour of Rome, for instance, high-heels are definitely the wrong choice, whereas a hat in summer might be a life-saver. A backpack or belt bag will broadcast to the world that you are a tourist: if you want to go local you should carry a shoulder bag or a handbag. If you are planning on visiting places of worship, expect to be asked to cover up if you are wearing tank-tops, shorts, miniskirts or sort dresses.
Our tip: use your common sense and consider the weather and the activities on your schedule, before you take anything else into account.
8. Visiting Italy, exploring several regions and only eating pizza
Italy is well known for its culinary tradition and pasta and pizza are international favourites, therefore it’s only natural that you will want to sample them in their Country of origin, but it would be a mistake to limit your experience of Italian food to those two specialties. Each region has hundreds of traditional recipes, with unique ingredients that you are unlikely even to find elsewhere in the Country. Allow yourself to explore the local cuisine and you will discover that there is much more to Italian food than just pizza. Even when you do decide to have a pizza, avoid establishments that are located near the main tourist attractions and that cater exclusively to tourists, as the quality is almost guaranteed to be poor.
Our tip: if any part of your pizza menu includes the word “Hawaiian”, you should just make your excuses and leave. There’s no such thing as a Hawaiian pizza and whoever told you there was, was lying. Putting pineapple of a pizza in Italy is a culinary sin. Pineapples are meant for cakes and fruit salads, not main courses.