If you have never been to Italy before, get ready for some culture shock. There are some drastic differences between life in America compared to life in Italy. To avoid looking like a complete tourist newbie, here are 11 things you need to know before traveling to Italy.
Cover Charge At Restaurants
All throughout Italy (not just in the big cities!) don't be surprised if you see a ‘coperto' (cover charge) on the bill. This fee has been around since the middle ages in Italy and applies to everyone regardless of what you are ordering. The fee will range from 1.50€ all the way up to 5€ and is on a per-person basis.
Don't Drive In The Fast Lane
Unless you're always the fastest one on the road and drive in excess of 95 mph, only use the fast lane for passing. While this is a common rule in North America, drivers are more polite and will wait until you move over. In Italy, they are definitely not as forgiving. I learned the hard way on multiple occasions driving across Italy when out of the blue I would see flashing high beams, loud honking, and a car inches from my bumper, literally almost pushing me out of the lane. Pass when needed but then get back over. Italians do not accept driving in the fast lane unless you are willing to be the fastest car on the road.
Still Or Sparkling Water?
If you want water at a restaurant, you'll need to pay for it. As soon as you sit down, the server will come to the table and ask if you want still or sparkling water. Trust me, it's easier to just accept the fact you pay for water in Italy and order the type of water you want. Trying to explain you want free tap water will just get blank stares and isn't worth the trouble of trying to explain it.
Pizza and Pasta Are Not The Most Common Dishes
While it's true that Italians love pizza and pasta, the most common dishes on the menu are actually seafood-based. Most restaurant menus consist of large amounts of seafood and in some cities finding a dish without fish can even be challenging.
Some regions like Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna will have more meat options, but cities like Venice, Naples, and other coastal hotspots will be 75% or more seafood.
Vegetarians may also have a hard time, especially in more rural regions, as many Italians consider fish as a ‘vegetarian' option.
Furthermore, many dishes you've grown up with in the west like ‘spaghetti and meatballs' or ‘chicken fettucine alfredo', don't actually exist in Italy.
They Love A Firm Mattress
The soft princess beds we have in North America don't exist in Italian hotels. Italians prefer a nice firm mattress and unless you are staying in a luxurious 5-star hotel, don't expect memory foam cuddle beds. Italy receives a large number of German tourists and from what we were told, they love also love a hard mattress. Don't bother complaining or writing a review that the mattress was too hard, it's supposed to be.
Why Are The Restaurants Closed At Dinner Time?
While you scroll google reviews looking for your perfect dinner spot, be sure to check their operating hours. Italians eat much later than Americans and most good restaurants don't even open their doors until 7:30 pm, with many choosing to dine at 9 or 10 pm. To tide yourself over, grab a slice of pizza from one of the many take-out pizza places.
Get Your Wallet Out
Unless you are eating pizza and staying at hostels, Italy is going to cost you. Venice, Rome, Florence, and beach towns like Positano are expensive. With Italy being one of the most popular destinations in the world, the prices reflect that. The exchange rate for Americans and Canadians especially is hard on the pocketbook. For every Euro, Americans will spend $1.20 and for Canadians, it skyrockets to $1.49!
Bread Is Your Best Friend
Get ready to eat more bread than you ever have in your life. Bread is automatically served with every meal including breakfast. You'll notice where you are in Italy also depends on the type of bread you get. While in Venice the bread is really hard and chewy, the bread is softer in areas like Calabria. You'll never eat more bread in your life.
If you try and decline bread service at the start of a meal, most servers will look at you as if you've lost your mind.
Wine Is Cheaper Than Soda
Italy loves wine and it's literally on tap everywhere you go. It's easy to find a glass of wine for as low as 2 euros (in some cases even a 1/4 or 1/2 liter for that price!) and my wife said it actually tastes good! Cheap wine in Italy does not mean bad wine. I constantly paid more for a single Coke Zero than she paid for a glass of wine with dinner. We saw bottles of wine in the grocery stores for as low as €1.25.
Turn a Blind Eye
Italy isn't all sunshine and rainbows like you see in the movies. Curb your expectations before arriving and turn a blind eye to some of the not so pretty things you'll see. Italy is a beautiful country full of amazing architecture and history. Like every country, it does have its fair share of problems as well. From the graffiti coming into Rome, litter problems, over-tourism at most attractions, and the scam artists throwing friendship bracelets at you, Italy can be tiring and at some points even annoying. It's better to just forget about the negative and focus on the positive.
In the afternoon you'll notice stores, shops, and restaurants may be closed. The afternoon siesta in Italy is part of their culture. It usually will run from 1-4 pm so this is a great time to do some sightseeing or have your own snooze! Trust me, there is nothing better to rejuvenate from the chaos of big cities in Italy, than to take a nap.
While we absolutely loved our time in Italy, it's best done in small doses if you're coming from North America. Try not to fit too many cities or attractions into a short time frame. Take it easy, see the attractions that interest you most, and don't feel the pressure to see it all. That way you can enjoy your time without feeling rushed while also adjusting to the culture.
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