Italy: What to Know Before You Go

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Updated: October 2, 2020

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Tips & Information for First-Timers

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City

Near sunset at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City about 2 km from central Rome.

Italian Currency and Tipping in Italy

Italy is part of the European Union and uses the euro (€). Most shops, restaurants, and museums in major cities accept credit cards, but it’s a good idea to have some cash on hand for small purchases like gelato, food from outdoor markets, and purchases made in smaller villages. Even shops that accept credit cards often take cash only for purchases under €5 or €10. Small change is needed for paid entry to public restrooms in train stations and near popular attractions.

A small tip left in the room for hotel cleaning staff is also appreciated; 1-2 euros per night stayed is recommended. It is best to tip each day rather than at the end of the stay, so that each person who cleans each day gets their tip, instead of whoever happens to be scheduled on the last day getting all of the tips.

In Italian restaurants, tipping is not customary for Europeans, but in major tourist destinations, it’s semi-expected for Americans to tip. Whether to tip or not is ultimately your own decision, but it’s good practice to tip for extraordinary service or if your table has been extra demanding. Tipping is not percentage-based; instead, just tip a few €1 to €2 coins or round up the bill to the nearest 0 or 5. There are rarely tip lines on credit card receipts; you’ll need cash to tip.

Most restaurants in Italy charge a “coperta,” a cover charge for sitting at a table, usually a euro or two per person, including children. In touristy areas, the cover charge can be higher. The coperta is charged just for taking up space. It does not include any bread, water, or services, so skipping the bread they bring to the table will not eliminate the fee. By law, the coperta must be listed on the menu; if it’s not, you may have it waived (but good luck fighting it).

A relatively new restaurant fee is the “servizio” or service charge. This 10-15% charge used to apply only to large groups, but it is becoming more common for all tables in touristy cities. The servizio does not take the place of a tip for the waitstaff. It goes directly to the restaurant to offset the cost of staff.

Restaurants generally serve bottled water (for a price), and it is considered weird to ask for a glass of tap or filtered water. A few restaurants are beginning to offer filtered water by the glass, but it is still uncommon. In general, water is not free at restaurants in Italy.

Common Italian Words & Phrases

English is widely spoken in Italian travel hotspots, but Italy ranks the lowest for English proficiency in the EU. Though travelers can easily get by without knowing Italian, it’s a polite gesture to learn some common phrases to use during your trip, especially for speaking with older or more rural Italians. A simple “buongiorno” or kalispéra to a shopkeeper is appreciated and can go a long way.

Hello/Goodbye: Ciao (Chow) (informal, use only with friends)
Good morning: Buongiorno (bwon JOHR no)
Good afternoon/evening: Buonasera (BWON a SEHR a)
Thank you: Grazie (GRAHT zee)
Thank you very much: Grazie mille (GRAHT zee MEE lay)
Please: Per favore (PEHR fah VOR ay)
You’re welcome: Prego (PRAY goh)
Yes: (SEE)
No: No (NO)
I don’t understand: Non capisco (NOHN cah PEES coh)
Goodbye: Arrivederci (ah REE veh DEHR chee)
Goodnight: Buonanotte (BWON ah NO teh)

What to Wear in Italy

Dont’ overthink it. The Italian fashionista stereotype is overblown. Though Italians tend to dress well for work or evenings out, it is perfectly fine to wear comfortable, casual clothing and shoes when sightseeing or visiting the beach. That said, it is a good idea to try not to look too much like a tourist, so as not to make yourself a target for pickpockets when visiting major attractions. Italians favor fitted clothes, neutral and classic colors (not a lot of neon or loud prints), closed-toe shoes, and scarves in the cooler months. Jeans are fine, as long as they are clean and fitted – not baggy. Despite the misconception, Italians do wear shorts in the summer, but not running or athletic shorts and definitely not with tall socks. For entering churches, especially at the Vatican, shorts and skirts are allowed as long as they cover the knees; shoulders should also be covered in churches. When going out in the evening, long pants are preferred; white socks with long pants is considered a weird combination.

Driving in Italy

In Italy, cars drive on the righthand side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the left. Highways tend to be in good condition, well-lit, and with clear signs. Drivers from outside the country are required by law to acquire an International Drivers Permit before entering the country. For Americans, IDPs are cheap and easy to get through AAA or AATA. Be sure to rent your car in advance, especially if you need an automatic transmission, which is generally in short supply throughout Europe. RentalCars.com RentalCars.com is the best and easiest website for renting cars in Greece. For information on driving in Florence, basic Italian street signs, and general rules of the road, check out our article on Car Rentals in Florence.

Taxis and Uber in Italy

Taxis are the most expensive public transport option, but they are permitted to drive through most of Italy’s ZTLs (limited traffic zones in historic cities), making them a smart choice for traveling with kids and luggage. You cannot flag down a taxi from the street in most major cities. Instead, you’ll need to seek out a taxi stand, which is fairly easy to do – they are located at nearly every major landmark, piazza, train station, and airport. Alternatively, you may schedule a taxi over the phone – just know that the meter will be running while the taxi is en route to pick you up. Base rates differ whether traveling in the day (€3,30), night (€6,60), Sunday/ holiday (€5,30), and go up from there based on distance, time, total passengers, and luggage. For detailed rate information, check the taxi websites directly. Uber exists in Rome and Milan, but due to lots of red tape, only Uber Black and Uber Vans are available, so they end up being more expensive than taxis.

Smoking in Italy

Smoking cigarettes is still common in Italy, though it has been banned from indoor, public places, including restaurants and bars, since 2005. Restaurants that have outdoor seating usually allow smoking at those tables (and yes, sometimes the smoke blows indoors). Italian hotels do not offer smoking rooms, but most hotels allow smoking outside on a room’s private terrace or patio and in outdoor common areas.

Drinking in Italy

There is no legal drinking age in Italy, but as of 2012 a person must be at least 18 years old to purchase alcohol or to drink it at a restaurant or bar. The rules are flexible with families, though, so if a parent allows their teen to try their drink or pours a little in a glass for them, that’s generally ok. But a parent can’t buy a drink specifically for their child. In Italy, alcohol is almost always consumed with food: beer or wine with lunch or dinner, cocktails during aperitivo (Italian happy hour with light snacks), and a digestif after a meal, especially dinner. Public drunkenness is frowned upon, and it’s rare to see Italians overindulge in public. Noisy, drunk people in Italy are almost always tourists.

Common Questions about Italian Travel

Vineyards in the Tuscany countryside

Rows of Chianti grapevines in a Tuscan vineyard near Florence, Italy.

Is it safe to drink the tap water in Italy?

Tap water in Italy is clean and safe to drink. Most cities in Italy have public fountains scattered around town where you can fill up a water bottle for free. Rome has 2500 free water fountains (they invented the aqueducts, after all). Despite all the free, clean, safe water everywhere in Italy, it is considered a major faux pas to ask for tap water at a restaurant. Expect to pay a couple of euros for a large, glass bottle of water for the table when dining out; leave the bottle behind when you leave.

Can I flush toilet paper in Italy? How do I use a bidet?

Yes, you can flush toilet paper in Italy, but go easy on the paper. Sewage pipes tend to be old and narrow and can clog fairly easily. Consider flushing twice if using a lot of toilet paper. Or better yet, use the bidet, so you won’t use so much paper.

In Italy, bidets are used in addition to (not instead of) toilet paper. Depending on what area needs attention, sit on the bidet facing out (like on a toilet) or facing in toward the wall (straddling the bidet). Most bidets allow for control over water pressure and temperature with knobs on the back; be careful, “c” is for “calda” (hot), not cold. Many hotels supply special soap to use with the bidet. There are usually designated towels for drying off near the bidet, but if there aren’t any, just use toilet paper.

Most public toilets in Italy are pay toilets and cost anywhere from 50 cents to €2. Sometimes you’ll pay an attendant who can give you change. Other times you’ll pay a machine, in which case, you will need coins. It’s always a good idea to carry some cash in Italy for just such situations. Restrooms in restaurants, cafes, and bars are free for customers only.

Do they have siesta in Italy?

Many churches, shops, and smaller museums close down for 90 minutes to two hours during the hottest time of the day for riposo, the Italian siesta. Businesses that follow this practice generally close between noon and 1:30 p.m. and re-open sometime between 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Contrary to popular belief, this is not nap time. Most people taking this midday break close up shop, go home, prepare and eat lunch, maybe rest a little (but there’s usually not enough time), then head back to finish up the workday. Take riposo hours into consideration when planning your sightseeing schedule.

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