Travel Tips for Americans Visiting Italy
There are many things to know when traveling to Italy: For starters, Italy is more than simply a historical friend to the USA, with the two nations sharing a strong bond partly connected to the number of Italian expatriates who reside in the United States. From New York to Chicago, Italians have set down new roots in many states lending their naturally passionate and flamboyant personalities to a different part of the world that is vastly different to their own.
And it’s these fundamental differences that make Italy such an attractive destination, with many visitors looking to experience the culture of Italy and find new and intriguing experiences from their cross-continent vacation.
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We’ve enlisted the help from three US expats – Natalie, Catalina and Robin – who now call Italy home to share their best tips for Americans planning to travel to Italy. You will learn the top do’s and don’ts, as well as a few handy phrases so you can order a glass (or two) of vino rosso using some vocab di Italiano.
Greetings & basic Italian phrases
‘Ciao, arrivederci, benvenuto!’ A little Italian goes a long way and a great tip for travelers to Italy is to learn a handful of basic phrases if you want to befriend the locals. Learning some of the local lingo is helpful when it comes to eating, shopping and finding your way around, as our blogger Natalie can vouch:
“In Italy, the greetings matter. From passing a neighbor on the street, to entering a store, you should always be prepared to say hello and goodbye. In the morning, use “buongiorno,” and transition to “buona sera” in the afternoon and evening. Luckily, these two phrases double as both an opening and a parting greeting. When in doubt, “salve” is a polite way to say hello at any time of day.”
Learning the pleasantries is always advisable when visiting a foreign country and forget about the pressure of getting it exactly right, as the locals are always happy to help you pick up the dialect and it can be a great way to break the ice with locals and will take you from ‘just another tourist’ to a truly welcomed guest.
Quick guide to phrases:
- Thank you → Grazie
- Please → Per favour (male)/ Per piacere (female)
- You are welcome → Prego
- Excuse me → Scusi
- How much does it cost? → Quanto costa?
- Do you speak English? → Parla Inglese?
- Restaurant → Ristorante
- The check → Il conto
- Where is the bathroom? → Dov’é il bagno?
Tipping in Italy
For most visitors from the ‘States, tipping is second nature but this isn’t the way across most of Europe, including Italy and while tips are well received by porters and taxi drivers, but they are certainly not as expected like they are in the US:
“Tipping is tricky business in Italy. While the American custom is to tip around 15% for meals, two out of three Italians never tip at all. A general rule of thumb might be to leave around €1 per person or round the bill up (for example: from €55 euros to €60).”
Many restaurants will include a cover charge (il coperto) for a few euros, so always look out for that when reading the menu:
“Instead, when sitting down for a meal you will be charged a coperto, or cover charge, of €1-3 per person. If you are not charged a coperto, or feel that the service was exceptional, then you can feel free to leave a small tip or the change behind for your server.”
While pasta and pizza dishes are found nationwide, specific dishes and variations will change from region to region and even as local as town to town. Ingredients are usually fresh and locally-sourced and no dish is complete without the company of friends and family, whether you are in a bustling city like Rome or a small village like Fosdinovo.
How to dress for Italy
What clothing you should pack changes depending on what time of the year you are visiting, with the colder months from October to February demanding fashionable scarves and boots, while the warmer months call for chic skirts and voguish gladiator sandals. If you don’t want to stand out as a tourist, you will need to be catwalk-ready at all times and a little bit of local know-how will make sure you blend right in with Italy’s famously super-stylish population:
“Italy is famous for fashion, and this becomes incredibly clear within a few minutes of walking around any Italian city. Italians tend to dress up, and rarely leave the house in flip-flops or gym clothes. To avoid looking like a total tourist, leave the flip-flops behind and dress up a bit. Just be sure to bring comfortable walking shoes, as old cobblestone streets can make walking a bit challenging!”
Keeping up-to-date with the latest styles is one thing, but knowing what to wear and when is equally as important. However, with 90% of Italians identifying themselves as Roman Catholic, respectful dress is recommended when visiting religious buildings around the country.
A little fun with cultural etiquette
“Fuhgeddaboudit!” When you order a green salad in the US, you can expect to be presented with a medley of salad and fresh vegetables – much of which may not even be green – but in Italy; an insalata verde will be a simple bowl of crisp lettuce – niente more, niente less.
Coffee time? Coffee is as beloved in Italy as it is in the US. However, in Italy the locals consider how milk can affect digestion if taken after breakfast, so coffees such as a cappuccino or a latte after 10:00 am are less popular.
Don’t stand in line: For Americans, line-jumping is a no-go, but in Italy the idea of forming a line is improper and might see you left behind. Remember; when in Rome (or Naples, Florence or anywhere else for that matter) do as the locals do if you want to be served!
How to travel across Italy
There are a number of large airports within close proximity of the main cities in Italy and train networks weave their way across the country. When venturing to smaller destinations or if you plan to explore the country extensively, Robin advises that traveling by car is still arguably the most viable option.
“You’ll need a car to get to the charming, small villages you’ll want to see in Tuscany. Obtain an International Driver’s License before you leave the states, order a GPS with your rental car and arm yourself with a detailed road map – the International Driving Club Touring Map of Tuscany is a good bet. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time because Tuscany is a huge area and winding through all of those tiny dirt roads and switchbacks takes time.”
Additionally, there are some key differences for drivers from the United States to get familiar with before they cruise around Italy. First, like our quirky friends in England, the Italians love to drive stick-shift cars and as a result; it may be more challenging to find an automatic rental car. And once you master the dreaded stick-shift controls, don’t panic that it’s throttle-to-the-floor when you see the speed limit signs, as they are posted in kilometers per hour not miles per hour. In some areas, you might spot some bright pink parking bays (it’s hard to miss them!), which are not there to add a splash of color to the parking lot but are actually designated to be used by new and expecting mothers only. Additionally, it’s always wise to keep a pocket full of coins to hand for the parking meters, as most of the parking – especially in the busy cities – is charged for.
But arguably the most notable point to remember when it comes to driving in Italy is that the Italians drive on the right side of the road – the same as the US – so thankfully there’s no need to grasp the challenging task of driving on the opposite side of the road. However, to save time and hassle, visitors can always stick to driving on the country roads outside of the busy cities and either take public transport or catch a cab to navigate through the city streets.
Tourist hotspots & hidden secrets
The “holy trinity” of Rome, Naples and Venice are among the most frequently visited areas in Italy and rightly so, as they are home to some of the most iconic and memorable spots in Italy you’d be well-advised to visit at least one of them during your stay.
That said, by taking the road less-travelled, you’ll discover hidden gems that will stir your inner traveler. As Natalie suggests; some of the best kept secrets lie off the beaten tourist trail and have inspired many to experience everything this wonderful country has to offer and fall in love with the real Italy.
“Most first-timers visiting Tuscany want to stop in Pisa to see the tower. I suggest a visit to the walled city of Lucca, instead. About an hour from Florence by train, it makes for the perfect day trip. You’ll find interesting medieval architecture, but the most unique attractions are the ramparts, and Torre Guinigi. Walk or rent a bike to circumnavigate the tree-lined ramparts, which surround the city.”
You can find out more about our selection of bike trips, walking tours and other Italian adventures by viewing our collection of unique tours and experiences.
Having some insider knowledge on the cultural etiquette, a few basic phrases to hand, and knowing some great places to visit will take you a long way in a naturally flamboyant country like Italy. We hope that these exclusive tips from our American friends who call Italy home will help you to prepare for your next Italian adventure and may we wish you good luck eating as much pizza as you can, drinking enough wine to impress the locals and soaking up the culture until ‘ciao’ becomes an everyday part of your vernacular.
About our experts
Natalie Kennedy is a California native who has lived in Rome since 2010. She enjoys eating her weight in gelato, partaking in aperitivo and learning Italian con calma, when not contributing to her website, An American in Rome.
Catalina is travel addict from Chicago who fell in love with “la vita bella” while studying abroad in Italy. After graduating, she packed up her bags and moved to Florence, where she works as a travel guide and writes for her website, Miss Adventures Abroad.
Robin Locker Lacey is a travel consultant, planner and coach and for more than 10 years she has been providing people with information to explore Italy on her website, My Melange.