We already have a very succinct, but very precise Manifesto for any and all travelers in Italy (Check it out here, it’s important) but I believe there’s more explanation needed for first-time travelers in Italy (and even repeat offenders!)
Everyone wants to seem like a local when they travel, here are some ways to help:
Don’t come in August
I know it’s not so easy to plan this. I have traveled all the major Italian cities in August….twice…but the truth is, Italians leave in August. Whether on fabulous international vacations or simply from the city to the sea, August is when Italy bleeds out Italians and is filled to the brim with tourists. And trust me, you’ll be lumped in with the tourists.
Learn three or four words (especially because it’s so easy)
I’ve often wondered about the responsibility of a short-term traveler to learn the language. A three day trip probably doesn’t warrant a serious study in the local language, but if you’re coming to Italy for more than three days (and most likely you are) stock-up on a handful of basic words. Italian is a beautiful language and let’s face it, in the world of languages it is rather easy. We’re not talking about complex German grammar or a non-Roman alphabet like Arabic or Russian, so practice your Ciao, bello! (or bella if it’s a girl, lesson number one) and move forward from grazie, per favore and buongiorno. The locals will appreciate you for it.
Stamp your train tickets in a yellow box
It’s so simple….once someone tells you! Train travel in Italy is an inexpensive and convenient way to get around, and probably the best bet for visitors. If you have a ticket on a high speed train, you’ll have a numbered seat and car and won’t need to worry about anything. For regional trains, you’ll need to validate your ticket, which is a way to stamp a time on it ensuring that you can’t use it again.
You can struggle through a basic Italian at the teller’s booth or head to an automated machine that offers English to buy your tickets, just be sure that once you have the ticket in hand you seek out a yellow box. Seemingly located the farthest away from your train track, you need to “validate” your ticket by getting it stamped in one of those yellow boxes before boarding the train, that way you won’t be accused of stealing a pass and won’t have to pay a fine. Win-win!
Don’t drink weird shit with your dinner
Coffee with a hamburger, coke with salmon? Come on people! Italians are very particular about their food and this includes food combinations. Certain foods need to be eaten first, then second and never together! I hate to admit it but once you discover your palette as the Italians have, you’ll realize that they’re right. Don’t stick out by ordering a mix of plates. Go for a primo then a secondo with the appropriate accompanying drink (that is, water or wine, unless it’s a pizza in which case you can get a coke or a beer).
And don’t drink cappuccinos after breakfast
I’ve said it here and again here and others have said it here. Don’t do it! Cappuccinos in Italy are a morning coffee. After 11:00 a.m. you’re doomed to fall into the category of American or German tourist and be made fun of. Of course you can do and order whatever you want, but if you want to have the authentic experience, live like a local and all those other overarching travel goals, then keep it with breakfast.
Obviously you can do whatever you damn well please while traveling, but if you want to even minimally follow the local customs then know that post-breakfast, Italians usually go for a normal espresso shot, drunk standing up at the bar. If you can’t handle it, ask for a macchiato, which means an espresso with a dab of milk.
Really, just eat how the locals eat: fresh, local and lingering
One of the best parts about being in Italy is the food. Here it’s a joy, it’s a celebration, it’s a ritual. Take part in this thrice daily ritual and eat with gusto. Eat locally. Eat what’s in season. Ask the waiter for suggestions. Eat the lake fish if you’re near a lake and seafood near the sea. Go for wild boar in the hills of Umbria, polenta in the mountains of Lombardia and spicy chili peppers in Calabria. Most importantly, take your time. An enormous, made-with-love meal isn’t meant to be scarfed down. Order the appetizer, the primo, the secondo, hell even finish it off with a dessert! The smiles of the waiters and even the chef who knows you’re one of them will be reward enough. When you fully enjoy the conversation, the wine and the food, you’ll realize why it’s the healthiest way of life.
I understand the insane comfort that is going to the grocery store in your sweats, but Italy is not about that. If you want to avoid some stank eye, get dressed! Flip flops are only okay for maybe the beach, otherwise sandals or real shoes are expected. If you want to look Italian try loafers and fitted jeans if you’re a guy and scarves and sunglasses that never leave your face, indoors or out, if you’re a girl. Though it’s not about seeming Italian (it’s nearly impossible unless you actually are Italian), really it’s about seeming decent and put together. It shows style, class and respect.
So far, all of these things are small changes to fit in more with the local culture, but there is one way to truly do Italy right:
The perennial beauty of Italy is the pace of life. Staying in a city like Rome or Florence for only one night before moving on during a whirlwind 10-day 11-city tour ensures that you will never truly understand the city or Italy as a whole – it means you’ll always be a tourist. Italy is beautiful and there’s so much to see, but choose a few key places and stay there for more than 2 or 3 days. Learn the streets, see the big sights and the lesser known ones, frequent the same coffeehouse every morning, wave to neighbors of your rented apartment and find a “favorite” activity in the city. I promise you it’s worth it.
Questions about traveling to Italy? Share them in the comments below.
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