Don’t Travel Italy Without Knowing These Top 5 Cultural Norms

Don’t Travel Italy Without Knowing These Top 5 Cultural Norms

If you’re keen to travel Italy, you might want to get acquainted with some of the Italian cultural norms and customs in order to prevent an awkward cultural faux pas or a misunderstanding during your visit. Learning about a new culture is one of the most interesting parts of travelling, and Italy is especially fascinating because of its famous coffee and food culture!


Italian Coffee Culture

Italians take their coffee extremely seriously! If you’re visiting Italy for the first time, a great introduction to Italian coffee culture is a visit to a local coffee bar. It is chaos, passion, and fast-paced expertise that keeps Italian coffee bars running smoothly and efficiently. Many aspects of Italian life are laid back, but coffee is certainly not one of them. Espresso, literally meaning “quick!”, is ordered and enjoyed whilst one is standing at the bar. You shouldn’t pay more than €1 for an espresso ordered and finished at the bar, which is great news for your budget.

There is a great variety of caffeinated drinks available at Italian coffee bars, and rarely any menus describing them all, so here are a few tips and explanations for when you travel Italy:

  • Espresso / caffè – Ask for a “coffee” at an Italian coffee bar and you will most likely get an espresso. A single shot of coffee, without milk and sometimes with sugar, this is the most popular kind of coffee enjoyed by Italians throughout the day, and after meals.
  • Doppio – A double espresso, which is incredibly strong and perfect for an effective morning awakening before sightseeing!
  • Lungo – An espresso with added hot water, which makes a “lungo”, or long drink.
  • Macchiato – An espresso with a drop of hot milk – perfect for mellowing the strength of a pure black espresso.
  • Cappuccino – 1/3 espresso, 1/3 hot milk, and 1/3 foam, this beloved breakfast drink is perhaps one of the most well-known Italian coffee varieties. It is considered a serious faux pas to order a cappuccino after noon, so enjoy one with your breakfast and have an espresso later in the day instead. (It is, of course, still possible to order a cappuccino at any time of day, but it is not done in Italian culture and is usually a dead giveaway that one is a tourist!).
Travel Italy and enjoy Italian Culture
Travel Italy and enjoy Italian Culture

The Cheek-Kissing Greeting

If you’re anxious about Italian cheek-kissing etiquette, you’re not alone – it can be confusing for tourists, especially as the conventions change depending on the people you’re with, the social situation, and the area you’re visiting. Here are some general rules to guide you:

  • If meeting a stranger, kissing is not necessary – a simple smile and a handshake is appropriate.
  • Greeting close friends and family – both saying hello, and goodbye – warrants a brief cheek graze, with no actual lips-on-cheek action. This sounds complicated, but you can pause and follow the lead of your Italian friend, especially as some parts of Italy start with a kiss on the left cheek instead of the right.
  • If in doubt, don’t go in for a kiss! Simply extend a hand for a handshake greeting.
  • Whatever you do, don’t do an “air kiss” or make kissing noises. Keep it simple and genuine! If you feel embarrassed or awkward, just remember that your attempts are appreciated, no matter how clumsy. Tourists are forgiven a few faux pas if there are good intentions behind them.

Italian Food & Dining Etiquette

Italians love their food, and they love introducing tourists and visitors to their favourite dishes when they travel Italy. Most food related social norms are quite laid-back, but a few are worth being aware of:

  • Meals are a social affair, and meal times are for relaxing, enjoying the company of family and friends, and eating. No checking cellphones, taking phone calls, or rushing a meal.
  • In restaurants, it can take a while for your food to arrive, as most meals are made from scratch and dining is a slow-paced activity.
  • Pasta is usually served as a starter, followed by a meat and vegetable dish as a main, so bear this in mind before filling up on pasta when out to eat!
  • Dessert is almost always served after dinners, every day, and can be anything from fruit to an espresso with grappa (a strong alcoholic spirit) or a rich, creamy dessert.

Wine with Meals & Drinking Norms

In accordance with the Italian philosophy of “everything in moderation”, alcohol is enjoyed sparingly, and with meals. It is culturally acceptable to have a small glass or two of wine with lunch and dinner, and aperitivi (appetite-whetting drinks) are enjoyed before dinner. Digestivi (digestive drinks) are had after dinner to aid digestion, and often paired with coffee and dessert.

Binge drinking is taboo and is a recent phenomenon in the younger generation of Italians. Pace yourself when drinking when out so as not to embarrass yourself! Drinking wine or beer in public places, with meals, is legal in most parts of Italy, but drinking hard alcohol or getting drunk is not accepted.


Driving in Italy – Organized Chaos

Driving in Italy takes experience and nerves of steel, especially if you’re not used to the slightly more flexible rules of the road, and animated fellow drivers! Be vigilant while driving, and never expect the other drivers to automatically obey the rules of the road.

Also, be mindful of the speed limit! Fines are hefty, and the speed limit is respected and enforced quite diligently.

Italians are quite forgiving when it comes to tourists learning about their culture, and so any faux pas you might have the misfortune of committing will really not matter if they are genuinely mistakes and not from a disregard of cultural norms. If in doubt, ask! You’ll likely get a long, friendly explanation about life in Italy, and how things are done. Travel Italy with these tips in mind and experience the country like a local!

  • Carmen is a Capetonian travel blogger and photographer who is currently seeking wanderlust and whimsy in Europe. Visit her blog at: An Incurable Case of Wanderlust