What to Know About Italian Culture Before Traveling to Italy

Congratulations! If you’re reading this, it probably means that you’re traveling to Italy sometime soon. Either that, or you’re just an italophile like me. If you’re just passing through as a backpacker, not all of these tips will apply to you, but they’re still good to know. If you’re going to be studying abroad, or spending a decent amount of time in Italy, this guide is for you. There are plenty of things I wish I had known before traveling here for the first time, and  definitely before moving here. Other than learning a bit of the language to get by and respecting the culture, I was really trying to do some research about Italians, their fashion, their culture, and little things I should know before I go. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much online to be found. That’s why I have decided to share what I’ve learned [the hard way] with you!

Fashion

Italians are all about la bella figura, which just means that they always want to look good in public and make a good impression everywhere they go. This can be with anything; fashion, their walk, their RBF (Resting Bitch Face), and it even goes as far as not to break any social norms such as ordering the wrong coffee and the wrong time (yes, that’s a thing, keep reading). Most Italians dress well. They’re stylish, and always aware of the fashion trends of the season or keep it classic and sleek. Being the home of many famous fashion brands such as Dolce and Gabbana, Salvatore Ferragamo, Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Gucci and Prada, it’s simply part of their culture to look good. Now, obviously if you’re backpacking, fashion is the last thing on your mind, and rightfully so, but if you’re here for awhile, I would advise investing in a few key pieces to mix with your current wardrobe and try to dress it up. In LA, I dress down most days with my yoga pants and Nike’s or even just cut offs and my Rainbow sandals, but here, any Italian would cringe at the idea of those combinations. Sandals are considered tacky if you’re anywhere but the beach, and cut offs are just a no-no, at least here in Florence. If you do wear them, usually a pair of tights are worn underneath. Shoes are important since you’ll be walking everywhere, but thankfully white lo-top Chuck Taylors and classic Sam Smith Adidas are trendy here if you’re looking to keep it casual. Dark and neutral colours are a safe choice, but the artsy style is definitely acceptable here since Florence is full of the creative types. Basically anything well put together flies, but to be safe, just steer clear of big logos, too much skin, and too much color at once. In Florence, they tend to keep it basic with a pop of color. I’ll write another post about the style in Florence with links and pictures another day. Until then, check out my Pinterest board on Italian fashion.

Coffee

It’s deeply engrained in their culture. When I first moved here, I didn’t know there were times for different types of coffee orders or the options I had. There was so much to learn, in fact, that I wrote an entire article solely dedicated to how to order coffee in Italy. Basically, if you order a coffee, you’ll get a shot of espresso, which Italians stop in for every few hours, and they never take it to go. If straight espresso isn’t your thing, try a macchiato (espresso with a splash of steamed milk) and add sugar. Enjoy it right there at the bar top and be on your way in true Italian fashion.

Public Transportation

I’ve seen it a hundred times; tourist being picked off by the bus authorities because they’re a sure target for fines. Why? Because tourists don’t know they have to stamp their tickets immediately upon boarding the bus for the ticket to be valid (the yellow machine near the front of the bus is what to look for). It is not enough to just have a paper ticket from the tabaccheria, even though that would make sense. Technically, the bus authorities don’t know when you bought that paper ticket and you could have used it 10 times over, therefore getting nine rides free. But with the validation, they know exactly the date and time you boarded your first bus, and from that moment you have 90 minutes to ride any city bus to get where you need to go until you need to buy another ticket. You see, the authorities do random checks, at least in Florence; you never know when they’ll catch you, so it’s better to be safe than sorry and just buy a ticket every time. The bus company here is called ATAF, and they run the city busses as well as the tram, so you can use the same ticket for both under 90 minutes. If you do get caught without a valid ticket during their random sweeps, the citation will be €50 right then and there (even though legally they can mail it to your residence back home and let you on your way). Seem weird to have to pay it immediately to them? Well, it can be. Technically you can pay them directly after receiving your pink citation slip (which they should write your passport or document information on) and get it over with, however, with tourists, it’s all too common that they slip that fifty in their pocket after they write you a bogus receipt and send you on your way in a bad mood and a lighter wallet. Just avoid the situation altogether and validate your ticket as soon as you board on any form of transportation. Even paper train tickets require validation (look for the small green machines mounted on the walls around the station). This is a big one that people don’t know and it gets them in trouble every time since there would be no other way for you to know (there are no signs posted, of course). Lesson to be had: before boarding any train, bus, or tram, always validate your ticket on a nearby machine! 

“Italian Food” vs Italian Food

This is something that we as Americans are mistaken about and it’s a pity authentic Italian food is so rare at home. No, Olive Garden is not real Italian food. Please just do everyone a favor and stop trying to compare authentic Italian dishes and what you’ve had in the US. And for the love of all things Italian, do not be offended when you ask for Alfredo sauce, marinara sauce, or meat in your pasta at a restaurant and receive a confused look or an outburst from your server altogether for your ridiculously offensive request. Alfredo sauce doesn’t exist here by that name. It is a white cream sauce, depending on the dish, and ‘marinara’ translates loosely to something that has to do with seafood. There are a few dishes with meat in the pasta, like ragú or sausage dishes, but in Tuscany it’s not common. Wine, however, is a safe bet anywhere. Even the house wines are good. Remember that Tuscany’s famous wine is Chianti, a dry, bold wine great with food. Most likely the house wine will be Chianti.

As long as you respect the culture and don’t walk around acting like an ignoramus, you will get by just fine in Italy. People are warm and helpful if you ask politely, and you could very easily fall in love with the easy going lifestyle of the Florentines.

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