By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

There is much to learn before you set off to stay in one of our Italian villas for rent. Italy is more than just a historical friend to the United States. The two nations share a strong bond, partly connected to the US’s vast number of Italian expatriates and immigrant families. Italians have set down new roots in many states, including in big cities like New York and Chicago.

But despite Americans’ familiarity with some aspects of Italian culture, this is a very different country.

We’ve enlisted help from three US expats: Californian Natalie Kennedy, aka An American in Rome; Catalina of Miss Adventures Abroad; and Robin Locker Lacey of Melange Travel. Each now calls Italy home, and below they share their best tips for Americans planning an intercontinental journey to Italy. You will learn the top do’s and don’ts, as well as handy phrases so you can order a glass (or two) of vino rosso using some Italiano.

Italy church

Greetings & basic Italian phrases

“Ciao, arrivederci, benvenuto!” A little Italian goes a long way and a great tip for first-time visitors to Italy is to learn a handful of basic phrases to charm the locals. Learning some lingo is helpful when it comes to eating, shopping and finding your way around.

Natalie: “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, and you should forget about the pressure of getting words exactly right. Locals are always happy to help you out. It can be a great way to break the ice and will transform you from “just another tourist” to a truly welcomed guest.

Some handy everyday phrases:

  1. Thank you  →  Grazie
  2. Please  →  Per favore / Per piacere
  3. You’re welcome  →  Prego
  4. Excuse me  →  Scusi
  5. How much does it cost? →  Quanto costa?
  6. Do you speak English?  →  Parla Inglese?
  7. Restaurant  → Ristorante
  8. The check  →  Il conto
  9. 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 much of Europe, including Italy. While tips are well received by porters and taxi drivers, they are certainly not expected as they are in the US.

Natalie: “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).”

Most restaurants will include a cover charge (il coperto or pane e coperto) for a few euros, so look out for that when reading the menu.

Italian village with people walking

Catalina: “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 are served nationwide, specialist dishes change from region to region, and even town to town. Ingredients are usually fresh and locally-sourced and no dish is complete without the company of friends and family, whether in a big city like Rome or a village near one of our San Gimignano villas.

How to dress for Italy

What clothing you should pack depends on what time of the year you are visiting. Colder months from October to February demand 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 may want to be catwalk-ready at all times!

Catalina: “Italy is famous for fashion, and this becomes incredibly clear within a few minutes of walking around any 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. Respectful dress is expected when visiting religious buildings around the country, for example.

Everyday culture clashes

“Fuhgeddaboudit!” When you order a green salad in the US, you expect a medley of salad and fresh vegetables, much of which may not even be green. 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 after 10:30am 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), do as locals do if you want to be served.

How to travel around Italy

There are large airports close to the main cities in Italy, and train networks criss-cross the country. If you plan to explore the countryside — from one of our villas in Chianti or a rural villa with cook in Tuscany, for example — it’s a different story.

Chianti countryside, Tuscany Now and More villa with swimming pool

Robin: “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 key differences for drivers from the United States to get familiar with. First, like our quirky friends in England, Italians love stick-shift cars and as a result, it may be challenging to find an automatic rental car. 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: these are posted in kilometres per hour not miles per hour!

Bright-pink parking bays (it’s hard to miss them) are not there to add a splash of colour to a parking lot, but designated for new and expecting mothers only. Additionally, it’s always wise to keep a pocket-full of coins to hand for the parking meters. Most parking, especially in the busy cities, is charged for.

Thankfully Italians drive on the right, so there’s no need to grasp the challenging task of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.

Buon viaggio!

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