With a population of just under 60 million, it’s not surprising that Italy is a diverse mix of cultures and regional differences. Although it can be easy to have a stereotypical view with its recognisable cuisine, its strong Roman history, and its passionate football-loving culture, even the shortest of visits here can leave you with a sense that there is a lot more to this complicated country.
That’s not to say the stereotypes aren’t true; it’s believed that the average Italian eats an astounding 23 kilos of pasta per year!
Grand palaces and ornate churches fill every corner of Italy, centring around the small-but-mighty independent country, the Vatican City, located in the heart of Rome. Religion is an important part of the Italian identity, though younger generations are a lot more open to change.
Italy’s more recent history has been defined by democracy, since the monarchy was abolished by popular referendum in 1946 just after the Second World War.
Italy is saturated with works of art, stunning architecture, and historical treasures, laying claim to 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Of course Rome, Venice, Florence and Milan steal the limelight, but even in the smallest, most remote town, you are sure to find something beautiful. Take a trip to the rolling hills of Tuscany for example, and you will discover more historical monuments than in any other country in the world.
Italy uses the standard EU plugs, but some older buildings may differ in having two or three round pins. The electricity supply is 220V, so some overseas appliances like hairdryers may need adjusting. Measurements are in metric, with distances in metres and weight in grams.
While English is widely spoken in the cities, Italian is the official language in Italy, but there are a staggering 34 dialects. So even if you’ve been hard at work on Duolingo you may struggle to be understood in some parts of the country.
Italy is part of the European Union and uses the euro as its currency. Exchange rates can vary hugely, so it’s best to go to a bank for a reliable rate. Banks are open between Monday to Friday from 8.30am - 1.30pm, and from 2.30pm – 4pm. ATMs are usually easy to find in built up areas, but get more sparse as you head further south.
Italy is easy to get around, and it's well-known as a great road trip destination. However, train travel is just as rewarding with high-speed connections linking cities and slower regional trains costing a lot less than in the rest of Europe. Italy by rail is not only a sustainable option, but also has some of the best scenery in the country and is a great way to save on travel costs.
There is usually a fee to use public toilets in cities and at tourist stops. Some are attended by a caretaker that you can tip directly in exchange for toilet roll, while others are automatic. It’s best to have small change on you at all times, as few take cards. A good alternative is buying a coffee in a local cafe, toilets are often cleaner and free for paying customers.
Opening hours can vary in Italy and major religious events like Easter can see closures of local businesses and transport networks. Generally shops are open Monday to Saturday from 8am until 1pm, with a break for lunch. They reopen at around 4pm and close again at 7pm.
Businesses are traditionally closed on Sundays. However in larger cities and tourist areas in the north, many shops and businesses are open throughout the day, including Sundays.
Tap water is generally safe to drink and will be signed if it isn’t. There are thousands of free drinking fountains in Italian cities so a refillable bottle will save you a lot of money.
The WiFi standards can vary hugely in Italy, and can be particularly poor in the south. It’s best to get a local sim card or eSim like Airalo if you are travelling around in Italy.
Basic phrases will help you to get along with the locals in Italy. Although many will speak English a few Italian words go a long way. Use “permesso” when passing people, “per favore” (please) when asking for something, and “grazie mille” (thanks a million) for everything else.
Dining etiquette is also important in Italy. Never start to eat until everyone is seated and make sure sharing items like bread are offered to everyone before you help yourself.
Speaking of eating, many Italian cities like Florence, Venice and Rome have rules regarding eating on the go. Generally, it’s not allowed to sit on public steps in busy areas with food or drink, and in some public areas, eating is banned completely. This is an effort to avoid congestion in busy areas, as well as kerbing problems with litter and pests.
Travellers from countries who enjoy queuing might be shocked to be cut in front of at the checkout or caught up in the general melee when boarding public transport. It’s nothing personal, often the loudest wins in Italy so be prepared to speak up and don’t hesitate - the same applies to driving. Horns are common, but it’s not aggression - just a way to get attention.
The one place this doesn’t apply is at church. Respect the signage when visiting religious places, silence is expected, photography is often not allowed, and it’s usually required to dress modestly. Make sure to take a scarf or shawl to use as a cover-up when entering religious sites.
Italians are known for their fashion sense, so if you want to fit in, it’s important to dress up for your evening meal. Classic staples like a white shirt or black dress are perfect for most evenings in the cities and towns.
Though places like Florence and Rome can get swelteringly hot in the summer, the mountains remain cool, so it’s important to pack layers if you are planning on travelling around a lot.
“Acqua alta” (high water) in Venice is more common in winter, but it’s becoming much more unpredictable with climate change. Though walking around in waterproof boots might not be practical, a pair of flip-flops in your bag can save your everyday shoes from getting ruined.
“Ciao bella” (hello/goodbye beautiful) is just one of the phrases you can expect to hear ringing through Italy's cobblestone alleyways. Along with common expressions like “bellissimo” (beautiful), “prego” (no problem), and “tutto bene” (everything is great), you may come to notice that the Italian language is an inherently happy one with lots of passion.
Food is, of course, a major part of Italian culture. Make sure to wish everyone a “Buon appetito!” before tucking into your own meal. You may also want to complement the food by saying it's “delizioso” (delicious) and make a toast to your gracious hosts with the phrase “cin cin” or “salute”!
A particularly important thing to know is that Italians do not appreciate Anglicised versions of their foods. Parmesan for example is basically a swear word in the Emilia-Romagna region - use the Italian word “Parmigiana” instead.
In Bologna, if you were to ask for spaghetti bolognese you might get an exasperated look and a few choice words muttered in Italian - “Tagliatelle al Ragù” is a better way to order.
Trenitalia app - For booking train travel and looking up timetables in real time.
Urbi app - A Europe wide scooter hire app that works with Lime, DOTT, and Helbiz. There are also bike and car sharing options.
Omio - A European travel planning app where you can book train and bus tickets in advance.
AVM Venezia official APP - get tickets and timetables for the tram, bus, and the water bus in Venice.
Planning a trip to Italy? Read our Italy travel guides.
Last Updated 11 September 2023