I have to admit that I tend to always do a lot of research into a new travel destination, and it’s not just research about things to see and do, but as much about the local lifestyle, traditions, culture and everyday life in general. Daily habits of the locals.
Luckily, as a tourist, I have never dressed in those typical outfits of backpack, sensible trousers, all-weather jacket, ugly (albeit comfortable) sneakers or sandals and socks that make you stand out from afar. Instead, I dress like I would at home, as if I live there and just go out for a coffee, and that has often paid me back in that people will approach me for the trail and think I am a local.
But it is not just not to dress like a tourist, but also to know a few things about how to order said coffee, how to get around and how to behave – or more commonly, how not to behave.
I learned a lot on my last visit to Rome about how to avoid looking like a tourist, from a certain dress code to how to get a taxi. Here are some tips and tricks to help you navigate La DolceVita on your next visit to the Eternal City.
1. No cappuccino after noon
This is one of the milkiest coffee drinkers that foreigners fail at: ordering a cappuccino after noon. In Italy, a frothy cappuccino is associated with breakfast when sipped with a cornetto, a croissant. After breakfast, Italians reach for black coffee and indulge in caffeinated espresso shots (and remember there’s no “x” in espresso, it’s a soft “s”). If you want to appear Italian but can’t resist the milky addition, sneak one from room service rather than in public, or try a macchiato, a coffee with just a drop of milk. That’s what my husband, who rarely drinks his coffee without milk, learned, while I adapted easily because my favorite color of coffee is black.
And if you’re on a budget, have your coffee at the bar inside the cafe, which is cheaper and much more authentic as you’re surrounded by Italians.
2. Drink the tap water
Unlike in France, where it is often taken for granted that you can drink tap water for free even in good restaurants, in Rome you see bottled water rather than carafes on the dining tables. But that doesn’t mean you can’t safely drink the tap water or get your hydration free. Many of the smaller back street restaurants will happily bring you a glass or pitcher of tap water, saving you a lot of money. Just practice saying, “Per favore, posso avere dell’acqua del rubinetto?”
3. Don’t hail a taxi
I spent a lot of time standing on the side of a main street in Rome watching empty taxis ignoring me when they tried to hail a ride and cursing the rude drivers. In fact, they weren’t rude at all; Instead, I just didn’t know the rules. In Rome you cannot hail taxis on the side of the road. There are many taxi ranks available, or you can order them from the Uber app on your phone.
If you’re traveling without mobile roaming or a local SIM card, you have the option to order the taxi through your hotel WiFi (however, if you’re staying in the Old Town, be prepared for quite a long wait) or tag the location the taxi ranks near the sights you will be visiting. Taxis are always readily available near the main historical sites. Pay cash or ask if they take cards before boarding.
4. Dress up for the city
The Italians are a stylish bunch, and while you may see the odd tracksuit or dirty shoes, the true Italians dress up for no reason. Just leaving the house is reason enough to get dressed up and have one Bella figura – Always look good. It’s certainly a compelling reason to leave your baggy t-shirts and comfy but worn sneakers at home when you find yourself surrounded by people you could easily pose for Fashion Italy. Instead of your comfy travel gear, opt for smart casual, city chic, stick to a small selection of colors and wear comfortable flats instead of walking shoes.
5. Appreciate the fine art of doing nothing
Dolce far niente
The fine art of doing nothing is probably my favorite Italian cultural habit. It’s about appreciating and enjoying every moment, taking life calmly and not rushing anything. And what better way to experience your time in Italy than sitting in a cafe, lingering over lunch, strolling instead of running to the bus, and just His in Rome instead of ticking off the sights?
I know it can be difficult to take it easy when you’re short on time, only have a few days in Rome and have so many historical sights to see. But I promise if you rush you will miss the essence of the city, the people and the country. Practice it in small doses, stay in a cafe for a while, maybe skip a sight for a longer lunch, or just rest by the Tiber for a while and watch the world go by. You will come home more relaxed and appreciate the Italian lifestyle more.
6. Learn some Italian
In my opinion, Italian is the most beautiful language in the world and it would be a shame not to learn some of it. Start with buongiornobest in the morning until lunchtime, but acceptable throughout the day, followed by Buonasera late afternoon and evening. Informal hello and goodbye are byewhile if you’re not sure how formal you should be, you can use ointment, which you probably remember from your school Latin. Add a bit of flair by using your hands and always accompany a request with you per favorplease, and end it with grace, Thank you very much. And remember not to slip into Spanish, which is easy to do.
7. Don’t eat in tourist hotspots
I still rave about the quality of food I’ve encountered in even the smallest places in Rome, but I recently spoke to a friend who had exactly the opposite experience. She was totally disappointed with the food. The difference? I ate away from the main tourist spots on small side streets and always listened to Italian speakers before sitting down anywhere.
On the other hand, my friend has eaten at places like Piazza Navona where you have the ambiance, the view and the buzz, yes, but you also have chefs serving people who only ever have one meal at your restaurant, instead to promote the returns business. You may get lucky, but in general it’s best to avoid places frequented by other tourists.
A good guideline is the language of the menu, if it’s in English or worse, has pictures, don’t even think about eating there. Reserve the tourist terraces for your aperitivo to soak up the ambiance, but then eat elsewhere.
8. Know the difference between lunch and dinner
If they have time, Italians prefer to linger over lunch than dinner. While breakfast is usually a short and sweet affair, lunch can last for hours and dinner is often a light snack. So when in Rome, plan your day around meals, as eating and taking time to eat is a local sport. Italians are more likely to order one antipasti (starter) followed by a primo, which is usually either pasta or risotto, followed by a main course, either meat or fish, followed by dessert. And that at lunchtime!
That also explains why there are so many places riposothe Italian equivalent of the Siesta, when people rest sometime between noon and later in the afternoon. Dinner is often a slice of pizza or a salad. But if you’re not a lunch eater, restaurants are more than happy to provide you with a larger meal for dinner.
9. Eat your pasta like a local
When it comes to local cuisine, there are a few tips and tricks that will allow you to look and act like a local. One of the most important things to know is to only eat your pasta with a fork. You don’t turn your spaghetti on the spoon, which, if you have one, serves to mix the sauce into the pasta, and you certainly never cut the longer pasta.
Don’t put cheese on your seafood pasta. It’s also not polite to ask for extra cheese as the chef prepared the dish to what he thought was perfect. Also, you may think your pasta is undercooked, even if you’re used to eating it al dente. Italy is more undercooked al dente than anywhere else in the world, and you’ll soon find that this is exactly the best way to eat your pasta.
Pro tip: I often look for books written by locals or expats, such as the lovely How to be Italian by Maria Pasquale about the Italian way of life, which gives an insight into being Italian and makes you want to travel.
For more information about Rome, see these articles: