How Not to Be a Dick When You Visit Italy

How Not to Be a Dick When You Visit Italy

Florence, Italy's Santa Maria del Fiore duomo and Battistero di San Giovanni with crowd of tourists in foreground.

Gentili Turisti (Dear Tourists): So, you’re going to Italy…brava! And let’s talk.

International travel is thrilling, fun, and expands your world and your soul in ways that nothing else can. (If you don’t have a passport, get one.) Traveling to Florence is especially cool because, holy shitaly…between the art, architecture, history, landscape, food, wine, Italians, and seeing that places you’ve only read or dreamt about are actually real, there’s almost too much to love here. And do, taste, and smell, though I suggest avoiding inhaling when walking over a sewer grate. (You’re welcome.)

But if you come with the wrong expectations, attitude, or behavior, you not only won’t feel the love, but you’ll also have a negative impact on the very place you profess to love. Four years of living in the city center has made it clear that tourists who know they’re being dicks don’t care, so this article is about how to avoid being “that guy” (or a Karen) for the rest of you.

Straight talk for Americans.

Of all the tourists who behave disrespectfully toward Italy, Italian culture, and/or Italians, Americans are consistently the most blatant, fueled by an ingrained sense of entitled superiority stemming from being brainwashed since kindergarten to believe that the USA is the “greatest country on earth.” And it is a great country in a lot of ways, but so are a lot of others.

Sì, tourism is essential to the Italian economy, and sì, the US dollar is green. But America is only the 8th wealthiest country (barely ahead of Iceland) and you can’t buy the right to ignore the culture or talk down to Italians. (Or Africans.) Watching Italians clap back can be amusing, but mostly, it’s pretty appalling.

Some perspective on why not being a dick matters.

Lest you think I’m gatekeeping Italy, tranquilla, and keep reading. Along with how not to be a dick, you’ll find pro tips that will actually make your visit more fun and comfortable, presented in order of importance and/or scale of appalling-ness.

Not to go too far down the statistics rabbit hole, but as of 2023, the population of Florence proper is 382,808 in 40 square miles (102 km2) and the city is anticipating 18 million tourists by the end of the year. (Just for grins, there were 16 million visitors in 2019.)

In comparison, London has a population of 8,416,535 in 605 square miles (1,569 km2) and had 21 million visitors in 2019. If math isn’t your superpower (it’s not mine), that means a city with 5% of the population and 7% of the space gets nearly 75% of the tourists that London does. That’s a lot of fucking people sharing skinny sidewalks. On that note, let’s dive in.

  1. Sharing skinny sidewalks.

As you may have or will notice, the sidewalks in the historic centers of most Italian towns and cities, including Florence, are narrow. And not the smoothest. But…two people CAN (usually) comfortably walk side-by-side on them. Friend groups and families of three or more people, not so much.

Your choices are to pair up or walk in the street. Which you’ll inevitably have to do at some point no matter how many of you there are, because there will be too many people and not enough sidewalk, but more on this a moment.

When walking in pairs, the dick move is staying side-by-side and making people walking toward you or behind you step into the street to go around you instead of tucking behind the person you’re with and walking single file for a few seconds.

Conversely, if you need to go around someone and there’s not much room to pass or you accidentally bump them, say “scusi.” If you need to get through a crowd or pass in front of someone in a way that interrupts what they’re doing, say “permesso.” Why? Because you’re in Italy.

The most important thing though? PUT. YOUR. PHONE. DOWN. Being aware of your fellow pedestrians and surroundings is key to not being a dick, but also, it’s safer.

  • Sharing busy streets.

Sidewalk etiquette does include having to walk in the street for crowd flow purposes sometimes. This is where I encounter the biggest collective of dumb and/or dick behavior, and if one more asshole bumps into me while I’m walking or slow pedaling my pink Bianchi through a crowd because they’re too self-absorbed to pay attention, then tries to blame it on me, I will release my fury on them in two languages.

That said, you can either walk exclusively in the streets, which I don’t recommend for newbies (unless you were really good at Frogger), or you can fluidly alternate between it and the sidewalk based on what’s coming toward you and what’s behind you.

The travertine slabs sometimes belie that they are actual working streets with VEHICLES: cars, bicycles, Vespas, buses, garbage trucks, and even Harleys (which there are more of in Florence than you’d think). So even if you’re a GenX’er whose parents told you to go play in traffic, normal traffic rules apply and you still need to walk in pairs, not span the entire street, and stop and look both ways before crossing or stepping out into the flow.

If you hear someone loudly saying “PERMESSO!” or a bike bell or an “eep, eep, eep” sound behind you, immediately move to the right or left, especially on that last one because it’s a taxi. Also, if you’re in a tour group or standing in a long line for one of the Florence things? Be mindful of blocking entrances and letting people cut through.

  • Dress like you GAF

It kind of goes without saying that Italians are more refined than Americans, but the “la bella figura” (beautiful life) fashion vibe is simple elegance…contemporary business casual-ish. Churches have actual rules, but the rest of this section is more about respecting Italian culture than not looking like a tourist. (Hint: you’ll still look like a tourist, but you’ll be treated better.)

In cathedrals, churches and some monuments and m:useums

  •  No bare shoulders, midriffs, or cleavage
  •  No tank tops or muscle shirts
  •  No skirts or shorts above the knee

Guidelines for women, warm weather edition:

Italian women rarely wear shorts, even at the beach, opting instead for flowy dresses and skirts, lightweight trousers, or capris with tailored or blousy tops. (Sleeveless is fine, just have a cardigan or a wrap for your shoulders.)

I get asked sometimes how women navigate the cobblestone streets in high heels, and the answer is: they don’t. You’ll see a lot of platform and block heel-style shoes, as well as Chucks, Doc Martens, and Birkenstocks. (NO flip-flops allowed unless you’re at the beach.)

Guidelines for Guys:

Say sì! to collared shirts or plain tees with a blazer or lightweight sweater, slim jeans, chinos, or long, tailored shorts, a belt, and loafers. Say no, grazie to athletic shorts, graphic tees, and flip flops. Baseball caps are fine (just remember to take them off inside). As for shoes, slip-ons, loafers, and nice sneakers are fine, as are sandals…just not with socks!! Also, leave your damn shirt on!!!!!! Last week, a guy and his girlfriend were walking down my street and he had his shirt off, which is one of the rudest things you can do unless you’re at the beach or pool. Shorts aren’t necessarily frowned upon, but Italian men generally level up.

A special note for straight men: In the summer, you’ll see young Italian women and teens wearing as little as possible, and in the winter, you’ll notice that Italian and European women have nipples. Staring at either or both makes you creepy AF, so don’t do it..

  • Do. not. expect. Italians. to. speak. English.

Americans aren’t alone in assuming that everyone in Italy speaks English, but spoiler alert: they don’t. Especially in smaller communities. So, please do not come to Florence (or go anywhere else in Italy) and expect this. Unlike the United States, Italy has an official language, which is—wait for it—Italian.

Sure, there are shops, farmacias, tourist attractions, and ristorantes with English-speaking staff, but they are rarely fully fluent, so the language barrier can get really real. And do not get pissy (or repeat yourself in a louder voice, FFS) when your waiter doesn’t understand you asking him for a spoon in English or if someone doesn’t move out of your way when you say “excuse me.”

At least TRY to speak Italian.

Even if you speak it badly, learning “per favore,” “grazie,” “buongiorno,” “arrivederci,” and “dove il bagno” will convey that you care. Not saying Italians will do back flips or clap like you’re a baby taking its first steps, but it will elicit warmer and more respectful treatment.

  • How to drink coffee in Italy

Despite what Starbucks’ may be perpetuating in its hell-bent mission of world domination, coffee is very simple (yet serious) in Italy. For one, it’s actually espresso, and as the country’s second religion, it’s worthy of being consumed Italian style, which is with reverence, without fancy crap added to it, while standing at the bar. And pro tip: sitting at a table costs three times as much most places, especially in tourist zones.

For two, if you bark that you want a “latte to go” at the barista in a snotty tone, I promise it won’t be what you wanted. (It will be a cup of milk thrust at you, and you’ll deserve it.)

For three, read the room (i.e., piazza): WE DON’T WALK AROUND DRINKING GIANT VESSELS OF COFFEE HERE. Coffee to go is only tolerated because it was necessary during lockdown, but it’s still frowned upon. e don’t drink cappuccinos after lunch, so if your dream is to sit and admire il Duomo while sipping one in the afternoon sun, proceed, but just know it’s rude on two fronts.

(Which you’ll know they’re doing if you learn more than “grazie” and “ciao, bella.”) At the very least, you’ll get the side eye, which, pro tip, is a universal clue that you’re doing something wrong. If you want to turn it into a teaching moment and eternally ingratiate yourself, say,

I may or may not delve into the history and subtleties more in another article but trust me when I say that Italians take upholding coffee rules seriously. Like never ordering a cappuccino after lunch. (Or Gesù, Maria e Giuseppe, with lunch.) It’s considered a breakfast-only beverage (too much dairy for anything after that) and ordering a second one is downright sacrilege. Pro tip: a macchiato is acceptable anytime except after dinner, when the only proper choice is “un caffè” (a shot of espresso).

  • Gelato is sacred.

That gelato exists in Florence—and everywhere else in Italy—is an obvious fact. That it was INVENTED in Florence seems to escape a lot of supposed “travel writers,” to whom I say this: If you’re going to write about something (anything) in a way that conveys even a remote level of expertise, then please don’t say things like, “I’m unabashedly a huge fan of this creamy delicious cold treat that can be found all over Europe, but especially in Italy! It is said by many that Italy boasts the best gelato in the world.” Of course it is (said), because it fucking does. Assuming you’ve actually been to Italy, do you really think it would let another country best one of its most famous inventions? Spoiler alert: NO…NIENTE.

  • Ristorante service and paying your bill

Also, there’s a coperta (“cover charge” – usually 2€) already included in your bill, and establishments can’t legally add tips to your credit card because the receipt you get and the one the card machine transmits to the bank have to match for the Guardia di Finanza (a law enforcement branch that’s a cross between the IRS and Secret Service). If you ever read about a bar/café being fined €1000 for not listing espresso prices, that’s them).

  • Tipping

American tourists are skeptical upon learning that tipping isn’t part of life here. So yeah, you don’t have to tip and I could make a pretty good case for why you shouldn’t. Done the right way, they are appreciated, but unless you’re willing to learn how to do it like an Italian (outlined nicely in this Mom in Italy article), I implore you to refrain from asking where the tip jar is.

Judge that statement if you must, then check yourself and consider that A) trying to force your culture onto a foreign one without considering the economic intricacies of the system in play is incredibly arrogant, and B) clueless tourists setting a precedent that threatens to shift our overly bureaucratic system into chaos via the butterfly effect isn’t what Italy needs.

Why 101: Italian wages are notoriously low, even for jobs requiring master’s degrees. It’s a nice gesture to give a couple euro in cash to your server if they were exceptional, but employers pay them actual salaries here rather than relying on the charity or mood of customers. In a country that just found the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake victims 30% responsible for their own deaths (because they went back to bed at 3 AM), the onus for the income of servers and other typically tip-reliant American professions needs to remain with employers. Nudging it over into our shadow economy makes it unreliable and gives the mafia more leverage. So please, stop looking for the tip jar.

  • Italian Hotels

Ah, where to begin with this one… Let’s start with Airbnb since the tension between it and hotels, actual B&B’s, and guest houses in Florence (and Venice) is valid. Airbnb’s are unregulated, which means they don’t pay taxes, and that’s hugely unfair to the others.

And more often than not, at least some of the other people in the building actually live there, and trust me, they’re probably not fans. Their experiences with “guests” are mixed at best, and the permanent neighbors your neighbors used to have (or would have had) have been pushed out by over-tourism.

When there aren’t enough hotel rooms, it means more people are trying to visit a place than the infrastructure can handle. So, Airbnb snuck in and increased the number of places to stay, but that didn’t increase the capacity the city itself is designed to handle, which is how lines for days and overflowing trash receptacles happen.

Until they’re regulated better, please consider staying in an actual hotel, or at the very least, be respectful of things like music volume, closing doors to buildings all the way, and taking your trash to the bins on the street.

A special note on keys and elevators.

I’ve witnessed people arguing or even trying to refuse to leave the old-school, metal key most hotels still use with the front desk when they leave, and I assure you, this is standard practice, so just effing do it…why would you want to lug a 2 lb key around Florence anyway?

Some hotels have elevators, but many of the older buildings are actually ancient and can’t be retrofitted with lifts, so if it’s important to you, research and confirm their existence ahead of time, and don’t you dare leave a shit review on TripAdvisor or Yelp because you didn’t.

  1. Peeing in Italy.

It’s not free and I wrote a whole blog explaining the why, how, and what for, so you can read that here.

  1. Supermarkets

Do NOT touch the produce without gloves, and you have to weigh each item and put a sticker on it. Also, you bag your own groceries, so be prepared.

  1. Elevators in Italy.

First, they’re called lifts, and second, most buildings don’t have them and can’t be retrofitted, so get over yourself and stop complaining.

  1. The hall of shame.

Please, for the love of Gesù, Maria, and Giuseppe, do not do these things. EVER.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most appalling of them all?

The Trevi Fountain isn’t a drinking fountain, yo.

Keep your clothes on.

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