Home DestinationsEurope Italian Culture: 19 Weird Things Italians Do That No One Warns You About 

Italian Culture: 19 Weird Things Italians Do That No One Warns You About 

From going outside with wet hair to paying for your own birthday cake, after 3 years living in Rome, here's what I learned about Italian culture.

by Michele
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Italian Culture - A Guide to Weird Things Italian do
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When I moved to Italy, I learned a lot about Italian superstitions and other culturalisms that no one had ever warned me about. For example, don’t be surprised if you get a few strange looks if you order a cappuccino after midday, hear people ask “permission” to enter someone’s house, or if somebody you barely know kisses you on the cheek.

Experiencing culture shock is totally normal, but being prepared could save you from embarrassment and awkward moments or, as would say in Italy, “figuracce” (bad impressions)!

In this guide, I’ll share with you the most important, and at times, weird things about Italian culture that you should be aware of before your next trip to Italy.

Side note: these are fun facts and observations that will give you an insight into the way Italians act in general. They may vary depending on the region or generation. This is an opportunity to reflect on cultural differences, traditions, and stereotypes that make Italy so unique!

1. Italians don’t have milk/cappuccino after breakfast

At the top of the strange things Italians do is this one: Italians don’t normally have a cappuccino after midday and definitely not during a meal that isn’t breakfast! This has probably to do with the fact that many Italians have cappuccino, or more generally, milk for breakfast, which often comes with sweet (and not savoury) food such as biscuits, pastries, croissants or cereals (they rarely eat eggs and bacon in the morning, even on the weekend). And that is why, unless you’re having a very late breakfast, you don’t typically order any milk-related beverage after 11 am.

However, it is allowed (and quite common) to have an espresso, a macchiato (coffee with a few drops of milk) or a corretto (coffee with a tiny bit of grappa or other liquor) after lunch or even after dinner (if you don’t have troubles sleeping)!

For tips on how to order in food and drink in Italian, check out my guide here.


2. Italians only drink chamomile tea when sick

Although tea is certainly not the most popular drink in Italy, some Italians like to have it in the morning, or in the afternoon, with pastries or a piece of cake, especially during cold days. On warmer days, a hot cup of tea might be replaced with a more refreshing beverage such as tè al limone (cold lemon tea) or tè alla pesca (cold peach tea), with or without ice.

There is however something that Italians only drink when sick, that is, chamomile tea. Many Italians associate the smell of chamomile tea with not feeling well, to the point that they refuse to drink it unless they have a mal di stomaco (stomach ache) or they’re feeling under the weather.

3. Italians never go swimming after eating

Italian culture - Italians never swim after eatingEvery Italian has this indelible childhood memory: a grown-up warning them to wait at least two hours after eating before going for a swim! Italians believe that the water in the sea or swimming pool, especially when it’s cold, can affect your digestion negatively. This belief is taken pretty seriously and there wasn’t much you could say as a kid to convince your parents otherwise. That’s why many Italians spend the afternoon at the beach playing cards, taking a nap, or going for a walk before going for a swim.

4. Italians don’t like to eat or drink anything to go

For the same reason why Italian prefer to wait two hours after a meal before swimming, many Italians don’t like to rush their meal (working hours permitting) and eat or drink anything to go, as it can be bad for digestion. 

Another related aspect is that meals are traditionally very important moments in Italy, and while it’s not always possible to sit down at the table with your family during the week, taking your time to eat has become a crucial habit for many Italians, who would rather sit down and pause what they’re doing than eat or drink in a rush. This has obviously become a lot more difficult in our current hectic lifestyle, but that’s another story. 

5. Italians don’t sit with their back to the door, for fear of getting “hit by air”

Italian Culture - Italians don’t sit with their back to the doorIf you go out to a bar or a café in winter with your Italian friends, you might notice that most of them don’t want to sit next to the door or with their back facing the door. The reason for it? They might get a draft, or, as they would say, un colpo d’aria (which literally means, “hit by air”)! 

The colpo d’aria normally affects your neck or throat but also your back, with the result of being stuck in bed for a couple of days or not being able to turn your head or to speak. That is why you’ll see many Italians wearing thick woolly stylish scarves in autumn and winter, as soon as the temperature drops.

6. Italians never go outside with wet hair

Getting a colpo d’aria is also responsible for many winter illnesses including “cervicale” (an ailment that causes strong headache and afflicts your cervical vertebrae, which are the little bones in the back of your neck). If you want to avoid it, you’d better dry your hair before going outside! Wet hair plus colpo d’aria is a dangerous combination you might want to stay away from.

7. Never break spaghetti

Italian Culture - Italian never break spaghettiBack to weird things Italians do (or better, don’t do) involving eating, here’s an important one: never (ever) break spaghetti before putting it into boiling water (if you do so, you might hear the heart of an Italian breaking somewhere in the distance)! 

Instead, just wait a few seconds until each piece softens a bit and then push them in the pot with the help of a wooden spoon. By the way, this comes right after the rule of not putting ketchup on your pasta or spaghetti, or never putting pineapple on pizza. Yes, there are quite a few observations Italians like to point out when it comes to food!

8. You have to ask for the bill at a restaurant

Italian Culture - You have to ask for the bill at a restaurantWhen you’re dining in Italy, you’ll most likely never get il conto (the bill), unless you ask for it or go to the cash register to pay. This has to do with the fact that it’s considered bad manners for the waiting staff to give you the bill if you didn’t ask for it. It’s not bad service, they just don’t want to rush you and be rude. Remember, meal time is sacred and savoured in Italian culture. When it comes to food and mealtimes with friends and family, don’t mess with Italians. It’s the most important part of their day.

9. Italians use a bidet

If you ever go to an Italian house and enter the bathroom, you might notice a strange little sink next to the toilet. While it’s not common for every country to have one, all Italian houses have a bidet! This multi-function object is a “must-have” for Italians: you can wash your feet, your intimate parts and your bum after going to the toilet.

If you think about it, this is much cleaner and more hygienic than the rest of us who don’t use it. That explains why you might hear some Italians complaining when they go abroad and they don’t find a bidet in the bathroom!

10. Italians don’t put money in your hand

In Italy, it is considered rude to put money directly in someone’s hand, both for the cashier when giving you change, and for the customer when paying. Instead, both parties should put the money down on the little tray next to the cash register.

Side note: despite the fact that around the world it is becoming more and more popular to pay with a card (both for practical and hygienic reasons), in Italy it is still quite common to pay in cash. Not only that, but many places won’t accept cards if the sum is lower than a certain amount (generally 5 or 10 euros), so make sure you always have some cash with you!

Whatsmore, Italy doesn’t typically have a tipping culture either. No one will judge you if you don’t leave a tip for the waiter or waitress. Although, in highly touristic areas it’s become kind of usual and someone might expect it.

11. It’s common for straight Italian men to kiss on the cheek

Physical contact is a big part of Italian culture, at least for most people and especially in the south of the country. It shows closeness, warmth and affection. Hugging friends and family members is one of the best ways to let them know how important they are to you.

For many Italians, it is totally normal to kiss hello and goodbye. When you meet someone for the first time, the primary form of physical contact is usually a hand shake or kisses on the cheek (generally two or three starting with the left cheek), regardless of the gender of the persons involved. So, yes, it’s not unusual even for men to kiss other men on the cheek when they meet. Whether you actually touch cheeks, make kissing sounds, or you just get close and pretend to kiss each other’s cheek is all sort of a personal preference.

Sometimes light physical contact is a good way to rompere il ghiaccio (break the ice)!

12. Italians take their coffee fast

Italian Culture - Italians take their coffee fastThe most common type of coffee in Italy is the espresso (black coffee), but what you might not know is that drinking coffee plays such a huge part in Italian culture that it’s even integrated into many Italians’ daily routine; even when they don’t have time to lose. 

Only have a few spare minutes before going back to whatever you were doing? No problem! Just take a quick shot of espresso to get the energy you need.

To many Italians, drinking coffee is a pit stop in their day. That is why many Italians like to have their coffee al bancone (at the counter): they don’t even sit down and read the paper, they are in and out in a few minutes (and sometimes coffee is even cheaper this way!).

13. Italians peel the skin off their fruit and vegetables

Italians peel the skin off their fruit and vegetablesHere is another common weird thing in Italy: even though growing up, we are taught that the skin on fruits has the most nutrients, for some Italians, it’s essential to peel their apple or pear before taking a bite! They won’t eat it unpeeled, even if it’s washed. Other people instead don’t mind the peel if it comes from organic agriculture but instead remove it if the fruit is not organic. The same goes for most vegetables. The peel is taken off even when eating the fruit as a mid-morning snack: some Italians would rather cut an apple, peel it, and put it in a box than carry the whole fruit. 

14. Italians say they’re “ready” on the phone and ask for “permission” when entering a room

In every language, there are some typical expressions that don’t make sense when translated literally and therefore can’t be translated in other languages, but they’ve become part of the way we interact with others. In Italian, for instance, when you answer the phone you say: Pronto? with a questioning or exclamation tone (the line is very subtle), meaning “ready”, to let the person on the other line know that you are, as a matter of fact, ready to talk.

Instead of saying “hello?” when entering someone else’s home or (less commonly) a store, Italians say Permesso? (from the verb “permettere”, meaning to allow or permit), as if they’re asking for permission to go in. Again, this is not meant literally and it’s more a form of common courtesy.  It’s like saying “May I come in?” in English.

15. Italians talk about their next meal even while eating

Italian Culture - Italians talk about their next meal even while eatingAs if it needed repeating, food (and everything around it) in Italy plays an essential role. Planning what you’re going to eat with your friends on the weekend, planning out a Christmas or Easter menu, deciding what food everyone will bring to the next family gathering, talking about what you’re going to eat on your lunch break during breakfast: for Italians it always comes back to food.

Not only can food be responsible for the success of a party or a family dinner, but also it’s an opportunity to start a conversation, to talk about personal preferences, tastes, and bond while also talking about something we all care about. That’s why it’s not unusual for Italians to bring up this topic and talk about a meal, even during a meal itself.

As Virginia Wolf said:

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

16. Italians eat dinner late

Italian Culture - Italians eat dinner lateKeeping with the subject of food, here’s another common habit that non-Italians find weird about Italian culture. In Italy, dinner is usually eaten late, especially if compared to Nordic or Anglo-Saxon countries. There may be regional differences (don’t forget that the northern part of Italy is very close to Switzerland and Austria, while the south has all the features of a Mediterranean country), but in general, dinner on weekdays won’t start until 7.30 pm / 8 pm. When going out to a restaurant on the weekend, most people won’t reserve a table until 8.30 pm. In southern Italy during summer, most people will sit down to eat at around 9.30 pm / 10 pm.

Dinner late has to do with the fact that in the hottest months it is basically impossible to dine outside before a certain time, that is, usually, before sunset. Besides, the working day in Italy can be quite long (or there can be a long lunch break in the early afternoon) and some people prefer to relax for an hour or two in the evening before cooking.

17. Odd store hours

In big Italian cities,  you’ll very rarely find a 24/7 store, let alone in small towns. While in some large shops it has become more common to have an orario continuato (non-stop working hours), traditionally every Italian store or venue closes right after lunch (12 pm or 1 pm) and then reopens after 3 pm or 4 pm. Monday is usually when many establishments close for their weekly rest. This includes mini-markets, restaurants, museums, hairdressers and beauty salons.

Even for those with office jobs, it’s quite common to take an afternoon break from work. The reason for this is pretty simple: until a few years ago, people used to work not far from where they lived. This meant that they could go home for lunch and then come back to the office or factory after a 1.5-hour break.

In our globalized world, working habits are being standardised almost everywhere, but these traditions are generally maintained in small towns and non-touristic areas in Italy.

18. Italians dress up whenever they leave the house

Italians pay special attention to the way they look, especially whenever they leave the house, no matter the occasion. It’s not just about clothes: shoes, bags, accessories are never left to chance and are carefully chosen to match the outfit. Walking around on a nice Sunday afternoon in an Italian city you might notice how everyone is surprisingly well dressed, no matter if they’re going to a party, visiting friends, going to church or shopping.

Paying attention to their appearance is especially true for women and adults, a little less for teenagers and young adults who nowadays tend to conform to more international standards and don’t really mind walking around in their tracksuit pants, sneakers or workout clothes.

After all, fashion is one of the main reasons why Italy is famous all over the world!

19. Italians pay for their birthday guests

If you happen to be spending your birthday In Italy and want to celebrate with your Italian friends or family, here are a couple of things to keep in mind: in Italy, especially in the south, the festeggiato/a (the person celebrating) normally pays for their friends and even brings their own cake! Usually, the birthday boy/girl invites someone over to dinner to celebrate and pays for it, while their guests give them a nice present. 

On the other hand, if the dinner is organised by a third party, as in una festa a sorpresa (a surprise party), the guests know that they will have to pay their own way instead of the gift. It has to be said that the most loyal friends will still buy a small gift, although the real gift is them being there to celebrate the occasion.

Learn more about birthday traditions and how to say happy birthday in Italian.


I hope you enjoyed this guide and found it useful! The observations listed above are meant to show you that, while some habits and aspects of Italian culture are considered strange to an outsider, they’re perfectly natural and common for Italians living in Italy! Remember this the next time you visit Italy.


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Italian culture - Weird Things Italians Do that no one warns you about

Over to you!

How many of these Italian culturalisms have you heard of? Which one surprised you the most? Have you experienced a cultural shock when going to Italy for the first time? Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media @intrepidguide or @intrepiditalian to start a conversation.

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1 comment

Michael Cicchi July 24, 2022 - 22:36

One morning I went to a coffee bar and after i ordered the coffee the barrister asked me if it was for here or to go and I did not understand even though he gestured nicely to make it clear what he was asking. I just said non so and he immediatly made it for there and I drank it at the counter. I am still embarresed about that.


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