Culture Shock in Italy, no dryers

20 Culture Shock in Italy Surprises for Travelers

Travel magazines do a splendid job covering Italian food, wine, and destinations. Yet they never talk about the culture shock moments travelers encounter on their first trip to Italy. Here’s why I think that’s a shame.

Experiencing culture shock can be both a positive and a negative thing. A bit of culture shock gives more intense feelings of happiness in the joy of discovery. In contrast, for many people surprises are not welcome because they tap into feelings of anger and unhappiness.

With that in mind, the goal of this article is to share the most common things that trigger culture shock in Italy for first-time visitors. That way, you reduce the surprises and better prepare to get the most out of a trip to Italy.

Culture Shock of Public Bathrooms in Italy

From missing toilet seats to squat toilets, Italian bathrooms are a common source of culture shock in Italy for Americans.

That’s not to say all bathrooms in Italy are bad. They are not. In fact, public bathrooms in Porta Nuova (the main train station in Turin, Italy) put those in New York City’s Grand Central station to shame. There is a reason for that. You have to pay to use many public bathrooms in Italy. It might sound strange, but bathrooms that you pay to use in Italy, are the ones you want to find.

Free public bathrooms in Italy can look a bit more like these.

  • Culture shock in Italy missing toilet seats
  • Broken Toilet Seat in Italy
  • Squat Toilet in Italy Causes culture shock
  • Unisex Bathrooms in Italy
  • Bathrooms in Italy Sinks

So keep a Euro handy at all times when traveling in Italy. If you want to avoid surprises on your first trip to the bathroom in Italy, check out our list of 17 funny tips for travelers about bathrooms in Italy and our guide on how to use a bidet.

Italian Churches

My friends here in Italy joke there are more churches than people. While that’s not exactly true, there is a shocking amount of churches and religious symbolism in Italy. Take our small town in the Italian Alps for example. Only 3,000 people live here full-time, yet there are over fifteen places to worship. That doesn’t even include the stations of the cross lining at least three hiking trails.

When you add chiesetta (little churches), cappelle (chaples), parishes, duomos, and cathedrals the power and influence of the Catholic Church are as clear as the church bells ringing in Italy.

For foreigners it can be a bit shocking to see crucifixes hanging in restaurants, Mary and Child statues on the side of homes, and seemingly random roadside alters across Italy.

While the number of churches in Italy might seem a bit shocking, if you are not offended by religious context, visiting them can be enjoyable. Mainly because entrance is often free or cheap and the Catholic Churches commissioned countless works of art in Italy. Hence Italy provides visitors with easy access to elaborate Baroque motifs, Gothic flying buttresses, paintings by world-renowned artists, and some of the most stunning Byzantine tile work in the world.

  • Gold Byzantine Mosaic at The Palatine Chapel of the Norman Palace in Palermo, Sicily.
  • Mosaic Tiles in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy.
  • The Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo
  • Mosaics in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.
  • Parma Cathedral
  • Fresco in Parma Cathedral
  • Basilica San Zeno Main Church in Verona, Italy
  • Santa Maria Church
  • Stories of Moving to Italy Church Bells Ringing

English is not Spoken Widely in Italy

On the one hand, Americans are lucky because English is the most-spoken language in the world. On the other, that can lead to culture shock in Italy because Italians speak the least English among their European counterparts.

In fact, outside of heavily-touristy areas like Venice, Rome, and Florence, English is not accepted or expected to be a part of life in Italy. So before coming to Italy, it’s wise to brush up on a few key phrases in Italian.

  • Menu at Bisso Bistrot in Palermo, Sicily
  • Puglia Guide, Best things to do in Puglia Restaurant U.P.E.P.I.D.D.E.
  • Five Authentic Italian Meal Courses Menu
  • Fixed Menu in Italy
  • Pizzeria Menu in Italian

Italian Culture is Direct

Americans might be shocked by how direct Italians are. I know I was when I heard the term Ciccone (or cubby in English) tossed around like it was a fact rather than an opinion.

Many tourists end up googling “Are Italians Rude?” While the answer to that question is subjective, objectively the Italian language and by extension culture is direct.

On top of that, Americans coming to Italy for the first and perhaps only time, tend to frequent the most touristy, crowded parts of Italy. Unfortunately, mass tourism never leaves the best impression.

This is one of the many reasons we focusing on sharing tips to explore hidden gems in Italy in the off-season. It’s when you will get to see the real Italy and the warmth and generosity that define Italian hospitality.

Coffee is Cheap in Italy

After a long flight to Italy, you’re going to need a pick-me-up. Good thing coffee is so cheap in Italy! We’re talking around 1€. Why? Because coffee is regulated in Italy.

After the war, the Italian government regulated the costs of what it considered necessities. Guess what Italians consider necessary? You guessed it. Coffee! Hence the cost of coffee has been controlled ever since. Thus you can still enjoy an espresso in Italy on the cheap.

Two more surprising facts about coffee in Italy? One, Italians typically drink it quickly while standing at a bar on the way to work in the morning. Two, they also drink espresso late at night after dinner and still manage to sleep just fine.

One Euro Coffee in Italy
One Euro Coffee in Italy

Italian Don’t Use Screens

Be it for windows or doors, Italians never culturally adopted the use of screens. This can be shocking for tourists who hate mosquitoes. So if you plan to visit Italy in summer, pack mosquito repellent. That is unless you come to visit me in the Italian Alps where there (thankfully) are no mosquitoes!

Venetian Architecture in Verona, Italy
Venetian Architecture in Verona, Italy

Italy is an Anti-AC Culture

Despite increasingly frequent heat waves, Italians are not big on air conditioning. This can be a huge culture shock for Americans who love their AC.

In Italy you’ll hear “prenderai un colpo d’aria!” or you’ll take a draft of air in English. Italians believe cold drafts of air or sudden changes in temperature are dangerous.

I kid you not. There are health websites in Italian that quote the “symptoms” of a cold air strike as eye pain, ear pain, and muscle contractions around the neck, shoulders, and back. Could cold air be to blame for conjunctivitis?

While I cannot say this is the only reason Italians haven’t adopted air conditioning culturally, I can say it has been quoted to me enough in Italy I believe it just might be.

What Italy lacks in AC it more than makes up for in charm. The first time you open floor-to-ceiling windows to the Italian Countryside you’ll completely understand what I mean.

Smoking is Shockingly Common in Italy

If you are a non-smoker prepare to be gobsmacked at Apperitivo time because one in four Italians are smokers. While the American smoking rate hit an all-time low of 12.5% in 2022 the percentage of smokers in Italy grew to over 24%. In other words, the percentage of smokers is nearly double in Italy which can be pretty jarring for non-smokers. That is unless a proposed bill banning smoking in public areas like bus stops and bars in Italy.

Italians Eat Shockingly Late

Growing up as a kid my Mother worked full-time and still had dinner on the table by 6:00 every night. To this day I don’t know how she ever managed. What Italians would find shocking about that equation is the same things Americans do but in reverse. The time! While Americans are done eating before 8 pm, Italians don’t start thinking about dinner until 8 pm. In fact, not many restaurants in Italy are open for dinner before 7:30 pm.

Businesses Close Between Lunch & Dinner in Italy

I used the phrase “open for dinner” above for a reason. Outside of Milan and Rome, most businesses in Italy close for a break between lunch and dinner. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve rushed to the pharmacy at 12:45 before the staff leaves for lunch. Or how often I google my local grocery store to see when it opens back up. Even in Turin, Italy where nearly two million people live, the Mom and Pop shops still close for a break between lunch and dinner. Once you get used to it, it becomes part of the slower pace that Italians are known for.

Government Regulates Heating in Italy

Not long ago I was talking to my Dad back in America and the conversation went like this.

Me “Man it’s cold in Torino in the apartment today.”

Dad “What’s the heat set to?”

Me “It’s off.”

Dad “Why is it off if it’s cold?”

Me “The government controls when you can use heating in Italy.”

Dad “What?” Really? Why? How?”

It’s really shocking for most Americans to think someone else could control heating in private homes. Yet in Italy and much of Europe that’s exactly what happens. In fact, each region in Italy has its own calendar for when centralized heating can be turned on.

Not only is the date regulated, but so is the temperature and hours allowed per day. Radiators are only allowed to be kept at 20° C (-/+ 2°) in private homes. This means it’s comfortable in winter, but the shoulder season can be a bit brisk. So pack an extra layer if you’ll be visiting northern Italy in early spring!

Italians Don’t Always Scoop Poop

One of the things my dog-loving American friend Rachel and I marvel about in Italy is how bad Italians are at picking up after their dogs. Even in our small town where everyone knows each other there are far too many puppy poop land minds to watch out for. To prove this is not just one person’s opinion, check out this headline from Italy magazine. Capri to DNA Test Dog Waste. I’ll just leave this shocking little Italian culture surprise right there.

Eggs Are Not Refrigerated in Italy

Bakers are going to love this culture shocker. Eggs are not refrigerated in Italy. All the better to bake with my friend! In fact, when it comes to food temperatures and storage there are a lot of differences between Italy and America that are shocking. Milk, cream, and even bechamel sauces are stored and sold at room temperature in Italy. What’s more, cheese is never served cold in Italy and Ice is hard to come by.

Eating in Italy is Surprising & Sublime

Eating in Italy for the first time can come with a lot of culture shock moments for foreigners. First, there are all the courses of the Italian meal to decipher. Then there is the fact that even though tap water is safe to drink in Italy it’s only offered by the bottle in restaurants. Finally, there are traditions in Italian restaurants like coperto that shock foreigners when they show up on the bill. Above all, while the pizza in Italy truly is the best in the world, to Italians it’s considered fast food. The American version of fast food is rare to find in Italy (thankfully!)

Instead what you’ll find in Italy is a surprisingly diverse cuisine that changes by the region. Each with its own take on local, seasonal produce, cheese, charcuterie, and best of all wines! What to experience truly authentic Italian cuisine? Try finding an Agriturismo in Italy. This is where you’ll find the best food in Italy at the most affordable prices.

  • eating Pasta Amatriciana in Italy
  • eating in italy is my favorite thing polpo
  • Eating Pizza Romana at Eataly in Italy
  • Whole Baked Fish at Gallina Pescheria
  • Black Truffle & Eggs
  • Eating Steak Done Perfectly in Italy
  • Eating in Italy is my favorite Thing because it's refined
  • Scallops and foie gras with toasted brioche
  • Eating Saffron Risotto in Italy is my favorite thing
  • Classic Pizza Napoletana in Torino
  • Roman focaccia style pizza with Prosciutto Crudo and Burrrata
  • Pizza Padellino (Pan Pizza) is from Torino, Italy
  • Pizza Padellino (Pan Pizza) is from Torino, Italy
  • Classic Piedmontese Table in Torino
  • Gnocco Fritto with Charcuterie in Modina, Italy
  • Gelato, everyones favorite thing to eat in Italy
  • Cheese, Charcuterie & Gnocco Fritto Making Eating in Italy my favorite thing
  • Eating Anchovies in Italy is my favorite thing

Italians Hang Clothes Out to Dry

Part of the charm of Italy is that it’s not quick to adopt new lifestyles or technologies. For example, as a dual-American-Italian citizen when I vote in Italy, I am handed a piece of paper and a pencil. The lack of screens and air conditioning are two more examples. My favorite and the most surprising for tourists is that the vast majority of Italian homes do not have clothes dryers. Hence laundry hanging on the line in the sun is a frequent surprise and favorite photo for tourists in Italy.

  • Laundry on the line in Venice, Italy
  • Culture Shock in Italy, no dryers
  • Laundry in Italy with Butterfly

Few Italians Live in Freestanding Homes

Part of the reason Italians don’t own many of the creature comforts Americans love like air conditioning and clothes dryers is that homes are much smaller in Italy. In fact, the vast majority of Italians live in apartments or condos in shared buildings that are around 871 square feet. Meanwhile, the size of the average American home is closer to 2,600 square feet! In other words, Italian homes are very different from American homes.

Driving in Italy is Shocking

While it’s not for the faint of heart, driving in Italy can be a lot of fun. In part because cruising through the Italian countryside is relaxing and beautiful. Plus driving in Italian cities and small towns is an adventure. You’ll have to tackle large roundabouts, city streets that double as sidewalks, and roads so narrow you’ll have to fold your side mirrors to get through. Plus, since many cities in Italy were built before cars, parking often requires a bit of bravery.

Italy Pic of the Day Valdobbiadene, Prosecco & UNESCO Parking
Parking at All’Oste che non c’e

Cars in Italy are Shockingly Small

Americans will be surprised to see how small most of the cars in Italy are. Sure you’ll spot SUVs and tour buses. However, the average Italian needs a car that can handle those small city streets.

Piazza del Mercato in Spoleto
Piazza del Mercato with one of the few cars in the Historic City Center of Spoleto

Plus, parking garages in Italy have ramps so small, larger cars are a major challenge to park.

If you want to experience driving in Italy as an American, be sure to do it legally and get an international driver’s permit.

Microcars in Rome
Microcars in Rome

The Driving Age in Italy is 18

One of the other reasons there are such small cars in Italy is the legal age for a driver’s license in Italy is 18 years old. There is however a sneaky little loophole in Italy. The micro-car and the Ape.

Go Ahead, Park Anywhere!
Go Ahead, Park Anywhere!

Micro-cars are popular with teenagers in Italy who can afford these toy cars. Because micro-cars have small 50cc engines they are technically classified as mopeds and thus teens from the age of 14 can drive them. They are popular among teens in Rome, Milan, and Torino. Apes however are more popular in the countryside.

Italy Pic of the Day Ape
Apes at rest and on the go in Pitigliano, Italy

The Drinking Age in Italy is 18

It can be shocking for tourists to see teens drinking in Italy. While the legal drinking age in Italy is 18, it’s not heavily enforced. Hence it’s not uncommon to see teens having wine at dinner with their families or even an aperitivo with friends.

While that might be shocking for Americans, imagine the reverse for Italians traveling to America. They see 16-year-olds driving large SUVs and even at 20 they cannot order a glass of wine at dinner with friends.

Culture Shock in Italy Conclusion

Like all things in life, there’s both a good and bad side to culture shock. Fortunately for Americans traveling to Italy for the first time, public bathrooms are about as shocking as the cultural differences really get. Thankfully the quality of Italian food, the beauty of the landscape, and the history, appreciation, and preservation of Italian art and culture are the memories that last long after a trip to Italy ends.

As a dual-American Italian couple, it’s been a lot of fun for Paolo and me to spend the last decade traveling both in Italy and America. We love both countries and have managed to laugh our way through many of the culture shock moments I experienced early on with my first few trips to Italy.

Culture shock happens in both directions. What seems surprising to us as Americans in Italy brings an equal amount of culture shock to Italians traveling to America for the first time.

Italians marvel at how big not only the United States is as a country, but also how big our homes and cars are. They pack for summer but freeze in the air conditioning. Plus, eating out in America is confusing for Italians who are not familiar with the concept of choosing two side dishes with their main.

A trip to Italy is bound to come with a little culture shock for first-time visitors. The good news is, they are absolutely manageable and in many cases lead to funny stories and memories.

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