Dumb tourist tricks: Things never to do in Rome

Tourists stand in line for ever to put their arm in the Bocca della Verita'.

Tourists stand in line for ever to put their arm in the Bocca della Verita’.

My problem living in Italy is I’ll never blend in. I have a face so American I look like an extra in a Chevrolet commercial. I couldn’t pass for Italian if I was fluent and a gondola pilot.

However, there are ways to look less like a tourist. Living in Rome where more than 10 million of them pound the cobblestones every year, I’ve observed their nasty habits, kind of like “Animal Planet” filmmakers watching migrating wildebeests. Many of them do everything in their power to stand out, as if they just stepped off an American Express bus. Yes, you can tour the Colosseum without wearing a neon sign reading “NAIVE TOURIST WITH WALLET IN BACK RIGHT POCKET” to resident pickpockets. Remember, Rome has the second most pickpockets in the world behind Barcelona.

Pay attention.

As a public service to anyone planning a Rome vacation, I am providing a valuable guide to what not to do as a tourist here. Don’t feel bad if you’ve visited Rome and read yourself below. You have plenty of company. So clip it, save it, slip it in your money belt you must wear inside the waistline of your pants and I promise you’ll look less like a complete geek.

You can thank me later. So, for future reference, do not:

Wear a ballcap instead.

Wear a ballcap instead.

* WEAR A FEDORA. Do they hand these out at the airport? Seemingly half the tourists in Rome wear these white or straw-colored fedoras with little brims. The tourists in Piazza Venezia look like they all share the same closet. If you need to protect your face from the sun, wear a ball cap. Italians wear those, particularly Adidas or Nike. But in winter? You have no excuse.
Tourists eating in Campo de'Fiori.

Tourists eating in Campo de’Fiori.

* EAT IN A MAJOR PIAZZA. Think about it. The restaurants around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon and others cater to thousands of unsavvy tourists a day. They must mass produce their food. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality. The pasta isn’t likely handmade and the ingredients aren’t nearly as fresh. The pizzas are often frozen. Go ahead and take a table and gaze at Bernini’s fountain or the Pantheon’s 2,000-year-old church. But just order a coffee. The sit-down fee will cost you about 5 euro but you can save your money for the fine, family cooked meal just around the corner down one of the adjacent alleys. One exception: I do recommend Obika’ in Campo de’Fiori. It’s an antipasti restaurant specializing in bufala mozzarella. It’s delivered fresh every day from the Campania region and is the best I’ve ever had. Try the smoked version.

* GO TO BOCCA DELLA VERITA’. This is the biggest tourist trap in Rome (see photo top). It’s as moronic as anything you can do in the world. It’s Rome’s equivalent of posing in a photo pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Basically, the Bocca della Verita’ (Mouth of the Truth) is a big, round piece of marble shaped like a face, complete with openings for the eyes and mouth. It was once part of an ancient fountain — or maybe a manhole cover — and is in the 8th century Chiesa di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, just down the street from Piazza Venezia. According to legend, if you put your arm in the mouth and tell a lie, it’ll bite your arm off. People line up for a hundred yards waiting to pose with their arm in the mouth. Some husbands inevitably say something stupid to their cell-toting wife, like, “I won’t sleep with your hot sister.” Now they charge you 2 euros for one photo. It’s not worth it.

* COMPLAIN ABOUT SLOW WAIT SERVICE. It’s different here. Dining in Rome is an experience; it’s not a fuel stop. People linger over lunch, dinner, an aperitivo. Waiters leave you alone. They don’t intrude. They give you privacy. In America, you could be proposing to your girlfriend or discuss what position you’ll do that night and a waiter will come and refill your water glass. I’ve written that Rome has the best wait service in the world. But some Americans eat here thinking they’re in a short-order diner in Queens. They must wolf down that pizza before their Forum tour. Shut the hell up. If you want a waiter, raise your hand. They hover and will come when motioned. They just won’t come up after five minutes asking if your food is OK. You’re in Rome. Of course it’s OK.

* GET DRUNK. The biggest social faux pas you can commit in Rome is public drunkenness. Romans are the ultimate teetotalers. They’ve been drinking wine at the family table since they were 15. Getting hammered and throwing up in a Renaissance fountain is not a passage to manhood. I’ve lived here twice for nearly five years and I’ve seen one Italian get drunk. He was a student in a dive pizzeria. His embarrassed friends herded him out. Except for some discos for kids’, bars don’t have bouncers. I’ve cut my drinking here in half. This tip is mostly for college backpackers. An infamous bar in Campo de’Fiori is named The Drunken Ship. It’s 80 percent North American students and 20 percent Italian men waiting outside for the North American women inside to get too drunk to walk home. Then they come up and say in their practiced, syrupy Italian accent, “Oh, senora, let me help you.”

Leave these at home, folks.

Leave these at home, folks.

* WEAR COLLEGE T-SHIRTS. Italians don’t know Penn State from State Pen. Nor do they care. They think March Madness is a shoe sale. When I lived in Denver I had a college T-shirt collection that numbered more than 100. When I returned to Denver in October to clear out my Public Storage space, I painfully gave that collection to Goodwill. I knew I could never wear them in Rome. I have a fellow University of Oregon graduate whom I scolded for wearing an Oregon shirt in a photo from Salzburg. He said he gets many “GO DUCKS!” comments in cities and airports. No. Your aim is to leave an impression with the locals, not other tourists. I have one Oregon T-shirt, and I only wear it to water my plants. It never leaves my apartment. This is Rome. It’s not a frat party. If you want to fit in, buy a T-shirt of AS Roma, the local soccer team. Romans wear those. Just don’t buy one from Lazio. You won’t look like a tourist. You’ll look like a fascist. That’s worse.
ONLY in the morning!

ONLY in the morning!

*ORDER CAPPUCCINO AFTER NOON. Italy has a coffee culture. It doesn’t have as many coffee choices as Starbucks but the etiquette is longer. Cappuccino is for breakfast. Espresso or macchiato or schiumato is for lunch or afternoon or dinner. Most bars are used to these requests from tourists. They’ll serve you. But try it in a working-class bar off the beaten path and they’ll throw you out on your Yankees cap.

*STAND IN LINE FOR TICKETS AT MAJOR SITES: This is courtesy of Caron Guillo, an American friend who designs itineraries around Italy with her Caron Guillo Travel company (CaronGuilloTravel.com): “The idea of walking back in time 2,000 years to visit the Roman Colosseum should in no way be construed as a ticket purchase wait time. Unprepared tourists can wait for hours in line to reach the ticket windows of major sites like the Vatican or Colosseum. Instead, buy tickets online at the site’s official webpage, and for something like a 4-euro surcharge, you’ve got a reserved entry time or skip-the-line ticket. Don’t know how to find the official website of the site? Try Googling ‘Vatican official website.’ It’s not rocket science.”

* SAY “THANK YOU” INSTEAD OF “GRAZIE.” This is a personal pet peeve. The best way to respect a culture is through language. You’re in Italy. They speak Italian in Italy. Speak Italian, just a little bit, enough to know you’re trying and care. When in Rome just learn a few phrases like “Thank you,” “Where is …” “How much?” and “I want to father your child.” With those phrases, you can get through almost any situation. Seriously, saying “Grazie” instead of “Thank you” or “Grazie mille” (Thank you a thousand — instead of a million. The economy here is smaller.) goes a long way with locals. They won’t scold you for saying “Thank you.” This isn’t France. But they will appreciate you.

* ASK FOR BUTTER OR PARMESAN. Italian cooks take pride in perfectly seasoning their dishes. Asking for parmesan is like saying, “This has no flavor. I’m going to bury it in the one Italian condiment I know.” Don’t do it. And don’t even think about asking for butter with your bread basket. Italians don’t eat butter. They eat olive oil. Look around you. How many fat Italians do you see? Case closed.

* TRY PAYING WITH DOLLARS. This is also courtesy of Guillo. This one surprised me. I’ve never seen it. I couldn’t imagine it. It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. But she says she sees it all the time. “My job is to lead travelers through Italy, and even though they’ve been told not to, they bring USD and expect to either exchange it easily (banks often won’t, by the way) or pay/tip with it. They ALWAYS think I’m wrong when I tell them that USD will not be accepted or well received. Italians do not want USD. Good grief.” Here’s another reason why not to bring dollars: Seen the dollar’s exchange rate with the euro lately?

12 thoughts on “Dumb tourist tricks: Things never to do in Rome

  1. Another good article. One useful tip about tickets for the coliseum is that should you not have bought tickets on-line beforehand, is to go to the Forum where there is a small ticket office for the Coliseum.
    Your comment about “Grazie” is Sooo right. We were in Sicily recently (yes, I know the Article was about Rome, but the principle is the same), and visited a a cafe, sat down and ‘talked’ with the owner with my 10 words of Italian and his 2 words of English. A couple of tourists sat down at a neighbouring table, looked at the menu asked the waiter “Do you speak English?” “Sorry, No” was the reply. They got up and walked away. Unbelievable!

  2. Geoff, you’re kidding! That’s a first. Unbelievable! People who don’t even want contact with locals who don’t speak English should be sent on the first boat home, hopefully a leaking dinghy. Three years ago I got in an argument with a guy in the sport of cycling who said more French should speak English if they care about tourism. Huh? How about more English-speaking tourists learn a little French? So many Americans feel entitled. Yet those same people are probably back in the States berating Hispanics for not being fluent in English.

  3. Nice piece on do’s and don’ts. The hat issue I can’t say much about since we visit Rome in February-March. I found I do need a baseball cap as the sun is lower in the sky and seems to be always in my eyes, regardless of which direction I look. The extra cheese reminds me of an experience several years back. In a local, non-tourist restaurant, a friend group ordered pasta alle vongole. When it arrived, my friend was not happy because there was no tomato sauce on it. He asked the waiter for some, and the waiter looked at me — the only one who could conjure up some basic Italian — and I shrugged my shoulders and said softly “Turista” with a smile. He smiled gently and nodded. A few minutes later the sauce arrived. Fine, I thought. Then my friend wanted parmesan cheese. I explained that cheese was not usually served on fish dishes, and besides we should let the chef decide how food is prepared. Nevertheless, the server brought cheese as requested. The server and I nodded a “turista glance.” I figured my friend was raised on Chef Boyardee and, by God, Italian food food should be what he is used to in the States.

    • Dick, many Americans come to Italy to eat the same Italian food with which they grew up. I’ve been with people who’ve asked for spaghetti and meatballs. They have meatballs in Italy but they’re called “polpette” and they’re eaten dry and separately. Prime example of what you went through: A fellow sportswriter worked at the Houston Chronicle but was quite the bon vivant. Had a second home in France, traveled all over Europe, a good cook. He opened a gourmet Italian restaurant in a wealthy Houston suburb. His menu was all elaborate Italian dishes you’d only find in restaurants in Italy with good, imaginative chefs. But his customers would always ask for spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna. And where’s the garlic bread? The restaurant didn’t last six months. He’s still bitter.

  4. Another excellent piece. I know it will never happen but they should somehow reign in the tourist industry. Venice is dead. It was never meant to be Disney.

    Although a newer problem may be the drunk American college student. Every school I visited with my high school senior this summer promoted study abroad. This never existed as commonly when I went to school. The last thing Rome or Paris or Florence needs is a bunch of bars catering to the university crowd

    • It’s already happening, James. I walk by some bars in Trastevere and think I’m walking past a frat party. It’s all American English. I love Rome in winter — except for the college kids.

  5. I really appreciate you writing this article, especially because I had a good laugh thinking of all the people I saw committing these tourist sins.

  6. Thanks, Desiree. Since I posted the blog, I’ve heard all kinds of disturbing anecdotes about tourists. One guy said he was sitting in a pizzeria in Naples. An English family of wife, husband and two kids walked in. The husband asked the owner, “Do you speak English?” He said no. The family walked out. Unbelievable.

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