A Frequently Asked Question : How to Enjoy Rome Without Knowing The Language?

In a previous Frequenty Asked Question, I raised the point that you don’t have to speak fluent Italian to get around, but that it might be helpful to learn a few words and phrases to make getting around a bit easier.

But if learning languages is not your thing or you don’t have the time, you can still enjoy this beautiful city. I’ll give you some tips for making the most of your trip so that you have a memorable experience that will see you returning to Rome again and again.

Below are some tips on Italian customs as well as how to navigate various places in the city when the only Italian words you know are spaghetti and pizza!!

  • If you don’t have a good grasp of Italian (and many tourists who go to Rome do not), I would suggest that you stay in a hotel, hostel, apartment or agriturismo that caters to tourists. You want to be able to communicate with the staff, especially when it comes to money matters. You don’t want to check out and find that you owe more than you thought. Language barrier can create problems which can turn a wonderful trip into a nightmare. It’s a good idea to make sure that you understand the costs involved before you leave on your trip. Always make sure that someone at your lodgings speaks some English. Hotels in Rome are bound to have English speakers – it’s a must for their business but make sure you ask just to be sure.

  • If you don’t speak Italian, don’t let that stop you from going out and trying some of the many delightful restaurants in Rome. Italians are more patient than the movies and television shows make them out to be. Many restaurants will have English speakers on the staff who can, at the very least, understand some basic phrases. You don’t need to be fluent to order a pizza or an ice cream cone. :) Nothing makes me more sad to learn that someone went to Rome and only ate McDonalds or in Chinese restaurants. It’s ok to stick with what you know, but I think it’s also fun and exciting to try new things!!

    If you are watching your carb intake, Italian food is more than just carbohydrates. Italian cuisine is a healthy combination of pasta, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. Meat dishes abound, and if you’re trying to watch your carb intake, you’ll do fine in Rome. Italian cuisine uses a healthy combination of healthy fats (olive oil) and portions tend to be smaller too.

    Many Italian restaurants, especially those in Rome, will have menus in English for tourists. Always enquire if they have a menu in English. If you don’t understand something on the Italian menu, try to ask. If you’re the adventurous type with your food, take a chance and try something different. If you can’t pronounce the words, simply point to the item on your menu that you wish to order.

    Service in Italian restaurants is probably going to be slower than what you are used to. Please do not hound the staff to rush. This is considered really gauche. If you don’t have the time for a sit down meal or have to be somewhere, pick up something at one of the many pizzerias in the city. The check or bill will come only when you ask for it and not before. In American restaurants, the bill is typically brought after your meal is served. In Italian restaurants, request the check when you are ready to leave. Depending upon the restaurant, you can either pay at the table or pay with the cashier. Don’t worry about this…as you get ready to leave, the waiter and staff will go out of their way to show you where and how to pay your bill. :)

    If you’re in Rome in the summer, and you want to go out to eat, dress comfortably. Many restuarants say they have air conditioning, but don’t take their word for it. I’ve been in many a restaurant where I couldn’t even tell. When going out, assume that there is no air conditioning and dress appropriately.

  • Sightseeing probably won’t involve much need for English. If you are with a group, you can pass through the streets of Rome without having to worry about your language skills. Buying tickets and entrances to museums shouldn’t be too hard. Many museums and sites will have signs in English as well as other languages.
  • Remember that when speaking English with the locals, speak slow! I am always surprised when someone in Rome tells me that I am speaking English too fast, but it’s true.

    Speak slow, enunciate and most of all, don’t shout. :) People have a tendency to shout or speak louder when in foreign countries (we all do it…I even find myself doing it from time to time!) or speaking with others who may not comprehend your language. Shouting isn’t going to make the other person understand them, and they misinterpret your desire to communicate with anger.

    Also be patient. The person may not have spoken English for quite some time and might need a few moments to process your question. If they don’t know the answer to your question, thank them nicely and try again.

  • Always have a map with you. If you don’t speak the language, then asking for directions might be complicated or impossible, depending on who you ask. It might help to bring a map with you from your home country. Nothing worse than getting lost and spending most of your day trying to find your hotel. Getting lost can be fun (sometimes), but if it consumes your entire day, and you’re not the kind of person enjoys ‘finding their way’, it will spoil the trip. I find that the best maps are the maps that have the names of places and streets in the native language since it will making finding things easier. Study the map on the plane or before you go and familiarize yourself with the spelling variations of various sites – a sample is provided below:

    Colosseo = Colosseum
    Palatino = Palatine
    Fontana = Fountain

  • When in Rome, recognize that things work differently than they might at home. Italians as a rule tend to eat later than Americans – 7, 8 or even 9pm and even later in the warmer months. It’s hard to eat later…so when you’re out and about, bring some crackers or light snacks with you to tide you over until dinner. If you can’t wait, many restaurants in Rome start their dinner hour early for the tourists who are used to eating earlier.

    Also, don’t order a cappuccino after dinner. Cappuccini are drunk only in the morning. You may have trouble getting one served to you. Italians drink coffee after a meal and not typically during it, especially at dinner. Alcohol is usually served after dinner. If you desire a drink (scotch, vodka, gin, etc.), find a small bar before you head to the restaurant. Some of the smaller trattorias and spaghetterias may not have a full bar. Italians tend to drink their wine with their meal and not before.

    Always have cash on you. You might have trouble using your credit card to pay for that $1.50 cappuccino and croissant. Use your credit cards for the restaurants, shops and hotels – generally your larger purchases. Some establishments may have minimums before you can use your credit card. Always have a back-up source should your credit card be refused.

    Always make sure you take your receipt after you pay for things before you leave. It’s rare, but you could be fined (as can the establishment) for not providing a receipt for services/goods.