Milan is possibly Italy's most international city. 17% of its residents originate from outside the country, and the cuisine and culture is influenced by cultures from around the world. However, the city retains many habits and customs that are worth knowing.
While "ciao" is a well-known Italian greeting, it is usually used only among friends. So when you're introduced to strangers, it's often better to say "molto lieto" or “piacere”. When entering a shop or public venue, say "buongiorno" (good day) or "buonasera" (good evening), and "arriverderci" when leaving.
Do not call a stranger by their first name unless invited to do so, or use the more familiar form of address (tu). Many Italian families and friends (also of the same sex) kiss on meeting, first on the right cheek and then on the left. Be sure to aim for the cheek, not the lips.
Italians tend to dress more formally than many of their European or American neighbors. This does not mean wearing a tuxedo or evening dress at all times, but style and presentation - often described as Bella Figura - can be very important.
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If you're a student or someone on a tight budget, take advantage of the custom of aperitivo. Many bars put on decent spreads of food – not just snacks - for those who buy a drink. Two-for-one offers mean that buffet dinner and a couple of drinks can often be had for under fifteen euros. While it is often seen as a pre-event activity, the aperitivo can last from 6pm until as late as 9pm.
Family remains important to modern Italians, and ties can be strong. If family members live close to each other, it is not unusual for them to try to meet up for a meal together to discuss the day.
If you are invited to dinner by an Italian family, remember to bring a small gift, perhaps typical of your country of origin. Do not start eating before everyone is seated, and a family member says “Buon appetito!” Many Italian mothers will serve an intimidating quantity of food, specially prepared for a guest from abroad. Try to pace yourself in order to leave room to taste every course.
Breakfast is often enjoyed at one of the innumerable cafe bars around the city. But it is a quick meal – cappuccino and brioche (Italian croissants with various yummy fillings) often eaten without sitting down. Quick lunches are also available throughout Milan, ranging from pasta and salads to the well-known panini sandwiches. Fancier restaurants can often be less busy at noontime, but many establishments offer cheaper limited menus during lunch. Most restaurants close for a few hours in the afternoon and reopen for dinner.
The Milanese custom is to eat dinner fairly late. In fact, a booking of around 7pm would be considered early, especially on a weekend evening. Most places will serve you from about 7:30 to at least 10pm. A full Italian dinner involves at least three courses and has a leisurely pace, with lots of conversation.
Tips are discretionary in Milan, as service is included by law. Sometimes a small per person cover charge (coperto) is added to the bill. However, if the service has been exceptional, feel free to add a little something.
It is customary for the Milanese to leave the city at the weekends, heading for the beaches or the mountains, and you may wish to get away as well. This exodus, however, also makes the town quite a bit less crowded, so staying around for a lovely weekend of parks, music, theater - or whatever- can be very pleasant and rewarding.