Bar della Pace, Rome (Photo from www.jetsetreport.com)
The concept of going to a bar, and the definition of the bar itself, is very different in Italy from that held in any Anglo-Saxon or Northern European country.
A bar in Italy is a place for refreshments, where one can have a quick breakfast in the morning, usually consisting of a coffee or cappuccino (strictly drunk in the AM) and a croissant. Throughout the day, the bar usually serves coffees, juices and alcohol as well, but the point is to have a quick stop, rather than hanging out for long periods of time. In Italy you'll find bars on nearly every corner, and some can also sell cigarettes and tobaccos, according to their license.
Socially, bars in small towns can be a gathering place, but their structure and their overall concept still remains that of a quick stop, although many elderly might also use them as a place to get together to play cards and talk about sports or politics. It is very common, especially in smaller towns and villages, to have a main bar in the main square that becomes the meeting point for many. Some bars can be fancy and rather big and, in these cases, their function is often to be more of a social place, especially during the summer, when the good weather allows a pleasant outdoor experience: here you'll find many people enjoying a gelato or a cold drink on the patio.
Although never meant to be restaurants, in recent years bars have started to serve food, especially at lunch, and besides fresh sandwiches or tramezzini, hot meals are also offered. A bar is a fast way to get fed, without spending too much money and without going too far from one's office or place of work. Bars are usually family run and stay open from early morning to the late hours of the evening, and they can also be a quick, last minute shopping place for small items, such as milk or water. In Italy, bars are allowed to sell alcohol to carry out and it is also legal to drink in the streets, however this doesn't mean or imply that improper behavior is allowed.
In historical sites or particularly beautiful areas of the country, bars are usually located in strategic places, where it's possible to enjoy breathtaking views. At such sites it's a good idea to spend a few hours relaxing and enjoying the view, in good company or perhaps with a good book. Many cities, like Rome, Venice and Florence, feature such beautiful squares that it would be a true shame not to sit down and take in some of their beauty, while sipping a lovely coffee. Bars are also the focal point of a very popular Italian ritual, the aperitivo: Italians adore to gather for a short while to a chosen bar after work and enjoy a light drink before dinner, while eating some appetizers. In recent years, this has become even more of a trend, and most bars offer a great selection of light foods.
Spritz Aperol as aperitif in an outdoor café in Vicenza. Ph. instagram/tiakatty
When it comes to payments and charges, there are a few things foreigners may wish to remember: credit cards are still not welcome in some bars, therefore always carry some cash for emergencies. Also keep in mind that tips can't be added to your credit card bill. In these cases, however, tips are not very important. If you're standing while eating or drinking then just leave some spare change or nothing at all, which isn't a big deal, especially in smaller bars.
If you decide to sit down, prices are likely to increase and often may even double. Another thing to keep in mind is that it's unusual in Italy to get separate cheques, although not impossible or illegal. It is also common to pay upfront when ordering from the bar during peak hours. Just be sure to obtain a receipt that lists what you've ordered and paid for.
A last vital piece of advice: in the morning hours Italian bars can be very crowded. If you want to be served, you'll have to walk to the bar and scream your order. Just pretend you're working at the Stock Market. Believe it or not, this will likely ensure you prompt and accurate service.