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LIVING IN ITALY

Why the tabaccheria is essential to life in Italy – even if you don’t smoke

A cornerstone of Italian culture, the tabaccheria is used for much more than just buying cigarettes. From paying bills to purchasing bus tickets, here are just some of the services offered at the tobacconist's.

A tobacco seller wearing a face mask is pictured at his counter on March 23, 2020 in the Prati district of Rome, during the COVID-19 new coronavirus pandemic.
A tobacconist wearing a face mask is pictured at his counter on March 23rd, 2020 in the Prati district of Rome, during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Italy’s tabaccherie, or as they’re more informally known, tabaccai (tobacco shops) have long been a place for more than just purchasing cigarettes.

Their iconic emblem of a large T on a small rectangle, found in any Italian city, town and village, is associated with a place for locals to buy bus and metro tickets, pay their bills, or play the lottery.

READ ALSO: Beat the queues: 19 bits of Italian bureaucracy you can do online

With the number of smokers gradually falling in Italy (despite the pandemic reportedly acting as a setback for many former smokers), these non-tobacco related sides of the tabaccaio have become even more important to tabaccai owners’ incomes. 

So what exactly can you do in a tabaccheria in Italy? 

Buy bus and metro tickets

Outside of a metro station, the tabaccaio is one of the few places where you can buy tickets for local public transport in Italy.

The vast majority of tabaccai sell these tickets, and you’ll pay no more than you would at the metro station – just ask the cashier for biglietti per i mezzi (public transport tickets).

Pay bills

If you’re daunted by the prospect of navigating your way around an Italian phone or utility company’s website and don’t fancy waiting in a long queue at the post office (the other in-person alternative) during its limited hours of operation to pay your bills, then the tabaccheria is for you.

Most utility bills, including gas, electricity, water, can be paid at a tabaccaio, as can phone bills. For larger sums, you’ll typically pay a surcharge of €1 or €2 that goes to the tobacconist for handling the payment – which many find is well worth the added convenience.

Just bring your bill with you and the tobacconist will handle the rest. Most tabaccai accept either cash or card for these payments.

READ ALSO: Five tips to help you survive the Italian pharmacy

The display counter at a tabaccheria in Rome.

The display counter at a tabaccheria in Rome. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Pay fines and taxes

Much like bills, fines for things such as traffic violations and parking tickets can be paid at tabaccai. Social security (INPS) contributions, and some other government charges such as waste tax (tassa sui rifiuti) can also be paid here.

You can buy a marca da bollo, or tax stamp at many (but not all) tabaccai. As a foreigner in Italy applying for things like residency permits and work visas, you’ll quickly become familiar with this term, as a marca da bollo is required for most official government applications.

READ ALSO: Living in Italy: Six essential articles to read

Top up your phone credit

If you’re on a pay-as-you-go Italian phone contract, you can easily top up your credit at a tabaccheria by purchasing a scratch card. The cards come in values of €5, €10, €15, or €20.

If you’re on a fixed rate month-to-month contract of any amount, you can also top up your credit by telling the cashier your phone number and the sum you need to pay.

Play the lottery and place bets

Playing the lottery is a popular pastime in Italy, and if you want to try your luck by buying a lottery ticket, the tabaccaio is the place to head.

Some tabaccai also have slot machines, and some let you place sports bets. Betting in the totocalcio, the Italian football pools, is a particular favourite of Italian football fans.

A man casts his lottery ticket at a shop in Naples.

A man casts his lottery ticket at a shop in Naples. Photo by ROBERTA BASILE / AFP.

Buy tickets for sports games and concerts

If you want a ticket for the next Roma-Lazio derby, look no further than your local tabaccheria.

Tobacconists in Italy are licensed to sell tickets for football matches, as well as for certain concerts and other large-scale stadium events.

…Buy cigarettes and tobacco

It’s no secret that you can buy cigarettes and other tobacco products at a tabaccheria. In fact, it’s one of the only places in Italy where you can buy them, as (along with lottery tickets, stamps and tax stamps) these are state-controlled goods that require a special license to sell.

Oddly enough, salt also used to fall under this restricted category – which is while you’ll sometimes still see old signs outside tobacco shops advertising sali e tabacchi: salt and tobacco.

Buy other odds and ends

Of course, cigarettes and lotto cards aren’t the only items on offer at your average tabaccheria.

The range of products sold at an Italian tobacconist usually includes postage stamps, postcards, and greetings cards; stationery, magazines, tissues and playing cards; and chewing gum, crisps, chocolate, and other snacks and bottled drinks.

You’ll also often find small trinkets and souvenirs, such as keychains, jewellery, and children’s toys.

READ ALSO: 15 things you’ll probably never get used to about living in Italy

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ROME

What are the best Rome neighbourhoods for international residents?

Whether you're moving to Rome for the first time or are looking for a new neighbourhood to live in, here are five of the best 'quartieri' for foreign nationals.

What are the best Rome neighbourhoods for international residents?

Testaccio

Testaccio is a historic working-class Roman neighbourhood that’s become increasingly popular among international residents in recent years.

It’s surrounded on two sides by the Tiber, meaning you can walk along the river into the centre of town; and has good transport links, as it’s right next to both Piramide metro and Ostiense train station.

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With its bustling food market and old-school Roman restaurants, Testaccio is a foodie haven, and you’ll often see food tours huddled around the market stalls nibbling on supplì and pecorino (though it’s mercifully otherwise relatively free of tour groups).

Testaccio's historic food market is a major draw.

Testaccio’s historic food market is a major draw. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP.

At one point it was ancient Rome’s river port and a commercial hub, so you’ll also see interesting Roman ruins like Monte Testaccio, a little hill formed entirely of broken clay pots (a 2000-year-old trash heap) or historic archways that made up part of the old quayside.

Trastevere

Located just across the river from the city centre, Trastevere is one of Rome’s most picturesque neighbourhoods, with the characteristic cobbled streets, terracotta-coloured dwellings and draping vines that many foreigners think of as quintessentially Italian.

READ ALSO: Six things foreigners should expect if they live in Rome

That also means it’s extremely popular with tourists and foreign students, who throng its piazzas and labyrinthine alleys year-round.

There’s no shortage of restaurants and bars in which to while away lazy afternoons and evenings; in fact there’s little else, and you’ll have to do a bit of digging to find ordinary shops and services.

Trastevere is popular with tourists and students.

Trastevere is popular with tourists and students. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.

Its central location means Trastevere has less of a neighbourhood feel than somewhere like Testaccio, but if you’re looking for a buzzing area that’s just a short stroll from some of Rome’s most famous monuments, it could be the place for you.

Pigneto

If you’re moving to Rome but wish you were in Berlin, you might want to venture east of the centre to Pigneto, where the cool kids go.

Its grey apartment blocks and grungy aesthetic might not make it much to look at, but its cheap(ish) rents and refreshingly un-stuffy vibe are attracting increasing numbers of young people.

Pigneto makes up for in coolness what it lacks in beauty.

Pigneto makes up for in coolness what it lacks in beauty. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

Pigneto’s main strip of bars and restaurants, relatively quiet during the day, comes to life in the evenings and especially on weekends, when it turns into a vibrant party hub.

As well as having a fairly youthful population, the area is more of a cultural melting pot than many other parts of the city – though for a truly international experience you’ll want to go even further east to Tor Pignettara, where you’ll find some of Rome’s best non-Italian food.

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Monti

Just a few hundred feet from the Colosseum, Monti is practically in the city centre, though it’s still managed to retain its own distinctive personality.

It’s a trendy district where you’ll find a mix of stylish wine bars, chic restaurants, vintage clothing stores and high-end boutiques.

READ ALSO: ‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Monti’s prime location means rents are high, and you’ll sometimes have to contend with crowds of tourists as you push your way to your front door.

But if you want to live in a fashionable and attractive neighbourhood that’s in Rome’s beating heart, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option.

Rome's trendy Monti district is a stone's throw from the Colosseum.

Rome’s trendy Monti district is a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE / AFP.

Prati

Heading to the northwest of the city centre, just east of Vatican City, sits the elegant residential and commercial district of Prati.

This neighbourhood’s broad avenues, attractive residences and upmarket shopping streets have historically made it preserve of upper-class Italians, many of whom work in surrounding offices or the several courthouses that fall within its boundaries.

Prati’s grid-like shape and heavily-trafficked roads mean it doesn’t have much of a neighbourhood feel, but it has plenty of sophisticated restaurants, cafes and bars.

It’s also just across the river from Villa Borghese, one of Rome’s largest and most attractive parks, with easy access to the world-class Galleria Borghese art gallery.

READ ALSO: Six essential apps that make life in Rome easier for foreign residents

Rome's Prati district is just across the river from leafy Villa Borghese.

Rome’s Prati district is just across the river from leafy Villa Borghese. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.
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