A tabaccheria, or “tabacchi” for short, is a small quasi-convenience store that can simultaneously be a cafe, tourist trinket-shop, mini post office, and more--or none of the above.
First time visitors in Italy will immediately notice hole-in-the-wall shops and corner stores marked by big, blue or black “T” signs. It stand for Tabaccheria (Tabacco shop).
To tourists, tabaccherie are a mysterious phenomenon. For Americans, they seem like gas stations without the gas. For Scandinavians, a compact corner of a 7-11 sans the sandwich bar. As any Italian knows, tabacchi shops are an essential part of life for the numerous purposes they serve. So, what can someone do at a tabacchi?
Buy cigarettes and tobacco products
The word “tabaccheria” literally translates to “tobacco shop.” No trick here, nicotine-addicts will not be disappointed by the array of tobacco products inside of a tabacchi. From cigarettes to rolling tobacco, Italians rely on tabacchi shops for their tobacco products. This is no coincidence.
The role of a tabacchi is to sell government-regulated products, such as tobacco, and assist in government-regulated services, such as paying utility bills. For this reason, the contents of a tabacchi can seem like a mismatch of random items including cigarettes, bus tickets, stamps, and lottery tickets. But confusing as they may seem, tabaccherie are a one-stop shop for official business.
At a tabacchi, this aforementioned “official business” takes place at the counter. Here, among other services, bills can be paid. These include electricity, gas, water, and other utility bills, phone bills, traffic tickets, and more.
Recharge mobile phones
Also at the counter, customers can purchase recharge cards for their mobile phones. Recharge cards are used to add calling minutes, texts, and cellular data to one’s cellular plan.
Recharge cards are produced by phone carriers, and can cost 5-euro, 10-euro, 15-euro, or 20-euro, depending on what the customer needs. Some tabacchi shops have 24-hour machines outside of their storefronts that can be used for mobile recharges and buying tobacco products.
Buy public transport tickets
A tabacchi is the best place to buy public transportation tickets. Many buses and trams in Italy do not sell tickets onboard, so tickets must be purchased ahead of time. At a tabacchi, a customer can purchase as many tickets as they need.
This is especially convenient for tourists and visitors spending time in one city or town for an extended period of time, as public transport tickets work for all types of public transportation within a municipality. For example, a ticket purchased in Rome can be used for a bus, metro, or tram in the city.
It is important to note that most tabacchi shops close in the evening, so it’s best to purchase return tickets ahead of time if you plan on returning late.
Buy postage stamps
If you want to send a letter or postcard, request a francobollo (postage stamp) from the counter of a tabacchi. Before you purchase your stamp, specify the destination, especially if your postcard is traveling internationally. Stamp prices vary based on their destinations.
Some tabacchi are equipped with outdoor post boxes. These are red, and marked with two drop-boxes for international and domestic mail. After you purchase your stamp, drop your letter or postcard into this box and finito. No trip to the post office necessary.
In addition to normal postage stamps, some tabacchi shops print “marche da bollo,” the special stamps needed for official government authorized transactions. An expat must purchase a marca da bollo before renewing their permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay). Not all tabacchi shops offer this service--the best way to determine if they do is to ask inside.
Buy stationery and packaging materials
Tabacchi shops are often decorated by colorful stacks of stationary, including notebooks, pens, markers, and cards. This section of a tabacchi is great for back-to-school shopping and grabbing supplies before a trip to the post office. Ask at the counter for envelopes.
Tabbachi shops usually offer an array of envelope sizes, and some even sell cardboard boxes for shipping parcels. Additionally, other shipping materials such as tape and postage labels can be found in a tabacchi.
Play the lottery
Tabacchi shops are a hotspot for playing the lottery, another government regulated practice. Though gambling carries a negative stigma in some countries, legal gambling is perfectly acceptable in Italy.
In fact, it’s commonplace. While you’re in a tabacchi, you’ll almost definitely see someone buy a lottery ticket. Some tabacchi shops have special counters for buying lottery tickets and gambling machines to play. Fortunately for eager tourists, some lotteries, such as the Superenalotto, do not require an Italian ID to play.
Products and services vary from tabacchi to tabacchi. Some have fully-stocked cafes, while others are tiny, with barely enough room for one person to buy a pack of cigarettes. Regardless of the size, there are some non-government regulated items that you can count on being in a tabacchi: packs of gum, cough drops, small chocolates, and pieces of candy.
Outside of that range of reliable items, you might find magazines, toiletries, children’s toys, handmade purses, tourist trinkets, and more. Many tabacchi shops, especially large ones, have a shelf of random items that might just include exactly the thing you’re looking for.
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