Here’s why the aperitif is important in France: Apéro hour explained!

What is an aperitif? More than a pre-meal appetite-stimulating drink. It’s a social tradition dating back to the Romans. Discover the history & art of Apero Hour.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
Friends enjoying an aperitif together during l'apero on a terrace
Friends enjoying an aperitif together during l'apero on a terrace

Take a stroll through any town in France or Italy during the early evening, and you’ll witness a charming scene unfold.

Like magic, empty terraces and cafes burst to life with people engaged in lively conversations while sipping on drinks and nibbling on small salty snacks like peanuts, olives, or chips. Simultaneously, across France and Italy, friends, families and colleagues are gathering in homes to do the same.

This is apero hour, known in France as “l’heure de l’apéro” and “l’ora dell’aperitivo” in Italy.

Friends enjoying a picnic apéro

The concept sounds simple, but I’ve learned through social interactions with friends here in France that this pre-meal socializing moment is more than just simple alcoholic drinks consumed before meals. It embodies an ancient tradition that is an integral part of French and Italian culture, with unique customs and practices that can vary by occasion, region, individual, and even by country.

Let’s explore the aperitif and the fine art of ‘apéro hour.’ By the end of this guide, you will have a better understanding of this cultural tradition and be able to incorporate it into your own life, host your own apéro party and feel more confident when a server asks if you would like an aperitif while dining out at restaurants and cafes.

Apéritif Definition: What is an apéritif aka apéro.

L'heure de L'apéro: pastis

The term “apéritif,” colloquially known as ‘apéro’ in France, and ‘aperi’ in Italy, is two things at once:

1) An aperitif is an appetite-stimulating drink, usually alcoholic, served before a meal or on its own as a separate event. Aperitif drinks tend to be lighter in alcohol and more refreshing than digestif drinks. Except for red wine, most before-meal drinks are served chilled or over ice, like a light pre-dinner cocktail.

2) Beyond being a drink, an aperitif is also a social activity – where people come together to unwind and socialize with friends and family while enjoying one or two pre-meal drinks and light savoury snacks or appetizers. This social activity and ritual of getting together over drinks typically occurs before dinner or lunchtime, either as part of the meal or as a separate gathering.

These aperitif definitions sound straightforward, yet this time-honoured tradition is so ingrained in French and Italian culture that it has unspoken rules and nuances that underscore and confuse people who didn’t grow up with it or have not experienced apero culture firsthand.

Apero time is less about where or what you drink or eat and more about when and who you share the experience with.

How to pronounce aperitif

In French, apéritif is written with an accent over the letter ” é ” and is pronounced /AH-peh-ree-teef/.

Why is the apero hour tradition important in France and some European cultures?

“There’s nothing better than a friend, except a friend to enjoy an apero with “
“Il n’y a rien de meilleur qu’un ami, sauf si c’est un ami avec l’apéro!

While France and Italy are the two countries most well known for having the tradition of gathering around a pre-meal drink to socialize, Spain and Portugal also have similar pre-meal traditions.

Although there may be variations in the drinks and customs associated with the aperitif tradition in each culture, the underlying philosophy and social rituals are essentially the same.

  • Slow down, relax and take a pause from the rush of everyday life
  • Savour life’s simple pleasures
  • Foster social bonds.

In other words, the apero pre-meal gathering is important because it allows friends and family to come together at the end of the day and transition to a more relaxed, cheerful, and social atmosphere, whether after work or browsing flea markets before sitting down for the main meal.

Before we get into the etiquette and traditions, it’s important to learn the history of this social tradition came about.

Origins of the pre-dinner alcohol drink began as a medicinal cure

Carpano Italian Vermouth: first modern aperitif drink

Greek spiced wine to stimulate appetite.

The roots of the French aperitif, or Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese aperitivo can be traced back to the historical belief in many ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Greece and the Romans that wine and spirits have health and medicinal properties. It’s likely one of the reasons why we say “to your health” or similar phrases when toasting with alcohol.

How did alcohol go from medicine to modern pre-meal aperitif ritual?

For Europeans, the appetite-stimulating pre-meal drink started in ancient Greece.

In the 5th century BC, Hippocrates, a Greek physician and father of Western medicine, prescribed a recipe of sweet spiced white wine infused with botanical herbs to his patients suffering from parasitic worms, as well as gastrointestinal and digestive issues such as vomiting, heartburn, and loss of appetite.

Although Hippocrates did not invent spiced wine for medicinal purposes, it became known as “vinium Hipocraticum” (Hippocratic Wine or Hippocras) after the filter Hippocrates invented and used to remove the spices from the wine.

The Roman precursor to Vermouth

The Romans, who borrowed many ideas and practices from the Greeks, improved upon the Hippocratic spiced wine and created “Absinthiatum vinum,” infused with the bitter wormwood herb. This Roman wormwood spiced wine was an early predecessor to Vermouth and laid the foundation for the modern concept of the aperitif drink.

Turin, Italy, the birthplace of modern Vermouth and the aperitif pre-dinner ritual

In the late 1700s, Antonio Benedetto Carpano recreated the 2000-year-old Roman recipe for “Absinthiatum vinum” by aromatizing wine with various herbs, spices, botanicals and wormwood and fortified it using brandy.

He named his new fortified wine vermouth after the German word “wermut,” which means wormwood – the key ingredient (source) and became the first person to commercialize Vermouth. He began selling his sweet vermouth in his shop. Trendy cafes and restaurants in the city of Turin also started selling, and it quickly took off.

Over time, the aperitif tradition and beverages evolved into a social custom rather than solely a medicinal practice and spread to France, where it has become ingrained in the social fabric of French culture, as well as Portugal and Spain, where aperitif hour is sometimes called “Hora del Vermut” (Vermouth Hour).

To this day, Turin, Italy, is considered the birthplace of the modern-day aperitivo and Antonio Benedetto Carpano is credited with popularizing Vermouth as the first modern-day aperitif drink.

“Aperitif” and “aperitivo” are from the Latin “apertīvus,” which is from the Latin verb “aperire” (to open).

The Fine Art of the French apero: What to expect

Now that we know a bit about the history, meaning, and origin, let’s go over the generally accepted traditions and social customs during apero time.

What are good aperitif drinks?

Pastis Henri Bardouin: An anise based French aperitif drink

When it comes to happy hour and cocktail parties, anything goes; however, that’s not true for aperitif drinks. Aperitif drinks served before lunch or dinner are supposed to stimulate the appetite, not fill you up, so certain alcoholic drinks are better aperitif drinks than others. An aperitif drink should not get you drunk, so the limit is usually one or maybe two aperitif drinks.

A cocktail can count as an apéritif, and so can gin whiskey and beer, but in general, pre-dinner drinks should meet specific criteria:

  • A pre-dinner aperitif drink should have a low alcohol content, generally less than 20%, such as beer, wine, champagne, Lillet blanc, and, of course, vermouth, which is the original aperitif drink of the Romans.
  • Cocktails can also be good aperitif drinks: Cocktails like a dry martini made from a base of dry Vermouth or the famous; Italian aperitif cocktail Aperol Spritz.
  • Many aperitif drinks are both bitter and sweet: Bitter to whet the appetite and sweet to cut the bitterness.
  • Cocktails made with liqueurs, such as creme de cassis, also make good aperitif cocktails, such as the famous Kir Royale.
  • Some aperitifs also contain quinine, such as Dubonnet, a type of wine-based aperitif flavoured with a blend of herbs and spices.

Don’t rule out alcohol with higher levels of alcohol, such as gin, whiskey or vodka, which can be served over ice or as an ingredient in a cocktail which brings the alcohol content down.

For example, a popular aperitif in the south of France, is anise flavoured Pastis, especially during the summer. It has a higher alcohol concentration of around 40-45%, but because it’s always diluted with about 5 to 7 parts water for each part Pastis and a couple of ice cubes, it makes the perfect aperitif drink.

I have an extensive list of 77 French Apéritif drinks explained: A mini guide to pre-dinner drinks.

Always clink glasses

bunch of people in France toasting in French while making eye contact

No matter when or where you take your aperitif drink during apero hour, it’s customary to toast by clinking glasses and saying cheers.

Don’t forget to look the other person in the eye as you clink glasses, a standard practice in many European cultures.

When should you drink an aperitif drink? Or what Time is Apero hour?

“l’heure de l’apéro” or apero hour usually happens at the end of the day, before dinner, anywhere from 6 pm to 9 pm and can last one hour or more, depending on the group.

Although 7 to 9 pm might seem late, dinner is served much later in France and Europe. Most sit-down restaurants in France don’t begin serving food before 7:30 pm or 8:00 pm, with things picking up pace around 9:00 pm, ending well past 10 pm or 11 pm.

Although less common, apero can also happen before lunch between 10 am and 12 noon.

Examples of when to enjoy L’apéro (French aperitif)

  • A quick drink after work with friends at a nearby cafe, then everyone goes their separate ways.
  • A drink you enjoy at a restaurant before you order your meal.
  • Alone at home or a café after a stroll, shopping, or work.
  • An invitation to enjoy an apéro (drink and nibbly bits) at a friend’s house on the weekend.
  • To meet friends and family for a quick drink, possibly followed by dinner elsewhere.
  • A drink at home with your family out on the patio with a bowl of chips.
  • A French aperitif can be the prelude to a French multi-course meal families enjoy to celebrate special occasions.
  • Sometimes, an apero becomes a full meal, called an apéro dînatoire. Usually, this includes both salty and sweet. The portions are still small but add up to a full meal.

Aperitif before the meal at a restaurant.

When you sit down for dinner at a restaurant in France, servers will usually ask if you would like to start with an aperitif. This is not an appetizer. The server is simply asking if you would like a pre-dinner drink, which is separate from themeal.

You would typically finish your drinks and then order your starters, main course and perhaps a bottle of wine to drink during the meal.

An aperitif at a café or restaurant terrace before heading separate ways.

People in Paris enjoying an aperitif during l'heurre de l'apero

It’s not uncommon to meet someone for an aperitif drink at a cafe or restaurant terrace after work or to get together with friends without eating a meal together.

The server will usually ask if you would like an aperitif. In this case, you can order something classic like a Kir Royale or a glass of rosé, or if there is a drink menu, flip to the aperitif drink section.

Depending on the place, the server might bring you something salty to nibble on a bowl of green olives, black olives, pistachios, peanuts, pretzels, etc. These salty snacks are usually free, but some places have small bites you can order for an additional cost, such as tapenade, focaccia bread, etc.

Apero time at someone’s home.

An informal apero at home with friends over a glass of wine light snacks:

If you’re invited to someone’s house for an apéro, there will be alcoholic drinks.  Sometimes, people are asked to bring a dish to share at a home apero get-together.

“Whether it’s a problem or a question, apero is always the answer.”

“Quel que soit le problème ou la question, l’apéro est toujours la bonne réponse!”


Food served with the aperitif at someone’s home.

Anything goes when it comes to apero food, but the plates are small, salty, savoury, and bite-sized; little to no cutting is required.

An apero at someone’s home might be as simple as some potato chips and olives with wine. Or it could be a little more elaborate with three or more types of small bites, such as cheese and charcuterie, such as sliced saucisson, a bowl of cherry tomatoes, and something to spread on slices of bread, such as hummus, pâté, or olive tapenade.

You don’t fill up on the small plates because this is not a full meal.

There is an exception; it’s the dinner apero ‘apéro dînatoire.”

What is the difference between apero hour and a dinner apero (apéro dînatoire)?

Friends enjoying an apéro dinnatoire
The plates served during an apero dinatoire are the equivalent of an entire meal in finger food portions.

Like a traditional aperitif get-together, an apéro dînatoire is a fun social gathering where guests can enjoy some aperitif drinks, but it has a unique twist to it.

Unlike the traditional aperitif, an apéro dînatoire IS a complete meal that consists of small bites and finger food portions that total a full meal. This makes it a perfect substitute for a formal sit-down dinner.

You could say that an apero dinatoire is a casual French-style cocktail party because they share many similarities, but the apero dinatoire tends to be more casual and less structured. The emphasis is on relaxing and socializing rather than the formalities often associated with a cocktail party. 

Apero dinatoire timing:

While an apero happens before dinner, the apéro dînatoire is the meal, so it may start later during regular dinner hours after 7:30 pm.

Apero dinatoire locations:

The “apero dinatoire” happens almost exclusively at someone’s house, not a restaurant. But, it sometimes takes place outside the home for certain special events, such as at work or school, Christmas parties, going away parties, etc.

Apero dinatoire food:

The plates served during an apéro dînatoire are more elaborate than the ones served during the pre-dinner aperitif, but they will usually be small bites of food that can be eaten at room temperature. 

Differences between Apéro hour vs happy hour or cocktail party

Some articles describe an aperitif or apero time as similar to other social gatherings such as happy hour, cocktail parties and even English “high tea.”Sure, all three involve food, drink and socializing.

In reality, the French apéro is much more nuanced with its own traditions and set of cultural practices and unsaid rules, and that is where people unfamiliar with this tradition get confused. Here are some key differences.

Apero is a tradition: Happy hour & cocktail parties are not:

More than half of all French people who organize potluck style apéros in France

You can go your whole life without ever having experienced a cocktail party or happy hour because they ARE NOT traditions.

However, enjoying an apero is a widespread tradition in France. It’s estimated that roughly 70% to 80% of people in France regularly enjoy an apéro. Those numbers only increase during the holidays and weekends! Studies have even shown that taking an apero with your spouse or significant other is good for your relationship.

Here are some marketing studies conducted by alcohol and snack companies to determine the apéro habits of people in France.

    • A survey conducted by Deliveroo France concluded that 6/10 people in France take an apéro at least once a month. 3/10 people enjoy an apéro once a week, and 1/10 take an apéro daily.
    • This 2020 study found that 5/10 people surveyed enjoyed an apéro at least once a week.

This study asked 1011 French people about their apéro time habits: foods served, locations and frequency. This is what they found:

    • 21% of people surveyed enjoyed an apéro one or more times per week.
    • 54% enjoyed an apéro 1 to 3 times per month
    • 19% enjoyed an apéro 1 to 10 times per year.
    • Only 6% of people surveyed enjoyed less than one apéro per year.

Apero happens much later than a happy hour:

The exact timing of happy hour can vary, but it typically starts in the late afternoon, around 4 pm or 5 pm, and ends in the early evening, around 6 pm or 7 pm. This is just when apero time is beginning, and can continue past 9 pm.

Apero can happen anywhere and can be spontaneous: Happy hour and cocktail parties cant

You can enjoy an apero anywhere. Even on the ground or on the steps of an old church

Unlike happy hour, which is usually at a bar with discounted drinks and food specials, you can enjoy an aperitif anywhere:

On a café terrace, at the beach, picnic-style along the Seine river, on the steps of an old church, at the office, on a train, at Disneyland Paris and at someone’s house. And although you could have a cocktail party anywhere, it’s usually much more planned and elaborate than an apero get-together.

Apero hour can be casual, improvised and stress-free. Cocktail parties are the opposite.

A simple apero with some chips

Cocktail parties are usually fancy events where guests stand enjoying hors-d’oeuvre, and the host has spent hours planning something elaborate for guests.

If you’re hosting an apero at your home, it can be as fancy as you want for special occasions and get-togethers. But more often than not, an aperitif at someone’s home is very casual and low-key because the main goal is to relax, enjoy yourself and socialize.

This is why it’s crucial to serve small bites that you can put out ahead of time and can be eaten at room temperature. It can even be what you have on hand. A bag of chips, olives, pretzels, French cheese, some radish, savoury cake, a quiche, etc.

Children are welcome during apero time:

Unlike cocktail parties and happy hour, children are not excluded from apéro get-togethers, especially an apero at someone’s house or outdoors, such as an apero at the beach or picnic.

Apero tradition is ingrained in French culture, and like all traditions, it is something that is transmitted from generation to generation. It’s not uncommon for 18-year-olds to have papers with their friends.

Apero can be for any occasion: Happy hour, not so much.

There is no limit to what type of occasion an apero is suited for.

The most important thing is it happens before dinner, but sometimes people take an apero before lunch.

  • Apéro birthday party.
  • Apero to catch up with friends.
  • An apero just because.
  • Apero Christmas party
  • Weekly apero family get-together
  • Apero Retirement party.
  • Apero party to celebrate passing an important exam.
  • Apero dinnatoire marriage.
  • Apero at the end of a business meeting.
  • An apero end-of-year school party.
  • After parent-teacher meetings.
  • Just because you want to for no other reason.

Wrapping up apero hour with some French expressions and phrases

What is an aperitif

Here are some French expressions you might come across with regards to aperitif.

When it’s apero time in France, people usually say, “On prend un apéro? (shall we take an apero?)

A spontaneous way to suggest it’s time to take an aperitif is to say, “C’est l’heure de l’apéro.“This phase usually gets translated to English as “It’s Apero Hour, but idiomatically, it can also mean “It’s Apero time.”

If you would like to invite someone to your place for an apero dinner party, you can say “je vous invite à un apéro dînatoire chez moi.”

Bonne soirée, bon apéro.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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