Understanding Italian Culture | Manners, Bella Figura, Siesta and Passeggiata

Part of enjoying Italy comes from understanding and embracing the differences in our culture.  I have tried to put together my impressions from an outsider’s perspective to help you really enjoy your experience.

I find that Italians are one of the most welcoming group of people around and they will try their hardest to help you and communicate with you.  Following my living locally guide will make you stand out from the demanding and draining tourists and open up so many doors for you.  I have been personally escorted to a restaurant more than once, given extra scoops of gelato to make sure that I didn’t miss out on the ‘perfect combination’ and even had mini impromptu historical lessons.  As a general rule, the people are very intense and very dramatic.  You will see heated conversations end in warm embraces.  They live life in the moment and with zest.  I always get swept up in living and loving life when I’m there.


Italians believe in presenting themselves well; taking care of the way you look is a priority for them.  This concept is called the Bella Figura, but it goes even deeper than just how you look.  For example, an Italian would rather miss the bus and be late to an engagement than become disorderly and sweaty by rushing madly to try to make it on time.  Once at the beach, I noticed I was the only mom playing in the sand and getting just as dirty as their child.  All around me, Italian women lay pristinely on their clean blankets.  You will notice that even the most simple of Italians will have at least one nice suit which they take pride in wearing each day.

The women.  What can I say here?  Now matter how good I think I might look, I pale in comparison to them.  They just exude sexy.  You will be hard pressed to find any one of them ever in sweats, even if they are just running to the store.  I try to bring one sassy outfit with me and play it up with a necklace or scarf as my feeble attempt to keep up.


Even the street performers are formally dressed.

Italians remain very formal.  Even in their language they have two separate tenses, one for those that are close friends and the other for everyone else.  While they would never expect you to be able to speak in the proper tense, I find that addressing the person initially with a Signore or Signora goes a long way.  I also always begin my requests and questions with a simple Per Favore (please).  Italians think that Americans are too brash because we tend to cut right to the chase without taking any time for small talk.  This is a great example of our fundamental differences.  We tend to operate on ‘time is money’ while Italians live completely in the present.  Just remember that you can never say please or thank you too much.


Again, a big difference between us is the concept of time.  It is considered completely acceptable to be late for an appointment.  I’m not talking 5-10 minutes late either.  This can be frustrating if their tardiness is affecting your trip, for example one time I spent 40 minutes waiting for the car rental office to open after lunch.  While I admit I was not excited, I spent that time enjoying not one but two gelati.  When you find yourself frustrated because you have to wait for someone, try to take a deep breath and find some sort of distraction.  Everything always ends up working out in Italy, just in its own time.


Wouldn’t you love to be able to stop your work day to head home or to the local trattoria for a nice meal or reviving nap?  While many business have begun to adopt a more formal 9-3pm work schedule, the mid day siesta is still going strong.  This is the time during the middle of the day from about 1-4pm where everything shuts down.  I mean everything, villages look like ghost towns.  Take advantage of this routine and use the time to refresh and recharge yourself.  I will often grab goodies at the market earlier in the day and spend this time in a quiet spot with a view.  The most important thing to remember is to prepare ahead so you aren’t stranded.  Make sure you have already bought any necessities earlier that day and in small towns that your car has fuel.  Caffeine addicts need not worry; there is always a bar somewhere open for a shot of espresso.


Every evening before dinner, everywhere in Italy people turn out just to stroll around, check each other out and catch up on the latest news.  This is the Italian version of cruising.  You will find people of all ages out, from the littlest of tots to old ladies linked arm in arm.  I love this time of the day.  It’s when the tourist buses have left and the real Italy comes out.   So grab a gelato and enjoy!

Everyone out and about in Rome

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Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

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About the author: Andi Brown

I am passionate about helping people create vacations that are perfect for them through personalized travel planning, itinerary review and small experience focused tours. My services put an emphasis on the experience of Italy, getting my clients away from the tourist crowds and into the heart and soul of the people. I believe in working with family run businesses at great locations with attention to the details. If you can dream it I can make it happen.

13 comments to “Understanding Italian Culture | Manners, Bella Figura, Siesta and Passeggiata”

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  1. Languedoc Lady - 2012-02-21 at 3:22 pm Reply

    Very much like France….except they have long lunches instead of siestas, but they both serve the same purpose be it La Dolce Vita or Joie de Vivre.

  2. Father-in-law - 2012-02-22 at 9:24 am Reply

    Wonderful information. It makes me want to go there..,soon!

  3. andrea o'grady - 2012-03-15 at 9:33 pm Reply

    I’ve just returned from 9 weeks of travel in Italy and I couldn’t agree more with your comments. I found myself buying replacement clothes (Italian style) to replace my selection. Picture Armani skirt and backpack. Manners are important and even the bancomats go slowly…in their own time! I loved long lunches and the passegiata with shops still open until 7.30pm.

    I would add to your list the Apperitivos….after Mass on Sunday just before lunch, during the passegiata, Fabulous and always with food.

  4. Molly Rene - 2012-03-31 at 10:25 pm Reply

    Hello! I am a student who is planning on studying abroad in Italy the summer of 2013. I have heard that in France, women always go out in nice shoes and it is frowned upon to wear tennis shoes for anything besides working out. Is this true in Italy as well? I want to study the culture as much as I can before I go so I don’t stick out like a sore thumb.

    Thanks! And the advice you have given is great!

    • onceinalifetimetravel - 2012-04-04 at 3:18 pm Reply

      Actually my last few trips I noticed that tons of the younger people were wearing jeans and fashionable tennis shoes. Of course they did it with great taste and flare. Tevas are the shoes to make you look like a tourist for sure! What a great experienced, you will have to let me know how it goes (maybe do a guest post??).
      Let me know if there is anything else I can do!

  5. Steph - 2013-04-04 at 10:26 am Reply

    I am studying in Milan next spring and really enjoyed reading this and will definitely use all your advice! Thanks!

  6. Cheska - 2013-05-29 at 4:33 pm Reply

    loved it, I’m in Rome and it exactly what I needed. Thanks!

  7. geralynwichers - 2013-07-14 at 5:48 pm Reply

    Thanks for the info. I’m doing a little research. Have you read “A Month of Italy” by Chris Brady? I bet you would love it.

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