Skip to content

Understanding Italian Culture | Breaking the Ice and Saving Money


The Italians are incredibly warm and friendly people who will try hard to communicate with you, but they can be a bit shy to start a conversation.  I have found many tricks to get an interaction going that often ends in a warm embrace.

The easiest way to break the language barrier is through pictures.  I always carry a small photo album with me filled with pictures from around my home town and lots of photos of my family and even my pets.  Sometimes I will just bring the album with me to dinner and set it on the table.  You never know who you might sit next to and it is a great conversation starter.

Italians love their children and I make sure to play with kids and smile at babies all the time.  I’ve kicked balls around the piazza and even strolled up and down the village square with a grandma proudly pushing her newest grandchild in a stroller.

They also love their dogs and if you are a fan go ahead and give them a pet.  Cats on the other hand are not considered pets and you will be looked at strangely if caught petting any of them (except in the Cinque Terre).

Sharing your food if you happen to be on a train or out for a picnic is a good way to create an impromptu feast and gain friends.

It is always hard to make the first move and there have been times I have shied away from an opportunity, but I always regret those decisions.  The times I have taken a deep breath and stepped outside of my comfort level are the times that have given me the best memories.


There are a few simple ways to make your dollar go further in Italy without taking away any of the enjoyment.  Hotels often offer a so-so breakfast but what they don’t tell you is that you can skip it and save yourself as much as 10 euro per person.  Italians aren’t big into breakfast, but for half the price you can enjoy a cappuccino and croissant.  Lunches can be made from items bought earlier in the morning market or you can find a little pizza shop and get a slice to go or eat at the bar.  I usually wash it down with a gelato or caffe.  This way I can eat a nice dinner without the guilt.  Look for places to eat that are out of the main tourists areas, avoid places that advertise that they speak English and accept credit cards.   At dinner drink the house wine ‘vino di casa’ which is good.  Split or skip the secondi course, which is always the most expensive.   Don’t over tip and don’t feel guilty about it.

Take advantage of the international calling cards if you need to call home and even better would be using just the Internet to keep in touch.  Using public transportation in the cities or even just walking versus taxis will save you a ton.  Walking is easy to do in Italy, even in the biggest of cities.  Most of the important sites are central and city centers have always been set up for residents to walk around easily.

Longer stays at your accommodations will often give you better prices as will paying in cash.  You also get to know an area and have a better chance of finding good deals and creating relationships with the locals.

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

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

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Toilet Basics


I could probably dedicate a whole book to my adventures with Italian bathrooms.  It could almost become a game of ‘How do you flush this toilet?’  I have listed the most common types you will find, but always be prepared for anything.

Chain Pull:  usually from the tank hanging just above the toilet, but can be off to the side

The One Button:  located on the top or one of the sides, comes in various sizes

The Double Button:  found on the wall next to the toilet, the small one is for little jobs and the big is for…well you get the idea

Foot Pedal Flush:  found anywhere on the floor, this can also be how you turn the sink water on

The Push Up:  a little lever hanging from the bottom of the overhanging tank

Bottomless Pit:  just stand over the hole and aim, no flushing required and thigh workout included

Take aim

Full Service:  a self cleaning and flushing toilet that takes care of everything once you’ve left

The Bucket:  a full bucket of water poured into the toilet, used for emergencies when the toilet paper tips are not followed

Don’t count on finding one of these anywhere.

Public restrooms can be hard to find in Italy.  Most are pay toilets, usually under 1 euro.  Sometimes you will be giving your money to an actual person, other times inserting it into a machine.  I find it is easier to march into a local bar acting like I own the place and go directly to the bathroom, usually located in the back or downstairs.  If you feel guilty, just order an espresso and use the bathroom afterwards.  Always take advantage of the restroom while dining.


Italians are skimpy in this department for a few reasons.  The toilets and sewer systems simply can’t handle too much.  They also think it is silly and wasteful the way most Americans (my family included) use a mitt of TP each time.  Until my daughter was restrained, I had to use the above mentioned emergency flush to unplug several toilets.  Flush twice to avoid embarrassing situations.  The toilet paper itself leaves a bit to be desired, so don’t expect triple ply Charmin!  If you are near the end of the supply you may have to ask for more from your host.  I always carry a bit with me at all times in case the supply isn’t restocked right away and never use a public restroom without back up.  They seem to be out most of the time.

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Dining, Tips, Gelato and Coffee


In Italy, the food is an experience.  Lunches and dinners last at least two hours; you linger over your meal.  When you sit at a table, it is considered yours for the night.  A restaurant would be considered awful if it tried to turn tables like we do in the states.  The waiters are all ‘slow’ by American standards and they do not rush for anything (except keeping wine on the table for the locals).  Your waiter will only bring the bill when you ask for it, to do so before is considered rude.  When you are ready to leave, simply catch their eye and say ‘Il conto’ for the bill or make a motion of writing something out on your palm.  Many restaurants have a ‘pane e coperto’ charge (bread and cover) of a few euros per person and/or ‘servizio incluso’ (tips) built into the bill.  You will find both of these on the bill with the ‘servizio incluso’ usually on the bottom.  If that is not included in your bill, round up by a few euros (or less than half of what you would do at home).  I know it feels wrong not to leave a big tip for a great meal, we Americans are notorious for over tipping while some Italians never do.  Rarely I have run into annoyed waiters who were expecting me to tip like a typical tourist, but that reaction is not at all normal.  Another time I tipped an excessive amount because I had drank an excessive amount , and the owners made sure I left with a bottle of wine on the house.   An example for a meal that cost 37.50 would be to round up to 40.  Try to always leave a cash tip on the table, even if you are paying with credit, otherwise your server may never see the money.

Dinner service usually begins around 7:00pm and lasts well into the night.  If you want to dine with tourists, be there when they open.  Linger until around 8:30 and you will dine with the Italians.  Food is served in courses, but you are not expected to order one of each.  For example, I often order my own pasta (primi) but share an anitpasti (appetizer) and secondi (meat or fish dish) with my friend.  Just remember that the food will be brought out in order and if you skipped a course you will spend that time watching others eat.  I find I never go wrong with the house wine but if you want to try a bottle, ask the waiter what would pair well with your meal.  While you can’t always trust the bill you can trust them with their food and wine recommendations!  I personally find that you can never go wrong with the daily specials.  Italians eat with the seasons and chefs pride themselves in finding the best and freshest ingredients.  I will often go with their suggestions as well.  Europeans love fizzy water, so if you don’t want bubbles you must ask for ‘acua naturale.’

A few dining tips to make you look more like a local:

Don’t use a spoon to twirl your pasta and NEVER cut the noodles with a knife.

If cheese or other toppings didn’t come with your dish then it was not meant to go with it.  It is considered insulting to add anything to a dish that the chef prepared as they pride themselves in knowing exactly what ingredients pare with each dish.

By all means, use your bread to sop up the extra sauce.  This is considered a great compliment to the chef.

End your meal with an espresso (you can request a decaf).

Take your time to enjoy the meal, each one is an adventure in itself!

I caution everyone to pace themselves or you will find yourself groaning in bed with an overfilled stomach.


It’s the only place on earth that is more crazy about coffee than Seattle.  For about one euro, you can get a teeny cup of pure heaven.  It’s probably the easiest thing to do in Italy.  Head right into any bar and ask for un caffe.  You might be asked to clarify that you want an espresso and not an American cup of coffee.  Just use your fingers to show a tiny cup and they will understand.  Watch the locals.  They pour in about as much sugar as coffee and sit stirring it for some magical amount of time, then sling back the liquid in one sip and out the door they go.  This is not a Starbucks society where you savor your espresso or even take it to go.  I also love my morning cappuccino (which I do take my time with) but only tourists drink them after 10am.  Some bars have you pay first and then take your slip to the counter while others do the opposite.  If you are unsure just watch how everyone else is doing it and copy.  It is a courtesy to leave a small coin to ‘hold the paper down’ for the server.  You will also pay more for your coffee if you sit down to drink it, about twice as much as the same cup enjoyed at the bar.  The cost can be well worth it if you’ve found a cozy little spot for people watching.  The bars usually have quick and easy snacks as well; panini’s are a favorite type of sandwich and great for on the go.


Italian ice cream is another national addiction, and a personal one.  I challenge anyone to beat my consumption record:  6 double scoops in one day!  Just remember that not all gelato is created the same and if you aren’t careful you could end up disappointed.  Follow my advice below and you are sure to never go wrong.

There are a few important things to look for when choosing a gelateria.  Only places that make their gelato fresh each day on the premise are legally allowed to display the sign ‘fatta in casa.’  This is a good start but that is not all you want to watch for.  A long line is one of the best signs of great gelato.  If you see more Italians than tourists, even better.  Italians tend to avoid tourists at all costs but will stand shoulder to shoulder with them for a good scoop and you know that your gelato will be worth the wait.  If all looks well, step inside and make sure that the gelato is in metal containers and not plastic ones, this will confirm that the ice cream was made in smaller batches and of a better quality.  The final check is in the gelato itself.  If you notice tons of bright unnatural colors run away.  Banana will be your gold standard.  If it is gray you have found the perfect spot, if it is any shade of yellow don’t waste another second there.  Gelato should be made from fresh ingredients with the primary concern being taste not color.  Be wary of any shop that has a big area with table and chairs.  While we are used to this set up, in Italy gelato is meant to be consumed on the go and a gelateria trying to encourage you to stay is focused on tourists.

No day is complete without gelato and there is no reason to feel guilty.  Gelato’s fat content is at least a third less than our ice cream because it is made from milk and not fresh cream or butterfat.  Ordering gelato is similar to getting your coffee.  Most places have you buy your gelato ahead of time and the cashier will give you a ticket to take to the counter.  Take your time looking around while you decide, but for the server’s sanity make sure that you are ready with your order when it is your turn.  You will be ignored if you do not have a ticket.  If you are having trouble getting his attention just hold your ticket like a torch and push your way to the front.  Be exotic and try different combinations; everything is good.


You will be able to find little grocery shops in every town and even some larger more modern ones in the cities.  In the produce section there are a few different ways to handle the vegetables.  Sometimes the checker (or another employee) will select the produce for you, bag it and weigh it on the spot.  All you do is point to what you want.  More commonly, you will bag it yourself and then put your selection on a scale.  There will be about 100 different buttons with pictures of fruits and veggies.  Find yours and simply push, the weight and cost in Euros will be printed on a sticker you attach to the bag (make sure you aren’t LEANING on the scale when you push!).  Don’t forgot to wear the disposable plastic gloves, otherwise you will draw many disgusted looks from the local shoppers.

Every city, town and village has a market on a certain day and some are daily.  Go early to get the best choices and have the most fun with the pushy old ladies.  Markets aren’t limited to just produce; usually you will find trucks full of cheese and meats.  If you see someone selling Porchetta sandwiches get one!

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2012   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Understanding Italian Culture | Handling Money, Shopping, Computers and Staying in Line

**I will be re-blogging my Understanding Italian Culture Series this week.**


Italians love correct or almost correct change.  You know that old lady at the grocery store digging through her coin purse while everyone behind her rolls their eyes?  She is everywhere in Italy and they love her.  Although they are used to us Americans slapping down a 20 Euro note (or *gasp* a 50) for bottled water, I try to get as close to exact as possible.  ATM’s seem to be out to sabotage your best efforts and tend to only give out the largest bills possible, so you can’t help but have to break a larger bill at times.  Just try not to do it first thing in the morning and be prepared for some heavy sighing.  I have once been denied the transaction.

Italians also don’t hand over the money directly as we do.  You will find at every counter a little dish or tray next to the register.  This is where you should set your money down and where they will put your change.  Do not try to hand them the cash.


Italians shop with intention.  If they walk into the store, they are ready to buy.  Just watch how the women window shop, it is not with a casual interest.  The window displays are set up with great care to show off the merchandise and many are changed almost daily.  If you walk into a store (except the obvious tourist shops) the clerks are expecting you to buy.  Of course you don’t have to, but don’t be shocked if they are a little snuffy with you when you don’t.  Instead of being turned off by this, relish it because you become the center of attention in the shop when you are ready to purchase something.  You will have all the shopkeepers fussing over you while they ignore the meandering tourist.  I have a favorite handbag store that I spend quite a bit of time in each visit, even though I usually know exactly which purse I am going to buy at the very beginning.  I enjoy the whole experience and never rush through it.


Should you have to wait in line for anything, be prepared to defend your position with your life and be wary of the side-cutter.  You will be able to pick out all the American and British tourists immediately; they will be the only ones standing in a straight and orderly line.  You will have to let go of your manners in this situation and be assertive.  Look for an opening and take it, if you don’t someone else always will. Make sure you have good eye contact and you are ready with your order/request.  On a visit to Rome, I spent 45 minutes standing in a line for train tickets with someone breathing down my neck…literally.  Every time they would try to sneak up to the side of me they got the elbow.  Not the most comfortable situation, but I stood my ground and felt victorious when I managed to block every attempt thrown at me.  Now, don’t get me started about those sweet old ladies you see around town because they are lethal in the market stalls.


Americans always get stumped when it comes to finding the @ sign.  On an Italian keyboard it is found by pushing the Alt and the key just to the left of the Enter button (this key will have 3 different symbols on it).

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Travel to Italy Tip #8 | Use a consolidator for car rental

Mention renting a car in Italy and most people get shaky and their palms sweat.  Yes, I am always on edge the first day and I don’t ever recommend driving in major cities.   But driving in Italy is my favorite mode of transportation because it offers the ultimate amount of flexibility and allows you to get to those far away-lesser known places, which…..saves you money.  Here is how you should get started.

8. Use a consolidator for car rental

I love working with Autoeurope, they have a website that is simple to use but most importantly they are staffed on the phone.  Someone is available 24/7 with any questions you have and to help with any problems that arise, even when you are in Italy.  I recently visited their website and found all sorts of specials including free GPS rentals.  After I make my reservation, I always watch the price and if I find a rate lower than what I booked for I get them to refund me the difference.

Make sure not to wait until the last minute to book your car.  Ones with the best rates often sell out first and then you are stuck with whatever they have on hand.  You will be charged an extra fee to pick up or drop off at an airport, but I don’t worry about that as the price is usually the amount it would cost you to get to the airport from a city office.

More about car rentals with my next tip.

I love feedback, so leave me comments!

copyright 2014  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

Travel to Italy Tip #7 | Purchase train tickets in country

Italy’s train system can be frustrating to say the least.  Between delays, cancellations and strikes a traveler can lose their cool.  My next tip won’t necessarily save you money outright, but will help hedge your bets when using the trains for transportation on your trip.

7. When possible, purchase your train tickets once in Italy

My people try to get as much taken care of ahead of time before leaving for their vacation.  While I am an avid planner and believe that setting yourself up early is important, train tickets are where I draw the line.  Except for a few exceptions, I discourage people from buying before leaving.  Here is why:

Traveling brings about the unexpected and Italy more so than many places.  Most of the time these unplanned situations are actually positive, but occasionally they can wreak havoc on a trip.  Italian trains are more often than not late, some cancelled altogether.  Strikes are common.  You can actually find out exactly when and where most of the train strikes are as the publish them each month, but prepurchased train tickets usually need to be taken care of before that final list is public.  Insurance must (should) be added to prepurchased tickets to cover these situations.  Also, you never know when you might fall in love with a place or want to change your plans.  With prepaid tickets you lose your flexibility.

There are times I would take advantage of buying ahead.  For example, if I am ever arriving in Rome but need to take the train the next day to another major city I grab my ticket.  Some of my past clients staying in Florence have wanted to day trip to Venice and for simplicity’s sake I have made pre-arrangements.

Instead, I head straight to the train station or a local travel agency once I arrive in Italy and purchase the tickets I need.  For travel between smaller towns (example:  Orvieto)  I just arrive a few minutes before hand and get my ticket from the window or the machine.  That way if I want to linger a bit longer over a meal or am itching to get back earlier I have the flexibility.

Train travel seems overwhelming but is actually quite simple and I will be running a series on my train travel tips in the upcoming weeks.  Check back this week for more tips about car rental, taxis and public transportation.

I love feedback, so leave me comments!

copyright 2012  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

Happiness depends more on inward disposition

italy travel rome inspirational quotes

I’m obsessed with feedback, let me know what you think.

Love it??  Pass it on!

Copyright 2014   Andi Brown,  Once in a Lifetime Travel

Travel to Italy Tip #6 | Travel second class when riding the trains

Now that we have gone through some important big money-saving topics it is time for a few nitty gritty travel tips.  Today I will be talking about train travel with the biggest money-saving rule as Tip #6.

6. Travel second class when riding trains.

Who says there isn’t room in 2nd class?

More than once I have worked with clients who first went through big name travel companies to make travel arrangements and reservations.  They are almost always told to buy first class train tickets.  There is absolutely no better way to waste your money.  First class compartments are a bit roomier and have assigned seating.  That’s it.

The major train connections between big cities have assigned seats whether you choose 1st or 2nd class.  For example, anyone traveling between Florence and Venice will find their seat on the train similar to that of an airline flight.  Why pay more money?  Both classes are heading to the same spot, both have designated seating.

Second class seating might fit more people depending on the style and age of the train you are on.  I have occasionally had to work my way through several cars to find a seat (see my train tips article coming soon) but that has been during peak travel times.  Also, I find I love traveling second class because I have a chance to ride with the locals like a local.  I always bring a make-shift picnic and use the sharing of my food as an ice breaker for meeting others.

If you are a hard-core first class traveler, then by all means feel free to throw your money away.  Just remember that train travel will not be like that on the airlines and don’t expect warmed towels with an aperitif waiting for you.

Check back this week for more tips about train travel, car rental, taxis and public transportation.

I love feedback, so leave me comments!

copyright 2014  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel

Travel to Italy Tip #5 | Support smaller family run businesses

Le marche italy

Now that’s what I call a Bed and Breakfast!

I talked in previous posts about finding a home base and staying there for an extended period of time and also the benefits of traveling to a lesser known area.  Tip #5 brings both of those pieces of advice together to help save you money yet keep your experience amazing.

5. Stay in smaller, family run accommodations

This is something I live by.  I support these places 100%.  Smaller doesn’t mean less, in fact it is usually the opposite.  There is a ton of love put into accommodations run by families and that is reflected in the way guests are treated.  Plus, Italian families are struggling to make ends meet just like us.  I like to know that my money is helping to support them in their passion, not just being funnelled into some big corporation.

Dinner at our agriturismo

So how do you find these places?  I start by looking for Bed & Breakfast’s (B&B’s) and agriturismos.  A B&B normally doesn’t have many rooms and these rooms can occasionally be a part of the owners’ home.  The hosts are more readily available and looking forward to answering your questions, helping with your plans plus giving great advice for the area.  An agriturismo is a working farm that also accommodates guests.  Many of these places have an option for meals in addition to breakfast.  Being on a farm doesn’t mean you are surrounded by barnyards.  Most have beautiful grounds complete with olive groves and vineyards.

I have put together all of my favorite resources here to help you get started.  TripAdvisor is a great site.  Real reviews from real travelers along with average prices to help you with your budget.  Just remember to take everything said with a grain of salt.  Sometimes the happy travelers aren’t always the ones writing the reviews.  I also use SlowTrav as a place to get ideas as their travel philosophy is much like mine.

Find a smaller accommodation and you won’t be sorry.  You may even find you have become a part of their family.

Italy Le Marche

Instant Italian family

I love feedback, leave me comments!

copyright 2014  Andi Brown, Once in a Lifetime Travel


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 417 other followers

%d bloggers like this: