Town squares and beaches full of summer vacationers here have gotten me thinking about visiting Italy. No, not for me, for you! If I’d never been to Italy, what would I really want to know before setting off? I’m not thinking about the general guidebook information—when to visit the Vatican, must-see Italian art, car or train transportation—but the insider tips you wish someone shared with you before you made your plans. So many of our friends ask us for advice, so I thought I would share a few thoughts here. Remember that all advice reflects the values, experiences and individual interests of the advice giver, so be sure to gather lots of different viewpoints before you plan your Italian adventure of a lifetime. And seasoned Italophiles please chime in with your own thoughts . . .
First, if you haven’t been to Rome, Florence and Venice, it’s hard to imagine your first trip to Italy without visiting at least one of these iconic cities. In their own unique ways, they represent distinctly different aspects of the Italian persona, not to mention the incredibly rich trove of art, architecture and sheer historical gravitas you expect to find in Italy. So if it’s your first trip, make sure you visit one or all of them. When you do, though, plan at least a few nights in nearby towns that figure less regularly on the typical tourist agenda. Only then will you get a glimpse of Italy as experienced by Italians. If you go to Rome, for example, try to visit nearby Tarquinia, a classic central Italian town with spectacular Etruscan cave paintings. Or head to Bracciano, a lovely town north of Rome on the shores of Lake Bracciano. You won’t run into many tourists in either place, you’ll spend significantly less money and you’ll have an opportunity to observe Italian life outside of the crush of its most touristed cities.
If you’ve experienced the above-mentioned holy trinity, give strong consideration to exploring a region you haven’t visited, one that’s off the beaten track but brimming over with its own, distinct charm. In these regions, you’ll spend less, eat better and deepen your understanding of la dolce vita in ways that are hard to do in the midst of the tourist high season. And try to come to Italy in April, May or very early June or in September and October. Unless you are immune to the effects of high heat and humidity, you’ll see Italy at its best when the weather is more temperate and there are relatively fewer tourists.
One region to consider is Friuli in the top right-hand corner of Italy, with jewels like the Roman city of Aquileia with an incredible mosaic floor in tits basilica—one of the largest in the world. Udine, Friuli’s regional capital, has an elegant central piazza and colonnaded walkways along with great shopping and inviting osterie (restaurant inns). In the southeast corner of Sicily, head for Val di Noto, an extraordinarily rich region filled with exuberant baroque architecture. All but destroyed in a devastating earthquake in 1693, the eight towns of this area have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. And although I am clearly partial, the heel of the Italian boot called Puglia offers stunning natural beauty and perhaps one of the most authentic and genuine cuisines in Italy today. With 400 miles of coastline and the largest production of heirloom wheat, olives and olive oil and wine in Italy, it’s hard to eat a bad meal here. Of particular interest in Puglia is the Salento, the southernmost tip of the boot’s heel, with its capital city, Lecce. Our own Valle d’Itria, with classic towns like Martina Franca, Alberobello and Cisternino, offers UNESCO-protected stone houses called trulli and proximity to world-class beaches as well as the UNESCO-protected, cave-dwelling town of Matera.
While you’re at a distinct disadvantage with a car in all of the major Italian cities, it’s hard to experience real Italian life without one when you venture further afield. If you’re planning to visit, say, Rome, fly there, stay in the center, and reserve a rental car in advance for the day you plan to leave town for the road less traveled. Since its easy to use public transportation to pick up your rental car at one of the agency locations on the outskirts of town, you can avoid navigating through the congestion of inner city traffic. And while you’re at it, get the smallest car you possibly can. If you’re planning to visit small towns, particularly their town centers, you’ll thank yourself for renting a car that’s easy to navigate through narrow streets, not to mention the decided advantage when it comes time to park.
Avoid prix fixe menus everywhere, especially those that have been printed in languages other than Italian. They usually signal restaurants that cater to tourists, not discerning Italian diners, and the quality of their offerings reflects this. Try to find restaurants that are filled with Italians, preferably with menus written only in Italian or without written menus at all. Even if you don’t speak Italian, ask the waiter “Che cosa consiglia?” (Kay COZE-ah con-SEE-lee-ah? What do you advise?). Good waiters and chefs want you to be happy; they know what’s best on their menu and they want to make sure you have a chance to taste it. Check out some of the terrific smartphone apps written by seasoned natives that offer up-to-the-minute guides to lesser known restaurants and bars. In Rome, Florence and Venice, Elizabeth Minchilli has developed excellent guides that will repay you again and again as you search for the perfect dining experience in the larger cities. In Rome, Katie Parla’s app will give you the straight scoop on the food scene there, with a section devoted entirely to artisanal gelato.
You’re not obligated to order an appetizer, first course, second course, etc. Don’t eat anywhere whose waiters insist that you must. In Puglia, it’s very common to order the mixed appetizer (antipasto misto), followed by a first course or a second course, but rarely both. Appetizers in Italy are often extraordinary—a great way to sample small bites of the culinary bounty here. Similarly, skip the appetizer and order a shared first course and your own second course (or vice versa). And if you’re more than two at the table, under order the amount of appetizers, e.g. for three people, order just two portions or “ . . . antipasto per due persone.”
Think twice about renting a villa in the countryside for your entire Italian vacation. While the experience will no doubt be relaxing, you will experience little of the daily elements of Italian life that you came for. Similarly, when you stay in a hotel, you will almost always be served a continental style breakfast. Try skipping it sometimes so that you can order your morning cappuccino and cornetto (morning pastry) at one of the most sacred of Italian institutions, the bar. Bars in Italy are not cocktail lounges, although you could get one there if you want. They’re the lifeblood of every community, where every Italian from every walk of life stops several times a day for refueling. Mingling with townspeople as they chat with one another and tease the barista (barman) is an essential key to understanding contemporary Italian culture.
Consider staying in an apartment or even in someone’s home that is available for vacation rental. Airbnb, an online service that connects travelers with apartments and rooms to rent, is a terrific resource to find these kinds of arrangements all over Italy. In an apartment, you’ll have the opportunity to visit your town’s food market, shop for amazing local delicacies and prepare them at your “home.” If you stay in someone else’s home, you will experience Italian family life in ways that will enrich your time immeasurably. You’ll also spend a great deal less.
Finally, when you visit Rome, Florence, Venice or even Naples and Milan, consider searching out a highly competent guide who works only with small groups. Your experience of these cities and their considerable attractions will be dramatically different if you explore them with someone who can make all that history come alive for you. They’ll also help you avoid the crowds and the lines, steering you through mobs of people to maximize your time. It will be the best money you spend, creating indelible memories long after you’re home. You might also consider including a day or week long focused tour while in Italy, particularly if you have a special interest. Are you interested in learning how to make the phenomenal food you’ve been tasting on your trip? Sign up for a cooking class or culinary tour, perhaps in the middle of your vacation. Want to learn more about olive oil? Participate in the olive harvest and taste heavenly extra virgin olive oil as it drips off the press.
There’s so much more to share, but these are the high points for now. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to dive in, challenge yourself and change your plans when opportunities arise. Some of our best stories—even best friends—have come from spur-of-the-moment invitations. Trust your instincts and open your arms to Italy’s warm embrace.