Recently Travel + Leisure magazine hosted a twitter chat all about traveling in Italy. Hundreds of people joined to reminisce, dream and spread their Italy love, sharing travel tips, hotel secrets and their favorite locations. So I thought, of course, why not me?
Below are my personal answers to the chat’s questions, based on my own experiences, references and what I can realistically share in one paragraph.
OR, if you’re skeptical of my authority on Italy (that is, the authority I arbitrarily bestowed upon myself for your entertainment) *check out the Spotify I made of the best responses from the T+L Chat here.
1) Describe an experience that defines Italy for you.
Besides having my interviewer show up late for a job interview? Or seeing men in suits on razor scooters in subway stations? What about being invited in for a coffee while hiking past a cabin in the mountains? Or hiking back down the mountain drunk off wine?
It’s true that the experiences you imagine for your short visit to Italy are often the quintessential Italian moments: Your first long lunch or dinner in Italy, your first bite of seasonal vegetables, the first time you see the Trevi Fountain in Rome or get lost in the freaking tiny alleyways of Venice. Perhaps overly romantic, these images are often true, but they’re not necessarily my Italian definition.
Perhaps I’d say dinner at my in-laws, language mishaps or the lovely (new) concept that we’re never late anymore! Hiking in the mountains defines Italy for me. Protecting my face from flying oranges in a freak Carnival festival, running in the Park of Monza or being stared at in a restaurant for speaking English. I’ve already mentioned what Italy is to me in the post My Italia, but I’ve found that the experiences that define Italy for me are continuously changing as my relationship with Italy changes.
2) What’s a touristy Italian spot or activity that’s worth the hype?
Honestly? Maybe all of them. Italy has a lot of hype for a good reason and its major cities offer a wealth of things to do, see and experience. I find that it’s usually the heat, crowds or cost that make a popular destination not worth it. Venice in August? I’ll never do it again. Vatican Museums without reserved tickets? Nuh uh.
Instead, come during the off-season, plan ahead and be flexible. If you want to visit the Colosseum check out their night tours for a different perspective. If you want to tour an island try some of the smaller ones nearby, which are often cheaper with a more Italian lifestyle. Just about every church tower I’ve climbed, museum I’ve walked through or sea town I’ve paid too much for has been worth it and while I’m a big advocate of the smaller Italian towns, I think the big five (Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan) are absolute must-sees to get your feet wet in Italy.
3) Any money-saving tips for traveling in Italy?
Italy can be very, very expensive – even for Italians it’s often cheaper to travel outside of Italy!
That being said, there are ways to save money on your Italy trip.
First, don’t eat near the center of the city! I know you’re tired and lost and it looks oh-so-romantic to eat at a café under the Duomo but it’s not worth it! The food will be terrible and over-priced and you’re likely to only be barraged by oncoming tourists and pigeons. Save money by walking the side streets, reading outdoor menus and choosing a lovely trattoria to eat at.
You can also save money by staying slightly outside of the major city, stopping at the market for your lunchtime food and choosing wisely which paid-churches and museums to visit.
4) Pinpoint an undiscovered Italian destination that’s on the rise.
There’s no such thing as an “undiscovered” Italian destination, though I know many that are more or less unknown by non-Italians. My favorite would be the tiny, tiny mountain towns up in the Bergamo Alps, where I pass most of my weekends and have most of my experience. These no-name towns aren’t your typical tourist destinations – they’re hard to reach, far, and don’t offer much for a tourist – but they are cheap, relaxing and a completely different Italian experience.
As for a more realistic location, I’d suggest the entire region of Umbria. Its food is fantastic, sights are abundant and hills are reminiscent of Tuscany but for half the price. Go in August when everyone else flocks to the sea!
5) Name the best restaurant in Italy right now.
I wish I could but one caveat about living in a place is that you actually don’t tend to eat out so often. Money, time and a love of cooking mean that we eat at home 99% of the time. When we do go out, however, we find that our friends suggestions (or even TripAdvisor in an unknown location) is the best qualifier. Also here in Milan and the surrounding area sushi is all the rage. So act like a true Italian and eat sushi!
Vacations! While sometimes it seems that il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) hasn’t reached Milan, at least they still reward all that hard work with a vacation. Growing up in America where vacation time is few and far between and travel often consists of day-trips to nearby lakes (that is, if you’re from Ohio) or long car rides to Florida, I can wholeheartedly get used to the Italian mentality that you should never apologize for a vacation. Life is short!
My second favorite would be espresso, you know, to keep up with all that work.
7) Ah, souvenirs. What’s the one item to buy in Italy and where do you get it?
One of the things that bothers Marco most is to see tourists buying Italian souvenirs in all the wrong places. You know that stand selling “Venetian” masks in Florence? How about Murano glass earrings in Rome? Italy is proud of its traditions and artisan crafts and this includes the location. Try to learn where the things you’re buying are from and go to the source.
Though I travel a lot, I’m not a huge fan of souvenirs. I absolutely hate knickknacks and find that all too often you spend far too much money on a far too useless thing. Instead, I like to buy things from other countries that I can actually use. A leather purse from Tuscany, perfume from Cannes, elephant carved book ends from Accra, Ghana, I’m not afraid to use them because they were bought for that purpose. The true souvenirs are my memories. (Unless, of course, you decide to do as I did and bring back an Italian!)
8) What’s the one must-know Italian phrase for a successful trip?
Grazie! Of course “thank you” is the most useful phrase that you can have while traveling, but I find that in Italy (where not as many people speak English as you’d think) the basic hello, goodbye, please and where is the bathroom (“dov’è il bagno?”) are the best. Besides that it’s personal preference. When I first arrived in Italy as a college student I barely spoke the language and didn’t know anything about cocktails. I solved that problem with a direct “qualcosa forte per favore” or “something strong please!” But now it’s all about food: cibo, vino e dolci!
9) Reveal a hotel that you wish no one else knew about.
Second caveat about living in the country: I’ve actually been to surprisingly few hotels. Still, when we do stay in a hotel we almost always use booking.com and have almost always found amazing hotels at very decent prices. (This is not an endorsement, just the truth.)
I’d add that you should take into consideration the location of your hotel. Italian hotels can add a star just because it’s near to an important landmark. So that two star hotel down the street from the Duomo? It’s actually a one star dump. Of course if that’s your price-range/needs then by all means, go for it, but it’s helpful to know if it’s not.
10) Debunk a myth about travel to Italy.
Though it was said in the travel chat, I’d say one myth is that the food is always good. Perhaps it is while you’re still in the honeymoon phase of Italy, with the greasy, bland American food still on your tastebuds, but hone your tastes and even Italy can serve up lame dishes. For me, Venice is the reoccurring perpetrator of this, overcharging tourists for food that tastes like cardboard. The only way around it is to search out less touristy, more genuine eateries. Hone your eyes like your taste buds and you’ll start to spot the fakes instantly and the hidden gems more readily.
11) Everyone goes to Italy and wants to be an Italian—share a tip for blending in with the locals.
Ha! I wish I knew! I’ve been here over a year, married an Italian and am nearly fluent in the language and I’m still guessing this one!
Still, there are some tricks that can help you get by for a short trip and the tips shared during the chat seemed to be spot on. Don’t order a cappuccino after 11 a.m., don’t wear shorts unless you’re under the age of 20 or, perhaps, a male, and please for the love of God stop scream-talking! (Americans, I’m looking at you!) I understand, I used to be a scream-talker too, but that dirty little habit changed after living here for some time. Not only will you be looked at for the lack of Italian, but how sophisticated can one be after a horse laugh? Not very.
So what about you? What are your answers to these questions? And be sure to check out the Spotify of the Twitter chat for more 140-character tips, tricks and beautiful photos!*
*(Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored by anyone, least of all Travel + Leisure, I just spent a lot of time on the Spotify and want you to check it out!)