It is inevitable and unavoidable – first-timers going to Italy want and need to hit the big sites and cities, such as Rome, Florence, Venice, and Pompeii. And rightfully so; you can’t afford to miss these hot spots on your first (and for many, only) Italian vacation. However, without proper planning or knowledge of the areas, an itinerary full of museums, churches and monuments can make the vacation become more of one big museum without an authentic glimpse into today’s vivacious Italian culture. We recommend using our Italian travel experts to help you plan from start to finish, but for the do-it-yourselfers who might not be interested in working with a specialist to plan a full customized itinerary, we’ve got five simple planning tweaks that anyone can make to a DIY itinerary to ensure a full, authentic Italian experience.
1. Talk to Locals
Whether it be the guy serving coffee at the local bar or your cab driver, start up a conversation with a simple how are you or how is your day going and go from there. Odds are, if you’re in a big city, the person will speak English well enough to carry on for good while. If not, it’s never a bad idea to revert back to the tried and true Italian method of speaking with your hands. As an added bonus to boost your conversation, throw in a word of two of Italian – brush up on your study of the Italian language or practice your pronunciation before heading out to the Boot – and win their hearts. Italians are very receptive and appreciative of people who try to learn their language.
2. Schedule a Private Winery Visit or Cooking Class
Italian cuisine is Italian culture; it is something that Italians are fiercely proud of and which is very close to their heart. Sharing the local cuisine and wine is the pinnacle of Italian hospitality, and a private winery visit or private cooking class is the opposite of the factory-like wineries sometimes found in Napa: it is being a guest in someone’s home. Tours of the vines, cellars, and tastings do not only include the technical details of tannins, acids, and flavors. They also include stories of the family, sharing of the history of the area, and real life experience of the Italian culture, both past and present. A winery visit or private cooking class is the perfect place for those who do not have the luxury of friends and family in Italy to experience the authentic, daily culture of Italian cuisine.
Helpful hint: wineries are not located in the big cities, however, they are located near the big cities. Your options for reaching these range from a taxi (for very nearby wineries), to a private transfer, included in many of Select Italy’s winery visits, to renting a car for a day.
3. Schedule Downtime
This point may sound obvious, but when you’ve only got ten days and a whole country packed with history, culture, enogastronomy, and beautiful natural landscapes, you might be tempted to fill all of your days with museum tickets, tours, and appointments. If possible, take one of those busy days in Rome and leave it wide open to wander the streets, listen and observe the people, and just let yourself enjoy the culture.
Helpful hint: do this on day two or three, after you’ve had a chance to familiarize yourself with your destination. On the first two days, make physical or mental notes of places you want to explore without agenda (be it that hidden Roman synagogue or the tiny cafe stuffed to the brim with Italians). Then on the third day, wander towards these places, letting yourself get lost along the way.
4. Ask for Recommendations
Two of the worst inauthentic experiences a traveler can have are at super touristy restaurants (spaghetti-o sauce with overcooked noodles instead of the true bucatini all’amatriciana is a sin!!!) or kitschy souvenir stores (you know, the ones with the tiny Miniature “The David”s and the abroad student in Rome’s favorite, the Popener?). We suggest doing your research before you heading to Italy by asking our experts when booking your trip (our custom itineraries include a whole section of these in the package!) or using our convenient Tips for Travelers tool, which allows you to search for restaurants, festivals, and things to do all over Italy. Otherwise, ask your concierge, taxi driver, guide, or barista where it is that you can get the best meal or find the most authentic ceramics.
Sure, the 2000 year old monuments are pretty cool, but they aren’t alive and can get dull if they make up the composition of your entire vacation. The trick is mixing in the present Italian culture with the ancient history, and festivals are a perfect solution to doing so. Italy has tons of festivals throughout the year, from the Chianti Classico Expo in Greve in Chianti to the many outdoor operas held around the country to festivals celebrating artisans. Many of these are listed on city or comune websites, and some are listed on our Tips for Travelers, too!
Helpful Hint: As a very loose rule, music festivals usually take place during the summer, whereas wine and harvest festivals can be found throughout the fall. Winter holiday festivals can be found in the winter and fruit/vegetable festivals can be found in the spring. Artisan festivals are held throughout the year!
How do you make sure you get an authentic Italian vacation?