Traveling in Italy: tasting new flavors and feeling like a local
By Thais Linguanotto
“Life is combination of magic and pasta”, Federico Fellini
Years ago, I was in Bath in the UK. Living the tourist experience at its fullest and visiting the area on a
Hop-on/Hop-off bus. We stopped at a park with an iconic white little bridge over a small river. Just
the idea of being there felt like being in Jane Austen’s book scene. It would have. “I’ll do it later”.
When the “later” came there were no buses anymore. I took the train back to London and that little
white bridge just stick to my head as a reminder that experiences may happen only once. Leaving
them for later could mean just never living them.
Solo traveling has frequently been part of my annual breaks for the last fifteen years. And it was in
2012 when I decided to practice of what I had learned in my Italian classes and get on a plane to visit
Italy for two and half weeks, alone.
Just as in any other country, staying with a group at 5-star hotels will definitely be a good idea if you
are trying to relax, visit tourist attractions and go shopping, but may not be the best option if you
want to really see and live a country as it is.
I’m going to tell you what I did in case that could help you have a similar kind of adventure if you
want to. Spoiler alert: you can do that to explore other countries too.
1. Forget fancy hotels
Do you want to know what houses look inside, how they interact with neighbors, what they
have for breakfast and a bit of how they live their lives? You can book a room and stay at a
local’s home with them. In Milan it was at a left-wing graphic artist at the Navigli. In Rome at
the house of a right-wing widow who rented rooms for FAO employees coming from Africa.
Morning and evening talks, hearing people’s stories. Hundreds of life lessons.
2. Spend money on experiences rather than on things
By avoiding the cost of hotels you’ll have more money left to spend on memories: that olive
oil in the Tuscan countryside that tastes like nothing you ever tried before, a concert at La
Scala with so much beauty and history around you, many aperitifs in the many bacari in
Venice, a Michelin start restaurant in Verona, a bottle of an amazing Barolo at the Langhe
region, or a two hour wait to eat the most traditional pizza in Naples (no need to save
money here, it still costs 3,50 euro).
3. Accept invitations
When staying at people’s places it’s normal to receive invitations. My suggestion is: accept
them! My hostess in Milan invited me for dinner with friends. Local cheese, bottles of wine,
laughs. I practiced my Italian, chatted with kids, learned why some of the grown ups had
decided to move abroad eventually. She gave me the contact of a friend who owns a winery
in Montalcino when she heard I was heading to Tuscany, all that just by saying Yes.
4. Prefer trains over cars
You can rent a car and see the countryside of any region, visit wineries and small towns, but
avoid it if you can. The reason is simple, you won’t have to worry about finding where to
park (and paying for it) or getting a ticket for driving in a ZTL by mistake. Train stations in
many countries work differently, some of them are beautiful. You want to know how local
live? Public transportation will definitely be a source of observation.
5. Visit a grand theater where you go (and try to watch a concert if you can)
Some people like museums, others hate them (I’m kind of in between). But if you happen to
be in one major city there will probably be one grand Italian theater: La Scala in Milan, La
Fenice in Venice, San Carlo in Naples, are some of them. Back then theaters were a social
event, visiting them will give you a hint on how society worked.
6. Try and have meals alone
While for some it may seem boring, having a meal alone will give you the chance to observe
what people do, how families behave, do they ask for the bill or just go to the cashier? Is
that couple arguing or is it just the local body language? Waiters also tend to be friendly and
give suggestions on the menu if asked.
Unfortunately, after Covid restaurants are trying to make for the past months’ loss, so if you
are alone avoid busy hours – the level of service will be worthy.
7. TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google can help, but don’t rely solely on them.
We will dedicate at least one article about this topic later on. So just keep it as a suggestion for now.
8. Ask questions, get lost and don’t be afraid of making mistakes
We’ll talk more about that when it comes to restaurants. As for exploring in general, if you
are interacting with local people, ask questions. They probably know that hidden small place
no tourist has heard of. Small classical music concerts take places in churches and are usually
free. Walk around, explore! Don’t know how to get to that villa outside of the city? Ask. You
may want to start with the Tourist point. Be aware of scammers and tourist traps especially
in the most visited areas – they are usually very “helpful people” selling overpriced tickets
outside of official booths.
9. (Always) have a back-up plan
Once you start moving around alone, taking public transportation, and allowing yourself to
get lost, it’s better to always have a plan B. One a day trip to Gubbio I lost the last intercity
bus back to Perugia. The alternative was to get a city bus to the train station, but I didn’t
understand which stop it was. If only my Italian was good enough to differentiate “la prima
fermata” from “la fermata prima” and it would save saved me 2 hours of walk back to the
desired bus stop. I was luckily enough to catch the last train. If not, having a credit card to
sleep somewhere would have been crucial.
10. Learn at least a little bit of the language
Knowing the language didn’t save me from making the mistake I just told you about, but it
did help when trying to interact with people. The basic Buongiorno (good morning),
Buonasera (good evening), “Io non parlo italiano. Lei parla inglese?” (I don’t speak Italian, do
you speak English?), Grazie (Thank you) and Per favore (Please) are useful in any culture.
Once you show a little bit of effort and interest people will be more willing to help you.
Every corner of Italy has its own history, food and traditions. It’s so much to see and no matter how
much time you have here, it will probably never be enough. I hope you enjoy this adventure we are
going to do together for the next 12 months or so. It feels so exciting! I hope that these experiences
will become new ideas for your next holiday break to come =]