When visiting Italy, you have two options on how to experience it: dance along the sparkling façade of easily accessible tourism activities and “bucket list” experiences – or – allowing your curiosity and patience to chisel away at that hard outer shell of the country and immersing with the locals – who, contrary to what many westernized visitors and expats say, are warm-hearted and eager to show you their way of life…if only you convey your appreciation and genuine curiosity for it.
To understand Italy is a lifelong affair and endeavor of the heart. For anyone who loves this country as much as I do, they know it’s a never-ending romance of experiencing new learning curves, and no matter how many years you spend there, there is somehow always more delectable Italian culture to discover.
These are the 10 lessons I want to lend to anyone visiting Italy for a more authentic experience…because the best trips to Italy are the ones that read like chapters to your best and most transformative travel experiences.
Breakfast is all about coffee and sweets
Avoid the “tourist menu” breakfast spots in the major cities and embrace the Italian way of breakfast…either an espresso or cappuccino paired with a brioche or local pastry (every town has them). Avoid cafés (usually geared toward tourists) – Italians head to a local Pasticceria or Bar in the morning. I love my brioche with apricot marmalade or cream.
No cappuccino after 11AM
This was one of the first rules I learned from my Italian family about the surest way to spot a local from a tourist – you won’t find an Italian drinking the famous coffee concoction after 11AM because Italians don’t consider it good for digestion past the late morning hour (espresso only).
Fact: Cappuccio means “hood” in Italian, and the name of this globally beloved coffee concoction was actually inspired by the long brown hoods of Franciscan monks in the early 16th century.
Greet like an Italian, kiss on both cheeks
This is a habit I still struggle to switch into when traveling between the U.S. and Italy and my lack of coordination always leads me to fumbling through it, but it’s an imperative if you want interact with your close Italian friends under the norms of their own culture. Lean to the left and allow them to kiss your right cheek first, and then switch.
To nail this ritual, simply remember this slightly edited Beyonce lyric: to the left to the left…to greet like an Italian, lean to the left.
Don’t visit during the peak of summer
Sifting through the crowds of tourists makes it often challenging to gain a grasp of local Italian life. Avoid of the high-season summer months and book your trip between September and early May – I find these times are measurably less busy and it’s easier to customize your trip with more vendors, venues and tourism opportunities being available to book.
Hire a private local guide
While group tours are a fantastic way to create an internal compass for a destination, the most in-depth cultural experiences are often had by hiring a local to show you a city (and they often share all the secrets, facts, tales their family handed down to them – and their family’s local wine).
Aperitivo is a way of life…
The Italian aperitivo is not only a ritual, it’s a post-work event the embodies the art of living a well-enjoyed Italian life. Locals gather in their favorite restaurants, beach clubs and rooftops and indulge in their cocktail of choice (Aperol Spritz or Limoncello Spritz, my picks), chat with company and snack on an assortments of chips, nuts or finger sandwiches. This pre-dinner ritual can stretch from 6PM to 9PM, followed by a light dinner.
Rent a car and stay in a small town
The only way to discover Italy off the beaten track is to skip trains, planes and public transit and drive through the endless string of Italian villages nestled in the valleys, mountainsides and along the coastlines. If you are craving an even more true experience, rent an Airbnb or short-term apartment to immerse yourself with the locals outside the tourist zones. When I was in Cinque Terre, I opted to stay in a tiny village called Santo Stefano di Magra.
Learn a few useful phrases before you go
Italians appreciate the small effort of foreigners to embrace their way of life, especially when it comes to their language. Experiencing Italy without the context of understanding the basics of its language is like eating a pizza and skipping the crust (the best part). There are endless vats of knowledge, culture and history to be found in depths of the Italian language and more to be noticed when you have a basic grip on the harmony of their communication.
Read novels based in Italy before embarking on your journey
Another way to add context to the Italian lifestyle is by devouring novels set in the destinations your visiting. From Rome to Cinque Terre, there is a novel that will inspire wanderlust and contextual understanding for a destination in deeper ways than Pinterest or perusing travel guides ever will. A preview of my favorite books based in Italy:
Step outside your comfort zone
Like with any travel experience, you’ll only approach the warm and rich authentic center of it if you allow yourself to step away from your ideas of how a culture should function. From shopping and traffic to real estate and the concept of time, Italy is a romantic and a completely unpredictable culture (unlike our carefully manicured westernized cultures)…but those plethora of quirks speak volumes on the vibrant cultural makeup of Italy. Enjoy it, soak it up and ride the waves of local travel experiences.