Few countries perpetuate stereotypes like Italy. From the hand gestures to the cuisine, everyone has a perception of this relatively small but exceptionally diverse country. While sometimes benign and sometimes done in jest, you would be mistaken to expect that all regions share these preconceptions.
From the Alpine Alto Adige in the north to the pristine beaches in Puglia, not only do cuisine and culture differ noticeably, but your experience as a tourist will vastly differ. While many of these places may lack the splendor and appeal of Rome, Venice, or Florence, they all have something unique to offer, and many of them lack the throngs of tourists and overpriced tourist traps.
The below tips, detailed by Rory Brown, are for anyone that wants to experience the more authentic side of Italy. If you’re looking for unspoiled landscapes, new cultures, and quality slow food cuisine, these tips will help you get off the beaten path.
Peak summer months can be unbearably hot, especially in southern Italy. The Adriatic coast has countless beaches, differing in quality. Generally, as you go further south, the beaches are of better quality. Sardinia is also a wonderful destination all year round.
If you’re visiting in winter, note that snow is not uncommon, especially in the north. The northern provinces have world-famous skiing in the Alps, as well as bustling Christmas markets selling mulled wine and artisanal goods.
Rural Italy, such as Tuscany and the Marches, has hundreds of small towns and villages that often have their own dialect and regional cuisine. For example, the small hill town of Urbino in the Marches can be visited in a day but contains a world of Renaissance history of its own. From Raphael’s birthplace to the National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino is one example of a small town that offers beauty and charm with relatively few tourists.
You can probably order pizza with pineapple or spaghetti and meatballs in the most touristy areas of Rome, but you’ll be hard pressed to find such items in more authentic locales. While pizza is well-known and readily available in even the smallest of towns, be sure to ask for the regional specialties. Whether it’s wild boar or a simple piadina (pita bread stuffed with typically prosciutto, rocket, and a regional cheese) are local specialties that are surely prepared with care and fresh ingredients.
If you are in one of the more touristy cities, don’t depend too much on Google reviews or recommendations for restaurants. Italian businesses tend to be a little behind other countries in terms of publishing reviews and ratings, and sometimes even the best restaurants are known through word of mouth. The best advice when staying in these cities is to firstly avoid restaurants near the big tourist attractions and secondly to follow your nose and eyes. If a restaurant looks fairly busy and doesn’t have a “tourist menu” advertised outside, you can assume that it will cater to locals and provide good quality food.
If you’re visiting for a longer period of time, taking a language or cooking course can be one of the best ways to integrate and interact with locals. The former can give you a basic grasp of the language, gestures included, which can help empower you when going off the beaten path and interacting with locals. The latter can be a souvenir that you can take home with you and allow you to prepare authentic Italian dishes at home.
An agriturismo is a type of bed and breakfast, typically located in more rural areas. Often your hosts will be able to give you the best tips for things to do near where you’re staying. They also generally accommodate families and pets, which is something that big city hotels often frown upon. Furthermore, as they’re typically located in rural areas, you may find the prices to be much lower than what you’d pay for a small room in a bigger city.
With tourism showing no signs of slowing down, Italy continues to hold its place as the fifth most visited country in the world (e-unwto.org/doi/pdf/10.18111/9789284419876). Its cultural and historic sites are second to none, but there’s so much to see and do outside of the typical tourist hotspots. For those looking for a more authentic experience, Italy surely has something for everyone.
About Rory Brown: After spending the first 40 years of his life in the United States, Rory Brown decided to focus on the quality of life and began living internationally. He now spends his time in Charleston, South Carolina, Sydney, Australia, Lake Como, Italy, and Kauai, Hawaii. His appreciation for simple health food that embraces local traditions of excellence has earned him credit among farm-to-table communities everywhere he goes.
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