Italy boasts more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any country on the planet. Renowned museums and galleries offer access to ancient and contemporary masterworks by the thousands. Rome alone is said to have over 900 noteworthy cathedrals and churches. Yet are these attractions what inspires the dream of Italian travel? Or is the allure more ethereal in nature?
My husband and I first visited 13 years ago armed with a bucket list. We wanted to see everything. That first trip was littered with mistakes: rushing from one city and sight to another, navigating directions and driving in historic town centers, fretting, stressing, and missing the very essence of la dolce vita (‘the good life’, one full of pleasure and indulgence).
During a quintessential multi-course dinner at a wine estate, we took time to breath in the surroundings. We began to notice the unhurried pace, easy smiles, and innate inclination to laughter in almost everyone encountered. “Ah, this is what I dreamed,” Matt said. We decided to slow down and let Italy unfurl at her own delicious pace.
Don’t get me wrong, at times that pace is full speed. Italians talk fast, drive faster, and throw hand gestures with urgency. Yet still they master the art of slow savoring. Taking time to enjoy life’s great pleasures – family, friends, outdoors, food, and wine – is the core of Italian living. This obsession with life’s quality proves irresistible and brings us back, time and again.
Here are a few lessons we have learned while traveling and residing in Italy.
Begin with gusto
The sweetness of Italian life is based on a complex set of rituals, most beautifully demonstrated in food culture. While regional differences are abundant – Italy can seem like a different country moving from north to south – familiar rhythms guide the way.
Italians typically begin the day in a café, standing elbow-to-elbow at the bar with neighbors. It’s a quick affair to enjoy a cappuccino or caffe latte and cornetto and exchange greetings before work. Patience and politeness, along with a buongiorno are your ticket to joining the mix.
While cappuccino may be elemental early, ordering one after mid-morning is considered non si fa cosi (not the “done” thing) as espresso becomes the go-to beverage. Ask an Italian why this is the case and you’ll likely receive a lengthy answer about foamy milk inhibiting digestion. In Italy, digestion is a favorite conversation topic.
Whether enjoyed in a restaurant or home, lunch – referred to as pausa pranzo (lunch break) – ranges from simple soup or pasta to multi-course affair. Keep your eyes open for menu del giornio signs, preferably scribbled in chalk with daily updates. If a restaurant’s menu reads like a manuscript boasting everything from pasta to hamburgers, pizza to hotdogs, keep walking.
Seek sustainability in food and place
The magic of Italian cuisine lies at the intersection of locally-produced, seasonal ingredients and regional recipes. Ask about specialties and opt for simplicity, especially in sauces (butter and sage is a personal favorite).
Inquiries into local wines will reveal grape varieties as unique and diverse as pasta shapes. Your duty as a traveler is to try…everything!
I have to admit a guilty pleasure is gathering cheeses, olives, and pastries for more casual dining.
Florence, Milan, and Rome’s most congested areas are currently cracking down on picnic-loving tourists like us, particularly on church steps, encouraging us to be more mindful of public space. We now aim to “do as locals” more and search for park benches and tables where families gather to eat al fresco.
Set the stage for dinner and digestion
As the sun descends, locals meet for aperitivi. Drinks vary by region with favorites including refreshing Spritz (featuring Aperol for sweetness, Campari for bitter) and spumanti. Light in alcohol, these drinks are believed to stimulate and prepare the digestive system for dinner. Always back to digestion, remember?
Even in casual trattorias, dinner is typically a multi-layered event. Italians prefer all courses selected at once to properly prepare the kitchen, so choose an antipasto, then a primo, usually pasta or gnocchi. Don’t stop there, you’re just getting started. Take a deep breath and order secondo, a second course of meat or fish, and veggies or contorno, then sit back and await the food parade.
No matter how full, never skip dessert. Italians excel in creating delicate cakes and tarts you will likely remember long after the trip ends. Speaking of finishes, expect a round of espresso, followed by typical digestivo like limoncello, essential to break down the meal and ensure proper digestion.
Toast with intention
Even a simple gesture like toasting represents a system of etiquette.
Some say it is bad luck to raise an empty or water-filled glass. Crossing arms to simultaneously toast multiple companions can bring on a tisk, tisk. And, eye contact is essential to the success of your clink.
Whether you believe in superstition, the result is being intentional in saluting each individual companion, a good ritual in any culture.
Shop on time and in season
Remember pausa pranzo? I still often forget and arrive at the post office or bank squarely at 1pm. Avoid disappointment by running errands and shopping in the morning or late afternoon and expect most businesses to be shuttered, roughly 1–4 pm.
Specification is part of the magic of shopping here. There’s a specialty shop for everything, with knowledgeable proprietors usually happy to offer guidance. Buy cheese from a cheese store. Bread from a bakery. And, wine from a wine shop, or better yet, winery.
After shopping in Italy, it’s impossible to think about “big box/everything under the sun” stores quite the same way. Remember to think seasonally. If you don’t spot mushrooms, it’s not mushroom season. Same goes for cherries, strawberries, etc.
Always follow local lead, except on the highway
Italian culture is famously social. Greetings can be profuse and animated. Goodbyes are often lengthy. And, every moment in between is loaded with emotion and meaning.
Allow your host to initiate a handshake or cheek kiss. Observe how Italians greet each other and follow suit, when appropriate. Learn key phrases in Italian. A simple buongiorno in the morning and buonasera come early evening can swing wide open the door to friendship and immersion.
And, remember, driving, navigating, and parking in Italy are not for the faint of heart, so skip the rental. No place is the essence of la dolce vita more deeply revealed than when watching countryside and cityscape roll by from the window of your comfortable, efficient, and affordable seat aboard an Italian train.
Looking for a non-touristy trip through Italy? These guides will help you out:
-How to do Cinque Terre justice (without any crowds!)
-6 cities in Italy to visit before everyone else
-An insider’s guide to visiting Venice like a local
Sold? You should be. Check out our range of small group adventures in timeless, beautiful Italy.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Jessica Simpson, Jessica Simpson, iStock/nicolamargaret, Jessica Simpson, Jessica Simpson, Jessica Simpson, Intrepid Travel, Jessica Simpson)