Looking for a travel guide to Italy – the land of pasta, cheese, and good-looking people? I brought in a local to give us the low-down and share all her best Italian travel tips: where to go, what to do, what to eat, and how to do it all cheaply!
With those 100 interviews, as well as my own extensive travels through Italy (I just got back from my 5th trip, to the foodie-heaven of Emilia Romagna), I learn more about and fall more in love with Italy all the time.
Must Go in Italy
Locals call these colorful cliffside towns “the land between sea and sky,” which is both poetic and true. The towns are vibrant, colorful, and gorgeous—and are surrounded in endless sea and sky. When you visit, make sure to walk the path between the five towns and, if you want an unusual view, rent a kayak in Monterosso and kayak away from the beach and toward the cliffs.
Surrounded by hills in Umbria (Tuscany’s lesser-known, less-expensive, and just-as-pretty neighbor), Assisi is a great place for a hilly hike, a visit to the famous church of St. Francis, and a stroll through one of Italy’s most charming city centers.
Both these places (and Italy in general) get crowded in summer, so go at the beginning or end of the tourist season if you can (when everything is open, but you won’t get trampled by other visitors).
Must Do in Italy
Shop at a local market
Food is very, very important to Italians. So, shopping at one of the local, fresh markets is a great way to mingle with the locals, dig into the day-to-day culture, practice your Italian, and enjoy the fresh goods that each farmer or seller takes such pride in.
If possible, do a little research before you go to know both what’s in season and what the region is known for (for example, Vignola is known for its sweet black cherries and the Amalfi Coast is all about lemons).
Attend the opera…in an ancient, still-functioning coliseum
In Verona—the town where Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet—you’ll find one of the largest functioning coliseums. Here, you can see the Italian opera in all its glory, all while taking in the vastness and history of the coliseum.
Take a food tour or cooking class
Italy is all about food. To really get under the skin of the culture, you can’t do better than a small, local food tour or a cooking class led by an Italian momma.
Must Eat in Italy
Italian food is extremely regional (and often seasonal), so the best thing to do is ask for the regional or city specialties that are currently in season.
As a start, here are three top picks:
Pizza in Naples (anytime)
Even 10 kilometers outside Naples, pizza is different, so if you want to try the real deal, try it in the city center. One of the most popular restaurants for locals? Da Michele
Artichokes in Rome (spring)
There are two famous styles of artichokes in Rome: the Jewish-style carciofi alla giudia (whole artichokes flattened and fried), which are (not surprisingly) at their best in the Jewish ghetto, and the Roman-style carciofi romaneschi (soft and stuffed with breadcrumbs, mint, and garlic). Both are Roman classics and worth a try.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in Emilia Romagna (anytime)
This world-famous cheese is at its best in its original home of Parma and the surrounding area. For a real foodie experience, try the parmiggiano at various ages (a cheese aged 30 months tastes different than the average two-year-old cheese).
Cultural Tips in Italy
Never order a cappuccino after lunch or with a pizza
Italians believe that a milky beverage interferes with digestion and should only be consumed early in the day. So if you’re craving coffee after you’re meal, do as the Italians do and throw back an espresso.
Italians take pride in their appearance, so you’ll notice that the locals tend to wear dresses, skirts, nice pants, and/or fashionable outfits. If you want to fit in, think fashionable and business casual.
Travel on the Cheap
Travel during the off season. You’ll find deals on apartments, lower prices for attractions, and sales in the shops—and you’ll beat the crowds and the often-oppressive summer heat.
Go someplace you haven’t heard of. Everyone hits Rome, Florence, Venice, and Tuscany. And while all those places are wonderful, so are the foodie paradise of Emilia Romagna
, the hill country of Umbria, and the cheerful, friendly south. Because these places aren’t as well known, they’re also often cheaper.