Is there a dreamier travel destination on the planet? A land of fabulous food and wine, creamy-sweet gelato, remarkable history and contemporary culture, breath-taking countryside, villages and cities, and a global hot-spot for design and fashion.
It’s little wonder, really, that nearly 60 million tourists visit Italy every year. Those visitors explore the country in numerous ways—coach tours, walking tours, cycling tours, cruises, self-drives and independent jaunts—wending their way from here to there and everywhere in between.
In recent years, with visitor numbers ever climbing, increasingly vocal local movements have emerged, pushing back against the negative effects of mindless mass tourism. After all, if you can’t get to the shop to buy your groceries because a cruise ship has just disgorged 5,000 camera-carrying tourists at your front door, you might be a bit peeved too. Read more about over-tourism here.
As local legislators try to increase the positive effects of tourism like money flowing into local economies, and decrease the negative effects on local amenity and the daily lives of residents, travellers can minimise the negative impacts of their own visit.
We asked ATAS-accredited travel experts for their top tips on avoiding the crowds in this mega-destination, and how they help their clients enjoy their Italian immersions to the massimo!
Timing your trip
The number-one tip seems to be to travel outside high-season—which is typically the local Summer. Denise Gilfeather, Travel Specialist at ATAS-accredited Spencer Travel in Sydney (NSW), makes an interesting observation: “Summers seem to be getting longer.”
Why is that significant?
Well, Denise recommends that her clients consider travelling April through May, or even at the tail-end of Summer during September and October.
“During these months, the weather can still be beautiful and popular destinations will certainly be less crowded”, Denise advises. She also recommends engaging a local guide.
“A local guide might not you’re first thought when planning your Italian holiday, however it typically guarantees entry to attractions and points of interest, skipping long queues, and hearing stories from a local’s point of view of their own city”, says Denise.
Marienne Guberina from the ATAS-accredited SmartFlyer network of travel experts concurs with Denise’s views on when to visit: Her top tip is to go “just out of season”.
“I find Italian cities best in the cooler months. February is particularly good in places like Rome, Milan and Florence—the temperature is mild and there are few crowds”, says Marienne.
But what if a taste of La Dolce Vita is calling you to Italy’s divine beaches and coastline?
“I would still suggest avoiding the busiest period of July and August”, says Marienne.
“The crowds are at their peak at these times. And August is when Italians take their holidays, so you have an extra layer of busy-ness. The weather can still be warm and beautiful in May and June, and also later in September”, she adds.
Marienne points out other advantages, too: “It really is an in-between time so hotels generally offer good rates to entice travellers to stay with them. Also, I find the restauranteurs and shop keepers are less stressed than in peak visitor season, so the feeling is quite different and service seems more relaxed. It’s also fabulous that many cities are having their sales so it’s perfect time to pick up a bargain.”
Marienne is also a proponent of arranging a local guide.
“I always recommend a local guide when travelling to any new city especially if your time is limited. A great guide can show you the best of a city. If you can afford it, I suggest opting for a private guide – this way your touring can be tailored to suit your interests perfectly”, she says.
Your ATAS-accredited travel consultant will have long-established connections with a range of contacts and tourism suppliers to ensure you find the perfect local guide.
Exploring Italy is relatively easy, with an impressive rail and air networks, as well as good roads for self-drivers. For Denise, exploring by train gets the nod.
“Italy’s high-speed rail between major cities is comprehensive, frequent and very reliable. Rome to Naples in 60 minutes, and Rome to Florence in 80 minutes, makes avoiding airport traffic, queues and security quite appealing”, says Denise.
Marienne agrees, but also sees advantages (and some disadvantages) in renting a car: “Italian trains are great. If you are travelling city-to-city then the train is easy, clean, comfortable and good value. If you’re looking to explore the countryside, then a rental car is a must. This will give the ultimate flexibility. A word of warning, though: Parking can be difficult and expensive in major Italian cities, so it’s best avoided if possible.”
Driving in Italy can test your patience and parking skills. Image: Armando Mancini via Flickr.
Living like a Local
For many, immersing yourself a little more deeply in a place rather than ticking items off a check-list of must-sees, means looking for authentic local experiences. And for Marienne, that’s revolves around food.
“I try not to eat in restaurants that offer an English menu”, says Marienne. “Stick to more authentic restaurants and try to find places that locals would eat. Not only will the food be better but you will probably find it better value” she adds.
Denise describes a wonderful example of local dining: “Le Sirenuse hotel in Positano whisks guests to Nerano Bay in a beautifully renovated, iconic timber ‘Riva’ speedboat for lunch at the beachside restaurants. Sunday is family day at Nerano Bay, so you certainly feel like a local. Plus, there’s no better way to see the coastline than by boat.”
Final expert tips and observations
Staying in Ravello you can’t miss visiting the beautiful Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, the latter a gathering place of the famous English Bloomsbury Set of English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists. There’s an eerie sense that significant events happened there in the early 20th century.
Image: Hotel Villa Cimbrone
Be sure to see what football matches might be on, or any other sports for that matter. It might not be the Cup final but experiencing a local derby like AC Milan vs Inter Milan can be just as exciting. Go for the atmosphere alone!
Consider your itinerary carefully. There are many airports in Italy that service the Australian market. So, instead of thinking you have to buy a return ticket to Rome, for example, consider the big picture: It may be better to fly into one airport and out of another to save on back-tracking.
A little tip on food: The Italians have a happy hour they call Aperitivo. This entails light snacks that are included with the purchase of a drink. It can often be almost a meal!
Cicchetti by the canals in Venice. Image: Monika Ďuríčková via Flickr.
In places like Venice you will see little morsels sold everywhere they are called Cicchetti—the perfect snack on the go.
Italians have their coffee standing at the bar especially in the morning. You will notice mostly tourists sitting and lingering over coffee and there usually a surcharge in restaurants to do this so do as the Italians do and take your coffee quick and standing.
Oh and never have a cappuccino in the afternoon this is definitely a morning drink – if you want to do as the Italians do always espresso in the afternoon!
ATAS accreditation—experience you can trust.
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ATAS travel agents recommend that Australia passport holders register for travel alerts before they travel.