​A Beginner’s Guide: How to Get it All in Italy

April 1, 2015 Michael Turtle

On my most recent trip to Italy, I found myself considering something drastic—a ‘paleo diet’. As the latest plate of pizza arrived at my table, not long after the pasta had been cleared, I became one of those people. I was counting my carbs. What’s worse, I needed a calculator.

The thing about Italians is that they rarely do anything half-heartedly. They eat like it’s their last meal, always have time for a drink, and take corners as fast as their extravagant sports cars allow. And it’s always been this way. When you explore Ancient Rome’s ruins or Italy’s more recent religious sites, you quickly realize that Italians take everything to its limit. You won’t find any half measures here.

This is what draws me back to Italy—and why it’s one of Europe’s most popular destinations. For thousands of years, Italy has celebrated its best. While the country’s sheer abundance is likely to strike you at first—portion sizes, baroque details, Byzantine paintings, a cafés on every corner—you’ll learn quickly that where Italy’s concerned, it’s the quality that really sets it apart.

Food—not a simple affair

Italian meals are never simple affairs, except for breakfast (which doesn’t really count; more often than not a coffee and a pastry will get you through the morning). Lunch and dinner, however, are normally multi-course feasts boasting a mix of individual dishes and shared plates.

To the average Italian, lunch is the largest and most important meal of the day—and it usually begins in earnest with a shared antipasti of meat, cheese, and vegetables. The first course (primo) follows and generally consists of be a rice or a pasta dish while the second course (secondo) might be a meat or fish dish.

Photo courtesy Michael Turtle.

Dinner is customarily a bit smaller when home-cooked; however, when dining out the average traveller will have difficulty avoiding multiple courses. I prefer to just order a pizza—it’s always large enough!

While many Western countries think of pizza as something that’s piled high with ingredients, Italian pizzas normally feature less than four toppings. By limiting flavours, one is able to better appreciate the quality of the ingredients. Sorry—you won’t find any Hot Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza™ here.

Wine—a way of life

If you love wine, you're in good company! Each of Italy’s regions pride themselves on their varietals—so it’s worth asking after the local specialty when ordering. The sangiovese is extremely popular among Tuscans, for instance.

With Italian production responsible for about one-third of the world’s wine, you may feel like you’ve sampled most of it before the end of your trip. Italians are not binge drinkers by any measure and drunkenness is generally frowned upon—it’s just that wine is omnipresent.

Photo courtesy Michael Turtle.

Although there will be some quality vintages available at reasonable prices, even the cheap house wines are often better than the stuff to which you’ve grown accustomed! One of things I love about the region’s smaller towns and villages are the shops that sell wine by the litre from a large cask. You can turn up with your own container (or borrow one from the shop) and fill up like a car at a service station.

Historical sites—wonderful treasures

While I expect you’ll be tempted to spend most of your time eating and drinking, you may want to consider some of Italy’s historical sites. But be warned—this country has a lot of them!

For some, it’s tough to pick a place to start—simply walking through the centre of any town or city can quickly become a comprehensive tour of the ages. It feels like every church here is unique and imbued with significance—which is saying something. After all, there are ~1,000 churches in Rome alone.

Photo courtesy Michael Turtle.

Sure, you can expect hordes of tourists at Italy’s most popular sites. After all, they’re popular for a reason—and it’d be a pity to leave without seeing the Colosseum in Rome, the Vatican, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Florence Cathedral, or the Grand Canal in Venice. So be prepared—but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.

Of course, some of the Italy’s most interesting sites are the ones you may never have heard of before. Try exploring some of the many churches, museums, or ruins that happen upon and consider hiring a local guide. You may be pleasantly surprised at some of the wonderful treasures you can uncover!

Art—avoiding museum fatigue

Renowned for some of the finest pieces in the world, Italy is a dream destination for self-styled art historians. Michelangelo, Raphael and the rest of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles™. Botticelli, Caravaggio—and the list goes on.

Any trip through Italy’s highlights will be filled with opportunities to see masterpieces. Much like the country’s churches, however, it’s easy to become museum-fatigued and lose sight of the significance of the pieces you’re viewing.

Photo courtesy Michael Turtle.

Florence is home to more than 50 museums, galleries, and architectural wonders that make it a place one could visit for weeks and still not take all in. You could easily spend a day each in The Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia. Here, it’s important complement the famous works—Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Michelangelo’s David, for example—with lesser-known periods. While you may not recall individual works, knowing more about the overall movement will add to your appreciation of many of Italy’s other historic sights.

Nature—heed the call

Sure, it’s usually grand Roman ruins or world-famous masterpieces that people associate with Italy; however, the country also boasts a fantastic collection of natural sights—from the beaches of Puglia in the south to the dramatic cliffs of Cinque Terra on the west coast and mesmerizing Lake Como in the north.

The great thing is that it’s easy to complement your trip with Italy’s natural beauty. Even driving outside of villages like Tuscany or Umbria will allow you to explore the region’s postcard-worthy countryside. Spending a night in one of the local agriturismos can be a great way to see a different side of Italy. You can be assured there’ll be plenty of food and wine!

Photo courtesy Michael Turtle.

And while most of Italy’s natural attractions might not top the first-timer's list of things to do—you can be sure that the Italians make the most of their country’s wonders. So, in summertime, the most scenic spots can get extremely busy. But that’s how you know it’s good, right?

It's hard to go wrong!

As a traveller, it is hard to go wrong in Italy—the opportunities to eat, drink, relax, learn and explore are everywhere and you’re likely to stumble across things even if you’re not trying. One of the best ways to experience the country is to do as the Italians do. Throw yourself into everything and soak it all up. Take it to the limit!

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