I was having a conversation with a potential client the other day who is in the early stages of planning a first trip to Italy. Since he is Italian-American, he wanted it to be an authentic experience. As we were talking about possible spots to put on his itinerary, he stated he was thinking of avoiding places like Rome and Florence because they had become too Americanized.
While the authentic experience part was music to my ears, because that’s what I’m all about, it also broke my heart just a bit to think someone would avoid places that have rich history, art and wonderful food, just because they get a bad wrap.
I think it would be a shame to travel all the way to Italy for the first time and perhaps not see the Colosseum or miss out on some wonderful art in Florence.
Don’t get me wrong, if you aren’t interested in ruins or art, and instead choose Tuscany in favor of food, wine and stunning views – that’s perfectly fine. It’s important to pick places that appeal to you for the right reasons. But to avoid some otherwise lovely, interesting cities simply because of American influence seems a shame to me.
I don’t think the place should determine whether you have an authentic experience – I think it’s what you do and how you choose to spend your time in that place that matters.
It got me thinking of ways to have an authentic experience no matter what large city you may visit. Here are 10 tips to make it happen.
1. Don’t avoid the tourist attractions, but do your research and pick a less crowded time to visit. Obviously, an off-season trip will translate to fewer crowds. When planning your days, break them up by alternating a tourist attraction with something more low-key and/or far removed. Spread it out so you get a bit of local flavor in between visits to things that might be more Americanized or crowded. This way you get the best of both worlds.
2. Before you leave, make it a point to find out what the locals love to do in the areas you’re planning on going. And go do it!
3. Spend time with a local guide, whether it be to see a historic site, museum or just for a general tour around the area. Native guides will know stories that others won’t. They bring a place to life and they can regale stories of the past and will also be a font of knowledge for lesser, local known spots to visit or dine.
4. Get out of the city. Take a day trip to a lesser-known spot a short car or train ride away. Perhaps not the one that’s the most popular with other visitors.
5. Opt for accommodations with local charm, preferably in a neighborhood far enough removed from the city center – but within easy access of things you’d like to see. Avoid big chain hotels and stay in something smaller, run by locals. A B&B, an apartment or maybe even a room in a home with a family are all good bets.
6. When eating out – try to avoid the city center. There are exceptions, but at the very least, avoid places that have a ‘tourist menu’ or have staff heckling you to enter. Try to eat what and where the locals eat. Don’t seek out spots that proudly list spaghetti and meatballs or fettucine alfredo on their menus, which are Italian-American creations.
7. Speak the local language when you can. It will automatically make you feel like you’re far from home.
8. If you’re a shopper – stay away from the big brands you can easily find at home. Instead – seek out family owned shops, artisan workshops and smaller boutiques. Not only will you be shopping with residents, but you’ll often get a peek into time-honored traditions and find one-of-a-kind items.
9. Skip the taxis. Walk or take public transport. Nothing makes you feel more like a local than being sandwiched in with neighborhood folk on the bus or metro during rush hour.
10. Take the time to just stroll around a local neighborhood and pay special attention to what’s happening around you. This is what’s known as soaking in the atmosphere. Catch a glimpse of the people on their cell-phones, the shop owner who is sweeping in front of his shop, the man in the photo above just painting his shutters, the locals attending mass in a beautiful church. That is where you’ll find the real Italy.
How do you ensure you have an authentic experience when you travel?
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