The Insider’s Guide: 5 Ways to Get to Know the Real Italy

The guidebooks are clear on what to do in tourist Italy: visit the Colosseum in Rome, ride a gondola in Venice, and eat a pizza in Naples. But if you want to get to know the real Italy, try these five strategies.

Take a side street.

Know why all the famous sites of Italy are so crowded? Because that’s where all the tourists go. Then they descend on all the nearby shops and restaurants to pay outrageous prices for trinkets and grub that no self-respecting Italian would ever touch.

But take a side street and you’ll discover places that the locals visit where the food is cheaper and the surroundings more authentic. The cup of espresso that cost 15 on St. Mark’s Square in Venice tastes so much better at 1.50 in some no-name cafe. And you get to drink it standing up like a real Venetian.

Go slow.

If it’s Monday, it must be Milan. Or maybe it’s Matera? How will you really know if you’re hell-bent on seeing the entire country in seven days? More importantly, if you’re just running from site to site for photo ops to post on Instagram, how will you tell the difference among locations?

It’s better to slow down and focus on one location. You’ll start noticing the details and get a better feel of what real life is like for the locals who live there. Who knows, they may even call you by name and invite you in for some wine once they see that you’re a constant presence.

Get on a train.

Know how Italians go from Rome to Milan? They get on a train. If you follow their example, you’ll be rubbing elbows with the natives and seeing the beautiful countryside pass by you. Taking the train is comfortable, inexpensive, and fast. That trip between Rome and Milan? On the high-speed La Frecce, it takes under three hours.

Learn the language.

It’s lovely to say and even more beautiful to sing: the Italian language. And it’s what they speak in the boot-shaped peninsula. Knowing the local dialect will give you insights into how the people of Italy think, feel, and see the world. Plus it shows the person you’re speaking to that you care about his or her culture and country.

There’s no shortage of ways to learn: online courses, smartphone apps, desktop programs, and even live language classes. And your Italian adventure visit begins, not when you set foot in the country, but when you learn how to say buon giorno.

Eat a gelato.

Gelato fills the stomach when you’re hungry and cools the body when it’s hot. This Italian version of ice cream differs by area. In Florence, the mix calls for more eggs. In Southern Italy, there’s more sugar. And flavors vary by area: try pinolata (pine nuts) in Florence, torrone (nougat candy with honey and nuts) in the Amalfi Coast, and gelso (mulberry) in Puglia.

For the most authentic flavors, look for gelato that is house-made (fatto in casa) and has subdued colors. Varieties made from true bananas, for example, are always gray and never bright yellow.