A few months ago in May 2016, I travelled to Italy for the first time. While I usually keep my out of Melbourne travels outside of my blogging for Melbourne Darling, this was a very special trip for me and I was just so overcome by the beauty of Italy I just wanted to share all of my favourite places, travel tips and local treasures for those who may also be interested in some of the same places I went to and things I did.
While I love being a tourist and seeing all the popular, iconic and unmissable sights, when I travel I also like to go beyond the typical tourist experience and really seek out the local treasures and seek out recommendations on things to do and visit from those ‘in-the-know’. I always find it extremely beneficial to speak to locals (taxi drivers, store and restaurant owners, waiters, store employees etc.) to get the best, most authentic advice as what I’ve found is that these unexpected places found end up being the most memorable.
The series of posts on Italy I will feature are by no means a comprehensive guide and won’t cover any of the main activities or sightseeing but just a selection of some of my most handy tips and favourite places I found along my trip mostly by chance or through recommendations by locals I met along the way, places you may not necessarily find on Tripadvisor or from a hotel or travel guide. Here is my personal favourite collection of the places (mostly food related) I would recommend to my friends and family based on my experience that I’d like to pass on from one Melbourian to the next!
First I’d like to start off with some great general advice on being a tourist in Italy:
Rules for picking a good restaurant:
I never went to any really expensive restaurants, I always tried looking for the best value local finds serving the best quality food. One quick way to gauge the freshness and quality of ingredients of a restaurant in Italy is a quick look at their menus. Many of the local home cooking style Italian restaurants had the least well designed menus. Usually a one or two page sheet of paper, nothing fancy. This is because many of the popular restaurants that take in a high rate of customers and go through a high turnover of fresh ingredients update their menu very frequently, sometimes even on a weekly or daily basis. This is because they plan their menu around seasonal produce and the best quality seasonal produce that they selected, which may vary day to day to feature the dishes according to the best produce they have available to use. You will usually find these great restaurants off the beaten track, sometimes down side streets or closer to residential areas as opposed to near the popular tourist landmarks, so sometimes it is worth the extra walk or wandering around to find a great place (just don’t start heading down when your hangry, keep your Google maps on hand and stay safe!)
Also keep an eye out for the restaurant’s specialties as we found some restaurants which were fantastic at pizzas made very average pasta or vice versa. Likewise a little knowledge on what vegetables or seafood and types of meats are local and done well in particular areas which could save you the difference between picking a very average meal over a delicious specialty of the restaurant you are dining at.
We were also told the following 3 rules of what to avoid when choosing a restaurant in Italy from our lovely tour guide through La Bussola free tours of Venice:
- Johnny Gels – These are the slick haired men standing outside the restaurants calling out to passersby in an attempt to persuade them to dine at the restaurant they work for. The good restaurants are usually so busy they don’t need to employ such people to try and entice passersby to walk in.
- Extensive menus that come in four languages or more – Nothing yells out tourist trap more than a restaurant that chooses to translate their menu in every language to cater for all the tourists. It is rare that you will find locals and authentic Italian food at a place that caters for tourists so heavily. These places are unsurprisingly directly nearby the top tourist landmarks.
- Photos of food from the menu – Similar to the above point, because when things are in Italian and tourists aren’t sure how to order or what they are ordering, what better way than to just slap photos of the food everywhere so tourists can simply point to the dish they like the look of. Then don’t be surprised when you see the dish that arrives in front of you does not look as perfect as it appeared in the photo.
My recommendation for tourists who want to eat more authentic Italian and local food is to ask the waiters what the specialty of the region is or what the most popular dishes at that restaurant are. I also found that having a phone nearby to translate some of the ingredients or dishes is sometimes easier and quicker than asking a waiter to explain if your Italian is not so great.
Tips for picking tours:
Most big museums offer free admission on the last Sunday of the month which is a good option if you want to visit on the cheap however, if you are not bothered by the entry fee, avoid visiting on weekends or this day when you can expect the biggest crowds.
Many tours offer ‘skip the line’ options. This is a worthy option to consider, especially if you are travelling in peak season to not waste valuable time in your tour simply lining up most of the time.
Using public toilets:
Using the toilet facilities – some places will charge you to use the bathroom. The cheapest way to get around this and use the toilets is to go into a café and if you don’t necessarily want to purchase any other drink, order an espresso /short black to stand (not sit!) which should cost on average 1 Euro (too much higher above 1 Euro and you know you’re being ripped off). Hopefully many of the Melbournians reading this have embraced our cities coffee culture and won’t have a problem adding one or more espressos to their day, so worst case if you have a small bladder you may find yourself with a caffeine buzz. On the other hand, the extra pep in your step might just be beneficial for all the walking that’s needed in travelling around, particularly in Rome and Venice!
Here is the list of some of my favourite places I visited:
Via Cola Di Rienzo, 200, Rome, Italy
Stop for a glass of wine and a panino at this wonderful deli packed to the brim with breads, cured meats and antipasto treats. Via Cola Di Rienzo is also a great street to stroll down on your way to the Vatican City or Castel Sant’Angelo.
Hedera Sweetness & Co.
Borgo Pio 179, 00193 Rome, Italy
Very cute store interior serving up wonderful gelato and granitas using premium organic ingredients.
Staying near the Colosseum?
Via Nazionale, 72, 00184 Roma, Italy
An extremely handy café serving up everything from coffee to gelato to wine and sandwiches and a big collection of packaged sweets to eat now or bring back home from your travels. Good for a quick snack stop whether you need a coffee, a coffee crema (YES YOU DO) a pastry, sweets, wine, a sandwich or a gelato.
Vicolo delle Carrette, 14 / Via Madonna dei Monti, 95
Good for a cheap and quick bite of woodfire pizza and wine.
Ristorante Al Boschetto
Via del Boschetto 30
Cute, warm and cosy ambience like your stepping into an Italian family’s home. Great pasta dishes. Fresh seasonal produce, particularly mushrooms and artichokes. Generous portions, wholesome, comfort food.
This street – Ristorante Al Boschetto is filled with many good restaurants.
Via dei Capocci, 4, 00184 Roma, Italy
I didn’t actually get a chance to try this place as both times I went there they were full! But I heard a few locals recommending this place.
I also heard there are a number of good restaurants and bars in the area of Trastevere if you are up for the walk across the River Tiber which is a less touristy area of Rome where more locals, students and workers reside.
One of my favourite viewpoints of Rome is the Garden of Oranges / ‘giardino degli aranci’ a walk up stairs from the Forum, where you can see a breathtaking view of many major historical landmarks and a beautiful lookout that captures the heart of Rome.
Herzel De Bach
123, Babuino street
2, Propaganda street
00187 Rome, Italy
Herzel I snow officially my favourite shoe designer. Shoe lovers, fashionistas and design aficionados must visit at least one, if not both stores of this amazing local shoe designer. With only 2 stores in Rome, the care, craft and thought that has gone into the design and production of these impressively flattering (and comfortable) stylishly handmade shoes that are just as exquisite and impactful as the eye-catching store display they are carefully encased in.