One of the most visited European countries, Italy attracts millions of tourists fascinated by the antique ruins, Renaissance art, coastal scenery, and the amazing food and wine. This has caused hotspots like Rome, Venice, and the Cinque Terre to face overcrowding and even come up with measures to limit visitor numbers. Understandably, much of the country’s authentic charm is lost when swamped with tourist hordes, so here are some tips on how to escape the crowds in Italy this year.
Choose wisely WHEN to visit!
Between June and September, the weather is hot, often humid, and with no guaranteed shade or air-conditioning. Another reason why these months are better avoided is that popular destinations like Rome, Venice, and Florence are at their busiest with day-trippers on bus tours and cruise ship shore excursions. In August, when Italians take their summer vacations, some cities may feel less crowded, but the countryside and the coast would be even more so. Also, some authentic local restaurants and shops may be closed in August, leaving you with only the more touristy alternatives.
Shoulder seasons, when temperatures are milder, the locals friendlier, and the food at its best, are a great time to avoid the crowds in Italy. Lately, this increasingly means March – April and October – November as May and September have gradually turned into full-blown peak season months. This being said, Italy’s hotspots are not completely devoid of tourists even in low season and major events and holidays like Carnevale and Easter draw plenty of visitors, both Italian and foreign.
To avoid the crowds in Italy, plan WHERE to go depending on the season!
Whenever travel dates are flexible, my advice would be to save the big ones (Rome, Venice, Florence, the Cinque Terre…) for the shoulder or low seasons and embrace some not less-charming, but less-touristy spots in the summer. If being trapped on Venice’s bridges or herded like cattle through the museums of the Vatican or Florence is not your idea of fun, here are some alternatives to help you escape the summer crowds in Italy!
- Skip Rome and head to Ostia Antica or Verona instead!
Laying at the mouth (‘Ostia’ in Latin) of the Tiber, Ostia Antica was once Rome’s main commercial and naval port. Later, silt led to its decline but also helped preserving the architecture of this once bustling town. As ancient Romans once did, you can stroll the main street paved with basalt stone and lined with antique structures – from public baths to taverns and from an amphitheater to apartment buildings several stories high. The Roman Ostia also had a synagogue – one of the oldest in the world.
Alternatively, Verona has magnificent ancient ruins which are second only to Rome’s, including a well-preserved amphitheater – Arena di Verona, where open-air opera performances are held. It also has plenty of medieval architecture to enjoy – fine palaces, piazzas, ornate churches, and a fortified bridge across the river. Do yourself a favor and skip the tourist trap called ‘Juliet’s house’! Shakespeare’s character was not based on a real person, the house has no relation to the story, and the famous balcony was only added in the 20th century. Though Verona can be quite busy, it does not feel quite as touristy as Rome or nearby Venice.
- Instead of Venice, try Treviso or Ravenna!
For an underrated and pocket-size alternative to Venice, Treviso is just 25 miles to the north. Its historic center is a little walled city with medieval gates, narrow cobbled streets, Renaissance squares, pretty canals, Roman villas, and a covered fish market occupying its own little island. All this with no selfie-stick-wielding crowds, overpriced food & souvenirs, and other such ‘joys’ of mass tourism.
Ravenna is another option to avoid some of the worst tourist crowds in Italy. Just over 2 hours’ drive from Venice (and about the same from Florence), it was for a while the capital of the Western Roman Empire and is known for the Byzantine art and architecture, arguably the best outside of Istanbul (the former Constantinople). Eight of the town’s early-Christian buildings are protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites for the wonderfully well-preserved mosaics on their floors and walls.
- Florence in the summer? Better give Urbino or Parma a go!
Florence is known as the ‘Cradle of the Renaissance’, but Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance palace is in Urbino – roughly 3 hours’ drive east. Overlooking the walled medieval city, the Palazzo Ducale was built for a local ruler – Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who recruited the leading artists and architects of the time to create this turreted masterpiece. The palace now houses the National Gallery of the Marche which has paintings by Titian and Raphael. Also in Urbino is the 15th-century house where the city’s most famous son – the famous Renaissance painter Raffaello (Raphael) was born and spent his youth.
Parma is of course the home of the Parmesan cheese and the Parma ham, but also a town with history going back to the ancient Romans. Don’t miss the main square and the cathedral the cupola of which holds Correggio’s fresco masterpiece – Assumption of the Virgin, as well as the gorgeous baptistery made of pink marble. The vast Palazzo della Pilotta holds a prized collection of Baroque paintings by the likes of Canaletto, Correggio, Leonardo da Vinci, and Tintoretto, a Baroque theater, and an archaeological museum. Don’t forget the food; Parma was not chosen a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy for nothing!
- Give Cinque Terre a miss and give Portovenere or Ponza a chance!
Now that the five cliff-hugging villages of the Cinque Terre have been ruined by millions of day-trippers, those seeking charming seaside Italian towns will find Portovenere just to the south a more suitable option. Not unlike a sixth Cinque Terre village, but luckily with no railway access, it has it all – the nearby Palmaria Island dotted with beaches and coves, medieval churches with splendid views, the Castello Doria – a centuries-old clifftop fortress, and a national park crisscrossed by scenic hiking trails.
Alternatively, escape the worst of the summer crowds in Italy by discovering Ponza – a pretty island in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples you have probably never heard of. Popular in the summer with vacationing Romans but with few foreign visitors, it has something for everyone – crystal-clear water, secluded beaches and grottoes, a picturesque harbor lined by brightly-colored houses, shops, bars, and restaurants, amazing food (including the freshest seafood and heavenly gelato), hiking, scuba diving and yes, Roman ruins.
- Want the Pompeii experience without the throngs? Get to Herculaneum!
When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Pompeii was not the only Roman town it obliterated. Nearby Herculaneum met the same fate and today its ruins are less touristy, more compact, and easier to explore. Herculaneum was smaller, more prosperous, and unlike Pompeii, which was slowly buried by ash and rock, it was violently engulfed by super-heated flows of molten rock, mud, and gas that annihilated its inhabitants, but spared the architecture. As a result, Herculaneum’s ancient buildings with marble floors, mosaics, wooden details, statues, and frescoes are better preserved than in Pompeii.
Still bent on visiting the top destinations in summer? Here are some tips to escape the worst of the crowds in Italy in high season!
- Stay overnight so you can explore the most popular sites early in the morning or later in the evening, before or after the invasion of day-trippers.
- The main Italian ports like Civitavecchia, Venice, Naples, and Genoa publish their arrival and departure schedules online, so you can see how many ships and approximately how many passengers are expected on any given day. Looking at the timetable above, 6 ships are scheduled to arrive in Venice on July 22nd, but only 1 on July 23rd. With some of the cruise vessels nowadays carrying more than 2,000 passengers, this could make a big difference in a small historic town like Venice!
- Instead of wandering aimlessly with a guidebook in hand or being herded around in a large group, book your own private guide! Local guides are experts at avoiding the crowds and can answer all questions and offer invaluable first-hand information on what to see and do, all of which ultimately leads to a better experience.
- Some museums and archaeological sites now offer advanced booking online and cities have introduced combined passes like the Firenze Card, the Roma Pass, or the Venezia Unica City Pass which can be purchased online or through an app. Depending on your travel style and budget, these may be worthwhile options for skipping some lines, saving time and money, and using the local public transport.
- Step off the overly trampled routes, go further afield, and stroll the backstreets to get away from the tourist hordes and experience more authentic local life. Take a day away from the crowds of Venice and explore the Veneto wine region or take a trip through the idyllic Tuscan countryside from Florence!
- It is perfectly fine NOT to see every top museum or sight in the city. Bucket lists or not, seeing only a handful of great buildings or paintings from up close beats seeing dozens from behind a forest of selfie sticks.
With Italy at the top of so many people’s bucket lists, visiting in the summer frenzy of mass tourism is often a recipe for a major disappointment – wall to wall crowds mobbing the Old Towns, seemingly endless lines to enter popular museums and historic sites, high prices at hotels and restaurants, and rarely hearing Italian being spoken. Hope these tips will help you avoid the worst of the crowds in Italy this year!
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