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What Every Woman Should Know About Travel to Italy
A mini travel guide for women

Who hasn’t dreamed of throwing a few coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome or gazing at Michelangelo’s David in Florence? Italy is one of the world’s quintessential romantic destinations but if you happen to be on your own you’ll still have just as much fun.

Travel to Italy - PortofinoPortofino, on the Ligurian coast just South of Genoa - lovely but far less crowded out of season. Photo Anne Sterck

For women, Italy is an outstanding destination – relatively safe, gloriously gorgeous and oh-so-easy to get to and get around. What kind of woman traveler stands to enjoy an Italian holiday? There are plenty of adventurous and sporty things to do – skiing, mountains, hiking, biking, via ferrata – but Italy is best seen through its cities, through the art that graces every corner, the history that seeps through each cobblestoned street, the aroma of freshly cooked sauce and fruity Chianti wafting out of the corner trattoria.

It is a country of style and of fashion, and one of the few countries you’ll probably leave looking more glamorous than when you arrived.

Attitudes towards women in Italy

Italy may well be a modern country but sometimes it forgets it. Gender equality is entrenched in the law and discrimination is illegal, as is any kind of violence against women. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, but serious assaults aren’t common. It’s more a question of general low-level harassment – the whistles, comments or sounds made when an attractive woman walks by. Yes, there have been reports of bums being pinched and lecherous men trying their luck with foreign women, and worse. Happily these are very much the exception.

Regional differences can also be marked – in the more affluent North, you might feel you’re well into Europe, with businesses buzzing and women filling offices and jobs (though not in full equality with men!) but in the South, life is much more conservative, with many women holding the traditional role of mother and homemaker, a bit like you’ve seen in movies about Italian organized crime.

Italian police in GenoaPolice, ever stylish, patrol the streets of Genoa. Photo Anne Sterck

I can’t think of any particular precautions you’d take in Italy as a woman – be level-headed when you meet men, avoid dark places at night – the usual admonitions.

The issue of safety is real, however, and not necessarily aimed at women. Theft is hugely common – my car has been broken into every single time I’ve been to Italy (once when parked in front of a police station!). I’d also be careful of shoulder bags since men riding ‘motorini’ – scooters – can grab your bag and scoot away faster than you can yell thief! The same goes for handbags on the bus or even in posh neighborhoods where the mother of a friend of mine had her bag grabbed by a man on a scooter and fell as a result. Anywhere there are tourists, thieves will congregate, from railway stations to major attractions, and the further South you go, the more aware you should be. 

Watch out for groups of ‘beggars’ and especially children who look poor and unkempt. Usually it’s a scam. Still, there’s less street crime in Italy than in many other European countries.

Bottom line: I’ve traveled in Italy on my own at least a dozen times and while there are many tours of Italy – great if you’re short on time – it’s an ideal country to visit independently, taking your time.

A bit about Italian culture and life

Italy is about style, more about the form than the substance (not to say there isn’t substance – it’s just all dressed up in the latest fashion). The saying “you can’t judge a book by its cover” simply doesn’t apply in Italy because here, you can, and you most certainly should. The way you dress and how you behave are all indicators of your background, class and education and believe me, you will be treated accordingly. 

This list contains only a tiny portion of famous world designers who happen to be from Italy: Armani, Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferragamo, Fendi, Gucci, Missoni, Prada, Versace… and that’s just in fashion. For automobile design think Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Alfa Romeo – and to this mix Bulgari you can add (jewellery), Bialetti (industrial design – you know, the stovetop espresso machine?) and Sottsass (furniture). Multiply by ten and you’re starting to scratch the surface of Italian style. And this is part of why appearances are so important. (If shopping is one of your travel joys, you can get many of these under a single roof by heading to the Serravalle Outlet, Italy's largest.)

Bialetti omino coi baffiMascott of the Bialetti line of espresso makers - Italy's best

The moment you meet an Italian, you’ll get the once-over, partly because you’re a woman, but partly because they’re trying to see where you ‘fit in’ when it comes to their world. Your clothes matter, as does your posture, your travel accessories, your makeup, your table manners. It’s called “bella figura” – beautiful appearance, or look, and that is quintessentially Italian. 

Italians are warm and friendly, with hugs and kisses and arms flying in all directions and constant invasion of your private space so if this irritates you beware – Italians aren’t going to change anytime soon. Normally though when you meet for the first time a handshake will be enough. Say ciao (pronounced chow) when you arrive or leave and you can’t go wrong.

One thing that stands out about Italy – and several European countries for that matter – is the general courtesy with which people treat one another. Elders are respected, children help where they can, and – and this one may not be embraced by you as a good habit – men hold doors open for women and women often automatically concede opinions and desires if they are contrary to those being voiced by male company. This is quite subtle and sometimes you won’t catch it but there is still an ingrained believe that men are somehow superior or more knowledgeable than women. And I’ll leave it at that.

What to wear in Italy

Cobblestone streets in ItalyCobblestone streets - slippery with charm. Photo Anne Sterck

Despite what I said above, you can dress casually in Italy. You can easily wear jeans – but they must be stylish. Dress them up with a cool top or some scarves and those great Italian leather shoes you just picked up in Florence. Forget the sweats, the T-shirts, the Nikes (unless you’re jogging in the gym) unless you want to look like a foreigner. But – wait – you are a foreigner so you can absolutely ignore every word you’ve read so far!

Except for this. Italy is an old country and in Europe old equals cobblestones. Leave your high heels in your room and wear those comfortable flats for your sightseeing day. And don’t forget your umbrella anywhere North of Rome.

If you travel to Italy in winter, don’t be so sure you’ll be basking in sunshine. It rains, it pours even, and yes, it snows (in the North, and further down sometimes though not often). Temperatures can drop to below acceptable and you’ll need your warm coats and hats.

What to buy in Italy

The problem with Italy is the overwhelming need to spend money the moment you step off the plane.

How can you avoid it, surrounded as you are by name brands, outstanding workmanship and extraordinary design? I do my best to avoid shopping but… oh, the shoes and the bags. I have never succeeded in leaving Italy without a bag although I never buy shoes because the sizing is all wrong for my feet – few half-sizes and no width variety (Italian women must all have narrow feet). Bags and purses, on the other hand, fit everyone.

You can buy in the major designer stores, of course, but I’ve always found it worthwhile to head for the outlet malls - there are two dozen across Italy, at least one near every major city. You can also shop in original boutiques and in markets, where you can bargain and where the choice is so overwhelming you may leave empty-handed because you can’t cope.

That said, if you’re not buying from major outlets, look at your items carefully before you buy and make sure you really are getting the quality you think you are. Italy is no different from other countries, and if that Gucci bag costs $100, it isn’t a Gucci.

What to buy in Italy - leatherIt's so hard to NOT buy something in Italy - leather shops on every corner keep trying to draw you in. Photo Anne Sterck
Italian market selling cheeseOne of the most pleasurable ways to spend a few hours in Italy is by going to the market - they are irresistible. Photo Anne Sterck

Getting around Italy

There are so many places to visit in Italy that it’s hard to generalize. Still, it is by and large a safe country and its cities are safe as well, made for walking, and full of bustle until later than we’d be accustomed to in more northern European countries. Italians often have a passeggiata, a stroll in the evenings, and it’s wonderful to watch piazzas come alive with several generations arm in arm.

Getting around Italy can be confusing but it tends to be efficient and not too expensive. If you can figure out the various transport systems – and people are always willing to help – then do yourself a favor and leave the driving for the daredevil brigade, unless you like the stress of avoiding cars and pedestrians at high speeds on narrow, crowded downtown streets. Parking, too, is for the brave but if you want an experience to talk about back home, then by all means, rent a car. On highways, two lanes usually means three with a car trying to squeeze in down the middle or on one side. I’m still talking about my own driving experiences on the Autostrada and in Rome – several decades later. The one time I would gladly use a car is for country drives, for which you’ll actually need one. Get a bus to the airport, rent a car there and avoid cities altogether. Smaller roads are slightly more relaxed because all those men with their shiny toys are busy showing them off on the motorway.

Public transport in Italy isn’t as expensive as most of the rest of Europe. You can buy public transport passes in major cities like Rome, Milan and Florence, and they often include entrance to attractions. One thing to remember is that in Italy trains tend to be late – sometimes. Not always. But they go everywhere.

Your major cost is likely to be accommodation, although you can bring those costs down significantly by either Couchsurfing for free or renting a room or an appartment for a few through specialized agencies like Airbnb. I also use Booking.com to find moderately-priced hotels. Just remember to investigate if you're staying with or are being hosted by someone you don't know. That is the whole point - you don't know them.

The best time to visit is – almost all the time, depending where you go. I dislike summer because it’s impossibly crowded and, in many places, unbearably hot. If you’re headed for a specific event, the Biennale or Carnevale, then you know when to go. But if you’re taking your time – and when it comes to slow travel Italy reigns – then you’ll have more choices. I personally love the shoulder seasons, the April-May (when fruits and vegetables are in their prime) and the September-October periods (think grape harvest), when the weather is wonderful, the crowds are gone, but the country still feels festive.

Fun things to see and do in Italy

You’ll find all the basic things to do in any Italy travel guide (here’s a selection of the top ones from Amazon.com) but let me point out a few things I’ve particularly enjoyed.

In Italy food seems to lie at the center of everything. I recently took a cooking course in Tuscany and it’s something I absolutely loved. So much in Italy revolves around food that learning to prepare it almost seems like a rite of passage. If you can, take a food tour – that’s usually the first thing I do in a new country and Italy is absolutely full of them. Another wonderful way to come into contact with Italian food is by is visiting some the many markets you’ll find across the country. Or you could stay on a farm for a weekend – agriturismo is a fun Italian experience that brings you close to both the land and its culture. 

Panna cotta in TuscanyI learned to make this panna cotta on the third day of my cooking class - I almost never left. Photo Leyla Alyanak

If you’re a speed maven, why not visit the Ferrari museum, take a Ferrari tour or, even more exciting, rent one for yourself? If you’re really daring consider a Vespa tour in Rome and pretend you’re Audrey Hepburn for a while. You may have to intermittently close your eyes as you come into very close contact with other vehicles – but it’s still worth it and very fun.

Italy is so famous for its art that if you have the inclination, there are few better places to feed your inner artist. You can learn painting and drawing, of course, but also mosaics, sculpture, jewelry design, leatherwork, stained glass and of course art history. While we’re on the topic of learning there’s always the language itself, or archaeology, or, if you happen to be a writer like me, a retreat to work on your art. If words are your domain why not follow in the footsteps of Shakespeare’s plays, as itemized in this book.

Italian cities for me are all about walking. I’ve spent hours discovering the trodden paths of major cities and hidden villages but also unusual neighborhoods not that many people visit. For example in Rome you could explore EUR (the modern quarter designed along fascist architectural lines) or San Lorenzo, the lefty student quarter. Go off the beaten path!

There’s so much you could enjoy that you could spend a year in Italy and only scratch the surface. Just remember there’s more to Italy than Rome-Milan-Florence-Venice. Sicily is magnificent, in history, food and beauty – and so is the island of Sardinia, a part of Italy few foreigners ever reach.

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best grade, I’d give Italy a 4, a point lost because of the occasional harassment of women, the cultural attitude that doesn’t quite see us as equals, and – the driving. (With contributions by Dominique De Santis in Rome)

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