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What Every Solo Woman Should Know About Travel to Italy

Women on the Road
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 Who hasn’t dreamed of throwing a few coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome or gazing at Michelangelo’s David in Florence? Italy may be one of the world’s quintessential romantic destinations but solo travel in Italy is just as much fun.

Travel to Italy alone - delightful PortofinoPortofino, on the Ligurian coast just South of Genoa - lovely but far less crowded out of season

For solo travel, 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.

Traveling to Italy alone: 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 deep 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. Still, a solo trip to Italy is nothing to shy away from.

Is italy safe for solo female travellers? These Italian police in Genoa make sure it isPolice, ever stylish, patrol the streets of Genoa. Photo Anne Sterck

Is Italy safe to travel alone? 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. When it comes to solo female travel, Italy is fairly typical.

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.

Plain old pickpocketing is equally prevalent, especially in tourist areas. A wallet is quickly lifted out of a partially open purse or handbag... 

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. (An anti-theft handbag will do plenty to help.)

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 available – great if you’re in a rush – it’s an ideal country to visit independently, taking your time.

Porto Antico, Genoa

Genoa is hemmed in by the sea on one side and mountains on the other, with the city proper crawling up the hillside. It can be hellish to get around up there as avenues run into streets and streets tumble over one another into dead ends or tunnels or steps or inclines. A horrible bridge collapse in August 2018 killed more than 40 people, adding to the chaos and concern.

When lost in Genoa, head downhill. You might end up at Porto Antico again.

From above, Genoa’s history as a port city is obvious, a history old enough to date back to the Etruscans more than 2500 years ago. At war during most of its history, the city found some semblance of stability around the 16th century, when it began attracting wealth and artists – but then half its inhabitants were killed by the plague. The city continued its erratic trajectory but today it is one of Italy’s economic engines, its shipbuilding and high-tech industries performing well and helping support a country in perpetual crisis.

I still don’t know what to make of the Old Port of Genoa. The seashore was thoroughly restored, both for the 500th anniversary of the ‘discovery of America by Christopher Columbus’ (Columbus was born in what was then the Republic of Genoa) and because it was named European City of Culture for 2004. By the water, there’s a modern aquarium, a fabulous Eataly, restored buildings... but inside the old quarter, the brush-up is far less visible.

Across the street, in the old quarter, things probably haven't changed in centuries. Part of me dislikes the seediness and the dark alleys, the underlying sense of unease they create. Another part of me likes the city for precisely the same reasons, with curves and corners far more authentic than the massively modern port development.

At night, a slight breeze lightens the air and brings out the smells of cooking, mixing them with salt and fish and diesel. The busy horns echo across the bay, competing with the soft sounds of wavelets against moorings and cables clinking along ships’ masts. If you ignore the new developments, the slight disrepute and edginess of the Porto Antico gives Genoa considerable charm and energy, raising it higher on my list of ‘must-visits’ when in Italy.

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 will. 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 you can add Bulgari (jewelry), 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. 

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. They're seeing if you cut a bella figura – beautiful appearance, or look, and that is so 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 accompanying males. This is quite subtle and sometimes you won’t catch it but there is still an ingrained belief that men are somehow superior or more knowledgeable than women. And I’ll leave it at that: just something to be aware of when it comes to solo travel in Italy.

What to wear in Italy

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. 

The Splurge: Once-in-a-lifetime Italy experiences

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 I've said 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: shopping

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, not to mention delectable foods and wines? 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 perfect, 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, or head to the Serravalle Outlet, Italy's largest.

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. 

In areas frequented by tourists, it’s very common to see street vendors selling knock-off designer bags. It goes without saying that these are fakes. The sellers are also operating illegally, and if the police come by the vendors will scoop up their wares and run off before you can blink. If you happen to be in the middle of a transaction and haven’t yet received your change or the item you were purchasing, you’re out of luck!

Italy is no different from other countries, and if that Gucci bag costs $100, it isn’t a Gucci.

Shopping while traveling Italy alone - leather goods are always a good buyIt's so hard to NOT buy something in Italy - leather shops on every corner keep trying to draw you in. Photo Anne Sterck
Solo female travel Italy - visiting a cheese market in ItalyOne of the most pleasurable ways to spend a few hours if you're travelling alone 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 northern Europe or North America. 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.

Traveling Italy alone 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 city driving for the daredevil brigade, unless you like the stress of avoiding manic drivers 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 may mean 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 gladly use a car is for drives into the countryside, for which you’ll actually need one. Get a bus to the airport, rent a car there and avoid cities altogether - I did it recently and it was seamless. Smaller roads are slightly more relaxed because all those men with their shiny toys are busy showing them off on the motorway. 

Sometimes it's worth renting that car... these three day trips from Rome are accessible by public transport but having a car makes it easier to see what the regions have to offer.

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 apartment for a few days through specialized agencies like Airbnb. 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. Most often though, I use Booking.com for hotel bookings throughout Italy because I can cancel bookings easily and without penalty if I find something better.

The best time to visit for solo travel to Italy is – almost all the time, depending where you go. I dislike summer because it’s impossibly crowded and, in many places, unbearably hot (and not everyone appreciates catering to a solo woman when they can fill a table with a family). 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.

The Unexpected Colors of Assisi in the Rain

Assisi has always been in fashion, but as a place of pilgrimage, you might expect it to be, well, sober in appearance.

Instead, I found the colors of Assisi vibrant, almost exploding as the rain fell and continued to cling.

It was wet and thundery, with that special light unstable weather brings with it.

Assisi is best known as the birthplace of Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone, the future St Francis of Assisi who was born into a wealthy family in 1182, but after a spiritual awakening left it all for a lifetime of poverty. He was believed to communicate with animals and felt deeply about the natural world around him.

Earlier in life, he was a poor student, a womanizer, a soldier, and a former prisoner of war, when he fell quite ill with tuberculosis and malaria. There are even stories he was in love – with Clare, who would join him in poverty and go on to found the women’s monastic order called the Poor Clares. That, however, was nearly a thousand years ago, and the truth today is a bit hazy.

St Francis died young by modern standards, at 45, his body a mass of illness.

visiting Assisi Italy in the rainThe amazing lights of Assisi in the rain

Assisi is a place of pilgrimage, and the sight of monks and pilgrims strolling through the steep streets contrasts with casually dressed day-trippers.

The town’s centerpiece is the Basilica, a slightly daunting visit when you consider the building was hit by a major earthquake and severely damaged in 1997. The vault collapsed, frescoes were destroyed, and several people died, a grim memory in an otherwise peaceful place.

While the hilltop is where everyone rushes, there’s an unusual church on the plain at the bottom of town. The imposing Santa Maria degli Angeli was built to protect a tiny chapel called the Porziuncola, which was in disrepair until St Francis renovated it. The Porziuncola is where he made his vow of poverty, and it is the Franciscans’ most sacred site.

Back up on the hillside, I return to Assisi. The rain-washed streets smell clean and metallic and a breeze pushes its way up the narrow streets. The cobblestones are shiny and umbrellas are out, but that can’t dampen the colors, which seem even more vivid after they’ve been scrubbed clean by the weather.

There’s something about the atmosphere here that keeps people – including myself – coming back.

Planning a trip to Italy: Italy sightseeing

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

In Italy food seems to lie at the center of everything. I tried 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 – Italy is absolutely full of them. Another wonderful way to come into contact with Italian food is by is visiting some of 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. 

Travel alone in Italy - learning to cook panna cotta in TuscanyI learned to make this panna cotta on the third day of my cooking class while traveling in Italy alone - I almost never left.

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. When traveling solo in Italy, I’ve spent hours discovering the trodden paths of major cities and hidden villages but also unusual neighborhoods not 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. Some of the best places in Italy for solo travelers aren't necessarily the most visited, for example Sardinia, a part of Italy few foreigners ever reach, not to mention the many other beautiful islands of Italy.

ITALY at a glance

top 5 italy must-sees

  • Vestiges of the ancient Roman Empire: These include the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and many more archaeological sites scattered throughout the country. 
  • The Vatican: It is technically a separate country, but no trip to Rome would be complete without a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums 
  • Food: Everyone thinks they know what Italian food is, but you’ll be surprised by the regional variations. 
  • Fashion: Milan is one of the most important fashion capitals of the world, and Italians love to look stylish and keep up with the latest trends. 
  • Art: Italian artists have dominated the European art scene for hundreds of years. While Florence is the place to go for Renaissance art, you can find breathtaking examples of Baroque, Byzantine and Rococo styles in other parts of the country.

top 3 off-the-beaten track italian sights

  • The Basilica di San Clemente in Rome is actually three churches built on top of each other. The top one was built around 1100AD, and below that is its 4th-century predecessor as well as an ancient Roman house that served as a place of both pagan and Christian worship. 
  • Lying below ground underneath the notorious Sanità neighborhood of Naples are the Catacombs of San Gennaro in Naples, which date as far back as the 3rd century BC. 
  • Cefalù, Sicily is a laidback coastal town near Palermo that is dominated by its Norman Cathedral, built in the 12th century and filled with glittering Byzantine mosaics.

women need to be aware that...

They may get unwanted attention from Italian men, but a firm “no” is usually enough to get them to leave you alone.

you can't leave italy without buying...

A bottle of extra virgin olive oil. If you’re passing near Modena in the north, you’ll want to complement this with a bottle of balsamic vinegar.

you can't leave without trying these 3 foods

  • Pizza in Naples. Stick with the traditional options, either pizza margherita or pizza marinara. Some places serve only these two types anyway. My favorite pizzeria in Naples is Pizzeria Di Matteo. Go early or be prepared to wait for a while. 
  • Pasta. There are hundreds of different pasta shapes and sauces in Italy, and each town has its own local specialties. Two worth seeking out are Orecchiette con cime di rapa in Puglia and Pesto alla Trapanese in Trapani, Sicily . 
  • Gelato. The best ice cream in the world, bar none. My favorite gelateria is CamBio Vita in Rome.

for even more information

Try these excellent sites:

Updated by Wendy Werneth of The Nomadic Vegan15 April 2019 

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