Italy attracts 40 million visitors each year (give or take a few thousand) and ranks as the 4th most visited country in the world. Those numbers can translate into really heavy crowds at major sites, particularly in cities like Rome, Venice, Florence … and even in the tiny villages of Le Cinque Terre.
Enter the dilemma that many discerning travelers face. Should one just muscle through those overly touristy areas? Or avoid them altogether? What’s the best way to handle visiting a country that is visited by so many other people?
The answer, from my off the beaten strada point of view, is rather simple. Go just off the piazza.
You see, many of Italy’s busiest, touristy places are situated in or near a piazza, such as, Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Piazza San Pietro in Vatican City or St. Mark’s Square in Venice. All these famous piazze, and countless more, attract visitors like a magnet.
So go there, see the major site you came to see (St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Doge’s Palace, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Duomo of Florence …) and then make your way just off the piazza. Take a side street, wander down an adjacent avenue, explore an alleyway. Walk just 2 minutes away from any major site – and its jam-packed piazza – and you’ll likely find room to breathe (even in Venice, where open space is at a premium).
Of course it goes without saying that you shouldn’t wander aimlessly into an unsafe part of town, or until you get lost, but surprisingly it often takes just a few steps to move yourself away from the heaviest of crowds, because most people (as we know) are intent on following the crowd.
So here’s to being a discerning traveler who dares to take a few steps in another direction and who discovers, as a result, the dusty workshop of a marble sculptor, a gondola drifting beneath a bridge, an artisan gelato shop with no line … all waiting to be found, just off the piazza.