Ask almost anyone and they will tell you that Italy is on their bucket list: the art, the culture, and the food is world famous for a reason.
But Italy is big, and it can be overwhelming for first timers, who inevitably, bowled over by choice, fall into overpriced tourist traps.
Here are the places you should avoid, and the often cheaper, always more authentic alternatives you should hit instead.
Instead of getting disappointed by the Leaning Tower of Pisa, check out the medieval towers in the town of San Gimignano.
If we told you to go see an old tilting tower that wasn’t Pisa, would you? Probably not, and you should avoid the surprisingly small and devastatingly disappointing Leaning Tower of Pisa too.
Want to see old towers? Visit San Gimignano, a mostly tourist-free haven in Tuscany that’s known for its medieval architecture and perfectly preserved ancient tower houses — in fact, it’s often referred to as “the city of beautiful towers” or even “medieval Manhattan.” And if that wasn’t enough, the city is also famous among locals for its Vernaccia di San Gimignano white wine.
Instead of illegally dipping your feet in the Trevi fountain, go swimming in Saturnia’s natural spas.
Terme di Saturnia hot springs.
It’s hot and you’ve walked all over Rome’s many, many sites, including the beautiful Trevi fountain. We can’t blame you for wanting to cool your heels in it, but don’t, because that’s illegal.
If you need to take a dip, check out the Terme di Saturnia in Tuscany. These stunning, 98 degree geothermal springs were said to have been created by Jupiter carelessly throwing lightning bolts. The hot springs were popular with ancient Roman nobles way back when, and are still a popular spot with Romans today.
Instead of taking a cheesy gondola in Venice, take a local-approved traghetto.
Taking an overpriced gondola captained by someone dressed like what foreigners imagine Italians to look like is one of the most corny and touristy things to do in Venice — and that’s before the gondolier starts singing (which costs extra, mind you).
Instead, take a much cheaper traghetto, which is basically just a less frilly gondola that locals use to get across Venice’s canals. Traghettos look like gondolas, but instead of cruising up and down the canals, they cross the canals at seven points, where there are no bridges. And they cost just a few euros, instead of hundreds of dollars.
Instead of checking out Florence from the Duomo, take in the views at the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The Duomo is one of Florence’s most famous and most-visited sites, and definitely worth a look. However, save yourself the 463-step climb to the top (no, there’s no elevator), where you’ll be jostling for shots of the city with dozens of other panting tourists.
For equally stunning views minus the climb, check out the Piazzale Michelangelo. Plus, the best part of the views there? You actually get the Duomo in your pics.
Instead of picking up Murano glass tchotkes in Venice, go to Murano.
Venice is almost as famous for its Murano glass wares as it is for its intricate Venetian masks, so shops selling overpriced glass figurines and baubles are a dime a dozen, especially around the touristy Rialto Bridge area. Because only tourists buy glass items in those shops, prices are literally double what they should be, and some of the wares aren’t even authentic, but made in China.
Why not go straight to the source? Murano glass is named for Murano, an island off of Venice that’s been making glass products since 1291. Only a scenic, 20-minute water bus ride from Venice, this day trip allows you to wander about authentic shops, and even check out factories and watch glass blowers at work.
Instead of getting herded through Pompeii, get a blast from the past in Taormina.
OK, Pompeii isn’t a tourist trap, but it is overrun by tourists. The ancient city is perfectly preserved after it was covered in ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
To get some breathing room, as well as your fill of ancient ruins, visit Taormina in Sicily instead. The beautiful town carved into the Monte Tauro hillside has sweeping views of Mount Etna, Europe’s highest active volcano, as well as beautiful beaches, which are accessible by gondola. Goethe himself called Taormina “a patch of paradise.” While ancient Roman buildings and ruins are sprinkled across town, the most famous ones are the Teatro Greco and the Naumachia.
Instead of trying to find love at Romeo and Juliet’s balcony in Verona, find the stone heart under the arch inside the Sotoportego dei Preti in Venice.
Lovers around the world flock to Romeo and Juliet’s balcony in the Casa di Giulietta in Verona, but the site is really just a mess of gum and scraps of paper, as people leave love notes on the wall by tacking them up with chewed gum.
How about giving something else a shot? Venice is one of the most romantic cities in the world, so it comes as no surprise that it houses many local traditions pertaining to finding everlasting love. Head to Sotoportego dei Preti, a narrow alley between two houses that has a stone heart embedded under its arch. According to local lore, touching the heart with your partner means eternal love, while touching it alones means you’ll find love within the year.
Instead of Lake Como, visit Lake Orta.
Sure, Lake Como’s beauty is world famous and you might get a George Clooney sighting, but everyone and their mother knows about it, which has turned the serene lake into a flashy, see-and-be-seen kind of scene.
In contrast, Lake Orta beckons with its serenity, even boasting an island monastery in its center. Only about a mile wide, the lake is a secluded gem, unknown even to many locals, despite its beauty having been touted by writers and philosophers like Nietzsche, Byron, and de Balzac.
Instead of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, take a tour of the beautiful Palladian Villas of the Veneto.
The Palazzo Vecchio is a beautiful palace overlooking the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, and features stunning Renaissance chambers full of incredible paintings. However, it’s world-famous and can get packed.
The Palladian Villas of the Veneto are lesser known, but equally stunning. Designed by Andrea Palladio, the unique buildings are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have become so iconic that they inspired an architectural style known as Palladian, which spread across Europe, and even as far as England and North America. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia and Holkham Hall in Norfolk, England, were inspired by Palladio.
Instead of having an espresso by the Duomo/Leaning Tower of Pisa/Colosseum, have one literally anywhere else.
Eating or drinking anything within a stone’s throw of any famous attraction means that you will be paying prices marked up to infinity.
Instead, take a little walk, follow some locals around for a bit and eat literally anywhere else. If there’s an English menu and no one around you is speaking Italian, leave. Plus, you should know that having a coffee at the table costs more than having it at the counter in Italy, so another tip is to just drink at the bar.
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