Ok, I know that we fell into this trap ourselves when we traveled throughout Italy, but I'm telling you all to "Do as we say, not as we did!" You shouldn't spend all your time waiting on unimaginably long lines just to get into must-see tourist sites. There's real life out there away from the tourist throngs. I would suggest allocating only about 20% or less of your time trying to get into the "must see" sights that every other tourist is trying to see and 80% actually experience the Italian way of life.
As difficult as it is, try not to go where every other tourist is going. I know this is hard for the first timer to Italy--it was for us--to decide not to see the Sistine Chapel or Michelangelo's David. We spent a nightmarish, sweaty, stuffy, exhausting morning being enveloped and shoved by throngs of cruise ship tours in the Vatican Museum (Sistine Chapel included) and St. Peters--and believe it or not, this was a so-called "private tour" with our own personal guide! Sure, it was great seeing the Sistine Chapel, but as museums go, the Vatican Museum is not up to world standards in terms of comfort, proper care of the art displayed, lighting, cleanliness or how it handles the huge crowds they stuff into the place. And speaking as an artist, there was no opportunity to sit and admire Michelangelo's creation properly. (Read about our Vatican tour HERE.)
You can't possibly see everything in Italy. When I first started planning our trip ten months before we left, every time I zoomed in to a different part of Italy on Google Earth I kept finding more and more outrageously wonderful things that I added to my pin map. I still have those Google maps saved in case we go back to Italy. Even when we were in one region, like Puglia, for example, I had dozens of things pinned in the area that we never got to see--that we just didn't have time to see. Still, I looked at it as having a list of options for a given area we happened to be in, knowing that we'd never get to see all of them.
There are 46 million tourists swooping down on Italy every year with the "high season" getting wider and wider (we went in October... I can't imagine how much more crowded the tourist sites are in late spring or summer!) But you have to remember, that almost anywhere you go in Italy, in every region, there is a plethora of art, palaces, aqueducts, museums, vineyards and great food everywhere! Even the smallest villages we passed through were worth a stop, a picnic and offered great subjects for photography. Castles... they are everywhere. Hill towns?--Where aren't there any? Roman ruins? Everywhere you look. Great architecture and churches? Fine art? Great wine? Yes, even in the small villages and towns. Great food? Pick a cuisine--any of the 20 regional cuisines in Italy!
So, take your time and by all means, slow down, and plan on savoring each and every bit of Italy and you'll find a higher degree of appreciation and satisfaction for La Bella Italia. Don't rush through anything. If you find that the lines are way to long, consider getting out of line and walk the other way... find something else around the next corner, in the next piazza or in the next village.
Learn at least a little Italian before going to Italy. Talk to the ladies in the alimentari when buying your picnic supplies. Point a lot... smile a lot. Try talking to taxi drivers. I found them to really open up when you talk to them and ask about their lives. Learn basic phrases like Questo or Quello (This one... that one), Come si chiama? (What is this called?), Dove ___? (Where is found ____?), Grazie (thanks) and Per favore (Please).... and of course, Grazie (thanks--and say it properly: grat-zee-EH). You might not understand everything they say back to you but you will be experiencing the people of Italy. Take their photograph to remember their smiles. Give them your smile in return.
Remember, you are going to Italy to see, to smell, to taste and to feel... and to take home souvenirs... in the literal sense of the word... memories. Your goal should be to come back home with a part of the Italian lifestyle as part of your soul. Italia will never leave you...
If you enjoyed this article, please SHARE it with your friends and tell them to stop by Grand Voyage Italy's blog. Grazie mille.
There should really be a tiered level of visits to the Vatican Museum, sold through lotteries. Those proving some art credentials--like academics or students of art--should be allowed a different time of day where they can spend a decent amount of quiet contemplation--something that isn't an option today. To stop the wear and tear on the museum itself (the patterned floor tiles are getting worn through!), the general tourist public should only be allowed to visit a smaller section of the museum, with a limited number of people accessing the Sistine Chapel at the same time. Or, as they have done with other fragile tile or mosaic floors in other churches in Italy, put raised walkways so tourists' feet never touch the tiles. Also, no children under 10 should be allowed. Visitors should also be expelled whenever they break the rules of the Church, like men wearing hats. ---JF