There are a few dirty truths about Italy. One is that it really isn’t as clean and efficient as photos and films might make it seem. The other is that with 47 million visitors every year, it’s perpetually crowded.
My least favorite experiences in Italy involve fighting the crowds. I’ve been trapped on the bridges of Venice in August, waited in interminable lines at the Vatican Museums and escaped the heat and kitschy-ness of hundreds of snapping tourists in San Gimignano. No matter how relaxed your attitude, much of Italy’s charm is lost when swamped in crowds.
How to avoid the crowds in Italy:
First, avoid August
Despite our thirst for that great Mediterranean sunshine, no one should come here in summer.
It’s true that in summer you’re likely to enjoy day after day of brilliant sunshine, no rain, gorgeous gardens in full bloom and that wonderful temperature that’s made for your most European of sundresses.
It’s also true that Italy summer is freaking hot. Hot and crowded. If you’re able, visit Italy in the off-season. Though there’s a peak of tourists around Christmastime as well, it’s nothing like the swarms of August (with June, July and early September close seconds).
No one knows better than me that sometimes, August is the only time we’re able to visit. I don’t regret any trip I’ve taken in August, but remember that feeling of being trapped on bridges in Venice and herded through the Vatican Museums like cattle? Those all happened in August.
Now that I live here, my life mission is to steal weekend trips in late spring and early autumn, when the temperature is incredible and the food at its best. There’s nothing like Portofino in early May, or the seasonal produce in Mantova in autumn!
How to avoid the crowds in Italy even in summer:
Of course it’s not always possible to avoid Italy in August or the summer in general. That’s fine. The best time to visit Italy is when you can visit Italy. Plus, even if you can’t come in the off-season, you can still (mostly) avoid the crowds.
If there’s a specific location that you’d like to get to know without the crowds, stay overnight. Those snapping tourists buying kitschy souvenirs in San Gimignano? You better believe they’re day-trippers. The throngs of people discouraging your exploration in Capri, Venice or Como leave en masse as sun sets. Staying overnight is a perfect way to enjoy a destination to yourself.
Choose the “secondary location”
San Gimignano is worth a visit, sure, but Colle Val d’Elsa is ideal for the crowd-averse. Located directly across from the popular hill, Colle Val d’Elsa is nearly completely devoid of tourists, but offers the same breathtaking views of Tuscany. Stopping in this secondary town specifically to avoid the crowds, Marco and I have since fallen in love with the ancient buildings (it’s even older than San Gimignano, as it wasn’t bombed in WWII) and the eery atmosphere that the empty streets create after dark, when we’re the only ones touring the town. When planning your trip, be sure to study a map – sometimes the “no-name” town right next to your top pick is a better base and visit than the one that makes the top 10 lists.
Some ideas: Check out Monteriggioni for peace after busy Siena; Varenna instead of Como or Bellagio, Padova after Venice; Pavia from Milan; Or go big and choose the “secondary” region. Tour the small, medieval towns of Umbria or the countryside of Le Marche rather than the ever-popular, and ever-crowded hilltop towns of Tuscany.
Be flexible with time
If you want to enjoy a destination in relative solitude get there before, or after, all the others. This takes some sacrifice. You might have to wake up at an ungodly hour or miss a meal or reorganize your day, but that’s exactly why you can expect to have the place more to yourself: because the vast majority of tourists aren’t willing.
If you have multiple stops on your itinerary, visit the big cities or sites as early or as late as possible and explore the tiny towns during peak hours, taking a leisurely lunch there rather than in the main piazza.
Though Siena after-hours isn’t necessarily less crowded, it’s a different crowd; the tourists drain the town and the locals come out to fill the restaurants and pubs, converse and sing in the piazzas and generally enjoy the city without selfie-sticks or cameraphones.
Book in advance
This isn’t a tricky tactic you can do once on-site. It takes research and preparation but is so, so worth it. Learn from my mistakes: don’t visit the Vatican Museums in August without reserving tickets in advance.
It’s just not worth it.
Most major museums and archeological sites in Italy have advanced booking online. Though this doesn’t ensure that you won’t wait in some sort of line, it does ensure that you won’t bake under the Roman August sun in the four-hour Vatican Museum line. Perhaps the museum will still be crowded while you’re inside, but the extra effort means you’ll have a shorter wait and thus more patience overall.
Don’t come in on a cruise
This is pretty obvious. Tours and cruises are a super-efficient, super-easy way to travel, but they won’t help you to avoid crowds. Independent travel is the way to go for the crowd-averse.
Join the crowd: Go for the experience
This is one tip that won’t take you away from the crowds, but will certainly amplify your time in them. Some places and events are meant to be spent in crowds. Like Mardi Gras in Brazil or Holi Festival in India, there are times to embrace the crowd. Embrace the crowd for some of Italy’s major events and you’re sure to have an incredible experience. Come to Italy specifically to take part in these larger events, like the Via Crucis in Rome, the Battle of the Oranges Carnival festival in Ivrea, or the Ceri Race in Gubbio, the experience is well worth the effort.
Stroll the backstreets.
Full-time nomad Gigi Griffis describes it perfectly in Getting off the Beaten Track: “even in the most touristy, well-loved, crowded places, it’s easy to get away from the tourist throngs and find a more local scene.”
Often by simply stepping off the main tourist routes you can find serenity, no matter how crowded the destination. With pilgrims and tourists alike traversing the streets year round, Assisi is nearly always busy, yet as soon as you step away from the main basilica and piazza you’ll find the small-town charm that Assisi has enjoyed since its foundation. We did, and it was so delicious we went back for seconds!