Your ideas for nontraditional, off the beaten path, interesting, insightful things to do or see in or close to Venice, Florence, and Rome, Italy?
November 6, 2007 8:13 AM   Subscribe

What are your favorite nontraditional, nontouristy, alternative, culturally-insightful things to do in or near Venice, Florence, and Rome? I mean the deeper anthropological kind of culture, not museums, opera, etc. I'm not looking for the usual must-see tourist destinations or the things that epitomize a city. I want the fascinating little finds you accidentally stumbled on and loved, but which few or no tours would have found because they aren't "sights". If it can give me a glimpse of how contemporary Italians see the world, to appreciate a bit more what it's like to be them, that's a turbo bonus. No points off for plain old fun activities either.

I've read every Italy thread on here and haven't quite found what I'm after. My parents invited me on a guided package tour of Venice, Florence, and Rome next week and the following week. Italy's not high on my list of travel destinations and I'm not a package tour kind of guy at all, but it's free, foreign, and family, so I'm going and am sure I'll have a good time. I'd like your help in reducing that touristy malaise feeling and replacing some of it with interesting insights and experiences.

There is a lot of the usual museum/monument time on the itinerary. I'm not a museum/monument kind of guy. Paintings paintings paintings, churches, aaagh! Don't care! Don't wanna take all the same obligatory pictures everyone has taken for a century or follow a guide around the whole time as they tell me about this or that set of ruins. For me, travel is about learning about how the world looks through other cultures' eyes. I know some of this can be informed by their history or past cultural products such as art or architecture, but what I want is to get glimpses of what life is like for ordinary people there right now to the degree I can in a very short time - what their big issues are, what their worldview is and how it differs from mine. Optimism, cynicism, assumptions, prejudices, filters, priorities, norms, oddities. A guided package tour of sights is not a great way to do this but it's what I have to work with.

So I want to break away from the tour group at least once per city and go do my own thing - - interesting, educational, insightful, off the beaten path kinds of things, especially any that help me understand what life is like for normal contemporary Italians. I don't want to see sights (I'll already see plenty, e.g. David, Sistine, etc.); What I want is some hint of contemporary cultural anthropology. It could be anything - some interesting local custom, some political event, some unique civic activity, some un-famous piece of history that influences the present in a fascinating way, some cultural fixture (e.g., I wish there were some soccer games during my stay). What have you found in or near these three places that was your special find that people wouldn't normally find on a tour, and which enriched your experience and understanding of Italy and Italians?

One hurdle is that I speak almost no Italian, not having planned to go there. So it would need to be something observable absent language or there would need to be English speakers or literature, a tall order. Below is the itinerary, including what I'm considering skipping. There are a fair number of free afternoons and evenings built in. What is nearby that's not on this list, that you loved, that isn't a "sight" but was a great find? Not looking for restaurant/bar recommendations unless they happen to deliver what I'm looking for. If you don't have anything in the sort of cultural anthro insight category, yeah, just list anything fun or interesting or unusual that's not a major tourist sight. For example I keep seeing recommendations to go to Siena near Florence. But why? What do people like about it?

No need to focus on these knowns in your reply:
-This is a very short time to develop any real cultural insight
-Art and architecture and ruins and history are important
-Don't discount what you can learn from quality guides
-Not speaking Italian limits your options



Nov 12-14: Venice
-backstreets walking tour (also planning on "getting lost")
-St. Mark's Basilica & Doges' Palace
-Accademia art museum. SKIP THIS
-a free afternoon
-2 free evenings and 1 planned dinner

Nov 15-17: Florence
-Accademia Gallery w/ David
-"Renaissance walk" - Duomo, Baptistery, etc. SKIP ONE OF THESE TWO
-Oltrarno area - walk/talk re Roman, medieval and 19th century Florence. SKIP ONE OF THESE TWO
-Uffizi art museum. MAYBE POP IN FOR AN HOUR OR TWO. (I know it's huge)
-2 free afternoons
-2 free evenings and 1 planned dinner

Nov 18-20: Rome
-Vatican Museum, Sistine, St. Peter's.
-Some free time in Vatican area for crypt, dome, whatever.
-Forum, Colosseum, Pantheon
-Free afternoon near area of Palatine ruins, Mamertine prison, etc.
-A few free hours in heart of city
-Evening stroll through historic heart of city.
-2 planned dinners and 1 free evening
posted by Askr to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
In Venice, if they're going to the Accademia and that's what you want to skip, walk over to Campo S. Margarita instead (it's nearby), sit at the Bar Rosso (I'm assuming it's still there) and just watch people walking by. (If you can get there early in the morning when they're setting up the fish and vegetable markets, even better.) That campo has by far the best mix of residents making use of it -- college students, workers, old women gossiping over coffee -- and it's just a beautiful place to sit with a glass of wine or a cappuccino. If you do go to Bar Rosso (it's the one with the big red "BAR" on it), ask for a "brioche" (pronounced the French/English way) for breakfast.

What I would emphasize, however, is that it's not just that "art and history and ruins are important," it's that the contemporary culture you're looking to uncover is in those expressions of the past. It's a very American idea that we just continually reinvent ourselves and a very American culture that cuts itself off so completely from its past. You can't really understand "contemporary cultural anthropology" in a culture that's thousands and thousands of years old without having some sense of that history, because that history informs almost everything that contemporary Italians do and believe.

I would agree, though, that package-tour guided tours might not be the best way to get there. What I would recommend is some of the fantastic non-fiction out there that connects history with current events. For Venice, I'd recommend Christopher Hitchens' Venice, Jan Morris's Venice, and Joseph Brodsky's Watermark.
posted by occhiblu at 8:31 AM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

My wife can answer this better than I can, she spent a semester there a year ago, but I visited her there for a few days and I must say that the Capuchin Crypt is unbelievable.
posted by baphomet at 8:35 AM on November 6, 2007

I don't know if she'd be interested, and it would cost you if she was, but you can contact this lady for a custom walking-tour of Rome. (Disclosure: she is a personal friend, and an American living in Rome for the past 10 years or so as opposed to a native if that matters.)
posted by Martin E. at 8:36 AM on November 6, 2007

Go to grocery stores in residential neighborhoods. That's one of my favorite things to do whereever I go. In Rome, get off the metro stop at Baldo degli Ubaldi. Cross the street and you're right there at a little grocery store. Get some food from the hot table -- they're incredibly patient with people who don't speak Italian, as long as you're trying. Check out the baby food shelves -- horse meat baby food? Who knew? Go around 9 in the morning or mid-afternoon and watch the little children in their Montessori school smocks being walked home by their parents. Hang out at a street cafe eating some gelato or drinking un caffe and watching the people go by.
Wander the streets in the Jewish ghetto (very very close to the Pantheon, just south of Corso Vittorio Emmanuele -- Largo Torre Argentina and that area.)
In general, I find it best to get physically out of the tourist areas, even if it's just a block or two over.
There's a club in Italy, whose name I cannot remember right now, that allows you to have dinner with Italians in their homes. I haven't done it, but it sounds great -- they make you regional specialties, and are excited to share their culture and their food with you. Some of the hosts speak English, so lack of Italian shouldn't get in the way. I'll see if I can dig up the link.
Galleria Borghese is a breathtaking museum in its own right, but the grounds are also a great place to see Romans in their element.

When we were in Rome last summer, we happened across: the installation of the new government at the Quirinale; a transit strike (hilarious! I highly recommend it if you can arrange being in town for one); and a demonstration against or for something, the topic of which I can't recall. It was the perfect storm of Italian culture. We couldn't have planned any of it; it just came about by being there, not focused on the next tourist destination we were heading towards, and enjoying what we saw.

Have fun! Rome is beautiful. The people are warm and lovely, but don't expect them to initiate conversation. In my experience, they're reluctant to impose themselves upon you, but once you start a conversation they are happy to have an interaction.
Oh, and whatever you do, don't skip the David. I skipped the baptistery and only spend a few minutes in the Duomo, and didn't find it particularly moving or impressive. But the David was worth every moment, even with stupid tourists taking photos with their thumb up his ass.
posted by katemonster at 9:12 AM on November 6, 2007

People will suggest Siena out of habit; it's lovely, but I don't know if it's what you're looking for. The other town nearby Florence is San Gimignano, which has a medieval torture museum. Reading the guest book should provide a window into contemporary feelings about Americans and their torture tools.

Grocery stores are a good idea too. In Florence the supermarket chain is the EsseLunga.
If you have time in Florence I'd recommend making your way from the city center to Piazza Liberta, in one of the nicer residential areas in the city. There is a nice park area and places such as Cafe Liberta, a great place for cappuccinos and conversation with the locals.
posted by Curry at 9:30 AM on November 6, 2007

A unique site in Florence is La Specola. Essentially it's a repository of 18th and 19th century science and medicine. You might see it billed as a museum of "natural history", but that doesn't really convey just how macabre it is -- even more so than the collections of reliquaries housed in just about any cathedral in Italy, and that's saying something. The works of Zumbo are fascinating and rather disturbing [WARNING: do not follow these links if you get queasy at the thought of human innards, death, and decay]. I guarantee you have never seen a science museum anything like it.
posted by alopez at 10:09 AM on November 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

While supermarkets are a great idea, you should also check out some of the open air markets. Here's a great article about some of the ones in Rome:

Rome markets

In Rome, I'd also suggest taking a very brief tram from the historical center to Trastevere, a very picturesque neighborhood which will give you a much better idea of how the locals live. I lived there for several months and really enjoyed it.
posted by carrienation at 12:02 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

(I didn't read that whole question.) My suggestion is that it's fun to cycle around Lido. Bring your own helmet if you want one.
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:02 PM on November 6, 2007

Mr. Dancinglamb and I had the great pleasure of spending a week in Florence several years ago to attend a wedding. As much as I loved the whole church/museum thing, I have to tell you, it was the little, seemingly inconsequential things that I loved the most. We stayed in a small hotel on the Arno about a 10 minute walk from the Piazza del Duomo, so it was the daily walks to get to 'anywhere' that have really stuck in my memories - how totally weird it was to see a guy walking a golden retriever in on the Via dei Leoni. Finding THE most badass gelato on this teeny, tiny back street. (I warn you now, it has crack in it.)

One other thing you might want to consider with those two free afternoons is looking into the possibility of renting a car and taking a road trip out to Lucca or Sienna. They're really not that far and are quite beautiful (each one is roughly an hour away, but in opposite directions). Just remember that it's damn near impossible to find a car that is an automatic transmission in Europe -- at least it was last time I was there.

Oh, and a great restaurant that was recommended to us by the hosting Groom(in fact, he insisted we go during our stay) is a little place called Trattoria Antico Fattore in Florence. We had a great time and the food was wonderful. They don't seem to have a website, but their address/phone is
Via Lambertesca, 3
50122 Firenze (FI), Italy
+39 055 288975

Have a gelato or four for me. The white chocolate mousse one was positively yum.
posted by dancinglamb at 3:42 PM on November 6, 2007 [3 favorites]

Find a cichetti bar in Venice. Small cheap glasses of wine and amazing bar food. Most of these places are patronized only by locals. Try "Ai Promessi Sposi" off Campo S.S. Apostoli.
posted by Joleta at 7:59 PM on November 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

While there's no footie games locally while you're here, find a pub that will be showing the Scotland - Italy Euro 2008 qualifying game on the 17th. You could possibly strike up some converstations there as well; ask for their opinion on the current National coach Donadoni as a starting point.

If you want some pre-trip or plane reading about day to day life in Italy as viewed by an ex-pat, I'd suggest Tim Parks' Italian Neighboors NB: I read it in Italian, so the tone might be slightly different in English.

And there's a small MeFi meetup in the works as well.
posted by romakimmy at 4:55 AM on November 9, 2007

If you're heading out to Siena for a day, you might try finding these places...

There's a tiny village north of Siena called Fonterutoli. There's a little restaurant there, a church, and olive groves, and not much else. There's a small road across the street from the restaurant, which we followed--a 40-min walk, a couple miles--to an Etruscan gravesite in a cypress forest. (Now, graves and cemeteries don't creep me out, but this forest was so other-worldly it felt like the spirits were still active.)

Another interesting site was the San Galgano abbey, a ruined church out in the middle of nowhere (southwest of Siena).
posted by booth at 6:52 AM on November 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

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