The smell of garlic in the air, gelato conveniently located around every corner, and bus tours galore! Mainland Italy is full of big-name tourist cities, such as Rome, Florence, Naples, and Venice. But these cities break from the norm. They cater to tourists, especially during the peak travel season. Travel to one of Italy’s many local towns or to the island of Sicily and you’ll experience a whole different side of Italy: the real side-where life moves slower, and tourists don’t have the rule of the city.
I arrived in Sicily in early June, not fully knowing what to expect. By this time, I had only traveled to big-name tourist cities in Europe and had no idea what vacationing in a Sicilian town would be like. I stayed in Alcamo, a small town about an hour outside of Palermo. While there weren’t any giant monuments, like the Colosseum or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, that would be a guaranteed “must see” in this town, I had a great time witnessing everyday life for the locals. Here are the five main differences I found between staying in a small town and a tourist town.
The town shuts down in the afternoon
A common custom in Italy is to close everything down in mid-afternoon (anywhere from around 1:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m.) to go home for an afternoon nap, or “riposo,” as they call it. During peak season in tourist cities, you won’t have to worry about this. As the towns caters to tourists, all of the restaurants, attractions, and shops stay open throughout the day. As for the rest of Italy, don’t expect anything to be open during their riposo hours. They take it very seriously; the town will literally look deserted. I didn’t see one shop open or even another person on the street during riposo in the small towns of Sicily. You’ll need to prepare for this, so you don’t plan on going out for lunch at 2:00 p.m. and end up going hungry for an extra couple of hours.
The roads are awful
This one doesn’t apply to all small towns around Italy, but it's so true in Sicily. Sicily is made up of a bunch of small towns separated by farm land and open fields. During my 2015 visit, they were just in the process of building a centralized highway system that would make travel from one town to the next bearable. However, they were a long way away from finishing, so for the time being, we had to drive on awful roads…and I mean awful. There were giant potholes and cracks spotting the roads. Orange traffic cones were placed around them as a caution which inevitably just took up more space on the already narrow roads. Many times there wasn’t enough room for more than one car, so if I came across a car driving the opposite direction, I’d have to pull over off of the road to allow them to pass. Also, be prepared for the GPS to not recognize all the roads and for it to take an extra two or three hours than you expected to get somewhere.
The food is more authentic
Of course there’s no better place to go for authentic Italian food than Italy, but eating right outside the Colosseum in Rome can be overpriced and lower quality than a small place in a local town. Traveling around to smaller towns, you’ll see more than just pizza and pasta. You’ll find foods that the locals eat that you may have never heard of. During my trip to Sicily, I found Arancini (fried rice balls filled with cheese and tomato sauce) everywhere. It was in almost every restaurant I went into, but I had never heard of it before, nor had I seen it anywhere in the touristy cities in mainland Italy.
Not everybody speaks English
No matter where you go in touristy Italy, you’ll find someone that can speak English. You’ll be able to order food in restaurants and ask for directions without a problem. Outside of the tourist cities, it may be more difficult. There were people in Sicily who learned English in school but haven’t used it in years, if at all. So, if you venture into a small town, be prepared for communication to be more difficult.
You’ll have to look for things to do
When visiting Rome, Florence, Venice, or any of the other big-name cities, you’ll find tour books and websites filled with things to do. You may even stress yourself out by packing your days full of all the things you want to see in a short amount of time. Traveling to a small town is a lot different. There are no huge “must dos” or tour books filled with suggestions. However, each town has its own unique charm. Try walking around the town and asking locals (or the hotel staff) what they would suggest doing. During my trip to Alcamo, Sicily, everyone met in the center of town and set up a giant projector screen to watch an international soccer game. While it wasn't as glamorous as riding a gondola in Venice or throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain, it was a unique experience. I've never witnessed a town so close that they all came together to watch a soccer game.
Traveling to a small town is a whole different experience than traveling to one of the big cities. You’ll be greeted with a more authentic form of Italy: you’ll get to experience what the locals really eat and how they really live during their day-to-day life. None of this is to say that touristy Italy isn’t amazing-because it is. The food is still great, the views are still amazing, and it’s still nice to see the big monuments. But if you get a chance, take some time to travel to a small town to experience a different side of Italy, one that the tour books and articles can’t even begin to explain.