This article may contain compensated links. See our full disclosure here
Travel has a way of shifting your perspective no matter how you approach it, but with insights from someone that has traveled and experienced a country extensively, you can learn about ways to travel and things to do that will definitely enrich your experience when you visit, creating human connections and beautiful memories of Italia along the way.
In this episode, we welcome back author Corinna Cooke, who writes the Glam Italia series of guides for Italy and who runs boutique small tours all over Italy. Last year Corinna was on a podcast episode that was more about the practical elements of itinerary planning (episode 53), but in this episode, we are delving into those special experiences that you need to plan a little ahead for, that will take your Italy trip go from great to potentially life-changing.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- When planning your trip, think about what you’d like to be looking back on in a few years’ time. You’ll want to have seen all the big things, like the Colosseum or the Vatican, but there’ll also be so many buildings and fountains that you’ll photograph that in a few years time when you’re looking through your photos, you won’t even remember what they’re called. The things that you’re going to remember most are the things that you feel – the experiences that have made you feel something. If you have a special kind of experience, with human connection – every time you look at that photograph, you will relive how that made you feel
- Cities like Venice, Rome, Florence or Naples get very busy, with a lot going on. A great tip when staying in one of these cities is to get up early and go walk the city then – before the rest of the city and particularly the tourists descend. There’s a huge difference if you go walking around the city at 7:30 in the morning than if you do the exact same walk at 10:00 am. You see everything without people everywhere and you get more of a feel for the city. You’re much more likely to fall in love with a city when you see it like that rather than when you’re surrounded by 50 tour busloads of people. If you’re up at 6.30 in Florence, you can stand on the Ponte Vecchio and there’s almost no one else there (though as it’s great for taking photos so you will likely see the odd Social Influencer getting their shot)
- Life is too short to have an Italian breakfast somewhere ugly! So when Corinna is out and about (particularly on an early morning walk, or when you’ve just arrived somewhere new), she keeps a lookout for somewhere to have her morning cappuccino and a cornetto. Whether in a big city (even if you’ve been before) or going to a small town when walking around, scoping out for the perfect place for breakfast? If in Tuscany or, Umbria, it might be somewhere close to the edge of the city wall, on the hill with incredible views out over the countryside. Or when in a big city, look out for that cute little piazza with those ochre-colored buildings and the vines going up the side. Also, keep an eye out to see who’s going in and out. Better to find somewhere with Italians going in and out rather than people from the tour buses people. When you find the perfect spot – it’s not just that the coffee tastes so good, it’s not just the decadence of the cornetto and the pistachio cream – it’s the whole ambiance. Plus if you pick the right place, as Italians love to talk you’ll converse with someone and get that human connection (plus if you go back the next day there’s a fair chance you’ll be remembered which is always nice)
- When you’re noticing these places you want to go back to, marking them in Google Maps is a handy way to find them again later – but it can be a good idea to make a note as to why you saved it, as you add more and more of them and you might not be able to remember why you flagged that particular place
- Taking photos, especially in the smaller towns, of the places you want to go back to can also be a useful way of finding them again
- Aperitivo hour is where Italians, at the end of the day on their way home from work, stop and have an aperitivo – a drink accompanied by a snack. If you’re somewhere really touristy you’ll probably get a bowl of potato chips with it, but when you get a little bit further back from that, they might bring out a little wooden board with some cheeses, some little croquette – a variety of delicious bites. So you just sit back, enjoy a drink (often a spritz) and a chat or some people watching. It’s a lovely reward at the end of the day and another place to scope out beforehand – find that lovely piazza or somewhere with an amazing view, maybe a rooftop bar, for your aperitivo. And you don’t have to have a spritz or an alcoholic drink – the vibe and the participation are as much what it’s all about
- Ancient Rome 2000 years ago, was the most advanced society on Earth and evidence of it can be found all over Italy. Sometimes you can literally just stumble upon it. There are many places where you can go underground. Churches that have underground parts to them or all kinds of different restaurants – maybe one that was built on top of a Roman Amphitheater.
- After the Dark ages hit, much of the history and information from Ancient Rome was lost until the 1800s, but there is still so much in our modern-day lives that are linked to this time. From architecture, roads, sewage systems, even zebra crossings, and fried chicken shops (listen to our podcast episode New Discoveries in Ancient Pompeii for more on that!)
- It’s an incredible place to visit but going to Pompeii needs some planning beforehand. If you’re going between May and October, it gets incredibly hot and humid and there’s not really any break from the sun. So a great tip is to be at the gates ready when they open at 9 am. So arrived around 8:38 8:40 to be one of the first through the gate. It’s also best to go with a guide. Without anyone to give you the context of what you are seeing it’s just not the same experience. Plus don’t forget comfortable shoes, a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water
- You can take the knowledge you learn from the stories and the details you will get from a Pompeii guide when you then visit other Roman settlements like Paestum
- Going underground in Italy, and in particular Rome – there is a whole host of treasures. Modern Rome today is around 25 meters higher than Rome was in the time of Julius Caesar, so you have 2000 plus years of dirt and dust and building and everything else that goes on and it’s then really exciting to go down below ground and just see ancient Roman homes and all the things that are still down there like incredible mosaic floors that have survived 2000 years but are perfect and beautiful. There are lots of churches that you can go down beneath, underground and they’ve opened up several old apartment buildings – believe it or not, the Romans actually invented apartment buildings!
- The high-speed trains in Italy aren’t just a way to get from one place to another – they are an experience on their own. They have these enormous picture windows, you’re sitting in leather comfy chairs with a coffee as you watch the epic sites of Italy go by – countryside with vineyards and trees and rolling hills and castles. The high-speed Italo can get up to 300 miles per hour. It’s a very civilized way to travel. Some people find the train stations chaotic, but the chaos of the train station is only chaotic until you understand the system, so after having done it a couple of times it will be lots easier, quicker and calmer
- Taking a gondola trip in Venice is a unique experience but although it’s cheaper to get on a gondola with other people, it’s not a very special experience. Do as Corinne does on her tours and keep it to 2 people per gondola. Sure it’s more expensive but you’re sitting side by side in those beautiful velvet chairs, seeing what you’re supposed to see, experiencing it how it is meant to be experienced
- The other tip for a wonderful gondola experience is to avoid the Grand Canal and ask to be taken off (a trip shared by our guest Venice guide Elisabetta in The Story of the Venetian Gondola). The Grand Canal is the main thoroughfare and has all the water buses and water taxi motorboats zooming around and so not only is it busy but the water can get quite rough. Castello, Cannaregio and Dorsoduro are all great places to head on your gondola ride. The Bridge of Size is also best avoided as it’s small and gets incredibly crowded and can lead to a gondola traffic jam!
- Sometimes people have complained about having a grumpy gondolier – a good way of avoiding that is taking a good look at the gondoliers touting for business. You can tell who’s got a friendly smiling face, as opposed to the ones who look like they are sick of tourists. Then engage them in conversation, asking where they go on the ride? how much? how long? and ask their name. If you then say you’ll come back later for a ride and when you do, you’ve remembered the Gondolier’s name and you’ve returned – then you’re starting off on a great footing as friends!
- Avoiding the busy areas leads to a much more chilled-out experience – so you can hear the oars on the water and not just the sound of motorboat engines and other tourists. Being somewhere more peaceful is more likely to lead to a more chilled-out Gondolier too!
- If you’re away from the cities and deep into the countryside, then an interesting experience is to find an abandoned (or almost abandoned) town or village. This takes a bit of research before you go but it’s so interesting walking around centuries-old building that is empty and maybe partly fallen down, and just wondering what life was like there and who owned and lived in those homes
- Another fun idea to explore the Italian countryside is to do it with no agenda. Perhaps base yourself in a town and then each day just point the car in a different direction and just go and see what you find
- Visiting a winery should definitely be on your list but again, doing some research is well worth the effort to avoid going to a winery that has the big bus tours coming through. Look for boutique and family-run wineries that are smaller and offer a more intimate experience. To find family-owned wineries where the families are multiple generations deep is not so hard to find – they’re actually all over the place. What happens when you go to this kind of winery is that you get the family’s passion – to tell you about their family, their story, the villa that the family has lived in for generations, and the story of their wines
- Many of the little wineries are organic or ‘bio’ as they call it, so everything they do is done in the most natural of ways – and they’ll explain and show you all these things. When you’re sitting down to have your wine tasting, everything – the foods they’re bringing out – will all have all come from in their immediate area. The cheeses that you’re eating will come from the farm next door and the prosciutto, the guy will be sourced from nearby and will be freshly cut from the bone. You get completely unique experiences – whether it’s going to be a picnic in the vineyard or something set up in their cellar or they’ve got a special room and it’s all laid out with beautiful linens – enjoying something unique to that winery and family will certainly stay with you forever
- Although you might think that going to wineries or going for aperitivo are not something you can do if you don’t drink – actually, with a little pre-planning and knowing the right places to go, these are all things where you can have just as wonderful as an experience as it’s about the surroundings, the food, the ambiance and, of course, the human connection which will create the most special memories
About our guest – Corinna Cooke
Author Corinna Cooke is a favorite guest on Untold Italy. Originally from New Zealand she fell in love with Italy thanks to a high school art history teacher who introduced her to Italian Renaissance art. After moving to London and traveling throughout Europe, she couldn’t stop returning to her beloved Italy.
Now living in Phoenix in the United States, Corinna is a woman of many skills. She leads several Glam Italia small group tours to Italy each year and writes guidebooks of the same name exploring the her favorite corners of beautiful Italia. And her “day job” is a make-up artist. But, her heart is always called to Italy and her first love.. the city of Rome!
You can find Corinna on these channels:
- Websites: CorinnaCooke.com – Corinna’s author website and Corinnabsworld – Corinna’s blog
- Travel Item recommendations – Corinna’s Amazon page
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/corinnatravels
Places mentioned in the show
- Ponte Vecchio – meaning “Old Bridge” is a medieval stone arch bridge over the Arno River
- San Cosimato Market – market that runs six days a week in the Piazza San Cosimato in Trastevere
- Arezzo – town in Tuscany
- Paestum – on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the town is the site of some of the best-preserved and important Ancient Greek ruins in the world
- Agrigento – the Greek Valley of the Temples in Sicily
- Janiculum – ancient site on Janiculum Hill in Trastevere, Rome
- Castello, Cannaregio and Dorsoduro – districts in Venice
- Bridge of Sighs – famous bridge in Venice made of white limestone, with windows with stone bars as was part of a prison
- San Gimignano – picture-perfect Tuscan village, worth adding to any itinerary
- Buon Anno – Happy New Year in Italian
- Carabinieri – national gendarmerie of Italy who primarily carry out domestic policing duties
- vaporetto – Venice water bus
Resources from Untold Italy
- If you’re short of time in Rome but dying to see the wonders of Pompeii look at the options for doing it in a day trip in Pompeii day trip from Rome – Best Tours & DIY Options
- Listen: to our previous episodes with Corinna: Episode #081: Packing for Italy, Episode #053: Planning the perfect Italy itinerary, Episode #006: Florence highlights, and Episode #49: Exploring Florence with Corinna Cooke and for some fascinating history learn more about visiting the ancient city of Pompeii in Episode #061: New Discoveries in Ancient Pompeii as well as the history of the Gondolas in Venice in Episode #087 The Story of the Venetian Gondola
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.