Under-appreciated Must Visits: Italian Cities

It’s impossible to see all (or even most) of what Italy has to offer in just two weeks.  That’s why typically, on a first trip to Italy, most Americans will stick to the basics and visit Rome, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre, Positano, etc.  While these cities have a lot to offer, they are very popular cities for sight-seeing which creates tourist crowds and rushes to see every old church and renaissance sculpture.  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of sight-seeing.  I much prefer to explore cities and cultures by eating and drinking in different spots and meandering around.  I find that a lot of the “must sees” by other people’s standards are just not as enjoyable for me.  For example, when we went to Florence, Luca and I didn’t feel pressured to go to the Uffizi.  We knew we probably wouldn’t want to spend the time required to enjoy it, and were busy eating at aperitivo.

Knowing this, it’s not surprising that our favorite cities were some of the less popular ones for tourists from abroad.  Here’s the list of cities/towns we went to on the two week trip:

Milan, Santa Margherita Ligure,
Verona, Venice, Sirmione, Bologna,
Florence, Volterra, San Gimignano, Pisa, Lucca, and Portovenere.

If you are interested in what my top experiences on this trip were, see this post.

Of these cities, Bologna, Lucca, and Verona were particularly exciting for me.  So, without further delay, let’s discuss why these three cities are amazing for visiting (and maybe living?!).

Bologna

Bologna is the largest city in Emilia-Romagna, a region known for bringing parmesan and fancy cars to the world.  It is also home to University of Bologna, considered the oldest university worldwide and one of the most prestigious in Italy.  I loved Bologna because it was a very liberal, foodie city.  The very first thing we did was have lunch in a small alleyway with tons of restaurants and fresh markets.  We had three parmesan cheeses, each aged for a different amount of time, some wine, sandwiches and salad.

Bologna lunch
Luca doesn’t love this pic 😀

After lunch, we wandered around for a few hours, and went up a tower in the historical center.  One of the towers was leaning more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!  We also tried piadina, a typical regional food.  During the daytime, Bologna is very chill and fun to stroll around.  The free-spirited culture bleeds through when observing and talking to locals: we were offered weed three times and saw a woman walking around with one of her breasts showing.  I really admire the independence and confidence required to embrace your body like that and appreciate the liberal and non-judgmental environment of Bologna that people can feel comfortable in.  This was also apparent when a man walking home from work was offered weed by someone who appeared to be from a very different background, and instead of ignoring the conversation as so many of us do in NYC, he politely declined, engaged in some lively banter, and shook the offerer’s hand as he left.

At nighttime, the city is incredibly vibrant.  We were there on a Thursday, and there was still so much to do at night.  We had dinner at Osteria dell’Orsa, and sat at shared table where we met an engineering student from Genoa.  The food and wine were delicious, but the cherry on top was that we now had a friend to go out with for the evening!

Bologna 1
Osteria dell’Orsa meal

Bologna has a very active nightlife.  Since it has less tourist appeal, the city is relatively quiet during the day and at night it’s busier because that’s when most working and studying locals have free time.  All throughout the center of town people were eating and drinking on the streets and at outdoor cafes.  I tried grappa for the first and last time, and conversed and walked around with Luca and our friend from dinner.  We also found the secret 3 arrows !  We capped the night off with a spritz for the walk back to the Airbnb.

Overall, Bologna felt the most like a city I would want to move abroad for.  There was a very relaxed vibe, but still so much to do.

Lucca

It’s difficult to top Bologna for me, as you can tell by the previous section.  To be honest, I loved Bologna more than I did Lucca, but Lucca was one of my favorite cities to visit on my trip, although I’m not quite sure why.  Maybe we can figure out together!  While I was only in Lucca for about 18 hours, I left the city with a lingering feeling of warmth and peace of mind.  After finding parking, (easily, I might add), we rented a group bike to explore the wall.  Lucca is a walled city in the northern, coastal part of Tuscany.  It was so much fun to explore the city by riding around on top of the wall.  We also engaged in some turf wars with fellow tourists on bikes.  After returning the bike, we went up a tower (of course… where didn’t we do that?) and explored alleyways with stracciatella gelato in hand.

Lucca 1
Selfie atop the tower in Lucca

At some point, the sun was descending and it was obviously time for aperitivo.  We had a couple of spritz and pizzas at the unlimited buffet, and went to the agriturismo we were staying the night at.  After checking in, we had dinner at a neighboring town with a balsamic coated parmesan so fresh that I can still imagine it.

Maybe it was the juxtaposition between Lucca and the city we visited before, Pisa, that made Lucca so much more enjoyable.  Pisa is a clear tourist haven, while Lucca is less so.  For example, during lunch at Pisa we had a menu that said the following:

img_1126.jpg

People didn’t seem to be in this sort of rush in Lucca.  The city inspired slowing down and appreciating the sights around.  Again, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what was so special about Lucca.  All I can say is that I left with a feeling that paints all of my memories with a beautiful glow.  Really though, for some reason, I can’t remember it NOT being golden hour while I was there.

Verona

Verona is in Veneto, the region with Venice and the birthplace of the aperol spritz.  As you may have guessed from what I enjoyed about Lucca and Bologna, my favorite part of Verona was wandering aimlessly around the cobblestone streets.  Verona is a well sought-out tourist destination, though I usually don’t hear about Americans visiting it on their first trips to Italy.  There were a lot of historical sights to see, such as the Verona Arena and the Romeo and Juliet balcony (this is probably why so many of the tourists were children on school trips).  Our first stop in Verona was to Romeo and Juliet’s balcony.  There was a nice statue of Juliet and a gate filled with locks representing love.  Tradition is to pose with the statue by holding Juliet’s breasts.

Verona 2

Next, we went to the arena and took a walk by the river.  There was a bridge (Castelvecchio bridge) with several lookouts over the river, and on one end of the bridge, there was a beautiful castle (Castelvecchio).  We chilled in the garden of the castle before heading to lunch.

At lunch, Luca and I tried the regional red wine, Valpolicella.  Afterwards, we walked around the shopping area and soaked in the quaint charm of Verona.  In the evening, we met up with one of Luca’s friends for a few spritz at aperitivo and made our way back to the Bed and Breakfast we stayed at.

I really enjoyed Verona because it struck a perfect balance between having a lot to see culturally and historically, and being a great place to just wander in.  There weren’t too many people and it wasn’t so large that walking around town seemed daunting, and the streets were lined with clothing boutiques and gelaterias.  It really gave the feeling of walking around an old European town.  I highly suggest taking a day or two to visit Verona when you make a trip to Venice.

This is it for Under-appreciated must-visits, Italian Cities edition.  I plan to go to Italy this winter to ski (!!!), so I will probably post about that experience in early 2019.  For now though, this is the last of my posts about Italy.  My next travel post will likely be about Quebec.  In the meantime, if you haven’t already and it sounds interesting, check out some of my neuroscience posts.

Thanks for reading!

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