Summer in Italy starts in August for most Italians. It’s when the kids are on school holidays and most Italians head to the beach – which is why living like locals in apartments in the cities the Italians escape or the beaches that locals go to is my idea of summer in Italy.
Summer in Italy for Italians is the month of August. While many Italians take the whole of August off, the traditional summer holiday dating back to Emperor Augustus is called Ferragosto and runs from 15 August until 1 September. This is when the very best restaurants and many shops and small family-operated businesses close.
However, not everything closes as not everyone goes on holidays, so it’s a perfect time to get away from the centres of cities where the tourist traps will be open, and instead rent an apartment in neighbourhoods like the Navigli in Milan, which will be buzzing with locals.
And when you’re ready for the beach, avoid the Cinque Terra, Portofino, Positano, and the Amalfi Coast, and make a beeline for the coastal areas that Italians go in Calabria, Puglia, Sardinia, and the quieter towns on the Italian Lakes.
Summer in Italy is Best Spent Living Like Locals
The first summer in Italy for Terence and I was a hurried one. It was our first summer in Europe and we were young and we chose to backpack. We did one of those crazy “if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium” holidays. We visited too many cities in too short a time, travelling by train, feasting on cheese and salami and cheap red wine. We stayed in cheap but far from cheerful two-star hotels, but we loved it all the same.
I remember catching the vaporetto down Venice‘s Grand Canal, gazing up at the obviously more affluent tourists sipping Prosecco in glasses (not plastic cups) on elegant palazzo terraces (not windowsills, as we did in our budget pensione) I think I actually sighed out loud. I remember thinking to myself that one day that was how we were going to spend summer in Italy.
Smitten with Italy – particularly with its fantastic food – we returned again and again. We’d hire a car and drive around, spending longer in each place – at first several days, then a week. One trip was focused on northern Italy, from the Dolomites to the Italian Lakes, another largely devoted to the south – from Rome we went to Naples, Capri, the Amalfi Coast and Positano, Sicily, and the Aeolian Islands. Ah, Panarea…
Initially we still stayed in hotels, albeit nicer ones than that first trip. We were a little older, but not yet wiser – because in Italy extra euros might get you a better bathroom and glassware, but it doesn’t always buy extra space. It took us a while to realise that we could be renting an apartment for a fraction of the price.
Over time, we began to seek out more interesting, idiosyncratic and intimate hotels. And that’s when we started to think about how we really liked to travel. In Italy, small boutique hotels are often on back streets, tucked into forgotten corners of quaint, quiet neighbourhoods.
It’s amazing what a difference location makes: being in those out-of-the-way spots gave us a taste for everyday life beyond the postcard images of churches and beaches into the laneways where washing was strung from balconies and old people gossiped on park benches.
The next year, we took things a step further, booking a studio in a centuries-old palazzo in Venice that I found on a real estate agent’s website. There was no HomeAway or even Airbnb back then. Located at the end of a skinny alley, between Cannaregio and Castello, two of Venice’s least touristy sestieri (districts), it really felt like a secret.
We had to convert our sofa into a bed each night, the bathroom was bigger than the kitchen, and we didn’t have that terrace I coveted. In fact, our two tiny balconies weren’t much bigger than the two-star windowsills where we’d sipped vino years earlier. But there were frescoes on the walls, antique candelabra, and the Rialto market with its fresh produce was a short stroll away.
Each afternoon gondolas would glide down our picturesque little canal with camera-snapping tourists who had no hesitation including us in their pictures. Did they envy us sitting up there with our tumblers of table wine from a hole-in-the-wall shop around the corner where staff filled our empty one-litre water bottles from a wooden barrel for two euros?
We didn’t care. We got more of a thrill out of saying buongiorno to the guys who manoeuvred their small barges down the same canal to collect our rubbish twice a week. Ironically, it was participating in the routines and rituals of everyday life – taking the rubbish out, shopping in the markets and cooking, the very things we usually go on holiday to avoid – that gave us the biggest kick. They afforded us an insight into local life that you don’t get as tourists. And we were hooked.
A couple of years later, after we’d established ourselves as guidebook writers, we spent much of one summer in Italy in Milan in an apartment overlooking the Naviglio Grande canal, above. It was August, too, and Milan was (blissfully) like a ghost town in spots, with everyone on holidays. Those left behind, however, were very much enjoying themselves.
An arty neighbourhood, the Navigli was fairly quiet mid-week in August, but on weekends the canal-side streets livened up with an antique market, and after dark the neighbourhood positively buzzed when intrepid foodies descended upon the local aperitivo bars and trattorias.
Eager to live like locals, every evening we participated in the Italians’ beloved aperitivo ritual, sipping and snacking at different bars. As in Venice, we took our cues from the little old ladies pulling their vinyl shopping trollies when it came to deciding which specialist vendors to frequent and what produce to buy. And it delighted us when our favourite cheese-seller tried to teach us how to order in Italian, little by little, each day.
As part of our 12-month grand tour we returned to Italy to live like locals – in Puglia, Sardinia and Venice. In Puglia, we stayed in a trullo, a whitewashed, conical house among olive groves just outside Alberobello.
Our caretaker, Maria, would turn up unannounced to hang a bunch of semi-dried tomatoes from the ceiling of our charming little kitchen or bring her wooden board, rolling pin and colossal bag of flour over to teach us how to make the local pasta. Another day she showed us how to stoke the wood-fired oven attached to the home and taught us how to make Puglian style pizza. We insisted she call her family to come over and we all feasted together by candlelight in the courtyard.
But it was that early summer in Venice (before all the hoards of tourists arrived) that was the most memorable. We finally graduated to a sprawling palazzo apartment overlooking the Grand Canal – even if the mezzanine-level bedroom looked like it had been added in the 1970s, the crockery was of the same era, and the wallpaper was peeling.
We stocked the fridge with prosecco, Aperol and Campari, and established our own aperitivo ritual. Each evening we stood at our window – no, we still didn’t have a terrace – and sipped our homemade spritz while watching the vaporetto cruise by. And I know I sighed.
(A different version of this story appeared in the Guardian in 2003.)
Our Tips to Spending Summer in Italy Living Like Locals
- Instead of trying to see the whole of Italy in one summer, when trains will be packed and roads gridlocked, settle into an apartment in one city to soak up culture and everyday life.
- Rent an apartment in cities like Milan that while a lot quieter than more touristy cities, such as Florence and Venice, are still lively. Venice, as much as we love it, is mad in summer. Book Milan apartments on our partner accommodation site Booking.com
- In summer in Italy cities like Milan can sizzle, so book an apartment with air-conditioning and/or a corner apartment with plenty of fans windows on two sides of the building for the best breezes.
- Do as the locals do and go out in the morning, return to your apartment after lunch for a siesta or relax and read a book, then head out again in the late afternoon or just before sunset. Remember it won’t get dark until 9pm in summer in Italy.
- Adopt local habits and rituals, such as shopping the markets every morning, enjoying a long lunch, and participating in the nightly aperitivo ritual.
- Check local entertainment websites such as Where Milan to see what the locals who aren’t heading to the beach are getting up to. There are always summer concerts and festivals.
- One thing the locals who stay in Milan in August will be doing is shopping. It’s summer sales time with incredible bargains. Look for the signs that say ‘soldi’.
- Note that many of the Michelin-starred and World’s 50 Best restaurants will be closed, which means you’ll be eating in local neighbourhood trattorias and pizzerias, which will be busy with the locals who have stayed at home.
- And when you’re ready to head to the beach, go where the locals go to the beaches in Calabria, Puglia, Sardinia, Rimini, and more local spots on the Italian Lakes. They’ll be just as crowded as Venice and Florence, but they’ll be crowded with more locals than tourists.
Are you spending the Italian summer in Italy – like the locals or are you doing the touristy thing?