10 Lessons I Learned Backpacking Through Italy

by Natalie Yera

After a four-hour train ride from Zurich, my friends and I arrived in the beautiful country of Italy. Exhausted, in need of a shower and craving true Italian pizza, we couldn’t wait to begin our eight-day adventure. Little did we know how much of a struggle it would be to order just a pie. Backpacking through Italy taught me several lessons—on everything from footwear to interacting with waiters. Follow this advice and you’ll find your trip will go much smoother than mine.

1. Invest in Good Walking Shoes

Italy is the definition of ancient Europe with narrow cobblestone streets. I quickly learned that wearing black ankle boots—although fashionable—was not practical. Backpackers walk everywhere in Italy, so be smart and wear comfortable shoes.

2. Make an Itinerary

Italy is full of historical sites, and I didn’t come close to seeing half of them. Having a plan to maximize your time is essential and something I wish I had done better. You aren’t going to see everything you want in one day; know your time frame and plan accordingly.

3. Pack Light

I missed the memo that backpacking actually entails carrying a backpack on your back for miles and hours at a time. You don’t need your whole wardrobe; you need a few staples to mix and match that can withstand heavy usage.

4. Accept Some Weight Gain

I gained almost 5 pounds and, honestly, who cares? This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and that meant consuming everything and anything I wanted. Eat gelato four times a day and pasta as a snack if that makes you happy. I did, and I don’t regret a second of it.

5. Take the Train

To get around, my friends and I used the EuroRail system. We came across a luxury train in Milan and overcrowded, dark, outdated overnight trains to Florence. Despite the inconsistent quality, trains were an efficient way to travel across Italy, and they were cheaper than flying. For those traveling on a budget, I would recommend looking into the EuroRail system and preparing yourself for a hit-or-miss but still worthwhile experience.

6. Learn Some of the Language

Out of the six people in my group, none of us knew a lick of Italian. Not being able to clearly communicate with locals was frustrating. Many tourist areas are full of English speakers willing to help, but the real trouble comes when you enter a town or province that isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s always helpful to know a few phrases or have access to a print or electronic translator.

7. Skip Starbucks

Italians take their coffee very seriously. Yes, Starbucks does exist, but part of backpacking is trying new things and immersing yourself in local culture. Go to an Italian coffee shop, get yourself an espresso and enjoy the moment.

8. Forget Fashion Week

Even if you wear your most fashionable outfit, every Italian will be more stylish than you. The way they carry themselves and make an all-black outfit with leopard shoes pop is a skill. Backpacking is not about being a fashion guru; it’s about having experiences you’ll never forget. Leave your stilettos at home. And maybe splurge on a good Italian scarf.

9. Consider Airbnb

We mostly stayed in Airbnbs. It was one of the best decisions we made. We were able to rent entire apartments for just 12 euros each per night in both Venice and Milan. We had amazing accommodations, and our hosts were fantastic. Staying with locals gave us access to food, nightlife, cultural events and firsthand knowledge of the city we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

10. Give Up the Lizzie McGuire Dream

Don’t expect to fall in love with an Italian superstar who whisks you away on a Vespa. That probably will not happen. Don’t go into a backpacking trip thinking you are going to meet the love of your life. Go in with the intention of living completely and totally in the moment. Safe travels!

About the Author

Natalie Yera is in her first year of the M.A. program in publishing and writing at Emerson College. She recently returned from spending five months studying in London and a month backpacking through parts of Eastern and Western Europe. Natalie has a deep love for Corgis and thin crust pizza. She is originally from Buffalo, New York. Follow her at @NatalieYera.
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Photos by Natalie Yera
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