This article was written and submitted for publication on the Italy Logue by Chris Bright.
As any traveler to Italy can attest to, finding one’s way around can be a confusing and frustrating experience. The anxiety only rises when seeking out a specific address, such as a hotel when first arriving. Many of us from the New World are at a distinct disadvantage because all the rules we’ve grown up with are thrown out the window. We are accustomed to grid layouts, typically aligning to the points of the compass, and long avenues where each block resets to the next 100. It all makes perfect sense, right? Well, those cities weren’t built two thousand years ago, now were they? So that’s the trade-off.
This article will provide some simple tips that should help you when faced with finding your hotel or restaurant in cities and towns throughout Italy.
City Layout: Start at the Center
The challenge of navigating Italian cities starts in the same place that draws most of us to Italy, namely the countless centuries of history. For the most part, the layout of the cities are defined by their historic growth going back centuries. When looking at a map, they often grow in concentric circles outward from the center, much like the rings of a tree. The center is occupied by a cathedral or central piazza and is often the epicenter for most visitors. When arriving, locate this area and it will become the North Star for your navigation in this locale.
From there, all of the main roads typically radiate outward like spokes on a wagon wheel. If the city was around when the Romans were in charge, then there will often be a wall or some sort of fortification and corresponding gates. These gates, called portas, are often major landmarks and define different sections of the city.
Similarly, there will be radial roads, with several of them strung together that form a major continuous ring. In larger cities, there will ultimately be a ‘beltway’ surrounding the city that makes travel by car a lot simpler.
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The smallest ring encircles the oldest section of town where streets are narrow and are difficult for drivers because they are random and one-way. Avoid these areas at all costs in a car because neither your car and nor your sanity may survive in tact! Better to visit these areas by foot, using public transportation if the walk is a bit daunting. The train station, or stazione, which is a more modern addition, typically resides in the second or third ring and are generally a bit away from the center.
Every rule has an exception, however, and if a city is by the sea then often the main area will be the harbor or near the seaside and will radiate outward from there. Other major geographic landmarks such as rivers and mountains can also break down the system a bit, but generally the principles will be the same.
Occasionally, modern city plans did come about, most notably in Turin where Napoleon tried to create a Little Paris so the streets are, more or less, in a nice grid system. Buon lavoro, Napoleone!
Why Does This Street Have Three Names? Street Names and Numbers in Italy
Focusing in on finding specific streets and addresses, the good news is that generally Italian communities use a common system when naming streets and assigning street numbers. In addition, Italian streets are consistently well marked with signs that are attached to the sides of building on every street corner.
Urban planning in medieval times was a bit more crude so streets simply ways to connect various piazzas and parks, so most streets are rarely more than a few blocks long. As one moves outward, newer avenues and boulevards appear that are main thoroughfares, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Even though on a map a single street goes for a fair distance, on closer inspection one will find that it has several names with the piazzas demarcating the transition points. With such a rich history, it is important to have as many opportunities as possible to honor local and national heroes and religious icons, so enjoy the variety!
Street numbers present the piece of the puzzle in locating a destination. One side of the street will count in odd numbers, the other even. Where the street begins, the first building on one side will be “1” and the other “2”. The second will be “3” and “4”, respectively. Now this can get confusing when the buildings are not similar in scale. It is possible, and not uncommon, to have a small number such as “6” sitting across from “23”, for example. Just roll with it and be thankful that there is at least some system in place!
[Editor’s note: In Venice, this can get especially confounding, as the numbers on one side of the street are often going up as the numbers on the other side are going down. But at least there’s a website that helps find Venice addresses for you.]
One final tip is that building numbers tend to be placed relatively high on buildings, definitely not at eye level. This is probably so delivery vehicles and emergency responders can see them above rows of parked cars. If you are trying to find a place on foot, try walking on the far side of the street – it will save you some neck strain.
With these few tips in mind and some idea of what to expect, your next visit to a new city in Italy should go a little easier.