When I travel in Italy, I like to try to fit in as much as possible and try to avoid looking like a tourist. Admittedly, this can be tough to do – when you’re walking around an unfamiliar city with a camera hanging around your neck, you’re kind of going to stand out a bit. But Italians are world-famous for their sense of fashion and style, and I really hate the idea that I can be picked out as an American at first glance, so I do what I can – and I’m going to share some of my tips here with you about how to look like a local in Italy during your summer vacation.
Now, I need to mention a couple of things at the outset here. First, anytime you’re visiting a place other than your home, for reasons other than business (and even sometimes then), you’re a tourist. Personally, I hate the whole “traveler” vs. “tourist” argument, and consider the two words to be virtually interchangeable. That doesn’t mean, however, that all tourists are created equally, and these tips are meant to help those of you who would like to blend in a bit more do so.
Second, I realize there’s a whole contingent of travelers who doesn’t care what they look like when they’re traveling – so long as they’re fully clothed, and their belongings can be crammed into a bag that’s small enough to fit in an overhead bin, they don’t care what they’re wearing. Obviously, most of my tips here aren’t going to appeal to you. But let me just say that the less you look like a tourist, the less of a target you are for pickpockets and other thieves who are just looking for the next hapless foreigner to scam or steal from. So, while you may not go from hiking boots to stilettos by the time you finish reading this post, you may look at your travel wardrobe a little differently.
Okay, so with that out of the way, let’s get to my tips for looking like a local in Italy!
- There is such a thing as “too casual.” While at home, you may not give a second thought to running around town or going out to eat wearing khaki shorts and an Old Navy T-shirt with your tennis shoes and a baseball cap, that kind of attire just isn’t seen on anyone but the tourists (yes, it’s mainly Americans I’m talking about here) in Italy. The Italian definition of “casual” is much more dressy than most of us are used to. You can bring skirts or a lightweight pair of linen pants instead of shorts; nicer blouses or tank-tops, button-down or polo shirts without logos (or flags) on them instead of logo T-shirts; and a comfortable pair of black or brown walking shoes or flats instead of tennis shoes. These clothes may require a bit more ironing before you wear them (fashion has its price), so check that your hotel has an iron and ironing board you can use.
- Backpacks are not purses. If you’re taking a day-hike through the Tuscan countryside, or packing enough stuff for a trip to the beach, then a backpack is ideal. If, on the other hand, you’re spending the day walking around Florence or Venice, a backpack is not only too bulky and awkward (especially in busy and crowded shops, cafes, and museums), you might as well wear a big target on your back that says, “I’m a tourist! I’ve got cool stuff in here like a camera, and perhaps even my wallet! Rob me, please!” Besides, the Italians aren’t walking around with backpacks, either. For walking around a city, ditch the backpack at your hotel and use a small purse instead – preferably one that hangs across your body and doesn’t just get tucked under your arm. I have a purse addiction, but when I travel in Italy I always use a cross-body purse with no snap closures (only zippers) and I wear it across my body hanging in the front. You can find leather versions or more utilitarian versions, and they come in all sizes. To my mind, the important things are that it’s worn across your body and can’t hang open as an invitation to pickpockets. You’ll find various cross-body pags online (here’s one on Amazon) – just search for “cross-body bags” and browse the offerings until you find one that suits your needs.
- Stick with basic black. My closet at home is a veritable rainbow of colors, but when I travel in Italy I try to limit my clothing palette to primarily black. Then I’ll throw in a few items that coordinate with black, but aren’t too bright or attention-grabbing. Black is always in fashion, even in summer, and it goes with everything – so if you get to Italy and find the color of the season is lime green or mauve, you can pick up a small item in a market in the new hot color and pair it with what you’ve brought with you. The other benefit of sticking with basic black is that you don’t have to bring two color palettes for shoes or handbags. (And you can just as easily substitute brown for black here, I’m just partial to black.)
- Get maps that fold themselves. This isn’t a fashion tip, but it’s a tip that’ll help you limit the amount of time you’re not only potentially looking the part of a tourist, but also acting like one. Instead of packing a city map that requires lots of folding and unfolding every time you want to use it (requiring lots of space and patience to get the damned thing folded back up again), pick up city maps that fold and unfold themselves in a second. My personal favorites are these pop-up maps, not only because they don’t ask me to be an origami artist, but also because they’re so compact they’ll fit in your back pocket. I’ve got these maps for lots of cities in Italy (they cover all the major tourist cities), and I have yet to be disappointed by them.
- Do your research. This final tip is for the people who are really fashion-conscious, and who are absolutely intent on not being out of style when they’re in Italy. If you really want to know what the latest fashion trends are in Italy, do your research – which means checking out Italian fashion magazines or their websites (as much for the advertising as the articles), or other fashion websites that have pictures of that year’s fashion shows, and see what’s hot. For instance, one summer when I visited Italy, all the pretty young things were wearing something inexplicable to me, but it was everywhere (so it had to be “in,” right?) – knee-length shorts with nearly-knee-high cowboy boots. In the heat of summer. Yes, I want to fit in, but I wasn’t about to go that far.
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I’ve had experiences where locals have asked me in Italian for directions to a particular shop or Metro stop, or asked the time, or just started chatting in Italian with me because we were sitting near each other in a cafe or at a soccer game – and they had no idea I wasn’t a local, too. I treasure these moments, because it makes me think that I am – at least for that brief moment – not standing out like the tourist sore thumb that I think I am.
And yet the truth is that even if you follow Italian fashion religiously and don’t make a single misstep in terms of your look, you may still stand out like a tourist. Don’t be discouraged by this, because you are a tourist, and that’s not the end of the world. We are all tourists at one time or another. Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to dress like one.
Check out this post for more tips on what to wear in Italy.