For most of the summer, I find myself huffing with frustration as I jump out into moving traffic to pass huge tour groups clogging the sidewalks of Florence when I walk with determination to my downtown office. I am probably personally contributing to the city’s reputation for being rude to tourists, but what can I do, I’m in a hurry. Like most Type-A personalities, I’m in a rush most of the time. Even when I go on holiday, my tendency would be to buzz from site to site and snap pictures in a frenzy, but I know I have to go against my nature and slow down! I’ve always been an advocate of “slow” or “deep” travel, of getting to know a place well enough to speak about it with some authority and to come out richer than before.

Tourists in Florence
Tourists in Florence

Slow Travel / High Season is a voluntary contradiction in terms because I want to recognize that not everyone has the possibility to take 6 weeks off in low season to hang around an obscure part of Europe just to get to know the culture better. Heck, most of my trips these days last a weekend, often quite close to home, and my longest trip in five years was 2 weeks in Hawaii last Christmas. Managing other peoples’ social media doesn’t exactly lend itself to taking time off. The sad reality for most of us is that we are so committed to our jobs that even if we do have some vacation time, it’s hard to take it.

Which is why it’s all the more important to get the most out of what travel time we do have. To explore wherever we are deeply and to take the time to reflect about what we’ve seen. This kind of travel takes planning time and effort, but trust me, it’ll be worth it. There is no recipe for traveling deeply, but here are my six tips for successful slow travel.

1) plan plan plan

Plan, says the Type-A girl! Big surprise. One of the worst holidays I ever had was our honeymoon. After planning an international wedding, I didn’t have time to research our destination – Sicily – so just booked a few chain hotels and plotted a route to drive across the island. The hotels were horrible, we spent the wrong amount of time in each place, we didn’t talk to anyone or really learn anything, even the weather didn’t really match the itinerary. Whatever I pictured in my mind’s eye about this part of the country, we didn’t find it.

I often use this trip as an example of the advantages of the internet, particularly blogs, Twitter and Instagram, to help plan a great trip and identify things to visit that would be hard to find in a guidebook. Back in 2004, when we took our honeymoon, all we had to go on was an Eyewitness Guide, which at the time was the only guide with visual inspiration, and so pre-trip research was even more important than it is now.

You’ll want to plan out your hotels, find some information about restaurants, but also get a sense of what you want to see in your destination. Try to look beyond the “top 10 tourist attractions” by reading blogs that might suggest something different. Or take a walking seminar with Context Travel, whose local guides not only teach the theme of the walk but also provide contact with someone whose brains you can pick for the rest of your trip. If visiting Florence, try their evening orientation walk on the day you arrive and you’re liable to find yourself with an itinerary for the rest of the trip.

2) Get in the mood before you go

Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence
Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence

I find I enjoy places more when I understand what I’m looking at. When I was younger and had more time, I would read serious books to learn about the destination. One method, which however requires time, is to get an art history textbook that covers the main period or location you’re traveling to. For Italy, something like Gary Radke’s Art in Renaissance Italy textbook is actually a good read.

But if you’ve got less time or are less of a self-starter – like I’ve become – how about taking a casual night course or attending some talks at a local cultural institute? Most major cities in the USA have an Italian cultural center, so if you’re excited about Italy, you can become even more so through their language and culture classes. Arriving with more context, and maybe able to say a few words, you’ll have a richer experience.

If attending classes isn’t an option and textbooks feel too much like school, how about a little historical fiction? When I went to Hawaii recently, I read Molokai by Alan Brennert, upon advice of some people in a forum. It’s a really well researched book about a particular part of life in Hawaii in the last century, and reading it on the plane and while on the island, I felt like I was learning something but also enjoying it a lot (if you’re not going to Hawaii, read the book anyway, it’s great!!). Headed my way? Here are 10 historical fiction books set in Italy, for example.

3) Stay still

If it’s your first trip to an area or country, there’s always the temptation to try to see as much as possible because you don’t know if you’ll ever get to return there. I like to think that life is pretty long and that if I like a place, I’ll go back. By this rationale, I’ll try to have the best experience possible in a place, and often this means staying put. There are some places you can see in a day or two, but I think any major city, island or area of countryside deserves a week’s consideration (if not more!).

The garden at Beehive Rome, with mural by Gio Pistone
The garden at Beehive Rome, with mural by Gio Pistone

Generally, to have a deeper experience in any location, I think it’s best to try to stay in one place for as long as is feasible given your vacation time. In most countries, apartment rentals are available and can make a longer stay both comfortable and cost effective. If you’re traveling on your own or on a budget, you might also look for a shared apartment or room for rent which, if successful, can provide a ready-made friend or network of people in the city you’re visiting. Having to go food shopping and cook a few things in your own kitchen can also be a good way to create contact with locals, be it at a local fresh market or even at a larger supermarket. I love going to big supermarkets in other countries and seeing the different kinds of food that are available, and loading up my bag with stuff for home.

4) Friendly food

There’s no question that food is one of the best ways to get to know a culture by doing something we all have to do anyway. In Italian culture, a lot revolves around food, and if you have the opportunity to dine with Italians they’re liable to explain some of this, but also a lot more about their country. Here in Tuscany, an enogastronomic association called De Gustibus, of which I’ve been a member for 8 years, offers occasional farm to table meals with large and lively groups of members (including yours truly, whenever possible – check their website for upcoming dates)!

A home cooked meal in Rome with BonAppetour
A home cooked meal in Rome with BonAppetour

With the rise of the sharing economy that brought us things like Uber and Airbnb, there’s also the trend of home dining, which can be very interesting when traveling. Platforms like BonAppetour list hosts and their proposals, which may range from a simple home cooked meal to a whole cooking class in their home. Most of the hosts are “totally normal people” which means you get a glimpse in to their life and apartment too (I love this part!).

5) Think themes

One way to explore a place is to think of it thematically. If you’re interested in something in particular, be it Michelangelo, wine, medical history or animation, either on your own or with help online or from a professional, see if you can develop an itinerary around this theme. Chances are this will take you off the proverbial beaten track. I find this is the case with certain famous artists in Florence. If you think the Duomo is cool, maybe check out the rest of Brunelleschi’s architecture. If the David is a major driver for your visit to Florence, you might enjoy seeing Casa Buonarroti, the house Michelangelo bought for his family. If you’re a doctor, why don’t you go see the Ospedale degli Innocenti, the Bigallo, and maybe the equivalent institutions in other Tuscan towns. This will take a bit of planning but I think it would be worth it.

6) Spend money (sometimes)

Some may disagree with me on this – especially affirmed budget travelers – but there are times when you just have to fork over the dough. There are unique experiences that cost nothing – like “discovering” an amazing small town or abandoned cove and you’re the only person there. This still happens in Italy, especially if you drive along some smaller roads and follow the random brown signs that indicate historical monuments.

brown sign italy
Follow the brown signs.

But other experiences cost money and provide good value for it. One is taking a good quality tour. There are lots of tours on the market, and it is possible to get some great ones for a low price (like this street art tour of Rome that costs only €10 because it’s run by an association of artists), but a lot of the tours sold through major websites are just not the type of quality I can recommend. For years, I’ve been a believer in the deep travel approach offered by Context Travel because they hire graduate students or professors, the kind of people who can handle the tough questions I am liable to ask. I’ve even booked my own mother on their tours, and her questions are even tougher than mine! There’s no question that they cost more than the competition, but there’s good reason: they have qualified docents (who receive fair recompense), very small groups, and an ethical approach to the community.

Dinner in the courtyard of Santo Spirito
Dinner in the courtyard of Santo Spirito

Another experience that I think is worth the money is to take part in any kind of local special event you can find. I recently wrote about dining in the courtyards of churches in Florence with an Expo2015 project called Orti e Cenacoli. You get a taster menu from the chef of a restaurant that would cost almost as much if you went just to the restaurant, but it’s set in an amazing place, and with such a convivial atmosphere that it is truly an unforgettable experience. If travel is about having stories to take home and remember for a lifetime, sometimes you have to splash out. Here in Florence, I know that there are special events and occasions to fit many budgets, and by reading local blogs and newspapers (like The Florentine’s events section or Girl in Florence’s monthly events suggestions) you can find one for when you visit.

Further reading

  • Context Travel has coined the term (and hashtag) #deeptravel and for me, this guided travel experience company (let’s not call them tours…) embodies the kind of sustainable, deep and slow learning that I truly believe in. Context has recently established a network of Deep Travelers, bloggers who share their values, and I’m proud to be one of them. For more information, read their deep travel manifesto.
  • I really enjoyed the advice and reader comments in this article about Slow Travel by Anglo Italian.
  • If you’re looking for more sustainable and slow travel ideas for Italy in areas well beyond Florence, take a look at Anna’s blog Green Holiday Italy.

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