The best way to really know a city is not to go to the most tourist-trodden sites but to explore cool under-the-radar neighbourhoods where local artisans thrive and quaint cafes as well as galleries are hidden in. It’s especially important in countries like Italy where overtourism is plaguing its cities, with popular destinations such as Rome and Milan topping the list. And to make matters worse, these iconic historical and cultural quarters are becoming more commercial – losing its charm and lustre from the glorious post-modernism days.
Sure, stroll around Fontana di Trevi and walk down Rome’s most famous square, Piazza Navona to find yourself stumbling upon the imposing churches and beautifully sculpted fountains – and then what? You’ll find yourself crossing out the list of ‘expected places to go’ and scrambling through Google for more suggestions.
As the saying goes – when it Rome, do as the Romans do. Head out to places where locals hang out, wine and dine, and living la dolce vita. If you want to escape the tourist traps and get a taste of the real Italian cities, track down one of these artsy neighbourhoods in Italy because discovering hidden places is one of the best parts of travelling.
Hidden behind the Chiesa Santa Maria della Salute, the cultural hub of Dorsoduro is where you can truly taste the real Venetian lifestyle. The quaint and charming labyrinthine streets are also home to an artsy crowd. While you wander along the canals, be sure to make your stops at the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to check out some of Venice’s hidden treasures like paintings from Renaissance artists like Bellini, Tintoretto and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Ravenna, Emilia Romagna
Located in north central Italy, Ravenna is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the historical city has a quite an impressive gourmet scene. Each year, visitors crowd this place for the Ravenna Festival, a stunning classical music show where you can get the best of classic Italian music and opera. Come here during June or July when the festival usually takes place. Don’t forget to check out Ravenna Art Museum, which is housed in Loggetta Lombardesca, a monastery from the 16th century.
You may know Pisa for its century-old Leaning Tower and Keith Haring’s colourful murals, but the small Tuscan city is home to Italy’s burgeoning hipster town. Historically, many acclaimed artists, writers and poets have spent months in Pisa. Today, the city has not lost its charm in the fields of art and literature. You can still find posters bearing verses of poetry glued on its walls and pillars, which feel like art on its own. Pisa is also a mecca for bookworms with many literary spots for you to sit back (with some espresso) and read away. Don’t forget to visit Palazzo Blu, a unique blue palace that is now an important cultural centre.
Santa Margherita, Cinque Terre
Rent a car and drive northwestward from Florence to enjoy the scenic views of the coastal towns, passing by Pisa en route to Cinque Terra. The rewarding journey takes you to the stacks of brightly coloured buildings overlooking the azure sea. Spend some time on foot walking around Santa Margherita to enjoy the picturesque seaside promenade – the perfect place to find inspiration and slow down. Behind the waterfront, you’ll be able to find some very quaint artsy boutiques and shops.
Isola (means island in Italian) is considered one of the coolest places to live in Milan. This hip enclave of narrow streets invites you to walk on foot to discover an eclectic mix of cool cafes, fashion galleries, family-run trattorias and various creative startups. The neighbourhood is well-known for its many murals and graffiti. Check out Via Carmagnola and Angelo della Pergola to immerse in its art scene of this urban island.
Rome may be overrated but if you find yourself visiting this city for the first time, pen down Monti in your bucket list. Once the red light district of ancient Rome, Monti is just a short walk from the Colosseum – a charming district of cobbled streets that is bursting with wine bars, good local restaurants and its artsy hipster community. Check out Mercato Monti, the neighbourhood’s weekend vintage market for some unique clothes and costume jewellery.
Zona Tortona, Milan
Every year in April, Zona Tortona becomes the centre of attraction for Milan Design Week. The global design community converges here for furniture exhibitions, vernissage events and art shows – elevating its status as a creative and cultural hub. Even Moncler and Ermenegildo Zegna have showrooms and offices here. Check out Armani/Silos, a museum dedicated to the history of the brand as well as Museo delle Culture di Milano which features stunning exhibitions from the likes of Frida Kahlo and Jean-Michel Basquiat. There are a lot more to see but we’d leave you to explore this vibrant neighbourhood on your own.
San Niccolò, Florence
For the longest time, San Niccolò has been nicknamed the artist neighbourhood. The area is peppered with funky art galleries and a concentrated amount of street art. Check out the medieval tower that still stands in San Niccolò, and take your time to comb through the quirky and less crowded area of the city. Here, you get a relaxed vibe with a touch of hipster culture. The tourist-laden Piazzale Michelangelo is also around the vicinity but let’s keep this quaint little neighbourhood our little secret.