It’s late July. Peak Italian summer. The cicadas (le cicale) begin their symphony as soon as the sun is up and the migratory Upupa birds have arrived in the olive grove. It sounds dreamy, and in many ways it is, but there one big part of it I’m leaving out – it’s so damn hot. After six years in the Bel Paese, I’ve learned how to manage life under the Mediterranean sun. A big part of it is shutter management and generally staying indoors. Unfortunately, that’s not a comprehensive solution if you are here on vacation, out and about seeing the sights. And since literally everyone is visiting Italy right now, I felt like it was an apt time to share a little advice. I have packed this post with customized Google maps and informational links that you can use for planning your trip. So for those of you attending Europe this summer, below are my top ten tips for staying cool and beating the heat.
Stay out of the sun in the afternoon
That seems glaringly obvious, I know. Yet time after time, I see lines of tourists in a queue…sizzling. Why?!? This can be easily avoided with a little planning. Arrange your days in advance and do your outdoor sightseeing (like the Colosseum and Roman Forum) first thing in the morning before it gets too hot. Then spend your afternoon in cooler locales like a shady garden or a less crowded, air-conditioned museum. I emphasize less crowded because although the Uffizi are air-conditioned, there are so many people inside that it gets stuffy. Better yet, retreat to your hotel for a nap, put your feet up, or hang out by the pool, then return to the outdoors after 7:00pm when it’s much more comfortable – just in time for aperitivo!
Side note – Be sure you book an accommodation with air-conditioning. Tourists may be surprised to learn that there are many hotels and B&Bs with no aircon. Italians aren’t exactly fans of it. For many, air conditioning is considered bad for you and is best avoided whenever possible. So make sure it’s included and consider yourself warned.
Italy is an ancient country with cities built on top of cities, which means there is a lot of underground activity to choose from, and it’s not limited to crypts and catacombs. Go below the surface to step back in time…in a much cooler environment. Here is a short list of my favorite underground sights: Rome Underground, Domus Aurea, Naples Sotterranea, Orvieto Underground, St. Patrick’s Well, Turin, and of course, Perugia.
Avoiding lunch in the heat
Pay attention to the orientation of the restaurant. If you’re on foot browsing menus, look for restaurants on the shady side of the building or, better yet, on a fully shaded street. The wrong orientation at the wrong time can make or break your dining experience. Even if there are awnings or misters or umbrellas, if the restaurant is in the sun, it’s going to be hot. Instead, find a spot on a fully shaded street, and you’ll be much more comfortable.
Alternatively, if you’ve booked a self-catering apartment, consider dining in. With a little pre-planning, you can make an early (7-8am-ish) trip to a nearby market to stock up on fresh produce, cheese, salumi, etc. After your morning tours, make a casual spread in the comfort of your vacation home and treat yourself to a nap. This is a very authentic way to live like a local, and you’re going to find way better tomatoes at a market than you would in a restaurant. So go shopping and rest up! You’re on holiday, after all.
Here you can find my customized map of daily markets around Italy. Note: I’ve included several “Mercato Centrale” locations, but it’s worth mentioning this is not your typical farmer’s market. Mercato Centrale is a brand/chain which has locations in big cities. Just because it’s a chain doesn’t mean they don’t have delicious options, as it’s great for both shopping and pre-prepared street food, but it’s a more polished market, if you will.
Iced coffee, please
I love a good cappuccino. Being that I live in the countryside, it’s a special treat when I am in the city center in the morning and can enjoy a proper Italian coffee. But during the summer, I avoid hot coffee like the plague and opt for a cold version. In Italy, iced coffee is called a “shakerato,” which is a long espresso that is shaken with ice and a little sugar or simple syrup until it’s frothy and delicious. Shakerati (plural) are typically served in a wine or martini glass.
If you find yourself in Puglia (which is hand downs without a doubt my FAVORITE summer destination in all of Italy) then you must have a “Caffè Leccese,” which is iced espresso with almond milk. The word Leccese comes from the town of Lecce, which is often referred to as the Florence of the South. Although in all fairness, I think that name sells it short. Lecce is not in Tuscany. It’s in Puglia and Puglia is a whole vibe in it’s own right. Caffè Leccese has become diffused throughout the country, so you can probably find it in most major cities, If however you find yourself in Lecce, I have two suggestions, either the classic Caffè Alvino or the modern and hip 00 Doppiozero, which is also a great spot for lunch.
Then of course there is the traditional (and more like a dessert rather than a beverage) “affogato,” which is vanilla ice ream drenched in espresso.
And lastly, there’s crema caffè, pictured below) which is a frozen coffee that’s a cross between a granita and creamy gelato. It’s not fancy, it’s quite sugary, and it comes from a machine, but it’s really yummy and refreshing and totally worth trying,
Go to the beach
Being surrounded by the sea, Italy has a beach for every budget. While some towns, like the villages in Cinque Terre, have access to the beach from the city, the best beaches require driving. For me, “best beaches” often means that I am renting a sun bed and a big umbrella for plenty of shade, and there will be a restaurant where I can order lunch. Bonus points if it has tables on the beach itself, so I can dine with my toes in the sand and even more bonus points if I can order little gelato bonbons on ice for desert. My favorite flavor is pine nut. It’s a flavor that eludes me in gelaterie and for some reason I can only find it in bonbon form.
Typically, a set of sun beds and an umbrella ranges from €25-€80 for the day, depending on the level of luxury. High-end beach clubs, like those in Forte dei Marmi for example, offer gazebos only. They come with a canopy tent, two sun beds, two chairs, a director’s chair, and a lockbox table to hold your belongings. Gazebos range from €70 to a whopping €400 for a day at Andrea Bocelli’s beach club.
It’s important to note that you are not required to pay to enjoy the beach. The sea itself is not a private resort. It is a right and everyone has access to it. This is a principle that Italians hold dear, despite endless efforts by industry and government officials to privatize them. As such, Italy has a ton of free beaches. Some require a hike, it’s usually worth the walk to find a hidden gem, and the beaches that require effort tend to be cleaner. No matter where it’s located, you’ll need to bring everything with you, i.e. chairs, towels, umbrellas, snacks, drinks, etc. Picnic at the beach!
One last tip: go to the beach on a weekday. Unless it’s the month of August when most of Italy is on holiday, you will find much less crowded beaches during the week.
Here you can find a customized map of my favorite beach clubs and free beaches in Italy. While exploring options, keep in mind that near many free beaches you’ll also find rentals, i.e. you don’t have to go to a “club”.
Get off land
If you are headed on a seaside vacation to a popular area like the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre, get off the mainland and take a boat tour. Not only can you take a dip in the middle of the sea, but you’ll also get away from the crowds. Many coastal towns have companies at the dock which offer small boats called “gommone” that you can rent without a driver’s license, aka “senza patentino”. Don’t feel like being your own skipper? Find a boat tour operator. Group tours generally start around €100 per person and private boat tours generally start around €1,200 for the day (5 hours).
Go to the Mountains
The Dolomites are a top summer destination for a reason. It’s cooler up there, it’s gorgeous scenery, and the services and amenities are wonderful. Typically the hotels offer 3/4 board for a stay, and the food is fantastic. Start the day with a plentiful breakfast, then make your way to one of the many hikes on offer. Ski lifts run in the summer and whisk you to various active parks and mountain lodges for lunch. It’s a whole different way to see Italy, so if hot crowded mega cities like Rome aren’t your thing, consider going to the mountains. You can find a TON of information on the websites for Alta Badia, Val Gardena and Dolomiti Super Ski. Now go live your best Italian version of Julie Andrews spinning on a mountain top. Send me pictures.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Bring your reusable water bottle with you (please don’t contribute to plastic pollution!) and refill it anywhere. Italy’s tap water is safe to drink, and there are fountains all over this country. Unless you see “aqua non potibile” (non potable) then you can assume it’s safe to drink. Rome is filled with a special type of water fountains called “Nasoni” which means big nose in english, referring to the shape of the spout. Nasoni are handy water spouts/fountains/refresh stations. If you put your hand under the spout and block the flow, it’ll push the water up through the hole on the top. You can find a Nasoni map here. There are nearly 2,500 of them in Rome!
Fresh drinking water isn’t limited to fountains in the cities. If you’re out on country roads and you see people (or a line of people) filling up large water bottles or jugs, chances are there is a particularly good water source nearby, possibly from a mountain spring – which means it’ll be extra cold. The fountain shown below is in the middle of nowhere Umbria and I stop there every time I pass by. So again, do as the locals do.
Repeat after me: loose-fitting linen is my best friend. Loose-fitting linen is my best friend. Say it one more time for good measure. Avoid synthetic fabrics unless they are wicking. Bring a hat.
Avoid alcohol until later
Save the booze for aperitivo or limit your consumption during the day. A little white wine on a hot day is refreshing and crisp, but it’s dehydrating and raises your body temperature. My advice is to wait until the sun goes down. Or, if you’ve got something fabulous like a wine tasting scheduled for lunch, just make sure you aren’t traipsing through a busy city center afterwards.
I hope that helps! Keep in mind that no matter what you do, you will be hot. But with a little extra planning and a few insider tips, you just might avoid the worst of the summer heat. Stay cool friends!