Tips for Traveling During Tourist Season

Rome, Paris, Cinque Terre, London, Dublin – all are beautiful places, no doubt, but if there’s one flaw in any of them it’s that so many people want to see these beautiful cities. All at once. Usually during the summer months. I get it – as a teacher I am basically limited to traveling during the summer as a week in April and 10 days (or sometimes 2 weeks) in December isn’t really enough time for me to justify hopping on a plane to Europe. Particularly at a time when I’m fall-down exhausted and really just want to spend time with my family and vegetate on the couch for a while. And when you have kids (which I don’t), it’s even more difficult to justify pulling them out of school to travel so maximizing summer break is really the best solution.

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So how do you manage to have the best experience possible without becoming overwhelmed by throngs of people? While I am by no means an expert, here are a couple of things that have worked well for me as a summertime traveler.

1. AirBnB or Couchsurfing

I love hotels. I really do. Going to professional conferences during the school year fills me with such excitement because it means that for two or three days, I get to sleep in a ginormous, fluffy bed all by myself. That being said, when I travel internationally I almost never stay in a hotel. AirBnB and Couchsurfing have been my go-to sources for travel lodging since I did my study abroad five years ago. Both offer something that you can’t really get when you’re staying in a hotel: real interactions with people who know the city well. And not just the tourist sites, but the off-the-beaten-path gems, too. And the kicker? When it comes to AirBnB (and even the right Couchsurfing host), you generally get more space for far less money. Another perk to staying in someone’s home as opposed to in a hotel is that you can be as close to or as far away from the major tourist attractions as you want. Personally, I tend to choose quieter neighborhoods that are a bit farther away from the main sites so as to have a more authentic experience but the choice is completely up to you!

My experiences with both AirBnB and Couchsurfing have never been anything but totally fabulous and I’ve met some amazing people in both scenarios. So go ahead and skip the hotel!

2. Forget the touristy stuff

“But Megan!” I can hear you wailing right now, “Why would I skip doing that awesome thing that everyone says I should do when I’m in ________?”

Well, you’ve basically answered that question yourself – because everyone  will be doing it and you’ll probably not have a great experience and be mad that you wasted time that could have been spent doing something else.

I’m a French teacher. I’ve been to Paris probably close to 10 times. I studied abroad only an hour and a half away from the City of Lights and I’ve never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Not once. The lines are absolutely outrageous, you’re crushed by thousands of people, and frankly, if I’m going to the top of ANY building to get a great view of Paris, I want the Eiffel Tower to actually be in it. Montmartre, la Tour Montparnasse, l’Arc de Triomphe, and the top of Notre Dame offer similar beautiful views, much less of a wait, and you’ll actually get to see the Eiffel Tower as well. Same for the Louvre – forget about the Mona Lisa (she’s tiny, behind glass, and you’ll never get through the insane crowd of people) and go see the other side of the museum instead. Or better yet, forget the Louvre entirely and go to the Musée d’Orsay to see works by artists whose names you actually know: Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Van Gogh…the list goes on. But if you find you really MUST do something “touristy”, buy your tickets well in advance and skip the line.

3. Book a tour

This seems like the antithesis of what this post is about. Book a tour? But tours are for tourists! I know, I know. But you know the great thing about a tour? The details are taken care of by someone other than you. Imagine you’re staying in Dublin but want to take a day trip to Giant’s Causeway – how are you going to get there? Are you comfortable driving a stick shift from the passenger seat (if you’re an American) and on the “wrong” side of the road? Crossing the border into Northern Ireland, an entirely different country? Where are you going to buy tickets? What if it’s all sold out for the day, or the weather is bad and you can’t go? All of these details are handled by the tour company – you just buy your ticket and show up. Many tour companies also limit the size of each group; so you’re not being herded around like cattle and can experience the best sights with a relatively intimate group. You also get the benefit of the historical and cultural commentary of your guide, as well.

4. Take a nap

Summertime in many European countries can be sweltering. Italy, Spain, and even France (it was 100 degrees when I was in Paris this summer!) can be oppressively hot in the late afternoon. The daytime hours are also almost always the time when the crowds are at their worst. I don’t know about you, but when it’s that hot the last thing I want is to be pressed against someone else’s sweaty body, attempting to see something that I’m never going to get a good view of with that many people around (short girl problems) or waiting in a long line in the hot sun.

When my traveling Partner in Crime and I were in Rome this summer, we made it a habit to take a nap during the hottest part of the day, usually between the hours of about 4 and 6. We got to escape the crowds, get some rest, shower off the grime and gear up for a great evening of sightseeing. The city was totally different in the post-American-dinnertime hours: far less crowded, much cooler temperature-wise, and the evening was really when the locals started to come out as well. We were able to get GREAT views of the Colosseum and Pantheon at night and experienced amazing dinners at local restaurants during the times when most tourists were back at their hotels. There were some evenings when we didn’t eat dinner until about 11 o’clock at night – and the restaurants were still packed with Roman families and young people enjoying their time together.

So there you have it – it’s hardly revolutionary, but these are the things that have helped me survive traveling during the high tourist season and enjoy myself too. What would you add to this list? Feel free to share your best tips in the comments!

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Rome: Bite by Bite

There are few things I love to do more while traveling than eat really good food. Looking up restaurant recommendations (and asking for them from locals!) is one of my favorite ways to prepare for a trip. And what better place to stuff myself to the gills on amazing food than Italy?

One thing to know about Rome: it’s incredibly full of tourists. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it can make finding real, authentic restaurants – ones at which an actual Italian would eat  – kind of difficult. And I don’t take eating crummy food very lightly!

So when my traveling Partner in Crime found out about Eating Italy Food Tours – well, let’s just say we signed up, no questions asked. We chose the Twilight Trastevere tour, which is an evening walking tour through one of the coolest neighborhoods in Rome, that’s still relatively off the beaten track for most tourists and where you’ll find a lot of Rome’s young people hanging out well into the night (and you may even catch a glimpse of Owen Wilson, who lives in the neighborhood!).

The tour (which had a maximum of 12 people) stopped at SEVEN different places at which we sampled a variety of traditional Italian cuisine. Let me tell you – I thought we’d be having tiny samples of everything but by the sixth stop on our tour (a full dinner) I was stuffed. And there was still one more stop afterward for gelato! Did I mention that this tour also includes a full glass of wine at several stops (including as many bottles as we could drink at dinner)?

Oh yeah. Now that’s my kind of tour.

So, what’d we eat?

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On the terrace at da Enzo.

1. Da Enzo al 29 – Our first stop was at the family-owned restaurant (a hole in the wall, really) da Enzo al 29. There, we got to know our guide, Sebastiana, a bit better and were able to chat with the other members of the group while we dined on prosciutto, melon and cheese and toasted the beginning of our tour with a nice glass of prosecco. This particular trattoria has award-winning food but is almost impossible to get into for dinner without a reservation – try it at lunchtime, instead!

2. Next we stopped by the wine cellar of Spirito di Vino, a restaurant that prides itself on being part of Italy’s “slow food” movement, which started as a reaction against Rome’s first McDonald’s and the concept of fast food. The wine cellar also happens to be 150 years older than the Colosseum and is also where the statue of Apoxyomenos was found (now he lives in the Vatican museum). At Spirito di Vino we sampled two varieties of red wine and four small samples of food that included an amazing baked spaghetti and roasted pork over apples, while taking in the eery (but awesome!) atmosphere of their wine cellar.

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In the wine cellar of Spirto di Vino

3. Feeling a little heady from three glasses of wine, we wandered slowly to Biscottificio Innocentea famous family-owned cookie factory where the owner Stefania loaded us up with sweet treats. The buttery lemon-filled cookies were my personal favorite, with the Brutti ma Buoni (ugly but good) hazelnut meringues as a close second.

4. I Suppli – a tiny, hole-in-the-wall snack shop where we were able to munch on a Roman classic called suppli, a deep-fried ball of bolognese sauce and mozzarella cheese. We washed it down with a square of pizza rosa, a cheeseless and slightly spicy red pie that I still fantasize about sometimes.

5. Antica Caciara – Porchetta. Pork that’s been heavily salted, seasoned, and slow-roasted for hours over a woodfire spit. Need I say anything more? I think not.

6. Dinner at a local Osteria – Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the osteria at which we ate dinner (I know, dinner, after all of that)! Of course I couldn’t refuse a few servings of cacio e pepi, gnocchi or the breaded ravioli. To say nothing of the wine!

7. Fatamorgana – Shockingly, we had all managed to save room (however little) for dessert: gelato! Fatamorgana is a local gelateria that serves up the real stuff which, unfortunately, is less and less common as quick-and-easy gelato mix has become relatively popular. Want to know if the gelateria you’re visiting is authentic? Check out their version of pistachio – if it’s the real deal, the pistachio gelato will be brown-ish in color (as is the real nut). If it’s bright green, it’s probably not real!

The tour lasted about 4 hours and was the absolute highlight of our time in Rome – I absolutely cannot recommend it enough for anyone planning on visiting the area.

Buono apetito!