Everyone’s first trip to Italy is bound to be special. The land’s natural beauty, rich history and vibrant culture create an atmosphere that’s unlike any other in the world. Coming to Italy for the first time is even more special if you come from an Italian-American background. You may technically be a tourist, but you’re also a child of the land who’s coming home to the place where you can trace back your roots.
As a returnee to the motherland, you’ll want to see as much of it as you possibly can in the limited amount of time that you have. It’s your opportunity to reacquaint yourself with where your bloodline came from and to experience what Italy is all about.
If you’re an American of Italian descent, here’s a list of places that you’ll want to visit when you go to Italy. You may not be able to land on all of these locales in one trip, but you’ll want to hit as many of these targets when you do make the trip. Here are our suggested places along with useful info on food and language:
Do Your Research
The first place to begin this exciting journey is to research the roots of your family in Italy. A great number of the Italian diaspora left the towns and villages near Rome, along the Amalfi Coast and the Mediterranean island of Sicily. Whether you know the exact ancestral village of your family or just the general region, a journey to Italy will greatly enrich your Italian pride.
Start your journey in the Italian capital of Rome. The Eternal City was once the capital of the ancient world and is now a vibrant, chaotic mix of modern comforts and relics of the past. You can stand in the Piazza Campidoglio which was designed by Michelangelo and just around the corner, visit the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland).
Photo: Piazza Campidoglio in Rome
For those of you who have an interest in history, it’s important to understand how young Italy is.The country wasn’t the state that we know now until 1871. For centuries, Italy was a group of semi-autonomous territories ruled by monarchs, foreign leaders and popes. Rome was named the capitol of the Republic of Italy when the nation was put together, giving birth to the Italy that we know and love today.
Naples and the Amalfi Coast
An easy distance from Rome is the ancient ruined city of Pompeii, the city of Naples and the enchanting Amalfi Coast. Spend a day exploring Pompeii and learning about this once wealthy Roman town that was buried alive by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.Its fragments come alive with vibrant frescoes, houses, temples and shops all preserved in the volcanic ash that sealed the locale’s fate.
Head overto the city of Naples. It’s bordered by Vesuvius on one side and by the Bay of Naples on the other. You can visit Bourbon castles, shop in lively markets and take long walks along the bay on newly pedestrianized lungomare.
Just under an hour from Naples is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The over 1,000 twists and turns along the SS163, also known as the Amalfi Coast Drive, affords views off dizzying precipices, sparkling seas and fragrant lemon groves. Spend a few days exploring the pastel villages that seem to precariously cling to the steep cliffs. Take the time to immerse yourself in the culture and observe how the residents of this area have preserved a lot of elements in the old Italian way of life.
Photo: Road going to the Amalfi Coast
A large portion of Italian-Americans can trace their roots back to Sicily – Italy’s largest island. If you’re Italian-American and you’re not sure where your family hails from, there’s a good chance that this is your ancestry’s motherland. When you visit Sicily, be sure to see Mount Etna, the dramatic and still active volcano near the ancient cites of Ragusa, Noto and Modica. Modica, with its soft, orange baroque architecture is best known for the delicious chocolate that it produces. Combine learning about your family history with ancient history in the town of Agrigento with a visit to the Valley of the Temples. The 5th century BC ruins are set in an almond grove with beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea.
Photo: Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, Sicily
Food is as much a part of Italian culture as art, fashion and history are. Italians who migrated to the US in its early days brought along their great culinary practices which have evolved over time. The result is a separation of paths between authentic “Italian cuisine” and what we know in the mainstream to be Italian food.
For the record, there really is no such thing as Italian food. The culinary styles in Italy are diverse and regionalized. What you’ll see being served in Rome will be vastly different from what you’ll see in Venice. Also, a lot of dishes that you might recognize as Italian in the US do not actually exist in Italy. A lot of what Italian-Americans know as Italian food are actually creations of Italian migrants who established food businesses when they were in the US. The difference in the availability of ingredients and the tastes of customers in America have compelled Italian cooks to improvise and adjust their recipes according to local supply and demand.
For instance, you will not find spaghetti and meatballs served together in Italy. You may get a strange look from a waiter if you ask for chicken parmesan. You’ll definitely not want to ask for Caesar dressing on your salad even if it seems like the right thing to do. In Italy, olive oil and balsamic vinegar are the preferred flavorings for fresh vegetables.
I was recently chatting with a millennial 9th-generation Roman over a plate of amatricina and he said something interesting about Italian-Americans who visit Italy. He explained to me that they often speak Italian with a vocabulary from 100 years ago. Using words that now in modern Italy only bis-nonna’s use and with a degree of formality seldom heard. Think of it as akin to someone speaking like one of our founding fathers. Also, know that sometimes the slang or dialect you may have learned at your grandfather’s and uncle’s knee may be infinitely more vulgar than you intend.
Your first trip to Italy will infinitely strengthen your Italian American identity and heritage.It’s a very special feeling that gives you a better sense of belongingness and perspective about yourself and the world around you, Pack your bags, board that plane and enjoy your trip to the land that gave rise to your family. Hopefully, your first trip to Italy is just one of many more to come. Ciao!
About the Author
Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients. For more on Priscila and her work, connect with her on Google+.