No matter where I am in the world, I have a shelf devoted to books about Italy. Which may be why, although I started out this post planning to write a gift guide — something I do everycouple of years — I found that everything that came to mind to include was… a book.
While that partly speaks to the fact that I’m a nerd bookworm, it also speaks to something else: whether you’re interested in fiction or memoir, food or art, ancient history or World War II, there are a number of compulsively-readable books about Italy out there these days.
What is my bar for “compulsively readable”? In the last three years, I’ve gone through two transatlantic moves. Each time, I’ve had to winnow down my library. Most of the books on this list are ones that I found myself re-buying after my last move. That’s how much I couldn’t live without them.
So. Here are the books about Italy I’ve sometimes bought not once, but twice — and the person on your gift-giving list (other than you!) who might like them best.
The best book about Italy for the one on your list… who, faced with a table of magazines at the doctor’s office, always reaches for the New Yorker.
Haven’t heard of Elena Ferrante? First, crawl out from under your rock. Second, run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore to pick up the first novel in her “Neapolitan quartet”: My Brilliant Friend.
The series pins down human emotions, flaws and foibles with such searing precision, it’s sometimes almost excruciating to read. On the surface, it’s about two girls who grow up together in the shadows of a working-class neighborhood in postwar Naples. And if you love Italy, especially the south or bella Napoli, it will give you a raw, intense look at a people and culture that tend to be stereotyped, not examined.
And yet, as in any true masterpiece, so many of the observations Ferrante makes apply far beyond the backstreets of Naples. For example…
“Where can I find a good leather store in Rome?” has to be one of the most frequently-asked questions I get. Although I’ve dragged my (leather-clad) heels on writing a full list — it’s pending, I promise — here’s one to add: Mancini.
The little shop, tucked behind the Pantheon, got its start back in 1918. The great-grandson of the first owner runs it today. For a small place, it’s had an illustrious history: it provided leather for the 1951 film Quo Vadis, once made a leather folder (random, yes) for Pope Pius XII and was Gucci’s go-to spot for repairs for years.
Looking for that perfect gift from Italy? Even though I’m always a fan of tracking down artisanal gifts in person, these days, you can find some pretty great Italian gifts online, too. And I don’t mean gift baskets where the “parmesan cheese” hails from Wisconsin.
Because it’s that time of year again, I spent some time scouring the interwebs to find the best gifts from Italy — as in, the finer things: from perfume to leather journals to olive oil.
In Rome Christmas markets just aren’t as much of a thing as they are in cities elsewhere in Europe, especially further north. For years, when it came to mercatini di Natale, as Italians call them, the main event really was just the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.
Today, Piazza Navona remains the biggest Rome Christmas market, at least in the center. Every Roman (and visiting) family stops there at some point during the Christmas season. Stalls sell Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets and street performers juggle and dance, all under the gloriously-lit fountains and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. For atmosphere and convenience, the 100-year-old Christmas market is a good bet. And after being called off for some previous years, the market is back — it should open on 2 December 2018 and close 6 January 2019. (Of course, this being Italy, things can always change!).
But. Most of the gifts for sale there are mass-produced, made-in-China items — and a far cry from the kind of artisanal gifts you can so easily find elsewhere in Rome.
Ah, Rome at Christmas! With the festive lights a-sparkling and families a-shopping, Christmas trees a-twinkling and nativity scenes a-…um, whatever nativity scenes do — well, it really is the most wonderful time of year.
Want to make the most of it? Here’s my complete guide to Rome at Christmas… and New Year, too.
Rome at Christmas basics: what will be open, what will be closed, and other burning questions
In the short video below, I answer some of readers’ biggest questions about visiting Rome at Christmas.
One of the biggest Christmas traditions in Rome is la befana. She’s the figure you’ll see across Rome come the holidays — and with her hooked nose and broomstick, she’s often mistaken for a witch. Here’s what to know about la befana, and this super-sweet video, below, explores the tradition further.
If you’re going to be a guest of an Italian family for any holiday meals, or you want to cook (or eat) according to Italian tradition this Christmas yourself, don’t miss this post on how to have an Italian Christmas meal.
Italian food is super-regional. But at every bakery in Rome in Christmas, you will see pandoro (a golden cake originally from Verona), as well as panettone (from Milan). Don’t miss my BBC Travel story about what you don’t know about panettone.
Want to know about New Year’s? These are some of the main New Year’s traditions in Italy. (Yes, my Italian friends really insist on wearing red underwear. So much so a [female!] Roman friend once even gave me red underwear as a gift… just to be sure I would).
If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.
Ah, autumn in Italy: The weather is crisp, the produce beautiful (don’t you love it when apples and eggplant and truffles are in season?), and the tourist crowds have started to dissipate. It’s also the only time when somehow, inexplicably, I sometimes get a whiff of that countryside woodsmoke-smell—the kind that makes me want to bundle up and go for a hayride—in the center of Rome.
For the May issue of National Geographic Traveller (that's the U.K. version of the magazine), I was asked to write about how to explore Rome like a local. If you're based in the U.K., check it out to find out more about my favorite restaurants, bars, stores, and neighborhoods in Rome. Not in the U.K.? Here's the online version.
Want to know the best things to do in Rome—beyond seeing the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum? Then put away your guidebook. When they go beyond the main sites, too many books (and magazine articles, and television shows) provide the same tired, touristy list of things to do and places to go in Rome.
The problem: These places aren’t only overrun with tourist crowds, but often just don’t tick the box they’re supposed to.
Here are five of Rome’s most overhyped activities—and what to do instead.
1. Instead of having a coffee at Piazza del Popolo…
Don’t get me wrong: The large, obelisk-topped Piazza del Popolo is worth a stop. (Don’t miss the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, with its Caravaggio paintings). But it’s not where to go for a cup of coffee. The couple of cafes on the piazza are scams expensive (think €4.50 for an espresso) and the service is terrible—which is why you won’t see any locals there.
Contrary to popular belief, it's not always that easy to just "happen" on good food in Rome. Which is why I'm a fan of Testaccio. This fascinating—and increasingly trendy—neighborhood sits just southwest of the Aventine hill and Circus Maximus. It also happens to have some fantastic restaurants and bakeries, not to mention a couple of kick-ass markets.
That's why I wrote about Testaccio for Travel + Leisure's April 2013 food issue. (Now online here).
I love vintage shopping in Rome—but hate those vintage stores that smell like Grandma’s attic. Enter Blue Goose. This little vintage boutique, which opened at the end of last year in Monti (on Via del Boschetto, of course!), is fabulous, well-priced, and anything but musty.
While tiny, the store has a beautifully-edited collection of vintage women’s clothing, bags, shoes, and jewelry. And most of the items are designer labels. Looking for that classic Louis Vuitton purse? Maybe a Versace jacket? This is the place to come.
(Note: This information was updated in April 2017).