Solo travel in Italy for women: advice and experience
In this article
Solo travel can seem a daunting prospect for a woman. If you don't have any experience of travelling alone, you'll have lots to consider, from loneliness to the difficulties of a foreign language or coping with your luggage. Even if you're used to solo holidays, it's useful to do some background research on practicalities and safety considerations. It will be worth the effort; you will find that exploring Italy on your own can be a very rewarding experience.
In this article I'll describe my own experiences as a resident and frequent traveller in Italy, and I'll attempt to give practical advice and suggestions. I don't wish to offend anyone, least of all Italians, but obviously generalisations are necessary on a page like this. What I describe won't be universally applicable. And if it seems negative or biased; well, Italy is changing and I'd like to encourage it to change more. But in the meantime, travellers need to deal with the state of things now, which entails awareness of local beliefs.
Italy is a modern country and women are theoretically equal to men. Any kind of violence against women, from groping upwards, is a crime and is never seen as acceptable. In the sections on men and my own experiences you'll read more about annoyances and general hassle. On a serious level, assaults seem to be reasonably rare (we don't have the statistics). You should employ the same precautions for your own safety that you would employ in your own country. It's obviously a good idea to be wary of strangers, to avoid dark lonely places, to carry an alarm or whistle and to be equipped with the telephone numbers of your hotel and a local taxi service. I can't speak from personal experience, but I've heard stories of harassment on overnight trains, and I would choose to travel on regular daytime services rather than in sleeping compartments. Theft is more common, although not aimed at women in particular. Watch out for groups of pickpockets in tourist areas and stations, particularly poorly-dressed children.
I have lived in a number of cities and I have never felt as much at risk in Italy as I have done in London. Walking home alone in Rome, or catching a night-bus, isn't always pleasant but I've never felt seriously threatened. Pedestrianised Venice feels like one of the safest cities you could be alone in. Walking home at night, I have only once been disconcerted and that was by some drunken British men who were shouting loudly. Italian town centres usually contain more residential housing than UK cities, so there are lights, bustle and people within earshot. The evening passeggiata means that streets are safe and lively until late at night.
Single rooms are occasionally half the price of a double; more often you'll be paying about two-thirds of the price. Usually single rooms are stuck in tight corners where there would be no room for a double, so don't take a cat to swing. I've often found myself in little shoe-boxes just off a flight of stairs, or dealing with a bathroom smaller than a wardrobe. When you're making a hotel booking, check reviews from other single travellers to see how they've found the accommodation. There aren't that many single rooms in hotels, and I've often found myself upgraded to a double for the same price. If you are offered a double at a reduced rate, it's often worth paying as you should get much more room than in a single. I've never had any unwelcome attention or problems staying alone in hotels. I suspect that receptionists are often friendlier and more disposed to chat. Of course it's always a good idea to be careful locking your door. And I confess that I am so security-conscious I have also been known to barricade it with a chair - if you want something that will make a noise if the door is opened, try this or consider buying a door alarm from a travel or hardware store.
Restaurants and bars: eating out on your own
Eating out alone is often nerve-wracking, but for reasons which are mostly in one's head. Personally I feel a certain guilt if a crowded restaurant gives me a table for two, and I proceed to eat cheaply. But that's their business. I have never been made to feel unwelcome or disapproved-of in restaurants. Occasionally I've wondered if I've been given a lesser table. But more often I've been ushered to a prime seat and treated extremely well. Perhaps there is a certain amount of sympathy for a woman who is dining alone, but whatever the reason, waiters are usually charming and attentive. In a recent article, one traveller said she felt that restaurant staff disapproved if she ordered wine. I've found the opposite. I've even been offered a free glass of wine 'for being nice' and free desserts. [The day after writing this article I dined at a local Venice restaurant and was once again presented with a free drink]. If you're uncomfortable, take a book or a notebook and pen.
Bars in Italy are less about drinking and mingling, and more about sitting at outdoor tables and people-watching, so they are ideal for solo women. If you find a comfortable spot, take advantage of the table-service and order a glass of wine, you can sit unbothered for as long as you want.
Problems with men
Whole volumes could be written about Italian men, but for solo travellers the most important fact is that they are usually harmless. You're at more risk from them injuring you in a traffic accident than anything else. Italy is a modern country, but many old-fashioned attitudes remain. Particularly in more 'backward' areas - provincial villages, the south and Sicily - a woman alone can attract appreciative comments, whistles, hisses or snatches of song. But remember that most Italians live in tightly-knit communities where the domestic sphere is ruled over by the mamma. Women are seen as strong and quite capable of saying no if they're not interested, or conversely of pursuing a man they are keen on.
It is actually rare to get hassled for more than ten seconds. Visitors from countries like the UK should forget the unpleasant culture at home, where comments from workmen and drivers are offensive and responded to with rudeness. Here any attention you get is likely to be a simple compliment with no agenda, and expected to be received as such. It would be disproportionate and inappropriate to respond with an insult. If you don't want to accept the compliment, just ignore it. If you want to you could allow yourself a half-smile or a casual 'grazie'. When Italian women are hooted or hissed at, or have compliments yelled at them they generally just ignore it.
Particularly if you have light colouring or blonde hair you can expect a great deal of attention, which will increase the further south you travel. You will automatically be seen as unusual and attractive. You should also be aware that foreign tourists have a reputation for drinking too much, and it is true that some act in a manner that is shocking to Italian traditionalists, and others are tempted into a fling by the unaccustomed compliments. If you're not interested, just make it obvious. The sort of male who picks up tourists won't waste his time if you ignore him, walk past, say 'no grazie' or ask to be left alone (I've never had to go that far). Incidentally, I don't think there is much of a gigolo culture these days, although I have heard tales of men cruising St. Mark's Square looking for rich foreign women.
You can read more about my experiences as a solo blonde traveller in Italy on my archived blog, Travelling Blonde. In years of residence and travelling in Italy, I've not had any major problems.
There have been some unpleasant encounters, although no worse than I've experienced in the UK. I've been groped on a bus in Rome, along with my friends, and had a skinhead stick his hand between my legs on a street by my house - a totally unlikely and out-of-the-blue act which left me too shocked to react. Other men on buses have tried standing too close, or drawing attention to their genitals. Moving seats, a sharp elbow, a protective shoulderbag or a stamp on the foot deal with these. If someone is a real problem, shout and create a fuss. In Rome, the busy bus routes to the Vatican are favoured by groping men and pickpockets, and sometimes newspapers contain accounts of citizens' arrests carried out by bus drivers and fellow-passengers. So don't hesitate to call for help. I have also been followed for short distances by men muttering under their breath, usually in parks where clandestine immigrants congregate. I would add that few, if any, of these were Italian men and these incidents are more indicative of cities with poor non-integrated immigrant communities than of Italian cultural attitudes.
On a less offensive level, I have had some pleasant conversations with polite, chance-met locals, and have been asked out, or for my phone number, several times in a charming and non-threatening way. Some chat-ups are less promising; the usual local boys who try out their chat-up lines in many languages in the hope of a response and odd older men who've attempted to pick me up on city streets. The most insistent chat up was when I was with another girl, and two Roman boys followed our bus home on their scooters, desperate for us to book a picnic with them, and they were funny rather than a problem. It's easy enough, as it would be at home, to tell who is genuine.
I have been befriended by both male and female locals, and apart from the village weirdo in Taormina they have been good experiences. Asking a simple question can lead to long conversations and tips about local sights.
The worst thing I've found is the level of attention. It's not always negative, it's just that as a woman doing things alone, I'm unusual in Italy. Women do go to work but seem to do everything else in company. In some places, such as Sicily, there can be a total lack of females on the streets, just lots of lounging men. So walking down a village street can bring people to their front doors. Local bars full of men will fall silent as I appear at the threshold. Waiters are sometimes perplexed and concerned at my solo status. Once, in the ruins of Ostica Antica, I heard a little girl telling her father to 'look at that lady, sola, sola' (alone, alone). The only times this has felt like a serious, practical problem is when walking along those unpleasant roads on the edge of urban areas which tend to be frequented by prostitutes. Even waiting at a semi-rural bus stop can provoke slowing cars and curious stares. I try to avoid the type of trip which will involve walking along these kinds of roads (a shame, as many monasteries and archaeological sites lie just outside towns). If I feel uncomfortable, I make sure I am dressed like a respectable tourist, with rucksack, camera, water bottle etc.
Advice for coping with attention
I agree, you shouldn't have to do any of this. But realistically, allowing for local prejudices makes life easier. Italians have mixed feelings about foreigners, and negative assumptions about extracomunitari, non-EU citizens (meaning from poorer countries than Italy, not those from 'ok' places like the US or Australia). If you want to avoid arousing Italians' negative assumptions or suspicious, you should try to convey the message that you won't be after their job, their purse, their husband or a career in the red-light district.
I think the best ways to demonstrate your respectability, if you fear that your solitary status and foreign or ethnic-minority appearance may arouse unworthy prejudice are:
As is noted on various places throughout this website, Italian women do not dress like English-speakers do. Although they often seem very tarty to our eyes, they are following their own strict fashion codes. It's unusual to bare as much flesh as foreigners do: Italian women may wear transparent tops with strategic cut-aways, but they don't usually wear vest-tops or shorts (unless shorts are very 'in'). It is, in any case, unacceptable to enter churches dressed in skimpy clothes. So, especially if you are travelling alone, don't want too much attention or to offend, it's a good idea to cover up as much as you can bear to. Knee-length leg-covering is more comfortable for sticky public transport and sufficiently modest for entering churches and monuments. On a hot day, I always carry a scarf or light sarong to throw over my shoulders to deflect sunshine, religious disapproval or male stares.
If you really want to pander to Italian views, avoid ethnic clothing and scarves (gypsy=bad here), and bear in mind that Italians cringe or point at exposed acres of very white, very sunburnt or very plump flesh. Apparently the term 'mozzarella' is sometimes used to describe us pale notherners who lack the desire to turn the colour of old leather.
Meet people and create a bond
Especially if you're a solo holidaymaker, learning Italian will be incredibly useful. Italians' interest in solo women can be very positive. They will be predisposed to chat to you if you are friendly, curious to hear what you are doing in their town, and gratified that you should make the effort. I've found gregarious Italians to be flatteringly impressed by my self-sufficiency. My only reservation has been that due to safety concerns, I've not felt able to accept all the invitations I've been offered: lifts to out-of-town attractions etc. And of course it's not advisable to go into details of your movements or your lack of travelling-companions.
Should I do it?
Travelling anywhere, with anyone or alone, can present problems as well as rewards. If you are travelling solo in Italy you will probably meet with attention and possibly some annoyances. But you'll also encounter hospitality, politeness, and perhaps the sort of special queen-like treatment that Italians can do so well. If you are nervous, stick to popular tourist destinations where you'll be less conspicuous. Especially if you take the trouble to learn some Italian - even a few words - and to be friendly, you are likely to have a very rewarding trip.
What they might say:
What you can say:
Other pages on which we've given advice to women