Italy’s Most Overrated Attractions

Chris Watts runs down Italy's most underwhelming hotspots, from Pisa to Trevi Fountain

By / September 2014

As one of the most storied and spectacular destinations on Earth, Italy occupies a prominent place on countless bucket lists. A multitude of books and movies have relentlessly crafted our romanticized vision of what this rocky peninsula is all about. With such an incredible build-up and illustrious reputation, it’s no wonder that some travelers come away from many of bell’Italia’s most renowned sites feeling a little let down.  There’s no way that every famous Italian attraction could possibly live up to what we expect it to be. After all, most two-week vacations are far from stylized Hollywood movies.

With those stark and somewhat deflating realities in mind, I offer you a short list of some of the greatest contributors to a disappointing Italian holiday. Each of these famous sites was selected with seven years of living and traveling in Italy under my belt. Without exception, they are all beautiful and interesting locales. Without exception, they may well be worth a visit. But if you hit them, do yourself a favor – cast off the illusions of grandeur and unrealistic expectations that are sure to leave you feeling distinctly underwhelmed.


1. Pompeii
Situated just south of Naples in a decidedly seedy part of town, cowering in the shadow of the sinister and devastating Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii may well be the most famous ruin in the world. Completely buried by volcanic ash in 79 AD, the city was fairly well preserved until it was excavated in the 18th century. Now, more than 2.5 million visitors a year plop down 11 euros ($14.50) a pop to wander along the haunted streets and be transported back to the era of chariots and togas. In reality, though, many people have a hard time achieving time travel while being jostled and pushed by suffocating crowds of tour groups in matching hats and vests, all the while snapping pictures of every upturned stone. Instead, visitors are left meandering around one identical street after another staring at nondescript rock walls that were maybe once part of what…a house? No, a shop? Who knows? After they grow weary of traipsing up and down unidentifiable heaps, they head off to locate the famous bodies of Pompeii, those corpses frozen in time by the onslaught of ash, only to discover that the vast majority have been moved to the archaeological museum in downtown Naples. As a result, when posed with the question, “How was Pompeii?” the most common response I heard from visitors was, “Hot.”


2. Venice
Don’t get me wrong, Venice is truly a lovely city, all crumbly and wet and romantic. The problem is that there is simply no way it can live up to its own over-hyped reputation. It has become a victim of its fame, long ago eaten alive by the tourism machine, and now churns out an endless stream of stereotypical experiences. The canals are choked with gondolas, piloted by young, hat-wearing, opera-belting Italians. They charge upwards of $100/half hour to ferry vaguely disappointed tourists up and down a couple of canals before hitting them up for an additional gratuity. Whether for pasta, cappuccino, or a bit of Venetian glass, expect to pay exorbitant prices for fairly poor quality items. The letdown and exasperation can be somewhat mitigated by wandering the back alleys, dining away from the landmarks, and sleeping on the mainland. That’s where all the actual Venetians are anyway.


3. The Vatican Museums
This is Italy’s “one trick pony.” Over 5 million people flock annually to the massive Musei Vaticani primarily to see one thing:  the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There is no other way to view Michelangelo’s renowned masterpiece, apart from paying the 16 euro ($21) entry fee, and then winding your way through the crowds in the other 53 galleries, so that you can stand shoulder to shoulder among the neck-craning masses, admiring the surprisingly lofty ceiling. Lines often stretch around the block, and unless you are a serious aficionado of Renaissance sculpture or bedazzled pope hats, it’s all part of an obligatory and meandering race for that spectacular chapel. There is, however, a way to lessen this frustration. Show up on a weekday morning in the winter time and you’ll waltz right in. Take your time, don’t rush it, and hit the Sistine Chapel around lunch. You may just find yourself in a comparatively manageable throng of art fans.


4. Trevi Fountain
If Trevi Fountain were not famous, it would be spectacular. If it were tucked away in its cozy little piazza, waiting to delight unsuspecting travelers as they wandered through the back streets of Rome, it would be magical. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Ever since Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn’s goo-goo-eyed encounters there, the fountain has transcended its own virtue. It is now a de rigueur stop on every itinerary in the Eternal City.  Consequently, the tiny piazza is perpetually packed with thousands of sweating and militant tourists, all battling to get a photo taken while tossing a coin over their shoulders in the classic movie pose.  All the while, they are hard pressed to fend off legions of Bengali hawkers, peddling a chintzy array of crappy doo-dads and whatnots. Nowadays, if you want to see Trevi Fountain, to truly see it and enjoy it in all its splendor, plan a very late dinner, an even later drink, and then wander over sometime around 1:30 or 2 in the morning. There will still be people around, but the experience will be hassle free, and the sparkling, illuminated waters will be more likely to achieve the magical effect you were expecting.


5. Pisa
Yes, there is a tower. Yes, it leans. To the right. A little. Beyond that, Pisa is one of the least remarkable and most non-descript cities in Italy. It’s quite a trek from any of the other major tourist stops, and as a result, many travelers carve two costly days out of their itinerary just to get there and see the fabled monolith. Upon their arrival, they find the rest of Pisa befuddling and poorly labeled, making it difficult for independent travelers to even locate the famous tower, over on the far side of the Arno River.  Once they do, they are hit with the startling epiphany that they should have made an appointment weeks ago, if they actually hoped to ascend the tower.  Without one, they are often forced to wait hours and hours for the privilege of forking over 18 euros ($24) to climb the stairs. If you insist on going, a Pisa visit is one of the very few times that I would recommend joining a tour group. They’ll get you in, get you up, and get you out, without wasting too much of your precious trip.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.