Solo travel for women has increased throughout the world and Italy is on most female traveler’s bucket lists. The art, culture and history are irresistible. Solo travel is not only gratifying, but it’s an opportunity for growth, cultural enrichment and developing a sense of self and independence.
The pros certainly outweigh the cons when travelling alone. Being able to decide where to go, what to see and not having to make compromises with other travel companions are benefits that trump the worries of being harassed or getting pickpocketed. However, making wise choices and staying safe should always be a priority.
I have been living in and traveling around Italy for over 20 years. In my experience, I have never had problems traveling alone in Italy. I travel by plane, train, bus, public transportation and drive alone. When looking up at the skyscrapers of Milan or hunting for the wine windows of Florence, it is easy to become distracted and let your guard down. Here are some travel tips and tricks for women travelers that I have learned along the way.
Yes, you are being watched
One of the first things you will notice when traveling in Italy, is that you are being observed. It is not unusual for people, both men and women, to stare or look you up and down. Although it may be misinterpreted as being “checked out” it’s not that at all. Italians like to look at what a person is wearing, how they walk, how they present themselves. It’s a cultural characteristic that you get used to after spending time here.
Although I have never had any problems, I cannot say that I have never been harassed. Like anywhere, there will be arrogant, smug hooligans that think that by blowing you a kiss or moving to the seat next to you, you will suddenly fall head over heels. They will try to charm you in broken English, ask you where you are going and maybe even follow you. The best thing to do in these cases is to distance yourself and go to an authority figure. Unless you are in an isolated area, there is always someplace to go. On a train go to the conductor or ticket collector, stand near the driver on trams, in every museum there are guards. In every train station there is a police kiosk, or you can go to the ticket booth. If you are in town, go into a shop or a cafe.
It’s best to avoid crowded trams and trains where people get too close. If someone tries to touch or grope you, the best thing to do is scream and then yell “PORCO!” Porco means “pig” and will draw unwanted attention to the molester and others will come to help.
I do not condone violence but having a foldable umbrella in your purse even if it’s not rainy may prove to be useful for defense.
Like anywhere in the world, pickpockets and petty thieves are wandering around Italy too. If you have good instincts, you will be able to spot them. To protect your stuff, wear a crossover shoulder bag and keep it close. If you can turn the closure in, that is even better. Backpacks are comfortable but are prime targets and easy to unzip and reach into. If you do any shopping, keep the shopping bags close and bring them back to the hotel as soon as you can.
Walk near buildings, not near the curb as drive by purse snatching is not uncommon. Thugs on scooters swoop next to their victim and grab her bag.
Be aware of staged diversions. It is not uncommon for a team of criminals to stage a fight, argument, or simply ask directions or for the time. They will use the distraction as an opportunity.
Don’t bring any valuables that you would hate to lose. Don’t show large quantities of cash or wear expensive jewelry. Of course, you want to look nice for dinner when you meet your friends but wear some elegant handmade jewelry instead of your vintage Rolex.
Don’t pack what you can’t carry
The best travel advice I have ever gotten was “If you can’t carry your suitcase up and down a flight of stairs by yourself, unpack half of it!” You cannot avoid staircases when traveling in Italy. There are staircases in the airport, train stations, metro lines, buildings and everywhere else in between. In many hilly towns and villages, you will find stone staircases and there is no way of avoiding them. In public transport hubs there are escalators and elevators but unfortunately you cannot depend on them always working. The worst thing for a solo female traveler is having to struggle with her luggage making her an easy target for pickpockets and petty thieves.
Use luggage with rubber wheels that are strong enough to bounce over cobblestone. Cobblestones are always found in the historical centers in Italy. If you are staying in the center of town, chances are your hotel or Airbnb will be on a cobble stoned street.
Don’t look like a tourist
Sometimes it is hard to “fit in” and not look like a tourist, but there are some things you can do to make yourself less of a target.
When traveling by train in Italy, have your tickets ready and validate it before getting on the train. All train tickets in Italy need to be validated BEFORE getting on the train. Tickets are validated at the beginning of the train track. There is a machine (it’s usually yellow) that prints the time and date on the ticket. If you are taking an intercity train, memorize the carriage and seat number so you can go directly to your place without fumbling to find it.
Pretend you know exactly where you’re going. When sightseeing, plan out your route. Before going anywhere look at the map and route you will take. Use the Google Street view feature to actually see it. Get to know the landmarks or store names you will pass so you can get your bearings. If you use a phone with gps, use it with headphones and just listen to it, don’t look at your phone all the time.
If you feel like you are being followed, use shop windows as a mirror to look back or go into a women’s lingerie shop to deter anyone from following you.
One of things I love doing when I travel is going for an early morning jog. It’s a great way to see the city without too many people around. My best photos of Venice were taken at 6:00 am! However, I have also run past druggies in a park in Bologna and witnessed a fistfight in an alley behind a supermarket in Venice. Although it is an exciting experience being alone in an unfamiliar area, you must keep your eyes open and be ready to turn back and stay clear of anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Always have your phone and some cash
I think it was Mae West who said, “A woman should always have a lipstick and a 50-dollar bill in her purse. The lipstick to look nice for her date and the 50-dollar bill to get a taxi when she gets tired of her date.”
A 50-euro bill is good to have for those “just in case” situations. A credit card is fine too. Hiding money in your boot seems cliché but when you need it, it’s a lifesaver.
Keep your phone on. I have a terrible karmic relationship with my phone battery. It is always out when I need it. When travelling alone, it is essential to be mindful and be sure your phone is working at all times. If you take a lot of photos and use it for mapping, it will run out of juice quickly, and if you need to make a call, you’re out of luck. When I travel I carry a basic, fully charged Nokia with me. It is so much better than a battery pack. With a battery pack, you have to wait until the phone charges, with the Nokia, I just change out the sim card and I am ready to make a call. You can also make an emergency call without a sim card. In Italy the emergency number is 112. For an ambulance call 112 or 118.
Solo travel for women is one of life’s most enriching experiences and is empowering and liberating but it is important to stay safe. Keep your eyes open, plan your routes and excursions in advance and keep your valuables close. Buon viaggio!
Article and selfies by Celia Abernethy