As day softens into dusk in Italy, something in the air seems to tug people
from their homes and workplaces to participate in one of the enduring
traditions of Italian life:la
passeggiata. This evening promenade, generally between 5 and 8 PM,
occurs in virtually every town, village, or big city in Italy. Here are my
tips for joining in the tradition, and some favorite spots for strolling in
Andiamo a fare qualche vasca! (Literally,
let’s go do some laps—as in a pool), Italians say to one another. However,
this "cultural performance," as sociologists describe it, involves much more
than strolling to and fro.
The Most Italian Time of Day
During the week, the passeggiata marks the end of the workday and offers a
moment of sociability before the family dinner. On Saturday and Sunday, the passeggiata often
becomes the main social event of the day, when entire families take to the
The most important thing, it seems, is simply seeing and being seen (vedere
e farsi vedere). In some cities, people clearly dress to impress or at
least to show how well life has been treating them. Shirts are pressed;
jeans, if worn, are stylish. Even babies in their prams are ready for proud
Attracting the most attention are young women of marriageable age, who, as
Giovanna Delnegro observes in her book The
Passeggiata, take advantage of "a socially sanctioned opportunity for
flirting and courting." Parents encourage such behavior, she notes, because
"the rhetorical skills learned in the piazza become useful in the marriage
market, the work place and the complex politics of the town."
For townspeople of all ages, the passeggiata reinforces a sense of belonging.
The greeting of friends and acquaintances, the swapping of gossip, and the
sharing of the latest news weave everyone into the human fabric of the
Join the Passeggiata
If you’re out and about in the early evening, you may become part of a
passeggiata whether you intend to or not. You’ll feel like less of an
outsider if you dress up a little. Walk slowly. Stop for a gelato or an
aperitivo. And don’t be surprised if, after a while, you start feeling that
you too belong.
In most villages, it’s easy to find la
passeggiata. Just head for the corsoor
main street or the liveliest piazza. Here are three of my favorite cities to fare
Young travelers tend to mull about the Piazza di Spagna or find a perch on
the Spanish Steps to watch the parade. Window-shoppers gravitate to the Via
del Corso, a pedestrian street lined with shops, cafes, and churches. The
lively Piazza Navona, with its open-art art vendors, mimes, and musicians,
may be the most entertaining place for your passeggiata.
The Borghese Gardens, where families pause to let their children ride the
carousel or chase pigeons, offers a more tranquil setting. One of the best
places to end a Roman passeggiata is
the Pincio, poised above the Piazza del Popolo with a wonderful view over
the cupolas of Rome’s churches (including St. Peter’s) to the often-spectacular
Florence’s narrow streets provide welcome shade in the late afternoon. Many
people weave their way to the Piazza della Repubblica, with its choice of
cafes and bars for an espresso or aperitivo. I prefer a different route: a
hike (or bus ride) to the Piazzale Michelangelo or, continuing upward, to
the church of San Miniato, where locals sit in the shade and couples wrap
their arms around each other as they watch the sun turn the Arno to gold.
The buses that bring many visitors to this medieval city leave by late
afternoon. That’s when the Sienese reclaim their town by making their way up
the steep, winding streets to Il Campo, the shell-shaped main piazza. You
can circumnavigate the piazza, as many do, or venture into the tiny side
streets and alleys.
For a bird’s eye view, climb the 400 steps to the top of the Torre del
Mangia (roughly translated, the Tower of the Eater, from its first guardian,
nicknamed Mangiaguadagni for
his tendency to spend all his money for food). As you gaze down at groups of
townspeople walking and talking below, you’ll feel—as Italians do at the end
of a passeggiata—that all’s right with the world.