Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, which will be published by Simon & Schuster on August 5. She is a prize-winning, widely published journalist and author in addition to being awarded an honorary knighthood in recognition of her bestselling book, La Bella Lingua, by the President of Italy. Hales currently resides in the San Francisco Bay area with her family.
"Quanta costa?" (How much does it cost?)
It's a phrase you're sure to use if you're heading to Italy—and you may be surprised by how much a cappuccino at an outdoor café or a tank of gas will set you back.
With prices rising steadily and the exchange rate hovering at about $1.39 per euro, Italy may not be a bargain. However, with some strategic planning, you can enjoy its many delights while holding on to more of your dollars.
Stay Outside The Big Cities
Particularly during peak summer and fall season, Italy's cities are hot and crowded with tourists. Choose a charming village, such as Orvieto in Umbria or Greve in Chianti in Tuscany, and take day trips by train to urban centers. Prices are lower. People are friendlier. And you'll feel more Italian as you recognize faces while lingering in the town piazza.
Get A Place Of Your Own
For the price of a single night at an upscale hotel, you can rent a home away from home for a week. You'll save by preparing your own meals -- and even mundane chores like shopping become part of the adventure. Dozens of online websites offer every type of accommodation, from a farmhouse room to an urban apartment to a seaside villa (see http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/listings/favorites.htm for some recommended agencies). Be sure to read renters' reviews carefully –- and always check the fine print about deposits and refunds.
Go To Church
Rather than paying steep entrance fees and standing in long lines, you can slip into Italy's countless churches and discover masterpieces offset by flickering candles and radiant stained glass. Many of Italy's sacred sites boast paintings and sculptures any museum would envy. But even little-known works in humble chapels can uplift the soul. Admission is free, although donations are welcome. As a sign of respect, cover your shoulders and knees, and don't disturb worshippers.
Join The Party
Entertain yourself the way Italians do—by dropping in on festivals. From early spring to late fall country fairs called sagre celebrate nature's bounty in every form—from flowers to fruit and to vegetables. You can enjoy parades, marching bands, dancing—all free—along with delicious and affordable specialties cooked on site. To find a sagra near you, check the tourist office or the posters and notices in a village piazza.
Eat Well, But Wisely
A meal at a more rustic trattoria or osteria costs less than at a white-tablecloth ristorante—and an espresso is cheaper if you stand at the bar than if you take a seat at a café. Make a lower-priced lunch special the main meal of the day and opt for pizza or panini (sandwiches) for dinner. Ask natives to recommend places that serve authentic local dishes, which often offer the best value for your dining dollars.
Related: Best Budget Vacation Destinations
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