Wandering The Streets of Italy

Why You Should Ditch Your Travel Agenda And Just Walk

Photographs © Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images. All photos available in color.

Man on the street in Milan.


A couple walking down the street in Trastavere neighborhood of Rome.

The first thing I say to anyone who asks what they should see in Italy is “nothing.” Ditch your plans and become a wanderer. In a world dominated by the desire to accomplish as much as possible each day and where our lives are filled with appointments and deadlines that dictate nearly every moment, I say take inspiration from the Italians who walk far more than they run. To travel means to slow down, to stroll instead of sprint, to take in your new surroundings and eliminate the belief that you must see everything with a determination to see nothing.

If you’re planning to travel to Italy, you’ll quickly realize once you hit the streets that the default agenda is to rush from museum to gallery to UNESCO site, often in a cattle like formation following a leader with a small flag, in a harried attempt to see everything; The Colosseum, The Roman Forum, Michelangelo’s “David,” The Trevi Fountain, da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” The Pantheon and so on. That’s not for me. Figuratively speaking, I go in the other direction. I avoid scheduled tours and museum entry appointments in exchange for observing everyday Italian life typically ignored by those rushing to something. My love for just wandering with a camera helps me slow down and experience more. Of course, that’s not to imply that you must avoid the popular destinations (after all they’re popular for legitimate reasons), but rather to turn your attention away from the obvious and allow yourself to see the people instead of just the places. In doing so you’ll discover the simple beauty of, for example, an elderly man walking down a cobblestone street arm-in-arm with another.

Searching for spontaneous reality, the kind of which is abundant in piazzas, crowded markets in Florence or on the bustling streets of Rome, will yield a new excitement for the ordinary while everyone rushes to see the extraordinary. Watching people engage with one another or simply go about their daily life gives the kind of insight that is more engaging than just observing a life size statue amid a throng of tourists.

To do this requires one to wander, explore, meander, sit idly for periods of time and then accept what you encounter. As a photojournalist, I’ve initiated projects with little notion as to where the project would take me because I let the story unfold organically. Similarly, traveling is best when the day unfolds without interference, when there are no plans, itinerary, tickets or appointments. Just pick a place to spend a few days and, once there, put one foot in front of the other (bring good shoes) with a single camera and open your eyes to the excitement of everyday life. If you’re willing to look for it, there is quiet beauty to be discovered in daily life that’s lost amid the crush of tourists at iconic destinations.

Bride and groom wait for pedestrians to get out of the way so their photographer can take their picture in Florence.

Walking without an agenda in hopes of capturing slices of Italian life requires a willingness to embrace an ordinary scene for the potential it has to yield a telling moment. It could be old men playing bocce in Lido, a small island near Venice, or a shaft of light catching a pedestrian crossing the street in Milan, or a leather salesman haggling with customers in a Florence market. These are everyday moments and you’ll best encounter them by walking and being prepared to photograph life beyond the obvious. Ultimately, for me the goal is to see the people who create the region’s life and energy. 

A group of friends play bocce on the beach in Lido, a small island that’s part of Venice, Italy.

A friendly game of bocce on the sand.

A group of friends play bocce on the beach.

A couple oblivious to the crowds on bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice.

Stumbling stones mark where a Holocaust victim was removed from their home.

I should make clear that in Italy everyone, including me, desires to see the iconic Renaissance art and architecture that the country is renowned for. But, walking quickly by a dense neighborhood with narrow, vibrant streets just to get to the Colosseum as quickly as possible utterly defeats the purpose of traveling and restricts you to a guidebook understanding of your destination. It’s important to get into the neighborhoods and experience life beyond the iconic sites. It’s only then that a city or town will reveal itself; the way a street is festooned with hanging ivy or where the sidewalks contain small bronze plaques commemorating a holocaust victim forcibly removed and sent to a concentration camp, never to return. I’m sure if you read about these things in a book you could simply head straight there, but it’s so much better to discover them while walking without a predetermined destination. As they say, it’s the journey that really counts.

A priest unlocks the confessional in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

Each day in Italy, my wife and I would wake up and simply pick a neighborhood from a map, do a little reading on travel blogs to get an idea for food and then just start walking. We’d often get lost or thought we were heading in one direction when, in fact, we were heading in the opposite direction. Every traveler has experienced this but, instead of being frustrated that we might miss a time slot to enter a museum, we would shrug and just keep walking as I kept clicking. Usually we ended up eating at some place we found when we were lost, like the incredible Spanish restaurant in the Brera neighborhood of Milan that we discovered while en route to Obica, a restaurant known for amazing cheese platters (we did hit Obica a couple days later!). Wandering on foot with no timeline provides a chance to see and feel the area beyond the quick glances as you shuffle from one famous museum to another.

A young boy peering out the window of a bus in Milan.

A man plays a violin at night in Venice.

Two elderly gentlemen in Rome.

In Domadossola, a small town north of Milan near the border with Switzerland, I was drawn by the shadows unfolding against the vibrant colors of the buildings, so I walked for some time and worked the situation as the shadows moved. In Venice, I stopped to capture a young couple’s kiss amid a crush of people on a bridge over the Grand Canal, their love casting them seemingly oblivious to the madness around them. In Florence, I was out in the late afternoon light walking down Lungarno degli Archibusieri near the Arno when I collided with a parade celebrating the time in the 12th Century when Florence was a Republic. On a side street in a high end, wealthy neighborhood in Rome, a chauffeur’s crisp white shirt resting out the window of a sleek, black Mercedes caught my attention. No doubt the driver was waiting for his client to finish shopping along Via dei Condotti where Gucci, Prada, Bvlgari and other famous Italian brands are located. Each time I was on my way somewhere else and each time I discovered someone or something en route.

Chauffeur near the upscale fashion district in Rome.

A quiet, rainy morning in the Monti district of Rome.

Busking in Florence, a time honored tradition for artists in Italy.

A clown at a charity that serves disadvantaged people and former prisoners in Trastevere district of Rome.

Haggling over prices in one of Florence’s famous leather markets.

Photographers will recognize this approach to travel as classic street photography, a genre that’s been perfected by the likes of Elliot Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, Vivian Maier and Joel Meyerwitz, to name but a few. It is far more challenging than just pointing a camera at Florence’s Duomo and tapping the shutter, but it’s equally far more rewarding than trudging blindly from The David to the Trevi Fountain amid the masses. It calls for an open mind, a general curiosity to explore and an acceptance that ordinary life can be extraordinary. As fate would have it, my wife and I were wondering to Navigli, an eclectic neighborhood in Milan known for high energy and great food when we stopped at a piazza. I looked up and, astonishingly, a sign promoted an exhibition of Elliott Erwitt’s work, including much of his iconic street photography. That’s what I call a fortuitous discovery and one I was fortunate to find by simply wandering about.

A small parade celebrating the period when Florence was a Republic ruled by a council. It was during this period that the Renaissance was born.

A person sleeping on a bench in Villa Borghese in Rome

A woman walks through the Brera neighborhood of Milan.


Todd Bigelow is a Los Angeles based contributor to Contact Press Images and author of The Freelance Photographer’s Guide To Success: Business Essentials. Along with his wife, Judy, he walked 218 miles over the course of nearly a month through the streets of Milan, Baveno, Domodossola, Crodo, Cravegna, Venice, Lido, Burano, Murano, Padua, Florence, Lucca and Rome. In the process he ate a lot of amazing food, enjoyed a lot of wonderful wine and reveled in sharing time with his wife, fellow travelers and locals. If you enjoyed these images, you might also like “Italy Awash In Light & Color.

2 comments on “
  1. Paul Frocchi says:

    wonderful. Hope you’re well and have survived these past few years of madness! ha!

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