As the scorching summer sun winds down and begins to loosen its grip on the central piazzas, Italians take a natural gravitation to the streets to perform a see-and-be-seen social ritual called la passeggiata (lah PAHS-seh-JAH-tah).
From the verb passeggiare — “to stroll” — a passeggiata is a “little walk.”
Italians have a tendency to elevate every element of daily life into an art form, from the clothes they wear (Ferragamo, Fendi, Gucci, Armani) to the tea kettles they use (Alessi, Bialetti, Langostina) and the cars they drive (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Lamborghini, Ducati).
So leave it to the Italians to turn their daily, pre-dinner stroll into the premier social event of each day.
During the hours of 5 and 7 p.m., half the city turns into a babble of lively conversation and gossip, as everyone checks each other out, bump into friends, and perhaps, make impromptu plans to head off to eat together.
Originally, the evening stroll was a time for marriageable young ladies to catch the eye of potential suitor; now, the passeggiata fills a range of other social needs.
A passeggiata is not about getting anywhere in particular. The main aim is to reconnect over a few laps around the piazza. It allows friends and couples to stroll arm-in-arm and nurture that true sense of community.
When traveling in Italy, if you are out and about at sunset, you will likely find yourself unintentionally a part of the custom.
In most villages, it’s easy to find la passeggiata. Just head for the main street or the liveliest piazza. Here are three of my favorite cities to “fare una passeggiata”:
Mull about the Piazza di Spagna or find a perch on the Spanish Steps or head to the lively Piazza Navona, with its art vendors, mimes, and musicians.
Prefer window shopping? Gravitate to the Via del Corso, a pedestrian street lined with shops, cafes, and churches.
Many people weave their way to the Piazza della Repubblica, with its choice of cafes and bars for an espresso or aperitivo, while younger Italians completely crowd Piazza Santo Spirito.
If you prefer a more tranquil passeggiata, hike to the Piazzale Michelangelo or, continuing upward, to the church of San Miniato, where couples wrap their arms around each other as they watch the sun turn the Arno river to gold.
The Sienese reclaim their town by making their way up the steep, winding streets to Il Campo, the shell-shaped main piazza. 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 and gaze down at groups of townspeople walking and talking below.
However, it is easy to recreate tradition wherever you are in a few simple steps:
1. Take a few minutes to recover from the day. Freshen up and dress up a bit.
2. Head for the main street or center of town.
3. Walk slowly.
4. Greet everyone, and stop to share a few details about your day and your plans for the evening.
5. Stop for an ice cream or glass of wine before heading home to a delicious meal.
You’ll feel as Italians do at the end of a passeggiata — that all is right with the world.