What is Authentic Travel?

I love helping people plan their trips to Italy whenever I can. I am happy to give advice and recommendations (which you can find lots of here) because I want to share a place that has given me so much joy in life, and where I have made so many incredible memories. But there is one question that I receive time and time again that truly puzzles me – How can I have a more authentic experience in Italy (or abroad in general)?

It is the notion of authenticity in this question that perplexes me. Searching for an authentic experience seems to be the new trend in travel and what tourists and travelers are striving for. How many times have you heard someone brag about finding off-the-beaten-path restaurants or having interactions and experiences with “locals” that are superior to other travelers’ because these were “authentic?”

But what constitutes “authentic” travel? Let’s take Italy for example. Can you experience the “real” Florence? Since most travelers romanticize and idealize their destinations, many visitors to Florence are disappointed to find the famous Renaissance city overrun with tourists, brimming with English speakers, and lacking local artisanal products (like leather… sorry to disappoint, but almost all of the leather handbags are made in China now).

Does that make Florence an inauthentic Italian city? Of course not. In fact, since the Renaissance Florence has been a very international place and tourists have been flocking to see the art collection of the Medici Grand Dukes since as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, you could argue that a Florence full of tourists and that is home to a thriving international community is the “real” Florence. You will find that almost all of the Italian cities you visit will have a different character, and none of these cities are more authentic than the other – just different.

From the overcrowded Vatican Museum and Florence Duomo to the small trattoria on the outskirts of town, all of Italy is authentic. I question this new trope of authenticity only because I don’t want anyone to miss out on incredible experiences and sights, or make traveling more difficult and costly, simply for some arbitrary notion of authenticity. Dividing modes of travel, experiences, and places of interest into two opposing categories of authentic and inauthentic is completely subjective! In fact, people who criticize certain destinations or experiences as inauthentic are the very ones who have been privileged to visit them in the first place.

While privileging certain types of travel or interaction as authentic irritates me, I think some of the ideas driving this concept are well intentioned. For example, visiting small, family-run restaurants, exploring places off-the-beaten-track, and interacting with locals are always a good ideas. But these are not the only forms of legitimate interaction. In fact, The Atlantic has a great article on the destructive tropes that often accompany the notion of authentic travel – static views culture/history and perpetuating the idea of the noble savage (you can read the entire article here).

As important as it is to explore and see more than just the highlights, it is equally important not to skip the highlights simply because they are famous or crowded. After all, they are famous and crowded for good reason. Of course, you want to avoid tourist traps that are just there to rip you off, but visiting major tourist attractions doesn’t mean you are not having a real or valuable travel experience.

Both group travel (which is usually seen as less authentic) and solo travel have their advantages and disadvantages (you can read more about my take on group travel here). At the end of the day you have to choose what is right for you and how you want to travel. Bottom line – Pursue what you enjoy not what others deem acceptable or desirable. If I could give any advice, it would be to diversify your experiences and have a balance of the established and more famous sights with your own personal exploration.

What are your thoughts on the notion of authentic travel?

4 thoughts on “What is Authentic Travel?”

  1. Oh Girl, "trope"? You're so letting your academic show through! 😉 But yes! As per our previous conversations, I SO agree. The concept of "authenticity" in travel is BS and I think it find its root in colonialism because I find it very much related to current debates or conversations over the "authenticity" of various indigenous peoples and practices. Florentines (google tells me this spelling is not right…) are not questioning their own authenticity, they are simply an evolving community and culture. The idea that one can have a more or less authentic experience when traveling seems to a symptom of western romanticism. Although, more accurately and specifically in this case, American romanticism, because I'm not sure if these conversations are existing in other European cultures. Perhaps it's further evidence of our insular culture and lack of exposure to international news, politics, cultures, etc (the reasons for this being widely varied from practical time and money constrains to education values) that the majority of Americans have no real concept of what non-American cities or cultures are like beyond history books. However, given the dramatic rise in Chinese tourism to Europe and the states, I wouldn't be surprise if this desire for "authenticity" in travel or experiences also exists in contemporary Asia.

    jess | Bows & Bouquets

  2. Some times I just get help myself, I've got to let my nerd flag fly! I love your line "Florentines (that's right btw) are not questioning their own authenticity." So true and well said! I always love your thoughtful and insightful comments.

  3. When my friends and I were young and naive (better known as my college years), we would travel within the United States and would want to do things off the beaten path. Not going to the big tourist areas in the cities and instead trying to go to those places that the locals would go so that we could feel as though we lived there for that short period of time. We didn't want to look like tourists, because somehow looking like a tourist was uncool. Then I grew up and realized that while I wanted some of those experiences that the locals would have, there is a lot of beauty in the places the tourists congregate. When I studied in Italy, I decided to not think about tourist sites and off the beaten path places as wholly separate experiences. I would ask people (waiters in the restaurants, the people at the front desk of the hostel, etc.) two questions: 1. If there was one place they would say every tourist should see what is it?; 2. If there is one thing that every local loves to keep their little secret what is it? People were surprisingly quick to give up their local secret. So while I saw the beautiful cathedrals, I also had the opportunity to eat at amazing family owned restaurants. I went to the local pub to watch the AC Milan match and then I went to the museum to see some of the beloved artwork. At the end of the day, I stopped caring that someone may know I was a tourist and started appreciating the beauty around me.

  4. Well said Casandra! Your personal story really emphasizes the point I was trying to make. It also makes me think that I want to write a post about not being afraid to be a (conscientious) tourist! Thanks!

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