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How to avoid American-made traps when traveling abroad
Only two times on my recent trip to Florence, Italy did I lead myself astray. Both times it was for the same reason. Over the course of a few a days I had walked around a city bursting with culture, espresso, and food. If a bar looked inviting, I grabbed un caffè and some sparkling water. If the sandwiches in the window looked fantastic, I popped in and bought one. But at some point, I just couldn’t help myself. I was overcome with the American urge to find the best. I needed to know that I wasn’t having an espresso in Florence, but the espresso in Florence.
And so I did it, I googled “best espresso Florence”. Ugh. One spot had 1,000+ 5 star reviews on Yelp and Google. Sure enough, after days of sipping €1.20 espressos, served immediately, in places that looked like they had been there for centuries, I ended up in a line, surrounded by Americans, in a place that looks pretty similar to a coffee shop near my apartment in Tribeca. 15 minutes and €3.50 later, I had what was a pretty good espresso, but a pretty bad experience. I can just hear every American abroad student coming home and talking about “this incredible local coffee shop they used to go to every morning when they were in Florence.”
Fast forward to the next day and a friend told us to visit “the best sandwich shop in Florence.” Sure enough, an American influencer had put a video up on Youtube singing its praises. Sure enough, it had millions of great reviews on Yelp and Google. Sure enough, my fiancée and I showed up and there was a line down the block. 20 minutes later, just as we were getting to the front counter, I googled it and realized they had recently opened a new location in… Times Square NYC. As local as local gets baby! We grabbed our sandwiches, which were pretty good, and ate them on the Arno river.
Where Americans go wrong abroad
Neither the espresso nor the sandwich were the best I had in Florence, and so it got me thinking how I had gone so wrong. My first stop was to ask our wedding planner, Elisabetta, a Florentine since 1981. “Elisabetta, do Italians use Yelp or Google reviews?” “No.” Mystery solved.
Our apps are Americans letting other Americans know where Americans should go in Italy, based on social media momentum and marketing. You would be right in guessing that those two “best places” in Florence were started after 2010. They figured out the reviews game that is crack-laced catnip for American tourists and they harnessed it. The bar that’s been open since 1909 and run by the third generation? Those owners aren’t doing dances on Tik-Tok.
The biggest problem is that if our American-founded review platforms are ill-equipped to handle foreign countries, we are in a bit of bind. Because every city has bad food that you want to avoid. But for great food the apps have created an age of digital narrowing to places that locals would never go. How do you maximize discovery and authenticity while minimizing headache?
Thinking back to this past trip and every trip I’ve taken before, there are strategies and mindsets that can help you have the best trip for you. Just to make things easier, I’ll talk in terms of restaurants in Italy, but this applies to any type of experience in any country.
Be honest about what you actually want to eat
There’s a reason Irish pubs exist in every city around the world. Sometimes you just want a burger and fries. They are bunkers of familiarity in a swirl of new languages and customs. Don’t be embarrassed to end up in one. Same with a Hard Rock or the hotel restaurant. If you want a break from searching for, selecting, and experiencing something local, especially if you have a family, this could be sanity-saving.
On the flip side, if you want authentic, be ready for authentic. The most memorable meal I ever had was in the summer of 2006 in Rome. It was the night of the World Cup semifinals. Italy was playing. My family was wandering around, accidentally found a hole-in-the-wall basement pizzeria on a side street, and said “screw it”. No one spoke English. We pointed at a few things that looked good on other people’s tables, tried to indicate with hand signals that our waiter should choose some things as well, and then we ate with the game on and Italians screaming over their spicy salami.
Some people are constantly searching for that experience. Others say they want that but when push comes to shove the loss of control is actually terrifying. Ask yourself what cuisine and what experience you actually want on any given night. Then do the work to make that happen.
What you see is usually what you get
If I took all the logos off an Applebee’s restaurant, the odds are pretty high that if you were to then walk in, you’d know it was a chain. You’d be right 90% of the time in thinking that the food will be mediocre and hopefully moderately priced depending on location.
Use that same rule of thumb and judgement for restaurants:
Who is eating there? Are they all foreigners surrounded by strollers and backpacks? Or do they look like that country’s version of people you’d want to be eating with if you were at home?
Is the original menu mainly English or is it Italian with perhaps some halfhearted commitment to translation?
Does the food look incredible? Even pasta can look bad or good. I can show you two pastas - one from Olive Garden and one from a local spot in Italy - and you would immediately know which is better. Look at what people are being served before committing. Here you can even get away with using Yelp and TripAdvisor to get actual photos of food.
Will the space itself help create a memory of that evening? Eating out can be just as much about the experience as it is the food. A dinner in a 500 year-old wine cellar with good food may last longer in your memory than a two star Michelin meal in a glass and steel box.
Trust yourself. Give yourself some time to check out and say no to a few places. Also be open to upside surprises. In Milan there is a place called Camparino that comes up when you google “best bars Milan”. It’s on Piazza del Duomo and could easily be a tourist trap. I certainly thought it would be. But within its historic marble walls were just as many Milanese businessmen grabbing aperitivos after work as there were tourists. I stood corrected.
Trust one person, not the masses
Yelp, Google, and even TripAdvisor for that matter are aggregation platforms that aim for volume, not precision. What you want to find is a travel blogger who lays out the things they liked and didn’t like about a city and see if they have the same taste as you. It’s like on Rotten Tomatoes where a 60% score means that 60% of critics liked it. What if one of those 60% is a critic that has liked every other film you like? Isn’t that more important than immediately thinking a 60% movie is “bad”?
Look up “three days in Florence”, “best places to visit Florence”, “best places for 30 year olds Florence”. They’re maximizing SEO, so anticipate that. For each write up, look at who the person is, the type of pictures they take, the way they talk, the types of places they went, and what specific things they liked and didn’t like. Then ask yourself if you would hang out with this person. Do you trust them? If yes, then don’t be afraid to lean in on their recommendations. Most of the good writers will point out if something is too touristy or has a ton of lines. If you’re looking for authenticity, they will say things like “a hidden gem”. In a perfect world, they will describe exactly what it is you are looking for and you will go there.
The other option is to “find your local”. While you are hopping in and out of shops and bars and you find a local that feels your speed, ask them where they go. Try not to ask hotel concierges and salespeople at Gucci stores. Ask the person your age standing next to you. Ask the person helping you at the boutique. “Where’s your go-to spot? Where do you go to celebrate special occasions?” These can reveal easy, great choices that many people would overlook.
Don’t be afraid to leave
What happens if after all of this you sit down at a restaurant, look at your menu, and then get a feeling something isn’t quite right? Maybe it’s strong whiffs of Windex. Maybe it’s realizing that the one thing you wanted on the menu they are out of. Don’t be afraid to get up and walk out. You will immediately think you are being the rude American, and yeah, in some sense you are, but there are rude people in every culture; don’t overthink it. You spent a lot of money on flights and hotels for a limited amount of time wherever you are. Don’t sacrifice one of your few meals purely because you feel bad. If red lights are flashing, make a change. The owners will remember it for approximately 20 minutes and then move on. They will never think about you again.
You, however, have the chance to create memories that you will think about forever. Don’t waste it.