How Expectations Shaped My View of Two Italian Cities

We’ve all had that experience where everyone raves about a movie that you Simply! Must! See! And you get all excited, thinking “OMG, this movie is going to be AMAZEBALLS!”

And then you go see it and you’re, “Um, so what’s all the fuss about? I mean it was okay, but it wasn’t all that.”

So was the movie really not that great? Or was it ruined by over-inflated expectations from everyone else’s raving about it?

Florence, Italy: Must see or Meh?

Florence, Italy: Must see or Meh?

I’ve been thinking about this because that’s exactly how I felt about Florence, Italy, when we visited earlier this year. After Rome and Venice, Florence is probably the most visited city in Italy. Which makes sense. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the birthplace of the Renaissance, home of the Uffizi Museum, and is a center of Italian culture and heritage.

My entire life, I’ve been hearing how much I was going to love Florence. So naturally, I couldn’t wait to get there.

And yet my day visiting Florence left me feeling rather “meh.” Full disclosure: we didn’t get to see a lot of the art (because the lines were looooong and the crowds were horrible, which is a related issue). And the city itself? Honestly, it wasn’t anything special, and as I wandered the city streets, I found myself feeling rather let down.

Contrast that to our experience in Matera, Italy, where we lived for a month earlier this year. Matera is way down in the poor, southern part of Italy. When Brent and I left Seattle last December to start our lives as digital nomads, we’d never even heard of Matera.

And now as I look back at the past year, I find it’s Matera I keep telling people about. “Visiting Italy?” I say. “You should really check out Matera. It’s the most interesting place I’ve ever been that I’d never heard of. You’ll love the Sassi, and definitely try to go during the amazing Festa della Bruna. Sure, Materans are terrible at parking, but they aren’t sick to death of tourists, and love to have you over for dinners that never end!

So what accounts for my different reactions to the two cities? Was Florence really that bad and Matera really that interesting? And what does that say about travel and expectations?

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To be honest, it’s probably a combination of the two. I honestly do think Florence is overrated, at least when it comes to the city itself (the museums are topnotch). And I truly feel Matera is hugely underrated. I think in ten year’s time, Matera will be much more well known. But it probably didn’t hurt my enjoyment that I felt like I was discovering the place or that I’d never even heard of the Sassi, the most fascinating part of the city.

And, no, this wasn’t the only time my expectations were upended. We very nearly didn’t visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa because Id heard it was a kitschy tourist trap overrun with people taking selfies. And it was overrun with people taking selfies. But the tower itself is also stunningly beautiful. And, well, it leans, in a way that is truly unique and fascinating. The town of Pisa isn’t so bad either. So I’m really glad I went.

So what’s the lesson to be learned here?

For starters, it’s probably best to keep travel expectations in check. And second, think outside of the box when choosing your travel destinations. For every Florence that people say you absolutely must see, there are plenty of gems like Matera that you haven’t even heard of. Be open to opportunities, and also to discovery.

Oh, and forget everything I told you about Matera. It isn’t really all that great.