It’s a trick question – the answer is most of them. You could find an amazing people-watching café smack in a small town’s strategic pass-through alley. Or you could find it in the corner of a big Piazza.
Modena is a relatively small city, but it has a nice big café right in the main “piazza” (square). Caffe’ Concerto has comfortable seats and tables overlooking the cathedral on a covered elevated platform. Caffe’dell’Orologio gets its name from the clock atop the outside seating area.
By the way, when you look for a café in Italy. You’re asking for a “bar.” The famous Roxy Bar in Bologna may not be more special than others, but it does have outside tables under the porticoes. Its location on a main road makes it good for people-watching.
So it’s more of a question of when than if – I love those kinds of questions!
Ten signs you’ll have a great people-watching experience
- It’s late Spring and early Fall and people are eager to get their new season wardrobe out and on. Weather is your friend. These are the best times to travel to Italy. Plus, you get a table at an outside café (“bar all’aperto.”) Win-win
- The bar is tucked away but not too secluded – a walk-through alley, proximity with a “piazza,” near the no-cars zones of most cities and towns are a great strategic location to claim your spot.
- Your seat is overlooking the piazza, or street, but not the one closest to it. That way you can have a “grandangolo,” a wide-angle view of the activity. Expect to see people biking by as well. It’s a well-adopted mode of transport.
- The bar you found is near an open market – this is where you see more locals than tourists. It can be a lot of fun watching what people are buying and getting a sense of quantities from the bags they carry out.
- You’re on the way to shops and stores, which guarantees that people will be coming by at a steady pace. A good opportunity to see if and what they buy where from the bags they carry on their way back.
- It’s a moderately full bar with some empty seats – so you won’t feel guilty for lingering for a little while, and you have plenty of people sitting around you if it’s a slow day or time for walkers.
- You’re in a mixed-use neighborhood with some stores, some dwellings, and in the path of a school, library, theater, or some other destination. This will make it interesting for different types of people to walk by.
- After walking around for a while, you’re eager to sit down in a quieter place but still feel connected to the outside. In this case choose a café a little out of the way so the sounds and conversations around you won’t be overwhelming.
- You’ve steered clear of street competition like car and bus traffic, or festivals and other things going on. Crowds can ramp up quickly, and soon become a distraction.
- It’s aperitif time and business people and tourists alike swarm into cafés to have their “stuzzichino” (snack), with their break and conversation. “Salute!” (cheers) abound.
Cafés in Italy as not just places to get a coffee, tea, other drink and something to eat. They’re important social nodes where conviviality coexists with the little treat to break a morning or afternoon — a fun intermezzo.
Verona has a very nice café a bit further up from Piazza Bra, the main city center square. You can sit outside even around Christmas Time and savor your cappuccino and little sweet with views on both passersby and decorations.
Sit at a place near a city center and you’ll find a lot of visual styles and diversity all around you.
Coffee has a long history in Italy and it’s one of the preferred to sip while watching people. It usually comes with a shot of water – “frizzante” (bubbly) or natural, as you prefer.
Aperitif, the other La Dolce Vita genius invention
Of course, people also order tea, and other drinks. Aperitif is a brilliant way to have a good time outside happy hour. Especially when your break is mid-morning. Because even though you may get no special discounts, you do get appetite-tempting snacks with it… for free.
In tourist-dense cities or areas where people started loading up on the snacks, especially where presented as buffet, bars started charging a per person fee. But the true stuzzichino was born as a small accompaniment to the drink, and not a meal.
Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented vermouth in Torino, 1786. He’d offer grissini, salame, and a warm dipping sauce made with olive oil, butter, anchovies, and garlic as an evening snack in his bodega under the porticoes near Piazza Castello.
But you can “apericenare” that is have your aperitif with enough food to make it a dinner. Milano is the city of fashion, design… and aperitif. The drink is between 10-15 euros, and you get access to the buffet.
The Diana Majestic hotel buffet is an opportunity to put a nice pair of heels in a 5-star garden where to sit in the summer. At 55 Bistrot in the Sempione area you get stuzzichini brought to you with your drink order. Make reservations. Yes, even for the aperitif hour, and get there early… before the food is gone.
La Dolce Vita is about the quality of the experience, and not the quantity of the food. Many bars and restaurants keep things balanced. So you can have a tasty experience, with none of the guilt. Now that’s what I call traveling in style.
People-watching helps you practice your observation skills. It’s a good method for getting a feel for the beauty and rhythm of a community. Whether you’re a guest, or just passing by, trying to guess another person’s story ignites the imagination. Combined with outside cafés, it marries tastes and places.
Something to try: When you’re sitting and watching, smile at people until they smile back. Now you’re part of the conversation