Live Or Retire To Italy

At Home In Italy?

Moving around Italy these past couple of weeks, we haven’t been scouts, but tourists. Still, passing through Venice, Ravenna, Rome, Pisa, and, now, Florence, we’ve made observations related to the idea of living or retiring in these cities.

Specifically, we’ve been asking ourselves: Would we want to?

Two or three days in each of these places hasn’t been enough time to find an answer to that question, of course. On the other hand, sometimes, 24 or 48 hours is all the time you need to determine whether you might want to invest the further time required to find out if a place might suit you long-term.

In that context, here are our snap impressions of these five Italian cities:

Venice is a gem of a place that you should see if you can. To be happy living here, you’d have to enjoy life on the water (getting anywhere requires a ferry or boat ride). I’d find it a hassle after a while. Certainly you’d want to leave in summer, when the temperatures can top 35 degrees Celsius for days on end and the narrow streets of this lagoon city are overrun with camera-toting hordes. In winter, the tourists are mostly gone, but the days are cold and damp.

The real reason, though, why Venice isn’t a top retirement choice is the cost of living here. Real estate values rival those of Paris (4,000 euro per square meter out-of-the-way to 20,000 euro per square meter overlooking the Grand Canal). We noticed one “student rental” advertised for 800 euro per month.

Ravenna is a stark contrast. This is a quiet Italian village with a rich history that today is largely overlooked. We made a point of stopping here because our art historian daughter wanted to see Justinian’s mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale. While in Venice, the queue for the basilica was hours long, in Ravenna, we walked straight up to the window, bought our tickets, and continued directly into the church, where we had no competition at all for front-row viewing of the ancient masterpiece.

The heart of Ravenna’s old town is interesting and pleasant but small. Overall, that’s our impression of this city–too small. What would you do here after you’d viewed the noteworthy art and architecture?

On the other hand, lunch in Ravenna cost less than 10 euro per head…whereas the best we’d done in Venice was more than double that.

Rome isn’t small, and, living here, you’d never run out of fun and interesting ways to spend your time. Still, I don’t think this city would suit me. It’s too urban without the veneer that Paris has managed to paint over herself. Rome is gritty and real…while Paris (to continue the comparison) is genteel and romantic.

That said, our quick impression of Rome is that it could be a much more affordable place to live than Paris. Avoid the tourist zones (as you would as a resident), and you probably could enjoy a full life here on an average budget.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this tour around Italy has been Pisa. Everyone comes to see the tower, but Pisa has more to offer. Its riverfront homes, candy-striped basilica, and baptistery showcase a bygone age of wealth. At one time, Pisa merchants competed successfully with those of Venice. Eventually, the city fell to Florence. Today, it’s a one-hour stop for tour buses.

But, if you’re looking for an Old World lifestyle, I’d give this city more attention. The old town is charming, and the town beyond is pleasant. There’s enough here to keep your interest and to support a fully appointed life on the Continent. And you’re minutes from the sea.

Whereas Venice, Rome, and Florence are given over entirely to tourists right now, Pisa is quiet. Busloads of travelers come and go from the tower each day while the rest of the city goes about its business. Because few seem to recognize any reason to stay the night in Pisa, hotel rates are a relative bargain. We’re staying in a four-star hotel (voted 2011’s best hotel in Pisa) in the center of the old town for half the cost of the modest, out-of-the-way three-star hotel where we stayed in Zurich. And we’ve noticed one-bedroom apartments advertised for sale for as little as 150,000 euro.

If we ever have the chance, we’ll return for another, closer look at Pisa.

Could we live in Florence? If you’re an art-lover like our daughter, maybe this’d seem like heaven to you (though I think that, as in Venice, anyone living here would want to be elsewhere during peak tourist season). There’s much in Florence to keep you occupied and engaged, but, to me, it doesn’t feel like a place I’d want to call home. While Pisa is cozy, Florence is aloof. Florence would also be a probably dramatically more expensive choice.

So, no, I wouldn’t recommend Florence as a top retirement haven. Better, maybe, to base yourself in Pisa and visit Michelangelo’s home town. It’s but an hour away via autostrade.

Kathleen Peddicord


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