I was asked by a few people for input on their own upcoming Italy trips so I wrote up a 2100+ word document. Ha. Figured I might as well share here just in case it’s useful for someone else. These are just my opinions. I’m not paid to promote any of the businesses. Seriously, it’s long …
Italy in general:
If you have to do the big cities, pick 2 must-sees in each, do them then get out or just pick one city to fully explore. Otherwise stick to smaller towns. Or better yet, stay in a smaller town outside the larger ones and just take the train in for the day to see them. The more I travel the more I realize that travel ADD just leaves you exhausted. We seem to enjoy smaller to medium sized places more than bigger cities. Italy is difficult because there is just so much history and people feel obligated to see it all. Give yourself permission to not cram everything in to one trip. You’re more likely to see the soul of a place not just its major tourist destinations.
Pack light. We didn’t because Clay was being stubborn. Consequently he wrenched his knee dragging a giant suitcase down 4 flights of stairs. It also makes moving hotels and taking trains less of a hassle. If you buy stuff while there and don’t have room in your bags you can always buy a cheap bag there or ship everything home. This is the biggest piece of travel advice I wished we’d followed.
Take cooking classes. We did this one outside of Florence in Certaldo (cute medieval hill town worth an extra couple of hours to explore): http://www.cucinagiuseppina.com/ They also offer truffle tours if weather permits.
Train doors: On regional trains they may not open at smaller stops. You have to be at the door when the train stops and pull towards you and over on the red handle yourself. Trains don’t stay at small stops long, like 1 or 2 minutes max so be ready. If you see someone getting off the train at a stop before yours just wait by the door with them and watch them open it if you are worried about it. We also heard that some doors don’t work so use one of the bigger doors to get on the train and try to use a door you know works. We got stuck and had to double back …
Make reservations ahead of time for any sights you want to see. If you want less of a restrictive schedule you can pay for city passes (Venice doesn’t have one) and that let you skip lines without making reservations. Except for the Duomo in Florence but you can google how that works. We didn’t go this trip.
I have a whole spiel on why I no longer support Air BnB but the even more crushing crowds in the major Italian cities since my last visit is definitely a byproduct. But we were also thankful we had booked mostly hotels because of an accident on the trip. Having a concierge at a nice (by nice I mean friendly) hotel was indispensable. It also saves you from having to make dinner reservations too far in advance, and it’s easier to go with personal recommendations if you have someone that can easily call a restaurant to reserve a table in Italian. Plus you don’t end up with fun surprises like 4 floor walk ups with no elevator …
Rome was the cheapest major city. Florence and Venice are super expensive though you can save by eating at cheap places or buying food at the market.
Yes, have an Aperol Spritz in the evening before you go to dinner.
You can find restaurants to eat at without making dinner reservations but reservations make things much easier. If you will be there over a holiday, I’d do some research and make reservations before you leave so you know you have a place. We witnessed so many people getting turned away on New Year’s Eve. If you know there is some place you want to eat, go ahead and reserve. Otherwise I’d wait until you get to the city to see what the hotel suggests, or your cab driver, or the people you meet along the way.
Take comfy shoes. Cobblestones are murder on your feet. You’ll be impressed by the Italian women navigating them in heels, but they’ve had practice.
Things close after lunch until around 3. Restaurants won’t always be open before 7 or 8 because Italians eat late. It’s great. Go back to the hotel and nap.
Taxis are regulated. You can’t just hail one. You have to have your hotel call one or find a taxi stand. There were numerous signs around saying Uber was illegal and there were large fines if you got caught using them.
Pharmacies have awesome skin products. Their drugstore brands are better. Oh, and the Marvis toothpaste is worth stocking up on.
Food. It’s generally mediocre around large tourist sights. That makes sense but of course there are always exceptions. The less English you see on signage and menus usually the better. More upscale places will still have translations though. More local places will usually not even have a printed menu at all, just list everything on a board in Italian. Don’t be scared.
If you are going to do tours, I like walking tours the best. You get to learn the lay of the land while getting fun bits of info. Personally, I prefer seeing larger sights on my own and either doing research before or after myself. We did do a bus tour on our last full day in Italy. That was … interesting. I can see why people travel that way but I’m still on the fence about ever doing it again. If the group is friendly and you meet people I can see how it would be fun. Unless those people are slightly insane and from South Africa. Long story …
Rome was actually a fun city. I wish we had more time to explore it. Easy to get away from tourists yet the crowds weren’t insane except by the obvious places. Cheap, good food can be found easier than in Florence or Venice. The people were also friendlier. But trying to speak Italian does help. So does flattery. One of my favorite things was looking for all the stolen Egyptian obelisks but then I’m weird.
http://www.hotelartemide.it/ The staff was great. They have a €14 breakfast buffet if coffee and a pastry aren’t your idea of breakfast. Also, we apparently should have eaten at the restaurant for dinner because it was always booked up and was rated one of the top 10 in the city. Oops. Also, there is some spectacular gelato right next door to the hotel.
You will take more taxis here than anywhere else unless you are really good at planning your hotel location. Expect at least €10 minimum per trip. We took more than normal because we went in winter and it rained often enough.
Cab drivers in Rome are insane. Just shut your eyes.
Sexy priest calendars! (Venice has sexy gondoliers.)
Avoid the Vatican. It’s a never-ending queue and you are so tired by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel you don’t care. I did it a second time this trip because Clay wanted to. Never again. St Peter’s is awesome though if you can get in line early enough to just do the church. But don’t try on Wednesdays or weekends. There is an early morning tour of some sort. I’m not sure if it’s any better or not.
Quelli della Pizza (behind the Pantheon) Touristy spot but really good pizza. Can’t find that particular location online. Others exist with the same name with questionable reviews. My friends said Dar Poeta in Trastavere was also excellent.
La Prosciutteria: Either in Trastavere or by Piazza Navona. Both good. You order at the counter though they’ll usually tell you that you want a mixed plate for two because they get a lot of tourists and it’s more efficient than watching you stand there trying to figure it out LOL. It’s small and crowded so go at off hours to ensure a table.
http://www.ristorantealduello.com/ Friendly and good. We loved it. By Piazza Navona. They do a deconstructed tiramisu that was pretty much the best dessert the entire trip.
The Colosseum is cool. Almost not necessary to tour. A night tour might be nice though. The Forums are a confusing mess of ruins and are easier to interpret with a tour but the tours are also frustrating because the place is huge and you won’t get to see everything you want and by the end you won’t feel like backtracking. Not sure what my actual advice on this is.
Important point about gelato: Don’t get it from the places with it mounded up high in crazy colors. If they have lids or the pistachio is brown, not green, then it’ll be homemade and good. Don’t trust a place with bright green pistachio gelato! That said, nocciola is my favorite flavor.
Venice is super crowded and expensive, yet still manages to be magical. You’ll get lost. Maps aren’t accurate and your phone won’t really know where you are. It’s ok. Follow the endless signs to San Marco/Rialto. Or don’t, if you want to go the other way. We always managed to find what we were looking for, though most of the time it felt like luck. Night time is the best time. The streets can still be crowded with tourists but you’ll see the switch from tourists to locals. Things get quiet and on some streets it’s like the city is all yours. It’s super safe, even at night.
Get a water bus pass in Venice. You can get 1, 2, or 3 day passes. Worth it. And it saves time because you will get lost while walking. Your phone might say it’ll only take 10 minutes but it’ll be more like 30 with all the backtracking. Line 1 stops at every stop on the Grand Canal. The Roma line goes back to the train station, the Lido line heads towards San Marco. Just hold your ticket up to the machine at the gate to open it and get to the stop. I think they run every 12 minutes or so.
Musica A Palazzo https://www.musicapalazzo.com/ Opera in a small venue. Pretty good. Tickets are called a membership fee. You reserve online then pay when you get there. Make sure you check your email a day or two ahead of the show though because they do confirm your booking and might give it away if they don’t hear from you. All the seats are good but you can seriously sit in any of the red chairs (unless they are obviously for the musicians) so don’t be afraid to sit in what looks like the set dressing.
Try to get into La Zucca. Make reservations. We didn’t but once we got to Venice all we heard was how good it was. And they were booked up the entire time.
Osteria da Filo had some of the best wine on the entire trip. Plus, the bartender was awesome. And so were the snacks.
Impronta Café looked almost offputtingly modern from the outside but they had an excellent squid ink pasta in a seafood ragu. I was surprised. Also, up the street is Enoteca Vinus Venezia. Great wine bar, with many porky treats. We went before and after dinner because we liked it so much.
I have a new favorite mask shop. La Bottega dei Mascareri http://www.mascarer.com/
Florence is a very walkable city. I was more annoyed at the crowds here than anywhere though. I’d almost suggest staying in Siena and travelling in to Florence as a day trip or two. It’s not the city I remember anymore. Or I was just tired and getting sick by this point in the trip. But the Tuscan landscape is still wonderful and day trips to San Gimignano, Pisa, Lucca, Fiesole or pretty much any other small town should happen. I would also recommend looking into staying in an agroturismo. They are usually wineries or working farms and they can also have tastings and cooking classes in a rural environment. So much more chill than listening to Vespas zipping by your hotel window all night. They are out in the country and you might need to rent a car to get to them. We had lunch at one and there is just no beating the Tuscan landscape.
http://hotelspadai.it/ Not as friendly as their Rome counterpart but far and away better than our next hotel was. The bartender, Martina, was amazing. No restaurant here but they have free snacks at their happy hour and a limited room service menu. They also had a €14 breakfast but we didn’t check it out to see how it compared.
Santa Maria Novella train station – regional vs fast trains: The fast trains between major hubs are on the tracks you first see when you walk in. There is another set of tracks (1, 1A, 2, I think) if you walk to the left if you are facing the trains. The regional trains aren’t up on the big departure and arrival boards so when you buy your tickets pay attention to the train number that flashes on the screen. It isn’t always on the ticket when it prints for some reason. If you are taking a smaller train, check those tracks. There should be a paper schedule tacked up on a board and you can check your train number and departure time to figure out which track you need. For example, we were going to Certaldo but the track info said the train was going to Siena because that was the route, Florence to Siena, with stops at all the smaller towns between. Don’t forget to validate your train ticket. If you aren’t taking a fast train with assigned seats, you have to validate. There are machines all over the station to do so. Also, research taking buses if you are taking a few different side trips. One of our taxi drivers said that taking a bus to Certaldo would have been faster and that sometimes buses drop you closer to the center of town where you want to be as opposed to on the outskirts where you end up needing an expensive taxi ride to get where you want to be.
Mercato Centrale: Upstairs has all the restaurants. Busy, busy, busy. Get food, find a seat. Either get drinks yourself at the central bar or wait for table service but it’s spotty. It’s always busy but there is a large variety of food to try so it’s worth the crowds.
My favorite gelato at the moment: http://www.lastreganocciola.it/
You can get into the Duomo itself for free but if you want to climb the dome, bell tower, or get into the museum you have to schedule a time. You can’t do it online unless you get the Firenze Pass? I’m not 100% so check. If you get the Firenze Pass you can do it when you pick them up I think.
Street art in all the cities is excellent. Look down alleys and side streets. Also, the street signs can be fun.
Don’t forget to explore the rest of Tuscany!
If you made it this far in the post I’m surprised! There are an endless number of blog posts and travel sights with information on specific things to see and do. Just remember, all the research in the world tends to get thrown out once you are actually there. Be flexible and enjoy the trip you are on, not the trip you imagine.