So most people do the “holy trinity” in Italy: Rome, Florence, Venice. It usually costs the same to fly into one city and out of another as it would to do round-trip. You can do these cities by high-speed train or car. I like to start in Rome to give a historical perspective of the country (and get the guided tours out of the way) and end in Venice which is magical and otherworldly. But I highly recommend renting a car (if you dare) and getting out to at least one of Italy’s other highlights: the hills of Tuscany, the beautiful coastal Cinque Terra or it’s more expensive resort version, the Amalfi Coast.
On my trips, I did not get up north to Turin, Milan and Lake Como. Likewise, I haven’t been all the way down south to the island of Sicily. Italy is a big country and it takes a while to get around. If you try to see everything in one week, you don’t really get to soak in the culture. I recommend 10-12 days and spend at least two nights in each place so you get to experience, the food, the history and the people!
First, a few tips: Don’t Say CAIO unless someone says it to you first. It’s a casual greeting for close friends and relatives only. When you are introduced or encounter a stranger, use the words buongiorno (good day) or buonasera (good evening), depending on the time of day (buongiorno before 1pm and buonasera after 1pm). These will become your favorite words because they never offend.
Dress so you’ll be comfortable in the heat, but remember to bring something to respectfully cover shoulders and knees when you go into churches.
Banking in Italy: ATMs or “bancomats” are ubiquitous in any city or town of any size – if they’ve got a bank, they’ve got a bank machine. If you intend to use your debit or credit card in Italy, call your bank before you leave home and let them know where you’ll be going and what dates you’ll be gone (so they don’t freeze your card). And some partner banks require you to put in a pin for debit cards and credit cards at an ATM in Italy, so check with your bank.
Electricity and Plugs: Italy operates on a 220V 50Hz electrical system, and the electrical outlets you will find will require European plugs with two narrow cylindrical prongs (sort of like a pig’s snout, only smaller). You will need an adapter (to make your appliances fit into the Italian plugs) but usually not a converter. Leave your hair dryer at home, the voltage is different and usually won’t work… they have them in all hotels.
Using the Telephone: Call your cell phone company – they make it very easy to switch to an international plan while you are there. (But data can be expensive so rely on hotel wifi.) The country code for Italy is 39. To call Italy from the U.S., you will first need to dial out of the U.S. and then into Italy – so that is 011 + 39 and then the phone number itself. To call an Italian number from within Italy, simply dial the local number as you have it. To call the U.S. from within Italy, dial 00 + 1 and then the area code and telephone number.
Make dinner reservations in the big cities in summer or you may wait!
Eat two scoops of gelato daily – This is easy to do no matter where you are in Italy, so I don’t want to hear any excuses for not accomplishing this task. Remember, Italian gelato is made with milk, not cream, so it’s a lot less fattening than you think. And you’re walking everywhere, anyway, so it’s a well-deserved treat.
A Trattoria or Osteria is the cheapest and most casual home-cooking restaurant.
A Ristorante is more up-market, although the terms are sometimes interchangeable.
A Pizzeria usually signifies an authentic wood-burning oven rather than an electric one.
A Cantina or Enoteche is a wine cellar and Birreria is a brewpub.
“Coperto” is a mandatory cover charge/fee for sitting. It’s common.
“Servizio” is a 10% service charge which is like a mandatory tip for large parties.
An additional tip of €1-2 per person can be added for exceptional service.
BAR: The term “bar” is universally used in Italy to describe what Americans would call a cafe: small establishments where customers can order coffee, pastries, panini and sometimes gelato. At an Italian bar, patrons pay before ordering, rather than upon receiving coffee or a pastry. To avoid confusion, first pay for what you want at the cassa (cash register) and then show your receipt to the barista, who will tear your lo scontrino (receipt) and fulfill your order. Then, carry your items to a standing spot at the bar, as many places will have separate, higher prices for table service (detailed as banco/piedi, or standing, versus tavolo, or table service on the menu). Most locals drink their coffee while standing at the bar, but if you opt to sit down, you can expect a waiter to come by and take your order.
Ordering coffee in Italy can be daunting for the tourist or first time visitor, as there are so many coffee choices to explore. Here is some basic Italian coffee terminology:
Caffe’ (pronounced “kahf-feh”): A single shot espresso. This is regular coffee for Italians.
Caffe’ doppio: A double shot espresso
Cappuccino: Equal parts espresso, hot milk and frothed milk, often with cocoa powder sprinkled on top
Caffe’ latte: A single shot of espresso combined with steamed milk, often with a dollop of frothed milk on top.
Latte macchiato: Latte macchiato literally translates as ‘stained milk.’ A latte macchiato is a glass of warm milk ‘stained’ with a couple drops of espresso.
Caffe’ corretto: Espresso ‘corrected’ with a shot of brandy, cognac, or liqueur
Caffe’ e cornetto: Espresso and a croissant, a popular Italian breakfast combo
Caffe’ lungo: Espresso with about twice as much water as is normally used for a single shot
Never order cappuccino or caffe’ latte after 10:30 a.m. Only tourists do that. And don’t order coffee after meals as Americans do.
For couples: My wife and I loved the Hotel Campo de Fiori http://www.hotelcampodefiori.com
For families: We stayed at the Navona Gallery & Garden Suites B&B http://www.navonagardensuites.com/
Trattoria al Moro, Vicolo Bollette 13
Trattoria da Teo, Piazza dei Ponziani 7 (Trastevere)
Enzo al 29, Via dei Vascellari 29
Taverna Trilussa, Via del Politeama 23/35
La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, Via della Madonna dei Monti 9
Bonci Pizzeria, Via Trionfale 30
Gelato is great everywhere but Gelateria del Teatro is the best, Via dei Coronari 65-66
The Roman Forum (the ruins) and Colosseum. Go early, it gets crowded!
The Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel & St. Peter’s Basilica. Pay a guide for best results.
Campo de Fiori – awesome outdoor market to shop & eat 8:30am-1pm
Piazza Navona – huge square comes alive at night with artists, street vendors, shops and food.
Trevi Fountain – crowded but you gotta throw a coin!
Any caffe (coffeeshop) in the morning… and gelato every night!
Trastevere (pronounced “tras-TAY-vur-ay”) a very cool, authentic neighborhood with narrow alleys and great outdoor restaurants and bars. My favorite spot in Rome.
…give yourself at least 2-3 days to soak in Rome.
When touring The Vatican or The Roman Forum/Colosseum, book a private or semi-private tour. Not only do they have special access to the venues (allowing you to skip lines) but they also help to put a whole lot of history into perspective and make sure you see the important stuff (and know what you are looking at).
We used “Through Eternity Tours” several times and they’re great. “Eyes of Rome Tours” and “Presto Tours” were also great for us.
Tempt fate driving along the Amalfi Coast – the road that snakes along this stretch of Italian coastline is well worth the trip. It’s precarious at best and dangerous at worst, but the views are simply stunning. On second thought, perhaps you should let someone else do the driving so you can just stare out the window at the Amalfi Coast and pretend you’re not scared out of your mind. This is an expensive area to visit for a reason – it’s beautiful! English is the default language of the majority of the waitstaff in restaurants, shops, hotels, and at the boat terminals.
The towns on the water with beaches include Amalfi, Praiano and Positano. Towns higher up on the cliffs include Ravello, Scala, and Tramonti. Sorrento is the most popular (and crowded). It’s a shopper’s dream and a foodie destination. But my favorite is the beautiful Positano.
Hotel California – it’s the only one I’ve been in to recommend but I loved it.
Via Dei Mulini 5-11 – Delicatessen – for takeaway beach/picnic food
Casa e Bottega https://www.facebook.com/Casaebottegapositano/
L’Incanto – the best regional seafood and perfect location for beach lunch
Ristorante La Cambusa http://www.lacambusapositano.com/web/reservations/
Lo Guarracino http://www.loguarracinopositano.it/en/
Ristorante Covo Dei Saraceni http://www.covodeisaraceni.it/restaurant-and-bar/
restaurant/ hotel Buca di Bacco http://www.bucadibacco.it/ristorante.asp
La Tagliata THE VIEW! https://www.latagliata.com/
La Sponda http://sirenuse.it/en/restaurants-bars
Il Ritrovo http://www.ilritrovo.com/?lang=en
da Gabrisa http://dagabrisa.it/
Ristorante da Costantino http://www.dacostantino.net/
Dessert and pastries:
La Zagara http://www.lazagara.com/
Delizia Limone (lemon cake)
Gelato from Buca di Bacco
Hit the beaches
Spiaggia Grande (the big beach)
Arienzo beach – Catch the boat from the main pier to this beautiful beach with sun chairs, clean water and a great restaurant.
Locals say: head to Fornillo Beach in Positano. Skip the Spiaggia Grande and walk from the harbor up a little ways and then down again (hey, it’s Positano!) to Spiaggia Fornillo. Same stunning waters, chairs and cabanas but a less-hectic vibe.
Shopping: Wow, so many cool little boutiques here. Lovely little shops featuring European fashion and handmade crafts.
Roadtrip to other coastal towns too like Sorrento and Amalfi if you stay in Positano more than 3-4 days. But if you’re only there for 2 days, stay in Positano to make the most of your time.
If you have lots of money and lots of time, you can take a boat to Capri for the day 🙂
Tuscany is a series of sweet and picturesque little hamlets. The most touristy towns (but worth a visit!) are Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca, Volterra and Montepulciano… stunning panoramic views over of the surrounding rolling-hill countryside and wine-making vineyards and valleys.
Wine lovers should also visit some smaller towns for a meal or vineyard samplings… little villages like Monteriggioni, Cortona, Castellina in Chianti, Pienza, and Panzano.
Siena: this walled, medieval city is well-preserved and a stroll through its narrow lanes and pedestrian-friendly squares will fill the morning.
Traditionally, everything except bars and restaurants closes on Sundays, except in tourist areas
…so check online or call ahead.
Obviously, wine tours are the highlight here! But I had my daughters with me and was driving a rental car so I didn’t do any to recommend. Many bed & breakfast villas in Tuscany will arrange vineyard tours with shuttles.
One of my favorite things to do… Take an Italian Cooking Class
B&B Fagiolari www.fagiolari.it (Giulietta and Anna were so nice!)
…and one more experience to learn about food but not a cooking class:
Dinner with the Butcher! Solociccia, Panzano in Chianti www.dariocecchini.com
Dario Cecchini is the 8th generation butcher to run this 250 year old family shop. He is usually found working hard each day in his tiny shop while basting classical music or AC/DC. The shop has become crowded as Dario has been profiled on TV and in magazines for his famous meal: the Bistecca all Fiorentina… the best steak you will ever eat! He has two restaurants, Officina della Bistecca (the Steak Workshop) and Solo Ciccia. Both are convivial, no-menu, eat-too-much restaurants that a foodie must visit! (Vegetarian meals available too.) Via XX Luglio 11, 50022, Panzano in Chianti
Reservations must be made and confirmed in advance online – it’s a small place.
Braciere Malatesta https://www.facebook.com/bracieremalatesta/
Trattoria 13 Gobbi (great steak!)
Il Latini http://www.illatini.com/
Trattoria Anita – best cabonara
The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo)
The View from the Top of The Duomo
The majestic Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, presides with its famous cupola or dome by Brunelleschi, the Baptistery with its bronze Gates of Paradise and Giotto’s bell tower from which you can admire an incredible view of the city. If you have time, visit all of them but if time is limited, definitely just go into the cathedral to see the inside of the dome and admire the remaining monuments from the outside.
Climb to the top of The Duomo. You need tickets/reservations. It sells out fast, so try to get them a day before. If you visit Florence in busy summer season, book your duomo and museum visits online in advance or you may be shut out!
The bridge has connected the river banks exactly at this point since the 12th century.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Pass by the Duomo as you head to Piazza Santa Croce where you should visit the impressive Santa Croce Church where many great Florentines and Tuscans have their final resting place, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, and Rossini. The magnificent statue of Dante greets visitors outside, and inside, a crucifix by Donatello and one by Cimabue make this church a must visit.
Visit the Uffizi – the best collection of Renaissance masterpieces in the world.
Visit the Accademia – The Accademia Gallery houses Michelangelo’s original marble statue called David, standing tall at its center. You’ll have seen a copy of it in front of Palazzo Vecchio by now.
Piazzale Michelangelo, a square overlooking the city from the first hill in the Oltrarno. It’s a great place to take a bottle of wine and watch the sunset. The perfect ending to a full day in Florence.
Shopping: Markets at San Lorenzo. Seeing and shopping at the Mercato Centrale in San Lorenzo is to view life as it has been in Italy for generations. Outside the huge food market, the shopping continues with leather goods and souvenirs. San Lorenzo is your one stop for gifts, so be sure to bargain with the vendors outside, and stop for a taste of the food inside.
The Cinque Terre (pronounced CHINK-weh TAY-reh) is my favorite place I’ve ever been on Planet Earth. consists of five small villages (“cinque terre” means “five lands” in Italian) which cling to the Ligurian cliffs along Italy’s western coast. They are usually thought of and visited collectively, mostly because they’re so close to one another that you can walk from the first to the fifth in a matter of hours, but there are five different towns and each does have its own personality.
The only problem is that tourists have found out about these villages and it’s nearly impossible to visit the Cinque Terre when it’s not a little crowded.
Regardless, it’s the perfect balance to the big cities. This is authentic, old-world Italy. No cars, no noise and no modernization! Visitors to the Cinque Terre can shop for homemade goods and crafts, take a historical tour, enjoy scenic boat rides, relax at the beach, swim the Mediterranean Sea, cliff dive, snorkel, eat fine food, sip wine or coffee from a terrace overlooking the sea, explore the hillsides, take scenic train rides along the coast, hike the five-mile path, shop for antiques or one-of-a-kind art, engage in fun conversations with locals, and take in scenes and sunsets. Every view, every photo taken of the Cinque Terre is picture perfect. Years later, when you’re looking at pictures you’ll have to flip each one over to see if it is a postcard or an actual photograph!
Walk/hike the Blue Trail connects all five villages. It takes five hours to hike the entire length and is challenging hiking trail in some areas and a simple paved flat sidewalk in other parts. It’s nicknamed “the path of love.”
The five villages from East to West (La Spezia to Portofino):
Riomaggiore — (a workaday town), the most substantial non-resort of the five towns — Major points of interest are the ruins of a 15th century castle, and the parish church of Saint John the Baptist.
Restaurant: La Lanterna! http://www.fodors.com/world/europe/italy/the-italian-riviera/review-453907.html
Manarola – (picturesque & tiny), is a tumble of buildings bunny-hopping down its ravine to the harbor. Wander through the vineyards on the hillside for a great panoramic picture of the town. A beautiful footpath called the Lovers’ Pathway, “La Via dell’Amore”, starts at Manarola and ends at Riomaggiore. It is the best walk for those who are not up for a serious hike due to it’s relatively flat nature and length. The walk between the two towns only takes about half an hour. A little port is nestled in at the bottom of the town. The photo at the top of this page is Manarola and I knew from the moment I took it, that it would hang over my fireplace!
Hotel: La Torrettas (I loved staying here!!) http://www.torrettas.com/
Corniglia – (on a hilltop) a quiet town — the only one of the five not on the water. From the train station, a footpath zigzags up nearly 400 stairs to the hilltop town… not for the faint at heart. It has several breathtaking lookouts with views of the coastline in both directions. Corniglia has two beaches, one very popular with tourists and one more secluded that is known to be frequented by nudists.
Restaurant: Cecio http://www.cecio5terre.com/index.php?lang=en
Vernazza – (the region’s dramatic cover girl) is the jewel of the Cinque Terre. Its action is at the harbor, where you’ll find restaurants, a bar hanging off the edge of the castle, a breakwater with a promenade, and a tailgate-party street market every Tuesday morning. Possibly the most picturesque of the towns.
Monterosso al Mare – (the closest thing to a beach resort) the Cinque Terre’s only resort town, comes with rentable beach umbrellas, crowds, and a thriving late-night scene. Beautiful beaches, rugged cliffs, crystal-clear turquoise waters, and plentiful small hotels and restaurants make Monterosso al Mare, the largest of the Cinque Terre villages, the busiest in midsummer.
A good guide to paths at CT:
Instead of train or trail, return to town at end of day by boat for different perspective:
(schedule may change for peak, but usually 10:30am to 5 or 5:30pm)
Hotel A La Commedia – very central to everything and beautiful!
Hotel Locanda Orseolo – small, romantic rooms, good location!
Stay at least one night to soak in the city when the day-trippers are gone. Venice is CROWDED with tourists from cruise ships all day but at night, the “streets” are quiet and romantic. By the way, there’s no streets… just canals and alleyways to wander and get lost!
Taverna al Remer http://www.alremer.it/
Lazucca (caters to vegetarians) http://www.lazucca.it/en/
Alla Madonna – a throwback to the Fifties with dapper middle-aged waiters who speak in Venetian dialect.
Al Covino – top-quality but tiny restaurant… only 7 small tables and the kitchen all in one room.
Crazy Pizza, 5706 Castello – Best take away pizza and wraps/sandwiches
Ristorante Al Covo – GREAT local traditional food http://ristorantealcovo.com/
Venice is famous for its bad food, or its expensive food, or (worst) its bad and expensive food. But you can also have some AMAZING meals if you simply get off the main tourist track, steering clear of any place with a view of the Grand Canal or a menu translated into a dozen different languages. Do some online research in advance to look for good reviews or just seek out a place where you hear lots of Italian spoken. There are great meals in Venice for those look… especially if you like seafood!
Cafe Florian in Venice
One of the first places in Europe to serve coffee. Everyone from Casanova to Charles Dickens to George Clooney has sipped espresso here over the centuries
Everyone wants to have his or her picture taken on this most famous bridge of Venice. Between the shops, the crowds, and the tourists getting on and off the nearby Rialto Water Bus stop, this area is a symphony of non-stop motion and activity. At night this is one of the most beautiful spots in Venice with the lights reflecting off of the canal in a kaleidoscope of color… right by our hotel!
If you are looking for fresh fruits, vegetables, meats or fish then this is the place to come. Even if you are not looking to purchase anything it is a wonderful place to walk and take photos. The local vendors deliver their goods by boat each morning.
Piazza San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica
Walking into St. Marks Basilica is another one of those wow moments that you’ll not soon forget. Consecrated in 1094 the structure has undergone much alteration over the centuries.
From St. Marks Square it is possible to visit the Basilica, Doges Palace, and climb the Campanile Bell tower. After the sun goes down the piazza is transformed into a serenade of music as the various cafes alternate playing music to entertain their guests. With the piazza all lit up at night it makes for a beautiful setting.
The line to enter the Cathedral forms early so either plan on visiting late in the afternoon or you can purchase a skip the line pass for only one euro which allows you to enter without waiting in line. You can do this on-line at the official web-site of the Basilica. Simply print out your receipt voucher and be sure to bring it with you.
Visit Piazza San Marco during the day AND at night for two different moods.
Museo della Musica
A church turned into a museum for musical instruments, preserving the work of venetian craftsman for hundreds of years. My family is very musical so we LOVE this place.
Hop on – Hop off Vaporetto (water buses)
You may have noticed that going for a gondola ride in Venice isn’t on my list. I know that for many people it’s one of those things that they feel like they have to do in Venice or they’ll feel like they haven’t been to Venice. I may be in the minority on this one, but I feel like gondola rides are way overpriced, and not nearly the quiet/romantic experience you might expect them to be. It’s not worth the money but yet I’ve done it every time I’ve been there because how can I say no to my wife and kids?!
Visit Burano Island and Murano Island for the day:
Murano Island is known for its handmade glass. It is simply amazing what these craftsmen make a Murano glass git that you can take home with you. (But check the tag because they also sell cheaper Chinese glass gifts, too). Murano is bigger and you can spend 2-4 hours there.
Burano Island is famous for its lacework, the island is dotted with brightly colored homes that make for some wonderful photo opportunities. Also worth seeing is the Church of San Martino with its leaning Bell Tower. Burano is a very small island but is nicer than Murano. 1-2 hour visit could be OK. There are options to have a lunch in both places.