Italy Travel Tips

Visited March/April 2014

Hello: Ciao, but everyone says “Buongiorno!”
Thank You:  Grazie
Currency:  Euro


After I left Italy, I had “lack of culture” shock.  They seem to know how to enjoy everything in life whether they are inside or out.   I wandered through spectacular churches and museums enjoying art in the peaceful cool interiors and spent the balance of my time outdoors walking and driving the gorgeous countryside and the coasts.  After months of Asian cuisine, I enjoyed a refresh of my palate by feasting on the delights of Italian cuisine which includes the traditional ideas of pasta, wonderful cheeses and the wine, the wine, the wine.  I watched some of the best fashion in and out of the shops (the shoes alone deserve a standing ovation), and it was easy to pick out the tourists with their sloppy travel clothes in comparison to the Italians.  I felt a bit “inelegant” in my own restricted wardrobe.

I believe the hardest part about traveling in Italy is trying to decide where to go when every place has a charm and a story all its own.  In my case, the hardest part started when I picked up a rental car for a week and attempted to drive around Italy.  The driving conditions were not difficult, as I’ve encountered drivers much more aggressive in the Philadelphia area, but the navigating became an exercise in frustration when handled alone.  My cute little Fiat was fun to drive despite the great hesitation to ascend any hill but it was necessary to take on the challenge of driving a car in order to access areas more remote.  Besides, the Italians are so lovely that stopping and asking for help is just another way to make new friends.  

I have to admit that my view of the friendly Italians was constantly reinforced as I traveled.  Even in the crowded train station in Rome, a nice young (and very good looking) security guard insisted on weighing my one single banana for me, adhering the sticky tag and escorting me to the cashier when I only tried to ask where to go and pay.  And despite all reports of pick pockets, especially on public transportation and in the train stations, the city streets are fairly safe to walk alone at night.  As anywhere, use some common sense and don’t put yourself in a bad situation.

The only downside to traveling in Italy is the ubiquitous cigarette.  Everywhere I walked I felt like I was constantly forced to inhale drafts of second hand smoke.  So I had to  weave and dance down the sidewalks and street since it is almost impossible to avoid.  It is shocking how many people smoke - men and women of ALL ages!  This also meant that I was not able to enjoy the wonderful cafe tables outside since they were usually crowded with smokers.  That was quite a disappointment in the warm springtime weather.


For my three weeks in Italy, I started in Venice, worked my way down to Rome and then back north again to Milan in a big loop.  I spent about 2-4 days in each place.


Venice
I flew into Venice which is a great way to actually see the small island where I was to spend the next few days.  From the airport you can take a bus and then a water taxi to reach your hotel.  This is cheaper than catching a taxi but only works if you have minimal luggage and/or can walk a little bit once you arrive at your stop.  

 

Sights/To Do:

  • Basilica of San Marco - The Treasury and Alter are an extra small fee.  Depending on the time of year, you may need to arrive early and queue for entry.
  • Peggy Guggenheim Museum - A fabulous small museum situated along the water.
  • Gallerie Dell’Accademia  - A wonderful collection of art.  I enjoyed the added bonus of a special Carlo Saraceni exhibit while I was there.
  • Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale)- I recommend the guided “Secret Itineraries” tour of to learn more about the history and politics of the building.


Wandering - You can walk the streets (no cars, so very safe and easy) and really explore.  You can’t help but get lost and even the locals admitted that they knew the streets/alleys in their own little area but would get lost outside of their “neighborhood.”  You will eventually find your way and probably discover some great little shops, churches, and lovely piazzas along the way.  The problem is that you may never find them again!  Carry your map and mark any place you wish to revisit.  And don’t worry, half of the people in Venice are walking around with a map, stopping to twist and turn them around as they also try to decipher the tangle of streets.


Hotel
Hotel Ai Do Mori - I can recommend this small hotel, which was situated steps from San Marco.  It was small, comfortable, and had an excellent host/hostess!   My room was tiny but perfect for me and very clean and quiet.  Just keep in mind that you might be able to wash your hands while you use the toilet.  Truly an efficiency!

Food - I was very determined to find a decent meal in Venice since everyone warned me that the food was the worst in Italy.  However, I only have one recommendation.
Osteria Enoteca San Marco - I enjoyed a salad of endive, fennel, cheese and pear in a mustard dressing and sea bass stuffed ravioli for my main. A small, intimate place.


Siena
This is a beautiful little city where you can walk around and admire the architecture and churches and visit the many little shops and restaurants.


Sights:

  • Piazza del Duomo, Siena - This Piazza contains Siena’s famous cathedral.  To visit, buy the complete pass and enjoy the cathedral, the panoramic view from the terrace of the Facciatone on the Duomo Nuovo, the Crypt with the amazing frescoes, the Baptistery and the Museo dell’Opera.  The incredible inlaid marble floor alone is worth the ticket.
  • Piazza il Campo - This enormous square is the main public area in Siena and a great place to sit and have a sandwich or read a book and people watch.
  • Museo Civico - Don’t miss this great museum and its multiple rooms rich with frescoes.  


Hotel
Piccolo Hotel Etruria (booked through Booking.com)- One of my favorite places on my entire trip.  The room was very affordable, in a great location, clean, simple and run by a delightful family.  Their information and recommendations were so helpful and they led me to Montalcino.


Food - Some of the best food I had while in Italy!
La Taberna di Cecco - Scallopini, wine, tiramisu.  Small but perfect.
PorriOne - I enjoyed the most delicious dish of pigeon with hazelnuts and blackberries.  Even the salad was made spectacular with the fruity and delicious balsamic vinegar.


Montalcino
A beautiful little city on a high hill overlooking the Tuscany countryside.  This is where you can visit wineries famous for the Rosso and Brunello wines.  Stay at a farm stay, know as an agriturismo, to have the best local experience.  My stay was a treat at a small farm just down the hill from the town.  I could walk to the town in less than 10 minutes, which was very convenient when going for dinner.


To Do:
This is the region to try a stay at a agriturismo.  Fattoi is one winery that also has a home stay  (La Casella Agriturismo at www.lacasellamontalcio.com) and I was invited to tour the winery to learn more about the process of making the region’s signature wines.  Marcella, the proprietor at the farm, and her mother made me feel very welcome, especially as I was the only one staying there for the two nights.  Each night she prepared a breakfast basket for me including biscuits, fresh luscious sheep’s milk cheeses, salami’s, and a wonderful homemade orange marmalade that was outrageous with the cheese.
She then invited me to visit the family farm where the grapes were grown and the wine was produced.  I drove down one morning and was treated to a private tour of the winery by her niece and I delighted in listening to her describe the process and answer my questions with great passion.  In fact, when I asked her about ever refrigerating red wine, she looked visibly distressed.  “No.  No.  Never!” she pleaded.  I have to agree on this one.  Marcella also informed me that she could arrange cooking classes for small groups and even a basket making lesson.  Ahhh!!  Life on the farm in Italy!!


Not too far from Montalcino is Bagno Vignoni which is known for its hot springs and spas.  It is easy enough to drive over and despite my best intentions, I’ll have to save it for another visit.


Hotel: 

La Casella Agriturismo (booked through Booking.com).  A nice family run place walking distance down the hill from Montalcino.






Food:
San Giorgio - My most memorable dish was the asparagus gratin with truffle sauce.
Re Di Macchia - I can recommend the lasagna with porcine mushrooms.


Chianti area
If you really want to enjoy the wine tasting, find a driver!  I had to confine my wine consumption to the places where I was not driving.  However, even if you are not drinking, there is plenty to see and enjoy in the area.  There are also day trips from Siena and Florence to experience this area.


Sights/To Do:

  • Monteriggio - Enjoy the drive through the hills and valleys with the charming views to visit this small town located at the top of a hill and contained within the walls of an old fortress.
  • Castellina in Chianti - This is another larger town built around a fortress.  In the town center, there is a unique “tunnel” of shops contained within the perimeter wall.  
  • Hiking in Montagnola - Although my hiking adventure was cancelled because of the persistent rains on the day I was there, this is a great option for better weather.


Food:
Badia A Passignano:  Ristoro L’Antica Scuderia - I enjoyed an amazing saffron risotto, and of course, they offer a great selection of wines.


Hotel:
Chianti Village Morrocco Hotel (booked through Booking.com)- I enjoyed this place because of the convenient location (off the highway) the view, and the wonderfully helpful staff.  It was clean, bright, and new.  And for a couple of nights, I enjoyed having a full kitchen to take a small break from restaurants.






Florence
There is so much to see and do in Florence.  If you love art, you can spend hours in the museums and the churches admiring some of the best art in the world.  In fact, some of the best art is in the churches and at the same time you get to experience the architecture and walk across floors that are hundreds of years old.  The sophistication of decoration and art technique is stunning.  It would be easy to walk through many of the churches and museums for years, studying the paintings and discovering new subtleties and content.  The museums are probably best experienced with a guide who can really explain the history, the artists and the paintings.


Sights/ To Do:
Instead of visiting the Duomo and the Accademie Gallery (famous for Michelangelo’s David), which I had seen many years ago when both were not so overwhelmed with tourists, I opted for some of the smaller churches where I could enjoy the spacious feel of the cathedrals and linger to enjoy the art without mobs of other tourists.


  • Galleria Degli Uffizzi - One of the best art museums I’ve ever visited and one of the most popular sights in Florence.  You can buy tickets in advance for a small fee but it will help you avoid a wait.  Although it is a large museum, it actually feels manageable.  I probably spent about 3.5 hours there one morning and thoroughly enjoyed it.  Some of my favorites were Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Magnificent”, Michelangelo’s “The Holy Family” and works by Bronzino.  
  • Palazzo Strozzi - There were two special exhibits:  “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino" (a comparison of two artists) and “Famiglia/Family Matters” photography and other media.  This small museum means fewer people but the art is just as impressive and you have time to really absorb it.
  • Santa Croce - The principle Franciscan church in Florence.
  • Santa Maria Novella  and the Museo Di Santa Maria Novella
  • Museo Di San Marco - This is a gem worth seeing.  The second floor has little rooms with amazing Fra Angelico frescoes.
  • Piazzale Michelangelo and the San Miniato al Monte - From central Florence, cross the river and walk up the hill to the Piazzale for a beautiful view of the city and then continue to the church that sits up behind it.  The sculpted marble and the lingering scent of incense in the air create a quiet calm after the intensity of the city.
  • Ponte Vecchio - The oldest bridge in Florence crossing the Arno River.  You can join the crowds searching for the perfect piece of jewelry although you won’t find the locals shopping there.


Hotel:
Hotel Scoti - Located in central Florence on the Via de’ Tornabuoni, this little hotel is simple, clean and very convenient to everything you’d like to see or do in Florence.   The owners are very helpful with recommendations and information.


Rome
I have visited Rome several times, but I still haven't found time to see everything.  I'm including a short list of some of the key sites. 


Sights/To Do:


  • Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel - I can’t imagine a trip to Rome without including this on your itinerary.  Book your tickets online in advance to eliminate waiting in line.  
  • St. Peter’s Basilica - Of course, you’ll also want to walk through the open square (circle!) to view Bernini’s colonnade and Maderno’s fountain.  The visit inside the catherdral gives you time to admire Michelangelo’s Pieta.  The chapel is filled with amazing art so take your time to work around and enjoy every bit.
  • Colosseum (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Roman Forum
  • Piazza del Popolo and Via del Corso
  • Spanish Steps
  • Trevi Fountain
  • Pantheon
  • Galleria Borghese  - Book in advance for a two hour visit to this unique museum.  I did feel a bit rushed with only two hours as perusing the art of Raffaello, Caravaggio, and the Bernini sculptures needs more contemplation.
  • Ghetto and Trastevere area - Once you’ve conquered the must see sights, take a wander through this special little area.  There are a number of old churches that are worth visiting because of the splendid art.


Getting Around:  Metropolitana (Subway) - Forgo the taxis and use the subway.  There are two lines and it is a quick way to make your way around the city.  You can buy your ticket from the machines at each stop, just make sure you have some Euro coins available as sometimes the machines don’t have change for larger bills.


Food:  So many choices, and unfortunately, not every restaurant is good because it is Italian.  Here are a few suggestions (including some from my Roman friends):
Ginger - Fresh and original salads and a long queue
Giggetto - Unbelieveably good Jewish fried artichokes
Etabli - Avocado and salmon appetizer
Caffe Greco - Limone ice

Le Sorelle - A small place tucked away off the main street with excellent food


Pisa

The famous Leaning Tower and the Cathedral - Nothing can prepare you for the extremity of the leaning tower of Pisa when witnessed in person.  You will probably find yourself avoiding a walk under the side closest to the ground as it looks a bit….risky.

 

Pisa is a small enough city that you can come in for the day on the train, walk over to the Leaning tower, and then leave the same day as long as you have tickets. It is a beautiful complex with the Tower and the Cathedral and in most seasons you would need to buy tickets in advance to even go into the Tower and see the view from the top.  I was lucky as I was alone and able to buy a ticket and wait about an hour for entry.  There was a guide to offer statistics and lead us up the winding staircase inside the perimeter of the wall.  A walk on the wild side as you feel the steps pitch to one side on the lower side of the tower and then rectify themselves as you come around the other side.  The question everyone is asking, “Is it safe?”  Well, that was the first part of the tour, a strong reassurance that the Tower was safe and had been stabilized for visitors.  Hmmm…..


Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is a collection of five small towns along the west coast of Italy.  One of the main draws to the area is the hiking along the coastal trails.  You can hike from town to town along the coast enjoying spectacular views and stopping to rest and refuel in each small town.  There is a ferry that can take you from town to town or you can ride the train.  Hordes of hikers, poles aimed and ready, await you!  Normally, you are required to buy a pass to use the trails but when I visited many of the trails had been closed due to flooding and no pass was required.  No worries!  The are plenty of other trails that still offer spectacular views and you can pick up maps at the train station.

It’s not fair to even try to describe its stunning appeal.  And for me, there is no better way to spend my time, than being outside in the sun and the wind, gasping at the beauty of the water stretching endless to the horizon and seeing the charm of the towns crowding the coast line.  The peaceful meditation of walking for hours, with only a few tricky areas of slippery path, occasionally pulling myself up the tougher sections.  Go slow and enjoy the views.  It is relatively easy to hike, even alone, as there are signs painted along the way.  A safe and enjoyable way to earn a gelato.


Getting there:  There are five towns along the coast that comprise Cinque Terre - Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  I decided to stay in Levanto, which is technically not one of the five cities, but is just over the hill from Monterosso al Mare.  Almost every train stops there so it was a little easier for me to plan my travel.  It is a beautiful small town where there are not as many tourists and there is still a beach.  La Spezia is another option as a bigger town, but it is land locked and you will miss walking along the shore and the beautiful views.


Food:  I did have a little trouble finding a table for one by just walking into a restaurant.  They seem to only seat a certain number of people each night.  So I consulted with the man working the front desk at my hotel and he called a restaurant to reserve a table for me.  This seemed to be the solution.  When I walked into the place, they immediately said they were done for the night, no tables, until I said that someone had just called for me.  Suddenly, I had a very welcoming reception and was seated.  However, I did notice that no one really arrived after me so I guess they were really done for the night.  
Antica Trattoria Centro - Excellent food and service.  During the busy season, I would imagine you will need a reservation.
Ristorante Oasi - Incredible home made pasta with prawns - YUM!!  


Milan
Not quite the romance of Rome, but it was a nice city.  I believe that most people arrive with a strong shopping agenda judging by the hordes of people clustered in the streets around the Duomo di Milano, each street bejeweled with high end designer shops.


Sights/ To Do:

  • Central Train station:  An Impressive sight and one of the main train stations in Europe.  
  • Duomo - Massive, not as beautiful on the inside as some other churches in Italy, but an impressive church that took six centuries to complete.  I found it rewarding just to wander around the outside, studying the numerous statues with their unique poses and expressions.  Inside, it was dark and crowds of people made it a bit more oppressive.
  • Poldi Pezzoli - This is a treasure of a museum.  I wandered through fabulous rooms that almost overwhelmed the impressive art displayed within.  But this is the case in many museums in Italy.  You can spend as much time looking at the ceiling frescoes, the walls, and the moldings as the art on the walls.  Some spectacular masterpieces.
  • Galleria d”Italia - Piazza Scala - A free museum in the city center, adjacent to the complex with the Duomo.  It included a modern art exhibit and works from the 1800’s.  This is another nice museum in a stunning building where you may spend as much time observing the architecture of the rooms.  Pay attention to the floor mosaics when reviewing the plaster carvings in the back half of the museum.
  • Pinacoteca di Brera - Special exhibit of Giovanni Bellini’s Pieta.  This was an incredible highlight and I would encourage the effort to see this masterpiece as you can’t help but stand and stare, attempting to digest the content.  Amazing.
  • Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II - Take the time to walk through and enjoy the frescoes and glass paneled ceiling even if you are not interested in shopping.  And be warned - people were still smoking, even in this enclosed space.
  • Eataly - Whole Foods on steroids.  I went on a Saturday afternoon and it seemed that everyone in Milan was there stocking up on gourmet foods, fresh and packaged, along with wine.  My Italian friend in Rome suggested that I go there and although it was impressive, it reminded me of the gourmet food shops in America.  Except everything was Italian and maybe even better…
  • Parco Sempione contains the Simplon gate (city gate) of Milan and the famous Arch of Peace.  The Sforza Castle is in the same area and houses museums and art collections.  I didn’t have time for the museum but took some time to enjoy a sunny day by strolling through the park.


Food:  Sometimes it’s better to skip Trip Advisor and just ask the locals where they would eat.  I find that many of the reviews in a place like Italy are not necessarily the type of places where I would like to eat a meal.  For instance, there are lots of coffee shops and gelato shops in Italy that receive high rankings.  This is pretty useless when I’m trying to find a place for dinner.  Here are a couple places recommended by my hotel which was near the train station.
Mamma Rose - Great service, and the food was very good and freshly prepared.  
Osteria Fara - Good gnocchi, great service.


Amalfi Coast - In 2009, I booked a trip through Exodus to hike along the Amalfi Coast.  I was in Europe on business and had a free week between business meetings - the timing was perfect as the trip ran the last week of September.  Most of the crowds were gone but the sun persisted before autumn set in to cool the coast for winter.

I met my group in Naples and I was able to fly in a couple of days early to explore the city on my own.  Despite numerous warnings about the dangers of Naples, I found it to be like most cities - safe as long as you are careful and aware of your surroundings.

The hiking took us to Amalfi, Ravello (including a visit to The Gardens of Villa Cimbrone, a treasure to walk through and enjoy the views) and Positano, all beautiful coastal towns and the epitome of southern Italy.  
The trip also included a hike around Mount Vesuvius where we cautiously peered into the smoking void.  I’m not sure if it was a good idea to have the hike AFTER a tour of Pompeii.  Realizing the impact of an eruption on the ancient city could not help but make us feel a bit leery as we plodded through the volcanic soil surrounding the deep crater.  It is definitely worth your time to see Pompeii and realize what a thriving city it was before becoming buried in volcanic ash. The excavation efforts have revealed a life that feels familiar with its simplicity and complexity.

We stayed at a small family owned hotel in Bomerano where they stuffed us with delicious Italian cuisine.  I had to learn a new eating strategy - instead of finishing each course, I had to “sample” each new offering, as plate after plate confronted me.  Appetizers, soups, salads, meat and pasta courses, more vegetables and then dessert, all washed down with generous amounts of wine.  I could not miss an opportunity to try everything!  The good news is that several hours of hiking each day resulted in no impact on the scale.  Now that's a vacation!
























Wanderlynn International Travel Information By Country

Travel Inspired...

WanderLynn