As mentioned in Italian Inspiration, I had a mere two months to prepare for our whirlwind adventure. dNz and Rick Steves were my primary planning guides, along with the ubiquitous TripAdvisor. One kind soul loaned us Lonely Planet’s Rome Encounter and Fast Talk Italian that I mostly thumbed through during meal breaks. After reflecting back on our jam-packed trip around Italy in 10 days, I offer my top 10 list of suggestions that should help make your trip to this amazing country the best that it can be.
10. Avoid the Summer Months
We arrived in Rome on May 26th and left on the 30th. By the time we returned on June 4th, the tourist numbers seemed to have doubled, and there had already been plenty of tourists in Rome when we were there the prior week.
Every Italian we met warned that the cities are way too hot in July and August, and we congratulated ourselves on our timing.
9. Skip the Free Tour
Especially the free water taxi to the island of Murano. The hotel offered the seemingly innocuous free water taxi ride to Murano, and Rick Steves had even suggested taking it.
After briefly watching a few guys transform a molten hot glob into a large bobeche for a chandelier, we were escorted by our own private tour guide to a gallery of highly-priced blown glass.
Unless you are in the market for a $10,000 light fixture that they will ship to you “free”, avoid the high-pressured and guilt-inducing sales trip. I thought that I would save time by taking advantage of the service instead of using my 3-day vaparetto pass to get to the island, but it cost me €90 to escape the “souvenir” shop with one glass ornament.
8. Don’t Miss the Borghese Gallery
Lonely Planet is right.
If you only have time for one museum, make it the incredible Borghese Gallery filled with some of the most priceless and recognizable works of art in the world. You have to purchase your tickets ahead of time either directly through the Museum or, even better, with a tour guide (see #3 below). After seeing the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel one day, Pompeii the next, then the Borghese on the third and finally the Uffizi and the David on the fourth day, I told my college-bound son that he had just completed Art History 101.
7. Unless You are a Professional, Leave the Heavy Camera at Home
I’m no professional, but I really struggled with whether to take along my Canon Rebel. Ellen urged me to just rely on my iPhone and iPad, and I am so glad that I followed her advice. The iPad camera is so good except for closeups.
taken with iPad
Use the iPhone for that and limit the weight you carry around.
6. Leave the Diet at Home, Too
You are in Italy where gelato reins supreme in the warm months, and you can’t walk down a block without passing a pizzeria. Embrace the whole experience.
Fortunately gelato scoops are not super-sized like ice cream is in the States. Ristorantes don’t frown on sharing plates as I often did with our daughter, so try whatever catches your fancy. After all, who knows if/when you will get to return.
5. Climb the Leaning Tower with Preparation
Book tickets one day to 20 days in advance here or find the ticket office as soon as you arrive at the Piazza del Duomo di Pisa.
Only 45 people get to climb the Tower every 30 minutes, and you need a timed ticket (€18) to enter. Wear non-slip shoes as the 294 worn marble steps really are slick.
Going down is harder than climbing up. Take your time, but just enjoy the Tower from the ground if you have a fear of heights or heart condition.
4. Buy the Roma Pass at the Beginning of Your Stay in Rome
You can find them in any tabacchi or newsstand for €34. Over a 3-day period, it gets you into many of Rome’s most famous sites for free or at least without having to wait in the 2 hour line at the Colosseum (avoiding that line itself was worth the €34).
This pass also gets you free public transportation during that period. Even if you have lost your senses and plan to rent a car in Italy, you do not want to drive around in Rome for many reasons. Learn the Metro system immediately (it’s pretty simple: only two main lines running essentially northeast to southwest or northwest to southeast with an exchange point in the middle at the main train station) and avoid the bus unless you speak Italian.
3. Pay for Tour Guides
Tour guides are licensed in Italy, and their qualifications are worth the fee.
Not only do you get to skip the long lines of tourists who did not plan ahead, but at least the ones we used were able to provide information that we could not have gotten just reading the signs or even from the audio tours. TripAdvisor is a great place to start finding guides. Our fabulous Florence guide, Chiara Aneillotti, whom I did find through TripAdvisor, was even able to help us find another guide in Venice.
Yes, the guides cost €€€, but even my husband was happy to pay. Most of our tour guides did require euros in cash at the end of the tour, so plan accordingly as you are deciding how much cash to carry with you.
Speaking of carrying euros, our bank only charged $10 for an order of an unlimited amount of euros before we left the US. Many advised using the ATMs in Italy to get euros. These machines have a daily withdrawal limit of €250 and a service of $10.40 for each withdrawal. While you need to be careful carrying a large amount of cash, you can save transactions fees by planning ahead. We really only needed euros for tour guides and taxis and gelato, but if you plan to do a lot of shopping, paying with euros instead of credit card can save you, too.
2. Pack Small But Don’t Forget Comfortable Shoes
And ballet flats don’t count as comfortable shoes when you spend all day walking on ancient cobblestones. While you want to look decent and you do need to have clothes that cover your knees and shoulders for the Vatican and St. Mark’s Basilica, fashion is not the point of this type of trip. dNz’s number one tip was to pack only a carry-on suitcase. At first I was horrified at the thought, but then I decided to embrace the challenge. My husband had a harder time than I did; he loves bringing lots of shoes. Somehow we managed with just the clothes in our carry-on bags, re-wearing and layering them.
Traveling so lightly recalled memories of backpacking through Europe 31 years prior, and it felt freeing to rediscover these skills and not be weighed down by too many things. I did rely on Woolite Travel Packets, and we were able to run a couple of loads of laundry at Franco’s Friendly Villa. Carrying the smaller suitcases made traveling by train and Metro and especially getting to our hotel in Venice much easier than bulky suitcases would have allowed.
1. Keep Smiling
No matter how much you plan, not everything will be perfect, especially train station toilets. That’s okay. One dead end (or corte in Venice) may lead you to try another path
that leads you to another of the innumerable marvels which fill the Italian landscape. In fact, everyone who knows anything about Venice advises you to just get lost there. Eventually you will find your way to St. Mark’s Piazza or your hotel. The Italians are warm and friendly and will do their best to help a pitiful tourist with a kind smile. Embrace the unexpected: it’s what makes travel such an amazing adventure!