Italy...Art, History, Natural Beauty, Food, Wine...it has it all, and would take a lifetime to enjoy it all.
Possibly the greatest thing about visiting Italy is the variety. I would argue that is more variation of culture and history here than anywhere in the world. Visiting places like Palermo, Rome, Genoa, Florence, Venice...they are such incredibly different experiences.
One of the great places in the world to enjoy history. After all, this is the Roman Empire!
There are few places that can match the beauty of the countryside that Italy offers. From the Italian Alps and Lake Como, to the rolling hills of Tuscany and Lombardi, to the beaches of the South...Italy has it all.
Driving in Italy
Deciding to get a car in Italy is all depending on where you want to be. For most visits, it will not be necessary. Metro systems within cities, and the intercity trains are very good in most of the country. Often, the intercity train is faster then driving, for example Rome to Florence or Milan.
But, if you want to see the countryside and decide to get a car, I have found driving in Italy to be different than any other European country. Yes, you have the narrow roads to deal with, and the high gas prices. But, the difference is that, even though there are thousands of speed cameras located throughout the country, people still drive very fast most of the time because the locals know where the cameras are. So, they drive fast, then slow down right before the camera. As a visitor, you won’t know here the cameras are, so you want to stay at the speed limit. But, that means locals aggressively tailgating you at almost all times which can be frustrating.
The other thing that is important to watch for is ZTL areas, (Zona traffic limitato). These are zones restricted to authorized drivers and are typically around historic city centers. Entering one by accident is easy to do, as signs can be hard to see, and will be in Italian only. Just watch for the letters ZTL.
There is no grace for entering a ZTL. If you pass the sign by 10 feet and decide to turn around, it is too late. The camera got you, and a ticket is coming. There is also no buffer for speeding past a camera, like there is in France or the UK (the UK for example will only ticket you if you are 10% plus 2 km over the limit).
If you get a ticket in a rental car, the first charge will be about 50 Euro. That is just for the rental agency notifying the police who is responsible. Then, the police will mail you a ticket. They have up to a year to send you the ticket. As of this writing, I am still waiting for a speeding ticket that I apparently got in October 2021. I paid the rental agency the 50 euro fee, but I still haven’t received a ticket. All I know is that I, apparently, was caught driving between 1 and 10 kmh over the limit.
I, Caladrius; 10,000 seasons I have wept and rejoiced
Over 7 hills, one city
Ascending over dusty cobblestones and The River Albula
Vespasian builds a Colossus, Peter builds a church
Millions of souls from the Lupine mother
Live and die in baths and markets and Fora
Worshipping Sky and Sea alike
Cheering in the Circus
Enchanted by poetic Virgil and Ovid
Shedding tears at a Gothic fall
And celebrating a Renaissance rise
Now, as I drink from The Fountain under a Pantheonic gaze
I wonder where the majesty has gone
But, lifting my eyes…I know
Rome still heals
Listing the best places to see in Rome is an endeavor that is above me.
Certainly, start with going down the street, Via dei Fori Imperiali. Quite possibly the greatest concentration of archeological history in the world. Just along this street is the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Forum of Nerva, Trajan's Column, and probably a dozen more things to see.
walking 25 minutes, you get to the Pantheon, while passing by Piazza Venezia.
5-10 minutes from the Pantheon is Trevi Fountain in one direction, and 15 minutes to Castle San Angelo in another.
If you love history, art, or archeology, Rome has it all in abundance.
Roman Forum with Colloseum
Baths of Caracalla
Castle San Angelo
Alter of the Fatherland
Italy's 7th largest city is painted with so much red, yellow, and orange; it feels like a permanent sunset.
It is home to UNESCO World Heritage sites, and has in the past been named the UNESCO city of Music and the European Capital of Culture.
Home to the oldest surviving university (the University of Bologna was established in 1088); the city has a large student population.
You can visit the many churches and plazas, as well as enjoy a bit of a ancient canal system, and hike up (or take a bus) to the Sanctuary of The Madonna di San Luca.
There is evidence of habitation here going back 5000 years, and significant settlements going back 3000; so there is plenty of history to enjoy.
A small historic center that is among the most beautiful in Italy. The kind of place that is really built for postcards. But, since the size is smaller, this is really a great day trip from Florence. A 90 minute train ride from Florence will get you to the outskirts of Siena.
Or, if you are visiting the Tuscany countryside, this is a must visit town.
The highlight is definitely the Duomo of Siena. Thought not as large as the church in Florence, it is by far more beautiful. Make sure you buy the combined ticket to see the church, the crypt and the museum with the viewpoint. The views from there are some of the nicest I have seen in Italy. Overlooking the city of Siena, with the Tuscan hills in the background. Give time to have lunch in the Piazza del Campo. And wear comfortable shoes for simply walking the side streets.
Add in a visit to the small art museum, Salvador Dali Siena. And maybe a stop by Fontebranda, a 13th century fountain, or the Museum of Torture. You will never regret adding Siena to your itinerary
Naples / Pompeii / Herculaneum
While in Naples, you do not want a car. Driving is hectic, streets are narrow, and parking is nearly impossible. Use public transport, even though I found it to be less reliable than places like Rome or Genoa or Milan; the prices were also cheaper. 1 metro ticket was 1.10 euros as of March 2022. Trains were often running 10-15 minutes late. But, it is still better than trying to drive here! Another difference in Naples is that you will often find metro tickets being sold by actual people in booths and not at machines.
Tip for Naples, have some cash on hand. The metro normally won’t take credit. Some restaurants won’t either, and I even went to a museum that didn’t accept credit.
In Naples, seeing the city is more based on organized tourist groups than other Italian cities. This must be due to the cruise ships that dock at the port. The bad news is that you will often be working your way around these groups. But, you don’t need to be in one yourself. As always, I am a big believer in exploring by yourself.
If it is nice day, a must see is Castle Sant Elmo. Situated 700 feet above the city, it provides a great view of the whole region. If the fog rolls in, choose another day to visit. The view is what you want. If you need to work off the gelato and pizza, walk up through the Spanish quarter. It is pretty and walks you right through the local markets, away from the tourists. If a 700 foot climb is not for you, take the funicular from the Augusteo station up to Funiculare Centrale. From there, it is a leisurely 10 minute walk to the castle.
If castles are your thing, there is still Castle Nuovo, and Castle Dell’ Ovo down at the water.
If visiting old churches is what you like, Naples has no end to them. Just walk the streets for a few minutes and you will pass many. My favorite is the Cathedral di Santa Maria Assunta. The recently opened Baptistry is a nice addition.
For museums, the Archeological Museum is the obvious one to see here. But, for art lovers, there is a very popular Contemporary Art Museum.
But, the main reason to come to Naples is Vesuvius.
The age old question for visitors…Pompeii or Herculaneum? The answer…both.
I think the dilemma is based on needing to spend an entire day at each. But, I think that is unnecessary. Pompeii is by far the larger of the sites, and it has many incredible things to see. But, it can easily be visited in 3 or 4 hours. Let’s be honest, anymore time there and you are just looking at your 50th house. As a tourist with limited time, you can do better.
My recommendation is to start at Pompeii, get stared around 9 or 10 AM (the park opens at 9:00). After you spend 3 or 4 hours there, and make sure you see the highlights such as the amphitheater, the forum, the grand theatre, and spend time leisurely walking the streets; then exit at the Villa of Mysteries. After exiting, walk 8 to 10 minutes down the Via Villa de Misteri to the train station and catch the #1 train to Ercola (20 minutes). From the Ercola station, it is another 6 to 8 minute walk downhill to the ruins.
You can get lunch at a restaurant just outside the Pompeii exit, or on the 6 to 8 minute walk from the train to Herculaneum.
In Herculaneum, you will find a smaller village, but in many ways better preserved (there are places here where even the wood was preserved) because it was buried deeper. Spend a couple hours here, then you can head back to Naples. And you didn’t have to decide between the 2.
Getting to Palermo has so many options. Fly, drive, ferry, train. I opted for the train from Naples for simplicity and scenery. I definitely got the scenery down the west coast of Italy, and across the north coast of Sicily. Plus, the added fun of being on a train, that loads onto a ferry. That is how the train makes the crossing from the mainland to Sicily. It breaks apart in Villa San Giovanni. Then, gets loaded on a ferry while you are still on the train. Then, the ferry takes the 20 minute or so ride across the straight, while you are free to deboard the train and enjoy the fresh air on the ferry, or maybe get a snack on the boat. After landing in Messina, the train is unloaded from the ferry and reassembled; and you take off for Palermo.
The train was a cool option, but I would probably not do it again. 10 hours on a train is a long time, especially when there are no services, like a bar car or even WIFI.
What can be said about Florence that hasn’t been said? Nothing.
If there are only a handful of places to visit during your lifetime, this is one of them. Yes, there will be crowds, especially during the summer. But there is a reason for it, and it is worth it. After all, this is the birthplace of the Renaissance. The hometown of Michelangelo, DaVinci, Botticelli, Donatello, Dante, etc, etc.
I think one of the top dream trips for any lover of art and history and food and wine would be to spend a few days in Rome, then take the train to Florence and spend a few days there also.
There are many must see places in Florence, but of course they are topped by The Accademia (with Michelangelo’s David), the Uffizi (the greatest collection of Renaissance art), and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistry of St John next door. If you are visiting Florence in the summer, this is one of the few times that I might suggest a tour group. Simply to be able to skip the line. However, many places do have the ability to book tickets ahead and have a reserved slot. The Accademia and Uffizi are such places. In the high season, definitely use this option.
What a pretty city! The Cathedral, Duomo di Milano, was amazing. One of the most beautiful I have ever visited. And you can walk the 229 steps up to stand on the roof and admire the views.
Next door was the glass roofed Vittorio Emanuele Gallery for shopping. They know how to shop in style!
Plus, the Sforzesco Castle is incredible with art by DaVinci and Michelangelo.
All within walking distance in and around the center.
This is a city with an incredible maritime history going back centuries...millenia even, including being the home of Christopher Columbus.
Sandwiched between the water and the hills, Genoa holds quite a dramatic presence.
Just be ready to walk some stairs when you visit!
Visit the original home of Christopher Columbus.
Doge's Palace - 13th century mansion with cultural attractions right on the Piazza De Ferrari
Cattedrale di San Lorenzo - 11th century cathedral with religious artifacts.
Aquarium of Genoa - really nice aquarium, after all this is a seaside city.
Another exploration can be to find some of the mansions of Genoa. This gives really good insight into the former vast wealth of the city. There are actually 42 homes on the UNESCO World Heritage list in this city. if you want to see many of them on one street, visit Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.
if you want to get up into the hills, go visit Puin Fort or Santa Tecia Fort. You will need a car for these though, as public transport doesn't get up there.
hike the 5 villages of Cinque Terre in Italy. It was as beautiful as I imagined!
For my hike, I took the train out from Genoa to Riomaggiore. From there, pay the fee to hike and head up the coast ending in Monterosso al Mare. The hike is popular and incredible, Sea views along the way, crossing through vineyards and old villages. And, you will definitely get a work out.
Venice was quite interesting, but I don't think I loved it like most people. As lovely and fascinating as it is, I would not recommend this is a vacation stop, but more as a day trip. The city can be reached by train from Florence or Milan in 2.5 hours, and in less than 2 hours from Bologna.
Seeing the canals and bridges is really cool, but after a while, they seemed a bit repetitive.
While you are here, don't miss;
St. Mark's Square and Basilica dating from the 12th century. This is iconic Venice and the center of tourism. Around the square, you will also find the picturesque colonnades, the Archeological Museum, the St Mark's Museum, the Correr Art Museum and the Doge's Palace. You will spend much of your time right here, around the square.
Rialto Bridge - Ornate covered 16th-century stone footbridge crossing the Grand Canal
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute - domed baroque styled church with octagonal design and a sacristy with 12 works by Titian.
Beach town an hour train ride from Bologna. But, with nearly 150,000 people, there is much more going on than just the beach.
Visit the Castle Sismondo and the Malatestiano Temple. Walk among the many plazas, do a little shopping, or see the ancient ruins like the Arco di Augosto.