Where to go on your first trip to Italy
A friend at work is going to travel to Italy for the first time and asked me for a little trip planning advice.
It was harder than I thought it would be, because she only has ten days. And there are so many great places to see in Italy that narrowing it down is a real challenge.
My first tip was not to bite off more than she could chew. On your first trip, you want to see as much as possible. It’s only natural. But the less time you spend traveling, the more you’ll enjoy your trip. So we decided that with ten days, she should only stay in three places. That way, she’d only have two travel days.
Traveling in Italy is pretty easy. But the trains don’t always run on time, and repacking your bags and moving from one hotel to another is always more time-consuming than you think it will be. So when planning a trip to Italy, bear that in mind.
The most convenient and affordable air service is into Rome, so I suggested that she spend the first four nights there. She’ll be pretty jet laggy, and staying put for a few days will help her keep from getting exhausted. Besides, no one ever has enough time in Rome.
She loves Italian art, so Florence is a must. And to me, Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So no Italy vacation would be complete without it. And if she flies into Rome and home from Venice, she won’t have to spend any time backtracking.
Itinerary for first trip in Italy
- Day: Arrive Rome. Check into Teatropace 33, near Piazza Navona. Afternoon stroll to Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and Spanish Steps. Dinner near Piazza Navona.
- Day: Rome. AM visit to Campo de Fiori, then explore ancient Rome — Imperial Forum, Colosseum, and Roman Forum. Afternoon shopping. Dinner near Campo de Fiori.
- Day: Rome. AM visit to Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s, and Castel Sant’Angelo. Afternoon at Acqua Madre Spa or shopping for antiques on Via dei Coronari. Dinner in Trastevere.
- Day: Rome. Gallerie Borghese, or cooking class, or side trip to Tivoli, or side trip to Ostia Antica.
- Day: Florence. Early AM visit to Accademia. Visit to Duomo and Baptistery. Afternoon shopping.Day 5: 90-minute train from Rome to Florence. Check into Il Guelfo Bianco. Afternoon stroll to Ponte Vecchio and late afternoon visit to the Uffizi Gallery.
- Day: Florence. Day trip to Siena or Lucca.
- Day: Two-hour train from Florence to Venice. Check into Locanda Orseolo. Afternoon tours of St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace.
- Day: Venice. AM visit to Lido or Murano. Then art museums, churches, or shopping. Evening gondola ride.
- Day: Home
By keeping the number of cities to a minimum, she’ll spend the least amount of time hauling bags and waiting for trains. And she’ll have plenty of time to sample the gelato, go into all the irresistible shops, and linger over a glass of wine in the piazza.
Trains in Italy and how to use them
Traveling by train in Italy really runs the gamut. It can relaxing or unpleasant, dirt cheap or expensive, fast or slow. There are some things you can do to make the experience more enjoyable. But on certain routes, there’s nothing to do but try not to touch anything.
Another wrinkle: on our recent trip, the trains were on strike from 9:30AM to 5:30PM. Some trains did run – if the conductor chose not to strike. But there was no way to find out in advance whether your train was operating or not. You just went to the station to see if it showed up.
As the Italian government institutes more austerity measures to shore up the economy, more strikes are likely in the future.
We were lucky in that we weren’t traveling that day, but we heard stories about people who had to take $500 taxi rides from Naples to Rome in order to make their flight home.
While driving in the Italian countryside is enjoyable, it’s pretty much a suicide mission in the cities. And if you want to cover some distance, trains can actually be quicker than flying. Taking the train between cities will also help you eliminate backtracking so you can see more places in Italy in less time.
Types of Italian trains
The pride of the Trenitalia line are the new, high-speed Eurostar trains. Known as the Frecciarossa, or red arrow, these are sleek, modern, and comfortable, with service available in first and second class. Traveling as fast as 175 MPH, they link most major Italian cities. Snacks and beverages are served, and depending on the route, there may be a dining car with a set, three-course menu.
You’ll need to reserve your seats in advance, and on some routes, the most popular times sell out. But if seats aren’t available in second class, there may still be room in first. Power outlets for laptops are available at every seat.
Eurostar City trains, known as Frecciabianca trains, travel at speeds up to 125 and run pretty frequently. Refreshments are available, but there’s no dining car. Reservations are required for these too. Intercity trains that don’t bear the Eurostar designation are one step further down.
Regional trains are inexpensive and can be frequent or infrequent. As a rule, they are not real clean and only second class is available. The ticket you buy is not for a specific train – it is for transportation from A to B. So it’s important to validate your ticket before your board the train. Otherwise, you could face a 50 Euro fine.
The yellow validating machines aren’t always on the platform – sometimes they’re just inside the station. So stamp your ticket before you head for the platform. If you have a rail pass, you can just hop aboard.
At press time, overnight accommodations were not available because the company that maintains them is on strike. But in our experience, taking an overnight train in Italy always results in a sleepless night anyway.
Buying your tickets
You can buy tickets in advance through Italiarail. If you know exactly when you want to travel, this can save you some time, although you’ll pay for the convenience.
You’ll receive a voucher that you exchange for the actual ticket at the train station. You can do it in person or use one of the kiosks. Some advance purchase fares with some restrictions can save you as much as 60%.
If you don’t want to be locked into a schedule, you can buy tickets at the train station. In larger stations, you can also buy tickets for local routes at the newsstands.
Usually, there’s no waiting there. Or use one of the machines — there’s an English-language option that walks you through the whole process.
Italian rail passes can save you quite a bit of money if you plan on doing lots of train travel. You can compare the options at raileurope. Just remember that you need reservations for most trains now — at a cost of 10 Euro per reservation. So factor that into the total cost of the pass.
Traveling by train in Italy
When you arrive at the station, you’ll need to figure out which platform — binario — your train leaves from. Video monitors show arrivals and departures with the Bin. number. Just be sure to check a few minutes before your scheduled departure because sometimes the platform changes at the last minute.
If you have reserved seats, your ticket will tell you the carriage number and in larger stations, signage will tell you where to wait. When your train arrives, board as quickly as you can because they often leave quickly.
Depending on the train, there may be space at the front or back of the car to stow your luggage, otherwise, you’ll have to put it overhead.
As a rule, there will be a map inside the car showing the stops. It’s a good idea to figure out which stop is before the one where you want to disembark.
Many larger cities have more than one train station, so know which one is most convenient before you board. For instance, in Pisa, the S. Rossore station is about a ten minute walk from the Leaning Tower while the central station is about half an hour on foot.
Italian train stations are pretty friendly for English speakers, so you shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out where to go and what to do.
Once you’re onboard, relax and enjoy the views of the passing countryside.
Our trip in Italy
We love to vacation in Italy and we’ve been lucky enough to return there many times. There are so many places to see in Italy, that deciding where to go is always a challenge. We always want to explore destinations that we haven’t seen. But at the same time, we long to return to our old favorites.
The truth is that there’s never enough time. So if you’re planning a trip to Italy, you should make up your mind that you won’t be able to see everything you want to see in one trip.
Transport to Italy
Traveling to Italy is easy from most major cities in the United States. Since we’re going to Northern Italy, we’re flying Air France nonstop to Paris and then connecting from there. If you’re not going to Rome or if there isn’t nonstop service to Rome from your home city, consider flying to whichever European city you can fly nonstop to.
It’s only 2-1/2 hours from London to Rome. And depending on when you travel, it may be less expensive to do a roundtrip to some other European city and then buy point-to-point fares to your destinations in Italy.
However you get there, avoid backtracking if you can. Fly into Rome and out of Venice or Milan instead of returning to Rome. Italy train travel is pretty good, but it can be expensive and time-consuming.
Over the years, we’ve learned that the less traveling we do, the happier we are. So we always stay a minimum of two nights in each destination – but more often, three or four. We pick a city that’s central to lots of places we want to go and then use it as a base.
We book all our hotels in advance because the really desirable, affordable ones always fill up fast. For Italy, we like to use booking.com and venere.com. Both these sites have detailed descriptions and photos, and lots of user reviews. Before we make reservations, we usually check tripadvisor just to make sure there are no unpleasant aspects that we don’t know about.
Driving in Italy
Driving in Italy is pretty manageable in the country, but don’t even attempt it in the cities. We try to keep our destinations just a few hours apart because we want to stop here or there for a leisurely lunch and do some sightseeing along the way.
We’ve used Avis the last several trips and always had positive experiences with them. Like the guy who wears suspenders and a belt, we take a GPS and also screen grabs of maps.
The European maps on our Garmin GPS are pretty accurate. The viamichelin web site is a great place to generate point-to-point maps. It will even tell you the cost of the various routes. There are lots of toll roads in Italy.
On this trip, we’re flying into Genoa and staying in Sestri Levante and Vernazza to do the Cinque Terre. We’re doing this part of the trip by train, and then picking up a car in Viareggio for our time in Tuscany.
We’re using Lucca as a base for the cities in Northern Tuscany, and Siena as a base for the towns in Southern Tuscany. In this way, we’ll have nearly a dozen towns that we want to explore that are less than 90 minutes from where we’re staying.
We don’t want to have the car in Florence, so we’re dropping the car in Siena the night before and taking the train the next morning.
Be aware that many car rental offices – particularly outside big cities – close for several hours for lunch.
We made reservations and bought tickets online for the Tower of Pisa and the Uffizi Gallery so we won’t have to waste any time waiting in line. Other than that, we have a list of attractions and appealing restaurants in the towns we plan to visit. But we always allow plenty of time for spontaneity.
First time in Rome
The first time I went to Rome, I didn’t see the Sistine Chapel because I decided to have a second glass of wine at lunch and just enjoy the piazza. Years later, when I finally went to the Sistine Chapel, I knew I’d made the right decision. It was, in fact, still there.
With so many places to go in Italy, it’s best to restrict yourself to a single manageable area. If you’ve already been to Rome, consider doing Naples and the Amalfi Coast. If you don’t want to drive, you can see Capri, Ischia, Positano, Amalfi, and Sorrento by ferry – which is absolutely delightful.
If you’re all about art and churches, try a week in Umbria and a week in Tuscany. Or visit Milan and the Italian Lakes. Just be sure not to bite off more than you can chew. Nothing is worse than being on vacation and feeling like you have to stick to a demanding schedule.
We’ll have plenty to talk about when we return from our trip in a few weeks.