A few friends recently asked me about recommendations for traveling in Italy. Although there are so many wonderful places to explore throughout the country, I highly recommend Rome, Florence, and surrounding Tuscany for first-timers. Whether you're going as a family, solo traveler, or for a romantic getaway, there's really something magical for everyone to enjoy.
I've done this trip twice, once with my friend Nick, and the other with my cousin Nick. If you have a week, spend at least 3 days in Rome and 4 days in Florence. You can easily find direct flights to Rome (FCO) and then use Italy's extensive railway system to explore Florence and surrounding areas (Pisa, Lucca, etc.). Renting a car is always an option, but I wouldn't do that until you get to Florence.
In no particular order, here are more detailed tips that you might not necessarily find elsewhere:
I don't think I could ever live in Rome, but it's one of my favorite cities I've traveled to. It oozes with culture and history and transforms into one of the most romantic and enchanting places at night.
1. Tour the Colosseum with a guide
Save yourself the trouble of waiting in line and purchase these tickets in advance. This is for entrance to the Colosseum along with access to the gladiator pits and third ring. You'll be with a guide, which is the only way to access these areas. If you don't do this, you'll still appreciate the site, but you'll have serious FOMO looking down at the tour groups that are standing in the center arena doing their best Russell Crowe impersonations (download Gladiator on your iPad or laptop to watch on the plane. It will make your visit 10x more fun).
2. Buy Vatican Museum Tickets in advance
You will want to punch yourself in the face if you don't do this. Did you know that Italy gets more tourists than any other country in the world?! Even during off-peak times, tourist destinations like the Vatican are packed. The line extends several blocks so you'll be saving yourself at least 45 minutes of wait-time if you buy your tickets in advance. Go to the website and look at the different options available (I haven't done it, but I hear the night tours give you special access to galleries closed during the day).
It's worth noting that you can spend at least half a day in the museum. If you're pressed for time, prioritize the Sistine Chapel, which is one of the most breathtaking works of art ever created. Don't miss it, even though you'll be tempted to when you're crammed like a sardine in the hallways. Suck it up and deal. The photos don't do it justice!
If you're in decent shape, not pressed for time, and not claustrophobic, do this! You'll get an up close and personal view of the frescos that line the ceilings of the Vatican and a surreal panorama of Rome at the top. If you can time it so that you do this on a clear day in the late afternoon, you just might catch one of the most epic sunset views of your life.
Unlike the United States, the tourist signage in Italy is void of legal jargon and disclaimers. There's a sign that says you can take an elevator up the dome, but what it fails to explicitly say is that it only takes you up 1/3 of the way. For 7 euros, you can take the elevator 320 steps, but you'll still have to climb 551 (!!!) steps to the top with each flight getting drastically narrower. It's not a bad climb, but if you're expecting a leisurely walk in the park or you think the elevator is going to take you to the top, you've been warned!
Bonus: The inside of the Vatican is so ornate it will be easy to get caught up in the splendor of it all. Look out for the very tiny sign pointing to the crypt, which houses the ruins of St. Peter and Popes throughout the ages. This might feel creepy to some, but as someone who was raised a Catholic, I appreciated this experience.
3. See the Trevi foundtain, but linger at Piazza Navona
Everyone goes to see the Trevi Fountain. You have to see it, but it feels like the Times Square of Rome – too crowded and full of tourists. Grab dinner at Campo de Fiore and walk to Piazza Navona, a large square with two giant fountains designed by Bernini. I've spent hours here sipping on negronis, savoring gelato, and people watching.
4. Eat Spaghetti Carbonara at Salumeria Roscioli
There's something therapeutic about twirling your fork in a mound of spaghetti laced with freshly grated parmigianno and pancetta. I've never been a big fan of spaghetti carbonara, but it's a must eat in Rome. You'll get one of the best bowls of it here. The restaurant is tiny and also doubles as a deli where you can find some of the best salumi and cheese in town.
5. Stop for lunch at Pizzarium before hitting the Vatican Museum
If you love pizza or focaccia, Pizzarium is a real gem. It's a few blocks away from the entrance to the Vatican Museum and easily the type of place you would pass by if you weren't looking for it. The only reason you might take notice is that it does get crowded at lunch and you'll often find patrons lingering on the sidewalk gorging on their slices. There are dozens of toppings and you order by the pound, not the slice. My strategy is to ask for small slices so I can try as many different variations as I can. I've never been disappointed by any of them.
There's a special place in my heart for Florence because of my trip there in October 2012. I was feeling burnt out and the city completely revived me. I ate delicious things, drank too much wine, explored til my feet hurt, and found myself in a place where I could slow down and enjoy the finer things in life. I'll always be grateful to Florence for that.
1. Buy the Florence pass and reserve tickets to see Michaelangelo's David
If you're going to spend more than 3 days in Florence, I'd recommend buying the Florence pass because it gets you access to 30+ sites in town ranging from the Uffizi Gallery (must visit if you love Renaissance art) to smaller chapels and historic homes. I don't typically find things like this to deliver on their value, but this one is an exception. They sell it at most tourist kiosks or you can find them at museum entrances.
Just like the Colosseum and Vatican Musuems, Michaelangelo's David draws the crowds. Go online and buy tickets in advance or else you'll be stuck online for at least an hour. If you're on the fence about whether to see this or not, don't be. I wasn't expecting much and it completely blew me away. I didn't realize how big it was and having seen the Sistine Chapel a few days earlier, this gave me so much more appreciation for Michaelangelo's talent and range as an artist.
2. Picnic at Piazza Michaelangelo at sunset
Go to one of the local markets (Mercato Centrale is the largest, but San Lorenzo is my favorite and also the oldest). Pick up a bottle of wine, some fresh meats and cheese, and take a cab up to Piazza Michaelangelo. If you go before sunset, you'll get this view and it'll make you cry.
Bonus: Most markets will vacuum seal food for you. That means you can stock up on your favorite salumi and stash it in your suitcase.
3. Book a Day Trip to Pisa, Sienna, and San Gimignano
This was easily one of the best tours I booked. Nick and I allocated a whole day to this and it allowed us to see a Tuscan vineyard/farm, the town of Sienna (amazing), the walled city of San Gimignano, and the leaning tower of Pisa. It's such an efficient way to see a lot of things in such a short amount of time.
4. Visit the town of Panzano
One of the most unique experiences I've ever had traveling was a day trip from Florence to this tiny town of Panzano. I had to go because I'd read the book "Heat" which is about the author's apprenticeship with Dario Cecchini, the world's most famous butcher. Dario sings in a loud operatic voice at the top of his lungs, cites quotes from Dante's inferno, and represents 8 generations of butchers dating all the way back to the Etruscans. When I read this book, I thought to myself, "I have to meet this man!" and so I did. His store is 200+ years old and you can book a meal at his restaurant for $25 w/ unlimited wine. This meat-centric extravaganza blew me away is one of my all-time favorite dining experiences.
BONUS: Just up the road is this wine shop called "Accademia del Buon Gusto" (school of good taste). Go in there and talk to the owner and he'll walk you through a flight of the most delicious locally sourced Tuscan wines you can't find anywhere. I spent 3 hours in that store and bought some of the best value Super Tuscans and dessert wines ever.
5. Eat Bisteca Fiorentina at Perseus
I went to Perseus twice in one week. One thing to know about Florence is it's famous for its T-bone steaks that come from white cows specific to the region. They're cut about one inch thick and are found at most trattorias. I always ask locals where they eat and they sent me here. It's a carnivore's paradise.
I could wax poetic about how much I love Italy and these two cities. If you need other recommendations about where to stay, what wine to drink, how much to budget, etc. just holler. Happy answer questions in the comments or just email me.