Most people may not want to spend their vacations in a remote jungle in Laos somewhere like I do, but they do usually want to get to Italy at some point in their lives. Of the major landmarks in the world, most countries have zero to one. Italy, on the other hand, is chock full of recognizable places. There’s the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the gondolas on the canals in Venice, the Colosseum in Rome, the Tuscan countryside…the list goes on. The big name landmarks have a way of setting people’s travel anxieties at ease, which I feel is partly the reason people are drawn to it. Throw in the familiarity with Italian food and even those fear-of-the-unknown travelers can enjoy themselves without feeling overwhelmed about being in a foreign place.
The husband and I did quite the whirlwind roadtrip throughout a lot of Italy, so I feel like I have some knowledge to share.
Hint: Don’t go to Rome on Easter
When we were planning our stops on our road trip, the husband mentioned going to Rome on Easter. I thought it sounded great. See the Pope? Uh, yeah! This was a bad move considering that 8 million other people have the same idea each year. Apart from the suffocating holiday crowds, Rome was of my favorite stops. You legitimately feel as if you’ve stepped back in time.
1. Get the Roma Pass
The Roma Pass is either a 48-hour (28€) or 72-hour (38.50€) pass that allows you to tour around Rome easily and discounted. The pass includes free transportation like the metro and buses, entrance to 1 or 2 museums and discounted tickets to attractions such as the Colosseum. Since we were only in Rome for a few days, this was perfect. It’s nice having one card for everything instead of having a separate metro card or pay for the bus and then wait in line for tickets to museums and sites.
2. If you’re driving, don’t think about doing it in the center
Rome is old. And like so many old cities, especially those constructed in like 800BC, the roads came before cars were thought of. If you have a car, I would definitely stay outside the city and catch the train to the center, or if you’re staying in the center, find somewhere to park your car outside the city for a few days if you can. Rome’s streets are narrow, congested, and there are a lot of traffic rules of which to keep track that we just aren’t used to. So I really wouldn’t try.
3. The Colosseum is worth it
Some people just go and look at it and move on with their tours and don’t bother paying the money to go inside. It’s worth every penny of the 12€ to get in (or less if you have the Roma Pass). If you can fully engulf yourself in the experience, you can look down on the arena and only imagine the bloodbaths that occurred there for senseless sport. It gave me cold chills.
4. One word: Aperitivo
Aperitivo is one of the most enjoyable things about Italy. At most cafes and restaurants in the bigger cities, you pay one flat price of around 5-10€ and you get a cocktail and unlimited snacks. The snacks can be simple like olives and nuts but can also be chips, mini pizzas, fries or simple pastas. It’s kind of like happy hour. You meet up with friends and have a drink and munch on endless plates of food for one price. It’s a lovely concept.
5. I don’t get the Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps are exactly what it sounds like: Steps. They lead up to the Trinita Dei Monti church at the top and I just don’t get the hype. They are nice steps, I suppose? The church at the top is pretty? Sure, just like everything there is some history behind it but as far as I know it was just like a step-building competition and some guy won and built them. I like learning about culture and the history of something as much as the next traveler but it was very unimpressive to me. Plus, there are so many tourists on them anyway that it’s hard to appreciate anything about them. So if you have to choose between these and something else to go see, I’d choose the something else.
6. The Trevi Fountain is glorious
I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of the Trevi Fountain in your life. It’s just as magnificent as you could ever imagine. The crowds are closing in on you, yes, but once you work your way to the front, it’s like you can be the only person there. If you go in the middle of the day on a bright sunny afternoon, you may not get great pictures because the harsh sunlight will be reflecting off the white fountain. But also it gets shadowy in the evening because the fountain is actually in a very enclosed space. If you go earlier in the morning you may not encounter as many tourists and have better lighting to boot.
Fun fact: All the coins tossed into the fountain equal over a million dollars every year! Workers get them all out and the money goes to help Rome’s homeless and poor.
7. Pick pocketing
Any big city in the world is going to have its share of pick pocketing shitheads, but Rome is known for it. When you are in very tightly packed, tourist-centered areas you are a target. Keep your hand or arm over your bag at all times and always be vigilant about your belongings. These guys are pros and they love places like the Trevi Fountain because there is no personal space bubble in that sardine can of a square. You wouldn’t know your stuff is gone until much later.
8. The Vatican
Yes, the Vatican is its own country and all that but technically it’s inside Rome, so I’m including it here. The Vatican is basically the holiest place on earth and the holiest guy lives there. We stuffed ourselves inside St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday to hear the Pope do a speech that I couldn’t understand and it was quite the experience. He was really far away and small, but in my life I can say that not only have I seen the Pope, I saw the cool Pope Francis. And he was blessing all of us with his holy words. It was something else.
The Vatican Museum is also something to behold. If you read my post on Paris, it’s a bit like the Louvre and just full of super old stuff, but cool super old stuff. Because we were there when we were there, we were herded a bit like cattle through the hordes and into the Sistine Chapel (which is what everyone wants to see anyway). I did my old sneak-a-roo picture taking of the ceiling but honestly, the back wall held more of an interest to me. Don’t get me wrong, Michelangelo was a total boss ceiling artist, but that bright blue backdrop on the back wall was memorizing compared to the ceiling. It’s all impressive, of course, but there is something about that blue. Because I’m an art lover, I was genuinely moved by what I was seeing. I don’t think that was the case for most people in there, who just want to tick this off their “must see” lists, but I didn’t want to leave. I hung around in there longer than most people probably would, wishing I had a ladder to get closer to the details.
If you didn’t know, Tuscany is an entire region of Italy, it’s not a town or anything. But what I’m sure you do know is what comes to mind with the word Tuscany itself: wine, olives, cypress trees…and all those magical images you just conjured in your head are spot on. It’s that beautiful.
We decided that we wanted to stay on a working farm called an agriturismo. Agriturismos are everywhere in Tuscany, you just have to narrow down where you want to stay. Basically vineyards or olive farmers turn their farm houses into B&Bs and the lucky visitors get to stay there and eat said olives and drink said wine straight from the source. Ours was called Bagnaia (<–link). This particular farm produced wine and olive oil both and I consumed a lot of it. After all the hustle of Rome, getting to the countryside and subsiding off nothing but wine, cheese and bread while overlooking the vineyards all day was delightful. Because there are so many of them, you can easily narrow down by budget or what it produces or area. They are all charming and perfectly Italian-y but some are much bigger than others. Bagnaia was a small one, but others have horseback riding, pools, and restaurants, among other things. I’d much prefer staying in an agriturismo in the actual countryside rather than a hotel in Florence any day.
2. Val d’Orcia
The Val d’Orcia area is what I feel inspires all those Italian painters. It’s actually on the World Heritage list, so you know it has to be good. I wanted to hone in on the most picturesque area of Tuscany and I wasn’t disappointed. Anything you’ve ever seen in a postcard is here, including that much-photographed clump of Cypress trees that sit out in the hills all by their lonesome. If you are to make a trip to Tuscany, I would without a doubt stay in this area.
We specifically stayed next to a town called San Quirico d’Orcia and like most little towns in the area, it’s walled and sits upon a hilltop. Our agriturismo Bagnaia was located right outside its walls so we could walk to and from town each day. San Quirico has a park or two and is home to a church called the Collegiata of the Saints Quirico and Giulietta (mouthful), which is, like most things around here, ancient. It was built in the 8th century and if you want to feel like you’re in Game of Thrones and about to be beheaded in the square or thrown in a dungeon or maybe even see a sword fight in the streets, go inside with the candlelight and just let your imagination run wild. Total time travel.
3. Wine, wine, wine
Each day we would venture into town, buy some just-out-of-the-oven bread, fresh mozzarella, just-picked tomatoes and basil and go back to our farm where we’d get some of their wine and olive oil and just sit and drink and eat out on our patio.
Other than look at the beautiful time-worn architecture around this particular town, there isn’t much to do besides relax and eat at the most delicious restaurants and buy local goods. Which was fine enough for me. I didn’t go to the Tuscan countryside to feel busy.
Our next top around Central Italy is Pisa. Pisa, from what I could tell, doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than eat more heavenly pasta and see the Tower. Because there wasn’t much despite it being a pretty good sized town, we only stayed for the day.
1. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is legit cool
This, at least for me, was not an overrated tourist attraction. Sure there are people everywhere posing to get that “shot” of holding it up (I refused to do this), but it’s still an impressive sight. It was a warm day so we picked a spot in the grass and lazied around in its shadows for a while. It’s a beautiful, beautiful structure. We decided we didn’t want to go up inside the Tower but rather go into the cathedral adjacent to it that no one seems to know exists because the Tower is the more famous attraction. It’s a shame too because it was one of the more notable churches we went into. This one in particular was gorgeous and definitely worth the trip inside if you are deciding whether to or not.
2. Pisa Pizza
Usually tourist sites and the surrounding areas are full of overpriced, mediocre restaurants but we found that a lot of the pizzerias around the Tower were really well priced. We stopped at the Ristorante Pizzeria Duomo and got a pizza for about 5€ which is pretty good considering the location. It’s full of Americans with socks and sandals and fanny packs and Chinese people with cameras around their necks, but we were only here for the day and we travel one way: budget. So if you do need a quick bite (that’s actually delicious) while you’re exploring the area, don’t be afraid to pop in one of those little pizzerias, you won’t be ripped off.
Our last stop in this guide is the coastal Riviera area called Cinque Terre. You may or may not have heard about it; I hadn’t until about a month before we were set to leave on our trip. Because we were just road tripping and leisurely spending our time in places, once we arrived we decided we had to spend one extra night here because we liked it that much.
There are five cliffside towns that make up Cinque Terre and we chose Riomaggiore. It’s, in my opinion, the most picturesque of the five, but all seem charming. Riomaggiore, like the others, is a labyrinth of tight, colorful alleyways and stairways. It’s not a very big town, so you will get your bearings eventually (after you get lost a time or two). There are no cars allowed; you will park at the top of the mountain and walk the rest of the way down the cliffside walkways. There is one sort of main “road” through the center to the water and then the little alleys spider off it.
There is a vantage point from which you see most pictures of Riomaggiore. To get to it, you will need to work you way down towards the water. Once you do, you’ll see an incline and stairs off to your left that head up. Go up and wind your way around the cliffside sidewalk until you reach the point where you can look back and see the whole town. You can even go down onto the rocks in the water to relax and enjoy the view.
3. Are you in shape?
If you aren’t, you will be after you visit. I don’t know how, but it seems like no matter where you walk here you are always going up. Everything is up. Whether it’s the sidewalks or stairways, I was always out of breath. Because it’s strictly a pedestrian town, you will get plenty of exercise during your stay. I doubt they even have a gym anywhere, why would they need one?
4. It’s pricey
Budget accommodation was hard to find, but we found a place called Banchi (<–link) for about 65€ in a great location right on the main street. It’s a super basic simple setup, but you can’t beat the location or the views from your windows. I found the restaurants also pretty steep, and since we are the get-food-from-the-supermarket type of travelers, we didn’t eat out too much. But, honestly, now that the dollar and the euro are nearly par, it would be much more affordable to eat out. When we were there a few years ago, however, if I saw that a plate of spaghetti was 13€ I knew that it was actually going to cost me like $24, so we skipped out on a lot. That 13€ now is only $14. Perfectly reasonable.
Two other areas that we “visited” (but not really) are Milan and Turin but because we didn’t spend much time in either nor are they in central Italy like this guide is intended, I’m going to spend like 5 seconds on them.
Milan is not great. We were visiting friends right outside the city and so spent some time wandering about. I actually was looking for a new lens for my broken camera and was traversing the city trying to find one, so I actually felt like I saw a lot even though I didn’t do a lot. I didn’t find Milan a beautiful city at all. I feel like, aesthetically, there are much more appealing cities in Italy to visit. The Duomo, on the other hand, is the only impressive thing I saw. It really was a magnificent sight.
We spent only one night in the Turin area driving through on our way back to France. I found the cutest place called B&B Miramonti (<–link) up in the mountains about 20km outside of Turin. It had wrought-iron beds and patios that overlooked the town and hills. It was super cute, included breakfast and was only about 50€ for the night. So if you’re in the area and need an adorable B&B, I definitely recommend it here.
I hope you maybe found some of this useful or at the very least, mildly interesting. Do you have any other tips for visiting these areas? Or feel differently about any of the points?