People that have never traveled to Europe sometimes ask me which country they should visit first. While Paris is my favorite city and Ireland will always have a special place in my heart, Italy is the country I recommend for your first European vacation.
Why do we travel? Many of us travel to meet new people, experience new cultures and explore new foods. I also travel to see beautiful art, architecture and natural landscapes. Some prefer a vacation where they can relax for days on the beach. I tend to prefer vacations that are more like field trips, with non-stop visits to museums, historic sites, castles and churches. The great thing about Italy is that it provides everything anyone could want from a vacation, in a way that is new and exciting while also being comfortable and relaxing.
Italy is an art lover’s dream, having been at the forefront of every art movement from the Ancient through the Renaissance to the Modern. For lovers of architecture, there are monumental and significant buildings from every era. All of this is set amidst jaw-dropping natural beauty, from alpine lakes to sandy beaches to vineyard covered hillsides. These man-made and natural wonders sit alongside some of the friendliest people in the world, and some of the most delectable food. You will never be worried about what you’re going to eat for dinner in Italy! So tuck into a nice bowl of pasta and keep reading for my recommendations of the top sights to see.
Rome, the eternal city
You can’t visit Italy without visiting Rome. Millions of people fall in love with Rome every year, and I’m here to admit that I am not one of them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city and you must visit it if only to see the Colosseum. It’s just not my favorite city; after seeing the sights once I am not compelled to go back again and again.
Rome is a wonderful buffet of sights, sounds and tastes. Visit the important sites such as the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Pantheon of course. Then waste time relaxing on the Spanish Steps, watching the parade of young people go by (just don’t sit down, I’ve read that authorities are now cracking down on loiterers). Throw a coin into the Trevi fountain then head over to the Campo De Fiori to linger over a glass of wine and a steaming bowl of carbonara as the sun sets.
Rome is also a frustrating tangle of crowds, noise and traffic. I grew tired of jumping out of the way of the ubiquitous scooters buzzing like insects around every intersection. I grew tired of standing in endless lines; on our first visit to the Vatican we waited for two hours before we got in. We ended up missing most of the exhibits, running frantically through the museum to get to the Sistine chapel before it closed. On our second trip to Rome we decided to go back to the Vatican, splurging for a “skip the line” Viator tour that allowed us to enter before the museum opened to the general public. There are things in life that are worth splurging on and this is one I highly recommend. We toured with a small group in relative quiet, with an extremely knowledgeable guide.. The Vatican museum has an impressive collection and the Sistine Chapel is one of the most amazing sights I’ve seen in my life. Standing in the chapel looking up at Michelangelo’s masterpiece is as close to heaven as I expect I will get.
So go to Rome. Go for a few days, see the major sights and then get out. The rest of Italy has so much more to offer.
The Amalfi Coast
Leaving Rome behind head south to one of the world’s most spectacular stretches of coastline. On our first trip we rented a car and drove from Rome down to Amalfi. I don’t recommend this at all. Traffic is horrendous, parking is impossible and the clean and convenient trains are a much better way to travel. In this case though the car rental was fortuitous because along the route we saw a sign for Pompeii and said to ourselves “why not stop”.
Please plan better than we did and include Pompeii in your formal itinerary because it shouldn’t be missed. Spending a few hours wandering around the ruins, I was struck by how well preserved everything is. Standing at a storefront I could feel the pulse of life the city must have had before it was buried in ash. The mosaics are amazing, reinforcing the importance this city had before it was destroyed.
As we got closer to Amalfi the road became a narrow ribbon clinging to the hillside, steep cliffs dropping down to the sea below. Our hotel sat atop one of those cliffs, with a balcony that seemed suspended over the ocean hundreds of feet below. Relaxing there we could see and smell the lemon groves dotting the hillside. It was paradise.
We spent a few luxuriously lazy days just hanging out, overlooking the ocean. We finally roused ourselves enough to take a day trip to Positano, a picturesque little town just a short bus ride down shore. After walking around a bit we had the most wonderful seafood lunch at a little cafe right on the beach. Give me a plate of seafood pasta with my toes in the sand and I’m a happy man.
The Ligurian Coast
We ended our first trip to Italy with a stay on the Italian Riviera. When planning the trip I’d wanted to stay in Portofino, but found a much more affordable place, Hotel Cenobio dei Dogi, in nearby Camogli. Camogli is also a quieter town, which we enjoyed. It boasts a fine waterfront with numerous dining options, without all of the touristy hustle and bustle. We didn’t explore the many dining options however because our first night there we discovered Ostaia da o Sigu, a restaurant with the best seafood risotto we’ve ever had. We kept going back for it every night of our stay; by the third night Dennis and the owner had formed a very close friendship!
Even if we didn’t stay there we had to take a day trip to Portofino. Dennis dressed up, hoping to run into Elizabeth Taylor on the boardwalk (ok, so this trip did take place in 1997). I love boats so I wanted to take the ferry there, fantasizing about the view of Portofino as we arrived from the sea. We hopped onto the ferry ready to set sail when several dozen pre-teen girls, all wearing identical school uniforms, scampered aboard. As young girls like to do, they screamed at the top of their lungs every time the boat hit a wave. The water was choppy, so their high pitched serenade caused Dennis and I to spend most of the trip with our fingers in our ears.
The ferry pulled up to a small beach with only two buildings, a bar and a church. We knew this wasn’t Portofino so asked where we had stopped. We were told that ferry makes a stop at San Fruttuoso. How long, we asked? Only two hours, just enough for the ferry boat workers to grab a coffee at the bar. Two hours! Or we could hike over the hill, the path drops directly down into Portofino. We decided to walk, because I had read in some Rick Steeves book that the hike offered amazing ocean views. About halfway up the very steep and muddy hill we were regretting my decision, poor Dennis complaining that his very nice loafers were being ruined. What would Liz think if he ran into her looking like that? We both stopped complaining when we were passed by two Italian grandmas, both at least seventy and each no more than 5’2” tall, hiking along at a furious pace while laden with heavy baskets of groceries. Finally we arrived in Portofino, explored the waterfront and had a very nice lunch before jumping on the train for the 10 minute ride back – Camogli was the first stop!
Italy’s Golden Triangle: Milan, Florence and Venice
This is my favorite part of Italy, the very heart of the country. We’ve gone back to each of these cities several times, but my favorite visit was the trip we took with our niece in 2018.
We started our journey in Milan, Italy’s business and financial center. Our first stop was the crown jewel of the city, the Duomo. This Cathedral has one of the most beautiful facades in Europe. The interior is just as amazing, lit by stained glass and adorned with carvings and sculptures. Be sure to see the statue of St Bartholomew, wearing his flayed skin like a robe. It’s a sight both grotesque and beautiful.
Adjacent to the Duomo, the Galleria de Vittorio Emmanuel caters to a religion of a different kind – shopping. We spent time browsing through the usual suspects, Louis Vuitton of course on the top of the list. We enjoyed a mid-afternoon coffee and cake in the spectacular nineteenth century setting.
The next day, on to another church to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece “The Last Supper”. This 15th c mural is housed in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church, a little ways outside the center of town. It’s easily visited on your own, just make sure you book tickets well in advance. We decided to go with a tour from Viator that included a walking tour of the city. Once inside the church, the experience of seeing this treasure up close is breathtaking. I learned that the mural wasn’t always considered a treasure though, it had faded so much by the 17th c. that the monks living there at the time carved a door through the lower part of the mural, right where Jesus’s feet should be.
We took another amazing day trip from Milan on the Bernina Express, one of the worlds top train rides. As mentioned in my New Zealand post, I love train trips and this one is one of the best I’ve been on. We took a bus from Milan to the small Italian village of Tirano where we boarded the train. The route then winds up and into the alps, ending in the Swiss town of St. Moritiz. We took the trip in the fall, the spectacular autumn colors eventually giving way to snow covered peaks. We explored St. Moritz, buying the most delicious Swiss chocolate to enjoy on our bus ride back to Milan.
Leaving Milan we boarded another train for our journey to our next stop, Florence. Arriving, we made our way to our outstanding hotel, the Torre Guelfa. The hotel is in a 12th c. palace, with the highest private tower in the city. We enjoyed amazing views from the rooftop terrace and appreciated the friendly and attentive service from the staff. After settling in, we ventured out to see the sights, including lunch in the Piazza Della Signoria then a tour through the Pallazo Vecchio. We ended our day with an evening stroll across the Ponte Vecchio, browsing the numerous shops lining the bridge.
Florence is a city of art, so we spent our second day browsing the collection at the Uffizi before heading over to the Galleria dell’Accademia to admire Michelangelo’s David, another masterpiece. The Uffizi is one of the world’s great museums, full of some of the most important art in the world. It’s a must see if you ever find yourself in Florence. David is equally impressive, though it felt like I was at a rock concert elbowing through the crowd to get a decent picture.
We happened to be in Florence on Thanksgiving, so we asked the front desk for a recommendation on where to go for a special meal. He suggested we try the local specialty, Steak Florentine. We ended up in a wonderful restaurant, Ristorante Parione, where we had the best steak I have had in my life. It’s a recipe I’ve tried to recreate back home and it never turns out the same. I think it’s the quality of the authentic Italian ingredients that makes the difference (I’m certain it has nothing to do with the chef).
Our final day we browsed the Boboli Gardens before taking the bus up to Piazza Michelangelo. Everyone has to make the trip up to this high point of the city for the spectacular views. Try to time your trip for sunset to get the best light.
The next morning we took the train to Venice then transferred to our Vaporetti. Dennis and I had been to Venice before so we opted for the high speed water taxi that skirts the outer ring. A mistake! Our niece grasped her luggage wide eyed at the industrial port we were cruising through and asked us why we loved Venice? While it was the fastest way to get to our hotel it clearly wasn’t the introduction we should have given her to this beautiful city.
Venturing out from our hotel, we showed her the better side of Venice. We strolled by the Bridge of Sighs before making our way to Saint Mark’s, one of the most spectacular squares in the world. We admired the church before window shopping amongst the covered porticos. We then wandered the narrow streets of the city, getting lost a few times then stumbling upon a beautiful square or a section of the grand canal. Finally we made our way to the Rialto bridge around sunset. Realizing it was now cocktail hour we made our way back toward Saint Mark’s to have a drink at Hemingway’s favorite Venice haunt, Harry’s Bar. Dennis had to try their martini. Even though he complained about both the size and the outrageous price, he ended up declaring it was the best martini he’d ever had.
The next day another day trip, this time to Murano and Burano. We saw a very interesting glass blowing demonstration and of course bought some great blown glass souvenirs. In Burano was explored the lace making industry and admired the brightly painted houses as we walked though the town. That evening we asked our hotel clerk for dinner recommendations and ended up at this tiny out of the way restaurant. While it only had a small number of tables we were early as far as Italian dinner time was concerned so were able to get a table. We had squid ink pasta, something I’d never tried and wasn’t sure about when it arrived at the table all inky and black. It was amazing, one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had in my life, but nothing I would ever try to recreate at home. I know my limits!
As I mentioned in my post about being an expat living in Ireland one of the benefits was the ability to travel all over Europe. One long weekend trip we made was to Lake Como. We flew into Milan and had a great time exploring that city once again. Then we hopped on the train up to the town of Como, on the southern end of the lake. There we took a ferry to Bellagio, the magical and most famous town on the lake, and checked into our waterfront room at the Hotel Florence.
I fell in love with both Bellagio and Lake Como. The lake is beautiful, with the snow capped Alps at its northern end and green clad hills rising up on all sides. We visited several of the lakeside villas while we were there, the most spectacular of which was the Villa Balbianetto. Touring the lush grounds you can see why this villa was used as the location for several films including Casino Royal (the one with Daniel Craig) and Star Wars (it was the palace at Naboo). I loved strolling up and down the steep streets of Bellagio. We found a wonderful little trattoria at the top of one where we tried the local specialty, perch fresh from the lake served with orange risotto.
With four trips to Italy under our belt, I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. I still want to see the Shroud of Turin, enjoy the culinary delights of Bologna, hike the Cinque Terra and bask in the sun of Sicily. Italy packs a travel punch way above what its size would suggest.