Be warned, I have a heavy bend toward visiting churches and staring at art and architecture. I am too old or too boring to care about the nightlife, and too poor to give recommendations for "fabulous" places to stay or eat. I did drink an $8 coke while in Siena, and I guess it was sort of worth it, but I wouldn't do it again. I also like walking. A lot. And I think getting lost is a sport (incidentally, if you are driving in Italy, you *will* get lost, or at least, off of your planned route)
General note about accommodations: If you want a private bathroom, make sure it is specifically noted in the reservation/listing. Many, if not most, places have shared bath setups.
Overall: I went to Rome on my first trip to Italy. We made the mistake of making Rome our last stop after several beautiful places in the country, and returning to Rome felt dirty, noisy, and just a little too much big ugly city. If we'd started in Rome, it would have seemed beautiful, but after two weeks in bucolic country, it just felt like a slap in the face. My fault, totally. I know a lot of people love Rome, but it wasn't my favorite. Here were some highlights:
- Where to stay: Don't stay near the train station. Every town has the crappiest and most overpriced accommodations near the train station, and depending which side you're on, it can be kind of a shady neighborhood. We chose to stay in Trastevere, (beyond the Tiber river) and I thought it was a great neighborhood. An older part of Rome, it has narrow streets and old shops, a little quieter, and the kids playing in the piazzas are from Roman families more than tourists. Specifically, we booked an apartment through http://www.rome-accom.com, and it was great.
- Interesting old church: San Clemente is a church built on top of a church built on top of a Mythraic temple. I jumped at the chance to walk back in time to see the history of one place, and in my mind, the story of the city and its people, develop in one spot. Your mileage may vary. It's a relatively quick tour.
- Catacombs: We definitely wanted to visit some, being history nerds (and papists, in my mom's case-- just kidding Mom!) and we chose St Calixxtus Catacombs. I enjoyed the tour. You need to take a bus out of the city center to see the catacombs.
- The Vatican: We had a pretty miserable time at the Vatican. St. Peter's Basilica is indeed big, and beautiful and, kind of overdone. I did really love Pope Alexander VII's tomb by Bernini. It was fun seeing preserved popes on display. We even saw the then new pope giving mass while we wandered through. But going to the Vatican museum, arguably one of the most important collections in the world should have been a high point of my trip and instead it just made me very angry. It was crowded. Not a little, but to the point where you were elbow to elbow getting moved through rooms by the force of the crowd. Asshats everywhere were taking flash photography, especially of the Sistine Chapel, while bored security guards droned on "no flaaash" like bleating sheep. I would love this museum if it were managed properly-- no cameras allowed at all, and only half the number of people allowed in at one time (other museums control how many people are inside at any time)
- Art & Architecture I wouldn't miss: Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa was magnificent in person. The Pantheon, if you're in the neighborhood, you really should stop to see this unique and beautiful building.
- Stuff I might skip: The Capuchin Crypts were a bit silly. Trevi fountain is nice and all but crowded and I wouldn't go out of my way to see it again. National Etruscan Museum at the Villa Giulia is a great Etruscan museum if you are into that kind of thing, including famous works that even I was familiar with, and then way way too many more pieces for my taste-- if you are into Etruscan art, it is a must. Otherwise, skip it.
Overall: A beautiful city that balances big city with beauty and history. I've been here twice. Florence was the heart of the Renaissance and is exploding with important and beautiful works. Spending less than a few days is a mistake, but if you did, I'd say: Art lovers MUST do the Uffizi, wanderers should take the hike up to San Miniato, and everyone should have some chocolate at Hemingways. I did love Florence, so it's probably more detailed in my previous blogs, but here are my very select highlights
- Where to stay: The first time I stayed in the Oltrarno area (across the Arno river), specifically San Frediano neighborhood. It's a quieter area with families and students living there I guess. One or two nights we stayed at this place, and it was nice enough that I'd stay there again. We actually booked a B&B through this site, but after the first night or two, the owner moved us to the other place due to construction in her home. It sounds weirder than it was. I liked the neighborhood too, quiet, not touristy, but a five-ten minute walk to the Uffizi across one of the most famous bridges in the world. This does not suck. The second time I was in Florence, we rented an apartment that was across an alley from, and looking into the windows of the Bargello. It was fantastic, but it was up like four million stairs (old building) If you're staying in Florence or any town in Italy for more than a few days, it is WAY better to get an apartment.
- The most beautiful church in all of Italy?: San Miniato al Monte! The hike from Florence to this place is uphill, with beautiful gardens and views of the old city walls, on the way to a piazza overlooking the city, and then up more to this wonderful old church on the hill. From the outside, you see the same style facade, but when you get inside, it's so totally different from the rest. A dark, brooding place full of intricate marble patterns, carved gargoyles, and a mash of spaces and levels. Down in the crypt, the light from upstairs breaks through the gloom just a little. The second time I came here, a monk was practicing his organ playing, filling the gloom with grandeur. I wanted to stay forever. (note: there's another church on the hill there very nearby-- don't bother, I think it is italy's answer to the big-box church)
- Hemingway chocolate: this is about the only restaurant review I have: this place is awesome! And, if you go late, it is jam packed with students and locals. So go as soon as they open maybe. Nom, Nom, Nom.
- Oh! But gelato: Vivoli. Yes.
- Il Duomo: I mean, duh, of course. But actually prettier on the outside. The second time I was in Florence, I climbed the dome (accidentally got in the wrong line) and the view was fantastic. Across the street, there's a nice museum to visit to see architectural bits and history up close, with my favorite highlight being Michelangelo's heartbreaking Pieta, which it is said he intended for his own tomb. The baptistry next to the duomo is pretty interesting on the inside. (sparkle power!)
- Santa Croce is the place where all the important people wen to be buried, and is stuffed with cool monuments. I have been twice, and really like this place. My favorites here: Michelangelo's tomb and some memorial next to the exit.
- Uffizi: I missed it the first time and was heartbroken, but spent most of a day there the second time I visited Florence. Get advanced tickets, or get there early and wait in line. A fantastic collection of course, not to be missed.
Overall: I LOVE Venice. A lot of people say to skip it, that it is just a tourist trap. Those people are soooo wrong, and I'm assuming they either: stayed near St. Mark's, stayed like one day, or just are terribly uninterested people. Getting lost in Venice is like wandering around the inside of a beautiful painting. And you WILL get lost, immediately. It's ok, you're getting closer to where you meant to be, and you're seeing something beautiful. Venice is a wonderful historic art project that you wander, and that people still live in. There is a university here, and once I was here at graduation time and witnessed a Venetian graduation hazing tradition of sorts all over Dorsoduro. There are locals, contrary to to what many tourists may think. You are doing yourself a great disservice if you plan to "see Venice" in a day. If that is your plan, skip it entirely.
- Where to stay: Do not stay near the train station or anywhere near St Mark's. It is miserable and expensive, and you will feel like you are living in a tourist trap. Both times, I stayed (again! across the river! OK, canal in this case) in or near Dorsoduro, a neighborhood known more for housing university students. The first time I stayed at Antico Capon, which had a hotel right on Campo Santa Margherita, which made it very noisy, and the rooms were a bit tiny and hostel-y, until they realized we were staying for four nights and were supposed to be in the apartment, which was a few blocks away and very nice and quiet. The second time I stayed here, which was nice enough and quiet. Venice is not a cheap place to stay, and I thought these were a good deal. Don't expect much service, just a nice clean place to stay.
- The FIRST thing to do when you get to Venice is to get a detailed map. You need it to get anywhere. I have a really good sense of direction, but I needed it immediately. Getting lost in Venice is really fun, but being able to pull out the map and recover is necessary. Everything is about a ten minute walk away, but you need the map.
- Venice is fun to walk around in, but many of the best mansions were designed to be viewed from the water. Take a vaporetto (water bus) around the Grand Canal loop to see these. It's way cheaper than a gondola or water taxi, and if you do the loop you will see parts of Venice not really touristed, to remind you that people really do live here.
- To Do: Just wander! Everywhere you look there is something interesting. Notice the sinking city, the towers leaning every which way as they settle back into the swamp. The canals and bridges, the beautiful entrances to homes on the water, the gondola workshops in Dorsoduro, and the low-slung tenements in the Ghetto. Some of the best sights in Venice are just things you stumble upon. Including, if you can, the sunset from the edge of Dorsoduro looking over Giudecca.
- Il Palazzo Ducale: The seat of power for a very powerful empire, the Doge's Palace is a fantastic museum to get you the rundown on Venice's history and arts, housed in a beautiful building, where you can also explore the bridge of Sighs and the prisons (including old prisoner graffiti!)
- St. Mark's Basilica: You've been to Disneyland, what's up with It's a Small World? Here it is! During high tide, you'll notice you walk over planks in the front due to flooding. There may be a line to get in, but it's worth seeing, including paying the Euro or two to get upstairs. This area and this church in particular, are notable also for being a sort of trophy room of cool junk and plunder from other civilizations, including the Tetrarchs, and the Greek Horses, which you'll want to see if you are an art history buff.
- Il Ghetto and Museo Ebraico: I strongly recommend taking the tour at this museum if you can. They will show you two of the synagogues in this place and talk about the history. I think this is one of the jewels of Venice that often goes overlooked. If you miss the tour hours, at least take in the history of the Ghetto, and visit the relief in the piazza commemorating the Jews who were finally taken from Venice by the Nazis.
- Want more art? Gallerie dell'Accademia is here for you.
Overall: OMG, yes, it's cliche! Touristy! Well, yes, kindof, but there is a good reason-- it's beautiful and chock full of neat history.
You can theoretically see this by bus, if you maybe just want to see one town or something, but it's nice to rent a car and drive around getting lost and seeing some of the less touristed spots.
Where to stay: I recommend choosing the towns and areas you want to visit, and finding a farmstay or something like that, which is sort of central. If you really like one of the hilltowns, suck it up and pay to stay in one for two nights. They change drastically at night, and it's a totally different experience. If you're in one of these little historic towns, you'll have to leave your car outside, so either make a bus trip from Florence (or whatever town you last took the train to), or leave your car outside for a few nights.
My favorite? Hands down: Volterra. OMG. I hear it is in featured in one of these Twilight movies, so it may be ruined forever. But if not... This is a beautiful, gloomy old town on top of some famous cliffs (that I tried but never got to see, so maybe they aren't real). Volterra is a very old town, first settled by the Etruscans and lived on ever since. So there's beauty steeped in history everywhere. There are active alabaster workshops leaving dust on tiny cobbled streets leading to old Roman and Etruscan walls. We stayed two nights and explored and it was incredible. The tourists leave at the end of the day, and the locals come up to watch sunsets from the bus turnaround. As the sun goes down, the townspeople come out. There are Etruscan and Roman ruins, and a Medici fortress currently in use as a maximum security prison. It's fantastic.
San Gimignano is a well known and loved hilltown, famous for its towers. The best gelato in Italy comes from here. San Gimignano is as cute as everyone thinks it is, and there are the tour buses to vouch for it.
Siena is a big city to San Gimignano's little medieval town. It's a great place but packed to the gills with tourists. The Duomo is really quite beautiful, with incredible marble floors that are only fully exposed once or twice a year (we got lucky on my second trip and happened to be there for it) Otherwise, many of them are covered, but you'll get the idea. If you're into that kind of thing, and I am, you can go see Saint Catherine's head and finger in the Basilica of San Domenico.
Sorano: This is a tiny (really, tiny) crumbing thing of a town which we visited for it's Etruscan history. The town is not much but a crumbling pile of clustered homes and shops, overrun by cats. It wouldn't be worth mentioning, except I'd never seen anything like this, buildings crammed on top of each other on a crag, crumbling into dust in front of my eyes. Across the valley you can see Etruscan tombs where they were cut out of the rock. And if you have a day and need a hike, how's a trip to the underworld sound? The Etruscans had roads cut out of the rock that led to the underworld, and they dug tombs out there. We hiked, then ran, as far as we could. It was beautiful, it was overwhelming to see the axe marks from people who lived 2500 years ago! We finally found some tombs and climbed inside. Then I found some porcupine quills. It was magical. If you're nearby, stop here for an hour or less. If you're interested in a hike through Etruscan history, stop here for a few hours. Otherwise, skip it.
Bagno Vignoni: notable for it's hot springs, this is worth a quick stop if you are in the neighborhood, but don't go out of your way. It's a unique little town in that its piazza is actually a bath. If you get here at the right time of day, you'll catch the water evaporating off of the bath in a beautiful way. A short walk outside talks about the history of the springs, with the option for a longer hike if you wish.
There is so much more, but it's too much. Those are just the highlights.