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Italy with two teens 14 & 18 Planning stage

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Background information:
My husband and I are in the very early planning stages for a trip next year to Italy with two teens (age 14 & 18). They chose the destination and the trip will be in October during their fall break. The kids are being tasked to find things they would like to do depending on which cities we end up visiting. Our Plans are to schedule our flight on a Saturday (arrive Sunday) and fly out on a Thursday (roughly 11 days of activities). We will be flying from Chicago and most likely fly in and out of Rome (unless someone has a less expensive suggestion). The three cities we would like to visit are Rome, Florence and Venice. However we are open to suggestions to other cities/countries (my oldest boy has three years of high school German he would like to try out) However none of us what to spend more time in transit than actually exploring so two to three cities would be the max we would want to visit on this trip.

So here are a list of things we would love to hear suggestions about:

Suggestion on a city and and a specific area of the city we can use as a home base that is central to that city. We would like to know what is great about the area and what it has to offer. Any suggestions on specific Hotels or Apartment rentals? We don't require fancy, we do require English speaking and a WiFi connection. Our style of traveling is that we do not want to rent cars and we prefer to walk to all of the great places the city has to offer from where ever we end up staying. We don't mind using the local transit (buses or trains). We would like it close to casual dinning/street vendor dinning, markets, gardens. We don't mind noise, we actually would love to be able to look out a window and see street life at any given time during the day or night. We like to see a street change from a market in the morning with coffee shops and pastries to street vendors at night with street artist performing.

Suggest great markets and gardens/parks in Italy. Our last three trips have been to Paris and our favorite part always ends up being the market for picnic food and then exploring the city and gardens on foot. As a reference our favorite parks in Paris are: Jardin du Luxembourg, Jardin des Plantes, Parc des Buttes Chaumont and Parc Floral de Paris.

Suggestions on places to visit and things to see. We love exploring architecture but unless it is extremely special we don't enjoy museums stored with artifacts. What we do enjoy are old buildings, statues and churches that are beautiful and relaxing to gaze at and are open to the public for exploring with minimal entry fees. Parks or churches that have public musical events. In Paris we loved being able to stop into a church and take a break listening to classical piano music and we also loved being out walking and happening upon the techno parade.

Suggestions on who to purchase cell phones and service from on our stay..we would like to purchase three in expensive cell phones (voice & text only) upon landing and preferably not at the airport as it is more expensive. What shops have the best prices and who is a cheap but reliable carrier?

Suggestions on great websites, books or phone apps that would help us and the kids when planning our trip or while we are in Italy that would be great. We are going to learn some basic Italian so that everyone can be polite if not fluent :) So language, apps or books would be great. Also iphone apps that don't need data would be great, ones that are GPS specific that offer maps of areas or transit/tourist information.

Day trips that could include exploring by bicycle. Where to rent a bicycle and great biking routes.

Areas that have free wifi hot spots.

Special customs that we should be aware of so that we are prepared and do not appear rude or offend anyone. Typical store hours, dinning times, tipping rules. Areas that we might stay away from if our non-fluency in Italian will be an issue.

Ok... so that about sums it up, sorry about writing a book, but I wanted to let everyone know what we enjoy so that we get some great suggestions. We really appreciate any information you can provide us. :)

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    To eliminate 1 day of travel, you should fly into Rome and out of Venice (or vice-versa). Depending on the airline, you may be able to get a nonstop flight from VCE to the US (Delta does a seasonal VCE-JFK and VCE-ATL; USAir does a seasonal VCE-PHL). Flying into one city and out of the other will prevent you from having to spend a day doubling back from Venice to Rome (or vice-versa), giving you 1 more usable day of vacation.

    With 10.5 days, I would do 4 days Rome, 4 days Florence, and only 2.5 days Venice. I've been to Venice twice, once when I was 19 (vacation) and once when I was 20 (part of a summer study abroad), and was underwhelmed both times. Traveling from Rome to Florence and Florence to Venice will take about a 1/2 day each once you factor in check-in/check-out from the hotel, travel to/from the train station, and the train ride itself.

    Outside of going to the region of Alto Adige a few hours northwest of Venice, your son will probably not have an opportunity to speak German unless y'all run into some German-speaking tourists.

    Advice:
    1. Don't order cappuccino past about 10:00 AM.
    2. The latte that you find in Starbuck's is essentially cappuccino. Order it as a cappuccino. If you order a latte in Italy, you'll get a glass of cold milk. A "caffe latte" is a hybrid of the two -- milk with a dash or two of espresso. (If you've ever been to Portugal, it's known as a galão there.)
    3. Whenever you go into a store, say Buon Giorno/Buona Sera (Good Morning, and Good Afternoon/Evening in Italian) to the shopkeeper. First of all, it's polite, but more importantly, the shopkeeper will be more likely to been flexible and friendly to you.
    4. Learn some basic pleasantries and survival words in Italian, but more importantly, ask someone if they speak English before you talk to them in English:
    * Hello
    * Please
    * Thank you
    * Goodbye
    * Yes
    * No
    * Good morning, good afternoon/evening, good night
    * Numbers 1-100
    * Where is the bathroom
    * Do you speak English? I/We don't speak Italian

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    Hi kelighj,

    we were fortunate enough to be able to take three separate week long trips to each of Venice, Florence and Rome with our kids who were then about 15 and 18, so pretty close in age to your two. we all loved them all, albeit for slightly different reason, but of the three, Florence was the least popular, as it provided the least variety.

    so, particularly if you are going to start there, I would allow an extra night in Venice. it's a great place for acclimatising to Italy as there is no road traffic, and of course it is gorgeous. [click on my screen name if you want to see my trip report]. Then 3 nights in Florence - just to get a taste - and the rest of your time in Rome. again I have a trip report of a subsequent visit to Rome with just our DS when he was a little older, but we did very similar things to what we'd done the time before.

    have a great trip!

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    klieghi

    You might want to break some of your questions into separate threads. They are quite a bit to digest and separate.

    On neighborhoods: Venice is smallish and walkable, and has no real parks. There aren't any free concerts in parks because mostly there aren't parks (there are exceptions, but they're small and way off the beaten path) but there is lots of music, some of it inexpensive. Churches galore but not too many that are free. One good way to see churches in Venice is to buy a Chorus Pass. It covers several churches, and hunting them out provides a great tour of the city. I believe that the Rolling Venice card, for young people, either includes or discounts the Chorus Pass.

    One good way to hear free music in Venice is to visit Piazza San Marco at night, and listen to the bands/orchestras that play for the upscale cafe patrons. Just don't sit at a table unless you are prepared to spend a good deal of money.

    There are some gardens along the Grand Canal, near the TI office. Might not be what one generally thinks of as gardens, though. Just a little green space. There are the Giardini Biennale, where the Biennale is held, but it won't be on while you are there (we are fans of contemporary art and are going in September) and again, not really what one thinks of as gardens.

    I happen to think that Venice is marvelous, with more hidden corners and wondrous sites and unbelievable art and architecture than most cities in the world. But it is dense and intense at its center and doesn't offer much in the way of green space.

    Venetians seem to visit the campi (sp?) rather than gardens or parks. Hanging out in the campo seems to be a popular activity.

    Florence: also small enough to walk most places if you stay in the center. More free churches, but still there is admission to some of the good ones. Parks: Boboli Gardens are huge. I don't know anything about free concerts and have never seen one in Florence, although there has often been music in Piazza Repubblica, again at a cafe, and again, expensive to sit there but free to stand back and listen.

    Walking in the hills above the city, either in Fiesole or to the church of San Miniato, provides a huge bang in terms of a park-like experience, but these aren't real parks.

    San Marco, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce all have lovely cloisters or small gardens, but they are small and not free.

    It might be a very good thing to stop at the TI offices in all three cities for information on free musical events.

    Rome has more parks. The Pincio, where I've heard a free concert, leads in to Villa Borghese, which is huge, and very beautiful, and several other major parks. You need a good map to see all the ancient sites in free or pay areas, and the parks and gardens. There is a large botanical garden in Trastevere, but there is admission. No music that I'm aware of.

    Giancolo is free and there are small parks and piazzi all over Rome. They aren't always that pretty, because Rome has a much more big city and gritty feel in most areas. However, I've spent a lot of time sitting in squares and little parks all over Rome and while it isn't quite the same experience as Paris, it is fun and relaxing.

    I caution you to not expect anything like what you are familiar with in Paris in terms of parks and gardens in the three Italian cities you mention. Rome will come closest, but as I sometimes say about this city where I am a fairly regular return visitor, Rome kills me. It's exciting, the history is awe inspiring, but it's not exactly lovely. Paris is lovely.

    I've been to all three cities with DD as a teen. I think she liked Florence and Venice best, but she met cute Italian police men in Venice. Ended up married to an Italian-American cop, and it may have all started back then.

    I wrote to much because I'm avoiding starting dinner. Sorry.

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    We’ve been to Rome several times, Florence a couple of times, and have spent several months in Venice. I’m not very knowledgeable about Rome and Florence, but we know Venice a bit.
    I’ve written several trip reports for Venice, which might give you some clues.
    The most recent one is here:
    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/venice-another-trip-report-deja-vu-all-over-again.cfm and if you click on my user name you will find earlier reports. They are rather long …
    We rented this apartment in Venice and it worked well for us. Spacious, good kitchen and washing machine, a convenient pizza place downstairs. The pizza place is the Ae Oche, Calle del Tentor. WWW.vrbo.com/149494
    If you are interested in architecture, google “Carlo Scarpa” – a modern (1960’s) Venetian architect, and his work rather reflects the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. I love it, and have walked all over Venice to find his work, including the Olivetti showroom in San Marco.
    Give yourselves as much time as you can in Venice (I’m biased) – your teenagers will enjoy the sheer perversity of the place.

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    Thank you everyone, this is all great information and I will be reading the travel reports mentioned. I also appreciate the suggestions of other cities, so if you think there is one city I should knock off my list so that I can fit in another please let me know and why you think that city is special.

    I failed to mention earlier that I was fortunate enough to visit Vicenza, Italy when I was younger and stayed with relatives. I was only 19 (1988) at the time and over 25 years things and taste have a way of changing. On that trip I took a day trip to Venice and I remember loving getting lost in allies. In addition to seeing St Mark's Basilica, Piazza San Marco and the Gondolas but I don't remember seeing any vibrant or colorful parks. Which I wouldn't really expect in this city given its location. :) But since I never made it to Rome or Florence I had wondered about the parks and garden aspect of a trip to these other two cities. So even if they are not the same as the one in Paris, if you have favorites please let me know. I think there is rarely a park that is not worth exploring.

    Thanks Tuscanlifeedit, you had a lot of specific places listed and I really appreciate the information. I have jotted them all down for further research. I will probably ask more questions as I get further into the planning stages and break those out into separate threads. My opening was a bit long winded. Sorry about that.

    Thanks Peter_S_Aus for the information about Carlos Scarpa, I am a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright so it will be interesting to see how similar work is handled in such an old city as Venice. I also appreciate the link to the apartment in Venice if you have any in Rome or Florence you can recommend that would be great.

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