Strategies for a First-time Visit to Venice, Rome, & Florence

An itinerary that includes stays in Rome, Florence, and Venice will keep you moving, but you can manage to see many of the cities’ most famous sights without feeling overwhelmed if you come prepared with a plan.

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Rome

Roma, non basta una vita (“Rome, a lifetime is not enough”): this famous saying should be stamped on the passport of every first-time visitor to the Eternal City. If a lifetime isn’t enough—the 3-5 days you may have to spend here will surely not be either. But take heart—there is much you can see, even with limited time.

What to Experience First

Resist the temptation to nap on arrival if you’re arriving on an international flight in the afternoon. Instead head outside and spend some time getting to know the surrounding neighborhood of your hotel. In the evening, check out Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fountain. For your first dinner, stop into one of Rome’s exceptional pizzerias.

For your following full days in Rome, strike a balance between visits to major sights and leisurely neighborhood strolls. In the first category, the Vatican and the remains of ancient Rome loom the largest. Both require at least half a day; a good strategy is to devote your first full morning to one and your second to the other.

Using the Rest of Your Time Wisely

Leave the afternoons for exploring the neighborhoods that comprise “Baroque Rome” and the shopping district around the Spanish Steps and Via Condotti. If you have several days at your disposal, continue with the same approach. Among the sights, Galleria Borghese and the multilayered church of San Clemente are particularly worthwhile, and the neighborhoods of Trastevere and the Ghetto make for great roaming.

Reservations and Passes

Since there’s a lot of ground to cover in Rome, it’s wise to plan your busy sightseeing schedule with possible savings in mind, and purchasing the Roma Pass (www.romapass.it) allows you to do just that. The 3-day pass costs €20 and is good for unlimited use of buses, trams and the metro. It includes free admission to two of over 40 participating museums or archaeological sites, including the Colosseum (and bumps you to the head of the long line there, to boot!), the Ara Pacis museum, the Musei Capitolini, and Galleria Borghese, plus discounted tickets to many other museums. The Roma Pass can be purchased at tourist information booths across the city, at Termini Station, or at Terminal C of the International Arrivals section of Fiumicino Airport.

Extend Your Stay If…

…you’re fascinated by Rome’s mix of the ancient and the modern, and you love city life. You won’t encounter such an intensely urban environment anywhere else on your trip.

Save Your Euros By…

…checking into Panda or another budget-minded hotel—see our picks.

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Florence

With some planning, you can see Florence’s most famous sights in a couple of days. The historic center of Florence is flat and compact—you could walk from one end to the other in half an hour. Though the majority of the sights are north of the Arno River, the area to the south, known as the Oltrarno, has its charms as well.

What to Experience First

Start off at the city’s most awe inspiring work of architecture, the Duomo, climbing to the top of the dome if you have the stamina. On the same piazza, check out Ghiberti’s bronze doors at the Battistero. (They’re actually high-quality copies; the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has the originals.) Set aside the afternoon for the Galleria degli Uffizi.

Using the Rest of Your Time Wisely

On Day Two, visit Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Linger in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s central square, where a copy of David stands in the spot the original occupied for centuries, then head east a couple of blocks to Santa Croce, the city’s most artistically rich church. Double back and walk across Florence’s landmark bridge, the Ponte Vecchio.

Do all that, and you’ll have seen some great art, but you’ve just scratched the surface. If you have more time, put the Bargello, the Museo di San Marco, and the Cappelle Medicee at the top of your list. When you’re ready for an art break, stroll through the Boboli Gardens or explore Florence’s lively shopping scene, from the food stalls of the Mercato Centrale to the chic boutiques of the Via Tornabuoni.

Reservations and Passes

At most times of day you’ll see a line of people snaking around the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia. They’re waiting to buy tickets, and you don’t want to be one of them. Make reservations in advance on the museums’ website.

Extend Your Stay If…

…you want to make a side trip to the towns of Lucca and Pisa, west of Florence.

Save Your Euros By…

…wandering Palazzo Davanzati, a 14th-century palace in one of Florence’s swankiest medieval neighborhoods. Admission is free.

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Venice

Built entirely on water by men who defied the sea, Venice is unlike any other town. No matter how many times you’ve seen it in movies or on TV, the real thing is more dreamlike than you could ever imagine.

What to Experience First

A great introduction to Venice is a ride on vaporetto (water bus) Line 1 from the train station all the way down the Grand Canal. If you’ve just arrived and have luggage in tow, you’ll need to weigh the merits of taking this trip right away versus getting settled at your hotel first. (Crucial factors: your mood, the bulk of your bags, and your hotel’s location.)

Seeing Piazza San Marco and the sights bordering it can fill a day, but if you’re going to be around awhile, consider holding off on your visit here—the crowds can be overwhelming, especially when you’re fresh off the boat. Instead, spend your first morning at Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, then wander through the Dorsoduro sestiere, choosing between visits to Ca’ Rezzonico, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and Santa Maria della Salute—all A-list attractions. End the afternoon with a gelato-fueled stroll along the Zattere boardwalk.

Using the Rest of Your Time Wisely

Tackle San Marco on Day 2. If you have more time, make these sights your priorities: the Rialto fish and produce markets; Ca’ d’Oro and the Jewish Ghetto in Cannaregio; Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Castello; and, across the water from Piazza San Marco, San Giorgio Maggiore. (In Venice, there’s a spectacular church for every day of the week, and then some.) A day on the outer islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello is good for a change of pace.

Reservations and Passes

Sixteen of Venice’s most significant churches are part of an umbrella group known as the Chorus Foundation, which coordinates their administration, including hours and admission fees. Churches in the group are open to visitors all day except Sunday morning, and usually someone there can provide information and a free leaflet in English. Single church entry costs €3, or you can visit them all with a €9 Chorus pass. Note that the Baslica di San Marco is not part of the Chorus group.

Extend Your Stay If…

…you want to discover Venice beyond the crowds. Exploring the neighborhoods east of Piazza San Marco and the quieter outer islands will take you to another world.

Save Your Euros By…

…opting to ride a traghetto instead of a water taxi or a private gondola. Traghettos are two-man gondola ferries that cross the Grand Canal at numerous strategic points for €.50.

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“Rome, Florence, Venice. How many nights in each city?”

Photo credits: (1) Photo by Miss Karen; (2) Photo by Boss Tweed; (3) Photo by Bugtiger.

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