Building an Italy Itinerary: Tips for First-Timers

Posted by Fodor's Editors on September 16, 2009 at 7:07:27 AM EDT | Post a Comment
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Are you in the planning stages of your first trip to Italy? It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the plethora of choices you face just creating the basic outline of your itinerary. Will you fly in and out of the same city, or opt for an open-jaw ticket? Is it sacrilege to skip the big 3 cities—Rome, Venice, Florence? Should you rent a car or rely on trains to get around?

These are all commonly asked questions in our Forums. Many travelers even post their work-in-progress itineraries to be critiqued by other travelers. Below is one such itinerary for a first-time trip, designed for maximum impact. It will definitely keep you moving! Think of this as a rough draft to be revised according to your own interests and time constraints. We've also included tips and related forum links to help guide you.

Day 1: Venice

Arrive in Venice's Marco Polo Airport (there are some direct flights from the United States), take the boat across the lagoon to Venice, check into your hotel, then get out and get lost in the back canals for a couple of hours before dinner. If you enjoy fish, you should indulge yourself at a traditional Venetian restaurant. There's no better place for sweet, delicate Adriatic seafood.

Logistics: At the airport, follow signs for water transport and look for Alilaguna, which operates the relaxing one-hour boat trip into Venice. The boats stop at the Lido and eventually leave you near Piazza San Marco; from there you can get to your hotel on foot or by vaporetto. The water taxis are much more expensive and aren't really worth the cost, although they'll take you directly to your hotel.

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Day 2: Venice

Begin by skipping the coffee at your hotel and have a real Italian coffee at a real Italian coffee shop. Spend the day at Venice's top few sights, including the Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and Galleria dell'Accademia. Stop for lunch, perhaps sampling Venice's traditional specialty, sarde in saor (grilled sardines in a mouthwatering sweet-and-sour preparation that includes onions and raisins), and be sure to check out the ancient fish market, Rialto Bridge, and sunset at the Zattere before dinner. Later, stop at one of the pubs around the Campo San Luca or Campo Santa Margarita, where you can toast to freedom from automobiles.

Logistics: Venice is best seen by wandering. The day's activities can be done on foot, with the occasional vaporetto ride.

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"You can visit nearby Murano and Burano on the same day. Don't grab a water taxi unless you want to pay loads of money. You want to take a "water bus"--called a vaporetto, which will cost much less. Allow at least half a day to visit the two." -- ellenm (more)

"What I love to do most in Venice is to just wander. Early morning is great when boats are unloading. I wouldn't miss St Marks. The mosaics are absolutely amazing. I could look at them for hours. The floor and the ceiling is spectacular. Look what they did before there was TV." -- jetsetj (more)

"Walk under the clock tower. Follow the signs saying "Per Rialto", and after you cross the Rialto Bridge, you'll be at the Rialto fish and produce market...Try and get there really early--we were there at about 5:00 AM, when the boats are unloading fish, artichokes, potatoes, oysters (very expensive, we fancy), fruit, cherries (20 Euro a kilo), eels, everything. It's like being in an aquarium. It was dark, and we saw a different side of Venice, a reality that the tour group tourist does not encounter." -- Peter_S_Aus (more)

Day 3: Ferrara/Bologna

Get an early start and head out of Venice on a Bologna-bound train. The ride to Ferrara—your first stop in Emilia-Romagna—is about an hour and a half. Visit the Castello Estense and Duomo before lunch; a panino and a beer at one of Ferrara's prim and proper cafés should fit the bill. Wander Ferrara's cobblestone streets before hopping on the train to Bologna (a ride of less than an hour).

In Bologna, check into your hotel and take a walk around Piazza Maggiore before dinner. At night, you can check out some of northern Italy's best nightlife.

Logistics: In Ferrara, the train station lies a bit outside the city center, so you'll want to take a taxi into town (check your luggage at the station). Going out, there's a taxi stand near the back of the castle, toward Corso Ercole I d'Este. In Bologna the walk into town from the station is more manageable, particularly if you're staying along Via dell'Indipendenza.

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"I would DEFINITELY say if you have time to visit only one city, as enchanting as Ferrara is, Ravenna has mosaics that are unparalleled. They are magnificent and gorgeous, and date from the earliest periods of Christian art. The mosaics in the churches and other buildings in Ravenna are in some places so close that you could touch them (but don't do that)..." -- Lexma90 (more)

"Between Parma and Ferrara, absolutely I suggest Ferrara, because it is a back jump in a particular season of Renaissance and its atmosphere is unique. A warning: very hot in summer and, again and again, without spending there at least the late evening, part of the charm will be missing." -- vincenzod (more)

"Bologna will be COLD and maybe foggy, rainy when you visit in December -- I tend to doubt snow that early. The porticoes help. I would stick to trains for daytripping, as the fogs are notoriously thick, and you really don't need a car. The possibilities for sightseeing around Bologna are endless...But there are so many towns with marvels just a train ride away." -- zeppole (more)

Day 4: Bologna/Florence

After breakfast, spend the morning checking out some of Bologna's churches and piazzas, including a climb up the leaning Torre degli Asinelli for a red rooftop-studded panorama. After lunch, head back to the train station, and take the short ride to Florence. You'll arrive in Florence in time for an afternoon siesta and an evening passeggiata.

Logistics: Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station is within easy access to some hotels, farther from others. Florence's traffic is legendary, but taxis at the station are plentiful; make sure you get into a licensed, clearly marked car that's outside in line.

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Day 5: Florence

This is your day to see the sights of Florence. Start with the Uffizi Gallery (reserve your tickets in advance), where you'll see Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus. Next, walk to the Piazza del Duomo, the site of Brunelleschi's spectacular dome, which you can climb for an equally spectacular view. By the time you get down, you'll be more than ready for a simple lunch at a laid-back café. Depending on your preferences, either devote the afternoon to art (Michelangelo's David at the Galleria dell'Accademia, the magnificent Medici Chapels, and perhaps the church of Santa Croce) or hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo, overlooking the city. Either way, finish the evening in style with a traditional bistecca alla fiorentina (grilled T-bone steak with olive oil).

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"Take a 20 minute train or bus trip to Pistoia, a small, walled Tuscan town just west of Firenze that has piles of first-rate and unusual renaissance and art deco architecture and art, and if you see five tourists there, please come back and post your discovery. It has a lively town market for the town folk, charming and historic bars and several well-regarded informal restaurants, including Trattoria dell'Abbondanza, at Via dell'Abbondanza 10." -- zeppole (more)

"Since you like food and cooking, do go to the Mercato Centrale in Firenze. Enjoy the ground floor, which is a lot of fun, but go upstairs where the produce is sold. Tourists seldom come up the stairs and it is a fun experience. There is a vendor at the top of the main staircase that sells dried fruits and nuts. Among the offerings are small squares of dried coconut. They are irresistible and very Italian snacks." -- tuscanlifeedit (more)

Day 6: Lucca/Pisa

After breakfast, board a train for Lucca. It's an easy 1 1/2 hour trip on the way to Pisa to see this walled medieval city. Don't miss the Romanesque Duomo, or a walk in the park that lines the city's ramparts. Have lunch at a local trattoria before continuing on to Pisa, where you'll spend an afternoon seeing—what else—the Leaning Tower, along with the equally impressive Duomo and Battistero. Walk down to the banks of the Arno River, contemplate the majestic views at sunset, and have dinner at one of the many inexpensive local restaurants in the real city center—a bit away from the most touristy spots.

Logistics: Lucca's train station lies just outside the walled city, so hardier travelers may want to leave the station on foot; otherwise, take a taxi. Check your luggage at the station. Pisa's train station isn't far from the city center, although it's on the other side of town from the Campo dei Miracoli (site of the Leaning Tower).

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"Don't miss the Baptistry in Pisa, it's beside the Cathedral and Tower. Long time since I was there and it is relatively unvisited but worth it." -- helen_belsize (more)

"The reason I suggest Lucca before lunch is because many things close for the afternoon in Lucca. I would do it on your Monday in Florence as many of the Florence museums are closed on Monday. If it's hot, it might be better to take the bus which will have AC. The local trains to Lucca probably won't." -- kybourbon (more)

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Day 7: Orvieto/Rome

Three hours south of Pisa is Orvieto, one of the prettiest and most characteristic towns of the Umbria region, conveniently situated right on the Florence-Rome train line. Check out the memorable cathedral before a light lunch accompanied by one of Orvieto's famous white wines.

Get back on a train bound for Rome, and in a little more than an hour you'll arrive in the Eternal City in time to make your way to your hotel and relax for a bit before you head out for the evening. When you do, check out Piazza Navona, Campo de' Fiori, and the Trevi Fountain—it's best in the evening—and take a stand-up aperitivo (Campari and soda is the classic) at an unpretentious local bar before dinner. It's finally pizza time; you can't go wrong at any of Rome's popular local pizzerias.

Logistics: To get from Pisa to Orvieto, you'll first catch a train to Florence and then get on a Rome-bound train from here. Be careful at Rome's Termini train station, which is a breeding ground for scam artists. Keep your possessions close at hand, and only get into a licensed taxi at the taxi stand.

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"Orvieto was so different, we were glad we took the time. It was quiet--dramatically so after noisy Rome, quaint, and my niece really enjoyed the historical tour of the caves/tunnels. So, I would suggest 5 days in Rome, then an overnight in Orvieto. Depending on your routing/plans, you could go there midday to midday" -- Kay2 (more)

"We used Angel Tours to visit Ostia Antica. It adds so much to have an enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide." -- YvonneT (more)

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Day 8: Rome

Rome took millennia to build, but unfortunately on this whirlwind trip you'll only have a day and a half to see it. In the morning, head to the Vatican Museums to see Michelangelo's glorious Adam at the Sistine Chapel. See St. Peter's Basilica and Square before heading back into Rome proper for lunch around the Pantheon, followed by a coffee from one of Rome's famous coffee shops.

Next, visit ancient Rome—first see the magnificent Pantheon, and then head across to the Colosseum, stopping along the way along Via dei Fori Imperiali to check out the Roman Forum from above. From the Colosseum, take a taxi to Piazza di Spagna, a good place to see the sunset and shop at stylish boutiques. Take another taxi to Piazza Trilussa at the entrance of Trastevere, a beautiful old working-class neighborhood where you'll have a relaxing dinner.

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"I would buy the Roma Pass which will not only get you into the Colosseum/Forum/Palantine free (counts as one entrance on the pass), but will also let you bypass ticket lines everywhere." -- kybourbon (more)

"You can do the Colosseum-Forum-Campidoglio-Capitoline Museum easily in about 6 or so hours, depending on how long you want to stay in the Capitoline. Remember though, most museums (other than the Vatican) are closed on Mondays. Start at the Capitoline/Campidoglio and end at the Colosseum (fewer crowds in the afternoon). From the bus stop next to the Colosseum, take the 87 down to S. Giovanni in Laterano, or walk up to S. Pietro in Vincoli or walk down to San Clemente (depending on the time)." -- daveesl (more)

Day 9: Rome/Departure

Head by taxi to Termini station and catch the train ride to the Fiumicino airport. Savor your last cup of the world's richest coffee at one of the coffee bars in the airport before boarding. Logistics: The train from Termini station to the airport is fast, inexpensive, and easy—for most people, it's preferable to an exorbitantly priced taxi ride that, in bad traffic, can take twice as long.

Tips, Alternatives, & Recommendations

"I preferred staying in Trastevere for the last night--easier to get out of town going to airport, wonderful strolling and very many lovely dining options; also much less expensive. But if money is no object you can't go wrong staying in the historic center, providing you schedule your departure in time. Also check to make sure which terminal you depart from for ease once you get there--for me, US bound, it was Terminal 5." -- annw (more)

Keep in Mind

  • This itinerary can also be completed by car on the modern autostrade, although you'll run into dicey traffic in Florence and Rome. For obvious reasons, you're best off waiting to pick up your car on Day 3, when you leave Venice.
  • Among trains, aim for the reservations-only Eurostar Italia--it's more comfortable and faster.
  • >
  • The sights along this route are highly touristed; you'll have a better time if you make the trip outside the busy months of June, July, and August.
  • Photo credits: Venice, Flickr member eustaquio; Orvieto, Flickr member Gaspa

    Have tips, suggestions, or recommendations of your own? Add them below!

Posted in Travel Tips Tagged: Italy, Florence

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