Rome, Florence, Venice, and Highlights in Between
This itinerary is designed for maximum impact. Think of it as rough draft for you to revise according to your own interests and time constraints.
Day 1: Venice
Arrive in Venice's Marco Polo Airport (there are direct flights from the United States), hop on the bus into the main bus station in Venice, then check into your hotel, 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, avoid the Alilaguna boat into Venice on arrival. It's expensive, slow, and singularly unromantic. The bus is quick and cheap—save the romance for later. When you get to the main station, transfer to the most delightful main-street "bus" in the world: the vaporetto ferry. Enjoy your first ride up the Grand Canal, and make sure you're paying attention to the fermata (or stop) you need to get off at. As for water taxis from the airport to the city, they're very expensive, although they'll take you directly to your hotel.
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 sights, including the Basilica di San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, and Galleria dell'Accademia; don't forget Piazza San Marco, which is probably the most intense concentration of major artistic and cultural monuments in the world. The intense anticipation as you near the giant square through a maze of tiny shop-lined alleys and streets climaxes in the stunning vista of the Piazza (return at 7 am the next morning to see it "senza popolo" (without people) and it'll look like a Canaletto painting come alive. 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 fish market at the foot of the 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 if you feel the urge to be on the water.
Day 3: Ferrara/Bologna
Get an early start and leave 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 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 walk around Piazza Maggiore before dinner. Later 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 may want to take a taxi into town (though the distance is easily walkable, too). Here and elsewhere in Italy, you may leave your bags at the station for a small fee. 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.
Day 4: Bologna/Florence
After breakfast, check 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 time for an afternoon siesta and an evening passeggiata.
Logistics: Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station is within easy access to some hotels, and 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; the taxi stand is just outside the station.
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 trattoria. Depending on your preferences, either devote the afternoon to art 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).
Day 6: Lucca/Pisa
After breakfast, board a train for Lucca. It's an easy 1½-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. 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). Since Lucca and Pisa are only 15 minutes apart by train, you may want to return from Pisa to spend the night in more-charming Lucca.
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 a 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, and only get into a licensed taxi.
Day 8: Rome
Rome took millennia to build, but 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 Creation of 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, walk or take a taxi to Piazza di Spagna, a good place to see the sunset and shop at stylish boutiques. Taxi to Piazza Trilussa at the entrance of Trastevere, a beautiful old working-class neighborhood where you'll have a relaxing dinner.
Day 9: Rome/Departure
Head by taxi to Termini station and catch the train ride to the Fiumicino airport.
Logistics: The train from Termini station to the airport is fast, not inexpensive, and easy—for most people, it's preferable to an exorbitantly priced taxi ride that, in bad traffic, can take twice as long and cost much, much more.
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