Italy has always been on our family’s bucket list. My daughters, 11 and 15, have been learning Italian since kindergarten and this year my oldest one got inducted into the Italian Honor Society. Now seemed a good time to finally take the plunge and see how much of Italy we could cover in just two weeks.
- My husband’s major tool for planning our trip was www.reidsitaly.com. The only guidebook we took on our trip was Frommer’s Easy Guide to Rome, Florence & Venice 2015.
- Currently, a Euro (€) is $1.20. Bring lots of cash. You will be surprised by the number of places that do not accept credit cards. Hide your valuables in a money bag or belt. Pickpockets are said to be common although we were lucky.
- Most Italians speak at least some English and of course, our daughters were a big help.
- Packing for this trip was a bit problematic. Many churches in Italy will not let you enter unless your shoulders and knees are covered. Since Italy has gorgeous churches around every corner, we wore capris or long pants every day. Do not visit churches on Sundays; you will likely be disturbing a service.
- Italy is hot, with little shade. Bring lots of suntan lotion and sunglasses. Bring or buy a water bottle. Rome especially has lots of fountains where you can refill your bottle for free. Ice was what we most missed about the United States.
- Be sure to take advantage of museum and restaurant restrooms. Even the museums have far fewer restrooms than an American one would have. Public restrooms and transportation station restrooms commonly charge 1.50 €. Restrooms are small and I only saw one changing station on the entire trip.
- Italy, at least where we went, is not designed for strollers. Florence and Capri have cobblestones; Venice has tons of bridges with no ramps; streets are narrow. Elevators that exist are for the disabled only and most attractions have lots of steps.
- For breakfast, we always got a croissant or pastry (about 2 €). Most snack bars have good quality paninis and squares of pizza for 4 €, which is your best bet for lunch. The areas where we visited had few parks or benches so we ate most lunches on the go. Dinner is a bit more difficult. Most restaurants with any claim to good food open for dinner at 7 or 8 p.m. Only the touristy places are open at 5 or 6 p.m. We had heard that happy hours were a great way to have an all you can eat buffet and a glass of wine (or nonalcoholic drink for kids) all for just 10 € but we had no luck finding places with good spreads and I am sure that the words “wine bar” now fill our kids with dread. Restaurants in Italy charge a cover charge of around 3 € per group just for the luxury of sitting down and you have to pay for water. On the positive side, you can get a great glass of wine anywhere for a mere 4 € and tips are not expected. We took many gelato breaks. 2.50 € gave you a small size with two flavors in most places. Walk an extra block or two to take your break away from major tourist attractions.
- English signage in the museums varies greatly. We bought English guidebooks at every museum we visited for between 10 and 15 € instead of paying way more for a guided tour. We enjoyed being able to explore at our own pace.
- In our experience, the trains ran on time and were comfortable. We took trains to Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, back to Naples, Florence, and Venice. Book your trains as soon as you know your schedule instead of waiting. The trains were packed. We were unable to sit together on the ride from Naples to Florence. Public buses are crowded and run irregularly.
- In Rome, Florence, and Venice, we stayed in two bedroom, one bath apartments for 120 € a night. This rate was far lower than a hotel would have been. The apartments were roomier, had full kitchens, and a washing machine. They all advertised that they had dryers but they only had drying racks and/or clotheslines. We booked these apartments through VRBO.
We arrived in Rome at 9 a.m. after a red-eye flight and followed Reid’s Italy recommendations that you spend your first day around the Piazza Navonna. This famous square has three fountains – Four Rivers, Moor, and Neptune – and bustles with street artists and activity. We saw the spectacular Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, which is under construction. Nearby churches included San Luigi of Francesi, which houses Caravaggio’s “Calling of St. Matthew” and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which has an elephant statue designed by Bernini outside, and a chapel by Filippino Lippi iand a statue by Michelangelo inside. In general, we found the churches in Italy just spectacular. The kids got several gelato breaks along the charming Via del Coronari including Gelateria del Teatro. This neighborhood had the best gelato of our entire trip.
Our second day in Rome we visited the Borghese Gallery, which was our favorite Italian museum. Only a limited number of people are allowed to visit a day, so avoid disappointment by reserving tickets in advance at https://www.tosc.it/. Purchase the guide or take a tour of this museum, as English signage is minimal. This museum features great paintings and sculptures in gorgeous period rooms with elaborately frescoed ceilings. We were awed by Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne at the moment that she transforms into a tree. Other masterpieces include Titian’s “Sacred and Profane Love,” works by Raphael and Michelangelo, and Canova’s sculpture of Napoleon’s sister Paolina. The Borghese has extensive gardens and even a zoo (not recommended) that we did not have time to explore. The museum and gardens on their own would make a full and perfect day. Instead, we went into sightseeing overload, see Tivoli.
Our daughter chose to spend her 15th birthday touring the Colosseum and did not regret it. We took the dungeons and upper tiers tour which allows you to see the staging areas of the gladiator games and the balcony. Admission to the Palatine Hill and the Forum is included in the tour price but it was so hot that we spent all afternoon in the Capitoline Museums instead. Highlights included the 500 B.C. statue of Romulus and Remus suckling the wolf, “Lo Spinario,” the sculpture of a boy taking a splinter out of his foot, and Caravaggio’s “Medusa.” My older daughter especially liked the room with the history of engraved gemstones. An interactive program in the next room allows you to magnify images of the stones. There is also an interesting video about gemstone carving. Everything in these two attached museums is beautifully displayed.
For the birthday dinner, we took the kids to Eataly, a four-floor eatery dedicated to Italian cuisine. Eataly is not near anything, but was an attraction in itself. We shared a wonderful cheese plate and the girls were in raptures over the gelato popsicles that were dipped in your choice of chocolate and then covered in your choice of toppings. Apparently, there is an Eataly in New York and one may open in D.C. If it does, my younger daughter might die of joy.
We spent the next day in Vatican City. Buy your tickets in advance for the Vatican; the line to get in winds around the entire building. There is a prescribed path throughout the museum and it took us five hours to explore. Showstoppers include the “Laocoon,” “School of Athens” and other paintings by Raphael, and “Descent from the Cross” by Caravaggio. The highlight was, of course, Michelangelo’s ceiling for the Sistine Chapel. I had forgotten the chapel also includes works on the walls by Perugino, Boticelli, and Ghirlandaio. Unfortunately, the museum guards rush you through it. Next, we visited St. Peter’s which is right next door. There is no way of avoiding a long line but it moves quickly. You will be rewarded by Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”
The day of the Borghese Gallery, we were way too ambitious and took a bus to Hadrian’s Villa and Villa D’Este, both in Tivoli. Just these two villas could fill an entire day. Hadrian’s Villa was the summer palace of Roman Emperor Hadrian. My girls especially enjoyed seeing the live goldfish and turtles in the pools. This vast collection of ruins was fun to explore. A pavilion houses a model of what the Villa originally looked like. Many artifacts that we saw later on our trip travels came from this Villa.
Next we visited Villa D’Este, known for its spectacular fountains and gardens. There is a fountain show accompanied by organ music every hour and half hour at the fountain next to the church, which we happened to miss.
These sites are well worth seeing and make a great day of activity. However, I will not even endeavor to explain how we got there by public transportation and how long we waited for a bus. If you want to see these sites, look into a package tour.
After Rome, we took a train to Pompeii. Get off at Pompeii/Scavi – Villa dei Misteri not Pompeii. Pompeii is large and confusing so plot out the places that you especially want to visit on the map or you will get too tired. Definitely buy the guide to this site as there is no signage. Pompeii reminded me of an ancient version of Williamsburg. You get a wonderful sense of everyday life in Roman times.
We visited the baths, the House of the Faun, and the House of the Poet. A guard let the kids into the Brothel but you have to look up to see the sexy paintings and they literally went above our kids’ heads. The Villa of the Mysteries is a 15 minute walk away from everything else but well worth it for its well preserved paintings. Bring plenty of water; it gets hot. Pompeii was a real highlight of our trip. We spent around six hours and could easily have spent more time. If you do not have the stamina for Pompeii, you might want to visit Herculaneum, which we heard is a third of the size and even better preserved. Next time we go to Italy, Herculaneum will be tops on our list since we liked Pompeii so much.
For this portion of our trip, we meant to stay in downtown Sorrento but wound up at a hotel 15 minutes away. The bus service was very erratic so we wound up wasting a lot of time. The buses on the Amalfi Coast are like a theme park ride. Two-way traffic moves on narrow roads atop cliffs with spectacular views of the coastline. The driving is horrific and all of us enjoyed it tremendously.
Amalfi is known for its huge lemons and the town is brimming with lemon-themed souvenirs. In the central square is Andrea Pansa Bakery, the cutest bakery/candy shop of our entire trip. We loved their chocolate covered dried citrus candies. We hiked up to Museo Della Carta and took the paper making tour, where my younger daughter was chosen as the volunteer.
Next, we took another hair-raising but fun bus trip to Ravello, home of the famous music festival. There, we visited two Villas, Rufolo and Cimbrone. If you only have time for one, visit Cimbrone, which has far more impressive grounds. The garden designed by Vita Sackville-West, ironically, is an example of English not Italian landscape design. Gore Vidal called the “Infinity Terrace”, “the most beautiful view in the world. ” Italian cities are not known for their parks and green spaces so Villa Cimbrone was a welcome respite.
The next day, we took the ferry from Sorrento to Capri. On Capri, we took the 30 minute roundtrip chair lift to Mount Solaro was a nice change of pace and had beautiful views although our younger daughter found it a little tame for her taste. We went up to Anacapri to see Villa San Michele. This villa, built on the a site with Roman ruins, had beautiful gardens and lots of charm.
Note: We elected not to take a rowboat into the Blue Grotto, which would have cost the family around 120 € for only 4 minutes in the Grotto.
Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples owns the Farnese collection, the best antiquities from Renaissance Rome. The most famous of these sculptures are the Hellenistic “Farnese Bull” and “Farnese Hercules.” Unfortunately, the Farnese Cup, the largest existing cameo in the world, was off view while we were there. Most of the paintings and mosaics from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Hadrian’s Villa were removed from those sites to be preserved in this museum. For example, all the mosaics from the House of the Faun are now in Naples. We got our girls to stay put, while we enjoyed the Secret Chamber room of ancient, erotic art. For lunch, we bought the girls their eagerly anticipated Neopolitan pizza at Antica Pizzeria Port Alba.
If you want to visit lots of sites in Florence, buy the Firenze pass, which covers dozens of attractions and is good for three days of sightseeing. Do not buy the Uffizi pass. Two weeks before we got there, Friends of the Uffizi changed from covering fifteen museums to just covering the Uffizi without giving us any advance notice. We found Florence a very walkable city; nothing is more than 20 minutes away. As in Rome, we were only able to skim the surface of the city’s many attractions.
We began our first day in Florence by crossing the Ponte Vecchio and browsing the shops. Then, we visited the Uffizi, the oldest art museum in the world, which has a fantastic collection of Renaissance art in a beautiful setting. The highlight for me was seeing Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and “Spring” together in one room. Other old masters represented are Giotto, Michelangelo, Raphael, Velasquez, Titian, Tintoretto, and Durer.
In contrast, Galleria dell’Accademia (not included in the Museum Pass), is only really notable for Michelangelo’s statue of David but it alone is indeed worth a visit. Without our Firenze pass, the wait would have been two hours. Another major site in Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, is stunningly opulent with frescoes by Vasari that assert the power of the Medici family.
The Duomo is a beautiful building made of green and white marble. Although my husband and kids could have easily gone straight up the nearby Giotto’s Campanile (Bell Tower) for a great view of the city; they instead waited 45 minutes to see the same view from the top of the Duomo and had to give up in frustration. Other notable churches are Santa Maria del Carmine, which houses the Brancacci Chapel by Masacchio and Masolino, called the “early Renaissance Sistine Chapel” and Santa Maria Novella, which has Massaccio’s “Trinita,” the first painting to truly show perspective. My favorite religious structure was San Marco Monastery, which boasts the world’s largest collection of Fra Angelico’s works including his famous “Annunciation.” We arrived at San Marco right in time for a wonderful free guided tour in English.
For lunch one day we went to Mercato Central, a food market. The main floor has butcher shops, cheese shops, and dried fruit shops, while the second floor has more prepared foods. Right outside are lots of vendors mainly of leather products.
We spent our fourth and final day of Florence at the Pitti Palace, home of the Medici, which houses a number of museums in one complex. Our favorite museum was the Treasury (Argenti), which had rooms devoted to amber, ivory, crystal, and cameos. My younger daughter declared this her favorite site of the entire trip and I bought her the catalog of just this museum.
Our second favorite was the Costume Museum, which has changing exhibits and a computer program, where you can explore the permanent collection. The Art Gallery is renowned for its collection of paintings including works by Caravaggio and Raphael. We dashed through the Modern Art Museum. We skipped the Porcelain Museum, which was on the other side of the garden and the Natural History Museum (La Specola), which has anatomical models and taxidermy, which would have freaked out the girls. The Boboli Gardens were beautiful but huge. It was too hot to fully enjoy them.
Florence is a wonderful shopping city. Specialties include marbled paper, handmade shoes, especially sandals, leather purses and gloves, and perfume. Il Papiro, which has branches throughout Italy, gives marbling demonstrations. Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, which has a way smaller branch in Chevy Chase, is a beautiful perfume shop, dating back to the 17th century.
We had dinner twice at all Antico Ristoro di Cambi, which specializes in bistecca (beef steak) Florentine. We all agreed that it was one of the very best meals we have ever eaten.
My daughters fell in love with Venice on first sight. It looks like a picture postcard come to life. Our apartment was ideally located two minutes from St. Mark’s Square.
We bought the Museum Pass, which lets you into all of the city-run museums plus the Glass Museum on Murano and the Lace Museum in Burano. Our first day, we visited the Gallery dell’ Accademia, which has a great collection of works by Venetian painters such as Titian and Tintoretto. The highlight for us was Veronese’s wall-size painting “Feast in the House of Levi.”
The next day, we enjoyed the secret itineraries tour of the Doge’s Palace, which needs to be booked in advance and is for ages 6 and up. An animated tour guide took us through the prison cells and torture chamber and regaled us with the adventures of Casanova (nonsexual–don’t worry). The kids found this tour and the tour of the Colosseum the highlights of the entire trip. Then, we explored the incredible display of wealth in the public rooms of the palace.
The line to St. Mark’s Basilica is long but moves quickly. The golden Byzantine mosaics are incredible. We paid about 4 € to see the Pala D’Oro, an altarpiece with 2,000 gems and 83 panels. Had we had more time, we would have gone up the elevator of the Campanile. Also, on St. Mark’s Square was the Clock Bell Tower with a zodiac clock.
We splurged and treated ourselves to a gondola ride 80 € for a 30 minute ride. It reminded me of a Disney ride and was another highlight of the trip. Leave lots of time to wander, enjoy the scenery and shops, and get horribly lost. Unlike Rome and even Florence, Venice is less a collection of sites and more of an experience.
Venice may be more of a shopping mecca than Florence. Our shopaholic younger daughter was enthralled. Both girls got very expensive masks as late birthday presents. Masks can range in price from 3 € to hundreds. Murano glass shops are everywhere.
Murano and Burano
We spent our last day in Murano and Burano, two islands a short ride by vaporetto (boat) from Venice. My husband’s planning worked perfectly because we bought lots of fragile souvenirs from both places. Murano has been a center for glass making for centuries. The Museo de Vetro (Glass) traces this history. The first room has a number of videos explaining various techniques. Exhibits range from ancient Roman glass to contemporary artwork. The rest of Murano is just tons of glass shops. My younger daughter loved it. We were disappointed though because we expected to see free glass making demonstrations. Instead, the factories charged 5 € per person. If you took a package tour, you would get a free demonstration but a harder sell.
Burano, which was famous as a center for lace making, is even more picturesque and charming than Murano with vibrantly colored buildings. Almost every shop has a woman inside demonstrating lace making. The Museo de Merletto (Lace Making), housed in the former Lace School, traces the history of lace making. Upstairs are drawers and drawers of antique lace. In Burano, my older daughter bought a lace fan and my younger one bought a lace parasol. The shops on both islands were very tempting.
Our trip to Italy was action packed with no time for relaxation. We tried to hit most of the highlights of Italy, which was impossible in so short a time. Some of our favorite sites and experiences were the Colosseum, Doge’s Palace, Borghese Gallery, Pompeii, the Pitti Palace Treasury Museum, the gondola ride, and of course, the gelaterias. We saw tons of iconic sites and viewed masterpieces of art history.
In hindsight, my older daughter saw the trip as a “lifetime dream accomplished.” When I asked her whether the trip was too rushed she said, “No, there were just too many things we had to see and fun things we had to do.” Not everyone gets to see the Colosseum on their birthday. Unfortunately or fortunately, my younger daughter is going to start French next year. Is a trip to Paris in our near future?Photos by Larry Meyer.