We had a wonderful 2 1/2 weeks in Italy this fall. It's a trip we'd been planning for ages, and it was postponed from last spring after my father became terminally ill, so it was bittersweet in some ways.
While I do plan to share some of my 1,600 photos of familiar tourist sites online, I want to talk a little about the things the tourist guides and Websites manage to overlook.
Printed Maps Matter. Most of the traveling we've done over the last 20 years has been in the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland and Australia. Online maps work well in those areas. However, Italy chews up and spits out online maps, especially when you're walking. We wasted a lot of time (and probably more money than we think on international roaming fees) because we thought the online map software would work fine in places like Venice and Rome. Nope. And what you don't realize until you're there is that street names change frequently. What we thought of as "Via Croce" in Naples had a different name about every 50 yards. Complicating things even more was that street signs on buildings are very erratic - non-existent, really faded and hard to read and sometimes the streets were inconsistently named. So we did a lot of walking while lost in Italy, particularly in Venice and Bologna. It was fun at times, but also very, very frustrating.
What we should have done, once we used online sources and books to figure out where we wanted to stay, was to buy some of the excellent detailed local maps, study them, make notes about places we planned to go and rely more on traditional printed maps than online maps. We found the Rick Steves pocket guides to the cities helpful, but studying detailed maps in advance would have saved us time, money and frustration. Before you go, pre-print all mass transit maps for your city. We never used mass transit in Florence as it was so walkable, but having more familiarity with mass transit for Rome and Naples would have been invaluable.
The hard lesson we especially learned in Bologna - never enter the name of a site in an online map site in Italy, only enter a street address. We were looking for a particular museum, entered the name into AppleMaps, and wound up walking miles away from where we'd intended.
Signs Matter. Signage in Italy is wildly, wildly erratic. Sometimes, signs were very helpful. You'll find many signs in Rome that will help you get to the Pantheon and the Collesium. But signs that should exist don't always. I'd thought there was a train between Rome's Termini train station and the FCO Airport. At Termini, we couldn't find any info on the train to the FCO airport. There isn't a central info booth in many places, like train stations. There were signs about the bus to the airport, but the signs often led to dead ends. It took over a half hour to find the bus to the airport. The next day, at the airport, we saw signs there about the train between the airport and Termini! Sigh.
Another place where signage was dreadful was for the Circumvesuviana line train from Naples to Pompeii. The Metro in Naples is clean, well-signed and inexpensive. However, the Circumvesuviana is a privately-run train system to the Naples suburbs and while it's inexpensive, it's a mess. We missed the one sign that partially explained what we needed to know. There are at least five lines on this train system and the right one for old Pompeii isn't obvious. Some local people helped us out - but we wound up on the "slightly wrong" train, the one the went to "new Pompeii" instead of "old Pompeii." And it was pouring rain when we reached new Pompeii. So we paid 15E to take a cab 3 km from the new station to the old station. Pompeii is still very much worth it - a highlight despite the pouring rain - but getting there was quite frustrating.
City Cards. Many cities have cards you can buy that might give you free admission to some places, discounts and some public transportation. The cost of these cards vary wildly from city to city. We bought a card for Venice and maybe lost a couple of Euros on the deal. But the Venice card included bus transit from the airport to the train station, though not the more direct Alilaguna from the airport to just outside of San Marco. The Florence card was particularly expensive so we didn't buy it. The Roma card wasn't too expensive, but we just didn't buy it. We wanted to buy the Naples card as it was a great deal, but when we went up to the National Archeological Museum, they were no longer selling it (even though official Naples Website said they were!).
"Skip the Line". In general, "skip the line" for attractions is not necessary, at least in late October/early November. We got into everything we wanted to except for climbing Il Duomo in Florence where the reservations fill up, especially on the weekends (it turns out I could not have done this anyway, and Jim probably wouldn't have). We did get a reservation for the Vatican Museum on a weekday which was necessary. The extra fee for dealing directly with the museum/attraction is 4E; you do not need to go through any tour company to skip the line (and you'll save lots of money if you make your own reservation). The longest lines we had anywhere were for St. Peters (in the rain) and for Pitti Palace in Florence - both about 45 minutes long. As we tended to go to places early, we had either no wait at all or about 10 minutes. Our main failure was to not go to the Vatican Museum in the morning - the crowds there in the afternoon are massive. The crowds in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence are large but not as large as for the Vatican Museum. There were almost no crowds at all in Ostia (ruins of an ancient trading down outside of Rome) or in the National Archeological Museum in Naples. After you do something that's hugely crowded, you'll do yourself a favor to then go to something quieter or just go back to your room for a siesta.
Rain Gear. The first 11 days of the trip were rain-free, but the last few days...no. Was reminded my jacket, while water-resistant, was not waterproof. Jim gloated as he did have a waterproof jacket. We should have brought our small umbrella (wound up buying a 5E umbrella while standing in line for St. Peter's Basilica) and baseball caps with the long front brims to keep the rain off our faces.
Restaurants. Most restaurants are pretty good and will treat you well. The only time we felt cheated was at a little restaurant just off of San Marco in Venice. We were jet-lagged and starved our first day in Venice, and the food was pretty good there. But this place said it didn't sell wine by the glass, so Jim bought a half-bottle of wine. And that bottle cost about 25E, an insane price we later learned. The vast majority of restaurants sell glasses of house wine for about 3-7E. Unlike at most American restaurants, house wine at Italian restaurants is usually pretty good.
We failed to make any restaurant reservations for dinner in advance, but that only bit us once - in Bologna. Always wanted to try a place with a Michelin star and there was one in Bologna with an intriguing menu wasn't terribly expensive. But when we checked with the restaurant, their only open spot was at 9:30 which was too late. But we had three fabulous meals in Venice, Florence and Rome in excellent restaurants by making reservations the same day for 7pm. We highly recommend these three restaurants for special meals in Italy:
- Venice: Ristorante Antica Sacrestia - this is not very far from San Marco. Brick walls, very warm and inviting, lovely traditional food.
- Florence: Ristorante Cibreo, Via dei Macci - hands down the best meal of the trip. Fixed price for each course (you don't need to have every course), extensive and interesting wine list. They don't have a menu, but they have about six choices for each course which they explain to you. They also gave you little dishes of kind of an experimental antipasto which was excellent. Cibreo also has a few less-expensive, related variants in the same area, but for the full experience, go to Ristorante Cibreo.
- Rome: Taverna Trilussa, in the Trastavere neighborhood near Ponte Sisto (their Website is flakey so I'm linking to the TripAdvisor page instead) A fascinating restaurant with amazing cheese (and meat) plates, excellent pasta dishes.
Other recommendations: We had the full Tuscan steak experience in Florence at 4 Leoni, not far from Ponte Vecchio across the river from "downtown Florence." This does not need to be an expensive dinner and they have plenty of pasta dishes if you're not a carnivore. You can get great pizza and Italian craft been in Rome at Roma Beer Company, Campo Fiori. We had some of the best pizza in Naples at Pizzeria Trianon which is in an older part of the city not far from the train station. Jim had a seven cheese pizza which was fantastic. Had an interesting dinner our first night in Naples at Trattoria del Golfo, a fish/Genoese-style restaurant near Umberto Galleria. The Genoese pasta is a little like eating long-simmered onion soup with a little beef over pasta - YUM!
When you want to try out a restaurant in a city you don't know (and you don't want to use cabs to get there), scope out the restaurant by day to make sure you know how to get there. We generally stuck to restaurants that were within about a mile of our hotel or apartment.