Because it’s been a few months, and I haven’t left Italy yet. I feel I must share my knowledge of Italian cities to help anyone with their eventual tour of Italy, and share, in my opinion, the best and worst of what I’ve seen. So prepare yourself.
Monteriggioni– an interesting old fort on the top of a hill in Tuscany, will only take you about an hour to explore the town. Though there does seem to be a good number of walking paths around if that’s your thing, and the view of the country side is fantastic. Also, there are so many cats. Ultimately, Monteriggioni can be skipped, but go if you have the time and want to get a glimpse of life outside of cities. Although, it can’t be reached by train.
San Gimignano– I would go here before Monteriggioni, but it is still not a must see, and it too can’t be reached by train. San Gimignano is an actual town that people live in, giving you options on both gelato and coffee shops. It is also on top of a hill in Tuscany, so if you go to one of the tops of the guard towers you get a pretty great view. All of the roads are very steep, and you’ll be doing a decent bit of walking uphill, so be prepared.
Siena- It’s essentially a bigger San Gimignano with even more tourists and some even steeper uphill climbs. The main parts of Siena that stick out in my memory are the Cathedral and the main piazza. If you do end up going, the Cathedral is a must see. It is one of the best I’ve seen and every part of it is decorated, from mosaics in the floor, to the sculptural trim of different people’s faces. Also if you are interested at all in frescos or illuminated manuscripts pay the extra money to go into the library; totally worth it.
Parma– Parma is a city that people actually live in. If that is a side of Italy, you really want to see I recommend Parma. It’s easy to navigate, has cute colored buildings, connected by train, and has AMAZING cheese. We didn’t get the chance to go to a factory to see how they make the Parmesan cheese, but it sure does it taste good. Pick yourself up some of the Parmesan with the dotted rind so you know it’s the real deal. Visit the strange stage, art, and archaeological museum Parma has in all one building. This is one of the coolest and strangest museums I’ve visited in Italy.
Venice- I LOVED Venice, we went on the last weekend of Carnival and it was so crowded it took 10 minutes to cross one of the main bridges and I hate crowds. We didn’t get to go any of the churches or anything, but my roommates say to visit the Castle, and if you’re with a large group of people who can split the cost, a gondola ride is definitely worth it, even just to get the chance to talk to the gondolier about their lives. But Venice has a history so rich and interesting and all the Italian charm It is a bit of a struggle to get to Venice. You can take a train, but still need to get a boat out to the city itself, so give yourself a bit of extra time. Also, be careful because once you’re in the city itself, it becomes difficult to navigate, and you want to have either Google maps, or a map where you are marking your every move otherwise you might get lost.
Rome– Rome is the biggest city, and the oldest, so while it does okay with public transportation it’s still a struggle to get somewhere in the city center. None of the subways or trains go that far in, so plan to do a lot of walking (My mom and I did about 17-19 miles in one day, and really only went to the Vatican and Galleria Borghese.) or plan your trip around staying in specific areas of the city on specific days. If you figure out the trains/metro, realize food and everything is going to be expensive, bring good shoes, and buy your tickets for the Vatican before you go so you don’t have to wait hours in the line, you’ll enjoy Rome. Also, if you like art at all, both the Vatican and the Galleria Borghese have fantastic collections that will make you wonder, at least once in every room, how on earth anyone could even make something that amazing. Take a couple days for Rome, it’s too big to do everything in a day without running yourself to the ground.
Verona- Beautiful but a bit touristy. It’s a place you could walk around in five hours, so unless you’re interested in going into some of the churches or coliseum, it’s not going to take you a full day.
Portofino– AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL. If you are coming to Italy at all, at least take one-day trip to some city on the coast of Cinque Terre. It’s super touristy and there’s only over-priced places to eat along the coast, but if you’re willing to walk the twenty minutes into the parts of town tourists don’t go to, you can a good Italian meal. But the church and gardens attached are wonderful and a nice place to explore, and I spend a good five hours just reading on the coast of the bluest ocean I have ever seen. Just buy a train ticket there and wait to buy the return ticket so you can leave only after you really you feel done with Portofino.
Luca– Small Tuscan town is very cute and has great public parks on top of the old city walls. Luca is very close to Florence, so if you want a bit of a change of pace it makes a good day trip by train.
Naples– I’m going to be honest I didn’t like Naples that much, I walked for hours and only saw 2 places to sit by the ocean and they were just entirely concrete structures. The city itself is a maze of streets that make no sense and lack the charm I’ve begun to associate with Italy. It’s an okay city, it just feels very American, and on the other side of the coast where the towns are a lot smaller is where the true beauty of the Amalfi coast comes from. The one thing I did like, was the inner streets that were very steep, but still lined with stores. That’s where I felt like Naples truly came shined. It’s also the place where someone tried to pick pocket me. I was sitting at the train station with my back to the door of the coffee shop, and even as I put my purse over the back of the chair I thought that perhaps it wasn’t the best idea. When a large group of people came into the store and I turned to look at them and saw someone holding my bag I stood up, yelled, and promptly tripped. Although my clumsiness was probably in my favor, as it made everyone aware on what was happening and made the man drop my bag. Thus I got to file my first police report in a different country, embarrass myself in front of the cute Italian boy who had to translate for me, and cried in a train station. It also taught me that there is a lot of plain clothed police officers in the train station, so don’t do illegal stuff. It is probably safe to say I won’t be going back to Naples any time soon, and if you do, just keep an eye on your stuff.
Pisa– The way that everyone is obsessed with the leaning tower of Pisa you would assume Pisa would be this gigantic city with a lot to see and do; however, it is well known to us studying in Florence, that you visit Pisa on the way to somewhere else. It takes twenty minutes to walk from the train station to the leaning tower, and unless you’re going into the church you could go to the tower and walk through the busy parts of Pisa in two hours.
Milan– It is a big city, but with great public transportation and with Google maps you’ll do fine. The city is like Rome-light, as they both have the same vibes of tourism and of a real life working city. I did enjoy my time in Milan. The Cathedral is great and if you’re physically able to walk up to the roof there is a great view. The museum in the castle has an interesting collection, and it actually feels like a place where people from Milan hang out. Milan also has one of the coolest and prettiest train stations. You’ll only need a day or two, but it’s a great city to see and I do recommend it.
Ferrara– This is the town to visit to understand Italian life. Where Parma feels like an Italian city without the tourism, Ferrara is an Italian town. Everything is slow and leisurely, and families are walking around the markets, getting coffee, or going through the great parks and everyone seems to know everyone else. Take the morning to appreciate the city center and in the afternoon, walk north and enjoy all the great parks and architecture Ferrara has to offer. This is a great day trip, but again it’s probably better to buy your ticket there and wait to buy your return ticket once you are done.
Florence– You’d better just resign yourself to never finding another city to live up to the greatness that is Florence. I’ve never had a place feel like home so quickly, even with the tour groups that are slowly driving me crazy, Florence is fantastic. Every street is filled with history, and despite being crowded the gridded system (left over from its time as a Roman military basecamp) makes it light and not claustrophobic, and fairly easy to navigate once you figure out the main roads. If you take the time to step a block over from the chain restaurants, Florence is filled with local places to eat. You won’t be even able to find a Starbucks in the entire city, Florence is where espresso was created, and shows.
So for a few recommendations:
News Café– sometimes if you get the owner as your barista (and you’ll know, he’s the talkative flirty one with the fancy mustache) he’ll draw the Duomo on top of your cappuccino for you. And in general, all of their coffee is great, if a bit sweet. Additionally, they have a great lunch menu and a lot of space to sit, which is rare in Florence.
Also Shake Café is great, more expensive, but they also do smoothies, juices, and vegan lunch options.
Go to Da’Vinattieri and get the number 16 with sundried tomatoes instead of regular tomatoes, it is the best sandwich I have ever had. I go there so much the cashier laughs at me when I walk in. Trust me when I say it is the thing I will miss the most about Italy. Four euro for a great, super filling sandwich that is going to make it impossible for me to ever go to Subway or Jimmy Johns ever again. My mother says the number 17 is a great cheese free option with a balsamic dressing, ham, and artichoke hearts.
Gusta is the student pizza of choice, cheap, good, filling, and the people who work the front counter are always attractive, you can’t go wrong. It is across the river, so for Florence a bit of a walk, and if too far of a walk you can get a similar, but more expensive, pizza in the upstairs portion of the Central Market.
On the bottom of the Central market there’s a booth where you can buy fresh pasta dishes for under seven euro, I have no idea what it’s called, but there’s probably a small line and its pale yellow. It’s just good, quick, and cheap Italian food. But for the true pasta experience book a reservation at Osteria Santo Spirito that’s a few blocks over from Gusta and get the Truffle Gnocchi. It will change your life, even just the spaghetti almost made my mom cry.
Eduardo’s is right by the Duomo, decently priced, and super good and natural.
Antica Gelateria Florentina is a little farther away but right by San Lorenzo church and is a bit cheaper then Eduardo’s with the same great quality and more flavor options.
Amorino Gelateria also has shops in New York, Paris, and other areas of Italy, but they have great vegan sorbets, coffee, crepes, and waffles.
Grom is always busy and has stores across Italy, but I think it’s a bit over priced and not that great. The best thing I’ve gotten from them has been the pear sorbet, which I haven’t seen anywhere else.
And that’s it. There are a couple more places that I’m going to see in the upcoming weekends, including more of Cinque Terre and Sardinia, but this has been my experience so far in Italy. I would honestly recommend spending some time here if you can afford it. All the cities, the sights, and the people, will change your perspective on American life and culture.