Tips/stuff not to miss in Italy for a 2 week family trip?
April 9, 2012 2:03 PM   Subscribe

Two weeks in Italy, from Rome north to Tuscany and back. Where to go? What to do? Where to stay?

I'm taking a family trip to Italy (first time for all) this June and all we know is that we're landing in Rome and have two weeks to explore the country. We have a rough idea of going northward and in talking to a couple friends/family, they suggested 4-5 days in Rome, then go up to Florence by train, then train to Bologna, and then back again before the two weeks is up.

I've heard the whole Tuscan region is lovely and nice and has good food but is overrun with Americans wanting some sort of Eat Pray Love experience. I was told Bologna isn't super hip or popular and might still be a classic place to visit.

We've found an apartment to rent in Rome for four nights, and we're looking into the rest, but my main question is are we missing anything on this trip we shouldn't? Major cities worth hitting? Stuff worth doing?

Any warnings for stuff to do or not do it?
posted by mathowie to Travel & Transportation around Rome, Italy (14 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I recommend Orvieto, a hill town roughly halfway between Rome and Florence. They have a gorgeous old cathedral and lots of little winding streets to wander around. There's a shop there called Il Mago di Oz which is incredible - the owner collects all kinds of memorabilia and makes mechanical models and the shop is just nuts. We stayed there for two nights in the Hotel Duomo, which is right by the cathedral (aka the Duomo) and aside from the chimes from the cathedral is an exceptionally welcoming place to stay. It's run by a family and the proprietors are very friendly. Nearby is a can't-miss town called Civita di Bagnoregio, which you can only get to by walking over a land bridge. The old town there is amazing and well worth the extra effort to get to.

Florence is great as well, but is more overrun with tourists than other cities, especially in summer. I could go on and on (we spent 3 weeks in Italy during our honeymoon and drove all over the place), but this comment would be a novella if I did, so MeMail me if you want a huge list of specific recommendations for hotels/restaurants/things to do.
posted by bedhead at 2:13 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are we missing anything on this trip we shouldn't? Major cities worth hitting?

You could conceivably check out Venice while you're there. The train from Florence isn't too painful and a long day in Venice would be plenty. I think Venice is well worth the trip and it won't be there forever.

I was more impressed by Milan than Bologna, it's more of a Northern European city despite not being much farther.

Cinque Terra is also unbelievable if you want a coastal, mountains in the sea, little pretty villages experiences. Again, very different from Rome and Florence.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:16 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, my greatest tip for Florence: stay in the Oltrarno, which is the less popular side of the Arno River. Most tourists don't make it over there, those that do are just looking for the Pitti Palace during the day. Hotels are cheaper, but you also find more locals in the restaurants and there are a couple of fun local bars. It's still close enough to walk to all the museums and sites but it is substantially less corny.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:31 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another recommendation, but it may be out of your way: San Marino, which is a landlocked country inside Italy's borders. It's on the east coast near Rimini, but only about an hour and a half drive from Bologna. We stayed in Florence, then went to Bologna, then Rimini (which is a seaside resort) and did a day trip to San Marino from there. If you go up to the castles and forts at the top of the capital city, you can see all the way to the ocean and it's quite beautiful.
posted by bedhead at 2:40 PM on April 9, 2012

4-5 days for Rome is usually what I recommend also. You can do Florence in about 2 and yes, I would second Venice as suggested above1, maybe 2-3 days.

Tuscany is indeed beautiful and has great food, but I prefer the Umbria and Abruzzo regions more; I've spent a couple of jolly day trips gorging myself at awesome vineyards overlooking Umbria's gorgeous scenery. Abruzzo has huge mountainous national parks to go along with more great vineyards and tiny picturesque villages. You don't mention if you'll be renting a car or training/busing it...?

You also don't really mention exact dates nor what your travel preferences are (i.e. seeing major sights, love visiting museums, love/hate the beach etc.) so I'll just throw out another of my favorite sort-of-off-the-beaten-path things to do: sagre. Usually food based, you can (for example) get a heaping plastic plate of the local pasta dish for a paltry €5. Be forewarned though that, unless it's a local wine festival, the matching plastic cups of wine are usually pretty vinegary. Here's a Google translate link for a list of the sagre in June.

Other MeFitalian recommendations might be more prolific tomorrow as it's late here and today was a holiday. And I bet we could probably scare up one of the very very infrequent, very tiny Rome MeFi meetups should Our Great Leader be so inclined...

1Full disclaimer: I hate Florence, because it's tiny and packed to the gills with students and tourists in a way that makes me claustrophobic. Love Venice though.

posted by romakimmy at 2:58 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The wait to get in to the Vatican museum is loooong, but the Sistine Chapel was totally worth it. Have mobile phones, so 1 parent can hold the place in line. 3 - 4 days in Rome is just a start. In Florence, the hotel offered to get us the tickets to get in to the Uffizi and Accademia, which saved waiting in line. The David did not disappoint.

I loved Cinque Terre; it's a UNESCO World Heritage site, fairly popular w/ tourists, but still lovely. It makes a nice break from museums and churches; the villages are the draw. Have some Ligurian Farinata if you go there; simple and delicious. We visited Genoa briefly; I only recall the handkerchief pasta with Pesto Genovese.

My sister loved Siena, also a World Heritage site. It has a beautiful old city, but, unless you uvisit during the Palio, it's less touristed.

I'll bet you could find a bike race to photograph while in Italy; that would be an interesting way to experience Italian life.
posted by theora55 at 4:43 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was in Bellagio on Lake Como in June 2008 and while its considered expensive compared to other places on the lake, was able to find a lovely service apartment at La Limonera that did not break the bank and was in the heart of town. They seem to have available days for large and medium size apartments in June. The UI for price/availability is a bit confusing but the lady there is extremely helpful.

I have also been in a more affordable service apartment* in Torino which might make a good stopping point for trips to Milan (an hour by train) or up north into the Alps. If you do choose to go to Torino, please memail me for a local contact whom I think would be very happy to advise you on local stuff, particularly family friendly since he's now married and suddenly the father of two.

Tips: Tourist information kiosks (like in San Francisco at the end the trolley line) offer the best rate for public transportation tickets - otherwise its a real pain. Sundays things tend to be closed and restaurants may be more expensive (Europe) than the US so I found supermarkets far better especially since service apartments have kitchen facilities. The food is delicious. The wine is cheap. Eat. and don't forget Sergio's (BibeRON, Torino).

*You have to email them and request an estimate based on your length of stay and needs but I recall paying 45e a night for the 45sqm place which was reasonably large and had a kingsize bed in the bedroom as well as a sofabed in the living area.
posted by infini at 4:54 PM on April 9, 2012

The wait to get in to the Vatican museum is loooong, but the Sistine Chapel was totally worth it.

They sell advance tickets online now, which makes the whole experience much less arduous. That lineup is terrible.
posted by urbanlenny at 6:45 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Orvieto, Civita de Bagnoregio, and Siena are all well worth it. I would add Lucca as well. If you can make it to Umbria, definitely spend some time in Perugia. Verona is a wonderful place, with a spectacular Roman Arena and Greek Amphitheater. There is also a lovely main piazza. Juliet's House is a tourist trap, but is easily skipped...

If you make it all the way east to Venice (and while that's doable, I think you'll find yourself biting off too much), do not miss Vicenza. Amazing examples of Palladian architecture.

If you want to get off the beaten path in Tuscany, head to Pienza and San Quirico d'Orcia. I've had great visits to Cinque Terre, but I've heard that its gotten a bit overrun recently. Also, there was some serious damage to the paths between the towns, so check and make sure everything is open before you try to go.

Bologna is a wonderful city, filled with students and great food.

Eat at the Autostops on the Autostrada...if only American rest stops had such good food!
posted by jindc at 8:25 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can I recommend a wonderful place to stay in Florence? It's an old medieval convent called Morandi alla Crocetta at 50 via Laura. It was really perfect - central, yet secluded, cool, thick walled, monastical feeling, but also luxurious, clean, crispy white linens, comfy beds, working showers, with breakfast wheeled in on a silver trolley, without the big price tag.

Seconding the Oltrarno, less popular side of the Arno, fantastic boutique clothing and rustic/un-renovated cafes with real bread.

I also think I'd take a trip to Como and boat it to Bellagio, or any one villages on the little fingerlings that reach out to the lake - the Lakes are one of the most sublime places, in a country of sublime places. The public transport are ferries along the lake and it's like a very cheap lake tour. We got from Bellagio to Florence easily in one day/ arriving early afternoon, and it was a totally wonderful scenic experience - train through mountains, boat to Bellagio.

If you go to Pisa look at the wonky tower, it's actually more fun to hire bikes. The Tuscan countryside is very accessible and picturesque.
posted by honey-barbara at 10:42 PM on April 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I was a child, my stepfather got fired from his job in Düsselfdorf, and we went on a long road trip through Europe to Italy and then to Denmark, with many interesting stops. I really fell in love with Italy, and have tried to go there once a year at least since I was 16. But I must admit, some of the cultural experiences were probably a bit over my head. In my recollection, we spent a lot of time travelling.
One good thing I remember was spending time in Elba. The island has a rich history, fun for boys and girls and their parents, but it is also a nice small island with great seafood places and beaches. You'd probably need to plan a visit there already now, as I understand it, there are not an unlimited number of apartments/hotels and it is very popular among Italians. But it is just an hour from the mainland, and more accessible than Cinque Terre (in several ways).
Bologna is a great city, very pleasant. Assisi is another beautiful and friendly city if you want a taste of Umbria. Lucca is much nicer than Pisa and Siena is friendlier than Florence. Castiglioni del Lago is a nice smaller town, but there are so many, and Pienza, mentioned above is one of them.
Going to Venice, Como, Milan, Turin seems like a lot of travel time for not nearly enough indulgence time to me. Even though Venice is sinking, there is no need to rush, this goes even more for the other great, but expensive and not very family-friendly places.
There are tourists in Italy, and it's probably been like that for 2000 years. Tourists are part of the scenery. Don't worry about it, but Tuscany is probably a bit expensive because there are really, really many British and American tourists, and it is a rich area in itself.
It is much cheaper, everywhere in Italy, to eat at a restaurant with a set menu (don't fear "Menu Turistico", it can be a very fair bargain), than at a snack-place or bar. Sandwiches can be absurdly expensive. But many small grocery stores will make you a round of fresh sandwiches very cheaply for a picnic, and pizza- and pizza-slices from little hole in the wall stores are often delicious. Follow the crowd!
posted by mumimor at 7:47 AM on April 10, 2012

If you go a bit further north, you hit the Liguria and Piemonte regions, both of which are lovely and not overrun with tourists. If you wind up considering that, I'm happy to pass along specific recommendations.
posted by judith at 2:42 PM on April 10, 2012

Agree entirely with Romakimmy that Umbria is just as lovely as Florence, and far less packed with tourists. Todi and Perugia are delightful, both for the towns themselves and for the food. A good B&B in the province of Arezzo (itself worth a visit, especially if you're there on the first weekend of the month for the open-air antiques fair) would be a good way to see southern Tuscany and northern Umbria, especially if you are considering hiring a car.

jindc's suggestions of Orvieto, Cività de Bagnoregio and Siena also enthusiastically seconded, although Bagnoregio would be a hassle to reach without a vehicle.

And I also agree with her suggestion for a meetup, unless of course you want to get totally away from all things MetaFiltrical for a couple of weeks.
posted by aqsakal at 6:34 AM on April 13, 2012

I think your itinerary is fine. You can't do it all in one trip. And the cities of Rome, Florence, Bologna are all a nice balance. People's suggestion of heading north to Lake Como is a good one though. (Did anyone mention Magreglio's bicycle church?)

Anyways, the train from Rome to Florence should go by Orvieto and Arezzo. Those are both worth getting off the train to have lunch or snacks and wander around town.

Rome is unmissable, in my opinion. All the other towns and cities in Italy are great too but they only become unmissable depending on your interests.

For Art and Culture, Florence and Venice are unmissable. The cities themselves are a bit dirty and over-touristed. But there's a faded grandeur there that can still be appreciated.

For scenic beauty, people head to the pretty hill towns that are, honesty, all over Italy. And since they are everywhere, its best to hit quieter regions than Tuscany. There's also the coasts and the lakes: The tiny Cinque Terre towns, the Amalfi coast, Lake Como and Lake Maggiore.

For food and drink, Umbria is better than Tuscany and Piemonte in the north (and possibly the Friuli-Venezia-Giuilia region in the northeast) is even better still. But that only matters if you are a dedicated food tourist.
posted by vacapinta at 12:19 PM on April 14, 2012

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