Let's go Italy!
January 5, 2013 4:22 PM   Subscribe

Traveling to Italy, have questions.

My spouse and I will be in Italy for the first time for 2 weeks in May, flying in and out of Rome. Our current plan is to go immediately to Florence and Siena for the first week, the Amalfi coast (probably based in Sorrento) for most of the second week, and the last 2 nights in Rome. We're looking for advice about travel methods (rental car vs train), lodging (we prefer boutique style hotels, but would like WiFi and in-room safes), and any must-sees. We are planners as far as hotels go, but don't need every minute planned once we're in a place. We are physically fit 40-somethings from Portland, and we eat fish, but no other meat. Any advice is much appreciated.
posted by outfielder to Travel & Transportation around Italy (35 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Are you really so un-intent on seeing Rome? Because two nights is really not enough.

I haven't been to Tuscany, and I think a week-ish is a good amount of time for the Amalfi coast, but the main thing that comes to mind looking at your plan is that it would be fucking criminal to visit Italy, fly in and out of Rome, and only spend a day or so there.
posted by Sara C. at 4:39 PM on January 5, 2013

I also would not underestimate the degree to which you'll be exhausted and jet-lagged upon arrival. It may be easier to spend the first few days in Rome rather than the last few days, especially if you intend to rent a car at Fiumicino to drive to Tuscany. (I've typically seen rental cars recommended for that part of Italy, though it's not necessary.)
posted by Sara C. at 4:41 PM on January 5, 2013

I don't know much about that area of Italy (other than hot DAMN I want to go there too sometime!), but I do have one comment on transportation:

Drivers in Italy are insane. As many as half the cars I saw had dents. Streets are narrow, crowded and scooters swarm like wasps (hence Vespas!). If you can deal with that though, driving through the hills is SO worth it.
posted by fearnothing at 4:48 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't want to threadsit, but here's the Rome reasoning: we know we don't want to spend a week of our 2-week trip in Rome, so we figured 2 days is better than no days. We're mostly interested in food, wine, and art, and everyone we've spoken with about Italy thinks we'd most enjoy Tuscany. I want to see Amalfi because my ancestors are from there. As for jetlag, we've been to Europe, and on this trip we get to Rome in the morning. We know we'll be tired by the time we get to Florence, but think we can handle it. We definitely want to spend the last days of the trip in our departure city.
posted by outfielder at 4:51 PM on January 5, 2013

Why is it a binary between two nights and nothing? You could easily do five days on the Amalfi coast, six days in Tuscany, and four in Rome -- in fact, I think that would be a perfect itinerary.
posted by Sara C. at 5:02 PM on January 5, 2013

Last summer I went to Florence, Siena, Rome and a few other places. Took the train between cities and public transport within cities, and it was super-convenient. Book train tickets ahead of time on the trenitalia website. I'd be hesitant to drive bcs of crazy traffic in Florence and Rome, and much of Siena doesn't allow cars. (I have no idea about the coast; I didn't go there.)

If you plan to see a lot of museums in Florence, get the Firenze Card online ... this gives you reduced prices to many sites, and you can go through a special entrance at the Accademia and Uffizi without waiting for hours in line. Also allows you to ride public transport for free.

There's a similar card for Rome, called the Roma Pass -- reduced price at many sites, and free public transport.

My favorites in terms of sites were the Duoma and Uffizi in Florence, the Coliseum and St Peter's Cathedral in Rome, and everything in the old town part of Siena (I felt like I had stepped back in time a few centuries!) ... I can't recommend hotels, since I stayed mainly in small non-boutique guesthouses.

Hope this helps.
posted by phoenix_rising at 5:16 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Apologies - I just realized my math is bad on my recommended itinerary above. Still think you should spend more than one day in Rome, though.
posted by Sara C. at 5:26 PM on January 5, 2013

I did a similar itinerary with a bit more time in Rome a few years ago. I took trains the entire time and would suggest that you use them as well. Parking was bad in the cities and public transport is pretty easy. If you want to drive around, you could rent a car for a day or two in either Tuscany or Amalfi.

My only suggestion for Florence is to be sure to see Santa Croce, where both Galileo and Michelangelo are buried.

The Circumvesuviana will bring you from Naples to Sorrento quickly and cheaply. In Sorrento itself, Rick Steves lead me to Pizzeria da Franco which was casual but nice and suggested Standa for groceries. Here is another comment I made about a nice place for drinks near Sorrento.
posted by soelo at 5:35 PM on January 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just went to Italy (Rome, Venice, Florence) with a good friend of mine this past September, so here are a few of tips:

1) Everything interesting is closed on Mondays, basically. We're talking the Uffizi galleries, L'Accademia, etc. Double-check your travel dates against the websites of various things you want to see.

2) As to what to see, there's the usual: Il Duomo, Statue of David, Uffizi galleries, Ponte Vecchio (all in Florence), Vatican museums, Pantheon, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps. (all in Rome) Book NOW (or very soon!) for tickets to see L'Accademia, Uffizi, Vatican. The others should not require reservations, particularly if you have a Roma pass (which I am seconding). If you're seeing the Vatican museums, that's done in an afternoon or so, leaving the morning free. My friend and I went to the Pantheon, Roman Forum and the Colosseum in a single day and were WIPED and we were rushed because we had to get back to the Forum from the Colosseum by 7pm or something like that (to give back the audio guide).

3) Like I said, I am seconding the Roma pass in Rome, even if you're just there for a couple of days. Best purchase of my entire trip and allowed us into the Colosseum for free.

4) We stayed at the Hotel Napoleon in Rome and quite enjoyed it. In Florence, we were at Albani Firenze, also a great place. (Both were very clean and with in-room safes, although uploading bandwidth kind of sucked at both locations, despite decent-to-good download speeds.) The Napoleon was right next to the metro Vittorio Emmanuele, which was great to allow us to get around the city with the aforementioned Roma Pass. The Albani was not far from the train station, which was great, although it was a bit of a hike to get down to Ponte Vecchio or over to the museums.

5) My friend and I took the train everywhere with no issues, but since our stops were different than yours, I can't speak about the other places. One thing to note -- rail strikes (in fact, strikes of all kinds, including gas strikes!) happen frequently in Italy. We were in Florence and due to go out the next day and heard there was a rail strike THAT DAY (our last in Florence). We had no issues leaving the next day as scheduled, but boy, did that freak us out. (A strike is "uno sciopero" and trains are "treni", so beware "sciopero di treni" if you're taking the train!) (ETA: Yes, book your trains AHEAD OF TIME, print out copies of the tickets. This made life a lot easier.)

6) As to eating fish but no other meat, I'm not a vegetarian but I basically ate like one on the trip. I think I had beef once in our ten days. It's fairly easy to get a pasta dish with no meat or a fresh fish course (depending on your distance from a coast).

7) Since you get to Rome in the morning, make sure to sleep on the plane on your way over and do everything you can to STAY AWAKE once you hit Rome. Eat when the locals do, even if you're not hungry (have a snack or something). Aim to go to bed no earlier than 8pm local time on your first day and avoid naps. You'll wake up the next morning pretty much as though you had been born in that time zone. That's the best piece of advice I got regarding my trip and it was fantastic.

Hope that's helpful and buon viaggio!
posted by juliebug at 5:47 PM on January 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: 1) Sorrento - try to score a room at the Hotel Antique' Mura - WORTH IT
2) Driving - not nearly as bad as most say
3) ROME - give it 2 days after the jet lag wears off - worth the time.
4) In Sorrento - fabulous family owned restaurant on the bay down the steps - forget the name - we went there twice - well worth it.
5) ENJOY - we are already planning our next trip back!
posted by BrooksCooper at 5:49 PM on January 5, 2013

in italy i'd take trains, not cars. it is such an easy way to travel. have to agree that i think you'll want more time in rome (it is so underrated) but really why are you not going to venice?! ok, i know you can't go everywhere but venice is just so ridiculously beautiful it is a must see imho. as for accommodations my friend and i tried boutique hotels but their quality was really inconsistent and some were not nearly as nice as they were advertised. we had much better luck, and greatly preferred, renting pensiones (apartments). really, they are a fantastic way to travel all through europe. here's the gorgeous one i stayed in in rome: via dei farnesi at the time we were there it was surprisingly inexpensive but the owner may have clued in and raised the prices to be more competitive now. most other ones i looked at online were nowhere as nice as this one for the price. it's located in a really quiet piazza just near the french consulate or embassy (sorry can't remember which). there are lots of websites for apartments so you can look around online. some may even advertise the same place for a different rate.
posted by wildflower at 5:53 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to the usual spots, you may enjoy the house of John Keats. It's at the base of the Spanish Steps, on the right as you look up. It's quite a fascinating little museum now and you can see a lot of interesting artifacts from his life. My fav: his death mask. It takes perhaps 45 minutes to an hour to explore depending how thorough you want to be.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 5:56 PM on January 5, 2013

I don't find the driving in Italy to be that crazy. It is a bit chaotic in the cities but on highways and rural areas it's fine. People are very good at driving, which is nice. However I'd say that for the Amalfi coast a car would be a bit of a liability, there's only the one road which is narrow and crowded and there is a very convenient local bus there that will save you the hassle. You can take a commuter train from the main Naples station to Sorrento and take the Amalfi bus from there.
If you're looking for something a bit different to do around Amalfi, there's a great hiking trail that follows the coast, high up above the road and villages, known as the 'Sentiero degli Dei' (trail of the gods). Easy walking and fantastic views.
As you're in the area I'd suggest a night in Naples - the gothic city is very interesting, and you could try the famous original pizza (don't spend too much time around the train station as it's not so nice there) - and a day trip to Capri or one of the other islands. Ferries go out there from the port near the old city, or from Mergelina a few metro stops to the west. Actually you might be able to take a ferry from Sorrento to Capri as it's pretty close; Capri is part of the same formation that makes up the Amalfi peninsula.
posted by Flashman at 6:21 PM on January 5, 2013

Oh also, if you do plan on being based in Sorrento (I'd suggest Amalfi or Positano btw as they are actually on the Amalfi coast, and a peaceful and gorgeous), a trip to Pompeii would be very easy - I think Pompeii is on the same train line between central Naples and Sorrento.
posted by Flashman at 6:27 PM on January 5, 2013

I think jet lag's overrated if treated properly. You state you're getting in the morning- sleep on the plane, take a pill if necessary. Just stay up all day and go to sleep normal time. Basically BrooksCooper's step 7 is how I rolled in Italy twice and worked perfectly.

If you're only going to spend 2 days in Rome, I suggest utilizing the hop on, hop off buses. You can purchase 1 or 2 day passes to, as the name implies, hop off those big double-decker buses as much as you please. I think they work well in your case since they just drive around to all the highlights, making it easy to see the interesting sites. You can purchase them right outside The Termini. Beware these are NOT the city transit buses- my friend and I made the mistake of initially purchasing city bus passes. Oops!

Depending on how much you actually plan on going into museums and see the inside of building, Rome is doable in 2 days if you plan on just seeing the sites. It's matter of how much you want to go inside and really visit the sites.
posted by jmd82 at 6:44 PM on January 5, 2013

I take the opposite tack to jmd82. I think that, if you really only have one day to see Rome, you need to make a detailed itinerary of the things you really have to see, and stick to it religiously. Go as quickly as possible to those things. Do not pass go, do not while away time with gelato in Piazza Navona.

Based on your interest in art, I don't think a bus tour is going to do it for you. "Oh hey look that was the Coliseum that just went by!" is going to be worse than pointless and make Rome seem like it wasn't even worth the day you had.

If I were you, and I had one day in Rome, I would probably spend the morning at St. Peter's and the Vatican museums, have a good lunch, and then either do a walking tour of the area around Piazza Navona and the Pantheon or choose a second museum. Then I would have a good dinner and maybe hit up somewhere interesting for a passagiata and some wine if your flight isn't too early the next day. I honestly don't think the Roma Pass is even going to be worth it for you, because they cost 25 Euro and you won't have time to do 25 Euro worth of sightseeing.
posted by Sara C. at 6:57 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

On the Amalfi coast (which is beautiful and not to be missed), seafood is abundant.
posted by Miko at 7:16 PM on January 5, 2013

Driving between cities is totally fine. I find autostrada driving to be far better than equivalent driving in the US. That said I'd rather be lit on fire than drive around a city. Make sure your hotel has parking and leave the car there or return it.

Amalfi + Tuscany + a few days in Rome is an itnerary where a concerted effort to avoid places that cater to American tourists is richly richly rewarded. Basically that route is almost a cliche. Make sure you don't get sucked in.
posted by JPD at 7:59 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I visited Italy last summer, and because it was a work trip stretched into a vacation, got to spend only 2 nights in Rome. I think you can get a pretty good sense of the place in a couple of days. We spent half a day in the Vatican, half a day wandering around the Colosseo, and the rest of the time in the Modern Center. It will be packed and you'll only get a bird's eye view, but it's still a great experience. (And if you spend a week in Florence, you would have seen so many museums that you might volunteer to pass up on them in Rome anyway.)

I loved loved loved Florence -- you'll have no trouble filling up a week there. Just make sure you book your Uffizi and Accademia tickets in advance. I personally found the Tuscan countryside overrated, and would recommend you spend most of the time in the city, but I'm probably in the minority there.

If you're going to Sorrento, definitely visit Pompeii for a day. There's really no other place like it.

We traveled by train everywhere. If you're bringing a lot of luggage (which you should avoid, but sometimes you can't), it can be a bit of a hassle, because you'll have to climb stairs in most of the stations. But it's a fast, clean, efficient way of getting around, especially compared to trains in the US. Perhaps you can mix it up -- take the train between your base cities, and rent a car for daytrips.

Hotel recommendations... hm, we just looked for the best ratings on TripAdvisor within a limited budget. I remember that the nice hotels in Rome near the tourist areas were ridiculously expensive; we stayed at a 4-star that was about 3-4 stops away on the subway and quite affordable.

As far as food, I had no problem as a vegetarian, so you should be fine.
posted by redlines at 8:08 PM on January 5, 2013

Best answer: I did a week in Italy last year (similar itinerary to you, except without the Amalfi coast portion- Rome, Florence, Siena, and Venice) and I think two days in Rome was the right amount given my time constraints. In two days I was able to see the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, and my only regret was that I didn't have time to wait in line to go inside St. Peter's Basilica. I agree with you that two days is better than no days, and you should have time to see the highlights, although you may be a bit rushed.

My biggest piece of advice is that you can reserve admission to many landmarks (Coliseum, Vatican, Uffizi, L'Academia, etc.) online ahead of time, and I know that saved me a lot of waiting in line. It's a little more expensive but to me it was absolutely worth it.
posted by matcha action at 8:12 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I just want to chime back in for a second to say that this is my first ever AskMeFi after a few years of lurking, and you guys really are the best. Such terrific advice, from all of you. Keep it coming!
posted by outfielder at 8:28 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Favorite Tuscany hotel: Villa Scacciapensieri - has a great restaurant, too
Favorite hotel in Rome, because of location and breakfast: Hotel Portoghesi (but you want the top floor superior suite, with it's roof terrace).

Favorite restaurants in Rome Sabatinos at St Ignazio and Antonio al Pantheon and La Buca di Ripetta The two first are completely traditional, Sabatinos is a bit touristy, but has wonderful antipasti and well, everything. La Buca di Ripetta has slightly modernized Roman food and is very elegant, reservation needed. For Antonio al Pantheon you nearly always need to make a reservation if you are not local. Meaning, they are not always welcoming if they feel you have just dumped in by accident. But it is a great restaurant, very authentic, and charming hosts when they get that you enjoy good food and wine.
I am not a vegetarian, but I often eat like one, and I have noticed waiters in Italy often tune into that, and recommend dishes you'd like.
Unfortunately, I can't find my log-book from Tuscany, but food there is great and abundant, and I specially remember going here.

Nthing the "reserve admission in advance". Very important if you actually want to see the Uffizi and Vatican. Otherwise you'll spend the day waiting in line.

Did anyone above mention the Brancacci Chapel in Firenze? It's my favorite place in that city, above the Uffizi even though they are wonderful.
posted by mumimor at 3:23 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another place in Rome: Gusto is big, fun, modern, noisy. Excellent food, Roman with a twist
posted by mumimor at 4:52 AM on January 6, 2013

The availability of fish in Florence and Sienna will be challenging. However, on the outskirts of Rome there is a port with hundreds of fish restaurants called Civitavecchia. Wonderful experience.

There's a 'bullet' train (well not bullet, but faster than anything we have here) that connects Rome, Florence, and Naples (the gateway to Amalfi). Were you to forego Sienna (a nice town, but not particularly memorable) you could easily do the whole thing my train. It is easy to spend a week in Florence, but remember to reserve tickets at the Ufizzi, or you will wait on line for 5 hours (yes five!) with French tourists cutting into the line in front of you)

You could easily spend a month in Rome! One of the most interesting and historical cities in the world. Make a reservation to visit the Vatican and Sistine Chapel, too.

It you're a fan of Caravaggio, see the Roman tour of Caravaggio Here's Google's map, but google 'Caravaggio Rome' and get dozens of perspectives of this subject. (a favorite of mine)
posted by MrPaladin at 5:20 AM on January 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

It occurred to me that logistically, it might make more sense for you guys to go to the Cinque Terre than to Amalfi; it's like the Amalfi coast but more remote and less developed. I've never been but have always wanted to. If you did this, all of your destinations would be in one general area rather than on opposite sides of Rome. You'd probably get a chance to see Genoa - with its great old town and port, and aquarium too - on the way to the Cinque Terre.
posted by Flashman at 8:23 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

restaurant-wise I'd try Pierluigi before i try gusto, especially if you're into seafood.
posted by 3mendo at 8:30 AM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to note, if you buy the Firenze Card (which can be done online, or at many sites in Florence), you actually don't have to make reservations for the Uffizi or Accademia ahead of time; the pass allows you to automatically skip the long line; there will be a separate "line" (with few or no people waiting) for those who have reservations OR the card.

If you decide not to get the card, then yeah do make reservations ahead of time, bcs otherwise you'll spend hours in line.

In general, if you plan to go to at least 3-4 of the bigger sites/museums in Florence, the card will save you money.
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:00 AM on January 6, 2013

Sorrento? Add Pompeii and feel glorious in the sunshine. Take the boat ride either to or from Amalfi even though the bus is a thrill.
posted by Freedomboy at 9:20 AM on January 6, 2013

Definitely take trains! This past summer we traveled from Florence to Bologna to Venice over a couple weeks, and it was a breeze by train. Everything other people have pointed out about driving in Italy is true...also, if you don't drive a stick shift you'd run into troubles. You pretty much can't rent an automatic and if you can its hella expensive.

While in Florence get gelato at Grom!
posted by Windigo at 9:28 AM on January 6, 2013

Best answer: Also, while in Florence we took a bike tour outside the city through http://www.ibiketuscany.com/

It was AMAZING. We took the "DOWNHILL TO SAN GIMIGNANO" tour since a couple in our party don't normally bike - it was a highlight of the whole trip. They pick you up at your hotel and spirit you away to your starting point. If you enjoy any level of biking I HIGHLY reccomend it.
posted by Windigo at 9:33 AM on January 6, 2013

I was in Italy for three weeks last September. This advice is mostly for Florence and Rome, as I didn't go to the Amalfi.

- Pay attention to opening hours and days. The TI in florence gave out summaries of the opening hours that week, and it was invaluable. Pay particular attention to Mondays, as many things are closed, and those that aren't are very, very busy.
- Try to avoid crowds. The tourism crush in Florence was intense. Due to jet lag, I was getting up really early, and I would recommend it if you can. Florence at 8am is fabulous. Florence at 10am is hellish. Tour groups seem to appear about 10am and start disappearing about 4. Try to avoid the main squares during these times.
- The vatican sometimes has open evenings. I went to one, (booked ahead) and it was great. No where near as busy as some of the stories I've heard. I also went to the Accademia in Florence one evening, and it was fabulous. So quiet, I was looking at David with maybe ten other people.
- Rick Steves has some free audio guides for many of the major sights in Italy. They're a bit daft sometimes, but hey, free.
- If you have a smart phone and can be bothered to try at get an Italian SIM, the tripadvisor app is really good for last minute restaurant decisions. There's a "near me now" option that I used a few times with success.
- Definitely trains. Though don't be lulled into a false sense of security by the efficiency of the trenitalia website. The actual experience is like many things in italy - chaotic.
- I also took a tuscany bike tour. It was a nice way to get out into the countryside. I also hired a bike to get around in Florence, which worked really well as I was staying across the Arno.
- I did a Context tour of the Uffizi, as I am not very art literate. It was excellent (though expensive), and I'm glad I didn't try to go by myself, as the place was overwhelming, not to mention full of tour groups all jostling for position around the well known works. I also went to the Museo Nationalle Bargello, which has an incredible collection of sculpture including Donatello's David.
- There are a lot of day trip options from Florence. Siena is nice, but I found the tourist crush pretty awful. Catch the bus, as the train station is a long way out and the buses into town aren't particularly easy to work out. I think it would have been nice early morning or late arvo/evening, but I didn't stay a night. Pisa was surprisingly nice - I got there late afternoon just as everything was closing up, saw the (irritating) tower, and then wandered back to the train station, stopping for food on the way. Nothing special, but it was a nice evening. Lots of street life to watch. I found Lucca overrated and full of wandering tourists wondering what all the fuss was about. However, if you're over the tourist crush of Florence, it is pleasant and can be combined with a trip to Pisa.
- This may be controversial, but if you've got limited time in Rome, I wouldn't go into the colosseum or the forum. The colosseum is the most impressive from the outside, and the forum was frankly disappointing. You can also see it pretty well from up on the Victor Emmanuel Memorial.
- My highlights of Rome were Santa Maria degli Angeli, a church designed by Michelangelo, built in Roman baths, and St Cecilia in Trastevere, which is a church built on a house built on a roman temple.
- I had limited time, so I went to Herculaneum instead of Pompeii. It was a good choice for me - much smaller and more intact- For some pre-italy prep, read "A Room with a View", "Brunelleschi's Dome" by Ross King and "The Agony and the Ecstasy" by Irving Stone.
- Strikes happen, and are generally only advertised to Italians. It's worth checking with your hotel when you arrive, as they are planned in advance. I found this website to be accurate.
- Don't eat anywhere near the main squares or anywhere with a view unless trip advisor gives it excellent reviews. Have a drink there (spritzes are tasty), and then go further off the main drag. There are so may tourists in Florence and Rome though, that most places are at least a little touristy.
posted by kjs4 at 4:44 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

For eating... find somewhere that serves pasta with peas. Delicious. (Oh, and anchovy pizza)
posted by panaceanot at 8:57 PM on January 6, 2013

Pompeii is Pompeii, and amazing, but kjs4's choice isn't a bad one. Herculaneum is actually much better preserved and more intact than Pompeii, due to the different effects of the disaster. There you can see more complete building structures, brighter and more complete mosaic and tilework, etc. It's pretty great. If you have time, see both. But I could understand choosing Herculaneum over Pompeii.
posted by Miko at 5:35 AM on January 7, 2013

As far as car vs. train, i think its a time vs. money vs. fun equation. The car will save you time, but the car rentals are likely to be much more expensive than the train tickets (and the gas, parking, and autostrada tolls are not cheap). So do you have more time than money?

Do you prefer trains to cars in general? Do you enjoy driving? I've driven in Italy a ton. I love it. Others hate it. Driving on the Autostrada is not that different than I-95. I even like driving in Rome. Yeah, sometimes I get lost or go the wrong way or later realize that I was in the bus only lane, but that's part of the fun. Finding legal parking? Less fun. Given your itinerary, it seems that you could return your car as soon as you get back to Rome and not have to deal with it the last few days. There is a huge rental car complex in the Villa Borghese Gardens near the Piazza del Popolo. Very convenient for car returns. But be careful about entering the ZTL (zona traffico limitato).

Driving from Fiumicino to Tuscany is pretty easy and driving the back roads in Tuscany is not to be missed. The signage can be quirky, but have a good map (or better yet bring your GPS) and get a feel for what small towns are in the direction of where you want to go. Keep following the signs for your town. Sometimes you'll think its been too long since you saw a sign, but then one pops up!

A car is really helpful for the Amalfi. Yes the main road is narrow and twisty and crowded, but in May it shouldn't be too bad. Watching tour busses back up and squeeze past each other is part of the show. If you are planting yourself in one town and doing day trips (this is true in Tuscany as well), the car is really nice to have. Again, not required, but time vs. money vs. fun. Sometimes waiting for the train leads you to a chat with an entertaining stranger at the coffee bar that makes the trip wonderful. Sometimes the car lets you take the detour to some random town to the festival that you saw a sign for while driving on the back road and you get to try the local pasta and watch a parade.

I love both Cinque Terre and the Amalfi, but for very different reasons. Other than being on the coast and having spectacular scenery, I don't think they are that similar. The Amalfi (especially Positano) has some very very high end parts and is very touristy. That's not a recommendation against going there. Positano is beautiful and Ravello is spectacular. Sorrento is also fun. A day trip to the temples at Paestum is well worth the drive (stop for Caprese salads...this is the home of mozzarella di bufala campana!).

Most of Cinque Terre is tiny and secluded. Its become more touristy, but nowhere near on the scale as the Amalfi (thanks Rick Steves). Hiking between the towns (when the trail is open) is lots of fun, and part of the fun is taking the milk train between the towns or hopping on one of the boats to jump from town to town. Climbing the 300 or so steps to Corniglia...totally worth it. Get there in time for a late lunch, plant yourself in the sun at an outdoor table, drink the local white, and have some seafood. But go to the restaurant across the road from town. Then you get the views of the water, the mountains, and the town perched on the edge of the cliff.

Two days in Rome will give you a taste and leave you wanting more. Stay in the old part of town. Walking home after dinner, cutting through Piazza Navona and then catching sight of the Pantheon, lit up at night? Oh yes, please.

I'll be there in May...I can't wait.
posted by jindc at 6:39 AM on January 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: We had a fantastic time, thanks in no small part to all of the advice. I marked answers that we used specifically, but all the answers were helpful, thank you all! We spent 5 nights in Florence at Il Guelfo Blanco, with a day trip to Siena, 5 nights in Sorrento at Hotel Antiche Mura (which we just happened to share with Rick Steves!), and 3 nights in Rome at IQ Hotel. Our favorite day overall was a tour of Chianti villages and vineyards with the company that Windigo recommended. We loved all 3 hotels, and pretty much every meal we ate. We took trains between cities, and walked everywhere. We hired a driver for the Amalfi Coast drive, and were glad we did. A quiet gem near Sorrento was a (slightly terrifying) walk to a couple of adjacent beaches, Marina De Puolo and Bagni della Regina Giovanna. And just to indicate how much we love to walk and how willing we are to suffer sore feet, in our first day and a half in Rome we saw (with the help of our Roma Passes): the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and all the ruins within, the Forum, Capitoline Hill, the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Piazza del Popolo, the huge park around Villa Borghese, Trevi Fountain, Castel Sant' Angelo, St. Peter's square, and the countless piazzas in between. Our last day was split between a morning walk to the Jewish ghetto and across to the Trastevere, and the afternoon at the Vatican and St. Peter's basilica. Thanks again, y'all!
posted by outfielder at 2:39 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

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