Who wouldn't want to go to Italy?
January 27, 2018 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I have a family wedding in Italy coming up (it's there at the whim of the couple getting married, my family has no particular connection to Italy), and am at a loss for what to do aside from going to the wedding. Experienced travelers and people who live in or love visiting Italy, please help me plan a trip I can look forward to!

There are a lot of places in the world I'm so excited to see that I already know what I would want to do if given the opportunity to visit, but I haven't given much thought to what I might want to do in Italy and am drawing a total blank now that I'm confronted with planning a trip there. Since attending the wedding isn't really optional, I'd like to figure out how to plan some vacation around it that I can really look forward to and get excited about, given that's it's a big investment of both time and money to get there.

Here are the details I know: I will be spending something like 3 days in and around Florence for the wedding in September. I will have between 7 and 10 days total for the trip, so 4-7 days for the non-family portion of the trip. I'd like to identify one other city or region to visit. Right now, I've tentatively settled on Rome for the history, but I'm not really feeling it for some reason, so would love to hear other suggestions for places to visit or specific ideas for Rome. I would strongly prefer not to rent a car.

Things I like include: wandering around cities, especially checking out interesting urban planning and modern and contemporary art; vegan food; nice walks (either in cities or very easy, convenient hikes, especially in lush, green places); weird museums; 20th century history; and history of the ancient world. I tend to like places that have a reputation for being organized/reserved/uptight and not enjoy places known for being warm and fun-loving as much.

Things that I don't have much interest in exploring include: Renaissance art and history; artisanal food production; and wine/drinking in general. I'm also not into hot weather, beaches, or spa vacations. I would probably enjoy visiting the Vatican, but my husband has a hard limit on the number of churches visited per trip (he's very easygoing about virtually everything else, so I humor him on this) and we're going to blow through that with the wedding, so cathedral/church visits are mostly off the table unless there's something really amazing to see.

Other thoughts: I've been to Venice and it is pretty magical, but I feel bad going back given the problems they're having with tourist overcrowding; plus I'd like to see something new. Milan seems the next most appealing in theory, but a lot of people I know say it's not worth visiting when you could go to literally any other city in Italy. Lake Como and the other lakes seem beautiful, but it's unclear how manageable they are without renting a car or what exactly what one does there aside from staying in luxury hotels and sailing. I'm also kind of interested in seeing Sicily, but haven't been able to pin down anything specific I think I'd really enjoy there. I've also thought about just hopping on a flight to Ljubljana or Dubrovnik or somewhere else in Eastern Europe, but it seems impossible that I couldn't find something fun to do in Italy.
posted by snaw to Travel & Transportation around Italy (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You don't have to be religious to enjoy the Vatican Museum. It's a first-press distillation of Western cultural history.

Maybe Naples? Pompeii is a commuter-train away, and it's a less touristy-place (but still very interesting).
posted by tivalasvegas at 1:39 PM on January 27, 2018

I don't have much specific advice, but I went to Italy for the first time as an adult last summer and the most pleasurable part was walking through smaller cities, or bigger cities but away from the crowds. I was visiting family in Vicenza, highly recommended if you're going to be in the North, it's a small city with lots of beautiful architectural history, doesn't get crowded, has delicious low-key food, and is cheap!

Italy surprised me: the best part wasn't seeing the big attractions, it was enjoying the beautiful surroundings. I went to Venice in August and walked around the university district and went to the Biennale, barely saw anyone else. It was so much like the first episode of Season 2 of Master of None, if you've seen that.

Would your husband consider visiting more churches if they're more like museums?
posted by third word on a random page at 1:46 PM on January 27, 2018 [4 favorites]

You can certainly get to lake Garda easily by public transport. Italian trains are fine and I found the bus system easy enough to navigate with no Italian (But reasonable French, which helps).

I agree I found nothing interesting in Milan except the cathedral.

I think the specification about churches takes most of what I find wonderful about Italy off the table. Churches were very, very important in life and everyone who was anyone was making or funding pieces of art or architecture for the important churches. I could spend a month in Florence and the surrounding area but without churches I'm struggling.

Rome is great for ancient history - you could spend days with a guidebook exploding the forum and palatine hill. You could walk the whole appia antics (is your husband ok with tombs?). You could check out the catacombs. I recommend the guided tours of the colosseum (But that has been a church too!) There are also parks, squares and obviously a whole modern city with random pieces of ancient history just randomly built into walks or stuck on rooftops. I thought the food was pretty poor but I think if you are prepared to spend a little more and seek it out that can change.
posted by kadia_a at 1:53 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've visited Italy 3 times, and like you, I'm a fan of ancient history, and just exploring cities on foot. I've never rented a car - there's plenty that's accessible if you're willing to use the buses/trains/ferries + walking. (I don't speak Italian, and it is still manageable.)

Things I've enjoyed:
* The whole lake district. Lake Como is beautiful. I walked along the shore, explored some gardens, and enjoyed cheap wine with a great view. I've also visited Lago Iseo - you can take a ferry to to the island in the middle and hike up. (I did these as day trips from Milan and Bergamo)
* Venice - you've already been and loved it - if your husband hasn't been, that seems like a lovely opportunity for a romantic day =) Also, it's a small enough city that I did it as a day trip for my second visit, which gave me enough time to get lost in the winding streets and check out my fill of the galleries in Murano without paying for a hotel on the island.
* Cinque Terre - really cute coastal towns, you can take the train between them, or hike.
* Ostia Antica - Roman ruins that you can wander more freely than Pompeii, easy day trip from Rome. I had a very magical day here, exploring on my own. There were fantastic mosaics just out in the open, and unlike Pompeii, almost nothing was closed off.
* Pompeii - In some ways more impressive than Ostia Antica, but correspondingly more touristy. (I didn't like it as much - my experience felt more managed, rather than delightful discovery.) I did it as a long day trip from Rome, but it would be more convenient from Naples.
posted by Metasyntactic at 1:56 PM on January 27, 2018

Absolutely go to the Vatican. It is not like a church, it is much more like a museum. Or if your husband does not want to go, just go by yourself!

We did the Vatican at night. It was great, but keep in mind that pacing yourself is important in the Vatican museums.

From Florence, you could also do a daytrip to Siena or Pisa. Both are accessible by train, and I found the Italian train system very straightforward and easy to use.

Likewise, Pompeii was incredible. We spent 3 hours, could easily have spent much much more.
posted by basalganglia at 1:57 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

snaw, I just found out that I'm going to be in Italy in mid-September for two weeks (on Smithsonian tour). It's such a new thing -- just this week -- that I haven't even started my research/planning. I'll be watching the answers you get, but whenever I go anywhere, I always Google "hidden [city name]" and "unusual [citiy name]" constantly get brilliant options. I just did it for Florence (would you and your husband like the armor museum?) and this great Atlas Obscura article!

Maybe I'll see you in September!
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:16 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you stay in the north, then you won't have to spend as much time on trains as you would than if you added southern Italy. Fiesole and Lucca are wonderful little day-trip towns you could visit while you're in Florence without having to change hotels. Verona and Siena are beautiful towns, definitely worth a couple of days and nights since you're already in the north. Add Cinque Terre, and there you go!
posted by Elsie at 2:39 PM on January 27, 2018

Best answer: People do tend to put down Milan, but I was there last year for work and had a wonderful time. If you like contemporary art, the new Prada Foundation Is top notch. The Cathedral is mind bendingly beautiful. I also saw the Last Supper, which is not in a church, but a separate little building - worth the trip alone - you see it with 12 or so other people for 20 minutes - and cost all of 6 Euros.
posted by R. Mutt at 3:01 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would recommend Herculaneum over Pompeii, though you could certainly do both if you were in the Naples area for a couple of days. Herculaneum is smaller, but better preserved (because of the material that covered it) and much less crowded with tourists.

It is worth noting that Italy can be very hot in September.

Alternatively, looking outside Italy, I wonder whether Vienna might suit your sensibilities. You wouldn't need a car, and there are lots of cultural sights and museums, as well as green spaces. And in my experience the culture was very reserved and organised.
posted by sueinnyc at 3:37 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ack, so envious! I have enjoyed every place I've been to in Italy.
With Venice - have you ever stayed the night? It's much quieter and less touristy as most people come on day trips.
I really enjoyed the island of Ischia. It has a beautiful garden museum place called La Mortella, one of the prettiest European-style gardens I've seen (better than Al Hambra IMHO). Great beaches - one has a hot spring where people go to chill out at dusk, very European therapeutic-waters style thing.
You can get there via Naples and on the way, you could visit Pompeii and/or Herculaneum - they are really quite amazing, and I'm not a huge ancient history buff.
Sardinia is also incredibly beautiful especially if you like beaches.
September will still be quite warm.
And the food! It is just a joy wondering around and eating stuff, wherever you go.
posted by 8k at 3:43 PM on January 27, 2018

Best answer: September is a great time to be in Italy. The tourist season is over and everyone is relaxed and open-minded.
One thing I think could determine your decisions is where you arrive, are you flying into Milan or Rome? Or haven't you decided yet? If you are going into Milan, you need to look at all the wonderful North Italian places; if you are landing in Rome, that is a great place in itself. Don't spend time going anywhere else than where you land,since you are already going to Florence.
Given the things you and your husband like, both Rome and Milan are great cities, but maybe Milan is a bit less accessible. Both cities have dedicated vegan communities. Italy seems anarchistic, but there are plenty communities that work for greater values. Rome is probably more walkable than Milan, and greener even in the city center. And in Rome you can always escape to greener suburbs which is almost impossible in Milan. Still I love Milan.
If you are landing in Milan, Bologna is wonderful place for a short holiday. It's walkable, young, and absolutely beautiful.
posted by mumimor at 4:18 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I spent a whole day at Pompeii and loved it. I could easily have spent another day wandering the rows.

+1 spending time in a small town. Just strolling. Eat the food. Sit in the piazza. I spent a couple of days in Siena and couple more in San Gimigano. Both gorgeous. The buses and trains are easy with rudimentary Italian. Probably easier these days with apps.

I’d find it hard to pass up a couple days in Rome just because the Forum and the Colesseum are amazing. I only ever say literally or awesome when that’s what I actually mean and they are literally awesome. That history and architecture and all that they mean, right there in the middle of the city. Otherwise Rome is too hectic for me!

I spent two weeks in Italy, nothing booked or planned, mostly just wandering and eating. Didn’t have a single bad meal. Didn’t have a single dud stop. Have a great trip!
posted by stellathon at 4:33 PM on January 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

I always recommend Ravenna over Venice. Less tourists and the absolutely *incredible* mosaics. Hair-on-the-back-of-my-neck-standing-up level cool. Some of them are in old church ruins. For the history of the ancient world, I've seen very little to match it.

Also, Sicily is the best vacation I have ever taken. Syracusa, Selinunte, the islands. I could have stayed for many more weeks than the two I had there.
posted by frumiousb at 8:06 PM on January 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you should go to Rome. I have a one church per day limit when in Italy, but never run out of places to go to and things to see. I love the architecture, the ruins, the parks, and the neighborhoods. It doesn't have to be all Renaissance art and religion. Also, go to EUR for a completely not ancient part of the city. The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Piazza del Popolo, Borghese Gardens, Trastevere...

Ostia is worth a day trip if you really need a break from the city. I also love Orvieto, for a nice hill town midpoint between Florence and Rome.

If Rome doesn't make your cut, and Milan doesn't interest you, then I agree that the Palladian architecture in Vicenza is spectacular, as are all the cities, large and small in central and northern Italy: Perugia, Bologna, Verona (seriously...great), Parma, Cremona, Padua, Modena, Bergamo, Lucca, Siena.

I also went to Turin for the first time a few years back and loved it. A great mix of 19th/20th century architecture, great food, and the Egyptian Museum and the Mole!

But don't try to do to much. 3 days in Florence, 4 days in Rome, 3 days somewhere else, seems perfect to me. Or pick a couple of other cities and spend 2-3 nights in each. Sicily, Sardinia, and Naples are all wonderful, but that's a lot of time getting to and from Florence.
posted by jindc at 10:09 AM on January 28, 2018

Best answer: Seconding Naples! I went to the Ruins of Herculaneum instead of Pompeii, and it was awesome (less touristy, better preserved). Hiking at the top of Mount Vesuvius is also fun and not too strenuous; you can probably hike from the base if you want to make it more difficult.

I enjoyed the church architecture in Rome (Sistine Chapel is as gorgeous as the photos), but honestly I was left cold by the Vatican Museum itself. There's a lot of nice historical European art, like portraits and landscapes and such... which I found nice but not very interesting.

Rome is great though - I only spent a few days there and I want to go back, with more emphasis on the ancient history than the churches.
posted by serelliya at 10:27 AM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're doing 4 days: choose a city (Rome, Naples, Venice), schedule any really popular attractions in advance, and enjoy a meandering visit for the rest of the time. Naples really does have the best pizza in the world. Don't laugh -- if you like Neapolitan-style pizza, I honestly think that's a good enough reason to go. The train connections to/from Naples are good, and there's a lot of non-pizza stuff to do, too. My only Naples-related complaint is that I went to Pompeii in late Spring and found some of the best sections closed off for renovations. :)

That said...if you've got a week, fly to Sicily and rent a car. I KNOW you said you don't want to, but you should consider it. Sicily is very easy to drive in compared to the nightmare ZTL zones of other Italian cities. It's very worth the bother! Palermo is the only place where the car is much of a hassle, and honestly...you could skip Palermo if it makes you nervous. September is shoulder season, so the crowds won't be bad and everything will be a lot cheaper than you're expecting. Sicily has everything, and it is achingly beautiful, so it's really a matter of narrowing down the options that appeal to you so you can fit the best possible trip in a week. (I enjoy the eastern half of Sicily more than the western half and the northern coast more than the southern coast.)

- Wine tasting: Wine grows all over Sicily, but you should try to stop for a tour at one of the Etna wineries. The wines are amazing, the views are even better, and there's something very compelling about the gnarled, twisty grapevines that cling to the volcanic slopes.
- Cities: Taormina, Syracuse, Palermo, Cefalu, the Baroque cities in the South (Noto, Ragusa, Modica), tiny gem Erice, and more. I like stunning sea views, so Taormina and Cefalu are my favorites. If you like wandering the streets, Taormina and Siracusa are very charming. My favorite churches are in Cefalu and Palermo, though you can find something worth visiting everywhere.
- Classical Era History: The ruins at Agrigento and Selinunte are breathtaking...the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento were startlingly complete, though Selinunte had the advantage of being next to the sea. If you like ancient history, you probably could choose one or another depending on which fits your itinerary better. Syracuse has a huge Greek theatre (and a very frustrating museum where half the lights had gone out when I visited). If you're crossing through central Sicily, adjust your itinerary to include the impeccable restored mosaics at Piazza Armerina.
- Other History: I mean, there's a lot. Sicily has been around, man.
- Food: It's good! I guess all of Italy favors hyper-local stuff, but sometimes it felt like Sicily took it to a new level. Every salumi tray has the medium-soft cheese made locally. The chocolate is weird as hell. The almonds are abundant. The ham probably comes from Nebrodi black pigs. The only surprises you get in Sicily are going from one part of it to another. In the west, you get middle eastern flavors. In the east, it can be a little Greek/Apulian. (We were very sad to ask for grilled octopus in Cefalu and be told that that was a Greek, not Sicilian, preparation and we must have had that in Catania. Which...was true.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 5:53 PM on January 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think that the Colusseum and the Palatine Hills in Rome will have you more than sorted for the "history of the ancient world" angle.

Nthing the Vatican being more like a museum than a church. The "church" part is St. Peters' Bascilica - the Vatican collection of art is mind-blowing. I was there for hours and barely scratched the surface. (There's a contemporary art collection there.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:40 PM on January 28, 2018

Best answer: I'm going to be honest with you: I live in Florence -I was born here- and if you're not particularly interested in renaissance art, food and wine, which is mostly what we do best (and you'll get your fill in the days you're going to be staying in/around Florence for the wedding anyway), you might want to look somewhere else for the rest of your vacation. We don't do vegan well, either (well, a few traditional dishes are actually vegan but most are not - at all - the signature dish known everywhere as the fiorentina being a rare 2 in. thick, 3+ lb. monster of a porterhouse steak).

You probably can't beat Rome in terms of ancient history (plus, side trip to Naples and / or Pompeii) but the city is large and chaotic and public transport may be a bit on the hard side to navigate for the unexperienced (it is sometimes for locals as well, frankly) and I'd advice against renting a car and driving in the roman traffic.

My primary suggestion would be Turin, which I know reasonably well and where I live for longish stints alternating with Florence; it's on the map as a tourist destination for no more than a dozen years now (it was a declining industrial city, the center of Italy's automotive industry - then it started picking itself up after the 2006 winter olympics) and still a bit catching up with the whole tourism thing. It's becoming a young, diverse, creative city with a strong emphasis on tech, creativity and art.

It has an interesting structure in the historical parts, mostly from the 1700/1800s, is easily walkable as far as you stay in and around the city centre and has a very elegant and somewhat reserved air to it; the city has been going through extensive renovation for a few years now and there is a very pleasant mix of the old with the modern and contemporary; public transport is very efficient with tramways, a bus system and a (single) underground metro line connecting the whole city.

Museums range from the Museo Egizio (the second largest museum in the world for egyptian art and history after Cairo) to a few interesting modern/contemporary art museums such as the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, the Fondazione Merz, the Museo Ettore Fico and the Castello di Rivoli, on the outskirts of the city, a former royal residence turned contemporary art museum. Speaking of former royal residence the Reggia di Venaria, outside the city is a triumph of baroque and gardens.

There also are some "weird", smaller museums such as the Museo Lombroso (criminal anthropology, pseudoscience from the 1800s), with the adjoined Museo della Frutta (a small museum, with hundreds of wax models of every fruit ever) and anatomy museum, which is somewhat frozen in the 1800s with its wood and glass displays and skeletons and wax models. Plus, a must see is the (mentioned above) Mole, which originally was built to become the city synagogue and then went on to being various other things until a massive renovation and now hosts the National Museum for Cinema. Cool thing about the museums, a little less than 50€ buys a year of entrance to pretty much all of them, so if you're staying just a few days but plan to visit more than 4-5 museums it's worth it. Other things to do include a visit to the open air market (which I'm told is the biggest in Europe) and walks along the rivers in the parks and on the hills (just SE of the city, across the river). Early evening open air drinks sitting at a bar table in Piazza Vittorio as the sun goes down on the river is close to my personal idea of heaven.

Milan as well might be of interest to you; I was there just yesterday for work and at least the city centre with the Duomo and the Galleria, the new Darsena dei Navigli area and the Palazzo della Triennale are very well worth a visit, as well as the new area around the Porta Garibaldi, with some very strange skyscrapers, piazzas and some very interesting urban renovation.

In general, high speed trains (look up Trenitalia - semi state-owned "frecciarossa" trains or Italo, private) are fast (really, fast - 150/190 mph) and dependable; also, the more in advance you are buying your tickets, the cheaper; my advice: fly into Rome, train to Florence (1h and a half), wedding stuff, train to Turin (2h 50), stay a few days, train to Milan (45'), stay a few more days, fly out of Milan (Malpensa Airport, most likely - there are shuttle buses and trains from the city).

Last tip: I don't have exact dates yet but usually around the 3rd week of September Milan hosts the spring/summer fashion shows in various locations around the city, so moving around / finding decently priced hotel rooms might not be an easy task (early booking is key here as well). You may want to skip / plan accordingly - unless you're into fashion, then it's great.
posted by _dario at 1:34 AM on January 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You probably can't beat Rome in terms of ancient history (plus, side trip to Naples and / or Pompeii) but the city is large and chaotic and public transport may be a bit on the hard side to navigate for the unexperienced (it is sometimes for locals as well, frankly) and I'd advice against renting a car and driving in the roman traffic.

I just want to gently push back against some of this. I did not find Roman public transport to be especially confusing. The buses maybe a little, but you don't have to take them and the metro is very easy to navigate. Rome's metro is somewhat undersized, but if you're willing to combine it with a good amount of walking (and based on your interests, I'd imagine you are) it works just fine.

I also did not find Rome to be particularly chaotic or unmanageable in general. It's a fantastic place to wander around, which really was the highlight for me. If you like ancient history and wandering around cities, it's pretty much the best. Also, the Vatican's highlights are more like museums than churches, per se, and St. Peter's is worth seeing even if churches don't interest you much.

On the same trip as Rome, I went to Florence. I am not much interested in Renaissance art, although I am interested in food and wine. Florence is just very pretty; like Rome, it's a great place for wandering. There are a lot of American college students there, which irritated me at times, but it's still really nice and worth visiting. Really, I don't think you can go wrong in Italy.
posted by breakin' the law at 11:52 AM on January 31, 2018 [2 favorites]

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