advice wanted for 10-12 day trip to Italy
August 13, 2004 1:19 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are planning a 10-12 day trip to Italy in late Sept. and are looking for advice. We are torn between a guided tour-type trip where the majority is planned out for you or just getting tickets and hotel rooms and making the plans while we are there. Any advice or experience?

We are definitely going to visit Rome and Vatican City, probably Tuscany as well. We are hoping to enjoy a pretty laid-back trip but we don't want to get home and feel like we didn't experience enough of the culture.
posted by Wallzatcha to Travel & Transportation around Italy (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I took one of those if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium bus tours of Europe once. It was a fine way to determine what places I might actually like to visit some day, but it's not the sort of thing that lets you see much of anything. Our tour of the Accademia basically consisted of 'Here's the David. Now let's go because we're late for the tour of the leather factory that's giving me kick-backs for taking you there.'

Also, you'll find that those tours are not as inclusive as you might imagine. They'll include gaping large amounts of free time, unless you pay to add optional items to your itenerary. But if you don't pay to add optional items to your itinerary, you'll often find that the free time is in some place incredibly inconvenient (examples: when travelling to Switzerland, there was an option to do a cable car ride and boat tour, we went, but those who didn't join got to go with the driver while he washed the bus; in Paris, everyone went to the Moulin Rouge show (at USD$200 a head), but since we didn't want to spend that kind of money, we were left at the hotel which was far, far away from anything worth seeing.)

If you find a small group educational travel company, you'll probably find the tour much more worthwhile. Much more expensive, too, but at least worthwhile. But if you're thinking Trafalgar or the sort, don't bother.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:41 PM on August 13, 2004

It's been awhile, but I can't think much has changed since I was there. When in Rome, if you look like a tourist when you get off the train, someone will come up to you and offer to take you to their penzion, where you'll get a great rate on a pretty good room. Granted, it's not going to be the Plaza, but it'll be adaquate.

I eschew those package tours, but if I were more timid and less adventurous, I guess it might be an option.
posted by crunchland at 1:41 PM on August 13, 2004

If you had more time, I'd recommend doing it by yourselves -- that is, with a guidebook (there are tons, the Berkley Guides, Let's Go, etc.) Since you've only got 12 days, however, I'd recommend the tour. There's really only three cities you have to see (Rome, Florence & Venice). And Pompeii, of course.

If you've done some travelling before, you can easily do it yourself; the one thing that a tour will address better than you is the "OK, kids, let's get a'movin' "-factor. You can see just about everything cool and interesting in Rome in 3 days, if you're willing to do a shitload of walking. Same with Florence. But you're not going to enjoy yourself very much. Alternatively, you could just pick a nice, cozy beach spot and spend all 12 days there, really getting a feel for the place. But it's not like you get to go to Italy every month, so you might not want to squander it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:56 PM on August 13, 2004

I did a guided-tour trip through Italy a few years ago and had a great time. Because everything was pre-arranged, I probably saw more of Italy than I would have going on my own. That said, I don't think it impacted either way how much "culture" I was able to experience - getting a good travel guide (the dorky Rick Steves has some great ones) will help you get all the culture you need.
If you know a good travel agent, they can really be an asset in planning a trip like this - they'll be able to recommend some of the reputable tour companies. Also, depending on your budget, there's a package for every age, interest, and activity level - so don't necessarily discard the idea.
posted by dicaxpuella at 1:57 PM on August 13, 2004

If you are going in September, I hope you have your tickets already. Flights to Italy get filled quickly this time of year, when the weather is still good.
posted by eas98 at 1:58 PM on August 13, 2004

I would avoid the package tours, unless you're REALLY nervous about travelling on your own. Italy's pretty tourist-friendly, so you shouldn't have much problem getting around on your own, and you'll have so much more freedom for doing what you want.

I worked giving walking tours in Venice for a while, and most of the "official" guides did exactly what jacquilynne said: Here's the piazza, take a photo, moving on. Here's the Rialto bridge, take a photo, moving on. If you want to get a taste of the local culture, don't do it on a bus full of Americans. (And I say that as a current employee for a package tour company!)

Despite my visceral dislike of Rick Steves, the travelers I met who used his guidebooks tended to be very happy with them, and very "into" the local culture. He's pretty good about suggesting manageable itineraries and smaller but good hotels and restaurants, which will give you guidance and yet let you feel more like you're "living like a local." He's also pretty conscious of the expectations and limitations of the average middle-aged American traveler who might not speak the local language -- he's not going to send you to some dive hostel, but he's also not going assume you need to be staying at the Ritz to feel comfortable.

I think his company now also arranges smaller package tours, but I haven't talked to anyone who's done them.

Otherwise, you might want to pick up whatever Time Out guidebooks exist for the places you're going (not the weekly entertainment magazines, but the actual travel guides) and start calling hotels. I swear by the Time Out guides.
posted by occhiblu at 2:02 PM on August 13, 2004

Do the second thing. When you're in Italy with the woman you love no-one should be telling you what time to be on the bus.

If you're going to Rome and Tuscany, consider the Marches as well. Gubbio and Urbino are beautiful Renaissance towns with stunning ducal palaces full of important art, and the region isn't as overrun with tourists.

And Venice! Go to Venice. I know, you've seen pictures, you know what's there, canals and bridges, lots of tourists; whatever. Go to Venice.
posted by nicwolff at 2:03 PM on August 13, 2004

A lot hinges on what type of person you are. Honestly.

If you're somewhat relaxed people, then independent travel would be best.

However, if you're tightly-wound people that won't be comfortable (or able) to "wing it" at least on occasion, then you should take a package tour.

Imagine you arrive in a city at 5pm with no place to stay -- will you be comfortable trying to find a place? If you can't find a reasonable place, will you be comfortable paying "more than you should" in order to just grab a room anywhere, even if that means the Hilton? Without complaining or yelling at anyone?

I've travelled a lot, and I've seen people ruin their own vacations on many occasions -- they freak out about the ferry being late, they freak out about having to assemble their own meal from foreign groceries, etc. etc. I am not trying to be insulting, but if you think you're one of those people, you should take a package tour.

If you're not one of those people, then you'll be a lot happier travelling independently, IMHO.
posted by aramaic at 2:13 PM on August 13, 2004

Go on your own, and take a city tour for the first morning in each new city. That'll give you an idea of the places you want to go back to on your own, at your own pace. If you're fit, you can even find bicycle tours. (Renting a bike is also a general good idea, as Rome, Venice and Florence are all veyr bikeable towns.)
Try to spend at least 1 night outside of a big city, as the smaller towns are not to be missed. Peruggia is quite amazing, for example.
If yu want a feel for the culture, wander around, wear a big smile and talk to anybody who'll talk back, which, being Italy, will be most people.
posted by signal at 2:39 PM on August 13, 2004

Traveling on your own doesn't have to mean scrambling for hotels -- get a reliable guidebook, find ones that sound good, and call around and book them before you go.
posted by occhiblu at 3:03 PM on August 13, 2004

Go on your own. If you find a place you really like, you can stay longer, and if you find you're not crazy about a town, you can move on. Italy is too romantic to be hampered by some tour group and their pre-planned agenda. If you are interested in Tuscany, may I suggest visiting Siena? It's easy to reach from Florence, and it's wonderful.

Rick Steves is kind of hokey, but actually has a lot of useful information.
posted by ambrosia at 3:11 PM on August 13, 2004 [1 favorite]

At last, an ask.mefi post that I can really answer!

Tour vs. On Your Own - this really depends on what type of travelers you are and what kind of experiences you seek. There is no right or wrong way of experiencing Italy. Plus, you can combine tour & solo into the same trip.

I do believe that there are some sites that you'll want a guide for in Rome, but others you can do on your own. I hire personal guides, as opposed to group tours. I highly recommend Dr. Eleonora Ferrazza, as a personal guide. She is a great guide that will tailor your touring to fit your wants. It's really nice to have a someone who you can ask questions of at the moment that you're seeing a something amazing.

You do not need a guide for the Catacombs or Nero's Golden Palace. Both of those sites provide guides as part of the ticket price. You can always pick up a guide waiting at the entrance of the Coleseum as well. But, for Palatine Hill, the Forum and Capital Hill, a guide would be nice, as everything is in ruins and it is difficult to parse out exactly what you're looking at and the significance.

Another thing about personal guides is that they can often get you into places that are closed off to most visitors. Eleonora got me into the Judicial building in Rome, which is closed to everyone, including Italians that cannot provide proof of official business. It was an amazing experience. I got to see the Court of Cassation, similar to the U.S. Supreme Court. A guide can also answer questions like where to eat, where to shop, how to catch the train, etc.

I highly recommend that you take several hours to visit the Museo Nazionale Romana on the Piazza Della Republica. There you will see fantastic portrait busts, statues, etc. The statue of Niobide is there, as well as The Boxer, which is my favorite. It also houses the most fantastic fresco collection in the world. There are actual walls taken from archeological sites, which have been reassembled so that you can see the full effect of an entire room. The frescos are only shown at appointed times throughout the day. Check on the times when you buy your ticket. This museo is rarely packed and it's a nice, air conditioned reprieve from the rest of the hot, tourist packed sites of Rome. Oh, and it has a very nice audio tour. Use it.

Rome also offers some museums that are a bit off the beaten path, including the Rome Crime Museum and the Museum of the Souls of Purgatory.

I also recommend that you spend a few days in Napoli. Do not be scared off by people that will tell you to stay away because it's dangerous. Napoli is the most densely populated city in Europe. It is also the birthplace of pizza. Just be smart. Don't carry valuables, i.e. a cellphone or camera in your hand. Don't wear expensive jewerly. Don't look like you have money. You can catch the train to Napoli, or anywhere else for that matter from Termini station. Stand in line for a ticket or use the computer stations adjacent near the ticket counters. Allow plenty of time to get through the station and find the right platform.

In Napoli, you'll want to see the Archeological Museum . Afford several hours for this trip. You can even bring lunch with you, which you can eat in the courtyard, where you are surrounded by artifacts. This museum houses a vast collection of the treasures from Pompei and Herculeum. It's wise to visit this museum before going to Pompei. This museum has a horrible audio guide, so I would recommend hiring a guide to take you through. You can also sign up for the Secret Room tour. The Secret Room houses a collection of "erotic" art. Basically a lot of really big penises, but an interesting diversion from statues and portraits. The room directly across from the Secret Room houses a nice collection of portrait busts. One of them is made of metal. It is is unbelievably beautiful. The hair is made from very thin strips of coiled copper.

If you plan to visit Pompei and have taken my advice to visit the Archeological Museum first, then stop at the bookstore and buy a Pompei Then & Now book. It is small enough to fit easily into a handbag or bagpack. It is plastic covered and contains pictures of Pompei as it is now with platic overlays showing how it looked in its heyday. It will help you envision Pompei once you get there and also serves as a good map. The gift shop is caries the same stuff that you will find at Pompei, but it has a much better selection, so make your purchases at the museum.

A five-minute walk from the Museum is the Capella Sansevero. This small chapel houses the Veiled Christ statue, a figure of christ beneath a marble veil which disappears when you walk from it's feet to its head. There is also a crypt where Prince Raimondo's experiments in turning humans into stone can be viewed.

On your way to the Capella, stop at Cafe Fiorillo and have some cafe and a bite to eat. Signore Fiorillo as a very nice man and he loves to talk to visitors.

Across from Cafe Fiorillo is Piazza Bellini. On the other side of the piazza is the Tightrope Internet Bar. It's the best internet bar that I found in Napoli. You can drink wine, beer or cafe while you check your email under muted lighting and with soft latin music surrounding you.

From Napoli, you can catch the train to Pompei. At the entrance to Pompei you'll encounter dozens of tour guides. If you've done your homework, you probably don't need a guide.

Florence is only a couple hour train ride from Rome. You can pack it into one day if you're on a tight schedule. Your hotel can make reservations for you at the Uffizi Gallery and the Accedamia where the Statue of David reigns supreme. There are long lines and it's super crowded. No guide needed.

There is also a "secret" tour at the Palazzo Vecchio. The tour takes you through the secret rooms and passageways used by the Medici family to avoid the public during the 1500s.

Tired of museums and statues yet? Try something different. Sign up for a market cooking class from Divina Cucina. Judy, the Diva will take you through the markets to purchase food that she will teach you to prepare in her ecclectic kitchen housed above the flat where Pinochio was written. The Diva is an expat who loves to share her love of Florence and fine food with others. She's a great resource. Trust me.

One thing to keep in mind is that you cannot possibly take in all of Italy in one trip. It's best to concentrate on one area and take daytrips from there. I love cities, so I make Rome my base. You will not enjoy your trip if you have each moment planned and do not leave room for changes in plans. You'll just get stressed out from trying to match a timetable.

I have lists of sites

Answers to common travel questions:

- There is no way to avoid looking like a tourist. Deal with it.

- Wear comfortable shoes, you'll be walking a lot.

- The euro is kicking the dollars ass. Plan accordingly.

- Bring comfortable clothes that you can wash in a sink and hang overnight to dry. Your wife will probably want to bring one pair of nice shoes and at least one dress or skirts. You'll want to dress nice when you go out at night.

- Yes, there are pickpockets. Be careful. You don't need a moneybelt, but don't keep your money in your outer pockets or handbags. I keep larger sums of money in my bra, seriously.

- ATMs are a pain. You'll have to find out from your bank(s), which type of card that you have. Many ATMs will not take cards that have passwords over four characters long. You do not want to exchange money at banks, the fee is hefty, use the ATMs when you find ones that work. I highly recommend that you bring several different cards in case any are stolen, lost, or simply useless.

- Split up your money and ATM/credit cards when carrying them. In other words, don't keep them all in one pocket of a purse. That way if you are pickpocketed, the thief will likely not get all of your cards.

- Talk to Italians who are not hanging around tourist sites. You'll make friends and really get to know Italian life.

- There is no right area to stay in Rome. I prefer the area near the Spanish Steps. Shopping is close and the subway is a short walk away.

- Make photocopies of your passports and carry the copies. Leave your passports in the hotel safe.

Good websites to help you plan:

Slow Talk and it's sister site Slow Trav very nice, helpful message board. Check out the trip report section.

Fodors the people on the message board can be rather opinionated and sometimes even hostile, but you'll get a lot of info there.

Virtual Tourist there is a wealth of information here. The message boards can be rather slow though.

I have lists of shops, affordable shopping areas, markets, and where to find vintage and used clothing. I also have lists of museums. If you're interested, just drop an email.

Good luck. Have fun & enjoy.
posted by Juicylicious at 6:19 PM on August 13, 2004 [3 favorites]

I spent 2 weeks in Italy earlier this year and had a great time. Be sure to make hotel reservations for Rome and Venice well in advance as they book up quickly.

The subway system in Rome is somewhat intimitating, but worth the trouble as it costs a fraction of what you will pay in a taxi.

Money is all euro's and when I went the exchange rate was 1.25:1, easy to figure in your head.

I second the Rick Steves guides, we found some great local restaurants with his book that we wouldn't ever have considered on our own.

We were initally scared of driving in Rome, but after trying it out, found it to be no big deal. (Traffic is bad and parking can be a challenge though)
posted by mbell at 6:21 PM on August 13, 2004

Oops, I forgot to say that I agree with purchasing the Rick Steve's guidebook. It has the best maps and directions. The Time Out books are good if you're very young and/or on an extremely tight budget. Lonely Planet is okay too.
posted by Juicylicious at 6:21 PM on August 13, 2004

My partner and I spent two weeks in Italy last July that took in Venice, Milan, the Cinque Terra, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Assisi, Rome, Naples, Herculaneum, Capri, and Sorrento. We booked NOTHING ahead of time aside from the first two nights in Venice. We thought we were "laid back" types that could just wing it as we went.


Somehow our romantic Italian getaway started becoming filled with stress and resentment. It's no fun spending hours in a nasty Internet cafe trying desperately to get a room in the town you're leaving for the next morning. We stayed in some nice places, but we also paid way too much for some really shitty rooms. We had to delay a side trip at one point because we didn't have accommodation arranged. (If you're interested, pictures and commentary from the trip are here.)

If I had to do it all over again, I'd still go the individual route but I'd make arrangements as far in advance as possible. It was just too aggravating the way we did it.
posted by web-goddess at 2:46 AM on August 14, 2004

Juicylicious was quite thourough. Let me add that high season continues till mid-October (or at least here in Rome); I recommend booking ahead.

I vote against the package tour deal. With a little bit of advanced planning (ie accommodations, guidebook research) you'll be much more flexible to do the things you want to do, not what a tour guied has next on their list.

I do recommend walking tours, especially if you aren't spending a lot of time in one place. You can get at least a basic history as well as get a feel for the layout of the city.

You don't mention your budget for accommodations, otherwise I could suggest a few places.

Three rules for eating well in Rome:

- Eat gnocchi on Thursday. City-wide gnoochi are made fresh on Thursday.
- Eat fish and fish-based pasta on Tuesdays and Fridays only. These are the days when the fish is freshest.
- Unless you've been invited to someone's home, don't order the lasagne. Lasagne in restaurants is palid tourist pap. Skip it.

Feel free to email me, though I am currently in the process of moving to a new flat so it might be a few days before I respond.

ps - Good lord web-goddess, how the hell did you manage to see all of that in two weeks?
posted by romakimmy at 3:37 AM on August 14, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips, links and advice.
I think we will probably book rooms and travel between towns in advance and try to plan most of the rest while we are there. Sounds like if we have a solid idea of what we want to see and do we should be fine without a tour group.
posted by Wallzatcha at 11:05 AM on August 14, 2004

I didn't realize how much it was until I wrote it out. :)

The difficulty was that my partner had been to Italy before and I hadn't, so we tried to do a mix of touristy things and new things. Most of those places were just day trips or exursions we did while traveling to/from the big places. Our favorite places turned out to be the ones we visited on a whim: the Cinque Terra, Lucca, that last day on the beach in Sorrento... So don't plan everything out too much. A little spontaneity can be good.

You know, the best meal I had in Italy didn't involve pasta at all. It was at a "bistecca" on our second night in Rome. We'd wandered by the day before and noted that it was packed with locals, so we figured it was pretty good. Our little old waiter brought us two of the biggest, best steaks I've ever seen in my life, crunchy with sea salt and still sizzling from the grill. It was phenomenal.
posted by web-goddess at 5:41 AM on August 15, 2004

I just returned from Italy last month from a three-week visit. It was the first time for all of us, and we went on our own. We did Roma, Pompeii, Firenze, Toscana, Venezia, and Milano. We booked hotels and museums through an agent first and arranged all restaurants and events ourselves.

We also booked half-day tours with a private docent for each city, which were expensive but extremely worth the price. I recommend this. They typically were from 8am-2pm: We were greeted by a man or woman who would arrive in a small bus, and shuttle us around the city to all the sites. The benefit is that we would skip the 1+ hour lines and walk right in. They were knowledgable of all the sites and history, and would give us lessons. Also, they would do us small favors: we all needed cases of water, so the tour guide graciously drove us to the supermarket, helped us get water, and drove us back to the hotel (yes, we tipped him generously).

Attractions: I was an art history majory, so we basically filled each city with the museums and chapels. If you'd like my itinerary, please email me. Best tip: Do the Musei Vaticani after 1pm for short lines.

Dining: All our restaurants were taken at the suggestion of family & friends who had been there previously or expatriot Italians. The one (and only) time we ate without a suggestion, we all got sick. And we are all epicurians, so the restaurants are commendable. So please email me for amazing restaurant suggestions in the above-mentioned cities!
posted by naxosaxur at 2:16 PM on August 15, 2004

Last September I spent three weeks in Italy. I was fortunate enough to find housing with friends (mostly new friends I met over there, through old friends) for most of the trip, but I found it fun to keep my itinerary loose.

Before I went, I chose some places I really wanted to go and planned around those sites. I brought a few travel guides, but the most useful one turned out to be the Eyewitness Travel Guide - Italy.

If my experience in September is any indication, hotels should not be difficult to book on the spot in the smaller cities. Plan ahead for Roma, Milano or Firenze. A pleasant surprise for me was Pisa. I hadn't intended to go, dismissing it as really touristy, but I ended up spending a few days there, wandering around the old town and taking lots of photos. The merchants were friendly and tolerant of my very broken Italian.

If you want a real scenic treat, take a drive or train up to Lugano, Switzerland, then back over into Italy toward Porlezza. On the way, there is a very cool ancient hillside town called Castella. The streets are so narrow that no cars are allowed in town - it's walking only, but there is a parking lot just below the town. It's very quiet because there are pretty much no businesses in town - everyone leaves town to go to work.

Have a great trip.
posted by neuroshred at 3:34 PM on August 15, 2004

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