As I began writing this, I realized it was going to be one big blog, so I will break it into sections if you want to just scroll for what you're looking for, starting with general information, transportation, hotels we stayed at (for a family of five), restaurants, and attractions. My goal is isn't just to entertain my readers but help anyone looking into visiting Italy. I spent a lot of time researching and using Google Earth to find my way around the country but I was still unsure how everything would work out until we got there. Thank you, Jesus, our trip was great and we had very little issues.
Photo flying into Rome.
Planning and General Information
First thing, we had to decide where we wanted to start in Italy and where we'd end. It really is important to figure out first since Italy is a large country. Getting a direct flight from Denver, Co. wasn't going to work out, however, we managed to have as few transfers as possible. Most flights stop in Frankfurt or Munich where you change planes to Italy.
Luggage--We stayed in Italy for two weeks, so we brought a lot of luggage with us. This was something I wish I would have planned better. Sure, they have Taxi's, but getting a Taxi big enough for a family of five with luggage is difficult. As told by a Taxi driver, the Taxi van vehicles are limited and double the price. We made the mistake of taking two taxis to the main train station where the taxis dropped us off at two different locations, leaving me and my middle daughter with all of the suitcases. It was quite the scene trying to get five suitcases to the train's loading platform with hundreds of people all around you. Next time, I'm getting one of those backpack suitcases and skipping the taxis all together (most places are walking distances, however dragging suitcases down crowded, cobblestone streets is not ideal--we did that to).
Every hotel we stayed at, had stairs like the one above. They all had one elevator smaller than a coat closet. At check in, we'd stack the five suitcases in the small space, hit the floor, and run up to meet our luggage.
Also keep in mind when you are packing for the trip, if you plan to see the old churches or pretty much any place considered Holy, don't wear tank tops or shorts above the knee--they will ask you to leave or will stop you from entering. And if you carry a large bag or large purse, some of the exhibits will not let you bring it in. Some places have lockers but not all.
Money--We had Euro on hand, but most places took our credit cards with no problem at all. We mostly used the Euro for taxi rides and small gelato stands.
Taxis are probably your best bet in getting to the hotel from the airport unless you pack light and can walk it (as I mentioned above). I would NOT recommend renting a car. We thought about it, but I'm so glad we didn't. Drivers are crazy and there seems to be no lanes (well, I saw lane lines, but they drive right in the center). I seriously thought the ride from the airport to the hotel in Rome would be my last day on this earth.. and I grew up in California.
Once you are in Italy and want to travel to the different cities, the train system is pretty awesome and inexpensive. But note, if you are traveling with large luggage, you'll have to spring for first class and even then the storage for large luggage is first come, first serve. I had to lift a large, heavy suitcase into the overhead and it was difficult. My hubby had to lift four up. If you're already settled into a hotel and are just taking the train for day trips, it's a great way to travel. For the day trips we rode, Trenitalia and for the trips between hotels we went with italo, which is the high speed train and does allow larger luggage.
Transportation changes if you plan on visiting Venice. You still can take the train (we took italo) but if you're staying on the island or wanting to visit Saint Marcos Square, a water taxi or bus is going to be the next thing (no cars are allowed on the island, but really, you don't need one). We took the VAPORETTO, water bus. Yes, it will make several stops and will take longer than if you take a water taxi, but it's SOOO much cheaper. Since it was our first time in Italy, we enjoyed the views along the Grand Canal and didn't mind all the stops. The Vaporetto not only picks up from the train station, but to and from the airport. We were flying out of Venice super early and it was not a problem.
When looking for a hotel, it's important to know what sites you want to see and book something pretty central. Taxi drivers (well, all drivers) are scary and expensive (as I mentioned) if you take them everywhere. Walking was not a problem at all and you get to see so much more of the cities. If you have problems walking, Italy may not be for you. The terrain is very hilly and there are lots, I mean LOTS of stairs. I did not see many with baby strollers or even wheelchairs. No handicap bathrooms or ramps.
Our stay began in Rome at Hotel Trevi Collection. Above photo was a side view taken from our balcony. If you click the photo it will take you to their site and gallery. Their breakfast (included) was a great way to start off our day. The location couldn't have been more perfect. Steps away from the Trevi Fountain, less than a mile from the Colosseum (plus so many other things to see) and about a mile from the Vatican. The room was small and we had to share a bathroom but everyone had their own bed and the balcony view was great.
Florence was our second stay at hotel, Relais Uffizi. It was a decent sized apartment with two bedrooms, living room, one full bath, one half bath, living room, and full kitchen (although we paid the extra $$ for breakfast, since those staying in the apartment lofts do not include breakfast--totally worth paying for it). I loved the location in the heart of Florence but we did have a hard time finding the hotel because it was tucked in an alleyway (photo below). If you take a taxi, you'll be fine, but we walked from the train station to the hotel. Here we are trying to buzz the door to get into the entryway.
Side note: We took the train to Pisa one of the days while we stayed here. It was an easy ride and walk to leaning tower and that entire historical site. Totally worth the journey! Below is pictures of our room at the Relasis Uffizi.
Our third stay took us to Bologna and to the Art Hotel Novecento. We stayed in one of the apartments and it was very updated and had an artistic designed. The shower was also a steam room. Who wouldn't love that.
Bologna wasn't my favorite place to visit, but I did enjoy our stay and were in a very nice, quiet courtyard.
Finally, Venice and my favorite place of all.
San Marco Palace is just steps way from Saint Marco Square and along one of the canals. We stayed in the family suite, where everyone had their own bed. So nice when you've been walking ten miles a day for over a week. Even better, our room had a balcony and the other room stretched across one of the canals.
And since Gondola rides were $80 Euro per person for a 30 min ride, having a room off a frequently used canal, I got to hear the singing gondolier for free several times.
The hotel in Venice also gave us a free excursion to Murano, the Glass Island. Free water taxi to and from the Island was neat, but really all of it was a sales pitch to buy blown glass pieces. You get a demo and history of the company before a sales person leads you around the showrooms. It was quite beautiful and neat to see. I never felt pressured to buy anything. Our guide was awesome, but I'm sure he would have been happier if we were buyers.
The one thing you really want to do is experience Italy and local dishes. Pizza and pasta dishes are a given all over Italy, but certain cities have specalities. Bologna, for example, is known for it's Spaghetti alla Bolognese (which was delicious) gelato originated in Florence, and seafood is Venice. Below, we are eating at a restaurant in Rome, close to the Colosseum where we had pizza and pasta.
One great thing, breakfast was included in most of our hotel stays. Let me say, we all filled up, even my middle daughter who's not a big fan of breakfast foods.
We pretty much ate two big meals a day (and of course dessert before heading back to the hotel). Our food was so much cheaper than when we stayed in Orlando.
This guy reminded me of Adam Sandler.
Just another tip before moving on, don't tip. Prices are already elevated for table service. We found out you can't go to a window and order then sit down (in same café/restaurant) to eat it. We did this with gelato one day and were asked to leave. The server explained the price difference, so of course we got up and ate while walking back to the hotel room. So no tipping and if you want to sit and rest your feet, don't order from a window or counter, let them wait on you.
One thing I will say first off, we did not pay for any of the tours. To be honest, they weren't for us. We like doing what we want, when we want and tours are very structured with a lot of people. Most places, like the Colosseum, have English signs as well as Italian, or you can spend a few bucks more for self-guided battery operated recorders. One of the places we visited, you could download an app, but since we turned off our cellular data while there, it didn't work for us.
Rome: The Trevi Fountain was our first stop. You can hear the roar of the rushing waters before this massive fountian comes into view. It's a beautiful sight. I had dreamed for several years of seeing this in person ever since I wrote the third Twisted Roots novel, Legacy. It's amazing how well I wrote the description based on Google Earth. Still, not the same as seeing it in person. It was awesome but get there early morning. The place is packed and the surrounding area is not very big.
Rome: The Colosseum is a must for anyone. There are several options when seeing the Colosseum, but if you're wanting a more in-depth tour, you'd be happier booking a tour for your specific taste. For us just the general admission, which was amazingly inexpensive, worked. There are signs written in English explaining sections of the Colosseum and the history. No one is allowed on the floor because of excavations still going on.
Note: Get there early in the day (you also go through security similar to the airport). They only allow so many in at a time and will hold the line until people or groups leave. I believe they take into count the tour groups, so if you buy a tour, you'll be fine. But keep in mind, tours are marked up like 4x times what you would pay for general admission. I just didn't think it was worth it. We got there early and had no issues.
Right next to the Coliseum is Palatine Hill, which is a huge area. It's so beautiful with amazing gardens and old buildings. Be prepared though. We went right over to Palatine Hill from the Colosseum and we should have eaten before entering. We were starving and left before seeing all of it. There were some vending machines, but no snack stands or restaurants on the grounds.
There is a lot to see in Rome and if you're on foot, like we were, you'll find all kinds of interesting places to see... many for free or very cheap. Another thing prices are cheaper or free for kids under 17 (not 10 or 12 like here). That saved us quite a bit of money.
Other places we visited in Rome:
-St Peter's Basilica
-Churches (which again, do not wear shorts above the knee or tank top if you plan to enter them)
-The Vatican (Which we decided not to go in. They were closing early and the line was long when we got there. Next time, we'll get there before they open and check the times. St. Peter's Basilica was next door, so we went there instead. It was awesome and FYI, there is a cafe at the top with an amazing view.
Florence: Pisa was a short train ride from our hotel and totally worth the trip. It's a beautiful walk from the train station to Piazza dei Miracoli also called the The Square of Miracles.
Of course you have to walk up the tower. It's kind of like walking up stairs, drunk as the lean thrusts your body from one side to the other. Be careful though, the marble steps are worn and slippery, but it's worth the view at the top.
The guy in the first photo below, is a bit confused on the concept of holding up the tower.
There are other things to do in the square, so plan on spending the day there. Florence is a beautiful city and there is a lot to see. Our hotel was located super close to the Piazza dei Miracoli. Lots of restaurants, fountains, museums and sculptures. If you plan to visit the Palazzo Vecchio and it's even a little drizzly, they will close the tower, so you may want to plan another day. If the marble steps get wet, it's too dangerous.
Bologna: I'll admit it wasn't my favorite city, however, it was my favorite meal. The city streets are lined with huge, beautiful outdoor hallways. I kept thinking how nice it would be to have those here in Colorado when it snows to keep the walkways between businesses clear.
Bologna also had some cool art displays and we found a wonderful park while exploring.
Venice: I loved Venice and what I looked forward to the most. But looking back, I wished we would have stayed one more day in Rome and one day less in Venice or would have researched more on the surrounding islands to visit. Our hotel couldn't haven't been better, like I mentioned in the hotel section. Saint Marcus square is the place to be.
And of course there are no cars anywhere, which is nice, but be prepared for the large crowds. We watched cruise ships sailing on the Grand Canal to a docking port on the back side of the island. It was super busy mid-afternoon and the alley ways were tight with people. If you want the quiet moments in the square, get up early.
I will admit, although this was a vacation I had dreamed about for along time, I still had anxiety about visiting the unknown. Would I be able to speak to people, would we like the food, how will people treat us, how will we get around without renting a car, transportation to Venice… the list goes on. And now I can say there was nothing to worry about and it was easy peasy.
For anyone getting ready to take this journey, I hope this blog was helpful and if you have any questions, I'd be happy to answer the best I can. As a writer, I hope to continue traveling and adding new experiences. Japan is next on our list.
About the writer: As a young, vivacious reader, Shelly spent most of her time, either in the restricted reading section of the library, or scribbling away in journals. Shelly’s first novel A Light into the Darkness earned a Puddly Award in 2013 and in 2015 was nominated for Family Fiction's top ten books. In 2016, she completed and published her third novel in the Twisted Roots series and started teaching creative writing classes at High Country Home Educators. Current project she is working on is an apocalyptic romance which can only be described as a cross between Left Behind and Mad Max Beyond Thunder-dome.
Shelly lives in Colorado with her husband Tim, three daughters, and three rescue dogs