We started planning by Pinning. We pinned apartments in Rome and festivals in Tuscany and museums in Florence. We pinned websites we found and we followed other Italy vacation Pinners. We wanted to know: Should we rent a car? How do we find the train schedule? Where are the best places to eat? Should we take a tour or strike out on our own? What should we pack? Should we go suitcase or backpack? Do we need to make reservations??? Next post I’ll go over some of my pins with less than accurate info.
From Oct. 20 to Nov. 4th, 2015, my dear friend and I took off for a trip together that we had been saying we would do since high school – which was some time ago. The two biggest questions we had were the ones we never voiced – 1. Will this trip live up to our own hype and expectations or will we get to the statue of David and say, “Wow, I thought it would be bigger” – you know how that happens?! 2. Will this trip end a 40 year friendship? You know how they say that you never know someone until you travel with them? I am thrilled to report that everything in Italy (except maybe the myriad of mediocre tourist restaurants located in prime real estate) exceeded expectations – David, and all the artwork and architecture were beyond impressive, the people were great, transportation was easy and our weather was perfect. Our friendship? We are thinking Spain next trip. I have not thought about it too much except that we would not be friends for so long if we did not have respect for each other and share a great deal of interests but my experience traveling with a spouse or a boyfriend the question is usually “What are we going to do?” with the answer more often than not resulting in a compromise and with friends the question is usually, “What do you want to do?” and then you figure the most efficient way to make that happen for each other.
Our last night in Rome and the Trevi fountain just opened up after being closed for repairs. Yes, we tossed in our coins!
The 12 Tips….
Stay in someone else’s home
We used Airbnb for the majority of our trip and had a great experience. Staying in a neighborhood meant we got a different cultural experience- shopping for food and eating at non-tourist spots. However, the neighborhoods can be further away from attractions then hotels so be prepared to walk or learn the bus schedule – neither of which were obstacles for us.
Do not eat in a restaurant on the square, instead, stuff your bag full of bread, cheese, wine and pastries from the neighborhood and eat sitting in the square.
Restaurants surround every beautiful square in Florence and Rome and they all appear to share the same menu, which looks like the same one offered in every mediocre Italian-American restaurant in the US. They are expensive and about as authentic as the Prada bags being sold outside the Uffuzi. Toss some pecorino Toscano, bread, cured meat, and wine into your shopping bag and sit out in the beautiful square instead and then buy an assortment of pastries from one of the many bakeries for dessert – no one cares if you have a little powdered sugar on your coat, trust me. Or, you can grab a slice of pizza or, better yet, an amazing sandwich from All’Antico Vinaio if you are in Florence.
Do drive in Tuscany but not in any city bigger than Siena
We loved having the car in Tuscany but if you are not comfortable with a shift stick or get frustrated when you are lost, you may want to make another choice. We flew into Rome, took the bus to Siena where we picked up and returned the car before we took another bus to Florence. It would be craziness to drive in Rome or Florence and there is no need for a car. Get a good map. Know that you probably should not drive inside the wall and have fun exploring the small towns of Tuscany.
Wear comfortable shoes and dress with modest, comfortable flair.
Yes, it is true; they do not show the skin like we do in the US and color choices may be more conservative. It is nice not to see boobs hanging out all over, IMHO. But, you do not have to dress like a nun. In fact, put a hold on the flowing fabric. As a leather coat salesman said to Beth, “We like to see a woman’s shape”. So, forget the low cut trapeze top and opt for a skintight sweater if you want to seem more Italian. Converse and leather sneaker type shoes were popular on our visit and that makes sense with all the walking. Yes, there were a lot of great shoes but they were not on the smart tourists. We were putting in about 10 miles a day on foot and that is no place for high heels.
Museum Tickets and Tours – yes, probably.
We bought the early Sistine Chapel tour tickets before we left and yes, I think it was a good idea. We still had to wait in line with out tour group but it was much shorter than the non-tour line. We had plenty of time in the chapel but even though it was a 4 hour tour, after we left the chapel, we moved pretty fast to cover the highlights. During the tour, I thought it would be nice if we spent more time in some areas (like, we passed the Dali at basically a run) but as we finished up the tour, it became evident why our guide was moving so fast – we were stopped in our tracks by the crowd who were now just starting out. The early start also allowed us to get through the museum highlights while we could still move in the hallways and see the beautiful art and historical pieces.
Dinner reservations – you may need them
Everyone uses trip advisor for restaurant reviews so if the restaurant has a good rating, you may need a reservation. Since we were visiting in the shoulder season, we did not think we would need them but we did in Rome and Florence. I regret not doing more restaurant research before we left but I thought we would have plenty of choices of great restaurants but Rome and Florence are like anywhere else, you have to know the best places. Our best meals were from casual neighborhood trattorias. In the smaller Tuscan towns and even in Montepulciano, we did not have an issue with finding good food without a reservation – in October.
Go to a festival, any festival and always follow a parade
We went to the Festival of the Thrush in Montalcino. Apparently, the Italians do not call it the Festival of the Thrush, as when we inquired to the meaning of the name, they had no idea what we were talking about. The archer targets as well as the main coarse were wild boar – the targets were pictures but the chinghiale was delicious. The food was delicious, the people great and the wine plentiful. It is a festival for Italians; particularly the 4 sections of the town of Montalcino – this is not a tourist attraction, although there were some of us fortunate ones there.
Forget about your cell phone (as much as possible)
I didn’t bother with buying an Italian sim card and connected to the plentiful wifi when I needed it. Yes, I did miss it when I wanted to search for the best pizza from where I was standing but it was nice to use a map. Beth got a limited use plan from her carrier and it came in handy when we had to find our B and B in Montalcino – that is another story. I noticed that the Italians did not have their noses in their phones and they did not seem to like it when I included them in my pictures – even by accident – I got the impression it was considered impolite.
Do get maps before you leave.
The Tuscany driving map was the best. Also AAA maps of Rome and Florence were waterproof and included attractions were very useful. I read one article that said to pick up maps when we arrived but we would have never found the place to get a map without a map. Very glad we had them in our hands when we arrived. The little pop-up maps looked great but they were hard to see and we destroyed them within minutes.
Do get a little cash before you leave.
We were tired when we arrived and were glad not to have to hunt down an ATM before we found the cab. We used cash for the cab and we paid our Italian tourist room charge – which has to be cash and was $3 per night pp. We had some cards with chip technology and some not and had no problems getting cash in the larger towns and cities – although knowing a little Italian was helpful at some ATM machines.
Transportation – trains, buses and cabs – wish we had it here.
We did not use the buses within the cities as we walked everywhere but we did take the bus from Rome to Siena and from Siena to Florence. Once I got in the correct line to buy a ticket, no problem. It was a little confusing in Rome but I just asked questions until we were sure we were in the right line. About the lines – I am not sure I understand what is the cultural norm of line formation in Italy but I witnessed at both the bus and train ticket lines some yelling by little old ladies and some aggressive line cutting. My only guess is that they look at lines the same way they approach driving.
In buying tickets, I’d suggest paying beforehand if you can get on the right website to make a reservation. We took the train from Florence to Rome by making and paying for the tickets online.
Cabs, the official white ones, are easy to find and taking one will cure you of any desire to drive in the city and if you didn’t pray before you came to Italy, you will now.
The buses store luggage underneath and the driver usually opens the door and sometimes they help with it and sometimes not and there is plenty of storage. The high-speed train requires that you bring your luggage on with you and there is a place in the front of the car to store larger pieces. We managed to get our in the overhead -which are about airline size. We got the business class ticket on the train and it was not crowded so there was plenty of space. However, it was a longer walk to get on the right car of the train – just another reason for wheeled luggage.
Wheels are better.
We went for two weeks and each of us had a wheeled carry-on size bag and a large open handbag and a backpack. It was tight but with the size of the car and the traveling that we did, I am glad we did not have more luggage to handle when managing bus and train travel. I bought a duffel bag in Rome and packed my clothes in it for the return trip and I put my purchases in the carry-on size bag and checked them both thru on the way home. When we shopped, we kept in mind that whatever we bought we would need to carry with us at some point and that helped keep it to a minimum!
My 12 Most Useful Italy Vacation Pins!
Cheap Eats in Florence – spot on and one of my most useful pins
Montepulciano – yes, do the wine tasting here and the cheese tasting – taste everything and so the tour!
Pristine Sistine – Yes, it was worth doing the tour
Montalcino Festival – this was so much fun
Best map of Tuscany -skip the GPS – go old school
Love these shoes – not one problem with my feet and they looked great
Train Line – this blog post had good info and a link to the train website