italy road trip

Updated: Nov 15, 2018


In keeping with the tradition of visiting countries beginning with the letter 'I', my parents and I embarked on our second annual European road trip, where we spent 10 days touring Italy (last year's Iceland trip review can be found here)!

This was my fifth time to Italy, but I had never been to most of the places on our itinerary (prior, I'd visited Sauze d'Oulx, Sardinia, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast).

We began our adventure with three days/two nights in Rome. From there, we took the train to Florence for a pair of nights. We hired a car in Florence and drove to Lucca, passing first through San Gimignano then Pisa. After one night in Lucca, it was off to Cinque Terre for a few nights, via Borgo a Mozzano and the Alpuan Alps. Finally, we spent the last two nights at Lake Como before departing out of Milan.

Below you'll find my recommendations for where to stay, what to do and where to eat/drink in each location:

ROME

Where to stay:

  • We stayed at Hotel Scalinata di Spagna. It’s more of a bed and breakfast than your typical chain hotel. The location, right at the top of the Spanish Steps, can not be beat! The included breakfast, that was enjoyed on the lovely rooftop each morning, was a great way to start off the day. And the staff was very attentive/helpful.

Things to do:

With all the architectural treasures and historic landmarks in Rome, it’s hard to fit everything into just a few days, so below is my condensed list for those of you trying to tick off the highlights in short span of time.

  • The Spanish Steps reopened on 23rd September 2016, after a €1.5M restoration that took nearly a year to complete. As you can probably imagine, when we visited only 8 days later, there were a great deal of others also there with us. These steps are open day and night (after much controversy). Two warnings when you visit: 1) beware of selfie sticks and 2) if you pick up a sandwich/gelato in your wanderings around Rome, don’t even think about enjoying it whilst seated on the Spanish Steps (unless you’d like to pay a €25-€500 fine).

  • The Colosseum Underground Evening Tour ranks very high on my suggestion list. If you’ve never been to Rome before and you arrive later on in the day, it’s a good start to familiarizing yourself with the city. The tour starts at Trajan’s Column and ends inside the Colosseum with only about 20 other people.

  • About ~4 million people visit the Colosseum each year. The volume of daily visitors varies, but it's overwhelming. Since we had already visited the previous evening, we opted to avoid the masses and instead walk around the outside of the Colosseum to snap (far too many) photos. Below are some ticketing tips that help you better maximize your time:

  • Entry is free the first Sunday of each month, but tickets are still required.

  • If visiting almost any other day of the year, I strongly recommend that you buy and print your tickets in advance. What you’ll save in time is well worth the small booking fee. You’ll need to go to the special pick-up window for internet tickets to swap your printed voucher for an entry ticket. *Note: the advanced purchase of tickets will exempt you from standing in the long line, but not from going through security.

  • A ticket to the Colosseum also includes entrance to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, and is valid for two days.

  • If you are unable to pre-buy tickets for whatever reason, I suggest that you buy your ticket at the entrance to Palatine Hill, which has much shorter lines. From there, make your way down to the Roman Forum and exit through the one-way gate that spits you out right next to the Colosseum. Ta da!

  • As noted above, I suggest visiting Palatine Hill and then the Roman Forum. This will eliminate some uphill climbs and will afford you a bird’s eye view of the Roman Forum before getting into the thick of it.

  • Altare della Patria, Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, Il Vittoriano, The Wedding Cake or The Giant Typerwriter. Regardless of what you call it, it should be visited. Entry is free, but to take the elevator to the top, it costs €7. The panoramic views from the top are well worth the fee.

  • Stroll around town and see the Pantheon, Piazza Novana and Trevi Fountain. All are walking distance from each other.

  • Visit Vatican City (which is its own country, but doesn't require a passport). If you're like me and would like to avoid the crowds, I strongly recommend that you a) don’t visit on a Sunday and b) purchase Sistine Chapel express entrance tour tickets. The tour starts early in the AM, but you get to visit the Sistine Chapel with only a handful of fellow tourists. With this ticket, you also get access to all the Vatican Museums and can connect to the St. Peter's Basilica without having to buy a subsequent ticket. You're technically not allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, but rules don't apply to my mother, so here's one of her snaps!


Where to eat/drink:

  • I don’t have a great deal of recommendations here, but if you have time, I strongly suggest that you get a drink/dinner in the garden at Hotel de Russie.

FLORENCE:

Where to stay:

  • La Casa del Garbo could not be better situated in Florence. It is literally ON the Piazza della Signoria. The rooms are spacious and the showers looked like spaceships.

Things to do:

Florence is not as large as Rome and feels less city-like, but there are plenty of things to do to fill your time. Also, it’s possible to find works by all 4 of the Renaissance artists that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were named after (Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo).

  • About a five-minute walk from La Casa del Garbo is the famous Ponte Vecchio - a Medieval bridge over the Arno River lined with jewelry and souvenir shops.

  • Once you cross over the Ponte Vecchio, you’re not far from Palazzo Pitti. I didn’t visit the museum and wasn’t all that impressed the area, but it’s found on most Florence must-see lists, so I feel compelled to mention it. I do wish that I had visited the Boboli Gardens behind the museum though. Next time!

  • Definitely visit the Galleria dell' Aacademia to see the infamous “David” statue, by Michelangelo. I strongly suggest that you buy your tickets in advance so you can skip the line. You will be required to pick a specific date/time, but it sure beats standing in line for over an hour, like we did.

  • I also recommend buying tickets online, in advance, for the Duomo. If you are unable to do so, there is a ticket machine in Piazza San Giovanni (number 7, I believe), directly across from the Duomo Cathedral entrance (see the Google map below for reference). We bought tickets there for both Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Dome, for €15 each. When you buy the tickets be sure to scan the passes so that you can skip the queues. It doesn’t cost anything additional, but it will save you valuable time. At the time of purchase, you have to select times. We opted for 11:00am at the Bell Tour and 12:30pm for the Dome. In between, climbing the Bell Tower's 414 steps and the 460+ steps at the Dome, we had just enough time to grab a sandwich.



Where to eat/drink:

  • If you want to eat delicious Italian food/drink lots of wine on the water, I suggest dining at Signorvino. It’s predominantly a wine shop, but has some indoor and outdoor seating right on the River Arno, overlooking the Ponte Vecchio, and the food was deeeee-lish!

SAN GIMIGNANO:

After hiring our car in Florence, we drove for about an hour to San Gimignano. It’s a delightful Tuscan town, with an old town center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are well marked parking lots all around the town center, but parking lot #2 is the most convenient, if you can get a spot. We didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time in San Gimignano, but long enough to climb more stairs at Torre Grossa (Great Tower) and have some lunch.

PISA:

From San Gimignano, we drove another 75km to Pisa, for the obligatory, silly photos. By the time we arrived, it was nearly 4:00pm. Despite the beautiful blue skies, it wasn’t overly crowded at that time of the day. We found a parking lot about 5 minutes away, which I have mapped out for you below.


LUCCA:

Lucca is only about 30 minutes from Pisa. It’s a sleepy, but really quaint, town.

Where to stay:

  • Hotel Ilaria is located within Lucca’s Renaissance walls and is very lovely. They have bikes that you can borrow and offer parking for a fee.

Thing to do:

  • Stroll/jog/cycle along the top of the walls that formerly guarded Lucca during the Renaissance-era.

Where to eat/drink:

  • We only had one dinner in Lucca and choose Port Ellen Clan. It was very good and reasonably priced. If you’re looking for other recommendations, see my colleague’s blog on this topic (she’s from Lucca).

DEVIL’S BRIDGE:

About 30 minutes northwest of Lucca is a small town called Borgo a Mozzano. Within that town, there is a very photogenic bridge that's worth a visit, if you’re interested in that sort of thing. If you catch it in the morning, at low light, the reflections are tremendous.


APUANE ALPS:

After Borgo a Mozzano, our next destination was Levanto. We had two options to get there 1) backtrack through Lucca and then head up the coast for 120km, or 2) drive for a bit longer, on the less traveled route, through the Apuan Alps and marble mines, with endless switchbacks. We opted for the latter.


CINQUE TERRE:

Cinque Terre is comprised of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, all connected by rail and hiking paths. Levanto is not technically one of the ‘terres’ but it is just north of Monterosso. We decided to stay in Levanto because parking was easier (parking is forbidden in the other towns).

Where to stay:

  • La Guiada del Mesco is where we opted to stay. Although they don’t have a restaurant, they do still offer breakfast with a spectacular view. They also provide shuttle service to/from the Levanto train station, which is really handy.

Things to do:

  • Since the five lands are in a national park, visitors need to buy a trekking card to hike between them. However, the hike from Levanto to Monterosso is exempt. So, on our first day, we decided to hike from our hotel’s doorstep into Monterosso. Everything we read indicated that this was to be an easy 4-mile hike, which should take about 1.5 hours. WRONG! It was steep, almost volcanic, unpaved and had uneasy footing. We took our time and finally made it in about 4 hours.

  • The next day, we opted to buy the all-day train pass (€16) and see all five villages by rail. All are picturesque in their own right, but I think Manarola and Vernazza were my favorites (pictured below).

  • After seeing the towns of Cinque Terre by land, we hired a boat to see them all from the sea. Stefano, our captain, was very knowledgeable and lovely. Check out his boat service here, if you are considering a boat hire in Cinque Terre.


Where to eat/drink:

  • Even in the off-season it’s necessary to make reservations for most restaurants in Cinque Terre. Since we were unaware of this, we missed out on some places that looked really tasty. However, we did find one place worthy of a recommendation: Miky. It’s much bigger inside than it appears from the street. The staff were all wonderful and the food was great, especially after that 4-hour hike.

LAKE COMO:

Where to stay:

Things to do:

Unfortunately, we had grey and rainy weather the entire time we were in Como, so there wasn’t a great deal to do. We managed to make the best of it though. Below are a few ideas for how to kill time if you find yourself in Como on a dreary weekend.

  • We took the funicular from Como up to Brunate. The views are meant to be amazing from up there, but it was not a clear day. The houses there are pretty spectacular though, if you’re interested in being a bit of a Peeping Tom.

  • We took the Rapido boat service from Como to Bellagio, explored the narrow streets there, bought some playing cards for our evening entertainment and then took the ferry back to Como.

Where to eat/drink:

  • Villa d’Este was voted the World’s Best Hotel by Forbes Traveler 400 in 2009. We didn’t make it over there, but from what I hear, it’s well worth a visit for drinks/dinner.

  • The Locanda is another place that I had researched but didn’t make it to. It’s on an island in the middle of Lake Como and has the same prix fixe menu each night.

So there you have it. Happy road tripping!

#italy #roadtrip #florence #lucca #sangimignano #pisa #cinqueterre #rome #borgoamozzano #devil39sbridge #alpuanalps #lakecomo #bellagio #milan

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