These are some notes from our family vacation to Italy in August of 2012. It was the first trip for us to the European continent. All things considered it went very well. My wife did all the research and planning of the trip. I did take some notes along the way and hope this can help others plan. By no means do I think it is complete or the only way to do things but it does give a start.
- Do keep cash for taxi and tips. Most restaurants will not let you put the tip on the credit card. Though all the guides say that you do not have to tip in the restaurants, we did get looks for tips almost everywhere we went.
- It is generally safe – we did hear about pickpockets and scams but we did not witness anything unusual, except at the Florence train station where we were approached by a woman who insisted on helping us load out bags on the train and then refused to leave until we paid her.
- Most people speak enough English to get by. Most menus have an English version
- Water is safe to drink. Even from public fountains. But restaurants charge for water.
- Keep several water bottles. It will get hot in summer. Keeping yourself from getting dehydrated can be a challenge. You can refill at public fountains. They are drinkable.
- Restaurants charge for water. They always ask if you want distilled/ still/ no gas (what we in america would call “water”) or sparkling/ gas water (what we call carbonated water). I don’t understand why anyone would drink carbonated water. Personally I find it disgusting.
- Bathrooms are really small and poorly ventilated.
- Trains – euro rail is fast, efficient and comfortable. I highly recommend trying it if for nothing else but for the experience. We did have some confusion with the kind of pass we needed. They were helpful on the phone.
- Lots of churches to visit. But make sure you are not wearing short shorts or have exposed shoulders.
- Do not buy street fake designer products. You can face heavy fines if caught.
- Most places have audio tours that can be rented or downloaded for your iPhone.
- Life in Italy is much slower than in the U.S. What we may call slow poor service is normal for them. Just be aware of this.
- Do use your camera phone to keep you organized. Take pictures of things like hotel wifi login information, receipts, reservation confirmation etc. makes it much easier to find things quickly. Use Evernote for more control.
- Though most hotels seemed safe the in rooms safes that they would have were very small. Certainly not large enough to put an iPad, laptop or DSLR in. I actually kept a portable safe from pacsafe for those times when I did not feel comfortable leaving in my suitcase on the room.
- Pickpocketing does occur. Public places are at highest risk.
- Do keep all your credit card numbers, PIN numbers and bank phone numbers in a secure place (1password) in case your wallet is stolen
- Do use a travel bag, wallet. I like the ones from pac safe.
- Keep a bicycle lock. You can at least lock all your suitcases together. Certainly will not stop the motivated thief. But will discourage the casual one.
Before you go
- Get an international data plan for your smartphone with a decent data plan ~50mb per week. Helps to use google maps to get around town.
- Do research locations with fodors travel guides.
- Travel light. Keep some laundry detergent to wash clothes in your room.
Wear synthetic active wear polo shirts- they keep you cool, dry easily and easy to wash.
- Keep bug spray. Though the big cities are relatively bug free.
- Keep sturdy hiking sandals, most italian streets are not meant for high heels.
- Chargers for smartphones and laptop
- Keep an external batter charger. Especially if you plan to use the smartphone for GPS.
- Keep some local currency but also keep an ATM card watch for non home bank fee, transaction fee and foreign currency fees.
- There are a lot of really great historical sites to see. You will need some time to get to the major attractions. The three nights we had were not enough.
- Most locations are walk able distances apart, plus you get to see some of the local life. Streets are packed with tourists.
- Great places to eat in the side streets
- Cathedrals are amazing, every alley seems to have one.
- Places not to miss
- The Catacombs: I thought it referred to one location but there are many. Choose one, they are interesting but see one and you have seen them all
- Pantheon: an amazing place
- Colosseum: Of course a must see but expect long lines (if you take the audio tour the line is mich shorter at an extra charge) and it will take several hours to see in detail.
- Vittoriano: amazingly ostentatious and self-indulgent building. Worth seeing. There is a beautiful cathedral behind it.
Definitely a must but book a private tour in advance to skip the very long lines or you will spend the whole day in line. We were able to get in at 8a and out 1p.
* Note very few areas allow photography.
* Most of the areas were packed with tourists and the rooms do not have air conditioning.
* Remember no sleeveless tops or shorts.
Naples (Napoli for the locals)
- Not much to see, most of the city in a state of decay.
- The market is interesting and probably worth a quick walk through.
- We had to stop in Naples on our way from Rome to Sorrento. The train stops in Naples and we were picked up by our driver at the Naples station.
- Spend a bit of time downtown to see interesting market. Here is a link to some Google images of the market
- See the Palazzo Reale di Napoli is a beautiful palace, famous for the magnificent marble staircase
- Just okay – probably does not deserve more than a few minutes on your way to Pompeii.
- Worth the stop
- Should see once
- Wear comfortable shoes
- With a guided tour we spend just about an hour and were able to appreciate the scale and organization of the town
- Plan on spending 3–4 hours
- Small quaint, old country feel to a town on the mediterranean coast.
- Hovercraft ports to Naples and Capri
- Stay in town if possible
- Long walk up/down to port. There is an elevator by the hotel.
- Great food try Il Leona rosso or Tasso or any of the other nice restaurants in the main square of Sorrento.
- Fantastic views of the Mediterranean
- Visit an olive garden – remember to keep bug spray
- Ceramic factory is another unusual tour to think about.
- The island can be reached by ferry from Sorrento or Naples, sit on the left for the view
- The island is expensive. More of a high end shopping resort.
- There are some hotels on the top of the island but pricey.
- The port is only the beginning. Take the cable car to the top of the hill.
- Blue grotto is overrated. The lines are too long. There are several other grotto tours along the Amalfi coast if you are interested. Seems like more of a tourist trap.
- Take cable car to top
- Great designer stores
- The steep streets make appropriate shoes necessary.
- Do walk to the south side of island for the view away from the shopping areas
- It is a long walk down back to the port if you do not take to cable car.
- Take a private car. Much faster and better to hit all the important spots. We used “Private tours of Italy”, Carmine the owner and his crew do an amazing and responsible job. They are very experienced and from the area. They come up with a great itinerary custom to your needs.
- The road is narrow and with tight corners plus letting someone else drive lets you enjoy the amazing vistas.
- Very steep narrow streets with lots of steps.
- Not wheelchair or stroller friendly.
- Great place to visit. I would love to go back and relax here.
- Perhaps the most interesting restaurant that I have ever had the pleasure visiting. La Tagliata great place to eat inconveniently located outside town way up on the hill overlooking Positano. Make sure you get there before sunset and watch the sunset while having an authentic home cooked Italian dinner.
- Some really quaint hotels, this town is my favorite
- Priano, a small picturesque village on the coast.
- Very comparable to Positano.
- Lovely seaside resort
- Not as steep as positano
- Famous for paper and stationary
- The largest of the coatal towns
- Not as quaint as the other towns
- A smaller out of the way town
- Famous for a music festival
- Near the dragon valley
- I really love this small village that has a real old country feel
- Not as busy as any of the other Amalfi coast towns.
- Does not have the large shopping areas
- Garden villa cimbrone a beautiful garden hotel on the edge of a massive cliff
- Major northern Italian city
- Superb historical sites to visit, the city is filled with works of renaissance art from Michelangelo, Botticelli and others most financed by the Medici family.
- I did not like the food as much as the southern town of the Amalfi coast
- Distances on the maps are closer than they seem
- Hotels are older with obviously older infrastructure. Try to stay near the Duomo or just south of it around Piazza della Republica. Everything will be in walking distance.
- Restaurants in the tourist areas such as on the squares are tourist traps. In general a tip I found helpful was to:
- Avoid any restaurant where a waiter is standing up front in the street beckoning tourists to come in. In fact I even saw several places in Florence where an attractive young lady in a very short skirt was asking tourists to come into two open air outdoor restaurants in the main square in Florence.
- Avoid restaurants that do not show prices on the menu.
- Use Yelp (if you have a data plan) or check fodors for recommendations.
- Most of the good food can be found where the locals eat. These are usually off the main squares. Look in the side streets.
- Do not look for pizza in Florence. It is a south Italy thing. Stick with pasta and Fish.
- The gelato is amazing. The price can vary widely. My favorite chain was Venchi . Looks expensive from the outside but was not as bad as some of the sleazy smaller ones. One charges me €8 for a single medium gelato.
Places not to miss
- The Duomo: Do climb to the top for a beautiful view. Get there early before the crowds and heat.
- Do visit the Basilica di Santa Croce right next to the Duomo. It has the It is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Dante’s tomb.
- Galleria dell’Accademia is worth visiting even if only to see the statue of David. Do book for tickets in advance. People wait all day to see the David.
- Ponte Vecchio: a famous bridge but really over rated in my opinion.
- Pitti palace: About as self indulgent and opulant as any palace could possibly be. Incredible all the same and therefore worth seeing. If you are familiar with Homer’s Odyssey you will really understand all the elaborate frescos.
- Piazza della Signoria is probably my favorite. The location of bonfire of the vanities, The statue of Perseo holding Medusa’s head, by Cellini (1554), is a stark reminder of what happened to those who crossed the Medici, and along with Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines.
- Uffizi: Worth seeing. Museum tickets are available here., this is right at the Piazza della Signoria.
- Shopping: for those interested in shopping for designer clothing there is a designer outlet mall creatively called “the mall” located outside of Florence. It is an hour long bus ride from the train station.
- Do watch out for people at the train station that want to “help” you board the train. They start with a smile but then try to strong arm €20 out of you.
Beautiful city of canals. Personally I thought it was overrated. Everything was expensive.
- Mediocre and expensive food though we did find some gems by getting recommendations from the hotel concierge. Stay away from the restaurants on the piazzas
- Do see the canals, of course.
- Basilica di San Marco. Get there early to avoid the longer line. Strict dress code. I thought the cathedrals in Rome and Florence were far more breathtaking.
- Visit the Doge palace and take the hidden tour where they take you to the torture chambers and hidden courts. You do have to book way in advance to get on the English speaking tour.
- Everyone does the gondola ride. I thought it was way overpriced and gimmicky. Do it once in your life and you are set.
- The Rialto bridge is overrated. The view from the bridge is on many postcards of Venice.
- I did not think more than two nights were needed for Venice. Pack really light for this town.
- Get the day pass to use public water transpiration though most places are accessible quicker on foot through the narrow alleys and a city map.
- Public restrooms do charge per use but most restaurants have a place for a pit stop if you are a patron. Though most were disgusting.
- Do look at the interesting Morano glass.
We happened to spend two nights in Zurich, Switzerland before we headed back to the U.S. Though obviously not a part of Italy or the European Union it does deserve some special mention.
- A very modern city. Very clean and efficient. It was a marked stark contrast to the slower Italian cities.
- It was about 20F cooler compared to Venice when we arrived.
- Do walk along the river using a tourist map found at the train station tourist office. Probably just takes half a day. I particularly Loved the river near sunset.
- Do walk the old city, west of the river.
- Cost of food eating out is VERY expensive. Four of us ate lunch at a cafeteria style eatery near the central train station. Just had some sandwiches and juice. The bill 75 francs! Later that day we went into a little pizzeria in a side street and one pizza was 25 francs!
- Alternatives- there are plenty of co-op or supermarket where the prices are closer to normal
- no tipping needed.
The city in general
- Very modern. Feels like any larger American city. Just much more expensive. Manhattan felt cheap by comparison.
- Public transportation is amazing. Fast clean and on time. Get a 24 hour pass and ride around.
- People are very friendly but mind their own business.
- Feels about as safe as can be.
Things to see around Zurich
- Mount Rigi and Lucerne was an interesting day trip from Zurich. The round trip tickets can be purchased from the very helpful tourist desk in the Zurich train station.
- Zurich to Goldau by train, then to the top of Mount Rigi via cog wheel train. The views are breathtaking. Worth the trip. Much cooler air – felt wonderful after the intese heat of Italy.
- Down on the other side to Vitznau via cog wheel train and cable car
- take a ferry to across Lake of Lucerne to the town of Lucerne
- Walk and shop in Lucerne, a quaint small expensive resort town. Not the kind of history that one seems in Italy but worth visiting.
- Take the train back to Zurich
Very accessible via train even with a fair amount of luggage. Just a 12 minute ride. The train stops below the airport.