Being the mecca of all art and architecture in this world, Italy really called out to us when we were initially debating where to go. It turns out that it was the best decision – every corner we turned in every city we went to, soothed our eyes and our mind with its beauty.
While the country itself is smaller compared to a lot of others, it’s jam-packed with amazing places to see. Be it the fashion mecca Milan, and the dreamy Venice in the north or the stunning historic Rome and the art capital Florence in the middle or the wine country Tuscany with the jewel of Pompeii towards the south, the country is vast in its treasures and it can be a daunting task to pick and choose once you start planning your itinerary. Luckily, it’s easy to travel around in Italy and if one plans ones’ train rides and schedules well, it is possible to extract the most of this wonderful country in a short period of time. Of course, which places to go and what to skip is always a personal preference, but I’m happy to share my travel itinerary to help give an idea on how this can be done!
Explore the best of Italy in this quick 9 day itinerary!
Day 1 and 2:
Venice is a place of mystery and beauty, with no modern car horns blaring or inconveniences to break the magic spell that the city weaves. From the minute we landed, we were entranced! Our flight from India landed in the evening, and as we took a water taxi to the centre of the city where our hotel was, we saw what could only be described as an ancient, magic- breathing, fairy city before us. Venice welcomed us with twinkling old world yellow street lamps, a hushed atmosphere of mystery and gorgeous 13th-century architecture that had us all spellbound.
We timed our visit to coincide with the breath-taking Venice carnival i.e. Carnevale di Venice, an annual festival held around the end of February, where people celebrate the Renaissance and dress up in gorgeous Victorian attire and in the world-renowned Venetian face masks. The principal square of St Marks is the place to be where everyone is dressed to the nines in historic gowns, wide skirts, frock coats and what not.
We spent hours at Piazza San Marco, on the banks of the Grand Canal in glee, watching the masquerades, costumes and the parades, and snuck in quick visits to the Doge’s Palace and the St Mark’s Cathedral. Both these heavily adorned buildings are at the piazza itself so we made the best of the times when there was a lull in the carnival celebrations! The Doge’s palace is where the Duke of Venice had his residential, as well as his administrative suites. A tour of the palace gave us a much better sense of the world of the Duke and the history of the city. The St Mark’s Cathedral, also known as the Church of Gold for its opulence and gold mosaics, was dripping in breath-taking gold décor! We also took some time to visit the Gallerie dell’ Accademia (also on the Grand Canal but further away from St Mark’s square) which houses a rich collection of Venetian paintings and art and spent a good hour or 2 admiring the many famous pieces on display.
While we deliberated about taking a gondola ride to get a local vibe of the city, we didn’t find the proposition to be value for money as they were quite expensive and very crowded and hence didn’t go ahead with it.
We gorged on yummy traditional pizzas and pastas from the get-go and discovered so much nuance in flavours of even something as basic as a Margherita pizza or a Tiramisu! We were off to an awesome delirious enchanting start!
Day 3 and 4:
We took the 11:30 am train to Florence as we didn’t want to rush early in the morning, and also wanted to savour the beautiful views of the Grand Canal from our hotel rooms as we had our last Venetian breakfasts! The Trenitalia network covers all of Italy and has very convenient schedules to suit all types of travellers, so our lazy selves were covered.
The train ride was fun as the views changed from canals and water to farmlands with rows and rows of olive shrubs and orange trees. We reached Florence at around 1:40 pm and headed straight to our hotel in a boring conventional taxi! The weather stayed on our side and the clouds rolled in to welcome us with fresh showers, making it pleasant and cool.
The first thing we did to beat the inevitable crowds, was to book advance tickets for the next day to one of the most famous museums in the world and the second most visited art gallery in Italy: The Uffizi Gallery. Then we headed on to see the Santa Croce (which is a simple but beautiful church which houses the monumental tombs of many notable figures such as Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, etc) followed by a visit to the Santa Maria Del Fiore. Also known as the Duomo of Firenze, it is such a beautiful cathedral that it has become the symbol of the city. The roof of this Duomo or Dome was engineered and painted by Brunelleschi in the 15th century and many compare its beauty to the Sistine Chapel. Adjacent to the Duomo is the Giotto Tower and the 10 panelled bronze doors of the Baptistery, famous for bringing in ‘depth perception’ into art and sculpture. After a quick lunch of pizza, Tiramisu, Gelato and even more Tiramisu, we headed on to spend our evening exploring the Piazza Signoria with a loggia of statues from famous sculptors and the expansive Palazzo Vecchio, the old city palace, home and offices of the famed Medici family of Florence.
The next day, we explored the Uffizi Gallery as per our appointment, which houses an artists’ paradise within its walls and went on to see the marvellous statue of David at the Gallery Accademia. While the Gallery had a lot of art and sculpture from the pre-renaissance period as well, we were just drawn to David and the mastery and finesse of Michelangelo’s hands! Onwards then, we strolled to the rustic San Lorenzo church, which houses the Medici family chapels. As we left the church, and the day was winding down, we found ourselves in an unnamed square listening to a street musician playing his keyboards and enthralling the crowds. We crossed many musicians on our way back to our hotel as they entwined harmony into the very air we breathed. We stopped to enjoy the melodies on top of the Ponte Vecchio (Vecchio Bridge) with our evening gelatos in hand, while the river Arno flowed gently beneath us.
While we also found time to enjoy a traditional meal of Florence in a small local café and hog on a giant Florentine steak, we couldn’t find the time for The Pitti Palace and the adjacent Boboli gardens, both of which are Florence must-sees. But we’ve told ourselves that it only means we must go back and revisit this gorgeous city soon!
Days 5 and 6:
We rode our train from Florence to Naples and reached in the evening. We had chosen a hotel which was very close to the train station, as we were using Naples city as our base for further travels and not planning to spend too much time in the city itself. Though there are many amazing things to see and do in Naples itself, we chose to skip most of those as we had our sights on the bigger prize – the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. We had an early morning the next day, so after a quick dinner at a local café, we all turned it for the night.
The next morning, we took one of the local trains, the Circumvesuviana (or the circular train to Vesuvius and back) While an extended part of the Trenitalia network, this is a very no-nonsense local train with open windows, no AC, and graffiti down its sides. The tickets were barely a few euros, the station easy to navigate and off we were to Pompeii! We were looking forward to spending the day being explorers and were giddy with excitement!
At Pompeii, after battling a long line to buy tickets, which come with a map of the ancient city and a booklet explaining the main points of visit, we were off! We started off by seeing some of their housing rows, with the mansions of the rich, the smaller homes of the regular folks, the still functioning drinking water fountains, the main gates of the city of all directions, the cremation grounds, the fast – food restaurants (or the Thermapolia which also house what resemble the modern-day pizza kilns), the open bars with thousands of still preserved amphorae, and even the cobbled streets for the chariots, etc.
The history of Pompeii is of course well known, but to see the high degree of preservation with one’s own eyes is a different experience altogether. The loaves of bread were preserved in the local bakery, the machine to iron clothes at the tailors, a large no of paintings, murals, artwork, frescoes on the walls, 2000 years old, preserved, vivid bright in colour… a fountain in a rich man’s home, a statue in another house, a mansion with 45 rooms, a garden (!) with garden gnomes and other décor in a fourth, the tiled decorated floors of the spa / thermal baths (or thermae as they were known), the “menu” engraved and painted in the wall and the beds at the local brothel (or Lupanar), the toilets, the stadium, the amphitheatre, the barracks of the Gladiators, the huge gardens meant for walking, the temple of the Goddess Isis (an Egyptian influence), even the graffiti on the walls (yes!) and a few bodies of people overtaken by volcanic ash as they ran to protect themselves – preserved in mid-motion. Everything intact and preserved under a giant mound of volcanic ash and rock from Mt Vesuvius for the past 2000 years! We felt like we were peeping into the lives of another world – a world which had slept for some time and was now just awaking.
Of course, no amount of time spent in Pompeii is enough, but we left after a late lunch to go see another lesser known city called Herculaneum. Herculaneum was a richer city, must closer to the volcano, and hence better preserved. While the Pompeii preservation levels are quite high, a lot of the paper, wood, cloth got charred and burnt from the fire and the lava. Herculaneum on the other hand, was enveloped by the ash clouds so rapidly and suddenly that the fire didn’t get a chance to damage it as much.
A quick ride to Herculaneum on the same train circuit, an hour or 2 spent at the Ercolano scavi (or Herculaneum ruins) and we were back on the Circumvesuviana heading back to Naples by the evening. A quick word of advice, Naples is not considered a very safe or polished city, so pls be careful always, not just of pick-pockets or physical threats, but also of uncouth people walking around in gangs, etc.
After a long day exploring ancient cities, we mustered just a little more energy and hired a taxi to give us a whirl around Naples – we quickly saw some heavily sculptured and gold laden churches, visited the architecturally impressive Galleria Umberto, had some divine hot chocolate at Gambrinus – one of the oldest cafés in the city, saw the Nuovo and Ovo castles and got a quick history lesson from our jovial taxi driver, and spent some time staring away at the peaceful Bay of Naples. After a scrumptious dinner of pizza, spaghetti ala Pompeii, lamb chops and wine at our hotel, we called it a night.
Days 7, 8 and 9:
In the morning, with our minds still in Pompeii, we did a quick tour of the Naples National Archaeological Museum which houses a large collection of ancient Roman remains. Our interest being the Pompeii and Herculaneum sections, of course. The artefacts and handheld items from those places and other affected towns, like crockery, cutlery, vessels, marble statues, bronzes, Mosaics, paintings, makeup, tools, coins, amphorae etc have all been preserved here. There is also a very interesting ‘Secret Cabinet’ at the museum which houses a large collection of erotic items salvaged from various excavations and digs – a must-see for the naughty mind!
After saying goodbye to Naples, we got back onto a train bound for Roma, the capital of this magical country! A quick ride later, and we were here! We took a taxi straight to our hotel to rest a bit before we headed out to grab a bite at one of the local eateries. After loading up on 3 different kinds of pastas, a beef mushroom stew and a few other delicacies, we walked on over to the main event – the Colosseum. What a spellbinding moment to see the Colosseum for the first time! We just spent an hour observing the beautiful structure from outside, strolled around the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Arch of Constantine. As evening dawned, we said goodbye to the Colosseum and walked towards the Forum of Augustus, The markets of Trajan, Trajan’s Column, Victor Emmanuel II Monument, etc. We ended our night eating burgers and yummy gelato by the intricately carved and tourist favourite Trevi fountain.
We trekked to the Colosseum again the next day for our detailed exploration from the inside. Every aspect we saw stunned us – from the bloody history of the monument, to its fine engineering to the stories of the socio-economic divide that could be learnt from the way it was built. I would go as far as to say that it was my favourite place in all of Rome. After a quick stop at the nearby chariot racing grounds called the Circus maximus, which is overlooked by the Emperor Augustus’s imposing palace ruins, we visited the Pantheon, St Maria Sopra Minerva Basilica which houses a sculpture of Christ by Michelangelo and the unusual Elephant and Obelisk sculpture by Bernini. We finally reached Pizza Navona with its stunning Fountain of Four Rivers sculpture by Bernini (famous for its beautiful depiction of the 4 most famous and important rivers of the world including our Hoy Ganges, and for the gruesome part it played in Dan Brown’s famous novel ‘Angels and Demons’) and the church of ‘Sant’ Agnese in Agony’ by Borromini. Here is where we were to meet our guide for a highly anticipated Roman food tour. The lovely Jiada took us for a walking tour around all the favourite local haunts including the world-renowned market of Campo Di Fiori. We sampled everything from coffees and cheeses, to different kinds of appetisers and pizzas, to pastas and their right wine pairings, to desserts of many kinds, and finally delicious gelato to end the night! Throughout the tour, she kept us entertained with interesting trivia about the city and its food, historical titbits and jokes at the Italians’ expense! We learnt how Campo di Fiori transforms itself daily from a colourful flower and produce market to a classy plaza full of cafes in the evening. We learnt about the Big Noses of Rome or free public water taps around the city and how safe they are to use. We learnt about the eating habits of most Italians and how they would never have a cappuccino after 11 am. We learnt typical Italian phrases and the ways of the Jewish Quarter! We learnt why people have images or sculptures of baby Jesus on the walls of their homes, and so much more! It was indeed a splendid evening spent learning, eating, drinking, and exploring!
Our visit to Rome would be incomplete without a trip to the Holy See, the smallest country in the world, the Vatican City! We went straight to St Peter’s Square admiring the expanse of the plaza and the beautiful architecture when we realised that the Pope was scheduled to meet the people at the Square that day. What an exciting moment it was for us to see the Pope in his Pope mobile drive right by us, barely 1 meter away! We felt truly blessed and humbled to be in near such a serene and powerful presence! We had an appointment to visit the Vatican Museum where we spent 3-4 hours admiring the paintings, sculptures, maps, tapestries, etc but also ogling at the marvellously painted and ornate walls and ceilings of the various rooms of the museum itself. After a quick snack at the Vatican café, we took a cab and drove off to the ancient Via Appia Antica / The Appian Way, which is one of the oldest and most strategic roads of the Roman Empire. Driving through the still working road, we quickly visited Villa di Massenzio, the ruins of an ancient nobleman’s house and his chariot racing track, set in a lush green flowery countryside. Our next stop for the day was the well preserved but relatively unknown Parco Archeologica di Ostia Antica. Now an archaeological park, this used to be a harbour city for ancient Rome. After soaking in the ruined cities ancient surreal vibes, we headed back to the city of Rome, did a quick drive by the Baths of Caracalla, and had a relaxing gelato at the Spanish Steps! A fun and lively, albeit expensive market with fancy name brands such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Giorgio Armani, Louis Vuitton, etc surrounds these famous steps and we spent a few happy hours watching as the crowds went by. Our dinner was a complimentary wine tasting session organised by our hotel. The wines were local and accompanied by typical Roman foods such as olives, bruschetta, assortments of meats, platters of cheese, etc
We spent our final day in Rome visiting the Catacombs outside the city, a dark and spooky reminder that the beauty of Rome hides some unspeakable stories of mankind’s acts of terror and torture on each other. This ghoulish reminder over, we headed on to some brighter things including a fabulous meal at a local Roman cuisine restaurant where we gorged on sumptuous pastas and indulgent house wines. We drove up to the Piazzale Garibaldi for a stunning view of this magical city that we had fallen in love with.
The vacation was more beautiful than we had hoped for, and we won’t think twice to choose Italy for our next vacation!