So much to do in Italy and we tried to do all of it.
Rome, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Verona, Como, Bellagio, and Venice!
So let’s start at the beginning. As always I made a list of things I had to see then figured out what cities they were in then organized the trip so we didn’t waste time driving back and forth. This time no trains. I was so stressed using the trains in France. Doesn’t mean I won’t ever use them again but I was really easy with the rental car.
We used Dark Rome for most of the tours. They started off doing creepy tours of tombs etc. in Rome and are now in many countries doing all kinds of tours. It was pretty much a one stop shop for everything we wanted to see. So much easier to get the tickets in advance and not worry about where you need to be and getting tickets. And lots of times you skip the regular lines like at the Uffizi in Florence or San Marco in Venice. The tours are amazing and you learn so much more than if you just walk through. The guides love what they do so they really get into it. Expect to tip them $5-10 per person.
Restaurants were tricky finding places. There’s a lot of stuff on tourist type places like Trip Advisor but I never trust those sites. The are, well, touristy. High priced low quality food and service and usually really tacky atmosphere. So I looked at things like Mario Batali’s favorite places or Eater.com is really great.
Arrived in Rome at 8am their time 2am our time but we just dropped our bags at the Airbnb and moved on. We were definitely dragging but it really helps get you on track with the new time zone if you just immediately adapt. Our Airbnb was perfect. Look for location, something near the sites you’ll be seeing and something that’s updated inside up still has the charm of the country.
We stayed at Sistina 8 Luxury Apartment
It was in walking distance of almost everything, quiet neighborhood beautiful inside and the host was outstanding.
Our host suggested several restaurants, every one of the ones we tried were great. Rome had tons of tacky places on the main streets that looked nice but if there’s photos of the food don’t eat there.
Via Borgognona n 43
Borghese Gallery | Tour of the Home and Garden
Beautiful Bernini statues in this private home
After the tour of the home and garden the guide walked us through the public garden that ended at a terrace that over looked Rome we walked back towards our apartment past the Spanish Steps. Which is beautiful but just an area with upscale shopping.
If you are anywhere with crowds be very aware of pick pockets. Don’t put money or passports or anything important in a backpack. Just jackets and water and stuff like that. I carried a small cross body purse that I held in front of me in areas like that. The problem is it’s not a scary area. Its friendly and beautiful and full of other tourists. But that’s where the pick pockets are. We didn’t have any problems but we were careful too.
Slept in to catch up on our sleep then off to the Catacombs Tour. You can’t take pictures in some of these places so I’ve added photos from online.
Also, bare shoulder and thighs are frowned on in any place of worship so either cover those areas or bring a scarf to wrap around you or over your shoulders. If it’s cool weather that’s not a problem but we were there in August and even though everyone said it would be terribly hot we were pretty comfortable as long as we stayed out of the sun. But we are from Florida. I brought a maxi skirt and kept it in my bag and just slipped it on over my shorts when needed. But don’t worry, if you forget they are happy to sell you a paper wrap for $1 to cover yourself. They are serious about it.
Monks ran out of places to bury their dead and were given a new location. The moved all the bodies to this new place but it still had limited space so the monks would be buried for a certain amount of time then exhumed and the bones would be cleaned and they decorate the rooms of the crypt with them. Very macabre and so very cool.
Then we toured a Roman tomb that was found in the fields outside of the old Roman wall.
Then came the San Clemente Church tour
There was a pagan temple that was then used to store grain then they built another pagan temple on top of that. Then a church on top of that. Then the San Clemente Church on top of the church from 1100. One day the priest at San Clemente noticed a sound of water. As he investigated under the church he realized there was another whole church under his church. So they removed all the old rubble and it was pretty much intact. He continued investigating the water sound and then discovered the temple to Mithras who was worshiped around 1 CE. There are several springs that run under Rome they eventually found the source of the sound of water came from a spring that ran under the temple.
Beautiful little bistro by the Mausoleum of Augustus.
Later that day we went to a little pizza place 2 doors down from Gusto, meh. The only pizza I had in all of Italy that was even as good as pizza I’ve had in local upscale places was in the artisan hipster area of Rome called Trastevere and at a place in Venice. Otherwise it wasn’t any different then any other pizza place you’ve ever been to. One funny thing was every place had a hot dog topping. They said the English love it. Ok, weird.
On to the Vatican, standing in the Sistine Chapel and looking up at Michael Angelo’s work was breathtaking. You can’t take pictures and you can’t talk. So it’s pretty incredible. The tour is of the Vatican’s extensive pieces in their museum and then of the Sistine Chapel and of St Peter’s basilica. Many of the marble and statues in St Peters were just pilfered from temples elsewhere in Rome that were no longer important. But all of them in one place. Wow. and as usual there’s always that creeper part of the tour.
Once in a while there’s a special pope who gets mummified and
placed in a tomb for everyone to see. Yes. Ew.
The third picture shows part of the building as white. They are restoring the buildings to their original state, which was white. The ceiling in the hall of maps was incredible. These rooms were just stuffed with tapestries, ancient statues, murals it’s just incredible.
St Peter’s Basilica
Marble marble marble. The famous statue of Mary holding Jesus after he was taken from the cross is now shielded by glass because some idiot jumped up on the statue a few years ago and started hitting it with a hammer. We took the earliest tour we could get, less lines it was actually not very crowded. In fact the tour guide said how lucky we were apparently be prepared to barely move. We were there in August as I already mentioned. August for them is hot but it’s also the month everyone takes off for holiday. So there’s weren’t a lot of American tourist but there were Italian tourists. Which I imagine was better.
There were many arenas built all over Rome and Italy in fact we saw one in Verona. They referred to this particular one as the Coliseum because originally it had a giant statue in front of it that they referred to as Colossus so to easily explain which arena you meant you’d say the coliseum meaning the arena with the colossus statue. The statue is long gone now. Before the arena was built for the masses Nero began building a ridiculous palace on the spot with a man made lake probably fed from one of those underground springs I mentioned. He died before completion and they destroyed the palace filled in the lake and built the coliseum for the people. Part of the coliseum is built on where the lake was filled in. When an earthquake hit Rome the side of the coliseum that was over the filled in lake crumbled. Below I have photos of the what it looked like originally with the statue and photos of the surrounding buildings that used to be there both how they originally looked and how they look now.
Which just like most of the monuments and churches he used statues and marble taken from older temples.
Athena’s Temple which is right next to the Coliseum
These buildings were right next to each other there are temples and arches and palaces all jumbled together. Everything was built very close together. Think of it as downtown in any large city with all the skyscrapers close together. The 2 on the left are what they originally looked like the one on the right is today.
Palatine Hill is were the word palace came from. The giant homes built on Palatine Hill were all emperor’s homes eventually they were referred to palaces because they were on Palatine Hill. It’s pretty amazing what Augustus’ palace looked like compared to just a few emperors later. On top of the hill were all the palaces then below was the forum or downtown. Looking at it now is confusing until you think of all these ancient building as skyscraper then it makes sense. Same thing I’ve added a photo of what it originally looked like.
They discovered this not too long ago. Its under the ruins on a hillside of Apollo’s temple.
Simple rooms with some of the earliest examples of perspective used in murals.
Just a few decades later Caligula’s and Nero’s palaces each take up an entire block
Across the street from this was Hadrian’s Palace which was 10x bigger then the other palaces, all in ruins. When you’re walking around the forum you have a little better feel what each building it’s hard to understand what you’re looking at in pictures. The Tiber River would flood a couple of times a year. When it flooded it would deposit mud. The people of Rome would shovel the mud out their windows into the street where it would dry and harden. After many years of this the street would be higher than the front doors so they would either add a new story and make the first floor the basement or just implode the house into itself and build a new house on top. Because of this there are layers and layers to excavate in Rome. This very thing happened to the forum in a way that preserved it. A huge flood covered the area in mud after it had been largely abandoned. So it just sat there unused until it was excavated. I was really surprised how much of original Rome you could still see. I mean that’s 2,000 years ago. Pretty incredible.
The Pantheon we didn’t get a tour for. It’s a beautiful building and defiantly worth walking into but I’m not sure you need a tour guide. Next to it is the Trevi Fountain. We were really lucky they had just spent a ton of time and money cleaning it for a fashion show. It was sparking white.
There was a little ice cream place right next to where I’m standing here to take this photo. There’s a famous one on the corner that had a huge line but right next to the fountain was a smaller little place that was both beautiful and delicious with no line!
You’ll have to take a cab to get here but it was lovely. Lots and lots of little artisanal shops. Our friend bought some leather goods the best pizza was here and Pimm’s Goodthe cutest little bar and restaurant. A friend suggested this place and she nailed it. The owner (who is very good looking) joined us for drinks.
This awesome little walk up that only sold Toast.
Then on to Florence
My favorite! Smaller than Rome with just as much to see.
A little more personal. Easier to get around too.
We stayed at Via delle Bombarde this beautiful apartment on the top floor in the middle of Florence. They even had a garage around the corner to park the car.
On that note. Don’t try to drive in Rome. We rented a car on the edge of the city and hopped right onto the highway. The highways were pretty easy to navigate but the round-a-bouts are murder. Google maps isn’t very clear on which exit so sometimes it took a couple of tries to get the right one. We drove to Florence and park then walked everywhere. They have mostly one way roads and then sometimes you can’t drive on them at all. The one day we took the car out to drive to Siena, what an f..ing mess to get it back into the garage. So if you are going to see cities in the area wait until you’re on your way to the next city you’re staying in and stop on the way. Leave your car in the garage. Trust me.
This was my favorite apartment.
All over Florence this artist named Blub painted little paintings.
Snapped as many as I could.
We also booked lots of tours in Florence but we wandered the streets more here. It’s much smaller than Rome. We came across this amazing restaurant and gift shop by accident and ate there many times. Because the food was about the same in Florence as it was in Rome, hard to find a good place that wasn’t touristy.
And the bistro
And…the gift and floral shop
Loved this place!!
The first palace of the Medici’s was in the center of town then they moved to the Vecchio which was the government building in Florence, but it was the biggest building so they took it as their palace. That was too dark and drab so they built the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river and so they wouldn’t have to walk past all the butchers (and their knives) on the Ponti Vecchio they built a secret walkway over the buildings on the Ponte Vecchio that led from the Pitti Palace to the Uffizi building. Uffizi means office it was originally built as government offices.
We hiked up I don’t know how many steps to this breath taking view of the city from Michelangelo Piazza. It’s a park where everyone goes at Sunset. Just before sunset he hiked up just a little further to the church at the top. The cemetery is really cool with lots of large crypts. Unfortunately, the cemetery was closed for repairs.
I didn’t write down what church this was. The would bury their saints and priests and crusaders and other important people in the floor. Interesting enough, in St Augustine after hurricane Matthew, one of the wine shops was damaged and before renovating the owner offered the space to the government to excavate before he covered up the floor of the shop again. They found the remains of a couple and several children. They believe these remains are from the mid 1500s and would have been under the floor of one of the first churches built there. This church had really elaborate marble reliefs.
David at the Academia.
He’s really huge. The statues leading up to David are all in various states of being sculpted. Michelangelo was hired to sculpt 50 statues for a pope. When he died and another pope was selected they told Michelangelo they wouldn’t be paying him for the 50 statues. So he stopped working on them. Michelangelo always said he was freeing the statue from the marble. That it was already in there and he just had to find it. So when these weren’t finished they were referred to has the Prisoners. If you look closely at the full frontal photo of David below you can see in the bottom right corner a man’s head, that will give you the idea of scale. He’s huge.
We saw both of these on a tour. There’s typically 12-20 people and they give you headsets so you can easily hear the guide even if you have wandered away from the group.
Afternoon drinks on a rooftop bar over looking the river
Aperol spritzes and every bar had delicious snacks
sometimes even whole meals at happy hour.
Most of our meals were delicious but in more casual settings. We splurged and ate on a balcony over the river at the Hotel Lungarno
Roaming around we found this little corner bar. Spritzes and yummy cake.
Once again we ate at a place owned by the Hotel Lungarno group. We weren’t doing it on purpose their places just looked cool. This was the restaurant of the hotel directly across the river from the Hotel Lungarno. We needed a quick lunch in-between tours. Right place right time.
Day trip to Siena and we stopped at Bologna on our way to
Verona which was just one night on our way to Como.
Siena was ok. I would stop on your way from Rome to Florence or visa versa but I wouldn’t go just as a separate trip. It was a mini version of Florence with not that much to see and a lot of tourists. Bologna was meh. We parked, walked a long way to find the one decent restaurant and left. The covered marble walkways were really amazing and the place we ate was great. It has a lot of shopping so I think that’s what people do there.
Just wasn’t our thing.
A church that they started to add onto then the plague hit and they just never finished it. The town gates, the view from the park we had a picnic in, a rustic church, various streets.
Verona was most definitely the shopping city. The outside streets were marble. Great mix of stores. Got my first pair of Birkenstocks there. I brought regular sandals. Big mistake. You need plenty of cushion in your shoe to absorb all the uneven cobblestones. My feet were killing me. Slipped on a pair of Birkenstocks walked out of the store with them and never took them off the rest of the trip. Huge huge difference. Not one blister either.
We stayed in a hotel here since it was just one night. Very reasonable. Steps away from everything, easy to park, snacks in afternoon and evening.
Nicely appointed room with great service.
The front desk recommended the restaurant where he had dinner and they nailed it. The last photo is in the bathroom. They put glass in the floor so you could see the original floor with the natural spring running by. Unfortunately I can’t remember the name and can’t find it on the map. Ugh.
The arena there is still used today for concerts. Adelle had just played there and they had an opera there the night we stayed. There’s too had some damage. They used cranes to get the huge stages in an out. The last 2 photos are of other buildings in town.
Then off to Como. Most of the city is well just a regular city. We drove past some pretty unimpressive areas. But the area near the lake, you forgot all about the rest of the city. The area we stayed was in the middle of the lake area. Also an Airbnb on Via Giuseppe Garibaldi
The communication with the host wasn’t as good hear but the apartment was nice. The apartment said it had A/C in the living area but didn’t explain the bedrooms were on a different floor. Which was fine because even in August with the window open and the fan on us we were completely comfortable. The hot water did not work though. They had special instructions but also said they had been having a problem. So by the time they finally came to address it it was our last day. Also, the person who was meeting us to let us in was very late. But aside from that,
the apartment was in a perfect location and was beautiful.
This is definitely a tourist area, lots of shopping but great shopping not trinkets and not super expensive stuff just beautiful shops. They have these huge buildings that take up the whole block then if you’re lucky they leave the “garage doors” open and you can see in and see that the middle of the buildings are open like a courtyard. Some have been converted to parking, some are still gardens. But you get a glimpse of where their “yards” were.
If you take your time you can find really great restaurants. The ones along the water were 99% crap. But we found the 1% and had the most amazing cocktails.
View of the lake. Crazy delicious cocktails and as with everywhere else, amazing appetizers for happy hour, like flat bread and pasta.
Right behind Lago, they are famous for their salads but they had great everything.
Some peeks into those courtyards
All along the water it goes from restaurants to parks to government buildings that used to be huge private homes. Here’s a look.
There’s a lift that takes you to the top of the hill overlooking the lake and the city. There’s a whole other city up there. The restaurants were all touristy so I wouldn’t try to eat up there but it’s worth a couple of hours to roam around and see the lake from the top.
We took the boat up the lake to Bellagio. Again very touristy but the boat ride was lovely and you stop in a bunch of smaller towns. Bellagio had touristy shopping and restaurants at the bottom. If you hike up higher you’ll get a great view and a little less touristy stuff and see some beautiful homes on the way.
Homes long the lake
Last stop Venice. Once again we stayed in an Airbnb. It was harder to find a nice apartment in Venice. Our place was nice but not the same as the other places. My most important requirement was a balcony. We were on the top floor and had a beautiful view. Venice is hard to get around on foot. If you’re just meandering it’s fine but if you have to tour or reservation you need to be at just give yourself plenty of time. After awhile of course we started to get the hang of it. But you constantly find yourself in a square and Google maps says things like take the northeast alley and gives a name. You can’t tell which way is northeast because you’re surrounded by buildings and none of the streets ever have the right name on them. So we ended up down a lot of streets that ended at a canal with no bridge. But Venice has an amazingly interesting history. To really get all that you need to have a guide on a tour. Also, if you did drive, drop the car at the rental place at the airport then take a water taxi over. It will probably drop you off at San Marco square. If you hire a private boat like we did you’ll need to get the directions from the owner to tell the taxi company because the address won’t be what’s on Airbnb. But they drop you off in front of your door. Handy.
San Marco Square and the Doge Palace Tour
The ceilings and walls in room after room were covered in paintings and gold.
San Marco Church you couldn’t take pictures inside but you could take them on the balcony outside. The 2 here from inside I got off of Google. Those are all mosaics not paintings. And at the one end when they started them the design is very Byzantine by the time they finish at the other end it is very Renaissance.
One of the places that was Mario Batali’s favs was Al Covo. I can see why. It’s family owned and run. The son was our waiter and the mom is the baker. Beautiful atmosphere, delicious food and great service.
Loved the Hidden Venice Tour. They took us to less obvious sites showed us things like where they build the gondolas and at the end we had a gondola ride. Lucky us the gondola in front of us had hired a guy to sing to them so we had entertainment for free.
Here are some photos of the Hidden Venice Tour
Gondola ride and views of the water
One of our favorite places to eat and the only place with great bread in all the cities we visited was Farini, walk up and order then grab a table. Breads, pizza, sandwiches, pastries, and sometimes salad.
We just stumbled upon the restaurant we went to on our last night.
Local. Outstanding everything.
Drinks at a crazy expensive hotel bar over looking the canal and watching the sun set.
And then there were these super cool door knockers everywhere.
A final note about dining there. At most restaurants you don’t tip. But there are a few, the higher end ones or the more modern ones that will have a note at the bottom of the bill that tip was not included or something long those lines. Be sure to leave a tip there.
The people were all really friendly and helpful and everyone spoke English.
The cab or Uber drivers are crazy drivers so just don’t look. They have lines and lanes but no one seems to pay any attention to them. On the highway near the cities it was crazy but out in the country in-between cities it was like driving in the US.
You need a special drivers license to drive in Italy you can get them at any AAA for $20
What a beautiful trip. Ciao.