When I got back to the US from Europe, I started to get quite a few emails from people telling me that they were visiting one of the cities that I had visited. And, they started asking for advice, what should I see, what should I do, how do I book a train ticket, ect. People who have traveled before, especially traveled solo, often forget about the little questions that new travelers have, that we once had.
This point was illustrated when my friend arrived in Spain for her year of teaching English. She asked me a question about hostels and where to look for booking cheap flights. I immediately directed her to skyscanner and told her exactly what we needed in a hostel. A few months ago I would have been researching online, looking at other blogs, searching websites for answers, and now I was totally at ease with the whole process of traveling. You learn quickly how to travel, the learning curve is steep, and trying to book a trip or travel in a foreign city for the first time can be scary, after a couple of months it is less so. Now, my friend having spent seven months is Spain, is giving me traveling advice. So there is always something new to be learned.
I put together this post with a few common questions about travel and Italy in general, and then my to do list for Florence, Venice, and Rome. I obviously know the most about Rome, having spent two months there, but I hope my little suggestions on Florence and Venice can also be helpful. I plan on writing a list like this for Milan and Naples as well, maybe a few other cities. But I think when people visit Italy, these are the three big cities they thing about.
Will I be okay if I can’t speak any Italian?
You will be fine not knowing any Italian. Its true that quite a few Italians don’t speak English, but I never had a problem getting around.
How will I find my way around X city?
I found that downloading the offline trip advisor app for each city I went to was extremely helpful. If you’re not buying a data plan for overseas, keep your phone turned on but in airplane mode. That way you can connect to wifi at restaurants (lots of places offer free wifi in Italy) and trip advisor you can use offline. It is literally the best invention ever.
If you stay at a hostel they will almost always provide you with a map and show you how to get from place to place. The hardest part for you will be getting from the airport/train station/bus station to your hostel. My recommendation is to have printed out directions from your transportation center to your hostel. The rest you can figure out later.
Most cities have a train/rail/bus/tram/water taxi system that is easy to figure out. And there will be so many people there to help you and answer any questions you may have. This is not something to stress about.
How do I choose a good hostel? When should I book my hostel?
I booked my hostels in advance when I made arrangements for my three-week Europe trip (months ahead of time). The reason I did this was because my friends told me that Europe would be crowded over the summer and all the good hostels would be sold out if I waited until I was in Europe. This wasn’t true. When I unexpectedly took a week and a half trip around Italy and France a few weeks later, my friend and I were booking hostels the day of and we were fine. I didn’t like doing that though. I did not like spending so much time searching for a decent hostel on my phone connected to if-y wifi and worrying whether I would have a bed to sleep in at night. But it did afford us the opportunity to change our plans whenever we wanted. It just depends on what kind of person you are.
Picking the right hostel is…like doing an investigation for the FBI. Seriously, it took me three hours before I booked my hostel in London for this upcoming summer because I would be spending a week in that hostel and I did not want to put up with some of the things I put up with last summer. And even with research, you can still end up picking a bad one. My recommendations are: One, pick a hostel that had at least a 70% rating by a decent number of people (at least 200 if not more); location, location, location, pick a hostel with a fantastic location; choose a hostel with free wifi; unless you are a party animal and don’t care about sleep, get a hostel that doesn’t have an attached bar; if you can score an all girls room (advice for females) pay the extra couple of dollars a night, men are disgusting, same for having an attached shower and breakfast. These things are luxuries. Read reviews of the hostel. No hostel is going to be perfect, and you can avoid a lot of heartache and sleepless nights if you spend time looking up the reviews. My favorite place to book hostels is hostelbookers.com because they tell you how far away a hostel is from the city center along with all the regularly included information.
How much money should I bring with me to Italy?
This one is up to you. Are you a big spender? Do you eat out a lot? I find that I take about $100-$150 a day when traveling in Europe. Plan for at least this much.
Do places in Italy only accept cards with a microchip?
A lot of places only accept cards with the chip. I usually only use cash in Italy, and Europe in general. Europe is a huge cash driven economy-not that many people carry credit or debit cards with them. However, every time I used my card I did not have a problem.
What about ATMs and foreign transaction fees? Should I get Euros in the US before going overseas or wait?
Ideally, the best thing to do is open a Charles Schwab account; they do not charge a foreign transaction fee-enabling you to use ATMs everywhere for free. Even if you don’t get a card from Schwab, I would use ATMs. A lot of people will convert dollars to Euros before their trip (or take out lots of cash before their trip to convert in Europe), but unless you find a spectacular deal, don’t do it. Wait until you’re over in Italy and take out money using an ATM, the exchange rate will be much better. DO NOT go to one of those exchange places, they will take so much of your money. If you have to exchange cash over there, make sure you go to a bank. Their exchange rates will be much better. All that being said, I still never had a problem using my Visa card (with no chip) the (very) few times that I actually used it. Also, make sure you alert your bank that you will be overseas.
Okay, what is there to do in Florence?
- I only went to Florence for 1.5 days and it was not enough. The city is beautiful. Obviously you want to see the Duomo. There are lots of shops around there as well that are fun to walk around in and shop. You can climb up the bell tower if you want (or to the top of the Duomo) but I think it’s better and cheaper to go to Piazza Michelangelo.
- Visit Piazza della Signori as well, the statues there are beautiful, and if you go at night there are cool street musicians (and the statues look nice at night lit up).
- Hike up to Piazza Michelangelo; it has the absolute best view of Florence. I regret so much not doing this, my friend who studied abroad told me to do it and I just ran out of time.
- Wander around the leather markets-Florence or Firenze is famous for its leather. This would be a good thing to buy while here.
- If you want to see The David statue that is the Accademia gallery-I didn’t go because I didn’t have enough money, but if you want to see the famous statue…
- If you want amazing piazza go to Gusta Pizza….heaven. It is the best pizza in Italy, hands down.
- Walk along the river and see the houses. It is called the gold road (or something like that) because of all the jewelry stores lining the bridge. It is rather beautiful.
- Also, Florence was my favorite night out. My sister went to Florence years ago and she also loved to party here, so if you want to go out, Florence is the city. My sister went to a club called Space, and I barhopped. We had a blast.
- Secret Chocolate Shops: Okay, so I never had the chance to experience this, but if you are out in Florence, late at night, and you’re wandering around, and you start to smell chocolate, follow your nose. Suppliers will bake goods at night and in the wee hours of the mornings before they make deliveries. If you find one of these hidden shops, knock on the door and usually they will sell you fresh baked goods (even though they are technically not allowed to do so). Talk about great late night munchies!
What is there to do in Venice?
- There is not too much to see here (in my humble opinion). Piazza San Marco is the biggest, most famous square that you will want to see.
- There are canals everywhere but most people want to go to the Grand Canal. Ironically, I think the coolest place for canals is right by the bus/train station where you will arrive in Venice.
- Basilica de San Marco is nice (There are so many churches in Italy, if this is your thing then you will never be bored. After about 50 of them I got tired).
***Side note, you will get lost in Venice. I read a quote that if you don’t get lost in Venice you’re not doing it right. There are so many canals and side streets and alleyways. It is magical. When I went to Venice I spent hours everyday just walking around. That would be my #1 recommendation for the city. ***
Venice also has really cool stores. Lace is famous in Venice, as are Venetian masks and Venetian glass. Venetian glass is super cheap, so if you want souvenirs for your friends, Venetian glass would be a good present. Also, it doesn’t break. Literally, you have to take a hammer to it; it won’t fall and break-really cool. If you get a Venetian mask, make sure it is actually made in Venice and not made in China (that goes for any souvenir). Usually, I recommend shopping around to find the best process (for example, I saved 10 euro by going to a different mask shop) but as I said before, it is extremely easy to get lost in Venice…
What is there to do in Rome?
- Colosseo -So this is what Rome is famous for so I would say go inside. It is really cool to see and the history is amazing. Take time to read some of the stuff. The metro stop Colosseo on the blue line puts you right by the Colosseo.
- Roman Forum -Literally right next to the Colosseo. Lots of old ruins, this was the main area of Roma back in the day. It takes at least an hour to just walk around there; the ticket is included with the Colosseo ticket.
- Orange grove and keyhole/Palentine Hill-The Italians call the keyhole “the secret of Rome” or something like that. It is a walk, but you can stop by at walled orange groves and a few churches that have amazing views of the city. Walk along the road Via di Santa Sabina from Piazza Venenzia.
- Mouth of Truth- Legend has it that if you tell a lie and put your hand in the mouth of this statue it will bite your hand off. Its free, usually the line is about 20 minutes (even if it looks long). I think it is on the way to the keyhole (kind of). Worth it if you have time, you can also see it ad not wait in line, you just have to look through some bars.
- St. Mary’s church at Trastevere- If you like churches go to this one, its really nice, one of my favorites. And I LOVE Trastevere. You should spend time just walking around there because its where “the true Romans live”.
- Villa Borghese- a park right by Piazza del Popolo (Flamino metro stop on the red line). Its a decent park, some of my friends adore it, I’ve been a few times and it is nice, especially the part by the lake. You can rent a row boat. It’s nice to go and have a picnic there.
- Pantheon- You have to see it. There is a hole in the roof and it’s an amazing feat of architecture. You can walk down Via del Corso from Piazza Venenzia or Piazza del Popolo and veer off and see a lot of stuff.
- Piazza Navona- One of my favorite places because of all the fountains.
- Piazza del Popolo- this is famous but I can honestly say I’m not sure why. There are some fountains, an Egyptian monument, and you can get to Villa Borghese from there (and it is nice, you should see it).
- Piazza Venenzia- This is where a major bus stop is, so if you ever get lost a bus can always bring you back here. It’s about a 10 minutes walk from the Colosseo. This is where Via del Corso starts, and you can catch tram #8 to Trastevere.
- Tomb of the unknown soldier- In piazza Venenzia. Quite amazing inside and great views of the city if you climb the steps. A nice church up there as well. Supposedly there is a cafe but I have never been.
- Spanish steps- This is off of Via del Corso (also the main shopping street in the city). Part of it is under construction (summer 2014) but it’s still nice and there is a cool boat fountain at the bottom that is one of my favs.
- Trevi Fountain (construction summer 2014)- Now this is under major construction. And it is such a shame because I came in 2008 and it was spectacular. It’s mainly covered up but if you want to see a part of it you can go. I also think the best gift shops are around here. This is also off of Via del Corso.
- St. Peters Basilica- Huge church. Very beautiful. Very famous. Kind of a have to see. You can get here by metro or walk along the Tiber river. Walk along the Tiber river at some point anyway, it is gorgeous.
- The Vatican Museums- The painting are incredible. And there are also artifacts and sculptures.
- Campo di Fiori-They have a cool market there everyday until 2pm where you can get pasta and olive oil and a few other things.
- Trastevere- My favorite part of Rome. I love walking here.
- Ponte Sant’Angelo- really beautiful bridge made up of angels. There is also a type of castle here with gardens, I have never been inside but I heard it was really nice.
- Go to aperitivo one night. They usually start around 7 or 8 and go until 10pm (you can do this anywhere in Italy). My favorite was at Freni i Frizioni in Trastevere. But basically you pay around 6 euro for a drink and then you can eat all of these appetizers. Lots of bars have this so they are pretty easy to find.
- Eat pasta cabonara anywhere. It is delicious. My favorite pasta place, and my favorite pizza place is Carlo Menta (again in Trastevere). Margharita pizza (which is the best) is 3 euro and pasta carbonara is 5 euro (they do add on a 1.50 service charge per person) They also have amazing house wine.
- Go to Antica gelateria for the best gelato (Trastevere again). If you take the #8 tram from Piazza Venenzia and get off at stop Belli the ice cream place is right there and the pasta/pizza place is almost right behind it. They have the best gelato in Rome (I think). If you eat gelato by the Trevi Fountain, Valentino gelato is amazing. A lot of people rave about San Crispino, but it is expensive.
- In addition, get pizza to go. There is a cool place by the Spanish steps, and a good place by the Trevi Fountain, but I do not remember the names. But I have never had bad pizza in Italy so you can go anywhere. Anyway, they will fold up a piece of pizza for you and give it to you in a paper towel/napkin and it is awesome. I used to get to go pizza and sit on the Spanish steps and eat.
- Drink coffee at the bar. Italians order coffee, drink it at the bar, and then go about their day. It is really fun to chug down an espresso or cappucino (my favorite) and walk out into the streets. Do this at least once.
- Go to a pastry shop. They are everywhere and I can say I don’t have a favorite. I would get a cappucino and several pastries (cannolies and croissants were my favorite. Especially when the croissant had icing or chocolate or cream filling) and just sit and eat. They make wonderful food so enjoy!
- There are a lot of great bars in Trastevere. If you’re looking for an international crowd the Yellow bar is popular, people go there for drinks and then there is a club that opens at 12 underground (it is also a hostel). There is a big club Circo Illuminati that a lot of my friends have been to, they usually have free entry if you get in early enough. And I heard about one club in Villa Borghese that is good, but I have never been.
Do you have any more random/ helpful information about Rome?
- Download the Rome trip adviser app. Select attractions that are your favorite, and star them. Then, when you get on the map part of the app, just select the star versions and you can’t get lost. It in incredible. And, you can use the app offline. It is literally a lifesaver.
- Metro tickets cost 1.50 euro for 100 minutes of travel on any public transport (but you only get one metro ride). They have three-day tourist tickets; which also include some sightseeing, so you may want to look into that and see if it would be a cheaper option for you. I am a big advocate of just walking around places and not using public transport. All of the places in Rome are relatively close to each other, and it is easy to walk from one to the other.
- Be careful with dress codes. A lot of these places will make sure your shoulders and knees are covered. I would bring a long skirt and scarf in my backpack to put over when I visited Churches.
- A great thing in Rome is the availability of drinking water, there are fountains everywhere so you can bring an empty water bottle and fill up.
- Toilets usually cost money (unless you order food or coffee).
- Be careful with your money. You are going to extremely popular places. Lots of my friends have been robbed. They will slash, grab, do anything to get your money. I bought a backpack called pac safe, which had steel enforced bands that were slash proof, and hidden hooks for zippers. Now, that might be a bit extreme, but getting pick pocketed is no joke. Make sure you have a backup card, or cash somewhere else in case this happens.
- If you are taking the train make sure your ticket is validated before you get on (stamped by a machine). I paid 30 euro for not having a validated ticket getting out of Venice, and they don’t care if you are a foreigner.
- Make sure you take time and enjoy every place. Sometimes I would go somewhere and run around like a chicken with my head cut off. But my favorite memories are the ones where I took it easy, and soaked up the culture, not ran around seeing this thing and that thing. Enjoy!