A new year has dawned and with it, travel plans for the year (or more) to come. Over the Christmas holidays (now a distant memory!) I brainstormed with my Mom about some of the amazing Italy experiences that I’ve been lucky to have over time, and we have rounded them up for your inspiration (yes, Mom helped me with this post). Be this your first trip to Italy or one of many, these are some of the things to do in Italy that we believe one should do at least once.
1/ Visit the Uffizi
I have a love-hate relationship with the Uffizi. It’s got Botticelli and Michelangelo, some Raphael and Leonardo, some amazing Venetian pieces by Titian and Tintoretto… the famous Giotto and Cimabue comparison… It’s a Renaissance art historian’s dream collection, but since it’s also the top destination on every tourist’s Florence and Italy list, it’s generally too crowded for its own good. Although the new director has been trying to improve the visitor experience and flow (including by introducing new lower priced off-season tickets amongst other things), it’s still a museum with too little signage and seating. If you don’t have Ren Art 101 memorized, you might find my little guide to the Uffizi handy – I list the most important works in there to help you get through without feeling exhausted.
2/ Go Hiking in the Cinque Terre
Speaking of love-hate relationships, how about the Cinque Terre? Another bucket list topper, and possibly one of the most beautiful places in Italy. I’d say on Earth, but I don’t know enough about other countries to judge. The way the shimmering sea reflects light that bounces on to the characteristic colourful houses of these towns perched above is essentially indescribable. The hiking paths are, in my opinion, relatively challenging unless you’re used to climbing infinite stairs, but they offer spectacular views and so much satisfaction. Between Easter and October, this place is super crowded (if you have to go, follow these simple travel hacks), so do yourself a favour and visit the Cinque Terre in the off-season.
3/ Learn how to make and cook pasta properly
If you’re coming to Italy for any amount of time at all, I humbly recommend learning how Italians make pasta. Your family will thank you, forever. A lot goes in to the right quality and shape of pasta, matching the sauce with that (and the time of year!), and cooking it until it’s perfectly al dente, but not too much (and god forbid, not overcooked). Any cooking class in Italy will do the trick as you’re sure to make at least one pasta dish. Many cooking classes also teach you how to make fresh pasta, either the long and fun fettuccine, or maybe some classic filled ravioli. After just one lesson, I’ve got the ravioli down pat and, if I had more time, I’d make them more often as it’s really easy!
4/ See Venice before it sinks
They say Venice is sinking, and the cruise ships don’t help. Venice is, however magical (so maybe magic will help it stay up?). If you’ve never been there, you must go, especially if you love stumbling upon world-famous altarpieces in dark churches (a few of those are listed in this Venice weekend art-lovers itinerary). Know that it will be crowded and, if that bothers you, try to avoid the busiest times of year (basically, summer). On the other hand, if you do go there in summertime, you can catch the alternating Venice Biennale dedicated to either art or architecture. I do recommend staying in Venice itself, because when the sun goes down, the daytrippers leave and you can experience the silence of the canals at night. If you have a bit more time in the area, spend a day or more in Padova to see Giotto’s little gem, the Arena Chapel.
5/ See where people lived in caves
Matera is one of the strangest places in Italy – come to think of it, almost as strange as Venice, if you stop to consider that they want to the trouble of building a city on stilts. In this case, people dwelled in caves until half a century ago (and would have continued to do so if the government hadn’t declared them unhealthy). Rather than building something magnificent on difficult terrain, Materans adapted to life in this remote landscape by using what nature gave them, and not much more. This UNESCO Heritage city will be European capital of culture in 2019 – get it before it gets crowded?
6/ Go to the Viareggio Carnevale
In the same way as, in the States, Halloween melds into Thanksgiving and straight into Christmas, Carnevale is the way to break up the period between Christmas and Easter. As soon as the panettoni are off the shelves, the cenci and fritelle start coming out, even before their official season starts. This feasting on sweets, that preceeds Lent, and a few kids in wigs is all you’ll see of Carnevale in many cities, but there are a few places in Italy that really do Carnevale. Viareggio’s Carnevale is one of the most famous. It started with a procession of ox-drawn carts in 1873, which went on for a few years and grew in size. Now the “carts” (or carri) are the size of a small house, blasting music and hosting dancers much of the time, while making some political commentary. Last year I finally went to the Viareggio Carnevale and found it really interesting to learn about its history and economic impact on the city. I really recommend staying at the city’s top hotel, the Principe di Piemonte, because if the weather is awful (which it generally is) you can take advantage of the very nice spa and other facilities instead.
7/ Climb up Florence’s Duomo
It’s 463 steps to the top but if you want to have the best view of Florence, you should climb up the Duomo (or alternately, the belltower). When I had the privilege of visiting the Duomo museum before it opened a few years ago, curator Monsignor Timothy Verdon talked about how he wanted to create closer ties between museum and the Duomo, and that many more people walk up the dome than visit the museum and the other parts of the complex. That may be changing as the word’s out on how great the museum is, but it’s still worth a note to say DO spend half a day or more seeing all the parts that make up this “whole”. Walking up the dome is, yes, about the experience and seeing Florence from above, but it’s also technically more about the dome itself, I think. If you’re interested in putting the Dome more into context and also visiting a newly opened area of the Duomo climb (from which I took the photo above), take a Secret Terraces of the Duomo tour by one of just a very few tour providers who hold the key (literally!) to this special place.
8/ Get blown away by patterns in Palermo
I didn’t know I’d love Palermo as much as I did until I got there and started exploring it on foot. Ruled by everyone and their uncle, be he Byzantine or Ostragoth, Arab or Spanish, it’s a city that breaks all the rules and does it with style. I particularly loved the Palermitan Baroque style, which is light-filled, with lots of pink marble, pattern and drama. The other highlight here, in my opinion, is the mosaic work, which can be found in numerous locations in the city and, for something really spectacular, the Duomo of Monreale just a short trip outside the city. If you love hustle and bustle, street food at all hours, tons of art clashing with street culture, and not spending a lot of money, Palermo should be on the top of your list.
9/ Make (and drink) real Italian coffee
I think that spending any time in Italy makes one into a food snob, and most certainly also a coffee snob. I used to spend a lot of time in late high school and early university, sitting in coffee shops drinking those tall tubs of “American coffee”. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of why my stomach is so bad now that I can’t drink the stuff at all. On my first trip to Italy, I fell in love with the creamy cappuccinos taken standing up at a marble bar (at the time, the fancy bar in Florence’s piazza San Marco made the best one in town). When it wasn’t possible to go out for one, I bought a Bialetti Moka, and quickly learned the tricks of making Italian coffee in a moka. If you want to get really serious about it, there’s a certification course you can take from the Institute of Coffee Tasters. Or, just sip your mornings away in the best bars around Italy and hit up the barista to learn the tricks of the trade!
10/ See how the Romans lived
Personally, my favourite historical periods are the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. I’ve always found the Ancient periods to be harder to understand, maybe because they require more imagination and information to understand the functions of the objects and spaces that come down to us today. (Also, most Archaeological Museums in Italy are underfunded and hence have terrible labeling and display.) Lately I’ve been reading the Cicero Trilogy on my Kindle so I’ve got a new urge to see the Forum and imagine the book’s characters there. Walking through central Rome’s amazingly well preserved monuments like the Colosseum and the Imperial Forum is absolutely a don’t miss experience. While they’re impressive and legible on their own, I’d recommend taking the Colosseum Tour with Context Travel here in order to understand it properly and in context – I love their small group tours with an academic slant.
11/ Get buffalo mozzarella from the source
Have you ever visited a cheesemaker? I’ve been to a few places that make pecorino and seen a lot of cute sheep, but going to a buffalo mozzarella farm is a whole other ballgame. Mozzarella di Bufala is a DOP protected product made in the Campania area of Italy, with a rich history that goes back to the 12th century (though the first citation of the name mozzarella is in a book from 1570). In the Campania region in and outside of Naples, you’ll find plenty of good producers – Caserta and Paestum may be two of the most famous areas. My family and I were visiting the archaeological site at Paestum when we got pretty hungry, so went to Caseificio Barlotti, where you can visit the farm animals (and smell them) right where they make the cheese and serve it in a small restaurant. Besides being as fresh as it gets, I discovered my love of smoked mozzarella!
12/ Immerse yourself in the Dolomites
The Dolomites are incredibly beautiful at any time of year. In the winter, the snow capped mountains dazzle for their seeming inaccessibility, yet we drive in, ski on them, and enjoy spa resorts there. In the spring, coloured flowers carpet the hillsides and the hiking paths become inviting; they stay like that (but get hotter and less floral) in the summer. Fall can get cold early, but has its joys as well. The Italian Dolomites are of course vast, so you can choose the area you prefer to visit and won’t run out of places to return. I’ve been twice lately to the Val Pusteria, known in winter for the Kronplatz ski area, which I found particularly rich with both natural and cultural beauty. I’ll be writing more about that soon!
13/ Visit a Chianti Classico Winery
Last year, you may recall that I decided to start drinking wine after over 20 years of tee-totaling. The decision wasn’t one I took lightly, but living in Tuscany for this long, it seemed ignorant to exclude such an important part of the local culture. Tuscany’s landscape is very much shaped by mankind, sculpted with cypress trees dividing properties, and parceled into orderly stripes of vineyards and patches of olive groves. The Chianti Classico area is where Tuscany’s reputation for quality wine started (the original “Chianti” zone grew over a few hundred years, and was hence restricted by legislation in more recent times). I’m now really enjoying visiting wineries all over Italy (see, for example, wineries to visit in Maremma). Many have structured wine tours you can book online. I’ve been managing social media for Dievole, near Siena, for a few years, and I highly recommend and love Dievole’s picnic and wine tasting tour, because you can easily feel at home there with that delicious lunch and spectacular view.
14/ Drive along the Amalfi Coast
Historically, it seems that Italians purposefully chose to settle in some of the most hard to reach, inhospitable places of the country. Or maybe it’s just that with lots of hills, mountains and coastline, so much of the country is, well, anti-highway. The Amalfi Coast road is not for the faint of stomach; the two-lane road clings to the side of the hill and in plenty of places you wonder if it’s not actually one-way, yet it’s packed with busses, motorini and more. Like the Cinque Terre in Liguria, vines are built terraced into the hill and the people know what hard life is like. Here, as a visitor, it’s all about the views, the limoncello, the anchovies and the very impressive villas and luxury hotels. If you time your visit right, I think the most amazing thing would be to attend a concert at the Ravello Festival, performed on a terrace that juts out over the sea at Villa Rufolo. But at just about any time of the year, this area of Southern Italy is worth a visit.
15/ Analyze the Sistine Chapel, alone
The problem with a list of experiences you must do once in your lifetime is that a lot of these great places get pretty crowded. I’ve been to the Vatican Museums and seen the Sistine Chapel many times, though it’s been years since I have visited, as I seem to get more intolerant of crowds with age! In this article about how to avoid tourists in the most touristy places in the world, Context Travel docent Agnes Crawford gives some tips on how to make the Vatican experience most pleasant – for example, the best time to visit is Tuesday, Thursday, or Friday in the afternoon. But probably the best thing to do, if you can afford it, is to book the Sistine Chapel just for yourself! I’m not going to kid with you, it costs $4000, but if you’re taking a once in a lifetime trip with your family, this may be better than anything else you can do with your money, IMO. It’s on my bucket list for this year, that’s for sure.
16/ Stay in a Trullo (in summertime)
Although they look prehistoric, trulli (singular: trullo) are not documented in Puglia’s Valle d’Itria until the 17th century. But the origin may be older, and the legend behind this peculiar house shape is one of my favourite stories about Italian cleverness (the right word here is furbo – see this article by Girl in Florence about the word and its application). The legend is that house tax was based on one’s roof, so they built these dry stone walled circular huts with conical stone roofs that could be dismantled as quickly as the tax man was spotted by the nearest sheep farmer. Trulli were primarily rural buildings, with the exception being the town of Alberobello, a particularly dense grouping of the funny huts. Now protected by UNESCO, for a few decades they’ve been object of investment to become vacation rentals. My family and I rented one over New Years back in 2012 – a three cone trullo, one cone for each bedroom and the third for a living space. The place was really neat, in a complex with a few others and a pool. I would not recommend doing this in the wintertime to my worst enemy, as I had arthritic pain for about 3 months after thanks to the humidity and cold, BUT in the summertime this would be just a fantastic experience. Trulli’s stone walls and roofs have no insulation and very small windows, but are naturally ventilated, perfect to keep out the summer heat (and keep in the winter humidity).
17/ Revel in Ravenna’s mosaics
My mom recently visited Ravenna for the first time and suggested adding its medieval mosaics to this list – it had been on her bucket list for a long time, but strangely enough, despite many visits to me in Florence, she’d never been! Ravenna is still known today for its craftsmanship in mosaics, the decorative glass technique used to create elaborate narratives in church interiors both here and in Venice. The Basilica of San Vitale is the most important of the mosaic cycles here, though there’s a whole itinerary of 5th and 6th-century buildings to visit (that have earned Ravenna UNESCO Heritage recognition).
18/ Eat pizza in Naples
I don’t know a single person that doesn’t love pizza. There’s some pretty good pizza to be had in Italy – lately in Florence they’ve opened a few pizzerie that let the dough rise a long time and use super ingredients. But to have the really authentic experience, Naples is the place to eat it. The Margherita, the classic pomodoro-mozzarella-and a bit of basil – was invented at Naples’ Pizzeria Brandi for Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. There’s much debate about which restaurant makes the best pizza in Naples, but pretty much you can’t go wrong. From street food versions to gourmet adaptations, you could eat pizza for lunch and dinner for a few days here and be very, very happy.
That’s it… 18 Italy experiences for your 2018. There are certainly many more that one could name (though I’m lucky it’s not 1998 or the list would have been really long). Feel free to share your suggestions to make this list even longer!
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