Since we bought our apartment in Bagni di Lucca in northern Tuscany almost 15 years ago I spend 6 months of every year in glorious Italy. I am often asked by first time visitors to Italy how to make the most of their trip. Time is precious and there is much to see.
If I had just 3 weeks for my first visit to Italy I would spend them in Rome, Florence, Venice and the Amalfi Coast. I would spend 5 nights in each place and use it as a base to explore the area. I like to travel between areas by Frecciarossa, the fast train that offers an excellent service between major centres.
There is much to see in Rome. The city is best discovered on foot. Must sees include the Colosseum, the 2000 year old Pantheon, Villa Borghese Gardens, the Vatican…the list goes on.
From Rome a day trip to Orvieto would be a good idea. It is only an hour by train from Termini, the main station, and it is a gorgeous town to explore. It sits high above the surrounding plane on a tufa plug and is famous for its magnificent Cathedral and underground caves.
The Amalfi Coast is, in my opinion, the most beautiful area in all of Italy. Sorrento and Amalfi are good bases. A drive along the coast road is both terrifying and magnificent. Take the local Sita bus and admire the skill of the driver as he navigates the twists and turns.
The towns cling like limpets to the edge of of cliffs and the buildings lead you down to rocky beaches and sparkling blue sea. You will understand why Roman Emperors liked to holiday here.
Day trips to Positano, Capri and Pompeii are easy to do, either by bus, train or boat.
Florence is one of the most visited cities in the world for good reason. It is full of renaissance art and architecture. Try to book ahead if you want to visit the Uffizzi art gallery or see David in the Accademia, but don’t be too concerned if you don’t make it there, just wandering the streets of Florence will enchant you.
Walk across the Ponte Vecchio early in the morning before the crowds arrive and watch the rowers on the Arno or stand in front of the Doumo and admire Brunelleschi’s dome. You can climb to the top of the dome or the bell tower for great views.
Day trips from Florence could include Pistoia, 40 minutes by train from Santa Maria Novella station. The city is largely undiscovered by tourists and is a fascinating place to explore.
Siena is an easy bus ride from the centre of Florence. The Sita bus leaves from beside the station and will deliver you to the centre of Siena after a drive through the glorious Tuscan countryside. Don’t miss the Cathedral, my favourite in Italy.
Venice had to be seen to be believed. Riding down the Grand Canal on a good day is an experience you will never forget. Buy a 3 day pass for the ferries and go to the outer islands of Burano and Torcello for a different Venice experience after you have discovered the delights of St Marks Square and Rialto.
Verona would be a good day trip from Venice. It is a beautiful city…easy to see why Shakespeare chose it as a base for some of his plays. Take a quick look at Juliet’s balcony and the wander the streets gazing at the stunning buildings. Stop for a snack in the Piazza Delle Herbe and watch the passing parade. If you have time see a show in the Ancient Roman amphitheatre.
It is very important not to do too much while in Italy. We can be tricked into thinking the country is small and the distances between towns are not great, but you don’t want to spend all your time travelling.
Part of the joy of being in Italy is sitting in a Piazza with an aperitivo and taking it all in. If you are really lucky you will come across a local festival with flag throwing or a band in fabulous costumes. Italians are excellent at keeping traditions alive and these pageants are a delight to watch.
I can’t talk about Italy without mentioning food. Each region has its own delicious way to prepare the local delicacies. Be brave and try something you wouldn’t eat at home. It is easy to find small unpretentious restaurants, often family owned where you will find local produce simply prepared and served with love.