I just returned from Italy, visiting Rome, Florence, and Venice over the course of two weeks. The trip was meant as a sort of "reward" for my mom when she started to get a bad diagnosis about her cancer last year. When she was told a year-long course of chemo was ahead for her, I promised to take her to Italy to celebrate when she was done with chemo. Unfortunately, that never happened and she died soon after, but at a family gathering around Christmas last year I told my Aunt about the trip and asked if we could maybe go anyway the following summer, as a sort of tribute to my mom. She enthusiastically said yes.
Overall, the trip was an absolute blast. I was worried about culture shock of a new language, new locations, and new food, especially with my young daughter tagging along. Oddly, my two years of high school of Spanish (and occasional use since) made the Italian language feel about 75% readable and it was easy to pick up short phrases (that were mostly tweaked spanish phrases I already knew). The food overall was very good and close to what a lot of high end Italian places serve in the states, and since it was a vacation it was pretty easy to slip into the relaxed Italian lifestyle. I can't imagine an easier non-English speaking country to visit.
We flew into and out of Rome and knew spending some time there was pretty much mandatory on your first trip to the country. They have a great deal of relics from the original Roman Empire and many other sights and famous buildings in a pretty small section of the city center. Unfortunately for us, while Rome's late Spring had been pretty mild, the day before we arrived a heat wave blew in from the Sahara and temps hovered around 90-95F the entire time we were there. It was brutally hot and tough to spend more than a couple hours out in the sun doing things before a rest in some air conditioned place was necessary (and two showers a day became the norm).
Our first night was spent in a nice hotel near the Colosseum and we spent the remainder of our time in a nice little apartment a block away. As always, having an apartment was great because we could eat whatever we wanted for breakfast and come and go as we pleased (also helped to have laundry in our unit). I have to mention while we had a small CarreFour grocery store nearby, the best fruit and eggs I've ever purchased came from a random convenience store near our apartment. The eggs we got (at the equivalent of your average 7-11 in the States) were as yellow and great tasting as my friend's organic fed chickens. The quality of basic food at small shops and stores was really something else, feeling farm fresh.
We ended up eating in a lot of nearby restaurants, and being close to the Colosseum meant a lot of bad touristy places that cater to English speakers. Friends on twitter steered me towards the iPhone app "Rome for Foodies" which is a quirky but reliably awesome hand written guide to the best food near you from an American ex-pat living in Rome as a food writer and sommelier. Our best meals were had thanks to that app and we also found some great little bakeries listed in it too. We also had the best tasting lunch of our trip by just walking into a restaurant where the waiter picked antipasto for us for lunch, no menus, which sounded like a tourist scam to drive up the bill but everything that came out was amazing.
On the advice of a friend, we hired a tour guide (from this outfit) to take us through the ancient sites (it helped that our guide was an anthropologist) and the Vatican, both to understand everything we were seeing as well as skipping long tourist lines. The ancient sites are really pretty spectacular and it was hard to even grasp the time period in regards to our own lifespans. I found it hard to make sense of looking at a building completed 1900 years ago and thinking how it survived through such massive political, social, cultural, and even atmospheric changes. And even for an atheist like me, the Vatican was pretty incredible. The art was amazing and the massive cathedral was impressive.
Overall, we had a pretty good time in Rome seeing the sites. If it was a bit cooler out, we could have seen more and walked more places and spent more time outdoors at ancient sites, but I would definitely recommend first time visitors to Italy to not miss Rome.
Florence was even better than Rome. We spent five days and four nights in Florence and the next time I travel this way I will make it at least a week. Food was almost always incredible, using Yelp reviews was key to finding the best options and it helped that finding great gelato was easy. We also took a side trip to the Tuscan towns Chianti and San Gimignano and both served as a wonderful relief from the heat and the crowds of Florence.
Florence was like a puzzle composed of thousands of pieces, so many streets, alleys, nooks and crannies to explore. Over the course of our time there we visited half a dozen museums and churches and there was still another dozen I wanted to see that we never got a chance to see. Every day we'd travel different paths though the city center and every day we were rewarded with new shops, chapels, and bridges to see. We spent several days exploring and had a full day guided tour on the penultimate day of our stay. We thought we'd seen most of the city center but our guide spent the day showing us streets, attractions, and places we hadn't even known existed. The food was pretty amazing no matter where we ate, reminding me of my Italian grandmother's cooking.
We stayed smack dab in the center of town, overlooking the main cathedral and the largest, most crowded city square. It was fun to be in the thick of it and close to everything, but it came at the price of nearly 24hrs of crowd noise outside our windows (ear plugs helped). We didn't plan on it, but our stay coincided with Florence's big John the Baptist celebration day which included a big procession and the opening of some doors in the church that only open once a year. That same night, we got to see the most incredible fireworks I've ever seen (it helps that the big fireworks companies are often Italian family-owned) over the Arno river. The Euro 2012 soccer series was also going on and we got to enjoy watching Italy win some key matches amid the cheering locals crowded around TVs at bars.
Our brief day trip to Tuscany made it clear why people make such a big deal about the region surrounding Florence. The landscape is amazing with views from every hilltop and the weather was really mild. San Gimignano was known as "medieval Manhattan" and even though it was kind of a cheesy tourist castle-as-city, the best chocolate ice cream I've ever eaten was there and it was a nice place to catch an afternoon Sunday concert from local players in their city square. Florence was a real gem and I would love to visit it again someday and explore the region more.
Almost every American I talked to before the trip said we should see Venice but warned us that it would disappoint. Too crowded, too dirty, and too touristy most said. I have to admit the first couple hours in the city weren't that great. It was very hot, we paid too much for a water taxi, and we ended up lost for 40 minutes trying to find our hotel amid the alleyways. When we finally found it and dropped our bags, our first experience at St. Marks square was being around 10,000 cruise line attendes clamoring for souvenirs.
But every moment after those first couple hours was pure bliss. It was our first relief from the heat wave we'd endured in Rome and Florence. After Florence I had gotten used to the serendipity of wandering back alley paths and Venice was a city that definitely rewarded those that went with it. I found stores, restaurants, and coffee shops I never could find again. When we had to cut across the island to save time we'd see a new museum or specialty shop we loved. The water "bus" system was easy, economical, and fun to use, letting us get from anywhere to almost anywhere else in Venice. We avoided the crowded St. Marks Square for the most part and enjoyed quiet art museums and galleries as well as gardens.
Visiting the San Giorgio tower and getting to see the city from up high was one of the best experiences. It let you see just how fragile the whole city was, this collection of tiny islands with thousands of people in buildings that were nearly a thousand years old, the whole place felt more special and precarious. I have no idea how electricity and fresh water get to the islands, and we frequently saw supplies still delivered by hand cart and construction done via boat.
Our hotel was nice, food was pretty good (Yelp use here is minimal, so I instead switched to the more popular Trip Advisor), but by the end of our time in Venice I think I loved it most of all the places we visited in Italy because it was so relaxing, laid back, and the weather was so mild being on the water. I would highly recommend not only visiting if you get the chance, but spending more than the standard overnight trip (we spent four days/three nights and I could have stayed more).
Some general travel tips
Rome: buying an unlimited Metro pass for the number of days of your stay is a good deal. We found we could get from our apartment to almost anywhere we needed to be in the city using the network of buses and trains. Keep in mind the core area of most attractions in downtown Rome is only a couple miles from end to end so if the weather isn't too bad and you're reasonably fit you could walk almost everywhere. The main international airport (FCO) is fairly far out of town and is about 50 euro to taxi into the center of Rome. Yelp was useful and reliable for reviews of restaurants. During siesta time (about 1-4pm) most businesses closed up shop and didn't post hours. In the heat, we just got used to either resting during this time or visiting a museum.
Florence: there is a plethora of museums and I would highly recommend picking just a handful out and making reservations well in advance if you want to see the original David statue at the Academy Gallery). A tour guide came in handy here to see lots of small things we hadn't spotted before. Everything we did was walking distance except for our trip to Tuscany, and our tour guide/driver came in handy because I didn't want to drive in Italy.
Venice: The water bus system was great and time-based unlimited passes were worth the price. During our four day stay, a 72hr unlimited ticket covered all our needs and let us explore the entire length of the grand canal as well as some of the smaller islands. Water Taxis will take you directly where you need to go but will cost a lot (60 euro from the train terminal to St. Marks). The gondola rides are even more expensive (100 euro for 30-40min) but as a tourist you kind of have to do it once for the full experience. The art/museum pass was also a good deal and let us skip lines at the most popular spots.
Nerdery: I had good results from using a Wind.it microSIM on my iPhone (that was only 20 euro and came with 10Gb of bandwidth), but there was about a 12hr delay until it started working. I couldn't get their data-only SIM to work in my iPad and instead got one from TIM (which worked instantly, also without a PIN on the SIM), another telephone company in Italy. There were no phone kiosks in the Rome airport, but it was pretty easy to find dedicated phone stores in Rome from Wind, TIM, and Vodafone. WiFi was generally available everywhere for either a fee or you had to ask for the password (free open WiFi was prohibited for the last decade due to anti-terror rules). My iPhone's battery ran down faster than I remember, probably because I was using Foursquare so much. I eventually dropped my connection down to Edge-only to get a full day out of my phone.
Food: The best meal in Rome was had at Da Danilo. My favorite meal in Florence was at Za Za (which is touristy and crowded but still worth it). The best meal we had in Venice was at La Zucca. Overall, food was generally great everywhere, I had some of the best risotto of the trip at the cafeteria in the Rome train station. In general, I used Yelp to find highly reviewed places near me. At first I realized it was difficult to evaluate restaurants with only Italian reviews I couldn't read until I realized they were generally better since native Italians were eating there. I used Trip Advisor only when I needed to because their reviews are generally rubbish and untrustworthy (the highest rated place in Florence on TA was almost exactly the same as the food you would honestly get at an Olive Garden in the US. Forgettable crap).
Traveling around: Rome buses were great, especially the tiny electric ones because they went down very small streets and alleys. Rome's subway was reliable and quick. The national high speed trains were great for going from one town to the next faster than a plane and very cheap considering. The best trip we had was a nonstop from Rome to Florence in a brand new train with lots of room and it was incredibly comfortable. Those trains also offer WiFi if you have a TIM sim card in your phone.