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Craft an Epic Italy Itinerary

Think you’re not creative? Maybe you can’t play an instrument or draw recognizable sketches. But if you travel independently, you are definitely creative. It would be far easier to hand over the reins to a tour operator, a guidebook, or a travel blog and follow their suggestions to the letter. But the beauty of traveling on your own is the freedom. You have full control over where you go, what you do, and how much you spend. Love ancient ruins? You can decide to focus almost all of your time on Rome. On a very tight budget? Maybe you’ll opt to save Venice for a future trip. And when it comes to working out the logistics of getting from place to place, experimentation can become your best friend. You can make your lifestyle – or even just your vacation – your art by crafting your own epic Italy itinerary with the info below.

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The Basics of Itinerary Planning

Any travel itinerary you create will be guided by three main principles: time, money, and interest. If you have a traditional 9-to-5 job with a fixed number of vacation days, that limited amount of time will probably be the biggest factor in your planning. If you’re a freelance creative professional, like me, you might find your budget is your greatest limitation. Finally, your interest level should seem like a no-brainer to include on this list. But many tourists and travelers sometimes forget this in favor of checking off attractions that others have deemed “must sees.” Don’t be afraid to say no to any recommendation that doesn’t truly speak to your wanderlust – and that includes my own recommendations below!

Once you have a rough idea of how much time and money you have for your trip, consider what pace you’d like to keep. Many travel operators run tours at breakneck speeds, with only one or two nights spent on each stop. You might prefer to travel more slowly, which is safer, healthier, and more fun. But if you’ve only got a week and don’t mind the stress of traveling quickly, you can make that choice.

As an example, in July and August 2016, I traveled throughout Italy for two and a half weeks, and spent a little less than $850. This was a bare bones budget, averaging out to $44 per day. I spent an average of three days in each city I visited.

Now that you have these broader pieces in place, you can start thinking about where to go! Below you’ll find sections for many of Italy’s biggest cities. These aren’t comprehensive guides to each city, but rather cover a few attractions and some logistical basics. As you read, ask yourself whether that destination fits in with your time, money, and interest constraints.

Table of Contents

 


Being rather a lengthy post, I’ve added jump links here. Click a city name to reach that section, then head “Back to top” to return here.

Rome * Florence * Venice * Milan * Naples * Amalfi Coast

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Rome

 


Dubbed “The Eternal City,” Rome is probably the first place you think of when you hear “Italy.” The seat of an ancient empire, the modern capital of a country, and the be-all end-all of the Catholic Church, the attractions of Rome are neverending.

What to do

If it’s your first time, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum are probably at the top of your list. There are many other ancient ruins around the city center, however, such as the Circus Maximus and the Teatro Marcello. Sites like Capitoline Hill and Palatine Hill also have strong claims on Roman history, and for a little exercise with the ancients, try the Via Appia Antica, which has been turned into a national park.

The Vatican, while technically its own independent country as the seat of the papacy, is geographically within the center of Rome. You can tour the Vatican Museums, step inside the Sistine Chapel, or simply marvel at the view from Saint Peter’s Basilica. Just outside the Vatican, you’ll find the Castel Sant’Angelo. This Roman landmark has centuries of history behind it and has been featured in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

Art lovers flock to the Galleria Borghese, a private collection showcasing works by Bernini, Caravaggio, and Raphael among the expansive grounds of a 17th century estate. Those with a taste for the macabre might dart off to one of the side streets from the Piazza Barberini to see the bones of the Capuchin Crypt.

And then there are the piazzas. The Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the grand obelisk at the Piazza del Popolo… The list goes on and on. You will have no shortage of things to do in Rome.

How to get here

Fiumicino Airport is the main arrival point for international visitors. But if you’re already in Europe, you can travel overland. The Termini train station is quite centrally located, while Tiburtina sits far to the northeast. There are also regular cheap bus routes passing through the city, most of which will stop near one of the train stations.

How much to spend

On a very tight budget, you can get a bed for as low as 30 euro a night, but keep in mind you may need to use the metro more. Metro tickets are 1.50 euro apiece. A mid-range hotel is likely to cost 100-200 euro a night. A four- or five-star establishment will be at least 300-400 euro a night, but probably more.

A slice of pizza will only set you back 3 or 4 euro, making it a favored lunch of backpackers. A budget meal at a sit-down restaurant will be 10-15 euro. Look for trattoria, which are more casual eateries with lower prices. At fancier osteria and ristorantes, you might spend as much as 50 euro on a meal.

A combo ticket to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill is 12 euro. Entry to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel is 16 euro. The Galleria Borghese costs 11 euro, and minor museums and ruins typically run from 6 to 8 euro. Depending on how much you want to see, you should plan on spending an average of 10-15 euro a day on attractions.

So a strict budget traveler can visit Rome with about 60 euro per day. A mid-range traveler can visit on 125-150 euro per day. A luxury traveler will spend upwards of 400 euro per day, and really the sky’s the limit.

When to visit

Rome is an excellent place to either start or end your trip, because of Fiumicino airport. If you’d like to visit both the south and the north of the country, however, start in the north and work your way down. It’s easier to fly into the Venice airport and move south, than it is to fly into Rome, visit the south and then double back to make it up north.

How long to stay

Plan to spend at least three days in Rome, if you’ve never been before. That will allow you one day to visit the ancient ruins, one day to tour the Vatican, and another day to explore whatever museums capture your fancy.

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Florence Skyline

Florence

 


Surrounded by the Tuscan countryside and filled with the spirit and history of the Renaissance, Florence is my absolute favorite place in Italy, maybe even in the world. It’s an easy place to explore as a solo traveler and its beauty is simply unsurpassed.

What to do

Florence is the ultimate destination for art lovers. You can get lost in the Galleria Uffizi, home to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus among many other works. Or you can head to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s famous statue of David up close and personal. There may be copies sprinkled across the city, but they truly do not compare to the original.

The Renaissance was also an important time for science. So Florence is also home to a museum devoted to Galileo. See a collection of telescopes, painted globes, and the like, as well as a few more morbid relics: Galileo’s finger bone and teeth. This flourishing of Florentine society in the sixteenth century was thanks to the Medici family. Learn about their history at sites like the Palazzo Vecchio and the Palazzo Pitti.

The skyline of Florence is punctuated by the magnificent Duomo. Take your time to explore the architect Brunelleschi’s masterpiece inside and out, with a climb up to the top. You can also ascend Giotto’s Campanile which sits right next to the formidable dome of Florence’s cathedral complex.

Florence is also well situated for day trips into the Tuscan countryside. Pick out a nearby villa for wine tasting – I love Castello Il Palagio for their amazing red pepper jelly as much as for their Chianti Classico. Explore a small town like San Gimignano or Siena. Or, head west to Pisa to see its infamous Leaning Tower. All these destinations are within a 90-minute drive from Florence.

How to get there

The Santa Maria Novella train station is quite close to the city center. Many inexpensive bus routes stop just outside here as well. Florence does have an international airport, but Tuscany is so beautiful – do yourself a favor and travel overland to get to Florence.

How much to spend

Florence’s city center is very compact and has extremely strict traffic regulations. It’s great for pedestrians, but it does mean that staying outside the city center is not worthwhile. Inside the center, 25 euro will land you a bed in a large hostel dorm. Mid range hotels are mostly around 75-125 euro per night, and luxury hotels start at no less than 250 euro per night.

As in most Italian cities, your cheapest meal option is a slice of pizza or a takeaway panini at 4-5 euro. A budget meal in a restaurant will be 10-15 euro. If you’re traveling alone, you can save money by eating at a restaurant that caters to solo diners, like Il Gesto.  More upscale restaurant meals range from 20 to 50 euro.

The Galleria Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia each charge 12 euro admission. You can enter the Duomo for free, but a 15 euro ticket will grant you access to additional monuments, like the cupola, crypt, and museum. Other museums cost around 5 euro.

Budget travelers should expect to spend at least 50 euro a day here. Mid range travelers can get around on 150 euro a day. If you’d like to live in the lap of luxury in this playground of the Renaissance, plan to spend over 300 euro a day.

When to visit

Florence is best scheduled as a mid-point on your trip, being so centrally located. The only time I would recommend flying directly into Florence would be if your trip was to focus on the south, eschewing places like Milan and Venice. Florence is north of Rome, so this would keep your travel in one direction.

How long to stay

If you’d like to keep a reasonable pace of activity, book a full week in Florence. You can easily spend two or even three days exploring the city center’s museums and other attractions. Adding in day trips to wineries, Tuscan villages, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa round out the week.

If you want to really pack your days as fully as possible to save time, you could potentially spend just three or four days in Tuscany instead.

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Venice 3

Venice

 


The image of gondolas drifting down winding canals has drawn many a traveler to Venice. While the city is now little more than a tourist attraction, the shadows of its glamorous history remain. Everyone should visit Venice at least once in their lives.

What to do

A gondola ride is likely at the top of your bucket list if you’re a first-time visitor. There are gondoliers available for hire all over the city. Just approach one and ask about his rate. Be prepared – it’ll be high. You might be able to haggle it down a bit, but a tourist attraction of this level is going to be steep.

If that gondola price is just too rich for your blood, don’t worry. Getting lost in the narrow alleys of Venice is an experience in and of itself. Your wanderings might take you to the Piazza San Marco and its beautiful basilica or to the Ponte Rialto lined with merchants as it was in the sixteenth century.

Take a boat out to Murano and watch its famous glassblowers at work. Hit Burano on the way back for some Venetian lace. Or, if you prefer history, many of the beautiful old palazzo you see on the Grand Canal have been turned into museums.

In the mood for a day trip? Verona, of Romeo and Juliet fame, is about a 90 minute drive from Venice.

How to get here

International flights arrive at Marco Polo airport, which a few miles north of Venice on the mainland. Trains and buses will probably arrive at Mestre, but you might be able to score a ride to the Santa Lucia station, which does sit on the Venetian islands. Buses arrive at Tronchetto, which is on the mainland, but served by vaporetto.

In most cases, you will have to take a vaporetto or a more expensive water taxi to get to the Venetian islands.

How much to spend

Budget accommodations are hard to come by in Venice, but it is possible to secure a very basic hostel bed for 30 euro a night. Mid-range hotels will likely run about 150-200 euro per night, while luxury hotels are typically around 500 euro per night.

Even on a tight budget, you will probably have to spend 15-20 euro on a restaurant meal. Though it is possible to sniff out a pizza counter where a slice will cost you only a few euro, as it does in other parts of Italy. Nicer restaurant meals are naturally quite expensive. 50 to 60 euro is the low end of the scale.

A gondola ride could easily cost you 100 euro for an hour, but there is no fixed rate. You will have to bargain with the driver. A far less costly, if also less glamorous, way to get around the canals is by vaporetto. One vaporetto ticket costs 7 euro.

The Venice Museum Pass is a rare kind of its breed. Many museum passes are not a very good value. This one is. At just 24 euro, the pass is good for six months and grants one access to each of Venice’s major museums, including the Doge’s Palace, Ca’Rezzonico, and the Glass Museum on Murano.

Budget travelers will spend 60-75 euro per day in Venice at the bare minimum. Mid-range travelers should budget about 200 euro per day. Luxury travelers will have no difficulty burning through their dough here, at a rate of 600-700 euro per day. These costs do not include gondola rides, since you probably won’t take those every day. So keep in mind that a gondola will add a rather large flat cost to your total trip budget.

When to visit

Venice is tucked into the northeast corner of Italy, making it an ideal place to begin or end your trip.

How long to stay

In spite of its allure, Venice today is oversaturated by mass tourism to the point that there are no actual locals in the city center. Go explore the canals, visit the craftsmen’s islands, hit up a few museums. You can cover the basics pretty easily within two days.

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Milan

 


You might know it best as the site of an infamous Fashion Week, and there’s good reason for that. Everything about Milan feels wrapped in glamour and luxury. When you explore its city center, it can feel like you’re worlds away from the rest of Italy.

What to do

Florence isn’t the only Italian city with an iconic Duomo. The stunning marble facade of Milan’s cathedral is perhaps its most famous sight. Its architecture is remarkably detailed; the church took a whopping 600 years to complete. You can get an up close and personal look with a rooftop ticket.

Naturally, a city with an international reputation for fashion will have incredible shopping. Browse the designer windows in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – located right next to the Duomo – or down the nearby Via Montenapoleone. These high end boutiques bring their mannequin A-game. Just window shopping can make for a pleasant hour or two in nice weather.

Milan also has a strong claim on Italian art history. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterful Last Supper mural is on display at the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. Da Vinci worked in Milan for nearly twenty years. In addition to the Last Supper, he also completed the Virgin of the Rocks and a design for the Milan cathedral’s dome. Today, a statue of da Vinci stands surrounded by his fellow Renaissance scholars near the La Scala opera house. Between this square and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping center, you’ll find Italy’s largest science and technology museum, named after the poster child of the Italian Renaissance himself.

How to get here

Milan does have an international airport, should you wish to start or end your trip here. A train station sits at the northern end of the city center. Buses typically arrive at the Lampugnano station, from where you can easily hop on the metro to reach the city center.

How much to spend

If you’re willing to spend the night in a large hostel dorm, you can shell out just 15-20 euro for your accommodations. A mid-range hotel might cost 100-150 euro per night. For four- or five-star hotels, expect to spend at least 200 euro a night, and more likely 300-400 euro per night.

There are plenty of cheap takeaway options near the Duomo, so a shoestring budget can get you a quick meal for 5 euro or even less. A budget meal in a restaurant will probably range 10-15 euro. A more upscale meal (try the region’s traditional osso buco and risotto milanese!) will cost 20-30 euro.

Rooftop access at the Duomo costs 11-15 euro, depending on whether you prefer to take a lift or hoof it up the stairs. Tickets to view the Last Supper must be booked in advance for 6.50 euro. The da Vinci science museum charges 10 euro for admission, and the museum at La Scala costs 7 euro.

Budget travelers will therefore spend at least 45 euro per day in Milan. Mid-range travelers might pay 125-150 euro per day. Luxury travelers will spend at least 250 euro per day.

When to visit

Far to the north of Italy, Milan is a reasonable place to begin or end your trip, if you’re not visiting Venice.

How long to stay

Unless you’re a serious fashionista, Milan’s attractions are few in number. For the average tourist, one or two days is enough to enjoy its major sights.

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Naples

 


The reputation of Naples is pretty much the polar opposite of Milan. Many paint this southern city as a filthy den of thieves, and it’s true that Naples has a grit to it. But it’s actually not much more dangerous than any other large city, and it’s a fantastic base for exploring other parts of Italy’s south.

What to do

Naples is a prime location for visiting Pompeii. History buffs will be able to happily fill an entire day exploring these famous ancient ruins, preserved by the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. There are also some smaller similar sites in the region, like Herculaneum and Paestum. Most of the antiquities uncovered at the archaeological site of Pompeii are on display in the city of Naples itself, at the National Archaeological Museum.

Other sights around the city center include the medieval Castel Nuovo,  the 18th century Palazzo Reale, and its contemporary, the Teatro di San Carlo opera house. The Castel Nuovo now houses an art museum, as does the Palazzo di Capodimonte, located nearly an hour outside the city center.

Because of the way public transportation is set up among the Amalfi Coast, Naples is also a good base for visiting Sorrento and Capri, which sit on the far western side of the country. Sorrento is easily accessible via the Circumvesuviana train. There you can stroll the historic center and taste its trademark limoncello. Ferries to Capri leave from near the Castel Nuovo on a daily basis. The island is home to a spectacular grotto.

How to get here

Naples has an international airport. Trains and buses both arrive at a central train station. Trains include both Trenitalia, the national train service, and the Circumvesuviana, a regional train which serves Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento, and is more like a metro. The metro for Naples’ city center is also within this main central station.

How much to spend

The convenient Circumvesuviana makes staying in one of Naples’ suburbs, like Portici, an inexpensive alternative to the city center for budget travelers. You can get a hostel dorm for 15-20 euro. Mid-range hotels within the city might cost 75-100 euro per night. Luxury accommodations are available from 150-200 euro per night.

Pizza in Naples has a well-deserved reputation. 5-10 euro will score you an entire pie to yourself. Downing a whole pizza for a meal is a Napoletano badge of honor. Mid-range travelers may prefer to seek out fixed price menus, which run 10-20 euro for multi-course meals. Ristorante dinners start at 20 euro a pop.

Naples’ museums typically charge 6-8 euro for admission. The entry fee to Pompeii is 16 euro, which includes a map and a comprehensive guidebook. You can pay much higher prices for audio guides or guided tours, but these really aren’t necessary to enjoy the site.

Metro tickets in Naples are 1.50 euro apiece. Tickets on the Circumvesuviana, which you will need to take to reach places like Portici, Pompeii, and Sorrento, vary in price depending on how far you travel. 2-3 euro can serve as an estimate.

Budget travelers will likely spend at least 30 euro per day. Mid-range travelers can expect to spend upwards of 125 euro per day. Luxury travel costs at least 200 euro a day.

When to visit

Located in the south of the country, Naples is a reasonable place to start or end your trip. Although you may have more luck securing a good price on airfare if you fly in and out of Rome.

How long to stay

The city itself can be covered in a day or two, but you can very easily use Naples as a base for exploring other parts of the region. Set aside a full day each for Pompeii, Sorrento, and Capri. You could likely fill a full week in Naples.

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Amalfi Coast

 


You can visit many parts of the Amalfi Coast from Naples. But if you have your eye turned to this glitzy slice of the south of Italy, you probably want to devote some more specific time to it on your trip. Sorrento, Amalfi, and Positano are likely names you recognize from this region. There are many smaller off-the-beaten path cities to visit as well, like Salerno, Cetara, and Ravello.

What to do

Wandering around the coastal towns of Amalfi and Positano does sound glamorous, no? Make sure you take ferries between them, instead of the cheaper bus. The arrival is half the fun. These are very popular tourist destinations, and you’ll likely spend most of your time simply walking, taking pictures, and shopping for souvenirs.

Sorrento and Capri are discussed as day trips from Naples, above, but are technically part of this region and so could be included here without too much difficulty.

If you’d like to spend the day relaxing on the beach, go off the beaten path to Cetara. This is a more peaceful, local slice of the Amalfi Coast than its crowded counterparts to the west. Another lesser known site is Ravello. This medieval village is full of gorgeous gardens and excellent views over the coast.

This is a region made for rest and relaxation.

How to get here

Sorrento is served by the Circumvesuviana for those coming from Naples. If you’re arriving from other parts of Italy, there is a large train station at Salerno. There are also long distance buses serving Salerno from the main square by its tourist port. You can get around the region by ferry or by the local SITA bus, though ferries are preferable for the finer scenery and the lower risk of motion sickness.

How much to spend

Accommodations on the Amalfi Coast are expensive and hostels are practically nonexistent. Budget travelers can catch a break by heading to Salerno. It’s not as popular with tourists, but is easily accessible from both the smaller cities on the coast and the larger cities in other areas of Italy. You can find a room on Airbnb for about 30 euro per night. Nicer hotels anywhere on the coast will probably cost 75-100 euro a night.

Pizzas and sandwiches run 5-10 euro. An meal in a sit-down restaurant will probably set you back 15 euro. Upscale restaurants can be quite expensive at 30-50 euro. Some spots may even cost you 70-80 euro.

Ferries between towns range in price, depending on how far you’re traveling. 8-12 euro is a typical estimate.

Budget travelers will probably spend at least 50 euro a day here. Mid-range travelers can likely get by on 100 euro per day. Luxury travelers will feel right at home, but will probably have to spend at least 200 euro a day.

When to visit

This is best scheduled for the middle of your trip, as these smaller coastal towns do not have international airports. A trip focusing only on the south might start in Rome and end in Naples, or vice versa. A trip covering the whole of Italy might move from Rome to Naples to the coast before securing an overnight bus or train from Salerno to the north.

How long to stay

Give yourself one day for each town you plan to visit. Three to four days is probably enough, but if you’re looking to seriously unwind, you may want to book a full week.

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Putting it all together

Now that you know a few basics about Italy’s major cities, you can start putting together your ideal personal itinerary. Want extra help? Enter your email below to receive a planning workbook!

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9 Comments

  1. Hope to put all those tips to use one day! Italy sounds great!

  2. You must have put a lot of work into putting this together and it is a really useful guide. I have only visited Milan, the Alps, and Sicily so far and so Italy definitely needs further exploration! I particularly want to visit Florence. I will pin this for future reference.
    Amanda Williams recently posted…Will you help redefine tourism?My Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 24, 2016 at 4:39 pm

      Looks like we have complementary experiences! Aside from a very brief stopover in Milan, your visited list is foreign territory to me, in spite of multiple trips to Italy. If you have tips on Alps and Sicily you’d like to add, feel free to share.

  3. Oh my, my this is so detailed! I’m totes going to plan a trip to Italy soon – will refer back here 🙂 Thank you so much!
    TJ recently posted…How to Save For a Year of Travel & How MuchMy Profile

  4. I don’t do paid tours much either. It’s SO much better to plan your own itinerary! 🙂 Then you can make sure to see all of the stuff you want to see.

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 24, 2016 at 6:09 pm

      Granted, paid tours can also be a lot of fun. My first trip to Italy was still in my very early travel days and I joined a group tour. Had great fun and it definitely helped me learn travel skills at an easier pace (instead of just diving in the deep end) as well as figure out places I’d like to return to on my own.

  5. Perfect timing to read this post because I’m planning my first trip to Italy with my mom for November. You’re so right time, money and interest dictate your intinerary and I want to try to spend as much time in Florence as possible. I love the countryside, so I would want to visit Tuscany outskirts as well.

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 24, 2016 at 6:05 pm

      Yes! Florence is the best. I definitely recommend staying in the Santo Spirito neighborhood – it’s across the river, kind of near Palazzo Pitti, so much quieter and a little less touristy than the exact city center. Several restaurants and bars. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best for a mom-daughter dinner, but as a solo diner, I had a great time at Gesto. Very hip, but budget friendly.

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