Italy Planning: Routes, Rooms & Resources

Italy guide books and websites

I’m excited about the Italy trip I’ll be taking with my sister and nephew in July. Visiting in high season will have its challenges, but I’m hoping we’ll survive with our sanity, wallets and relationships intact if we plan things carefully.

Neither my 18-year old nephew nor my sister have ever been to Europe, so I want to make it a smooth, fun and un-scary trip for them. It’s been a long time since my own post-university backpacking trip, the only time I’ve been to Italy myself. I’ve been encouraging them to get involved in the planning process, but they seem happy to leave the entire thing in my hands. No pressure; no pressure at all. Ha!

So, the planning has commenced in earnest. If you’re planning, or thinking of planning a trip to Italy, I’ve done a lot of the legwork for you! Read on for the best tips and resources I’ve uncovered.

Narrowing it down: a rough itinerary

Italy would take months to explore fully; with only two weeks, we’ll have to get focused. This trip is a grad gift to my nephew, so I asked him to give me some idea of his interests. The choice of country was actually his, and here’s what he’s most keen to experience:

  • food (must try authentic Napoletana pizza)
  • history, including Pompeii & Rome
  • fast cars
  • the canals of Venice
  • more food

He’s not so interested in art, but I told him we have to squeeze in at least a few Da Vincis and Michaelangelos while we’re there. He’s ok with that. Both he and my sister also want a bit of time for relaxation. I’m ok with that.

With those things in mind, and after researching the best flight options, we’re planning an itinerary that looks like this:

Rome – 4.5 days

We’ll have four full days plus our half day after landing. This should allow us ample time to accomplish the following easily and still have some downtime:

  • Colosseum & Forum
  • Vatican & Sistine Chapel
  • a food tour
  • assorted fountains & piazzas

Sorrento (for Naples, Pompeii & Amalfi) – 3 days

Naples and Pompeii are on the must do list, but I was reluctant to base us in Naples, known as one of Italy’s most chaotic cities. Coming from another big city, a brief taste of it will probably suffice, especially for my first-time-Europe travel companions.

Nearby Sorrento, a popular waterfront resort town with a more laid back vibe should be a great base for exploring the area. It’s well connected to both Naples and Pompeii via the Circumvesuviana – a regional rail service with departures every half hour. We’ll stop in Naples for a pizza lunch on the way from Rome and then spend three nights in Sorrento. During our stay, we’ll take a day trip to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius and take a drive along the famous Amalfi coast.

Bologna & around – 3 days

With food and fast cars as a key priority, basing ourselves in Bologna for a few days makes sense. We’ll spend 3 nights here sampling cheese from nearby Parma, vinegar from Modena up the road, and of course the famous spaghetti dish. We’ll take daytime excursions to one or both Ferrari museums, and possibly to Verona for some Romeo and Juliet atmosphere.

Venice – 2 days

Our last three nights will be spent in Venice. We’ll really only have 2 full days, give or take. I think that will be enough, considering we’ll be dodging high season crowds in the sweltering July heat. From Venice, we’ll catch our flights back to Canada.

You may notice we’re skipping Florence and Tuscany. Art and wine lovers may gasp, but something had to give. My nephew isn’t all that interested in the art (as I wasn’t at that age), and it’s not a deal breaker for me, since I’ve been to Firenze before. The city’s Renaissance masterworks will still be there next time.

 

Resources: best Italy blogs & guides

I’ve checked out lots of blogs & guide books. These are the ones I’ve found most useful:

  • Reid’s Italy – Here you’ll find destination guides for major cities & regions, sightseeing tips, itineraries, affordable lodging options, transportation information and anything else you can think of. The site covers all of the tourist sights, but also off the beaten path recommendations. The Top 10 Tips section is a goldmine, including this feature on eating for free in Italy.
  • Wandering Italy – This site is a treasure trove of information, inspiration, maps and ideas. Just like the name implies, I found myself wandering the site, since each article links to a bunch more interesting stories, which link to even more enticing tidbits. Be prepared to spend some time!
  • Rick Steves – Rick publishes a complete Italy guide, but I opted to get two of his smaller region-specific books: Pocket Rome and Amalfi Coast Snapshot. Yes, you can access lots of information online or with your mobile device while traveling, but I still like to have a reliable paper resource in case of dead batteries and/or spotty WiFi. Plus, differentiating the amateur advice from the truly knowledgeable online sources can be difficult. Rick is a European expert, and I like his style of travel – he favours local family-run establishments and value for money. My two mini guides are compact enough that they won’t be cumbersome to carry around, and the Rome guide includes a foldout map.
  • Lonely Planet Italy Guide Online – The famous guidebook company now publishes some of their content online for free, including restaurant, hotel and sightseeing recommendations. If you decide to book something you find here, they’ll pass you over to Booking.com (one of my favourite sites for booking accommodations), where you’ll find more property details, rates and reviews.
  • Venice for Visitors – I almost passed this site over, since it’s nothing much to look at, but it’s a fabulous resource for Venice. It includes maps with recommended hotels plotted out, tons of detailed transportation information, mistakes to avoid and listings of free things to see and do. For bookings, they’ll direct you to Booking.com. This site is a must-read for any first time Venice visitor.

Finding rooms

For this trip, my key criteria for lodgings were:

  • well located near sites and/or city centre but not too noisy
  • good-sized rooms (for Europe) with 3 separate beds and modern private bath
  • hearty included breakfast (we’re traveling with a teenage boy after all)
  • free in-room WiFi
  • positive reviews (allowing for the occasional outlying naysayer)
  • a bit of character (no Marriots or Holiday Inns, grazie)
  • nightly rate <€200 (at least on average)

Location, location, location

Early into my research, I realized that location can make a significant difference to the experience, especially for major tourist cities like Rome and Venice. It’s best to pick a neighbourhood first. To help decide on an area, check the Rome lodging page on the Reid’s Italy site and the Venice for Visitors hotel advice page.

These are the neighbourhoods I chose:

  • Rome: the western part of the historical centre, near Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, preferably around Piazza Farnese. Full of embassies and palazzos, it should be nice and quiet but still easy walking distance to some of the main attractions.
  • Venice: something within walking distance of the train station and transportation hub at Piazzale Romana. It will mean a longer walk to Piazza San Marco (20 minutes or so), but at least we won’t be stuck waiting in long water bus lineups for our arrival and departure.

Italy hotels Rome Venice Bologna SorrentoWith rough locations pinpointed for the bigger cities, I used a combination of the resources mentioned earlier to find these perfect places to stay:

  • Rome – Residenza in FarneseThis 4-star boutique hotel is near Campo De’ Fiori, a square famous for its morning markets. It ticks all of my criteria boxes, including antique furnishings for character. I secured a rate of just under €200 per night including a hearty breakfast. Found on: Lonely Planet.
  • Sorrento – Ulisse Deluxe Hostel: Although it’s called a hostel, reviewers report it to be more like a 3-star hotel. In fact, it has a pool, spa, gym, and even a cooking school. They do have some typical hostel dorm accommodations, but the marble-floored triple and quad rooms are palatial by European standards. I booked directly through the property’s website using a discount code found on their Twitter account. Our rate: €216. Found in: Rick Steves’ Amalfi Coast Snapshot (printed guide).
  • Bologna – Residenza Ariosto – We’ll enjoy spreading out in this 2-bedroom apartment complete with kitchen & laundry facilities. It’s a great deal at only €138 per night, and a perfect location halfway between the train station and the main piazza. Found on: Booking.com.
  • Venice – Palazzo OdoniAt €361 nightly, this will be a pricey stay, but rates are just that much higher in Venice. Hopefully we’ll make up for it by saving on local transport and staying under budget elsewhere. Not only is the property close to important transportation hubs, it’s a Palazzo! Who wouldn’t want to stay in a Venetian Palazzo? This one is still owned and lovingly maintained by the original family who built it, and if it lives up to the photos, it will be a magical stay. Found on: Venice for Visitors.

[Post-trip update: All of our accommodations were excellent and I’d recommend all of the above properties without hesitation.]

More room-finding tips

If you don’t find what you need with any of the above tools, try using some of the other sites listed in my post on travel tools for finding flights & accommodations.

A final note on hotel rates in Italy: it’s standard to add a “city tax” to the bill at the end of the stay. Charges can be anywhere from 1 to 3 Euros per person per night, depending on the city. These fees will be on top of the rates I quoted above.

Also check out my other Italy planning post covering transportation and sightseeing.

Buon viaggio,

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