Will you be one of the 46 million people who visits Italy this year? I sure hope so! Italy is home to more World Heritage Sites (49!) than any other country in the world, not to mention iconic landmarks recognized the world over. With so much beauty and history packed into just one of Europe’s many enchanting countries, and considering time and budgetary constraints, planning your visit can be overwhelming.
I am certainly no expert, just someone who loves this beautiful country and has been fortunate to visit a few times. Read on as I share a few favorites for you to consider as you build your itinerary.
First of all….may I suggest ciao, grazie, e prego?
Before you even pack your passport, I highly encourage you to you learn a few Italian phrases just for the sheer joy of speaking Italian in Italy. Try About.Com’s Italian Survival Phrases. The Italians are so receptive to travelers’ sincere attempts at their lovely language, and the fun of trying to communicate in Italian will add a whole different dimension of delight to your trip. Additionally, should you find yourself in a smaller town, it may be helpful to have a few Italian words under your belt. (If not, don’t worry, you can get by with the international language of charades).
One of my favorite memories from my trip a couple of years ago was in a Florentine cafe. My six-year-old daughter and I were in line to pay, and the gentleman behind us dropped some coins on the floor. Daughter quickly scooped them up and handed them to the man, who said to her, “grazie.” Without missing a beat, she answered, “prego.”And the gentleman burst into Italian celebration, crying “bella! bella!” and pinching her cheeks. He was thrilled with this little blonde American ragazza, (girl), and we were pretty felice (happy) too.
Don’t Miss Florence
There’s so much to see between the hot spots of Rome and Venice alone, but please squeeze Florence into your plans. Last year one of my dearest friends took a fantastic Italian vacation but missed Florence, and I felt like I personally had let her down. (Thankfully, she’s going back this summer!) By train, Florence is an easy and quick journey from Rome, less than two hours. And being fairly small and centralized, the city which birthed the Renaissance and still holds many of its treasures, really should not be missed. You can get through it well even in just a couple of days.
If you can make Florence your home base for more than a day or two, it’s a great jumping-off point for some unforgettable day trips, such as Fiesole, a little jewel of a town in the hills overlooking Florence; Pisa (can’t miss this one, especially if traveling with kids); Lucca, where you can bike the town’s perimeter atop the medieval walls; gorgeous Siena, a town straight from the Middle Ages; San Gimignano, sometimes called the medieval Manhattan because of its numerous surviving towers. I also loved Monteriggioni, (suggested by a guidebook for families traveling with kids), which is a teeny but perfectly preserved walled town, and home to my most favorite church of them all. Not to be forgotten: wine tasting in Tuscany. Milan and Cinque Terre are still on my wish list, both of which can be readily reached from Florence.
Heading South of Rome?
There is much to draw tourist south of Rome: the Amalfi Coast, the ruins of Pompeii, Naples, Sorrento and the beautiful island of Capri. But even further south, more treasures await, many of which are not on most tourists’ lists.
My family roots are in Bari, which is situated in the heel of the Italian boot, in the province of Puglia. Thanks to my loving cugini (cousins) there, I was introduced to some amazing places, including Polignano a Mare and Alberobello. Polignano is a stunning cliffside town; Alberobello, home of the trulli, is one of those World Heritage Sites I mentioned earlier. I’m itching to return to Italy soon to catch up with family and visit other beautiful southern Italian cities including Lecce, Matera and Calabria.
Truthfully, Italy is not a large country, so it seems feasible that you could cover a lot of territory in a limited amount of days. But Italy is best savored: enjoying slow meals of several courses, meandering side streets and back alleys in search of nothing at all, the gift of getting lost and throwing your itinerary out the window. Make your wish list, hit your top priorities, and know that you’ll return someday.
But just for good measure, throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
This post first appeared on Prayers and Piazzas. All photos from the author’s personal collection.