If you’ve never been to Italy before, perhaps the best way to dive in is to visit I Tre Grandi, The Big Three: Rome, Florence & Venice. While they’re similar in popularity, they’re different in almost every other way. Yes, each is rich in history, art, architecture, and of course, great food and wine. But there’s no mistaking one for the other.
Below, I focus on some of the highlights of each city and provide practical tips for where to go, how to get there, and where to eat when you do. For each destination, I’ve recommended a hotel that I’ve stayed in that has turned out to be a favorite — central location, clean, and great service.
ROME Hotel: Relais Fontana di Trevi
Rome is BIG, with a variety of different neighborhoods and overflowing with things to see and do. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the main sites, all of which are in a manageable radius of each other.
While you may be tempted to take one of the bus tours, personally, I would not recommend it. They get very crowded and are notoriously late – mostly because of Rome’s notoriously crazy traffic. Besides, you can see what you want to see much easier on your own. If you don’t want to walk, taxis are easy to find, and Uber in Rome is fully operational.
High on most people’s agenda are St. Peter’s Basilica and The Vatican Museum, which houses the Sistine Chapel. You have to buy a ticket to the Museum to get to the Chapel, so don’t buy any “tickets to the Sistine Chapel” from vendors outside.
To avoid lines, buy tickets online here for a specific entry time. You might also consider taking one of the many private tours. A couple of experienced tour operators to consider are Viator or – for an after-hours tour –Dark Rome.
After The Vatican, head straight out to the river and you’ll see Castel Sant’Angelo. The history is interesting, but to get to the best part, you have to climb some (okay, a lot of) stairs. At the very top is an open platform that affords an incredible, expansive overview of the whole city.
You could end your day with dinner in the Trastevere, a maze-ish bohemian section of town with street musicians, artists and outdoor cafes. Several of my favorite meals in Rome have taken place at Dar Sor Olimpia al Drago. Order whatever the waiter recommends, and a bottle of the Montefalco Sagrantino is divine with all of it. You should make a reservation – it’s small and THAT good.
On another day, start early at the Colosseum (buy tickets online here) then walk up through the Roman Forum to Piazza Venezia, which is dominated by an extravagant monument to Victor Emmanuel, the father of Italian unification. If you didn’t make it up the stairs at Castel Sant’Angelo, there’s an elevator in the monument here that will take you to the top for another spectacular view.
Time for lunch! Luckily, you’re a short walk from one of my favorites, I Vicini Bistrot. Small, simple, scrumptious! Some of the best, most authentic dishes you’ll find.
From there, head up to the Pantheon. Started as a pagan temple, then co-opted by the Christians, it’s well known for the hole in its dome. From there you can stroll over to Piazza Navona, home to the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
There’s a somewhat-famous bar called Jonathan’s Angels on the Via della Fossa, a few blocks west of the Navona. Jonathan’s has a high kitsch factor and amazing bathrooms.
And for the adventurous among you… one night while you’re there, catch a cab or an Uber to the headquarters for the Knights of Malta on Aventine Hill. Most drivers in Rome know about this. When you pull up, you’ll see a huge wooden gate in front. Look through the keyhole for a very cool surprise!
FLORENCE B&B: Le Dimore dei Cherubini (or via AirBnB, try Scala Garden)
If this is your first visit, you should probably start with the “must sees.” On this list, I would include Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia, the Duomo (read the book Brunelleschi’s Dome before you go), and the Uffizi Gallery, where you’ll see, among other masterpieces, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. To skip the inevitable lines, buy tickets online to all three places beforehand. Click here to buy tickets for the Ufizzi and the Accademia, and Click here for tickets to the Duomo.
The Ufizzi is next to the Piazza della Signoria, a Florentine meeting place of sorts for centuries, and the site of significant events for most of the Medici’s reign. There are plenty of restaurants around the Piazza, but instead, head over the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno – the other side of the river.
There, just across from the Pitti Palace is Enoteca Pitti Gola Wine Bar & Cantina. It’s a nice place to spend an hour or so eating, drinking, people watching and reveling in all things Italy. Also in that area, in Piazza Santo Spirito, are several newer, somewhat “hipster” (but not in a bad way) places. My favorite is Tamero, with fresh, homemade pasta, a great wine list, and, occasionally, live music.
For in-depth details about this relatively unexplored area – and other areas of Florence — Girl in Florence gives great advice and plenty of specifics.
When looking to buy unique gifts – for myself or someone else – I visit the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Yes, it’s called a “pharmacy,” but it’s an ancient one in a beautiful building where they still make perfumes and soaps from 500-year-old recipes. Go!
Want a personalized Firenze experience? Contact an expert! Michela Ricciarelli knows the hidden Florence and can craft a day in the city built around exactly what you want to see, do, eat, drink, or shop for. Her English is very good and she’s smart, funny & informed. You’ll love her.
VENICE Hotel: Locanda Fiorita
Venice is like no other city on earth, and everyone should experience it at least once before it (allegedly) disappears beneath the water. You can sit in its cafes, walk its narrow streets and go “ooh and ahh” for hours.
However, in terms of what you should see, check out Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace; the Accademia Gallery; and the Jewish Ghetto. If you have the time, take a boat over to Murano to see (and buy from) the glass factories.
The Vaporetti (water buses) are a great way to get around, and cheap. Just buy a Day Pass and you can hop on and off as needed. The water taxis are expensive, so you might avoid those. And even though hiring a gondola is akin to hiring a horse & buggy in New York’s Central Park (considered strictly for tourists), go ahead! It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.
A good way to discover Venice is to start at the train station and take a vaporetto all the way down the Canal, looking at the gorgeous, mosaic-covered palazzos along the way, and getting off at Piazza San Marco. Savor a coffee at Caffe Florian (the oldest continuously operating café in the world) then work your way back through the streets toward the Ponte Rialto (Rialto Bridge). Hint: As you walk along, look up at the corners of the buildings and you’ll see signs pointing to major sites.
One restaurant I like to recommend is Al Covo, because the chef’s wife is a fellow Texan. But it’s also some of the best seafood in the city. And at lunch, your crazy friend who is “tired of pasta” can get a cheeseburger.