Ah, Italy. A place full of history, beauty, and charm at every turn. Where the carbs abound (hello, pasta, pizza, and gelato!) and the cappuccinos are mostly foam (Italians love their foam!) If you’re considering a trip there yourself, have been there before, or simply want to live vicariously through our trip - you’re in the right place!
When Josh and I decided to start saving for a trip to Europe, 3 years ago, we quickly decided that Italy was the place we wanted to visit most. After much research and polling all our friends who had been there before, we decided on 3 destinations: Rome, Florence, and Cinque Terre. This turned out to be the perfect combination of historic landmarks, incredible food, breathtaking art, and some of the most beautiful sights we’ve ever seen.
While it may have been a little bit easier to purchase our trip through a third-party tour group, we decided to do all the planning ourselves to get the full experience. And I’m so glad we did! Planning this trip ourselves meant we were not only able to do whatever we wanted, when we wanted, but we learned so much in the process. From navigating the train system, to figuring out how to not stand in a line for hours to see the coliseum, we came home with some invaluable knowledge that we are excited to have in our pocket for future trips. And lucky you - I’m going to share it all here, too!
First Stop: Rome
Having never been to Rome, (let alone Italy for that matter,) it was hard to know exactly where to stay for our trip. We did tons of research on the areas that would be centrally located to all we wanted to see, and in a safe area, and our research led us to Argentina Residenza. We snagged an awesome deal through Priceline, and were blown away by the beauty of this place — we would stay there again in a heartbeat! It was located within walking distance to the Pantheon, Treve Fountain, and Trastevere, and tucked away nicely off the street so we felt both secure, and not in the center of all the busyness.
When in Rome, we did our best to take in the city by walking almost everywhere. From the historic sights, to the incredible food, we accomplished quite a bit in our few days there. Our first night in Rome, we decided to make our first stop coffee… because, have you met my husband?
We found one of the more popular coffee bars in Rome, and were given a quick lesson in Italian coffee culture. One of the first things you’ll notice in Italy, is the people don’t really sit and sip their coffee. In fact, the only people you’ll see doing that are probably tourists. In Italy, you walk up to the bar, order your drink (which is almost always espresso or a cappuccino,) and drink it while standing at the bar. There are often tables available outside of the coffee shops, but if you want to sit there and have your coffee, you must make that clear when you order because it costs more to sit at the tables.
After we were properly fueled, we took a quick walk over to the Pantheon. This was our first of many experiences seeing ancient Roman architecture in person, and it was astounding. I will say it many times here, but the grand nature of everything you see in Rome will take your breath away!
After a quick glance at Yelp, we decided to try a highly recommended restaurant, Pietro al Pantheon, for our first Italian meal. Nestled in a side street just steps from the Pantheon, this place was our first introduction to the classic Roman dish, Cacio e Pepe, and OH. MY. GOODNESS. I can’t say much more aside from you MUST try it!
After dinner, we found one of the best gelato shops in Rome - Giolitti (Thanks again, Yelp!) This place has been making gelato for over 100 years, and they have got it DOWN! It was, by far, the best gelato I had while in Italy… And once we found this place, we may or may not have gone back 3 times…
Ok… We did.
From the research we had done beforehand, we knew some of the most popular landmarks could have you waiting in line for hours if you didn’t purchase tickets in advance. So, with a little planning on our first night there, we purchased tickets and a tour of the Vatican for the next day, and tickets to the Forum & Coliseum for the following day. Once we arrived to each of these places, we quickly realized how important this step was! It only took a few moments, and we easily saved 2-3 hours of waiting in line at each place. Don’t miss this tip.
Touring the Vatican was such an incredible experience. The history all throughout the museum and the the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica left us speechless at times. And, even though it took about 3 hours to tour the entire place, we loved having a tour guide to explain everything we were seeing - because there was so much!
While near the Vatican, we found one of the only specialty coffee shops in Rome, Pergamino. Because specialty coffee isn’t much of a thing in Italy yet, this place was definitely one of a kind for Rome. But if you are a coffee connoisseur like us, it’s definitely worth trying! They make pour overs, Aeropress, syphons, and more… and they even let you choose from a wide selection of beans. This was one of our favorite coffee finds on the whole trip!
The next day, we had tickets to see the Coliseum and Roman Forum. Talk about breathtaking! We were blown away by the scale of both monuments and how these were built thousands of years ago, before any of the technology we have today - and still standing! Walking through the Coliseum was such a surreal experience… knowing everything that went on there, and the millions of people who have walked through that place before us. And don’t even get me started on the Forum. Pictures don’t even begin to do these places justice. You just have to see them for yourself!
Tip: When you walk through the Forum, there will be a place near the center where you can climb a bunch of stairs and get a bird’s eye view of the place. Definitely do that.
Before I move on to our next stop, here are a few more noteworthy mentions from Rome:
Emma Pizzeria - Amazing pizza, (the Prosciutto pizza is the bomb,) Cacio e Pepe, and deconstructed cannoli for dessert.
Roscioli Caffe - Great for breakfast, coffee, and pastries.
Cantina e Cucina - Great pizza and Cacio e Pepe!
Next Up: Cinque Terre
After a busy few days in Rome, we made our way to Cinque Terre for a little change of pace, and stayed one night in Vernazza (one of the “five lands.”) I was worried one night wouldn’t be enough, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was plenty of time to take it all in. We took an early train from Rome and arrived in Vernazza by 10am. The city appeared to just be waking up, and we quickly learned just how small each of these villages truly are. We immediately booked a private boat tour (just walk down to the dock and book in person,) and had some of the best meals on our entire trip here (welcome to the birthplace of pesto and focaccia!) If you visit Vernazza specifically, you must eat at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre. (Order the Pesto Bruschetta, and the Pesto Ravioli... You’re welcome.)
When late afternoon came, it was time to board our private boat tour - which was one of my favorite aspects of the entire trip! For just about 100 Euro, we were able to see all 5 lands from the water, with our own private tour guide. The entire tour was about an hour and a half, and worth every euro!
After our boat tour, we made our way to Trattoria de Sandro for dinner, and had Pesto Lasagna for the first time ever - what?! Between the fresh pesto and the homemade focaccia we encountered while in Vernazza, Josh and I would both easily say we had some of our favorite meals in Cinque Terre. If you are visiting Italy and have an extra day to fill, don’t miss this beautiful place.
Tip: I was not entirely thrilled with the AirBnB we booked here, so I won’t share that info. But what I will say, is after visiting for ourselves, we both felt it would have easily been fine as a day trip from Florence. If you do decide to stay the night in one of the villages, be prepared for stairs - and LOTS of them!
And, finally: Florence!
After the busyness of Rome, and the peaceful nature in Cinque Terre, Florence was the perfect way to tie a bow on our dream vacation. We left Vernazza on an early train, made a quick pitstop in Pisa (because… The Leaning Tower!) and arrived in Florence by early afternoon.
*Tip: if you want to see the Leaning Tower while traveling through Pisa, there is a place that will store your luggage for only 5 euro for the entire day. It is completely legit (requires your passport to drop off and pick up,) and will be a huge weight off your shoulders (literally) so you can enjoy the walk from the train station to the Leaning Tower.
The AirBnB we stayed at while in Florence was a DREAM! It was everything I’d imagined an authentic Italian apartment to be, with a private patio, perfect for an afternoon painting sesh. Our hosts were so gracious, and gave us great tips on where to eat and what to do while in the city. I hope to go back one day just so we can stay in this lovely place again. But anyway, on to Florence!
For our first meal in the city, we made our way to Mercato Centrale (Central Market,) where there are a bunch of shops and restaurants. We shared a pizza at Mamma Napoli (SO GOOD,) and spent the rest of the evening wandering the city. In our wandering, we stumbled upon the beautiful Ponte Vecchio bridge (which is now one of my favorite sights IN THE WORLD,) and made our way across the bridge for some AMAZING gelato at Gelateria La Carraia.
On the way back to our apartment, I found the sweetest hole-in-the-wall shop with some of the most beautiful olive wood pieces I’ve ever seen. The shop owner didn’t speak very much English, but certainly wasn’t lacking in kindness and hospitality. I got some of my favorite souvenirs and gifts here, and felt like I could’ve stayed for hours just browsing all the beautiful pieces. If you’re looking for authentic Italian souvenirs (that don’t feel like “souvenirs”,) please do yourself a favor and make a stop at La Bottega Del Chianti!
While we’re on the topic of shopping… make sure you save shopping money for this city. Florence is known as a city of the arts, so you will find some of the most beautiful, authentic Italian keepsakes in this city. Hand painted ceramics, hand carved olive wood, genuine leather pieces… they are all beautiful here, and will make for some of the best souvenirs to remember your trip!
From the breathtaking architecture and plethora of artists and artisans lining each street, to the museums… oh the MUSEUMS! This place is every artists dream, and probably my favorite of all the places we visited. But of all our moments there, near the top of my list is seeing Michelangelo’s Statue of David, located at the Galleria dell'Accademia. It’s hard to put into words this experience, but it was a moment I can literally say took. my. breath. away. Don’t miss this!
And if you’re a coffee lover, like me and the hubs, make your way to Ditta Artigianale for some of the best coffee you will find in Italy. There are two locations, but our favorite of the two was the location just south of the river. Also just south of the river, was our FAVORITE pizza in Italy! Gusta Pizza! The line can get a little crazy, but trust me when I say - it is WORTH THE WAIT for this one.
And one of my favorite tips from a friend of ours (thanks, Kyle) was a tiny sandwich shop called Il Buffalo Trippone. O.M.G. You guys… just go there and order the Wild Boar Salami Truffle Sandwich… you’re welcome.
While I feel like I could write a novel on the city of Florence, I’ve got to pull the reins back somewhere… just make sure it’s on your “must visit” list in Italy, and if you end up there, here are a few more spots you shouldn’t miss:
Piazzale Michelangelo - A bit of a climb, but worth it for the best view of Florence.
The Duomo - Pay attention to the dates this is closed, and make a reservation well in advance if you want to climb to the top!
Santa Croce - A beautiful church/museum where Michelangelo and Gallielo (among many others) are buried.
Uffizi Gallery - One of the best museums in Florence… So much art!
*Tip: if you are planning to visit any museums while in Florence, I highly recommend getting a Firenzecard. This will not only save you money in the long run, but it often allows you to skip to the front of the line most places (and we all know TIME is a precious commodity when traveling.) Also pay attention to the dates certain places are closed, as each museum is closed on different days of the week.
Our Last Night
When the time came for our trip to end, we began the trek back to Rome to be near the airport for our flight early the next morning. Because the airport is about a 30 minute train ride from the main city in Rome, we thought it best to stay at an AirBnb in Fiumicino (the city where the airport is located.) While this was nice the morning of our flight, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. There isn’t really much to do in Fiumicino, and because we arrived so early in the day, we ended up taking an Uber to the main city in Rome to enjoy our last day there. If we were to do it again, I think we would have chosen to stay in Rome for our last night instead; especially given that we were pros at the Italian train system by this time!
*Tip: when traveling by train, you will purchase a ticket to your destination with or without a specific time listed. If there is no time listed on your ticket, make sure you validate it at the machine just before boarding your train, to avoid heavy fines!
All in all, we were extremely pleased with the trip we planned for ourselves. We saw it all, ate it all, and felt like we had an incredible Italian experience. If you’re planning a trip for yourself, be encouraged that you can do it. It takes some research and effort on the front side, but it will be worth it - I promise!
I hope this is helpful information for my fellow travelers! If you are headed on a trip there yourself, please let me know how you like some of our favorite spots in the comments below!