So I know this isn’t primarily a travel blog (I usually post about the architecture student life and being crafty), but I love to share my trips! This is the story of my family’s trip to Italy, including Rome, Florence, Bologna, and Venice. This is a long post, so please stay with me (just look at the pictures if you’d like!). The text is mostly just narrative and extra info, and hopefully it helps if you’re planning a trip to Italy yourself! Here’s our Italian Holiday!
My family and I embarked on our trip to Italy on December 19, 2015. We flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, then to London, and finally to Rome, where our first apartment was. We rented an apartment through a local company and we were welcomed inside after we arrived in the afternoon. The rest of the rather short day was spent exploring the city, mostly for an ATM machine. On our way, we walked across two bridges, the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II and the Ponte San Angelo, both decorated with statues and beautiful in the setting sun. We crossed the Tiber River and saw St. Peter’s Basilica lit up against the darkening sky. We found a restaurant near our apartment and ate before turning in for the night.
We took a slow and meandering self-tour of Rome the next day, starting with Piazza Navona, which was only a ten minute walk from our apartment. This is a very unique Piazza, primarily for its elongated shape and history. In ancient times, it was a circus, or chariot racetrack, a place of entertainment just like the Coliseum. The Piazza is marked with an obelisk and is very handy to nearby shopping to the north (there are several places to buy fresh meats, Italian wine, and other groceries in addition to clothes). We discovered this area later.
This picture is actually from when we re-visited the Piazza later, but it shows the obelisk and the elongated nature of the Piazza.
We made our way east to the Pantheon next. Since we went in an off-season, the crowds were thankfully manageable, but the peddlers selling selfie sticks were very aggressive. (My advice: don’t make eye contact if you can help it. If ignoring them doesn’t work, shake your head no and say “no, grazie” or even just “no”.) Little did we know, this would be a common theme throughout our trip (selfie sticks weren’t a thing when we went to France in 2014!).
The exterior of the Pantheon; the obelisk that marks the Piazza is just behind us.
The interior of the fabulous domed space.
The world-famous oculus of the Pantheon. It’s unglazed, so it can rain inside!
Just next to the Pantheon, but tucked out of the way is the only Gothic church in Italy. It’s very pretty and free, so it’s definitely worth a trip inside. Head toward the Piazza Della Minerva and you can’t miss it (it’s marked with an obelisk that has an elephant base!)
Inside the church.
Side note: if you’re in Rome in the summer, make sure you’re dressed appropriately to tour churches. That means no shorts, tank tops, or short skirts!
Next we made our way to the Trevi Fountain, another iconic landmark of Rome. It’s a slight trek from the Pantheon, but definitely do-able (just make sure you have a map!).
The Trevi Fountain
From there we decided to scout out some lunch on our way to the Coliseum, and after eating we stumbled across the Monument of Vittorio Emanuele II. It’s free to climb the stairs to the top, and the views are quite spectacular. We managed to get there just as the sun was setting and captured some great pictures of Rome.
There are some stairs on the west side of the monument that lead you around the west side of the Campidoglio and Paletine Hill and next to Circus Maximus. If you continue this way, you reach Via Di San Gregorio, which is a main road that leads straight to the Coliseum. We (accidentally) started this trek after the sun had already started to set. In all honesty, we never really planned any of our activities that day! While the Coliseum looks pretty cool lit up at night, the Campidoglio, Palentine Hill, and Circus Maximus look better during the day. I recommend doing this same loop in the sunlight, cutting back toward the monument on the east side of the Roman Forum after seeing the Coliseum.
The stairs on the west side of the monument.
Approaching the Coliseum.
The “front” of the Coliseum, with a Christmas tree. The lights on the tree turned on just after we started walking away.
We walked back to our apartment, which was quite a distance away. We walked over 20,000 steps that day! Then we sat down at a very nice restaurant, Osteria Dell’Antiquario, and enjoyed a seven course tasting menu! Some of the best food we had in Rome!
The next day was dedicated to touring the Vatican. We booked a tour through a tour group (very uncharacteristic for us to do, but it ensured short lines and a fast track to the Basilica.) The Vatican museums are huge, and we only saw a tiny fraction of them unfortunately. If you don’t book a tour, give yourself plenty of time to see the museums. It was very crowded inside… We saw the Sistine Chapel (no photos allowed inside) before heading to St. Peter’s Basilica.
The terrace before heading into the museums. You can see the dome of St. Peter’s in the distance.
A courtyard inside was covered in thick clovers.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica. You can see Bernini’s pavilion.
A member of the Swiss Guard!
The exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica.
We ate lunch at a touristy restaurant nearby and then headed back toward the river. We decided to pay to go inside the Castel San Angelo on our way back to the apartment. There wasn’t a lot to see inside except for the building itself (but that was okay with me!) Also, architecture students can get in for free (or for a discount, I don’t remember). The best part though was the view from the top.
The view of St. Peter’s dome.
The statue at the top of the Castel San Angelo.
Although we got a late start on day three, we wanted to make the pilgrimage out to the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. After our plan to get a taxi fell short, we opted to take the metro. We decided to head toward the Metro station near the Spanish Steps, another landmark we had yet to see. This was a great way to see the steps, and I recommend using the metro system when you go to see them. You can board a train there and get to many other landmarks across Rome, including the Coliseum. After navigating the metro system, we finally arrived at St. Paul’s. We stopped for a snack before going inside.
There are these fabulous mosaics inside St. Paul’s.
The exterior and courtyard of St. Paul’s. This is probably an excellent break from crowds in the summer, since it’s quite a distance from the rest of Rome.
We ended our short day at the Piazza di Popolo, since it’s a metro stop like the Spanish Steps. We wandered our way through the streets back to our apartment.
DAY 4 (CHRISTMAS EVE):
We walked to St. John’s in the Lantern, although it’s completely possible to take the metro there. Our apartment was near the Piazza Navona, and it was about a 45 minute walk from there (when planning to walk somewhere, it’s important to also remember how hilly Rome is!). The advantage to walking was getting to see more Roman ruins as well as the Coliseum in the daylight.
Anyway, we toured the church and stopped for some amazing pizza.
The interior of St. John’s
The exterior of St. John’s
We took the metro back to the Spanish Steps and walked back to our apartment. We watched Christmas Eve Mass from St. Peter’s Square, just outside the Basilica. It was an amazing experience.
The bells of St. Peter’s ringing on Christmas Eve.
DAY 5 (CHRISTMAS DAY):
We decided to do what Italians do and sleep in on Christmas Day. We did a bit of shopping and walking and went to the Campo De’Fiori. We ate both lunch and dinner at different restaurants on the square.
The day after Christmas was another travel day. We left our apartment in Rome and took a train to Florence. We spent the evening exploring the city after settling in to our second apartment.
The Duomo of Florence.
The fog descending on a Piazza
We spent the next two days in Florence exploring the city and shopping. The lines to get into the Duomo were horrendous! We opted to just appreciate the exterior. We had some amazing food, too. My favorite restaurant was Trattoria Gabriello. Florence is typically a not-so-crowded tourist destination, but around Christmas and New Years, apparently it is not. There were masses of people nearly everywhere!
From Florence we took a day trip to Pisa (to see the Leaning Tower of course!). The train station is about a 15 minutes walk from the Duomo (our apartment was near there), and from there we boarded a train to Pisa. I don’t remember exactly how long the ride was, but it was probably about an hour (most of our train rides were). We arrived in Pisa and made the trek toward the leaning tower. The walk wasn’t terrible for us (by then we had already walked quite a bit in Rome), but it is quite a distance, or at least farther than I expected it to be. Pisa itself is a quaint town with some pretty photo ops here and there. There isn’t much to see or do other than the tower, though.
The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa! Side note: we didn’t actually climb to the top. If you decide you want to, just be prepared to pay a small fee to wait in line and then climb a bunch of stairs. (If you haven’t noticed yet, my family doesn’t like to wait in line!)
The Baptistery (on the left) and the cathedral (on the right). I highly recommend seeing the inside of the Baptistery.
The cathedral (view from the Baptistery) near the famous tower.
A snapshot of the rest of Pisa.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s certainly worth the day trip. We were back in Florence by 4:00 pm. We spent the rest of the evening eating and shopping. If you’re looking to try some hot chocolate (Florence is known for its particularly thick hot chocolate), there is a terrace restaurant overlooking the Piazza della Repubblica that we visited before dinner. It’s at the top of a store/shopping mall (the 5th floor, I think) at the corner of Via del Corso and Via Calamala. There’s a good view of the Duomo from there, too.
We left Florence for Bologna, a little-known Medieval city with lots of good places to eat. After arriving at our hotel, we took a cab to the city center and explored. There’s a cathedral on the main piazza worth visiting. It’s free to get in (which is sometimes rare, especially in Florence), but there is a small fee if you want to take pictures. I thought this was a brilliant way to charge people. Anyone can get in, but you have to pay to take pictures; fair enough in my book! We saw the two towers of Bologna and walked down the market-filled streets nearby. We ended the evening with an absolutely amazing meal at Osteria dell’Orsa. I thought it was the best meal of the entire trip!
We spent New Years Eve in Venice, which was about a three hour train from Bologna. The holiday drew some impressive crowds that we weren’t expecting. I should imagine it’s typically much less crowded in the winter. Given the crowds, I was glad we only spent the day there. After getting off the train, we opted to walk through the winding streets to Piazza San Marco. This was a great way to get a feel for Venice in our short time there. We waited in line for the Basilica, which was quite pretty inside. We also saw the Doge’s Palace, which I recommend mostly for architecture enthusiasts. It was rather expensive for what it was (especially for all five of us), but I made a lot of connections to things I had learned about in previous architecture history classes. Venice is beautiful, but I would caution against spending more than two or three days there; we saw the highlights in our short day trip (it’s also expensive to stay there).
Piazza San Marco
A snapshot of Venice
We rode the ferry from Piazza San Marco back to the train station. A Word of Caution: Some ferries make lots of stops (like the one we got on). If you want a more direct ride to the train station, make sure you board the right ferry or consider a water taxi.
An image of Venice as we rode the ferry back to the train station.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out the awesome contemporary bridge by Santiago Calatrava!
We took the train back to Bologna and celebrated a low-key New Years in our hotel room.
We took the high speed train from Bologna to Milan, since that’s where we were flying out the next day. Unfortunately, our hotel was far from the city center (it was near the airport), so we didn’t get to see Milan. I hope to return someday. It’s a major hub for trains, so if the price is right, it makes a good place to fly in or out of. We spent a lazy day at our hotel and got some rest before our (super long) day of travel.
We flew from Milan to London, then to Dallas, and then back home. It was an extremely long day!
And that brings our trip to an end! Hope you enjoyed the pictures and found some of my narrative helpful. I highly recommend Florence to anyone traveling to Italy. What’s your favorite Italian city?