When I turned 18, I told myself I would celebrate my birthday in Italy—that didn't happen. I told myself the same thing for the next ten years until I finally let it go, but in the back of my mind, I knew it would happen. Fast forward a few years, and it finally happened! Growing up part Italian, I always wanted to visit Italy because that was one part of my history I didn't know much about. My paternal great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and passed when I was young, so I never got a chance to hear the stories of Italy, and no one in my family had the opportunity to visit. When we initially went to book the trip, we had the idea of doing it on our own and exploring the different cities by ourselves; after talking with a travel agent, we decided that wouldn't be the best idea, so we booked a full tour. It ended up being the best decision, and without exaggerating, the best trip I've taken. If you're thinking about taking a trip to Italy, I want to share with you want we did and what to expect.
What we did
Because we booked a full tour, we were with a group of 40 and spent a lot of our time exploring the different sites, and while we were apprehensive about being with a tour group, it turned out being fun! It all kicked off arriving in Rome early morning and heading straight to our hotel—Dei Borgia. After, we hit the ground running with our map in hand ready to figure out our way around; we stumbled on a few of the most beautiful sites in Rome—Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Basilica San Lorenzo al Verano. Shortly after exploring, we headed back to the hotel to have dinner and officially meet our tour group because tomorrow would be a full day of sightseeing.
Our first stop was Vatican city, which I had no idea is its own state within Rome (benefits of using a tour guide). Completely blown away by the architecture, we walked the grounds of the Vatican learning the history and significance of each room, painting, and sculpture until we landed inside the Sistine Chapel (pictures aren't allowed). There are no words to describe seeing the Michelangelo ceiling in person—the colors are vibrant, images detailed, and the story told through his vision is something you have to experience in person. We sat in awe for almost 30 minutes, trying to take in every piece of the painting before we walked around to St. Peter's Basilica, another site that we couldn't believe. The church itself is massive, and everything inside of it is grand—the main altar is 90 feet tall. There is so much religious history behind the Basilica, most of which I didn't know (probably because I never paid attention in history class), but can now appreciate and understand.
Where to eat: Il Girasole
Once we left Vatican City, we drove towards the Colosseum—what I was most excited to see and encounter. While at the Colosseum, we were able to experience what most don't—walk through the gladiator entrance and stand on the performance stage. Whoa, what an experience to stand in the middle of the Colosseum and see it full circle; it was a slightly eerie feeling, and even though we only had a few minutes to stand there, it felt like forever. Our time in Rome quickly came to an end, and in the early morning, we were off to our next city, Florence.
Best Gelato: Cremeria Monteforte (near the Pantheon)
It was a four-hour drive to Florence and while on the drive I did a lot of reflecting in-between sleeping, and was again reminded that everything is about timing. You see, I've been trying to get to Italy for over ten years, but this year, a time I needed to regroup, is the time I find myself on a dream vacation—grateful! My sleep and reflecting were cut short when we stopped at a wine vineyard for a full-course wine tasting and later a quick tour through San Gimignano—a medieval town on the outskirts of Florence.
Wine Vineyard: Cantine 2 Super Tuscans-Torciano Estate
Finally arriving in Florence in the early evening, we decided to skip dinner and explore downtown Florence and grab a quick sandwich at a local cafe. Florence ended up being my favorite city out of the trip; it's small enough to navigate on your own, the leather and jewelry shopping is the best, and it's not as many tourists as Rome. While we went on a full tour through the city the following day, we had a lot of free time to explore and do our own thing before we headed to Venice.
Best leather and jewelry shopping: Misuri
Before we left for Venice, we had our last dinner in Florence, and it was my favorite moment from the trip. We took a drive through the mountains of Florence to finally end at a hill-top restaurant/farm. We initially wanted to skip this dinner, but I'm glad we didn't; the food was amazing, the staff even better; this dinner was the Italian experience I went to Italy for and one I will return for.
Tuscan farm: Ristorante i tre pini
Our last stop on the tour was Venice, and it was a luxurious ending. Because the city is surrounded by water, we arrived by boat and immediately headed out to explore the city. There aren't many sights to see, so we spent a lot of time wandering the street (we saw John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, and said hi!), shopping, eating, and just taking in our last few days. Venice is a [very] small city with narrow streets that reminded me of medieval times, but my favorite next to Florence. While there we, of course, took a gondola ride and later took a boot to a smaller island—Burano, for lunch.
Where to eat: L’Osteria di Santa Marina
Italy was a dream and a trip I will never forget, we did so much that I could go on and on, but the overall takeaway from the trip was freedom—I felt so free! And I can't wait to return!
Watch a quick BTS visual of the tour through Italy below.
What to expect
So, what to expect when you visit Italy? It was my first European trip, and the first time in Italy, so I had no idea what to expect. We went at the end of July/beginning of August which was the worst idea. The heat was so intense, and it happened to be the hottest week of the year, so if you're planning on visiting, I would recommend going in mid-Spring when the weather is much cooler. Many places don't have high-pressure air condition or ice-cold water, so prepare yourself ahead of time for the unpleasant heat.
Also, if you'd like to visit the tourist sights, I would recommend booking a full tour as we did. We booked our tour through Globus; they took care of us from beginning to end—checking us in and out of the hotel(s), skipping all lines for sight entrance, booking amazing lunches and dinners, all we had to do was show up and enjoy. What I noticed while there and what our travel agent told us, the lines for general admission are extensively long and you can waste an entire day trying to get into one sight. A tour is the way to go if this is your first time visiting.
Lastly, expect to do a lot of walking up and down hills—mostly in Rome. I expected to walk but had no idea we'd be walking as much as we did—one day we did almost seven miles. If you're visiting just Florence or Venice, you won't have to worry much about the hills, but expect to walk just as much.
Until the next trip! Ciao!