It’s August, and just like every year, a good third of the travelers I know are doing the classic Italy triangle: Venice, Florence and Rome.
They have plenty of company, recession notwithstanding. Italy’s three most popular cities are all singularly stunning, brimming with unrivaled art and culture — in short, this itinerary is popular for good reason.
But Venice, Florence and Rome are among Europe’s most challenging destinations. The heat, the crowds and the sheer intensity of tourism can feel daunting for even experienced travelers. Yet most on the Venice-Florence-Rome circuit are Italy novices, surveying the country’s greatest hits as an introductory trip.
With a little more information, much frustration could be avoided. So whether you’re about to embark on the Italian grand tour or just fantasizing, here are a few strategies that will make the difference between a standard vacation and a terrific, memorable one.
1. Spontaneity can be fun, but not during peak season. Minimize frustration by making reservations wherever possible: for your hotels, of course (check cancellation policies carefully), but also for restaurants and even for major sights. If you’re a free spirit, think of it as reserving options — you can always cancel, but you often can’t just walk in.
Major Italian museums like Florence’s Uffizi increasingly offer reservations for a timed entry, allowing visitors to skip lines and save time. In some cases, a reservation is crucial: Rome’s beloved Galleria Borghese, for instance, is generally booked solid and won’t accept walk-ins. Call or e-mail ahead, and if you can’t get through, try dropping by in person to make a reservation.
New Yorkers, accustomed to the no-reservations vibe and flexible culture of our trendy local bistros, often don’t anticipate the ubiquity of restaurant reservations in much of southern Europe. If you’ve read about a particular café or a kosher restaurant that sounds interesting, call ahead to reserve, even if it seems like a casual place. And don’t be offended if a maitre’d curtly tells you “We’re full” in what looks like a half-empty restaurant at 4 p.m.; locals know the system and plan their outings accordingly.
2. See the major sights that interest you, but don’t feel shackled by an ironclad list of must-sees and must-dos. In Venice, Florence and Rome, there’s a great deal of pressure to tick items off a list: a gondola ride, Michelangelo’s “David,” the Vatican. But seeing everything is impossible and exhausting.
Instead, think about a personal angle that makes your Italian vacation feel memorable and unique. If you’re most interested in tracing Rome’s Jewish past, leave the time-consuming Vatican museums for another time and enjoy touring the Jewish ghetto and ancient synagogue — perhaps with a guided tour that will give meaning and depth to your Roman experience.
Or if more recent art is what moves you, you needn’t devote your stay in Venice to its renowned Gothic and Baroque art. My favorite museum there is the Peggy Guggenheim, a small-but-intense jewel box of exquisite mid-(20th) century masterpieces housed in the heiress’ canal-side villa. Venice’s newest and most talked-about museum is the Punta Della Dogana/ Palazzo Grissi, which displays the cutting-edge contemporary art collection of French luxury tycoon Francois Pinault.
Many people feel they have to spend all their time in museums, but they might have more fun — and see just as much Italy —elsewhere. A few years back, knowing my mother is not a fan of Catholic religious art, I proposed we skip the crucifixion-laden Uffizi for an afternoon picnic in the hills of neighboring Fiesole. It is one of her favorite memories.
On another occasion, we were confronted with a dilemma: To see another museum … or to go shopping? We had already logged many museum hours, and my mother feels that Versace and Armani count as art. She still has the cashmere to prove it.
And on that note…
3. Make time for experiences, not just sights. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Bernini, endless palazzi: Italy is a visual overload.
Leaf through a newspaper for concert listings. Spend an evening listening to Bach on a 19th-century organ, dress up for the opera, or sway with locals to ska on a park lawn.
Blow off the third Roman ruin and explore the elegant boutiques of Via Condotti instead. Devote a morning to browsing fruit and vegetable markets, or shopping for one-of-a-kind ceramics. Try the most exotic gelato flavors: violet, wasabi, rice pudding. Take a cooking class. These are the experiences you’ll tell friends about for years.
4. Get off the main road! Many visitors to Italy are overwhelmed by the jostling crowds that surround the major sights. Yet I am always amazed at how peaceful and empty nearby back streets are, even in high season.
They are empty because they don’t lead to major attractions — there are no museums, monuments or royal palaces. But unlike the major boulevards, they offer a glimpse into everyday life. Pack a picnic, wander out of central Florence, and enjoy the cool green gardens and rustic stone walls of local villas. Observe the fluttering laundry and watery commutes of back-alley Venice.
Rome is a particularly difficult city to get to know, since it is most frequently experienced as a collection of major institutions. Hence the popularity in recent years of bohemian neighborhoods like Trastevere, where small-scale galleries, bistros and boutiques reveal local tastes. An afternoon spent wandering and taking pictures can be more memorable than yet another classical ruin.
4. Consider working in a side trip. Big cities are exhilarating and have more to see, but Italy’s rich local cultures thrive in the smaller towns, and traveling through the gorgeous Central Italian countryside is an end in itself. From Florence, good options are Fiesole, Lucca or one of the hilltop villages; from Venice, Vicenza or Padua.
5. Strategize for the heat. Italy in midsummer can feel like the hottest place on Earth. Venice, surrounded by water, is incredibly humid, and the touristy downtowns of both Rome and Florence lack greenery and breezes. Confirm that your hotel has air conditioning.
Adopt the low-tech Spanish system for portable heat maintenance: carry a foldable paper fan for on-the-go relief in sultry metro stations. And observe the riposo, Italy’s version of the siesta, by taking a midday nap or lingering over a cold drink. La dolce vita, after all, is what inspired all that great art to begin with.