Renowned all over the world for its stunning architecture, incredible food and rich culture, Italy serves as the perfect destination for first-time or experienced travellers seeking a real variety of things to see and do. From the winding canals of Venice, to the mighty Colosseum in Rome, right through to the ancient ruined city of Pompeii in Naples, there’s an experience here for everyone, just waiting to impress.
We set out on a two-week Interrail trip across Italy in June/July 2017, and the plan for our route was simple: we’d travel from Venice in the north to Naples in the south, stopping at every major city in between for 2-3 days at a time. We opted for a One Country Pass that allowed us to travel on 6 days within a month, giving us the freedom to travel the full length of the country at whatever pace took our fancy. Whilst many trains require compulsory reservations, these can be purchased weeks in advance, or right up until just before you travel, so you still have the flexibility to hop aboard and see a new place whenever you like. And with so much breathtaking countryside to take in, and many spectacular sunsets to see along the way, the best way to see Italy really is by train.
Our Italian adventure took us first to Venice – a city that possesses a truly unique character and a distinct feel to most other places you can visit across Europe. With its meandering waterways, hidden streets and colourful architecture, there’s something new to explore around every corner in Venice, no matter how you choose to travel around. We flew first to Venice Treviso airport, before hopping on a train down to Venice Mestre where we stayed for a couple of nights.
We’d heard mixed reviews of Venice before we travelled, but once we arrived, we were quickly blow away at just how beautiful it is, and how much there is to see and do there. You can ride aboard one of the city’s symbolic gondolas, and become instantly acquainted with Venice’s allure and romantic charm, and see some of the best sights that you can then explore further on foot. A 40-minute trip for a group of up to 6 will costs around €80, but a gondola isn’t the only way to see Venice by boat – you can also travel on one of the city’s extensive fleet of water taxis or hire a private boat tour.
Interweaved between the countless twisting streets are a vast array of art galleries, restaurants, markets and shops, all with something different to offer. You can also explore St. Mark’s Basilica and take a trip to the top of the bell tower, which offers breathtaking panoramic views all across the city. Although it was fairly busy on the day we visited, it was well worth the trip to the top of the tower for the incredible outlook and amazing photos we managed to take as a result. The Bridge of Sighs is also not to be missed, which is best viewed from a second bridge further towards the gondola stations. From nearby, there’s also boat trips out to Murano and Burano, where the city’s eccentric architectural colour scheme takes a further dramatic turn, and you can go see live glass-blowing demonstrations.
An hour away from Venice by train, the romantic and timeless city of Verona – home to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – has plenty of sightseeing opportunities and places to soak up some true culture. The Arena di Verona, a Roman amphitheatre built in the first century, still hosts regular opera and concert events today. If you haven’t got time to see a show, you can still do as we did and explore the vast ancient stadium throughout the day. We even managed to see a rehearsal for a concert that was taking place that evening, so it was well worth the visit!
Further along in the oldest parts of town, you’ll find a host of boutique shops and charming restaurants, with a real mix of food from different cultures on offer. You’ll also find Juliet’s house and balcony, which has an accompanying museum explaining the role Verona played in Shakespeare’s famous works. Heading over the now unnavigable river via the Ponte Peitra, another ancient Roman theatre and events space is situated at the foot of a hillside atop which sits a Romanesque fortress. The theatre frequently hosts live music concerts and plays throughout the year, whilst a short funicular journey up the hillside provides some of the best panoramic views out over the city.
Verona is also just a 15-minute train journey to the idyllic Lake Garda, where you can hire a boat, go swimming or simply relax on one of the lakeside beaches. As we were staying near the train station in Peschiera del Garda, we headed to a small pebble-beach nearby in Bardolino, where there was a floating wooden jetty to swim to and sunbathe on. There’s also plenty of exhilarating water-based activities on offer, but if sightseeing is more your thing, head to the north of the lake where you’ll find dramatic mountainous scenery and, on clear nights, experience some of the most spectacular pastel skies and sunsets around.
Venturing west of Verona, old meets new in the vibrant and bustling city of Milan, where you can expect impressive architecture and world-class shopping from the moment you arrive. Milan is incredibly popular among tourists, so there’s plenty of choice in terms of where to stay whatever your budget. As with our previous Interrail trips, we pre-booked our accommodation with OneWorld Travel, and they helped us to find the best places to stay at the best prices. In Milan, we stayed close to the San Siro Stadium, which was much more cost-effective than staying in the centre and – thanks to the city’s incredibly efficient Metro system – it was easy to travel to and from the main sights in no time at all.
The Piazza del Duomo is home to the jaw-droppingly beautiful Duomo di Milano (Milan’s Cathedral), the third largest church in the world. Taking nearly 6 years to complete, the Duomo’s magnificent architectural aesthetic can be appreciated both outside and in, and the true scale of the building may just leave you lost for words. As many visitors to Milan do, we also chose to walk the Duomo’s rooftops, which are accessible by either lift or stairs, and offer some of the best views out over Milan. If you’re going up on a hot day (it was 34 degrees on the day we went) then it’s definitely best to take a couple of bottles of water up with you!
Whilst in Milan, we were also lucky enough to witness the city’s annual Pride Parade, which was truly amazing to be a part of. The events lasted the whole day, with an enormous convoy of vehicles travelling through the city’s main streets, and thousands of people in massive crowds following in pursuit.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is located on the western side of the Piazza del Duomo, and features some of the world’s top luxury brand names, including Prada, Gucci and Versace, so it’s the perfect place for some retail therapy if you fancy a quick break from exploring. If you’re not into shopping, the arcade itself – which remains the world’s oldest active shopping centre – is still worth checking out simply for its lavish and striking architectural design, and there are plenty of restaurants in and around to grab a bite to eat or experience some fine Italian dining.
Florence is a quaint yet staggeringly beautiful city, home to a multitude of artwork, sculptures and museums that showcase the rich and long-lasting heritage the capital of Tuscany is famous for. Once we arrived by train, we quickly understood why Florence’s Historic Centre is a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site – the dazzling exterior of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (the city’s Cathedral) is simply spectacular, and the curiously designed Ponte Vecchio bridge is wondrously charming and is home to some beautiful jewellery shops.
There’s plenty of culture to soak up in Florence; you can visit the famous Uffizi and Accademia Art Galleries – the latter being home to Michelangelo’s world-famous David – or explore the National Archeological Museum (Museo Gallileo) – the city’s institute and museum of the history of science. In the summer months, there’s plenty of events to attend as well, with celebrations to St. John the Baptist and the Florence Dance Festival taking place throughout June and July. Though we missed the firework display on the last weekend in June, we were able to experience a beach party on one of the city’s riverbanks, which consisted of live music, dancing and alcohol aplenty.
We tried a couple of typical Italian restaurants in the main Piazza del Duomo during our stay, and they didn’t disappoint! The Pizzeria a Taglio on the left-hand side of the Piazza has a tiny staircase to a unique downstairs restaurant area, where visitors over the years have left their mark in ink, writing on every possible wall, ceiling and table they could find. The results are definitely worth going to see, and there’s even some famous names to be found in there too.
A hop-on hop-off bus or walking tour around Florence will reveal even more of the city’s varied history, and the viewing point of Piazzale Michelangelo offers a great opportunity to take some great panoramic snaps of the city, with rolling hills, mountains and pastel skies providing the perfect backdrop.
No trip to Italy would be complete without a visit to the mightily impressive capital of Rome. With dramatic architecture, monuments and ruins on a staggering scale around every corner, it’s fair to say that when you’re in Rome, there really is no shortage of extraordinary and remarkable history to be found.
The journey from Florence to Rome by train takes around an hour and a half, and as with many journeys in Italy, often requires a reservation. We found that the reservations often cost the same for standard class as they did for first class (around €10), so we opted for first which permitted us a complimentary glass of champagne as we took in the immensely beautiful Tuscan countryside.
The following morning, we ventured over to the Colosseum where we planned to take a guided tour. From the moment you step inside, you are instantly rendered breathless at the sheer size and immense scale of ancient amphitheatre, that draws out of you a sense of awe towards the immense craftsmanship that went into building such a long-lasting and iconic structure. Guided Colosseum tours are priced differently depending on their length and the amount of detail they go into, but they’re a really informative way to learn the surprising history behind the Colosseum and to get an appreciation for the reasons behind why it was originally built. You can then explore the arena’s incredible interior some more by walking around the upper levels and underneath what, at various points in history, would have been the stage for the Gladiators.
When we’d finished exploring the marvels of the Colosseum, we then chose to take a tour of the Palatino (Palatine Hill), where Rome was supposedly founded in 753 BC, and where the Roman emperors lived in unrivalled luxury throughout the Empire’s dramatic history. The Palatino is fronted by the Arch of Titus, and overlooks the ancient Roman Forum and Circo Massimo, all of which feature astonishing ruins of which many are still surprisingly intact. The tour we went on was fairly extensive, and this allowed us to gain a vast insight into the unique and, at times, unbelievable story behind how Rome rose and fell.
The Roman Forum is a short walk away from the Trevi Fountain, where you can go and make a wish and take in its extraordinary façade. The famous Spanish Steps are also nearby, and around here there are plenty of restaurants and bars to suit all tastes and budgets. As you’d expect, Rome has loads of museums to explore too, and many of these can be found fairly central. If it’s nightlife you prefer, the Hard Rock Café isn’t too far away either, and acts a great starting point to grab a tastefully made cocktail.
There’s that much to see and do in Rome that you’ll definitely want to spend a few days exploring all there is on offer. A trip to Vatican City is also essential, where you can spend time taking in the magnificently beautiful Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the art and sculpture works on show in the Vatican Museums. The ceiling artwork inside the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo himself, is especially impressive, as are the many murals painted on the ceilings in the corridors that lead to it. On select days, you may also get the chance to witness an appearance by the Pope as we did; an event which draws large crowds from all over the world and is truly unique.
We decided to spend the last few days of our trip down in Naples, having read up on loads of interesting places that are all within easy reach via public transport. Though Naples’ historic city centre is the largest in Europe, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much of the rest of the inner city proved to be starkly different in nature to the other Italian cities we’d visited, and was quite far from what we expected.
Naples has a long history of economic decline, and struggled to recover after being the most bombed Italian city in World War II. Signs of this are evident from the moment you arrive at the main train station, and you don’t have to travel far to find that much of the inner city is densely populated and over-crowded with people, buildings and traffic, and that many monuments and places of interest can be found covered in graffiti, as opposed to being preserved in the way you may expect. That said, central Naples is only a short distance from more typical scenes you’d expect in southern Italy, including Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. All are accessible by both land and sea, and you can easily book onto trips at competitive prices either online in advance or from a tourist centre once you arrive.
We took a trip to Capri by ferry, which took around 45 minutes each way from the main cruise terminal in Naples. With its sumptuous food and drink, and spectacular outlook across the Gulf of Naples and the Mediterranean Sea, this is a trip perfect for those looking to experience some calm and serenity away from the hustle and bustle of Naples city centre. There’s a funicular there, too, which takes you to the top of the island, costing around €2 each way. Capri is famous for its lemons, so be sure to try some freshly-squeezed lemonade or lemon-scented perfumes once you arrive at the top.
Sorrento is also accessible by a privately-run train service – the Circumvesuviana – which can also be used to visit Mount Vesuvius and the ancient settlements of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Be warned though – these trains are packed out like the London Underground at rush hour all year round and are not for the faint hearted! Sorrento has several beaches to head to if you want to soak up some sun, or if sand isn’t really your thing, you can do what we did and grab a sun-lounger on one of the wooden peninsulas that stretch out to sea – perfect for sunbathing!
Around 30-40 minutes from central Naples by train, the astonishing ancient city of Pompeii still resides in all its glory. Preserved for more than 1,500 years in volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, the city has been a tourist destination now for over 250 years. When we first arrived, we were simply mesmerised by how much of the city still stands; many entire buildings, roads and archways are fully intact, along with hundreds of original artefacts, paintings and even pieces of food preserved by the ash. There are many different types of tours available once you arrive, or you can simply explore at your own leisure. An audio or paper guide will definitely come in handy to explain to you what everything is, and will give you a great picture of how little has changed in some places since the famous eruption. Not so far away, you’ll also find the ancient town of Herculaneum, which – though considerably smaller – has been preserved in similarly spectacular fashion.
Many artefacts from both Pompeii and Herculaneum can also be found in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples – a stunning and contrastingly modern museum found in Naples’ centre that also hosts some of the world’s best collections of Roman and Greek antiquities.
There are also loads of tours available if you want to head up to the summit of Mount Vesuvius itself. We opted for a coach tour, which took us most of the way up the steep mountain side, before we continued to the top on foot. Once you reach the top, you can look down into the vast crater and observe the volcanic phenomenon in all its glory.
Once our stay in Naples had come to an end, we flew back from the city’s airport early in the morning, with the sun just rising over the bay and over the mighty Mount Vesuvius, as we reminisced of the unbelievable journey we had just completed, and all the amazing memories we had made along the way.