By Rick Steves
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- Fully updated, comprehensive coverage for planning a multi-week trip to Italy
- Rick's strategic advice on how to get the most out of your time and money, with rankings of his must-see favorites
- Top sights and hidden gems, from the Colosseum and Michelangelo's David to corner trattorias and that perfect scoop of gelato
- How to connect with local culture: Walk in Caesar's footsteps through the ruins of the Forum, discover the relaxed rhythms of sunny Cinque Terre, or chat with fans about the latest soccer match (calcio, to locals)
- Beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps with Rick's candid, humorous insight
- The best places to eat, sleep, and experience la dolce far niente
- Self-guided walking tours of lively neighborhoods and museums
- Vital trip-planning tools, like how to link destinations, build your itinerary, and get from place to place
- Detailed maps, including a fold-out map for exploring on the go
- Over 1,000 bible-thin pages include everything worth seeing without weighing you down
- Coverage of Venice, Padua, the Dolomites, Lake Country, Milan, the Italian Riviera, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Hill Towns of Central Italy, Siena, Tuscany, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Capri, the Amalfi Coast, and much more
- Covid-related travel info and resources for a smooth trip
Planning a one- to two-week trip? Check out Rick Steves Best of Italy.
Welcome to Rick Steves’ Europe
Travel is intensified living—maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.
I discovered a passion for European travel as a teen and have been sharing it ever since—through my tours, public television and radio shows, and travel guidebooks. Over the years I’ve taught thousands of travelers how to best enjoy Europe’s blockbuster sights—and experience “Back Door” discoveries that most tourists miss.
This book offers you a balanced mix of Italy’s lively cities and cozy towns, from brutal but bella Rome to tranquillo, traffic-free Riviera villages. And it’s selective—rather than listing dozens of hill towns, I recommend only the best ones. My self-guided museum tours and city walks give insight into the country’s vibrant history and today’s living, breathing culture.
I advocate traveling simply and smartly. Take advantage of my money- and time-saving tips on sightseeing, transportation, and more. Try local, characteristic alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants. In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see.
We visit Italy to experience it—to become temporary locals. Thoughtful travel engages us with the world, as we learn to appreciate other cultures and new ways to measure quality of life.
Judging from the positive feedback I receive from readers, this book will help you enjoy a fun, affordable, and rewarding vacation—whether it’s your first trip or your tenth.
Buon viaggio! Happy travels!
Italy’s Top Destinations
Map: PLACES COVERED IN THIS BOOK
Planning Your Trip
DESIGNING AN ITINERARY
Map: Italy’s Best Three-Week Trip by Public Transportation
BEFORE YOU GO
Bell’Italia! Italy has Europe’s richest, craziest culture—bubbling with emotion, traffic jams, strikes, rallies, religious holidays, crowds, and irate ranters shaking their fists at each other one minute and walking arm-in-arm the next. Promise yourself to relax and accept it all as a package deal—the exquisite and the exasperating. If you take Italy on its own terms, you’ll experience a cultural keelhauling that actually feels good.
After all, Italy is the cradle of European civilization—established by the Roman Empire and carried on by the Roman Catholic Church. As you explore Italy, you’ll stand face-to-face with some of the world’s most iconic images from this 2,000-year history: Rome’s ancient Colosseum and playful Trevi Fountain, Pisa’s Leaning Tower, Florence’s Renaissance masterpieces (Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Venus), and the island city of elegant decay—Venice.
Beyond these famous cities, there’s even more: German-flavored Alps, timeless hill towns, peaceful lakes lined with 19th-century villas, the business center of Milan, and Mediterranean beaches. Italy is reasonably small and laced with train lines and freeways, so you’re never more than a half-day’s journey from any of these places.
Wherever you go, Italy’s top sights are its people. They’re outgoing and social. They have an endearing habit of speaking Italian to foreigners, even if they know you don’t speak their language—and it somehow works. If a local starts chattering at you in Italian, don’t resist. Go with it. You might understand more than you’d expect.
Interact with the people you meet—in the streets and in the shops.
Italian food is a cut above. If America’s specialty is fast food, Italy’s is slow food—bought daily, prepared with love, and enjoyed convivially. Three-hour restaurant meals are common; dinner is the evening’s entertainment. To “eat and run” is seen as a lost opportunity. Wine complements the meal; Italy is the world’s number-one wine producer (just ahead of France). For just a quick sandwich or a coffee, Italians stop by a bar. The bars aren’t taverns, but cafés…good for a light meal anytime, with all ages welcome.
Early evening is the time for the ritual promenade—called the passeggiata—up and down main street. Shoppers, people watchers, families, and young flirts on the prowl stroll and spread their wings like peacocks. You might hear sweet whispers of “bella” (pretty) and “bello” (handsome). You can be a spectator, sipping a drink at a sidewalk table, or better yet, join the promenade, with a gelato in hand.
As you stroll, it’s fun to window-shop. While no longer a cheap country, Italy remains a hit with shoppers for glassware and Carnevale masks in Venice; gold, silver, leather, and prints in Florence; and high fashion in Rome and Milan.
Italy’s biggest business is tourism—the country is considered the world’s fifth-most-visited tourist destination.
Culturally, there are two Italys: The North tends to be industrial, aggressive, and “time is money” in its outlook (though Venice is a world apart). The South is hotter and more crowded, poor, relaxed, farm-oriented, and traditional; families usually live in the same house for many generations. Loyalties are to family, city, region, soccer team, and country—in that order.
Italians are obsessed with soccer (called il calcio). Star players are treated like movie stars, and fans are passionate. On big game nights, bars are packed with fans watching TV screens. After a loss, they drown their sorrows. After a victory, fans celebrate by driving through the streets honking horns and waving team flags.
Home of the Vatican, Italy is still mostly Catholic. Although Italians will crowd into St. Peter’s Square with rock-concert energy to catch a glimpse of “il Papa,” they’re not particularly devout. They baptize their kids at the local church (there’s one every few blocks), but generally don’t attend church regularly and hold modern opinions on social issues, often in conflict with strict Catholic dogma. Italy is now the land of legalized abortion, a low birth rate, nudity on TV, socialist politics, and a society whose common language is decidedly secular. The true dominant religion is life: motor scooters, fashion, girl-watching, boy-watching, good coffee, good wine, and il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).
Left: Swiss Guards have protected the Vatican since the 1500s.
Right: Soccer games draw devout crowds.
Left: Venice’s Carnevale is celebrated with masks, costumes, and revelry.
Right: Imagine Roman life 2,000 years ago.
Italians are stylish. They strive to project a positive image in manner and dress—a concept they call la bella figura. They’d rather miss their bus than get sweaty and mussed-up rushing to catch it. And no matter how hot it gets, Italian men wear long pants—not shorts (except at the beach).
Traditions remain important. On festival days, locals still dress up in medieval or fanciful garb to celebrate Carnevale (Venice), play soccer (Florence), or race horses (Siena). Traditional ways are carried on by choice. Italians are wary of the dangers of a fast-paced global lifestyle. Their history is long, and they’re secure in their place in the world.
Zero in on Italy’s fine points and don’t dwell on the problems (just call them “cultural experiences”). Savor your cappuccino, dangle your feet over a canal (if it smells, breathe through your mouth), and imagine what it was like centuries ago. Ramble through the rabble and rubble of Rome and mentally resurrect those ancient stones. Sit silently on a hill-town belvedere and get chummy with the winds of the past. Write a poem over a glass of local wine in a sun-splashed, wave-dashed Riviera village. Italy is for romantics.
Italy’s Top Destinations
Mamma mia! There’s so much to see in Italy and so little time. This overview breaks the country’s top destinations into must-see sights (to help first-time travelers plan their trip) and worth-it sights (for those with extra time or special interests). I’ve also suggested a minimum number of days to allow per destination.
Italy’s major cities are Rome, Florence, and Venice. Each has a distinctly different flavor, from ancient Roman to Renaissance art to a romantic island. If you have just two weeks for your first Italian trip, include these cities, add the coastal Cinque Terre and the town of Siena, and you’ll get an unforgettable introduction to the best (if most touristy stops) that Italy has to offer. Here they are, listed north to south, as they appear in this book:
▲▲▲Venice (allow 1-2 days)
Venice is Italy’s dreamy island city, powerful in medieval times, and famous today for St. Mark’s Basilica, the Grand Canal, and singing gondoliers. Idling on St. Mark’s Square—best at night while the orchestras play—is one of Italy’s grand experiences.
▲▲▲Cinque Terre (2-3 days)
The lovely Cinque Terre is a string of five idyllic Riviera hamlets tucked along a rugged coastline, connected by scenic hiking trails and boats, and dotted with beaches. The region is revered by hardy hikers, sun-worshippers, and photographers.
▲▲▲Florence (1-2 days)
If you love art, you’ll enjoy Florence. This surprisingly compact city, which Michelangelo called home, was the cradle of the Renaissance. You’ll marvel at the Uffizi Gallery’s priceless paintings (starring Botticelli’s ethereal Birth of Venus, shown above), Brunelleschi’s dome-topped cathedral, and Michelangelo’s David. And anyone can appreciate Italy’s best gelato.
Gliding through Venice, a parade in Siena, Florence’s shop-lined Ponte Vecchio, hiking in the Cinque Terre
▲▲▲Siena (1 day)
Nearby Siena is Florence’s smaller and (some say) more appealing Tuscan rival, with its magnificent Il Campo square, striking striped cathedral, and medieval pageantry, spurred by its Palio horse race. On any night, if you hear the low throb of drumming signaling a parade in a proud neighborhood—seek it out!
▲▲▲Rome (2-3 days)
Rome is Italy’s capital, the sprawling Eternal City, studded with impressive Roman ruins: the Forum, Colosseum, and Pantheon. It’s home to Vatican City and the astonishing Sistine Chapel. Wandering through Rome’s floodlit-fountain squares at night, happening upon the Trevi Fountain...you won’t be the only romantic tossing in a coin with a wish to return.
Rome’s Trevi Fountain, Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel, Rome’s Colosseum at night
You can weave any of these destinations—rated ▲ or ▲▲—into your itinerary. It’s easy to add some destinations based on proximity (if you’re going to Florence, Pisa is next door), but other out-of-the-way places can merit the journey, depending on your time and interests.
▲▲Milan (1 day)
Many travelers arrive in Milan in northern Italy. With three airports, it’s a major transit hub. This powerhouse city of commerce and fashion boasts the prestigious La Scala opera house, pink-marble Duomo, and Leonardo’s Last Supper.
▲The Lakes (1 day)
For a lakeside stop just an hour from Milan (as a day trip or overnight), consider the Lakes—ideally the quaint village of Varenna on Lake Como, where you can cruise the lake, wander, sunbathe, and dine al fresco. If relaxation is on your agenda, so is Lake Como. Another popular stop is Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, where tourists come to see manicured islands and elegant villas.
▲Near Venice (1 day)
Near Venice are several intriguing towns: Padua, known for Giotto’s gloriously frescoed Scrovegni Chapel; little Vicenza for its Palladian architecture; and Verona for its ancient Roman amphitheater and Romeo and Juliet sights. Each town is an easy, quick stop on the main train line between Venice and Milan.
▲The Dolomites (1-2 days)
The Dolomites are Italy’s mighty Alps, featuring Bolzano, home of Ötzi the Iceman; the charming village of Castelrotto; and Alpe di Siusi, a vast alpine meadow laced with lifts and hiking trails. Near Austria, the region is sausage-and-sauerkraut Germanic and can be time-consuming to reach, but if the weather’s good, hikers will be in paradise.
Dolomites, lovely Lake Como, fashion-able Milan, view of Lucca
▲Riviera Towns (1 day)
You’re near Riviera Towns when you’re in the Cinque Terre. The coastal towns are little Levanto, double-beached Sestri Levante, the larger Santa Margherita Ligure, gem-like Portofino, and resorty Porto Venere. Choose one—or more!
▲Pisa and Lucca (1.5 days)
These towns make two good stops or day trips from Florence. Pisa has the iconic Leaning Tower, set in the stunning Field of Miracles. The pleasant town of Lucca, a delight for window-shoppers, has an inviting old center, encircled by a wide medieval wall you can stroll or bike.
▲Volterra and San Gimignano (1.5 days)
In Tuscany, these villages are tempting: Volterra is vibrant and rustically real, while multitowered San Gimignano is more photogenic and touristy.
▲▲Heart of Tuscany (1-3 days)
Italy’s many hill towns, as sleepy as if they’ve been caught napping, are popular for good reason. From Florence or Siena, several hill towns are within striking range by public transportation. Those with a car can discover far more. Wine lovers savor a cluster of picturesque, wine-soaked villages amid rolling hills in the Heart of Tuscany: mellow Montepulciano, Renaissance Pienza, and Brunello-fueled Montalcino.
▲▲Assisi (1 day)
Perched on a hilltop, Assisi is the hometown of St. Francis, with a divinely Giotto-decorated basilica dedicated to the humble saint who extolled the virtues of love and simplicity. Assisi is located between Florence and Rome, but will always feel off the beaten track.
▲▲Orvieto and Civita (1 day)
Near Rome, Orvieto offers more hill-town adventures, featuring classic views, Classico wine, and an ornate cathedral, plus nearby Civita di Bagnoregio, a pint-sized hill town reachable only by a narrow, steep bridge.
A swing south from Rome, from Naples to Paestum, gives you the best of southern Italy. Naples, a good stop en route to the genteel home base of Sorrento, is a gritty port city with nonstop street life and a top archaeological museum starring the treasures from ancient Pompeii.
▲▲Pompeii and Nearby (half-day)
South of Naples are the ruins of famous Pompeii (worth ▲▲▲) and smaller Herculaneum, with their nemesis, Mount Vesuvius, looming on the horizon. The ancient sites are an easy stop between Naples and Sorrento; of the two, Pompeii is better.
▲Sorrento and Capri (1.5 days)
Sorrento is a seaside resort port—a well-located home base for the many sights in the region, including the jet-set island getaway of Capri (worth ▲▲) with its eerie Blue Grotto, just a short cruise away. Also nearby is the...
▲▲Amalfi Coast and Paestum (1-2 days)
From Sorrento, you can travel the cliff-hanging road along the Amalfi Coast, overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean, to visit villages spilling down to beaches.
South of the Amalfi Coast is a site so ancient it predates most Roman sites—Paestum, crowned with well-preserved Greek temples from a time this storied land was Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.
Naples’ vibrant street life and the hilltop perch of Civita di Bagnoregio
Planning Your Trip
To plan your trip, you’ll need to design your itinerary—choosing where and when to go, how you’ll travel, and how many days to spend at each destination. For my best advice on sightseeing, accommodations, restaurants, and using transportation, see the Practicalities chapter.
DESIGNING AN ITINERARY
As you read this book and learn about your options...
Choose your top destinations.
My recommended itinerary (on the next page) gives you an idea of how much you can reasonably see in 21 days, but you can adapt it to fit your own interests and timeframe. If you like Renaissance art, linger longer in Florence. Exploring Italy’s hill towns could soak up a week. For mountains, make tracks to the Dolomites. And if you’ve always wanted to ascend Pisa’s Leaning Tower, now’s the time for the climb.
Decide when to go.
Italy’s best travel months are May, June, September, and October. They’re also the busiest and most expensive time to visit (with the north remaining busy straight through the summer). Crowds aside, these months combine the convenience of peak season with pleasant weather.
The heat in July and August can be grueling, particularly in the south, where temperatures hit the 90s. Fortunately most midrange hotels come with air-conditioning. August is also when many Italians take their summer vacations; big cities tend to be quiet (with discounted hotel prices), but beach and mountain resorts are jammed (with higher hotel prices).
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- On Sale
- Nov 15, 2022
- Page Count
- 1250 pages
- Rick Steves