Italy has a certain romantic and historical allure that makes it a prime travel destination. The cuisine, the dramatic coastline, the beautiful language, the elaborate ruins — what’s not to like? There are so many distinct and wonderful places to visit within Italy that it would take you months or multiple vacations to be able to do them all justice. In this Italy travel guide, we’ll break down the top destinations and things to see in each city.
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WHEN to go
The most popular time to visit is during the summer months (June to August), but it can get downright steamy there, from both the heat and the throngs of people, especially in August when most Italians go on vacation. The best time to visit — to avoid the crowds, the heat and the need to compete at top prices with everyone else — is spring or fall. There are fewer crowds in April and May and you don’t need to drink your weight in water just to stay hydrated. The spring months can also be one of the best times to find deals to Italy. In April, you may deal with occasional rain, but it won’t stop you from enjoying your time there.
The summer crowds begin to die down again in the fall, so September and October are also perfect times to visit. If you’re wanting to visit Tuscany, especially, so you can witness the ripening of the grapes on the vine and maybe even participate in the harvest. If you’re hoping for a ski vacation to one of Italy’s premier ski areas, prime winter months are not the best choice, either. Aim for shoulder season.
where to go
The top tourist destinations in Italy include Rome, Florence, Venice and the Italian Riviera, like the Amalfi Coast or Cinque Terre. Of course, there’s also Sicily, Milan and Tuscany. So how do you decide where to go?
First-time visitors would do best to hit up the most popular sights that are easy to get to via train or a quick domestic flight. Then once you’ve explored the top destinations, you can dig deeper into the more off-the-beaten path locations. A road trip can be a very rewarding way to see a lot of the country. Try one of these 5 best scenic Italian road trips. Check out this post on Instagram-worthy reasons to visit Italy for inspiration.
In this guide, we’ll go over an itinerary for the top three: Rome, Florence and Venice.
I have to admit that one of my favorite things about Rome is the food culture. I love Italian food, but eating in Rome takes the pleasure of Italian food to new levels. Great food can be found at just about every turn in the road in Rome. You can find your own, or go on a guided food tour. You can read about the tour we took here.
Visiting Rome is like stepping back in time. The cobblestone streets, the crumbling Roman ruins, the Colosseum’s looming presence, the ornate architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica — so many amazing attractions to see throughout the city, and it’s easy to see everything without much fuss. With a good map and a little energy, you can easily walk the entire old town center of Rome and see all of the iconic landmarks listed below.
- The Roman Forum: Check out the ruins of the Arch of Titus, the Temple of Vesta and other ruins of a powerful, historical time gone by.
- The Sistine Chapel: See one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, an expansive mural painted on the chapel’s ceiling, including his famous Creation of Adam.
- Trevi Fountain: This is an absolutely must see, tucked away in a small piazza and crowded with people vying for a chance at a good photo. If you toss a coin into the fountain over your left shoulder using your right hand, you’ll come back to Rome someday.
- The Colosseum: You can pay for a guided tour, or just walk around yourself, especially if you’ve done some research ahead of time or have a book along with you.
- The Spanish Steps: Located at the Piazza di Spagna, this steep set of steps climbs up to the Trinita dei Monti church at the top and is surrounded by upscale shopping, tourists lounging on the steps and a wonderful Italian vibe.
- Spend some time in the Campo de Fiori neighborhood, which has an active piazza with a daily open air market. Learn about it’s dark history!
It’s even quite possible to travel to Rome on a budget. Chech out these 15 amazing free things to see in Rome.
One of the most beautiful cities in Italy, Florence is also known for its art. The major buildings of Florence house some of the world’s most treasured art. So if you’re a museum lover or art history buff, you’ll find plenty of both here.
- Florence Cathedral: This vast cathedral towers over the city with its Renaissance dome and gothic architecture. Entrance is free.
- Uffizi Gallery houses some of the most important works of the Renaissance, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Botticelli and Michelangelo. Make sure you secure tickets in advance as this is one of the most popular museums in the World.
- See Michelangelo’s David statue: Perhaps Michelangelo’s most famous statue, the lifelike David stands at 17 feet high in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Reservations are recommended.
- Explore the famous wine region of Tuscany. Discover what makes Chianti Classico so complex.
Try this 2 Days in Florence Itinerary.
I often think Venice is singlehandedly responsible or Italy’s romantic allure, with its winding waterways and canals, arched bridges and amazing architecture. Since no cars are allowed in the city, it’s an escape from the normal hustle and bustle of blaring horns and angry traffic snarls. Instead, you wander through the narrow cobblestone streets on foot or glide around the city on a gondola.
⇒ See our infographic guide to visiting Venice.
For great tips on traveling in Venice, check out this post on KarolinaPatryk.com: Top 10 Venice travel tips
- St. Mark’s Square: The most iconic square in Venice where the vast majority of pigeons congregate, St. Mark’s Square is a sight to behold. Make this your first stop, right off the boat ride on the Grand Canal that brings you into the city.
- Glass Island: There’san island in the Venetian Lagoon called Murano, where glass has been made for more than 700 years. Definitely worth a visit.
- Bridge of Sighs: According to local lore, if you kiss beneath this bridge at sunset, you’ll enjoy eternal love.
- The Peggy Guggenheim Collection features masterpieces by Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Jackson Pollock.
where to stay
Where you stay in Italy is almost as important as what you do. Here are some iconic hotels where you’ll be exceptionally well-positioned in the city. Of course, there are plenty of hotels that are easier on your wallet, but these are the affordable luxury hotels we would recommend you save up to enjoy on your vacation.
Where to Stay in Rome
The best location in Rome depends on what you want to accomplish during your stay, but it’s always best to be centrally located so you can walk to all of the main attractions. I really like the area around the Spanish Steps. It’s easy to find in case you forget your map or lose your bearings. Two great choices in the affordable luxury range are The Inn at the Spanish Steps (with a gorgeous roof-top pool) and Il Palazzetto. We also really enjoyed staying at Nerva Boutique Hotel in the popular Rione i Monti area.
- Il Plazzetto ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
- The Inn at the Spanish Steps ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
- Nerva Boutique Hotel ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
Where to Stay in Florence
There is no shortage of amazing, luxury hotels in Florence. You could easily spend half your budget on a couple of nights here. Firenze Number Nine Hotel and Spa is a smaller boutique hotel in a fantastic location, and the Gallery Hotel Art – Lungarno Collection, which has more than 400 pieces of fine art hanging in the hotel, is just a short walk across to the old town. If you want to splurge, stay at the Four Seasons and experience a little bit of perfection.
- Firenze Number Nine ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
- Gallery Hotel Art ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
- Four Seasons Firenze ⇒ Read reviews on Trip Advisor | Book a stay
Where to Stay in Venice
The choices of where to stay in Venice are vast, but we can narrow down where to stay in the city to two areas. When you look up hotels on Booking.com, you’re looking at Venice city center. We narrow that down to the areas around Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square. You will be going everywhere by foot, so it makes the most sense to be in the center of everything.
Below are the only two places you need to know. The first is an apartment-style rental and the 2nd is a hotel.
If you’re staying for 3+ nights, I highly recommend this apartment. It’s in the perfect location, is incredibly comfortable and clean, and has a kitchenette. We sometimes prefer an apartment to a hotel so we’re not being bothered by housekeeping. This place is a gem.
If you’d rather stay in a hotel because you like the extra amenities, then Hotel Londra Palace is a great choice. It’s in a very good location, only 5 min walk from St. Mark’s Square, with free wifi and a restaurant. Some rooms have a balcony and an incredible view.
what to eat
When we think of Italian food in the U.S., we think rich meaty red sauce, thick and creamy alfredo sauce, pasta, pizza, lasagna — but the food in Italy is quite a bit more diverses than we think it is, so it’s good to know a thing or two about the food culture in Italy before you get there.
It’s also a good thing to know a few essential Italian food phrases to help you while you’re reading the menu and ordering. We’ve found that even knowing the basic food names for things like chicken, beef, onion, mushroom, will help you immensely.
You know, things that may make you look like a tourist — like asking for Fettuccini Alfredo (which doesn’t exist in Italy), Pepperoni pizza (which doesn’t stand for spicy pork) and asking for salad dressing for your salad (Italians use their delectable olive oil and vinegar to dress their salads).
Menus are often divided into courses and it’s unusually to only order a bowl of pasta for a meal. Instead, you would order an antipasto, primo (pasta), secondo (usually a meat dish) and dolce (dessert). Of course, Pizza Margherita can be found throughout Italy. Try what very well may be the world’s best pizza in Naples.
Seafood and mushroom risotto is a Venetian specialty. Prociutto, porcini mushrooms, burrata (cream filled cheese), ravioli and gnocchi are all on the must-eat list. Just make sure whatever you eat that you’re prepared to embrace the Italian way of eating it. As they say, “When in Rome…” That isn’t where the phrase came from, but it surely applies!
what to drink
The two main drinks in Italy are easily wine and coffee. While cocktails and liquors are often served as before or after-dinner drinks, wine and water are the only acceptable mealtime drinks. And who’s complaining?
Italian wine is incredibly diverse and well made. With so many different grape varieties and all that sun, they produce some of the World’s best wine. To go to Italy without trying the wine would be a huge shame. Some of the big wine regions are Tuscany (including Chianti), Barolo, Montepulciano, Romagna, Veneto and Piedmont (among many many others).
Italians also thoroughly enjoy their cafe culture. Sipping on a cappuccino or espresso for breakfast or in the afternoon while relaxing in an outdoor cafe is nearly a national pastime. And don’t forget that delicious limoncello. Served as a digestivo, after dinner, it can easily take the place of dessert with its crisp sweetness. So many great drinks hail from Italy. Try ordering something different every day to get a full spectrum.
Prosecco, bellini, negroni, grappa, limoncello — all Italian drinks.
Travel Tips for Italy
Driving in Italy
If you’re planning on renting a car in Italy, make sure you obtain an International Driving License before you go. In the United States, you can get one of these at AAA offices as well as from the National Automobile Club, for a small fee. It’s good for 1 year.
Italian law requires drivers that don’t have a European Union driving license to show their home country license as well as an International Driving Permit if (or when) they’re pulled over. The rental car company may not require one to rent, but it’s up to you to have the correct paperwork.
Money and Tipping in Italy
Italy uses the Euro. You can easily get cash from an ATM (they are plentiful in big cities and the airport). You can use your credit card at most museums and restaurants, but not everything, so always have some cash available.
Italians are not big tippers. Service is generally included in a restaurant bill, but if it’s not, a euro or two tip is fine at casual restaurants, up to 10% in fancier restaurants. Also, expect to pay a bread and cover charge, which is standard procedure, even if you don’t ask for or want the bread. Tipping in bars isn’t necessary but you can leave change when ordering a coffee or beer.
The best way to get around in Italy’s big cities is by foot. One of the biggest pleasures of Italy’s cities is the architecture and the atmosphere on the street. You can also find good public transportation in all of the major cities. When you get into the countryside you’ll need a rental car.