ROADTRIP THROUGH THE ITALIAN COUNTRYSIDE
ITINERARY FOR A 10 DAY ROADTRIP THROUGH ITALY
DAY ONE ROME
As y'all know Italy has too much to see for one trip but we were committed and determined to get the most out of our 10 days. We wanted to hit the ground running (quite literally) as soon as we landed, so we planned to see most of the notables on the first day. However, insane customs/immigration lines and less than stellar weather did not allow for this. As a result we had to flex some of our plans to the next day.
SIDE NOTE: if you are taking a non-stop direct from the US to Rome, just be prepared for some ridiculous lines in customs/immigration. It took us 2 hours to get through customs alone! It seems that the FCO airport has several international flights land mid-afternoon which accounts for the ridiculous lines. Also, there are many affordable transportation options leaving the airport. We used the SIT bus (6 Euros/person - cash only) and would definitely recommend this option over cabs, shuttles or even the train.
VARESE GUEST HOUSE (LODGING)
We really tried to keep our housing affordable throughout the trip, and since we were traveling with our besties we wanted something that catered to group housing. This is effectively a glorified dormitory. Several group housing rooms that all share a couple of bathrooms.
PROS: great location (two blocks from Termini Train Station, clean, reliable wi-fi, good common area space with small kitchenette, spacious rooms (some with balconies).
CONS: average comfort, no breakfast, city/tourist tax to be paid in cash only
RIFUGIO ROMANO (RESTAURANT)
PROS: good food, affordable prices, really nice helpful staff
CONS: long waits, reservation highly recommended (or go early - like before 8PM).
DAY TWO VATICAN CITY + ROME
Since we encountered lots of temperamental weather the Sunday we landed, we had to flex our original plans to the next day which meant a lot more walking!! Thankfully we packed comfortable clothing and shoes 🙏🏽. Between the Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica & Colosseum, there was quite a bit of walking - 7 miles to be precise. Yep SEVEN.
During the planning stages of this trip we got tons of great insights from our many friends who had been to Italy already. Pretty much everyone told us to buy skip-the-line tickets for both the Vatican & the Colosseum (+ Forum). This was excellent advice, however the key to this being useful (for the Vatican in particular) is doing the earliest tours available. Skip-the-Line tickets allow you to skip the entrance lines for these high profile sights, but do not allow you to skip the security lines (metal detectors). The security lines are smallest first thing in the morning! The other benefit to morning tours is that the Vatican is WAY less packed. You have some breathing room to enjoy the artwork & historical artifacts, but more importantly really gawk at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.
PROS: great quick tour with a knowledgable guide, all the highlights are noted, great for individuals who enjoy fast paced tours (length was 1 hour, ending with the Sistine Chapel - could stay here indefinitely), the Vatican Museum Map room was 😍, we got blessed by a priest in the Sistine Chapel!! 😇
CONS: not as informative as we personally would have liked (could have been more in depth)
PROS: go at your own pace, explore freely, this Basilica was personally my favorite from our tour of Italy, absolutely breath taking architecture and so artfully made. THIS IS A MUST SEE.
CONS: This tour comes with an audioguide (downloaded through your own phone on an app), headphones cost extra and are only for normal headphone jacks (not compliant with iPhone 7 and newer).
NOTES: Our tour was in the afternoon when there were floods of people, definitely recommend first thing in the morning.
SOME NOTES ABOUT THE VATICAN:
If you decide to use these two tours linked above, I would recommend doing all three sights back-to-back. As the day progresses, the Vatican gets super packed both outside and within the museums. Its best to be done with all the tours before lunch in my opinion. Also the Vatican is a no re-entry zone, so once you exit a museum you can not go back in.
Special attire is required (pants, no hats, no revealing clothing for women - no sleeveless, knees must be covered, and according to most sites - closed toe shoes (however this one didn't seem to be strictly enforced)).
The Vatican is closed on Sundays and several religious holidays throughout the year. It is best to make sure that it will be open during your visit before booking anything. If you can, book the garden tour - we regret not buying tickets to see this.
Ok and our final note, lots of restaurants in the area will solicit your attention in a semi-aggressive manner. I would plan meals as much as possible. We made the mistake of walking into one of the restaurants and getting some fruit. We didn't think it would cost that much and the price wasn't listed on the menu. It cost us 50 Euros just for the fruit salad (note this is not the restaurant listed below)!!
PROS: great basic italian dishes, really inexpensive ($), and very fresh
CONS: nothing too inventive (just the basics - think pesto, pomodoro, fungi...), only 4 stools in the restaurant to sit, a little hard to find because in a alley way of sorts, not the nicest staff.
Much like the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum (aka Colosseo) is magnanimous in person. Its so incredibly grand and massive - I was literally speechless. We thoroughly enjoyed just walking around the entire archeological site and spent a couple hours doing only that (and taking pictures 🤗) before even going in. It was really incredible to be in a space that was built almost 2000 years ago! So incredible that we went back 3 times!
PROS: well preserved, lots of historic artifacts throughout
CONS: tons of people, very touristy food in the area, steep uneven stairs
The Colosseum offers skip the line tickets which were excellent. Our scheduled entry time was 5:30 PM and we basically walked in. The security line at that time was pretty minimal which was also really convenient. Just a heads up, only small purses/backpacks are allowed, tickets can be purchased here and are good for 2 consecutive days (this proved very useful with the bad weather we encountered), and tickets give access to the Forum (where Caesar is buried) & Palatine Hills. Oh also they are super affordable - however the link above is not for a guided tour - if you are looking for that then I'd suggest the Viator route.
I also really recommend going back to the Colosseum at night when its all lit up. There is a little bridge right across from it that is a great view point at night (see picture below).
Lastly, watch out for the gladiators. These guys are aggressive, will essentially take your phone as collateral until you pay them, and will ask for ridiculous amounts of money for about 5 minutes of fun. Have cash ready for this instead of opening your wallet in front of them. They demanded we pay $100 USD, we gave them $30 (which is still a bit much).
DAY THREE TIVOLI GARDENS + CIVITA DE BAGNOREGIO
The next morning we had a late breakfast before picking up our rental car and leaving Rome for Villa D'Este aka Tivoli Gardens. Some of our good friends raved about these lush gorgeous gardens so we knew we had to check it out. The gardens were first commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este an avid patron of the arts in the 16th century. Today the site is owned by the Italian government and is a a world UNESCO heritage site. Tickets can be purchased in advance (to be picked up at the counter) here.
PROS: beautiful lush gardens, very well maintained, expansive, lots of fountains
CONS: can't be reached by train, sometimes large groups
PROS: really quaint village, very few tourists, peaceful
CONS: not accessibly by train, steep hill/hike to entrance, everything closes early here so plan accordingly!
Civita di Bagnoregio is this really charming village that sits at the plateau of a mound of constantly eroding volcanic rock. The town is over 2500+ years old and is constantly at risk of erosion from decaying rock. This was actually the HUBS find. Neither of us had ever heard of this town before but I am so glad we went. In fact, this is where Pinocchio was filmed. Geppetto's shop is still here and can be visited! Its actually an olive oil bottle manufacturer. The views from Civita are beautiful. Every corner & crevice of Civita de Bagnoregio is chock full of beautiful blooms and vines.
PROS: quaint, spacious, great service, delicious food, reasonable prices, walkins welcome
CONS: limited parking, staff may not speak english
PROS: probably our favorite of our stays this home was quaint, spacious, comfortable and perfect for families. It has a kitchen, dining table, fireplace, balcony, two rooms and two bathrooms. The balcony overlooks lovely Tuscan rolling hills. The home sits at the base of a larger property with several units. Breakfast is delicious and included pastries, teas, fresh coffee, cheese spreads, breads, deli meats, and fruit. I also loved that you could literally drive up to the home directly. Also Luca was so sweet, thoughtful and just happy to be there. Also theres a cute little rooftop above the breakfast area that is so serene. We really wish we had stayed longer.
CONS: literally no complaints.
DAY FOUR CASCATE DEL MULINO
Probably Italy's best kept secret is Cascate del Mulino (in Saturnia), these beautiful cascade of natural geothermal pools nestled in the Tuscan countryside. I knew I wanted to visit this gem the minute we decided to vacation in Italy, so I planned quietly to keep this somewhat a surprise for everyone else (especially the HUBS who is obsessed with local only spots). Its super relaxing and serene. For anyone looking to rent a car, this is a must see.
Since this spot is tucked away, we decided to stay in Catabbio, the closest lodging we could find on AirBnB. Saturnia is technically free and not associated with any hotel so people can go at any time. We wanted to get there first thing in the morning before it got too packed. According to the reviews on TripAdvisor, most people get there around 8:30/9AM and the pools tend to be most packed during the warmer seasons (May - September). Since we were visiting at the beginning of high season we planned on getting to the pools by 6:00 AM. Thankfully we were only staying about 15 minutes away.
PROS: natural (not man made) geothermal spa, serene, stunning, not too many tourists because no train access or tour groups
CONS: can get packed with locals, rocks can get slippery so be careful, no lockers or bathrooms - plan accordingly, smells like sulfur
After spending the morning at Cascate del Mulino in Saturnia, we decided to visit the Roccapesta winery which our host recommended. Tuscany is abundant with wineries including several notables. Although, we had never heard of Roccapesta we were excited to try a local recommendation. The owner, Alberto, actually gave us our tour. He was so incredibly knowledgable, kind and answered our many questions (the HUBS asked easily 100+ questions). Apparently Alberto purchased the winery in late 2000's. If I remember correctly, Alberto was formerly an engineer before buying the winery. Every grape is hand-picked before being hand-sorted for processing. Many of the wines have earned the illustrious DOCG certification, included their most popular Roccapesta Reserve. Our personal favorites would have to be the Calastia. Alberto was so generous and even let us try some of his older reserves from his personal collection!
PROS: local pick, boutique vineyard, not touristy, very charming, great service and very friendly staff, very affordable wines
CONS: not accessible by train
NOTES: make a reservation well in advance.
DAY FIVE WINERIES & ABBEY DE SAN GALGANO
You can't visit Tuscany without visiting a winery...well actually several. We wanted to get a good variety of wineries so we chose a large and boutique vineyard to visit.
PROS: great service, we did the tasting menu (vegetarian friendly) at the restaurant which comes with 3 wine pairs and 1 aperitif prior to the meal. The Banfi campus is HUGE and gorgeous. You can also stay here. This one of the biggest wine manufacturers & exporter in Italy and a majority of their wines are exported to the US.
CONS: pricey, a little less personal,
NOTES: reservations are required
PROS: quaint, beautiful campus, wine tasting is pretty thorough
CONS: wine tasting does not include a tour, personally was not that fond of the wines.
NOTES: requires a reservation.
This was somewhat of a random stop. I literally saw some photography of this abbey on instagram and knew I had to visit it. It just looked so beautiful and raw. Turns out the abbey was en route to pisa so we decided to stop by and check it out. It was absolutely gorgeous and a great spot for drone footage. A 800+ year old monastery, the Abbey was once roofed but in 1786 its bell tower fell after years of decay and with it went the roof. Today several efforts have been made to restore what remains. People can still get married here however and the inside looks beautiful (we couldn't go in because it was already closed by the time we arrived).
PROS: beautiful, quaint, quiet (no tourists), serene
CONS: not accessible by train, closes early.
PROS: really great service, super friendly staff, spacious, good food, decent portions, well priced
CONS: parking right outside of restaurant is limited and restricted
NOTES: As an Indian, I am pretty critical of Indian cuisine outside of India or my mom's kitchen 😂. That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with the food but it definitely was not as good as the real thing. After eating tons of Italian food however, it did provide some necessary variety & spice.
PROS: great breakfast (fruits, pastries, eggs, fresh coffee, tea, meats), private bathroom, spacious room
CONS: twin beds, staff is somewhat strict about quiet hours
DAY SIX PISA
Before our trip we scheduled a cooking class just outside Pisa with Chef Paolo that covered 10+ pasta sauces and 4+ different types of pasta. We so enjoyed this class and would definitely recommend it to other friends and family.
PROS: very thorough assortment of pasta sauces and pastas, recipes are printed out for you to take home, learn everything from chopping to making fresh pasta, get to eat your creations afterwards, wine pairings are included, food is delicious!
CONS: a little outside of Pisa (not that common of a location), 5 hours long course with lots of standing.
NOTES: reservations required, seriously one of the best meals we had in Italy. The pasta carbonara was easily the top 5 pastas I have ever had in my life. I wish I could eat it every day lol.
Later that evening after the class, we decided to stop by the Leaning Tower on our way home. Like many of our friends said, the tower is pretty anti-climactic, especially at night. It wasn't even lit up! There also weren't any plaques or guides describing the history of the tower. The architecture was definitely beautiful and ornate, but this was probably the least memorable experience during our Italy trip.
PROS: nice architecture
CONS: not that interesting, touristy (lots of people), not lit up at night
DAY SEVEN CINQUE TERRE
One of the most anticipated destinations in our Italy trip was visiting Cinque Terre. We had heard so many amazing things and were so excited to spend some time exploring. Each town was so quaint that half a day was definitely not enough. We had anticipated hiking through the 5 towns, but it was really hot so we instead opted to just enjoy more time in Vernazza. We visited Monterosso al Mare & Vernazza. We really wish we had also spent some time in Riomaggiore but unfortunately we ran out of time since we had a long drive ahead of us.
PROS: super quaint, lots of charming shops and restaurants to visit (not the most veggie friendly), phenomenal pesto, beautiful views, train accessible, hiking path
CONS: jam packed with tourists (best to go earlier in the morning).
We decided to stop by Belfort Castle while we were en route to the Italian Alps. The HUBS was obsessed with visiting old abandoned castles during the trip. In fact he even had a little ritual of playing "Castle on a Hill" every time 😂. We had spotted this castle during while researching about Italy before our trip. Much like the rest of Europe, Italy has some beautiful castles, each one rich in history and nestled in some quaint countryside.
PROS: incredible views of the alps, free, parking lot, quiet and serene
CONS: not train accessible
DAY EIGHT ALPS
This was probably the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to. After visiting Switzerland & Iceland last year, I was really curious as to how Italy compared. No one ever talks about the Italian Alps, but damn they are GORGEOUS. I personally felt like the Italian side of the alps was tremendously more beautiful than the Swiss side. The views were incredible and so much more approachable? I am not sure how to describe it, but the mountains are softer and land seems sweeter. Maybe pictures would help?
One of our first stops in the Italian Alps was Lake Sorapis. I had read about many beautiful hikes in the Alps and knew immediately that I had to do this one. The trail head for the hike starts off SR48 (follow the signs for Passo Tres Croci). The hike is about 11 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 200 meters. The trail path winds through forest, scales the side of a mountain before coming to a clearing where you will see Lago di Sorapis (Lake Sorapis). This lake is insane. Basically glacial melt, the water is brilliant tiffany blue. This is by far the BEST HIKE I HAVE EVER EXPLORED. Even the HUBS agrees. We witnessed snow, rain, sunshine, waterfalls, mountains, wildlife, etc. It was so beautiful that we all were in awe when we came back. Lets just say this is a hike where you are so lost in the beauty of your surroundings that you forget how tired your feet are.
PROS: insane views, beautiful surroundings, pretty clear trail path, hiking shoes not required but would be advantageous, partially shaded, cool & shaded for about 1/2 of the trail.
CONS: no bathrooms, limited parking immediately off the street (no lot), road leading to trail head is a little bit confusing.
LAGO di BRAIES (PRAGSER WILDSEE)
Supposedly one of the most photographed lakes in Italy, Pragser Wildsee aka Lake Braies is a local gem of the Dolomites. This lake somewhat resembles Lake Morraine in Banff and is beautifully framed by the wonderful Italian Alps and features really pretty almost moody teal water. We absolutely loved visiting this lake and it was so peaceful to just be able to take a canoe out and explore.
PROS: beautiful view, no hiking required (just park and walk), serene, quiet, canoe rentals available
CONS: parking costs 4 Euros, somewhat touristy later in the day
To be completely honest, I didnt really know what to expect of the food in the Alps. Its pretty well known that the alps are this fusion region with a large german influence. In fact many of the signs as you travel north are in both Italian & German. The same is pretty much true for the food. Lots of meats but surprisingly the meals we had in the alps were our second best. This restaurant was right next to our hotel and had two floors - downstairs (the pizzeria) and upstairs (a steakhouse). On the first night we decided to try the steakhouse. As a vegetarian, I really was expecting to just eat sides for the night but they had this "curry" veggie burger. Y'all: it was the best veggie burger I have ever eaten (sorry, Grindhouse you've been bumped)! It was smothered in this creamy masala mayo that was so delicious. Note to self: steakhouses can have excellent vegetarian options.
PROS: the prosseco aperit with dragonfruit and mint is excellent, awesome veggie burger, grilled vegetables & baked potato, great atmosphere - some tables have great views , the pizzeria was delicious too - suprisingly good chili burrito and margherita pizza!
CONS: the tomato butter & bread are not very good (personal opinion), on the expensive side
NOTES: reservations not required unless you want the view
PROS: nice thermal pools with lots of sauna options
CONS: saunas are towel only (no bathing suits), lots of men walk around entirely nude, steam rooms are nude only, must have sandals, bring your own towels & sandals or you can rent them for a small fee, entry fee, lots of kids
PROS: nice staff, really awesome breakfast (waffles, fruit, teas, fresh coffee, meats, pastries, juices, cereals), comfortable rooms with balconies, discounted entry to CRON4
CONS: no pool or hot tub, rooms are dated
DAY NINE VENICE
Venice was pretty much our last destination in Italy. We actually weren't planning on going because so many had said that this was their least favorite Italian city in part due to the large amount of tourists, extreme prices and dirty water. We decided to check it out anyways since we were so close and flying out of Venice to Greece was super convenient. Overall we really enjoyed the city. I think it helped that we went in with very little expectations so it definitely surpassed ours. We had such a wonderful time exploring and walking around. Venice is the perfect destination for 24 hours!
This is a great way to experience the singing gondola ride. A group of 6 or so gondolas travel at the same time - one has a singer on it. The route takes about 45 minutes and gives a great tour of Venice by water. It is a little short but romantic none the less.
PROS: singing gondola ride, comfortable gondolas with cushion seating
CONS: short (45 minutes), singer on one boat not all boats
ST. MARK'S BASILICA
PROS: beautiful majestic architecture, amazing mosaic tile murals that are raw stones, good tour guide - very knowledgable
CONS: TONS of people, short 1 hour tour - almost not enough time to really explain sights
DAY TEN BURANO
This quaint city lies just outside of Venice and is the lace capital of the world. Just a quick 40 minute ferry ride the city boasts tons of lace museums and seriously colorful buildings that make the Painted Ladies look drab. We absolutely adored our visit to Burano and so enjoyed walking around and just taking it all in.
PROS: instagramer's paradise, colorful buildings and wonderful seafood (from what I hear), cute shops
CONS: later in the day this town gets super packed. Many of the well-established well reviewed restaurants here require reservations for eating so plan in advance!
We had such a blast visiting Italy and feel so blessed to have the chance to explore so much of the country. Check out our drone video below to see more from our trip!