Where to go in Italy…and for how long?
For a country smaller than the USA’s state of New Mexico, Italy’s got such a surprising number of great travel options, as well as geographic complexity, that many people don’t know where to start or how to choose to plan an Italy or Europe trip. We’ll try to make it a bit easier for you. First we’ll show you a very simple map that only has the most important tourist destinations, so you can see where places like Rome, Venice and Tuscany are located.
Then we’ll review the travel possibilities from several angles, depending on what’s important to you, such as the amount of time or money you have for an Italy trip, or what kind of travel experience you have in mind. We suggest that you read through your choice of the information on this page before looking at our complete list of recommended itineraries. It’s best if you read this page in order, but you can also use the links in our table of contents below to jump to any of the subjects,
While not a large country in square miles — about half the size of France — Italy is long, about 600 miles from top to bottom. That’s long enough to nearly bridge the distance from Africa to the middle of Europe. The southern end of Italy, at Sicily, is just across a narrow part of the Mediterranean Sea from Tunisia, in North Africa. The northern end of Italy terminates in high Alpine mountains, at the borders with Switzerland, France, and Austria.
Rome is very close to the middle of Italy, so that you think of southern Italy and northern Italy being split by Rome.
The overwhelming bulk of Italy’s tourism is focused on the northern half of the country. That’s always been the wealthiest part of Italy, and so the north has most of Italy’s important cities and great art.
Just north of Rome is Tuscany, a large area rather like a state, which includes the cities of Florence, Pisa, and Siena as well as the Chianti wine country. Bordering Tuscany on the north and west is the Riviera, which includes the fishing villages of the Cinque Terre.
The cities of Venice and Milan are in the far north of Italy, both very close to the high mountains of the Alps. Also in the north is Verona. Between Milan and the Swiss border are Lakes Como and Maggiore. Milan is a major gateway for travel in Switzerland, so we’ve developed plans which combine Switzerland and the Italian lakes.
In the southern half of Italy, south of Rome, there are only two destinations which are widely popular with travelers around the world. The first, located about 2 hours by train or car south of Rome, is the Bay of Naples/Amalfi Coast area, which includes Positano, the Isle of Capri, Sorrento, and Pompeii. Much further south, at the very bottom of Italy, is the island of Sicily. Visiting Sicily is almost like going to another country, just because of the travel time required to combine Sicily with trips to the north of Italy. So for people who want to visit there, we usually recommend dedicating a trip entirely to Sicily, rather than tacking it on to a trip to northern Italy.
Due to the long and skinny shape of Italy, most of the travel itineraries we prepare are “one-way” trips that enter Italy at one place and depart somewhere else. It usually is not very efficient to make loops in Italy, to come back to the same airport where you came in. So you will see that many of our travel plans assume that you will fly into Rome or Naples and out of Venice or Milan, or vice-versa.
ONE WEEK. With 8 or 9 total travel days, you can make good use of your time with the following combinations…..
Rome, Florence and Venice ~ easily the most efficient combination of destinations in Italy. Spend 2 or 3 nights in Rome and 2 nights each in Florence and Venice.
Rome, Countryside Tuscany and Florence ~ with as little as 8 travel days and 6 nights to spend in Italy, you can make a neat little trip with 2 nights in Rome, 2 nights in Florence, and 2 nights in a countryside location in Tuscany.
Rome and Positano ~ This is a great way to use 8 travel days and 6 nights in Italy, split between Rome and the Amalfi Coast. You can also make your base at Sorrento instead of Positano.
Venice and one of the lakes ~ You can use the airport at Venice at one end and Milan at the other. Spend 3 nights at Venice and 3 nights at either Lake Maggiore or Lake Como.
ONE AND A HALF WEEKS. With 10 to 12 total travel days, these combinations work well….
Rome, Florence and Venice plus a Tuscany tour ~ the most popular trips we do are 10-day/8-night plans with 3 nights Rome, 3 nights Florence and 2 nights Venice. From Florence, you spend a full day touring in countryside Tuscany.
Rome, Florence & Venice PLUS another area ~ Having 12 travel days and 10 nights to spend in Italy lets you add a fourth major destination. Here are the best options for adding a new dimension to your Italy experience, outside the big cities….
Tuscany ~ Central Tuscany, near the city of Siena, is the easiest destination to add to a plan with Rome, Florence & Venice. You can spend 2 or 3 nights in your choice of a rural location, a small town, or the city of Siena.
Amalfi Coast ~ You can fly into Naples, instead of Rome, and start your Italy trip with 3 nights at Positano or Sorrento, Then head on to Rome and continue to Florence and Venice.
Northern Lakes ~ You can fly out of Milan, instead of Venice, and finish your Italy trip with 2 or 3 nights at Lake Como or Lake Maggiore.
Cinque Terre ~ On the way from Rome to Florence, you can make a make a diversion to the Riviera coast at the Cinque Terre. While this adds quite a lot of travel time to a Rome, Florence, Venice itinerary, it is very popular.
TWO WEEKS. With 16 travel days and 14 nights to spend in Italy, you can make a grand tour, with Rome, Florence and Venice plus as many as 3 other areas. Here’s one of our suggested itineraries for using this much time….
~ Fly into Naples and spend 3 nights at Sorrento or Positano
~ Rome for 3 nights
~ 2 nights in countryside Tuscany
~ Florence for 2 nights
~ Venice of 2 nights
~ Finish at Lake Como or Lake Maggiore for 2 nights
~ Fly from Milan
The most direct answer can be found by scanning through our complete list of recommended itineraries. But it will help to first read this summary of the major factors that determine the cost of your Italy trip. There are 5 of them. Which of these are most important to you?
Number of nights in Italy ~ for most people, this is the biggest issue in stretching a budget. If you look at our complete list of recommended itineraries, you’ll quickly see that price is largely a factor of how long you’ll be in Italy.That’s because hotel cost is invariably the major component of any trip quote. So while a 6-night itinerary may cost less than $2,000 per person, a 10-night itinerary with a comparable level of other services may be closer to $3,000 per person. .
Private guides and transfers ~ The second biggest factor in the cost of most Italy trips is whether private transfers and private guides are included. If you look again at our complete list of itineraries, you’ll see that all other factors being equal in the comparison of two packages, including number of nights in hotel and train tickets, there can be a difference of more than $1,000 per person just due to whether private guides and transfers are included. The best example of this can be seen with our 8-night Rome, Florence and & Venice packages.
Season and Time of Year ~ As we stated above, hotel cost is the biggest component of your trip cost, and that component depends very much on when you travel. Hotel cost is generally highest during the high season, from the first of April through the end of October. During the low season, in winter, along with late fall and early spring, hotel cost is much lower, and the total cost of your land package can be lower by as much as 20%. There’s also a “summer low season” in Rome, Florence & Venice, during the last half of July and all of August, when hotels drop their prices. If you ask us to quote any of our city packages during that period, you will get a substantially lower price than what we post for that itinerary.
Category of hotel ~ There’s quite a difference in average cost between 4-star and 5-star hotels. You can assume that moving up to 5-star hotels will add more than 50% to the total cost of your land travel package. If you want to stretch your budget to add as much time in Italy or as much sightseeing as possible, you probably will NOT want to splurge on 5-star hotels.
Category of room ~ There can also be quite a difference in cost between rooms in the same hotel. Moving up from a standard double room to a deluxe room or a junior suite can add 20% to your total package. In Venice, a room with a great view of the Grand Canal commands a large premium over a room without a view. Then there are the suites. In Italian hotels, it’s not uncommon for a suite to cost twice as much as a standard double room. The bottom line is that there’s a big tradeoff here — you can pay for more services, such as transfers or private guides, or even extra nights in Italy, with the money you might otherwise pay to move up to a bigger room.
All of our recommended itineraries come with hotels (including breakfast and taxes) and what we call the “essential transportation,” which means trains in most cases. That counts for a lot, and it’s more than just the basics, first because we start with an itinerary that we’ve tested and know works well. Just as importantly, we know those hotels, what they’re like, and where they’re located. And we do our best to pick hotels that fit what we know about you, our client. Then we plan for specific trains that come as close as we can get to the schedule you want.
After the hotels and the essential transportation, it gets much more subjective to choose the other services. Here are the most common possibilities. Time-permitting, any of these services can be added to your trip plan, if they’re not already included.
The key transfers ~ the term “transfer” usually refers to local transportation between airports, hotels and train stations. It can also refer to longer transfers, between cities. The local transfers are not part of your essential transportion just because you can arrange most of those transfers when you get to Italy. A good example is the airport transfer at Rome, where you can just get a taxi to your hotel. When we talk about key transfers, we refer to the ones you are most likely to appreciate having planned in advance, so that a driver is waiting for you. Several of our recommended packages include three key transfers, including the arrival airport transfer at Rome, the arrival station transfer at Venice, and the airport departure transfer at Venice. We suggest that you talk to your ItalySource agent about whether it’s important to you to have certain transfers set up in advance.
Vatican Museums tour ~ Most first-time travelers to Rome ask us for some kind of arrangement to avoid the long lines for entering the Vatican Museums, which include the Sistine Chapel. We can offer you a choice of several solutions. Currently what is most popular is one of the small-group tours.
Private guides ~ This is the toughest question for many of our clients, whether it’s worth the cost to arrange one or more private guides. One of the private guide options is the most popular service we offer….it’s the full day with private driver-guide in Tuscany, taken as a roundtrip from the Florence hotel. As guide services go, it’s an easy call, because you can’t duplicate this tour on your own unless you rent a car for the day (NOT practical). This Tuscany guide service comes with several of our packages, and you can add it to most others.
Guides in the cities are not so easily justified, because everything you can see with a city guide you can also see on your own. But that’s a deceptive point. The guide offers insights you are unlikely to achieve by yourself, no matter how much preparation you make with guidebooks. Our signature itineraries come with private guides in Rome, Florence and Venice, including the “Best Rome, Florence & Venice,” and our “Grand Italian Honeymoon.”
Private excursions ~ We use the term excursion to differentiate having a driver for a day as opposed to having a driver-guide. We arrange excursions primarily on the Sorrentine Peninsula, south of Naples, taken from Sorrento or Positano. In this area, we don’t think it is usually worth the cost to have a guide, as it is clear enough where a driver should take our clients, for example, along the Amalfi Coast or to the parks at Pompeii and Herculaneum. All of our suggested itineraries in the Bay of Naples/Amalfi Coast area include one or more of these excursions.
Cooking classes ~ We offer these as half-day classes in various parts of Tuscany. We can also do a cooking class in one of the hotels we use at Positano. We can even arrange for a full week of classes at a small village in the Chianti countryside.
This section boils down to a common conflict in planning an Italy trip ~ Seeing a lot of Italy VERSUS having a relaxing trip.
Can you have it both ways? Not exactly, and certainly not at the same time. But even on a short trip to Italy, you can hope to achieve some balance between high and low activity levels. It comes down to two factors that are essential to getting the trip right…. (1) Where you go & (2) How much time you spend there.
HOW MUCH TIME? We really avoid one-night stays. We reserve them to facilitate airport transitions at the beginning or end of trips. Otherwise, two nights in a hotel is the least we normally recommend. What we consider an aggressive trip through Italy will consist of two-night stays in each hotel. You can see a lot that way in a fairly short trip. It will be exhilarating, but not relaxing.
With three nights in any one location, your pace can slow down significantly. A goal of three nights at each place is a good compromise to keep you from feeling rushed and still let you sample different parts of Italy. But most people don’t have that much time. We make our standard recommendations, unless you tell us otherwise. For example, we like to plan for three nights in Rome. But two nights are usually enough for Venice.
If serious relaxation is your goal, you probably need more than three nights at one location. We frequently get requests for spending up to a week in Rome or Florence or Venice, usually from people who’ve been to Italy before and know where they want more time. That’s taking the relaxed approach to a practical extreme. What works better for many first-time Italy travelers is to pick one area for a longer stay, maybe 4 nights, while traveling more aggressively for the remainder of the trip. We can make these adjustments however you want.
WHERE TO GO? The most fundamental issue here is time in the cities versus time in countryside locations. We see this debate a lot, even between couples. One person sees Italy as a chance to indulge in the great museums of Rome and Florence. The other person envisions time walking in quaint Tuscany towns.
Here are the primary options for your Italy itinerary with some brief thought about each. We suggest that you read the following and then scan through our complete list of recommended itineraries, bearing in mind that we can adjust your itinerary to spend more or less time at each location.
The Big Cities ~ High activity. Come for cultural stimulation, with emphasis on art & architecture. Generally a lot of people, traffic and noise. Not relaxing unless you can settle in for a week and get comfortable with the layout of the city and how to get around.
Rome ~ Big, busy, ultra-high activity level. Immense selection of what to see and do in one of world’s great cities. Heavy vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Sprawling, so don’t expect to walk to all attractions. 3 nights our most common recommendation. But you could not cover all points of interest in a week. Good choice for flying in or out of Italy. Not a great base for efficient daytrips, so come more for the city itself.
Florence ~ Small compared to Rome. Very compact core with lots of pedestrian traffic. Can walk to all major attractions in short order. Good base for daytrips into rural Tuscany. Known for great art musuems, but also famous for shopping. Centrally located between Rome to the south and Venice to the north. Small airport can be useful for avoiding Rome and providing direct entry to rural Tuscany. Two nights our normal recommendation for the city itself, but three nights if a daytrip will be done to rural Tuscany.
Venice ~ Small compared to Rome. Absence of vehicular traffic makes it quieter. Pedestrian traffic can be practical gridlock in St. Mark’s area, but short walks out can find more natural side of city and more charm. Due to water and pedestrian-based transportation, can be a much more relaxing city than either Florence or Rome. Two nights at the minimum. A good base for daytrips, to the island of Murano and Burano or to the nearby city of Padova. Much more to do here than usually credited. Venice is visually stunning, like no other place you will ever see. Many people see it only for a few hours, on quick group tours to the crowded center, and decide they don’t like it. Don’t let them talk you out of seeing it yourself, with a proper visit.
Milan ~ The center feels like a city out of the early 1900’s and has more interest than typically credited. Suffers with comparison to Rome, Florence and Venice, not having as much old-world charm. Has all-Europe attraction in great cathedral. Da Vinci’s Last Supper is other big attraction. Very big city. Very high activity level, Abundant streetcars and vehicular traffic. Can walk to most central city attractions. Effective base for daytrips to Lake Como or Maggiore (but why not stay at lakes?). Bigtime gateway city, with biggest airport in Italy. Also gateway to Switzerland. One night may permit minimal visit, with Last Supper (tough reservations!/check dates) and Cathedral. Frequent trade shows can tie up hotels and run up room cost.
Other cities ~ Ask us about other cities. We may be able to recommend Verona, Genoa, Bologna, or Padova, depending on your interests.
Countryside ~ Quieter, lower activity levels. Generally not significant art or architecture. Come for quaintness, scenery, slower pace.
Tuscany ~ Occupies a big part of Italy. Includes notable cities (Florence, Pisa, Siena) and towns. Geographically complex, with many different looks, lots of seashore and high mountains. But when most think about Tuscany, or plan an Italy trip, they’re looking at east-central Tuscany, north and south of the city of Siena. That’s the characteristic Tuscany and also the most convenient part, since it can easily be visited by people traveling between Rome to Florence. Can be a very relaxing element in Italy trip. Important to decide whether to stay in city, small-town or rural location. Need wheels to see Tuscany, since trains don’t work well and the experience is mostly a matter of driving around and exploring countryside, towns and wineries. Our packages provide knowledgable driver-guides, so you need not drive yourself. One day as daytrip taken from Florence hotel is minimum. Two nights at a hotel in central Tuscany permits visiting key areas north and south of Siena. Prevalent feedback from returning clients is that they wished they had more time in Tuscany.
Amalfi Coast & Bay of Naples area ~ Stay at Positano or Sorrento. 3 nights usually minimum recommended. Visit Amalfi Coast by car with driver. Take boat to Capri. Car or train to Pompeii or Herculaneum. Self-drive not recommended due to traffic congestion. Our packages include private excursions with local drivers. Can be relaxing BUT much to see can interfere with relaxation. Easy to plan too little time in this area. Can fly into small airport at Naples. As little as 3 nights here can be good extension to Rome, Florence, Venice trip.
Lakes north of Milan ~ Lakes Como and Maggiore nestle between Milan and the Swiss border, surrounded by magnificent scenery of foothills of Alps. Fly into or out of Milan and add as few as two nights at either lake. Can use lakes as bridge between Switzerland and Italy. One of more relaxing options in Italy. Little to do but enjoy mountain and lake scenery and quaint towns. Very easy to tack lake stay to beginning or end of trip with Rome, Florence, Venice.
Eastern Riviera & Cinque Terre ~ NOT so easy to tack this to Rome, Florence, Venice trip, as it’s off the main route between those cities. Access from airports at Genova, Pisa, or Florence. Minimum of 2 nights recommended. Can be relaxing, but can also be a high-activity visit due to use of busy train line between towns and summer crowds in the small communities. Stunning coastal scenery, especially in quaint Cinque Terre area. Very small hotel capacity in Cinque Terre makes necessary to book many months in advance. Can be combined with Tuscany and lakes north of Milan for broader rural visit in Italy.
We suggest you give a lot of thought to your choice of destinations. Many first-time Italy travelers feel pressured to visit all the famous places. People will tell you that you “must see” this or that. But there are no “must-sees,” just what’s right for you, and you cannot see it all. For example, if you don’t care for museums, don’t spend your precious Italy time plowing through the crowds at the Vatican Museums or the Uffizi Gallery, just to say that you went there. And don’t sacrifice half a day of your Italy trip to get to Pisa for 10 minutes of “wow” looking at the Leaning Tower UNLESS it’s really important to you. There is so much to do in Italy that you must make some tough choices.
In today’s travel news… History of the Vatican Museums The Vatican Museums originated as a group of sculptures collected by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and placed in what today is the Cortile Ottagono within the museum complex. The popes were among … (read more)
The ItalySource “Top 8 or 10 or so” list. We love these trips, of course, but we’re not sure why they’re selected more than others. Maybe one of these will become a fave of yours?