I’m going to start with a sort of warning or a setting of expectation for those who will visit Italy in the future. There is an unpredictability to the type of Italian you’ll encounter: some are passionate, driven and very capable; some, however, are either lazy, mentally vacant or just don’t give a fuck. It reminds me of the Parisian type of attitude, where they’re just sick and tired of having tourists inundate their beautiful streets, and it comes off in their curt interactions with tourists. I don’t think this is the case, however. What I sense, it’s not so much about their attitude, but rather, it’s the processes they have in place to do things. Some of these processes are highly inefficient. A perfect example of this was when I tried to see The Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci in Milan.
I show up to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and they inform me that they’re booked for the day, but there are still tickets available for the next day early in the morning. They direct me to the building next door to get the ticket. So I go only to be told that they don’t sell tickets, but merely print them, once they’ve been purchased online or by phone. I go to the website instructed by the pamphlet found in the office, and the website won’t work in the ‘English’ mode. So, with help from google translate and my pseudo fluent Spanish, I marched on. Mind you, I had asked the ticket-printer personnel for help with at least translating the Italian to English, at which point, they directed me to buy the tickets by phone. Did I mention I was the only customer in the office? Long story short, the website didn’t work for me in Italian. So I called and no one answered. Yes, this was during the hours of operation. I finally found Italian speakers in a hostel that I wasn’t even staying in to help me. They were nice enough to help, but I had to cycle through three Italians to finally get to the fourth Italian that successfully helped me navigate the official website to the point where tickets could be purchased. Still, it didn’t work. The fourth helper was kind enough to look for the tickets elsewhere (some unofficial website) only to find out that apparently, they are all sold out for weeks! It is unfathomable to me that one of the most famous pieces of religious works of art in the world does not have a smooth process in place. It’s crazy! Needless to say, I left Milan without seeing The Last Supper. Perhaps this is one of those times to opt for the expensive tours that take care of everything. Sigh. This was the most ridiculous example, but there were more, albeit on a much smaller scale.
I should note that this perception of Italians is made not just from my own personal observations and experience, but also from conversations of outsiders living in Italy for years, as well as with native locals themselves. Yes, even Italians themselves agreed with my perception of them. To be clear, I’m not saying all Italians are the same. All I’m saying is that you never know what type of Italian you’ll be bumping into, and you’re bound to encounter the whatever-it’s-not-my-job mentality.
Keeping up with cautionary tales, Venice is as beautiful as you expect… if you visited 20 years ago. I hate to use the following word, but I feel it truly describes Venice. It is the only city in the world that, I feel, has been raped by tourism. It’s disgusting and it’s sad. Twenty or so years ago, I’m sure it was as magical as you would expect. Now, it is a shadow of its former self. Please don’t be fooled by the pictures I’m posting of it here. If you find yourself obliged to visit it, because “but it’s Venice!”, do yourself a favor and only stay a maximum of two nights. I highly recommend heading to Murano, a short, one hour public ferry away while visiting Venice. You will get to feel and see how beautiful Venice once was.
Saint Mark’s Square is the main tourist attraction, and you will be saddened by it. How can this poor little island support so many tourists loitering everywhere? If you use your imagination and block out the thousands of tourists in front of you, you may feel transported to a time when Venice was one of the most romantic cities on earth. It may also help holding your breath, too, so as to avoid the various odors coming from the canals and overflowing waste bins. You may enjoy the food, exemplary of Italian fair, however at much higher prices than in other Italian cities. A visit to Harry’s Bar, the place that gave birth to the Bellini cocktail, should be mandatory despite the exorbitant price they charge for what is practically a diminutive child-size glass. It may be the best Bellini I’ve ever had, but c’mon!
Venice is a place you should’ve visited decades ago. Be that as it may, the place is slowly sinking and will eventually disappear, so I suppose the silver-lining is that if you’ve ever wanted to visit it, there’s no time like the present. During peak season, you’ll have to navigate through thousands of tourists to do anything. During off-peak, or the rainy season, there will be less tourists, but the streets are often flooded. Hey, at least they do the whole canoe thing very well. 🙂
Milan is not the fashion mecca you think it is. Sure, they have a yearly fashion week, but that’s just a one week event. To me, it’s like calling Cannes (in France) the movie mecca of the world. Uh, yeah, no. Maybe I just don’t have an ounce of fashion sense in my body or I just went to the wrong places.
Food in Milan is good, it is Italy after all, but not enough to make it a reason to visit. Other than The Last Supper and going to the Duomo, the fourth biggest cathedral in the world, I can’t see anything unique happening in this city. I came here because it was the cheapest entry into Italy from Moscow. If you insist on coming, make sure you have reservations to see Leonardo’s work in Santa Maria delle Grazie, and make it a one night affair. Not more. You’ll need those extra days for finer cities in Italy.
My perception of Italy began with Milan and Venice and they were not commensurate to the praise Italy receives as a top tourist destination. So I almost skipped Pisa. I was cynical, and wondered why people all over the world would visit an architectural mistake. A city only known by its architecturally flawed tower. But you know, it is more than just a leaning tower. Pisa is where my perception of Italy began to shift. The tower is beautiful and very well kept. There are other leaning towers around the world, even within Italy itself. Some are even bigger. But none as beautiful as the one found here. Sure, I haven’t been to all of them in person, but it looks like it to me from pictures. 🙂
I’m not so cynical about it anymore. I now see it as a beautiful tower with an imperfection that actually adds to its charm. Nevertheless, I’m still not going to do that stupid pose people do on Instagram where they try to hold the tower. Sigh, tourists. I’m more of a citizen of the world at this point. 🙂
Pisa is a half-day city. It’s easily accessible from Florence for about €10 each way and totally worth it.
Ah, Florence! If you love wine, beautiful European streets, art or amazing food, then this is your place. I ended up staying longer than expected as I couldn’t get enough of this city. I swear, tomatoes in the Tuscany region are fucking incredible. They are what tomatoes are supposed to taste like. They shine on pizza, pasta, bruschetta and in whatever else you find them. Did I mention truffles are cheap? Well, relatively cheap. Love steak? Florence rocks it with their traditional and giant 1Kg+ Florentine steaks. These intimidating steaks are offered by various trattorias, and many will only serve them medium-rare or rare… If you’re a steak lover: welcome home. Sorry vegetarians and vegans, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of incredibly-yummy food for you too.
I am not an art aficionado, or one to visit museums, but Academia della Galleria is a must as it hosts none other than David, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. You don’t have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate its beauty. Hell, I don’t even know what plaster is and when I think of marble, I think of kitchen counter tops! None of that matters. It is an impressive masterpiece that anyone can appreciate.
It is even more remarkable when you see the tools Michelangelo used. I always thought Leonardo was Italy’s “Renaissance Man”, and I still do, but his contemporary surely gave him a challenge for that throne; at least in terms of artistic prowess. Let’s talk about David’s small dong. Have you ever wondered why in Italian sculptures, unrivaled in their beauty throughout the world, men are always depicted with small penises? They followed greek tradition and mythology, whereby it was believed that men with big penises were driven by desire and lust and not by their intellect or honor. Basically, a man with a small penis was thought to be more intelligent and trustworthy as he would not be driven by his groin. Anyway, enough about that.
Ponte Vecchio is like nothing I’ve seen before – a bridge that is also a market. It is unfortunate that most of the stores on the bridge are now what you’d expect from a high-end shopping mall, housing expensive watches and assorted fashion brands. Still, the exterior of the bridge doesn’t look to have changed much since its creation, and it surely deserves to be on your itinerary, especially since you’d cross it anyway to visit great pizzerias, gelaterias and the Piazzela de Michelangelo on the other side of the bridge.
Michelangelo’s Piazzela has a replica of David, but that’s not the reason to come here. It is for the views of Florence from above. I walked uphill from Ponte Vecchio to the Piazzela, and not only is it worth it, but the journey is just as beautiful through Florence’s small streets. For an easier approach, take Bus 12 up to the Piazzela and just walk down back to town.
Duomo di Santa Maria del Foire I found to be more impressive than Milan’s Duomo (Cathedral). I’m not sure why since Milan’s is bigger. Cityscape wise, Florence is a very flat city, and its Duomo towers over everything else. It is central, and you will pass it many times heading to different restaurants or wine bars. You will admire it every time.
I did not have one bad glass of wine, regardless of price, and I did explore quite a lot; from whatever a restaurant offered as its house wine for €2-€5 per glass, to the way better €10-€20 glasses. Sorry mom…and liver.
My only regret in Florence was not staying longer and visiting more nearby towns within the Tuscany region. Florence was enough for me to fall in love with the region, and feel there’s so much more to Italy. I can’t wait to go back.
I thought I knew what to expect of Rome, but I had no idea. There is a reason why Rome tops many lists of the world’s best cities to visit. It is deserved. It is comparable in the quality of great food to Florence, but it doesn’t top it. Art however, is another matter; add to that colossal structures that adorn the city, and Rome gives you a glimpse into the empire it once was. They are truly impressive marvels to behold.
One of my favorite things in a city, the ones that captivate me, is when I can put my phone in my pocket and just walk around and find beautiful and unique things everywhere I go. You don’t need to look up the tourist spots. You will find them naturally, because there’s just so much to see. You will often want to walk instead of using public transportation, as it will allow the occasional wrong turn only to find a surprise around a corner. Did you know Rome has a pyramid right next to one of it’s southern gates?! I didn’t.
Then there’s the sometimes ‘hated-on’ Trevi Fountain which I happen to consider worth checking out. Yes, it’s just a fountain. It may not be the biggest fountain in the world (I’m looking at you, Vegas and Dubai), but it is the most artistic I’ve ever seen.
And then there’s the wonderful little neighborhood of Trastevere – narrow brick-road streets filled with restaurants and bars to spend plenty of nights. It’s a bit touristy, but worth visiting multiple times during the day and night.
Piazza Venetia was by far my favorite place in Rome… and if you angle yourself just right, you can see the Coliseum in the background.
Rome has it all: delicious food, delicate wine, thriving nightlife and enough tourist destinations during the day to fill a week’s worth of activities.
The Vatican is technically a country, but it feels more like a neighborhood in Rome. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the insane works of art showcased within the Vatican walls.
The Sistine Chapel can only be accessed with the museum entry fee of €17. It is worth every penny. The entire museum is very impressive, and nothing compares to Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the Chapel’s ceiling depicting various biblical stories. Its front wall has the massive fresco: The Last Judgement. Pictures are not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel, unfortunately. But I bought a couple of stencils and replicated them for you to see. 😉
St Peter’s Basilica, the pope’s residence, is the largest Basilica in the world. I’m a self described agnostic, but probably atheist, and I was nevertheless blown away by this place. Much like many places in Rome, pictures do not do it justice.
When you visit the Basilica, make sure to look for the small staircase around the middle of the church that descends to where the tombs of past popes are kept. Pictures aren’t allowed here either, so I’ve purchased an app that renders with state of the art precision what I saw. 😉
After visiting 6 different cities in Italy, I can confidently say that Italy deserves to be one of the top destinations in the world. It has world renowned art, incredible food, beautiful architecture and damn it, the wine! I’m not one to repeat locations, but to Italy, I’d go back in a heartbeat.