Imagine having three whole months to spend in Italy - where would you begin? During Spring quarter of my freshman year in college, I was fortunate enough to actually get to ask that question. For three months, I studied abroad; learning Italian, going on spontaneous adventures, and eating gelato at every stop. It was a trip of a lifetime, and the first time I traveled outside the U.S.
Fast-forward two years later and I'm still thinking about the time I spent over there. If you're planning a trip to Italy in the near future, or need some travel inspiration, I hope this list of highlights does the trick!
1. Living in downtown Rome
I think actually living in Rome made me really appreciate the city. A lot of travelers only spend a few days in Italy's capitol, hoping to tick off a few boxes on their bucket lists. There's honestly so much to do and see in the city though, and I encourage people to spend at least a week or more exploring it if they can.
Campo de fiori
For the first month and a half of my trip, I had the opportunity to stay in a beautiful little apartment overlooking Campo de Fiori. "The Campo," as we called it, is a square right in the center of Rome. What's special about it is the way it transforms throughout the day. In the morning and afternoon, it's a busy marketplace with fresh vegetables, fruit, and an assortment of cheeses and flowers. At night, you'll find performers, a stray musician or two, and a thriving bar scene.
If you find yourself struggling to make a decision on which area of Rome to stay in, I highly recommend anywhere near Campo de Fiori. Not only did it feel like a very safe neighborhood, you can honestly walk EVERYWHERE from here. It has a good central location from which you can reach sights like the Colosseum, Pantheon, and the Vatican in just 10-25 minutes of walking.
giardini di aranci
One of my favorite places in Rome though was the Giardini di Aranci, or Garden of Oranges; one of many free things to do in the city. It offers a wide open sunset view, as the garden is perched up high on a hill overlooking the Tiber River.
2. Hiking the Cinque Terre
The Cinque Terre is a collection of five, small fishing villages on the coast of Western Italy. It's a world renowned spot for hiking, as each of the villages is within trekking distance of its neighbors.
When I visited, my friends and I took a train from Rome to La Spezia (the closest major town outside of Cinque Terre). We purchased our tickets last minute through Trenitalia at the main train station in Rome. One-way to La Spezia was 54 Euros, however that was two years ago so it has likely changed. From Rome to La Spezia, it's about a 3 hour ride, after which you'll need buy another train ticket if you're looking for the quickest route into Cinque Terre. However, to the city of Manarola it's a quick 15 minute ride from La Spezia.
One thing to note about the actual trails is not all five are always open. Our first day, the only hike we ended up completing was the one from Manarola to Corniglia. Corniglia to Vernazza was closed due to trail maintenance. If this happens while you're visiting as well though I wouldn't worry. There's still get plenty of trails to hike even with one or two closed.
What's convenient about the Cinque Terre is all of the villages are connected by rails. Trains come regularly, and head in both directions. If you find yourself wanting to hike one trail, skip a town and then hike the next trail, it's very easy to do so.
During my visit, my friends and I spent the night in Levanto, the Northern-most city of the Cinque Terre. Since we had started the first day in Manarola and hiked our way up the coast, this allowed us to hike backwards the second day. Early in the morning, we set off from Levanto to Monterosso al Mare. In Monterosso, make sure to look for the 'giant,' a large figure carved into a rock by the beach.
Of all the villages though, Vernazza was my favorite. It was one of the more lively stops, and has beautiful little beaches.
3. Day-trip to Florence
While only a day-trip, my visit to Florence was the perfect mini adventure. From the Roma Termini (Rome's train station), you can travel between the two cities in under 2 hours. My friends and I left bright and early one morning, giving us plenty of time to check out what Florence had to offer.
In a day, we squeezed in a tour of the Duomo, Giotto's Campanile, Battistero di San Giovanni (to see the Gate's of Paradise), Ponte Vecchio, lunch at a nearby park, and a relaxing evening at Piazzale Michelangelo. Of those, I'd highly recommend the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, and Piazzale Michelangelo.
The Duomo will steal your breathe away. While the climb to the top was fairly slow going, you'll feel like you're in a different time. The corridors are dim and narrow, and small openings in the brick act as windows. Very castle-like!
As for the Ponte Vecchio, this is more of an area to shop, enjoy the scenery, and buy your 100th cup of gelato ;). The bridge itself is made up of a bunch of tiny stores selling souvenirs like jewelry and and paintings of famous Italian sights.
Piazzale Michelangelo is the perfect place to end your day. It's another steep climb up a hill, but in Italy, hillside views are worth it! You can watch the sun go down from here and listen to music from local performers.
While many people go to Florence to see the statue of David in the Galleria dell' Accademia, I was satisfied viewing the many replicas throughout the city. If you're short on time like I was, visiting a gallery may not be the best choice if you want time to get outside and explore.
4. A Long Weekend in Venice
Venice was full of surprises. During the day its a tourist hub, with crowds of people all moving in various directions. At night though, the streets almost completely empty out. Few people actually live on the island. Instead, many vendors commute each day from the mainland; setting up shop for the peak hours of visitors. In a way, I felt like this stole a little bit of the authenticity out of Venice.
The city is beautiful though - don't get me wrong! It's hard to put your camera away for even a second as you walk over the dozens of canals, stroll through Piazza San Marco, and watch the gondoliers steer their boats.
On the first day I was there, a group of friends and I all piled into a gondola ourselves and enjoyed a 'romantic' cruise down the Grand Canal. Haha unfortunately we weren't able to convince our driver to sing though...he seemed to be the one gondola operator without a voice.
Personally, what I found to be the best part of Venice was our visit to the island of Burano. Burano is small, nearby island with dozens of colorful houses lining it. Commonly confused with its neighbor, Murano, Burano is famous for its intricate lacework and leaning tower in the main square's center. If you can spare some time in your Venice schedule, a few hours is all you need here.
5. Living with an Italian family in Calabria
During the second half of my trip, I got a taste of what its like living in small-town Italy. My host family was located in a tiny town called Rogliano; a place where few people speak English, and everybody knows everybody.
It was a major change after living in Rome for 6 weeks, but I loved it. Italian's are wonderful hosts, and I could tell it was as great an honor for them to have guests as it was for me to live in their home. Over the second half of my trip, I spent more time focusing on the culture of Italy, and less on the sights. I toured a local winery, played soccer with a other teens, and learned how to make classic lasagna from one of Rogliano's nicest grandmother's.
While the city may not be on many people's 'must-see' lists, it offers a different type of experience you can't find in a place like Rome or Milan. The nearby city of Cosenza offers a break from the 'country,' if you find yourself missing shops and a wide-variety of restaurants.
6. Road-tripping through Sicily
Towards the end of my study abroad program, the entire group of us students took a road-trip down through Sicily. Most memorable, were my stops in Ragusa and Syracuse, as well as the fresh seafood I found along the coast. Both were very walk-able, but each had an entirely different feel about them.
Situated on a hill, Ragusa feels like two cities in one. The lower half is called 'Ragusa Ibla,' and is the more popular destination for tourists. Here you should visit Giardino Ibleo, a beautfiully manicured, public park with a view of the ravine. However, If you enjoy a good view, I also recommend heading uphill into the upper half of the city. Most people's mental image of Ragusa is from this area as it looks down on the lower part of the town.
Syracuse is a little less jaw-dropping upon arrival, yet just as beautiful once you get inside. For the night we were there, our group stayed at Antico Hotel Roma 1880; a much fancier place than I would normally stay at, but well worth it if you're looking for a place right in the heart of Syracuse. Each of our rooms had a big open window overlooking the square below, and the breakfast in the morning was to-die-for!
In Sicily, it seemed EVERY restaurant offered a 'fresh catch of the day.' Two of my favorite dishes were the black squid ink pasta, and whole octopus; both great options if you're looking to try something unique. Haha watch out for the after effects of the pasta though...it temporarily stains your teeth black.
7. Meeting incredible people along the way
This last one is something which inevitably happens no matter where I travel to. However, being with the same group of people for three months allowed me to develop stronger friendships than the ones I've made in more recent, shorter trips.
In Rome, I shared my apartment with five other girls. This gave us the opportunity to cook and make dinner together, stay up late watching movies, and have a buddy to go out with at night. While this is mainly due to the fact we were a part of a study abroad program, these 'natural-seeming' activities were incredibly bonding in a place which was otherwise foreign.
Where would you like to go in Italy?
Let me know in the comments below!