Frommer's EasyGuide to Rome, Florence and Venice (2015)
THE BEST OF ITALY
Italy is a country that needs little fanfare to introduce it. The mere word conjures up vivid images: the noble ruins of ancient Rome, the paintings and palaces of Florence, the secret canals and mazelike layout of Venice. For centuries, visitors have headed to Italy looking for their own slice of the good life, and these three cities supply the highpoint of any trip around the country.
Nowhere in the world is the impact of the Renaissance felt more fully than in its birthplace, Florence, the repository of artistic works left by Masaccio, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and many others. Much of the “known world” was once ruled from Rome, a city supposedly founded by twins Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C. Its fortunes have fallen, of course, but it remains a timeless city. There’s no place with more artistic monuments—not even Venice, a seemingly impossible floating city that was shaped by its merchants and centuries of trade with the Byzantine world farther east.
And there’s more. Long before Italy was a country, it was a loose collection of city-states. Centuries of alliance and rivalry left a legacy dotted across the hinterlands of these three great cities, and much of it lies within easy reach on day trips. It is a short hop from the former maritime republic to the “Venetian Arc”: Verona, with its romance and its intact Roman Arena; and Padua and its sublime Giotto frescoes. In Siena, the ethereal art and Gothic palaces survive, barely altered since the city’s heyday in the 1300s. The eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. preserved Pompeii under volcanic ash for 2 millennia. It remains the best place to get close-up with the world of the ancients.
ITALY’S BEST AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES
Dining Italian-style: The most cherished pastime of most Italians is eating—and each region and city has its own recipes handed down through generations. If the weather is fine and you’re dining outdoors, perhaps with a view of a medieval church or piazza, you’ll find the closest thing to food heaven. Buon appetito!
Catching an opera at Verona’s Arena: Summertime opera festivals in Verona are produced on a scale more human than those in such cities as Milan—and best of all, they are held under the stars. The setting is the ancient Arena di Verona, a site that’s grand enough to accommodate as many elephants as required for a performance of “Aïda.” See p. 229.
Cicchetti and a spritz in Venice: Cicchetti—tapaslike small servings, usually eaten while standing at a bar—are a Venetian tradition. Accompany the cicchetti with a spritz made with Aperol and sparkling prosecco wine from the Veneto hills, to make the experience complete. See p. 194.
Exploring Rome’s Mercato di Testaccio: In 2012 old Testaccio Market made way for a glass-paneled, modernist beauty across the street from a slaughterhouse-turned-museum. Mingle with busy signoras with trolleys chock-full of celery, carrots, and onions for the day’s ragù, grab a slice of focaccia or some Roman street food, and pick up a genuine flavor of the Eternal City. See p. 102.
ITALY’S BEST RESTAURANTS
Pizzarium, Rome: Chef-entrepreneur Gabriele Bonci elevates the simple slice of pizza to extraordinary levels. There’s nothing fussy about the place, or the prices, but every single ingredient that goes onto or into a Pizzarium creation is carefully sourced and expertly prepared. It shows from the first bite. See p. 51.
Ora d’Aria, Florence: For all its historic location in an alleyway behind Piazza della Signoria, Florence’s best dinner spot is unshakably modern. Head chef Marco Stabile gives traditional Tuscan ingredients a fresh (and lighter) makeover. See p. 130.
Alle Testiere, Venice: Venice’s culinary rep is founded on the quality of the fish sold at its famous market. Both primi and secondi at Alle Testiere feature the freshest catch from the lagoon and further afield. See p. 196.
Il Gelato Bistrò, Rome: Savory ice cream may sound nuts—and occasionally it contains nuts—but gelato maestro Claudio Torcè pulls it off. For evening aperigelato or a light lunch, pair natural flavors such as sesamo nero (black sesame) with Parma ham served in a savory pancake. It really works. See p. 51.
ITALY’S BEST HOTELS
La Dimora degli Angeli, Florence: You walk a fine line when you try to bring a historic palazzo into the 21st century, and this place walks it expertly. Rooms are split over two floors, with contrasting characters—one romantic and modern-baroque in style; the second characterized by sharp, contemporary lines and Scandinavian-influenced design. See p. 119.
Villa Spalletti Trivelli, Rome: All-inclusive can be exclusive, especially when the experience of staying in an Italian noble mansion is part of the package. Opulence and impeccable service comes at a price, of course. When our lottery numbers come up, we will be booking a stay here. See p. 45.
Continentale, Florence: Echoes of la dolce vita fill every sculpted corner of this modern hotel, and rooms are flooded in natural light. If you want to relax away from your 1950s-styled bedroom, there are day beds arranged by a huge picture window facing the Ponte Vecchio, and on the roof, La Terrazza is Florence’s best gathering spot for evening cocktails. See p. 122.
ITALY’S BEST FOR FAMILIES
Climbing Pisa’s wonky tower: Are we walking up or down? Pleasantly disoriented kids are bound to ask as you spiral your way to the rooftop viewing balcony atop one of the world’s most famous pieces of botched engineering. Pisa is an easy day trip from Florence, and 8 is the minimum age for heading up its Torre Pendente, or Leaning Tower. See p. 169.
Boat tripping on the Venice lagoon: Who doesn’t like a day boating on a lake, any lake? Throw in the floating city and its bell tower of San Marco as permanent fixtures on the horizon, and you have one unforgettable family moment. See p. 178.
Attending a Fiorentina soccer match: Forget lions battling gladiators in Rome’s Colosseum, or Guelphs fighting Ghibellines in Florence’s medieval lanes. For a modern showdown, hit a Florence soccer game. Home side Fiorentina plays Serie A matches at the city’s Stadio Comunale alternate weekends from September to June. Wear something lilac—the team’s nickname is i viola (“the purples”). See p. 161.
Taking a trip to an artisan gelateria: Fluffy heaps of gelato, however pretty, are built with additives, stabilizers, and air pumped into the blend. Blue “Smurf” or bubble-gum-pink flavors denote chemical color enhancement, and ice crystals or grainy texture are telltale signs of engineered gelato—so steer clear. Authentic artisan gelaterie produce good stuff from scratch daily, with fresh ingredients and less bravado. See “Gelato,” p. 62, 135, and 202.
Visiting Rome’s Centrale Montemartini: Where industrial archaeology became a museum—the restored rooms of Rome’s first public electricity plant are now home to Greek and Roman statues from the city collection. The museum always has drawing and painting materials onsite, and guided tours for children are available on request. Plus on Sundays, there’s free admission for kids under 12. See p. 94.
ITALY’S BEST MUSEUMS
Vatican Museums, Rome: The 100 galleries that constitute the Musei Vaticani are loaded with papal treasures accumulated over the centuries. Musts include the Sistine Chapel, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures as “Laocoön” and “Belvedere Apollo,” and the frescoed “Stanze” executed by Raphael, among which is his “School of Athens.” See p. 67.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence: This U-shaped High Renaissance building designed by Giorgio Vasari was the administrative headquarters, or uffizi (offices), for the Medici dukes of Tuscany. It’s now the crown jewel of Europe’s art museums, housing the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance paintings, including icons by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. See p. 142.
Accademia, Venice: The “Academy” houses an incomparable collection of Venetian painting, exhibited chronologically from the 13th to the 18th century. It’s one of the most richly stocked museums in Italy, displaying works by Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto. See p. 210.
Galleria Borghese, Rome: Housed amid the frescoes and decor of a 1613 palace in the heart of the Borghese Gardens, this gem of a building is merely the backdrop for its collections, which include masterpieces of baroque sculpture by a young Bernini and Canova, and paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael. See p. 89.
Santa Maria della Scala, Siena: The building is as much the star as the artworks. This was a hospital from medieval times until the 1990s, when the building was closed and its frescoed wards, ancient chapels and sacristy, and labyrinthine basement floors were gradually opened up for public viewing. See p. 167.
ITALY’S BEST FREE THINGS TO DO
Getting rained on in Rome’s Pantheon: People often wonder whether the 9m (30-ft.) oculus in the Pantheon’s dome has a glass covering. Visit the ancient temple in the middle of a downpour for your answer: The oculus is open to the elements, transforming the Pantheon into a giant shower on wet days. In light rain, the building fills with mist, and during a full-fledged thunderstorm, the drops come down in a perfect 9m-wide shaft, splattering on the polychrome marble floor. See p. 43.
Basking in the lights of the Renaissance: At dusk, make the steep climb up to the ancient church of San Miniato al Monte, Florence. Sit down on the steps and watch the city begin its daily twinkle. See p. 157.
Getting Gothic on the streets of Siena: The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo stands at the heart of one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Steep, canyonlike streets, icons of Gothic architecture like the Palazzo Pubblico, and ethereal Madonnas painted on shimmering gold altarpieces transport you back to a time before the Renaissance. See p. 167.
Gazing in wonder at Caravaggio’s greatest paintings: Rome’s French church, San Luigi dei Francesi is home to three panels by bad boy of the baroque, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. His “Calling of St. Matthew” was painted at the height of his fame (and powers), and incorporates the uncompromising realism and chiaroscuro (extremes of light and dark) style that was Caravaggio’s trademark. See p. 82.
Getting hopelessly lost in Venice: You haven’t experienced Venice until you’ve turned a corner convinced you’re on the way somewhere, only to find yourself smack against a canal with no bridge, or in a little courtyard with no way out. All you can do is shrug, smile, and give the city’s maze of narrow streets another try because getting lost in Venice is a pleasure. See p. 176.
Partying on the Left Bank, Florence-style: Most Florentines have abandoned their centro storico to the visitors, but south of the Arno in the areas of Oltrarno, San Frediano, and San Niccolò, you’ll find local after-dark fun. Call in for aperitivo at Golden View Open Bar (p. 165), slurp a gelato at La Carraia (p. 135), and drink until late at Volume (p. 164). See “Where to Dine” and “Entertainment & Nightlife” in chapter 6.
The aperitivo spots and craft beer bars in Rome: Don’t confuse aperitivo with happy hour: Predinner cocktails tickle appetites, induce conversation and flirting, and allow free access to all-you-can-eat buffets on the strength of one drink. And Romans are increasingly turning to artisan-brewed beers for that one drink. See “Entertainment & Nightlife” in chapter 4.
Drinking your coffee al banco: Italians—especially city dwellers—don’t often linger at a piazza table sipping their morning cappuccino. For them, a caffè is a pit stop: They order at the counter (al banco), throw back the bitter elixir, and continue on their way, reinforced by the hit of caffeine. You will save a chunk of change, too—your coffee should cost at least 50% less than the sit-down price.
Florence’s vegetarian dining scene: The days when you had to be a carnivore to fully enjoy a meal in the Renaissance city are long gone. Modern menus at iO (p. 134) and Vagalume (p. 134) are populated with veggie dishes to fit any appetite. And vegans, as well as celiacs, are looked after by the organic dishes at Brac (p. 133).