Frommer's Italy (2015)

Plying the canals in Venice.

Just hear the word “Italy” and you can already see it. The noble stones of ancient Rome and the Greek temples of Sicily. The wine hills of Piedmont and Tuscany, the ruins of Pompeii, and the secret canals and crumbling palaces of Venice. For centuries, visitors have come here looking for their own slice of the good life, and for the most part, they have found it.

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, 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. There’s no place with more artistic treasures—not even Venice, a seemingly impossible floating city that was shaped by its merchants and their centuries of trade with the Byzantine and Islamic worlds to the 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 of art and architecture in Verona, with its romance and an intact Roman Arena, and in Mantua, which blossomed during the Renaissance under the Gonzaga dynasty. Padua and its sublime Giotto frescoes are within easy reach of Venice, too. In Siena, the ethereal art and Gothic palaces survive, barely altered since the city’s heyday in the 1300s.

Earlier still, the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 preserved Pompeii and Herculaneum under volcanic ash for 2 millennia. It remains the best place to get close-up with the world of the Roman Empire. The buildings of ancient Greece still stand at Paestum, in Campania, and at sites on Sicily, the Mediterranean’s largest island.

The corrugated, vine-clad hills of the Chianti and the cypress-studded, emerald-green expanses of the Val d’Orcia serve up iconic images of Tuscany. Adventurous walkers of all ages can hike between the coastal villages of the Cinque Terre, where you can travel untroubled by the 21st century. Whether it’s seafood along the Sicilian coast, pizza in Naples, pasta in Bologna, or the red Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Piedmont, your tastebuds are in for an adventure of their own. Milan and Florence are centers of world fashion. Welcome to La Bella Italia!

ITALY’S BEST AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCES

Dining Italian style: The most cherished pastime of most Italians is eating. But there’s no genuine “national” cuisine here—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!

Exploring Rome’s Mercato di Testaccio: In 2012 the old Testaccio Market made way for this glass-paneled, modernist beauty, across the street from Rome’s MACRO museum. Mingle with busy signoras whose trolleys are 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 an authentic flavor of the Eternal City. See p. 137.

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. Your options are numerous, but some of the best spots to indulge are on the San Polo side of the Rialto bridge. See p. 324.

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 might be needed for a performance of “Aïda.” See p. 358.

Surrendering to the madness of a Palermo market: In Sicily’s capital, which has been a crossroads between the East and West for thousands of years, the chaotic, colorful street theater is a priceless vignette of a culture that sometimes feels more Middle Eastern than European. The Vucciria isn’t what it once was, however: Focus on the Capo and Ballarò markets. See p. 524.

Slowing down to Italy pace: Nothing happens quickly here—linger over a glass of wine from the Tuscan hills, slurp a gelato made with seasonal fruit, enjoy the evening passeggiata (ritual walk) just like the locals. And they call it Slow Food for a reason.

ITALY’S BEST RESTAURANTS

Ora d’Aria (Florence): Despite 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. Even if you can’t stretch to a table, take a walk down the medieval lane to watch kitchen staff at work through a picture window. See p. 164.

Trattoria dal Biassanot (Bologna): Just about every restaurant in Bologna lays claim to the city’s best tagliatelle alla bolognese, but many connoisseurs agree that this is the best spot in town. Under the wood beams of this gracious bistro, enjoy light-as-a feather pastas—and even the bread is homemade. See p. 274.

Alle Testiere (Venice): Venice’s culinary rep is founded on the quality of the catch sold at its famous fish market. Both primi and secondi at Alle Testiere feature the freshest fish from the lagoon and further afield. See p. 325.

ITALY’S BEST HOTELS

Santa Caterina (Amalfi): What might be our favorite splurge on the peninsula is not outrageously posh, just magically transporting, set in citrus groves above the sea. Ceramic tiles, a smattering of antiques, and sea-view terraces grace the rooms, and a garden path and elevator descend to a private beach. Shoulder season rates and special offers help bring the expense out of the stratosphere. See p. 487.

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 clean, contemporary lines and Scandinavian-influenced design. All are affordable. See p. 155.

BioCity (Milan): For travelers on a tight budget, the BioCity is everything a hotel should be, and a little more. Built into a revamped 1920s villa, it’s cozy, stylish, environmentally aware, equipped with all the gadgetry and connectivity you need, and currently the best value in what can be an expensive city. See p. 367.

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. 72.

ITALY’S BEST FOR FAMILIES

Centrale Montemartini (Rome): 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 Musei Capitolini collection. The museum always has drawing and painting materials onsite, and guided tours for children are available upon request. Plus on Sundays, there’s free admission for kids under 12. See p. 128.

Climbing Pisa’s wonky tower (Tuscany): 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. 238.

Acquario di Genova (Liguria): After museums, churches, palaces, and more museums, Genoa’s aquarium is a welcome change of direction—for everyone in the family. It may not be as large as some American super-aquariums, but it is beautifully designed (by architect Renzo Piano) and houses sharks, seals, and plenty of weird and wonderful sea life, as well as a hummingbird sanctuary and great educational exhibits. See p. 436.

Exploring underground Naples: There is more to Naples than you can see at eye level. Head below its maze of streets to see the remains of ancient Greek and Roman cities that once stood here. As well as the Ágora and Forum, families can tour catacombs used for centuries to bury the Christian dead and tunnels that sheltered refugees from the cholera epidemic of 1884 and the bombs of World War II. See p. 476.

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 are a pretty clear indication of 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 “Where to Eat” and “Gelato” sections in the individual chapters for our favorites.

Gelato.

ITALY’S MOST OVERRATED

Campo de’ Fiori (Rome): Yes, the piazza is stunning: This is the only square in Rome without a church, and its Renaissance light bounces off ocher and burnt Sienna facades. But between 8am and 3pm, the piazza is a busy market where goods are selected and priced for tourists, not locals. Wait for the departure of the last boisterous pigeons and the vendors selling aprons embossed with the midriff of “David,” and grab a slice of real Rome at sunset, when Campo de’ Fiori reclaims its local, intimate, old Rome face. See p. 118.

Ponte Vecchio (Florence): Sorry, lovers, but this isn’t even the prettiest bridge in Florence, let alone one of the world’s great spots for romantics. It’s haphazard by design, packed at all hours, and hemmed in by shops that cater mostly to mass tourism. For a special moment with a loved one—perhaps even to “pop the question”—head downstream one bridge to the Ponte Santa Trínita. Built in the 1560s by Bartolomeo Ammanati, its triple-ellipse design is pure elegance in stone. At dusk, it is also one of Florence’s best spots to take a photo of the Ponte Vecchio . . . if you must. See p. 181.

Capri (Campania): We hate to say anything bad about such an enchanting beauty, but Capri falls victim to its justifiable popularity. Arrive in midsummer on a day excursion, corral through the gardens of Augustus, ride a boat through the Blue Grotto, shell out 5€ for a bottle of water . . . You will wish you could spend the night here, to enjoy the scenery and sparkling-white towns after the day-trippers leave, or to walk the scented flower paths in early spring. Any of which, of course, you can and should do. See p. 491.

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, such ancient Greek and Roman sculptures as “Laocoön” and “Belvedere Apollo,” the frescoed “Stanze” executed by Raphael (among which is his “School of Athens”), and endless collections of pagan Greco-Roman antiquities and Renaissance art by European masters. See p. 98.

Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence): This U-shaped High Renaissance building designed by Giorgio Vasari was the administrative headquarters, or uffizi (offices), for the dukes of Tuscany when the Medici called the shots round here. 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. 174.

Accademia (Venice): One of Europe’s great museums, the Accademia houses an unequaled array of Venetian painting, exhibited chronologically from the 13th to the 18th century. Walls are hung with works by Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto. See p. 338.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples): Come to see the mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum—the original of the much reproduced “Attenti al Cane” (“Beware of the Dog”) mosaic is here, as are the Villa of the Papyri frescoes. Much else waits you, including the “Farnese Bull”—which once decorated Rome’s Terme di Caracalla—and some of the finest statuary to survive from ancient Europe. See p. 470.

Santa Maria della Scala (Siena): The building is as much the star as the collections. This was a hospital from medieval times until the 1990s, when it was closed, and its frescoed wards, ancient chapels and sacristy, and labyrinthine basement floors were gradually opened up for public viewing. See p. 217.

“Laocoön” at the Vatican Museums.

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 middle of 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, but during a full-fledged thunderstorm, the drops come down in a perfect 9m-wide shaft, splattering on the polychrome marble floor. See p. 116.

Watching the sun rise over the Roman Forum: A short stroll from the Capitoline Hill down Via del Campidoglio at Via di Monte Tarpeo brings you to a perfect outlook: The terrace behind the Michelangelo-designed square provides a momentary photo op when the sun rises behind the Temple of Saturn, illuminating the archeological complex below in pink-orange light. Early risers can reward themselves with breakfast in the bakeries of the nearby Jewish Ghetto. See chapter 4.

Getting hopelessly lost in Venice: You haven’t experienced Venice until you have 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 chapter 8.

Driving the Amalfi Coast: The SS163, “the road of 1,000 bends,” hugs vertical cliffsides and deep gorges, cutting through olive groves, lemon terraces, and whitewashed villages—against a background of the bluest ocean you can picture. One of the world’s classic drives provokes fear, nausea, and wonder in equal doses; the secret is to make sure someone else is at the wheel. See p. 485.

ITALY’S BEST ARCHITECTURAL LANDMARKS

Brunelleschi’s dome (Florence): It took the genius of Filippo Brunelleschi to work out how to raise a vast dome over the huge hole in Florence’s cathedral roof. Though rejected for the commission to cast the bronze doors of the Baptistery, Filippo didn’t sulk. He went away and became the city’s greatest architect, and the creator of one of Italy’s most recognizable landmarks. See p. 175.

The Gothic center of Siena (Tuscany): 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 gilded altarpieces transport you back to a time before the Renaissance. See p. 212.

Pompeii (Campania): When Mt. Vesuvius blew its top in A.D. 79, it buried Pompeii under molten lava and ash, truncating the lives of perhaps 35,000 citizens and suspending the city in a time capsule. Today, still under the shadow of the menacing volcano, this poignant ghost town can be coaxed into life with very little imagination. See p. 480.

A view from above Florence.

Villa Romana del Casale (Sicily): The Greeks famously left their mark in Sicily, but the Romans make a good showing in this late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. hunting lodge. Mosaics—some 3,535 sq. m (38,050 sq. ft.) in total—cover the floors, with scenes of sports, gods, goddesses, and even some ancient erotica. See p. 520.

Valley of the Temples, Agrigento (Sicily): The Greeks built these seven temples overlooking the sea to impress, and the honey-colored columns and pediments still do. Seeing these romantic ruins—some, like the Temple of Concordia, beautifully preserved, others, like the Temple of Juno, timeworn but still proud—is an experience of a lifetime. See p. 538.

UNDISCOVERED ITALY

The aperitivo spots and craft beer bars of 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 also save a chunk of change drinking Italian style—your coffee should cost at least 50 percent less than the sit-down price, even in a handsome location like Turin’s baroque Piazza San Carlo. See p. 411.

Genoa: Don’t be fooled by a rough, industrial exterior: Genoa has one of the most beautiful centers in Italy. The architecture of Italy’s largest centro storico rivals Venice. A restored old port, the Palazzo Reale, and the Palazzi of Strada Nuova are just a few of the highlights in a trading city that got wealthy from the sea. See chapter 10.

The art at Padua’s Cappella degli Scrovegni: Step aside, Sistine Chapel. Art lovers armed with binoculars behold this scene in awe—the renovated cycle of frescoes by Giotto that revolutionized 14th-century painting. It is considered the most important work of art leading up to the Renaissance, and visiting is an unforgettable, intimate experience. See p. 355.

ITALY’S BEST ACTIVE ADVENTURES

Seeing Ferrara from the saddle: Join the bike-mad Ferraresi as they zip along narrow, cycle-friendly lanes that snake through the city’s old center, past the Castello Estense and the Renaissance elegance of the Palazzo Schifanoia. You can also take bikes on a circuit on top of the city’s medieval walls. See p. 284.

Kayaking around Venice: At around 120€ per day, seeing Venice from a kayak is not cheap. But if you want to get a unique angle on the palaces and quiet canalside corners of Italy’s fairytale floating city, there is nothing quite like it. See p. 348.

Riding on the Monte Bianco cable cars, Courmayeur, Valle d’Aosta: In Italy’s far northwestern corner, you can ride high on Europe’s tallest mountain, departing from the hiking, biking, and skiing resort of Courmayeur. Standing 4,810m (15,780 ft.), Monte Bianco (“Mont Blanc” to the French) guards the border between France and Italy and is flanked by frightening glaciers and jagged granite peaks. See p. 423.

Pompeii’s Villa of Mysteries.

Walking the Cinque Terre (Liguria): The 3-mile path from Corniglia to Vernazza, and the 2-mile section from Vernazza to Monterosso, are the most rewarding in terms of sheer beauty. Find yourself rollercoastering along narrow paths surrounded by terraced vineyards and olive and lemon groves that seem to hover over the sapphire Mediterranean Sea. This coastal path is best tackled in the early morning, before the crowds—get lucky out of season and you might even have it to yourself. See p. 452.

ITALY’S BEST NEIGHBORHOODS

Testaccio, Rome: The relaxed vibe of this working-class, all-Roman neighborhood is a perfect wind-down from the sightseeing hype and the crowds. Interest for travelers is expanding, thanks to the neighborhood’s laid-back vibe, museums, industrial design and architecture, lively nightlife, and especially its culinary highlights, including the relocated Mercato di Testaccio. See chapter 4.

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 plenty of action after dark. Dine at iO (p. 167), slurp a gelato by the Arno at La Carraia (p. 168), and drink until late at Volume (p. 200).

The village of Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre.

Authentic Neapolitan pizza.

Spaccanapoli, Naples: It’s often said Naples is Italy on overdrive, and the city goes up a gear in the narrow, crowded, laundry-strung lanes of its centro storico. Gird your loins, watch your wallet, and forget about a map—just plunge into the grid and enjoy the boisterous scene as you browse shops selling everything from limoncello and nativity scenes to fried snacks and the world’s best pizza. It’s a European souk. See chapter 11.

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice: The old Jewish Ghetto, in Cannaregio, is a historic neighborhood of Jewish bakeries, restaurants, and old synagogues, The outer reaches of Cannaregio are even quieter and more residential—a great escape from the chaos of San Marco. See chapter 8.