Italy has been a dramatic change for us from where we have been so far this year. Unlike the past six months of Asia and Australia, Italy is familiar. It is a bit like going to a relatives house for the holidays – we have hazy but warm memories of previous trips to Italy. But each visit is unique and this time we are with good friends from home with four kids in total.
Keys for Rome: Stay near the Metro, but bring change; awaken your crowd navigating skills, Rome is packed; and have a plan for reservations and ticket purchases in order to skip the entrance lines.
We flew to Rome from Santorini, Greece via Athens. Our Air BnB host arranged a ride into central Rome for 80Euros. It was a long ride in but I was thankful to be dropped right at the door. In all three big Italian cities we have felt that finding our place the first time was challenging but quickly we were comfortable getting around. For us, as a big group, paying for the ride or cab at the start has been worth it but from there transportation has been easy to figure out.
Rome was hot in mid- June and steeped in history, as always. We spent four nights in what, 2000 years ago, was the center of the Roman Empire which stretched from Scotland to Turkey. Our place had four great bedrooms but, in classic roman fashion, had only a small kitchen for us to gather. But four days is just enough to explore the historic highlights so we were always out and about.
Get early entry reservations. It is critical to get your reservations to enter the Vatican Museum – we blew it. We forgot to do this, and in retrospect, with four kids, it would have been worth paying the ‘skip-the-line entry’ ticket scalpers (twice the normal ticket and reservation fee) to enter without standing in line.
The Metro was easy but we needed change. The Metro “A” Line creates a giant arc (like an archery bow) across the top of most of the major sites – from the Vatican to the Coliseum – but waking from the Vatican to the Coliseum to see the majority of key sights (Plaza Navano, Pantheon, Trivi Fountain and Spanish Steps) will require walking what is basically the string of the bow made by the Metro system.
The Metro was easy to navigate and the walk to the Vatican Museum entry was straight forward. But standing in line along the wall of the Vatican while a million tour groups and people with reserved times enter in front of you, just makes standing there harder. We arrived at 9am and still had a two hour wait to get in. It is not that standing in line is that hard (we have done such a crazy thing for new Disney ride), but it makes you tired before you even get started tackling one of the great collections of art in the world. The audio guide for the kids was awful and it appears that the point of it is to steer the kids to parts of the Museum that are not that popular. The maps are horrible and audio cues not well marked. The audio guide for the adults was good and it really brought the Rafael rooms, just before the Sistine Chapel, to life.
Bring you patience to suffer the crowds. After staring up at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel we thought we would see his famously beautiful Pieta sculpture (after all he was primarily a sculptor and secondly a painter). New to us was the huge security screening lines to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. It was hot and the line, daunting. We decided to skip the Basilica until a different day and use the afternoon to wander back across Rome. Since the Metro makes an arc around the main sights, it made sense for us to trek to what we considered the next greatest sights in Rome – Plaza Navona, The Pantheon, The Trivi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. All of these were fun and enjoyable to visit. We enjoyed great chocolate gelato in Plaza Navona. We had drinks while waiting to enter the Pantheon and then marveled at the building that has been continuously used as a church for 2000 years. We threw coins in the Trivi Fountain and loved the mix of marble and water that celebrated Roman engineering and the flow of clean water in to Rome, but there really are many police officers enforcing not sitting on the side of the fountain, heaven forbid sticking a toe in the water. Finally the our crew climbed the Spanish Steps to share a few minutes with the thousands of other gathered tourists. Everywhere we went we were packed in with more tourists than we ever remember seeing.
Know where to buy your tickets and bring your passports for the kids. We were lucky enough to be staying a short walk to the Coliseum and Forum area. The adults let the kids sleep and walked up to the Palentine Hill ticket entrance. There was no one in line there but in order to get the free tickets for entrance for the children we needed to show passports to prove their ages. We bought adult combination tickets for the Forum, Palentine Hill and Coliseum and later showed the guards the kid passports and got their free tickets.
We read about the Palentine Hill ruins where the Emperors of Rome built their mansions and chariot race tracks. Then we wandered a few hundred feet more to overlook the Forum ruins, where the citizens of Rome gave speeches, celebrated victories and even stabbed Julius Caesar 23 times (before they turned the spot into a temple to him, starting the trend of turning past rulers into gods). At the Coliseum, we shared audio guides – one guide for two people, which were good at bringing the history of the double amphitheaters alive. The Coliseum did not get it’s name from the fact that it held 50,000 Romans to watch spectacles on holidays (and Rome had about 150 holidays per year) that ranged from gladiator battles to ship battles to huge woodland forest sets where people would hunt exotic animals brought from around the Empire (like bears or tigers). It was nicknamed the Coliseum because of the 100′ high golden statute of Nero (Colluseus) that was placed out front.
Eventually we did make it back to St. Peter’s Basilica and navigated the crush of people to be screened to get in. The Vatican could use about ten more screeners working. The line stretches wide and long with giant tour groups sprawling to then eventually funnel in a crush of positioning towards two entrance chutes. We had never climbed the Dome before and it was totally worth the fee. It provides amazing interior and exterior views but is also packed with people. Fortunately the stairwells are dedicated up and down (unlike the two-way traffic in Giotto’s Tower in Florence), but they do give even rational people a momentary claustrophobia pause.
Keys to Venice – Hold on to your wallet; stay on a canal and explore early.
We arrived in Venice at the train station and bought our 7.50Euro tickets per person for the Vapperato – the water bus that takes you around Venice. As we stood in line, packed with about 100 other tourists in the line for the next boat toward the Rialto Bridge a guy near the front yells, “someone just stole my wallet!” A girl maybe 25 years old had just wandered back to where we were standing a second before and she was quickly pointed out as the pick pocket. Instantly, there were two Venice policemen on the spot. They were dressed as tourists – one with a Fall River Brewing T-shirt on and baseball hat. If he hadn’t flashed the girl his badge I wouldn’t have believed it. They immediately emptied her bag and searched the area, eventually finding the man’s wallet in the trash can behind us. It put us all on high alert and made the ever-present warnings very real.
The kids and the Jenkins went on the classic gondola ride (day time 80Euros for 30 minutes holding up to 6 people – 100Euros after 7pm). But our wonderfully large apartment had two of the bedrooms overlooking the canal so not only could we watch the kids take their ride we all sat and watched dozens of gondolas float past and it made you feel more like part of this beautiful scenery than just a tourist.
We stayed just a five minute walk from St. Mark’s square. This is the place with all big attractions in Venice all in one spot (the square itself, the clock tower, Campanile, Doge Palace (with it’s Bridge of Sighs) and St. Mark’s Church). The alleyways are tiny, small enough that we would never walk them in Portland or another big city but here it is normal. By 10am they are packed with tour groups snaking around each other, all lead by a lady holding a flag up on a stick of some sort. But if you get up and out at 6:30 or 7am we felt like we had the city to ourselves (and the delivery men who cart everything in to the shops and hotels).
Keys to Florence – Stay in the heart of Florence; buy the Firenzie Card; and visit the Central Market; manage your time and see lots of places.
There is a lot to do in Florence. It is all within a fifteen or twenty minute walk from the train station and wonderfully close to one another. The center of Florence is wonderfully walkable with its cobbled streets and pedestrian zones (and drivers here appear to expect the streets to be full of pedestrians or cafe tables). It is a wealth of art history and sites – the Duomo with its epic dome, Giotto’s Tower next to it, the Accademia (housing Michelangelo’s David and other sculpture), the Uffizi (holding great works of the Italian Renaissance and a DaVinci exhibit in Room 79 towards the end), the Ponte Vecchio bridge and other museums and sights nestled in amount the biggies.
Costing 72Euros for each adult you get front of the line access to 72 cultural sites for 72 hours when you buy the Firenze Card. The kids get in free to these things and get to join you at the front of the line by virtue of your pass (but at the Accademia and the Uffizi you pay the 4E reservation fee for each kid when you enter). If you want to climb the Dome you need reservations, which was new to us also. The good news was that climbing Giotto’s Tower, right next to the Dome and just 50 steps shorter, gave us an amazing look at the red tile roofs of Florence; and with the Firenze Card we went to the front of that line also.
Budgeting your time at the big sites – We spent 60 minutes at the Accademia (30 minutes taking in the David and 30 minutes walking the other rooms; 75 minutes in the Duomo Museum (this wonderful facility behind the Duomo houses the original sculptures from the front of the Duomo and the Bapistry’s famous bronze doors, has excellent history and video on the making of the Dome and even Michelangelo’s final Pieta (that he disliked and actually broke apart and has been reassembled); the Duomo itself is 30 minutes basically just walking in and staring at the Final Judgement painting of the Dome; the Uffizi is a serpentine path of amazing art that is hard to walk and appreciate in less than a couple of hours; the Ponte Vecchio bridge takes 30 minutes to stare off the Bridge and stroll across (unless you are shopping for high end jewelry); Giotto’s Tower was 90 minutes for us to hike up the very tight stairs (trying to accommodate two way traffic of tourists with day bags), enjoy the view at the top and come back down.
The real treat of the Firenze Card is that you get fast and covered entry to a host of other great museums and sights, but even if you just use it for the biggies you pay a bit less than double the entry costs but it is worth it to skip the lines. We loved visiting the Medicci – Riccardi Palace near our apartment. It had an amazing exhibit about the 1966 flood and the damage to priceless works, including the library resources that were in the basement of the Uffizi right on the Arno River). It also had beautiful rooms furnished in period pieces and after suffering the massive crowds everywhere else, it was wonderful to just have it be us and two other people.
I personally found Florence, with its mix of hip restaurants near us (cafes, great gelato, craft beer bar, organic pizza and the 2nd best burgers in all of Florence–so the sign said), and historic sights to be my favorite. Rome was historic and Venice scenic but Florence had it all. Not that I would skip any of them of course.