In January 2023, I was blessed with the opportunity to embark on a eigh-day grand tour of Italy.
I’ve dreamed of visiting Italy since elementary school when I first learned about The Roman Colesseum. My passion for Italian art was sparked at Broughton High School’s Social Studies class.
I finally got the chance to live a bit of ‘La Dolce Vita’ – the sweet life in Italy on a 8 day Great Tour of Italy with EF Tour Company.
My friend recommended EF Tours as she’d worked with them on a class trip for her son several years ago. In addition to their student led trips, EF Tours also offers ‘EF Go Ahead’ tours that are designed for adult travelers (solo or families) looking for fun guided tours throughout the world. You can learn more about the tour I took and other tours here.
Why January? After consulting with the EF Tours team, along with independent research, we decided that January was the best time to travel for several reasons:
- slow time in our industry
- affordable booking rates
- less crowds than other times of the year
The only downside is the weather in Italy is chilly in January, but not fiercely cold. I used to live in Montana, where temps would dip to -40 degrees, so 30-50 degrees temps in Italy were managable.
- Pro Tip: pack a lot of layers as you’ll find it gets cold in the morning and at night but may warm up in the middle of the day. Hats and gloves are essential in January
- If traveling to Venice – bring a good pair of waterproof boots. St. Mark’s Square can flood from time to time
Prior to my January trip, I prepped by watching two courses about Italy on Wondrium.com
Wondrium aka ‘The Great Courses’ is like HULU for learning. They have college level classes about everything from Art History to Science and beyond. They offer a free trial if you are interested…I highly recommend the following courses about Italy and Italian Art
To be fair, I’m obsessed with history and art and wanted to make sure I had the best primer about Italian history, art and food before I made the roughly 4800 mile journey across The Atlantic Ocean.
If you prefer a book (digital or paperback) to prep for a trip to Italy I recommend:
- DK Guides – I love their detailed information, maps and quality photos.
- Florence and Tuscany
- Rome: Top Ten – this is a cool guide because it creates Top Ten lists based on interest (ex: Top Ten Art Museums)
- Rick Steves Venice: Always a reliable resource, Steves’ guide gives the historical background to Venice and comprehensive tour itineraries to make the most of your Venetian adventure.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be taking a virtual tour of Italy from Venice to Florence to Rome and beyond.
Before we start, I wanted to set the stage by sharing the highlights of my own Italian Adventure.
Visiting Italy – The Bel Paese (“The Beautiful Country”)
Day One: From Raleigh to Venice:
Our first day of travel was long and hectic – over 20 hours of flying/airport time. But in the end it was worth it when we arrived at the Venice airport.
Our tour guide met us at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport (the famous explorer was from Venice), where we then took a boat across The Grand Canal and through several narrow city canals before disembarking for our hotel.
Venice has no cars and is completely reliant on boat travel. We’ll discuss this more in our feature segments about Venice.
The moment I saw Venice I fell in love with the gorgeous historical Byzantine – Gothic and pure Venetian architecture. The waters are the deepest blue green as gondolas pass by. The city is highly walkable – albeit with a lot of stairs (watch your step)…narrow bridges and winding roads connect the over 100 islands to form ‘Venice’
We stayed at the wonderful Hotel Giorgione – a gorgeously appointed hotel in a 14th-century building.
- Named after the famous Venetian painter, Giorgione, the hotel’s decor is authentic Venetian. Elegant Venetian glass chandeliers are found through the building…the lobby and gathering rooms invite you into someone’s beautiful home.
- The Hotel Giorgione includes a delicious breakfast of pastries, cappuccino and American style eggs and bacon.
Starving after the long trip, we dined da Rina Trattoria. I indulged in a glass of Malbec with my gluten free pasta.
- Pro-tip: Italians are eager to help you find ‘senza glutine’ or gluten free items. Most restaurants offer gluten-free pastas or dishes.
That evening we met the other tour members, who over the next eight days became fast and forever friends.
We enjoyed a ‘Welcome Dinner’ at another nearby Trattoria. The menu of Risotto, Sea Bass and Fresh Pineapple was AMAZING. I usually don’t like Risotto, but this was authentic Italian Risotto and it blew me away – creamy and delicious.
Day Two: Exploring Venice
Our group enjoyed a yummy breakfast at The Hotel Giorgione before meeting a local tour guide to see the sights of Venice. The highlight of the tour for me was exploring St. Mark’s Basilica – one of the grandest churches in the world. Inspired by the Byzantine design, St. Mark’s is the final resting place of Gospel writer St. Mark…we’ll dig into the details of St. Mark’s in a future post…
The tour also included:
- The Rialto Bridge
- Bridge of Sighs
- Doge’s Palace
- Glass-blowing demonstration
Unfortunately my afternoon crashed when I tripped on a large step leaving lunch. Venice is full of unexpected steps and stairs…it is easy to get distracted by the beauty – but watch your step.
I ended up spraining my ankle, but thankfully the local Pharmacy (doctor in house) gave me some medicine and I was able to walk decently the rest of the week (with a bandage)
As the Italians say – “allora’
Day Three: Florence – the seat of The Renaissance
- We took boats to the mainland to board the tour bus, which drove us from Venice to Florence
- the drive was about three hours and included gorgeous scenery including a view of the Italian Alps (Dolomites), Appennine Mountains and a bit of Tuscany
- When we arrived in Florence we were given an hour break to grab a bite to eat at The Mercato Centrale – a heavenly food hall featuring culinary delights from gelato to Florentine steak, bruschetta and more.
- Pro-tip: I recommend going before or after the major lunch crowd otherwise you won’t get a seat!
- After lunch we met a local tour guide for an hree hour walking tour of the city. We saw the towering Duomo, Bapistery Doors of Ghiberti, Piazza della Signoria and historic statues, before winding through The Uffizi area to The Ponte Vecchio (bridge across the Arno River)
We’ll be spending a bunch of time exploring Florence in the coming weeks!
Hands down is one of my favorite cities in the world…simply because it is immersed in history and was instrumental in the start of The Renaissance…
Day Four: Free Day in Florence
- I booked a semi-private tour of Florence and The Uffizi Gallery with City of Wonders Tour Company. Our guide Angelo was AWESOME – he knew his Florentine history inside and out and made you feel like you were traveling through time. We learned about the invention of Gelato, the rise of The Medici family and Florence’s political history…
- The tour included a guided walk through of the Accademia Gallery, with is home to the world’s most famous statue: Michelangelo’s David
- After a delicious lunch of Insalate (Salad) and Pizza, we wandered back to The Uffizi Gallery to visit one of the world’s most important art museums.
- The Uffizi is home to Renaissance masterworks by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo and more…as an art historian I was in AWE…
For dinner we met back with other members of the group at The Braciere Malatesta. Hands down it is one of the best steak dinners I’ve ever had… A must stop in Florence (and don’t forget their desserts – the biscotti with Holy Wine was amazing)
Day Five: All Roads lead to ROME
- We loaded into the tour bus for a four hour drive from Florence south to Rome.
- Upon arriving in Rome we toured The Colesseum and Roman Forum
- Being in the midst of that history was AMAZING
- We then checked into a modern hotel in the university district – The Mercure Bologna
- I enjoyed dinner at the hotel and a Aperol Spritz at the bar
After breakfast we headed for a half-day tour at The Vatican. As a person of faith to actually see The Vatican in person was a dream come true. The history and beauty of the art is beyond words. Highlights of the half-day tour included:
- The Sistine Chapel
- St. Peter’s Basilica
I was bummed that the tour did not include The Raphael Rooms, but alas I’ll have to return in the future when I can spend a few days in The Vatican…just gazing for hours at the art
- We enjoyed several tours with local experts of:
- The Catacombs
- St. Pauls Outside the Walls – burial site of St. Paul
- The Spanish Steps
- Trevi Fountain (I threw a coin, which according to legend means I’ll return to Rome)
- The Roman Pantheon
- We finished the day with a farewell dinner at a local Roman restaurant
- Ciao…sadly we had to leave Rome, but I cannot wait to return
Continue to follow the blog for feature articles and more Italian adventures in the coming weeks!