Written by James Dunford Wood
For a cultural holiday in Italy a two or even three centre trip involving the great cultural centres of Rome, Florence and Venice makes for a great experience. Crammed with cultural icons, this itinerary, depending on the length, can be exhausting - but if you make a shortlist of what you want to see, it will be rewarding.
Travel between these cities by train is fast and comfortable - though if you want to see some of the spectacular countryside between Rome and Florence - perhaps stopping off in Assisi for lunch, then a car hire option between those two cities is worthwhile. But for Venice - Florence, take the train!
If you've got only a week, only two of these destinations is advisable - and for ease of travel, I suggest you start with Florence and add on either Venice or Rome, with three nights in Florence and four nights in the other city. For ten days-two weeks you could consider all three - and for the two week option, consider a leisurely drive through Tuscany and Umbria, even with a stop overnight in Assisi, Siena, Perugia or San Gimignano en route if you want to give yourself time.
So - depending on time, you will be spending 3-4 nights in each of these cities. What to see?
The highlights here are the Duomo (cathedral), the Uffizi Gallery, the Pitti Palace, San Marco's Monastery for the Fra Angelico frescos, coffee in the Piazza Signoria and an ice cream on the Ponte Vecchio, perhaps a trip to Fiesole or up to the Piazzale Michealangelo for the stunning view - and then plenty of shopping time. Many will cite the sculpture of Michealangelo's David as a 'must see' - but unless you are an avid Michaelangelo fan, this single highlight at the end of a very long line can seem an anti-climax. And besides, there's a copy in the Piazza Signoria.
For accommodation - depending on budget of course - there are some great hotels like the Hotel Savoy or JK Place, and cheaper pensions at the other end of the scale.
As far as getting around Florence - you will be walking everywhere, except perhaps for a trip to the neighboring village of Fiesole for lunch, if you have time. For sightseeing, it is advisable to pre-book the Uffizi well in advance - or get your concierge to do it once you have booked your hotel.
Rome is 'impossible' to do in three or four days - even a lifetime would not suffice. But there is so much to see here a few days concentrated sightseeing will be as much as you can manage for comfortable assimilation. The highlights here are St Peters Basilica, the Vatican Museums (and Sistine Chapel), the Colosseum, the Forum, the Catacombs, the Pantheon and an evening eating out in 'old rome' - the warren of streets around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. Of the three cities, Rome is the place I would advise taking a private guide if you can afford it - or an organised tour - at least for half a day, for the trip to the Colosseum, Forum and a walk to the Pantheon. There is so much layered history here that it repays a detailed explanation. However, if you do take a commercial half-day tour, be sure to come back to the sights that interest you in your own time - as they tend to race you through.
The most popular sight, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, can be a stressful experience, simply because it is so often so packed. So come prepared to queue - though often you will find that in mid afternoon the lines are lighter. Most of the tour groups go through en masse in the morning - so best to steer clear of them!
For hotels, it's advisable to be central in Rome - purely to avoid a long journey back after a tiring day sightseeing. 'Central' means in or around the old town - though make sure you ask, at least, for a quiet room, and high up, Roman street noise at night can be irritating. There are plenty of luxury as well as cheaper options in this area. If you plan to spend a lot of time on the religious monuments of St Peters and the Vatican museum, hotels near St Peters can be better value, as well as full of well behaved early-to-bed priests.
For nightlife or eating out, as well as the old town, visit Trastevere - crammed with bars and restaurants and plenty of action.
Venice, the last in this great triptych, has the jewel like stage-set quality of Florence with some of the grandeur of Rome. In Venice it's more important to find accommodation away from the main hub of St. Marks - not just because it will be better value, but also because the charm of Venice only becomes properly revealed when you walk the streets and alleys away from the teeming tourist centre. Like Florence, you can see most things on foot - though you are bound to get lost in the warren of alleys. A boat trip on the local vaporetto city boats is a fun way to travel around too.
The highlights here are St Mark's Basilica, the Doge's Palace (take an audio guided tour here), a trip up the Grand Canal by boat, the Rialto Bridge and the market around, the Accedemia and the Guggenheim Museum for art buffs, and a trip out to Burano Island for a seafood lunch and a spot of shopping. This island excursion is well worth doing - not just to get away from the tourist overkill that can sometimes overtake you, but also because the prices - notoriously hiked in central Venice - will be much better for souvenir shopping in the islands. Burano itself is a photographer’s paradise, with its painted houses and colourful gondolas. The trip by public boat takes about an hour - and if you sit on the deck on a sunny day, it's a fantastic ride.
Venice is a great city to end with - the photographs you will shoot will be the best of the trip, and the memories the most vivid.
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