Ahh, Italy! My husband and I travelled there in April 2016, and I have received requests to post our itinerary ever since. This particular itinerary covers highlights of the second part of our trip, which included Lake Como, Venice, Rome, and Pompeii. Part 1 can be found at: Italy: A One-Week Itinerary in the Italian Riviera. Warning: This itinerary is long, but you asked for it!
Day 1: Milan/Lake Como
Lake Como is an easy, one-hour train ride from Milan. During my trip research, I found many reasonably priced flights into Milan, so it may be a logical jumping off point for a trip to Italy.
Cocktail Break: I have an obsession with visiting the most fabulous cafes in the world, and we managed to imbibe a fairly pricey cocktail at Cafe Zucca in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping area in Milan. This cafe is a block away from the famous Milan Cathedral and was a sophisticated respite from a busy travel day.
After being properly hydrated, we boarded the train to Lake Como. Your first glance of the lake from the train window will take your breath away. It is the stuff of fairy tales and legends, including flowering gardens, quaint Italian villages, and mountains.
The lake is bordered by many towns, which were all worthy of a visit. I opted to stay in Varenna, which was beautiful, quiet, and conveniently located to the train station.
The towns of Lake Como are built upwards into the hillsides. Varenna has a flat, lakeside promenade. However, one moves from street to street by walking up and down cobbled stairs. In the midst of some of these climbs, I realized that the Italians must be in far better shape than your average American.
Hotel Tip: Hotel du Lac in Varenna receives rave reviews from travellers, and you should believe every one of them if you enjoy boutique hotels with a good bar and outstanding views. Our room had a patio overlooking the lake. We sat on that patio every night and drank a glass of wine before heading out for dinner. Extra Tip: Do not attempt to walk the short distance from the train to the hotel with your luggage unless you are in very good shape and full of energy after your journey. Take a cab. It is worth every penny.
Day 2: Lake Como Hiking
The towns on Lake Como are connected by a ferry system. Hotel du Lac was a short walk along the lake promenade to the ferry stop. Schedules for the ferry can be found here. We took an early ferry to the town of Lenno to visit the Villa del Balbianello.
The Villa was the wedding site of Padmé and Anakin in the movie Star Wars. It is a famous site in its own right, but it has reached cult status among Star Wars aficionados. The hike from the ferry to the Villa is easy to follow, but it is a bit of a climb. Once there, you are rewarded with outstanding views of the lake. My husband joyfully donned his knitted Yoda ears hat, and took many selfies. Yes, really, he wore a Yoda hat. I am sorry, Italy.
We then followed a hiking path called the Greenway to our return ferry in the town of Cadenabbia. A local scornfully told us the 6-mile Greenway was made for tourists. Since we were, in fact, tourists, we carried on, particularly because the path was uncrowded and well-maintained. The path took us along the lake on cobbled, narrow lanes past small, picturesque villages and old churches. Please note there are steep ascents at some points.
Lunch Break: As a reward for our efforts, we stopped for lunch at a tiny but atmospheric restaurant called Cantina Follie in Tremezzo. We sat on the patio and ordered a delicious meat and cheese plate accompanied by wine. It was the perfect way to relax on a spring afternoon in Italy.
After lunch, we sauntered over to the Villa Carlotta to see the fabled springtime gardens. I normally would not describe myself as a “gardens” person. I have a plant in my office, and I recently noticed it for the first time in months. I can’t figure out how it is still alive, as I have not watered it. Ever. The gardens at the Villa Carlotta were a little piece of heaven that entranced even me. I never wanted to leave. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Lake Como in the spring, you must go to one of the many beautiful gardens here.
Day 3: Bellagio
Lake Como is place to slow down, enjoy your surroundings, and drink wine. Consequently, we slept in, ate a late breakfast, and then took a ferry to glamorous town of Bellagio in the afternoon.
Bellagio was crowded, filled with expensive stores, and surrounded by fancy cars. We walked around and shopped, but we spent the bulk of our time at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. I love a fancy cocktail in a luxurious setting. The Villa Serbelloni was exquisite, and offered a lakeside setting. Tip: Do not look at the bill. You will not like it.
Dinner Recommendation: We ate dinner at a small restaurant in Varenna called Il Cavatappi. The food was delicious and the dining room is tiny and romantic.
Day 4-6: Venice:
Departing Lake Como feels a bit tragic. It seems terribly unfair that one cannot immediately quit one’s job and stay forever. We forced ourselves onto the train and ventured onwards to Venice. I wrote an account of our eventful train journey titled: Italian Train Incident.
The best part of Venice is stepping outside the train station and catching your first glimpse of the Grand Canal and the gondolas. This is a sight that many people have waited their entire lives to see. It is breathtaking and wonderful.
Sadly, I cannot recommend that you visit Venice. Let me explain. Venice is a beautiful city with fascinating history and architecture. It is now in a state of decline moving toward ruin, at which time the sea will reclaim the land. Over the past several decades, many Venetians have abandoned the city to a tourist onslaught, and the city feels like a large Venetian theme-park and museum.
There are a LOT of people in small spaces, more trash than easily can be accommodated, and the quality of food that one expects to find in an overly touristed area. Even if you try to maneuver away from the main sites in Venice, the tourism is simply inescapable.
We booked pre-paid hotel reservations for three nights, but I would have preferred to stay only one. I will not provide an itinerary, because I do not think you should go to Venice. We humans are ruining the golden years of this lovely, doomed city. Tourists should surrender Venice back to the Venetians.
Hotel: Yes, yes. I know you will ignore my words of wisdom and go to Venice. So, I will at least make sure you enjoy your hotel. We loved the Hotel Al Ponte Antico, which is a luxury (pricey) respite from the crowds and has a balcony overlooking the Grand Canal. The hotel also prides itself on customer service. For instance, every member of the staff knows your name, and they use it every chance they get. They were SO friendly that I will share the following exchange, which left me momentarily wondering if there is such a thing as TOO much customer service.
Antonio, the front desk person: GOOD MORNING, Maureen!!!!!!! I am your new friend, Antonio.
[Pause in dialogue while Antonio shakes my hand as if he has been waiting to meet me all his life.]
Antonio: Your husband tells me you will tour the lagoon islands today by boat. Is that so, Maureen?
Maureen: Yes, we are looking forward to it. Thank you.
Antonio: Maureen, may I ask where you are going first?
Antonio: Burano. They make LACE in Burano, Maureen.
Maureen: I know. I heard it is quite a pretty town. Thank you.
Antonio [looking concerned]: Are you certain you are not going to Murano, Maureen? They make glass there, you know, Maureen.
Maureen: Yes, I know. I am sure it is wonderful glass, but we are going to Burano.
Antonio [looking more concerned]: Do you know how to get to BURANO, Maureen?
Maureen [feeling puzzled]: Yes, thank you, I know how to get there.
Antonio: I will show you on a map, Maureen, how to get to BURANO, as a reminder, Maureen.
Maureen [still being nice, but getting very cranky.]: Thank you, Antonio, but I am OK.
Antonio: I will just pull out this map, Maureen, and show you.
[Pause as Maureen and her husband walk a respectable distance from the building.]
Maureen to her husband: I know being all friendly is their thing, but, seriously, what was THAT? Do they get docked in pay if they don’t actually help people at least once an hour? Jeesh.
Maureen’s Husband: Before you got there, I told him we were going to VURANO for the day to see how they make glass, and that’s when he starting asking a lot of questions.
Maureen: Things have become much clearer, darling. There is no such place as VURANO.
My husband read this page and insisted that I help you out a bit more in Venice. He says that we really enjoyed taking an evening walk to the Jewish Quarter. We also toured the Doge’s Palace and visited a wonderful museum called Ca’ Rezzonico. As long as I am being forced to give you advice, I might as well add that another one of the world’s most beautiful cafes is Cafe Florian in St. Mark’s Square.
Day 7: Rome
Rome is a feast for any traveler. We had only a day and a half to be tourists in Rome, which is ridiculous, of course. We had both been to Rome before, but you should spend a week based in Rome if this is your first trip. I hope to go back one day and spend a few months there to scratch the surface of what it has to offer.
We stayed at a hotel one block from the Pantheon, which is a former Roman temple. Disclosure: I didn’t love our hotel, but I highly recommend staying in this area. After a long day of touring, there is nothing more satisfying than sitting at a cafe looking up at the Pantheon.
Dinner: One of my favorite restaurants in all of Italy was an establishment called Antonio Al Pantheon, which is located approximately one block from the Pantheon. I ate there twice, and I NEVER eat at a restaurant twice on a trip. Artichokes were in season on our trip, and the dishes were divine.
Day 8: The Vatican Scavi Tour
A visit to Vatican City is practically mandatory when in Rome. In researching this part of the trip, I found many references to the “Scavi Tour.” Limited to 250 people per day, the Scavi Tour takes visitors into the necropolis below St. Peter’s Basilica. Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, the Scavi tour is fascinating.
Tip: We took the Scavi Tour in April, but I understand it would be uncomfortably hot to do so in the summer. Try to take it any time other than the summer months to fully enjoy it.
Approximately four months before my trip, I requested a reservation through the Vatican website. I chose the date, but the Vatican chose the time of my tour. The e-mail I received with my confirmation stated, “The visit takes place beneath the Vatican basilica at the tomb of the Apostle Peter; the itinerary of the visit, besides offering cultural and historical information, is a pilgrimage to one of the holiest sites in Christendom.”
Almost two years later, I am still marveling at historical, archeological, and spiritual elements of the Scavi tour. We arrived PROMPTLY according to the instructions on the e-mail. A small group of us were led into the necropolis by an archeologist. He explained how the site had been discovered and the historical significance of what we were about to see. Although I have seen many Roman ruins in my travels, I have never witnessed any as well-preserved as those under the Vatican.
The Vatican claims that the tomb of St. Peter himself lies in the necropolis. Our guide spent time discussing the evidence supporting this claim, but did so within an academic rather than proselytizing framework. When we were allowed to look at the tomb, the woman standing next to me had tears running down her face. She shrugged helplessly and told me, “I don’t know why I am crying.” I did, though. As promised, we were standing in one of the holiest sites in Christendom. Even though I am not personally religious, the necropolis is a sacred place for millions of people around the world. And, that is enough to move one to tears.
The tour ends in a spectacular fashion. As you exit the excavations back at the surface, you are deposited into a roped off area in the middle of St. Peter’s. The Scavi Tour participants are allowed to stay in this VIP area while contemplating the great basilica. No crowd jostling or line-standing.
Cafe Break: The Antico Caffe Greco, located near the Spanish Steps, was established in 1760. We arrived minutes before closing, and, yet, we were still treated like royalty in the cafe’s sumptuous surroundings.
Day 9: Pompeii
During my Italy research, I found a great debate raging as to whether one should visit Herculaneum or Pompeii, which are both towns that were buried and preserved after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Proponents of Herculaneum argue that the site is smaller, better preserved, and less crowded than the more popular Pompeii. Advocates of Pompeii argue that Pompeii is more impressive. After a prolonged internal struggle, I decided that we would visit Herculaneum, as the promise of fewer crowds was appealing.
We took a 10:23 AM train from Rome to Naples, and arrived at 11:30 AM. Just in time for lunch. Pizza in Naples is delicious. Americans can’t possibly understand what pizza is supposed to taste like until they go to Naples. It is thin, cooked in a wood-burning oven, and has very few toppings.
Lunch: There was a ridiculously long line for a pizzeria near the train station. My husband wondered aloud what was so special about this particular pizzeria. I innocently said that it might be the one where Julia Roberts dined in the movie Eat, Pray, Love. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. He proclaimed that would not be tricked, again, into re-creating my favorite movies. I pretended I had no intention, whatsoever, of doing so, and that we just happened to be in the neighborhood. To prove it, I indignantly steered us into Pizzeria Trianon, which was just down the street and filled with locals instead of tourists. It was very, very good.
After lunch, we took the Circumvesuviana Railway from Naples to Herculaneum. Simply follow the signs to “Circumvesuviana” at the Naples Centrale train station. Some visitors opt to catch a taxi from Naples to Herculaneum or Pompeii, but the train was fine. Extremely crowded, but fine.
We had only the afternoon to spend in Herculaneum, and we walked quickly from the train station to the site entrance. At first glance, I knew we should have gone to Pompeii as first-time visitors. Looking down on the site, Herculaneum was incredible, with well-preserved ruins. However, it also appeared much smaller than Pompeii, at least the excavated portions.
My first rule of travel is that if it doesn’t feel right, make another plan. So, after putting Herculaneum on our list for our next trip to Italy, we jumped back on the train and continued on to Pompeii.
Just in case we had time to go to Pompeii, I had downloaded a Pompeii map and purchased the Brief Guide to Pompeii from a used book store on Amazon. It provided detailed descriptions of 69 individual sites within Pompeii and is published by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompeii. I had studied it before we left home, so I knew exactly which sites I wanted to see.
Armed with these tools, my husband and I had a fascinating afternoon in Pompeii. The site is vast and provides something new and interesting to see around every corner. I had read that parts of Pompeii can be randomly closed, which can upset visitors. However, I found that Pompeii is so large that you can just continue on to the next place of interest.
Book Recommendation: Pompeii: The Living City – Alex Butterworth, Ray Laurence. This book alternates between non-fiction and historical fiction accounts of life in Pompeii. It provides a window into the lives of the rulers, merchants, slaves and other inhabitants of Pompeii, and leaves the reader with a deeper understanding of the tragedy of both Pompeii the nearby town of Herculaneum. I highly recommend your read this book before going to Pompeii or Herculaneum.
Day 10: Home
After several weeks in Italy, we had to go home. Against our will, we really had to go home.
Final Tip – Train Tickets: Train tickets in Italy are ridiculously cheap when you buy them far enough in advance. For instance, at the time of this writing, a super economy, one-way fare from Milan to Rome in May was 13 Euros. Do not wait to get your tickets. I heard that the main train company, Trenitalia, is allowing customers to purchase tickets online up to six months in advance now. We bought all our tickets this way, but be careful to read the fare restrictions. For instance, the super-economy fares are non-refundable.
To read more about our adventures in Italy, please see:
Italy: Everyone Enjoys a Good Potato Chip