Visiting Italy can be compared to stepping into your favorite gelato shop — everything looks so good and it can be hard to make a decision. There are so many choices, all so different, and yet all so delicious. There is something in the Gelateria, or the country of Italy, that appeals to everyone. And just like a good gelateria, Italy invites you back time and time again to try a new flavor.
For the first timer a visit to the “Big 3” is essential: Rome, Florence, and Venice. But realize that because they are the Big 3, there’s a good chance that everyone else had the same great idea. For this reason, by getting off the beaten path, even within these famous cities, you can find some hidden gems of Italy. I’ll share my thoughts on some of these hidden gems of Rome, Florence, and Venice and save the other tastes of Italy for another time.
A first timer’s visit to Rome will likely see the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica as well as the sights of Imperial Rome, but let me offer a suggestion for my favorite museum in Rome, the Museo Borghese. Nestled in the middle of the Villa Borghese, a large and beautiful city park sits the Museum Borghese, a 17th century Villa converted to a museum. The museum houses several famous and spectacular Bernini sculptures as well as an impressive collection of art including pieces by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Reubens. While the Museo Borghese is popular, the crowds are well managed with a required reservation and timed entry for all visitors. The museum is a comfortable size and the entire collection can be easily enjoyed in under two hours. It’s a pleasant break from the city and the crowds. Afterward you can reward yourself with a nice stroll or bike ride through the massive park and finish off the afternoon at the far end of the park in the Terrazza del Pincio. This Terrazza commands an impressive view of the city of Rome and the Piazza del Popolo below.
Florence is a quick train ride north of Rome with trains leaving hourly. In Florence, you can walk everywhere. From one end of the historic center to the other is only a 20 minute walk. The city invites strolling and meandering, with traffic limited to essential vehicles only. Of course, as a first timer, you’ll want to make time to visit Michelangelo’s most famous statute, the David, and the nearby Uffizi gallery, and marvel at Brunelleschi’s dome, but don’t stop there. Florence is an art and history lovers paradise. As the birthplace of the Renaissance and our modern world, it is a city from which to drink deeply. The best way to enjoy Florence is to take advantage of the Firenze Card, your 3 day pass to the city. Just pay attention as you plan out your visit as the museums have erratic schedules that can change in an instant and if you’re in Florence over a weekend, pay particular attention as many of the top sights are closed Sundays and Mondays. Whatever you do, make a little time for the Bargello. Sometimes this museum is overlooked by its flashier neighbors, but the Bargello, among other things, offers sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello that are well worth your time. Housed here is Donatello’s David that provided a catalyst for so many sculptures of the Renaissance period and beyond. The building itself lends interest as it served once as a police station and a prison.
Venice is so unique that everyone should experience it at least once. The maze of islands and canals and bridges is inviting - accept the invitation to wander - and don’t worry about getting lost, it’s a small island. Somehow the Venetians have learned to survive in this constantly sinking and ever flooding environment. Along with the occasional bit of water in San Marcos’ square, Venice is inundated each day with daytime visitors and cruise ships. The crowds can be a problem and make for an unpleasant visit. However, it doesn’t take much to find your own little nook of Venice to enjoy, just get off the main street of shops and restaurant and let yourself get lost in the back alleys and bridges. You’ll discover a Venice that most tourists miss. For an amazing birds eye view of the Island and San Marco’s square, take the Vaporetti (Venetian ferry) from San Marco to San Giorgio Maggiore and climb the bell tower, you’ll get a Venice perspective that most miss.
Once you’ve tasted the obvious Italian flavors, you’ll find reason to go back to this inviting country time and time again and try something new. Certainly you’ll discover your own hidden gems and favorites that you can then share with your friends and family. Buon Viaggio!
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