Cruise ships. I’m not a fan but I know a lot of people who love them so I’ll be gentle. However, when it comes to Cruise Ships and Venice I draw the line.
It’s painful to watch these floating monsters pull into such a historic place and release hoards of tourists who after a few hours file back on board and sail away to another city where their traveling hotel is equally out of scale.
How many of them spent the afternoon in the Gallerie dell'Accademia looking at the works of Titian or Bellini?
What percentage sat down to a wonderful meal of fegato alla Veneziana or risotto al nero di seppia while listening to the bells of St Mark’s? Probably not a large number.
Of course I realize that the cruise ships always organize land tours, but for the most part they don’t even begin to scratch the surface.
Why Planning Yourself May Be Better
Then there are the “See Italy in Ten Days” type package tours. After landing in Rome everyone crams into a mega bus and off they go, stopping now and again to shuffle quickly behind an umbrella-wielding tour guide through the most wonderful city centers in the world.
Ten hours in Rome, eight hours in Florence, six hours in Venice, 4 hours in Pisa, etc etc. and numerous hours on a speeding bus through gentle hills and tiny villages with quirky names.
While I realize this is for many people an economic and carefree way to travel, in most cases it leaves them confused about the experiences they just had. All they can say once they get back home is: “I’ve traveled all over Italy”.
While geographically that may be true, emotionally and academically it’s nonsense. Plus the damage these methods of transport are doing to the environment is staggering.
My Suggestion for Making Plans
For those of you who really want to experience Italy and feel confident enough to go it alone (come on…you can do it!) I would suggest choosing a couple of cities that you’d really like to see - for the first time traveler, I recommend Rome and Florence.
Next, book a flight to Rome. So easy on the internet. Choose a hotel within walking distance to The Spanish Steps or the Campo dei Fiori so you can walk to many of the sites.
Spend the next five days visiting amazing Roman ruins and monuments, leaving enough time to just sit in the Piazza Navona and look at Bernini’s magnificent Fountain of Four Rivers while drinking a Negroni or a Compari and Soda.
Then dine at some of the typical trattorias overlooking the breathtaking Pantheon (my fave: https://ristorante.dafortunato.it ).
Over your five days try seeing as many sites as you can before taking a train north to Florence, the center of which is so small that once you alight at the Santa Maria Novella train station you can probably walk to your hotel.
Choose one near the Ponte Vecchio - my choice: https://www.hotel-bb.com/it/hotel/pitti-palace-al-ponte-vecchio.
Once settled in, take a passeggiata over to the Piazza Signoria and sit at the Cafe Rivoire savoring a cappuccino while you plan your tours. The city itself is a museum.
Experience the Renaissance by Planning it Yourself In Italy
The Renaissance is everywhere! The architecture alone will haunt you for years and the Uffizi Museum is second to none.
Plus there are no end of great places to dine (my all time favorite is 4 Leoni) and shop in Florence.
While all this may sound a bit unnerving to the first time traveler, let me assure you it is very easy. It just means that before you leave home, you may need to invest your time and google things like “best tourist sites in Rome”, or “restaurants in Florence”, “best hotels in either city”, etc etc.
And doing a bit of research will fill you with confidence as well as educate you on the wonderful places you are about to see. Your hotel will be happy to organize private tours.
Plus Italians are always very happy to offer suggestions and almost everyone speaks English…no problem there.
So while I am not trying to take business away from the cruise ships or package tour companies (not much, anyway) I know from friends I have helped “go it alone” that the experience is second to none. Whether you are traveling completely alone or with others, plan your own trip.
You will come home feeling that you really know Italy and you have a permanent bond with every city you visited.