I get this question a lot: “I am traveling to Italy for the first time and I was wondering which cities and sights I should see?”
I get it. Planning a trip to Italy can be overwhelming. There is so much to see and do. And most people are limited by number of vacation days and travel budgets. For most, a trip to Italy is a once in a lifetime experience and they want to make sure they see as much as possible and don’t waste time on sights or cities that are not worth it. So how can you make the most of your first trip to Italy?
I have put together what I think is the perfect introduction to Italy. It is an 11 or 12 day itinerary that hits the best of the best and lets you experience a variety of Italian culture. This itinerary is specifically designed for first-timers. Jump below if you want to see my recommendations for people who have already experienced the highlights of Italy.
Day 1 – Venice
If you can, flying into Venice is a great option. The airport is smaller and rarely crowded. From the airport you can easily arrange a water taxi to your hotel and get a free(ish) private tour of the Grand Canal in the process. Once you have dropped your luggage, you can spend the day fighting jet lag wandering the romantic and charming streets of Venice. Be sure to see the square and basilica of St. Mark’s, the Bridge of Sighs, and let yourself get lost before enjoying an evening gondola ride. Most tourists only day-trip to Venice so the city is surreal at night. Be sure to take an evening stroll.
Day 2 – Venice and Burano
Begin your second day in Venice with the Secret Passageways Tour of the Doge’s Palace before hopping on the local vaporetto to Burano (conveniently located close to the Doge’s Palace). Spend the rest of your day exploring Venice’s most colorful little island. And be sure to enjoy a delicious and wonderfully-fresh seafood meal while you are there. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also hop over and see the island of Murano before returning to the main island of Venice.
Day 3 – Florence
On your third day take an early morning high-speed train to Florence (about a two hour ride). Once you arrive, drop your luggage and head to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the David. To maximize your time, I highly recommend purchasing the Firenze Card, which gets you into all of Florence’s best museums for 72 hours and gives you priority entrance (without making reservations). After marveling at the David, head to the “Duomo” (Florence’s famed cathedral). Climb Brunelleschi’s gravity-defying dome before visiting the church’s interior, baptistry, and duomo museum. If you are feeling bold, you can also climb Giotto’s bell tower. Climbing more than 600 steps definitely earns you a gelato stop (here are my favorites). After gelato, head to the Palazzo Vecchio (again I recommend booking the secret passageways tour, not included in the Firenze Card). End your evening with the gorgeous Ponte Vecchio (you can see more of my favorites in Florence here).
Day 4 – Florence
For your second day in Florence, explore the other side of the city (across the river), which is called the “Oltrarno.” Highlights of this hip hood include the Palazzo Pitti (royal residence of the Medici) and Boboli Gardens, Piazza Santo Santo Spirito (eat here), and the Piazzale Michelangelo, which is a bit of a hike, but completely worth it. It is the best view of the city.
Now you could stay a second night in Florence and bus to another Tuscan town like Siena the following day, or even take a day trip to the Cinque Terre. But I suggest renting a car (you can do this in town or at the airport) and road tripping a little bit, to truly get a sense of Tuscany. I would start by spending the evening in a local agriturismo outside Florence or Siena.
Day 5 – Tuscan Countryside
Spend the night in a stunning Tuscan country farmhouse and use the next day to explore adorable Tuscan towns rich in history, tradition, and food and wine! You can read my road trip suggestions here. After a day of exploring, drop your rental at the airport and hop on the high speed train to Rome. Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Rome.
Day 6 – Rome
Start your day with Rome’s most iconic monument, the Colosseum. I recommend getting an early start if you want to snap some incredible pictures without hoards of tourists. Like in Florence, it is wise to purchase the Roma Pass, which will give you priority access to most of Rome’s major sights. From the Colosseum you can explore the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill. Refuel in Rome’s trendy Monti neighborhood before heading to see the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. From the top of the Spanish steps head south on via Sistina and left on via dei Cappuccini to the unbelievable Capuchin bone church (not for the faint of heart).
Day 7 – Rome
Most of your second day in Rome will actually be spent in a different country, Vatican City. Like the Colosseum, St. Peter’s Basilica is well worth an early morning visit, the light is incredible. From the church head around to the other side of the city (or country) to the entrance to the Vatican Museums. Your Roma Pass won’t work for the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, so be sure to book ahead here. I also recommend a visit to the excavations under the Vatican, which you can learn more about booking here. Touring the Vatican will take most of your day, but I suggest making time to visit the Castle Sant’Angelo before enjoying evening drinks in Piazza Navona.
Day 8 – Rome
For your final day in Rome, I recommend spending the morning in my favorite neighborhood, Trastevere. That afternoon say arrivederci to Rome and catch the high-speed train south to Naples. You might be tempted to explore Naples, but I personally recommend seeing the Amalfi Coast over Naples (particularly for first-time visitors). From Naples, switch to a local train to Sorrento. Sorrento is an easy central location from which you can enjoy the fabulous Amalfi Coast. Read my tips for traveling the Amalfi Coast here.
Day 9 – Sorrento/Capri
Spend your first day on the coast exploring the island of Capri. It is an easy ferry ride from Sorrento. In the summer these ferries are packed, so you will want to reserve your tickets early. In Capri you can hike, shop, be a beach bum, or any combination of the three. You can see my list of the 10 things you must do in Capri here.
Day 11 – Sorrento/Ravello/Pompeii
Choose your own adventure for your last day on the coast. You can explore some of the smaller, lesser known towns along the coast like Ravello or Atrani (you will need to arrange a private car for this). Or, you could take the local train to see the ruins of Pompeii. Or, you could also take the day to simply enjoy and relax in Sorrento.
Day 12 – Depart from Naples
Depending on your flight, you can take the local train to Naples and depart from there. Or, if you prefer to depart from Rome, give yourself an extra day for travel and spend the night near the Rome airport (especially if you have an early morning flight). Rome’s main international airport (Fiumicino) is about an hour outside of the city. I highly recommend the airport Hilton.
This highlights tour should definitely get you started planning (and getting excited about) your first trip to Italy! You can see more of my general tips for traveling to Italy here. And remember, if you are looking for a personal travel guide/agent to help you arrange all of this, Travel Italian Style is there to help.
If you have already seen Italy’s best and you want more, I would suggest the following destinations to explore:
Milan and Lake Como or Lake Garda