We recently went to Italy for the first time, and what I didn’t know about the place could fill a book. We booked our trip just a month before our travel dates, so we didn’t have much time to prepare. What I wanted was a guide that tells me what restaurants are actually good and what to tip, wear, eat, and where to stay. So I have come up with a short guide on our favorites plus some tips on traveling to these places. I haven’t recommended some of the most popular sights, because well… popular means a lot of people. So for a gal with a lot of anxiety, this isn’t my idea of fun. I hope this guide will help you if you ever travel to Italy!
Where to Eat in Rome
Tavernaccia Da Bruno – I found the Trastavere neighborhood quite charming and saw ZERO tourists. It seems like the place where everyone actually lives, off the beaten path. And it’s the location of two of my favorite Roman restaurants. Tavernaccia is my absolute favorite. We ordered a meat plate and watched a woman pull a giant pig’s leg with the hoof still attached and shave off the proscuitto. The waitstaff was friendly, despite us being tourists, which you won’t find in many places. And the wild boar ragu was to die for. This place was incredible! Highly recommend, and if you can make reservations.
Trattoria da Lucia – This place was cozy, full of locals, affordable, and the menu is handwritten, which is always a plus for me. This, too, is in the Trastavere neighborhood, and I’m convinced that’s where most of the good restaurants are located.
Roscioli – The best meal we had on our trip to Rome was Roscioli. It’s a small Salumeria, meaning that their meats and cheeses are their specialty, but we came for the pasta. I loved the Spaghetti Carbonara, with beautiful crispy bits of Guanciale (pork cheek). Or try the Rigatoni all’Amatriciana if you prefer red sauce. But this is hands down the best carbonara I’ve ever had. The pasta is cooked VERY al dente, which makes it that much better. Get a reservation. The restaurant filled up ten minutes after seven.
What to do in Rome
We visited Rome for three short days, but we loved it more than any place we visited. There are ruins everywhere you turn, and it was nothing short of breathtaking. Here’s the short list of our favorites.
Borghese Gallery – It can be easy to overdo the art museums, but this was my favorite on our whole trip. There are some beautiful paintings, but the first floor has incredible collections of ancient sculptures. The building itself is a work of art, so this one was my favorite.
Borghese Gardens – These gardens were incredible and vast. We wandered around here all day on our last day. It’s like Central Park, but better, and more Italian. This is a must.
Colosseum and Roman Forum – You absolutely must see both the Colosseum and Roman Forum, so make sure you buy the combo ticket. Buy tickets in advance on coopculture.it. The Roman Forum is a giant playground of ruins right outside the Colosseum. After you visit both these sights, you must do the Palatine Hill climb, which provides a view of the Flavian Palace and a hilltop view of the forum.
Largo di Torre Argentina, the Cat Sanctuary – This is near Campo de Fiori and is the alleged site where Julius Caesar was murdered by Brutus. It is now a protected set of ruins that the city has designated as a cat sanctuary. Go to see all the cats sprawled out among the ancient ruins.
Tips for Rome
- If you must see the Sistine Chapel, then you can book a ticket to the Vatican Museums. We found it so crowded, if you picked up your feet you’d be carried to the next room. It was my least favorite thing on the trip to Rome, so skip it unless you must see the Sistine Chapel. You can still see St Peter’s Basilica without a ticket! This was an enormous and beautiful basilica that is absolutely worth the visit.
- Make dinner reservations! It’s the Italian way, and we have been turned down for not making reservations.
- Our favorite neighborhood to stay is the Campo de Fiori. It’s a beautiful, very local neighborhood, and we stayed on the site where Julius Caesar was killed by Brutus. There are tons of restaurants, and it feels very quaint and special. Plus everything in the city is walkable. We only used a taxi to get to the Borghese.
Where to Eat in Florence
Trattoria Za Za – This place was so good we went there twice. I tried what may seem like a boring choice–tagliatelle with pesto. And it was the best pesto I’ve ever had. Try this plus their green salad and fried squash blossoms for a feast.
Mercato Centrale – This marketplace offers hundreds of lunch options, and even if you don’t eat here, it’s worth a visit to see all the butchers and merchants selling all the most delicious specialty items.
What to do in Florence
We spent five days in Florence, and it was a little long, but it helped us to get our bearings and figure out what we really enjoyed. Here’s a list of our favorites in Florence.
San Miniato Al Monte – Take a taxi to the top of the city to see this monastery built in 1018 and then enjoy the walk down. Also check out the Belvedere which is on the way down–an area with yet another beautiful view. The church’s facade is beautiful, and it boasts the best views in the city. There’s a lot of views, many of which I have seen, and this is it. Plus it’s free to visit. The interior is so incredibly old, and there’s something really special about it. The legend goes that San Miniato was denounced as a christian, thrown to the beasts, and when the beasts refused to eat him, he was beheaded. He carried his head across the Arno and up to what is now San Miniato al Monte.
Boboli Gardens – We did both the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens, but the gardens really took the show. It was a huge and beautifully manicured garden with many different areas to see views and just enjoy the weather. Definitely one of my favorites in Florence.
Santa Croce – This was my favorite church in all of Florence. Its interior is covered in Fra Angelico frescoes, which are beautiful beyond belief. It’s not terribly crowded, and it’s worth visiting, one hundred percent.
Santa Maria Novella – I love this church for the altarpiece paintings, though the walls are not quite as decorated, the cloisters are worth lingering over as well.
Tips for Florence
- This may be hard to believe, but Il Duomo was not worth the hour long wait to see the interior. Though it’s beautiful on the outside, the interior is rather plain. There are many more beautiful church interiors in Florence! Also, the climb up to the top of the dome was a claustrophobic one, and not worth the 500 steps to the top. The view was beautiful, but oddly, it was missing the dome, so it wasn’t as great as the other views!
- Avoid restaurants near the crowded more touristy areas. The further afield you go the better! Try the neighborhood near Santo Spirito across the river in the Oltrarno. It’s much quieter and you’ll find a cheaper and better meal.
- Make dinner reservations when possible. If you’re walking around and see a restaurant you may want to revisit, make a reservation then and there. It’s just the way things are there, and I’ve been turned down by a full restaurant several times.
- We got the Firenze Card which allows you to skip the line at all the museums. If you don’t get this, make your reservations for all tourist sites before you leave the states and print them out. Rarely can you get into a museum without a reservation or you may just wait a very long time in line.
- I wore good shoes and still got blisters, but the pharmacies sell blister patches. Bring some with you if you can! It saved my life. Walking on stone all day can be really hard on the body, so just rest when you can. Your feet will hurt no matter what.
What to see in Siena
Il Campo – This beautiful square accentuates the height of the bell tower that is centrally featured in Siena. I had no idea just how big this would be, but it was a sight worth seeing.
Il Duomo – Best Duomo visit by far. The church is more decorative than any others we saw. Pay extra to visit the Museum and Panorama view afterward. The view was astoundingly beautiful, with the backdrop of Tuscany. This is not to be missed.
Just wander the streets! Eat Gelato. There’s an insanely dressed marching band that walks the streets in the evening, so keep an ear out for this. And just enjoy yourself. We spent most of our day just wandering around.
Where to eat in Siena
Osteria La Piana – This restaurant was tucked away on a hill on a little street. It’s storybook cute. The food was incredible, and everything was perfect. I had rigatoni with leeks and guanciale, and Sam had pasta with tomatoes and basil. It was an insanely good meal with a beautiful quaint view.
Tips for Siena
- Travel by train, but take a taxi into the city when you arrive. It’s incredibly stressful trying to find the city by foot. It involves walking on a series of long escalators in a shopping mall, I kid you not. But if you do choose this, read up on it beforehand so you know exactly where to go. People don’t speak as much English in Siena.
Travel Tips for Italy
- It took me way too long into the trip to figure out tipping. You will tip 1-2 euros per person when you eat out. There is not a line to add gratuity on a card, so come prepared.
- Taxi drivers hate it when you give them a fifty. In fact everyone hates it, but that’s what the ATM will give you. See if your hotel or if a nearby cafe will give you change. It’s probably the most stressful part of our trip.
- Everything tends to be a little bit… disorganized in Italy. The people working at the sights do not tend to give much information or really care too much about the metal detector you walk through. It’s strange and hilarious. Learn to laugh about it and don’t let it stress you out.
I hope this guide will help you in some way! We loved our trip, and if you follow my tips and suggestions, you won’t be disappointed!