Here are some tried and true tips from a mom who's "been there, done that" in Italy with her family.
Italy. Just mention that you are going on vacation to Italy and people get that dreamy look in their eyes. Everybody loves Italy. What’s not to love: the art, the food, the scenery, the people…it’s all amazing. When I asked my son’s art teacher what museums we shouldn’t miss, he noted that “All of Italy is a museum.” And that is the truth.
There is art on every corner of this country, from the sculptures to the rooftops, to the tiny artisan shops, to the historic buildings and churches. Every where you look something is really old, interesting and, most of all, beautiful. In Italy you get as much from just walking around looking high and low as you do in the famous museums. Don’t try to do it all, but take in all that you do.
And so we learned on our recent visit there. This was our last trip together as a family before our teenage son heads off to college, so we wanted to make it a good one. We had saved up our Frequent Flyer miles for something special and this was it — 11 days in Italy during spring break.
"Greatest Hits" for First-Time Visitors to Italy
If you can fly into Milan or Venice, and out of Rome (or vice versa), this is an itinerary I recommend. It’s easy to get between cities by rail (no car needed) and you can possibly shave off a day or two if you have a shorter vacation period. We broke up our 11 days as follows:
It was our kids’ first trip to Europe and I think a memorable one that only whet their appetite for foreign travel. The journal of our viaggio magnifico is online (linked by city names above), so feel free to take advantage of what we learned.
In Italy, you can keep kids engaged
When traveling with boys, always bring a ball! There were many times — when waiting on line — that sending my sons nearby to throw a ball would have saved lots of complaining. But I discovered a few fun games in each town that also kept my kids happy.
In Venice, I challenged them to see how many boats they could find that serve different everyday purposes – the garbage boat, delivery boats, police and fire boats, etc.
In Florence, you can have kids do the “Ninja Turtle Tour” where they have to search for works by Michaelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael.
In Rome, have kids search for as many animals as they can find among the fountains…find the bumblebees on the Bertini fountain and the turtles on the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtle) near the walls of the old Jewish Ghetto, the seashells and seahorses at the Trevi Fountain; and the lion, horse and sea serpents, the cacti, palm tree and aramdillo at La Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Piazza Navona.
Kandel Family Travel Tips for Italy
- Climate: The weather is moderate most times of the year, but I would advise that you take an umbrella and throw in a turtleneck. It does get cold even during spring and summer. To escape the summer heat there’s always gelato, and an escape into the coolness of ancient stone churches.
- Toilets Beware: not every restaurant in Italy has toilet seats. It’s kind of weird and we never really got used to it. Always carry some tissues with you, too.
- Hidden Costs: Be aware of “il coperto" (cover). This is a per person charge added to il conto (the bill) in almost every restaurant in Italy. Usually the amount is listed on the menu, but make a note of it because it can add as much as $5 per person just for sitting there and eating the bread. (Usually you have to pay extra for bottled water as well, because nobody drinks tap water in Italy — and I found out why by tasting some.)
- Money Talks: We discovered that almost every credit card charges an automatic 1%-3% foreign transaction fee during each currency conversion, except for Capital One (credit card perks change frequently, so you'll have to research this before departure.) We signed up for a Capital One MasterCard which charges no annual fee. In Italy, we charged every expense from our vacation on that card and saved lots of money
- Local Lingo: The main phrases you’ll need to get by in Italy are “grazie” (thank you) and “prego” which means please and you're welcome and dozens of other things. Just say it anytime someone helps you out and they’ll appreciate it.
- Getting Around: A must-have for the Italian cities we visited is a good, detailed map. We walked everywhere and found that nothing is really too far apart here.
- Train Travel: Before getting on trains in Italy make sure you stamp your tickets at the machines located on the platforms as you can get fined if you don’t. (In Venice you need to do the same before getting on the vaporetto along the Grand Canal.)
- Confirm All Plans: Bring printouts of any reservations you have. When we arrived at the Uffizi they told us that we were there on the wrong day, but my print-out thankfully proved that their computer had made the mistake and we were correct.
- Staying Mobile: Before heading overseas, check if your phone has capability for a European SIM card. Mine did not so we checked into renting a phone. Then we discovered it was cheaper to actually buy a phone through a deal with Rail Europe. For US$49 (plus taxes and delivery) we got a very nice Siemens mobile phone complete with charger, US$20 in calling time, and an '800' toll-number for family at home to call us (this worked for an hour of calling time). Calls range in price from US$1.49/minute to another cell phone to about US$.99/minute to a landline. But now we own the phone and can use it on future trips by adding additional talk time. To check out their rates and details go to Raileurope ekit.
- Great Guides: My favorite guidebooks were the Eyewitness Travel Guides (i.e. "Top 10 Tuscany") with great pictures of the main sights and even paintings and tours of museums, and Rick Steve’s Italy (guides with real honest comments). If you live in New York City, the Mid-Manhattan Library on Fifth Avenue and 40th Street has a large collection of travel guides and videos of many European cities. We also picked up free maps at the American Express offices (where we went to convert our Traveller’s Checks).
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