This spring hubby and I were fortunate enough to travel to Italy for the first time. And I have to say, everything you hear about it is true: it's a breathtaking country and you'll never want to leave. You'll have the best tomatoes you've ever eaten, incredible pasta, wines made with love, and the landscapes and history will take your breath away.
We spent the first week in the countryside with hubby's mom, stepdad, and stepsisters, and the second week in Rome just the two of us. Italy is the most-visited country on earth and lots of you have it on your bucket list, so here are a few tips based on what we learned over there.
explore the countryside
Here's where I'd urge you to get off the beaten path. When someone mentions the Italian countryside, most of us think of Tuscany. And with good reason. But Italy is a country of small towns and villages, and there are countless rural regions that aren't crawling with tourists.
We decided on Abruzzo because my in-laws went two years ago and raved about it. They'd stayed at a villa called Amazing Abruzzo, opened by a couple from Ottawa who'd moved back to Italy to reconnect with their Abruzzese heritage. We were eager to give it a try, so the whole family booked a week at Amazing Abruzzo.
Jake and Lisa were spectacular hosts and took care of every single detail: all we had to do was show up. Absolutely everything was included, from airport pick-up and drop-off, to all our food, wine, excursions, cooking classes, and accommodations.
Think of an all-inclusive vacation but in the Italian countryside inside of a beach resort: we didn't pull out our wallets all week.
Our local guides Luca and Giuseppe picked us up every morning, took us all over the countryside exploring the mountains, the coast, ancient castles, and local restaurants, and brought us back in time for dinner at the villa with our phenomenal chef Cesidia. We were treated to a massive lakeside picnic by local couple Angela and Orazio: Angela's hugs and Orazio's sense of humour were legendary. And another member of the Amazing Abruzzo team, Eva, was such a gem to chat with and made some of the best cappuccinos I've ever had.
We loved every moment in Amazing Abruzzo, and the only thing we'd change next time is to cut back on some tours and spend more time enjoying the beautiful villa (and pool! and pizza oven!) that Lisa and Jake so carefully restored. Here's their website for more info on Amazing Abruzzo -- both the tours and their villa. They have a few dates left in 2019 and are currently booking 2020.
don't rush rome
Time and time again on our trip, hubby and I overheard lines like this: "oh we're just doing two days in Rome, we're stopping there on our way to [name any other Italian destination]".
After 8 days in this glorious city I can confidently say: DON'T RUSH ROME. There is so much to uncover that after a week we knew we'd barely scratched the surface. To squeeze it into a day or two on your way somewhere else is a real misstep; you won't have time to simply wander and get lost in this ancient city.
From the Forum, to the Colosseum, to tiny restaurants, huge museums, and even a cat sanctuary in the heart of Rome, there is just WAY too much to do and my advice is walk EVERYWHERE so you can soak up as much as possible.
Pro tip: if you're staying in the heart of Rome, walking is pretty much your only option anyway. Most metro stops are far enough out of the central core that they're impractical: you're looking at a 30min walk to get to the two nearest stations. But makes sense when you think of the underground ruins everywhere. Hubby and I walked about 100k during our week in Rome and we'd do it again in a heartbeat.
Now, Rome has its fair share of hawkers and scammers, but for comparison, it's not nearly as bad as Paris. Be alert in central squares and at major tourist sites, respond with a firm "NO", don't accept anything they try to hand you, and keep walking. You'll be just fine. We're not particularly experienced travellers and at no point did we feel unsafe, including at night.
eat all the things
For the love of god, eat all the things. Italy is the land of local and seasonal everything, so it isn't the place to stick to your low-carb diet or worry about dairy. That said, if you have an intolerance or allergy, Italians will do their utmost to accommodate your needs. They're consummate hosts and just want to feed you, I swear it's in their blood.
Gluten-free options are everywhere from the tiniest villages to the bustling streets of Rome, and we even noticed several entirely gluten-free restaurants. My sister-in-law is celiac and was in tears several times because she said she'd never tasted such good food in her life.
In the countryside, learn the local specialties and eat all of them. Abruzzo is a farming region full of local produce and with a rich shepherding heritage. In Italian the word for sheep is "pecorino" so we had pecorino cheese (so many kinds!), pecorino wine (a lovely crisp white), arosticini (grilled lamb kabobs)... and we also had local strawberries, artichokes, and olives, plus cherries from the backyard. As a Canadian it blows your mind.
In Rome, it's nearly impossible to have a bad meal. Compared to other major European cities like London and Paris, it's far easier to eat well in Rome without breaking the bank -- and without even doing much research. This is not an overpriced city and the "average" meal is a solid 8/10. We often just wandered into any nearby restaurant when we were hungry and only had one let-down (though that had more to do with the questionable €3 house wine than the food).
Cocktail bars are plentiful and excellent: grab an Aperol Spritz or let the bartender whip up something more adventurous. I highly recommend placing yourself in the capable hands of the bartenders at Niji (below), more on that in a sec.
where to eat & drink in rome
Cocktails: Niji Roma in Trastevere. American soul on the record player, skilled bartenders putting a local twist on classics, and free popcorn with your drinks.
Gelato: Gelateria del Teatro in Ponte. We went five times cuz it was next to our Airbnb, but frankly, all the gelato places we passed look legit. Eat it daily.
Pasta: Anywhere. Pasta in Italy was much thinner and more delicate or more meaty and al dente than we're accustomed to here in Ottawa, never fluffy or starchy and always freshly made in-house. In Rome, takeaway pasta places are plentiful and excellent: you can easily grab dinner for two for about €11.
Risotto: Risotteria Melotti Roma near Piazza Navona. 100% gluten-free and 100% delicious. Part of the family moved to New York in the early 1900s so they have a location in the East Village too! And bless them, they don't skimp on the parmesan.
Pizza: Alice Pizza. There are numerous locations throughout Rome and across Italy. We tried several locations including the one in the Jewish Ghetto, which is certified kosher and vegetarian. All other locations are non-kosher and serve both meat and dairy. In Rome, pizza is ordered by the slice and charged by weight.
don't stay in a hotel
Hubs and I decided to skip traditional hotels on this trip, and we're so glad we did. The villa in Abruzzo was beautifully restored and incredibly spacious, and we loved having easy access to our hosts' library (lots of Canadian reads!), pool, courtyard, cellar, and pizza oven. They made us feel like family. Thank you Jake and Lisa!
In Rome we opted for Airbnb Plus, which is an additional layer of verification for properties in certain major cities. In the same way that certainly hosts become Superhosts by meeting certain criteria and maintaining high reviews, verified, well-reviewed properties in some locations can now be deemed Airbnb Plus.
This was our flat and it was exactly as pictured and described. Check-in was flawless, and our host spent a full hour with us showing us around the apartment and sharing helpful tips and advice for getting acquainted with Rome. Our building was located on a beautiful, tiny street, and steps from everything. Highly recommend!
Special mention: our hosts arranged a private driver to take us back to the airport -- and we paid the same price as a cab but with a lot less hassle.
FYI there's effectively no Uber in Rome due to some squabbling with the local taxi companies, so you're on your own with cabs. And they operate bit differently than here: you can't hail them off the street, you need to go to a designated taxi waiting area. I strongly recommend downloading the MyTaxi app: it's no Uber but at least allows you to input your pick-up and drop-off locations, track your ride, and pay with your credit card rather than in cash with euros. All of this limits how much you need to speak to the driver in Italian, and lessens the chance of getting taken for a ride so to speak.
We also used Airbnb Experiences to book several tours and activities in Rome, and really enjoyed it: clear ratings and reviews, and the ability to book and pay online in your own currency. Many of the websites for popular Roman sites were extremely dated, so we felt much more confident and secure paying via Airbnb.
walk, walk, walk
Whether you're in the countryside or in the city, WALK EVERYWHERE. Between the hilly landscapes and the massive/uneven cobblestones, you're gonna want comfy, durable sneakers. The only women I saw in heels were born-and-bred Romans, and I don't know how they do it.
These are not the quaint cobblestones of Lower Manhattan or Paris, these are NEXT LEVEL and they will eat your shoes. I wore my trusty Adidas Superstars every day and they were wonderful. At night I'd switch to my Native x Beth Richards bow flats for a slightly dressier option, and they were great.
I'm by no means an expert on Italy but that's the best advice I can offer after two weeks in this magical country. Hubby and I fell head over heels and are already making plans to go back next May for our 10th anniversary. We're thinking Sicily and maybe Calabria but we're open to other ideas too. Any suggestions for us? Where are you folks headed on your travels?