by Gina Mussio
Italy is a country that has something for everyone. It has sea and mountains, countryside and city escapes. There’s art and food and architecture.
With hundreds of worthy towns and cities to explore, it can feel impossible to narrow down your options. How can you choose which destinations with so many jaw-dropping options? It’s enough to overwhelm a first-time visitor to the Bel Paese.
Our answer? Start with the absolute must-see cities. After all, the classics are classics for a reason! Deep dive into Italy’s history, architecture and art with a trip to Italy’s cultural capitals: Rome, Florence and Venice.
Between the three you’ll find the vast majority of Italy’s world famous sites. Here you can visit the country’s top museums and cathedrals and experience the best of Italian food and wine.
Most first-time visitors to Italy try to see too much in too little time but if you have at least a week, you’ve got to dedicate it to Italy’s holy trinity: Rome, Florence and Venice. An itinerary of the three gives a perfect overview of Italy’s prominent regions and historically significant sights.
The Eternal City, Caput Mundi, the City of Seven Hills – Rome is the stuff of dreams and a worthy start to any Italy trip.
There’s the Colosseum, Appia Antica, Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. There’s the Vatican City with its incredible Vatican Museums as well as St. Peter’s Basilica. There are parks and villas, museums and churches galore. There’s 2,000 years of history to see here, but you can see the headline acts with three days to explore if you plan it well.
Our Italy for First Timers itinerary offers a half-day tour with a private local guide. You can choose from a selection of half-day touring options such as Ancient Rome, Vatican City, or a culinary walking tour.
In your free time, take a walk in the city center’s nucleus to see Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, each within easy walking distance from the other. Or stroll through the old Jewish Ghetto then sip cocktails in the hip Trastevere neighborhood. The political and cultural capital of Italy, you can’t visit Italy without seeing Rome!
What to know:
Book tickets in advance to get into the Colosseum or St. Peter’s Basilica to avoid the lines and allocate at least half a day to view the museums well.
Despite the importance of the tourism industry in Rome, not everyone speaks English. That said, everyone is quite used to dealing with people who speak different languages and almost anything can be understood with a bit of patience and miming. Also keep in mind that even more than in Florence or Venice, most shops in Rome close for lunch – usually between 12:30 or 1 until 3 or 3:30 – so be sure to do your shopping in the morning or late afternoon.
Here you can choose the incomparable art in the Uffizi Gallery, the majesty of the David at the Accademia or a half-day spent exploring the massive complex of the Florence Cathedral – including a trip to the top of the dome! Whichever you choose, be sure to book your tickets ahead – tickets to the Uffizi sell out before midday and the lines seem to last for hours. You can book tickets ahead of time online for individual museums and other sites that you plan on visiting at Uffizi.org.
If you have the time and energy, consider a hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo for gorgeous views over Florence and a bonus visit to the suggestive San Miniato Church.
Florence is filled to the brim with important and impressive churches to choose from: Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito and more but if you’re strapped for time, we’d dedicate it to the Duomo for your first trip to the city. Then of course, it’s time to consider the food! Though you could spend days in each of these cities, now is your chance to jaunt out into the Tuscan countryside to enjoy the wine and culinary secrets of Tuscany’s most beautiful hilltop towns. Take a day or a half day to visit a winery or beautiful Tuscan towns like Siena or Chianti.
This itinerary offers multiple walking tours of the city, as well as a half-day private guided walking tour to see Renaissance treasures such as David. On day 6 of your journey you’ll have the choice of either exploring hilltop towns and family-run wineries with a knowledgeable local driver, or learning the secrets of Tuscan cooking with a private chef in her 17th-century Chianti estate.
What to know:
Expect to walk everywhere in Florence. The entire city center is a pedestrian zone and even taxis are limited to where they can take you so wear comfortable shoes and be ready to hit the pavement.
One of the most popular cities in Italy, but also quite small, the crowds can dampen any trip, but there are a few things you can do to ease the discomfort of the crowds like coming in the off-season, booking your museums ahead of time or finding some open space in the beautiful Boboli Gardens.
Most museums are closed on Mondays in Florence. The Accademia, the Uffizi, even Palazzo Pitti are all closed on Mondays but you can still see the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio as well as most of the city’s churches.
Florence and Tuscany in general is renowned for their fine leatherwork. Now’s the time to splurge on that handmade leather jacket, purse, belt or shoes! For a real glimpse into the craft, head to the Oltrarno (the neighborhood beyond the Arno River) to peek into the studios and see the artisans at work.
Many travelers visit Venice in a short day trip, but they miss out on the water city’s evocative evening atmosphere. Allow at least one overnight to really discover the city. Only in the early morning when the cruise ships haven’t arrived yet or in the evening when the tourists have drained out of the city will you be able to enjoy Venice at its most serene.
A tangle of alleyways and bridges, here you want to explore each unique neighborhood, the San Marco Basilica and the Palazzo Ducale. Cross the Rialto Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs or go for something unique at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.
After touring the main sites, take a water bus or water taxi to neighboring Murano to see its famed blown glass craftwork and to Burano to admire the brightly colored houses. And when it’s time to eat, seek out a café or bar for Venice’s traditional cicchetti appetizers. Great for a light lunch or a pre-dinner aperitivo, cicchetti are small plates of food served with a glass of wine. You can choose from a variety of small bruschettas topped with a different patès, meats, seafood or cheeses. Less expensive and more authentic than most restaurants in Venice, cicchetti are a great way to dive into the local culture.
Our knowledgeable local guides will lead you through the major sites such as San Marco, artisanal shops and neighborhoods, followed by a one-hour private water taxi ride through Venice’s famed canals on our Italy for First Timers trip.
What to know:
Though summer is hit by throngs of tourists, visitors during the autumn and winter months risk being there during the aqua alta, when the seawater floods the city and pedestrians can only get around on raised planks throughout the city.
Check ahead for festivals and holidays in Venice. Beyond the world-famous carnival season, every other year there is the Biennale d’Arte event, as well as an architecture one in the off years and the Venice Film Festival as well. Though the Biennale event is up all year, the Giardini della Biennale has 30 permanent Biennale pavilions and is one of the largest garden spaces on the island.
What to Know Before You Go
You’ve chosen your destinations and booked your flight but before you leave, there’s a few things you’ll need to prepare to help you have the best trip possible. Read our post on what to do before your trip to Italy.
The best way to get the most out of your time on a first trip is to have a rough itinerary for each day. You could spend weeks exploring Rome, so decide ahead of time what you absolutely have to see, then fill in any free time beyond that with secondary desires.
If your list is particularly long and you’re not already on our Italy for First Timers tour, consider booking a day tour or two to travel efficiently. A tour led by a local expert means that you don’t have to worry about navigating your way around a new place and that you actually get some background on what it is your seeing!
We have a whole article on how to pack for your Italian vacation, but one piece of advice is worth repeating: remember to bring clothes that cover shoulders and thighs to visit religious sites. Scarves work in a clinch for one of the two exposed areas. Also be sure to bring walking shoes. In Rome, Florence or Venice you’ll want comfortable sneakers for the cobbled streets. Plus you’ll be in good company; Italians tend to wear flats or tennis shoes year round, keeping the sandals for the beach.
Italy in summer is hot. Don’t be beat down by the sun – bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen to ensure you’re able to take advantage of all the time you have.
On your first trip to Italy you have to start somewhere so why not start with Italy’s three biggest destinations? After all, there’s a reason they’re on everyone’s list! There’s no better introduction to Italy than Rome, Florence and Venice, Italy’s “Holy Trinity” of cultural cities. Don’t worry about the destinations you didn’t get to – you’ll be back.