Christopher Winner, editor of Rome-based website TheAmericanMag.com, answered your questions on planning a trip to Italy.
Christopher Winner: Greetings, this is Christopher Winner in Rome. It's a lovely, sunny afternoon here. You've certainly given me a nice dose of questions and I'll do my best to answer them. Bear in mind that everything I tell you represents my views only. For every suggestion I make, there's no saying you can't invent something infinitely more resourceful. If I don't get to your question, feel free to be in touch with me individually through The American's website. I'd remind you of one thing concerning travel in Europe in 2007: your dollar now equals less than 70 euro cents, and it doesn't promise to improve. Something to think about. Now, fire away.--Christopher
Sarasota, FL: We want to take in the Wine country at harvest time in Italy...is there a wine-focused trip by bus, rail, or another way? Lived in Sonoma for years and have always wanted to see Italy and south France for the harvest season. Thanks, Rob
Christopher Winner: Dear Rob: Yes, there are wine tours -- almost too many to count. You'll find many online. Those, of course, are the organized kind. Otherwise, come to Rome in vendemmia (harvest) season, late September, rent a car here, and drive into Umbria, Lazio, and Tuscany. There are plenty of towns that are in high harvest around that time. See www.slowtrav.com.
Lincoln, Mass: I will be in Rome this June 23-30. I will be traveling with my extended family of 17 people ranging in ages from 14-88. We will not all be together every day. What are the must sees aside from Vatican museums and roman monuments (ruins)? Also, how can we avoid lines?
Thank you very much. Agnes
Christopher Winner: Dear Agnes: First off, you won't avoid lines. That's simply impossible. Rome is beloved by tourists from West and East, so you have a confluence of arrivals and a city-within-a-city of tourists in the summer season. Don't worry about this. My advice: WALK. The great French writer Stendhal was so charmed by this that he wrote three volumes of memoirs titled: "Promenades in Rome" -- all about his walking tours, bumping through backstreets. Take walking tours through the center, map in hand, and let yourself stumble onto things. Go to Trastevere, the neighborhood nearest the Vatican, and walk up to the Garibaldi stature on Monte Mario. Explore behind the Coliseum, and walk the tiny green streets around the Aventine Hill (Aventino on a map). There is a beautiful park, the Celimontana, behind the Coliseum, but few go there. Don't make too grand a list, because you'll find there's simply too much to see and think yourselves disappointed and having missed out. Remember, there's no such thing as missing out on a city when you're in it. Take it in. Whatever you enjoy is unique to your time there.
Huntington Beach, CA: I would like to plan a trip to Sicily. I'm debating whether or not to take a group tour or base myself in one city and take organized day tours. Also, since I'm retired, I can travel any time of year. What is the best time to avoid heat or heavy rains? Your views on this would be appreciated.
Christopher Winner: Sicily is beautiful, confusing, and challenging for travelers of any age. It has its own peculiar rhythm in which time seems to slow down. The coasts, for example, are remarkable, but rarely visited comprehensively because they're a bit often the beaten track (with the exception of few famous resorts, Taormina, for example). Probably the best way to see it, honestly, is with a rental car and time on your hands -- allowing for misadventures. But if you want a more realistic approach, I think your best bet is either spending some time in Palermo and Catania, and moving out from to nearby local towns, or taking a tour. If you do plan a tour, I strongly recommend you do so from the United States so that your situation is organized when you arrive. You do not want to find yourself in Sicily trying to make it up as you go along, unless you're extremely adventurous. As for time of year, avoid the high season. Shoot for October, even November. The climate is temperate. Sicily is always about 5 to 10 degrees warmer than Rome. Another option is March, before Easter, or May, just after. June through September are the hottest months.
Omaha, NE: I have 2 full days to spend in Rome. How do I fit in all of the most important sights.
Christopher Winner: I'll stress this many times: Don't try to fit everything in. So many people come to Rome with a laundry list and then rue what they don't see. Just pick the things YOU find most interesting and see them. ENJOY THE CITY. Sights don't necessarily define a trip. Traveling is best, I think, when you leave a place satisfied that you've plumbed its mood. Of course, go to the Vatican and walk by the Forum, but otherwise I fall back on my old suggestion: Take the map out, pick a point near the center (the Trevi fountain, say), and walk. Or go to the popular piazza Campo de' Fiori and take a trip down Via del Governo Vecchio, which has a slew of artisan stores. The center, in Italian, is centro storico, or historic center. A promenade through the narrow streets of the center can yield as much satisfaction as the bigger sights. I remember 30 years ago when I first arrived being exhausted in the Forum, and then meandering up to the mayor's office on the Capitoline hill (next door) for a break. There, I found my favorite balcony in a tiny piazza that overlooks the full sprawl of the Forum. The view from that spot (also the mayor's view from his windows) was worth the day. That's how Rome is: one place, even obscure, that's worth your day.
Fort Worth, Texas: My husband and I are planning to spend Christmas 2007 in Rome, Italy. We've secured airline tickets, but not a hotel. We would like to stay near popular sights, but somewhere quiet where we can get enough rest to overcome our busy days. What do you suggest? Also, any special do-not-miss Christmas activities in Rome? Finally, how do we get tickets to Christmas mass at the Vatican?
Christopher Winner: Dear Christine: Quickly on this one: Christmas Mass at the Vatican is first-come, first-in. Tickets are only to the religious and dignitaries. I'll get to hotel suggestions later;
Lansing, MI: I'm planning my first trip to the Amalfi coast/Positano in September or October of this year and plan to travel alone. How can I maximize my experience and not pay an arm and a leg for accommodations and excursions?
Christopher Winner: Get to Naples. Find an inexpensive pensione there; get your bearings. Then, board the bus bound Amalfi way. It'll take you to Positano and Sorrento and other points south. Each of these towns has pensiones that are usually available in October, which is the first of the slower months. If you were traveling in summer, I'd say book ahead. Do so if you wish, but I think October travel is far "friendlier". You should have no problem, particularly if you pause in Naples to take stock.
Newtown, PA: I will be traveling to Sicily with my aunt to tour and travel to the hometown of my grandfather, VillaRosa. We are thinking of staying in Toarmina and wondering if this is the best location for us. Thanks.
Christopher Winner: Taormina is stunning, and stunningly overpriced. Make it a day-trip. Or, find one of the B&Bs or small hotels (Pensione Svizzera and Villa Schuler, I remember; $120-150), but make sure to book early.
Louisville, KY: We are 4 folks in our mid-fifties traveling to Italy in early May on a leisure tour including Rome, Florence, and Venice. With our free days (one+ per city) some of us want to go on a bike ride, have a cooking lesson, and find a yarn store. Any suggestions?
Christopher Winner: Bike is no problem. There are rental outfits in Rome and Florence (not Venice, it's not a bike city). Here's a Rome site for rentals: Click here. Regarding cooking, there are dozens of cooking classes, but most last a week or two. Get in touch with my friend Wendy, who's an expert: FlavorOfItaly.com
Miami, FL: My fiance and I will be going on our honeymoon November 26th for 16 days. We are 29 & 34 years old. Neither of us have traveled to Italy, and we love food, wine, and beautiful scenery. We want to start in Paris for 3 nights, head to Positano for 3 nights, Rome for 3 nights, and Florence for 3 nights. I have questions about the weather in Amalfi coast for the first week of december. Is it too cold? Is everything open? Is it worth the stop considering the time of year? Also, what are great places to eat, plus nice, centralized hotels?
Christopher Winner: Dear Eli: Positano is unpredictable in December: could be temperate, could be rainy. Still, it's delightful, even under cloudy skies. Yes, all is open ¿ though some seasonal hotels could be closed. I'd honestly recommend, for romance's sake, that you consider staying on Capri or Ischia. True, not all hotels are open, but there are a few, and you'll have these jewels to yourself. As for Positano hotels (affordable ones), try Buca di Baco and the Murat. We have a few nice restaurant choices on our site (theamericanmag.com) under food. But, admittedly, not all are open in December.
Westampton, NJ: My husband and I are hoping to plan a return trip to Italy, perhaps next spring, our prior experience being several ports on a cruise. We're both in our late 50s but my husband has medical conditions that limit his mobility (he is still ambulatory) and we're both reluctant to drive on foreign roads. How would we go about putting together a package covering Florence and Tuscany using perhaps a driver, public transportation, or a combination of the two. We do not speak Italian. Thank you.
Christopher Winner: Given what you've told me, I think this is just the kind of trip that can't be left to chance. Italy can be exasperating when it comes to instant organization. Find a tour company in the States that can set this up for you. This is just the kind of trip that should be organized for you, so you don't face the small and large problems "cold turkey" afford. Public transportation, while comprehensive, is exhausting, and I don't recommend it if there are matters of health involved.
Portland, OR: I'm traveling to Italy with my husband in late April (April 29-May 13) to celebrate our 4th wedding anniversary. We're traveling from Portland to LAX to London to Rome (whew!) and will be doing the reverse out of Venice. We're traveling to Rome, Siena, Vernazza, and Venice.
A few questions:
- What is the best way to travel around (train, bus?)
- Should we purchase those tickets ahead of time, or are we okay to do so the day of travel (or a day or so before)?
- We would like to visit Pisa on the way from Siena to Vernazza (and will be traveling by train, most likely). Is this an easy or convenient stop-off and can we store our luggage at the train station? How far is it then to the Leaning Tower from the train station?
- What are the best day trips from Siena (we're there for only a couple of days) and is it easy to get around by bus (we aren't planning to rent a car - unless you recommend it!).
Thank you! Grazie!
Christopher Winner: Prego, Rebecca: Quick answers:
2. You're fine purchasing the tickets at the station. Italy's not yet in the e-ticket era. You can check schedules at TrenItalia's website.
3. Leaning tower is 20 minutes from the station. There are no longer lockers, for security reasons.
4. Siena is worth a day alone, at least. There is Pienza, Montepulciano...the list goes on. But bus service is mediocre, so without a car it'll be very hard.
I can't stress enough, and I notice this in other messages: People are planning ambitious outings. Think smaller and you'll enjoy far more. Prowling Siena quietly is a fine idea, rather than feeling compelled to go to smaller nearby towns, which are in essence carbon copies of Siena but a bit more quaint.
cazenovia,ny: Would like to rent an apartment in Rome for 7-10 days in March 2008. Have heard that the area near Colosseum is quiet and affordable. Agenda is restful, visiting a few sites--Vatican City, Forum and a few others. We like to walk and would have lunches out during the day. We have limited international travel experience, strictly tours. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks, Bill
Springfield, IL: We want to plan a trip to Tuscany for our 30th wedding anniversary in the next four years. We want to see the scenery, taste the food, perhaps sample a few wines. What do you suggest that will be affordable yet not physically exhausting as well as my husband has some health issues? Thanks, Lori
Christopher Winner: Lori, Pick a town such as Siena and go from there. Fly to Rome, train or car to Siena, and see Tuscany from this mid-size home base. Florence is more daunting. Spending a week, say, in Siena would allow you to make day trips.
Mantoloking, NJ: Where in Tuscany would you recommend for a two week stay in a villa? I am planning a family reunion for 6 adults and 4 children (ages between 7-13) for July 2008. We are also planning a 3 night stay in Rome on the front end and a 3 night stay in Venice on the back end of the two weeks. Will we need air conditioning in Tuscany in July? We plan to leave from EWR.
Christopher Winner: Three villas to look into, one in Umbria, two in Tuscany. Tuscany, Villa Nava: Tuscan and this charming (new) locanda Locanda Toscanini
There are dozens of other choices, so shop. As for AC, yes, Tuscany can be brutal. There are more electric fans than AC units, so be prepared.
Tampa, FL: Hi Christopher. My Mom and I are planning to go to Italy next year, for the first time. There are some very attractive cruises. We figure we will visit the different cities along the way to be able to know the areas to concentrate our future visits. Of course, I can see myself renting a car and cruising the countryside on the next trip. Your thoughts please.
Craving the Culture and People of Italy
Christopher Winner: Dear Mary, I'd find an area you like, maybe based on the cruise, and go from there. So much time is focused on Tuscany that few people head further south, into Puglia and Calabria, where the nature is rugged and beautiful. So keep an open mind. Buone cose, C
Key West, FL: We are going to Lake Como area. Using a FF award, we will be flying to Zurich on 20 August, return on 6 Sept., and will have a place to stay in Cernobbio, Lake Como, for a few days. Otherwise we are wondering about getting around the region by train vs. car. I think we are decided to train from Zurich to Italy upon arrival, to give our jet-weary selves (DFW to ZRH) a more pleasant start. I know there are extensive ferry networks on the lake itself but am wondering if we want to go to Lake Maggiore or others and about any other culinary, cultural, historical, and horticultural sights--our big interests--that we should not miss. In addition, we want to spend a few days in Zurich and maybe a quick visit to Milan, a day trip or overnight, since it is so close. We are 2 able-bodied guys age 50 and 60, who would also enjoy any natural areas, some hiking or walking, and seeing the wildlife. Any advice is much appreciated
Christopher Winner: The lake region is under-estimated in planning-time terms. If you're doing Como and Maggiore that'll be several days by itself, at least to walk and hike it well. Since you'll have a car, you can take in the other lakes, Garda and Lugano. Bear in mind Emilia has a plethora of top-rated restaurants.
Omaha, NE: We want to go on a "sailing" ship, not a cruise ship, from Venice to Rome, or vise a versa, in September or October. My husband, 15-year-old daughter and I will be traveling. Is a sailing vessel experience worth the additional money? We haven't been to Italy before. Will we see enough of the country traveling in this manner? We thought going this way would make it easier, having lodging and transportation taken care of as we see the country. Good idea, or rethink this?
Christopher Winner: Dear Punkie, Fascinating but impractical. Rome is on the Tyrrhenian, Venice on the Adriatic. You'd need to cross the country. Anything's possible, of course, but it seems to me time-consuming and not really an effective way of "living" Italy. You'd be mostly on water, with only the Rome-coast inland trip. Bottom line, rethink.
Mequon, WI: We will be in Italy from May 28 - June 7. We plan to spend one week in Sicily, and the last 2 days in Milan. We are thinking of renting a car for Sicily. We would appreciate any tips on lesser-priced accommodations, as well as itinerary suggestions. This is a special 60th birthday vacation, so any tips would be great! Thanks! Deborah
Christopher Winner: Dear Deborah, Yes, rent the car in Sicily. It's the only way to see the island well. One suggestion is to drive the coast from Palermo to Catania. The road is good and the coastal spots vary between modest and luxurious (Cefalu, Milazzo, Taormina). But before departing, stop in Monreale, near Palermo. The astonishing Byzantine cathedral there is a must.
New York, NY: Describe an ideal trip for one week in the Italian Lake District and when would be the best time of year to go.
Christopher Winner: Rental car from Milan. Then Maggiore, Lugano, and Como (Garda also, with a stop in the town of Gargnano). Leave Sept. 20-25, return early October.
Houston, TX: Where is the best place to visit in southern Italy during the month of July?
Christopher Winner: Depends on the trip you have in mind and how wedded you are to the traditional sites. I'd do something that frees you from the tourist shackles: head dead south for Reggio by car. It's in the boot. The terrain is by turn rugged and wooded. Much of the coastline is unspoiled. The towns are rustic in the real sense, not the now-trumped up Tuscany model. The deep south is something no one dares take on except Italians, because they know how to get away in a literal sense. Whatever you do in July, you'll face periods of extreme heat and no AC.
Philadelphia, PA: My far-flung former college roommates and I are meeting up for a girls' getaway in Italy. Hailing from Philadelphia, Phoenix, Chicago, and San Fran, we'll arrive in Rome on the morning of Saturday, May 19, and depart Milan on Sunday, May 27. The four of us will visit Rome after two days, and travel on to see our fifth friend who lives on the Amalfi Coast.
We have big ambitions to see a lot of Italy, and are hoping you can help us to divide up our nights and activities, as well as travel arrangements. Here are the places we'd like to hit:
Naples coastal region and Capri
Florence and Tuscany
Milan and Lake Como
We're a fun-loving, inexhaustible group of 29- and 30-year-olds, and one in our group is taking her first international trip!; Our interests are diverse, and though we'd like to spend a half-day taking in culture in Rome, Florence, and Milan, we also love the nightlife, casual Italian dining, and relaxing over a bottle of vino rosso. We're all comfortable with driving or public transit, and can read a bit of Italian.
We hope you can help us to have our best girlfriends' getaway ever!
Christopher Winner: Well, ladies, you'll have to keep the men at bay. But that'll be part of the fun. Rome and the Amalfi Coast are worth at least four of your seven days, because you do need that jaunt to Capri. It's one of the delights of the known universe. The nearby Amalfi towns, Amalfi itself, Positano, Sorrento, Ravello, are all little jewels. Plenty of wine (vino bianco at this time of year) and languorous evenings in store there. You can get from Naples to Florence in four hours, so that's not a problem. But beware of packing too much into a short trip. Concentrate your time in Rome and Florence (and points south). Milan and Como are their own separate adventure, and have an entirely different tone. You do them no justice trying to cram them in. I'd get to Milan a day before you leave and take a walk through the city, but that's all. As for travel, ride the train. More fun. You see people, faces, and there's personal interaction. Getting used to Italian driving in a hurry is tough, and more important (listen up travelers) parking is very difficult -- particularly in May, when Italians have yet to begin the summer break. As for nightlife, it'll come to you. In Rome and Florence, there are tons of New York-style wine bars. There's the Soci?t? Lut?ce at Piazza Montevecchio, in the center of Rome. It's one of many trendy spots. Just make sure you're all keeping track of your whereabouts, particularly if you're hitting nightspots. Dining, despite all the hype, can be hit and miss. There's nice list of places on our Web site and countless other Web resources. Try to stay away from places that openly advertise tourist menus. Also, unless your Amalfi friend has you set up, get your sleeping arrangements set up before you come. You're freer to move around that way. A general tip about public transportation: buses do not sell tickers on board. Whether in Rome, Florence, or Milan, go to a local tobacco store -- tabbachiao (pronounced TAH-BA-KAI-YO) -- and pick up tickets, so you have some handy. Also, traveling by train, once you buy your ticket VALIDATE it in one of many machines in the station (they're yellow). Otherwise you risk being fined. You'll have a great time, but remember that when it comes to a week's vacation in a group sometimes it's not what you try to cram in but what you leave out. Less can be more.
Yonkers, NY: My husband and I are doing a three night pre "wind star cruise" trip to Rome in late October. What is the best way to see Rome in that amount of time? We are in our 50's and usually do a lot of walking when site seeing. How do we find non-touristy restaurants that are reasonably priced, especially considering the value of the euro now? We are staying at the Hotel Golden near Via Veneto.
Christopher Winner: Three days and the location of the hotel should give you plenty of time to wander. As for dining, the lists go on and on and on. As mentioned, we have our own, by our writers who live here. I'd recommend a jaunt to Viale Parioli where you'll find two typical Rome spots that are upscale but still not tourist-jammed, Caminetto and La Scala. No telling where the euro will be in October, but expect to pay between $35 and $60 a head for a full meal. Pizza, of course, is far cheaper, but man (and woman) cannot live on pizza alone.
Aurora, CO: We are going on a 12-day cruise next Oct. We will be staying in Rome 3 nights before the cruise and 3 nights after. Can you suggest a good area of Rome to stay in? Any specific hotels that are reasonably priced?
Christopher Winner: Mike, Try these: Hotel Dinesen, Via di Porta Pinciana; tel. 06.460932; Hotel Sole al Pantheon, Piazza della Rotonda, 63; tel. 06. 6780441 or Hotel Ponte Sisto, Via dei Pettinari 64; tel 06.6568843. All are central and run between $100 and $200 a night. The Sole can be a bit "down-and-outish," but with prices out of control, it's just fine;
East Chatham, NY: A friend & I are discussing going BACK to Italy (on our own - no tour), and staying on the Amalfi Coast. We have traveled a lot together since the kids have grown & our tastes are similar. Our one stumbling block is where to stay on the Coast that will give us the most easily accessible stay - to things to see, restaurants to visit, shopping to do, etc. As everything we've read, suggest not to have a vehicle. I'm tending to think Positano??? Or am I off base. And without a car, where do we fly in to & how do we get to "the apartment" we'd like to rent (instead of a hotel)?
Christopher Winner: Dear Ellen, Sure, Postitano. But for that matter, there are inexpensive hotels and other lodging in Sorrento and Amalfi, Ravello also. I'm afraid I disagree about the car. While I tend to prefer the train to travel, once you're in a spot and want to move around, particularly on the coast, you're deeply restricted without a rental. Also, there's the fun of getting a little lost from time to time. The site (Positanonline.it) has apartment offerings. Look under OSPITALITA. All you need is a basic Italian speaker -- and my guess is with a little push you can find one.
Los Angeles, CA: Is it best to see Italy on a cruise trip or by land ?
Christopher Winner: One by land, two by sea. One is number one. Land, always.
Cherry Hill, NJ: In mid-May we will driving south in Italy, and would like to stop in Naples and take a ferry over to Ischia or any of the other islands. Where do we exit from the Autostrada? Do we need advance reservations if we are taking the car on the ferry? etc.? Can any of this be done by ourselves through the internet because so far, no luck researching. Also, would like to see some of Naples, but hear only that we don't want to go there because of the crime. Is this true? Are there any safe areas? Grazie, Russell
Christopher Winner: Russell, From the autostrada, take any NAPOLI exit and then look for signs to MERGELLINA. It'll cost you some confusion, yes, but Mergellina is the port stop from which all ferries depart. Forget about online booking. You'll need to do that on the spot. I have no concerns about Naples unless you leave your car unlocked or leave things unattended. The "crime" hype is exaggerated, as with all such things. And in any event, the criminal struggles for turf are internal and not directed at tourists. Of course, be vigilant. But I've driven in and out of Naples for decades, facing confusion, but nothing more.
Melbourne, FL: Arriving Bari, Italy 27 May on ferry- 4 adults, 4 children 6 to 17. We want to take the ES train from Bari to Rome and want to buy our tickets beforehand as we have NO flexibility on our itinerary, but find the Trenitalia web site extremely frustrating. What are the chances of getting seat reservations on the train we need on the day of travel? Also, it seems there are no discounts on the Italian trains unless someone in your party has a "citizen only" issued Cartavaggio card. Is this true? Thanks!
Christopher Winner: Yes, Trenitalia is confusing. So stop trying. You will get a reservation on the travel day. You may not sit together and it may not be the happiest trip, but May 27 is still outside high season and I see no reason worry. You are correct: discounts are nearly impossible. The system is structured to dissuade them, since the railroads need the cash.
Danville, IL: What is the best way to see Italy? Cruise? Self-drive? Guided, package tour? Trains between towns? And which is the best value?
Christopher Winner: Deb, tough question, since it involves taste and needs. To me, you do it by train, carried place to place on whim. Period.
Northampton MA: I have read about boarding with Nuns in Italy. Would you tell me more about this?
Christopher Winner: There are convents and monasteries that offer lodging, yes. Have a look at this:
Villa Maria Pia: I know it's in Italian, but maybe you can get help with that. It's just one, but there are many.
This site was compiled for a Rome religious conference in 2004, but still has useful addresses and rates: The Way Home
Smithtown, NY: We are a group of six ladies traveling to italy for a 40th and 50th bday celebration. We want to travel 2008 and are wondering when would we see the most savings on airfare and lodging - spring or fall? And is it better to be based in one location or travel from city to city. We want to see Rome, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Naples and Tuscany. Thanks for any advice you can give us.
Christopher Winner: Fall. My advice: pick three locations and focus on those.
Boston, MA: My sister and I were thinking of visiting Italy (Rome, Venice and Florence) in July. We are first-timers and a couple of people have told us that Italy is too hot ("You'll be miserable!"), too crowded and too expensive during the summer months. They say we should go during the spring or fall. True? If so, we might have to put this trip off for a long time, because her kids are still small and she can only travel in the summer when they'll be with their dad.
Christopher Winner: Italy is largely without AC comforts (except in major hotels). That can make Americans truly miserable in the summer. If you suffer the heat, stay away in July and August. Come in March or October. February is my favorite month because it's the last one free of the crush. Also, nights in Rome in Feb can be astounding. I've stood alone in front of the Pantheon at 1 am. Too cold for the Romans. It's quite moving.
Fort Lauderdale (Venice of America), FL: How many days should I allow for a trip to Venice. Is it possible to hit the highlights in one day?
Christopher Winner: Superficial Venice can be done in a day, yes. The Venice of backstreets and mood, of the slightly more brooding, darker side, requires days. I've spent minimum 4-day stretches there, just to feel a little at home and lost at the same time.
Stow, OH: For a first time visitor to Italy with only about 5 days what would be your top recommendations of places to visit?
Christopher Winner: Rome and Venice. In 5 days, that's all I'd do. Sure, you can add Florence, but the hourglass will begin eating into "quality time."
brooklyn, new york: Hi Christopher. My husband and I will be in Milan August 31 and September 1, before a 7 day walking tour of the Italian Lake District (beginning Sept. 2). What would a great itinerary in Milan be? We are early 60s and healthy, athletic types. We like history, shopping, eating.
Christopher Winner: Dear Fern, Just park yourself in the arcades near the Duomo and then begin walking, map in hand. I'd recommend you have a look at the "Quadrilatero" column on our site. The author is an American journalist in Milan who offers thoughts and tips in some of her columns. Take in Via Montenapoleone for the storefronts and La Scala for obvious reasons. The restaurants are exquisite. We have a list, so do others. Milan is simply not a stunning town visually. It's clean, upright, even staid. It has those Austrian touches.
New York, NY: Hello. I am planning a surprise trip to Italy for my partner's birthday at the end of Sept.- or early Oct, 2007. I would like to include time in Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice and Milan. I am not interested in a tour with a set itinerary as we like to allow time to relax and be spontaneous so I would like advice on reasonable airfares and the best way to do a car rental self-directed tour with time to relax as well as sightsee in about a 10-11 day time frame. We like to stay in hotels that are clean with good amenities but budget-minded.
Thank you for your help,
Christopher Winner: Dear Lorraine, If relaxing is what you have in mind, select three of the cities you've mentioned and focus on those, You should be able to find an excellent fare at that time (booking now). The ideal solution would be fly into Rome or Milan and leave from the other city. Arrive in Milan, say, rent a car, and drive south to Rome. Or the other way. I'd say 3 days in Rome, 3 in Florence, 2 in Venice. I keep seeing people who want to vacation and yet have itineraries so ambitious that they'll only end up half-exasperated. If you do these three cities and add some nice meals it'll be more pleasurable for the both of you (in fact, honestly, I'd just do two cities).
Mansfield Center, CT: My husband and I are traveling to Italy at the end of May. We will be staying in Rome for two nights then traveling to Spoleto by train. Should I purchase train tickets after our arrival or buy a train pass here in the States? We will probably make several trips to Florence, Siena, Assisi from Spoleto during our two-week stay. What's the most economical strategy?
Christopher Winner: Dear LuAnn, Absolutely buy the tickets here. No problem. You can now use your credit card and purchase tickets automatically in Rome and Milan. There are computer terminals, with an English-language touch-screen. Remember, STAMP YOUR TICKETS before boarding the trains.
Brooklyn, New York: Hi, My husband and I are going on a 2-week tour of Italy in 3 weeks. The question I have is it worth it to stay in a Tuscan hillside town? We are concerned if we should just base ourselves out of Siena and then drive around or actually stay at Montalcino or another town. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Christopher Winner: Dear Crystal, No, stay in Siena. It gives you more options.
Sanibel Island, FL: We are trying to plan a trip to Florence this Fall or next Spring and would like to rent a villa or large apartment outside of Florence for my wife and myself and three of our adult children. We have seen a number of web sites advertising such accommodations -- however, friends have warned us of the need to be careful because the photos often do not reflect what you're renting or can be misleading. Can you offer some guidance on how to proceed or recommend a source that we might contact to find quality accommodations in the Florence area? We are anticipating staying two or three weeks and will be flying from Washington D.C. to Florence. Will appreciate your suggestions.
Christopher Winner: Tough question, because I know only a few villas. I answered another question on this and I'll stick by those limited answers. I will say that you are right to be vigilant. Italy is a "hot" destination, and sadly some are taking advantage. I'd do considerable homework on this.
North Easton MA: Our book group, 4 women of a certain age - 60-62, and one member's daughter, 37, will spend two weeks in southern Italy June 29 to July 13, leaving from Boston. We have reservations in Sorrento for two days at the beginning of our vacation in order to experience the Amalfi coast, despite the tourist clog. And we have rented a home in Gioioso Ionico for the remainder of the time. We will visit Sicily from Messina at least once. We want the flavor of the villages on the Ionic coast to be the heart of our visit. What should we not miss? And what festivals will occur during those dates? Any advice would be helpful. Thank you, Lois
Christopher Winner: Dear Lois, Truthfully, this is something best determined once your there. Much that's both wonderful and exasperating here is the lack of resources to know what specific towns are planning. If you do get to Sicily, try to go overland to Agrigento. That, I think, is worth it.
Miami, FL: I am a single, somewhat attractive blonde with limited financial resources, and need to do private research on an historical figure. Sources in England, etc. have been explored, and at this time, "All roads lead to Padua" where he lived in a palazzo for 40+ years. I speak a little Spanish and French and would like to know a safe place to stay for a few weeks. The dates for this longed-for trip are flexible and I would be leaving from Miami. I have never been to Italy and any help/advice would be greatly appreciated.
Christopher Winner: Somewhat attractive? We'll have none of that. Padova has plenty of small hotels. You'd be best office doing this in October-November, when rates fall. I can't recommend a place offhand, but I honestly don't think that safety is an issue. Yes, a single woman runs the risk of advances, but that's true worldwide. The point is whether this means you're unsafe. I don't think so. Italy is largely a benign place. Plenty of men and women come alone to do research all over all year round, so don't worry. Just ensure you make a few friends on this end so people know you're alive and well and can stay in touch with you.
Greenville, SC: I am interested in traveling to southern Italy but have heard it can be a bit dangerous (port towns notorious for crime?). Any advice on where to go and, most importantly, where not to go would be most appreciated, especially since on my first trip to Italy everything was stolen out of my suitcase in the airport! And on the second trip, my wallet was stolen by a pick-pocket. Thanks for your help.
Christopher Winner: Things can go bad anywhere. And yes, there are some tough neighborhoods in Naples and Palermo. The truth is that, pick-pocketing and airport "crime" aside, you're simply not in danger here. If you put on a game face, look like you know what you're looking for (even if you don't), and stay away from stray invitations, you'll be fine anywhere in the south. The southerners are, I find, infinitely more hospitable and giving than the people of the north. Use the rules of New York, carry little cash, leave your passport at the hotel (carry a Xerox copy of the detail page), and don't flirt with armed men, or women.
Huntsville, AL: I have found my maternal grandmother's home in northern Italy (near Asiago) and would like to visit them. I am willing to develop the necessary language skills to converse with them but I am unsure about the need to learn local dialects. I also am adequate in German and would be able to use this language if these people have a working knowledge of it. What should I do?
Christopher Winner: The Italian will do you just fine for starters. And the German will help immensely. I see no problems. It's lilting Italian and Swiss German, but if you have the basics you'll manage.
portland, oregon: My husband and I are going to Italy for the first time this September. We will spend 3 days outside of Turin, 3 days in Venice, 1 in Siena, 2 in Cinque Terra, and 2 weeks at a villa outside of Orvieto. We are foodies, and my husband's business is selling wild mushrooms. We would like to hook up with people for cooking classes and especially for wild mushroom hunting. Do you have any suggestions for finding someone (especially in the Piedmonte area) who could guide us on a fun day of looking for wild mushrooms? We will be a bit too early for truffles, but maybe porcini?
Thanks, Sharon and Casey
Christopher Winner: Dear Sharon and Casey, For this, I recommend you write to our food columnist Aaron Maines, who's email address is on his column Foodbox on the Web site. He's a mushroom ace.
Hutchinson, KS.: We are doing a 12 day Mediterranean cruise Oct. 4, 2007 out of Rome. We're doing a 2 day pre-cruise staying in the centrally located Hotel Diana. We're pre-buying the air, transfers, and excursions but we'll still need some money for cabs and tips. Are there ATMs nearby? How much money should we take for 2 days worth of food tips and cabs? Also, we're catching our transfer on sailing day from the Visconti Palace. Is this within walking distance from the Hotel Diana or should we take a cab? What can we expect the cab charge to be? I was also told not to drink the water--just bottled? Thanks.
Christopher Winner: Rome water is excellent. No worries there. If you prefer bottled, that's fine too. I'd have 200 or 300 euros handy, but remember that ATMs (called Bancomat) are ubiquitous. Cab drop rate in Rome is 2.44 euros (more that $3), but most short trips run between 7 and 14 euros. Cabs in Rome are called, not caught on the street, which means they arrive sometimes with hefty amounts on the meter.
Chicago, IL: My fiance and i will be in Italy for about 2 weeks during July this summer for our Honeymoon. Can you please suggest a list of things we can do to really take advantage of this special time in our lives? We have decided to spend all of our time in Venice, Florence and Rome.
Thank you very much.
Birju and Shilpi
Christopher Winner: Dear Birju and Shilpi, You know, this question is so vast there's no start-point. A honeymoon is a honeymoon and you don't need anyone's advice. These are cities whose beauty flirts with you, aggressively. You don't need me to indicate anything. Just take in the sights and one another. Ask me for details on your next trip. The first should just be letting the cities and viccoli surprise you.
Deep Gap, NC: What is the "rule" for tipping in Italy. I will be visiting there the first week in June. I've been given several different pieces of advice on the subject.
Christopher Winner: Good question. Tipping isn't necessary but essential. A paradox, but there you have it. The service industry pays little. People need tips. I've always been generous in restaurants and with cabs because I know what the real wages are. I hear people in restaurants asking if the "service charge" is included. When they're told it is, they don't tip. Mistake. Tipping is a gesture of respect to those who served you. It goes above and beyond what the employer gives to employee. It's a bond-maker. Even if it's only 1 euro on 15, leave it. Show good will. (Average annual wage in Italy is under $20,000, for context.)
Hi, Christopher: My husband and I will be on a cruise from May 10th to the 30th to the Mediterranean. On May 22 we will be in Florence and doing it on our own but will have only about five hours there. We have tickets to see David at the Accademia at noon. What should we try to see around that area in the length of time we have? We will probably arrive by coach by 10 am and then probably leave by 3pm. We only plan on the one museum. Also, can you recommend an eating place near the plaza that is reasonable for lunch?
Thanks so much! --Jane
Christopher Winner: Dear Jane, Just see the David and pick a spot from our restaurant list: The American magazine
Hi, Christopher. My wife and I will be on a Mediterranean cruise from May 10th to May 30th. We will be in port at Palermo, Sicily from 8am until 7pm. We have not signed up for any shore excursions but what do you suggest we do and see on our own, in that length of time? Any suggestions will be appreciated! Thanks so much.
Christopher Winner: Dear John, with so little time, just get to the Palazzo dei Normanni, and walk around in that area.
Baltimore, MD: My husband and I are in the early stages of planning an economy trip to Italy. We hope to leave on July 19th and return on August 1. Since we find that it takes two hours to get to Dulles Airport from our home in Baltimore, we prefer to use BWI. Which airlines offer the best deals from BWI? We want to visit Rome, Pompeii, Assisi, Florence, Venice and Bologna, all of which we will do by train. It would be nice to be able to arrive in Rome and depart from the Northeast, but if it would significantly raise the cost of a flight, we can take a train back to Rome. Please advise!
Christopher Winner: Newark offers some relatively inexpensive flights to Rome and Milan. Also check Swiss. But if you're flying in that time frame I fear you'll find only high fares.
Roswell, Georgia: My husband and I will arrive in Civitavecchia Italy via Princess Cruise on Sunday, September 2, 2007. We would like to pick up a rental car to travel north along the Italian coast and possibly toward the Lake District. We plan to spend two nights in the Florence area and the last two night at the Rome Fiumicino Airport Hilton, leaving on Monday, September 10. We will travel the other four nights. We would like to return the car on Saturday, September 8, 2007. What is the best way to rent a car for this time period, the best company, where to pick up and return? Are there specific things that we should be cautious about? Should we combine car travel with train travel?
Christopher Winner: Dear Linda, As in the States, it's far more expensive to drop-off a car in a secondary destination than drive it back to where you picked it up. So there's that. Check the Europcar rates. I think you'll find it alarmingly expensive to pick up a car in Rome and drop it off in Milan, so you might want to take a train to Rome and move from there, perhaps even by rail.
Munster, IN: What is the easiest and best way to organize a trip for a group of middle-aged people to Italy (around 10 people) in the spring of 2008? We are departing from Chicago O'Hare.
Christopher Winner: I'm afraid that one's on your end. I'd be remiss recommending tour operators from here.
Rockford, MI: If you were in Rome for the first time, for 3 days, and preferred to walk rather than cab, where would you stay to best access the major attractions?
Christopher Winner: My apartment. Which looks out over the Villa Borghese. I can tell time by when the lions roar and the elephants bray. They're hungry: lions at 2, elephants at 5.
Short of that, Hotel Locarno, Via della Penna, 22. Tel. 06.3610841. A chocolate cake of a hotel, perfectly located in the center near Piazza del Popolo.
Portland, OR: My elderly , but in good shape, mother and I will be traveling in Italy in May. We will see Rome (3 nights), Venice(2 nights), Florence (3, with day trip to Sienna & San Gimgnano), Cinque Terre (2 nights) then back to Rome to fly home. We have two more nights after Cinque Terre before we head to Rome to fly home. Where would you suggest we spend those two days? We are using Eurail passes and won't have a car. We were thinking about Pisa and Lucca but not sure. Any Ideas? Grazie! Ann
Christopher Winner: Dear Ann, Fine with Pisa and Lucca, but why leave out Genoa?
Houma, LA: I take my small dog where ever I go. If I take my dog to Italy will I have to face quarantine in Italy or in the USA upon return?
Christopher Winner: Good you asked. Our pet columnist, Erica Firpo, did several columns on this. You can find them in the archives under LEI MORDE, the name of the column. "Animal Rules" and "Travel Blues" are the names of the relevant articles in the drop-down menu.
Bartlett, TN: My best friend and I will be in Florence in early June for three days. While there, I'd like to take a day trip through Tuscany to visit some vineyards. Should we rent a car or take a tour? And if we rent a car, do I need an international driver's license?
Christopher Winner: Yes, an international license and your valid US license. You can get away with just the latter, but it's unwise.
New York, NY: We want to spend 1 week in Italy, off the beaten path, getting to know the local culture, people, etc. And also enjoy the beauty of Italy. What would be the best place? Cinque Terre was one suggestion someone gave us.
Christopher Winner: Cinque Terra, in Liguria, has a strong flavor. That's a good choice. Another might be to spend time in the town of Urbino, in the Marche region. It's a stunning walled city with deep character and good people. Nearby is another stunning medieval town, Gubbio.
Dover, DE: My husband and I are in the early stages of planning a trip to Italy next year. This will be our first trip to Italy, and our second trip to Europe. Our first trip was to Paris and we did the planning ourselves. We would like to get to as many places/sites in Italy as we can as we don't know if we'll return. We normally travel in cooler weather when places are not so crowded. We would like to know when the best time to travel to Italy would be based on our above-mentioned preference. We would also like to know whether going through a tour company would be the way to go as we would rather not have to do any driving. If a tour company would be best for us, can you recommend some companies? We are both in fairly good shape and don't mind climbing stairs, albeit we go slowly. When we travel we try to experience our destination not as tourists but as locals, trying to see the tourist sites but also trying to see how the "natives" live. Thank you for your time!
Christopher Winner: I can't speak to tour companies, but I think spring and early autumn are the best travel times. I know there are many coach tours, buses through the country, to choose from online. You might enjoy that more than remaining in one city for the duration of your stay.
East Windsor, CT: Hi. If we only have 1.5 weeks to see Italy, what are the highlights? We don't need to see all the touristy stuff & would enjoy some of the country side. Also, can you recommend a place to take a cooking class for 1 day? Thanks, Char
Christopher Winner: Dear Char, My offbeat list would include Pienza (Tuscany), Urbino (Marche), Arezzo (Tuscany), Orvieto (Lazio, near Rome), Bologna, and Venice. That's a flavorful trip, particularly since the cooking in Bologna is stellar. Regarding cooking, have a look at FlavorOfItaly.com and Cook Italy.
Hot Springs Village, Arkansas: We depart from JFK on April 17th for Rome (2 adults, age 65). When we arrive at the airport, what is the wisest way for us to transfer to our hotel? We will need to convert US$ for tips, etc. Is that best done in the Rome airport? Thank you
Christopher Winner: Change dollars to euros before you leave. I'd advise having at least 150 euros on hand, about $220. Cab far is a fixed fee of 40 euros to the center of town. The train runs 8, and you can then take a cab from the railroad station (Termini) where the train arrives. That's a cheaper method. Take ONLY white cabs.
Toronto, On, Canada: We travel from Toronto to Rome July 12, 2007. We are booked into a Tuscan villa arriving July 14. We would like to find a reasonably priced hotel to accommodate 3 between Rome and Siena. As the flight is an overnight flight, we assume we will be tired and not want to do much besides get a nice place to rest up, possibly but not necessarily, with a pool.
Christopher Winner: Try La Badia in Orvieto. It's not quite midway, but the cathedral is worth a stop and it's not far from the highway. See: Labadia Hotel's website.
Apex, NC: We (husband, wife, 4 year old boy) are flying into Pisa on May 23 to enjoy Tuscany for 11 nights. We are renting an apartment in Chianti for 7 nights but that leaves 4 nights unaccounted for (3 at the start of the trip). We are thinking about going to Florence for a few nights but just haven't really decided. We'd like to have the vacation be as stress-free as possible (there will be a toddler along!) and we'd like to get a real feel for the people and culture. Any recommendations? Thanks! Beth
Christopher Winner: Dear Beth, Arrezzo, Gubbio, San Gimignano, Cortona, Pienza ¿ the list goes on and on. They're all in about 90 minutes driving distance from Chianti, depending on day and traffic. Same with Florence. So why not start with Pisa and work your way over. Pisa's worth a night and a walk. Then two nights in Florence. No question that Florence is more difficult than the small towns in terms of crowds, so you could, for example, juke north to Lucca after Pisa, and then drive south to Chianti. Again, the distances are modest.
Richmond, VA: My mother and I are planning a 2 week trip to Italy in May/June or September/October. I am 37 and my mom 57, and we want to see a lot, but we don't want to rush, and we're not interested much in night life. I have a degree in Art History, don't care much for tourist traps (though I understand it's inevitable sometimes), and love to roam around old cities, visit unique shops, meet locals, and eat like them. Places of interest to us are Venice, Lake Como, Florence, and Sienna. Do you have any recommendations as to how we can see all this, yet still get some local flavor. Thanks, Mia
Christopher Winner: Dear Mia, My advice: fly into Milan and visit Venice (by train). Then return to Milan and begin to move south toward Florence, stopping in towns along the way. This is easier by car, of course. Local flavor is inevitable because you'll be among locals whatever you do. But bumping into places by car brings you into more direct contact with Italy.
Portland, OR: How can we get advance reservations for museums in Florence and Venice?
Madison, WI: we want to plan a trip to Italy for our wedding anniversary in May of 2008. My wife has been on a tour of Italy through trafalgar tours. we would like to visit several areas including Venice and the neighboring islands, Florence and perhaps Tuscany. What is the best way to put this together. Can we do it on our own or is it advisable to find a tour company? Thank you, Hugh
Christopher Winner: Dear Hugh, Tour company. But I'm sorry to say that's not my strength.
Denver, CO: We (myself, 14 year old daughter, and 13 year old boy) will be arriving in Rome on June 20th, and will be there for about 4 days. I would like to find something different for us to do, such as going to a hands-on glass factory, etc. Is there any suggestions that you might have to do in addition to seeing the "regular" sites?
Christopher Winner: Glass is blown for display only in Murano, a lagoon island of Venice. Rome is more static in that sense. It's why I recommend walking your heart out: Trastevere, Monte Verde, the vast parks. I think the center throbs with enough energy to keep teens interested.
McNabb, IL: My three sisters and I are going on a trip of a lifetime to Italy for us. We range in age from early 40's to mid 50's. We are leaving 7 June 2007 from Chicago to Rome. We will be in Rome, travel by train to Florence, short stop in Pisa, continue by train to Cinque Terre (staying at Monterosso al mare) then to Venice and we will fly home from there. I have gone to TrenItalia website, but I'm still very confused. It looks like point to point travel would be best and if possible on the Eurostar. What trains would be best and what stations should we get on and off at? We do want reservations. Does the Eurostar travel to all of these places? Is first class worth the extra money or is second class fine? Thank you for helping with this confusing issue for us.
Christopher Winner: Basic pointers. Eurostar covers only basic stops: Rome, Naples, Venice, Florence, Bologna, Milan, and a few others. Not Pisa. There's a Eurostar from Rome to Florence, which then goes through Bologna to Milan. In Milan, there are fast trains west to Venice. Or you can do Rome-Venice. Italy's train travel is like another nation's dependence on cars. You WILL get tickets, and on the day you wish to travel. First class is to assure you'll be able to sit: period. In second, it's all aboard, and some people don't find a seat. But they DO travel. Please, please try to purchase your tickets in the station before you leave and validate the ticket. Don't chance it without a ticket and have to deal with a conductor once on board. Bottom line: don't worry about not understanding the Trenitalia site. Pick your routes and then drop into any travel agency in Rome. They can issue also train tickets.
Boulder, Colorado: We are a group of 8 flying Atlanta-Venice arriving 11:45 am on Fri October 5. Our religious guesthouse in the Castello area closes its doors between 1-6 pm. Even if the plane arrives on time and we clear the airport quickly and hire a water taxi, isn't it unlikely we can reach the guesthouse in time? If so, what's your best suggestion for best dealing with the luggage and using that afternoon. We leave Venice the following Monday morning. Thank you!
Christopher Winner: Yes, bad timing. You won't make it from the airport. You might find an Italian speaker to call them ahead of time to ask for tolerance. Otherwise you're stuck with your luggage for the afternoon, I'm afraid.
Miami, Florida: Hi, I'm planning our honeymoon in October. We're starting in Venice, then to Florence, and then 5 nights in Tuscany. I'm leaning towards moving around rather than staying in one location in Tuscany. What are your thoughts on Gaiole in Chianti (specifically Borgo Argenina)--do you think this is too far north of Sienna? Should we look into a b & b in Castellina instead? (planning to move from San Gimignano to Chianti area, Sienna then south to Sinalunga -visiting Orvieto/Todi on the way to Rome). Many thanks, Beth
Christopher Winner: Dear Beth, Truth is, the destinations you have in mind are so tightly bunched that the north/south issue is irrelevant. It's your call. Yes, do see Orvieto and Todi on your way to Rome. Pienza and Cetona are also on the way.
Tamarac, Florida: We are planning a 3 week vacation in Florence, Italy in Sept/Oct. We plan to take day trips to other cities, however we feel that Venice is too far to go for the day, so we would like to sleep over. Can you recommend a reasonable priced hotel near the train station & do you suggest that we wait to book when we are in Florence?
Christopher Winner: Hotel Londra is near the station. See ondra's website. Book ahead and you can get a cheapish room: 120 euro.
Ashburn, VA: My husband and I will be in Rome for our anniversary on May 3. We are both 30 and have never been to Rome or Italy. We would like your recommendation on what to do for a romantic evening in Rome (i.e. where to go for dinner, where to go for a romantic stroll, etc.) Thanks in helping us plan our special day!
Christopher Winner: Tall order. OK. Dine at Romolo, in Trastevere, in the garden. Walk around Trastevere beforehand. Maybe even up into the Gianicolo park, then walk down. I find that charming. Was once my favorite kissing spot. Romolo, Via di Porta Settimiana 8, Rome. Tel. 39.06.581.8284.
New York, NY: We (two adults) are planning a 10-day trip to Sicily in December. What are the must-see cities & locales that should be on the itinerary, as well as favorite things not-to-miss? We also hear that Christmas is marvelous in Italy; where in Sicily would be the best place to celebrate December 24 and 25? Thank you.
Christopher Winner: Christmas in Taormina.
Atlanta, GA: My husband and I are going to Italy in May for our honeymoon. We plan to visit Venice, Florence, and Rome by rail. We will be staying at 2 B&B's and an apartment. All three places are requesting that we pay in cash (euro). What is the best way to get cash for this? Should we obtain it from an ATM once in Italy? A bank? Should we get it before hand? Who offers the best exchange rate? Any advice on this would be very much appreciated! Thanks!
Christopher Winner: Dear April, ATM machines in Italy work with most bank cards, Visa, and Amex. I really think that withdrawing from these machines is more sensible that bringing cash beforehand. And the ATMs are now everywhere, as are banks. You will pay a service charge and you will face the shrinking dollar complex: your dollar is worth less than 70 cents. But that's life.
Suffield. CT: My daughter turns 16 this summer and she and I are planning a 5-day trip to Italy. We were going to concentrate our trip in Florence as it is a smaller city than Rome. Are we doing the right thing? Quite simply, my question is, "For our first trip to Italy, where should we spend our time? Rome, Florence, Venice?" We are not opposed to splitting the time and travelling by train to a second location.<