My friend Clare recently asked me to help arrange a family trip to Italy — for her and her husband, and their high-school-age son, visiting her older son who is spending a semester in Florence. It was their first trip to Europe, and they had an ambitious wish-list, but we hammered out a pretty fantastic itinerary that included something for everyone.

From the feedback below, it sounds like it was a hit. And I very much appreciate her sharing all these details/tips that will be of interest to other first-timers!

Hi Ann-

I am finally sitting down to write something up for you. This is a lot of information, but hopefully it can help someone who is thinking about Italy for the first time.

Rome:

When we arrived in Rome, the driver you set us up with was ready and waiting and delightful! He dropped us off at Capo d’ Africa around 11 am. The individual at the front desk who checked us in was very friendly and said our room would be ready in about 15 -20 minutes. They also recommended a local restaurant and, though they encouraged us to make evening dinner reservations, we knew we would not make it to start dinner at 7:30!

We had a wonderful lunch that fueled us for the day. We took some time and walked down the Colosseum and some other areas – we basically explored and walked a lot until we were done. It did rain on us but that was okay – we were just happy to be outdoors. After walking around we settled in at the hotel a little more, went out to get some drinks and gelato and then hunkered down for a good night’s sleep!

Sunday we were off for the day and did a lot of walking before the mid-day Colosseum Tour. The surprise of having Brett join us in Rome for Dillon’s birthday was outstanding – he was shocked and SO SO happy to see him.  The Colosseum Tour was really great. Our guide was excellent – great information at a nice pace. Half of our group was an extended family with young kids so they left half way through – which actually made it a small group tour. We finished our day at a restaurant Dillon had picked before we went (from Trip Advisor). Food and drinks were good and it was a nice atmosphere. 

Monday Morning we were out early to the Express Sistine Chapel Tour. Your ears probably were ringing b/c you picked the PERFECT tour for us. Loved the small group – there were 5 of us. Rosa – our tour guide – was great. Her pace was so fast – but it really worked for us! Since Dillon and I don’t love museums – this was a fabulous way to see the Sistine Chapel, Vatican and St. Peters Square. I think LivItaly Tours does it right!  After that were were back to the hotel to check out and head to the train station. We had plenty of time and opted to walk – which took us about 25 minutes. 

NOTES: The hotel was great – room was oversized and we did not feel crowded with a cot. We did have to ask at the front desk how to keep the lights on. Clearly we were rookies! No A/C – had to open windows – which was a little strange with no screens! The included breakfast was good and service excellent. We also loved the location.

LaSpezia/Cinque Terre:

The train ride to La Spezia was beautiful – so much to take in. When we arrived we took a cab to the hotel and our room was ready. We were surprised by the size – Dillon’s cot was in a living room area – so we definitely did not feel crowded. It also had a beautiful view and we saw a few ships come in and out. Again, needed to open windows to cool down the temp! The hotel recommended a local favorite for dinner where we arrived at 7 pm and were their first customers! We walked along the water and just enjoyed the sites and made plans for the following day.

We decided to take the train from La Spezia to the farthest town in Cinque Terre (Monterosso) and make our way back. We had read a blog that recommended the hike from Vernazza to Corniglia – and decided that we would take that one. The blog indicated there were places along the way to stop for food and drinks. Unfortunately, we found out after climbing the stairs to the hiking trail, that it was closed. In fact, the only trail that was open was Monterosso to Vernazza. That was a bit of a bummer, especially since we purchased the hiking/trail pass. Instead we went back into town in Vernazza and enjoyed pizza and beer by the water. We made our way to each town by train. Corniglia we explore along the water, did not walk the 350 stairs to the town. Manarola was our favorite shopping town and we spent a bit of time exploring the shops. We returned to the hotel after a great day, played some cards and went for a walk to find something to eat. Much to our surprise, most places were closed for the night (8:30 or so), and by the time we got to a grocery store – it was closed as well. So we headed back to the hotel and had some snacks that we had in our bags and got a good night’s sleep! 

One thing we hadn’t planned for was having Euros for this location – we needed 15 for each trip to and from the train station. 

NOTES: Next time I think we might opt for the boat transportation from town to town instead of the train. We thought it might be too chilly, but the weather was delightful. Loved being in La Spezia, but if we went back we would probably opt to stay in one of the towns for something different. 

Florence:

We arrived on time and Brett met us and walked us to the hotel. The room was not to be ready for a while, so we checked our bags and hit the town, It was so fun to be in Florence and I am glad you said to let Brett show us the town since that is where he has spent his semester. We saw many sights and Brett helped formulate our plans for Thursday morning while he was in class. 

Brett made reservations for a nice dinner for the four of us and his girlfriend. Probably in our top 3 meals of the week. Thursday we got up and explored a little earlier at Brett’s suggestion, to see the Duomo without the square being packed. We walked around and went up and enjoyed the views from Piazzele Michelangelo. We met Brett for lunch – he took us to his favorite sandwich shop where the owner knows him and then we saw where he lives. We had picked a pizza and gelato making class b/c Brett only had the afternoon and had already done a pasta class with school. This was a disappointment. The food was good and the boys and I enjoyed our time together, but we felt very rushed. Of the 3 hour experience, we probably only prepared and cooked for just over an hour. It was warp speed. Mark shopped and explored while we were in class. 

We did end up making reservations for our train to Bologna for the next day. Brett was looking online and everything was booking up b/c it was Good Friday. In hindsight, we probably should have booked in advance.

NOTES: Hotel De La Ville – This probably was our least favorite hotel. The room was very cramped with the pull-out couch. And the temperature was hot, with no window to open. I think we also just felt like we were in a cave b/c there was no outside light. The breakfast was good and the service friendly.

Bologna:

Hotel location was perfect for our stay. After checking in we took a walk to the main square area and found a cafe. We sat outside, enjoyed some drinks and snacks and played cards. There was live music on the square, and the church across the way had a choral group perform for Good Friday. Brett had selected a place for dinner, and we headed there on our walk back. It was a small local place. The food did not have “plate appeal” – but Mark said it was his favorite of everything he ate during the trip. 

Again, your ears should have been ringing all day Saturday – that Food and Ferrari Tour you booked for us was SO FUN! It ended up being a 10 hour day – but it was relaxed and so enjoyable. Our guide was excellent – very funny and very knowledgeable. We had 18 people and it was a great size. We opted not to drive a Ferrari – 150 Euros for 10 minutes seemed crazy. Although if all 4 of us could have gone in one car we would have done it! The family restaurant where we had the meal at the end was great – delicious food at a relaxed pace. The location was beautiful farmland. This was definitely a highlight of the trip!

NOTES: Unahotels Bologna Centro – this hotel was fine – and they turned on the AC for us! woohoo! The guy at the front desk must have been used to angry Americans b/c he was flustered and apologizing through our check-in. We just kept smiling and telling him there was nothing to apologize for. Rooms were clean and basic. I would compare to a Fairfield Inn. The size of the rooms was generous and the breakfast was good.

Venice:

The high speed train to Venice was fantastic! Very comfortable and kids were happy for WiFi! Again, we arrived early and the hotel checked our bags – it was going to be a few hours until our rooms were ready. We left the hotel armed with a map and walked around the city. We checked the menu at the place we had made dinner reservations at and the kids said to cancel it. Ha ha. We made our way to where we knew we needed to be Monday morning and hit a lot of dead ends – but enjoyed ourselves walking around. We grabbed a bite to eat in the main San Marco square (tourist trap!), enjoyed some live music and relaxed. We headed back to the hotel and checked in, and got settled. After that we walked around some more and picked a place for dinner. This probably was our least favorite meal of the trip, but the service was good. 

Monday morning we were off to the Murano, Burano and Torcello Tour which we really loved. We decided to buy water bus tickets for the day – and that is how we got to the meeting spot. We liked being the first tour group of the day – it meant smaller crowds in Murano. The Glass Blowing was fun and we did some great shopping. After we were done we took the water bus around and saw Venice from different perspectives, and got out a few times and walked. It was a fun way to explore! We grabbed some food and made our way back to the hotel so Brett could pack up and catch his train.

Hotel Santa Chiara – Great hotel (our favorite showers of the trip!). Clean and friendly. It was a nice location. They also were willing to turn on our AC. 🙂 The only person who was not friendly was the person at the desk at 4:15 AM when we checked out. No wonder he is on the overnight shift! ha ha.

We were leaving before the buses started service – so they assured us that taxis are always out front. We waited in the rain for a few minutes and then I asked the hotel to call one for us since it was raining pretty hard. We made it to the airport in plenty of time to get some breakfast and relax. 

The flights home were fine – though we were late into London and had only about 25 minutes from when we deplaned to get to our connection – and it was a hike. It took us about 35-40 minutes to get through security and get to our gate. But we made it! 

Here are some things that came up that we didn’t expect:

  • Public restrooms are few and far between in most places. When you have a chance to use one – use it. And make sure you have small denomination Euros on hand to pay for them! (I’ll pay a buck for a bathroom anytime if it is as clean as the ones we used were!)
  • We planned for 250 Euros – and did have to take more out. I would probably have planned for 350 next time. 
  • The A/C – or lack there of. We found that most hotels do not turn it on until it is 78 degrees outside. We were thankful that our last 2 hotels saw a desperate woman in her 50s! Ha ha.
  • Hotel rooms were larger than we expected.
  • Language was not a barrier. In fact, everyone we had to speak to spoke English. That was a relief.

How can we thank you??

  • The organization of all of the documents for us was amazing. It is just how I would have done it if I planned myself. THANK YOU.
  • You picked perfect tours/experiences for us – the only one we didn’t like was the one I reserved! Ha ha! 
  • Lots of good advice in the information you sent us that made us feel prepared.
  • Also – what we loved overall was that each of the places we went felt different than the last place. So we really had 5 different experiences. And while we are not accustomed to that much moving around – it all felt very well planned out. Only an expert could have planned this for us!
  • It was the perfect trip for a first time to Italy. We know we’d go back to Cinque Terre. And then explore other southern locations next time. 

And now we need to start thinking about our next adventure!