STEAL MY VACATION: An 8-day Classic Northern Italy Itinerary
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
Italy is at the top of many travelers’ bucket lists—and with good reason. If you are an art aficionado or history buff, you will find plenty to keep you occupied. And if you are a foodie (or just a lover of food, like me), then you can eat carbs for days.
While Italy is a (relatively) small country, it offers a ton of variety—and you won’t be able to see everything in a week trip. But that was the amount of time my mom and I had, so we put our collective planning noggins together to make sure we hit all the highlights without succumbing to an Italy vacation cliché.
This itinerary is perfect if you:
-Are traveling to Italy for your first time
-Have a limited number of days to experience all Italy has to offer
-Are an “adventure traveler,” aka don’t love walking around museums for hours
-Like a mix of classic tourist attractions and “off the beaten path” experiences
-Want to fit in as much as possible (even if it means waking up early to do it)
I recognize that you may have different tastes or pace, and we didn’t get to do everything we wanted, so where possible I have added alternate suggestions.
AN IMPORTANT WORD (or few) ON TRAVEL STYLE
You are all unique, individual snowflakes, so your travel style might be different from mine. Take this into consideration when reading my reviews and suggestions since they are, by their nature, subjective.
My typical travel MO generally includes active excursions in exotic locations—so a classic European vacation was a change of pace.
I am an active traveler. I prefer to “go and do” more than “go and see”, so you won’t see many museum visits in my itinerary.
I am also independent, so I avoid most guided tours like the plague. However, small group tours are necessary from time to time, especially in a “go and see” kind of place like Italy.
This itinerary includes more guided tours than most of my vacations (since wandering around historic cities aimlessly for a week didn’t sound too appealing to me). As a rule, I do not go on guided group tours unless they offer expert knowledge or exclusivity, so I made sure to select tours that were unique.
While I do enjoy a luxury resort (who doesn’t?), it is not always in my budget. But since I am experience-oriented (and usually pretty busy on my trips), I am comfortable with moderate or even budget accommodations. I am always very open about the quality of lodgings in my official TripAdvisor reviews.
My husband and fellow adventure partner is almost my opposite—he hates to wake up early and prefers to relax on vacation. But, I left him at home for this one and swapped him out with my mom, who has a “go go go” mentality similar to mine.
With only eight days to see three cities, we maximized our time. There is scheduled down time on this itinerary, but you might not return home feeling relaxed. This is more about getting the most out of your week.
DISCLAIMER: Remember, everything here is a suggestion. There are thousands of hotels or attractions to choose from, and just because I list it does not mean it is the best option for you. My TripAdvisor reviews will provide additional details that will hopefully help you determine whether the activity, restaurant, or hotel is right for you.
My biggest tips for Italy:
-Avoid the summer months if possible
-Book tours in advance to get special access to the main attractions (otherwise prepare to wait in Disney-length lines)
-Get up early before the crowds and take a mid-day siesta (this saved us from the hottest, most crowded parts of the day)
-Walk just a couple streets over from the main attractions for better food at better prices
-Eat gelato every day. Twice a day.
-Drink lots of wine.
Ok, now on to our 8-day northern Italy itinerary!
Ah, Rome. The seat of civilization. Or something like that. To be honest, I’m not much of a history buff, but if you are, then you will LOVE Rome! Marble statues of historical figures adorn opulent churches on just about every corner. Oh yeah, architects will love this place as well. Surprisingly, I enjoyed Rome very much. It is a beautiful and impressive city—city planners turn up ancient ruins on the daily (which is why there isn’t much of a subway system). Prepare to walk a ton or bust out your wallet for taxi rides.
Arrive in Rome and check into the Hotel Caprice.
(See my Hotel Caprice TripAdvisor review here).
The hotel is clean and comfortable. It is located in an upscale (and not-too-touristy) neighborhood, but still within walking distance to Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. I would classify it as a moderate hotel—good for sleeping after a long day in the city, but nothing fancy. Breakfast isn’t a big “thing” in Italy, so save the euro on the included buffet (which didn’t look great), and find a place to grab a panini and coffee to go.
We arrived on a Saturday, and a lot of places are closed on Sundays, so we planned a tour for our first day (though I typically like to wander and discover on the first day). We booked a small group Vatican tour through Walks of Italy…which we then slept through (thanks, jet lag).
Seriously, since it was so hot and so crowded, we found it best to take a break midday. It allowed us to recharge when most people were out and then we could do evening tours—which were much less crowded.
Restaurant Tip: Unless you have a good recommendation, do not eat at any of the restaurants easily accessible from any major tourist attraction. If you literally go one or two streets over, you will find better food and prices.
I recommend you visit Trastevere. It’s a small neighborhood across the river that sees a nice mix of locals and tourists. We ate at Trattoria Ponentino and loved the experience! Plus, getting wine, an appetizer, and two entrees for just 35 Euros isn’t a bad deal! I imagine just about any restaurant in this lovely neighborhood would be delicious.
Also, get gelato. Always get gelato.
Visit the Coppede neighborhood between Piazza Buenos Aires and Via Tagliamento for bars, restaurants, and nightlife. You can take Tram 3 or 9 to get there.
Since we missed our Vatican and Sistine Chapel tour, we took a nighttime Roman Forum tour.
(TripAdvisor only lets you review one tour per company within a three month window, so you can see my Walks of Italy Roman Forum tour review below).
As you already know, I am not big into history or guided tours. This tour primarily focused on historical information and walking through the city for most of the time. The guide was engaging and very knowledgeable, but I tend to get a little bored when I'm led by the hand. We primarily signed up for this tour because we slept through our Vatican tour and needed to apply a credit elsewhere. However, the main selling point was a walk through the ruins of the Roman Forum (exclusivity and unique-itivity, check).
The Forum has been newly renovated to include a multi-media component. As you listen to your headphones and walk through the ruins, projections bring the forum to life--displaying how it may have appeared years ago. It was described to be "similar to the castle projection show at Disney World". Well, y'all know I worked at Disney World for seven years, and I can tell you that it does not quite come to the same level of showmanship (plus, there aren't any fireworks, duh).
The Forum portion of the tour was definitely the highlight. It did transport you, and it was cool to see everything from ground level with a relatively small group (although there were three tours going on simultaneously). Overall, the start of the tour didn't do much for me (but take that with a grain of salt) and the forum portion was moderately cool. I probably wouldn't have paid for the tour if I hadn't had to transfer our funds from our missed tour.
Wake up early!
We woke up early and walked to some of the sites before the crowds arrived. It was a wonderful way to take photos without anyone in them and just enjoy the sites peacefully without the crush of people.
Visit the Vatican
Since it was so early (and we had slept through our tour the previous day), we walked all the way to the Vatican. While the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museum are closed on Sundays, the Vatican itself is open. Usually, there are winding lines for hours to get in. But when you get up early, you are privy to the beauty of the church almost to yourself! We had originally purchased the tour to skip the lines, but there isn’t an entry fee to get in. If you don’t want to wait in line or spend any money, arriving early allows you the chance to wander unaccompanied. You can even attend mass! Just be sure to cover your shoulders and knees—they were very strict.
Check out the Campo de-Fiori market. Buy some bread and sample olive oils and vinegars.
Especially after waking up so early, we were exhausted. We went back to have a nap and freshen up since the day was getting hot.
Wake up and explore to find some dinner! To be honest, we were nervous about finding the meeting spot for our tour, so we arrived early and had to eat at a restaurant right near the main attractions. Seriously, if you can avoid eating anywhere that has the menu in multiple languages, it is for the best. We spent so much more money than the previous evening and the food was nowhere near as good. A general rule of thumb—if you only see tourists, run away!
The after-hours Colosseum tour with Walks of Italy was amazing! Save yourself the stress of waiting to see the Colosseum during the day with thousands of other tourists and book this reasonably priced tour!
(See my Walks of Italy Colosseum tour TripAdvisor review here).
Alternate Rome Restaurants I Wish We Had Time To Visit:
Roof Garden, Hotel Forum, Via Tor Dei Conti 31, Rome
Antico Forno Roscioliâ---bakery and pizza. Via dei Chiavari 34, 00186 Rome
Via di San Franceso a Ripa 134, 00153 Rome
Cul de Sac--73 Piazza di Pasquino, Centro Storico
After the sprawling layout of Rome, Florence was a welcome change. It was more laid back and navigable. Plus, we had some of the best food of our entire trip. Florence is full of art and also conveniently located within a number of excellent day trip destinations. We planned three days in this city, but you could easily fill up to five.
Train to Florence
For train tickets, you can book ahead of time on a site like Trenitalia, or you can easily purchase the tickets at the station.
This is another helpful post about trains in Italy.
The trains to Florence leave from Termini station pretty regularly. In typical fashion, we left early to make the most out of our limited time. The 6:15am train got us into Florence at 7:46am. This allowed us a full day for our first day trip from Florence!
Private Wine Tasting Tour in Chianti
Hire a driver to take you to the beautiful Tuscan countryside from Limo in Tuscany. Andrea, our expert for the day, set up two private wine tasting experiences—beautiful views, delicious wine, and time to chat with the vineyard owner. No tour buses at these spots! In fact, for the most part, my mom and I were the only two people at the vineyard. At the end of our day, Andrea took us to his favorite gelato spot—and it was amazing.
Maurizio Brogioni Vineyards
La Sorbettiera Gelato
In my Thailand Itinerary, we took a Thai cooking class, which we loved! We wanted to do a similar experience in Tuscany, but the classes were full! I included some of the well-reviewed classes below:
Check in to hotel
We stayed at a hotel we booked last minute. It definitely wasn’t fancy, but it was clean.
(See my Hotel Fiorino TripAdvisor review here).
Explore the city of Florence
We were personally churched and museumed out, but if you are still gung-ho, you can check out the statue of David or the Basilica. Just follow my advice and GET UP EARLY! You will beat the crowds and the lines and can always take a midday siesta.
Visit the Lorenzo Marketplace
We purchased some cute linen clothing and some fresh fruit at this indoor/outdoor marketplace. A lot of the outdoor stuff is trinkets and junk, but inside is amazing! There are all kinds of fruits, nuts, fresh veggies, made to order pastas, etc.
We stumbled upon SimBIOsi and loved it so much, we ate dinner here again on our last night. Organic, ethical, fresh, unique, delicious food.
(See my SimBIOsi TripAdvisor review here).
Aside from the private vineyard day, this may have been one of my favorite tours of the whole trip. This four-hour walking tour brought us to some delicious hidden gems most tourists overlook.
(See my Curious Appetite Progressive Dinner TripAdvisor review here).
Train to Cinque Terre
The train ride to Cinque Terre is about two hours long, so get an early start to make the most of your day! *Make sure to book a high-speed train—some of the local ones take longer.
Once you get to La Spezia, you will be able to transfer to the train to Cinque Terre. There is an information kiosk and it is very easy to navigate—plus, you will be alongside hundreds of other tourists.
Hike Monterosso to Vernazza
Or hike any part of the trail that you would like. This was a moderately difficult two-hour hike with stunning views. If you are going to spend the day, I would suggest buying the combo trail/train ticket for 16 Euro. We finished in Vernazza and had a delightful late lunch with another hiker we met on the trail. We then took the train to Corniglia to wander for a bit. Before heading back to Florence for one more dinner at SimBIOsi.
I’m going to be real honest with you here. Venice was not my favorite place. While it is pretty, there was no escaping the crowds and at this point, I was a little pooped out with walking around and sightseeing. It didn’t have the same charm as Florence or the grandeur of Rome. But, a lot of people really love Venice, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. For me, it was just too touristy and commercial—which may be in part because of the thousands of tourists that get dumped off of cruise ships every day and the plethora of high end stores. The evenings were a lot nicer when the crowds had thinned out.
Train to Venice
Check into hotel
We stayed at the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal. For a hefty 170 Euro fee, you can have a water taxi waiting for you. Or, for less than half the price, you can get your own private water taxi direct from the pier. There is also a cheaper “water bus” option, which we took on our way back. For the ride in, it was nice to have our own private water taxi—at only 60 Euro, we split the cost and it served a dual role as transportation and cool introduction to the city of Venice.
(See my Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal review on TripAdvisor here).
Explore the city
There are still plenty of places to see beautiful art, and of course there are always more churches to see. We just wandered around to take photos of the canals and stop in little shops with terrifying masks.
Visit Burano to see the beautiful multi-colored homes. There are boats that connect to the surrounding islands if you want to explore.
Early morning for photos
In our usual style, we got up early to walk around the city while it was still cool and relatively empty.
We wanted to do something a little different and a bit more active, so we booked a tour kayaking through the canals in some of the local neighborhoods. This was a great alternative to riding in a gondola.
Look, if you want to live out your Instagram gondola dreams, by all means go ahead! But there were so many of those things lined up back to back in the waterways, it didn’t seem worth the money to me. At least in Disneyland, the gondolas are spaced fifteen seconds apart.
(See my Venice by Water kayak tour TripAdvisor review here).
Maybe some of you will fare better for dinner, but we searched and searched and had a hard time finding a restaurant that wasn’t too commercial. If you head to the extremities of the city, you might have more luck. It is also a little more difficult since I’m not a seafood fan.
Early morning walk
Enjoy your last morning in Italy!
Boat to airport
We took the cheaper boat this time. It took about an hour and twenty minutes and the boats depart every half hour. Give yourself plenty of time to get through security!
Return to a diet that doesn’t revolve around pizza, pasta, gelato, and wine.
Well, I guess there can still be wine.