JoJo's Tips for Florence and Rome
Baby Brother will be going on his first trip to Italy (Florence, Rome, Venice) next month by tagging along with his soon to be fiance on her business trip. He asked for suggestions of how to get around, things to do, places to stay and eat. I love Italy and try to go over every year. I always include Florence as part of my itinerary so I was happy to help him.
My brother's trip will be quick and his itinerary is jacked up in IMHO. He'll land in Rome, take the train up to Florence, then take the train back to Rome, then take it up to Venice and then fly out of Venice. He's going to spend half his time on trains! But, I wanted him to direct him to the places I love best.
So I share with you some of which I told him...
Transportation in Italy
First of all, you should book your Trenitalia train tickets in advance from Rome to Florence and back and then from Rome to Venice. Always book Eurostar. Do NOT take local (intercity) trains unless you want to spend all day stopping at every station. If your plane arrives at 7:30 a.m., figure it’s going take you three hours to get your bags and clear customs and make your way to Roma Termini. To play it safe, book yourself on the 10:30 a.m. train from Roma Termini to Firenze. It’s a little over an hour and a half to Florence from Rome. It’s about 29 Euro one way. Don’t bother booking first class as you won’t notice a difference on such a short train ride. Same thing for the return back to Rome. Book ahead. Use the ticketless option and just print out your reservations. Rome to Venice is going to take a bit over four and a half hours. Again, book Eurostar but make sure to book the non-stop to Venice. It’s about 45 Euro one way. There’s a Eurostar train that goes to Venice via Bologna and it adds another half hour to your trip. Again, don’t bother booking first class. Second class is more than comfortable enough.
Once you clear customs at the airport, get to an ATM machine and withdraw some Euros. Don’t bother exchanging money before you leave the US. Just a big ripoff. Plenty of bancomats (ATM machines) and it’ll be the best exchange rate you’ll get. Do not exchange money at a currency exchange. Again, the rates are generally awful. Just as a side note, always use your credit card when making purchases at stores. You’ll get the best exchange rate and some of your purchases will be insured. Some stores and hotels will give you a discount (usually around 5%) if you pay cash but most established stores (i.e. designer) will not. At the local markets, they will definitely 1) haggle and bargain and 2) like cash more than credit. Also, it’s kind of rude to use credit cards unless it’s more than say 40 Euro.
At Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, find the signs to the train station. It’s a bit of a hike so get a luggage cart if you have more than a couple of bags. It’ll be 9.50 Euro for a train ticket from the airport to Roma Termini (central rail station in Rome). You can buy the ticket at the train station. It leaves every 30 minutes and is a 35 minute train ride into Termini. Make sure that you take the train to Roma Termini. There is another service that goes to Rome Tiburtina. Do NOT take this train.
At Roma Termini, look for the train schedule which will be up on big boards all over the station. It’ll state the city (Firenze) and the type of train (Eurostar or ES) and time of departure and track number. Eurostar trains are very distinctive with the bullet shaped noses of the engine cars. They are also newer looking. Your printout of your reservations will have your car number and seat number. Eurostar trains have these modern looking electronic boards on the sides of the cars stating the number of the car, the destination of the train and the class of the car. All cars are non-smoking.
Before you get on the train, you should get something to eat. The cafes in the station always sell some good paninis. Do yourself a favor and buy a couple of these along with some water and soda (if you want some). Much cheaper and better tasting than the stuff in the café car of the train.
Once you get to Florence, go outside to the taxi stand and take the taxi to your hotel. I don’t care how close your hotel is, take a cab. By this time, you’ll be so exhausted you won’t be able to figure out the very confusing streets of Florence on a map.
Residenza il Villino is charming and the owner, Sergio, will bend over backwards for you to help you with reservations and restaurant recommendations. This hotel is located close to the Duomo and is in the city center. Rooms are nice and spacious and look over a private courtyard. It's, by far, my favorite place to stay thus far in the city.
Hotel Davanzati is closer to the Arno and the Uffizi. Again great service but more hustle and bustle. Free internet and complimentary “happy hour”.
Things to Do/See in Florence
Central Florence is extremely walkable. Just watch out for the scooters.
Uffizi Museum – book in advance otherwise you’ll be standing in lines forever. Works of historic art that you’ve only seen in art history books. I like Ticket in Italy to book most of my museum tickets.
Bargello Museum – Mostly sculpture with some great pieces by Michelangelo and others.
Galleria dell’Accademia – Michelangelo’s David. Totally worth it! Again book in advance.
Duomo – Climb to the top. Gorgeous.
Villa San Michele – This place has the best views of Florence bar none. The restaurant is decent but expensive. The key draw to this place are the the views and grounds are incredible. Molto romantico. The pool has a bar and light appetizers if you just want to enjoy the view. If you get there before sunset, you can walk around the grounds and watch the sun go down over the church domes. If you feel like spending some $$, then try and get a booking for a table on the Loggia for an early dinner.
One restaurant I should tell you about is Trattoria Cibreo in Florence. It’s the sister restaurant of Cibreo which is $$$$. I personally like the trattoria better. Same food, just served much more casually. No reservations though, but great traditional Tuscan food.
Trattoria le Cave di Maiano is a family restaurant in Maiano very close to Fiesole (Villa San Michele is in Fiesole). If you want great food, I’d suggest having drinks at Villa San Michele and then taking a taxi to Trattoria le Cave for dinner. I love, love, love their food. Eat slow, eat long. Try their gnocchi and finish off your meal with some limoncello.
Shopping – This is leather central. Ferragamo is based here. Goldsmiths all over the Ponte Vecchio. Enjoy.
I’d recommend staying in one of two places:
Residenza Cellini is my favorite in Rome. It's wicked close to the train station on a side street right off of Via Nationale and close to public transportation. It's pretty hard to find but once inside (there is another hotel which shares the same building) it's an oasis of lovely charm and calm. Love the owners, the de Paolis brothers and their sister. Great size rooms and lovely bathrooms.
Hotel Domus Praetoria It’s also very close to the train station. Again kind of difficult to find but lovely rooms.
I’ve also stayed at the Hilton (beautiful but outside of the city center), Aleph (expensive boutique hotel), and the Grand Hotel (probably the most famous hotel in Rome, right at the top of the Spanish Steps). I’d still stay at Residenza Cellini as my first choice.
If you only have a couple of days in Rome, I’d suggest hitting the Colosseum on your first afternoon and then the Roman Forum which is right nearby. I’d leave a full day for the Vatican and the Vatican Museum. Go with a tour group. It’ll facilitate getting into the museum and the Sistine Chapel. A very good one is Vatican Tours. If you want to splurge, you should totally do the 5 hour private tour. So worth it! Otherwise the 3 hour semi-private tour is a good deal. You should definitely go see the Trevi Fountain (at night is especially pretty) and the Pantheon. Finally, of course, there’s the Spanish Steps as well as the shopping right nearby (Valentino, Prada, etc.) on Via Veneto.
Now, Rome is a great place to eat and there’re so many wonderful restaurants. Here are two that I’d recommend. Ristorante Clemente alla Maddalena is my absolute favorite restaurant in Rome. I go every time I’m there. Great food, great atmosphere (see if you can sit outside), great service. Expensive but sooooo yummy. The other restaurant is Santopadre. It’s by the American Embassy, close to Via Veneto. The address is 18 via Collina and their phone number is 39 6 474 54 05. This is place is awesome. Locals throng there and you MUST have a reservation. Just let them bring you food as they don’t speak much English. Again, I always go there when in Rome. More casual than Clemente’s.