One year ago from now my friends Sarah, Liz, and I- we refer to ourselves as “the psychos”- were buzzed on wine trying to catch planes, trains, and automobiles as we made our way through the top half of Italy during our spring break.
I wanted to share how we did it all on a budget! We saw beautiful views, ate delicious food, danced the nights away- without breaking the bank. Keep in mind that we were already in Europe so the price of our flights to Milan and out of Rome were cheaper than if we had flown from the U.S. You can still find cheap flights; my post on Traveling on a Budget has links to great sites!
The key to this sort of planning is prioritizing. Cities in Italy are each a unique experience with diverse history, food, style, art, architecture…I can go on! I wish I had ten days to spend in each city to immerse myself in it all. But, if you have a budget, you need to take the time to decide the top things you want to do and base your trip around that.
Woke Up in Milan
We spent one day in Milano because we were advised by European friends that one day was enough. We spent a lot of time at the Piazza del Duomo di Milano, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and the surrounding side streets. It’s the Italian fashion capital, so shopping is a must! Milan is home to famous The Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci which you will have to buy tickets for. Another venue to see is the famous opera house Teatro alla Scala. If you appreciate ballet or opera, show tickets are reasonably priced.
Now into one of the major reasons I wanted to go to Italy…the food! The first meal we had was pizza, of course, and it was to die for. They say it’s the water that makes the difference, and I buy it. I’m really missing it right now! Some traditional food to Milan and the region of Lombardy are risotto, different forms of veal, pasta in mushroom sauce, casseoeula (a pork-based stew), and panettone (cake).
All aboard the gondola to Venice!
We didn’t actually take a small boat. We made it by train by the skin of our teeth because our heavy suitcase was slowing us down- ultimate girl problems. The ride was only about two-and-a-half to three hours. The train station was outside Venice (because the city is on water), and we had to take a cab to where we were staying. We stayed in a little cabin on a campsite outside the city because it was significantly cheaper than staying in. A cheap bus- like under five euros cheap- stopped outside our campground and took us to Venice within a half hour.
We spent one day here as well. Venice is smaller than the other cities, and we wanted to spend more time in the other places. This was my least favorite city we saw in Italy. While it’s beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, it’s super touristy. I can’t tell you the number of gift shops I saw selling the same Venetian Carnival masks, glass jewelry, and other typical memorabilia. Just keep walking- this isn’t the city for shopping! Food is another thing to watch out for. This is definitely a city where if you don’t do your research you will eat subpar food- and that’s not what Italy is about! While there, I did have delicious carbonara (one of my favorite pasta dishes!) but mediocre pizza and we were quite sad.
A majority of Venezia’s beauty can be seen from outside: Piazza San Marco, Saint Mark’s Basilica, Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs, the Grand Canal. We didn’t take any tours or visit any museums while there. We wanted to save our money to eat as much authentic Italian food as possible and for other excursions. None of us felt like we were missing out on anything by just walking around and soaking it all in. I do wish we saw Burano, a picturesque island about a half hour boat ride from Venice itself. It’s known for its lace and daily caught seafood!
Destination 3: Florence
We made the bus with literally a minute to spare to Florence because one of us, being the psychopaths we are, forgot our passport back at the cabin. The ride was also about three hours and dropped us off in the middle of the city. We accidentally stayed outside the city in hotel in Tuscany, which was inconvenient but the views were stunning! I truly feel that in a past life I lived there. We again had to take a bus to get into the city, but it was only about four or five euros.
Pictures don’t do Florence justice- it’s GORGEOUS in person. There are so many things to do and see that you need to allot enough time for you to do everything you want, or at least the most important stuff! On a nice night, grab a bottle of cheap wine and go to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It gives you a beautiful view of the entire city as well as paths through their lovely gardens. There are so many things you can do here: the Uffizi Gallery, the Galleria dell’Accademia, Piazza del Duomo, the Gucci Garden (for us fashion lovers), and the Boboli Gardens just to name some! Whatever you want to do, buy tickets ahead of time. In my opinion, this is one of the places to splurge on excursions.
I still dream about the pasta and gelato I had here. I specifically remember the name of the gelato place, Gelateria dei Neri because it was so fricken’ good!! Make it a point to go there. I had delicious pasta with shaved truffles, red wine, and pappardelle with veal. We were advised by friends to have paninis- you’ll see the long lines around lunch time and know exactly where to go! If you’re looking for nightlife, Florence is the place to do it. There are plenty of clubs and bars to choose from.
Now Off to Cinque Terre
We wanted a little bit of beach, and the Amalfi Coast was a little out of the way, so we chose Cinque Terre. It’s a group of five towns (Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, Riomaggiore, and Corniglia) on the cost of the Ligerian Sea. This destination in Italy is perfect for those who love the outdoors or are in search for a little R&R. We stayed in Riomaggiore, the southernmost town, and hiked our way to a couple of the other towns. They also have a train if you aren’t up for the climb, which is actually incredibly steep and long- not for the faint of heart! But the views at the top are definitely worth it. You gotta do something to work off all the carbs, wine, and gelato right?!
When you go here you need to have seafood. They are a ton of small local fried seafood shacks in the towns, and the smell alone will pull you in. If you’re not a seafood person, you can gorge on all the pasta and pizza your heart desires. There aren’t really any museums or tourist attractions here- mainly beaches, hiking, and little local shops. In the midst of our heavy traveling, it was the perfect place for us to catch our breath at.
Last but not least…Rome!
Your Lizzie Maguire dreams are about to come true! After our relaxing couple of days in Riomaggiore we were ready for the last leg of our adventure in Italy. We took another train, and if you haven’t picked up on it, trains are an easy and affordable way to get around Europe! We had a lot of sites we wanted to see in only a few days. There was the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, Vatican City, the Pantheon…there are so many things to do and see that it’s essential you plan ahead of time. Places like the Coliseum and Vatican City require you to buy tickets in advance because they attract so many people. In my opinion it was definitely worth it! Vatican City requires pretty much a full day, especially if you’re interested in seeing the Sistine Chapel.
The food there was probably my favorite. Known dishes from here are artichokes, cacio e pepe, carbonara, and pizza! We DIED over the Pizza at Pizzarium near Vatican City- they have a sample plate with different toppings that we still talk about to this day. I also had the best lasagna of my life here in a little family-owned restaurant. If all the food I’ve talked about isn’t enough for convince to come here I don’t know what is! Rome is also home to plenty of modern shopping, bars, and clubs. In our case, we spent so much of our days sightseeing that we didn’t go out much at night so I can’t speak to how the nightlife is. But from what I’ve heard from friends it’s like any other big city!
If you’re looking for specific links to money-saving websites and other helpful apps, I have them all listed in my Traveling on a Budget post for easy reference. Don’t be afraid to go off the road less traveled and soak in the quieter but just as lovely scenery they all have to offer. I loved Italy so much because the history and culture is unique to each city. Like I said earlier, the key to keeping within your budget is to prioritize what you want to do. You won’t get to do it all, but like my grandma always tells me, “Leave something to come back to!”