Italy made its way to my heart just recently; before I used to think it was just pasta and pizza (both of which are aplenty), but I neglected all the other wonderful parts of this vibrant, beautiful country. If you have a week or more for your visit, I highly suggest doing a road trip to see as much as possible. There are so many pizzerias, fountains, castles, and cathedrals one could easily spend a lifetime in Italy.

Sunset in Rome

 

Hire a car 

Driving in Italy is fairly easy, at least if you keep out of the cities. Having a car makes it easy to get around, and the freedom to roam makes life a lot easier. If you rent a car, be mindful that toll roads around the country are a pain in the butt and will take a nice chunk from your budget. Often times it is nicer to drive on smaller, toll-free roads, but in some cases tolls are unavoidable. Also note that if you rent your car from a different city than where you will return it, it will cost more money.

Venetian car

 

Many (most, if not all?) cities in Italy have Limited Traffic Zones, which means that you will leave Italy with a hefty fine in your pocket if you drive into the city center. This system is made so that the centers are less crowded, and only residents with separate permits are allowed to enter. You can park your vehicle outside of the LTZ; usually there are numerous parking halls, but be prepared to pay 1.5-6€ per hour for your spot. You can get away without spending a bunch of money for parking if you choose your accommodation based on its’ location and parking options. For example, Palazzo Lorenzo hotel in Florence (my favourite hotel of all I stayed in) is situated within 15 minutes walk of the city center, has lovely facilities, excellent breakfast (hello cute tiny organic sugar free jam jars, I wish I had snatched you!) and, you guessed it, free parking. 

 

Go to Venice

Bell tower providing the best views of the city

 

Venice is a legendary city with no roads or cars, and it is filled with canals and history; there’s nothing else on the Earth like Venice. This magical city is like going back in time, filled with narrow labyrinth lanes, small arching bridges, and shops selling handmade masks. Venice is mysterious, especially during nighttime and at sunrise, when the fog comes and covers the churches and majestic marble buildings. Catch a ride on a water bus, hop off when you feel like, start wandering on the cobblestones and soak up the history all around. 

Empty Piazza San Marco

 

You can choose to stay out of the Island in Mestre, and take a tram to the island, or leave your car in one of the (expensive) parking halls near the island, and get a hotel in Venice. I preferred the 1st option, even though it meant getting up 30 mins earlier to catch the sunrise in Piazza San Marco. If you want to do anything in Venice without crowds, wake up early and go to the square to see the sunrise. The tour groups started arriving at 8.30. If you stay outside of the island, I recommend getting an unlimited travel pass for the tram, buses and water buses: it’s valid for 24 hours and costs 20 euros.  

 

Explore Tuscany

If you have ever seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun (total chick flick, I admit it), you’ll have an idea of what life is like in Tuscany. Small old towns on rolling hills with churches in the middle; winding roads and vineyards, farms and villas dotting the serene scenery - it is hard not to fall in love with Tuscany. You can visit Florence and it’s majestic marble structure Il Duomo, and stop over in Siena, which is a UNESCO heritage site. Siena was established 900 BC, making it by far one of the oldest cities I have set foot in. Siena is a nice place to stay overnight and wander around the old town, but make note that the magnificent cathedral closes its’ doors at 5 pm. 

Il Duomo in Florence, Tuscany

Majestic marble church of Siena

 

See the Mountains 

Many people don’t think of mountains and Italy have much to do with each other. However, Italy shares a border with Switzerland, and hosts dozens of small Alpine towns that are half Italian, half Swiss. The Dolomites are a pleasure for the eyes even if you don't step out of your car and just drive through them. It is worth noting that some of the Alpine roads may be closed due to bad weather conditions and in the wintertime, in which case you might find yourself driving for 3 hours just to have to turn back and choose a different route. You can try and find online information on different road conditions, for example here (only in German and Italian). If you’re not a confident driver, the serpentine roads might not be the best place to start practicing.

Misty winter morning at the foot of the Dolomites

 

Gluten Free? You’re in for a Treat

One could think that being a glutard in a country where the base of the diet is made of wheat would be hard. Wrong! I have never had such delicious pizzas as I did in Italy, which is why I ate one pretty much every day. Italians feel deeply sorry for people who cannot enjoy their national dishes, so they take extra pride in making delicious alternatives that are allergen-friendly. A simple google search (on Google Maps, just type “gluten free” in the area where you are looking to eat in) will work wonders. There are even restaurants that are 100% gluten free, offering delicious unlimited bread baskets, and all kinds of pasta dishes you could imagine. I declare Italy a glutard’s heaven, provided you do a little check beforehand. If in Rome, check out Pandali bakery, where everything is gf. Ahh the pastries, cookies, buns and rolls! The best pizza can be found in city of Trento, in a place called Uva e menta. Trust me, they have the best, most pizza-y gluten free dough ever. It makes my mouth water to even think of it.

Horrible picture but amazing pizza

 

As always, travel outside of peak season (I would avoid July-September). If traveling when the whole rest of the world is not, you have more freedom in choosing last minute accommodations for the night, giving you more freedom to go where you feel like. In December, the weather is not warm, but it is by no means freezing cold either (but coming from Finland, I know freezing).

December looking like Finnish October

 

Bonus: I admit it, this time there was no time left for the famous Cinque Terre. This coastal area in the Riviera is comprised of 5 small villages, and it is known for its’ picturesque houses built on the cliffs; chances are you have seen pictures of it. The area is wildly popular among tourists, so I would actually maybe go to Positano on the Amalfi coast instead. That and Sicily will have to wait until next time!  


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