I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat here; I probably have the least amount of patience when I travel, not including when I’m waiting for my food to arrive at a restaurant. This shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing the world but if you can relate, I highly recommend visiting Italy during its quieter months. And even if you can’t, the smaller crowds and calmer environment allow for great photo ops!
My family and I spent a little over a week in Rome during the winter holidays and it’s impossible to articulate how much we loved it. Definitely one of our best vacations to date. We hit all of the major sights: the Colosseum, Vatican City, Trevi Fountain, Circus Maximus, Roman Forum, Spanish Steps, Mouth of Truth (for all you Audrey Hepburn fans out there), Palatine Hill, the crypts and catacombs and nearly everything else a tourist is supposed to see in Rome. We also made day trips to Pompeii, Florence, Positano and the Amalfi Coast. My inner twelve-year-old couldn’t handle all of the excitement. I was more than ready for my own Lizzie McGuire / Mary Kate and Ashley experience.
Even though my tween-age dreams were crushed and I did not meet any Italian pop stars or fashion moguls during my visit, I found the unavoidable crowds near the Colosseum and the Vatican to be much more manageable compared to the stories I’ve heard from friends who made the trip during the summer months. Regardless of the time of the year, I still recommend either purchasing tickets in advance or joining a tour where you can skip the line for the Colosseum and the Vatican. There are several vendors around the city where you can book these tours. My family also searched for tours on Viator. We had great experiences on every tour we booked through them and all of our guides were incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.
As it is for any traveler, it’s nearly impossible to reflect upon where you’ve been and what you’ve seen and then narrow down which ones were your absolute favorites. This holds true for Italy alone but if I had to choose, here are my top five must-sees:
Visiting Pompeii has been on my bucket list for years and lived up to my own hype. The preservation of the city is unbelievable. You can still see the worn ruts from wagon wheels as they were carted through the city and the decorated houses of the nobility. Despite the presence of other visitors, it felt like you were walking through a ghost town when you really let the history of the city sink in as you pass by the ancient baths, houses, shop fronts, and even the brothels. On a clear day you can also see Mount Vesuvius looming in the background.
Though re-enacting your own version Gladiator starring you as Russell Crowe would be largely frowned upon, a quick conquering pose is quite acceptable. If you get the chance to go below the ground level, you can get a good look at the mechanics of this impeccable stage that played host to countless fights, mock sea battles, and theatricals.
A just-so-you-know tidbit: the stairs are steep – my thighs were burning by the time I reached the top. They had to be in order to include the higher levels. So when you go and you climb those stairs thinking you might be a little out of shape, don’t worry because you won’t be the only one.
I’m going to cheat here and include the Roman Forum since it’s so close to the Colosseum and the two were bundled together on our tour. One of the coolest things about Rome is that you can see the different architectural styles throughout history. The Romans were recyclers and you can see this clearly as you walk around the forum. You can see an ancient foundation with medieval and baroque features all on one building.
3. Vatican City
The museum has beautiful frescos, tapestries, and a tricky 3D ceiling that is really just a 2D ceiling with some impressive shadowing techniques. The Sistine Chapel is stunning and includes a funny anecdote about one of the details on The Last Judgement. Michelangelo and this one Cardinal did not really like each other so Michelangelo immortalized this said Cardinal by painting his likeness as, if I remember correctly, a demon. The Cardinal didn’t appreciate the gesture and complained to the Pope, who basically was like “meh, leave it.”
Saint Peter’s Basilica is huge, gorgeous, and we were pardoned of all our sins by walking through the Holy Door since we visited during the Jubilee of Mercy. We’re not Catholic, which may or may not have been made apparent the day we were there since we initially entered the Basilica through another set of doors and had to exit then re-enter through the Holy Door to be forgiven, but it was still cool. Even though I probably experienced the most crowd anxiety at the Vatican, it was still one of my favorite places.
Florence is as beautiful city. The cathedral, commonly referred to as the Duomo, is one of the main highlights of the city and has a gorgeous white, green, and pink marble façade. The Duomo is in a central location and serves as a good reference point should you decide to wander around. Florence is also home to the Statue of David by Michelangelo. The original can be found in the Galleria dell’Accademia and a replica that marks where the original used to stand can be found in the Piazza della Signoria. Next to the piazza is my favorite museum in Florence, the Uffizi Gallery. The Uffizi has several collections but it’s probably the most famous for its Renaissance pieces. This is another place where you will want to purchase your ticket in advance or book a tour that allows you to skip the line. The general admission line was so long when I went that they sold out of tickets for that day. This line wove all the way down to the Ponte Vecchio, the only medieval bridge to survive World War II. I wouldn’t have been able to go myself if I hadn’t passed a tour group that had a couple extra spots available because there were a few people who never showed up – thank you, whoever you are!
5. Amalfi Coast
I really enjoyed the Amalfi Coast in December because it was so tranquil.
It’s absolutely breathtaking and we were able to take some great photos without anyone accidentally photobombing them. Most of the shops in Positano are closed during the off season but there are still a handful of them open for any off season visitors. There are also cafés near the beach boardwalk where you can grab a bite to eat.
The coast was included in our tour of Pompeii so after we visited in the Ancient City we made a couple stops along the coast for some panoramic photos and ate lunch in Positano. If you’re going from Rome, it’s a lot of driving but the view is worth it.
This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list of what you should see in Italy but if you only have a few days in or around Rome, these are the places that I would recommend and personally enjoyed the most. If you’ve been to Italy before, leave a comment on what your favorite sights were!