Italian travel survival guide: My favorite cities in Italy
You have a long list of Italian cities to visit while studying at NYU Florence — here are my favorites, and here’s how to navigate them.
May 3, 2022
FLORENCE, Italy — Studying abroad is a daunting task. There is enormous pressure to travel somewhere new every weekend. Constant traveling is extremely draining, and trying to plan successful trips — especially on a college student’s budget — can make it even more stressful. In hopes of providing some inspiration for future NYU Florence students, and making Italian adventures — while studying abroad or otherwise — easier, here is my declassified Italian travel survival guide of my top five favorite cities in Italy.
Although this is most definitely biased, I do believe that Florence is one of the prettiest and most accessible cities in Italy. Most people there speak English, so if a language barrier deters you from studying abroad, I encourage you to consider NYU Florence. Florence is a very walkable city. Almost everything that you might need, such as supermarkets, restaurants and bars, are all within a 10-minute walk. The train station is also very close to the city center and, as an NYU Florence student, you will probably be one of your most visited places if you plan on exploring Italy as a whole. Taking the train from Florence is always going to be preferable to flying because the Florence airport is ridiculously small and does not offer many flights anyway.
There is a wide array of food options in the city center, so it is relatively easy to find your favorites. Rooster Cafe Firenze, an American-style restaurant that serves typical brunch food, was always my go-to for great comfort food, especially when I was missing home. Il Nutino is one of the best pizzerias I’ve been to since studying abroad. Their eponymous pizza is my personal favorite because they put caramelized onions on top. If you’re looking for desserts, I really enjoyed Gino’s Bakery for cannoli and Cantina del Gelato for gelato.
The Galleria dell’Accademia and Uffizi Gallery are some obvious tourist spots that are indisputably must-sees on your trip to Florence. It should come as no surprise that these places are almost always flooded with visitors. If you’re studying abroad in Florence, I would recommend going to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s “David” at the beginning of the semester. Assuming that it isn’t peak tourist season — which would likely only apply if you’re studying during the spring semester — you will likely have no issue getting into the museum without a line. Otherwise, you might end up waiting in line for an hour. The Uffizi Gallery is equally, if not more, crowded. However, NYU Florence does offer museum cards, called Amici degli Uffizi cards, that give you free and prioritized entry into the Uffizi Gallery, Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace.
The most popular tourist attraction in Florence is Ponte Vecchio, a bridge lined with many different shops, typically selling jewelry. It is often crowded, so if you’re visiting to buy souvenirs or gifts, be prepared to wade your way through large crowds before actually entering the stores. Products bought along the Ponte Vecchio tend to be very expensive, so I personally prefer window shopping. And while I think the view from the bridge during the day is breathtaking, I find it even more beautiful at night. I would recommend walking to the bridge a little after 8 p.m. At this time, there shouldn’t be as many people there and you’ll be able to take as many pictures as you want. Another perk is that you’ll be able to see what the stores look like when they are closed — they look like little shipping containers.
If you’re researching Florence to study abroad, rather than vacation, there is also going to be a downside to your living arrangement. The NYU Florence campus lies at the very top of Via Bolognese, a particularly steep hill. The trek up to campus if you live in a downtown apartment is less than ideal, usually taking about 45 minutes to walk from the duomo to campus — maybe 35 minutes if you sprint. The people who live downtown definitely appreciate the convenience and liveliness of the city center, however, most students feel the downsides when it comes time to go to class since the bus is not very reliable. Although you can download apps like Moovit, an app that tells you public transit routes and arrival times, they tend to be inaccurate, often making you wait at the bus stop for an additional 30 minutes. In my case, I lived a five-minute walk from campus, which was definitely my saving grace on the days that I had 9:30 a.m. classes.
Before coming to Florence, I had a lot of safety concerns. I feared that I would be uncomfortable walking around in the city by myself. However, after living here, I feel like Florence is relatively safe, but this is not to say that you should abandon your street smarts and go out alone very late at night. My advice would be to stay alert while walking by the duomo as it tends to be very crowded, which might potentially increase the chances of pickpocketing. Although I never experienced that in Florence, it is better to be safe than sorry. Throughout my whole study abroad experience, I only witnessed one person get pickpocketed in Naples — which is why you won’t find Naples on my list of places you should visit, at least not alone. Your best bet is to go out in groups of people that you know and trust, especially if you plan on going to clubs or bars. You should also have a couple different plans for how to get home.
Admittedly, I went to Venice with extraordinarily high expectations, and I am happy to report that they have been met. The canals and gondolas are just as romantic as I thought they would be. I found it mesmerizing the moment I walked out of the train station. Although I was initially thrown by the idea of water taxis, navigating through Venice was relatively easy. Once you arrive on the mainland, you can easily walk everywhere, although it can get confusing. After the third bridge you cross, you begin to think that you are walking in circles, which is not entirely outside of the realm of possibility.
The typical gondola, tourist-trap rides are definitely worth it, even if they do cost 80 euros for 30 minutes. Hear me out first. It’s the easiest and most scenic way to get to see the entire city. They take you through the main canal where you will see Ponte di Rialto, and then through the smaller, more quaint canals. Hollywood renditions of Venice made me believe that I would be serenaded while on the gondola, so that was the biggest letdown — I’m sure that definitely happens, but I just didn’t witness it. My only other complaint is that I did not anticipate that the canals would have such a strong, unpleasant odor. I won’t describe it too much, but it did make some of the boat ride unbearable. That shouldn’t deter you from visiting Venice altogether; it might have been that I visited when the water in the canal was too low.
I also went to Venice during Carnival, a festival in February. This is arguably the best time to visit Venice. Saint Mark’s Square, the main square, was filled with people in elaborate costumes, including the iconic papier-mâché face masks that you might be familiar with. Stalls around the whole city offer cheap versions of the masks for purchase, but if you want an authentic hand-painted mask, they can reach upwards of 60 euros. I don’t think acquiring masks is a central aspect of the Venice experience, but it could be worthwhile if you are an avid collector or want more high-end souvenirs.
One of the more niche places I went to in Venice doubled as my favorite — the Libreria Acqua Alta bookstore featured a full-size gondola used to store more books and, although smaller than I anticipated, every inch of the store was beautiful nonetheless. The most notable part was its fire escape, with stairs made of piles of books that lead you to the canals. I wasn’t able to find a view this special anywhere else.
Additionally, there are some dishes that you simply must try while in Venice. Seafood is one of the more obvious options given that you are literally surrounded by the water. Squid ink pasta is often high on people’s lists of recommendations, even though I didn’t end up trying it.
3. Cinque Terre
Cinque Terre is what I pictured when I thought about studying in Italy. It is your typical coastal Italian city. The ocean is a beautiful crystal blue with waves that are soothing enough to calm even the tensest person. Cinque Terre, as the name might imply, is made up of five seaside-towns: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza. I actually began my trip in Genoa, which is a one-hour train ride from the La Spezia train station.
I decided that the best way to experience Cinque Terre would be to complete the hike from Monterosso to Vernazza that I’d heard so much about. You can do this by purchasing the Cinque Terre pass at the tourist information office. This ticket allows you to ride the train within Cinque Terre as many times as you want and complete the trekking paths between all five towns. Before the hike, I was excited, perhaps overzealously. I had decided that this was going to be how I would reunite with nature and find new inner peace after a stressful week. I’m sure you see where this is going. When I read about the hike and saw that it was labeled as beginner, I mistakenly thought that it would be an easy trail. It was anything but easy. First, my attire was entirely inappropriate for the amount of exercise I was doing — jeans never bode well for this kind of thing. Second, this experience humbled any part of me that thought I was in shape. The first 30 minutes of the hike are almost entirely stairs, each at varying heights and with questionable stability at times. Still, I hope my not-so-subtle complaints do not deter you from taking the hike. I actually think you should do it, but be more prepared than I was. Wear the right clothes and don’t forget to bring a bottle of water. I was able to see the most beautiful views while on this hike. There is nothing like looking at the ocean to make your problems seem small.
The entire hike took two hours. By the time I reached Vernazza, I needed a well-deserved break. I decided that this would be best spent by chugging a bottle of water and eating a lemon sorbet. I sat on a bench overlooking the water and decided that this view was well worth the physical turmoil I faced to get there. The other villages are relatively small, so you can get through them pretty quickly. However, if you plan on completing the trekking paths through all five villages, I recommend spending a couple of nights in Cinque Terre. Since I was staying in Genoa, my time in Cinque Terre was very limited. The hiking had made me very tired, so I could only get through three of the villages before I had to call it a day. My best advice about traveling to Cinque Terre is to plan precisely. You can’t really go wrong as long as you are prepared for your activities. Learn from my mistakes, or simply don’t hike and enjoy a lemon sorbet from the comfort of the train as you travel from village to village.
You may be surprised to find Rome so low on my list of cities. Had I gone earlier in the semester, I may have formed a different opinion. However, I did go to Rome during spring break which happened to fall during the tourist season. Because of this, a lot of things I wanted to visit didn’t have tickets or had overwhelmingly long wait times. Like every single person who has gone to Rome, I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. However, there were no tickets because the weekend I visited happened to be St. Joseph’s Day. Again, that was an oversight on my part, but I still think I would have run into the same overcrowding issues if I went any other weekend since Lent began halfway through the semester.
Rome is definitely the city that requires the most planning. I don’t recommend going to Rome on a whim unless you are not interested in sites like the Vatican or have already seen it. I would even go as far as to suggest that you plan your trip to Rome a month in advance. This way you’ll make the most of your time in Rome. However, not all was lost because I did get to see some other sights like the Pantheon — which is free to enter if you reserve a timed ticket.
Though I did miss out on some of the Rome experience, the food definitely made up for it. I would recommend That’s Amore, a restaurant named after the renowned Dean Martin song. It’s incredibly popular, so again plan ahead if you can. I had the Ravioli That’s Amore — ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach served with a butter sauce — which made all the waiting seem worthwhile.
I do really love Rome. It’s a beautiful city that seems to transport you to ancient times as you walk through the Roman Forum or the Colosseum. There is something surreal about visiting Rome. It feels like a history textbook comes alive.
This is going to be a controversial opinion: Amalfi is overrated. Hear me out. Every time I’ve heard someone talk about Amalfi, they have made it seem like a utopia with colorful houses, clear blue water, sunny weather and amazing food. I won’t deny the presence of any of these things. It’s true, the houses are eye-catching, the water is blue, the sun warms your skin and the food is good. It just wasn’t what I expected. It felt much smaller. Amalfi’s city center, not its entire coast, was by no means disappointing. How could you go wrong with eating calamari on the Italian coast? After all, it was the top city on my study abroad bucket list.
I found Amalfi to be a bit of a letdown partially because of how complicated it was to get there from Florence. My friend and I decided that the best course of action was to take the train from Florence to Naples. We would stay in Naples for two nights and do a day trip to Sorrento, Positano and Amalfi. Now, in theory, this was a good idea. It was relatively easy and would save both of us a headache. What had not occurred to either of us is that Naples was not an entirely safe city. I found myself tricked by the Pinterest pictures I saw of Naples. Naples was not romantic, at least not while I was there. It was very crowded and equally as dirty. Worst of all, my friend got pickpocketed, so the whole experience was tainted from that point on. Still, I stand behind our idea of stopping in Naples first, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else. I would say that it would be best to take the train to Naples and find your way to the Amalfi Coast on the same day, though some people took buses, and that seems to be the easiest way. Sorrento is a popular city to stay in while visiting the Amalfi because it is still coastal, but it is also much cheaper than staying in Positano or Amalfi itself.
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Essentially, don’t make the same mistakes I did. Although you can’t really go wrong traveling anywhere in Italy, listening to others’ experiences might make yours all the more seamless.
Contact Emily Kerrigan at [email protected]