Call us addicts, but we’ve been to Italy five times in the last 16 years and I can attest this is a true statement:
Italy, a lifetime is not long enough.
Some of those trips were two-week stints as chaperones with our high school youth group. Some were work related and some were pure pleasure, just the Mister and I. Each has given us a unique perspective and an undying love for all things Italian.
We get asked quite a bit about our best traveling tips, the “must-do” things and all the good places to eat, so I figured why not dish on the blog? Honestly, I can’t believe I haven’t shared it before now.
Probably our most asked question is, “When and how can I see the Pope?” Sundays at noon, he always prays the Angelus from the Papal apartment in St. Peter’s Square. No tickets are required, just show up about 11/11:30am to get through security and secure a spot to stand in the square. Wednesdays are Papal audience day. If the weather is nice, they’re typically held in the square. If not, then the Pope Paul VI Hall. Tickets are free, but required. You can request them from your local bishop’s office, but the catch is you have to pick them up – in person – in Rome the Tuesday before your Wednesday audience. And, be prepared to go through security lines once you arrive at the square. If you are looking for shade at the audience, sit up front to the left, right by the bathrooms. That’s also a highly popular Popemobile route. Whatever you do, get yourself near a barricade. That’s your best chance to get a photo of the man himself. The Pope typically takes vacation in August and the early part of September, residing at Castel Gandalfo. Weekly audiences don’t occur in Rome during that time. Pope Francis is an on-time kind of guy. I suggest arriving at the square by 7am to get through the security lines when they open and immediately find your seat. People be cray at those gatherings! Pro tip: Anytime you’re in the Pope’s presence, bring your religious articles. He does a big blessing of them all and you’ll be glad you have them on you!
The Four Major Roman Basilicas
There are four major basilicas in Rome: St. Peter’s, St. John the Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. For all of them, cover your shoulders, be respectful and take some time to put the camera down and enjoy their beauty. St. Peter’s: go early, visit on a Tuesday, the climb to the dome is worth it, visit the crypt below and be sure to pray in the adoration chapel on the right just past the Pieta. Ideally, if your group can score one of the early morning Masses before it opens to the public, you’ll be grateful for that view. St. John the Lateran and St. Mary Major: both are within walking distance of one another and the Holy Steps are just across the street from St. John the Lateran, they are stunning places and worth the visit. St. Paul’s: my favorite of the four, beautiful rose garden in the center, gorgeous garden at the entrance, the most peaceful (minus the gypsies at the metro stop) of all four and it’s worth the ride out there.
Which Part of Italy?
We have visited central and southern Italy. Northern, including Venice and Turin, are on our list for next time. In the central, we’ve been to Florence, Siena, Orvieto, Tivoli, Assisi and Rome. I should really write posts on all of those places. But YES, put them on your list.
Florence for the leather, the Mall and the Duomo – Siena for the red wine, the Eucharistic miracle and St. Catherine – Orvieto for the Duomo, the fresh markets, the pottery and the white wine – Tivoli for the history and impressive water fountains – Assisi for the tranquility, both churches, the San Damiano cross and St. Francis’ hermitage – Rome for obvious reasons. I could spend a lifetime in Italy and it would not be long enough. In the south, we’ve visited Sorrento and Pompeii. The volcano certainly was intriguing, but we just thought it was okay. Sorrento, though? Buy me a condo and call me retired. That place is from a postcard. It’s where the Italians go to vacation. Located on the Amalfi coast you may be in a coma from all that beauty. It’s also the birthplace of lemoncello, so grab some while you’re there.
In Rome, score yourself these two tours: Vatican Gardens and the Scavi. Then, pinch yourself. The garden tour is absolutely stunning. The peace and quiet will surprise you and remind you why the pope loves it so. You can also do day tours (Saturdays only) of the Vatican Museum, the Vatican Gardens and the gardens at Castel Gandalfo. Highly recommend. The Scavi is a little harder to come by, so book it early. English tours are done intermittently, typically by English seminarians studying at the Pontifical College, and they don’t allow huge groups in at once. Be flexible and know that those tours are rarely done on Wednesdays because of the papal audience hullaballo. And, don’t forget to stop by Trevi Fountain and throw in your coin. It ensures a return trip and it’s never let us down. Scott tells me the Coliseum tour is worth it once. But, if you have to cut something, just walk around the outside. You’ll love it just as much. Finally, find any of the Catacombs to tour; we’ve been to Priscilla. It’s where the early Christians were buried. It is a tour you do not want to miss. And, if you’re looking for a rock star guide, let me introduce you to Mountain Boutrac, more often known as the Catholic Traveler. You won’t find one better.
Hands down, if you’re looking for good Roman food, head to Trastevere, near Piazza Trillusa. The smaller the restaurant, the better the food. And, for gelato, you can’t go wrong with Old Bridge, just across the street from the Vatican. My mouth is watering just thinking about how good it is. One must eat pasta and pizza when in Italy. Also, drink red wine and splurge for the lemoncello and grapa. I’m pretty sure Scott and I drank hard liquor at every meal. #romancaloriesdontcount
This is certainly worth a day of exploring. If you just view the Colleseo from the outside, I think you’re just fine. The war memorial is pretty spectacular, too. The Roman ruins are just fascinating to history buffs and to me, personally. Plus, don’t skip the Pantheon.
ROME: Trevi Fountain, throw your coin in to ensure a return trip. The Pantheon at night is fabulous. The Spanish Steps get a lot of press, but the Villa Borghese park at the top is worth grabbing a panini, a bottle of wine and finding the nearest park bench. As folks leave the Vatican, they walk straight across the aquaducts, but rarely take the stairs down to the water. Do that. The crowds are practically non-existent and the view is just wow. Mailing a postcard to friends back home? Mail it from the Vatican post office (and grab a stamp while you’re there). Roman mail takes forever. Don’t leave Rome without taking a good long look at St. Peter’s, any time of day, but especially in the morning or at dusk. It is simply stunning. The Vatican Museums could easily eat up days or weeks of your life, but if you only have a day or less, just know that the Sistine Chapel is at the verrrry end. But, before you head for the exit, make sure to check out the Marian art exhibit. Piazza Navona sure is famous (make sure you grab a tortufo while you’re there!) but we’re bigger fans of Trastevere. Better food all around. You’ll also find fabulous churches around every corner. Pop in as many as you can and enjoy their peace and beauty. Church of the Gesù is probably our favorite. And, if you’re visiting St. John the Lateran, you might as well hop across the street and visit Santa Croce. It’s not much from the outside, but it houses a bucket load of relics (bone from St. Thomas, part of the cross, a nail and more).
ASSISI: St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi has *the* rose garden of St. Francis; none of the roses have thorns. The hermitage is a beacon on the top of the hill and full of great peace. You can hike up the mountain or take a cab. Even though it takes longer, the hike up there sure is beautiful. Sunflowers are always in bloom in June and they are stunning.
SIENA: St. Catherine’s head (don’t ask) is at St. Dominic’s Church in Siena. Her body is in Rome. Be sure you grab a glass of vino and sit in Siena’s Piazza del Campo. There’s a pretty fabulous Eucharistic miracle at St. Francis, too.
Souvenirs & Religious Articles
I think the Vatican Museum bookstores have the most gorgeous porcelain rosary holders. Assisi has the best rosaries (Basilica of St. Francis on the top of the hill) and crosses (St. Mary of the Angels down below). It’s a tie between Assisi and Florence for who has the prettier handmade baptismal gowns. We got ours in Assisi only because the one we loved got away from us in Florence! Buy some of that Orvieto white and Siena red wine to ship home. Italian wine just tastes better. Soprani is like the Italian Wal-Mart. If you need lots of souvenirs and you’re on a tight budget, this is your place. We happen to love the Pope bottle openers, or Popeners! Orvieto, Sorrento and Assisi all had some stunning pottery. I have several vases from those regions and I adore every one.
Only recently did we discover the awesomeness of Flytographer. We’re partial to Roberta because she is just that fabulous. If you’re going to spring for a vacation in Italy, do yourself a favor and get photos you’ll keep forever.
In addition, if you’re anywhere near a barricade at a general audience, make sure to visit the Vatican website. There’s a good chance your photo is in their archives and available for purchase. Snap some photos of the people around you and remember the day you were there so you can narrow it down.
Any travel book by Rick Steves is totally spot on. Except, he doesn’t always do the greatest job in explaining the meaning of some of the truly Catholic sites. For that, I’d grab a copy of “Catholic Shrines of Western Europe” and then pick the brain of a Catholic you know who’s been to Italy a few times. Even better, bend the ear of your bishop or priest who studied in Rome. They always know the best churches to visit. Keep in mind, other than the basilicas in Rome, most churches abide by the Roman siesta and are closed from 2-4pm. Dang naps.
To read about our most recent trip to Italy, click here. It was a quick one, but we did a lot in 24 hours!
What did I miss? Post it in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer. And, please, eat some gelato for me. Baci!