Sure, I’ve made some travel mistakes.
Besides wishing I had done more research or missing out on a major site, I’ve missed trains, lost tickets and gone the wrong way for hours. It seems that a large part of travel is dealing with the unexpected, even if sometimes it’s your own fault. It can be hard but it’s always worth it.
Because sometimes, sometimes things turn out juuust right.
Travel Decisions that Turned Out Perfectly:
Rome: See the Colosseum at night
I’ve been to Rome on two separate trips, each time for little more than a long weekend, and I mostly saw the same thing on each trip. The change I made the second time around? How I saw the sights. The stops were the same, but this time I booked ahead to enjoy a nighttime tour of the Colosseum. It had worlds more atmosphere, but was also worlds nicer in the cool Roman evening rather than boiling under the sun in an arena without a lick of shade.
There are dozens of tour companies. I used this site to find a night tour.
Vatican City: Go to mass in St. Peter’s Basilica
The largest Catholic church in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica is nonetheless a tourist attraction to tick off a list. It was for me the first time I went to Rome also. Only on my second trip did I decide to dig in deeper, and see if I couldn’t tap in to its timeless importance.
Read about how you can experience Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica
Whether religious or not, a country’s religion is a part of its cultural identity. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than the Vatican City. Sitting in the Altar of the Chair, surrounded by people undoubtedly from many backgrounds and many faiths, I realized I was participating in the Basilica’s history. I was experiencing it fully, not touring it haphazardly. I was more than a tourist. I was a participant. The experience was moving for all that it was – insanely cultural, powerful and in a one-of-a-kind setting.
Isole Borromee: Go late September
I had always planned to go to the islands in spring to enjoy the gardens in full bloom, but I found late September to be just as brilliant and just as beautiful. Purple azaleas framed the views of the lake and the petunias were still flashing pinks, whites and reds. More importantly, there were fewer crowds. The islands are small and even in late September there were bottlenecks after getting off the boat, I couldn’t imagine fighting that during high season.
San Fruttuoso: Hike for a new perspective
You can only get to San Fruttuoso in one of two ways: hike or take the ferry. I’ve done both.
And though the hike is definitely more difficult, it also has better views and is by far more satisfying. Two hours walking above the gorgeous coastline brings you to San Fruttuoso’s tiny pebble beach like your own personal treasure trove.
Elba Island, Tuscany: Take a day trip to Pianosa Island
Elba is a wonderful destination itself, but the gem of our trip was the day we dedicated to exploring nearby Pianosa Island. Once a penal colony then maximum security prison, today it’s a nature reserve and one of the few truly unspoiled landscapes in Italy. Only 250 people are allowed to visit each day and can go on a bike tour, snorkeling or walking with a guide or choose to lay on the beach in a truly secluded island paradise.
Lake Como: Get the best views at Castello di Vezio
There’s a lot to do on Lake Como. You can shop in Como, eat in Lecco, stroll the streets like the rich and famous in Bellagio. Visit the gardens of Villa Monastero or Villa Carlotta or Villa Melzi to ooh and ahh at the (once) rich and famous. But my favorite town on the lake is Varenna and my favorite activity is right above Varenna. Visit Castello di Vezio on the hillside above the fishing city for the most spectacular views of the lake and a chance to see trained birds of prey soar.
Carnevale: Celebrate in Ivrea
Carnival is a celebrated throughout Italy, so travelers can take their pick of where to celebrate. My vote, however, goes hands down to Ivrea. Venice’s carnival celebrations are incredible. It’s sophisticated and theatrical. It’s smoke and mirrors, mystery and atmosphere. Ivrea’s is nothing of the sort. It’s simple and bold and fun. A massive food fight represents the battle between “townsfolk” and “nobility”. Oranges are flying, bloody noses abound and the fight lasts hours but don’t worry, spectators can remain safe behind large nets and take breaks from the cold with vin brule and fried carnival treats.
Trieste: Deep dive into a largely unknown part of Trieste’s history
We only had one day in Trieste, but I don’t regret even a bit spending nearly half of it on the outskirts of town in the Risiera di San Sabba. Italy’s only concentration camp, it’s also nearly completely unknown by foreigners and Italians alike. It still stands today as a powerful reminder of our difficult past and the cross-cultural history of Trieste.
Read more about Trieste’s fluid borders with an easy Timeline of Trieste
Mantova: Get too drunk with friends at the best osteria ever
I originally had this for the travel mistakes post but couldn’t bring myself to count it as a mistake. True, I definitely didn’t see Palazzo Ducale as well as I would have sober, but there’s no better Italian experience than a three-hour, two-bottle-of-wine lunch in a local osteria with friends. The lunch was amazing, by the way.
Milan: Climb to the top of the Duomo
For me, this is by far the most worth it touristy thing to do in all of Italy. By that I mean, most touristy thing that’s not necessary. Going to see the Colosseum when in Rome is absolutely necessary, going to the top of the Duomo in Milan is an extra. It’s also much more interesting, unique and fun than going inside the Duomo or even just seeing it from the outside. Get up close and personal with the hundreds of statues, spires and reliefs that decorate the white Gothic cathedral.
Lago di Garda: Rent bikes
I’ll admit I’m no expert on Lago di Garda. I’ve only been for two very brief stops and even then they were both in the same general area. Beyond Sirmione, I felt lost. Stopping in one of the small towns along the lake and renting bikes really brought us closer to the vacation atmosphere. It was fun, cheap and a great way to see the lakeside.
Verona: Come for an opera
Verona is a wonderful city, but its history truly came to life for me after I had seen an opera in the open-air arena. With stone seats and 25 euro tickets, this is opera for all, and it’s fun. The price leaves you free to leave whenever you’d like, the atmosphere is festive and the backdrop just gorgeous. I’ve been back for two other operas since!