What’s equally surprising to having done Italy but not Rome, is also doing Italy but never Venice. Even though I’ve passed through Venice Marco Polo International Airport on multiple occasions with frequent intentions to see the city within a layover’s time frame, I’ve never could accomplish the task, but was I really missing out on that much?
The short answer: a reluctant yes.
Despite warnings from fellow travelers about the city being “overrated,” “smelly,” “annoying,” or “tolerable if you see it within a day”, I’m afraid this city — among all its negative qualities — still had me under quite a spell. Yes, I must acknowledge there is a 2 to 1 ratio of foreigners to locals here, and that nearly everyone you’ll encounter will be another tourist who can probably speak your language. But there is something about not seeing a single car for days, or the evocative way the canals and the streets sound at night when they’re empty of tourists, can make even the most jaded of travelers begrudgingly admit to Venice’s uniqueness and understand why everyone around the world feels compelled to visit at least once before they die.
Anyways, you can’t judge a place without first experiencing it!
If you’re coming from the airport, you can take an 8 euro Airport Bus to one of the main watertaxi terminals (more on that later) which then will take you into the city, or take the Alialaguna Airport Watertaxi directly from the airport to the city center for 15 euros.
If you’re coming from Bologna, take the 85 minute train to Venice where you can step out from the train station to see the mouth of the Grand Canal in all its beautiful glory.
Wherever you arrive, one of your first decisions is whether you need tickets/passes for the public watertaxis (aka vaporettos). If you’re a big fan of public transportation, don’t mind waiting in crowds, and plan to explore up and down Venice’s larger waterways at some point, get the unlimited 3 day pass for 30-40 euros. Note that using the watertaxis at least 4-5 times within that timeframe will make up its worth as its ride costs about 7 euros.
If not, try your luck with haggling down a private water taxi instead. Or walk, as the main old city itself takes about 10-20min to walk from end to end.
If anything, do NOT follow Google Maps’ suggested directions for watertaxis; they get a lot of the stations wrong and will end up making you walk more than you need to. Just follow the watertaxi map and use common sense.
It’ll take about 20-30 minutes on a watertaxi to reach San Marco, the main city center of old Venice. Once you get off, you have finally set foot in the world’s only true pedestrian city: there is no car in sight and there never will be. The city is yours for the taking. Walk to your heart’s content!
With 35,000+ Starpoints that you can get instantly by signing up for SPG’s Amex credit card, you can snag free nights at Venice’s premier top 5-star hotel at The Gritti Palace.
The hostel is a historical sight in of itself, as the Doge of Venice, Andrea Gritti, commissioned its construction in 1475. It was renovated only 4 years ago, perfectly blending historical opulence with modern extravagance.
It may not seem as much on the outside…
But wait ’til you see whats on the inside:
After settling in, walk on over to the city’s central square, Piazza San Marcao, aka The Piazza.
You’ll know it when you see it.
Directly facing you will be the western facade of St. Mark’s Basilica, aka the Church of Gold and a fine example of Italo-Byzantine architecture.
Entering the Basilica is free, although lines can take up to 5 hours to get inside (and it’s small enough that most people spend only 10 minutes there). If you want to skip the line, you can go online and buy “skip-the-line” tickets at pre-reserved time windows for 2 euros per person.
Bags are not allowed, so you’ll have to check them in around the corner (they’ll direct you where) at a cloakroom; it’s free to check them in up to 1 hour.
Although you’re not allowed to take photos inside Basilica San Marco, they’re not that strict with enforcing that rule:
Once you exit the Basilica on its northern side, you’ll be facing the Torre dell’Orologio, a Renaissance tower built in 1499:
A few meters in front of the Basilica is the Campanile, a newly restored cathedral tower from the 16th century.
You can take its elevator for 8 euros (no climbing any steps!) and get these views over Venice:
To the south of the Basilica and coasting the waters lies Doge’s Palace, which arguably is Venice’s main landmark. Built in Venetian-Gothic style, it was the residence of the Doge of Venice, once the supreme authority of the former Republic of Venice. It costs 20 euros to enter (and extra if you want the secret tour).
Be prepared for exquisitely ornate rooms that only could come out of a fairytale:
More interestingly in the lower levels are an elaborate network of prisons, one of which held the infamous Casanova.
If you’re visiting on an odd-numbered year you should take Watertaxi #1 a few stops east from San Marco to Giardini, an area of parkland built by Napoleon Bonaparte that now is recognized as the headquarters for a worldwide and yearlong arts exhibition that occurs every 2 years: La Biennale di Venezia, Within the park and arts showcase are a series of permanent pavilions, each hosting a country and its representative artist for that year’s Biennale.
Tickets cost 30 euros (15 euros if you have a student ID or are under 26):
The Biennale this year also hosts “open tables” where you can chat face to face with one of the artists around a large public roundtable over food.
Even the café is an eye-opener:
Have fun going from country to country! You can easily spend a whole day here.
"Medusa" by USA's Mark Bradford
From Giardini you can either take Watertaxi #1 a few stop west towards San Marco to Arsenale for more Biennale exhibits, or keep going to Rialto for Venice’s iconic bridge and its classic views over the Grand Canal:
On the western part of the bridge is the Rialto Market if you have a craving for fresh produce.
After Rialto, take watertaxi #2 west to S. Marcuola – Casino and walk about 5-6 minutes north to the Campo del Ghetto. A serene square to briefly collect your senses, this historic center is also known as the “Venetian Ghetto” where Jews were first compelled to live during the Venetian Republic.
Up to 1500 people had lived here, although most of them fled prior to the arrival of the Nazis during World War 2. Of the 250 or so who remained and then forcibly sent to concentration camps, only 8 returned.
Nevertheless, nearly 500 people now live in Campo del Ghetto, which remains a center of Jewish life in Venice.
At this point you should done with most of the major sights! Celebrate by hopping on Watertaxi #1 for a journey through the Grand Canal.
Once night falls and stores begin to close, you can explore the city some further:
The view from Academia Bridge is particularly nice (although Rialto’s Bridge has higher views):
Turn in with a riverside midnight snack back at your hotel:
And finally, before finishing with Venice, we must address the quintessential Venetian Gondola ride. Costing a whopping nearly non-negotiable 100 euros for a 35 minute ride (I say nearly non-negotiable because if you somehow get them to agree to anything less, you’re going to miss out on all of the secret canals they can take you to), a gondola ride could still be an experience you may regret not doing. Perhaps a way around this is to rally a group to split the 100 euros, as a gondola can fit up to 6 people.
Yes, I admit to paying a ton for this, but I definitely don’t regret it: there is something very different when you explore Venice from the level of a gondola while gliding through its lesser-known canals.
If you get a good gondolier, he (no women gondoliers are allowed yet in this male-dominated tradition) will lead you down some of better lesser-known canals while pointing out some of the top sights that can be seen in the 35 minutes that you have together.
Like, did you know Mozart had lived here, like, across the street?
Anyways, this is a 6am morning at The Gritti:
Necessary, because we needed to be out the door at 6:50am to catch the 7:01am Alialguna watertaxi to the airport. It runs every half an hour.
Say goodbye to Venice:
The watertaxi takes about an hour and 20 minutes before arriving at the airport:
Now currently enjoying some pastries and coffee at the Casa Alitalia lounge in the airport (thanks Delta status!) before the next flight to Paris.
- At time of posting in Venice, Italy, it was 19 °C -
Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: cleaar
Sorry, too busy eating right now to post about Bologna properly (after all, that’s what it’s known for anyway!). Instead, go read my entry on how to do a day trip from here to San Marino.
Until then, still eating.
- At time of posting in Bologna, Italy, it was 22 °C -
Humidity: 52% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The world's oldest republic, San Marino, just got served
From one microstate to another, today we’ll go from one of the world’s famous to one of the least known, both of which happen to be located within arm’s reach within Italy.
The microstate of San Marino is a vestige of Italy’s former independent city-states, retaining its claim as the world’s oldest republic. Half as large as Liechtenstein (which we went to earlier this year!), San Marino covers a mere 61 square kilometres with a population of 33,000, and yet is one of the world’s wealthiest countries in terms of GDP (per capita). It also happens to be the only country in the world with more vehicles than people.
To get to San Marino from Rome, start by taking a direct train from Rome’s Termini Station to Bologna Centrale:
The ride takes about 2 hours so enjoy the views in the meantime:
Once you arrive into Bologna Centrale, change platforms and take another 1.5 hour train ride to Rimini.
Once you arrive at Rimini, head outside:
There will be a bus station immediately on your left. That’s actually the wrong one to get tickets from; instead, they’ll direct you to cross the street to find a random tourist souvenir shop where you can purchase your 5 euro bus tickets.
We were only able to find it because of the green sign posted outside.
If you’re exiting the store, 20 meters to your left is the bus stop for San Marino:
Beat the crowds of tourists to get a good seat:
After about another 50 minute bus ride up the hills of San Marino, they’ll drop you off at the P1 Parking Lot:
If you feel like climbing up endless more steps and hills to get to the top of San Marino, go for it. But if you’re on a limited time or have bad knees, you can take a 2 euro tourist-friendly choo-choo train instead.
Don't judge me
After about 10 minutes on the train, you’re finally at the very top of San Marino.
Well, here you are. Welcome to the oldest (and one of the smallest) republics in the world:
There are not many “sights” in San Marino per se, but you can make a quick hike up to each of the 3 peaks of San Marino upon which are 3 main towers built.
The first tower, Guaita, was formerly a prison and is San Marino’s most famous and most visited.
Admission is 4.50 euros. It can be worth it for the epic views:
From Guaita is a few minutes walk to Cesta, the 2nd tower:
Built on the remains on an older Roman Fort, Cesta also costs 4.50 euros to enter.
There’s also a 3rd tower, Montale, that’s not open to the public. Also a former prison, its only “entrance” is a door 7 meters above the ground, which was customary for prisons at the time.
It’s to you if you want to hike there.
Afterwards you can circle back around from Cesta to head back to where the choo-choo train dropped you off. From there you can either redo your exploration of San Marino’s peaks, or head down further to explore other sights, such as the Basilica of San Marino:
A short walk past the Basilica on a lower level lies the Tourist Information Office where for 5 euros you can get a San Marino passport stamp. Nowhere else on Earth can you get such a thing, if that’s a big deal to you.
It was for me.
You can hike down even further to the Public Palace:
And from here you can spend the rest of your time either checking any of San Marino’s plethora of museums (ranging from a Torture Museum, a museum of arms, to a Vampire Museum), dine outside, savor a gelato, or do some last minute San Marino shopping.
Once you’re ready to go, you can head out back through the main gates on a lower level, where the bus station to take you back to Rimini will be to your right, about another level down.
Once you’re back in Rimini, feel free to stay there for its famous beaches or make your return on a train back to Bologna.
- At time of posting in San Marino, it was 16 °C -
Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The Vatican just got served
After a whole day (or 2) in Rome, I suggest that you start early the next morning to explore Vatican City. Even though it’s the world’s smallest state, the number of people waiting in countless lines to get inside can outnumber the number of the Vatican City’s 800 citizens by a factor of 10 to 1.
If you’re staying on the east side of Rome, take the metro A line to Ottaviano, from where you can walk a few blocks southwest to the north side of the Vatican City Walls along Viale Vaticano.
If you arrive early enough in the morning on a mid-weekday or on the Wednesdays when the Pope is giving mass, you can head straight to the ticket offices around the corner and purchase your 16 euro entry into the Vatican Museums (they are closed only on obvious religious holidays and Sundays, except the last Sunday of the month). However, most do not get there early and end up waiting over an hour and a half in line along this very street to get inside. The only other way to skip this line is to purchase tickets online for an extra 4 euros, but these “skip-the-line” tickets usually sell out a few days before.
Your Roma Pass will be useless here, unless you want to buy the more expensive 90+ euro Omnia Pass.
FYI, this is also the only way to see the Sistine Chapel. Vatican City’s other main sight, St. Peter’s Basilica, is free to enter and you can see it via a separate entrance along the eastern end of the complex (more on that later)>
Once inside the Vatican Museums, it’s another madhouse figuring out where to go. Just get through security and head upstairs to get your tickets,
The Vatican Museums complex is designed in a linear fashion: you only have one path to follow. And eventually, if you don’t screw it up, you’ll end up through its famous corridors:
Eventually you’ll hit a stairwell that becomes a bottleneck for the mass of people trying to get downstairs to see the interior of the Sistine Chapel:
Head downstairs, look up, and prepare to stare dumbfounded at Michelangelo’s masterpiece that took him over 4 years to complete. If you’re lucky, the guards will be too preoccupied with crowd control to notice if you’re taking a few photos (they usually yell at you every 2 seconds):
But don’t be too obvious with your amateur photographing, because now it’s nearly impossible to get the Sistine Chapel from this angle:
After departing the chapel, you’ll end up back in the main upstairs lobby of the Vatican Museums, where you can either choose stroll amongst the Vatican City Gardens, take the all-day train around the city, eat in the café/cafeteria, send off a postcard, or head out down towards the exit via its famous spiral staircase:
When you’re leaving the Vatican Museums, you end up back out on the streets of Rome as if the Holy See just unceremoniously kicked you out of their country.
Well, not to fear, a 5 minute walk around the corner to its eastern entrance towards Saint Peters Square and Basilica will bring you right back inside:
Once you pass through the open archways, you’re back in Vatican City.
Meander around this gorgeous plaza that’s (no surprise) also designed by Bernini.
To get inside Saint Peter’s Basilica, aka the world’s largest church by area, length, and volume, be prepared to wait in another line:
Eventually, you’ll go through another round of security checks and then are given the option either to roam for free around the ground levels of the Basilica, or pay 6 euros to climb to the top of its Dome to get views over Vatican City and the rest of Rome.
You can pay another extra 2 euros to take an elevator and skip the first 200 steps (or which there are 500 total). The elevator will directly take you to the first rest stop, which is an elevated balcony that looks down the interior of the basilica:
Keep climbing up from here but take extra care if you get claustrophobic:
Eventually after the 504th step, you’ll make it outside:
Squint a bit looking east and you can make out the Colosseum peeking out to the right behind the Altar Of The Fatherland:
Then head back downstairs to explore the interior of the actual basilica itself, which is so large you can fit the Statue of Liberty inside here, sideways or standing up, and still have enough room left over.
Don’t forget to glimpse The Pietá by Michelangelo before you leave:
Afterwards, head back out east to exit Vatican City. If you keep along Via dei Corridori, you’ll reach Castel Sant’Angelo aka the Mausoleum of Hadrian.
Although this structure isn’t technically a part of the Vatican City, it became the Pope’s chosen refuge to which he could escape via an underground tunnel if the Holy See were ever to be under siege (as it was during the Sack of Rome in 1523). Its ramparts are also where the eponymous heroine of Puccini’s Tosca (spoiler alert)…leaps to her death.
But you can also come here for the great views:
Tomorrow: Italy’s other lesser-known microstate — San Marino!
- At time of posting in Vatican City, it was 18 °C -
Humidity: 73% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
When I was in Italy last, I thought it was odd to have spent a week there and yet never set foot in Rome. So when I discovered a free flight there thanks to an abundance of Chase Sapphire miles (an overview on how it works here: Chase Sapphire Preferred), I supposed this would be a good time to finally go.
For the longest time I’ve been wary of writing an entry on Rome and still doing right by it. With over 930 churches, countless attractions, and limitless secrets, this is no easy place to monsoon. But alas, any travel challenge is a challenge worth accepting, and if you only happen to have a weekend here, how does one make the most of “The Eternal City” that has survived over 3000 years? (and if I’m to be really honest, this is definitely more a place to live in and explore over months, instead of a place to “monsoon” in a weekend…but some of us beggars can’t be choosers, can we?)
So if you really are to have only a weekend in Rome and have no other choice but to make the most of it, here goes: You’ll likely will be arriving at Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO). From here, the best way to get into Rome is by an hourly nonstop train from the airport to Rome’s main Termini train station. The ride costs 13 euros and tickets are easy to get from the automatic kiosks once you step out of arrivals; just make sure you get those tickets stamped by the green machines to your right before boarding.
The ride takes about 25 minutes nonstop.
Once you arrive at Temini, you can head onwards to other parts of the country, get on the metro to other parts of the city, or walk to your accommodations in the neighborhood, of which there are plenty.
I decided to get a Roma Pass here at Termini’s Tourist Booth, which for 38.50 euros and the next 72 hours, will cover unlimited metro and bus fares, free admission to the first 2 museums (including the Colosseum and Palatine Hill) that you visit as well as discounts for for any subsequent museum in Rome. It also acts as a “flash pass”, allowing you the skip the 1-2 hour wait in line to get into the Colosseum if you happen to go midday. Be forewarned, if you buy the Roma Pass online, you have to wait exactly 24 hours for the pass to be available for pickup. No refunds!
The first sight you can see that’s closest to the Termini Train Station are the Baths of Diocletian complex, the largest known imperial baths of the Roman Empire.
The complex can be accessed either directly from the northeastern sidewalk of Piazza della Repubblica (this took me awhile to figure out as I walked all the way around the baths and eventually accessing them through an unguarded backdoor of the church), or the adjoining Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri that has been built over the ruins:
Although there is an admission fee to access the baths’ museum complex, security at the time was minimal and nobody was checking anyone’s tickets.
The remnants of the actual bathhouses still remain impressive:
Exiting from the bathhouses back onto Piazza della Repubblica, take appreciation of the overkill that is Eataly in Italy:
…and walk northwest along Bia Bittorio Emanuele Orlando to reach the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria. It’s the small little corner building across the street from this:
Inside this nondescript building is an impressive interior:
…but what it’s really known for is being the home to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which is considered one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman Baroque.
After spending a few minutes here, walk more northwest along Via Leonida Bissolati and make a left to take a nice stroll along leafy and elegant Via Veneto, which was featured heavily in the film La Dolce Vita:
At the southern end of Via Veneto will be Piazza Barberini, notable for Bernin’s Triton Fountain:
From here at the Bernini Metro Station, take the Metro A line (Orange) 3 stops south (towards Anagina) to Vittorio Emanuele.
After exiting the metro, head west towards Parco Del Colle Oppio, pass by the ruins of Terme di Traino, where remains of Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s grand 3-floor villa, should be on your right.
If you face south and walk on, you’ll come upon the Colosseum, the ultimate symbol of imperial Rome and the largest amphitheater ever constructed.
Just as how crowds up to 80,000 strong had gathered then for gladiator games, the size of the crowds now are nearly as unbearable; lines can take up to 1-2 hours to get in! But thanks to the aforementioned Roma Pass, I was fortunate to discover there is a dedicated “flash pass” entry for Roma Pass holders in the “Group Entrance” area, allowing one to skip such a wait.
To give you an idea, the Roma Pass line is on the left, and the regular line to get in is on the right:
Once inside, head upstairs:
The seats are gone, but left a section intact to give you an idea of what it’s supposed to look like:
In my opinion, the views from the bottom floor are better:
You can stay as little as 20 minutes or up to an hour here depending how interested you are in Roman history (and/or how long you spent to get inside).
After the Colosseum, walk northwest towards Palatine Hill and it’s the same ticket as the Colosseum’s to get inside the complex: This is where the original settlement of Rome was founded, which eventually developed to become the famed capital city of the Roman Empire and arguably the most powerful and influential city of the ancient Western World. This is Old Rome.
You can get an amazing view over Old Rome by climbing up the steps to get to Domus Tiberiana or Capitoline Hill/Campidoglio.
After you’re done exploring Old Rome, exit northeast to Piazza Venezia to get a great view of Altar of the Fatherland, a grand marble temple honoring Italy’s first king and its soldiers of World War I.
From here walk north on VIa del Corso and then east on Via del Seminario to the Pantheon, the iconic temple built in the 2nd century AD known for being constructed with a big gaping hole in the ceiling and for housing the tomb of Rafael.
About that hole in the ceiling? It’s called The Oculus and was actually brilliantly designed so that the interior of the temple only receives natural lighting.
“But what happens if it rains?” — said everyone, ever.
The bio”physics” behind it is that most light rain would evaporate considering the amount of body heat that people would give off inside. That’s why there’s a saying: “It never rains in the Pantheon” (It’s not really true).
But if you really insist on asking “But what if there was a huge rainstorm?”
Why, a simply drainage system:
And with the Pantheon as your central point, you have a few options. To your west is Piazza Navona (which immaculate fountain is also designed by Bernini)…
….Campo de’ Fiori (Rome’s largest outdoor food market and the site of many executions, which explains why remarkably there’s no churches here)…
(go early as it clears out within an hour by dusk)
…and Via Giulia, which is a pleasant cobblestoned road lined with hundreds of old palaces:
And to the east of the Pantheon is the Colosseums’ rival in terms of tourist traffic: Trevi Fountain (be careful of the immense crowds!)
To make the proper wish here and so you don’t get cursed with being loveless for the rest of your life, throw your coin with your right hand crossing over the left shoulder, and with the fountain behind you.
Then from the Trevi Fountain, walk north to Piazza di Spagna. This square is famous for being the home to the Spanish Steps, which was the backdrop to Audrey Hepburn’s film “Roman Holiday.”
A block away from the steps along Via dei Condotti is Palazzo Malta, one of 2 headquarters for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — the world’s only sovereign entity that lacks actual territory. That means it functions like a country in that it has embassies around the world, maintains diplomatic relations with 107 other countries, enjoys United Nations permanent observer status (a status that countries like Vietnam, North Korea, Austria, Bangladesh, etc. all held before they joined the UN), enters into treaties, and issues its own passports, coins, and postage stamps.
Retrace your steps back to the Spanish Steps and walk more north along Via del Babuino to reach Piazza del Popolo (the “People’s Square”):
And that’s it! You’ve completed an epic walking tour of all that we thought was worth seeing for a beginner’s guide to Rome west of the Tiber River.
And when night starts to fall, consider either taking a pasta cooking class. . .
. . . or check out the same sights you just saw but when they’re lit up at night, such as the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore:
. . . . or swing by Trastevere: Rome’s equivalent of NYC’s east village neighborhood. If you do decide to cross the river to get here, its central gathering place would be Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastvere:
Be prepared to lose yourself among the throngs of hungry locals and tourists, all looking to choose from the countless great food options littered among the streets here:
Tomorrow: Vatican City!
- At time of posting in Rome, Italy, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, sunshowers