Christmas in July: What to Expect during a Winter Trip to Italy

The lion's share of visitors to Italy plan their trips during the high season summer months, but Italy in the winter has a singular charm as the cities empty of tourists and locals return to their daily routine, the biggest museums and attractions are delightfully quiet, and the cooler temperatures make it more pleasant to tour, despite the shorter days.

january-travel-italy-ciutravel-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

What can you expect during a winter holiday trip to Italy? Here are some of the seasonal specialties and activities that can be the highlight of a vacation during the most wonderful time of the year:

december-pienza-tuscany-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Christmas in July: Why Winter is the Time to Visit Rome, Florence, and Venice

The torrid heat wave in Italy has been all over the international news. Rome's ubiquitous public drinking fountains have been shut off for the first time in history, wildfires on Mount Vesuvius are darkening the skies over Naples, and Florence and most of surrounding Tuscany have been on red alert for high temperatures for weeks.

Maria in Portofino(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though Italy is beautiful on any day and in any season, when the mercury shoots sky-high, it can be a challenge to fully appreciate the charm of the Bel Paese. During these languid July afternoons spent digesting our pasta lunch in comfort of a powerful fan, we are reminded of why a winter visit to Italy can be so rewarding, and why now is the time to start planning.

christmas-gubbio-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

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Il Mercato Centrale: The Pros and Cons of Gourmet Food Courts in Florence and Rome

Florence and Rome have both made news over the past couple of years with high-profile inaugurations of an updated (Florence) or new (Rome) Mercato Centrale. Florence expanded its historic central market in 2014, adding an enormous 3,000 square meter upper level with a gourmet food court including over a dozen stands, food and wine shops, a bookstore, and a cooking school and exhibition space. Rome expanded the Mercato Centrale brand in 2016, opening up its own gourmet food court in Termini's historic railway workers' social club space, featuring stands by some the most recognized names in the city's restaurant and food scene.

mercato-cr-winke(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Unlike Eataly, which showcases products from across the country, the Mercato Centrale philosophy highlights products, eateries, and shops from the city and surrounding region. Though there are exceptions - there is a small vendor offering Sicilian pastries at both locations - the food stands generally feature either prepared dishes or products like cheeses, charcuterie, and baked goods that are strictly local.

Both the Florence and Rome locations have ardent fans and passionate detractors, and only after a visit and tasting can you decide what side of the fence you are on. Here are a few pros and and cons of Italy's unique take on the food court:

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Plautilla Nelli: Florence's First Woman Artist

After centuries of masculine domination, Italy's most important museums are starting to show their feminine side in both boardrooms and exhibition halls. Women have been named to head a number of the country's leading galleries in recent years, beginning with Cecilie Hollberg at the Accademia in Florence and Sylvain Bellenger at Naples' Capodimonte Museum in 2015, and more recently, Barbara Jatta ,who this year became the first woman chosen by a pope to direct the Vatican Museums.

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By Plautilla Nelli - Advancing Women Artists Foundation 2014-02-07 07:30:08, Public Domain, Link(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to taking the helm in managing Italy's struggling state museums, women have also begun to take center stage as artists in both special exhibitions and permanent collections. A major retrospective dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi, the greatest female artist of the Baroque age, has been one of the most successful exhibitions in Rome since it opened in December, and Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, has made good on his promise to highlight more works by female artists with “Plautilla Nelli: Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola”, dedicated to Florence’s first-known female Renaissance painter, open now until June 4th.

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Florence to Explore: A Neighborhood Guide

One of the pleasant surprises upon first exploring Florence is the convenient compactness of the city's historic center. Almost all its most famous museums and monuments are within an easy 10 minute stroll from each other, centered around the stunning Duomo and the stately Piazza della Signoria.

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

But if you walk just a bit further in almost any direction, you can discover Florence's historic neighborhoods where the crowds are thinner, the shops and restaurants are funkier, and the feel is that of an authentic Old World city where locals have lived and worked for centuries. After taking in the David and Ponte Vecchio, dedicate a few hours to striking out beyond these iconic yet overrun sights to discover the Florence of the Florentines.

Here are a few of the most charming neighborhoods to wander:

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Florence's Museo degli Innocenti

Italy's beautiful Renaissance capital is going through a bit of a modern “rebirth” this year, as a number of Florence's most important museums have been recently renovated or expanded and are now open to the public.

The famed Uffizi unveiled its new Botticelli rooms in October, completely reconfigured to improve the lighting and provide more space to display the early Renaissance masterpieces, marking the final stage of the renovation of the museum's entire second floor. The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo has become one of Florence's crown jewels since its inauguration at the end of 2015, with a renovation that almost doubled its previous size and includes a scale model of the cathedral’s original unfinished façade, dismantled in 1586 and featuring forty statues from the 14th and early 15th centuries. Even the stodgy Palazzo Strozzi exhibition space is hosting a collection of Chinese iconoclast Ai Weiwei's works, and making Florentine tongues wag by hanging a row of his contemporary life rafts on the outside of this landmark of Renaissance architecture.

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(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Perhaps the most moving renovation, however, is that of the historic Museo degli Innocenti, which documents the history of Florence's Istituto degli Innocenti located in the hospital designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. Founded in 1419 by a donation from the wealthy merchant Francesco Datini and the Florentine Silk Workers Guild, the “Innocenti” was the world's first lay institution dedicated to taking in abandoned and orphaned children and is still providing services to families more than 600 years later.

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Florence's Famous Flood

Though Florence's Arno is a picturesquely placid river most of the time - the perfect spot for a sunset row or the backdrop for a romantic snapshot from the Ponte Vecchio - once every few years an exceptionally heavy rain passes through Tuscany and the river rises and swells, flooding its banks and almost reaching the level of its historic bridges and retaining walls. It is during these tense hours that Italy is reminded of one of its most destructive natural disasters in the last century: the flooding of Florence on November 4th, 1966.

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Pubblico dominio, Collegamento


The Arno has overflowed its banks many times throughout history, but this flood was one of the most devastating, killing 17 Florentines (and 18 others in neighboring towns) and leaving thousands of families homeless. Countless works of art, antique books, and historic documents were lost or damaged by the water and mud that flooded the lower levels of the city's churches, libraries, and archives, some of which have yet to be restored.

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Di Ricce - Opera propria, Pubblico dominio, Collegamento


Decades have passed since that terrible day, but traces of the flood still remain in the city, both physically and in the living memory of its citizens.

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Three Perfect Itineraries for a First Trip to Italy

Nothing is as magical, or as memorable, as your first trip to Italy. Though subsequent trips may be those in which you pick up a few sentences of Italian, get off the beaten path a bit, and start to choose your favorite cities and regions, that maiden voyage is one of pure discovery. Your first glimpse of iconic monuments like the Colosseum in Rome or Venice's Grand Canal, your first sips of Brunello or Barolo, your first sunset from the Ponte Vecchio or the Amalfi Coast...these are all an epiphany of the senses, and will color your affection for this stunning country for years to come.

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though it's a fun challenge to plan unique trips for travelers who have already explored Italy in the past, organizing a client's first trip is always a particular delight. We still remember our first trip years ago, and know how easy it is to get bitten by the “Italy bug” if your first trip dazzles. Here are three of our favorite itineraries for first timers, and some tips to help you plan a trip that will begin a long-lasting love affair with the Bel Paese!

Venezia - canal(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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Florence with Kids: A Family Friendly Tour

Florence is Italy's most family-friendly major city. The historic center is very compact, and virtually all of the city's major squares, museums, and sights are within walking distance from each other and from the main train station. You can spend days exploring and never have to use public transportation or taxis - something that is not really possible in Rome or Milan. In addition, the large areas of downtown closed to cars and mopeds give kids a longer tether to run around in the piazzas and main streets without parents worrying about them running into traffic or taking an accidental dip, which is a nagging worry when visiting Venice.

Kids enjoying art(Photo by Michael via Flickr)

The vast artistic treasures of this Renaissance capital can be a bit over the top for younger kids, however. As in Rome, many of the most iconic museums and monuments in Florence are best appreciated with a guide who knows how to cherry-pick the works so visits are engaging rather than discouraging. Other sights in the city are fun to explore independently and can be enjoyed by travelers of all ages.
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Italy's 2015-2016 Opera Season

Each winter in Italy, the new opera season kicks off in some of the world's most sumptuous historic theaters in cities from north to south. As professional singers and opera fans, we are always curious to see what trends and news come with each year's season. This year Brian has noticed a few that stand out:

  • Verismo - the style of opera produced in Italy at the end of the 19th century through the 1920’s and one of our favorite genres - is back!
  • Rarities are showing up on a number of theater programs this year
  • La Fenice remains a good venue to see the classics; La Traviata seems to be getting the most play this year

Opera Glasses(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are interesting in seeing an opera while traveling in Italy this winter, here are some notes regarding the most important theaters:
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Florence for Lovers: Romantic Hightlights

With its dreamlike scenery, Old World historic centers, and generally languid pace of life, Italy has to be one of the most romantic countries in the world. Travelers on first (or second) honeymoons flock to the Amalfi Coast and Venice, but all of the Bel Paese lends itself to leisurely strolls hand-in-hand, candle-lit dinners in tiny village squares, and stolen kisses from the nearest scenic overlook.

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though Florence can be decidedly unromantic during the peak season, when the city is packed with tourists and so hot and humid that the locals - who know better - have all fled to the nearest seaside resort, during the shoulder seasons in spring and fall when the weather is more forgiving and the crowds less thick, this Tuscan destination seems made for love. Here are few of the most romantic spots and experiences in Florence, for lovers old and new.
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First Friday Favorite: Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni (Florence)

Our First Friday Favorite for March is the Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni in Florence. Its exceptional combination of spacious rooms, attentive staff, central location and best bang-for-your-buck rates make it one of our absolute favorites.

antica-torre-florence-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We wish we could clone this hotel in every Italian city.
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A Michelangelo-Themed Walking Tour in Florence

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the greatest artists, architects, and engineers Italy—indeed, the world—has ever known. The mastery and prodigiousness of his work in a number of different disciplines, including painting, sculpture, and poetry, earned him the title of “Il Divino” during his lifetime, and has been the key to his lasting influence on western art and culture.

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"Michelango Portrait by Volterra" di Daniele da Volterra - [1]. Con licenza Public domain tramite Wikimedia Commons.


Though he was born in a small town near Arezzo and many of his most famous works are in Rome, Michelangelo spent most of his youth in Florence where he began his long career with his first apprenticeship (under Il Ghirlandaio) at fourteen. We asked our favorite Florence guide and art historian, Elvira Politi, to suggest a Michelangelo walk to celebrate the life and work of this truly Renaissance Man in the most Renaissance of cities. Read More...

Fire and Water: the Feast Day of San Giovanni

It’s so easy to lose track of time when you travel. In fact, that might be one of the most blissful aspects of setting out for distant lands, this sense of timelessness when you no longer know what day of the week it is, what month, or what holiday.

Of course, finding yourself unaware of a passing holiday is more common when you’re in a foreign country with a foreign calendar...especially when you’re in a foreign country like Italy, where it seems that every other day the nation is commemorating a historical event, saint, or random day of R&R. Here you are, happily getting on with it, when suddenly—and, to you, inexplicably—you find museums closed, hotels booked, and a procession complete with marching band and Madonna statue weaving its way down the main Corso.

Tweetable: Cities across Italy will be celebrating the Feast Day of Saint John next week with fire and water.

One of the holidays that often sneaks up on visitors to Italy is the Feast Day of Saint John the Baptist--La Festa di San Giovanni--on June 24th (John the Baptist is the only saint whose feast day is celebrated on his birthday rather than his date of death, incidentally). Though not a national holiday, it is a festive occasion in a number of Italy’s most important cities where San Giovanni is patron saint, including Florence, Turin, and Genoa.

If you are traveling through Italy during late June, you may want to join in on one of these celebrations, which are infused with centuries of local history and culture. Though they take place hundreds of kilometers apart, they are united in their themes of fire and water, two elements linked to Saint John from pagan tradition. Read More...

Our Secret Florence

Shh! Can you keep a secret? We’re about to reveal some of our favorite hiding-in-plain-sight spots and highlights in Florence that are just too much fun to keep to ourselves. Read on to see what is getting us excited to be in Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance city this week...(but keep it between us!)

Florence twilight.(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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A Rainy-Day Florence Itinerary: Leon Battista Alberti

Now that autumn is upon us, travelers can expect some wet and blustery days even in the mild Mediterranean climes of Italy. With this in mind, we asked one of our favorite Florence guides, Elvira Politi, to suggest a largely indoor itinerary for those days when plans of lingering over a cappuccino in the city’s outdoor cafés get rained out, and she came up with the wonderful Leon Battista Alberti walking tour to celebrate the recent reopening of his Rucellai Chapel. Read More...

The Best Beaches for Daytrips from Rome, Florence, and Venice

Here are suggestions for the best beaches for “daycations” from Rome, Florence, or Venice. These, like most Italian beaches, are well organized for daytrippers as the stabilimenti balneari, or beach establishments, almost always include a café (many serving food), bathrooms, shower and changing rooms, and beach chairs and umbrellas to rent by the day. Just bring a bathing suit and towel and enjoy your vacation...from your vacation! Read More...

48 Hours: Firenze (Florence)

In a city with more than 70 museums and 2,000 years of history (much of it concentrated in the just under 2-square-mile centro storico UNESCO World Heritage Site) forty-eight hours is just enough time to get a taste of Florence’s charm . . . and start plotting for your return.

FRIDAY


48 hours in florence duomo
Image © Concierge in Umbria

4:00 p.m. Greatest Hits


Start in the Piazza del Duomo, where the sheer mass of the cathedral and its Renaissance engineering masterpiece, the largest brick dome constructed to this day, dwarf the surrounding medieval streets. Continue down Via dei Calzaiuoli and work your way through Piazza Signoria to the Arno River and back east to the Basilica of Santa Croce.

6:30 p.m. Stop and Smell the Vino


Rest your feet and feast your eyes on the Florentine passeggiata, the evening stroll in one of the many medieval tower houses that’s been converted into a wine bar. Where to begin? We’re partial to Antinori’s wines and their restaurant outside the city, and their in-town Cantinetta Antinori is an ideal spot to sample both.

8:00 p.m. Dine like Dante


You’ll find that beyond all of the art and architecture, one of the best things about Florence is its residents. Trattorias showcase both traditional local fare – think pasta with rabbit sauce, 30+ oz. steaks, and hearty vegetable soups – and a vibrant swath of the local population. We love Trattoria I’ Parione, where we had one of our favorite meals of 2011.

SATURDAY


48 hours in florence palazzo pubblico
Image © Concierge in Umbria

7:30 a.m. A Café with a View


At Rivoire, founded by the personal chocolatier of the Savoy family when Florence was the capital of newly united Italy, you can grab a signature hot chocolate or a café and pastry and soak up the local gossip and the singular view of Piazza della Signoria, a site which has hosted the rise and fall of Florentine regimes for centuries.

8:15 a.m. Medici Morning


Dive in when the doors first open to get Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery more or less to yourself. The museum is organized chronologically and grouped by artists, so it offers the perfect chance for a morning’s education on Florence’s pivotal role as a setting for Renaissance artistic development. And what better setting than the place these great artists learned their craft! During the early Renaissance, the Medicis invited artists to study and work among the collection to hone their skills.

48 hours in florence arno river
Image © Concierge in Umbria

11:00 a.m. On the Wild Side


Though it’s just a one-minute walk across the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno’s south shore, the Oltrarno (beyond the Arno) is largely overlooked by tourists. Grab lunch in one of the great-value, locals-oriented trattorias or piadinerias (like a pizzeria for flatbread). Walk it off touring some of the artisans plying ancient trades on the back streets, from bookbinders to furniture makers to stationers. Begin your second Medici encounter of the day at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence’s answer to Buckingham Palace. After all the opulence, treat yourself to a well-deserved respite in the ducal gardens attached to the palace, the Boboli Gardens, or the adjoining, recently reopened Bardini gardens terraced on the hillside.

5:00 p.m.: A Sunset fit for a King


Michelangelo’s David (or at least one of the four versions displayed around the city) enjoys the best view of the city from Piazza Michelangelo in the Oltrarno. As the day cools off, you can reach this spot via car, bus, or foot – the steep steps up the riverside to the piazza are not for those out of shape – for a picnic or aperitivo as the sun sets on the River Arno.

7:30 p.m. Dinner Theater?


No other spot in Chef Fabbio Picchi’s Cibreo empire can compete with Teatro del Sale in terms of pure entertainment value. The dining room is itself a theater, and a performance – from circus acrobatics to lyric opera to stand-up comedy – ends every dinner. But the show is only half the show. Dinner itself, announced with a verbal drumroll from the windows of the adjoining kitchen, is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Only after gorging yourself on the buffet of vegetables, salads, and grilled meats does the soup begin, followed by course after course after surprising course.

SUNDAY


48 hours in florence vista
Image © Concierge in Umbria

9:00 a.m. Small Blessings


Begin in one of Florence’s smaller museum gems. Just behind Piazza Signoria, the Bargello (open the 2nd and 4th Sundays of every month), named for its former function as a prison, is a wonderful alternative to the Accademia with its broad range of sculpture including works by Donatello and Michelangelo. The Museo dell’Opere del Duomo, which houses all of the original art and sculpture from the cathedral, offers an opportunity to get up close with a version of Michelangelo's Pieta. For fashion lovers, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo tells the story of how one man's quest to make perfect custom shoes launched an empire.

11:00 a.m. Sweet Rewards


Reward yourself for an early morning among the maestros with a café and pasta (pastry) at one of Florence’s top bakeries in the eastern part of the city. Try I Dolci di Patrizio Corsi on Borgo Albizi or Dolci & Dolcezze in Piazza Beccaria, home to one of the city’s remaining eighth-century gates.

12:00 p.m. Spoil Yourself


Stroll back through some of the city’s best boutiques on Borgo Albizi as you make your way back to the center of town and Florence’s supreme shopping around Piazza Repubblica, particularly on Via Tornabuoni, home to the family palaces and fashion houses of the Puccis, Guccis, and Ferragamos.

2:00 p.m. Arrivederci Firenze


Refuel on some light fare like the legendary sandwiches at nearly-130-year-old Due Frattelini before bidding your final adieu to the city from its premier panorama spot – the top of Brunelleschi’s dome.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Traveling Between Rome, Florence and Venice: Stopovers to Round Out Your Trip

Whether it’s your first trip to Italy or you’ve traveled the Bel Paese so often that you can almost call it your second home, some cities just never get old. As many times as you might visit the cultural capitals of Rome, Florence, and Venice – with all their history, art, and unmistakable Italian vibe – you are bound to discover something new on each trip. That said, though these three cities are among Italy’s most popular destinations, we’ve got a secret.

There’s a lot of Italy left to explore in between. Read More...