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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Italy's Handcrafted Paper

After its rich culture and even richer food, one of the best things about visiting Italy is shopping. From high-end fashion and design to exquisite artisan wares, Italy is full of unique treasures that are a both a refreshing change from chain store anonymity and imbued with a history and tradition often dating back centuries.

paper-bevagna-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We have talked about some of our favorite artisan souvenirs in the past, but have never mentioned one of Italy's most affordable (and packable) traditional crafts: paper.
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Italy's Most Beautiful Gardens

Though it may seem that summer is the season to visit Italy’s many splendid gardens, in this country’s hot and arid Mediterranean climate, the best times of year to enjoy most of these magnificent grounds are actually the spring and fall. It is during the cooler, damper months that these public and private parks, many of which could be considered works of art rivaling those in Italy’s museums, reach the height of their lushness and color.

villa-lante-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
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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...

Behind Closed Doors: Visiting Private Museums and Artwork in Italy

Italy is saturated with art, and not only in the big ticket cities like Rome, Florence, or Venice. Virtually every hamlet and hilltown in Italy boasts at least one masterpiece tucked away in the local parish church or dusty municipal gallery which, if it were housed in any city in the New World, would be the crown jewel of a lavish dedicated museum and marketed to its last dab of tempera.

But if your head swims at the thought of the incredible volume of art displayed publicly in Italy, consider the treasures that hide behind closed doors. Centuries of noble families amassing sumptuous private collections mean that there are untold Stendhal moments tucked away in the elegant apartments of Italy’s private palazzi and castles. Many of these are off-limits to visitors outside the family’s close circle, but many others can be quietly and privately seen...if you just know how. Read More...

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...

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

Top Italian Music Festivals: Opera in Rome, The Arena di Verona, Umbria Jazz Festival and More

italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user *Debs*

Music has been at the heart of Italian culture since the Romans refined Greek musical drama. Italian composer still dominate opera’s “best of” lists and one of the country’s favorite sons, Giuseppe Verdi, is being feted this year on the occasion of his 200th Birthday (October 10).

As singers and music lovers, we love to share our passion for music with travelers to Italy. Like the country’s great art museums, Italy’s music festivals bring the country’s heritage to life.

Arena di Verona, Veneto


italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh

Opera at the Arena di Verona in Verona brings Italian history from different periods – Roman, baroque, neoclassical, and modern – together in a way you won’t find anywhere else. Set in one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, performances begin once dark sets in, typically around 9pm in the summer. Candles are passed through the thousands of attendees to light the seating area and paths and imbue the space with an ancient timelessness that provides a lively contrast against the often high-art, hyper-modern set pieces. The Arena season runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 5 Verdi classics including perennial favorite Aida.

Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Umbria


italian music festivals umbria jazz festival
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Since its inception in 1973, the Umbria Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world, drawing in the top names in music – Miles Davis, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Van Morrison to name a few. The original July version of the festival now reaches beyond jazz, hosting some of the world’s top pop artists as well. It has become so popular it now has a winter spin-off, the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival held in December and January in Orvieto. From large stadium concerts to street musicians and small club performances by up and coming jazzistas it is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant scene in the Umbrian capital during the festival. The 40th Anniversary Season runs from July 5-14 and features performances by John Legend, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Sony Rollins, among others.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome


italian music festivals opera in Rome
Image by Flickr user Teldridge+Keldridge

Each summer, Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera decamps from its location in the city to the ancient Baths of Caracalla for summer performances. Active from the 2nd to the 6th century AD, the baths were Rome’s second largest public baths. They remain remarkably intact and provide a suggestive backdrop for music productions. 2013 ScheduleTBA.

Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Tuscany


Started by a friend of Puccini’s in 1930 with a production of La Boheme on a stage built right in the lake, the Puccini Festival has grown into one of the world’s top opera festivals. Now in the lakeside town where Puccini spent much of his life and composed many of his operas, a small outdoor amphitheater offers summer visitors the chance to enjoy the composer’s works in the natural setting that inspired them. Last year’s festival also hosted the international opera awards. The 59th Festival Puccini features 4 operas including a new production of Tosca and runs from July 12 to August 24.

Ravello Festival in Ravello, Amalfi Coast


italian music festivals ravello
Image by Flickr user Ell Brown

Another festival overlooking the water, the Ravello Festival is known colloquially as the “Wagner Festival,” due to its origin honoring Richard Wagner’s stay in the town in the 1880s. Over the last six decades, the festival has grown from its Wagnerian origins into a mélange of classical and modern music, as well as other performing and fine arts, with opportunities to meet the artists during the festival’s discussion groups. This year, the festival celebrates its own 60th anniversary along with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

Stresa Festival in Stresa, Lake District


italian music festivals stresa
Image by Flickr user Pascal

When it comes to waterside music festivals, the Stresa Festival is the top event for views. All around Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in the temperate northern Lake District, musicians play in medieval castles and monasteries, Renaissance villas, and baroque palaces overlooking the lake. Confined more or less to one week, the festival packs in a wide gamut of musical styles – from classical to jazz, and groups – from world-renowned artists to up-and-coming student performers. The Stresa Festival begins on July 19 and offers events through the beginning of September.

Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Le Marche


Also commonly called the Pesaro Festival, the Rossini Opera Festival honors the popular opera and chamber music composer in his birthplace, Pesaro. Since 1980, the festival has produced not only his well-known works, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola (Cinderella), but some of the more obscure of his 39 opera and chamber music compositions. The 2013 festival begins August 10 and features productions of Guillaume Tell, Mosè in Egitto, and L’italiana in Algeri.

Maggio Musicale in Florence, Tuscany


italian music festivals florence maggio musicale
Image by Flickr user MITO Settembre Musica

Florence’s Maggio Musicale is not a single month, as its name would suggest (maggio is Italian for May), but rather two months of acclaimed musical concerts. The festival dates back to 1933, making it one of Italy’s oldest musical festivals. Each May and June, it ties together music and dance concerts and operas often centered on a theme, such as a period, topic, or composer. This year’s festival kicks off with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Zubin Mehta on May 2.

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

A Tuscan Cooking Class with a Noble Twist: Cooking with the Contini Bonacossis

Anybody can sign up for a cooking class in Tuscany. But how about learning to cook with the private chef of a count and countess and then sitting down to lunch with the whole family . . . eating the food you just made?

The Contini Bonacossi Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In Tuscany, and especially Florence, the Contini Bonacossis are best known for their art collection. The previous count, Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) – friend of Simon Guggenheim and a Senator to the Kingdom of Italy – amassed one of the most important collections of the 20th century. Now housed in the Uffizi, the collection was donated to the state in 1969.

Today's generation of Contini Bonacossis are best know for their food and wine. The family is one of the top producers of Carmignano wine, a wine that dates back 3000 years and in the 14th-century was one of the most valuable commodities in Europe. Carmignano is produced by only 13 estates, and when you visit you’ll see the family’s dedication to keeping this craft alive.

Arriving at the Contini Bonacossi Estate


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

In the morning, depart from your hotel and climb the leisurely hills outside Florence with your driver. The Contini Bonacossi estate lies a half hour outside Florence in Tenuta di Capezzana.

On the sprawling grounds – you’ll get an excellent view from the hilltop villa – the family maintains large orchards of grapes, olives and lemons, which are raised in terraces called limonaie that transform into greenhouses in the winter.

After driving through the vineyard to reach the house, you’ll dive into your cooking lesson with the family chef Patrizio, who has been with the family for more than twenty years.

Cooking Ancient Tuscan Food


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Contessa Lisa Contini Bonacossi founded this cooking school in the 1980s to share traditional Tuscan cuisine based on ancient recipes with her guests, so you're in for a treat beyond the usual Tuscan dining experience.

Though they may include some of today's typical Tuscan menu items, such as ribollita, pappa al pomodoro, and bistecca alla fiorentina, Patrizio also teaches particular regional dishes like stracotto alla Carmingnano (Carmignano-style pot roast) and baccala alla livornese (Livorno-style cod) and dishes based on local ingredients, such as penne ai tre cavoli (with three cabbages) or crostini di cavolo nero (with black cabbage).

At the end of your course, the Contini Bonacossis will also give you a bottle of wine or olive oil so you can recreate your meal at home.

Eating with the Family


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Dust the flour off your clothes, wash your hands, and sit down for lunch with the count, countess, and their whole family. Naturally, the contessa will don her pearls, but the family is quite laid-back, so you’ll do just fine.

After your meal, one of your hosts will escort you around the estate, including the wine cellars where they age their famous DOCG (the highest quality designation available for Italian wine) Carmignano wine. Once you’ve had your fill of the noble surroundings, your driver will cruise you back through the rolling hills into town.

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

Top 10 Italian Holiday Experiences: Brian and Maria Gabriella's Picks

Trying to plan a trip to Italy and just don’t know where to start? Everyone has their favorite cities, restaurants, hotels and sights to recommend (contact us and we'll tell you ours), but here are 10 Italian holiday experiences around the country that you just can’t miss. In a country full of perfect 10s, the following are in no particular order.

#1 Italian Holiday Experience: Roma! Roma! Roma! - Ancient Rome


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

At the heart of modern-day Rome, the ruins of the ancient Roman capital are remarkably preserved despite the 4 million visitors who walk the 2600-year-old paths each year. But Rome is not the only place to find traces of the ancient civilization (Pompeii is a perfect day trip!), and Rome today is far more than a city built on ancient relics. Walking the streets, you’re greeted with the most majestic architecture and art from every period of Italian history and the vibrancy of a modern capital.

#2 Italian Holiday Experience: Rinascimento - Renaissance Florence


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Florence may be small compared to bustling Rome, but the capital of Renaissance culture packs in so many sights that you can spend eight hours wandering four blocks and still not see everything. Though Florence is home to the grand art collections of the Uffizi and the Accademia (home to Michelangelo's David), other cities in Tuscany and further afield in Umbria (Perugia) and Le Marche (Urbino) hold equally lauded but less visited collections.

#3 Italian Holiday Experience: Venezia - A One of a Kind City


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Often imitated but never copied, Venice remains - despite the hype, the masses of tourists, and the commercialization - a magically unique place. Where else in the world . . . is a major modern city completely devoid of motorized vehicles? . . . are "roads" sometimes only wide enough for one person? . . . was home to Casanova? Like few other cities in Italy, walking through Venice transports you to another time.

#4 Italian Holiday Experience: Sicilia - Crossroads of Cultures


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

While we often say that Italy has it all, the Mediterranean's largest island has it all in one place. Ancient ruins, Byzantine cathedrals, and Islamic architecture dot the landscape, while the flavors of all of Sicily's past rulers mix with the island's rich agricultural produce to create a singular cuisine. Throw in a volcano, hundreds of miles of coastline with beaches and diving, and verdant hiking trails, and you've got Sicily.

#5 Italian Holiday Experience: Mangiare e bere! The Food


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

There is something about Italian food that you can never replicate at home - the incredibly fresh, picked-at-the-peak-of-ripeness, seasonal vegetables. In Italy, the phenomenon called "farm to table" is not a fad, but a basic way of life. And don't forget the wine! (Not that the Italians would let you.) Even low-priced table wines and house wines are high-quality and often organic.

#6 Italian Holiday Experience: Italiani! - The Italians



Image: © Concierge in Umbria


All of the things that we love about Italy are made possible by the Italians themselves. Their passion. Their conviction. Their love of beauty for beauty’s sake. And their fervent desire to point you to the absolute best gelato, pasta, or whatever you are looking for. The Italians are great hosts and are one of the warmest and funniest peoples of the world. Recommendations by and conversations with Italians will take your trip to the next level.

#7 Italian Holiday Experience: I Panorama - The Views!


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

Italy’s peninsula (justly often called “the boot”) stretches from the Alps down to the volcanic peaks of Sicily’s Mt. Etna, benefiting from 4722 miles of coastline along the way. From the ski and hiking resorts of the Dolomites like Cortina d’Ampezzo to the rolling hills of Tuscany to the cities built into sheer cliffs along the Tyrrhenian Sea, like the UNESCO World Heritage Cinque Terre and the star-studded Amalfi coast, Italy has a view to soothe anyone’s soul.

#8 Italian Holiday Experience: Lo Shopping - Art, Clothes, and Ceramics, Oh My!


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

You may come to Italy for the art or the food, but don't forget to leave time to bring your favorite things home with you. For quality, Italy is unparalleled. For clothes, you can score Italy's top fashion brands at deep, deep discounts at outlet malls outside major cities. To decorate your home, pick up reproductions of your favorite museum art pieces and scour ceramics shops for unique regional designs and elegant painted serving dishes.

#9 Italian Holiday Experience: Un Pisolino e Una Passeggiata - Lifestyle


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

The afternoon nap (il pisolino) and the evening stroll (la passeggiata) form an integral part of the rhythm of Italian life. The morning is for chatting at a coffee bar, getting fresh vegetables, cheese, and pasta at the market for the highlight of the day – lunch! After a rest or a nap, the whole city takes to the streets for an evening stroll to catching up on gossip and grab a gelato. Italy is all about the pace of life.

#10 Italian Holiday Experience: Che Spettacolo! Fantastic Live Events


Image: © Concierge in Umbria

There is a reason that opera, philosophical dramas, and improvised comedy all have their roots in Italy – the Italians know how to put on a show. Today, you can still experience opera in ornately decorated opera houses with intermissions long enough for a drink and a chat between every act just as Verdi fans did in the 1800s. In the spring and summer, the country comes alive with world-class concerts and music festivals in every city and usable Roman amphitheater.

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