In the United Kingdom, Reading Week is given to university students as a small break to catch up on work, rest up, and get refreshed during the middle of the semester to refocus on papers. So what does the American student on Study Abroad from her home uni do, naturally? Ignore all of those suggestions and go on a week-long trip through Italy.
Crazy, I know.
I had promised myself that as part of my study abroad experience, I would get out of my comfort zone and travel more. So that’s exactly what I intend to do. One of my friends I had known from Cornell before I studied abroad invited me on a trip that some girls from UPenn had organized and I was happy that they were all super happy to have me tag along and that I would get such an immersive start to my Euro Adventures.
As my first trip to the European interconnected continent, Italy was definitely the culture shock I had been looking for from London. As if packing up everything into two carry-ons and venturing into yet another foreign country wasn’t enough, I struggled to find my way through Italian metros and to communicate in places where the primary language wasn’t English anymore.
I’d also find later on that budgeting for these kinds of trips can especially be difficult for uni students like me, hence why we decided to fly into the Milan Malpensa Airport at 20:00 and take an overnight bus to Rome instead of flying straight there in the first place.
In the long run, getting the flight as cheap as it was saved us a good amount of Euros (God bless Ryanair), however the only thing I really regret about this is not being able to see very much of Milan besides the airport and train terminal, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the Sunday of Reading Week, we had officially arrived in Rome around 7:00 and were just exhausted on the whole. I personally didn’t get too much sleep since I have so much difficulty sleeping on buses, the legroom wasn’t really that much, and the secondary driver was snoring for the first four hours so I passed the time listening to calming music before I popped a Benadryl and dozed off for the rest of the time.
We got to a cafe in the Rome metro station where we rested up for a bit, drank some espresso, and tried to practice our butchered Italian for the first time. After checking into our Airbnb (super close to the Colosseum!), we immediately set out towards the Vatican, stopping to take pictures along the way.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Rome was because of the Vatican. It was incredibly beautiful being in St. Peter’s Square and being able to see Pope Francis in person! Sure, he was only visible from a tiny window about 200 feet above us and I couldn’t understand his Italian for the life of me, but being able to say that I witnessed the Pope blessing the crowd and giving a prayer service has to be one of the best highlights of my young adult life.
The second day in Rome, we went back to the Vatican for the walk up St. Peter’s Basilica, which I’ll admit was one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done in my life but not nearly the most exhausting thing I’ve done on this trip. The total climb up to the dome of the Basilica was 580 odd steps, but completely worth it for the views.
Seeing the rest of the Basilica was amazing as well. We got to see the amazing interior of the church and the crypts where so many of the previous Popes are buried. Unfortunately, pictures aren’t allowed within the crypts, but it felt intriguing but also pretty morbid being down there. I didn’t get to see Pope John Paul II’s tomb, but I did get to be pretty near the spot where he was shot 12 years ago. I realized a whole day later that the red painted brick in the middle of the square signified this.
The Sistine Chapel was also one of my favorite sites to see in Rome. I had completely forgotten that the ceiling was painted by one of the greatest Renaissance painters in the world, so I made it a mission to see Michelangelo’s famed portrait of God and Adam for myself in the Vatican Museum. To be honest, the ceiling itself was incredible, completely breathtaking, but I felt somewhat deceived because I had been led my whole life believing that one painting took up the entire space of the chapel. Not only is the chapel itself smaller than I had envisioned, but there are SO MANY OTHER PORTRAITS ON THE CEILING, MY GOD. The whole thing basically tells the story of God creating the world and the human race, but only this one panel is highlighted. it’s understood why God creating Adam is an important piece, but there’s so much religious imagery shoved into this one ceiling and it was astonishing to look upon. I almost felt sorry for these other panels that they’re not as well-popularized.
Another highlight that I’ve enjoyed in Rome had to be the Trevi Fountain. I felt that of all the cliché things I had left to do in Rome, I had to go to the fountain that was featured in The Lizzie McGuire Movie. The legend supposedly goes that if you toss a coin into the fountain, the next person you see will become your true love…which is a little awkward if you already have someone in your life. So I Googled alternatives to this myth and decided that by tossing a coin, I was basically guaranteeing a return to Rome one day. So here’s hoping it comes true!
After two days in Rome, it was off to Florence! We had arrived early in the afternoon to find that our Airbnb was smack in the middle of the Mercato Centrale. This had made it much easier to know where we’d be eating that night (and for much cheaper than going out to a restaurant!) but also difficult, considering there were many street vendors on the street who could clearly see we were Americans and where we were staying. Florence was also where I learned that many vendors used Italian hospitality and catcalling as a business practice. My group had gotten used to taking the sidewalk and walking up and down the streets to avoid unnecessary attention.
Despite difficulties, I think Florence was my favorite part of this trip! I found the flat streets easier to navigate than Rome and had so much more to admire on the way through the city. Within about 5 minutes of the Airbnb was the Duomo, which was absolutely mesmerizing to look upon. The details were so intricate and And another 10 minutes past that was Ponte Vecchio, where I got probably the best pictures, best views, and best window shopping experience of my life.
Best highlights from the trip? One, finding a literal hole in the wall on a random street that our very knowledgeable tour guide told us was one of Italy’s first speakeasy. Yes, this was a real thing. When people wanted to drink sneakily, they’d put bottles up to this tiny door/portal and wine would pour out from the other side. I need this upgrade in my house next year.
Two, finally seeing the David and every other replica of this beautiful man all around Florence. Seriously, he seemed to pop up everywhere I looked, but it was so worth it to see him in person. Even if it did cost me 12 Euros.
After Florence was Venice, which is probably the most mixed in my memory. While it was breathtaking to see all the canals and gondolas and everything you could ever imagine Venice to be, this city was expensive and probably the most tiring on me. The only metro available was the one train terminal we used to get onto the island and water taxis. The simplest and cheapest way around Venice was to walk, which for me, got tiresome after the first 5 or so bridges of about 1000 on a 40-minute walk to get to our Airbnb.
Some of the best sights in Venice absolutely include Piazza San Marco, which we were 5 minutes away from by walking. The square was a heavily tourist-attracted area during Carnavale, but it was at night where the square truly glowed. Not only was Carnevale celebrations in full swing, but the Basilica di San Marco was still lit. The next morning, I would find out on my tour that the basilica was not only beautiful but also depicted the fictional story of San Marco coming to Venice in four mosaics right above the entrance.
Another highlight of this tour was the last stop: the Scuola Grande di San Marco. Originally as a children’s school, this building was renovated over time to become more modern, but still, has beautiful works of art on the inside. Today, the building serves as Venice’s biggest and probably the world’s most beautiful hospital.
Venice also happens to hold a special place in my heart because our tour guide also brought us to one of the most lovely bookshops in the world: Libreria Acqua Alta. It got its name from a flood that demolished a good number of its book from the 7th century AD, which it now uses as decoration!
Despite exhaustion, Venice was absolutely worth going. It was around Carnevale, so we stumbled upon many people sporting Venetian masks and full on costumes on the streets. We managed to find some cheap masks for €2 each, but I wish I could’ve bought more of the handmade masks from the real Venetian artisans.
Overall, I’m glad I made this trip. Not only for the experiences, but also fo the complete makeover my Instagram page went through as a result. And now, for no particular reason, here’s a bunch of arbitrary ratings based on my experiences:
Best tour: Venice. Our free tour guide was really young — an American studying American and British Literature in Venice because it was cheaper to do so there than back at home. He was quirky and fun and made being in Italy much more fun than it was before.
Best views: Florence.. Okay, so I said earlier that Ponte Vecchio had a great view, but the view of the city from Piazza Michelangelo was absolutely spectacular and the most engraved into my memory. I wish I had gone earlier in the day, but at night, the city was sparkling.
Best walk: Rome. Out of the three, Rome probably had the flattest streets and the easiest ones to walk through every day. It felt like nothing to walk from the Colosseum to the Vatican!
Best prices: Rome. Sure, everything in Italy is expensive wherever you go, but Rome gave us the most discounts. Particularly for the Musei Vaticani, where I paid only €8 to see the Sistine Chapel and works by other Christian artists.
Most expensive: Venice. Seriously, even the McDonald’s was expensive; €9 for a wrap and fries where in the US would only cost me $5 at the most. I think the best meal we had in Venice was the one we ended up cooking at the Airbnb. For less than €5, we cooked the most amazing bowl of pasta, Italian baguette, cheese, and for me, a personal bottle of Chardonnay for €2.
Best café: Florence. Again, most of the places we went to were expensive for food, but you can usually tell which cafés are good by how much they charge for their coffee. Espresso should usually be only €1, and the cappuccinos somewhere around there as well. After feeling like I was in such a rush to have breakfast, I sat down in a café to have probably the best damn cappuccino I’ve ever had in my life. They even sprinkled a little bit of cocoa powder on it for me, which just melted my heart.
Best souvenirs: Tie between Florence and Venice. I didn’t go overboard with souvenirs. I mostly focused on buying small gifts for my family, but I couldn’t resist when I was brought to a small leather shop in Florence and got myself two small Italian leather notebooks. They even had “Made in Italy” printed on the back! And like I said before for Venice, so many artisans sold handmade Venetian masks and Murano glass beads that I couldn’t resist myself. I’m still wearing the glass post earrings that I bought in Venice for about €5 each.
Best joke: Venice. And I’m only including this because it took some backstory to lead into but was brilliant and I shall remember this tour guide for the rest of my life because of it:
“Venetian developed flat-bottomed boats to navigate the waters through the shallow canals. So when armies built round bottomed boats, they’d get stuck again and again…From up until about 1800, no army was able to invade Venice. This city was impenetrable. That’s why so many citizens called it the virgin city because…it was never…penetrated.“
Best food: Oh my goodness, don’t make me choose. I think I consumed a lifetime of pasta and wine to last me a while.
I did learn a good tidbit about the food though from our tour guide in Venice. There are three general rules to food in Italy. Basically, if you’re a tourist, don’t go into a restaurant that has
- Photos of food on the exterior of the restaurant.
- An encyclopedic menu where there’s 10+ pages of pizza, pasta, comfort food, etc. and has translations in numerous languages.
- People luring you in to eat there.
Good Venetian restaurants have one-page menus, often in Italian, let you know the food’s fresh, and are good places to eat based on local reputation alone. Also, prosecco can be cheaper than water, which was a game changer for me.
Best gelato: Personally, Florence takes the cake for this one (or rather, takes the cone?). Rome came close; our tour guide in Rome highly recommended Giolitti, a famed gelateria, but it was so crowded that I wasn’t really able to enjoy it. Also, Rome was my first experience trying out gelato, so that’s why I thought limoncello and pink grapefruit scoops combined in a cone was a good idea at the time (which it totally was, no regrets. It was completely refreshing despite being 40 degrees at night). It was in Florence however that I learned to really value gelato, specifically dark chocolate. It’s rich, filling, and dairy-free! And not going to lie, the dark chocolate at Gelateria de Neri was purely orgasmic. I’d go back to Florence just to have that cup again.
Where would I take my family?: Rome. Despite immense Catholic guilt and not being able to understand a word of what Pope Francis was saying, I’d want to take my mom to the Vatican so she could see it for herself. I’m still kicking myself for not finding a holy water fountain for her…
Where would I take my significant other?: Florence. Like I said, Florence was gorgeous. I can see myself having so much fun strolling through the streets with my boyfriend, going for a wine tasting, and then pointing out all the overpriced jewelry I’d want him to buy for me in Ponte Vecchio.
Would I do it again?: Probably not as rushed as I did it. Seeing 3 or 4 cities in a week was draining on my feet, shoulders, and memory. They all blended together after a while and wasn’t able to really take in the architecture, culture, or anything besides food really. I also probably won’t be making these kinds of lists again, since it’s more likely that I’ll be in one European city for 3-4 days instead of 2 at a time, not leaving enough time for comparisons. Overall, I did love that I was able to see Italy for the first time and have the sites absolutely live up to and obliterate my expectations. I can’t wait to see what else the continent has in store for me.
Up next: Copenhagen, Denmark. Stay tuned!