I’ve been trying to get to Italy since high school. I actually started studying Italian early on as an undergrad to expedite the process. This was also around the time that I learned that, despite my best efforts, I’ll never be able to roll my r’s like the Italians do. Making my attempts at the language atrocious at best.
Anyways, when I finalized the plans to study in Prague, there was only one place I wanted to spend Thanksgiving week/my 23rd birthday.
Italy, you made for the best week ever.
A mere two-hour plane ride and I was in Rome. I met up with my travel buddy for the week, Katie, who honestly deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for putting up with my nonsense all week. If you have a Katie in your life, travel with her, then thank her for not killing you in the process.
We had booked an absolutely darling Airbnb in a quite neighborhood about 10 minutes from the Vatican. The area was full of shops and local cuisine, so we spent our first night in Italy at Ristorante Nico. Reviews promised the best pizza in Rome, and they delivered. I had never tasted parmesan so fresh and flavorful, it threw me for a loop. Great way to start our week.
Sunday morning, I had booked a walking tour to get a better idea of where we were staying. It began at Pizza del Popolo, an utterly charming square with sights every way you look.
Our guide Chris was a history buff, so we got a bit of background in how Rome came to be as we explored the area. We began with Via del Corso, an inexpensive shopping street with charming stores in each direction.
I didn’t expect to hit major sights so quickly, but next thing I knew we had arrived at the Pantheon. According to our guide (and every architect ever), it’s an architectural marvel. We’re still only kind of sure how they managed to build a dome so large and so well-constructed.
Inside is stunning, and if you’re also a history buff, many famous Romans are buried here. Queen Margarita (for whom the pizza is named) for example. I also got to pay my respects to my artistic love, Raphael, who is buried here as well.
Eventually, we arrived at a gelato place with 150 flavors. I’m a creature of habit, so if I see anything cheesecake or caramel flavored, it’s mine. It didn’t disappoint.
A few minutes later, and we were at the Senate building, with the most impressive fountain/sculpture/obelisk I had ever seen. Rome has a thing for designing architectural curiosities… again, no one is 100% sure how it’s managed to stand for as long as it has.
We ended with Castelo del Angelo, a stunning castle where a miracle supposedly took place that ended the Plague in Rome.
From there, Chris gave us several recommendations, everything from restaurants to sight seeing, and we were eager to see what he spoke of so highly.
First, we hunted down Da Francesco, a wonderful restaurant that started my love affair with Italian carbonara. I ate it almost every day I was in Italy. No apologies either, it was so good.
Chris had spoken highly of the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola, saying the painted ceilings rivaled the Sistine Chapel. That was enough to sell me, so off we went. When I walked in, my jaw dropped. He was absolutely right.
We realized we were really close to some of the major sights in Rome, so off we went in search of the Trevi Fountain…
…followed closely by the Spanish Steps.
After that, it was getting late, so we decided to head back for dinner in the neighborhood. Remember how I said I was in a carbonara love affair? Guess what I ate that evening?
Again, no apologies.
Since we were just a 10 minute walk from the Vatican, I booked an early (by early I mean 9:30) trip through the museums and Sistine Chapel. There is shortcut straight to the Chapel for those who are short on time, but if you can spare at least two hours, I’d recommend walking through it all. It’s unbelievable. I was mostly in awe of the ceilings, but there’s far more. Famous sculptures, Raphael’s work, and ancient artifacts as far as the eye can see.
Full disclosure: you’re not allowed to take pictures inside the Chapel. I had already snapped three before I was informed. So… do as I say, not as I do.
It was unreal. Your neck will probably hurt from craning it to see every last detail, but pop some Tylenol and keep staring.
A quick lunch at the museum cafeteria, and we were off to St. Peter’s Basilica. A quick word about the line; it looks damn near impossible from first glance. But it moves quickly. What appears to take days will take you roughly 45 minutes, give or take. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Once inside, we decided that life is short and we needed to climb the dome. If you plan on doing this, bring water. It’s so many more steps that you think it will be. I thought it would never end. At one point, all I wanted to do was call it quits and bury my face in gelato.
But then we reached the top.
Don’t worry, we still got gelato afterward.
Tuesday, we hopped a train for the hour-ish ride to Florence. We would only be there for roughly eight hours, and to be honest, I was a little worried we wouldn’t have time for everything. Luckily, Florence is small and easily walkable, so I worried for nothing.
We began at the Ufizzi, my mom’s favorite museum of all time. She’d have killed me if I didn’t take pictures to send her.
The museum itself is a treasure. Every major name from Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci is there.
We were doing a bit of museum hopping at that point, because afterward we checked out the Galleria Academia. Much smaller and easier to navigate. And much easier to see David.
I was not prepared for how much seeing David in person blew me away. I got goosebumps. It’s easy to see why the Florentines loved this sculpture and felt it was their symbol of rising to protect their city.
We grabbed sandwiches from All’Antico Vinaio, the most reviewed restaurant on Trip Advisor and for good reason. The prosciutto I had was so flavorful I almost couldn’t finish it.
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring, with special attention paid to the Duomo and Baptistry. I know these are the typical touristy sights in Florence, but you’ll see why. They’re beautiful.
The next day we slept in a bit, before heading off to our next destination. I had spied Santa Marinella, a tiny town about 45 minutes from Rome by the coast, and immediately booked tickets. I was eager to see what this charming little area had to offer.
After all the hustle and bustle of Rome and Florence, Santa Marinella felt like a palate cleanser. It was so quiet and peaceful, just walking around was delightful. We stopped at a seafood restaurant where I ate grilled sea bass so fresh I couldn’t believe it.
Later on in the afternoon, we made the quick walk to the beach. We were the only one’s on the coast and it was positively delightful. It was almost therapeutic to spend the time admiring the coast. It looked like the sea stretched on forever.
On the train ride back, I saw that Roma Termini was close by to a restaurant recommendation and basilica recommendation. So off we went!
First we trekked through the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore. This will get repetitive, seeing as I visited probably 1,000 churches in Rome, but I couldn’t believe how majestic it was.
Later on, we arrived at La Mucca Birrichina. I had carbonara because of course I did. In fairness though, I switched up dessert by trying pannacotta. Completely delicious.
We tried to get to sleep as early as possible to prepare for the 3.5 hour train ride to Venice the next morning. But first, I had to be cliche and play “22.” It was my last night as a 22-year-old, so it felt necessary.
Getting up at 5 a.m. is maybe my least favorite thing, but thank goodness Italy knows how to do coffee. We made it to the Termini in time, and arrived in Venice around 10:30. Right away, I knew I was in love.
It was roughly a 30 minute walk to St. Mark’s Square, but the thing about walking around Venice is you’re 64% sure this isn’t the right way. There are so many twists and turns it feels like you’re getting lost. I honestly thought Google Maps was playing a joke on me.
Whatever, the walk there was gorgeous. I kept stopping to take pictures. Each alleyway looked like something out of a postcard.
34 minutes later, we made it to the Square. It was overwhelming. We spent a few minutes just taking in all of the impressive sights.
First, we entered St. Mark’s Basilica. No photos were allowed, so here's a good one via the Internet.
Next was a stop in Doge’s Palace. Opulence in it’s greatest form. It almost felt like Versailles all over again.
And finally, we hit up the Corerro Museum, which was absolutely delightful.
A quick lunch later and were off to begin our combination Venice tour and gondola ride. I know that’s a super cliche thing to do, and I really don’t have an excuse other than I was in Venice and really, really wanted to do it.
Our guide Andrew was a local, and you could tell absolutely adored his city. He started off by saying he wasn’t going to take us in St. Mark’s Square; everyone and their mother goes there when they get to Venice (true). Instead, he wanted to take us through the lesser-known areas of the city and give us the perspective of Venice as a local.
Andrew really outdid himself. The tour was amazing.
At the end of the tour, we walked toward a larger canal where the gondola ride would begin. The sun was just setting as we boarded, and I was treated to half-an-hour of Venice at it’s most gorgeous. It was the best birthday present ever.
One carbonara dinner later (Surprised? I’m not.) we were back on the train to Rome. It felt as if the stars had aligned, turning 23 on the 23rd during Thanksgiving in Venice. It was absolutely magical.
Friday was more of a recovery day, having spent a grand total of seven hours on a train previously. We spent a late morning walking through the Galleria Borghese, a stunning collection of Bernini’s work. I was in awe at how he could capture movement in his sculptures so effortlessly, or at least, that’s how it seemed.
Surrounding the gallery is a park that, in fall, is positively beautiful. We walked around aimlessly, just enjoying the calm, stunning atmosphere.
I’m gonna be honest, our last stop of the day was pretty touristy. We walked straight into the city center to have lunch at/shop at Eataly. Why? Because life is short and I wanted to return home with boatloads of pasta.
In reality, I’ll return home with some pasta, because my luggage is small and I just found out they do international shipping.
The lunch itself had overwhelming portion sizes that left us questioning why we thought appetizers would come in appetizer size. I’ll let you figure out what I ordered for lunch. T’was good.
The rest of the day was spent lounging and napping. No joke, train traveling can really take it’s toll.
Our final full day in Rome was much more action packed given that we were well-rested at last.
We started with an hour walk down to the Colosseum. Well, it was supposed to be an hour, but we might have added a few minutes by gawking at every beautiful sight we saw. Plan accordingly.
The Colosseum itself was magnificent. We had booked a guide to take us through there, the Forum and the Pantheon because I wanted a little extra knowledge of where I was standing. Roberta didn’t disappoint. I’m sort of convinced she knows everything.
The restoration work done on the Colosseum was impressive, it’s not hard to imagine what the shows would’ve been like back in the day.
Next was a short walk up to the Forum, the former marketplace. Ruins dot the landscape, there’s something to see in every direction.
Roberta decided to take us on the scenic walk to the Pantheon. I wasn’t complaining.
Finally, after revising the gorgeous sight, we were ready for lunch. I had booked a reservation at Roscioli’s, about a 10 minute walk away. We were seated in their wine cellar, and quickly realized how upscale this place was when they informed us that their pasta takes around 30 minutes to make. They are known for their carbonara. Surprise, surprise.
Our Airbnb host had recommended a visit to Trastevere, a town within Rome. The neighborhood is charming as can be. Just walking through the streets was enjoyable.
We ended our final evening with a visit to Bella Napoli, where I finally broke down and ordered a margarita pizza. I’m glad I did. You can only get carbonara so many times.
Sunday morning we woke up early to say goodbye to the eternal city. Italy, don’t tell the other places, but you were by far my favorite. I’m already planning my next trip. I’m thinking this time I’ll hit up the Amalfi coast, or visit Sicily.
Made it this far? Treat yourself to some carbonara! You’ve earned it.
about the author
Great hair, average personality.