Indulging Our Way Through Italy (Recap Video + Expenses)
All photos and video by Josh Meister Photo.
We spent a month traveling through Italy, eating all the foods (as you're supposed to do), putting on a few pounds, and generally living it up! We also had some really standout experiences as we made our way around. See the recap video below and then scroll down for more. Andiamo!
Starting in Venice (points flights from Athens, Greece cost us 50,000 United points + $66.40), we immediately hopped on a free walking tour with Free Venice City Tour. We always try to hit up the free walking tours in each city we can, as they often provide a great overview of the location as well as some good local's insight from the guide. (But keep in mind, these aren't totally free – you should tip the guide at the end!) This particular tour was longer than other ones we've taken, over three hours, but kept us on our toes the entire time. Our guide was a native Venetian and had a strong dislike for the “traps” as he called them – the pricey restaurants, shops, and gondola rides, and gave us loads of tips on alternatives. Our kind of guy! (See how we did Venice on the cheap here.) The “trap” he seemed to despise the most is the gondola rides, which we learned are wholly controlled by the mafia. No more gun running and drug deals for them it seems – just ripping off tourists is the racket these days. He set us up with a friend of his who had a boat, and a few days later we found ourselves on a private waterborne tour of the city.
We spent four nights at Albergo Bel Sito e Berlino (60,000 Ultimate Rewards points) and then an extra one crashing on the couch of a friend we'd made after spending a day wandering the city and popping in and out of Biennale exhibits with her. Even though it's technically Italy, the food in Venice is not amazing. And it's not cheap. There's a lot of “traps”. =) Our favorite meals there were from Dal Maro's and Pasta & Sugo, a couple of the “pasta to go” places, as well as cicheti, or Venetian tapas. A good pointer we got on our tour is to only hit up food places that have separate lunch and dinner hours. Most of the “continual service” restaurants are overpriced and not so tasty.
After Venice, we took a train to Florence, where we explored hidden Roman ruins and met up with Josh's mom for two weeks of Italian indulging. We ate waaaayyyy too much gelato here, and therefore feel utterly qualified to recommend Le Botteghe Di Leonardo by the Duomo and B. Ice a bit farther out. The granita at the latter kept us visiting at least once a day, embarrassingly. Lynn was a lot more organized than us and had pre-booked everything Rick Steves told her to, so we had reservations to climb the Duomo cupola (avoided a crazy long line) and see the David at the Accademia (avoided an even crazier long line). If you plan to visit either of these, make like Lynn and reserve ahead of time – it'll save you hours of standing in line, sadly wishing you had made a booking ahead of time or at least had some B.Ice granita to eat while you waited.
All museumed-out, we made our way to Cinque Terre, the “five lands”, five villages linked by train on the northern Italian coast. We stayed in a great Airbnb in the town of Vernazza, just above – you guessed it – a really amazing gelato shop, Gelateria Vernazza! We didn't feel as badly indulging in all the dark chocolate goodness here since we spent slightly more time hiking than eating. Cinque Terre has some particularly grueling hikes as well as magical swim spots, and we tried out both! Our second favorite of the five villages is Manarola.
Next up was Tuscany where we spent a few nights at a farm stay recommended by friends. Josh and I had a moment of throwback fear to our farm experience in France, but it only lasted a second. We were paying money to stay here so we didn't need to work (yay!), and the place was enchanting and lovely, perched on a highpoint just outside the walls of Pienza with gorgeous sunset views every day and a giant breakfast spread with which we stuffed our faces every morning. In addition to rambling around Pienza eating as much pecorino cheese as we could manage, we took a pasta cooking class a couple of hours north in San Gimignano, tasted wine at places that had super deep wine caves and underground cellars, stumbled on Montepulciano's annual barrel race, and impetuously went hot air ballooning, which will undoubtedly be one of our favorite experiences.
Our last stop with Lynn was Rome, where we took a seriously fantastic free walking tour with Rome's Ultimate, saw loads of history (Coliseum, Roman Forum, the Vatican), and, my most favorite part, went on a twilight food tour in the Trastavere neighborhood. Our guide was amazing, our group was fun and upbeat, everything we tried was delicious, and, drumroll please...., we had the very best gelato of all of our time in Italy at Gelator Fatamorgana! If you're ever in Rome, you will be making a grave error if you don't visit Fatamorgana. Seriously, the best. gelato. ever.
To keep rolling on the food train, we rented a car ($70 one-way fee and 17,000 Citi ThankYou points for a week) and headed south to Naples on a pizza pilgrimage. I'm not joking when I say we only went there for pizza. We literally spent less than 24 hours there and ate 5 pizzas in 3 meals and did nothing else. (Okay, that's a bit of a lie – we ate a couple of Italian pastries as well....) In between pizzas, we laid in our hotel room ($0 and 15,000 IHG points) and digested the pizzas.
We had one week left before we were catching an overnight ferry to Croatia, and we decided to head to the southeast coast, the heel of the boot. (Find out why you should skip the Amalfi Coast and head to Puglia and the East Coast instead!)
Below are the expenses for our entire month in Italy:
Budget self-grade: B-. We spent approximately $1,220/week, $220 over each week. Overall, we did pretty well in Italy, using points for a lot of accommodations and a car rental, and letting Josh's mom treat us to more than she needed to (thanks Lynn!), but we definitely splurged a bit. The grade is not lower because the splurges were very self-aware decisions. We knew that the hot air balloon ride (coming in at over $650) would put us way over budget, but we looked at the numbers and weighed it against what we thought we'd gain from the experience, and opted to go for it. This is the first country where we were completely conscious of our budget in real time, and were able to use the information to make decisions like this. And then to eat super cheap for a few days following to not put us even more over. So I'm pretty happy with where we netted out on this one!