Everyone always has that one place they want to go for a dream vacation that will make their summer, and perhaps, make their life. For me, that dream vacation has been Italy for quite some time and this summer I was lucky enough to go on a 17-day adventure of a lifetime across Italy with my mother.
Six cities – Rome, Venice, Milan, Florence, Naples and Catania – in 17 days was a crazy experience and some of the days felt a little rushed as we tried to see as much as we could. Nevertheless, in Italy, I still got to taste some of the best food of my life, take in some of the most breathtaking views and rest my eyes on some of the world’s greatest artwork. While it would take way more than one story to describe my entire adventure, here’s a sample of the best things I tried and saw in Italy, in case you want to go for yourself.
Pizza: As you can imagine, one can have a lot of great pizza with 17 days in Italy. I had trouble picking the true best one so I narrowed it down to two restaurants. The first one, located in Rome, was called Pizzeria Baffeto, a small family-run pizzeria with probably no more than 12 tables inside and a few outside.
After a wait of about 20 minutes, we were seated right next to the oven and the head chef making all the pizzas. The chef was the stereotypical Italian man with all the hand gestures and a voice so hoarse, most likely from years of yelling to people in the back to get him ingredients faster.
Nevertheless, seeing him at work was incredible and he made my bresaola, arugula and parmesan pizza right before my eyes. The crust was thin and crisped to perfection, while the sauce and the overloaded ingredients melted in my mouth. That being my first pizza in Italy made it all the more special. It was truly love at first bite.
Pizzeria Baffeto had a major competitor in Naples, the birthplace of pizza, in the form of a restaurant called 7 Soldi. The pizza I got there was in the shape of a bowtie with three separate sections of toppings and a thicker crust. One part of the bowtie was a standard margherita pizza, a second part was a sausage and broccoli pizza while the actual bow part was a lovely three-cheese blend. It tasted amazing, albeit not as good as Baffeto, but the ingenuity was a big plus for me.
Pasta: Again, I struggled to pick my favorite when it came to pasta, so I’ll just give my favorite two. In Rome, I went to a restaurant called Ristorante Alfredo alla Scrofa. This particular place was reportedly the origin of fettucine Alfredo. The O.G. Alfredo sauce was made right at the table and had the perfect blend of butter and cheese – aka not the overly liquid Alfredo sauce you get at most places.
Except for one place in Florence called Osteria il Gatto e la Volpe. This restaurant was suggested to me by friends who had studied abroad, so I thought it would be really good, but perhaps really expensive. I was thankfully wrong about the second part because it ended up giving me the most bang for my buck out of any other restaurant I tried in Italy.
With a house special pasta called penne il gatto e la volpe for just under seven euros and two-third liter bottle of beer for 3.50 euro, I was extremely happy to go twice before I left Florence. The penne dish had the best arabiatta sauce (basically spicy marinara) I’ve ever had. Again, love at first bite, it was superb.
Gelato: No contest on this one. Giolitti’s gelateria in Rome was by far and away the best gelato I’ve ever had. I swear I saw the face of God after just one taste. For just 3.50 euros you get a medium cone with three big scoops of your favorite flavors with whipped cream on top. I went three times in four days in Rome and got Nutella, straciatella (chocolate chip) and cannella (vanilla with cinnamon) each time with a nice scoop of whipped cream. I’m telling you it is probably the best gelato on the planet. And don’t sleep on the whipped cream, it’s a perfect topping without making the gelato overly filling.
Cannoli: This small pastry place called Prestipino located in Catania, Sicily had the best cannoli and best other pastries for that matter. The shell was perfectly crispy and crunchy as a cannoli shell should be – unlike the soft shells you often get at the grocery store – and the ricotta cheese filling was just the right texture. It was definitely different than the cannoli you get here where the filling is probably made of something like cream cheese and just doesn’t taste right. It’s also important to know that cannoli are mostly a southern Italian/Sicilian delicacy so you’ll find the best in the southern half of the country should you visit.
Rome: There are a lot of amazing places to visit in Rome, but the most essential one is the Vatican where you can feast your eyes on some of the best artwork and religious pieces in the world. The Sistine Chapel leaves you breathless, especially as you look up at the ceiling, painted for eight years by Michelangelo alone.
Some of the other must-sees in Rome include the Colosseum, the Roman Forum (and the Palatine Hill from which you can see pretty much all of Rome), the Baths of Diocletian at the Roman National Museum and the Piazza della Republica at the north end of the city. And don’t forget to take a picture with the Trevi Fountain (and flick a coin with your right hand over left shoulder).
Venice: Despite spending only two days in Venice, I found the Floating City to be the most charming. With no cars whatsoever – only boats and bridges to get you where you want to go – you can walk your way to the most famous bridge of all, the Rialto Bridge overlooking the Grand Canal. With shops on both sides of the bridge and an incredible view of the water and buildings alongside, there were few views that stuck with me like this one did.
San Marco’s square is another important sight in Venice, as you can take in the massive cathedral of the city’s patron saint, surrounded by a bunch of shops and restaurants right on the edge of the Grand Canal. A nearby restaurant also had the best bruschetta in all of Italy. Or at least, it was my favorite.
Milan: I only had one day in Milan but I made sure to visit the Milano Cathedral, a giant gothic piece of architecture that you could easily look at for hours. Nearby are some of the most expensive stores in the world. Want a 15,000 euro crocodile leather purse? Look no further than Milan.
Also, consider taking the metro to the western half of the city where you can visit the San Siro stadium that is the home of two of the world’s biggest soccer teams, Inter and AC Milan.
Florence: Il Duomo is the main thing that everyone talks about, and for good reason. The cathedral of Florence is not to be missed but I highly recommend making a reservation to climb the dome. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck climbing the bell tower which is also cool but feels lame when you could’ve climbed the dome.
I fell in love with the southern half of Florence after walking for what felt like hours to get to the top of a hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can see the entirety of the city beyond the Arno River. The views were worth the climb for sure.
A day-long trip throughout Tuscany is highly recommended too, as it gives you the opportunity to visit Pisa, San Gimignano, Siena and perhaps take a wine tour as well. This was arguably one of the coolest parts of the entire trip to Italy, because you feel kind of like royalty and get to see so many things in one fell swoop.
Naples: Walking beachside in Naples is a sight to behold with Mt. Vesuvius looming over the bay. Nearby is the ancient city of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast not too far away as well. With a one-day trip you can get a tour of the ruins and the coastline, or perhaps even climb to the top of the Vesuvius crater – which I unfortunately did not get to do because of forest fires up the mountain.
Catania/Sicily: The city of Catania is very walkable, with several astonishing sights including the Bellini Gardens, the Castello Ursino housing remarkable architecture and artwork, an ancient amphitheater and another mind-blowingly beautiful Duomo in the center of town.
Nearby to Catania, you can find Mt. Etna, which is even more marvelous to look at than Vesuvius and the picturesque little town of Taormina with winding roads and several beaches along its shore. One beach, known as Isola Bella or “beautiful island,” was especially charming and is a must-see if you want to experience one of the best sights in all of Italy.
Now that you know pretty much all there is to know about the best food and important sights in Italy, it’s your turn to see them for yourself. You won’t regret a second of it.