This post was most recently updated on May 15th, 2019
When I plan my travels, I typically try to follow one simple rule: go somewhere new. Why should I revisit a destination when there is still so much out in the world to see?
Since I had been to Italy just the year before, my cousin called me last fall looking for travel tips for her trip to Florence. I dove right in giving her my thoughts on flights to take, places to stay, and restaurants to eat at. Before I even realized it, I had broken my number one rule … and had my own flights booked.
During this trip, it occurred to me that revisiting Italy again and again is just inevitable (visiting once is like eating just one slice of a pizza — it’s impossible!). The entire country is full of places that excite your eyes, your mind, your soul, and of course, your taste buds. And, once you’ve experienced a slice of Italy, it’s impossible not to want to finish the rest of the pie!
96 Hours in Rome
If you love art or ancient history, you will surely adore all that this extraordinary city has to offer. For me, someone who’s been credited with the quote “Once you’ve seen one Madonna and Child, you’ve seen ‘em all,” Rome was a little underwhelming. It was four days of pounding pavement to see paintings, statues, and ruins on repeat. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful and I hardly regret the time I spent there, but it’s not at the top of my list for a return visit. The most disappointing part of Rome was that even when I tried to speak my newly learned Italian, I would just get English responses in return. And to top it off, we were constantly harassed by men selling selfie sticks, phone chargers, or guided tours of whichever landmark we were near.
While in Rome we saw it all — the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Vatican City, Hadrian’s Villa, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Novana, the Pantheon, Galleria Borghese, and my personal favorite, the ornate Alter to the Fatherland.
PRO TIP: Buy sightseeing tickets before you leave — Make reservations for The Vatican Museums (this includes the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica) and the Galleria Borghese ahead of time. I booked my time slots a few weeks before we left and the times available were already pretty limited. If you choose not to book in advance, you can expect to wait in very long lines, or be turned away altogether. Also, buy your tickets to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum (all one ticket) before you depart. You don’t need to pre-select a visiting time for these, but having the ticket purchased and printed will allow you to skip the line to purchase tickets onsite.
Despite my blatant dissatisfaction in the lack of traditional Italian culture in Rome, I can’t say anything negative about the food. I highly recommend making dinner reservations at Roscioli’s and La Tavernaccia da Bruno. Researching places to eat before we left allowed us to not only visit some highly rated restaurants in Rome, but also neighborhoods we might not have otherwise known about. Just like with any city, if you can walk right in to a restaurant, it’s probably not worth eating at.
PRO TIP: Use the public transit buses — Coming from New York, I expected there to be a highly functioning Uber network or at least some taxi cabs. We were also told that Rome was a “walkable” city but we quickly learned none of these were viable options. We made the decision to try out the public buses early on in our trip and it became our primary method of getting around. It was very efficient, cost-effective, and with the help of Google Maps, it was easy to figure out which bus we needed to take.
On to Matera
At the end of our four days, I was excited to hit the road and find where all of the real Italians were hiding! When we rented our car, the agent made a comment about how large our car was, so I chuckled a bit when I saw our standard-sized station wagon. I soon learned what he meant when I had to strategically squeeze through some tight roads while driving.
Our first pit stop was at Herculaneum, a small town in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Despite the town being lost under lava and ash after the great eruption in 79 AD, much of it has been excavated and there is a surprising amount of preserved structures. It was surreal to see the walls still covered with paintings and the decorative mosaics that adorned the floors still intact. There were even full skeletons out for display which were interesting but also a little odd/creepy.
Herculaneum is the perfect alternative to Pompeii, which we were told gets very busy and requires a significant time commitment since it’s so large. Herculaneum is a bit smaller so we were able to cover the entire site in just a few hours.
Given the town’s close proximity to Naples, we couldn’t leave without stopping in for lunch at a nearby pizzeria for a Neapolitan-style pizza and a Caprese salad. If you don’t already know, every tomato in Italy is better than any tomato you’ve ever had!
Back on the road, we drove through some breathtaking landscapes. I’ve always heard that taking the train is the best way to see Italy, but after renting a car for this trip, I highly recommend road tripping. It really allows you to create your own itinerary without having to stick to the main train routes. But always remember to keep your eye on the road! I am guilty of hitting some road cones after getting a little overexcited about a bunch of sheep on a hillside.
Later in the day, we arrived at Matera; the most awe-inspiring Italian town that no Westerner has ever heard of. I took pleasure in the lack of English-speaking travelers around. I had finally found a place where I could get that immersive Italian experience that I was really looking for. At meals and shops, we were forced to use a combination of my broken Italian, their broken English, and informal sign language to communicate. Luckily, this worked out okay and we weren’t served anything unexpected, but I can’t say this luck lasted through the whole trip — more on this later!
Matera is best known for its cave dwellings built into the side of a ravine and is credited with being the longest continuously inhabited place in Italy. The whitewashed stone buildings and maze of interconnected stairs, known as the Sassi, give the town a very ancient look and feel which is why it’s been used as the backdrop for many historical movies including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The town is small enough that we were able to cover the majority of the landmarks in one day, but we definitely could have spent another few days enjoying the scenery, hiking the other side of the ravine, and of course eating more AMAZING food.
Here I moved away from the dense pasta dishes of Rome and tried to eat more of the local Lucanian cuisine. Traditionally, people in the region eat simple foods with intense flavor, particularly meats such as lamb and beef. The two restaurants we ate at, L’abbondanza Lucana and Baccanti Ristorante, served me two of the best meals I’ve ever had, from the appetizer all the way through to dessert.
PRO TIP: Opt to stay on the outskirts of the Sassi — While exploring the Sassi we saw plenty of people lugging their suitcases up and down the stairs trying to make sense of where their apartment or hotel might be located. Without even realizing, we booked a place on the outskirts of the Sassi, so we were able to walk to everything, but we were also able to drive right up to our door and find parking nearby. The town is quite small, so even though we were on the “outskirts”, a walk into the center took less than 10 minutes.
Last stop, Polignano a Mare
The next morning we headed toward our last destination, the province of Puglia. I couldn’t help but stop in the tourist-trap town of Alberobello to see the trulli or “troll houses” as I like to call them. The story of these unique structures is that taxes in the area used to be very high so people would use these houses as a way to evade the tax collectors. When word got around that the collectors were near, the trulli owners would dismantle the stone roofs and flee. Once the coast was clear, the owners would return and reassemble the roofs. Today the trulli in Alberobello are primarily used as tourist shops and vacation homes.
One more quick stint in the car and we finally arrived at Polignano a Mare. Despite being a busy coastal town, it was mostly Italians so it still had that authentic feel for us. Now, here we did experience a little bit of a language barrier when we ordered Fruitti di Mare, a raw seafood plate. Instead of the oysters and clams that we were expecting, we were served whole raw squid, prawns, and shrimp along with some other items I’m still unsure of. I made it through the shrimp and prawns, but the whole squid is where things got a little interesting. Let’s just say it looked a little different than fried calamari!
One of the highlights of Polignano a Mare was our dinner at Grotto Palazesse, a restaurant consistently named one of the most romantic in the world. The food was good (but wasn’t the best we had in Italy), but the atmosphere made up for anything the food lacked.
On our last day, we took things slow at the Lido Sabbiadoro, a beach club in Monopoli. After a vacation of being constantly on the move, it was nice to have some time to unwind before our trip home. When I was researching Puglia, I had such a hard time picking where I wanted to go and deciding which beach would be the most picturesque. The beach in Monopoli was not disappointing at all. The sand was nice and the water was as clear as could be.
As with my last trip to Italy, I woke on the last day with the sad realization that it was time to go home. Italy is the only foreign country I’ve ever been to where I’ve genuinely not wanted to leave. Luckily, as we packed up the car I was able to enjoy one last view as the sun rose over the Adriatric.