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Traveling to different regions in Italy really gives you a sense of how diverse Italy is – from the terrain to the buildings to the cuisine. On her recent 6 week trip to Italy, Untold founder Katy Clarke visited a handful of different regions from North to South, much of which with family and friends. She shares her experiences and lessons learned from this Italy trip in a bumper year for tourists in Italy’s hotspots.
In this episode, Untold Italy founder Katy talks about her 6 week Fall trip to Italy. Her trip included work, preparing for some new and exciting Untold Italy small group tours for 2024 and 2025, but was mainly a vacation with her family and friends. Katy’s trip took her far north and far south with plenty in between, visiting South Tyrol and the Dolomites, Emilia Romagna, Ischia, the Cilento Coast, Florence and, of course, Rome. She visited some classic destinations, some family favorites as well as many new places that she hadn’t been to before.
What you’ll learn in this episode
The sheer diversity of each region in Italy is the reason so many of us keep going back again and again. That diversity can be found across all things – food, wine, culture, history, landscapes and even language. One minute you’re standing on an alpine meadow surrounded by cows with huge bells around their neck and the next you’re in the Ferrari Museum in Modena marveling at the incredible Italian design skills and technology that go towards creating these prestige vehicles. Overall, it was a huge adventure and Katy wanted to share her experiences and tips. She’ll be doing a deep dive into these areas involving some locals, to share even more in future episodes.
Rome and Florence
Firstly, the big cities which are on most people’s must-do list on a first visit to Italy. There’s no denying that Italy is incredibly crowded in the major tourist spots. Katy would say that 2023 greatly surpassed 2022 which was already extraordinarily busy.
The tourist hotspots of Rome, Florence, Venice, parts of Tuscany, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and Cinque Terre are all popular for a reason and if you feel the call to go to these places, then, of course, you should go but for those traveling next year, what this means is you need to be super organized – especially if you’re traveling between March and the end of October and you want to see the major attractions like the Colosseum and Uffizi Gallery.
What does this level of busyness mean in practice?
- Taxi lines are long and sometimes it’s difficult to even get one
- Trains are crowded
- It’s difficult to see many things properly, let alone read information boards at the Vatican Museums and Colosseum
- Popular restaurants and tours are booked out months in advance
- Hotel prices have skyrocketed – some up to 3x their usual rate. It’s the harsh reality of supply and demand
So what can you do when planning a trip to Italy?
- Get organized early! Book as much as possible well in advance
- If you’re traveling in the first half of 2024, get as much as you can booked before Christmas. Having been in the travel industry for a long while now Katy has seen that sales activity tends to explode on the 26th December
- Book transfers where you can – even from the train station in major cities if you’d prefer not to have to wait in line for up to an hour
- This is particularly an issue in Rome, where they haven’t issued new taxi licenses for years and there is a huge lack of supply. That’s obviously a problem the city needs to address but whilst we can’t help with this it is important to be aware. One of the Untold team and a family member wasted half a day and missed train connections due to this problem
- Plan downtime and relaxation time into your days. Katy likes to have scheduled relaxing time and always stays close to the center so she can go back and rest when she wants and it also means you can explore on foot without having to rely on transport
- Plan activities away from the major sites. On this trip to Rome Katy visited Ostia Antica – Rome’s ancient port city built around the same time as Pompeii. It’s a fascinating place and worth a half-day excursion to explore. The bonus was – there were only a handful of people there. There’s an amphitheater, ancient bathroom facilities, frescoes, and mosaics – whatever you see in Pompeii is in Ostia too – except the volcano and the crowds!
Another site Katy revisited was the Baths of Caracalla, not far from Circus Maximus. An amazing ancient site where Katy recommends getting the virtual reality glasses that help you imagine exactly how magnificent these ruins were in their heyday. Again, very few people tend to be there
- In Florence, they stayed away from the crowds up on the hill overlooking Oltrarno and the Pitti Palace and it was a lovely half-hour walk into the city center. They also did a great food tour with Devour Tours that took them deep into the Oltrarno district, well away from the main crowded areas
- Getting up early in the morning and going for a walk is another thing Katy likes to do and recommends. You can easily see the major sites in Rome in a big circuit relatively crowd-free and even stop for coffee or breakfast along the way in around an hour and a half. The Trevi fountain gets busy early so you might want to start there first but as the Colosseum doesn’t open until 10, you’ll get some great photos there in the morning hours. An early morning circuit of Florence is even quicker!
Booking the main attractions well in advance is critical. We will do a separate podcast on this in a couple of months as certain things around ticketing for sites (like the Colosseum) are in a state of flux right now and it’s not clear exactly what is happening. Katy has spoken to various interested parties – tour companies, ticket companies and tour guides and no one is very happy with the confusion it is causing. For example, there’s been a recent change at the Colosseum where tickets are now required to have the visitor’s name printed on them which will be checked against the visitor’s ID. This sounds like it might be a good idea on the surface but with 30,000 visitors a day to the Colosseum, this is potentially disastrous in terms of managing security lines, not to mention impossible to change once issued, causing issues if plans and schedules change.
Katy’s advice is that if you want to do a tour (which we do recommend, rather than going it alone, to get real context on what you’re seeing) go with a small group company like Liv Tours or Walks of Italy. They can then manage the ticketing for you as it is in their interest to do so.
We will update our Colosseum ticket guide when things become clear.
South Tyrol and the Dolomites
The South Tyrol and the Dolomites region is one of the places Katy hadn’t spent time before. She had a lot of insight into what to expect from her friends, area experts Kate and Vin of Throne and Vine who you can hear on previous episodes (64, 85 and 165) but there’s nothing like experiencing something for yourself. Nothing prepared Katy for the sheer beauty of this area – soaring jagged peaks, beautiful alpine meadows, apple orchards and castles on almost every outcrop and vineyards as far as the eye can see.
This area can be found north of Lake Garda and borders Austria. It has been the subject of many annexations and reconquering over the centuries by a variety of empires and kingdoms – Roman, Austro-Hungarian, German, and even Napoleon had a go before the region was recognized as part of Italy after the Second World War. Who can blame them for having so many castles and fortifications?
The South Tyrol and Dolomites feel like another world away from even other parts of Northern Italy – the hustle and bustle of Milan or the ethereal beauty of Venice, particularly as the official and preferred language in the region is German.
The first stop was Merano which is a suprise in itself with the climate there being described as Mediterranean but feeling almost tropical – warm and quite humid. The result of this climate is lush vegetation and some of the most beautiful gardens you’re likely to see. You can enjoy many beautiful walks around the area fitting various levels of fitness and capability. Include a stop at Trauttmansdorf Castle which is a garden lovers paradise – it’s a huge complex of formal and informal gardens with beautiful blooms and interesting vegetation. You can easily spend half a day there.
As this region is dotted with castles, if that’s your thing you will not be disappointed. It really does feel like there is a castle on every hill.
It was in Merano that Katy had the biggest revelation of the trip and something she is now chasing after here in Australia with not much luck – thermal baths. Merano is known for its natural thermal springs and the bathing complex here takes full advantage of that and does it well. The Terme Merano complex is in the center of Merano and is a huge swimming pool complex with around 25 pools at various temperatures, both inside and outside options. They spent half a day lounging in the pools – the main one is set to almost body temperature so it’s lovely and warm and relaxing – perfect if you don’t like being cold. If you’re into cold therapy – there’s also a pool at a chilly 18 degrees Celsius (around 64 Fahrenheit)! They also have saunas, lounge chairs and grassy areas outside.
Merano is a very pretty and colorful town surrounded by Alpine peaks and vine-covered hills. If you’ve been to the area around Lake Garda it is similar architecture. It’s definitely set up for visitors with lots of restaurants and shops. You won’t hear much English spoken – it’s mostly German so there are plenty of Swiss, Austrian and German visitors enjoying the area.
The cuisine reflects the Germanic side too. There are lots of dumplings and a serious dedication to pork products – speck, sausages and salami – and lots of cheese. But don’t worry, it is Italy so you can always get a great pizza there too.
This being one of Italy’s most productive wine regions there are a lot of different wines to discover like Lagrein and wineries to visit too. Katy’s kids liked the freshly pressed grape juice they found at a cute stop on one of their walks.
The sweets of the region are fantastic too – lots of apple strudel and orchard fruit-based desserts.
Alpe di Siusi and the Dolomites
Walking in the hills and mountains is what this region is all about. After Merano, Katy’s next stop was the Alpe de Siusi Alpine plain in the Dolomites. This huge plain is dotted with small villages that are lucky enough to have some of the world’s most magnificent peaks as their backdrop. Well over 1500 meters above sea level there’s nothing quite like the stunning contrast of green pastures surrounded by majestic mountain ranges. Katy can clearly state that the Dolomites are some of the most spectacular mountains she’s ever seen. They jut into the sky dramatically providing an incredible contrast to the pastures below.
In summer and fall/autumn there are many walks you can take – simple and low-key or longer, more difficult hikes.
One thing they did learn from their visit is that the peaks often got covered by clouds. Katy ended up doing quite a bit of trip itinerary adjustment on the fly, using live webcams to make sure we were not headed to places that had limited visibility. You could end up disappointed if you were expecting to see these huge jagged peaks and all you could see was just pea soup mist in front of you.
You do need a reasonable level of fitness and robust knees to do even the shortest walks. This is because there is generally a steep incline and/or decline to contend with along the way. But even if you have mobility issues, luckily there are rifugios (mountain stops) at most of the cable car and chair lift entry and exit points where you can relax with a coffee or beer, sit back and enjoy the views.
If you are going to this region it pays to do some serious research on the location and opening hours of the cable cars and mountain transport systems. Katy found she needed to invest quite a lot of time understanding how it all works because there are so many options going to different areas in the various peaks and on the Alpe di Siusi plateau. There is an excellent system of buses in the Alpe di Siusi area too however we preferred having the flexibility of a car – which worked particularly well when they ended up changing plans on the fly a lot.
Aside from the mountains, there are also stunning lakes you can visit like Lago di Braies and Lago di Carezza. You can walk around the lakes, taking in the incredible contrast of the turquoise water to the mountains beyond. Not, for the faint-hearted, but you can even go for a dip in Lago di Braies – keeping in mind it is a freezing mountain lake.
The parking situation at both lakes is well organized but you will definitely not be there alone. They are both a fair drive from Alpe di Siusi, so getting there by bus could take quite a while. Both sites were pretty busy in mid-September.
There are lots of cute towns and villages in the area to visit – like Ortisei, Castelrotto and Chiusa, all with colorful buildings and dome-topped churches. You can browse shops selling local crafts and stop for aperitivo or a coffee. These towns are really clean – partly due to a strong commitment to the environment in this part of Italy.
Katy and her family spent an afternoon in Bolzano, the region’s bustling capital. A charming small city with lovely piazzas and cobbled streets. The highlight for Katy was the archaeological museum which explores the fascinating life and death of a 5000-year-old man known lovingly as Otzi the Iceman. He was discovered in the ice nearby in the early 1990s when people literally stumbled across his body in the melted ice. It’s been a scientific journey of discovery about how they’ve worked out how old he was, how he lived, and even how he died – which is an ancient murder mystery. The Ancients podcast episode on Otzi is a great listen for more details on his fascinating story.
September turned out a great time to visit. It never seemed to be too busy and there were lots of events going on celebrating the harvest. They managed to see a Mountain Horn concert one day up on Alpe di Siusi as well as joining in with the Gastorgellen Festival in Chiusa. There is a whole world of feasting, music, dancing and local traditions to behold. Katy has never seen so many grown men of all ages dressed in leather shorts!! Even the teenagers and 20-somethings were dressed in traditional costumes and joined in the festivities – which even included yodeling!!
Emilia Romagna is one of the family’s favorite places, so they headed back to the area near Modena for a few days for their tortellini, Parmigiano and balsamic vinegar fix.
This time they stopped at the Enzo Ferrari museum which gave everyone a thrill. Katy’s not particularly a prestige cars fan, but she does love design and especially where tradition meets innovation. This is where Ferrari and Italian prestige brands excel and the cars are beautiful. There are a few Ferrari sites in and around Modena to visit. This was the historic car display and offered a peek inside Enzo Ferrari’s world.
If you want to visit the factory site, that is in Maranello outside of the city. If you’re a foodie and having trouble getting into Massimo Bottura’s main restaurant Osteria Francescana or Francheschetta 58 in Modena, you might also try Cavallino at the Ferrari site in Maranello where the famous chef has collaborated with Ferrari at the refurbished site of the original company cafeteria. The prices are not cafeteria-level prices though – this is one of the world’s most famous chefs, so expect the prices to reflect that.
They instead opted for a delicious plate of pasta at Modena’s Albinelli market before heading back into the countryside where they reacquainted themselves with their friends at the Acetaia Sereni balsamic producers and agriturismo. They also joined a fabulous gelato class at local cherry specialists Toschi in Vignola and were lucky enough to be dropping by when there was a great festival happening in one of the local towns. It’s just an amazing sight and feeling to be part of these local festivities. It’s sometimes difficult to work out what’s on and when because they do really announce them at the last minute, but that’s why you need to leave a little bit of buffer zone in your itinerary, so you can take advantage if you do get the opportunity.
Next, the family headed south to the Cilento Coast. Just beyond Amalfi this area exists and is like a whole other world to the nearby Amalfi Coast. Same sea, the same delicious food (actually probably better), way fewer people, sandy beaches, tons of history and pretty hilltop towns.
Here they got up close and personal with the buffalos who make the milk for the incredible buffalo mozzarella cheese that comes from the area. They met the skilled makers and learned about the many things you can make from this milk – even gelato! For those of you who are lactose intolerant, it’s been given the green light by several friends who cannot ever consume cow milk.
They walked around the ancient Greek temples of Paestum and marveled at how long they stood the test of time.
They explored sleepy fishing villages and hilltop towns and found coastal views that went on for miles of sandy beaches dotted with beach clubs (empty despite the sea still a pleasant temperature and the sun pleasantly warm). This was in late September when at the same time, there were stories coming from the Amalfi Coast of packed beaches, packed towns, and people getting frustrated. Things were very different on the Cilento Coast.
They sailed along the coast, munching on Caprese salad and Italian donuts in between diving into the Tyrrhenian Sea.
In the evenings they would head back to the beautiful Hotel Borgo La Pietraia where they were fed like queens and kings by chef Mario, whose food, even if you were full from eating all day – you’d make space for. Katy will do a deeper dive into this area but suffice to say, they fell in love with it and will definitely be back. You do need a car to explore the area properly but the driving is easy and usually quite relaxed by Italian standards.
The last stop of the trip was Ischia, a relaxed haven where Katy fully immersed herself in the thermal baths scene. Ischia is a volcanic island off the coast of Naples known for its thermal baths and hot springs. You can visit thermal bathing parks or just lounge around at your hotel, if like Katy’s it has a thermal pool or two. Katy’d had several pools inside and out, making for a very relaxing experience without evening leaving the hotel.
They took a boat tour around the island. Their captain Ciro was fond of saying “Leave nothing behind in Ischia” meaning to experience it all. That meant jumping into the sea regularly and even though it wasn’t a little fresh, it was crystal clear and refreshing. They swam through a grotto, shopped at a pretty little town along the way and stopped for an incredible seafood lunch overlooking the island’s Castello Aragonese. And thanks to Ciro thinking of everything, they also swam in a sweet spot on the coast where the sea water is warmed naturally by volcanic activity.
They also did a land tour of the island and learned more about its history and culture, stopping at viewpoints, took in more amazing views of the castle and visited a unique local winery with some truly unique sculptures.
You can see Capri in the distance from various vantage points in Ischia and Katy was aware that over there it was incredibly busy and crowded. Ischia is a large island at almost 5 times the size of Capri and it’s got a similar topography – it is after all the same beautiful water. But it also has thermal baths, more beach clubs than you could imagine and friendly locals. They told us that even in peak season you can find a place to relax on Ischia. In early October it was positively serene and Katy would definitely head back to relax and recuperate there again.
All roads lead back to Rome
They spent their last night in Rome where it was unseasonably warm. Katy never tires of the Eternal City so it was amazing to have one last stroll around and to enjoy a delicious Roman dinner before flying home.
Untold Italy Tours
Explore some of the destinations Katy visited and more by joining us on one of our Untold Italy small group tours. Untold Italy Tours helps you discover your authentic Italy and discover the Italian places, faces, stories, and tastes whose memories linger for years to come.
Places mentioned in the show
- Merano – city surrounded by mountains known for its spa resorts
- Gardens of Trauttmansdorff – botanical gardens located on the grounds of Trauttmansdorff Castle
- Alpe di Siusi/Seiser Alm – a Dolomite plateau and the largest high-altitude Alpine meadow in Europe
- Lago di Braies – a bright blue mountain lake in the heart of the Dolomites
- Lago di Carezza/Karersee – a lake in the Dolomites with views of the Latemar mountain range
- Bolzano – the capital city of South Tyrol and one of our 35 best cities to visit in Italy
- Ortisei – the largest of Val Gardena’s three towns and arguably the prettiest
- Castelrotto – town near Alpe di Siusi
- Enzo Ferrari Museum – museum recording the history and origins of Ferrari
- Osteria Francescana / Francheschetta 58 – the restaurants of Massimo Bottura in Modena
- Cavallino – Massimo Bottura’s new restaurant at the Ferrari site in Maranello
- Mercato Albinelli – a beautiful covered market in Modena
- Acetaia Sereni – the agriturismo and balsamic vinegar makers they stayed at in Emilio Romagna
- Vignola – city in Emilia Romagna which is famous for its cherries
- Toschi – cherry specialists in Vignola
- Cilento Coast – the coastal area south of Salerno
- Paestum – amazing ruins sites to visit when based in Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast with the area around where you can get the best buffalo mozzarella
- Borgola Pietraia – beautiful Borgo complex near Paestum, Campania
Food & Drink
- Lagrein – a red wine found in the valleys of South Tyrol
- Otzi the Iceman podcast – podcast on the Ancients podcast series on Ötzi, the renowned glacial mummy discovered in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991
- Massimo Bottura – incredible chef with a three-Michelin-star restaurant based in Modena – Osteria Francescana
Resources from Untold Italy
- Discover more on some of the areas visited in our Florence travel guide, Hidden gems in Florence, Best things to do in the Dolomites Where to stay in the Dolomites, Emilia Romagna travel guide, Rome travel guide
- Listen: to the consultation Katy had to plan her Dolomites trip Episode #165 Trip consultation – Dolomites and South Tyrol and more on the Dolomites in Episode #64 Stunning South Tyrol and the Dolomites, Episode #85 Hiking the Dolomites and Episode #128 How to spend 5 days in South Tyrol and the Dolomites
More on Cilento in Episode #38 The Captivating Cilento Coast revealed and Episode #188 How to enjoy the incomparable Italian coast
More on Emilia Romagna in Episode #152 Dishes to try in Bologna and the Emilia region, Episode #114 Welcome to Emilia Romagna and Episode #034 Lifting the lid on Bologna’s Food Culture
More on planning your trip in Episode 175 Expert answers to FAQ on travel in Italy, Episode #154 Listener Q&A – tips for planning your trip to Italy, Episode #053 Planning the perfect Italy itinerary
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step-by-step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.