This article may contain compensated links. See our full disclosure here
In previous episodes both Katy and Josie revealed their favorite places to visit in Italy. Now it’s time to tell you about the experiences to try when you plan your trip. We’re focusing on those things to do that have a particularly Italian flavor or that you can only do in bella Italia. Once again, this was a particularly difficult task as you’re likely to have many incredible, (even life changing!) experiences in Italy.
Memories of Italian trips past are always grounded in the places that we visit but we also like to recall those experiences and activities that are the things we love to do in Italy. As with most things in life, these choices are intensely personal. So just as some people love their gelato creamy, and others prefer fruit flavors; hiking up a mountain, and dangling your feet over ravines may be your idea of fun. But it isn’t necessarily mine.
In this episode Katy talks about her favorite activities to do in Italy and why they are so special to her. Some of them can be repeated and compared from region to region and city to city; but others are once off and even once in a life time thrills. But one thing is for sure, build some of these into your trip and you’re bound to have memories for years to come.click here to subscribe to podcast updates
Katy’s top 10 Italian experiences
- Ride a gondola in Venice – no need to book. It’s €80 for a half hour day time trip. Will you choose the Grand Canal or romantic side canals? Go to our Venice city guide and highlights podcast for more information
- Hang out at a beach club – sun lounger, beach umbrella, morning cappuccino, afternoon wine – there’s nothing more fun in the Italian summer sun than a day at a beach club
- Gelato – eat it every day, but make sure you get the good stuff. Life’s too short for bad gelato. Read: Best gelato in Florence
- Rent a villa – and use it as a base to explore an area for a week or more. Check out: Bookings For You(mention our site for 5% off) and Olivers Travels for some beautiful properties and these gorgeous stays on AirBnB in Tuscany
- Visit a winery for lunch – food and wine go hand in hand in Italy. Take it slow over lunch and enjoy tasting your wine.
- Stay in an agriturismo – an Italian farm stay is something special. From onsite restaurants to swimming pools surrounded by lemon groves, and always the most delicious food. Find them on agriturismo.it though it might be easier to book on Booking.com
- A boat trip around Capri – Katy’s boat tour around this beautiful island was a highlight of her life (so far)
- Attend a festival – cultural and food festivals are perhaps the best way to understand the regions of Italy. Whether it’s an Easter procession or event celebrating bounty from the land or sea, you’ll love every minute of an Italian festival. Find listings of upcoming events by region here
- Walk around the ancient and historic sites – is there anything more exciting than walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest people in history? Stand in the spot where Julius Caesar was murdered, and where Michelangelo admired his work in the Sistine Chapel
- Take a food tour or experience – taste your way around Italy bite by bite. Read: Best food tours in Rome
- Eating Europe – wonderful food tours throughout Italy
- Withlocals 10 tastes Naples food tour
- Podcast episode: Katy’s top 10 places to visit in Italy
- Podcast episode: Introduction to Italian wine
- Best time to visit Italy
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Driving in Italy – a practical guide
- 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? Below is a full transcript of our episode conversation. Unfortunately it does not pick up our lovely Australian accents however!
Ciao and benvenuti to Untold Italy. I’m Josie and I’m Katy and we’re here to help you plan your trip to Italy. Between us, we have many years of travel experience and we want to help you uncover your own as yet untold stories and adventures in Italy. Each episode you’ll hear practical advice, tips and ideas to help you plan your own trips to the magical land of history, stunning landscapes and a whole lot of pasta. We’ll have interviews from experts and focus on local destinations and frequently asked questions about travel in Italy. Thanks for listening and make sure to subscribe to our show now. Let’s get started on your regular dose of Bella Italia.
Ciao everyone. I hope you’re doing well. It’s Katy here. I’m flying solo today as Josie is unavailable for this week’s episode. But I hope you enjoy it as much as I’m looking forward to talking to you about my top experiences to have in Italy. So a few weeks ago we talked about our top places in Italy, but here’s the thing. Places are going to be really important to building your itinerary. But I’d also like you to have a think about the type of experiences that you want to have in Italy. You know, it’s those experiences of walking down cobbled streets and villages that you may not even remember later. And the feeling that stays with you, that Josie and I talk about a lot during the podcast, that is going to stay with you forever. You will remember Rome and you will remember Florence, but it’s some of these experiences that I really cherish and hold dear when I remember back on our trips in Italy. So what I’m going to do today is talk down from 10 to one my top 10 experiences that I’ve had in Italy and the ones that I will return to again and again.
So without further ado, let’s start with number 10 and number 10 is going back to the city that actually made my top number one in the places to visit, which is Venice. And my top experience that I remember and I cherish whenever I’ve been to Venice, is riding in a gondola. And now a lot of people think that that’s a bit cheesy or it’s one of those things that is very expensive and maybe something you should skip. But I don’t agree. I’ve been to Venice many times and every time I’ve been I’ve written a gondola. And even times when I’ve said, “Oh, I don’t need to do it this time,” I definitely, as soon as I saw those beautiful boats, I just definitely want to have another go. So the thing is about the gondola is that it’s so unique to Venice and it’s so such a beautiful vessel in itself.
They are black, shiny, very luxurious vessels really. And they have been decked out in velvet. And you have your gondolier standing at the back and he’s all dressed with his black pants and his stripey top and his hat. And some of them sing and some of them don’t. And usually, I think if you offered a pay extra, they will probably sing for you. But it’s just a magical feeling of gliding past the Palazzi, the beautiful old, 16th and 17th century buildings and looking up and just admiring the absolute wonder that’s all around you. Now you can take a gondola ride down the Grand Canal and that’s pretty amazing actually. But another way you can go on a gondola ride is through the side canals. And that’s actually my favorite. And last time we were there, we did that with my parents and my children and we managed to see a wedding procession in a gondola as well, coming beside us, which was very exciting.
The kids thought it was amazing and were just shouting out to the gondolas and the people at the side. And you know, it’s one of those memories that I have that I will cherish forever. It was fun and it always is fun. I’ve done it several times. As I mentioned, I’ve been lucky enough to do that. So a gondola ride, you need to budget 80 euros for that. Now it’s for up to six people. So sometimes what people do is they actually meet some people standing by the piers where you grab the gondola and you can actually just pitch in together to get onto a ride so you can make it a little bit cheaper. Because it isn’t it isn’t the cheapest thing that you’re going to do when you’re in Italy, that’s for sure. But I do think it’s worth it.
So that’s my number 10 is riding in a gondola in Venice. Now at number nine is something that you would do in summer and that is to rent a chair or an umbrella at a beach club. Now, as you know, I’m Australian and it is very, very rare for Australians to pay to go to the beach. But I had to suspend my disbelief and I absolutely love an Italian beach club. And you know, they’re a little bit different to a resort club that you would have in resorts around the world. They’re very unique to Italy and they’ve very charming. So generally you will have retro style stripey beach boxes with changing rooms and then you rent out your lounger and your umbrella and you can just relax by the sea. Usually it’s a fee for the day. But the thing that I like most is just being able to sit and relax and have that beautiful cappuccino being brought to you and a glass of wine later in the day. And you just have a really lovely time relaxing with all the sounds of the beach all around you.
It’s a very special thing to do in Italy and usually they will serve snacks and they have a playground for kids. And I really like it. I’m absolutely converted and I can’t wait to go back and try it again and again. So you can find these beach clubs all up and down the coast of Italy and they vary in price. You can get some quite luxurious ones on the Amalfi coast. And then you can also get some fairly rustic ones. And I have to say, I’m not fussy. I do just love an Italian beach club. So that’s my number nine.
So number eight for me is something that you probably won’t be surprised about because I do talk about this a lot on the podcast. However, it is to eat at least one gelato a day. When you’re in Italy, you must eat at least one gelato a day. And it’s because it’s so delicious and it’s part of a daily ritual that Italians have. And well, they probably don’t do it every day even though it’s only half the fat of ice cream and super delicious. But yes, it’s just an amazing, delicious experience to have. And why not? You’re on vacation. Have that gelato! So you can get a fruit based and creamy gelato and, but I would have to say that you really need to be very, very careful and do your research before you purchase your gelato. Because I would not want you to have bad gelato in Italy.
So here’s the thing, make sure you understand what is a good gelato before you go. So that you can avoid the ones that looked very tempting but are not so good. So typically around the major tourist areas, you’ll see these shops with gelato piled high, with very different, brightly colored gelato. Don’t do any of those. They are not the right gelato. What you need is the gelato that’s in the small metal tubs and it’s flat and usually even better if the metal tubs are covered and they need to also look for the sign “artiginale”, which is the artisan made gelato using fresh organic ingredients. Now in all the city guides that I write, I always put in the best gelato that I’ve been to and then I recommend for each place and we’ve got a bumper guide for Florence that I’ll add to the show notes. But yes, absolutely do your research about the gelato because you want to have the best gelato.
Now, the really good place to have gelato, it’s actually called granita and it’s in Sicily. And in Sicily they have gelato for breakfast and I say, why not? My kids loved it. You have it with a fresh out of the oven brioche and you dip the brioche in the granita and let me tell you, it’s a memory that will stay with you forever. We absolutely loved it and I can’t wait to go back to Sicily and try some more. So number eight is eat gelato every day. Make sure you do it right. So coming in at number seven is an accommodation option actually, and this one is to spend a week if you can, if you have the time, renting a Villa in one of the regions of Italy. And this is my dream I have for a significant birthday that I have got coming up in a few years. A villa to spend time relaxing in and discovering a region of Italy – just slowing down a little bit and enjoying the countryside and the pretty towns all around.
We actually did this a few years ago with a big extended family group in the hills around Lucca in Tuscany. And look, it was, it was a really fun time. We would go and get our daily gelato from the the bar down the road. We would wander around the hills and go for lunches in small towns and it’s really great memories. I think just having the time to slow down and, and really discover a region and have a little bit of taste of village life, I don’t think you’d ever regret that. And if you can make time in your itinerary to do that and spend time in a villa, probably with a pool, in a little small town and obviously it’s hot in summer, so you’d want a pool. But even in winter there are pretty walks around the countryside and to get warm to enjoy a nice big plate of pasta. There’s nothing better and it’s a real Italian experience that you can’t really get anywhere else.
So definitely consider hiring a villa for your trips. We’ve got a few companies that we recommend, and I’ll put them in the show notes for you because you really need someone that specializes in Italy. Because if you do or don’t have a car, you want a location that’s close to a train station, et cetera. So try and find someone that specializes in Italy. A friends of ours from a company called Bookings for You based in the UK do a wonderful job. And I’ll put their details in the show notes for you. You can also find villas on Airbnb and booking.com and some of the bigger websites out there, but I think when you’re renting a villa and you’re making a bit of an investment in that accommodation, it’s good to look for someone who’s got that local knowledge and can really help you find the right property so you have that beautiful experience.
So that was number seven. Number six is something also close to my heart, which is visiting a winery. Now, obviously Italians love their wine as do I. And I think it’s good to know when you go to Italy, that visiting a winery is also about trying local food. You can’t really separate food and wine in Italy, unlike say in Australia or in the U S where I’ve visited many wineries as my parents used to live in the Napa Valley. It’s a different experience trying wine in Italy. So in our countries you can kind of turn up and you pay your $10 or whatever it is, and you do your tasting of several wines. But in Italy, the best way to try the wine is with a meal. And what they would do is sit you down and they’ll bring you several courses of your dinner.
It’ll usually include some cold cut meats, some pasta, and a meat dish. And then dessert and they pair the wines that they’ve made in their vineyard with the food that you’re eating. And it’s a very, very special experience. And throughout these podcasts are several episodes actually where we’ve talked about this and why it is so special. And I can, I’ll put the links to those episodes again with this one. But in our wine tasting episode, Brandon talked about the importance of wine and food and experiencing them together. Chantelle in our Le Marche episode had exactly the same advice, to sit down with a glass of wine and over a meal and really savor and enjoy the flavors that are meant to go together. Also mentioned by Lee from last week in Sorrento. And I guess one of the experiences that I’d love to have in the future was this picnic idea that Alex shared with us from Umbria.
So yes, look, go to the winery, have a long, long, long lunch and just sit back, enjoy the wine, enjoy the food and that is the sensory experience that you’ll remember. You will remember that long lunch. Let me tell you and you will be dreaming of it for years to come and wanting to go back for more. I can guarantee you that of that. Okay, so closely linked to a winery is something a little bit similar and it’s another accommodation option that you may not be aware of, but it’s staying on a farm stay. Now don’t think this is really always going to be terribly rustic. A farm stay in Italy is a little bit different. So the government allows farmers in Italy to extend their offerings by allowing guests to stay on site and it’s called this concept is called agriturismo. And if you’re a farmer, it’s a really great idea to diversify your income and your revenue streams by having people stay.
But what it means for visitors to Italy is there’s another different accommodation option and it’s really, really special. Usually what’s included in the nightly rate is your accommodation, your room and breakfast. And sometimes there’s a meal included – a dinner as well where it will be local produce and local wine. And it’s very convivial. Everyone sits down and has a chat and it’s, it’s an amazing experience but it’s not necessarily rustic. So we’ve stayed in some really incredible, quite luxurious places, which I would really describe as mini resorts almost – with swimming pools and playgrounds and beautiful locations in lemon groves. We even stayed in one in Sicily in Avola, which had its own restaurant and wine cellar. And so you can really enjoy this little small, more boutique style of accommodation and you’ll make the most amazing memories there. So we had one near Venice where the owner was very passionate about a local winery and he set up a visit for us and it was really just a beautiful place where the people had a really great story to tell around their winery. They helped disabled teenagers build a career at their winery.
And you know what? We couldn’t even buy the wine to take home because of restrictions back to the UK. And they weren’t shipping to the UK or Australia at that time, but they still spent the least an hour taking us through their beautiful winery and we’ll remember that forever. And in fact, I have managed to seek out that wine since then. But yes, definitely an agriturismo is a great way to experience Italian countryside. It’s very, very popular accommodation choice for Europeans, but many Americans and Australians don’t know so much about it and I highly recommend that you try staying in an agriturismo because it just gives you that different flavor of Italy and I can guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. Now if you want to find them, there’s a website that I’ll put in the show notes called agriturismo.it. It’s not the best booking engine, so you can also use booking.com to find those properties as well.
So yes, definitely staying in agriturismo, that’s one of my favorite experiences in Italy. Okay. Now number four is… Well, I love boats and I love a boat trip and I don’t get seasick, so I will actually prioritize boat trips wherever I go. However, this one is absolutely incredible and it is a boat trip around the Island of Capri. And I have talked about this quite a lot, but it really is true. It is one of the best days of my life so far, and I absolutely loved every second of it. Now what you do is you can either pick up a boat at Marina Grande in Capri if you get there by ferry, or you can take a private or semi-private boat tour from Sorrento or the Amalfi Coast. But whatever you do, I recommend you get the smallest boat that you can afford because the big boat that goes around, it kind of rushes and it can’t get close to any of the grottoes or stop for swims, et cetera.
And it kind of just rushes all the way around. But if you can get a smaller boat and take your time and just enjoy the most spectacular scenery you’ve ever seen, it is amazing. The sea is so blue, it’s sparkling. And in summertime it’s super warm. Now there’s so many little coves and rocky out crops. There’s ancient bridges to spot. And there’s obviously the grottoes, the Blue Grotto is separate, but there’s, I didn’t know this until I went, but there’s lots of little grottoes along the way that you can stop at as well. And the probably the highlight of it all is to go through the middle of these rock formations called the Faraglioni rocks. And if you have a small boat you can go through the middle and it’s supposed to bring you very good romantic luck if you kiss your sweet heart as you go through the middle.
My son wanted to give me a kiss at that point. He was three so it was pretty cute. But you won’t regret going on this boat trip. It is amazing. I loved every second of it and I want to do it again and I would like to do it as a private trip next time so we can stop and really look at all these quiet coves around that we didn’t get to stop at. But definitely, definitely do a private or semi-private boat trip around the Island of Capri. It is absolutely magical. Now moving on to number three. This is something that you can do all over Italy, but it does require a little bit of research and some timing. So my number three is to experience a festival while you’re in Italy. Now it can be a cultural festival or it can be a food festival. But whichever way you want to go, any of these is a really great idea because it really gets you to the heart of Italian culture.
You can see the neighborhoods, the villages really coming together to celebrate as they have done for centuries. And you really get a taste of the culture of the place and an that you’re not going to have in your home country probably unless you got a very long standing tradition of hundreds of years of celebrating the same event or even the same food. So one of the favorite things that we’ve done over the years is visit at Easter time. And we visited some family in Sicily on Good Friday in Messina, where they had an amazing procession of religious floats that they’ve done for many, many years. And it’s a real tradition of going to watch this procession and then go to a special bakery and get some special bread. And our relatives took us on this experience. Now I’m actually not very religious at all, but I found it very moving and very interesting to see the rituals and the traditions that the locals went through each year to celebrate Easter.
And you can see this all over the country actually in Italy at Easter time. And I know only last week in our Sorrento episode, Lee mentioned that it’s a very special time of year there too. So apart from Easter, you also have some cultural and historic traditions such as the Palio horse race in Siena in Tuscany. This is a twice a year event where they run horses around the main square / piazza and they’ve been doing this for centuries. And it’s a competition between the local contrada, which are the local city districts. And they all dress up and they cheer on their favorite horse riders. And it’s a very special and unique event that you can only see in Italy. And that one’s like a very famous and very popular one, but there are small events that happen all over the country that you can take part in and visit as well.
For some of those it’s probably best to do a bit of research, but you can also stumble upon them. So we stumbled upon a food festival in Lake Como when we were visiting there and I had never experienced anything like it. It was a big community dining event really where they celebrated the local fresh fish from the lake and produce from around the area. And this is something that happens all over Italy. I’ll put a link to the website of the places where you can find out when these festivals are happening, but it’s really, really special and they celebrate the local food. So I think Chantelle mentioned that in Le Marche that they celebrate the castagne, which are the chestnuts and you can even find one celebrating onions. And look, it’s just such an exciting way to experience a country and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Really. If you have the opportunity or you stumble across a festival, make sure you make the time to go there. And if you’re able, you can even build a whole itinerary around festivals. But that’s for some hardcore planners a bit more like me. Okay, so that’s my number three. So moving onto number two – this is something that doesn’t require any planning at all whatsoever, and it’s also completely free for the most part. So what it is, is walking in the paths that people have walked for thousands of years. And walking through ancient sites and places that people, some of the most famous people in the world in history, have walked and just soaking up the atmosphere of thousands of years of history. This, to me as a bit of a history nerd myself is one of the most incredible things about Italy. Here you’re walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, where Michelangelo stood to admire his work in the Sistine chapel and where Brunelleschi built this incredible dome in Florence.
For me walking and experiencing the history of thousands of years of humankind’s creativity and ingenuity is just amazing. And what I love most about it is the Italians. They’re sort of like, “eh, well, we just live here.” And that’s true. I guess after a while, if you lived there that it would become fairly commonplace. But for me, as a visitor, I just find it amazing that these places have stood the test of time. And that they’re still here, and that you can just stop and appreciate the work that’s gone into it, the feelings, the politics, the excitement, the disappointments. So to me, it’s the history and the stories behind those places that make them very real. Now, apart from Rome, which is obviously where you can find many of the ancient sites and probably the most spectacular, I really recommend going beyond those classic places to find some of the more special and unique, ancient and historic sites that you can explore.
So we spent some time at the Valley of the Temples in Sicily. Here you can see where the ancient Greeks built temples and they’re still standing after 2000 years. It’s really quite incredible. That’s in Sicily and also up North in the Brescia region, we went to visit the city of Brescia and it’s got a potted history of architecture throughout the ages. From a Venetian palazzo to Roman ruins, including an amphitheater and it’s just incredible. I just love walking through the streets that have got so much history and so many stories to tell. It’s really one of the most special things that I love about visiting Italy. And you can find these experiences in every city, in every town, in every village. And that’s to me what makes it really special. So that just leaves me with one more experience that I really recommend that you should try in Italy.
And some people are not going to be surprised when they hear this if they’ve listened to our podcast for a while, but it’s actually to take a food tour or multiple food tours. So for me, this is the best way to learn about Italian food or Italian culture and to really soak up the atmosphere of the cities and the places that you’re visiting. I’ve been lucky enough to do many, many food tours throughout Italy and generally they do not disappoint. The best thing about it is they’re not the same because Italian food is regional and it’s different. So you can go to Venice and have a completely different food experience to what you would have in Sorrento or in Rome. And so what you can experience is not just tasting the food, but a really great guide would tell you the stories behind the food and give you some insight into the culture of the city that’s around you and the historical reasons why these foods are so important to the locals.
Now, many people like to do a walking tour when they first arrive in a city or a place in Italy. And I recommend you do a food walking tour. And that way you not only get a kind of potted history and introduction to the place that you’re visiting, but you’ll also get to taste the food of the area and pick up some really handy tips about where you can eat later on in the trip. So it’s really a fun way to discover the food and the culture. But lately as well, there’s some really great experiences that are popping up in terms of understanding a little bit deeper around history and the food history of Italy. I did a particularly good one in Rome, which included going to Roman catacombs with a local guide who then took us back to her apartment for lunch. She and her family created an amazing mealn that was based around traditional Roman recipes that are obviously centuries old.
So it was a really special occasion because these catacombs are not generally open to the public. And Debra took us down into the catacombs and explained all about them. And then we did a lovely walk through a park near her home before sitting down to an absolutely delicious lunch. So look, yes, the food and the wine experiences with the history and the culture, it’s sort of all coming together into one amazing experience. That is absolutely my favorite. Absolutely my favorite thing to do in Italy. So make sure you plan a food tour or an experience as part of your Italian adventures.
So there you have it – my top 10 experiences to have in Italy. And look, it’s going to be different for everyone. Some people might want to climb a mountain and see some incredible views. Some people want one to go to an opera, which actually is something that’s on my wishlist of things to do. But look, there’s so many different experiences to have in Italy. So really just have a think deep down about what you want to experience when you go to Italy and how you want to feel and what experiences are going to bring those out because while visiting Italy is of course about seeing some amazing places, the memories that are going to stick with you from some of these experiences.
So really do have a think about how you’re going to build the things that you love into your trip. And of course, if you wanted some more suggestions on this, we would be more than happy for you to come and join in on the discussions in our online community on Facebook, Italy Travel planning, and you can join in the conversation there and find out what people just like you are planning to experience on their trip to Italy. So thank you for listening.
Thanks for joining us as always, and we hope that you enjoyed the show. If you did, we’d love it if you gave us a rating or review on your preferred podcast app. And don’t forget to subscribe to Untold Ily for all the latest episodes. We look forward to sharing more adventures in Italy and ideas for your upcoming trips. Josie will be along in a few weeks to share her top experiences in Italy. And in the meantime, it’s ciao from me for now.