SPRAWLING coastlines littered with idyllic towns, countryside defined by rolling green hills and postcard-ready scenes and a seemingly endless flow of wine and pasta — it’s not surprising Italy is a dream location for holiday-makers of all ages the world over.
While there’s something about the boot-shaped land that inspires a slower pace (not least the fact that it takes almost twice as long to get anything done here), we don’t always have six weeks on our hands to learn how to make gnocchi in Tuscany or live like the locals in Cinque Terre.
I’m all for slow travel, but sometimes we have little pockets of time that we want to fill with as much action as possible.
Think you can’t see three Italian cities in one weekend? Think again.
Rome, Florence and Venice are all bursting with history, art and culture and you could easily spend a week in each city alone. But if you’ve got two nights, two or three days and a hankering to tick them all off your bucket list, this is how.
One of the key ways to save time is to ensure you’ve got all your museum passes and tickets booked in advance, or you’ll end up spending hours in queues. Another key is to not go during peak tourist season, or the middle of summer, as the heaving crowds and 35C-plus temperatures will make it much more stressful than it needs to be.
STOP ONE: THE ETERNAL CITY
Let’s say you arrive in Rome on Friday night. Find a restaurant for food and wine, get a good sleep and prepare to kick things off on Saturday morning.
If you’ve only got a day here, you’re going to have to cross the Vatican off your list. You also won’t have time to ponder public transport or try to get around the city yourself, so buy a ticket for a hop-on, hop-off bus, take a moment to indulge in some Italian coffee and cake, decide which sights you want to see, and set out.
The must-sees are the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Spanish Steps. I would also recommend taking a trip to the Capitoline Hill, which will give you a stunning view of the city and really get the sense that you’re there flowing.
If you want to knock something off the list, make it the Spanish Steps. Although they’re architecturally beautiful and historically significant, it’s hard to actually enjoy them because they are always so packed with people. If you do want to see them, head there first-thing in the morning for the emptiest possible view.
Similarly, if you want to go inside the Colosseum, it’s vital to book in advance or you’ll spend the whole day lined up. If you just want to snag a quick look, do so and then quickly head into the Roman Forum which is wonderfully enriching to wander around.
This is a good moment to slow down a bit and really appreciate the historical significance of where you are and just how ancient it is.
Do your best to cram all this in by about midday or 1pm, grab lunch (in the Trastevere neighbourhood if you’ve got an hour left to spare), then get ready to jump on a train to Florence.
STOP TWO: THE CITY OF LILIES
You can take a train to Florence from Roma Termini, which takes about an hour and 20 minutes, meaning if you kick out of Rome by 2pm, you should be checked in and ready to hit the ground running again in Florence by 4.30pm. That’s enough time to meander around, enjoy a relaxing dinner and watch the sunset on the Arno river — ideally from, or looking at, the Ponte Vecchio bridge.
Exactly what you’ll want to spend your limited time in Florence doing will depend on how much of a Renaissance art fan that you are. But whether you’re versed in the architectural works of Brunelleschi or not, you’ll fall in love with this city by exploring it on foot.
Checking out the Leaning Tower of Pisa while you’re here is definitely possible, but you’ll basically have to choose between doing that and visiting a museum. If you want to go to the tower, get up at the crack of dawn on Sunday and take a bus (about one hour), have a look, and come straight back.
Best case scenario, you’ll be back in Florence at 10.30am and ready to take in the Florence Cathedral with its remarkable Gothic facade, Palazzo Vecchio — a 13th Century fortified castle that strikingly juxtaposes the otherwise predominantly Renaissance architecture of the city — and the various other churches, baptisteries, galleries and piazzas that Tuscan capital.
Skipping Pisa will give you much more time to breathe in Florence, but if you want to see it by all means go.
STOP THREE: THE CITY OF CANALS
As the journey from Florence to Venice takes about two and a half hours, you should aim to be back on the road, or in the train, by no later than 1pm.
When you arrive in Venice you’re pretty much straight in the thick of things, and you can cloak your bag at the train station for optimal enjoyment of the city.
From the station you take a short ferry trip over to Venice proper, where your adventure continues. The ferry will give you a good sense of how Venice connects to the Adriatic Sea, where all that water flows in from.
Venice itself is relatively small, and you’ll be able to see a lot on foot. Make sure you enjoy a coffee, something nice to eat and a gelato while you’re here, as while it’s all overpriced, it’s all pretty good.
Kick things off by heading to Piazza San Marco, the famous square filled with pigeons and dominated by St Mark’s Basilica, which you should head inside if the queue isn’t hours long. The sparkling golden roof is jaw-dropping for even the most European-Cathedral-experienced-visitors.
After this you’ll want to take a good look at Doge’s Palace, but skip going inside to save time, particularly if you want to go for a gondola ride around the canals. The latter will also give you the chance to see the stunning Rialto Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs.
Spend the rest of your afternoon and evening here literally getting lost, and exploring the alleyways. Make sure to look at the masterful way they’ve managed to keep the city thriving, despite the fact that it’s sinking, by simply continuing to build up, allowing water to pass over the buildings generation by generation.
Once you’re done, head back to the train station, pick up your bags and get ready to head wherever you’re off to next.