Thursday, October 11, 2012

bella italia! or, renee's guide to italy


About a month after returning from my semester abroad in Greece last year, all of the students, teachers, and staff involved with the trip got together for a luncheon. After the study abroad director thanked us for coming and urged us to give him feedback on our experience, he added something that I found odd.

He said that in his many years working with students studying abroad, he has found that many students enter a sort of depression when they return to America. Maybe the reverse culture shock is too jarring, maybe life feels humdrum after weeks of exciting travel, maybe its just the knowledge that the semester is over and that (very likely), we won't be able to travel as far or for such a long period in a very, very long time (due to the costs, our jobs, etc.). In any case, he wanted us to know that if we felt that way, we could come talk to him or a school counselor about it.

The Spanish Steps, Rome

Having only been back in the States 4-5 weeks, I was still enjoying a lot of what I'd missed while I'd been in Europe (plentiful and free water, all my stuff, friends, family, pups, books, different foods, etc.). So the idea of being depressed post-travel seemed a little exaggerated. But as the months have gone by, I have to admit that I have felt depressed at times. It was an amazing experience and I'll never have the opportunity again to be a young student in Europe. Anytime I see a movie with scenes of Greece or eat a French baguette or see the London Olympics on the news, I get nostalgic and upset. And of course, I've spent far too much time looking at my photos. 

Arch of Constantine, Rome

So of course it hit me hard when I realized that this week last year, I was traveling through Italy and to Paris on a 10-day Fall Break. It was my first time traveling without an adult for guidance. My boyfriend and I planned the whole trip ourselves and spent 1 day in Rome, 2 in Florence, 2 in Venice, and 4 in Paris. And I'm sure I don't need to saybut I'm going to go ahead and do it anywaythat it was an amazing, exciting, educating, and liberating trip that I'll remember forever.

This blog began as a travel journal and I hope to include more travel in the future, but today, in honor of the 1-year mark since I went to Italy, I thought I'd do a little guide for anyone going to Italy or planning to go to Italy or even just dreaming of Italy. And if you're dreaming of Paris instead, hold on. I'll get to you in a few days.

So here it is . . . 

The Pantheon, our view as we ate dinner in Rome.


(on a student's budget)


Italian food is wonderful. But you already knew that. 

The basics: pasta, pizza, and gelato. If you go to Italy, you must try one of each (I'd go with five, but that's just me). Try something new at every restaurant you try. You can experiment if you like, or just go with the classics. Below you can see some of my favoritesmozzarella/basil pizza, penne, gnocchi (try it if you haven't!), and creamy gelatobut I also had some delicious tortellini, a rosemary bread sandwich, and (believe me) a lot more gelato. Everything I ate in Italy was fantastic and most restaurants had a good variety, so as far as restaurants go, I would choose based on (1) price and (2) location. A so-so meal (which is unlikely anyway) can be overlooked when you've got a great view. For 10-15 Euros each, we were able to dine with views of the Pantheon in Rome and Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

My main advice? Just eat. Don't let your budget limit you to snacks from the grocery store (some of my classmates went this route). That's insane. You're in Italy! Eat! 


Trains are the easiest way to travel around Italy. We used Italia Rail and paid about $50 for each ticket. With trains, you end up right in the middle of the city, so there's no worrying about taking a bus/taxi to and from the airport. If you don't bring too much luggage (I'll get to that in a minute), you can easily walk from the train station to your hostel without hassle or worry. The trains are quick, convenient, cheap, comfortable, and pass through the beautiful countryside. I would also recommend buying your tickets beforehand to eliminate frustration. 

To get in and out of Italy, we flew using Easyjet. If you're not familiar with it, Easyjet is a discount airline like RyanAir and others. The prices are very low (we flew to Rome for $50), but that means you're restricted on certain things like luggage and travel dates. It's very worth it as long as you read the rules beforehand. These airlines are very strict on weight/size limits (for luggage, not passengers) and I don't know if it's possible to exchange/refund your tickets. Just be very aware and realize that you can't squeeze something by these companies. You will get fined.

Inside the Santa Maria Novella Train Station in Florence.


If you're staying more than a few days in any city, it might make sense to use the metro or bus system. However, if you do want to cut some extra expenses and you enjoy walking, I'd highly recommend just walking your entire stay. These cities (Rome, Florence, Venice) aren't huge and as long as your hostel/hotel is within a good distance of the city center, you'll be fine. Plus, you see so much more when you're walking! We wandered through so many little neighborhoods and alleyways that we never would have seen if we'd just gone from attraction to attraction.

Oh and definitely bring a map. In Rome and Florence, it's okay to use only a basic map (printed off the internet), but it really is worth it to have a detailed map in Venice. The streets are tiny, confusing, and split apart by the canals. You will get lost, but you'll be less lost with a map.

Trevi Fountain, Rome.


Just go. Most of them are swarmed with tourists (you can barely walk around the Trevi Fountain), but you'll regret it if you don't stop by to see the great, memorable, extravagant sites. Go even if you don't have time to go inside. We only had one day in Rome (and were incredibly exhausted after spending the night in the Athens airport), but we walked to every major site in that city and I'm so glad we did. My feet were furious and the rain didn't help the situation, but I would have regretted missing out.

If you do plan to go inside/take the tour/etc., plan ahead. I know the Vatican recommends purchasing tickets beforehand and going on certain days. Plus, the line is known to take hours. Just be aware. Research prices, times, and dates before you get to each place and keep these lists with you.

Here are the places we visited in each city (some only viewed, some thoroughly explored):

Rome: the Colosseum, the Vatican, Castel S. Angelo, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps.

Florence: the Duomo (aka Santa Maria del Fiore), Palazzo Pitti, San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, Piazza della Repubblica, Piazza Santa Croce, S. Spirito, Bargello Museum, Palazzo Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo.

Venice: Rialto Bridge, Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore, Dorsoduro Neighborhood, San Geremia Square, St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Doge's Palace, the Campanile, St. Mark's Clock Tower.

The view from Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence.


Since this is a student's budget guide, of course I'm going to recommend you stay in a hostel. There are a lot of different sites available for booking hostels. We used and for all our searching and booking. Both sites have reviews, which are invaluable when you're searching for cheap accommodations. Try to stay in hostels with ratings above 70% if possible. The most important aspects of finding a place to stay are safety, location, cleanliness, and cost. Most hostels don't offer free WI-FI or breakfasts or even towels. And even if they do, be weary. One of our hostels promised free towels . . . when we got there they cost 2E. A couple promised free WIFI . . . but then it never worked.

Know that the cost on these sites is almost always per person. Even if it says Double Room for 30E, they want you each to pay the 30E.

If you want the cheapest room, you will either have to travel with a bunch of friends and book a private room together (the more people, the cheaper the room) or room with strangers. Private solo rooms obviously cost the most. If you do stay with strangers, wear your wallet on you at night and lock up your luggage (with personal locks, lockers provided in the hostel, or both). You can't be too safe.

Consider paying a little more to stay in a better location. For example, in Venice most hostels are not on the island. To see the city from these hostels, you have to take a water bus/taxi each morning and night. We paid a little extra to stay on the island, so instead of spending our money on water buses, we spent it on our hostel.

In front of Santa Maria Novella.


In order to fly with Easyjet, we had to adhere to the luggage guidelines. Thus, I traveled with only my little backpack. It is the size of your average schoolkid's backpack, not a big traveler's pack. As a girl who sometimes brings an entire suitcase with me on a weekend trip, I was not excited to pack for 10 days in one little backpack, but it all worked out in the end. 

Here's what I packed for 10 days in Italy/Paris in October (temperatures ranged from 40-80 degrees Fahrenheit):

I wore to the airport:
- Jeans
- Regular T-Shirt (This would come in handy later. Remember, most hostels don't have towels . . .)
- Keds
- Light Jacket
- Light Scarf

I packed:
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of black tights
- 1 black cardigan
- 3 simple, form-fitting tees
- 1 long-sleeve, casual, floral dress
- Underwear and socks
- 1 pair of black flats
- Camera (with extra battery and battery charger)
- Toiletries (all 3oz. or less to adhere to airport security guidelines)
- Makeup (just the basics: mascara, eyeliner, eyelash curler, powder)
- Glasses
- Umbrella
- Folder with all our flight/train information, directions, notes, etc.

Due to Easyjet's restrictions, I was not allowed to carry my purse onto the plane (it had to be stuffed into my backpack), so room was left for that. I also tried to leave some room for souvenirs. If you do buy a lot on your travels and can't fit everything back into your suitcase, remember you can always layer-up on the plane!

My main advice is to check the weather beforehand. If you need a big coat, you can always wear it onto the plane to save space. Also, the clich√© advice that is oh so true: wear comfortable shoes. 

Palazzo Vecchio.


All that said, people enjoy experiencing cities in different ways. Ask yourself: how do you want to spend your time? If you don't care about seeing everyday Italian life, then just head to the tourist spots. If you want lots of time for certain attractions and museums, maybe you don't have time to wander there on foot. Also ask yourself: how do you want to spend your money? If you're on a limited budget, you might have to make sacrifices. Do you want to spend money on public transportation? On museums? On attractions? On shopping? On food? 

And make sure your travel buddies agree on these time/money preferences. That's the quickest way to get into fights mid-travel. It's also an easy way to end up disappointed with your trip. Or so I've heard! Luckily, my travel mate and I agreed that we wanted to spend time wandering, limit the museums, and see (if not explore) all the big sites. And as for money, we spent ours on clean hostels with good locations and food. Very little went to museums/attractions and only the minimum went to public transportation (in Italy). 

A sunset in Venice.


Attractions and museums are wonderful, but the best moments, I think, are when you can just sit back and enjoy where you are. Gazing down at the great view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo. Eating gelato on a bridge. Taking a bottle of wine to a park along the river. Sitting on the edge of a canal during sunset. Enjoying a big bowl of pasta on the edge of a piazza. You can absorb everything the architecture, the food, the smells, the language, the viewswithout the hustle, bustle, and hurry that comes with tourist attractions.


I hope you enjoyed this little guide. Next stop Paris!

If you want to see my original posts about Italy, head here: Rome, Florence, Venice.

Have you ever been to Italy? Or anywhere in Europe? I'd love to hear about your experience! 

Did you have post-travel depression when you returned home?

What's your dream travel destination?


  1. I didn't study abroad, though I visited Italy and Paris on a class trip in high school. I've noticed that pretty much everyone who goes abroad longs for it intensely when they come back. All of my friends who studied abroad have spent the time since they've come back plotting ways to get back there. This feeling is especially strong I've found in people who studied in countries in Africa or some of the "poorer" countries. I can see how the reverse culture shock can lead to intense sadness in those cases--you realize you actually CAN get used to having little. Then when you get your excess back, the guilt sets in. My observations.

    1. I'd never thought about that. How sad/interesting. Even just returning from Greece, the amount of water and food we waste in America and how much we spend seemed crazy. I can't imagine what it would be like returning from Africa or somewhere similar.

  2. This post couldn't have come at a worse/more relevant time. I'm eating lunch at the office and looking outside at the rain, longing for France. I've missed it so, so much this fall. And I can really relate to the devastation of realizing you'll never be a student in Europe again.

    You're right about soaking it in, too. Those are the moments you'll remember the most fondly. Where you're just sitting, eating, and really living in this foreign place.

    1. I just wish I had a blueprint of my life so I could look forward to my next big vacation :) It would make this moment so much easier if I only knew I was going back to Europe in, say, 3 or 4 years? I'm dreaming.


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