When I give travel advice, the vast majority of the time it’s geared toward budget-friendly travel. I don’t have a trust fund, I assume you don’t, and yet that isn’t going to stop us from enjoying a trip to Italy now and then. And while we’d all love the luxury experience, most of us don’t want to get stuck with the bill.
Italy isn’t an inexpensive country to visit, especially when compared with some destinations in Southeast Asia or even Eastern Europe. When you go, then, you want to make sure every euro is being spent wisely. I’m all for that – I want those spare euro for gelato, after all – but I also believe that there are some splurges that are totally worth it in Italy.
This is my totally-not-comprehensive and entirely-subjective list of what’s worth the splurge in Italy. Your mileage may vary.
Check out my tips on creating a budget for Italy travel, too.
I will never stop defending the notion that all those day-trippers who claim to have hated Venice would like it if they only spent the night. Venice hotels are not cheap. This is a city where you’ll spend more for a so-so 2-star hotel on the islands than you might a 3- or 4-star hotel in another city elsewhere in Italy. What you’re paying for is the privilege of staying on the islands themselves, a tiny pinprick of a dot on the Italian map.
There are hotels on the Venice mainland, many of which are just a short boat ride from the islands, and they’ll look appealing to budget travelers because they’re cheaper. Staying on the mainland, however, means you miss out on seeing Venice when it’s at its most peaceful, alluring, and quiet – when (in short) the day-trippers aren’t there.
If you’re really on a tight budget and want to stay longer in Venice, here’s what I’d suggest. Spend one night on the islands – that’s the splurge. Then switch to a hotel on the mainland to save money, visiting the islands during the day – or choose an apartment rental or hostel on the islands.
Yes, you can do a self-guided tour through cities and museums and art galleries and only pay for the cost of admission (if there is one). What you may miss out on by doing that is an opportunity to learn something that’ll really stick – of having an educational travel experience you’ll remember forever.
With a guided tour you get the benefit of someone’s expertise on a subject, whether it’s Medieval history or Renaissance art or Roman gladiatorial combat. A good tour guide will tailor stories to suit his or her audience, gauging your interest and adding other factoids you’ll find fascinating. A guided tour means you make the most of your time, and instead of being completely overwhelmed by the Vatican Museums or the Uffizi you know exactly what the important pieces are – and, even better, you know why they’re important.
There are guided tours to fit every interest, style, and budget. Take a basic walking tour in a city to get a lay of the land. Take a guided museum tour to better understand an art that (if you’re anything like me) seems downright confusing. Take a food tour to sample some of a region’s specialties so you’ll know what to order later at a restaurant. The possibilities are nearly endless.
These companies offer tours in Italy. These are affiliate links, meaning I get a little something if you book with them, but it doesn’t cost you any extra.
Take it from someone who thought she really should travel from the Milan airport to her apartment carrying two suitcases on the Metro (changing lines once) and then hauling said suitcases about seven blocks – taxis when you’re carrying luggage are a worthy splurge.
Now, I’m budget-conscious enough that I will generally still take a train from the airport into the city when the airport is way out of town (hello, Rome and Milan), but after that? Give me a taxi. I’ll do my part to use public transportation later, I promise – maybe even within the hour – and I strongly believe it’s usually the best way to get around in Italy. But I never again want to lose feeling in my arms the day after hauling heavy bags through a city at the beginning of my trip.
Real estate experts will tell you housing value is all about “location, location, location” – and the same is true with hotels for travelers. Yes, the hotels that are right in the middle of everything you want to see and do are going to cost more than the ones on the outskirts of town. And, most of the time, the middle-of-everything splurge is worth it.
If you’re spending a week or more in one place, traveling exceptionally slowly, then you can definitely get away with not being in the center of it all. If you’re like most travelers, however, in and out of each city in a matter of a few days, being in the middle of things means you don’t waste valuable vacation time getting there and back. You’re already there.
Having said that, there are still different levels of splurge even in the historic center of a city or town, so you can usually find a hotel that feels like a reasonable expenditure. Learn more about what the stars mean on Italian hotels to find a suitable, central hotel in your price range.
Some of you are shoppers, in which case you’ll likely be setting aside some of your travel budget for the goodies you’ll pick up in Italy. I am not someone who pays any attention to fashion, but if you are you’ll probably want to do some research before you go about current trends in Italy – or you, like me, can just wait until you get there and see what color everyone is wearing.
At any rate, the global economy has made it so that most of the time we can get goods made in Italy no matter where we live. Some things, however, are often fakes sold as the real thing if you’re not actually there buying it in person. One perfect example of this is Murano glass, the gorgeous stuff made on the island in the Venetian lagoon. If it looks like it’s too good of a deal, then it’s almost certainly fake – and there are fakes sold in Venice, too. There, you at least have the option of going to a genuine Murano glass-maker and buying directly. The same could be said of handmade lace on the nearby island of Burano.
Shopaholics might also want to plan their trips around Italy’s official sales seasons – one in winter and one in summer – to make their shopping budget go even farther.
This is where any attempt at specificity goes out the window.
I hate the term “bucket list,” but if you’ve got one for Italy then chances are pretty good there are some experiences on it that you’d find acceptable splurges. It matters not that someone else’s list is different. You know what your dream experiences are, and no cost (within reason) will be too high.
Maybe it’s a gondola ride in Venice. Maybe it’s eating in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy. Maybe it’s a private yacht trip around the Amalfi Coast. Whatever the thing is that makes your heart go pitter-pat, and has done for ages, is the thing you’ll be okay splurging on. For me, it’s almost always about food. For you, it might be tickets to a big soccer game in Italy. Only you can know what your thing is.
What’s your favorite splurge in Italy?