Our main reason for re-visiting Italy was to meet up with my dad and step-mom. Neither have been to Europe, and they wanted Italy to be their introduction. Planning was a bit clunky for various reasons, and except for flights, we ended up booking most of the trip just a few weeks before arrival. The itinerary we settled on was meeting up in Rome and heading straight up to Florence for 4 nights. After Florence, they would head up to Venice, and T and I would head back down to Rome, where they would meet up with us after Venice. Neither of us has been to Venice, but the idea of it isn’t really our cup of tea. Plus, skipping it would give us 5 nights to spend in Rome. Both T and I have only been to Rome once each, and each of our trips were only for a couple of days. Almost a week in Rome sounded like a good amount of time to explore it past the standard tourist spots, plus at a leisurely pace.
Why one random night first?
In my last post on Lisbon, I explained why we chose a flight from to Rome with a layover instead of a non-stop, but I didn’t mention that we flew in a day early. The short answer to why is: cost and timing. Flying in the same day my dad and step-mom arrived would’ve cost us at least an extra $100+, plus having to wake up really early for any flight that got in anywhere near 10:30a, which is when they were scheduled to land. Since we had no idea that we would regret not spending enough time in Lisbon, we decided to cut out a day early to give ourselves a leisurely, well-rested travel day, plus save a bit of cash.
Getting to the city
Thy and I arrived in Rome with no issues and hopped on a bus from the airport to Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome. Speaking of Rome/Roma, can I just say how annoying the whole multiple-names-for-cities thing is? Why can’t everyone just call it Roma? Yes, I understand that every place has varying etymologies, but it’s still annoying that we can’t just call Florence -> Firenze, Venice -> Venezia, and so on. But I digress.
When my buddy Brandon and I were in Rome in 2013, we took the train from the airport into the city, though I don’t remember how much it was back then. This time I decided to take a peek at airport shuttles and was pleasantly surprised to find a few bus company options, all offering fares for one-stop or non-stop rides for €5-7 one-way. A taxi/car transfer would’ve been in the €40-50 range ($45-60), and a train ride would’ve been €14/pp (~$16). We ended up on a S.I.T. Bus with one stop near the Vatican before dropping us off at Roma Termini for €6 each. There are non-stop options with other companies (Terravision for one), but the departure time of this one worked out better for us.
Al Viminale Hill Inn & Hotel
Since we would only be in Rome for one night before heading up to Florence, we decided to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a hotel close to the train station. We opted for a hotel instead of an Airbnb for a few reasons. First, there were no Airbnb locations all that close to the train station. Also, evening check-ins tend to be easier at hotels than with Airbnbs. Lastly, the fees associated with booking Airbnbs hit you pretty hard on shorter bookings. I pulled a random listing as an example: Take its $59 nightly rate, pair it with a $41 cleaning fee, plus a $13 Airbnb service fee and POOF your one night $59 Airbnb is now $113. Magic.
Since T has the Chase Sapphire Reserve, we get to spend Chase points at a 50% bonus when booking through the Chase Travel Portal. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I tend to start my hotel searches with TripAdvisor, first filtering for only the highest rated hotels, then seeing if any of those are in my budget. One of the top ranked hotels was the Al Viminale Hill Inn & Hotel, rated at 4.5/5 bubbles. The retail price for the night was $112.58, which came out to 7,505 Chase points. Not dirt cheap, but not too bad, I’d say.
Checking in at the hotel was smooth, and we threw our stuff in our room before wandering around to find some food. Once really nice thing about this hotel is that each room comes with a “Handy” phone. If you haven’t heard of these, they’re cell phones with free data and calling that many hotels are starting to add as an amenity. You’re free to take out with you and in many cases, you can use it as a hotspot for your own phone. Humorously, the Handy phone gave us faster data than the hotel’s wi-if, so we just used that the whole time.
My new favorite Italian restaurant is…..Chinese
At this point, it was about 10pm, so many places were closed except for the very touristy sidewalk cafes near the train station. However….we stumbled upon a diamond in the rough – a Chinese restaurant called Wang Xiang Lou that had 4/5 bubbles on TripAdvisor. The prices looked pretty good, so we gave it a shot, and what a great choice that was. Not only were the dishes very-well priced, but they were REALLY good. I don’t remember exact prices, but fried rice options were €5-7, grilled squid was about €7, and papaya salad (the best I’ve had outside of Thailand, actually) was something like €4. We ended up coming back later in the trip with my dad and step-mom….twice.
Florence in a machine
The next morning we met my dad and step-mom at the airport, hopped in a rental car, and started our drive up to Florence. Due to the Hertz Gold status I got from my Amex Platinum, we got a small upgrade to a Toyota Yaris hybrid. The cabin room was probably more than what we would’ve gotten in whatever other car we would’ve been assigned, but I think we gave up trunk space for it, and we were just barely able to fit in their 2 medium rolling suitcases and our 2 backpacks. I paid for the rental with my Chase MileagePlus Explorer card in order to get free, primary rental car insurance.
The normally 3-3.5 hour drive from Rome to Florence took an annoying 6+ hours. This was partially due to traffic, but mainly due to the fact that I accidentally left on the “Avoid Tolls” option in Google Maps (turned on when comparing routes), which added at least 90 minutes to the trip. The upside is that we saved a chunk of money on the way up. The tolls from Rome to Florence approach €30. I’m making a dedicated post to driving in Italy including what we spent and what kind of costs you’re looking at, but simply put, a car is rarely a better financial decision unless you have 4+ people. Of course, money is not the only factor and makes many things, such as exploring Italy’s smaller cities, much more convenient. Speaking of which…
We made a quick stop along the way in a small city called Orvieto. It’s one of a few Italian cities around the country that is basically a walled-in fort that sits on a hill. Its main attractions are a big church, charming tiny walkable streets, and plenty of great viewpoints of the country side surrounding the city. We had lunch at a small, quiet restaurant near the church and happened to sit next to a couple that lives 15 minutes away from my dad and step-mom. Small world.
Orvieto is right along the A1, Italy’s main highway, and they also have their own train station, so it’s a pretty convenient stop between Rome and Florence. I’d definitely recommend stopping by for lunch and either a quick walk around or an extended city tour depending on how much time you have.
Next up: My first time in Florence and third in Cinque Terre. I’m either doing Italy the really right way or the really wrong way.