Books have been written about these places. Millions of people seek these places out every year on vacation. When you travel northern Italy, you will see why. Our journey through this region was unforgettable.
Here, highlights of our favorites. Some are famous, some are not as “discovered.” All worth seeing.
From a budget travel perspective, we found a sweet Airbnb rental deal in Lerici, which is not one of the five famous villages known as Cinque Terre, but it’s picturesque nonetheless. Lerici is across the bay from the villages.
Our rental was a one-bedroom apartment with a kick-ass deck views of the Mediterranean. Lerici was a short ferry ride from the Cinque Terre region – or a bus ride to nearby La Spezia, and from there you could take a train to the villages. Lerici is a gem. It’s much less crowded than the villages. I definitely would return to stay again.
The famous five villages are so popular with tourists because the beauty is stunning. (I’m counting this area as one spot, however.) Even before the height of the high season when we went, in May, the villages all were tourist mob scenes.
We took the ferry from Lerici to see the villages, and the only tip I have is start as early as possible to make the most of your day and get what you pay for. We were on the first boat out. We took the boat to the last village and then worked our way backwards, and just made the last ferry ride back to Lerici.
Tedly took a couple of days alone and hiked around the trails over the villages. He took the bus in Lerici to La Spezia and then took the train.
Another option to see the villages – no matter where you stay – would be to hire a private boat. This way, you could avoid long lines of tourists. Of course, that’s only a budget-friendly option if you’re in a group.
Yes, Cinque Terre is incredible. But I got tired of tourists and lines, so I took a few days and explored a few places nearby Lerici, including a few beaches and the village of Tellaro. I loved, loved, loved Tellaro.
I walked there the first time. It’s not that far from Lerici, maybe 1.5 miles. I passed by a few cool beaches, including the one in the small village of Fiascherino. The public beach in Fiascherino is about 165 steps down a cliff, but the steps are in great shape. This is the easiest beach to get to – and it seemed like only locals were there. However, I bet it gets jammed in the summer.
While Fiascherino had a good beach, it was Tellaro that spoke to me. It has a special end-of-the-road charm. It’s literally at the end of the road from Lerici, if you take the road along the coast. It’s small, quaint, and totally not overrun yet with tourists in early May when I was there.
Cinque Terre is gorgeous, and you really should visit if you travel northern Italy. But it had too many people for my taste. I much preferred Tellaro and Lerici. These places were gorgeous in their own rights.
And to be clear, Tellaro and Lerici do get crowded — but Cinque Terre always seems loaded with tourists — many, many more tourists. Also, rentals in Tellaro appear a bit more exclusive on my first-and-only glance. Still, I’d stay in Tellaro if I ever again travel northern Italy.
What can I say about Florence? The art museums are amazing. “David” by Michelangelo is the most beautiful piece of art I’ve ever seen. It also was an extraordinary experience to stand before masterpiece paintings in the Uffizi Gallery And… well, that’s about it.
I honestly wasn’t too impressed with Florence as a city. Sure, it has a beautiful cathedral and other landmarks, and it was a pleasant enough stay. It’s World War II history is interesting, including how the Ponte Vecchio Bridge survived.
Go to Florence if you plan to travel northern Italy, if you are interested in art, like we are. But once you see the great pieces, well, there’s not much else, in my opinion. Florence would not be my first choice on a return trip, unless I wanted to again see the art, or if I went with someone for their first time.
The Tuscany region is an easy day-trip by bus from Florence, and wow oh wow — did I love this beautiful countryside! I loved Siena – the city with the famous Palio horse race.
The race is held twice a year, each July and August at the Piazza del Campo. Tedly liked the city, too, and we decided we would travel northern Italy again just for this race and all the drama leading up to it! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, see a Rick Steves video of a past race here.
I also found the Siena Cathedral to be one of the most interesting churches in all of our European stops. Aside from La Sagrada Familia, I felt more good mojo here than anywhere else. The place is simply stunning. I loved the astrological floors.
An interesting observation: kids in Siena seem to be more respectful or well-behaved or something. It may have a lot to do with the intense neighborhood rivalry that is laser-focused on the horse races. There was hardly any graffiti around town, compared to some other parts of Italy.
We saw kids practicing flag throws for the upcoming horse race events (we were there in early May, and the famous races are in July and August). We also saw older kids practicing band music in the streets at an impromptu concert set-up while wearing their neighborhood colors.
We also stopped at San Gimignano by bus from Florence, which is a quaint town with several towers. At one point, there were about 80 medieval towers centuries ago, but today a fraction remain standing. This was a good place to spend a couple of hours wandering around the urban center, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The remaining towers are privately owned, and you can climb a few for a fee. We did not. Instead, in our limited time, walked to the panoramic spots for views of the lush green countryside, and we took a tour of the main church.
The cathedral tour (Duomo di San Gimignano) included an audio guide explaining the elaborate, ancient frescoes. It was one of the better guides to Christianity I’ve experienced, and worth a stop if you travel northern Italy and you’re into church guides. We also paid a few euros for the cathedral’s museum, and while it was interesting, if you’re not totally into the religious art from this town, skip this.
I found the Tuscany countryside with rolling lush green hills to be fantastic. Somehow, there’s a romantic vibe in the air. It’s easy to see why some popular romance stories include Tuscany, like Eat, Love, Pray, and Under the Tuscan Sun. It was a wonderful way to get out of the busy city of Florence and breathe in some fresh air. I would definitely go back and explore more and stay longer.
How can someone not love Venice? It’s an amazing city with a rich history and of course, it’s an architectural wonder. You cannot travel northern Italy and not stop here. Despite overtourism issues, the place is a wonder.
Yet it’s design also is heartbreaking. The city is sinking and the water is rising. Some experts predict it will need to be abandoned by the end of this century. Even now, flooding seems to happen a bit more often. Also, the rising water level has already caused first floors of many buildings to be abandoned.
You can’t really stay anywhere in Venice on a budget, yet somehow Tedly managed to find a cute studio apartment for about $100 a night. This was our most expensive place yet. It was nothing fancy, but it was full of charm, clean and comfortable, and was in a prime location. To me – that prime spot is several blocks from the tourism mess. (But every part of Venice has tourists.)
The real beauty of Venice for me was away from the stores in the tourist sections that you see in every city in the world – the Sephora shops, the designer brands, the bullshit. Part of Venice magic is discovering the roads, or canals, less traveled.
We did not take a gondola ride. Tourists seem to be pushed through the canal rides like cattle in a drive. There weren’t too many solitary moments of romance from where we stood on the bridges over the canals. We saw boat after boat pass by — sometimes it was so crowded it was like a gondola rush hour jam! Also, the captains rarely wore their hats, I never heard any of them sing any love song, and often they wore clothing to cover up their white and black striped shirts.
Somehow, the whole thing just wasn’t as romantic as the movies or Instagram make it seem. I enjoyed the reality we lived in Venice — no need for us to try to match any preconceived ideas.
We rode water taxis and buses all over the city. Go with a day pass for about $20, and skip the $80 for a half-hour gondola ride. You’ll see more.
While I loved most of Venice, I loved all of Burano. This island is covered in colorful homes around its canals. The architecture is clearly different from the ornate gothic structures in Venice. If Venice was mostly for the Doges and the ruling class, Burano (and Murano) were for the working class. Yes, there were throngs of tourists everywhere, but there also were plenty of streets to wander with no one in sight.
Who knew? There are a few more leaning towers in Italy besides Pisa, including the bell tower in Burano. At certain angles around town, it looks more lopsided. Still works just fine – the bells went off without a hitch during our afternoon visit.
In Burano, older women sew lace garments and scarves in the doorways of their homes that double as shops. The pieces are so ornate and beautiful! This tradition, as well as the town itself, it an excellent stop to explore if you travel northern Italy.
Murano is another island nearby known for its blown-glass art, jewelry, and home decor. We bought a large, black and purple glass-blown ring for my right hand from a shop where the creator was working on other pieces as I surveyed his goods. It was interesting to see him work with a blow torch.
Back in another life, I seem to recall my former colleague J.W. August and his wife Lori brought me back a necklace from Murano when they took a vacation in Italy. The jewelry is quite popular and tourists seem to buy it up – myself included.
Torcello is a third island near Venice with far fewer tourists than Murano and Burano. And that alone makes it a reason to stop if you travel northern Italy and need a break from the crowds. There’s not much ‘to do’ there… but that’s kind of the point.
We found a place to picnic back behind the old church. (By the way, you are not allowed to ‘picnic’ in Venice.) It was a pleasant walk along a canal to the church. If the picture below looks like your way to spend part of an afternoon, have at it!
Pisa (not a favorite)
Our train ride from Saragoza (near Lerici) to Florence included a stop in Pisa, so we stopped for lunch and posed for some photos. The tower is a short bus ride from the train station, and you can leave your luggage at the station in a luggage check.
I honestly could have skipped Pisa, but Tedly wanted to see it since we were practically right there. I’m glad he insisted, because now we will always have this silly picture.
Travel northern Italy now
I’m always an advocate for living the life you want now – and for travel now. But maybe even more so with regions like this one.
With the historic floods in Venice in late 2019, and overtourism causing conflict with locals in most of the spots on this list, it’s really worth visiting this area as soon as you can, as more people travel northern Italy every year.
I loved Italy, and I was a little sad to leave. We never got to the southern part of the country on this trip because our tourist visas ran out. And we also never made it to the extreme northern part. As visitors, we were allowed to stay in the Schengen Area for 90 days, and then we had to leave for 90 days before we could return to any of the 26 member countries.
But maybe one future year we’ll make it back for that horse race in Siena.
This post was updated November 2019.