A Printable, Downloadable, PDF version of this itinerary is available for purchase. Includes Places to Stay in proximity.
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
This itinerary traces the western coast of Italy as far as Genova before heading north for the final stretch to Milan. To break the journey, the first stop is Tarquinia for sightseeing, then Orbetello, a picturesque peninsula-like island joined to the coast by three spits of land. The next destination is Cinque Terre-a string of five tiny fishing villages along the coast that have not yet fallen prey to a great influx of tourists. As you follow the highway up the coast, it becomes a masterpiece of engineering-bridging deep ravines and tunneling in and out of the cliffs, which rise steeply from the sea. Along the way you pass picturesque small towns snuggled into small coves. Then it’s on to Portofino-one of Italy’s most treasured jewels-before the final destination of Milan.
Recommended Pacing: This itinerary can be run quickly if it is being used as simply as a means of transportation between Rome and Milan (or visa versa), but it is much more fun to savor the small towns along the way. You need a minimum of three nights in Rome-you could spend a week and still only touch on what this fabulous “living museum” has to offer. Once on your way between Rome and Milan, there are outstanding places to stay and things to see along the coast. However, if your time is strictly limited, choose just one of the three stopovers we recommend (Porto Ercole, Cinque Terre or Portofino) and plan to stay for three nights. Ideally, if you have the luxury to meander along the way, then plan to spend at least two nights in all three. Every suggested stopover is lovely in its own way and will give you a glimpse of the beauty of Italy’s small, delightful, coastal towns.
This itinerary begins in Rome, a perfect introduction to Italy. The joy of Rome is that every place you walk you are immersed in history. The whole of the city is a virtual museum-buildings over 2,000 years old, ancient fountains designed by the world’s greatest masters, the Vatican, Renaissance paintings that have never been surpassed in beauty. Buy a guidebook at one of the many bookstores or magazine stands to plan what you most want to see and do. Also buy a detailed city map and mark each day’s excursion. Most places are within walking distance-if not, consider taking the subway, which stretches to most of the major points of interest.
For sightseeing suggestions in Rome, see the Italian Highlights by Train & Boat-or Car itinerary.
From Rome follow the well-marked signs for the expressway heading west toward the Leonardo da Vinci airport. About 5 kilometers before you arrive at the airport, head north on A12 in the direction of Civitavecchia.
About 13 kilometers beyond the Civitavecchia Nord exit, turn right (east) on S1 BIS in the direction of Viterbo. Continue a bit more than 3 kilometers and turn left toward Tarquinia, an Etruscan city that historians date back to the 12th century B.C. Even if it is not quite that old, archaeologists have established that people were living here as early as 600 years before Christ. Before you reach Tarquinia, you will see on your right an open-air museum-an open field dotted with Etruscan Tombs. The site is not well-marked, but your clue will be tour buses lining the road. Park your car, buy a ticket at the gate, and explore the fascinating tombs. There are over a thousand tombs stretching over 5 kilometers, but only a small, select group is open to the public. You can wander at leisure. Each tomb has a sign describing what drawings are found within. You will find a rich treasure trove of paintings depicting the life of the ancient Etruscans, including scenes of hunting, dining, fishing, drinking, and frolicking. All of the burial sites are underground. To access a tomb, you have to climb down a narrow flight of steps and when you reach the bottom, everything is semidarkness. However, when you push a button, the tomb is magically illuminated behind a glass window. Each tomb is individually decorated with paintings that offer a poignant glimpse of life over a thousand years ago. There is no way you can visit all the burial chambers, but one of the most popular is the Tomb of the Leopards where there is a well-preserved banquet scene.
After viewing the tombs, ask the attendant at the gate for directions to the Museo Nazionale Tarquiniese which is located in the center of town in the 15th-century Vitelleschi Palace. Even if you do not have time to savor all of the beautiful Etruscan vases and handsome carved stone sarcophagi, you must make at least a brief stop to view the astonishing winged horses dramatically displayed in a large room on an upper floor. You will be spellbound by these superb horses on an ornate relief that adorned the altar of the Queen’s temple.
After your brush with Etruscan civilization, continue north for approximately 50 kilometers to Scalo/Orbetello where you turn west. The road crosses 6 kilometers of lagoons on a narrow spit of land (going through the town of Orbetello) before reaching the large, bulbous peninsula dominated by Mount Argentario. Turn left when you reach the peninsula to reach the fishing village of Porto Ercole or right for the larger port town of Porto Santo Stefano where ferryboats depart for the islands of Giglio, Gianutri and Corsica. Beyond the town is a spectacular coastal cliff drive overlooking the sea.
Return to S1 and head north on the highway as it follows the coast. About 35 kilometers before you come to the large city of Livorno (which you want to avoid at all costs), the road divides. One split goes to Livorno and the other becomes the A12, which heads inland and bypasses the city. The next large town after Livorno is Pisa. Take the Pisa Nord exit which takes you directly to the city walls and the historic part of the old town. Your target is the Piazza del Duomo, a huge square studded by fabulous buildings, including Pisa’s landmark, the Leaning Tower of PisaHowever, it is not only the Leaning Tower that makes the Piazza del Duomo such a winner, it is studded with many other magnificent buildings, all of which are outstanding architectural jewels and happily are open to the public as museums. You can buy one ticket allowing entrance to all. Climb to the top of the Leaning Tower (which is once again open for visitors after being strengthened by massive cables). Also, don’t miss the breathtaking Duomo or the Baptistery. Since we first visited Pisa many years ago, an awesome transformation has taken place. The buildings have been scrubbed cleaned and returned to their original splendor, making Pisa a joy to visit.
About 25 kilometers northeast of Pisa is the extremely picturesque city of Lucca. Lucca too is an ancient, perfectly preserved city. Completely surrounding the town is an enormous wall-a wall so wide that it even supports pretty, small parks and a path that runs along the top that is a favorite for joggers. Lucca is truly a jewel. Take time to wander through her maze of narrow streets, admiring imposing mansions and colorful squares.
Leaving Lucca, return to the expressway A12 and head north to Genova. Along the way you see what appears to be a glacier shimmering white in the mountains that rise in the distance to the right of the highway. This is not snow at all, but rather your introduction to the renowned white Italian marble. Detour to visit some of the marble quarries. Exit the highway at Carrara and take the winding drive up into the hills to the ancient village of Colonnata-famous through the ages for its marvelous white marble. As you wander this tiny town you’re following the footsteps of Michelangelo, who used to come to here to choose huge blocks of marble from which to carve his masterpieces.
Take the small road from Carrara west to join the A12 and continue north for an entirely different kind of experience-exploring the lovely, remote coast called Cinque Terre.
This area is quickly becoming linked with civilization, so do not tarry if you love the thrill of discovering old fishing villages hardly touched by time. En route you come to an exit to La Spezia, a large seaport and navy town. If you want to take a detour, go to La Spezia and from there take the short drive to the tip of the peninsula south of town to visit the old fishing village of Portovenere which clings to the steep rocks rising from the sea. This was one of Lord Byron’s haunts when he lived across the bay at San Terenzo. After Portovenere, return to the A12 and continue north.
Along the Cinque Terre there used to be five completely isolated fishing villages dotted along the coast between La Spezia to the south and Levanto to the north. First, only a footpath connected these hamlets, then a train was installed, and now civilization is encroaching, with a road under construction, which will open them up to greater commercialism. Three of these little villages, (Riomaggiore, Monterosso and Manarola) are already accessible by road. Still completely cut off from car traffic are the colorful fishing hamlets of Vernazza and Corniglia.
If you want to spend the night in one of the villages along the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare offers the best selection of accommodations. To reach the town of Monterosso al Mare, exit the A12 at Carrodano and follow signs to Levanto. From Levanto take the road up the hill at the south end of town, signposted Monterosso al Mare. A massive rock formation jutting into the sea divides Monterosso al Mare into two distinct sections that are connected by a train tunnel. You can walk between the two parts of town, but you cannot drive. So if you leave your car in the public parking area, which is located in the “north” village, you will need to take a taxi to hotels located in the “south” village.
You do not need a car to enjoy the Cinque Terre: this is a region that lures those who love to hike and be out of doors. You can explore the villages by train, boat, or walking: the most fun is to combine all three. If you have the time, plan to spend several days here. If the weather is pleasant, hike the trail that traces the rocky coast and links the villages, stopping for lunch along the way (one of our favorite restaurants is the Pensione Cecio in Corniglia). After lunch, hop aboard one of the frequent trains (each of the towns has a train station and the schedules are clearly posted) or take one of the ferries (which only operate in the summer season) to return “home.” Let your mood and the weather dictate your explorations. Although this is a remote coast, be prepared that you will not be alone: the path along the Cinque Terre is popular and always busy-filled with the vacationers who have come to enjoy the natural beauty.
If you have time to see only one of the scenic towns, Vernazza, which clings perilously to a rocky headland above a tiny harbor, is the most picturesque. This colorful jewel has brightly painted fishermen’s houses, quaint restaurants, a harbor with small boats bobbing in the clear, turquoise water, and a maze of twisting narrow steps that lead up to the promontory overlooking the village.
Leaving Cinque Terre, continue north beside the coast. Stop in Sestri Levanti, one of the most picturesque coastal villages en route. Continue along the small coastal road that goes through Chiàvari and on to San Margherita where you take the small road south for the short drive to the picture-book village of Portofino. This last section of the road, especially in summer, is jammed with traffic, but the prize at the end is worth the trials endured to reach it. Portofino is by no means undiscovered, but is well deserving of its accolades-it is one of the most picturesque tiny harbors in the world.
Portofino is a national treasure-it truly is a jewel. Its tiny harbor is filled with glamorous yachts, small ferries, and colorful fishing boats. Enveloping the harbor are narrow fishermen’s cottages, poetically painted in warm tones of sienna, ochre, and pink and all sporting green shutters. Bright flower boxes accent the windows and the laundry flaps gaily in the breeze.
Vivid reflections of these quaint little houses shimmer in the emerald water. In the center of town is a small square, lined with restaurants, which faces the harbor. Forming a backdrop to the town are steep, heavily forested hills, which complete this idyllic scene.
When it is time to leave Portofino, return to the A12 highway and continue west for about 30 kilometers to Genova. As you go through the city, watch for the A7 going north to Milan. An interesting detour on the last leg of your journey is the Pavia Carthusian Monastery (Certosa di Pavia). Probably the simplest way to find it is to watch for the turnoff to Pavia (96 kilometers north of Genova): take the road east to Pavia and from there go north about 10 kilometers to the monastery. Lavishly built in the 15th century, this splendid monastery is claimed by some to be one of the finest buildings in Italy. (Check carefully the days and hours open-the monastery is usually closed on Mondays and for several hours midday.) The outside of the building is lavishly designed with colorful marble and intricate designs. Inside, the small cloisters are especially charming with 122 arches framed by beautiful terracotta moldings. It also has a baroque fountain and several small gardens. Next to the monastery you find the Palace of the Dukes of Milian, which is now a museum. After your tour of the monastery it is approximately 26 kilometers farther north to Milan.
The outskirts of Milan are not very inviting-you find frustrating traffic and modern commercial buildings. However, the heart of Milan has much to offer. Take time to see Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural, The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It is vital that you make an appointment in advance: from the USA call 011-39 (Europe, 00-39) 0289-421146; from within Italy, (199) 19 91 00. The unilingual Italian-speaking reservationists will make you an appointment and give you a confirmation number. Arrive at the church about 15 minutes before your appointment, confirmation number in hand, and pay cash for your ticket.
If you enjoy shopping (and Milan has some of the finest shops in Italy), pay a visit to the splendid Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, one of the prettiest shopping arcades in the world. Even if you are not a shopper, you should take time to browse. Located between Milan’s other two sightseeing stars, the Duomo and La Scala, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is the forerunner of the modern shopping mall, but with much more pizzazz. In this Victorian-era fantasy there are two main, intersecting wings, both completely domed with intricately patterned glass. Along the pedestrian-only arcades you find many boutiques and colorful restaurants with outside tables.
After a stroll through the arcade, you emerge into an imposing square dominated by the truly spectacular Duomo, the third-largest cathedral in the world. Not only is the size impressive, but this sensational cathedral has a multicolored marble façade enhanced by over 100 slender spires piercing the sky. This spectacular cathedral faces onto an enormous square lined with cafés, office buildings, and shops. Stop to have a snack at one of the outdoor restaurants-you could sit for hours just watching the people go by.
Another site not to be missed is Milan’s opera house. Every opera buff knows about La Scala. Even if you have not been an opera enthusiast in the past, if you are going to be in Milan during the opera season (which usually runs from December to May), write ahead and try to get tickets. The theater is stunning and an experience not to be missed. When it is not opera season, there is usually some other performance or concert featured. If you haven’t purchased seats in advance, you can try to buy them on the day of the performance (the ticket office is located down a flight of stairs to the left of the opera house).