Italy bubbles with emotion, corruption, traffic jams, strikes, rallies, religious holidays, and crowds. Irate ranters will be shaking their fists at each other one minute and walking arm-in-arm the next. It's bella chaos, and if you're well-organized for sightseeing and up-to-date on your transit info, you'll love it. Here's the latest, gleaned from the research done for the 2018 edition of my Italy guidebook, to help you enjoy Europe's richest, craziest culture.
Rome, that magnificent, tangled urban forest, has been improving its tourist infrastructure and offerings. Two new sound-and-light shows in the Trajan's Forum area are an increasingly popular evening activity: the Caesar's Forum Stroll and the Forum of Augustus Show. Both shows help you imagine the world of the Caesars, as colorful images are projected on ancient walls, columns, and porticos while English narration brings the story to life. And Ara Com'era ("The Ara as it was") is a new 45-minute "virtual reality" show at Museo dell'Ara Pacis, which allows visitors to see what the Altar of Peace looked like in its day. The Pantheon, one of the city's best-preserved ancient monuments that is currently free to enter, will start charging an entry fee (about $2) in May.
I still strongly recommend getting the Roma Pass, which is now a single plastic card that covers both sightseeing and transportation. Rome's main train station, Termini, has good new dining options: the modern Mercato Centrale market hall and the bright and spacious Terrazza Termini food court.
It's now more worthwhile than ever to make the trip south, just beyond Naples, to Pompeii. The site's best-preserved home, the House of the Vettii, with its many surviving mosaics and frescoes, is finally reopened after a long closure.
As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is a priority on any Italian itinerary. However, sightseers must deal, as always, with constant changes to the city's sightseeing ticketing and entry schemes.
For instance, travelers who want to view the Uffizi Gallery's amazing collection of Italian paintings will pay a significant price increase this year. Peak-season ticket prices (March through October) are up more than 50 percent to about $25; tickets drop to $15 in the winter. Seasonal pricing is also being introduced at the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. And for the first time, avid sightseers can buy a combination ticket covering all of these sights. This three-day ticket gives travelers one-time priority entry to all three sights, and will cost about $45 in peak season (half that in winter).
For the past couple of years, reservations have been required to climb the Florence Duomo's famous dome. The sight is extremely popular, and time slots can book up many days in advance. If climbing the dome is a must for you, book online in advance of your arrival (if you wait until you arrive in town, it may be too late).
Visiting nearby Pisa is better organized and easier than ever with the opening of the new "Pisa Mover" train, which connects Pisa's airport and its train station in five minutes. Pisa's main tourist information office has moved to a convenient spot at the Field of Miracles, next to the Duomo's ticket office.
Visitors to San Gimignano, Italy's most overrated hill town, may be interested in a new option: gelato-making classes, offered by Sergio of Gelateria Dondoli in his kitchen down the street from his shop. Charismatic Sergio was a member of the Italian team that won the official Gelato World Cup — and his gelato really is a cut above.
Urban improvements are underway in bustling northern Italy. Arriving by train in Milan is now much more convenient, now that high-speed Italo trains stop at Milano Centrale (instead of at the less central Porta Garibaldi station). In Venice, a new shopping hotspot has opened amidst all the elegant decay. Located near the Rialto Bridge, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi luxury shopping mall has great rooftop views of Europe's most enchanting city.
Cruise ships are now stopping in the port of La Spezia for their excursions to Florence. And, as alighting in La Spezia puts them so close to the popular Cinque Terre region, thousands of cruisers are opting for excursions into this most spectacular stretch of the Italian Riviera. Consequently, the Cinque Terre is experiencing more congestion than ever. The hordes converge on its five tiny ports for the lovely hikes through the national park that connect them. While segments of the regional hike are invariably closed because of frequent washouts and landslides, there are always plenty of open hiking trails in the nearby hills.
It's always smart to be on guard against thieves in any place with tourist crowds (in Italy and beyond), but now that the Cinque Terre's train stations are so often overcrowded, it's especially smart to protect yourself against fast-fingered pickpockets targeting foreign visitors there.
Italy continues to be as exquisite — and exasperating — as ever. While it may seem as orderly as spilled spaghetti, the country actually functions quite well. If you have a positive attitude, equip yourself with good information, and expect to travel smart, you will. Buon viaggio!