Ah Italy. A country full of History, Art, Good Food, Good Drink and friendly people. It is some what of a dichotomy at times but this is one country in Europe you need to see. Personally I found the smaller cities of Florence and Sienna to be more a delight than the big city of Rome but Rome is something you need to see at least once and for no less than five days.
The first time visitor to Rome may remark that the city is dirty since it is so full of Graffiti but one must note that there are thousands of years of history here. Parts of Rome do need a good cleaning up but so is the case wtth most large cities.
You will also immediately notice the driving in Rome as the main mode of transportation is the Vespa scooter or a small car like the smart car. These vehicles whip in and out of traffic and one can see why people fret driving in Rome (though Paris is worse.)
History abounds in Rome as you simply cannot see it all in one day unless you take the HOHO bus (Hop On, Hop Off) for 25 euros. If you arrival early as we did and are waiting on your hotel to be ready, this bus is an excellent way to see Rome on the quick as you can either stay on the bus or get off where you want. You may wish to visit a Tobacco shop or visitor bureau and pick up a Roma Pass which givs you discounted bus rides for 3 days and entrance into your first two sites in Rome free. (Everything is discounted after that). The Roma pass cost 25 Euros in November of 2010.
One needs at least 5 days or more to really see Rome and even then you do not see all of it as there simply is just too much to see. Everywhere you look in Rome, there is something to see, a building, a church, a fountain or something else. Rome challenges the senses.
As for food, Rome has over 1000 restaurants so do your due diligence and pick your choices either before you come or when you arrive. Do stay away from the restaurants that are closest to the tourist sites as they tend to be pricey and have average food at best. By going a block or two away from a tourist site, you may find yourself a little Italian gem as they are everywhere. (BTW There really is no Italian Food but rather food from the regions such as Roman dishes). We wound up going to a real authentic locals place named Dino & Toni's in Rome and while they spoke no English, we were told how to say a few things in Italian and one of them was Feed Me Toni. The food and drink kept coming for 3 full hours and we got dishes of what everyone in the house was having. It was an amazing local experience and for sure we were the only people who were not locals in there. (This place has been visited by the Chef from the White House as his apron is signed and on the wall in a case). It isn't big on atmosphere but you experience a real local family run restaurant with outstanding food.
Wine is pretty much served with every meal and a glass of Vino De la casa will cost you less than a cola and is usually a good glass of wine. Tuscany which is the closest wine region, is simply amazing with flavorful Red wines and an occassional white. (Look for wines with DOCG on the label as those are Italy's best wines). Tours can be arranged from either Rome or Florence and are worth doing if you have the time.
Beyond Rome, Florence is a Gem of a city as it is less crowded and has world class art located here. This is a must see city and I would spend no less than 3 full days here. The Duomo (Church) in Florence is absolutely beautiful. Reservations are recommended to see the Ufizzi (Beautiful Art works of all type) and the Accademia (home of Michelangelo's David). Florence is the city of museums and if you love art and architecture, you will not be disappointed.
An easy day trip from Rome is one of my favorite cities, the medieval city of Sienna. The bus is the best way to get to Sienna from Florence because the train leaves you too far out of town in Sienna where as the bus brings you right outside the heart of Sienna though most of the city is in a no drive zone. When you arrive in Sienna, you will think you have returned to the Medieval times because the roads are narrow, the city surrounded by large walls and the roads are made of cobblestone. Without a doubt, Sienna has one of the most beautiful Duomo's in all of Italy. This is a city worth spending a day (and/or night) in. Sienna is located about 1/2 way between Florence and Rome.
We also tried to reach the Cinque Terra region of Italy but learned real quickly that this area is best seen in the Summer and it is not wise to visit when it is either cold or rainy. One might compare the Cinque Terra to the French Rivera on a smaller more quaint scale. Multiple trains are needed to reach the Cinque Terra. We wound up having to stop in Pisa due to time restraints as we could not get into the Cinque Terra and back out with ample time to see the various cities. The area also had mud slides while we were there but I would highly recommend seeing this area IF you have plenty of time.
Pisa is worth maybe a 1/2 of a day as everyone wants to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and that is the highlight of the city. Pisa is where many people switch trains to go on to the Cinque Terra. There is not a lot to Pisa but it is on the route to the cinque terra.
All in all, Italy is an amazing place. There are not enough adjectives to describe Italy. What ever you do, make sure you have plenty of time to spend in Italy and do not rush around as Italian keep different hours than we do here in the USA. Between all the shopping, sight seeing, eating and museums you are going to have a very full days. Do not crowd too many cities into your trip.
Next rrip we will take in Sicily, the Amalfi Coast and Vience. IWhile the high speed trains are great, Italy is simply bigger than it looks and unless you have 3 or more weeks, you simply cannot see most of it.
La Dolce Vita....Enjoy the good life in Italy.