NORTHERN ITALY: TRAVEL GUIDE AND ITINERARY
Everything seems so crazy right now and as the 'new world' of travel slowly emerges, it feels pretty daunting to be going head first into a COVID filled world full of quarantines, temperature checks and negative testing. As someone who travels a lot, I was nervous to embark on this trip, all the information online was confusing and I hadn't seen anyone else even attempt to leave the country, let alone embark on a backpacking trip.
Planning out my destinations was the first struggle. With rules and regulations constantly changing every few days, my itinerary seemed to become irrelevant pretty quickly. The original plan was to fly to Spain and travel down from Barcelona, but as the new cases were reaching record highs and with the mandatory 14 day quarantine introduced for people flying back to the UK, it was no longer a viable option for my August getaway.
Thankfully it was easy enough to get flight credit for my original £85 British Airways flight from London to Barcelona and reroute to Bologna, Italy. I hadn't planned on returning to Italy any time soon after my trip last August travelling through Tuscany, Amalfi and Rome (which you can read about here), however the country's new COVID cases were consistently low and it seemed a low risk option for travelling, plus it seemed like the perfect opportunity to venture to the northern part of the country, something that I had wanted to explore.
My flight departed from London Heathrow, and I was completely in shock to see queues out the door for check in. The packed airport intimidated me and I figured everyone had a very similar idea as me, to get away for the little bit of summer we had left. I arrived 2 hours in advance to my 8am flight only to have to wait outside to first be let in to the terminal (they were only letting people in who had their flight in less than 2 hours from the current time), then once I was inside I was greeted with another massive line for check in. By 7:30 I had pretty much come to terms that I would miss my flight, as I was still no where close to checking in. I managed to get ahold of one of the very limited staff on the floor, saying I had my flight in 30 minutes, he confirmed that I would have to be rebooked onto a flight later that day, at 3pm.
After that whole ordeal it was pretty straight forward for me to get through security and to a Whetherspoons, which is where I sat for the following 6 hours. I was given a self declaration form to fill out once I checked in, had my temperature checked throughout the airport and wore a mask the entire journey and throughout the airport. Once arriving into Bologna there wasn't much more in terms of COVID checking, so leaving the airport was easy.
9 - 12 DAYS
BOLOGNA (2 NIGHTS)
One of Italy's food capitals, a historic gem hidden in the heart of the country.
FLORENCE (2 NIGHTS)
Place yourself in a romantic novel and wander the streets of Florence, there is so much to do and see in the city.
LAKE COMO (2 - 4 NIGHTS)
Fall in love with the mountains, Como's sparkling blue water and the immaculate feeling of being at one of Italy's most renowned lakes.
TURIN (1 - 2 NIGHTS)
A short stop off in Turin never hurt. With views of the Alps and a very chic city feeling, Turino holds a very special charm.
VENICE (2 NIGHTS)
The city doused in love. Get lost in the hundreds of tiny alleyways, sit by the canal and watch gondolas glide by, fall in love with Venice.
Your daily budget in Italy depends on where you are in the country, typically bigger cities are going to cost a lot more than 'local' regions. I also personally find that my budget depends on what you're doing and where you are eating. Italy spoils you for choice when it comes to eating out, so it truly depends on whether you want to opt for a €5 panini or a €25 sit down meal, however there's no need to worry because you'll find something delicious no matter what your budget! Venice and Florence were the most expensive spots during my time on this trip and I averaged spending between €40 - €70 a day, while Bologna, Lake Como and Turin was more in the €25 - €50 range.
I would recommend budgeting a little more if you're a foodie like me, as I often found myself stopping off throughout the day to try little food spots I stumbled upon during my time wandering the cities and towns!
HOW TO GET FROM THE AIRPORT
My trip started in Bologna and ended in Venice, so for those flying into Bologna here is the best way to get from the airport!
Bologna airport is an easy option to travel to and from, located around 15 minutes outside of the main town you can either opt to get a taxi or bus, however I would recommend the latter as taxi drivers inflate the prices if they spot you're a tourist (which would be pretty easy if you're lugging around a big backpack). I ended up getting a taxi as I was running late to meet a friend (I'll explain later in the post), so my 15 minute journey cost me €18, which is definitely too much! The buses run very frequently outside the terminal and the journey takes around 30 - 40 minutes to get into the city centre, however you're only paying a couple of euros so it's a much better option.
While I was in Italy I chose to get trains to travel between cities, as they were cheap and efficient (most of them were also clean with air conditioning and some even had wifi). Italy's train system is among the best in Europe for domestic travel, making it incredibly easy to get from city to city, and even to the smaller towns/regions. I booked my train tickets in advance with Trainline, a website that works for most European countries. Typically I would book the train ticket the night before/the day of to save the hassle of trying to find a ticket machine when I got to the station, it also meant I could plan out my trip better and save a little extra money (booking in advance is always recommended so you can find the cheapest prices for trains throughout the day).
It's important to note there are 2 main train companies that run in Italy, Trenitalia and Italiarail. Both of them have red logos with green and white accents, which I found quite confusing, so in the event that you need to book a ticket at the station or collect a ticket from the ticket machine, make sure you're looking for the right company!
For those looking at alternative options the cheapest way to travel would be by bus, I would recommend Flixbus, or you could opt to rent a car if you were travelling in a small group. Typically car rentals range from €30 - €50 a day depending on the time of year (peak season would be more expensive), how old you are (people under 23 typically pay more for insurance) and how long you are looking at renting a car for. This is a great option for people who want to explore the more rural parts of the country. I did this with a friend when I travelled through Tuscany last summer and it was great! However, if you're hoping to just see the major cities, buses or trains are a great way to travel around without costing too much!
Fountain of Neptune
My first stop on the trip was Bologna, known as one of Italy's food capitals and the home to the invention of bolognese. I hadn't heard much about Bologna, other than the fact it was small and holds a lot of character. My rebooked 3pm flight finally arrived into Bologna at 6pm after a long day of waiting at Heathrow. As soon as I landed I was called by my friend Bhav saying that he was staying in a small town called Cesena, which was around an hour away from Bologna. Bhav invited me to meet up for dinner that night with him and his friends that evening. I quickly agreed and rushed out of the airport, jumped in a taxi (hence the €18 fare), got to the hostel for 6:30pm, and by 7:30 was on a train to Cesena.
Cesena was a quaint little town drenched in orange and felt very classically 'Italian'. I spent the night there at my friends' Airbnb, which was located right in the heart of the town. I didn't have a lot of time to explore before heading back to Bologna at lunchtime the next day, however for those driving through the north of Italy, it is a lovely stop off.
I can recommend two great places to eat while you're in the area, the first was where we had a big 'family' style dinner, at a restaurant called Dai Galletti. It's around 40 minutes away from Cesena in a nearby town called Santarcangelo di Romagna. We drove there in a hire car Bhav and his friends were hiring for the week and parked around 10 minutes away from the restaurant as the streets were hard to park in. We waited a few minutes before being picked up by the restaurant's bright yellow golf cart with a cut out of a rooster on the top and escorted up the hill to Dai Galletti. The food was indescribable. Very traditionally Italian, with a variety of meats, cheeses, breads to start then we all opted for different freshly made pasta dishes to share. I can easily say it's one of the best meals I've ever eaten!
The second spot was for lunch the next day before my train back to Bologna. Bhav and I spent what seemed like ages trying to find somewhere before finally settling on a little place called Vineria del Popolo, which was located right in the main square of Cesena. It had a really lovely range of fresh food options, a lot of which were vegan/veggie. All the produce was sourced locally and it was just lovely to spend some time there!
Food from Vineria del Popolo
Food from Dai Galletti
WHERE TO STAY IN BOLOGNA
During my time in Bologna I stayed at Dopa Hostel. From the outside the hostel doesn't look like much and I did find it quite difficult to spot, however once inside Dopa was small but very homely, completed with a little common area and kitchen for you to sit and socialise in. The bunk beds were made out of chipboard material, which I hadn't seen before, but each bed was very secluded with a curtain, your own powerpoint and light as well as a locker for your things!
After returning to Bologna from Cesena I spent my time wandering through the narrow streets and exploring the small city centre. Bologna's architecture felt a lot older than other areas of the country I have been to, with every street seeming to lead back to Piazza Maggiore, the main town square which was where a lot of locals seemed to be sitting and socialising.
WHAT TO DO IN BOLOGNA
PIAZZA MAGGIORE AND BASILICA SAN PETRONIO
Right in the heart of the city is Piazza Maggiore, the main square of Bologna. It is home to Basilica San Petronio and a short walk away from fountain of Neptune. Bologna's Basilica is dedicated to the saint of the city, Saint Petronius and takes up most of the square. During the day people sit on the steps and hang out, then during the night they play movies on a big projector in the middle of the square (I assume they only do this for part of the year/summer).
FOUNTAIN OF NEPTUNE
Built in 1564, the Fountain of Neptune was given by Pope Pius IV to the city of Bologna as their first public fountain. Sitting in Piazza del Nettuno, right next to Piazza Maggiore, this fountain is a symbol of the city. Don't forget to take a photo with the mermaids around the base of the fountain!
EAT GELATO FROM LA SORBETTERIA CASTIGLIONE
You can't visit one of Italy's food capitals and not indulge in some traditionallmy made, delectable, delicious gelato. And while there are probably dozens of amazing spots to try all the flavours under the sun, I went to La Sorbetteria Castiglione. Located a little out of the city centre this spot had an amazing range of flavours, including a good range of non dairy options. It was so good there was even a line out of the door to order!
Florence wasn't on my original itinerary that I had (briefly) thought out before my trip, however while I was in Bologna my Mum called me and spoke so highly of the city that I felt as if I couldn't miss the opportunity to visit while I was in the region. My train from Bologna to Florence cost €9 and took just over an hour with a change over, but you can also opt for the direct fast train that takes 40 minutes, however it costs a little more (when I looked it was around €25). I arrived in Florence mid afternoon and walked over to PLUS hostel, my accomodation for the next few days, which was around 15 minutes away from Santa Maria Novella train station.
I spent 2 nights in Florence, however would have loved to spend an extra night if I had the time. The city itself is deceptively larger than what it looks like on maps and I ended up walking around 20km during both of my days in the city. Florence is incredibly whimsical and romantic and I found a lot of enjoyment just wandering through the streets and stopping off at different spots along the way.
WHERE TO STAY IN FLORENCE
While looking for a hostel in Florence I couldn't see any that I was completely in love with, then I spotted PLUS. PLUS is a hostel chain that runs in Europe with a few sites such as Prague, Berlin and of course Florence. What really enticed me to stay here is the incredible view on their rooftop terrace, from there you can spot the whole of Florence, including Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the treasure of the city. The hostel had heaps of amenities such as an indoor and outdoor pool, a gym and a few common areas. I paid €19.80 a night for a 4 bed dorm, however they have cheaper options in larger dorms.
WHAT TO DO IN FLORENCE
CATHEDRAL OF SANTA MARIA DEL FIORE
The heart of Florence is its grand cathedral that can be spotted across the city. Located in Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral is its own work of art that can be admired from the outside as well as the inside. Tickets cost around €20 to enter, with the option to climb up Giotto's Bell Tower, which provides unbelievable views of the city.
The oldest bridge in Florence is Ponte Vecchio, which dates back to the 11th century. Built up of a collection of oddly assembled yellow and orange houses on each side, the bridge has been turned into a market place where you can shop for little trinkets and souvenirs.
Sunset is always the best time of day and to watch the whole of Florence light up in shades of orange and pink is beyond heavenly. Piazzale Michelangelo is a lookout located in the Oltrarno district of the city. From Duomo the walk is around 30 minutes up hill, so make sure you get there well before sunset so you can get a good spot and bring some water because the steps at the top have a decent incline!
SAN MINIATO AL MONTE
Sat at the top of one of the highest points of the city is San Miniato al Monte, one of Florence's Basilica's. It has been described as one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany as well as one of the most scenic churches in the country. From the church you can get a full panoramic view of Florence, which is especially beautiful in the afternoon light. The church officially closes at 7pm but they close the gates slightly earlier so people can't enter after around 6/6:30pm.
Sunset views from Piazzale Michelangelo
Sunset views from Piazzale Michelangelo
WHERE TO EAT IN FLORENCE
Florence was unbelievable for foodies, there were so many options around each corner and I could of easily sat and devoured 7 meals a day if I had the chance, here are some of the places I ate at while I was in the city!
ESTIVAL DEL GELATO
Another great gelato shop is Festival del Gelato, which is right near Duomo. It’s a little more touristy but offers a great variety of flavours, with a whole section of non dairy/vegan options.
IL GELATO DI FILO
This is by far one of the best gelato spots from the whole trip. Located right near Piazzo Michealangelo, this little hole in the wall shop is as authentic as they come. I went for peach and dark chocolate and could have definitely gone for seconds… and thirds.
This little bakery was located on my walk between Florence centre to PLUS hostel, however I only discovered it on my last day in the city before heading to the train station. It has everything you would expect in a bakery, but everything seemed to be so much more fresh and tasty - it’s also incredibly cheap!
FORNO GASTRONOMIA SOPR’ARNO
I found this spot after a morning photoshoot. Located over the river towards Piazzale Michelangelo and very close to Ponte Vecchio, I was instantly gravitated by the big 'vegan panini' sign out the front of the shop, and needless to say I was not disappointed. With leafy greens, olive tapenade, grilled veggies and fresh, crunchy bread, I was close to going back for seconds!
Right in the heart of Duomo is Mister Pizza, a place where my favourite app Happy Cow (perfect for finding veggie and vegan eats) lead me to. The pizza's were unbelievably fresh with fluffy dough and they even had vegan cheese! For a pizza right next to Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore it only cost around €6 - €7!
Train snacks from Vecchio Forno
Panini from Forno Gastronomia Sopr'arno
Pizza from Mister Pizza
San Miniato al Monte
Lake Como was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit northern Italy. It's quaint little towns and mountainous surroundings seemed so perfect, and I can confirm, it was amazing. The train from Florence to Como took around 3 and a half hours all up, with an hour change over in Milan.
Lake Como was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit northern Italy. Its quaint little towns and mountainous surroundings seemed so perfect, and I can confirm, it was amazing. The train from Florence to Como took around 3 and a half hours all up, with an hour change over in Milan. During my time here I stayed in Como, a small town on the southern tip of the lake. There are dozens upon dozens of towns for you to choose from, however most of them tend to be relatively expensive, lavish hotels (a lot of celebrities holiday at Lake Como). I stayed at Ostello Bello hostel, which was around a 5 minute walk from the train station and 5 minutes away from the lake.
WHERE TO STAY IN LAKE COMO
During my time at Lake Como I stayed at Ostello Bello hostel, a hostel chain that has several locations throughout Italy and Myanmar. Firstly, it was in a perfect location, 5 minutes from the train station, 5 minutes from the lakeside and a 30 second walk to the super market. I really enjoyed my stay here, partly because there was a great group of people to hang out with, but there was also a large courtyard in the front, a garden in the back and my room had the most gorgeous view of the mountains. The bunks were three tiered so getting up to my bunk on the top was a bit of a mission but it was an adventure all the same! I spent 4 nights at Ostello Bello and paid between €17 - €20 a night (it was more expensive over the weekend).
Views from the fast ferry Como - Bellagio
WHAT TO DO IN LAKE COMO
Bellagio is one of Lake Como's most famous towns, famous for its colourful buildings and stunning lakeside views. From Como you can either opt for the bus or ferry to Bellagio. The bus takes just under an hour and costs around €4 one way (make sure you buy your tickets before you get on the bus). The alternative option is to get the ferry, there are several fast/slow ferry options that run throughout the day for you to choose from. The slow ferry takes between 2 and 3 hours and costs around €8.30 whereas the fast ferry takes around 45 minutes to an hour and will cost you €14.80 one way. When I visited I opted for the fast ferry, however there is a lot to see along the waterside so taking the slow ferry would be a nice alternative if you had some time to enjoy the views.
Bellagio is a small town with small cobbled lanes and elegant buildings, a true representation of what Lake Como represents. Once hopping off the ferry there are only a few streets to wander down and explore as the town itself is fairly small (this means the streets can get quite packed with tourists). An afternoon is more than enough time to walk around and explore the quaint streets, and if you have a little extra time stop off at Cava Turacciolo Enoteca Wine Bar for some local wine.
CAVA TURACCIOLO ENOTECA WINE BAR
I love wine regardless of where it's from, but there is something very special about Italian wine, and drinking Italian wine down a little alley in Bellagio... well, that's something special. Cava Turacciolo Enoteco was just a little spot I stumbled upon but couldn't resist stopping off at. We tried the local pinot grigio, with each glass costing €5, and the lady even brought us a free plate of bread and prosciutto, which I couldn't eat but my friend happily tucked in!
Volta's Lighthouse sits above Como town and overlooks a wide stretch of Lake Como. To reach the top you can either walk directly from the town or get a tram partway up the side of the mountain and climb the rest of the way. No one had really prepared me or warned me for how intense and steep the walk to the top was actually going to be, and in classic Courtney style, I was wearing incredibly inappropriate shoes for walking. Once you reach the top where Volta's Lighthouse is you'll be greeted by views of the mountains and of course, the lake. Unfortunately for us our sunset was pretty hazy, so we couldn't't see a lot, however on a clear day you can see over to Switzerland!
Sunset views from Volta's lighthouse
LIDO VILLA OLMO
In Como town there isn’t really any ‘free designated’ places for you to swim in the lake, unless you walk 30+ minutes outside of the town, however there is Lido Villa Olmo, a public recreation centre that offers an outside bar, pools, grass or lounge chairs for you to sit on and access to the lake. Throughout the day it costs €9 to enter and after 3:30pm it’s €6. I visited two afternoons during my time in Como and it's a great way to relax, or if you bring some friends it’s a great place to socialise.
Gelato from Gelateria Guidi
Takeaway pasta from L'ora della Pasta
WHERE TO EAT IN COMO
L'ORA DELLA PASTA
After a friend raved over L’ora della Pasta, there was no way I could pass up on trying some of this magical takeaway. Located on 33 Via Lambertenghi, you have the option to choose what type of pasta, sauce and extras you want for under €7. The pasta is as fresh you could imagine and it’s a great option to grab and eat by the lake.
Again, you can't go to Italy without indulging on gelato after every meal. Gelateria Guidi is one of the best spots in Como town, with a great range of flavours! I opted for raspberry and coconut and was definitely not disappointed.
I barely had a chance to properly explore Turin during my 18 hours in the city. I arrived late afternoon before quickly getting ready and heading out to dinner with a couple of friends, however I got a chance to wander the streets the next morning and I was disappointed I didn't have more time to explore. With a very chic almost 'Parisian' feel and the Alps surrounding the outskirts of the city, it doesn't really feel like Italy.
Venice is one of Italy’s treasures and is a spot most people don’t miss during their Italian travels. I have been to Venice plenty of times before and although I do feel it’s unique magic, I personally prefer a lot of other cities and areas in Italy (Tuscany. Lake Como and Florence to name a few). Nevertheless it a vital spot to tick off the bucket list and if I'm being honest, I always get a little giddy to see the canals, gondolas and gelato shops on every corner.
The train from Lake Como to Venice took over 5 hours, with 3 change overs along the way and costing me just under £50 (by far the most expensive train trip). By the time I got to Venice Mestre it was late afternoon, and my flight back to London was mid afternoon the next day, so I only had around 18 hours to explore before heading off to the airport.
Venice is a city that is designed for you to get lost. The area of Venice is made up of more than 100 small islands, none of which have roads (apart from Venice Mestre). Locals travel by Venice's iconic canals, which are typically packed with tourists riding down on gondolas. As you wander around you'll notice the main streets lined with Renaissance and Gothic architecture. then, as you venture further into the maze of streets you'll find Venice's tiny alleyways leading to bridges, leading to squares, back into little alleys and so on, so don’t be scared to wander through the streets and discover the secret little back lanes, because that's part of the cities charm.
WHERE TO STAY IN VENICE
For my night in Venice I booked to stay at ANDA hostel, right near Venice Mestre train station. ANDA isn’t located on the island of Venice, and you’ll find that most of the accommodation in the heart of Venice is at least €40 a night, compared to the £13 I paid for a 6 bed dorm. I hadn’t heard of ANDA before but I was really pleased with the hostel and its facilities.
WHERE TO EAT IN VENICE
Much like any major cities there will be some spots that are designed for tourists, which are accompanied by tourist prices, so to save your budget a little more try venturing out of the 'hot spots' like the main canal and try and find a little back alley restaurant to dine at!
GELATO DI NATURA
Yet another gelato shop to absolutely drool over. There are a few gelato di Natura's spotted around Venice, all with delicious flavours for you to try, I personally went for peach and the vegan vanilla.
BELLA & BRAVA
I stumbled across Bella & Brava while walking around trying to find a spot for dinner. They offer a vegan pizza with vegan cheese, which was absolutely divine! I was also a big fan of their octagon shaped boxes.