At the beginning of October Walter and I traveled with my parents and my brother Pat to Italy! My mom is almost 100% Italian and had never been so we thought it would be a fun trip to take all together! We flew into Rome, spent a few days and then travelled by train to Florence and Venice – a typical American tour of Italy 🙂
When we were planning our trip we reached out to one of our friends who actually lived in Italy for a number of years and she recommended that we look into City Wonders for the various tours we wanted to take. As it turned out, they offered pretty much everything we wanted and seemed to be high caliber tours, so we ended up booking 5 of the 6 tours we took while in Italy with them! (The other was this Florence Food Tour which I also definitely recommend)
City Wonders is an Italy based tour company that runs multiple tours in all the big Italian cities and have also expanded to London and Paris. They offer primarily english-speaking tours that focus on the experience. All of their tours are small group where they don’t allow more than 25 people. And on tours to crowded attractions you are able to skip the long lines and they provide a headset for you to hear the commentary of their exceptional guides!
I wanted to share my thoughts on the tours in case you are planning a trip of your own to Italy!
When we were planing the trip Rome, and specifically this tour was what I was least looking forward to… it seemed very “academic” to me, but you of course can’t go to Rome and not see the Vatican and the Coliseum. I was so pleasantly surprised by both of the tours and the city of Rome — Rome is a bigger city, but I didn’t feel that way at all, it is beautiful and walkable and has such amazing, deep historical roots.
The day that we did the combo tour we started off at the Vatican. We were matched up with our guide, given a headset and went straight into the Vatican museum. Our guide was very knowledgable and although it was crowded inside the museum because of the headset we were able to get the most out of it. With our guide in our ears explaining the history of everything around, you barely even notice the crowds!
We made our way through the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica in about 3 hours. For some this may seem rushed, but we had visited St. Peter’s the day before for mass and the guide leaves you there to explore more on your own if you choose.
We then had a 3 hour break to eat lunch and make our way to the Coliseum. Note — you can break up these tours, they are offered separately on different days or together as a combo in one day. It is a lot to see and a lot of information which can make for a long day, so if you have the time you could consider splitting them up!
At the Coliseum we were met by our guide, probably our favorite of the whole trip, Big Mama G, (a self-proclaimed title) who was very entertaining as you can probably imagine. But, she was also our most educational guide, with her story telling and emotion coupled with the impressiveness of the Coliseum you could feel the history come alive! We ended the tour on Palatine Hill, an added bonus for the views and history.
From Rome we took a day trip to the Amalfi Coast. The tour actually leaves from Naples, but City Wonders has linked the tour to Rome as well and added a high speed train. We were met by City Wonder’s guides at the Rome train station early in the morning, they gave us our tickets and a small group of us took the train from Rome to Naples (about 1.5 hours) to meet up with the rest of the group and our guide for the day. From there we took a bus to a Limoncello Factory for a quick pit-stop and mid-morning limoncello tasting. Then we continued on a winding, but beautiful route to our first stop in Positano. Positano (pictured above) is a picturesque, right-out of a postcard, small, beach town. It was once a fishing village and is now a tourist and beach destination. We enjoyed a few hours exploring the little town and taking in it’s beauty.
Next, we hopped back on the bus and headed to Amalfi. Amalfi is a little larger than Positano and not quite as beautiful. However, we took a quick boat tour around Amalfi and the surrounding towns which gave you an awesome perspective on the beautiful coast line. Pat even got to play captain!
From Amalfi we took the bus on another windy route to a mozzarella factory and then back to the train station to catch our train back to Rome. Personally, I would have rather skipped the mozzarella factory and had more time in Positano and Amalfi. Other than that, it was an awesome tour. It’s pretty amazing that we were able to visit both Positano and Amalfi in 1 day all the way from Rome!
Warning; If you do get car sick, this trip may not be for you, the bus takes a pretty rough route.
Walter and I selected this tour as a date night during the trip. Unfortunately, it did not impress like the rest of the tours. We were taken by car to the only vineyard in the city of Florence. We, again, had a great guide who talked all about the vineyard and wine production in Italy in general. This would have been great, however the vineyard was very small to begin with and due to the drought in Italy this past summer (which we didn’t even know about until we go to the vineyard) the vineyard barely produced any wine and the harvest and production that they did do was over at that point in the season. I know that this was out of City Wonder’s control, however I don’t think they should have continued running this tour once the harvest was over.
The wine (from previous years harvests) and dinner were both delicious, but for what this tour cost it did not live up to our expectations. I don’t want to completely discourage anyone from taking this tour because if the circumstances had been different (ie. it was mid-summer and they had had a great wine harvest year) it would have been a much better experience. One thing we did learn was never to buy 2017 vintage Italian wine 😉
Our day trip from Florence took us to the beautiful Portovenere and Cinque Terre. We took a bus from Florence to La Spezia where we picked up a ferry boat that took us to Portovenere. We had free time in Portovenere to have a late breakfast, cappuccino and explore the town. Portovenere is famous for it’s views from the ruins of Doria Castle that offer breathtaking views of crashing waves.
We then boarded another ferry that took us by all 5 of the towns that make up Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is a string of 5 towns connected by train, built into the coast line of the Italian Riviera. From the ferry we were able to see each of the town’s colorful buildings and beaches. The ferry dropped us in the last of the 5 towns, Monterosso, where we were able to have lunch, dip our feet in the ocean and do some window shopping before boarding the train to Vernazza, the next town over. Vernazza was my favorite, it has just 1 main road leading from the train station down to the ocean harbor area. Many boats were docked there and lots of people were sitting out on the rocks enjoying a glass of wine or cup of gelato on the sunny October day.
Our last stop was supposed to be Riomaggiore, but due to train delays we were not able to spend time there. Overall, it was a great tour, but really only gave a small taste of Cinque Terre. We would love to go back some day and spend a few days relaxing and taking in all of it’s beauty.
Our final tour was a half-day trip when we were in Venice to the islands of Murano and Burano. (Note – Venice was my favorite city we visited out of the 3 – definitely going back someday 🙂 ) Right after lunch we boarded a private boat which took us to each of the islands. Our guide told us all about the 2 islands on our trip over so that once we got to each place the time was mostly spent exploring on our own.
Murano is known for it’s glassblowing factory. Pictured above is an artist working on a vase. It is amazing how they are able to manipulate the glass at such a high temperature and create masterpieces. Connected to the factory was a shop that sold their works, at very high prices, needless to say we didn’t make any purchases, but it was a cool craft to see!
Burano is known for it’s handmade lace, a dying art due to machines taking over and making similar quality lace in much less time. We did stop in the most famous lace shop and saw a short demo and some of the beautiful pieces they create. But the highlight of Burano was it’s colorful buildings – it’s like a mini, more colorful Venice with the canals running through the streets of vibrantly colored buildings.
All in all we had great experiences on our tours with City Wonders and would definitely recommend them if you are looking to book tours in Italy!
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