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Tuscany and the Italian Lakes 2021 - General itinerary questions

First time posting so go easy on me. We're well experienced travelers but have never made it to Italy so why not a "post" covid trip in 2021. I know, I know, Covid. We purchased tickets a while ago in and out of Milan (SEA to LIN, 5/26 - 6/16) at a great price, fully changeable so we're not worried about having to push out if needed. Anything we book/reserve will be cancelable until we get more info on restrictions. We've read through many of the prior posts on the areas so we're not totally ignorant; just mostly ;-). I'm going to try to keep questions relatively specific and manageable. Thanks in advance for your help.

We're currently planning on spending the three weeks in the the lakes area and Tuscany; thinking roughly 7 days in the lakes and 14 in Tuscany. What we're trying to figure out first is the general outline of the trip (order, major stops, transportation, etc.). We enjoy the culture and energy of busy cities but are country dwellers at heart. We'd much rather stop in a nondescript bar/cafe than a 3 star Michelin restaurant but we do both. We love to poke around the back street and neighborhoods not frequented by the touring crowd and have been known to get lost in the countryside wondering what is over the next hill. So, we'd love some experienced opinions on a few high level planning ideas:

  • Order - is there any reason to do one area before the other?
  • Major stops - Our major city list is currently Milan (1 our 2 days on arrival or departure), Florence (2 days+-), Siena (2 days +-). We're planning on a good bit of time adventuring the countryside in Tuscany and planning on a couple of Agritourismo/B&B stops (a couple of days each) to adventure from. If this was your basic itinerary how would you allocate your days and nights?
  • Transportation - We're assuming a car to/from in the lakes area, train/bus from/to Milan to Florence to Siena, and then a car in the Tuscan countryside. We've used public transportation across the world so no concerns jumping on trains or busses. Reasonable/crazy/ what is a much better plan?

What are we missing? Once we have the basic outline we'll start to plan lodging and then major sites. First things first though, where in the heck will we go, for how long, and how do we get around?

Thanks all. Looking forward to sharing what we learn along the way as well.

Posted by
3 posts

Thanks onefastbob, we get it and yes we're willing to take some risks. We'll definitely try to make sure we don't get stuck with a voucher or the like. We all have to make choices on Covid and accept the risks even if our choices are to stay sheltered at home. We appreciate the warnings. Now, I see you've traveled in the area, any thoughts?

Posted by
77 posts

Hi,
If you get 50 responses, you might get 50 different opinions. But here's my two cents: I think two full nights in Milan (if not 3) are absolutely worth it. Tons of museums, the Duomo, Leonardo's "Last Supper (buy tix at least 30 days in advance)," the Castle Sforzesco, La Scala Opera house, the Naviglo district, the Leonardo Museum, a great Museum of 'Modern Art' filled with Italian Impressionists, and great, great, food.

Have you considered shooting over to Verona, which is about 1 hour 45 minute train ride from Milan? Great Roman ruins, including an arena/Colliseum that is 90 years older than the one in Rome? Great food and great wines, especially the Amarone and Valpolicella.

Either way, from Sienna I would absolutely travel by train to Lucca, which is an ancient, walled City that has beautiful architecture, churches, Puccini's home (there are 90 minute concerts of some of his works by local performers conducted nightly in some of the churches), and food and wine. From there, you can do a day trip via a one hour train ride to Pisa which has the Leaning Tower, several beautiful squares, and a great WW II museum. Walking along the Arno there at night is also beautiful.

If Lucca and Pisa aren't for you, your idea to rent a car is great. I would definitely stop in Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano. All have that "classic" Tuscan charm: small, walkable, hilltop towns filled with ancient buildings, architecture, churches and food. The parking inside each of the towns is difficult, but there are spots located just outside of them. You can certainly see each of these towns in a day, no more than two, but they're worth it.

Best of luck.

Posted by
2595 posts

The best food I had in Italy was at Agriturismo Marciano just outside Siena (and that is saying a lot!). Pre-COVID, at least, the agriturismo offered a 5-course dinner of epic proportions on some nights, with dishes purposefully paired with various organic wines produced on the farm. https://www.agriturismomarciano.it/

For the record... I like your travel enthusiasm. If your plan works, you will beat the crowds. If it doesn't, it sounds like you are planning smartly. Good luck! 🙂👍🏻

Posted by
6516 posts

We all have to make choices on Covid and accept the risks even if our choices are to stay sheltered at home.

???

Posted by
4601 posts

Tons of museums, the Duomo, Leonardo's "Last Supper (buy tix at least 30 days in advance)," the Castle Sforzesco, La Scala Opera house, the Naviglo district, the Leonardo Museum, a great Museum of 'Modern Art' filled with Italian Impressionists, and great, great, food.

I'm with John Adams; for some reason Milan tends to get short shrift on this Forum. We spent 4 days there a few years ago, and loved every minute. We would happily have stayed longer.

Posted by
18906 posts

I haven't been to see The Last Supper, but it's my impression tickets are very, very difficult to get and go on sale something like 3 months in advance. People have spoken here of setting their alarms for the middle of the night in order to try to get tickets when they first go on sale. If you want to buy tickets from the official source, VivaTicket (I think), you should figure out what the procedures are and mark your calendar for action on the right day. Otherwise, you're likely to be paying a lot more for a tour that includes a visit to The Last Supper.

Posted by
31 posts

Go ahead and plan, you know the risks. If you don't pay in advance and the reservations are cancellable, the voucher situation isn't an issue. We are going in June, fingers crossed.

We also have The Lakes and Milan on our docket. We were thinking of staying 5 days on the Lake and just day tripping into Milan. If not I am not thinking of splitting it 3/2 or 4/1. We fly out of Milan at the end. We are travelling with the kiddos, 13 and 9, and our travel style is more active. We went to Singapore and Bali last year before the crud hit and although I had scheduled rest days they grew bored.

Milan looks like it has so much to offer. Last Supper, Cathedral, Tram rides, San Siro tour, FOOD. I think it is worth 1.5 days for us. I guess I've just talked myself into the 3/2 option.

Anywhoo, let's hope those case numbers come down, we get our jabs, and Italy will welcome us soon!

Posted by
208 posts

We did visit Milan and Lake Como in May 2019 at the end of a trip that started in Lvov. We have visited other parts of North Italy before.

I would be concerned about having issues with your trip because of Covid. That doesn't mean I think your proposed trip is wrong. I think there is going to be a brief "sweet spot" for visiting Europe this summer, when Covid dies down but most people haven't geared up for travel; I hope you hit that. But as you indicate, you need to be prepared to be flexible.

The S.O. and I have a trip scheduled to South France and North Spain in September. (We had scheduled for September 2020, and then put everything off for exactly one year when it became clear Covid would preclude us from going). We are hopeful we will be able to go this year.

Given that you sound like you are flying into Milan, I would spend 4 nights there. We stayed in the Naviglo district, and that worked well for us. There is plenty to do in Milan for the time you would be spending there.

Do see the Last Supper. If you are buying tickets directly, you do need to go to the website, and figure out exactly what day and time tickets will be put on sale for the time you are there, and then be on the website ready to buy at exactly that time. They sell out almost immediately. As long as you put the attention into it, you can get tickets. We were very glad we visited it; definitely thought it was worthwhile.

Of course, if you have issues getting tickets yourself, you can always get them as part of tour.

You could consider getting tickets to La Scala. If you like opera, definitely see an opera. But they have classical music and other programs as well. It was interesting to compare La Scala to the opera house in Lvov, (saw Madame Butterfly on Lvov day), as La Scala set the standard for opera houses throughout the Austro Hungarian empire.

We enjoyed visiting the big department store next to the Duomo. Have a meal on the top floor, looking out towards the Duomo.

We also had a great meal the night before we flew home at a small restaurant in the Navigli district, at a place I think was mentioned in Rick's guidebook.

I would also spend 3-4 nights in Florence. See the Uffizi. Its the greatest art museum in the world bar none.

We visited Lake Como, staying in Varenna. Very nice place; based on your post you will like it a lot. We stayed at the Michaelangelo B & B. It had a rooftop outdoor eating area with a 210 degree view of the lake to die for. But it also had lots of stairs and small, inefficiently organized rooms.

I wouldn't stay in Lake Como on a trip like your planning for more than 3 nights or so.

Basically you can't go wrong in North Italy. There's only really good and even better.

Posted by
6611 posts

We have enjoyed Lakes Maggiore, Como and Garda. They are all beautiful but different. Lake Como has mountains coming right down to the lakefront. Lake Maggiore is very near MXP. The only lake we did not like was Lake Orta.
In Tuscany we have enjoyed all different areas but have a real fondness for the Chianti region. Siena is a great gateway. Look at Panzano, Radda and Castellina as bases. The historic SR 222, the Chiantigiana, connected Siena to Florence and still is the main route through Chianti.
We have a reservation in Italy for mid September, 100% refundable, not sure if we will go but it nice to have something positive on the calendar.

Posted by
1536 posts

I’m partial , but after living in Verbania on Lago Maggiore, highly recommend a week or so. Need to change my profile as we moved back to US 3 weeks ago, but here’s my two cents.

If you rent a car at Linate, I’d recommend staying in Verbania. Although you won’t need a car for much.. Stresa is much more touristy and filled with American tourists, and tends to be more expensive. Here’s a list of things to do for more than a week. If you decide on Verbania, I can provide list of great restaurants.
1) by ferry, Isola Madre and Isola Bella.

2) by Ferry, to Santa Catarina Monastary, Angera Fortress
3) by ferry- late afternoon or evening sunset at the top of the bucket gondola in Restaurant on top for lunch, drinks more dinner, depending on time of year.
4) if you stay in Verbania (Pallanza or Suna), Hike to Cavondone. Take lunch and picnic at the historic church, walk by medieval tower.
5) ferry to/ from Ascona Switzerland. Depending on schedule you could stop in Cannobio.
6) if in verbania there is a pedestrian only path from Suna to Intra along the lake. Lots if interesting architecture, ruins, and refurbished villas. Villa Taranto Botanical gardens. Dog beach us across the road if you need a dog fix.
7) with car, Ghiffa has a Sacro Monte World Heritage site, 5 km north of Verbania
8) with Car, you could visit San Giulio do Orta for another, but more crowded Sacro Monte world heritage site
9) with car you could visit Domodossola. Market day in Saturdays. Also has a Sacro Monte World Heritage site.
10) if you want a taste of Switzerland, you could drive to Zurich, or drive to Domodossola , park at the train station and take train to Zurich for the day.
11) in Stresa, there is a tram to The top with great views (we preferred Laveno)
12) if you need a day to relax, Verbania Suna has a lakeside pool, public beach, and private beach with chaise lounge chairs to rent.
13) late afternoon lakeside aperitif, can’t beat the views.

As you plan happy to answer questions.

Posted by
25766 posts

You make that sound pretty appealing, Karen.

Posted by
6042 posts

If you are flying out of Milan I would spend my last two nights there. Don't miss the roof of the Cathedral -- an amazing wander. So I would fly into Rome and pick up a car and spend the first night on the outskirts of Rome -- we once stayed at a hotel for that first night right at the gates of Villa Adriana in Tivoli -- had jet lag day to wander around the evocative ruins, crashed like rocks for the night after a decent dinner at the hotel and slept about 10 hours and were good to head to Tuscany the next morning.

I would rent a cottage or apartment very near or in a small village. We once stayed about half a mile outside Lucignano and could walk into town to shop or get dinner and of course drive out to other sites in the area. We have also stayed two weeks in an apartment in Montepulciano which was a fantastic base for visiting the area. We particularly liked being in Montepulciano center because there are lots of restaurants, it is beautiful, and it was easy to drive out for day tripping. It is nice to be able to walk to dinner in the evening since the drink/drive laws are much stricter in Italy than the US; you really cannot drink and drive at all without running a huge risk.

Don't miss at least one of the Abbeys. Monte Oliveto Maggiore or St. Antimo. The drive to Monte Oliveto Maggiore takes you through some of the most iconic views. Here are some of them in fall. https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/patterns/
St. Antimo is famous for their monks chanting.

If you can visit la Foce garden -- it is only open a couple of days a week so be sure you know when that is -- and of course with the world in chaos, you need to double check anything. Here are some snapshots of the garden. https://janettravels.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/la-foce-in-the-heart-of-the-val-dorcia-2/ I doubt things will be open again in May; we had to cancel a trip last spring with your granddaughter and we doubt we will be able to re-schedule before Fall 21.

Posted by
75 posts

For lake Como take the train from Milano centrale up to Lecco and then on up to Varenna, then the ferry over to Bellagio, and/or Menaggio. Also, near Bellano (one town further up train line from Varenna) is an accommodation called the Villa Marina which is a lovely boutique style B and B directly on the Lake. Check them out online. You have to decide if splitting your 7 days between two lakes is worth the moving time to/from, or if Lake Como alone works. I hear Lake Garda is also gorgeous, but it’s further East and getting farther away from Tuscany.

Posted by
3 posts

First of all I really appreciate all of the help. This community board seems very engaged and willing to share personal experience instead of the typical banter. Thank you very much.

A follow up question on these topics. What is your experience with transportation in the Lakes country? I know we can take a train to Verona and then rent a car from there if needed. My assumption is that a car will make the Lakes country much easier to explore but I'd love some real experience. Thanks again guys.

Posted by
18906 posts

I've been to several of the Italian lakes and have always just used public transportation (trains, buses, lake boats) to get around. The views from boats on the lake may be better than the views from the roads, depending on how many trees there are between the road and the lake. A car might be helpful in getting to the occasional villa/garden that's not located in a town. Do you have any specific sightseeing plans like that?

Seven days is a good bit of time to spend in lake country. If you decide it's time for some variety of scenery and want to go somewhere in the surrounding countryside, a car could be quite helpful there. You wouldn't have to depend on making bus or train/bus connections, which might otherwise be necessary.

Posted by
25766 posts

Lake Como has a road around the outside, actually a collection of roads going past the lake in different directions, but the roads are not lakeside. You don't see the lake very much at all (I haven't been north of Varenna on the roads, when I was driving home we took the ferry across the lake) but the only use for the roads is to get around. You don't see the lakeside big houses either. You can get to the supermarket in Lecco.

Parking is difficult around Lake Como, and there are small, and with only small signs in keeping with the area, ZTLs patrolled by actual police, not cameras in many of the towns.

Parking is a very little bit easier on Lake Maggiore but parking at your hotel is better. No free parking that I saw.
The roads on both sides of that lake are close to the lake but not lakeview generally, and there is plenty of traffic. The roads east and south are toll roads which must be paid on line - there are no toll booths, just cameras.

I don't know Garda.

Boats on the lakes and the trains are the best for scenery.

Posted by
835 posts

My assumption is that a car will make the Lakes country much easier to explore but I'd love some real experience.

I'd say a car will make exploring much harder. The local transport, both on and off the water, is great. Your car will sit in a very expensive parking garage assuming you are lucky enough to get a parking spot.

Posted by
2169 posts

The problem is that the "Lakes Country" and "Lakes Area" do not exist, it's a marketing name invented by foreign travel writers to make things easier for first time foreign tourists. There isn't a one-fits-all (the lakes) approach: While it would make sense to drive Directly to the Lake Maggiore from Milan, the Lake Como is served by two separate rail lines.

As explained above, if you visited the Lake Como, A rental car would stay parked the all time because of the great ferry service and the lack of views from the road. On the other hand if you visited the Lake Maggiore, having a car would make sense to get there quickly and to make a day-trip to the Small Lake Orta.

More, if you stayed on the Lake Maggiore, MXP and Turin airports would be way closer than LIN. LIN(ate) is the best choice for the Lake Garda.

Please, note that any city/town/village named in this thread has a camera controlled ZTL where you won't be allowed to drive in. Milan being Milan, they have also a central congestion charge area.

Posted by
920 posts

Here's my 2 cents worth on the places we've been: Milan has a lot of offer, especially The Last Supper painting, Duomo and central city area. I would end my trip there with 3 nights/2 days. Lake Como is beautiful so I would take the train from Milan to Varenna and then take the ferry to Bellagio. I would spend two nights in each place (they're close together) and then also visit Menaggio (also close). I would spend 3 nights/2 days in Florence. Divertiti!

Posted by
6042 posts

We once went to Stressa on Lago Maggiore and then to a hotel on the Island of Fisherman, one of the Borromean Islands. This was a very long time ago -- close to 30 years, but even then having a car was a pain as parking is difficult. We were able to leave ours in the city and take a boat out to the island. It was heavenly. There were then boat tours to the other islands.

Posted by
12287 posts

I’m assuming the air arrangements are firm.

Upon arrival at LIN I would stay at least one night in Milan to get acclimatized to the 9 hour time difference. Milan will also need to be the place where you spend your last night before returning home.

Milan has enough things to keep you busy for a couple of days, even if you limit yourself to the absolute minimum mentioned above.

In terms of visiting the lakes, whichever they might be (Como, Garda, Iseo, Maggiore & Orta), I would rent a car for all of them even though Lake Como is easy to visit without one.

If you traveled at any other time, I might give different advice, but you will be traveling in peculiar times, when some restrictions are likely to be still in place. Currently (and probably also in all of 2021) public transportation is operating at limited capacity to maintain social distancing. That might make traveling by trains and buses less than ideal, and also, if you ask me, I consider public transportation a major vector of contagions, therefore I would limit the risks by traveling more safely inside a car to limit social contacts with other people. Also, even when things partially opened last summer, visitors from outside the EU (traveling for permitted reasons, like work or emergencies) were not authorized to use public transport for the first 14 days from their arrival.

While in big cities, like Milan or Florence, the car will be totally useless, therefore I would suggest to rent the car after you are ready to leave Milan and return it as soon as you return to Milan again. If Florence is visited in between, look for a hotel where you can leave the car parked while in the city (I can suggest some well located near the city core, which is closed to non resident traffic). You can visit both cities on foot to limit exposure to viruses on buses (or use a taxi for longer distances). All other locations (lakes and Tuscany) will be easier and more efficient to visit with a car in most cases. While visiting cities where there are traffic restrictions in the historical centers, like Siena or Lucca, simply park in one of the lots outside the historical centers and walk into it. If you decide to have a rental car for your trip (as I recommend in this time of pandemic) it is easier to stay in hotels (preferably with parking) outside the historical center of any towns, as there are traffic restrictions in nearly all historical centers. You might even consider staying in country villas or farmhouses or out of town hotels in some cases (such as while visiting Tuscany).

Posted by
16 posts

I completely agree with the other replies that spoke of Montepulciano. It's by far my most favorite and authentic Italian hilltop town. Lots of shopping, fantastic restaurants, and don't get me started on the wine! One of the replies above said it was a great home base to explore Tuscany and I couldn't agree more. I have been visiting for years and will be going again in July. If you are looking for a great apartment in town, check out Alberto 57 (https://www.charminghomemontepulciano.com/en/alberto57.html). If you want a fantastic bed and breakfast just outside of town, check out Fonte Martino (https://www.fontemartino.com/). You can't go wrong with either, it just depends on what you are looking for.

Best of luck! -Norman

Posted by
25766 posts

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Posted by
80 posts

ntagg35,
The apartment you posted looks lovely but the site is all in Italian and I don’t see a translate button on booking.com, unless I missed it. Are you able to give me an idea what the nightly price would be in October? Thanks.