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Northern Italy: Venice to Milan (Early to Mid-May 2019)

Dates traveled: Early to mid-May 2019
Length of trip: 15 nights on the ground in Italy
Flights: San Francisco to Venice (change in Newark); Milan to San Francisco (change in Newark)
Transportation between Cities: Trains - Second Class Seats

Average Hotel Cost Per Night for 20 nights: ~$95 for single rooms.

Itinerary and Hotels:
- Venice (3 nights) Hotel Malibran
- Ravenna (2) Casa Masoli
- Padua (2) Hotel Giotto
- Bolzano (3) Kolpinghaus Bolzano
- Verona (2) Hotel Sanmicheli
- Milan (3) side trip to Varenna Hotel B&B Hotel Milano Central
Station, Holiday Inn Express at the airport

Mode of Travel: Solo trip by train.
Luggage: 22” Eagle Creek Tarmac (checked) and daypack as a carry-on.
Weather: Mostly cloudy to rainy, about five days out of fifteen that would qualify as mostly sunny. Rain was only heavy enough to significantly hamper enjoyment on a couple of days and one evening.

Background: I have visited Italy multiple times among many Europe trips. The goal was to get beyond the “biggies” to discover other corners of Italy in the northern part of the country. I was also trying to visit places that might be somewhat less overrun with other tourists (Venice obviously is an exception), especially since May is high season. And go places with fewer blockbuster sights, to just enjoy being in Italy.

A big inspiration for this was Rick’s Padua-Verona-Ravenna video. Every place I visited except Venice was new to me. By the way, I am male and in my mid-fifties. Full disclosure: I am not a candidate for a Rick Steves tour because I can occasionally be a grump when I encounter an adverse travel experience. You’re going to have some of those when you get off the couch though.

General Observations:

This itinerary was very worthwhile and overall lived up to my expectations. It was a good call to get off the usual beaten path a bit. The sights were not as great as Rome or Florence but these are nice cities to visit. It was totally manageable in terms of tourist crowds, despite crowding in Venice and Milan. The train system in this part of Italy is great and cheap. My pace was just a little too fast, with too many two-night stays.

The splendor of the country lives up to its billing and it's worth the occasional exasperation. This was an urban itinerary and it did get a bit exhausting toward the end. As much as ZTLs are bad for anyone renting a car, they certainly make city centers in Italy more enjoyable on foot. Limited traffic also made hotel rooms quieter, even though I was not staying within the ZTL.

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Venice (three nights)
Lodging: Hotel Malibran. This is a good budget choice with excellent location in Cannaregio very near the Rialto Bridge. It is walkable from the train station but also an easy walk to St. Mark’s Square. Definite issues with water temperature in the shower. Hard to get the temperature just right and the first room they gave me had no hot water at all. I took the Alilaguna water bus into town because it stops right near my hotel with no change of transport mode and no need to take a vaporetto at a potentially crowded time with luggage. This worked great but as Rick says, it’s pretty slow.

Venice was crowded as expected, but no it has not yet been loved to death. At least not in the month of May. I had visited three times previously, once on the front end of a land trip (2007), twice on cruises (1999, 2011). Venice is pure magic and worth the crowds, which mostly exist on the vaporetti and between the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square. Hard to find an ATM that is not from an exchange company (transaction fees/bad exchange rate) in tourist areas. Specific sights visited:

  • San Michele (the cemetery island) and Murano on day two. i especially enjoyed Murano, this place is great!
  • Doge’s Palace on day three. I cannot go to Venice without a visit here. No line at all to get in and not too crowded inside. It took about 2.5 hours but I like to linger.
  • Accademia Museum on day three. Big portions are still under renovation and I suspect a lot of the best art is on loan elsewhere. What’s left focuses heavily on religious subjects and lacks the variety of the Uffizi or Borghese. The highlights were the Leonardo Vitruvian Man special exhibit and three spectacular triptychs by Bosch. Museum was totally uncrowded.
  • Correr Museum (a very nice museum, have visited twice before but could not resist a return visit, totally uncrowded) and Basilica of St. Mark (half hour visit, line was only about ten minutes) on day four before afternoon train to Ravenna.
  • Lots and lots of just walking around, plus riding the vaporetti just for fun. I generally ran hard from 10 a.m. or so to 10 p.m. with a couple of hours’ break before dinner.

- Vaporetti were almost always jam packed along the grand canal. Riding
from the train station back toward St. Mark’s along the grand canal
in the evening is one way to enjoy the ride for the sake of the ride.
Also the #2 along the back side is not as scenic but in the evening
not crowded.
- Go to the Basilica of St. Mark’s when it’s illuminated at midday. It
makes a world of difference to be able to see the mosaics lit up.
- Cruise ships cluster around the weekend (check cruisemapper to count
the cruise visitors). The larger issue is day trippers from Mestre
and Padua, in my opinion. Only Sunday, my day of arrival had a
significant number of cruise passengers in port. Yet the vaporetti
were jammed with tourists heading back to the train station on day
two and three (Monday and Tuesday) in the evening.
- In terms of crowds, just accept that St. Marks to the Rialto Bridge
is going to be very crowded most of the time. People visiting only
for the day are going to head for the most iconic sights. The crowds
thinned out a lot past the turnstile during my visit.
- A good strategy for a weekend arrival like mine would have been be to
start in Padua rather than Venice. It’s as easy to get to Padua as to
Venice center from the airport and timing Venice for mid-week means
you do avoid the extra crowded from weekend ships in port. Plus
starting in Padua means spending the sleepy throwaway first day in a
place with much less expensive hotels.

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Hotel: Casa Masoli. Very large double with elegant décor. This place is run with extra loving care by its owners. I had a very nice chat with the gentleman, I think his wife was the one serving breakfast. If you are a back door traveler this is the place to stay in Ravenna. (Ravenna is no longer in Rick’s Italy book, but this hotel was included in his 2016 book).

One of the reasons why my itinerary was a little rushed was because I really wanted to visit Ravenna. The city did not disappoint me, although my initial impression upon arriving on a rainy day was not as favorable. On day two the weather was much better, quite sunny. And I had a great day visiting four of the five mosaic sights in Ravenna. This was somewhat hampered by school groups, but there was not much crowding from other tourists. The mosaics in Ravenna are incredible and the town is a nice visit, too. I visited the fifth one before departing an afternoon train to Padua.

A great restaurant recommended by my hotelier was Ca’de’Ven. This place was packed with locals and it just had a very authentic atmosphere, was not a tourist place. When I asked for Pinot Grigio with dinner the waiter said that they only served wines from Romagna. I tried the Albana which was very good.

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Hotel: Hotel Giotto. This was a a good budget choice in a quiet area behind the Basilica. Single room on the small side but very serviceable option. Modern shower and fixtures which is nice. A little tricky to find.

Padua was a nice city to visit, but in retrospect I might have day tripped there from Verona to have fewer two-night stays. (On the other hand, it’s a pleasant place and I could have stayed another day and day tripped to Vicenza if I had had time). The tram from the train station was very convenient. The Scrovegni Chapel frescoes lived up to Rick’s praise of them but a fifteen-minute visit is pretty limited. The whole time a teacher was lecturing his school group in a very loud voice which was rather distracting. The other museums had some interesting exhibits (archeology, art, decorative arts) but taken as a whole, not enough to build Padua into an itinerary unless you are also interested in the city for its own sake.

I did enjoy the Basilica of St. Anthony as well, though I visited twice late in the day and was probably a little tired to fully enjoy it. There comes a time when you have packed as much sightseeing into your brain as it can take in a day, so I am not sure I appreciated the Basilica to its full potential. The chapel holding the remains of the saint was very impressive though. There are three cloisters that you can visit, including one with a two-hundred-year-old magnolia tree.

Although there did not seem to be many tourists, the city was very crowded. This was largely with students as I was there on Friday and Saturday, so obviously a lively time in a university town. My impression was that there were a lot of other Italian visitors, might have been graduation week for all I know.

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Hotel: Kolpinghaus Bolzano. This is a modern multi-story hotel with a great location. I had a very spacious single room with a large desk area and plenty of storage space. German-style bedding so no grungy bedspread. I did laundry one evening at the laundromat down the street, the hotel laundry apparently must be scheduled in advance and it was booked up. Courtesy of the staff was sometime lacking.

My instincts were correct that this was a great stop. This was a three-night stop for me which was very welcome after moving more briskly the last couple of stops. Walther’s on the main square served a very good salad for dinner the first night and had a night atmosphere and great service.

This a great shopping city for those who like to shop. I did a lot of walking around the charming downtown area, felt like a bit of Austria which was a nice change. The city center feels like a much smaller city than it is. Bolzano sprawls into the distance but you would not know it from the downtown area.

On day two I took the cable car up to Oberbozen and the small train to the next town, Klobenstein. I did some hiking which was quite enjoyable but not spectacular. (My standards might be a bit high living in Northern California). I was a week or two early for the Alpe di Siusi area that Rick recommends, but I was OK with that. Maybe next time. I took the half-hour train ride up to Bressanone/Brixen late in the day, thinking a smaller town might be appealing. It really did not feel like a smaller town and I might have been pushing myself a little too hard, which I tend to do.

On day three I toured the Otzi Museum for a couple of hours, which was great. Afterwards I stopped off for a bruschetta at this place in the old town area called Fishbank. €12 might seem like a lot for bruschetta but this was a meal of a bruschetta and it was sublime. I am not one to take pictures of food the way people do, but I made an exception. The place is presided over by its very personable owner. He just seems like he’s right out of central casting of what your picture might be of a mature Italian guy living the dolce vita and holding court over his quirky open-air wine bar/eatery. On a beautiful sunny day everyone in the place was having a great time.

After that, walked up to the castle on the hill alongside the river. The secular medieval frescoes in this castle were really something and I think it deserves at least a star or two on Rick’s rating scale (I am a nut for castles though). The area around the castle is scenic with vineyards and such. There is another cable car that goes up the mountain side but I am not sure where it leads. The castle did take me close to an hour of moderate uphill hiking to reach, but there is also a free shuttle from the town center. I happened to be able to hop on this for the return journey as some other travelers had just called for it. Saved me a lot of walking.

On day four, my day of departure, I could not resist lingering in Bolzano until after noon and walking the city center some more. I caught a train around 12:30 p.m. to Verona.

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Hotel: Hotel Sanmicheli. This was sort of a budget-oriented choice with an excellent location. The breakfast was really lacking with no lean protein choice, just yogurt, pastries and limited fresh fruit. Five-minute walk to Piazza Bra the main square (more of an oval), fifteen-minute walk from the train station. No hot water on morning of departure. Very personable staff.

Verona was a great stop. There were lots tourists and locals on the main pedestrian thoroughfares, but once you went down a side street it thinned out a lot. Here too I did a lot of just walking the town on both days one and two. I also visited the Roman area on day two. At first I was disappointed that it’s fitted with modern seating for concerts but as I explored every nook and cranny it did not bother me as much. I also got a combo ticket to explore five very old churches around town, each of which had its own personality. I was fairly churched out by now but still enjoyed this a lot, as it’s obvious they take a lot of civic pride in their churches here.

The overall ambiance in Verona in the oldtown was very nice; the various streets, alleyways, and squares were wonderful. Rick’s advice to eat on the smaller lesser squares, not Piazza Bra, is solid. I had dinner on Piazza Erbe one night and Piazza dei Signori on day two.

I did not get to the final church San Zeno until day three, my day of departure, after leaving my luggage at the hotel reception. I lingered in Verona long enough to have a great lunch at Osteria All'Organetto before walking back to the train station with my bags for a 2 p.m. train to Milan. This entry is a little shorter than some of the others but I want to emphasize that I loved Verona.

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Hotel: Hotel B&B Milano Centrale (two nights): This was a nice modern hotel with a great location ten minutes’ walk from Milano Centrale. I was really displeased overall though because 1) they insisted that I pay upon arrival, not disclosed upon booking. 2) Luggage storage was much too small for a hotel of this size, and filled up early on my day of departure. I had to check at the train station at extra expense, some risk, and considerable inconvenience.

Holiday Inn Express (at the airport, one night): this was really nice hotel, but I arrived on the late side as the purpose was just to catch my flight the next morning. They also asked for payment in advance, not disclosed upon booking. They relented when I expressed dismay, but I paid anyway after verifying the room was acceptable.

There was a lot that I liked about Milan, but it was rainy much of the time and I did not manage my time there very well. Think I was getting a little worn out by urban Italy and the ambitious pace day in and day out. Bustling Milan may not have been the place for me at this point. The Milan metro was great, I wish I had had time to ride the trams too.

Highlight of my time in Milan was the day trip to Varenna on Lake Como, which was really easy with a one-hour train ride (plus I was staying very close to the train station). Arrived in Varenna around 11:30 a.m. and stayed until 7:30 p.m. This is very easy. The train was packed but few got off at Varenna. Great visit on a day with sprinkles but not full-on rain, which may have limited the crowding. Had a great lunch right on the water, visited Villa Monastero right in town which had a very pleasant garden. Here too among the day trippers not too many people seemed to want to open up their wallet to get past the turnstile.

I also took the ferry to Bellagio for a couple of hours, which was nice. But I preferred Varenna which was less ritzy and less commercialized. I really wish I had stayed a couple of nights in Varenna. In retrospect that would have been better even if it meant only one abbreviated day in Milan, or even visiting Milan en route to the airport hotel. But staying at the airport hotel was a false economy, I should have sprung for the €95 cab ride on Monday morning, my day of departure.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele was a fun visit, stopped by there a few times but on the last visit it was like St. Mark’s Square in Venice times two in terms of people density. The Brera Museum was a great visit, very manageable in size. They have a very nice Rafael, the Marriage of the Virgin. There is also a room with paintings by Francisco Hayez, a 19th century artist with whom I was not familiar and whose portraits are excellent. It’s not the Uffizi, but this is a very nice museum and you can cover it in a couple of hours or so. I messed up on logistics and did not manage to see the inside of the Duomo, a bad fail on my part.

- Although the airport in Milan is far from the city, think twice about staying at the airport. It was a false economy for me and I should have just taken an early-morning (expensive) taxi.

- If you need to check luggage at the train station, choose the express service for €12 over the regular services for €6 plus €0.5 or €1 per hour if there is a huge line in the latter (which there was for me). Of course, you don’t see the sign that tells you the prices until you have already waited in the non-express line for 15 minutes.
- Brera museum is a little short on lockers to stow your day pack, might want to get there on the early side to assure a space.

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Thoughts on Train Travel in Italy

  • I bought tickets as I went, right before boarding, on the regional trains.
  • Trains between these cities are frequent, providing lots of flexibility,
  • The Trenitalia site is accurate and works great on a phone or tablet.
  • Ticket machines were very intuitive to use and always abundant.
  • For the whole trip I probably spent around $120 on train tickets.This seemed like a real bargain.
  • The trains often did get very full but I rarely saw anyone have to stand.

Annoyances and Weirdness (Grump Alert)

  • Other passengers on trains would routinely grab a bank of four seats and try and take up one or all of the other seats with their stuff, as if to ward off anyone trying to sit there.
  • Very loud talkers on trains (no, not Americans).
  • Having to listen to someone’s phone audio or video game on the train.
    When you’re around enough people on public transit, you will see some
    of this but seems more common in Italy.

  • Cutting in line was pretty common on this trip (not by me, by
    others), it was almost comical at times. There was no demographic
    pattern to this.

  • As always in Italy, restrooms are very rationed.

  • Some young men, often in groups, gave off a somewhat menacing vibe. I
    saw two young men enter the train restroom together for around five
    minutes each with a third guy. My guess was something drug related.

  • Scroungy-looking young guy in a grocery store in Ravenna who got up
    in my face trying to get me to either buy him an item or let him cut
    in line. Security guard in the grocery store may have deterred this

  • Same grocery store visit, one scroungy looking young guy yelling
    loudly at another, animated in a way that suggested being on some
    drug. Seemed like something that could easily escalate into violence
    so I kept my distance.

Special Shout Out to Changing Plans in Newark (Grump Alert)
- Wow, this is bad. United seems to be pushing you more toward changing
in Newark vs. Frankfurt, based upon pricing and flight schedules. I
prefer taking the long hop to Frankfurt or other transfer point in
Europe, but it’s not worth a $500 higher price to me. So I changed in
- The United lounge was ridiculously overcrowded both heading to Italy
and on the return. Food quality was just so-so, service was good, but
it you could barely find a seat. This is not a premium experience.
United lounge was denying entry to single-user passholders like me
tried to deny me entry upon return, pushing us off to a pop-up
location but eventually relented when I told them I was only going to
be there for an hour.
- Immigration line: waited 45 minutes to electronically enter my own
information into an automated system, then another 30 minutes to give
the ticket it printed out to a live person.
- The security experience at this airport is one of the worst at any
airport that I have ever experienced. I really need to look into pre-check/global entry.

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We are planning to cover some of the same ground next year so I read your report with interest. We too would fly out of Milan. You talk about wishing you had sprung for a taxi. I thought there now is a train that goes to the airport. Is there not?

We went through Newark airport very quickly last year with global entry. It was so fast that I even went back through the security line a second time to prevent having to throw away a nice water bottle that I had forgotten to empty. My son, on the same flight from Europe but a day earlier through Newark, said he barely made his flight. He did not have global entry.

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We did global entry last weekend in Miami. It took two minutes. Unfortunately our bags took 45 minutes. Talk about the last time we don't use just carry-on. Bummer

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Yes there is a train (in fact I took it on Sunday evening), but when booking my rooms I did not trust my ability to figure it out on the fly without making a mistake and leaving at 6:30 in the morning on the day of departure. In the end the shuttle from the airport hotel did not run that frequently so it was a false economy. The train on Monday morning would have been OK, better than the option I chose. But even taking the train the night before to the airport I almost made a mistake that could have caused me to miss an early morning train. I mixed up the column that says the minutes by which the train is delayed and the platform. No problem the night before but do that at 6:30 when the next train is in 45 minutes, not so good. I like to build in room for making errors when the stakes are high. You can time your arrival to exactly two hours before the flight but what if something goes wrong? This is where it's good to have a second set of eyes on things, one of the downsides of traveling solo.

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Lots of really useful information here, vf. I'm imagining a future venture to northern Italy in early summer (maybe next year?), including Bolzano, the Dolomites, and maybe Varenna. I really appreciate the observations and thoroughness of your report. Thank you!