From the opulent cathedral in Florence to the ancient Roman Colosseum and canals of Venice, Italy overflows with epic architecture and swoon-worthy cityscapes.
Contrary to appearances (we are looking at you, luxe Instagrammers), an adventure on the Mediterranean peninsula doesn’t need to break the bank. I recently enjoyed a grand 8-day getaway on Intrepid’s Highlights of Italy tour—all while sticking to a tight budget.
Here’s how to save, and occasionally splurge, across Italy while still savoring la dolce vita.
Explore the backstreets (and canals) of Venice
Step away from the Grand Canal and wander through the quiet(er) streets of the of Cannaregio neighborhood where you’ll find locals sipping coffee before work or dining at family-run restaurants where makeshift outdoor patios replace formal dining rooms.
Want to see the city by boat on the cheap? Skip the Gondola and take the public vaporetto (water bus) instead—think of it as the subway for Venice. The #1 and #2 lines cruise through the Grand Canal passing by major landmarks along the way. A one-way ticket is about $8 (€ 7.50).
Surprisingly, there are free sights, too.
- Browse the Acqua Alta bookshop. A dream for bibliophiles and Instagrammers, the bookshop overflows with books packed inside bathtubs, gondolas and other waterproof structures.
- Tour St. Mark’s Basilica. Sparkling with gold leaf mosaics, it’s free to enter, but there’s a fee to climb the terrace overlooking Piazza San Marco.
Budget eats: Nibble on cicchetti (Italian-style tapas). Choose from small bites of fried fish, cheese, and meats washed down with an Aperol Spritz while picnicking canal side at the casual Osteria Bea Vita in the Cannaregio. Or grab a cone of fried seafood at Acqua e Mais to enjoy while strolling the streets.
Splurge items: If you’ve dreamed of a gondola ride your entire life, this is the place to take it. Prices are fixed and it’s €80 ($97) for a 40-minute ride. Up to 6 people can hop aboard.
Experience the Renaissance in Florence
The entire city of Florence is a medieval masterpiece and its museums house the largest collection of Renaissance artwork in the world. Galleria dell’Accademia is home to Michelangelo’s David sculpture and the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most visited museums in the world, is where to find works by Botticelli, da Vinci and Caravaggio, among others. The museums are free to the public the first Sunday of every month, but expect extra long lines on those days.
While you’ll need to pay to see the most famous artwork (unless you happen to be visiting on the first Sunday) the city as a whole is less expensive to visit than you think. Here’s what to do for free in Florence.
- Tour the Florence Cathedral, known as the Duomo (there is a fee to climb to the top of the bell tower).
- Stroll across the Ponte Vecchio for prime people watching.
- Climb the hill to Piazzo Piazzale Michelangelo for stunning panoramic views, especially at sunset.
- Visit the Oblate Library, located in a former convent. It’s open to the public and has a cafe where you can sip a glass of wine for $4 while overlooking the Duomo.
Budget eats: Head to the Mercato Centrale—a foodie’s food court dream—for everything from truffle pasta and Neapolitan-style pizza to pork sandwiches. And don’t forget dessert. Gelato originated in Florence, and even the best in the city, including La Carraia near Ponte Vecchio, are affordable luxuries.
Splurge items: Vegetarians, scroll down. The outdoor San Lorenzo market is the place for fine leather goods including jackets, handbags and purses. For dinner, feast on a giant steak (bistecca alla fiorentina) that easily feeds 3 or 4 people.
Live like a Roman
After ticking off the must-see sites including the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and Roman Forum, detour to the Trastevere neighborhood across the Tiber River for casual dinners, buzzing bars, and a labyrinth of photogenic alleys. You’ll find street performers in the airy Piazza di Santa Maria, too.
There’s plenty of history to experience for free in the Eternal City.
- See the sun move through the opened-roof of the domed Pantheon. Once a temple, now a church, the 2,000-year-old building is one of the best preserved structures from the Roman Empire.
- Eat a gelato or street snack on the staircase of the Spanish Steps.
- It’s free to see the main floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. Get there early in the morning or after 2pm for shortest lines. There’s $9 charge to climb up to the dome designed by Michelangelo.
Budget eats: Suppli is the Roman version of arancini (stuffed rice balls). I suppli in Trastevere serves up these fried snacks along with homemade pizza and takeout pasta in the small shop. Alternately, the Testaccio Market is packed with fresh produce and prepared foods including shredded beef sandwiches at Mordi e Vai, and the best Cannoli in Rome at Dess’art.
Splurge Items: You’ll find plenty of amazing meals at homey trattorias, but for a decadent once-in-a-lifetime meal, try the tasting menu at Michelin-starred La Pergola restaurant. Dress up for the lavish, white-tablecloth experience.
The views are (mostly) free in Cinque Terre
But you need to work for them. That includes hiking the trail along the cliffs that connect the five villages. The cost of the trail pass (which includes train fare, bus fare in all five villages, and wifi access) is about $17. Meals at the restaurants with sea views are more pricey, but there are plenty of bakeries and delis that make it easy to pack a lunch or snacks to fuel your hike.
Budget eats: Savor the focaccia. For a few dollars pick up a giant slice of the yeasty bread topped with meat, cheese or locally prepared pesto. For a takeaway lunch or dinner, try the famous calamari (and other fired seafood) at Il pescato cucinato in Riomaggiore.
Splurge items: Life is short and so are sunsets. For the best sea views, take a sunset cruise with your travel buddies.
Here’s how to save like a superstar throughout all of Italy
- Travel during shoulder season. October to December or early spring are the best times to experience Italy. Airfare from the U.S. and Canada is typically lower, crowds are less dense, and the weather is still mild.
- Stand at the bar while snacking. See all those locals standing at the counter drinking their morning coffee (and wine in the afternoons)? That’s because most bars and cafes have different prices for standing vs sitting down for table service. By standing you’ll save enough for an extra coffee and a few pastries.
- Sip happy hour cocktails. 7 to 9 p.m. is aperitivo time where the price of a drink also includes snacks (think Italian-style tapas) such as meat, cheese or finger foods.
- Avoid restaurants where the menu is posted outside in English. Look to see where locals eat and follow. Here’s a handy guide for what and where to eat in Italy.
Ready to save on the Italian adventure of a lifetime? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours in Italy.