Sure, Italy is easy enough to navigate solo, but why would you want to?
After traveling solo for nearly four months, my Highlights of Italy small group tour was exactly what I needed to keep my spirits high and remind me why I set out to travel in the first place. Earlier in the year, I quit my full-time job to backpack across Europe and Asia. I love traveling at my own pace, but after several months of being alone on the road, I was ready for a change. I was also ready to admit I needed local insight on all things Italy.
Shared plates of family-style pasta, laughs overlooking hidden sunset spots, a confidence boost during a challenging climb in Cinque Terre, and access to little-known gems are just a few of many memorable moments from the trip with my nine new friends.
Here’s why I ultimately decided to stick with a group during my adventures in Italy.
Planning is time-consuming, even for a seasoned traveler
Towards the end of our trip another experienced traveler in our group (who just completed Spain’s Camino de Santiago hike) commented that she needed a little alone time for “admin work.” I knew exactly what she meant. She needed to finalize the details for the rest of her month in Europe.
Things like navigating train and bus schedules, scrolling through hotel and hostel listings, and looking at food and drink recommendations take up far more time than she or I ever imagined when we set out on our respective journeys. It was such a welcome break to have someone provide a smartly-planned itinerary that balanced off-the-beaten-path activities with helpful insider tips.
Before I took my year off to travel, I worked 50-hour weeks at a public relations firm where I spent the majority of my time researching and planning client campaigns. At the end of the day, I only had enough energy to scroll through my Instagram feed and save pics of things I wanted to see and do when I finally made it to Italy.
I wasn’t able to dig deeper to understand the little things like where to buy a pass for the hiking trails of Cinque Terre, or which trails are open (some are closed due to adverse conditions). I needed a spreadsheet to understand the disparate hours for museums in Florence, and was slightly overwhelmed when reading about train connections in Italy. The trains make travel easy, but understanding the schedules (only the last stop is listed in tables, not all the stops in-between) gave me a bit of a headache.
Thankfully, our guide filled us in on all the essential details needed for a stress-free trip.
I really like sharing my food
One of the biggest reasons I love traveling is trying new foods and tasting the original dishes that inspired North American mainstays. Italy is a food lover’s paradise with regional cuisines that vary from vegetable and fish-focused dishes on the coasts to pasta, pizza, and the rich meat dishes of the north. My one problem: I can’t eat it all alone!
We visited Italy during prime truffle and artichoke season. And pasta is always on the menu. Simply put, there was no way I was going to pass up seasonal specialties in addition to ordering every city’s signature dish. I needed assistance with this feat, and my new travel pals helped me devour everything!
Florence’s grand food court, Mercato Centrale, boasts pizza that rivals Naples, a famous pasta with truffle vendor, savory polpettes (meatballs), and indulgent desserts. Our plan? Order one of everything and split the spread. We also passed around plates of pasta in Rome (always order the cacio e pepe), divvied up giant focaccia with freshly-made pesto in Cinque Terre, and ordered extra scoops of gelatos in Florence (its birthplace) so we could all taste a spoonful.
Speaking of food, do you know how many results appear when you Google “best gelato in Rome?” Nearly five million. That’s a lot to wade through. Even as a food writer and someone who follows several Italian food bloggers, it was hard to make a short list of must-visit restaurants for my visit to the Eternal City. That’s where our group leader stepped in – without her I’d still be wandering the back streets of Rome looking for the hidden foodie gems.
Did you know that in Italy it’s a crime to buy those cheap designer knockoff handbags? While it’s universally illegal to sell them, in Italy you can be fined for buying them! Not only did our guide ensure we were well fed, but she made sure we didn’t face steep fines for non-obvious criminal activity.
She also took us to an amazing sunset spot in Florence where we watched the spectacle while enjoying pastries from one of the best bakeries in the city.
New travel friends are the best friends
In 2013 I took my first ever group trip. I met a handful of amazing souls who have become my travel besties. We’ve taken big trips to Morocco and India, and met up for long weekends across North America. Unfortunately, the travel gang couldn’t make it to Italy this year to join me. While I missed them, I was thrilled to make new, adventurous friends.
On the day we hiked Cinque Terre, it was hot. About halfway through the trek from Vernazza to Corniglia (one of the most challenging, but most picturesque trails), we were dragging. We knew a juice bar was waiting for us at the halfway point and cheered each other on – each and every steep step – until we reached the cafe. Covered in sweat, we took a seat at a small table with panoramic views and held up our juice slushies for a toast. If not for the encouraging words of my fellow travelers, I might still be clinging to the rocky steps perched high above the sea.
In addition to sharing food and cocktails, and serving as my trekking sherpas, my group helped me experience Italy in ways that went far beyond the guidebook.
So, will I travel with a group again? Absolutely. This was the second, and definitely not my last, tour with Intrepid Travel.
Tempted to embark on a Highlights of Italy trip just like Kristin did? Check it out.
Or looking for a different small group tour in Italy? Check out our wide range of trips.