At the time of publishing this post the world is under a travel ban due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I have chosen to keep publishing stories about traveling to Italy for three reasons. The first is that one day hopefully sooner rather than later, the world will open back up to travel, making this a great time to learn about more places we want to visit and what to see when we get there.
Secondly I hope this will change the way we travel. Hopefully cruise ships and big bus tours and the mass tourism they bring will become a thing of the past, replaced by a more sustainable means of travel that involves smaller groups of people with a germane interest in discovering new places, rather than the masses descending on any city to check it off their bucket list. Third, in this time of crisis our minds need a place to escape to, even if only for a few minutes. So let’s escape to Italy together.
This is one of those completely fantastic secrets in Rome that’s hiding in plain sight. Even when Rome is bursting at the seams with tourists you will find very few people here. It is one of my absolute favorites and I wrote about it in detail in my best selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Rome. (Find it in the 13 Places To Discover Ancient Rome chapter)
The Ara Pacis was built around 13 B.C to commemorate Augustus’
victorious return to Rome. Rome had been mired in decades of civil war, and had
spent centuries at war with other countries. Augustus ended all the fighting,
bringing about the first time of peace in years at the same time becoming the
most powerful man in history.
Originally it stood at the northeast corner of the Campus Martius. The altar was angled so that at sunset on Augustus’ birthday the shadow of the point of the obelisk in the Campus Martius would fall onto the Ara Pacis, symbolizing that he was born to bring peace to Rome. He really was a master of propaganda!
Centuries later the Tiber river was expanded and over time the
Ara Pacis, in all of its white marble glory, became submerged in 4 meters of mud.
It disappeared for more than 1000 years.
In the 16th century fragments of it were found
under an old palazzo. More were discovered in the 1800’s.
In 1937 the Italian cabinet decided to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Augustus’ birth by excavating the altar. 70 cubic meters of ground (beneath what at the time was the Cinema Nuovo Olimpia) were frozen and the altar was extracted.
When you visit the Ara Pacis you can see what a colossal
undertaking that must have been. Working with comparatively few fragments and
only a short amount of time, it’s amazing what they were able to achieve.
Buildings surround the mausoleum of Augustus were razed and the Ara Pacis was placed in its current location. It initially was protected by a pavilion but in 2006 got its current, very modern Richard Meier designed building. The building looks pretty incongruous surrounded by old Rome, but once you go inside you can appreciate the genius of it. There is an overwhelming amount of natural light, maximizing the magnificence of the altar.
The Ara Pacis is both beautiful and majestic. A set of stairs
lead up to the altar, all encased in white marble walls which are covered in
The museum itself is really good. Entirely dedicated to the Ara Pacis, it is interactive and relatively small. Everyone working there is really well informed and incredibly helpful too.
This past summer while there I had a list of obscure things I wanted to find in the carvings that line the exterior of the marble walls. One of the guards came over, as this was his specialty. There were only a handful of visitors at the museum, so he was able to spend a half hour with me, going back and forth from the maps and interactive screens to the altar itself, finding the items on my list and pointing out missing pieces in between.
I speak Italian relatively well, but I don’t speak
archeological Italian, and he spoke only a little English, but was fully
invested in helping me, taking me back to the English translations at the
interactive area when we got stuck.
It really was a fantastic experience!
The windows look out over the Mausoleum of Augustus which is being restored but will be open to the public soon.
I recommend first reading the Ara Pacis section of myGlam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Romebook to get some context of who Augustus was, who all the players that show up here are, and why their stories are so interesting. This will make discovering the different people represented on the walls of the Ara Pacis extra interesting.
You will probably only spend half an hour or so here. It is an easy walk from the Piazza Navona/Campo di Fiori area, is only a few minutes’ walk along the river to the Bridge of Angels and Castel Sant’ Angelo (in front of St Peters) and is just across the river from Trastevere.
Address: Lungotevere in Augusta, Rome
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Are you flying into either Florence or Pisa? If so you may be wondering how to get into town from the airport. Both airports are small and efficient and both have inexpensive options to get you into the heart of the city.
FROM FLORENCE AIRPORT
Florence Peretola airport, which is also known as Amerigo
Vespucci airport, is just 4 km outside the city center city and Santa Maria
Novella train station.
There are 2 main ways to get to and from the airport.
The taxi ride from the airport to the city center takes 15
minutes. It will cost you a flat fee of 22 euros with an additional euro per
extra suitcase. Normally if there are only 2 or 3 of us I haven’t been charged
for surplice luggage.
If you don’t know your way around Florence a taxi is by far your easiest option door to door, especially if you have heavy luggage or are tired from you flight. Remember Florence has cobble-stoned streets so dragging suitcases around can be difficult and also can be tough on your suitcase wheels.
As of February 2019 Florence now has a tram service that takes
you from the airport to Santa Maria Novella station. The tram ride takes 15
minutes and costs 1.50 euros.
The tram is easy to find. As you exit the airport terminal turn left and follow the signs to the T1 Tram. There are ticket machines at the tram stop. You may have to buy an additional ticket for oversized luggage.
When you board the tram you need to validate your ticket in the yellow machine beside the door. Should guards/conductors/police board your tram and check tickets there is a huge fine for a non-validated ticket.
FROM PISA AIRPORT
The other airport in Tuscany is Pisa’s Galileo airport. Often
you can find fantastic deal flying into Pisa instead of Florence, so it pays to
check it out when booking your flights.
There are two main ways to get from Pisa airport into Florence.
To take the train from Galileo Airport you will first take the Pisa Mover Shuttle from the airport into the Pisa Centrale train station. From there you take a train directly into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station.
Trains run on average 3 times per hour and cost less than 10 euros. The trip runs between an hour and an hour and 20 minutes.
There are also charter companies that offer bus service from Galileo Airport to Florence Santa Maria Novella train station. This can be a great option as your luggage gets stored below, so you don’t have to deal with it, and you have a very comfortable and pretty drive through Tuscany and into Florence. You can see the timetable and website here. You should book in advance as the bus does fill up quickly. The cost is around 14 euros. The ride takes approximately an hour.
From the arrivals terminal exit and turn left. The bus stops are in the corner of parking lot number 3. You can purchase tickets from the bus driver or from the ticket machines both inside and outside the airport.
Download my free Secret Florence PDF to get insider info on my favorite things to do in the Renaissance City. Get my favorite places to eat, where to go for a drink, which markets can’t be missed, even learn about a secret jewelry store! CLICK HERE
Need help planning your trip to Italy or helpful advice for when you are there? Everything from how to use the trains to how to get your tax back when shopping to what to do if you get sick while you’re away. Get your copy of my best selling book Glam Italia! How To Travel Italy, available worldwide on Amazon.com
If you are planning a trip to Campania chances are you are just thinking about Capri and the Amalfi Coast, and maybe a quick jaunt into Naples. Problem is, these are the places that everyone goes to, which means the crowds can be brain-bendingly overwhelming.
There is much, much more to see and do in Campania than just the big tourist spots. Whether you want to take a half day or day to do something different, or whether you may want to add an extra few days to your Amalfi Coast trip, here are 8 places to consider when planning your trip to the Amalfi Coast.
Be sure to read to the end as you probably haven’t heard of 6 through 8!
If you enjoy visiting European palaces this one is a must see.
Built to rival Versailles, Caserta is the largest palace in all of Europe. Like
Versailles it is a gaudy display of too much gold, over the top frescoes and somewhat
crass excess, all of which make it completely fantastic!
Rent a bike and explore the beauty of the garden and fountains
which extend 3.5 kilometers in front of the palace, have lunch in the café and
explore the royal apartments.
One thing I learned while there was how fascinating Marie Carolina was. Her well known sister Marie Antoinette gets all the attention, but Marie Carolina was a tremendous character, much, much more interesting. This was her palace and her story unfolds throughout the royal apartments.
The palace at Caserta is a quick and easy train ride from either Naples or Salerno.
2. POMPEII, HERULANEUM AND OPLONTIS
While in the area of Naples and the Amalfi Coast take a morning to visit the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum and Oplontis
If you are not familiar with these incredible sites these are the ruins of three towns taken out by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The towns vanished from the face of the earth for 1700 years.
Over the centuries when people tried to find the fabled Pompeii they looked along the coast line, as it had been a port city but the eruption of the volcano moved the ocean 2 kilometers out to sea. Pompeii was discovered in the 18th century when a farmer inland had been digging for a new well.
Pompeii is Italy’s most unique archaeological site, its 109
excavated acres giving us a snapshot of 1st century Roman life.
I recommend visiting in the morning at opening time (8:30am)
as for much of the year Pompeii gets overwhelmingly hot. Be sure to wear good
walking shoes and a hat and bring a water bottle to refil at the fountains
staggered around the site.
I suggest doing Pompeii first as this will give you insight into the life of 1st century Romans, their social structure, the absolute genius of their technological innovations, and the devastation caused by the eruption.
Herculaneum/Ercolano is only 3 stops away on the local train (the Circumvesuviana) and makes an incredible second excavation to visit.
After seeing the destruction of Pompeii, much of which was crushed down to one level, Herculaneum lets you experience the multi storied homes replete with their red Pompeii style frescoes. Resplendent in its own right, this site is jarring also because it gives you greater insight into the way Pompeii would have looked up until the day the volcano blew.
Herculaneum is about 1//3 of the size of Pompeii, and rather
than being an important merchant port city was a luxury resort town for wealthy
Romans, so features more elegant villas than commercial buildings.
The caves at the beach level are filed with skeletons. When Vesuvius erupted the people of Herculaneum were certain rescuers would come by sea, so the women and children were waiting in the safety of the caves while the men waited on the beach.
Unfortunately for all of them a pyroclastic current of trapped gases at a heat of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (and up to 900 degrees) blew their way, instantly vaporizing their bodies.
Their instant death meant they were in fact luckier than their neighbors in Pompeii who suffocated and in many cases took multiple hours to die.
From the 1st century B.C Oplontis was a super
elegant suburb of Pompeii where the uber-wealthy had their country villas. As
with Pompeii it disappeared for 17 centuries and was only rediscovered in the
18th century. There is just one villa is open to the public, but it
is spectacular and well worth the visit.
Poppea Sabina was Emperor Nero’s second wife. This is thought
to be her villa due to an amphora with the name of her freedman and a vase with
her mark on it being found on the grounds.
This is actually the largest Roman suburban villa ever
discovered and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely due to
the sensational frescoes. This villa is enormous, with large portico opening to gardens lined with
statues, a swimming pool, loads of rooms, passageways and cubicle as well as a
kitchen still recognizeable.
One of the most extraordinary features of the villa is the wealth of frescoes and mosaics all remaining in situ rather than having been carted off to a museum somewhere.
Interestingly there is no sign of life here at the time of the
eruption. Some of the statues were found on a storeroom, suggesting that
perhaps the villa had been closed up for renovations after the earthquake of 62
An alternative to the frequently overcrowded and always
expensive island of Capri is the delicious little island of Procida. Almost
completely off the tourist radar this one is a weekend getaway for the people
of Naples, but with the exception of August the streets are delightfully empty.
So try to come here on a weekday if possible.
Procida is one of the most colorful places on earth. As you
arrive into its little harbor your eyes don’t know where to land – all the
fishermen’s homes lining the seafront are painted in bright pastel hues, the
sunshine sparkles off the sea, which like the sky is a completely impossible
shade of blue. Procida is visually stunning.
This tiny island is part of the Flegrean island chain, off the
coast of Naples. The island is between Capo Miseno and Ischia, and occupies a
mere 4.1 square miles. Its history dates back as far as the 16th century BC with Mycenaean objects having been discovered there, although the
first known settlers were Greeks in the 8th century BC.
More than 30 movies have been filmed here including Il Postino
and the Talented Mr. Ripley.
If you take a day trip to Procida be sure to wander the waterfront
and the streets of the Marina Grande, then head over to the back side of the
island. Walk along sun-bleached little streets (but watch out for vespas
zipping around) and head to Marina Corricella for lunch. This darling fishing
village was one of the locations in Il Postino.
A variety of eateries line the waterfront, picturesque with
fishing boats bobbing at their moorings, fishing nets lying out to dry and
colorful buildings all around. Lunch here is authentic, inexpensive and
wonderful. I recommend having a long, leisurely lunch with a view, then having
a swim before heading back to the mainland.
Procida is easily accessible by hydrofoil from Naples.
Another absolute treasure lies at the bottom end of the Amalfi
Coast, the lovely medieval town of Salerno. Not only a wonderful place to take
a day trip to, Salerno is also a tremendous place to base your Amalfi Coast
With train access (including the high speed AV trains) you can
move around much more easily than if you are staying in any of the towns along
the coast road, yet still have ferry access to the entire coast and Capri.
The crowds, tour buses and cruise ship travelers don’t come here, (well, maybe a few small cruise ships do, but not the monsters that invade the rest of the coast)so you can wander around freely, enjoying the beauty, the history, the ambience.
If you stay in Salerno the local nightlife is infectious.
Everyone comes out at night to enjoy a glass of wine and see friends in the
cafes and bars dotted around the piazzas and the picturesque little streets.
The restaurants are fabulous – I love evenings in Salerno.
Along with the castle, the Duomo, the medical school (the first in Italy, it dates back centuries) and the medieval town center, another benefit to staying or visiting Salerno is that it is the gateway to the beautiful Cilento region.
Only 30 km or so south of Salerno you will find one of the
coolest and most un-touristed places you have never heard of, the Greek temples
The 8 best preserved Greek temples in the world are in
Southern Italy. Five of them are in Sicily, the other 3 are here in the former
town of Poseidonia, now known as Paestum.
2500 years ago this was part of Magna Grecia. Greece sent its
young men out to discover and conquer new land. Southern Italy and Sicily were
hot favorites, benefitting from amongst other things, incredible Greek
architecture. Be warned that these three temples are breathtaking.
I love arriving by car (you can also get here by train)
because as you drive through the countryside surrounded by open fields and buffalo
mozzarella farms, these 3 giant temples erupt up out of nowhere. And they are truly
Built in 550 B.C, 500 B.C and 480 B.C the temples of Hera, Athena and Hera II are in unbelievably good condition.
Also still in place are a heroon, a pool and various other
structure dating back to the Greeks.
The temples are surrounded by the remnants of a Roman town.
Romans loved Greek architecture so instead of pulling it down opted to build
around it. Roman roads, houses and apartment buildings can still be seen here.
If you have been to Pompeii and understand the layout of a Roman home, you will
appreciate being able to walk inside the ruins and identify the front and back
doors, the views from the homes as well as their layouts.
As if that weren’t enough, the cats eyes and mosaic floors are
still intact. Not a cigarette butt, coke can or McDonald’s wrapper inn sight –
it is all just here for you to enjoy.
If at all possible try to be here at sunset – it is just unbelievably beautiful. Also noteworthy are the famous roses that bloom here in the spring, famous since antiquity, bathing the temples in their gorgeous perfume and draping the area in even more beauty.
If you enjoy seeing really ancient sites and are in the area,
not too far south of Paestum there is another treasure, the town of Velia.
Velia (originally named Elea) was founded around 540 B.C by
Phoenicians from Corsica who fled the island after a brutal battle with the
Etruscans ad Carthaginians. The town had a long period of economic prosperity
as well as being an important cultural center. Home to philosophers such as
Parmenides who founded the Philosophical School of Elea in the 6th century B.C, and Zeno, who was around in the 5th century B.C
The Romans took over in 88 B.C. The citizens of Elea were
recognized as Romans but were allowed to maintain their Greek language and
Things to see here include the monumental Porta Rosa gate.
Dating back to the 4th century B.C it is thought to be one of the
only intact monuments of the ancient world. It is perfectly preserved too, cut
blocks of volcanic tufa perfectly placed together without the use of lime to
hold them in place, reaching a height of 6 meters. Interestingly it is the only
example of a rounded arch in Greek architecture to be found in Italy.
The gate leads to an ancient road and paved steps that take
you down to one of the town’s 2 ports.
In the other direction from Porta Rosa there are 2nd century Roman baths, and a lovely town square.
The acropolis has a medieval church sitting atop a Greek
temple, and just below it a small theater dating back to the 3rd century B.C.
Also to be seen here are remains of ancient homes and frescoed buildings.
7. BADIA SANTA MARIA DI PATTANO
Not far from Velia you can find the best preserved
Italo-Albanian monastery in Southern Italy, the Badia Santa Maria di Pattano.
Although the first known mention of this site was in a document dated to 933
A.D it is thought to be much older.
The complex is noteworthy for its church of Santa Maria, an
example of Angevin architecture with polygonal apses and ribbed groin vaults.
The bell tower is one of the most ancient Early Middle Ages bell towers in
Southern Italy. Standing 15 meters tall it may have been built in stages,
because it has 5 different decorations, making it fascinating from an artistic
point of view.
The Church of San Fidelfo was built on top of Roman ruins. (A thermal structure can be seen under a glass floor.)
The interior walls are decorated with some amazing Byzantine frescoes, in my opinion, alone they make the trip worth while.
8. THE CILENTO COAST
If you are not one for stone beaches, the crowds, high prices
and overly manicured visage of the Amalfi Coast, this could be the area for
Stretching 65 miles from Salerno to the Tyrrhenian coast of
Basilicata, the Cilento coast is a beautiful alternative. With sandy beaches;
pristine, clean ocean, affordable accommodation and dining options, this stretch
of coast is authentic, a little erratic and the antithesis of the Amalfi Coast.
Don’t expect glitzy hotels or the lamorous posturing of the uber rich, instead
think of ancient port towns with the local fisherman still taking their boats
out at dawn and fishing with handmade nets.
Break your days up with mornings spent discovering ancient Greek
and Roman ruins, lunches in quaint little piazzas and afternoons on the beach.
Some of the towns to look for:
Agropoli, the largest town in the area can be a great place to base yourself.
Only 15 minutes away is Castellabate. The castle ruins and the views of the ocean are fabulous, as is the main piazza. Although pretty tiny it is buzzing with cafes, a wine bar and restaurants.
Acciaroli is a lovely little seaside village you won’t want to leave.
Interestingly it is known for the longevity of its inhabitants, with around 300 centenarians wandering the streets, 20 percent of whom have reached the ripe old age of 110!
Pioppi is another lovely seaside village. Ancel Keys lived here for 28 years studying and living the Mediterranean diet.
Palinuro is yet another beautiful coastal village with a rugged but spectacular coastline broken up with sandy beaches, the ruins of a medieval castle, a blue grotto – it has a lot to offer.
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