Northern Italy: Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Venice, & the Dolamites

Italy has so much to offer! We were incredibly grateful that we we were able to spend a month traveling from north to south, exploring many of Italy’s nooks and crannies. If you haven’t already, check out our previous post which details our journey through Southern Italy and up to Rome. 

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The delightful Ponte Vecchio of Florence

From Rome, we took an easy train to Florence. We stayed on the outskirts of town but still found it easy to make our way into the heart of the city. Upon our arrival, we spent the evening touring the city via an enjoyable run which included a stop at Piazzale Michelangelo, a popular viewpoint above the city.

Florence run view

Florence as seen from the viewpoint of Piazzale Michelangelo

The next day, we wandered town, visiting the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, and of course, we indulged in more delicious Italian cuisine. Florence has no shortage of cozy cafes and upscale restaurants, although our favorite was Mago Balducci, a delightful tapas bar on the outside of town near our B&B. With a great selection of free tapas, amazing happy hour drink deals, and a diverse crowd, this place was a real hidden gem. 

After the hustle and bustle of Florence, a quick overnight at a Tuscan villa felt like a vacation from our vacation. We found a last minute deal that allowed us to stay at Hotel Terre di Casole, near the small village of Casole d’Elsa, for a very reasonable price. It was worth every penny. Tuscany is just as picturesque as it appears in every film and photograph. Rolling hills of green vineyards in every direction scattered with pale stucco villas and castles. It was a breath of fresh air – a great place to enjoy the peace and quiet or to partake in top notch wine tasting and dining, depending on what you’re looking for. One could easily spend a week or two exploring Tuscany alone, but as always, we felt a need to keep moving on.

From Tuscany, we hopped in a rental car and headed for the Cinque Terre, stopping briefly to take a peek at the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Italy leaning tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa drive-by photo

The Cinque Terre consists of five tiny coastal villages on Italy’s northwestern shore. Our first stop was Corniglia, the tiny town that sits smack in the middle of the five. While small in size, Corniglia has loads of character and charm. Typical of all Cinque Terre villages, it’s pastel colored buildings are packed together next to the rocky shores and it’s narrow walking streets are lively with tourists, restaurants and bars; however, Corniglia is the smallest (and perhaps cutest) of the five. The evening of our arrival, we went for a trail run up above the villages toward the neighboring town of Manarola, where soft dirt paths wind around the hillside vineyards and gardens. The views were incredible, and as we cooked up our best Italian pasta that night, we daydreamed about the views that our hike the following day would bring.

The world had other plans for us though, and we woke up to the familiar sound of soft rain. We braved the rain for a quick hike to Manarola for dinner, and although we caught some nice views, it wasn’t quite the experience we were hoping for, so we decided to stay another day in hopes of better weather. The next day, the universe was on our side, and we awoke to sunshine. We hopped on the train and took it all the way to the town of Monterosso, which lies at the northern end of the Cinque Terre. Monterosso is known for having slightly larger resorts and also boasts the only true sandy beaches of the area, but it still maintains its Cinque Terre charm. 

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Monterosso

Unfortunately for us, because of the rain and the risk of mudslides, they closed the hiking trails along the shores that connect each village, forcing us to hike up, over, and around to each neighboring village. On the bright side, this provided better exercise and some great views. Additionally, the upper trails are free to hike, whereas you have to buy a permit to hike the lower, classic shoreline trails.

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The hillsides of the Cinque Terre are lined with picturesque vineyards

We decided to take advantage of the nice weather and stopped for a swim and a few beers in the beautiful harbor of Vernazza – perhaps the most picturesque of the Cinque Terre towns. We spent our final night in Riomaggiore, the southern-most village, which was small but vibrant.

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Vernazza harbor – classic Cinque Terre

Which village in the Cinque Terre is the best? If you’re looking for a quieter town, Corniglia will likely suit your tastes most. If you want beaches, head to Monterosso. All five of the villages have the captivating look and feel of the Cinque Terre, in addition to plenty of fine dining and bars. In our opinion, there wasn’t a town that was far superior to the others, so the location of your stay isn’t going to make or break your trip, especially because the train runs frequently between all of the towns and only costs 4 Euro per trip. You can also get unlimited train use for 16 euro/day, which includes a permit for the shoreline hiking trails. All the towns have serious charm, great views, and excellent dining options. Be sure to try some pesto – a regional specialty. The area is also known for their fresh anchovies, although the ones we tried really didn’t wow us like we were hoping. 

Cinque Terre streets

Riomaggiore

Even though there may have been more Americans in the Cinque Terre than anywhere else on our trip so far, with it’s views, hiking, and cuisine, it was still totally delightful and absolutely worthwhile to see. Although it might not seem so at first, it’s also fairly easy to access. There are trains and busses, and it’s also accessible by car (there is free parking outside of each town if you’re willing to walk a bit).

We couldn’t leave Italy without visiting Venice, the famous (sinking) island city made up of canals in Italy’s northeastern corner. While you cannot drive in Venice (there are no roads, only canals), you can park in a garage on the manmade island of Tronchetto for 21 Euro/day (which connects to Venice via a bridge). You can also arrive by train, bus, or ideally, by boat.

Venice is probably best known for it’s canals and it’s gondolas. Gondolas are the canoe-like boats that are rowed by standing gondoliers dressed in striped shirts. While not all the gondoliers sing like they do in the cartoons, just about everything else we had imagined about Venice turned out to be true.

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Venetian traffic jam

Simply seeing a city where there are canals instead of streets was incredible. Not to mention the fantastic food, culture, and art…

We visited Saint Mark’s Basilica, which is uniquely adorned in gold and mosaics, and we also went to Peggy Guggenheim’s former residence turned museum, where we got a taste of modern art for the first time in quite a while. Her collection holds pieces by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollack, Salvadore Dali, and many more.

Perhaps the most amazing part of Venice was simply “getting lost”, wandering the calles and piazzas, stopping in at cafes for a bite or a drink, and observing the sinking city from different angles. Many buildings have abandoned their ground floors because of frequent flooding, and we couldn’t help but wonder what the long term plan is for the city and people of Venice. 

For Italy’s grand finale, we made our way north to the Dolomites, and what a finale it was! We happened to arrive during that perfect moment when summer turns to fall, when the leaves on the trees just begin to turn shades of red and orange, but the grass is still brilliant green. The air was warm by day, but crisp and cool by night. The drive up the Brenner Highway to the Val di Funes was absolutely stunning. Massive rock walls line the valley, comparable to those in Yosemite, and you can spot castles tucked high up into the rock walls. The valley floor is made up of rivers and rows of beautiful apple orchards, and in the higher surrounding hills, there are green rolling cattle pastures and vineyards as far as the eye can see. It is truly the stuff of dreams, for us at least.

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St. Magdalena and the stunning Val di Funes

We camped in the small town of Chiusa, which provided quick and easy access to the plethora of nearby hiking trails. Interesting fact: many of the villages in northern Italy, such as those found in South Tyrol (where we stayed), are primarily German speaking! Approximately 65% of the population speaks German, and the towns definitely have a Bavarian feel. The evening of our arrival, we drove up into the hills surrounding the church of St. Magdalena to capture the famous image of the chapel in front of the unique mountains that make up the Odle group.

The following day, we hiked up to the peaks that we thought might give us an even better view of the famous mountain ranges. We began at a trailhead just outside of Verdings and hiked up to Refugio Schutzhaus Latzfonserkreuz (yep – say that five times fast). This was a top notch refugio with some of the best accommodations, prices, food, and views we’ve ever seen. If you have the ability to dine or stay here, you won’t regret it. 

From there, we hiked up to the peak that towers over the hut, Kassianspitze, and then did a spicy ridge walk and mini via ferrata over toward the neighboring peak before heading back down and around to another view point. The day was simply spectacular – one of the best of our entire trip so far – and one of our very favorite moments in the mountains.

Following our hike, we spent one more night in the Dolomites on the vast and beautiful Lake Guarda. The lake is incredibly scenic and the area also happens to be a climbing mecca. We’ll have to make it back here to climb someday (how many times have we said that now?). What a way to close out our time in Italy! Our advice? Stop everything you’re doing and go to the Italian Dolomites. Then go reward yourself with wine, pizza, and pasta in one of Italy’s many incredible cities and towns. We already can’t wait to return. 

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The hillsides of the Dolamites have a magical, pristine appearance. They are stunningly green, dotted with chalets and churches, and surrounded by incredibly well-kept farms.

If you have any questions about our travels, we would love to hear from you! Comment on the blog posts or find us on Instagram @theadventuregoeson!

 

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