The Italian Highlights Tour: Pisa to Venice by rail

Want to take in the best of Italian culture – we’re talking tilted architecture, Michaelangelo and Venetian canals – in a week?  This might just be the trip for you.

From Pisa, it’s an easy and comfortable train journey to the Renaissance metropolis of Florence, onward to foodie hotspot Bologna and further still to the incomparable waterways of Venice.  Here, we pick out the hows and wheres of this lush trip through the heartland of Italy.

Day 1: Pisa

Pisa airport is pleasingly small and close enough to the centre of town to allow visitors to get started on sightseeing without too much of a delay. 

We stayed riverside at the creakingly charming  Royal Victoria Hotel.  This is reputedly one of the oldest hotels in Italy, and with its marble floors, frescoed ceilings and antique furniture, it really looks the part. 

Leaning tower of Pisa

Leaning tower of Pisa

It’s impossible to resist going straight to the Piazza Dei Miracoli, so dump your luggage and head there to take in the famous leaning tower, the cathedral, baptistry, the haunting Camposanto and the Campanile.  Avoid as much of the tourist tat as you can, but do stop in to the lovely Il Papiro, a specialist stationer’s on the square selling tasteful souvenirs.

Pisa Camposanto

Gruesome Medieval religious art at the Camposanto, Pisa

If you need a drink after all of that, be sure to try one (or two) of Pisa’s inexplicably tiny nightspots that line the river around the Ponte Di Mezzo. 

Day 2: Pisa – Florence

Spend the morning in Pisa.  We went to the Museo di San Matteo, but if that’s not up your street, you could try the Palazzo Blu or the Museo Botanico.  For a late morning snack or a good lunch, try Salza on Borgo Stretto, which has a decent daily menu as well as some flamboyant sweets on offer.

At the Uffizi, Florence

At the Uffizi, Florence

In the afternoon, take the train to Florence.  We found booking quick and easy via the Trenitalia website.  Again, it’s difficult not to rush out into the city and start piling your metaphorical plate with art and architecture.  An evening stroll via the Loggia dei Lanzi and Ponte Vecchia is a nice option before dinner and bed.

Loggia dei Lanzi Florence - The Rape of the Sabine Women

Loggia dei Lanzi

Day 3-4: Around Florence

There’s lots to see in Florence, so plan carefully before you arrive!  Most tourists stop by the bounteous Uffizi gallery and the Accademia, home to Michaelangelo’s David (he’s the tall, naked one surrounded by tourists). 

Michaelangelo's David Accademia Florence

Michaelangelo’s David 

The Duomo is also popular, especially the walk up to the top of the tower which offers spectacular views of the ceiling frescoes as well as the streets of old Florence folding out below you.  You can buy tickets at several points, possibly the most convenient of which is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, itself home to a good few masterpieces including the overwhelmingly impressive original cathedral doors with beautifully-wrought scenes from the Bible.  Other things to see (all of which are highly recommended) include the Palazzo Vecchio, the Bardini Gardens and Pitti Palace.

Florence view

While you’re there, the local speciality is Florentine steak: a massive T-bone that can only truly be enjoyed as part of a long, slow lunch.  For a classic Florentine nightspot, we would recommend Gilli, which serves delightfully fussy sweets as well as cocktails.

Caffee Gilli Florence

Drinks at Gilli

If you’re after souvenirs, leather is big business in Florence.  Beware of the (many) shops selling cheap imported imitations, but you are still in the right place to pick up a bargain.  If your budget is limited, try one of the city’s many lovely paper shops for handmade writing paper, or the quirky Monastica (Via Dante Alighieri 1/5), which sells goods made by local monks and nuns.

Day 5: Florence- Bologna 

Head to the station for your train to Bologna, which is a short 40 minute ride to the North-East. 

Bologna was the great surprise of this trip: a laid-back university town that is bursting with culture and cuisine.  Take a walk around the old town and keep an eye out for the leaning towers.  The area known as Quadrilatero (just off the Piazza Maggiore) is crammed with food stalls and delicatessens, a great place to pick up some authentic souvenirs.  Terzi is a great place to stop for coffee.

Bolognia food souvenirs

Cappuccino at Caffe Terzi, Bologna

Cappuccino at Caffe Terzi, Bologna

By night, Bologna comes into its own.  Our picks are Le Stanze, a bar in a converted chapel, and Il Orso, a cafeteria-style eatery serving spot-on pasta at rock-bottom prices.

Day 6: Bologna – Venice

Take the train to Venice and enjoy the ride out across the lagoon to the city’s Santa Lucia station.  From there, there are good connections by vaporetto to most parts of the city and further out in the lagoon – and spectacular views along the way.

Venice Canals

The Grand Canal, Venice (as seen from the vaporetto)

Things to see in Venice include the spectacular Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Cathedral and the Guggenheim gallery as well as the Galerie dell’Accademia. 

Culinary specialities here include cicchetti (tiny bites – not a million miles away from tapas) and black spaghetti – head away from tourist hotspots to find the more authentic side of Venetian cuisine.  For a drink, Harry’s bar is popular but uncomfortably crowded, even in low season.  Try the bar at the nearby Gritti Palace Hotel for an opulent alternative.

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