Europe is a fantastic travel destination at any time of year. There’s never a reason not to go. But there are some very unique festivals and feast days that are unlike anything you’ll encounter elsewhere. So if you time your visit right, you can really experience something special, from diving for crucifixes to frantic folk music processions. Here’s a roundup of our favorite.
One of the many vocal groups at the Klapa Music Festival in Omiš, Croatia. (Image courtesy of http://fdk.hr/festival-in-omis/ )
Klapa Music Festival in Omiš
When:29 June-21 July
The Klapa Music Festival is much more than a music festival. It’s actually a competition each summer in this beautiful Croatian riverside city. The competition takes place among groups of singers singing in a traditional Croatian style in the town’s main squares. They do it day after day until one group is declared a winner. The music is beautiful, haunting and very traditional.
Getting there: Split is the nearest major city to Omiš. If you’re traveling through Croatia, we highly recommend making a road trip to this special little city.
Spancirfest in Varazdin
This is a decidedly local street and music festival, with several days of costumes and concerts, along with local crafts and handmade products. Of course, there’s also plenty of delicious local food and wine. Thousands of people from the city and the region flood the streets to celebrate, remember, and have a good time.
Getting there: Varazdin is about an hour’s drive from Zagreb. A great day trip!
Alka in Sinj
Alka is a special horse riding competition with 300 years of tradition. Since 1715 locals in Sinj have been celebrating victory over the Ottoman army this way. The festivities include horses, traditional uniforms and much more.Getting there: Sinj is about an hour by car from Split.
The Czech Republic
A Moravian folk band at the Pálava Wine Harvest Festival in Mikulov. (Image courtesy of http://www.mikulov.cz/tourism/wine-and-viticulture/wine-events/palava-wine-harvest)
Pálava Wine Harvest Festival in Mikulov
When: 7-9 September
Czechs may drink more beer than anyone else in the world, but there’s also a rich heritage of winemaking here, especially in the eastern part of the country. In September of each year you can find dozens of wine harvest festivals throughout the Czech Republic. The Pálava wine harvest is one of our favorites. You’ll have to try the burčák, a sweet partially fermented wine that’s only available in the late summer. But there are plenty of other great vintages to try. It all takes place in Mikulov, close to the Austrian border. Expect costumes, traditional music, fantastic food and of course plenty of wine.
Getting there: We highly recommend visiting Mikulov and the Moravian region on any trip to the Czech Republic. Prague should be first on your list, but if you have a few days in the country, don’t miss Mikulov!
The costumed parades at Faschen in Munich, Germany. (Photo courtesy of Usien)
Fasching in Munich
When: Mid-January to mid-February
Carnival season in Germany lasts a whole month, and Munich’s celebrations are a fine example of just how festive it can get. There seems to be something happening every day, from a parade of clowns to a so-called “Dance of the Market Women,” which takes place at Viktualienmarkt on Shrove Tuesday. This tradition of dancing in the market originates in the early 19th century. Along with the street parades, many bars and restaurants host parties of their own.
Getting there: Munich is a vibrant city that can easily be worked into an itinerary that takes you through Germany or into neighboring countries in Central Europe.
The parade of Busós at Busójárás in Mohács, Hungary. (Photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/pg/busojarasmohacs)
Busójárás in Mohács
The most important event in Hungary’s carnival season, Busójárás is held each year to usher in the end of winter. The main event, besides the live music, eating and drinking, is a parade of Busós, or local men dressed in traditional scary costumes. The whole thing lasts for a week and can get pretty wild, nonetheless it’s an annual event that’s recognized by UNESCO.
Getting there: Mohács is on the border with Croatia.
A traditional singing group at Valfino al Canto in Abruzzo, Italy. (Image courtesy of: https://www.facebook.com/ValfinoAlCanto/)
Valfino al Canto in Arsita, Abruzzo
When: 9-11 August
This is a festival celebrating folk music in all its forms in Italy. The wine flows freely and so do the songs. It’s amazing how folk music is still an intrinsic part of Italian culture and nowhere is clearer than in Abruzzo in August. The atmosphere is informal but that doesn’t mean locals don’t take it seriously. The high point of the festival might be the fantastic banquets where you can taste the mouthwatering local speciality of coatto, lamb stewed in pots on the square all day long.
Getting there: Abruzzo is a simple day trip or overnight from Rome.
Easter Week in Italy
Easter week in Italy deserves a blog post in itself. Or really a whole website. This is a Catholic country after all, and Easter is the high point of the Catholic year. It all starts on Holy Thursday, with a special mass and a ritual foot washing. On Holy Friday there’s a solemn afternoon mass and then a procession reenacting the Way of the Cross. The biggest one in the country takes place at the Vatican and it’s televised nationally. At 3pm you’ll hear the bells ringing, reminding stragglers to get to Mass.
Another Mass takes place on Holy Saturday but the real attraction takes place at the Easter Vigil that night, usually involving candles and a dramatic procession. But Easter Sunday is when things really come into their own. Most towns and villages have their own exhibitions and parades to honor the religious feast. In Florence you can see the 300-year-old tradition of the Scoppio del Carro, or the explosion of the cart. It is what it sounds like, and it’s supposed to ensure a good harvest and good luck.
The hooded Easter procession in Enna, Sicily. (Photo courtesy of: http://www.visitsicily.info/en/the-procession-of-the-mysteries/)
Good Friday Procession, Enna, Sicily
Easter Processions, with locals carrying statues from the city’s cathedral or main church around the city center, are a common sight in Italy. Probably the most eerie is that in the central Sicilian town of Enna. On Good Friday hooded confraternities (think Spanish Inquisition attire) shoulder wooden beams supporting statues. Enna is just a one-hour drive from Catania. Some towns in Puglia stage similar events too.
Easter Monday is also a holiday, and most locals spend the day picnicking and getting together with friends and family.
Getting there: There are Easter feasts just about anywhere in Italy, so check with your local JayWay contact once you’ve booked your trip with us!
San Gennaro Feast Day in NaplesWhen: September 19
If you’ve seen Easter in Italy you know the country takes its Catholic feast days seriously. Naples hosts this important celebration, when thousands of locals gather in the Naples Cathedral and square outside. They’re hoping to catch sight of the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Gennaro. It’s a powerful sight, to say the least!
The friendly local celebrations at the Kaziukas Folk Fair in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Kaziukas Folk Fair, Vilnius
When: Early March
This folk arts and crafts fair is held in Vilnius in early March, and dates back to the early 17th century. The fair occupies a large part of the city center, from Gediminas Avenue, Cathedral Square, Pilies Street, all the way to the Orthodox Cathedral and almost to the borders of the Uzupis neighborhood. Wherever you turn you’ll find stalls, pavilions, and processions! This is the perfect festival for anyone who loves handmade souvenirs. And if you’re looking to sample local cuisine, you’re in luck too. Don’t miss the riestainis, which are Lithuanian bagels.
Getting there: If you’re visiting Lithuania, Vilnius should definitely be on your list of destinations. Another great city, Kaunas, is about 90 minutes away by car.
Lake Ohrid is a wonderful destination in Macedonia where you can swim and sail between bouts of admiring the beautiful landscape and impressive ancient architecture. This special feast day for Orthodox Christians involves diving into the chilly waters to grab a wooden crucifix. The tradition goes back to the times of the Byzantines. Bragging rights and a year of health are promised to the winner. Hundreds of locals dive in, with even more cheering them on from shore. You’re more likely to visit Ohrid in summer though (the water is a lot warmer!) and from the 12th July to 20th August every year there’s an International Music Festival which combines folk and pop music from the whole Balkan region.
Getting there: Lake Ohrid is an ideal two or three-night stop on a tour of Macedonia, about three hours from the capital Skopje. It fits well into a tour that includes neighbors Albania or Serbia.
One of the many concerts at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. (Photo courtesy of: http://www.jewishfestival.pl/)
Jewish Culture Festival, Krakow
Krakow has a vibrant Jewish community and always has. This festival is the biggest event on Krakow’s cultural calendar, at least where Jewish heritage and history is concerned. World-class Jewish musicians and scholars from around the world converge on the city each June for more than a week of concerts, performances and lectures. If you have an interest in Jewish heritage, or if you just like fantastic music, this festival is highly recommended.
Wianki Midsummer Festival, Krakow
Wianki is a nation-wide celebration of midsummer in Poland. You’ll find celebrations in cities throughout the country, including Krakow. Originally connected with Pagan traditions, the festival has evolved over the years while maintaining its roots. Communities and civic groups make wreaths and float them down the river, a process that used to be used to tell the future. You can also look forward to parades, concerts of classic Polish folk music, and traditional costumes.
Getting there: Krakow is a definite must-see city for any visit to Poland, as it’s one of the country’s cultural hearts. It makes a nice visit on its own, or as part of a larger trip through Poland and Central Europe.
Are you planning a vacation to Central Europe? We’re travel experts in Central Europe and we’d love to help. Drop us a line and we can put together a personalized travel plan!
Team USA might not have made it to the Finals, but if you’re traveling in Europe this summer there will be no escaping the excitement around Football’s Greatest Show on Earth. Most of the Continent is mad for soccer (call it football when you’re there, please) and there will be plenty of places across many of our destinations where you can watch the World Cup and soak up the local vibe. From June 14th to the 28th is the group stage, the most intensive period, with three matches a day. After that the schedule is less packed, but since it’s the knockout stage, the pressure is on!
Of the countries we cover, Russia qualified as hosts while Croatia, Serbia, Germany and Poland went through the qualifying group stages.
But even if you’re visiting a country that didn’t qualify, there will often be places showing the game. In summer in Europe there will always be nationals of a country up for catching their team in action and even if not, locals may well be watching anyway.
With the games taking place so close to the Central Europe timezone, kickoffs are at quite sociable times, between 1pm and 9 pm.
We asked our colleagues across all our destinations to suggest the best places to catch the action, and we’ve assembled a thorough list of everything from sports bars to beer gardens to city squares that will become huge fan zones.
Serbia’s last World Cup was in 2010, and they’re glad to back, which you’ll see in full effect if you go to watch one of the Serbia games!
Wurst Platz: It might be a bit difficult to find for tourists, but if you ask anyone on the street they will definitely know where this place is. This used to be called Sport Cafe and now it’s Wurst Platz. It has giant TV screens and everyone goes there for the major matches. The food is really good and it’s not expensive. The location is right across from the Republic Square so it’s very central.
Passenger’s Bar: This is another great place in the center, just below the Faculty of Math and Chemistry and the famous Students’ Park. It’s comfortable, with a great garden and a variety of beers and drinks. The food is good as well. It’s best to reserve a seat up front!
Endorfin Bar: This bar is very cosmopolitan, a cozy place with good food and unique drinks. There are three big screens for the World Cup. It is a bit pricier and a bit posh, unlike the truly local bars. It’s just a few blocks from Passenger’s Bar in the direction of the Republic Square.
Obilicev venac Street: This place is located in the pedestrian zone just behind Knez Mihailova, which is the main street in the center. On this street there are more than 35 bars and cafes. All of them are great for watching matches and are usually full.
With Germany the defending champions and favorites to triumph again, you can bet the locals will be fired up for their games!
Prater Beer Garden: A nice beer garden in a cool area with an open-air screen. Get there early because it fills up fast!
Kulturbrauerei: This is a beautiful, historic brewery which is now a complex of art galleries, cinema and clubs. Entrance is three euros and begins two hours before the game.
Fanmeile: With big screens by the Brandenburg Gate, this place is always very crowded and touristy but it has quite a good atmosphere.
Mercedes Welt: In case of bad weather, it’s free to go into Mercedes World and watch the game on the big screen.
Most people take to the pubs & terraces in and around Bucharest’s old town, here’s a few of the best
Halftime: located in the heart of the Old Town on Gabroveni Street, this place has a long standing tradition with soccer games.
Stadio Sports Bar: Central location, on 11 Ion Campineanu Str. (near University Square). This place is unique because it’s built in a huge atrium and thus it’s probably the best indoor location for football matches. There are projections on all surrounding walls and in the middle there’s a “transmissions tower” covered with TV screens.
Beraria H: Located on Kiseleff 32, Beraria H is most likely the largest beerhouse in Europe and it has room for 2500+ people in the same time (indoor & outdoor). Located inside a former Soviet Pavilion and on the shore of Lake Herastrau, this is probably the dream of every football fan. With so many people, TV screens and projections, you actually feel like you’re at the stadium, but with a beer in your hand.
The Romanians are nothing if not enthusiastic about televized sporting events, and there are also going to be some outdoor fan areas set up (video projectors in parks & squares) so there’s really no excuse for missing a game!
Tineretului Park: screen & terrace located the entrance next to Tineretului Metro Station.
Constitution Square: in front of Palace of Parliament
University Square: in front of BCR Bank
Ioan Cuza Park: on Pensionarilor Island
Budapest Park: This huge concert park offers tasty food and drinks and outdoor seating, though it’s a little outside the center.
Erzsébet Square: Near the Aquarium, this is actually the most popular meeting point in the city.
Szabadság Square: Similar to Erzsébet Square, maybe a bit less crowded, but very popular as well.
After crashing out in the first round last time, the Croats will be looking to put up more of a fight in Russia. They’ll have their work cut out for the, they’re in the same group as mighty Argentina and giant-killers Iceland.
Karaka Irish Pub: With a perfect location in the heart of Old Town, this is a great place to watch live sports. It can be crowded so we recommend getting there at least an hour before the game.
Uvala Promenade: This street is full of bars that can be perfect for watching games. Some of the bars we recommend are: Mario (located at the beginning of the promenade), Promenada Bar, and Celtic Bar Belfast. This area is located outside of the city center so we suggest either taking a taxi or getting there by bus. Bus number 6 departs every 10 minutes from Pile Gate to Lapad’s “Posta Lapad” station.
Seeded 6th, the Polish should have a much easier time getting out of the group stage, with Colombia the only real threat in their group.
Irish Pub Pod Papugami: One of the oldest pubs in Krakow. Very centrally located, it has two big screens and seven tv sets.
Stara Zajezdnia: An old tram depot close to the Jewish Quarter, this is now Krakow’s biggest beer hall. It’s possible to sit outside as well.
Pergamin: Great atmosphere, tasty cocktails, and two tv projectors
Browar Lubicz: A sprawling brewery space with five rooms and many tv sets.
Traleibus: A cheap bar with several projector screens.
O’Brians: An Irish pub in the center where they’re always playing sports games.
Slovenians will not be taking part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup but they’re big fans of football and on top of that the president of UEFA is from Slovenia. Therefore you shouldn’t have problems finding somewhere to watch a game or – basically any bar that has TV and beer will be showing it.
As for sports bar, Hiša športa (which literally means ‘House of Sport’, and is in the centre of town) and Lepa Žoga (located close to park Tivoli and offers an escape from the most touristic parts) are probably the best options, but get easily full. Good locations are also Cutty Sark Pub and Lajbah (great place if you’re into craft beer). But as said in Ljubljana you will probably have more problems finding a place that doesn’t show the World Cup than other way around.
Olympiasee: This is an outdoor cinema in Olympic Park. Entry is 6 euros. They’ll play all of Germany’s group matches, plus the last 16 games of the tournament.
Loewenbrauekeller: Indoor and outdoor screens in one of Munich’s nicest breweries.
Riegrovy Sady: A vast beer garden on the edge of a park in the residential Vinohrady neighborhood. With one large and two smaller screens, you can usually get a view. It can be standing room only for some of the more popular matches. Grilled meats on offer and several bars serving nice cold Czech lager to accompany the game.
Prague’s many Sports Bars and Irish Bars: Prague’s got a wealth of Irish bars and sports bars, right in the heart of the old town is the Lion and Ball and the Dubliner, in Mala Strana you’ll find J.J. Murphy’s and off Wenceslas Square, Rocky O’Reilly’s. Food menus feature classic sports bar fare and drinks priced higher than locals like to pay but can be good for atmosphere. If you really want a taste of home, there are even two branches of Hooters.
Scholars Lounge Irish Pub: A cozy spot catering to foreigners.
La Fiaschetta: A very nice place with indoor screens.
Magnolia: A great bar right in the heart of the nightlife.
Alvaro al Circo Massimo: With indoor and outdoor screens, this place is quite big and very nice. It’s also very close to the Colosseum and Lungotevere.
Shamrock Pub: An Irish pub with good food and a big projector screen.
If you’re in Split during the World Cup, visit any of the cafes on the Riva waterfront!
Skanderbeg Square: There are several cafes and pubs on the square that will show World Cup games.
Blloku: Almost all of the bars in this hip neighborhood will show the games.
Hemingway Bar: A smaller, quieter choice.
Old Bazaar: All the bars in the Old Bazaar will be showing World Cup games. Take your pick!
The main square: Usually they put a big screen on the main square with a stage, so you can make an evening of it. The game is usually followed by a concert.
After six months living in Italy and traveling from the top to the bottom and back again, I think I can safely say I’ve seen it all when it comes to the Italian way of driving.
Italy’s North – South Divide
First of all, it’s fair to say that the Italian driving style differs from north to south. In the north, close to Switzerland and Austria, drivers are a little more aware and respectful of other road users. But as you make your way south, that ceases to be the case. In Sicily’s cities, you really need to have your wits about you. There are certain constants however…
Autogrill and the various similar entities are highway rest stops with a café and a canteen-style restaurant. The food’s actually edible and the coffee is decent and cheap. A stop at one of these is mandatory on any long journey. Try to avoid the temptation to pick up wine here though, as it’s usually not very good. If there’s a good price on parmigianno, however (17 Euros per kilo or less), go crazy. You’re allowed to take hard cheese back to the US. Some of them have a walkway between the two sides, which is where the picture above was taken from.
It seems that blinkers are an all-or-nothing deal. Some people will steadfastly refuse to use them. Others love the clicking sound so much they leave them on long after they’ve changed lanes.
Italians are keen cyclists plus a lot of the more touristy areas like the Amalfi Coast are very popular with cyclists from abroad. Expect to wait quite some time behind them before an overtaking opportunity presents itself.
Expect the Unexpected
In line with the Fluido ethos detailed below, if you see someone ahead of you approaching a junction and you think “no, there’s no way they’d be crazy enough to pull out in front of me,” think again. They just might. Maybe only in 2 out of 10 cases (higher in the south), but it’s an eventuality we suggest preparing for.
Something that can generally be relied on is that your fellow road users are operating on a principle known as “fluido.” Just like water will fill up all available space, Italians seek to do so on the road. Forget sensible minimum braking distance – if there’s a gap between you and the car in front, expect someone to try and dive into it.
A whole article could be written on Italian gas stations. If you’re used to a well-stocked convenience store with pumps under a big canopy where you roll up, fill your tank, stroll inside, pick up some snacks and pay for your gas, be aware that these are not common. Gas stations can be as stripped down as a couple of pumps on the sidewalk. They might not be staffed. They might not take credit cards. If they are staffed, watch out for the dual prices. There’s usually a “fai da te” or “self” price, which is lower, and a “servito” price, where you’ll be paying between 10c and 40c per litre (there are 4 litres in a US gallon) for the pleasure of someone pumping the gas for you. Some pumps are designated as self-service and some with an attendant. Make sure you pick the right one or you’ll pay extra and still do the work yourself. In many places, you’ll need to pay for the gas before you put it in the car. Returning a rental with a full tank may not be so easy when you need to guess how much you need to put in. In general, always have 10-20 Euros in cash on you for gas just in case you run low.
International Driving Permit
The big question – do you need one? Yes, and no. No, your rental company won’t ask to see it. If you get stopped by the police, they might. Don’t take the chance, it’s cheap. Just get it from your local AAA office and quit worrying.
In some parts of Italy lane markings it seems are optional. Either they were there, but they faded, or they never got painted. People get by, literally. A stretch of road that looks like it should have three lanes is treated as if it has four. Best just to try and blend in, follow someone else who looks like they know what they’re doing, and be fluido!
Parking in Italy is predictably complex. In many parts of Europe blue lines signify places you need a residents’ permit to park while white lines signify places you can park if you pay. In Italy, blue lines are meter bays and white lines signify free spaces. Yellow lines are either disabled parking spots or for residents only, so avoid those unless you want your car ticketed or towed.
When parking in a blue-line bay, look for the nearest parking meter. Take a note of your car’s registration plate as some require you enter that before getting your ticket. Once you have it, place it printed side up somewhere clearly visible on top of the dash. In Italy Monday through Saturday are considered working days. You might see that holy days, denoted by a cross (Sundays only) are free. It’s still worth putting in the minimum amount to get a ticket that you can put on the dash to ward off any fines.
You might also see some parking spaces that give you limited free parking (15 minutes to a couple of hours) but require you to show when you arrived. Your rental car probably has a blue and white clock/disc somewhere. Set that to the time of your arrival and put it on the dashboard.
There’s an app that I’ve used, successfully, to pay for parking – MyCicero, which uses GPS to find where you are, and tells you the parking cost. You enter your car’s registration number and choose how long to park, then pay with credit you’ve purchased in the app using a credit card. It also allows you to buy train tickets and public transport tickets in some cities, like Rome, so it’s pretty handy all round. There are other apps that are specific to parking and that have wider acceptance, like EasyPark Italia. To use either you’ll need a data plan or wifi access though.
There are also public and privately owned multi-story parking garages. Prices for these vary widely and in places like Rome you can pay at least $40 a day to park. Hotel parking is usually similarly priced.
You may on occasion come across a situation where an unkempt but “helpful” gentleman, usually wearing a cap of some kind, will advise you on where you can park. Italians refer to these characters as “parcheggiatore abusivo” – no translation is required I feel. They are definitely not to be trusted as they’ll often charge you to park somewhere it is forbidden so when you return you’ll also have a fine to pay. Follow the parking regulations outlined above.
Roads Can Be Terrible, or Cease Existing
This is less of a problem in wealthier parts of the country like Veneto, but from Rome south, potholes are common. In Sicily you might find roads with warning signs (yet you can still drive past the signs unknowingly, since they’re all in Italian) that really shouldn’t be attempted in anything other than a 4×4. Parts of the road may have fallen in and you’ll find yourself navigating a small trench. Rail crossings can be treacherous too – slow down. A lot.
As you’re in the homeland of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and more, expect to see some serious cars on the roads. Don’t try and race them! Do go and visit the factory museums though.
Italy’s highway tolls run the gamut from exorbitant in the north to trifling in the south. It has something to do with relative income levels, maybe. You can ask your GPS/Google to route you via non-toll roads, but the journey time will often be much longer if you’re traveling far. Certainly the back roads are more scenic and you never know what you’ll find, but you could spend more on gas than you save, plus you’ll lose a lot of time. Because of the high prices, traffic jams are rare on toll roads.
Usually the way the toll system works is that when you join the highway you’ll stop at a barrier and take a ticket. Keep this somewhere easy to get to (usually there’s a strap on the driver’s-side sun visor to slip it behind). If you see a toll gate that just has a blue or blue and yellow Telepass sign on it, do NOT go through it. That’s for a credit-based system where you have a sensor placed in the car. Your rental almost certainly won’t, unless that was specifically added at the rental desk. Running a toll will cause you problems later. When you come to your exit from the highway you’ll find either manned or automated toll gates. Above them you’ll see signs indicating whether they take cash, card or telepass. You may notice there’s often a line at the cash ones and none at the card-only ones. This is because Italians have a deep mistrust of paying by card. They may have had an experience where the card is swallowed by the machine, or the payment is rejected, at which point a slip is spat out that will require you to go to a post office and pay, or pay online somehow later – the barrier opens but you’d better pay up later! In general it’s better to have cash (crisp notes work best, or lots of 1 & 2 Euro coins) and use a cash-accepting gate.
Italy’s landscape is jaw-droppingly beautiful and on most roads you’ll find places to stop and take a photo. Try not to brake too suddenly when you see one of these. And if you miss one there will probably be another one with an equally beautiful vista just ahead.
A ZTL is a “Limited Traffic Zone.” They are sometimes permanent, and sometimes apply only during certain times. The instructions for these are only ever written in Italian. ZTLs are designed to limit the amount of vehicles entering historic city centers. In some cases, by discouraging you they’re doing you a big favor. Some of the streets in these towns are incredibly narrow and really only best navigated by a local.
Usually if the ZTL isn’t permanently in force or the times aren’t completely consistent you’ll see a digital display with a sign that will say “Varco Attivo” or “Varco Non Attivo” (Gate Active or Gate Not Active). Varco Attivo means you should only enter the ZTL if you have permission, which you won’t have unless you’re staying at a hotel inside the ZTL. The hotel can send your car registration number to the police to make sure you’re not fined for entering.
I might have made driving in Italy sound incredibly daunting, and in fairness, the traffic of a city like Naples or Palermo can be traumatising, but once you’re out of the cities it’s plain sailing. If you’re worried about getting out of the city in a rental car then pick one up from an airport – take a taxi or transfer there and you’re already clear of the madness! Some of the best of Italy is out in the countryside, but public transport is patchy at best so if you’re on a budget it’s the only way you can get to some places.
Stylish, practical, innovative, classic… descriptions of the Vespa, the iconic Italian scooter, are endless. These vehicles aren’t just nice to look at, they’re also a very unique way to explore Italy. You can rent a Vespa in many cities. Doing so just might be the highlight of your holiday in Italy.
There’s just something so stereotypically Italian about cruising through the streets on one of these sexy scooters. Stop for a gelato or just buzz by the sights. With the wind in your hair and the sun in the sky, you’ll really feel like a local. And besides having the chance to rent a Vespa in Italy, you can also learn more about the interesting history of these vehicles, which were invented in the middle of the 20th century and very quickly took over the popular imagination.
The surprising history of the Vespa
Dali’s Vespa in the Piaggio Museum
Born from the genius of the Piaggio Aircraft company at the end of World War II, Vespas were originally a creative way to recycle the surplus of tiny auxiliary engines, aluminium sheets and fat wheels used on their warplanes. The stylish scooter really took off, and soon became a symbol of freedom and a flagship of the youthful Italian worldview.
The Vespa instantly became a popular mode of transport among the cramped and crooked streets of Italian cities. The scooter was also taken up by young people in countries like Britain, where the so-called “mod” youth culture adopted the Vespa, popularised by The Who’s album and subsequent film Quadrophenia.
Anyone interested in the Vespa and its history should visit the Piaggio museum in Pontedera, Tuscany. Here you can admire legendary models of the Vespa like the flying submarine of secret agent “Dick Smart 2.007” and the most valuable Vespa in the world, which surrealist artist Salvador Dali decorated.
Tour the hills on two wheels
Besides learning more about the history of the Vespa, you can experience the excitement riding one and exploring the spectacular hills of Tuscany on a group tour from Florence. In one of our Tuscan village destinations a friendly Vespa rental company will kit you out for a day exploring on your own. Or you can follow the romantic trail of Gregory Peck & Audrey Hepburn from the famous film Roman Holiday by cruising through the center of Rome on a relaxed tour with our expert guide. There’s no better way to sample “La Dolce Vita.”
But Vespas aren’t the only option if you’re looking to explore Italy on wheels…
The Ape (pronounced a-pay, meaning ‘bee’ in Italian, whereas a vespa is a wasp) is another alternative way to get around. Also made by Piaggio and better known as a rickshaw, the Ape is a popular delivery or mini pickup truck in many Italian cities. They’re quirky and a whole lot of fun. The model used for tours is the Ape Calessino, a retro-styled limited edition with a soft-top roof.
There are numerous Apé tours you can take in Rome and other cities. In some smaller towns, hotels and accommodation providers use these quirky automobiles to ferry people and their luggage. It’s just another way that Italians show off their style in even the simplest activities.
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We’ve organized small group gourmet and culture tours throughout Italy for several years, but only since last year have we begun to offer guests classic JayWay style tours here. Once you get outside the larger cities like Rome, Venice and Florence (which are wonderful in their own right), there are many smaller villages and regions to discover. One of the most unique is the Cinque Terre, a loose cluster of five villages on the northwest coast of the country.
Visiting the villages
From west to east, the villages that make up the area known as the Cinque Terre are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Each and every one of them is fantastic, and they all have their own characteristic atmosphere. Let’s take a closer look at them.
Monterosso may not be the most stunning of the villages in the Cinque Terre, but it’s still pretty fabulous. It’s the easiest village to access by car, so it tends to get crowded early in the season and stay that way. With a quaint beach and plenty of delicious seafood (the village is especially known for its anchovies, which have official EU status), it’s a great place to get a first taste of the area.
The social and business life of Vernazza is gathered around its small harbor, the only real harbor in the Cinque Terre. The old seaside houses here are breathtaking and one of the most famous sights in the area. Expect amazing views, winding lanes and beauty around every corner.
Corniglia is the highest village in the Cinque Terre and as such it offers the best views in the area, but it’s also the only village that doesn’t have direct access to the sea. Instead of a beach you’ll find an amazing terrace overlooking all of the villages and the sea.
Manarola has one of the busiest waterfronts in the area, with fishing boats bobbing up against the scenic promenade. Surrounded by vineyards, Manarola offers great opportunities for hiking or just relaxing and enjoying local vintages and vantages.
Known as the “capital” of the Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore is the largest village in the area. It’s gathered on a steep ravine with houses practically falling into the sea. A tiny pebbly beach and some of the best examples of the Cinque Terre’s signature pastel houses make this one of the most photographed areas in the area, and one of the most unforgettable.
The relative remoteness of the Cinque Terre continues to keep it authentic and lends a sense of discovery to travelers here. While the five villages aren’t nearly as isolated as they once were, they can still be a challenge to get to, especially if you’re driving. In fact we don’t recommend driving to Cinque Terre, because the roads twist and turn and can be downright frightening. Plus parking in the villages is hard to come by and is therefore very expensive. If you do have a car, we recommend leaving it at La Spezia’s train station. It’s nearby and affordable. We can also arrange a private or group day trip from Florence, which certainly simplifies the process.
Getting on the ferry at Riomaggiore
For traveling between the villages, the Cinque Terre Pass gets you on all the trains between La Spezia and Levanto. That’s probably your best bet. Between Easter and September, you could also take a ferry from other places on the Northern Italian Riviera such as Portovenere (an oft-overlooked gem in its own right), Portofino and Genoa.
Cinque Terre is also a stop on one of our gourmet tour itineraries, if you want to experience it to the fullest then this is definitely the best way!
Where to Stay
Let’s get this out of the way – moving around the Cinque Terre with luggage is pure misery. Narrow streets, crowded trains and a lack of elevators make heavy work of it, especially in summer. While there are some cute guesthouse and B&B options in most of the villages, other than in Monterosso al Mare there aren’t any hotels. Our accommodation selection concentrates for this reason on the Monterosso al Mare and Levanto, which are both easily accessible by car and from where you can effortlessly take a train or ferry to the other villages.
What to Do
Under ideal circumstances, you would spend four or five days here, settling into the slower pace of local life, swimming, sunbathing, partaking in all of the local delicacies and perhaps doing some hiking (but bring good hiking shoes!). It’s fun to wander leisurely through the streets, getting a first-hand look at how locals live. Be sure to bring a camera because everything here is photogenic. You’ll need to take a water taxi to reach the best secluded beaches and a boat tour is an excellent way to see the villages in their full glory from the sea.
Where to Eat
There is also plenty of delicious cuisine to sample here, especially if you enjoy fresh seafood. Here are some of our favorite restaurants:
A Cinque Terre institution, Miky Ristorante in Monterosso al Mare has been here under the direction of Chef Miky De Fina since 1980. Check out the bed of ice when you enter, on top of which you’ll see the catches of the day displayed. You can’t go wrong when the food’s this fresh. (Address: Via Fegina, 104)
Trattoria Gianni Franzi
In Piazza Marconi, the center of Vernazza, there seems to be no shortage of restaurants, but choose wisely. Trattoria Gianni Franzi is a safe bet. It’s been here for decades, specializing in Ligurian cuisine like anchovies, mussels, fish and delicious homemade pasta. (Address: Via San Giovanni Battista, 47-49)
Taverna del Capitano
Sticking with Vernazza, and right next door in fact, you’ll find the terrace of Taverna del Capitano. The seafood pizza is our tip here. (Piazza Marconi 21/24).
Trattoria dal Billy
If you’re dining in Manarola, try Trattoria dal Billy. You’ll have to climb a bit to find it, but the view, as well as the cuisine, makes it all worthwhile. If you’re traveling with someone and you have an appetite, we recommend the antipasti sampler, which gives you a taste of many house specialties, especially the abundance of fresh seafood. (Address: Via Aldo Rollandi, 122)
Our local Italian team knows all of the best accommodations, restaurants and historic sites in and around the Cinque Terre. We’d love to help you plan a visit as part of a visit to Florence or a longer Italian tour. Once you get in touch, we can tailor the perfect holiday for you.
In the heart of Tuscany, the hilltop village of San Gimignano is one of our favorite day trips from Florence or anywhere in Tuscany. This charming little hilltop hamlet not only has some of the best-preserved architecture in the region, with churches and signature towers rising from the rural landscape, it has an interesting history and a rich contemporary cultural scene. Let’s take a closer look at what it’s like visiting San Gimignano, which just might be your next Italian holiday destination.
San Gimignano’s famous towers at dusk.
A Rich, Revealing History
The history of San Gimignano stretches back all the way to the third century BC, when the first settlements were founded here. Two Roman brothers built castles in the area, and over the course of a few hundred years a walled village grew up around the castles, protected by the thick woodland that surrounded it. Visiting San Gimignano will make it immediately clear why it was smart to start a fort here, as the natural terrain makes a perfect defence against invaders, giving the inhabitants of San Gimignano a view over the entire region.
A stop on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route
Because San Gimignano was part of the medieval Via Francigena, it soon became a stop-off point for Catholic pilgrims on their way to Rome. Trade expanded, as did the architecture in what was now becoming a small city. By 1300 it was well-off enough to host the legendary Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who at that time was an ambassador. You might know Dante from his famous epic poem The Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century. It is one of the foundational texts of Italian culture. When the Black Death swept across Europe later in the 14th century, however, the town was wiped out. San Gimignano was effectively preserved intact until the present time.
A Lovely Setting
Besides the incredible architecture (more about that in a minute) visiting San Gimignano is also about soaking in the special atmosphere. Sitting on a hill amidst a forest, the most obvious point on the skyline is made up of ruins from a 16th century fortress. There are eight entrances in the city walls, and among the beautiful buildings you’ll find several impressive squares that divide the city into different areas. The two main churches are the Collegiata, also known as the Duomo and Sant’Agostino, which now doubles as an art museum. The city is also famous for its towers, of which there are more than a dozen. Unlike other Italian cities whose towers have been destroyed by war and weather, almost all of the original towers in San Gimignano are preserved. It’s hard to miss them as you stroll through the streets.
If you get a chance to spend the night you’ll find that visiting San Gimignano is a good place to enjoy a little rest and relaxation. It’s quaint and quiet here at night, after the day trippers go back to the larger cities. We recommend taking advantage of San Gimignano’s smaller size to enjoy a relaxing overnight stay. Strolling through the twilit streets might just be one of the highlights of your Italian holiday.
One of the San Gimignano’s atmospheric squares.
A Fresco-packed Duomo
Standing watch over Piazza del Duomo is the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta. More of a minor basilica than a cathedral, the walls of the church are decorated with a fresco cycle created by many famous religious artists of centuries past. You could just pay the entrance fee and wander around, but unless you have an expert guide with you, we recommend getting the audio-guide too. The well-expressed explanations will help you make sense of the complex artworks on the walls and ceiling.
A Cultural and Culinary Epicenter
There’s more to do when visiting San Gimignano than look at old buildings. The city maintains a rich program of cultural affairs. There are numerous art museums and exhibitions taking place during most of the year and San Gimignano also hosts an annual music festival. Yes, there always seems to be something happening in the city and tourists are always well taken care of. It’s worth checking out the city’s official website, where you can even download a San Gimignano app to make your visit that much more convenient. Of course, this being Italy, the city offers no shortage of delicious dining options. The food is fresh and hearty and the wine is always flowing.
Here are some of our favorite restaurants in the city. Visiting San Gimignano will provide ample opportunity for you to sample the local cuisine, but these are at the top of our list, especially if you’re short on time. Try them all if you can!
For authentic Tuscan food, Locanda Sant’Agostino is a good bet. You’ll experience a very welcoming family vibe, with the home-cooking to back it up. The pizza is to die for! (Address: Piazza S. Agostino, 15)
For lighter bites and sandwiches, Dal Bertelli can’t be beat. The family has been here since 1779 and they have a long history of making delicious sandwiches with local breads, cheeses and salamis. (Address: Via Capassi, 30)
For something sweet, look no further than Gelateria Dondoli. This place is run by a former gelato world champion. He’s famous internationally for his flavors, which make use of exotic ingredients like saffron and are simply irresistible. (Address: Piazza Della Cisterna, 4)
Ristorante La Mandragola
You’ll find this delicious local restaurant beneath crumbling stone walls. It has a courtyard that’s marvelous and the food is very impressive. It’s often crowded so we recommend coming in early. (Address:Via Diacceto, 23)
This is Italian cuisine with a modern twist. Expect creative takes on classic local dishes and more than enough flare to go around. (Address: Via S. Matteo, 47-63)
Planning an Italian holiday? We’d love to help make sure you have the vacation of your dreams, in San Gimignano or anywhere else in Italy. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more!