Getting the most out of each day

Planning each day in Italy: itineraries, dealing with Mondays and Sundays, and scheduling around the local clock, calendar, and daily riposo (siesta)

If you expect to see the best of Rome in just a few days, you’d better have a good game plan or the Sistine Chapel is going to slip through the cracks in your schedule.

I've drawn up some killer itineraries for tackling major cities in 1-3 days and the best of Italy in one or two weeks, but you can just as easily plan your own time. After all, how do I know what you're interested in?

The first rule of getting the most out of your daily sightseeing is to get up early. Be at the most popular sights when the doors open, and you’ll beat the lines. I’m about as far as you can get from a "morning person," but I routinely get up at 6:30am when traveling.

Besides, especially in summer—and especially in Southern Italy and Sicily—the sun can be broiling by midday, and you’ll want to retreat to lunch and perhaps a riposo of your own to recharge your touring batteries.

Here's my patented way to draw up a daily sightseeing itinerary:

Drawing up a daily itinerary

Before you plan your daily agenda, you need to be aware of the quirks of Italian hours and days of operation.
You’ve been so careful planning every other aspect of your trip; don’t leave the sightseeing to chance. I’ve seen too many people arrive at the doors of the museum or church that was to be the highlight of their trip only to find that it’s closed that day. And they’re leaving tomorrow.

You shouldn't micromanage your entire vacation, but it doesn’t hurt to do a little advance planning to make sure you manage to squeeze in at least what’s most important to you.

After being shut out of my share of sights by not reading the fine print ahead of time, I’ve come up with a fail-safe method for creating daily agendas.

I happily ignore my schedules as often as I follow them, but at least the process of drawing them up alerts me to the odd hours of special sights.

The following steps may seem like a chore, but they take less than 30 minutes on the train on your way into town (or in your hotel room on the night before you leave for the next town).

Some people prefer to go with the flow and see stuff as they come across it, and that’s perfectly fine. But if missing St. Peter's will ruin your trip, this bit of advance paperwork can be a godsend.

Although this section deals mainly with sights, don’t forget to look for, and mark, any restaurant or activity that you want to be sure you hit.

Virtually all restaurants close at least one day of the week; if you’re in town for two days, make sure you’re not going to miss that great-sounding trattoria.

Other “extras” to check the hours on include day trips as well as cultural events (for example, does the opera perform every night? When are the soccer matches?).

  1. Write all the sights you want to see down the left side of a piece of paper. Next to each, write the open hours, and then make a third column showing the day(s) each is closed. Underline any opening or closing hour that’s exceptional (say, if something closes at 6pm instead of the town’s usual 4 or 5pm; underline the “6pm” part). For outstanding exceptions (wow, it closes at 7:30pm!), double-underline. Do the same for any unusual closed day. Mark places that stay open through riposo. If any sight has particularly restricted hours or days, put a box around it.

  2. Below the list of sights, make a list of day trips and other activities you want to fit in (leather shopping in Florence, gladiator lessons in Rome, a cicchetti crawl in Venice).

  3. Take a second piece of paper and make blank daily schedules for each day you’ll be in town, with each page marked with a day of the week. Put in headings for Morning (leave five to six lines), Lunch (one line), Afternoon (five to six lines), Dinner (a line), and Evening (two to three lines).

  4. Take into account shortened hours or closed days, especially for Sundays and Mondays. Many museums and restaurants are closed Mondays. Sunday is the traditional day of rest for many businesses, and sights are often open only in the morning (or, for churches, only the afternoon). » more

  5. Use the hours-at-a-glance sheet you made in step 1 to fill in your daily itinerary chart smartly. Stick the earliest-opening sights first thing in the morning, the late-closing ones at the end of the day, and open-nonstop sights into the riposo hours just after lunch.

  6. Fill in the later morning and earlier afternoon with the sights that keep more standard hours. Write on the schedule a time to arrive at each sight and when you need to leave in order to get to the next one. Schedule things that aren’t as important to you in between things that are. That way, if you find yourself running short on time, you can cut sights out and still not miss the best stuff. Do this with a map in front of you, and budget time to get between sights. Don’t pack the schedule too tightly, and don’t forget to write in things like “gelato break.”

  7. Book ahead any sights (such as Da Vinci's Last Supper, the Uffizi and The David in Florence, Rome's Colosseum and Galleria Borghese, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) for which advance reservations are either necessary or advised. » more

  8. Stuff the itinerary in your pocket when you go out for the day. Cross things off as you see them, and if you misjudged time and miss something, circle it so you can rearrange your afternoon or next day’s schedule to fit it in. Bonus: These itineraries always help me later when I'm two weeks behind in writing my journal.

  9. Don’t over-schedule yourself. Build in one day each week for relaxation and decompression, or for getting the laundry done, or to cushion your plans against impromptu day trips or festivals. Do the same for each day, leaving a bit of "free" time in there for waiting in the ticket line at the train station, heading to the post office to mail postcards, going shopping, or just sitting at an outdoor cafe table to sip a cappuccino.

Tips & links

Useful links
Don't overplan

I will freely admit to being as guilty as anyone of this, but: Please try not to overplan your trip to Italy. That's a two-fold plea:

  1. Plan everything, but don't feel compelled to stick to the plan. I think it's a fine idea to work out all the details of what you plan to do—if nor no other reason than it will help you get a handle of what you are able to get done, and start making the hard choices of what you have time for and what you should leave for the next trip to Italy. (Always assume you will retrun!)

    But then do not book absolutely every second in advance (that leaves no room to adjust things as you go to accommodate changing interests, sudden festivals, or unexpected invitations), and please do not attempt to stick to the schedule if it turns out to be overly ambitious and startrs making you miserable.

    Rememeber Clark W. Griswold, the Chevy Chase dad in the Vacation movies, always bound and detemrined to get to WallyWorld come hell or dead aunties? Yeah, don't be that guy. No one in that family was having any fun.
  2. Don't try to pack too much in. A vacation is not meant to be all about checking sights off a list or dashing from place to place to fit in as much as humanly possible. It's about enjoying yourself.

    So do that. Enjoy yourself. Take a hint from the Italian concept of la bel far' niente—the beauty of doing nothing—and take a break from the sightseeing every once in a while.

    Leave some time to stop and sip the cappuccino.
Consider a tour

I'm all for planning your own trip‚ and this website is set up to help you do just that—but some people might just as well prefer to leave all the planning, logistics, transportation, lodging, and gathering of information to the professionals and simply sign up with a guided tour.

Nothing wrong with that. Just take my advice and choose a tour that emphasizes small groups over large crowds, local transport over big tour buses, and fun cultural experiences over sightseeing checklists. You'll have a better time, and probably spend less for it. Here are a few of my favorite tour companies who emphasize just that.

1-5 days

1-2 weeks

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