Take the audio tour, Museums 101, Italy, Italy (Photo )
Take the audio tour

A guide to getting the most out of visiting Italy's museums

Take the audio tour, Museums 101, Italy, Italy. (Photo )

Italy is just chock full o' history and art. It has enjoyed quite the prodigious output over the past millennia or so.

And, by the end of your vacation, you’ll feel like you must have seen it all.

You'll visit ample amounts of ancient ruins, a multitude of medieval castles, gobs of Gothic cathedrals, reams of Renaissance paintings, a plethora of palazzi, numerous neoclassical sculptures, miles of modern art, and a heck of a lot in between.

It can get overwhelming, so take these few hints in your back pocket to help get the most out of these grand halls o’ great art without getting brain overload.

Ten Tips to Enjoying Museums

  1. Visit twice. Some museums are just too big to attempt in a day—the Vatican and Uffizi in particular come to mind. If you have the time and the inclination, spread out the visit over several days. 
  2. Split up. Nothing is so subjective as taste in art, and there’s no reason you and your companions need to stick together in museums and spend equal time perusing all the same paintings. If you part ways at the front door and set a time to meet, you can each go through at your own pace and look at whatever darn well pleases you. This strategy also gives you some time apart (even the closest of friends and family get on one another’s nerves after a while). 
  3. Take the audio tour. The 1990s brought a wonderful revolution to museum visits. Almost gone are the ancient, stilted cassette audio guides that march every visitor in lock step from one masterpiece to the next. Nowadays, most audio “tours” are digital, often little wands that you hold like an elongated cellular phone. The works on display have numbers next to them, which you just punch into the wand’s keypad and it starts spewing out facts and background galore on the work, artist, era, and so on. When you tire of it, just hit stop and wander to the next painting. You go through at your own pace and hear only about what intrigues you. Brilliant.
  4. Take a guided museum tour. You can learn a lot more than you would on your own if you’re led through the collections by a certified expert, who will explain the significance and background of the most important works and answer all of your questions. » more
  5. Know your art history. Art is much more interesting and engaging when you have some idea what you’re looking at. Just a little brushing up on major artists and movements, whether you just skim your guidebook for it or take a course in art history before you embark on the trip, will enrich any museum-going experience.
  6. Draw cartoon balloons. Not on the paintings themselves. The guards take a pretty dim view of that sort of thing. I mean, put dialogue into the mouths of the figures on the canvas. Most of us get a little punchy after too many hours spent soberly contemplating creative genius. Feel free to make up stories to go with the scenes. Look for humorous details the artist painted in—any large canvas of a courtly scene or a banquet will feature things like a dog and monkey eyeing each other warily under the table, or two servants getting frisky with each other in the background.
  7. Know when the museum closes. Museums empty out in the later hours, especially the biggies that routinely stay open late on Fridays. If you plan to close the joint and are a fan of museum books and postcards, however, always check when the gift shop shuts its doors. For some idiotic reason, museum gift shops often close 30 minutes before the museum itself shuts the gates, so drop in early if need be (or plan to return for your shopping).
  8. Concentrate on the masterpieces. You have to pace yourself, or even a moderate-sized museum will overwhelm you. Do not feel obligated to look at it all. On a first visit, or if you have limited time, just concentrate your energies on select paintings. Skip whole wings if you don’t feel like going through. Many museums include on their floor plans a list of the masterpieces. Alternately...
  9. Look at what you like. In the end, art is supposed to be enjoyable, not a chore. There’s something liberating about going through a museum and just looking at the paintings, pausing at the ones that you find most visually intriguing and studying them, and moving on without ever even glancing at the little placard that tells the name of the artist, the title, and the background info. Enjoy the art for art's sake. I promise, there will be no test at the end.
  10. Try small, private museums. You wouldn’t believe the places you can find where wealthy collectors left behind dusty old mansions jumbled with valuable bric-a-brac ranging from Ming vases and Roman reliefs to medieval suits of armor and occasional paintings by a Renaissance master. Although few of the individual pieces, or the collections as a whole, tend to be first rate, they offer fascinating insights into one man or family’s tastes and styles—and often as not these places are preserved exactly as the collector left them... » more
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  • Take the audio tour, Museums 101, Italy (Photo )
  • Take the audio tour, Museums 101, Italy (Photo )
Activities, walks, & excursions links
Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).