How to save money on sightseeing in Italy
All the ways to save a few bucks on seeing the sights, from free sights and admission-free days at museums to passes and discounts
You'd think that the sightseeing would be one place where your costs are fixed and there's no wiggle room for savings—besides the obvious (and undesirable) option of simply skipping the sights. After all, if the Vatican Museums want to charge €14 to get in, you're just going to have to pay €14 or miss the Sistine Chapel, right?
Read on for these and other strategies for saving money on your sightseeing.
Be a freeloader - Free sights in Italy
Some of the very best sightseeing in Italy is free. The ancient Pantheon, Spanish Steps, and Trevi Fountain are all free in Rome. So are the Ponte Vecchio and San Lorenzo market in Florence. You can cruise the Grand Canal in Venice for the price of a (water) bus ticket, and tour its glass factories for free.
And let's not forget the grand cathedrals and churches—living textbooks of art history in the form of architecture, paintings, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, and sculpture. St. Peter's in Rome, St. Mark's in Venice, the Duomo of Florence, and literally thousands upon thousands of other basilicas, cathedrals, and churches across Italy. These treasure troves of art are absolutely free of charge—with a few very notable exceptions (mostly in Florence, some in Venice).
Also free: the great piazze (squares) and fountains of Italy—Piazza Navona in Rome, Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Piazza San Marco in Venice—not to mention the twisting cobblestone alleys of Italy's medieval towns, and the incredible countryside vistas of Tuscany and Sicily.
Most wineries—or their cellars-cum-shops in the nearest towns (especially in places like Tuscany's Montepulciano)—offer free tours, often accompanied by a gratis tipple at the end.
Striking up a conversation with a shopkeep or taxi driver costs you nothing but time and gets you an insider's view of the country.
A hike into the countryside outside some hill town or riverside village to visit a monastery, mountaintop, ruined castle, isolated church, ancient tomb, whatever, that's free, too.
By the way, even though free days are great news, they're also far from a secret. Expect crushing crowds on these free days as everyone from cash-strapped school groups to penny-pinching locals to savvy tourists tries to cash in on these institutions' largesse.
Become a sightseeing VIP - Museum passes
Did you know you spend a day exploring Rome—perhaps visit the Colosseum and then tour the exquisite Galleria Borghese museum—riding the buses and metro at will and then heading out to the beach for sunset without ever waiting in a single line... and more importantly without ever opening your wallet to buy a ticket?
This is the VIP world of museum cards and city passes, something the rest of Europe discovered ages ago and that Italy is finally warming up to. After experimenting tentatively with cumulative tickets, Rome is finally coming close to getting its Roma Pass (www.romapass.it) right: €23 for three days, and it covers public transport, free admission to the first two sights you visit, and reduced admission on all the others covered by the pass (and there are many big-ticket sights in there).
As I said, Italy has been slow to jump on the one-ticket-fits-all method of corralling tourists, but it is responding slowly. Some cities, like Turin, are getting it right: starting at €19 for 2 days, the Torino+Piemonte Card (www.turismotorino.org) covers public transportation, admission to 160 sights, and discounts on sightseeing buses, tours, opera tickets, and more. Other cities often have cumulative tickets covering all the local civic museums (Florence), or even churches (Venice).
Rarely will a pass cover guided tours, renting an audio tour—those wands or portable CD or tape players you can carry around the museum—or special exhibits, and may be invalid during special events.
Fish for discounts
- Students: Get an ISIC (the only international-accepted student ID; www.isic.org) and always ask "Studente?" when you have to pay for anything from a plane or rail ticket to museum admission. You'll often find anywhere from five to fifty percent lopped off the price. And yes, the ISIC card works much better than your own student ID (especially as pertains to the tip below about arcane state museum rules).
- Seniors: Anyone over 60 or 65 is going to get a discount on most admission charges, car rentals, trains, and sometimes (but increasingly rarely) plane tickets. In Italian, ask in a questioning voice at the ticket counter anziano? ("ancient one"—an honorific, not an insult) or pensionato? ("retiree"). Your passport as proof of age is all you need. (Except for when you buy your plane ticket and rent your car through a U.S. agency, your AARP card won't really do you any good.)
- Teachers: You often can snag similar discounts as the students—even if you don't have any in tow! Always ask for a "professor" discount, and you'll strike discounted gold maybe half the time. You, too, can get an international teacher's ID—called the ITIC—from www.isic.org).
Over 18 / under 65? Pretend you're Canadian
For arcane political reasons, most national and state-run museums in Italy (any place with an official title that includes Museo Statale or Museo Nazionale) are either free or offer reduced admission to anyone under 18 or over 60 or 65...WITH THE EXCEPTION OF AMERICANS. No, this is not anti-Americanism run amok. There's a perfectly good explanation. (Warning: arcane political reason coming up.)
These museums and sights are free to both the callow and the distinguished is because the governments of most countries have signed a reciprocity agreement to grant one another's youths and seniors the same discounts they would get at home. The United States never signed this agreement since there are no national museums—or rather, there is only one, the Smithsonian, and it's already free. (OK, so it's not a explanation we get to be happy about, but it is a legit one.)
That said, many ticket-takers at individual sights could care less which country issued your passport. They understand that, no matter what the nationality, students are poor and seniors are often working on a tight budget, so they don't bother enforcing the anti-Yankee provision—sort of a don't ask/don't tell policy. Always just smile sweetly, ask hopefully studente? or pensionato? and much of the time they won't bother asking for proof of citizenship (though for students they'll usually ask for the ISIC card). They'll just give you the discount.
- Italy sights that are free
- Sightseeing passes in Rome, Venice, and Florence
- More info for students
- More info for seniors
This material was last updated February 2011. All information was accurate at the time.
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