How I Toured Italy on a Budget

Two friends and myself traveled to Venice, Florence, Rome, and Santorini on a spring break that lasted 18 days. With lots of spreadsheets and budgeting skills we managed to have the time of our lives without breaking the bank.

FOOD

Like many people, food is one of my favorite things about traveling. There is no better way to embrace a culture by trying the same food that the locals do. However, most of the time the food can be the biggest thing draining your pocketbook. On our trip, my friends and I went to the grocery store and bought things for dinners and breakfasts. We picked up lunch meats, breads, and LOTS of apples. We made a lot of our meals in the apartments we were renting and splurged on one or two really special meals every few days. Sure, we had about three cones of gelato a day and enjoyed the BEST pizza of our lives (GUSTA PIZZA in Florence) but when you are walking all day and seeing new things, you don’t really think about food until you’re starving. If you do decide to go to a sit down restaurant in Italy, make sure to ask about a cover charge. Most restaurants charge a fee for sitting down and even extra for using the silverware. Unless you are dying to go to this restaurant, I wouldn’t advise paying more than 2 euro just for sitting down. Save that money and get yourself a nice scoop of gelato.

Getting from Place to Place

Figuring out the best ways to get around takes practice. In my opinion, it is more convenient and faster to take trains from city to city. Taking a bus is an option, but with so many places to see in a couple weeks, we didn’t want to waste six hours in a stinky bus. Many railway companies have member cards you can buy for a small price and then use to buy 50% off tickets. Sometimes, you will even get discounts on tickets just because you are a student. Never be afraid to ask!

Taking a night train is a great option when you are going a far distance from one city to another. They are often much cheaper than daytime tickets and you can just sleep the whole time. My favorite train company in Italy is Italo. The prices are very reasonable and the trains are very well kept and fast. They have representatives at every major rail station to help you with anything you need.

Once you arrive to your destination, one of the first things you should do is find out about their public transportation. Every city is different on their vehicle of choice. In Venice, you travel everywhere by water taxi. In Rome, we used the tram and bus systems. In Santorini, we enjoyed traveling everywhere by four-wheelers that you can rent for 15 euro a day.  When it comes to taxis and trams, look into group tickets and joint day passes. You will spend more paying for a ticket every time you get on the tram rather than buying a three day pass. You can hop on and off as much as you want and will save lots of money.

Besides the conventional forms of transportation, the way we used the most was our own feet. I have never walked as much in my life as I did on that trip. Pack a good pair of walking shoes before you leave! You’ll use them.

Finding a Place to Lay Your Head

Before leaving on our trip, we spent a few weeks comparing prices for places to stay in every city. In Venice, the Generator Hostel was the best option. Hostels in Florence and Rome were much more pricey for us because it was during the Easter holiday. We chose to use the online home rental website called AirBNB. That was one of the best decisions we made the whole trip! It was a much cheaper option and each place had its own kitchen we could use. Santorini was the only place where we booked a room in a hotel, but even then it only cost us eleven euro a night. Just always make sure to compare all your options and only choose places where you know you will be safe.

The Most Beautiful Sights are Free

Personally, my favorite things we saw during the whole trip didn’t cost us a dime. We got lost in the streets of Venice, people watched in Florence, had a picnic in front of the Coliseum, and witnessed the most spectacular sunset in Santorini. Florence was the most expensive of all the cities when it came to popular tourist sites. I didn’t pay 24 euro and wait in a three-hour line to see the David but I saw the replica outside and it was pretty cool. It all depends on your personal preferences.

Put Down the Keychain

I used to be one of those kids that needed a souvenir from every place I visited. They little knickknacks always ended up sitting on a shelf in my room collecting dust though. So instead of collecting useless things, I started collecting pendants from every place I went. They all cost me under 10 euro and each one has sentimental value. We have also started collecting cool small things we randomly find. For example, I found a blue spray painted key in Santorini and a volcano rock from our hike. These small items will always bring back a special memory. They are way better than any keychain or a magnet I could find at every store on the street.

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Living a Dream

I haven’t been able to blog about my spring break adventures since I was in Venice! But unfortunately, the two-week trip through Italy and Greece has come to an end. It was a whirlwind of trains, planes, and buses. I met many wonderful people and have three new favorite places I have ever been. My favorites were Venice, Santorini, and Rome. (I’m going to go back to Florence when I have the money to enjoy it more.)

So, here comes a very long post to update you on what I’ve been up to!

Let’s start with Florence:

I’ll be totally honest, Florence wasn’t my favorite place. Looking back, I would have spent a couple more days in Venice instead of the extra days in Florence. It is hard to really see everything in the city without spending large amounts of money and wait hours in line. However, I did have a lot of fun in Florence with Emily and Kailyn! We rented a very nice apartment in a beautiful square in the city. We had our own kitchen so we saved money by cooked meals in the apartment. Really the only things we bought outside of grocery stores were coffees, gelato, and pizza.

There are three things I will suggest to people when they visit Florence:

  1. Climb the 414 steps up Giotto’s Bell Tower next to the Duomo to see the best view of Florence.

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2. Spend a few hours in the Boboli Gardens

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3. Visit Gusta Pizza!!!

This is the BEST pizza in Florence for the CHEAPEST price. We each ate a whole pizza by ourselves…its that good.

Click here to visit the yelp page for Gusta Pizza.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the real David because it cost 24 euro to get in and the line was more than 3 hours long. However, I enjoyed the nice replica very much. Instead of seeing Dave, I went to the church near our apartment and stumbled upon a work by Michelangelo. So there ya go.

I think I would have enjoyed the city more if I had the money to do shopping, go to the expensive restaurants, and visit the galleries. I suppose I will have to go back when I have had a big girl job someday.

The next stop in the trip was Rome:

Rome sure did not disappoint. I didn’t fall in love with an Italian pop star like Lizzie McGuire but I did fall in love with the city.

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Rome is bursting with history, culture, and life. I’ve always known about the major landmarks like the Colosseum and the Roman Forum but when I finally saw them with my own eyes, I was blown away.

On the first full day in Rome, the girls and I went to the supermarket to get sandwich stuff and chips for a picnic at the Colosseum. We could have spent the whole day there people watching and gazing at the monument. It was a perfect day!

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For the rest of the day we walked from monument to monument taking in the history and walking off all the gelato and pasta we had consumed so far. After we saw the coliseum, we walked along the Roman Forum and walked up the steps of the Roman Parliament Building.

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After a lot of searching, we found the Pantheon. The ancient building was packed with people because it was Easter weekend but the monument is so large that there was lots of room to explore the inside.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get to check an item off my bucket list: Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain. The dang thing was under construction. Ever since Lizzie McGuire met Paolo by the fountain, I have wanted to do it. Ohhhh well. I suppose I will HAVE to go back.

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Our emotion after finding out the Trevi is under construction.

On one of the last days, we made the trek to Vatican City. My teachers from Holy Rosary would be so proud. Vatican City was absolutely spectacular. It is free to enter into St. Peter’s Basilica but you do have to wait in a line for about two hours. We met a large group of Americans waiting in line though so it went by very fast! The basilica was very worth the wait!! When I walked in, I was stopped in my tracks by how massive and beautiful it was. The tombs of all the popes are housed right there in the Vatican and they are massive. On the main level, the tombs are so ornate and detailed in their design. In the catacombs below the basilica, most of the tombs are very simple and modest. The catacombs are also where the body of St. Peter, the first pope, is said to be kept. Pictures were not allowed but you can imagine how breathtaking the tomb/room is.

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After walking through the catacombs, we hopped on an elevator and climbed very steep stairs to the top of the dome. From up top, you can see the beautiful mosaics up close and personal. Rather unexpectedly, we also got to watch a mass from the top of the dome.

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We watched the mass for a little while and then climbed our way through the spiral staircases all the way to the top of the Vatican. There is the best view of Vatican City and Rome in the distance from up there.

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The only thing I regret from the day trip to the Vatican was not getting Grandma Casserly a hat with the face of Pope Francis on it. Totally slipped my mind. Never fear though, I have been searching eBay. There is still hope.

There is so much to see in Rome that it is impossible to do everything even if you are there for 6 days. However, I am very satisfied with everything we saw. So many people only dream of seeing the places I have been to. I am one lucky girl.

The day after we went to the Vatican, we packed our suitcases (strangely better each time we pack them…) and made our way to the airport. After taking the wrong train 40 minutes in the opposite direction (whoops) we arrived just in time to make our flight to Santorini.

Santorini, Greece (AKA HEAVEN ON EARTH)

Santorini is an island six hours from the mainland of Greece and in my opinion, one of the most breathtaking places on the planet. Even though the weather was not particularly ideal the first few days, we had a couple of days of sunshine and blue skies.

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First let me say that the Hotel Villa Manos, where we stayed, at was perfect. It is located just outside of Fira, so in the middle of the island. The family that runs the hotel are the most generous people I have ever met. They were so helpful in every aspect of the visit. The husband picked us up from the airport when we arrived and dropped us off there when we left at 5 am. He woke up at 4:30 am on his Easter morning to take us to the airport. They we wonderful people. When guests leave, they always take a picture with them and post it on their Facebook. They really make you feel like a part of their family!

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The three of us and the owner of the hotel

One of the coolest things about Santorini, besides the great views and cliff sides, are the animal friends I met there! For anyone that knows me well you know my infatuation with dogs. In Santorini, the dogs just go about their day roaming around the island just doing their thing. Most of them all have collars and their owners own shops right around the corner. The dogs just walk right up to you and request  you to pet them. When we went to Oia, there were dogs just sunbathing all over the sidewalks. A couple even picked up rocks for us to throw for them and play. What a life it would be to be a dog on an island in Greece.

I also met a few very nice donkeys around the island. Santorini is the island that you see in the movies where donkeys carry people and bags up from the ports to the towns. Now they are more of a tourist attraction. People can buy a donkey ride up from the Old Port in Fira for a small price. There were a few of them in a farm right by our hotel that I happened to meet on a walk one afternoon. I named my favorite one Cleo.

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The best way to get around the island is by renting four-wheelers. They only cost 15 euro for 24 hours and one tank of gas lasts you the full-time and only costs around 10 euro. It was so much cheaper than taking taxis or the bus around the island. The coastal roads in Santorini are breathtaking. There are two routes you can take to get to Oia. You can take the road along the beach or the road along the cliffs. Riding them with my friends is positively one of the happiest times of my life so far. You feel so free and exhilarated.

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My favorite part of Santorini was Oia. This is the part of the island that you always see in the movies with the white cave houses. It is also the best place to watch the sunset.

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It is hard to describe with words how beautiful Santorini is. I think I need to meet a Greek man and move there and never leave. The Greek people are so kind and generous. I never met a single person that wasn’t quick to help us in anything we needed.

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Even though I didn’t once use the TWO swimsuits I brought on spring break, I saw so many places and things I only ever dreamed of seeing. I have wanted to visit Venice since I read a book about it in 5th grade. I wanted to go to Rome when I watched the Lizzie McGuire Movie and I have always wanted to go to Santorini and yell “OPA!!!” just like they did on Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

I have already seen so many things, and I am not even half way through my study abroad. Even though I miss friends and family back home, I will never be the same after this experience. I am always going to have this thirst for meeting new people and seeing new things. I guess the next step is to find a big girl job that supports that. We shall see, but meanwhile, I will be living every moment to the fullest while I can.