by Rick Steves, January 31, 2020
The big news in European travel is that its tourist sites and popular cities are more crowded than ever — and that's probably most true for Italy. With all the crowds heading for the same few attractions, popular sights and destinations are packed, and ticket lines are long.
Fortunately, Italy is better organized than ever for the huge crowds that descend on it each year — but only for those who equip themselves with good information and use it. Those who don't may find themselves wondering if Rome is nicknamed "the Eternal City" for the long lines that they spent so much of their vacation standing in. For smart travelers headed to Italy in 2020, staying up on the latest news will translate into many precious hours saved — and lots of frustration avoided.
As ever, my top tip for Italy is to book your sightseeing ahead of time as much as possible. Sure, this limits your spontaneity — but it's a small price to pay for the extra time it gives you to relax in a café, take an evening stroll, or countless other activities more enjoyable than standing in interminable lines. It's more important than ever to book ahead for big-time sights, most notably Rome's Vatican Museums (home of the Sistine Chapel) and Florence's Uffizi Gallery, Accademia (with Michelangelo's David), and Duomo dome climb. (This is especially true for the Uffizi and Accademia, now that the Firenze Card sightseeing pass no longer includes skip-the-line privileges at either museum.)
Each year, more sights give you the option to book ahead. You can now skip ticket lines at Milan's Duomo by buying in advance online, as well as at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice — even for same-day tickets. The small fee some sights charge for advance bookings is always a good buy.
Many sights require advance reservations outright (Milan's Last Supper, Rome's Borghese Gallery, Florence's Brancacci Chapel, Padua's Scrovegni Chapel), and now that list also includes Rome's Colosseum, where reservations can sell out weeks ahead. (Given the crowds, even lesser-known sights may require you to book a slot — for example, the roof of Venice's recently opened T Fondaco dei Tedeschi luxury mall, popular for its sweeping views.)
Even with visitor-entry limits, some sights can still so packed that they can be hard to enjoy. In high season, I'm not sure it's worth braving the mob scene to go inside the Colosseum. After all, for most of us, at least half the thrill of the Colosseum is seeing it from the outside.
Longer sightseeing hours also help relieve pressure and are smart to take advantage of. At the Vatican Museums, travelers can now reliably plan for a Friday evening visit from mid-April through October, when the museums stay open until 11 p.m. In Venice, the Doge's Palace is now open in peak season until 9 p.m., and even later on weekends. Padua's Scrovegni Chapel, where art lovers flock to experience Giotto's beautifully preserved frescoes, now lets peak-season visitors book nighttime visits (between 7 and 10 p.m.). Evening visits almost always guarantee a less-crowded experience.
Infrastructure improvements are always good news for travelers. In Florence, the T2 tram line is now the best option for getting to and from the airport (its other terminus is the main train station): It runs frequently, is much cheaper than a taxi ride, and takes just 20 minutes.
Always-intense Naples will be especially chaotic this year, as construction projects are underway throughout the city. Visitors arriving by cruise ship should keep in mind that Naples' tram — normally useful for connecting the cruise port to the city center — is not currently running.
But travelers heading south from Naples to Pompeii do have some new transportation options. City Sightseeing now offers a shuttle bus from Naples' cruise port and main train station right to Pompeii in 30 minutes. Compared to this bus, the Circumvesuviana commuter train (which I've long recommended for this trip) is cheaper, about 10 minutes faster, and much more frequent — but it also tends to be dingy, hot, congested, and full of pickpockets. The more pleasant bus requires some planning, as it runs just three times a day in summer, and each Pompeii-bound bus has a set return time (about 3–4 hours after arriving). Another new option is the Campania Express tourist train, which runs several times a day in peak season along the same tracks as the Circumvesuviana, but is less packed, more secure, and air-conditioned.
For visitors with enough time in Milan to venture beyond the Duomo neighborhood, I now recommend checking out the redeveloped Porta Nuova neighborhood just north of the center, with a sparkling forest of skyscrapers surrounding a park. An hour spent wandering this happy land of sleek-and-successful urban Italy does wonders to expand your understanding of Milan (and Italy).
While most travelers come to Italy to enjoy its historical treasures and bask in its rich culture, a rise in tourism means an increase in disrespectful visitors, and Italy's cities are struggling to find effective ways of curbing bad behavior. Rome, for example, now fines tourists for jumping in the Trevi Fountain, and last year the city enacted a ban on sitting on the city's iconic Spanish Steps. Violators face a €250 fine (or more, if they damage anything).
My mark of a good traveler is how they enjoy Italy. Partly that's about taking Italy on its own terms, and learning to love its "beautiful chaos." But these days, when it comes to navigating the popular and crowded sights its most popular cities, enjoying Italy also requires some planning ahead.