by Rick Steves, Tribune Content Agency, January 12, 2015
Italy may be the cradle of the Renaissance, but lately it's been feeling like a work in progress. Travelers in the last few seasons have been finding cultural treasures buried behind scaffolding or removed from view because of ambitious renovation schemes. The good news is that many of these projects are winding down. Here is the latest for traveling smart in Italy in 2016:
First, pack a little extra patience. Expect tight security at the big sights throughout Italy. Even with reservations or sightseeing passes in hand, crowds are basically unavoidable at major destinations in peak season. Crowding at state museums is now especially bad on the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free and reservations aren't accepted. Avoid visits on free days to top museums like Florence's Uffizi Gallery and Naples' National Archaeological Museum.
In Florence, visitors with advance reservations or the Firenze Card sightseeing pass can skip the ticket-buying line (but you'll still have to get through security-check bottlenecks). At the Uffizi, there may be a queue to pick up your reservation, another 30-minute wait to enter, and then a slow shuffle through security -- and that's with a reservation or a Firenze Card.
At Florence's Duomo, the big news is the reopening of the completely revamped Duomo Museum, whose masterpieces (such as Ghiberti's bronze doors) once adorned the adjoining cathedral, baptistery, and bell tower. New themed tours at the Duomo (which cost about $40) include a visit to the north terrace of the cathedral (otherwise not accessible to the public), an opportunity to watch contemporary stonemasons chiseling away in the Duomo workshop, and an up-close look at the baptistery's glittering mosaics.
Florence's Uffizi Gallery is still undergoing its massive, years-long renovation to improve security, lighting, and climate controls. Most recently, the Early Renaissance rooms -- the first rooms that visitors enter -- have reopened. Whenever you visit, you can expect that some works will have shifted to new locations or have been temporarily removed from view. The building may be centuries old, but the top two floors are now covered by a free Wi-Fi network.
On Florence's Piazza S.S. Annunziata, the Brunelleschi-designed Hospital of the Innocents now houses a new museum, Museo degli Innocenti. It tells the story of the Renaissance-era institution devoted to the care and protection of children, with exhibits focusing on the infants left at the "wheel of the innocents" -- a sort of lazy Susan that allowed the destitute to abandon their babies anonymously.
Always crowded Rome will be particularly jammed this year. Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be a special Jubilee Holy Year, and the Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica will be open (it's usually only opened once every 25 years). Expect plenty of pilgrims and some extra security precautions at St. Peter's.
With the ever-present crowds at the Vatican Museums these days, advance reservations are a must. But if you haven't planned ahead, you can often get priority-entry tickets at the tourist office in St. Peter's Square or in the basilica's foyer.
One of the biggest disappointments for visitors to Rome in recent years has been finding the Trevi Fountain under renovation. Emptied of water and laddered with scaffolding, it could be viewed only by shuffling through a quick-moving queue on a narrow platform. But the renovation has been completed, Neptune is surfing through his wet kingdom again, and tourists are tossing coins into the fountain to ensure they'll return to Rome. That may sound silly, but every year I go through this ritual ... and it actually seems to work.
All that restoration work was paid for by Fendi, the Rome-based fashion house. Other luxury brands have followed suit: the jeweler Bulgari is paying to re-level the 18th-century Spanish Steps, and the leather outfitter Tod's is financing the ongoing refurbishment of the Colosseum.
In the Cinque Terre, the hiking trails linking Italy's five cutest towns are finally beginning to reopen (five years after a flash rainstorm caused devastating flooding). The trail from Monterosso to Vernazza is officially open; the trail from Vernazza to Corniglia is passable but officially closed, and the trail from Corniglia to Manarola and Riomaggiore (the famed Via dell'Amore) is closed and impassable for now -- but expected to reopen by summer 2016.
With the emergence of huge new middle classes in China and India, millions of people suddenly have enough money to afford their dream of seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Sistine Chapel. This development, combined with the crowds any Holy Year draws, plus the general popularity of Italy, points to massive numbers descending on the country in 2016. Any and all tips and tricks to avoid crowds should be fully employed for a visit to Italy's more famous sights in the coming year.
This article was written by RICK STEVES and Tribune Content Agency from Rick Steves Travel - PBS and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.