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Day by Day Itinerary

One of the miracles of Italy is that a relatively small country contains such a wealth of stunning scenery and beautiful cities. This vacation is your opportunity to savor both. You'll enjoy a guided tour of Tuscany, the Italian Riviera, and the Alps—ageless, evocative regions that brim with history, striking vistas, and rich traditions. Discover Florence’s Renaissance treasures and Orvieto's ancient charms. In the Italian Riviera, you’ll stay in the Santa Margherita area and visit picturesque Portofino. As you journey through the Alps, you'll also visit fair Verona. Then travel high into Southern Tyrol to Bolzano, surrounded by the dramatic peaks of the Dolomites. Framed by brief stays in Rome and Venice, it's a superb opportunity to experience Italy's treasures—all at Grand Circle's exceptional pacing and value.

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    Your flight departs this evening.

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    A Grand Circle representative will meet you at the airport and assist you to your hotel, where you'll set off on an orientation walk of the area. Tonight, meet your fellow travelers, including those from the optional pre-trip extension to Rome, Italy, and your Program Director over a Welcome Drink followed by a Welcome Party at your hotel.

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    After breakfast, begin your journey to Florence, stopping along the way to visit the hilltop town of Orvieto. Set upon the flat crown of a steep volcanic butte, Orvieto has been an impregnable town since the time of the ancient Etruscans. It was a major center of commerce and learning in the Middle Ages—Thomas Aquinas taught there—and its independent-minded leaders often squabbled with the Papacy. The construction of the 14th-century Orvieto Cathedral is distinctive in its use of basalt and travertine, which are of volcanic origin. Its three-gabled facade is exceptional, with vivid bas-reliefs, statuary, and mosaics. Become acquainted with the area during a discovery walk with your Program Director, then enjoy lunch at a local restaurant before continuing on.

    Arrive in Florence this afternoon, and delight in an exclusive Discovery Series Italian With & Without Words language lesson—learn some of the most useful Italian words you will use during your trip from your Program Director. Then, join us for an exclusive Discovery Series presentation on the history of the Art of the Renaissance to prepare you for more meaningful discoveries in Florence and Tuscany.

    This evening, gather with your fellow travelers at a local restaurant for a special Welcome Dinner.

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    This morning, embark on a walking tour of Florence with an expert local guide. To begin, you'll marvel at the exterior of the beautiful Duomo. This elegant church with its remarkable octagonal Brunelleschi dome is one of the most magnificent structures in Florence. You'll also visit the Accademia Museum where you'll have an opportunity to see Michelangelo's famous statue of David. Our tour continues with a stroll through Piazza Signoria, the busy square that was the ancient center of city life during the days of the Medici. Perhaps in your free time you'll visit Santa Croce Gothic church, and its tombs and memorials to many famous Italians like Dante, Galileo, and Michelangelo.

    This evening, enjoy a Home-Hosted Dinner with a local family. You’re sure to savor this family-style meal, as well as the opportunity to learn about everyday life in modern-day Italy.

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    Today is free for you to visit some of Florence's famous sites on your own. The historical center of Florence is full of striking buildings and piazzas and is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And you may want to visit the Casa Guidi, Elisabeth Barrett-Browning's home in Florence, just next to the Ponte Vecchio; or, across the street, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. Or perhaps you'll explore the Uffizi Gallery. This world-renowned museum is home to masterpieces by such legendary artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Giotto, Titian, Michelangelo, and many more.

    You can also choose to spend the morning on an optional Treasures of Tuscany tour to discover the rare beauty of Tuscany. Whatever your personal vision of Tuscany may be—rolling hills covered with vineyards; remote medieval towns and sun-drenched castles; a grass-wrapped bottle of robust Chianti—you may find it today, along with many other treasures of this beloved wine country. You'll head out toward the medieval hill town of San Gimignano, known as the “Town of Towers.” You'll enjoy free time to explore the narrow, stone-paved streets that twist inside the walls of this quaint town. Then travel through the scenic Chianti wine country to Castello Oliveto, a 15th-century manor where you will take a tour of the residence and its ancient wine cellar before your included lunch. Enjoy the remainder of your day back in Florence relaxing at your hotel or exploring independently before your evening at leisure. 

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    Your day is free to spend as you please.

    Or, take advantage of a full-day optional tour to Siena. A local guide will take you on a walking tour to discover this medieval walled city, built on three ridges and dominating the land between the valleys of Arbia and Elsa. Siena was a rich and powerful city during the Middle Ages. From the twelfth to the 16th centuries, its banking activities and trade in wool and textiles placed it in direct rivalry with Florence. Its influence decreased after that time, as it spent much of its energies in defense against foreign conquerors.

    Today's Siena still retains the air of the Tuscan Middle Ages. The 334-foot slender Italianate tower of the Town Hall soars from the rim of the Piazza del Campo, an inclined, central square that is one of the most beautiful in all of Italy. Surrounding this square, where an annual horse race called Il Palio takes place, are numerous lovely churches and palaces dating from the twelfth to 16th centuries. Here and throughout the city are some of the most splendid examples of Gothic architecture in Italy. During this optional excursion, you'll have some free time to explore on your own before enjoying an included lunch at a local trattoria.

    Tonight, dinner is in a local restaurant.

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    Today marks the end of your time in Tuscany, and the beginning of your stay in the Italian Riviera. After breakfast, travel to Santa Margherita—stopping along the way in Pisa, where you have free time to explore the Piazza dei Miracoli (the Square of Miracles) at your own pace. The square is decorated by the stunning marble architecture of its Cathedral, the Baptistery (with its marvelous echo), and, of course, the Leaning Tower. This famous tower brings to mind one of civilization's most illustrious names—Galileo Galilei, the genius who helped to found modern science. At the square's Cathedral, you can still view the lamp that inspired Galileo's theory of the pendulum. He used the vantage point of the top of Pisa's celebrated Leaning Tower to demonstrate principles of speed and velocity. While in Pisa, you'll also enjoy an included lunch at a local restaurant. 

    Continue on to the Italian Riviera, a strikingly beautiful coastal stretch marked by mountains and promontories falling into sparkling seas, and by gentle hills covered with green forests and vineyards. After checking in to the hotel, enjoy a walk around the vicinity with your Program Director. Tonight, dinner is on your own.

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    After breakfast, enjoy a morning at leisure including lunch on your own.

    This afternoon, join an included excursion to Portofino featuring a scenic boat ride (depending on the season and weather permitting). Portofino is the gem of the Italian Riviera, with an idyllic location on a miniature cove. The town is tiny, and you can walk wherever you wish to go, admiring the pastel-colored houses, lovely gardens, and elegant villas. Stroll past private old villas to the lighthouse, or climb steps from the port to the little parish Church of St. George with its panoramic view of the port and bay.

    Return to your hotel in the early evening, and enjoy dinner on your own.

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    Take advantage of a full day to savor the delights of the Italian Riviera according to your own interests. Perhaps you’d like to take a walk along the seafront and explore a traditional fishing village, or hike one of the many local trails for spectacular views.  Nearby villages wait to be explored, such as “Cinque Terre” and Chiavari with its morning fruit and vegetable market, one of the prettiest in the region. Or you might want to discover Sestri Levante, a favorite among Italians, which offers something for everyone – hiking, shops, and two lovely beaches.

    Dinner is included at your hotel tonight.

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    After breakfast, begin your journey to Bolzano. Along the way, stop in Verona, where you'll be met by a local guide for a walking tour of the city made famous by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Visit Juliet's iconic balcony and explore the handsome main square, the Piazza dei Signori.

    Arrive in Bolzano in late afternoon. Located high in the Alps near the border of Austria, Bolzano is a true blend of Italian and Tyrolean cultures. Note the architecture of the houses and churches, and the cuisine—all of which are part of Southern Tyrol's distinctive character. This is a mountainous region whose history is long and convoluted, with Italy gaining Southern Tyrol from Austria by the treaty of St. Germain in 1919. Dinner is at a local restaurant this evening.

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    After breakfast, learn about the History of South Tyrol during exclusive Discovery Series discussion that spans from the Middle Ages to modern life in this part of Northern Italy.

    Then set off on a walking tour in the company of an expert local guide introducing you to Bolzano's Austrian and Italian influences. Since medieval times, Bolzano has been a staging point on the route south through the Brenner Pass to Rome. In the Old Town Center, see vivid examples of Bolzano's Germanic Gothic history. Visit the Duomo, a 14th-century wonder featuring remarkable frescoes, and stroll the pedestrian-only Piazza Walther. You'll also enjoy a tasting at a local pub which cold brews their beers in the traditional German style.

    This afternoon, join us for an optional excursion to Renon Mountain, which rises over Bolzano. You'll reach the mountain by cable car, taking in panoramic views of the city and surrounding areas. Continue by train to a nearby village where you'll have time to explore the town and learn more about local life. Then you'll continue to Unterrin for dinner in a local gasthof (tavern).

    Or, enjoy an afternoon to make your own discoveries in Bolzano. Perhaps you'll visit one of the city's museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, or the Museum of Natural History. You may also choose to visit the open-air market.

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    This morning, drive through the Dolomite Mountains, and witness some of the most amazing alpine scenery in Europe. You’ll stop to visit picturesque Lake Carezza and take in the spectacular vista of Latemar Mountain before continuing on to Pordoi Pass, where you'll witness some of the highest peaks in the Alps. You'll savor the hearty alpine food during lunch at a typical South Tyrolean restaurant. Then, travel through the breathtaking Sella Pass and Eggental Valley, followed by a stop at a local resort village. This evening, dinner is on your own.

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    Spend your day at leisure. You may choose to explore the historical streets, shop at the traditional fruit market, or relax at a local cafe.

    Or, you can journey farther into Tyrol as you cross the border with Austria to visit the Tyrolean capital of Innsbruck during an optional tour. Your scenic journey will take you over the Brenner Pass and via the Europabrucke, the tallest road bridge in Europe. The setting is enhanced by the backdrop of the Karwendel foothills' deep green fir and pine forest, and by the snowy peaks beyond. Nestled in a bend of the river Inn, the historic capital of Innsbruck is surrounded by the Alps.

    You'll discover Innsbruck's Old Town, a small area of sturdy medieval houses painted in pastel colors and supported by sloping buttresses. Enjoy a walking tour along the city's main thoroughfares—such as the Maria-Theresien Strasse—to the magnificent City Tower, built in 1442 and later crowned by a Baroque bulbous cupola. Here, you'll encounter the city's Market Square, full of 15th- and 16th-century houses. Beyond, a labyrinth of alleyways invites aimless strolling.

    Perhaps the most charming landmark in Innsbruck is the Golden Roof Palace, erected by Archduke Friedrich IV in the early 15th century as the residence of the Tyrolean sovereigns. You'll have an opportunity to capture its beauty during a photo stop. The tour will come to a close with lunch in a local restaurant followed by free time to explore on your own.

    Back in Bolzano tonight, dinner is at your hotel.

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    Travel to Venice this morning, where you'll experience a local form of transportation known as a vaporetto (a small ferry), which will take you to your hotel.

    This afternoon, enjoy a walking tour of the "City of Canals" in the company of a local expert guide. Your tour begins in the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square), the center of Venice. This square was the heartbeat of the Serenissima (Serene Republic) in the heyday of Venice's glory as a seafaring republic, and the city's major attractions are centered here. It is one of the most beautiful and most photographed squares in all of Europe. Dominated by the lovely St. Mark's Basilica, the spacious square is surrounded with outdoor cafés, and is the perfect place to do a little people watching Italian-style while sipping a cappuccino.

    Ornate St. Mark's Basilica is so richly embellished that it looks as though it could have been moved intact from Istanbul. Though the domed church is a conglomerate of many architectural styles, its main influence is Byzantine. Its facade is adorned with marble and mosaics that depict the life of Christ and St. Mark (whose body was smuggled into Venice in a pork barrel to confound Muslim officials who would refuse to search anything that touched pork).

    Outside the basilica is the campanile (bell tower), which was rebuilt after it collapsed in 1902. It is now open should you want to ascend (via elevator) for a good view of the six cupolas of the church. Around the corner is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doges' Palace. As we view this grand palace from the outside, note that this Venetian-Gothic palazzo is considered by many to be the grandest civic structure in Italy.

    Tonight, enjoy a Farewell Dinner with your travel companions at a local restaurant.

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    • Meals included:

    You'll be escorted to the airport after breakfast for your flight home. Or, extend your stay with our Venice, Italy post-trip extension.

Extensions

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Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect

Pacing

  • 5 locations in 14 days, including 2 single-night stays

Physical Requirements

  • Walk 3 miles unassisted and participate in 3-5 hours of physical activities daily, including stairs
  • Balance and agility are required to board vaporetto (small ferry) in Venice
  • Not accessible for travelers using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Travelers using walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them
  • Program Directors reserve the right to modify participation or send travelers home if their limitations impact the group’s experience

Terrain & Transportation

  • 1 full day at altitudes between 3,000-6,000 feet
  • Uneven walking surfaces, unpaved paths, hills, stairs, and cobblestones
  • Travel by 45-seat motorcoach, 100-seat ferry boat, and vaporetto

Climate

  • Daytime temperatures range from 51-89°F during touring season
  • June-August are the warmest months
  • March and November weather can be unpredictable and change quickly
  • Expect strong, cold winds in the Dolomite Alps in April-May and September-October

Cuisine

  • Meals will be based on the local cuisine

Travel Documents

Passport

Your passport should meet these requirements for this itinerary

  • It should be valid for at least 6 months after your scheduled return to the U.S.
  • It should have the recommended number of blank pages (refer to the handbook for details).
  • The blank pages must be labeled “Visas” at the top. Pages labeled “Amendments and Endorsements” are not acceptable.

Visas

U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips

Accommodations

Main Trip

  • Hotel Victoria

    Rome, Italy | Rating: Superior First Class

    Located in the heart of Rome overlooking the Villa Borghese Park, this Superior-First-Class hotel is the perfect place to relax after exploring the city. Perhaps you’ll take advantage of the indoor and outdoor pools, or health club, or enjoy views from the panoramic terrace. The hotel’s on-site restaurant, the Belisario, is known for its regional Italian cuisine. Your air-conditioned room features a TV, wireless Internet access, and refrigerator.

  • Hotel Albani Firenze

    Florence, Italy | Rating: Superior First Class

    Conveniently located just steps from Florence's historical city center, this Superior First-Class hotel presents modern and Florentine furnishings. Each of the 102 air-conditioned rooms contains satellite TV, a telephone, refrigerator, and private bath. You'll be provided with on-site access to a fitness center and sauna, while refreshments will be on offer at the American Bar, wine cellar, and their Italian restaurant, Bernini.

  • Hotel Jolanda

    Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy

    The elegant Hotel Jolanda is situated close to the seaside, and not far from major sights along the Italian Riviera, like Portofino and Cinque Terre. The hotel features an on-site restaurant offering regional cuisine, a fitness center, sauna, as well as well-tended gardens. Each well-appointed, air-conditioned room includes a private bathroom, hair dryer, minibar, and a safe.

  • Parkhotel Luna Mondschein

    Bolzano, Italy | Rating: Moderate First Class

    The Moderate First-Class Parkhotel Luna Mondschein is located in the historical center of Bolzano, and has been family-owned since 1798. It is within close distance of the Dolomites, and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. During your stay here, you’ll have an opportunity to go bicycling or jogging on the trails nearby, or dine in one of three on-site restaurants. Each room features a TV, wireless Internet access, telephone, and minibar.

  • Continental Hotel

    Venice, Italy | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Located in the center of Venice, the Moderate First-Class Continental Hotel Venice is the former home of a noble Venetian family. Besides overlooking the Grand Canal, you’ll be within easy reach of many main attractions, as well as in close proximity to the railway station. Your air-conditioned room features a TV, wireless Internet access, balcony, and safe.

Extensions

  • Hotel Victoria

    Rome, Italy | Rating: Superior First Class

    Located in the heart of Rome overlooking the Villa Borghese Park, this Superior-First-Class hotel is the perfect place to relax after exploring the city. Perhaps you’ll take advantage of the indoor and outdoor pools, or health club, or enjoy views from the panoramic terrace. The hotel’s on-site restaurant, the Belisario, is known for its regional Italian cuisine. Your air-conditioned room features a TV, wireless Internet access, and refrigerator.

  • Continental Hotel

    Venice, Italy | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Located in the center of Venice, the Moderate First-Class Continental Hotel Venice is the former home of a noble Venetian family. Besides overlooking the Grand Canal, you’ll be within easy reach of many main attractions, as well as in close proximity to the railway station. Your air-conditioned room features a TV, wireless Internet access, balcony, and safe.

Flight Information

Customize Your Trip

Whether you choose to take just a base trip or add an optional pre- and post-trip extension, you have many options when it comes to customizing your trip—and creating your own unique travel experience:

Purchase Flights with Grand Circle

  • Choose the departure city and airline that works best for you
  • Depart from one city and return to another
  • Upgrade your air itinerary based on your travel preferences
  • “Break away” before or after your trip to explore independently or re-energize
  • Combine two or more trips to make the most of your value—and avoid another long flight
  • Extend your discoveries with pre- or post-trip extensions

Make Your Own Arrangements

  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline
  • Purchase optional airport transfers to and from your hotel
  • Extend your Land Tour-only Travel Protection Plan coverage and protect the air arrangements you make on your own—including your frequent flyer miles

OR, leave your air routing up to us and your airfare (as well as airport transfers) will be included in your final trip cost.

Estimated Flight Times

Traveling to Rome, and from Venice, will involve long flights and some cities will require multiple connections. These rigors should be a consideration in planning your trip.

The chart below provides estimated travel times from popular departure cities. Connection times are included in these estimates.

10 reasons to experience Italy: Tuscany, the Alps & the Riviera—in the words of our travelers

We often find that the best endorsements of our discovery-rich vacations come directly from our travelers. From stunning mountain vistas and turquoise seascapes to authentic interactions with locals, here are some of the memorable experiences travelers have shared from our guided tour of Tuscany, the Italian Riviera, and the Alps.

The Dolomite Mountains
"The Italian Alps and the Dolomite tour (included) was breathtaking. The ski slopes were open, so we got to see the skiers in action. The panoramic vistas were so beautiful: I felt like I was turning the pages of National Geographic Magazine everywhere I looked."
A 12-time traveler from Midland, MI

Program Director
"The organization and enthusiasm of Giulio, our Program Director, was truly amazing. He was always available, and his depth of knowledge about the history of all the points of interest was astounding. Giulio has a terrific sense of humor and kept us laughing."
A 6-time traveler from Seal Beach, CA

Rome, Italy pre-trip extension
"We did the pre-trip to Rome for this vacation and would highly recommend it for anyone considering this itinerary. It is informative, leisurely, and overall a great way to meet some of your fellow travelers, along with your Program Director, who accompanies you for the informational tours and points you in the right direction for your own discoveries."
A 2-time traveler from Danbury, CT

Florence
"Florence. Oh Florence. I think I will have to go back there again. The highlight was seeing the David, but there was so much more. We walked so much and went to the Uffizi museum to see the Botticelli paintings and many others."
A 2-time traveler from Waleska, GA

Home-Hosted Dinner
"The Home-Hosted meal went very well. We had a lovely hostess with her husband and pre-teen daughter. She was the only one who spoke English, but they all made us feel so welcomed and helped us learn how they lived on their olive grove farm."
A 3-time traveler from Hebron, MD

Treasures of Tuscany optional tour
"Our favorite adventure was driving into the Tuscan countryside, visiting San Gimignano, and then traveling on into the hills to have dinner at a castle. What a memorable and special night!"
A 4-time traveler from Lutz, FL

Bolzano
"Most memorable moment ... feeling part of the city in Bolzano and walking on the narrow streets among the painted buildings. A fantastic experience."
An 8-time traveler from Plainfield, IL

The Italian Riviera
"Santa Margherita and the Italian Riviera were as picturesque as could be with jaunts to the postcard-perfect town of Portofino and an unexpected train trip to the Cinque Terre area and the cliff-top vistas of "Lovers Lane."
A 7-time traveler from Sarasota, FL

Siena optional tour
"Siena was a fantastic excursion with another wonderful local guide. We learned about their unusual horse race, Il Palio, and the nature of their communities. The church was just beautiful. The floors alone are worth the visit."
A 6-time traveler from Woodbridge, IL

Venice
"Ah Venezia, how varied and different a landscape can a country offer? This was one of our favorite locations. This is truly a place you have to experience to appreciate how exciting and interesting Italy is. Museums, the cathedral at St Mark’s Square, the Gondola ride in the evening, the boat rides to Murano and Burano, the walks through the alleyways over little bridges from one island to another, just breathtaking."
A 3-time traveler from Marco Island, FL

For reservations and information about our guided tour of Tuscany, the Alps, and the Riviera, call 1-800-221-2610

What Makes This Trip Unique

Exclusive Discovery Series Events

  • Italian With & Without Words language lesson. Learn some basic Italian—both verbal and non-verbal—with your Program Director.
  • The Art of the Renaissance discussion. In Florence, learn about the artwork created during this explosion of artistic, cultural, and political ideas.
  • Home-Hosted Dinner. Savor native cuisine at a local family's home, and enjoy lively conversation and camaraderie.
  • History of South Tyrol discussion. Learn about the complex past of this Northern Italian region dating back to the Middle Ages.

Enjoy the opportunity to visit 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Rome
  • Florence
  • San Gimignano
  • Siena
  • Pisa
  • Verona
  • The Dolomites
  • Venice

History, Culture & More

Learn more about the history, art, culture, and more you’ll discover on this trip by reading the features below. These articles were collected from past newsletters, Harriet’s Corner, and special features created for Grand Circle by our team of writers.

Terroir, Italian Style

Northern Italy has a distinct culinary personality—see what defines this regional cuisine.

Read More »

Patrons in the Palazzo

Discover how one influential family, the Medicis, shaped the Renaissance in Florence

Read More »

Michelangelo’s David

Learn the story behind this centuries-old symbol of Florentine strength.

Read More »

History, Culture & More

Terroir, Italian Style

by Julia Chrusciel, for Grand Circle

Regional culture can sometimes trump national affiliation in Italy ...

When you think of Italian food, what comes to mind? Pasta in marinara sauce, eggplant Parmesan, and other dishes swimming in olive oil may be among the first … but all of these popular menu items in the U.S. actually belong to the southern Italian cookbook. When you travel to Northern Italy—a land of mountainous terrain, and shared borders with Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia, and France—prepare yourself for a different experience … and a decidedly different meal.

Genoa

Though Genoa doesn’t get much publicity in terms of its regional cookbook, the city has boasted a bustling maritime trade since the 12th century AD. The Ligurian region boasts many seafood dishes such as burrida, a soup with white fish, shrimp, and mussels. These offerings pair well with Cinque Terre, an internationally lauded local wine produced from the Italian Riviera. For those who prefer the terrestrial to the aquatic, Genoa is the birthplace of pesto, the basil-and-pine-nut sauce that has recently enjoyed a revival among foodies in the United States. Sample the pesto atop corzetti, a round pasta imprinted with a design. The practice derives from the Middle Ages when wealthy merchants would eat their corzetti stamped with their family crest.

Venice

Another northern Italian city with a culture revolving around its relationship to the water, Venice’s many canals served as a bustling center for trade from the ninth to 15th centuries AD. A distinctive Venetian dish, baccala mantecato, fittingly features dried salted cod imported from the Baltic Sea which is then rehydrated and prepared with olive oil, garlic, and parsley. The creamy entree pairs well with Pinot Grigio, a wine produced widely in this region. A more recent addition to the Venetian menu (and quickly after that, to dessert plates around the world) is tiramisu, the origins of which are debated. While some stories claim the dessert first appeared on the plates of rich Italians in the 17th century, most believe that the recipe’s birth can be traced back to the late 1960s.

Bolzano

The Italian city of Bolzano has perhaps the most unpredictable bill of fare, as it often seems more Bavarian than Italian. The Austro-Germanic influence on the city (which is called “Bozen” in German) extends to language, architecture and food. Not surprisingly in this city where 26% of the population speaks German, apple strudel is one of Bolzano’s specialties. Another treat that reflects German and Italian Christmas traditions is called zelten di Bolzano. Unlike its reviled cousin, the American fruitcake, zelten di Bolzano carries connotations of local flavor and freshness. The sweet bread is typically made with produce such as figs, hazelnuts, pine nuts, and oranges and then spiced with cloves, cinnamon, and honey. The finishing touch for zelten di Bolzano is a splash of red wine or brandy in the batter.

Speck, another local delicacy, sways more towards the Italian side of the spectrum. A type of cured ham, speck is prepared by seasoning a piece of ham with a mixture of spices including salt, juniper, laurel, pepper, pine, and cinnamon.  After the encrusted piece of ham is slowly smoked over many months, it is thinly sliced to produce a product similar to prosciutto. Sample speck with grappa, a stiff grape brandy common in the colder mountainous regions of Italy.

Bolzano’s mix of influences may seem out of sync with the rest of Italian culture—though often overlooked for the climate and attractions of the Mediterranean South, northern Italy surprises most travelers with its diversity. Regional culture can sometimes trump national affiliation in Italy, a facet of Italian existence which manifests itself strongly in food culture. From canals to winding mountain passes to shorelines, any way you travel to northern Italy will lead you to a meal to please the gourmet within.

History, Culture & More

Patrons in the Palazzo

The Medicis and the Making of Renaissance Florence

by David Valdes Greenwood from Insider

Botticelli’s “Venus” and Michelangelo’s David. Il Duomo and The Gates of Paradise. Boboli gardens and mulberry trees. The treasures of Florence are legendary. And yet, the very existence of so many of these gems depended on something as fickle as young love. If a beautiful girl with money to spare had not seen something special in an odd-looking boy with big plans but near-empty pockets, the Italian Renaissance might never have happened.

In 1386, Piccarda Bueri, the famously attractive daughter of one of Florence’s wealthiest families, married a young banker whose sloping forehead, thick brow, and wide-set eyes called to mind a Neanderthal. Thankfully, Piccarda wasn’t concerned with the looks of this young suitor named Giovanni. Though he couldn’t yet offer her the lifestyle she was used to or the prestige that attended her lineage, she saw much in him to admire: He possessed a clever mind and an ability to think ahead, skills he said he’d use to turn his modest, newly opened bank into a force to be reckoned with.

Her faith in Giovanni was rewarded. Within two decades, his bank was the most powerful in Italy, and his last name would eventually become synonymous with power: Medici.

Over the course of the next 300 years, the Medicis built monuments, commissioned artists, funded scientific experiments, and amassed the largest library collection in all of Europe. These achievements began in earnest with Piccarda and Giovanni’s son Cosimo, who grew up to become the leading cultural figure of 15th-century Florence. Cosimo was well-known for pennypinching at home so that the Medici wealth could be used to fund the arts and charities. His generosity was expanded upon exponentially as the Medicis who followed him became not only Florence’s default rulers but its richest citizens by far. Though not every Medici was as noble as the elder Cosimo, their dedication to arts and culture never wavered.

If you can name a painter or sculptor who worked here during the Renaissance, it is likely that the Medicis had something to do with him.

Champions of the Arts

The painter of The Birth of Venus was born Alessandro Filipepi, but he is better known by the nickname his brother gave him: Botticelli, which means “little barrel.” By his teens, Botticelli was already an accomplished painter, and the Medici talent scout snapped him up, offering him his own studio space inside the Medici Palace. There, he became comrades with the young bucks of the dynasty, Lorenzo and his ill-fated brother Giuliano (later killed by enemies). With freedom from financial worry and friends in high places, Botticelli was prolific. The brothers were not only his patrons—sometimes they were his subjects. In his Adoration of the Magi, the brothers are present at the nativity, as is Botticelli himself, staring out from the canvas at the viewer.

His most famous piece reveals two sides of the Medicis at once: the political and the personal. As a replication of a lost Roman masterpiece from the reign of Caesar Augustus, The Birth of Venus is meant to suggest that the Medicis were on par with the ancient Roman emperors. But the painting is also a piece with a private subtext: Venus bears a notable resemblance to a Tuscan bombshell upon whom both brothers had nursed unsuccessful crushes, something only a friend like Botticelli would know.

Today, the piece hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, one of the world’s best art museums. One of Lorenzo and Guiliano’s later relatives, Cosimo I, had the vast Uffizi building built as a way to house all the administrative offices of Florence under one roof. It took 21 years to complete, with his son Francisco overseeing the final flourish: the creation of an art collection in the upper piano nobile. With the gallery, administrative offices, state archives, and an interior courtyard designed to allow views of the Arno River, the Uffizi—as much as any of its treasures— is now considered one of the masterpieces of Florence.

Perhaps the second-most-visited art gallery in the city also came about due to the vision of the Medicis. The Accademia was first envisioned by Cosimo I as an artistic version of Plato’s Academy. Originally named the Academy of Art and Design, it was the first formal arts training institution in Italy. Later renamed the Academy of Fine Arts, it was a source of patronage that came to house some of the great works of the Renaissance, most notably when it became the permanent home of one of the most famous artworks in history: the statue of David by Medici all-star Michelangelo.

At the tender age of 13, the budding sculptor Michelangelo so impressed Lorenzo Medici that he was brought to live and work in the family’s home. For the rest of his life, he was torn between accepting their largesse and resenting their control. He was off their payroll during the near-sleepless two years he worked on his ravishing marble David, a sculpture which so caught the public imagination that it became the symbol of Florence. The Medicis were proud to see their protege make such a splash, but chagrined to learn that the slain goliath at David’s feet was widely interpreted as a reference to the family’s power. Nonetheless, they turned to Michelangelo for several more commissions in his lifetime, and he reluctantly said yes more than once. Today, his David is the centerpiece of an institution that wouldn’t have existed without the family he often resisted.

Battling for the Spotlight

Others, however, spent lifetimes trying to curry the favor Michelangelo shrugged off. One man more eager to please the Medicis—or at least to dazzle one of them—was the artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. When Florence announced a competition in 1401 to find a sculptor who would create magnificent new doors for its baptistry, the competing artists had to win over a distinguished panel whose most powerful member was Giovanni Medici. Giovanni took his adjudicator status seriously and even visited the studios of contenders, eventually casting his vote—thus swaying his fellow judges—for Ghiberti.

Ghiberti spent more than 20 years on 28 door panels of New Testament figures, only to learn that another competition was being held to craft Old Testament panels on the opposite side of the building. After convincing the city elders that he could outshine his own first body of work, he spent the next 24 years refining the art of bronze-casting. The results were so detailed, so fully alive, that even his most esteemed peers were starstruck. It was Michelangelo who dubbed the new doors The Gates of Paradise, high praise that validated Giovanni Medici’s foresight in choosing Ghiberti in the first place.

Ghiberti’s wins, of course, meant disappointment for the other artists who had applied for the commissions. The one who took his loss the hardest was Filippo Brunelleschi. He left the city in anger and lived in Rome for a decade. But, in the end, Brunelleschi secured his own place in history. When he returned to the Florence, the Medici-controlled Silk Merchant’s Guild pegged him to build a new orphanage, in which he used classical lines and enormous Roman pillars. Between this impressive work and his redesign of the Medici’s parish church, he had the credentials to win the biggest design commission of all time: the challenge to build a massive dome over Florence Cathedral.

A brilliant but self-taught hot head, Brunelleschi spent 16 years raising the unsupported dome with the aid of workers whose food, drink, and safety he monitored zealously. To make his design—which involved neither pillars nor concrete—he invented a reverse hoist for lifting internal support elements into place. Composed of four million bricks and weighing an estimated 37 tons, Brunelleschi’s masterpiece was not mere construction, but the first example of modern engineering. Consecrated by no less than the duo of Cosimo Medici and the Pope, Il Duomo has remained the city’s most iconic structure ever since. (Sadly for the Medicis, one of their grandest triumphs later became the scene of one of their biggest tragedies: Giuliano Medici, brother to Lorenzo the Great, was murdered here in broad daylight during Easter Services.)

Art in Bloom

The Medicis saw potential for artistry in all corners. They nurtured not only creators who worked in blocks of marble or oil paints, but those who made the earth itself a canvas. Nowhere is this clearer than the Boboli Gardens at Pitti Palace. The 15th century palace was first built by one of the family’s enemies, only to be taken over in 1540 by the Medicis themselves, and greatly expanded as the pet project of Eleonora da Toledo, wife of Grand Duke Cosimo I.

With its eleven acres stretching from Pitti Palace uphill to a vantage point overlooking the city, the vast garden complex became not only the model for Italian gardens in the 16th century, but the standard for royal gardens throughout Europe (including Versailles). The garden was known for its blend of man-made elements and serene flora, its grounds including grottos and temples for semi-private spaces, vast public spaces like a statue-ringed amphitheatre, and an array of stone-paved walkways through stands of cypress.

Like the Duomo, Boboli Gardens required engineering skill to make its artistic vision achievable. Without its own source of water, it would have been impossible for the garden to sustain thousands of plants, so a complex irrigation system was linked to conduits running from the Arno River. Once running water was in place, it was easy enough to move beyond irrigation to decoration, allowing first the creation of the Neptune Fountain, and then an entire man-made lake, which in turn became a source of nourishment for the gardens.

The Medici imprint changed the landscape well beyond their own property: They rewrote the treeline of Florence as well. In the 13th century, silk—a fabric synonymous with elevated class status—became a major element of trade in Florence, but the valuable silkworms and the mulberry leaves they ate had to be imported at great cost. When Ferdinando Medici became Grand Duke in 1587, he decided it was time to cut out the middle man. He drained marshlands to build major roads, then planted thousands of mulberry trees along these routes, so that Florence—and eventually all of Tuscany— could sustain its own silkworm enterprises.

Driving into Florence from the countryside today, you’ll pass countless mulberry trees, their branches spread wide as if to welcome you. It’s hard to believe that they haven’t always been part of the landscape, that they’re here because someone imagined all that Florence could be. The same may be said of so many of the city’s gems. From the Duomo to the David, much depended on visions nourished by the Medici.

It all started with a rich man’s lovely daughter being able to see the future in a homely banker’s face. In choosing each other, Piccarda and Giovanni began a family saga that forever transformed a city and, in turn, inspired the world.

History, Culture & More

Michelangelo’s David:

An underdog hero and symbol of the Florentine Renaissance

by Lyette Mercier

In a city bursting with iconic art, Michelangelo’s David might just be Florence’s most iconic image. A 17-foot-tall, six-ton, nude statue would be hard to ignore in any setting, but the story of Michelangelo’s masterful sculpture also encompasses many significant aspects of the city’s history, including the construction of the iconic Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the infamous de Medici family, and Florence’s spirited independence from the larger and more powerful Rome. Both its artistic magnificence and its historical significance make Michelangelo’s David a unique symbol of Florence, as well as a global icon of the Renaissance.

The statue was originally conceived as part of a much larger project. It was going to be one of a dozen biblical figures created to decorate the buttresses of Florence’s Basilica—also colloquially called Florence Cathedral, or the Duomo for its recognizable dome. Construction on the cathedral began in 1296, but the structure was not finished until 1436, when Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the leading architects to come out of the Italian Renaissance, engineered and oversaw the dome’s construction.

In 1416, the majority of construction on the cathedral was done, but no one had yet figured out how to build a freestanding dome as large as the planned duomo without the use of flying buttresses to safely distribute the structure’s weight—and Renaissance architects considered these Gothic-style buttresses ugly and unwieldy. No dome this large had been built since antiquity, and architects feared it would collapse under its own weight.

Brunelleschi’s solution was to make the dome as light as possible, structuring it as a double shell. He also gave the dome eight visible vertical ribs, with more built into the structure to bear most of the weight—these were held in place by a series of horizontal wood, iron, and brick ribs also built into the structure. Brunelleschi’s genius didn’t end there, though. Because the project required lifting more than 37,000 tons of material, Brunelleschi also invented a variety of pulleys and hoists. The finished duomo rises 375 feet above the roof of Florence Cathedral and contains more than four million bricks.

The idea to adorn the buttresses with statues of figures from the Old Testament began before Brunelleschi even started work on the dome, when the Overseers of the Office of Works of the Florence Cathedral (the Operai) asked Donatello to sculpt a terracotta Joshua for the cathedral in 1410 . But nearly a century elapsed before Michelangelo began work on his David. The commission wasn’t even originally given to him; two other sculptors between 1464 and 1476 worked on a gigantic block of marble purchased for the project.

The partially-carved marble languished for twenty-five years, until in 1501 the Operai decided they had to do something about the expensive rock sitting in the workshop courtyard and ordered it raised to a standing position so that they could hire a new sculptor to do something with it.

Although Michelangelo was then just 26 years old, he had already established himself as a master sculptor after carving his Pieta (now located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) two years earlier. He convinced the overseers that he was the man for the job, and spent the next two years crafting his masterpiece.

The ambitious design to make a dozen statues for the cathedral had long been abandoned, so David was intended to stand alone atop a buttress of the cathedral, protectively overlooking the city. When the finished statue weighed roughly 12,800 pounds, this plan also had to be changed. The Operai was out of ideas, so they brought together a council of 30 of Florence’s prominent citizens, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea della Robbia, and Perugino, who were to decide where the statue should permanently reside. (It’s a testament to the lasting influence of the Renaissance that prominent Florentine’s of 1504 are still recognizable names 500 years later.) After debating for months, the council finally decided on a spot at the entrance to the city’s main square, the Piazza della Signoria.

Even with the ground-level location, it still took four days to transport the statue from the Operai workshop to the piazza, with David contained in a wooden framework and rolled along on greased beams. The sight of the pale, muscular, massive David traveling through the streets of Florence in a wooden cage must have been a sight its citizens didn’t soon forget.

The installation of David marked Michelangelo’s triumphant return to Florence. He’d been forced to leave the city when its ruling family, the de Medici clan, was deposed in 1494. Michelangelo had been in the de Medici’s employ since 1489 and was living at their court when they were forced from Florence. He spent the ensuing years in Bologna and Rome, while Florence was under the rule of evangelical (and anti-Renaissance) friar Girolamo Savranola.

Michelangelo’s sculpture itself is a triumph as well. David, the youthful Old Testament underdog who defeated the giant Goliath, served as an unofficial symbol of the republic of Florence, a city-state under constant threat from larger Italian kingdoms like the Papal States of Rome. Michelangelo’s David broke from the traditional depiction of the young man standing triumphantly over Goliath’s body.

Instead, this David stands in the moment between decision and action. His weight rests heavily on one leg, and he holds his sling and stone close to his body while gazing warily and defiantly at an unseen opponent. It was no coincidence that David was placed facing towards Rome.

After four centuries exposed to the elements, David was moved to the Galleria dell'Accademia in 1873 to protect the stone from weather-related degradation. In 1910 a copy of the David was placed in the spot the original formerly occupied, and it remains there today. Many visitors just visit the nearly identical copy, but there is something to be said for trekking to the museum to view the original.

Indoors, the statue’s imposing height becomes even more dramatic, and the lighting upon the statue highlights Michelangelo’s amazing achievement at creating such an ideal expression of youthful strength and vitality on such a large scale. Visitors also have a better chance of examining the sculpture’s quirks. There is David’s outsized right hand, sometimes explained as representing the hand of God. The statue’s head is also on the large side, possibly in order for viewers to more easily see David’s facial features, had the statue been placed in its planned location on the roof of Florence Cathedral. Viewing the statue from the side, it’s notable that David is unusually slim from front to back, perhaps because Michelangelo was working from a block of marble that had already been carved into.

Today, restoration and maintenance of this treasure remain major issues. In 1991, a mentally ill man attacked the statue with a hammer, breaking off part of David’s toe. Though unfortunate, this vandalism allowed scientists to study fragments of the marble used in the statue. They discovered that it was more porous than other types of marble. This, coupled with the statue’s 500th anniversary, spurred the Accademia in 2003 to undertake the David’s first major restoration since it was moved to the museum one hundred and forty years prior.

Today, conservators worry that the constant, minute vibrations caused by the footfalls of David’s 1.3 million annual visitors may damage the statue as much as the weather ever did. But after surviving half a millennia of artistic and political turmoil, it seems David, like Florence, will find a way to continue to thrive.

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