Day trip from Rome: the beach (without a car)

by Amy Knauff

The Italians’ beloved national holiday Ferragosto has passed, which means summer is starting to wind down – but it’s still hot in Rome, and central Italy’s moderate climate means there’s about a month of potential beach time left.

The good news is that you don’t need a car to get to the beach – there are several different beaches easily reachable by bus or train. The bad news is that the beaches near Rome aren’t known for being particularly beautiful (or clean). Having said that, if you’re willing to go just a little farther out you can find some very nice, clean beaches. And even a day at one of the closer beaches can be fun – if nothing else, it’s a very typically Roman experience.

Ostia / Torvajanica

Ostia is the beach closest to Rome, and it’s packed with Italians all summer long. The water here does not win any cleanliness awards, so taking a dip is up to your own personal squeamish factor (although plenty of people do!). You can pay a fee to go into a stabilimento – an organized beach complex where you rent an ombrellone (beach umbrella) and lettini (loungers) or sdrai (deck chairs). Otherwise, you can “rough it” by going to the part of Ostia known as i cancelli – a stretch of coastline with several free beaches in a row that are identified by numbered front gates (cancello means gate in Italian). Here you just throw down your beach towel wherever you find a free spot of sand. Heading away from Ostia and the cancelli, you’ll get to another beach called Torvajanica. It’s similar to Ostia, but as it’s slightly farther out, it’s a little less crowded and the water is a little cleaner. In Torvajanica, you’ll find both stabilimenti and free beaches.

Do as the Romans do: go early in the morning and stay until evening. Rent an ombrellone and lettino and spend the day tanning, reading, snoozing, strolling along the water, chatting,  playing cards, and taking swims. Have a panino and gelato from the closest bar for lunch, or better yet, if you’re at a stabilimento, take a break from the sun and have a long, leisurely lunch at their (usually cafeteria-style) restaurant. Don’t forget the Italian summer favorite insalata di riso (a cold rice “salad” with mixed vegetables) or pomodori ripieni (baked tomatoes stuffed with rice). Seafood is a good option too. And if you want to be truly Italian, follow up your meal with some fresh fruit (like a juicy peach or slice of watermelon) and an espresso.

Getting there: Take the metro line B (blue line) to Piramide. Exit the metro station straight into the small Porta San Paolo train station (just next to it, you don’t have to go through a turnstile; use the same ticket you used on the metro). Board the train and exit at the last stop, Cristoforo Colombo (about 40 mins). From there, simply cross the piazza and big street to the other side and you’ll find a few stabilimenti there. Otherwise, you can take the bus from right in front of the train station (bus 07) farther away to the cancelli (another 10-20 minutes) or Torvajanica (another 15 minutes or so). Total transportation cost: €1.50 one way.

Santa Marinella

Again, this beach is winning no beauty contests, but it can actually be easier to get to than Ostia, depending on where you’re coming from, and it’s not quite as close to Rome so the train and beaches are not as packed.

Santa Marinella, near Rome’s port Civitavecchia, is mostly full of stabilimenti but there’s one small free beach – tucked away in a corner near a cement wall. Not very picturesque, but if you’re on a budget, it works.

Getting there: Take the train from Termini station (you can also get a train direct from Trastevere station or San Pietro station) – it takes about 1 hour. When you exit the train station, walk straight up to the main road: the sea is in front of you. Make a right on the main road and walk up until you can cross the street and take the stairs down to where the beach is. It’s about a 5-minute walk. Total transportation cost (from Termini): €4.60 one way.

 

Fregene

The swimming is not great  – last time I was here I saw some trash floating in the water. However, the beach is free (and therefore particularly popular with students and young people) so if you’re into sunbathing, it can be fun to just hang out. Fregene is also known for being something of a pick-up scene, so if you feel like flirting and maybe getting a phone number or two, this is the place to go.

The real reason I’m mentioning Fregene, though, is not for the swimming, but for its nightlife. In the summer, several outdoor bars/restaurants on the beach open up and they get packed with people who come for aperitivo (drinks and a buffet) and to watch the sun set. The bar Singita is particularly popular: you can sit at tables, lie on beds (yes, beds), or lounge on big sheets on the sand while you listen to chill “Buddha bar” type music and sip drinks out of pitchers with extra-long straws.

Getting there: Take the train from Termini to Maccarese-Fregene. From outside the Maccarese station, you’ll need to take a local bus (like the 020) to Fregene. Total transportation cost (from Termini): €4.10 one way.

Sabaudia

This one’s a little trickier to get to by public transport, but well worth it. By far this is one of the prettiest, cleanest beaches near Rome. It regularly wins awards for having some of the cleanest beaches/water in the Lazio region. It’s also less crowded, and the beach is rather large so rather than feeling like sardines packed in with rows of lettini, you have room to breathe and even play a game of frisbee without tripping over your neighbors. The lovely San Felice Circeo mountain overlooks the beach (also worth a visit, but sadly, you really do need a car for that one).

Getting there: Take the train from Termini station to Priverno-Fossanova. From there, take the Cotral bus to the town of Sabaudia. From Sabaudia town, there is another bus that goes to the beach, but it’s also possible to walk (about 15 minutes). Total transportation cost (from Termini): €6.10 one way.

Sperlonga

I’ve saved the best for last – in my opinion. It’s also the farthest away, just past Sabaudia. It’s definitely worth it, though, so whenever I have a whole day free to spend at the beach, I go here.

The beach itself is probably prettier at Sabaudia (as it’s less “built up” with stabilimenti), but the water here is equally as clean and beautiful. What wins me over, though, is the town itself. The other beaches on this list have pretty unattractive towns (relatively new, Mussolini-era blocky cement towns), but Sperlonga looks like a little white-washed Greek village. The town’s main square and pedestrian street have a gorgeous view over the beach below. It’s possible to take the bus directly down to the beach, but I always choose to get off first at the town so I can walk through the tiny, labyrinthine streets and stairs to get down to the beach. I also head to the alimentari to get a fresh sandwich made (opt for mozzarella as one of the fillings – being pretty close to Naples, the mozzarella around here is amazing!). You can also get some fresh fruit, snacks, and water, and you’ll be set for the day.

Head down the stairs (follow all the people dressed for the beach, or ask somebody) to the beach below. If you want to go to the free beach, make a left and walk for about 10 minutes. Otherwise, you’ll have no trouble finding a nearby stabilimento.

Getting there: Take the train from Termini station to Fondi-Sperlonga. From right outside the train station, there is a bus that leaves regularly (it coincides with the train arrivals) for Sperlonga town and beach. Total transportation cost (from Termini): €7.90 one way.

Day trip from Florence: Lucca

by Amy Knauff

I’d always heard good things about Lucca, a small town in northern Tuscany, but only after a decade of living in Italy did I finally manage to visit. I was not disappointed – in fact, a few months later when my mom came to visit, I insisted on taking her there too (and it turned out to be one of her two favorite towns in Italy, along with Orvieto).

Lucca is not a major tourist destination – the crowds are bigger in, say, Siena or Pisa – because it doesn’t have any famous sights to see. But that was exactly what I was looking for: something slightly off the beaten path, with some interesting things to see and do, but mostly just a charming town to walk around in and relax.

In fact, it’s the perfect day trip from Florence (it takes between 1 hr 15 mins – 2 hours on the train, €7.20-11) as you can pretty much see it all in one day, at an easy pace.

Here’s how I would spend a day in Lucca:

Exit the train station into the piazza in front (Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli), and stop by the Lucca Tourist Center to pick up a map for €1. Cross the piazza and at the main street, Viale Regina Margherita, turn left. Walk up the street – on your right, you’ll see the old wall surrounding the historic center of Lucca. A little ways up the street, at the traffic light, you’ll see an entrance in the old wall. Cross the street and walk through the arches and you’ll be in the historic center. It takes 10 minutes or so to walk into town.

Head straight to the Guinigi Tower, which opens at 9:30 am (entrance at via Sant’Andrea, 45, cost is €4). This is the most important tower in Lucca, and you can pick it out from anywhere in town as it has a few oak trees growing out of the top of it – a pretty unique sight. It was built by the Guinigi family, who were rich and powerful merchants in the 14th century. There are 230 steps to get to the top. It’s worth it for the gorgeous view of the whole town and the surrounding hillside.

 

Your next stop should be one of the many bike rental shops in town – try Tuscany Ride a Bike on via Elisa, 28. Head over to one of the entrances to the ancient Roman wall that encircles Lucca, and take a ride around on top of the wall. Yes, that’s right – on TOP of the ancient Roman wall. Lucca no longer needs protecting, so the top of the intact wall has become a park – it has grass and trees growing on top of it, and a biking/walking loop that goes all the way around (4 km). You’ll see locals jogging, biking, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, or reading on a park bench. Cycling around the top of the wall high above the town gives you a great view and a feeling of freedom.

After an athletic morning, park your bike and have a hearty Tuscan lunch. I liked Osteria Baralla (via Anfiteatro, 5 ) which had a charming atmosphere and great food. In the cooler months, try one of the filling Tuscan soups like ribollita or the farro (spelt) and vegetable soup.

After lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon biking around town. By the way, even if you’re rusty on a bike, this is the place to practice: the historic center has little to no car traffic, it’s flat, and the whole thing is non-stressful. Plus it seems EVERYONE in Lucca is always riding a bike – grannies, little kids, and everyone in between. I saw a local woman smoking, talking on a cell phone, and window shopping all at the same time as she biked slowly through town.

san frediano lucca

During your ride, stop off and visit the Romanesque Duomo di San Martino (Piazza Antelminelli); inside you can see the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her husband, Paolo Guinigi, and made by Jacopo della Quercia (the church is free, but a visit to the tomb is €2). Also stop by the town’s other two main churches, Basilica di San Frediano with its gold mosaic façade (Piazza San Frediano) and the Romanesque San Michele in Foro (Piazza San Michele).

If you’re an opera aficionado, the Puccini Museum, his birth home, is worth a visit (Corte San Lorenzo, 9, for €7). And if you’re visiting Lucca in July or August, DON’T miss the Puccini Opera Festival in the nearby town Torre del Lago (http://www.puccinifestival.it/).

 

End your sight-seeing at the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. This stunning oval piazza is built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. In the same curved shape of the ancient amphitheatre walls, there are now shops, restaurants, and apartments. The buildings are new, but inside some of the shops you can see pieces of the ancient structure. Have a late-afternoon coffee at one of the tables in the piazza as you take in the atmosphere.

After returning your bike, stop by Pizzeria da Felice (via Buia, 12) for a snack to tide you over for your train ride back to Florence (open until 8:30pm most nights). This humble hole-in-the-wall is a tiny place with only a few tables, but don’t be fooled: it has the most amazing cecina I’ve ever had! Cecina (also called farinata in some parts of Italy) is typical of Liguria and northern Tuscany: a simple savoury, flat, pizza-shaped “torta” made with chickpea flour, water, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Eat it straight away, hot from the oven, topped with salt and pepper, and pair it with a cold glass of the house wine. It will be one of the simplest, but best, snacks you’ll have in Italy.

 

Sintra: A Lisbon Daytrip Fit for a King

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

A visit to Sintra will have you feeling like a royal for a day.  This quaint little town just 20 miles northwest of Lisbon is characterized by cobbled streets, charming shops and fairytale-like castles built high atop lush green hills.  In the 19th century, Sintra was a summer retreat for the Portuguese monarchy who sought to escape the heat, and is an easy and worthwhile daytrip from Lisbon today.  Here’s what you need to know.

Getting There and Around

The best way to get to Sintra is by train, which departs from Lisbon’s Rossio station about every 15 minutes.  Buy your ticket from a window or vending machine near the tracks or swipe your Lisboa Card at the turnstile – it covers the fare and gives you discounts on some of Sintra’s main sights.  Then it’s just a quick 40 minute ride to Sintra, which is the last stop on the line.

When you get there you can explore the lower town on foot (and you should), but save yourself the steep hike and take bus #434 to see the sights further up.  The bus does a loop every 30 minutes connecting the train station with the main square near the National Palace, Moorish Castle and Pena Palace.  You can buy a “Pena circuit” ticket from the driver and hop on and off at any stop on the route. Click here for bus timetables and an interactive map.  You can also get a unique guided tour of the area, including transportation, with our friends at We Hate Tourism Tours.

What to Wear

Chances are you’ll be doing a lot of walking and castle climbing, so sturdy shoes are a must for Sintra.  A light jacket is also a good idea since it’s a little cooler than Lisbon given its coastline location.  After all, that’s why the monarchy came here to escape the hot summer months.

Rainy season is usually winter through spring (and occasionally in the fall), so pack an umbrella if you plan on visiting during these months, otherwise you may find yourself waiting in line to buy a poncho in the gift shop at Pena Palace.  And since many of Sintra’s sights are outdoors, you may want to bring a hat in the summer.

Sintra Highlights

One way to tackle Sintra is from the top down, which means your first stop would be Pena Palace.  This whimsical palace is an eclectic fusion of architectural styles inspired by the castles of Bavaria.  A prime example of romanticism, its bold red, yellow and purple exterior is hard to miss, complete with Moorish turrets, alligator water spouts and a Triton-flanked archway.

Built by King Fernando II, the palace was home to 5 generations of Portuguese monarchs from the mid-1800s until 1910 when they fled during the Republican Revolution.  Thereafter Pena Palace was converted into a museum, and has been restored with a keen attention to detail, looking as if the royal family left just yesterday.

As you explore the interior, you may notice that the palace is considerably modern as palaces go (i.e. Versailles in France or Schönbrunn in Vienna, etc.), offering up an intimate look at 19th and early 20th century life.  Pena Palace was actually quite progressive, having the flush toilets and hot shower in Portugal, a telephone to listen in to the opera when the king didn’t want to make the trek to Lisbon and an enviously well-stocked kitchen by today’s standards.

The palace itself is surrounded by the sprawling Pena Park, which is more like a forest than a park with dense trees, plants and other hidden treasures.  The palace grounds make for an almost magical downhill walk, otherwise you can pick up bus #434 and head next to the Moorish Castle.

Located on an adjacent hilltop, this medieval castle was originally built in the 10th century by the Muslims as a military fort.  After years of conquest, rebuilding and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that caused considerable damage, King Fernando II launched a campaign to restore and preserve the castle and its surrounding forest.

Buy your ticket and then follow the winding forest path to get to the main entrance.  Once inside, you can walk along the moss-covered ramparts and climb the stone towers for amazing panoramic views on a clear day.   Even if the weather is less than favorable, or you’re left without a view thanks to the thick fog that rolls in off the Atlantic, you can still have a great time, trust me.  Read more about my foggy day in Sintra here.

If you’re feeling especially adventurous, there’s also a zip line that allows visitors to soar through the tree tops at the base of the castle.  After you’ve had your fill of castle-climbing, hop back on the bus and get off at the main square where you started for the National Palace (it will stop at Pena Palace first, so sit back and enjoy the ride).

This palace also dates back to Moorish times, making it the oldest surviving royal palace in Portugal – and hard to miss thanks to the two white conical kitchen chimneys on top.  The interior is truly a feast for the eyes with highly decorated, themed rooms each with a unique story, like the Swan Room (an homage to the king’s daughter) and the Stag Room (adorned with coats of arms and hunting scenes).  The National Palace also boasts the largest collection of Portuguese azulejos painted tiles in the world.

Other worthwhile sites in Sintra include the Quinta da Regaleira, an elegant estate towards the outskirts of town with yet another absolutely gorgeous park filled with grottoes, fountains, underground wells and hidden tunnels.  It’s an easy 10 minute walk from the National Palace, otherwise you can take a separate bus #435 from the main square.

This bus will also take you the farther out west to Monserrate.  This palace has a bit of a different flavor than the others in Sintra, combining Gothic, Moorish and Italian styles of architecture (it’s dome was modeled after the Duomo in Florence) and a subtropical garden with waterfalls, palm trees and other exotic plants.  There’s also a free app to guide you through an interactive tour of the palace.

For another unique experience, the Toy Museum is just 2 minutes from the National Palace on foot.  The museum houses an expansive collection of more than 40,000 items from around the world – from ancient Egypt ion toys to Nazi toy soldiers, as well as trains, planes, cars, boats, games, books dolls and even playthings that belonged to royal children – dating back as far as the 3rd century BC.

Finally, for an especially memorable way to see the main sights in Sintra, you can take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city.  Book in advance or look for these old-fashion carriages waiting near the main square.  Tours range from 25 minutes to 2 hours and 40 minutes for up to 4 people, and can be customized to make your daytrip extra special.  Check out the company Sintratur’s website for tour options and rates.

For more travel tips by Jessica, check out her blog here.

 

Lisbon tour guides you love to hate

by Steven Brenner

I was working through my list of stuff to see and do – the neighborhoods I wanted to visit, the Moorish castle in Sintra, Belém, a few beaches along the Cascais train line… – but I wanted to know what I might be missing.  So I googled something to the effect of “different things to do in Lisbon” and the first thing that popped up was We Hate Tourism Tours (WHTT).

I’m a sucker for their punk rock attitude and surf style designs, but I also could tell they were on to something different and unique.

I wanted to know about things that were overlooked in Lisbon.  I wanted to know the unusual stuff that could easily slip under a tourist’s radar.  It was clear that’s what these guys were about – they’re more than guides, they make the magic that happens when you visit friends who know and love their city.

For 25 to 45 euro, depending on the tour, they’ll take you around Lisbon, or to Sintra and Cascais or into the Bairro Alto for dinner.  They also have a “pirates” tour and are in the midst of creating a “crooks of Lisbon” tour as well.

Are they just for the young and hip?  Well, reading their many positive reviews on Tripadvisor, I get the impression that their clients represent a pretty wide mix of ages and backgrounds.  Clearly these guys aren’t set out to only capture the ex-skater dads like myself – they offer something way beyond the scripted history lesson or flag carrying guide with a microphone.  They want you to truly know the city and to help you understand the Portuguese mentality and culture, why things are the way they are, combining history and facts with a hand’s on experience of Lisbon life.  They want you to be a temporary local.

The founder, Bruno, told me this story that puts who they are and what they do into perspective:

It’s the early days of the company and Bruno has decided that when he schedules a tour, it’s going to go even if there’s only one person.  So he pulls up to the meeting point in his black, open top vintage jeep and meets his client – a single, American guy, who jumps in and asks Bruno if he’s the only person on the tour.  Bruno says, “yeah” and the American guy responds, “well, you’re not going to make much money today!”

“Thats ok – maybe I’ll make a friend instead!” Bruno says.

I met three of their guides – Jose, who was doing his first day in training as a driver, and who manages this apartment just above the old Bairro Alto quarter that’s famous for its nightlife.  I met Marcos, a smiling surfer guy who is clearly into what he does and never tires of infecting people with his love of Lisbon, and Bruno, the founder (and now friend).  They’re about 7 people strong and run a few tours a day, rain or shine, despite how many people sign up.  However, I think the days of having just 1 person on a tour are long gone!

For great local info from the WHTT crew, follow these links:

Only with Locals map of Lisbon

Lisboa Lovers (photo blog)

Lisbon google map for travelers and “temporary locals”

Check them out, or as they say on their site, “stay home and cry!”

Three Easy Day-trips from Florence

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

If you’re staying in Florence, chances are you won’t run out of things to do.  But if you want to make Florence your home base and venture out to see the surrounding area, here are three easy day-trip ideas.

Siena
Probably one of the most popular side-trips from Florence, Siena is a medieval city built upon three hills that converge at its main square, Il Campo.  Twice a year in July and August, the square fills with thousands of spectators for the Palio horse races, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century.

Regardless of what time of year you visit, there is no shortage of things to see, from the city’s Duomo to the Pinacoteca filled with medieval art.  A must-see is Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall at the focal point of Il Campo, which houses the fresco-adorned civic museum.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also climb the 330-foot city tower for a stunning view of Siena’s signature brown rooftops.

While many travelers may be content with taking up a seat at a café on Il Campo, others may enjoy exploring the city’s maze of hilly streets.  Keep an eye out for the colorful flags that correspond with each of the 17 contrade or neighborhoods of Siena and their equally as colorful mascots, like a goose, unicorn and other medieval creatures.

How to get there: The easiest and fastest way to get to Siena is by bus.  The SITA bus station is just west of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station on Via Santa Caterina da Siena. Buses run twice an hour and you can buy tickets at the station.  Try to catch one of the buses labeled corse rapide (they’re faster, a little over an hour versus nearly 2 hours), and get off at the Piazza Gramsci stop along Via Tozzi in Siena.  When you’re ready to go back to Florence, there’s an underground stairwell across the street from the bus hub, in front of the NH Excelsior Hotel, where you can buy tickets.  Go to www.sienamobilita.it to view bus timetables.

Pisa and Lucca
This is an easy two-for-one day-trip from Florence, especially for travelers who want to make a quick stop in Pisa to check the Leaning Tower off their bucket list.

Pisa – photo by Natalie Armijo

If you decide to climb the tower, reservations are required so be sure to book your time slot in advance.  If not, you can still see the tower from the outside, along with the Duomo, Baptistery and other sights on the Field of Miracles.  Walk down the Borgo Stretto, the most elegant and expensive shopping street in Pisa (and the location where Galileo was born), or escape the crowds of tourists with a quiet walk along the Arno River.

Nearby Lucca is a well-preserved medieval city, most famous for its ramparts.  Atop the wall, which is paved and landscaped, you can rent a bike or walk the 3-mile loop for a scenic overview of the city.  Within the walls, Lucca is also a great place to wander since there is very little traffic.  Like other Tuscan towns, Lucca was once dotted with defensive towers, and the last of which remains is the Guinigi Tower near the city’s center.  Climb to the top, where several oak trees grow, for an incredible view of the city.  Similarly, the Torre delle Ore clock tower also offer great views, or you can pass your time shopping and strolling along Via Fillungo.

How to get there: Trains run several times an hour from Florence to both Pisa (about an hour away) and Lucca (about an hour and a half), so you can start with either one of these cities.  Check out the schedules at www.trenitalia.com.  The best way to get between Pisa and Lucca is an easy 30-minute bus ride that connects the two cities, with convenient stops at the Field of Miracles in Pisa and Piazzale Verdi in the western part of Lucca.  Then just hop back on the train when you’re ready to return to Florence.

Cinque Terre
Look one direction and see hills dotted with colorful buildings and vineyards, and the other direction to see the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean.  This day-trip requires a little more planning than the others, but the extra effort is well worth it.  Each of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre boast their own unique charm – be prepared for sensory overload!

Walk the Via dell’Amore that connects Riomaggiore and Manarola, eat a delicious lunch of fresh seafood or pesto pasta in Corniglia, kick back with gelato from Gelateria Il Porticciolo along the water’s edge in Vernazza or take a dip in the Mediterranean in Monterosso al Mare.

While there are many companies that offer organized day-trips to Cinque Terre where you’re guaranteed to see all five villages, you may also want to consider packing an overnight bag and stay for an evening in one of the towns before heading back to Florence.  You can read more about my recent trip to Cinque Terre here.

How to get there: If you want to forego an organized tour, take the train from Florence to La Spezia, which takes about 2 hours, usually with a train change in Pisa.  From La Spezia Centrale, pick up another train to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore.  The five towns are only a few minutes apart by local train, and you can buy individual tickets at the stations.  Just be sure to check the timetables so you don’t miss the last train back to Florence.  If you decide to hike between the towns, you just need to pay the Cinque Terre National Park entrance fee of 5 euros.  More information can be found at www.cinqueterre.it.