France and Italy: Best 2 to 3 week itinerary for first-time visitors

Rome ColisseumThe only country that might be more magical than France for first-time visitors is Italy, and vice-versa. Even though Europe is filled with amazing tourist destinations these two countries seem to stand above the others, with France being the most visited country in the world and Italy having the most UNESCO World Heritage sites. For my own money, these two countries contain 3 of the 5 great European cities that everyone should see first.

Fortunately, these two countries also share a border so they are extremely popular to visit as a pair. They both also get so many tourists that all the major destinations are easy enough to visit without knowing the language at all, though learning at least a few words and phrases is simple and worthwhile. For these reasons, France and Italy are perhaps the most popular first trip to the European continent. Below we’ll discuss the cities you need to include and the minimum time in each, as well as some other itinerary planning tips.

How many cities to visit?

Paris SquareThis is perhaps the most challenging question when planning an itinerary. Newer travelers always assume that more is better and overly-seasoned travelers always preach that virtually any city anywhere deserves at least a week. As with most things, the best answer probably lies somewhere in between. If you only have two weeks per year it would take a lifetime of trips to explore even half of Europe at the slow pace, so it makes sense for newer travelers to move at a good clip.

There are many reasons why fast travel might be your best option, but only up to a point. With only a few exceptions, 3 nights per city is a good minimum even for those wishing to see as much as possible, or 2 nights in the smaller cities.

If you are going to France and Italy for sure then start with Paris and Rome as the foundation and add cities in between to the degree you’ll have time. France is a deceptively large country so travel will eat up some time unless you are flying or taking the bullet trains.

Flying in and out

Unless you are starting from elsewhere in Europe, you’ll want to carefully choose which airport to fly into. It used to be that Paris was one of the cheapest, and it’s still competitive, but it doesn’t rank high on the list of European cities that are cheapest to fly into.

Two one-way tickets is ideal

It used to be that round-trip tickets were always much cheaper than two one-way tickets, but often that is no longer true. Sometimes the one-way flights are exactly half the round-trip fare, sometimes a bit more than half, and other times they are double. It’s hard to predict so it’s worth comparing them yourself.

The first thing to try is this:

  • (your city) to Paris one-way
  • Rome to (your city) one-way

Compare that to this:

  • (your city) to Paris round-trip
  • (your city) to Rome round-trip

If the two one-way flights are within US$150 or so of either round-trip, then they are your best option. If the round-trips are much cheaper then your best option is to buy one of those as well as a one-way flight between the cities (for around US$100) for just before you fly home. It would cost more on the train and also take 14 hours, so flying that last part is the way to go unless you are planning on using the last leg of a Eurail Pass on an overnight run.

Getting around once in Europe

Gare du Nord ParisFlying around in France and Italy doesn’t make much sense. The flights on low-cost carriers can certainly be cheap, but most major cities are only 2 to 5 hours apart by train, so riding the rails is faster, more pleasant, and far more scenic.

Even on trains, you still have three main options:

  1. Buying a France-Italy regional Eurail Pass
  2. Buying individual train tickets in advance
  3. Buying individual train tickets one at a time when you get there

If you are under 26 you can qualify for the 2nd Class Eurail Pass, which will be ideal for many people. If you are over 25 you have to buy a 1st Class Eurail Pass, and those are probably only best for those with a bit more money to spend.

Best cities in France and Italy for first-time visitors

Paris (minimum 3 nights but even that is rushing it)

Paris Notre DameObviously you’ll want to visit Paris, and it makes sense to either start or end your whole journey here. If it’s your first stop you should add at least one extra day to help deal with jetlag, but you should plan on staying as long as possible because the French capital is one of the world’s great (and most beautiful) cities by any definition.

Paris can seem very expensive at first glance, especially when you see how tiny your hotel room is once you arrive. But those on tighter budgets don’t actually have to spend a fortune to enjoy it thoroughly. If you are the sort who loves all the famous museums then a Paris Pass could be a perfect option, but even if you just drift around town admiring the scenery you are guaranteed to have a good time. Better still, there is a Metro station on every other block, so you can stay in the cheaper areas far from the center and it only adds 10 minutes or so each way.

Paris to Nice by train: About 6 hours

Nice, France (minimum 2 nights)

Nice BeachNice is the largest (and cheapest) city on the Côte d’Azur (AKA French Riviera) so it’s the perfect base to explore this stunning part of the world for a few days. It can still be quite expensive during July and August, when most French are filling their own beaches, but in other months it’s not too bad.

Nice has a famous beach (made of pebbles rather than sand), but it’s also an important cultural capital with great museums and a thriving food scene. You could easily spend 2 or 3 quick days in Nice alone, but you might also consider spending a few hours in Cannes and/or Monaco, which are both only about 30 minutes away by train in either direction. The cheaper hotels in Nice are near the train station anyway, so that’s something to consider if you want to visit all 3 places in one short trip.

Nice to Milan by train: About 5 hours
Nice to Venice by train: About 7.5 hours

Milan (1 night or just skip it)

Milan SquareMilan is famous, though that alone is not enough of a reason to stop there. If you skip it you won’t be missing much, or you might stop for one night just to break up the journey a bit. On the plus side, Milan has one of Europe’s most photogenic gothic domes at its heart, and it’s the home to Da Vinci’s Last Supper (if you make reservations well in advance).

The down side, however, is that Milan is mostly a business/financial city that isn’t as charming as the rest on this list. It’s one of Europe’s fashion capitals as well, but the casual visitor wouldn’t notice. Worst of all, accommodation in Milan can be insanely expensive if there is a trade fair or event in town. If you are coming through in between fairs and events, hotels can actually be unusually cheap, so it’s worth checking rates if you are considering stopping.

Milan to Venice by train: About 2.5 hours

Venice (1 night minimum, 2 nights maximum)

Venice CanalCertainly one of the most beautiful and unusual cities on the planet, Venice is something that everyone should see, though it can be a bit tricky. The thing is, between about 10am and 5pm every day of the year, the main walkways in Venice are a slow-moving parade of more tourists than seem possible or even safe. Many of them stay in hotels nearby on the mainland, while many others just come in for the day on part of a bus tour. The point is, Venice is very frustrating during those hours, so to appreciate the city it’s important to work around them at least a bit.

The trick is to stay at least one night, if not two, on the main island itself. Perhaps surprisingly, Venice shuts down early, with most restaurants and bars closed by around 10pm. But in those evening hours as well as the morning hours on the following day, the place can feel magical and like a fairy tale destination. Venice is also quite compact so seeing the main highlights in 24 hours isn’t difficult. Depending on your budget, spend one or two nights on the main island and you’ll be quite satisfied by the time you leave. You’ll be sick of the crowds by then anyway.

Venice to Florence by train: About 2 hours

Florence (2 nights minimum, plus side trips)

Florence RiverWith fewer than 400,000 residents, Florence feels more like a small town than the others, even though it’s much larger than Venice. As the largest and most central city in Tuscany, Florence is a cultural capital filled with famous museums, cathedrals, and other sights, but it’s also the ideal jumping off point for day or overnight trips into some of the nearby hill towns.

Whether you are coming from Venice or from Rome, this is the point on your trip that you’ll be able to catch your breath a bit. It’s also the cheapest city on this list so lingering here will be more affordable in addition to relaxing. The cuisine here is, of course, world famous, and it can get even better and cheaper if you spend a day or two in one of the many scenic villages in this part of Italy.

From Florence to Rome it’s only around 90 minutes by train, so another easy and pleasant travel day.

Cinque Terre (1 night, optional)

Cinque TerreIf you were to be spending all 2 or 3 weeks in Italy and saving France for another trip, then you’d want to considering spending at least a day and perhaps a night in this stunning little group of 5 towns perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the sea. They are on the west coast a bit north of Florence, so they are a bit out of the way if you are headed to Rome.

When you see a photo of these villages it’s hard not to be drawn in so if you are in that group you could add a day or two in this area either before or after Florence. Note that the scenic footpaths connecting the towns are partly closed down at the moment due to instability, so a quick tour by train or even by boat might be a better option.

Florence to Rome by train: About 90 minutes

Rome (minimum 3 nights)

Rome ParliamentAgain, it makes the most sense to start and end your visit in Paris and Rome, and if you are starting in Rome you should add an extra day just to get your footing. Similar to Paris, Rome is crammed with amazing sights too numerous to mention, but unlike Paris, Rome can be a frustrating place to visit. No one regrets their first visit to Rome, but many swear that it’ll also be their last. It’s the traffic and general sense of chaos (multiplied by the summer heat) that wear on visitors.

All of that said, Rome is absolutely a must-visit, although you won’t be blamed for hustling through the city quickly and efficiently so you can spend more time in the relative serenity of anywhere else. The Eternal City is also quite expensive, especially by Italian standards, which is another reason to save only a few days there rather than a full week.

Filling in the rest of your itinerary

If you have only two weeks total then the above minimums will also pretty much be your maximums, give or take a day. But if you have three weeks you will be adding days to these cities or adding new cities altogether.http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7076/6892480282_c6604c3683.jpg Honestly, if this is your first trip to these countries, you’ll really get the most bang for your buck by adding extra days in Paris or Florence or both.

Rushing around for two weeks can be exhilarating, but rushing around for three weeks can really start to get exhausting. It’s better to plan to go slower and if you are getting bored you can do a day or overnight trip to something nearby. But you won’t get bored, and if you do you are probably doing it wrong.

Cinque Terre photo by World Walk About on Flickr



25 Responses to “France and Italy: Best 2 to 3 week itinerary for first-time visitors”

Mark says:

Rather good itinerary for those that are time constrained. We recently travelled through most of the suggestions. For those planning a trip and intending to get around by train, seriously consider a rail pass. The fast trains in Italy are sensational and with a rail pass we were paying about 10 euro compulsory reservation for fares that cost up to 150 euro – big savings potentially.
Love the site keep up the good work.

 

    Mark, thank you for the kind words. And I agree about the benefits of a rail pass, at least for those under 26 or those who prefer to travel first class anyway. For older people who don’t mind second class, a rail pass doesn’t really save money in most cases, but it’s wonderful to have one. I didn’t realize reservations were now up to €10 in Italy, so thanks for that bit. Cheers. -Roger

     
Dan says:

Just curious – you list Cinque Terre between Florence and Rome, but does it make sense to do it in that order? Coming from Nice, wouldn’t you want to stop in Cinque Terre prior to Florence? Also, I assume you need to go through La Spezia via train to get to Cinque Terre?

Excuse me – rather, it seems it would make sense to visit Cinque Terre after Nice, following by Venice, followed by Florence, and then on to Rome. My previous comment was assuming exclusion of Venice. Curious to hear your thoughts.

 

    Dan,

    I believe Cinque Terre is most commonly visited as a side-trip from Florence, and yes you do have to change trains in La Spezia in that direction. But you can also go Nice to Genoa for a train change to Cinque Terre, and then carry on to Florence afterward if you are planning on skipping Venice. Honestly, all of these places are no more than 3 hours or so apart by train, so you can jumble the order and do it in the order that makes the most sense for your exact itinerary choices. -Roger

     
      Dan says:

      Thanks, Roger. Just curious – how would you recommend incorporating a few days in Sicily into a trip?

       

        Dan,

        I’ve not been to Sicily but I know many who have and it comes highly recommended. Most people don’t even go as far south as Naples, at least on a first trip, so I didn’t include Sicily here.

        Your choices are to fly from Rome, or to take a train, which takes about 12 hours including a portion on a ferry, of course. The most common itinerary in Sicily is to take a few days driving or taking a train around the main loop on the island, rather than just staying in Palermo. I’ll definitely spend some time in Sicily on my next trip to Italy, and I’ll write more when I do, but for now this is about all I can say. -Roger

         
          Dan says:

          Got it – thanks. Regarding side trips to Monaco/Cannes from Nice as well as Cinque Terre from Florence, do you recommend counting these potential train rides in the Eurail pass (i.e., purchase the appropriate number of rides that would include these trips)? Or is it cheap/easy enough to get the train tickets in Nice and Florence once you’re there?

           

          Dan,

          You wouldn’t want to use a rail pass travel day on any of those. The ones from Nice should be no more than €10 each way (probably less), with trains leaving once or twice an hour. So you can just breeze into the station and buy tickets for the next departure, probably with very little wait. From Florence to Cinque Terre is maybe 2 hours, with a change on the way, but still those trains are fairly cheap. It’s only if you’d be doing a round-trip from Florence to Cinque Terre and back the same day where it might even come close to being worth a travel day. -Roger

           
Dan says:

Thanks, Roger. What if I intend to stay the night in Cinque Terre, and would like to head straight to Rome afterward (through La Spezia I imagine)? I assume that is doable, and would be worth a rail pass travel day, no?

 

    Dan,

    From Cinque Terra to Rome takes between 3.5 and 5 hours by train (through La Spezia) and it will cost between €40 and about €60 depending on the speed of the train. So, it’s quite easy to do, and depending on which rail pass you are considering, it’s probably worth a travel day. But unlike many journeys, this one is kind of borderline for rail pass value, so there’s no easy answer. -Roger

     
PJ Poursha says:

Hi Roger, I’ve read your article and have taken much of your itinerary and built it into the one that I’ve been working on for a couple of weeks now. I was hoping that you would be kind enough to take a look at it and let me know what you think / suggest. Is there any way you would allow me to send it to you privately? I dont want to overwhelm your readers with a 21 day day Itinerary to Italy/France.
my email is [email protected]

thank you ,
PJ

 
TJones says:

What is your thoughts on adding on a trip to Greece? Also what would you recommend as best area to stay, to travel to, how long etc. Would it be better adding it on between Paris & Rome, at the start or the end? My daughter is really interested in Paris, Venice, Rome & Athens.
Thanks

 

    TJones,

    Greece is a wonderful country to visit, even if it is a bit out of the way when visiting France and Italy. It’s probably best to visit as a round-trip from Rome to Athens in the middle of your trip or at the end.

    However, Greece is a bit unusual on a European itinerary because it is popular for two very different things. Athens is obviously home to the Parthenon and several world-famous museums, and to be honest, most people hustle through an Athens visit because it’s a huge and crowded city (even before the austerity-fueled demonstrations and such). So many people fly into Athens for 2 or 3 days and then take a ferry or flight to one of the Greek islands for fun in the sun, which is the other thing Greece is popular for.

    There are dozens of islands to choose from, including a few that are only a short ferry ride away from the port just south of Athens. It’s hard to recommend one without knowing a lot more about you, but the good news is that all the famous ones are nice and most of them are quite cheap as well. -Roger

     
Margaret says:

Hi great suggestions! I am going to Nice for a conference and planning to spend 10 days to see a few cities. Some friends recommend Nice to Rome.

Would it be commercially viable to do 3 days in Paris after Rome?

 

    Margaret,

    Yes, if you can work both Rome and Paris into that trip, I think you’d love it. Both cities are very large and I do recommend 3 nights in each one if possible. From Nice you could take a train to Rome, or take a train to Paris, but from Rome to Paris I think you are better off flying. The flight should be cheaper than the train, and obviously much faster. Buy those train tickets and flights as early as possible for the lowest fares. -Roger

     
Tengkulinie says:

Hi Roger,

Chance upon your website and I could like to compliment how detailed it is. Anyway, I would to ask you for suggestions. I am heading to Europe in Sept this year. London (3 nights) and after that will be heading to Paris (3 nights). I have 1 week left for Italy. Which cities would you recommend. My flight back would be from Venice. I’m not sure if from Paris I should head to Florence or Rome. Which is nearer from Paris? Should I fly by Plane or take the train?

Is there any hotels/B&B that you are able to recommend while I’m in Italy?

Thank you in advance.

 

    Tengkulinie,

    Thank you for the kind words about the website, and I’ll be happy to try to help.

    Hopefully you are planning on buying your Eurostar train ticket from London to Paris well in advance. They get more expensive as the date nears, and they are very pricey on travel day.

    As for where to go in Italy, you can’t go wrong with the Big Three (Rome, Florence, Venice). From Paris you’ll be best off flying to Rome, and the earlier you buy that ticket the cheaper it will be. Spend 3 or 4 days in Rome, and then take a train to Florence for 2 or 3 days. From Florence you’ll take another fairly short and relatively inexpensive train ride to Venice, which you can easily visit in only one day. As mentioned in the article above, Venice is spectacular, but also crowded and expensive, so one day and one night is a great visit for those on longer trips like yours.

    I do have hotels I recommend in each many cities, and all are well located and very good value. Once you have a look at these, you’ll at least have something to compare others to.

    Recommended Rome hotels
    Recommended Venice hotels

    Have a great trip, and feel free to ask other questions if you have them. -Roger

     
Tengkulinie says:

Thank you for your very quick response!

I had booked my train from London to Paris yesterday at a good price. ;)

Will heed your advices and check out the hotels soon.

Just a quick question, I heard Italy can get pretty dangerous at night. I’m travelling with my girl-friend, any advice or places to avoid til late night?

Thank you once again! :)

 

    Tengkulinie,

    Italy is generally a very safe country, and the chance of physical harm is almost zero. But there are pickpockets in the big cities, so you have to be careful with your possessions. The men in Italy are also known for sometimes giving unwanted attention to females, but most women agree that it’s basically harmless and nothing to worry about. That said, it might be wise to ask more of an expert on the subject. If you Google something like “woman traveling alone in Italy” you’ll find many blog posts from female writers who can better describe what it’s like and how they deal with it. I know many women who’ve traveled extensively in Italy, and none has ever mentioned that it’s a problem.

    But especially late at night, it’s still better to avoid the sketchy neighborhoods. In Rome, the area directly behind the main train station is filled with cheap hotels, and it’s probably best to avoid staying there. In Florence the area around the train station is also not the best, and that’s generally true of most big cities in Europe as well. In Venice, the whole main island is quite expensive, and very safe as well. You’ll really enjoy it, I’m sure. -Roger

     
Joy says:

Roger, thank you for this itinerary. It has been very helpful to me as I start planning a trip with my brothers for this summer. We will only have about 10 days so I am curious as to what we should omit if anything. It will be a first trip for the 3 of us to France & Italy. We want to see as much as we can and plan on going pretty none stop the whole time. Also, thanks to everyone for the additional comments.

 

    Joy,

    In only 10 days my first thought is that you should probably focus on Paris for 3 or 4 days and then fly to Italy for one day in Venice, 2 days in Florence, and 3 days in Rome to finish up. If you were to take the train from Paris to Nice and then take another train from Nice to Venice, it would add two big chunks of travel time that would mean less sightseeing time in the top places. And you’d be in such a hurry that the more time you spent sightseeing in or near Nice, it would mean racing everywhere else just to fit it in.

    From Paris you should be able to get a fairly cheap flight to Venice or nearby Treviso Airport. Or you could fly into Milan and take the train to Venice, or fly into Pisa and take the train to Florence. Ten days in 4 cities is already a rush, but it will be incredibly fun in that part of the world. -Roger

     
tasdst8 says:

Hi. Thanks for the great advise on France and Italy. But could you add Spain? I am traveling to Europe in August. Flying into Frankfurt and visiting family and friends the first half of my trip (about 14 days), where we’ll all travel to Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam and London. Then I’m solo for the next half of my trip. I’d like to visit France, Spain and Italy during that time. I have about 15 days to work with, before meeting up with my family again to get a ride back to Frankfurt to fly out. What’s your idea for the best itinerary? The must see places for me are Paris, Barcelona and Venice….otherwise I’m open. Thanks!!

 

    tasdst8,

    That’s a great idea and overdue, so soon I will write a similar article about Spain and Portugal itinerary suggestions. In the meantime, I think you might be attempting too much in the second half of your trip. If you are going to Italy at all, I really wouldn’t recommend less than a week there. Even 3 nights in Rome, 2 nights in Florence, and 1 night in Venice would be a whirlwind of a trip, and that’s really the minimum to make it worthwhile. If you add at least 3 nights in Paris and possibly 2 nights in Nice or elsewhere in France, you’ve used up most of those 15 days already.

    But since you asked, Spain’s 2 biggest cities are still the main highlights, and they are quite different from one another. I recommend at least 3 nights in Barcelona, and 3 nights in Madrid. Beyond those, Seville and Granada are two interesting choices in the south. I haven’t been to Valencia, but they have been building up their visitor offerings and I’ve heard good things. Should you include Spain on this trip, those would be the highlights and best choices.

    The southern coast also gets massive tourism, but most of that is from other Europeans on sunshine holidays, and they aren’t very interesting from a cultural standpoint. Hopefully this helps, and feel free to write back if you have other questions. -Roger

     
Devaana says:

Hi Roger,

I’m from Malaysia. It’s my first time planning a holiday trip to Europe next year (May) and your website has been an invaluable resource. 3 of us will be travelling between the age group of 27-34. I hope you can guide and suggest me in our planning for 21 days trip to Italy, France & Spain. Our base for now would be Rome(round trip)

The rough idea is:

* Rome – Florence + Pisa – Cinque Terre (Monterosso only) – Venice – Milan (Lake Como) – (Nice & Cannes / Paris) – Barcelona

Need your advice, do you think this is doable? Are there any places that you consider are not worth the visit? Maybe other places you can recommend to fill in the gaps. Regarding transportation, what would you recommend? (I know I would have to decide between trains with pass, trains point to point or airlines). I plan on travelling as cheap as possible, with hostels/apt(b&b) in mind. I hope to add one more city in Spain (if possible).

Hoping to hear from you. Thank you so much!!!!!!

 

    Devaana,

    It’s always great to hear that this information is helpful to people planning trips. I am also quite a fan of Malaysia so I know how different all of this will be for you.

    I think your plan so far looks quite good and would be very doable. Most of your planned stops are great. The only one that is a bit unusual is Milan and Lake Como because Milan itself isn’t really a top tourist city for Italy (it’s more of a business/banking city), but Lake Como is lovely and many people go there as a day trip from Milan or even an overnight stay. Otherwise your plan is all highlights and no filler.

    You should have time to include Madrid after Barcelona at the end, and I’d schedule 3 nights in each one if you can. Madrid and Barcelona are both large, important, and quite different from each other. You should also be able to get a cheap flight back to Rome from Madrid to board your flight home. With the addition of Madrid, I think you’ll have a nearly perfect 3-week trip planned. I wouldn’t add anything else to it, or you’ll start to have to hurry around so much that you won’t enjoy the main places you are flying all that way to see.

    As for getting around, you’ll want to do most of it by train for sure. The trains between Italian cities are fairly inexpensive even if you buy them on travel day, so a rail pass probably wouldn’t be good value. The absolute cheapest way to do this trip would be to buy all of those train tickets online at least two months in advance. Those advanced fares can be very cheap (€19 from Rome to Florence on a high-speed train), and the prices go up as more seats are sold and the travel day approaches. Even the longer rides like Milan to Nice, Nice to Paris, Paris to Barcelona, and Barcelona to Madrid can be fairly cheap if you are able to buy them at least a month or more in advance. Here’s more information on buying advanced train tickets in Europe.

    If you REALLY wanted to just decide on your plan as each new day arises, a rail pass could save you money because those walk-up train fares can be expensive (€150 or more for longer ones). So either you sacrifice spontaneity and save money, or you pay a bit more for a Eurail Pass, which would at least be cheaper than buying as you go.

    Hopefully this helps, and feel free to follow up with more questions if you have them. -Roger

     

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