France and Italy: Best 2 to 3 week itinerary for first-time visitors
The 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.
Updated in 2015: This article was written in 2013 and expanded and updated in 2015.
How many cities to visit?
This 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
Flying 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:
- Buying a France-Italy regional Eurail Pass
- Buying individual train tickets in advance
- 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)
Obviously 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 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 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)
Certainly 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)
With 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.
Pisa (a few hours on a day trip at most)
If you are spending several weeks exploring Italy then perhaps you'd want to spend a night or even two in Pisa. But for a quick trip where you are trying to include as much as possible, Pisa is best for a day trip. It's about an hour by train or bus from Florence, so you can literally do it in half a day there and back. And being honest, the Field of Miracles (which includes the Leaning Tower) is definitely worth a look, but the rest of Pisa doesn't really stand out.
Regardless of your starting point, you can go to the Pisa Centrale train station and walk about 25 minutes to the Leaning Tower area, or take a train to the Pisa San Rossore train station and 7 minutes to the Field of Miracles. There are also bus tours from Florence that take you all the way there, but those come with the slowness of large-group travel.
Cinque Terre (1 night, optional)
If 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. Of the 5 towns, Vernazza is probably best for a short visit and it's definitely the most scenic.
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 times 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)
Again, 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.
Naples/Pompeii/Sorrento/Amalfi Coast (optional up to 4 nights)
The “big 3” in Italy are Rome, Florence, and Venice, and if you have time for only 3 cities those are the obvious ones to choose. But if you want to dig deeper into Italy and you have enough time, your next best choice will be to base yourself in Sorrento and use it to explore Naples, the ruins of Pompeii, the Amalfi Coast, and the island of Capri.
Naples is a large and gritty city that has an unfortunate reputation for pickpockets and other street crime. In reality, any daytime visitor who uses the typical precautions will be fine. Naples is also famously the birthplace of pizza and home to one of the world's best archaeology museums so it's worth a day trip for sure. The great news is that Naples is very easy to visit from nearby Sorrento, which is a lovely and friendly place where most people know English.
Stay in Sorrento
To reach Sorrento you'll take a train to Naples and then change for a one-hour local train (known as the Circumvesuviana) to its final stop. Once you are checked into a hotel there, you can take the same train back to Naples, or an even faster boat. Halfway back on the Circumvesuviana you can jump off in front of the stunning Pompeii Ruins. Those in a hurry can spend half a day in Naples and a couple hours seeing Pompeii and be safely back in Sorrento for an unforgettable dinner.
Amalfi Coast and the Island of Capri
Not only is Sorrento the perfect base for a visit to Naples and Pompeii, but it's also the gateway to the Amalfi Coast and a short ferry ride from the touristy island of Capri. On a quick visit you can hop on the local bus in Sorrento that takes you through Positano and Amalfi to Salerno. You'll see all the famous and amazing Amalfi Coast views, and you can return either by bus or boat for an ideal day out.
The other main nearby attraction is the famous tourist island of Capri, which is best known for its Blue Grotto attraction. The ferry from Sorrento only takes 20 minutes each way and leaves hourly most of the day. This is another easy and ideal day trip where you can have breakfast and dinner in Sorrento and a wonderful time in Capri in between.
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. 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