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

France and Italy make for a perfect first visit to Europe, but there are so many potential places to visit that planning well is extremely important. Of the two, Italy is a bit more straightforward because it has a “Big 3” of tourist cities consisting of Rome, Florence, and Venice. France, on the other hand, has Paris, but beyond the capital it can be hard to know where you should go.

These two countries contain several of what I consider to be the best cities in Europe to visit for anyone, so it’s just a matter of narrowing down where to go and how much time to spend in each place. In the article below you’ll see the best option to string together a tour of these countries in two or three weeks. There will be options and decisions you’ll have to make based on your own tastes, but no matter how you do it this should be an unforgettable trip.

This article was most recently updated in August, 2022.

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.

>>>Going just to Italy?Here are the best first-time Italy itineraries for 3 days to two weeks

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:

  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)

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 jet lag, 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.

It’s true that you can’t just all of France by just visiting Paris on your first trip, but it’s still not a bad idea because this city is the center of almost everything and even the areas surrounding it are filled with great sights, amazing histories, and plenty of things to do. It’s almost impossible to get a bad meal in the city and most of the food is reasonably priced considering the quality. Be prepared for a small hotel room, even if you pay a lot, so it’s more about paying for the location rather than for a luxurious and large place to sleep.

The sights in Paris are almost all worthwhile, but don’t think you have to spend an entire day in the Louvre in order to enjoy it. In fact, I highly recommend taking the 3-hour double-decker sightseeing tour (run by several companies) on your first day in order to see at least the exteriors of all of the famous landmarks. If you want to go inside at least a few of the big attractions you might consider getting a Paris Pass, which also covers the bus tour and a cruise on the Seine.

Spend at least three nights in Paris itself and if you have extra days you might do a day trip (tour buses are a great choice) of the nearby Loire Valley. It’s filled with famous castles and palaces where the rich used to live outside of the city, and many are available for tours.

Paris to Nice by train: About 6 hours

Provence region (optional 2 or 3 nights)

Probably the most efficient first trip to France along with Italy is to spend a few days in Paris and then head to Nice (see below) to explore the French Riviera, but if the beach scene doesn’t interest you, or if you are coming in the cool months (the beach areas are pretty dead from November through March) you might instead stop in the Provence region. This area is famously where Van Gogh was based and got his inspiration, and also home to a Papal Palace where 7 popes lived during the 1300s.

The main city is Arles and that is probably the best base, although Avignon (where the Popes lived) is also very tourist friendly and could be a good choice. In fact, Avignon is the beginning of the famous Côtes du Rhone wine road, which connects a series of hill towns with amazing scenery and of course wine tasting. Something like this might be better for a second or third trip to France unless you’ve got weeks to spend here. Provence is also known for its cuisine, as it stands out even within a country where the food is amazing virtually everywhere you go.

Paris to Avignon by train: About 3.5 hours
Avignon to Nice by train: About 3 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. Generally speaking, I recommend skipping Milan at least on your first trip.

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

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  1. Kate says:

    We are trying to plan a trip for 6 to Paris 4-5 days, then Lake Como for 2/3 days, then Amalfi Coast –
    We have already done Positano and loved it…not sure if we should do Capri instead…Trying to do a lot however we have already done Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Positano last time. Is there something else we should
    Consider? Love planes & trains so both total options! Thank you for suggestions.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Kate,

      I’m jealous! Paris is always great, but for Lake Como it really depends on the time of year. Those little villages along the lake are basically summer homes for wealthy people who live in Milan, so they are pretty dead during the winter months. As for Capri, I haven’t been there yet myself, but I do know it’s quite small and since it’s not far from Positano, it’s going to be pretty similar. I’d consider basing yourselves in Sorrento, which you’ve probably been through on your way to Positano. It’s a really nice uncrowded town with an amazing location. You can easily do day trips to Naples, Pompeii, Capri, and the rest of the Amalfi Coast. In other words, you can spend a whole day on Capri and then have many other options on other days. English is also more widely spoken there than most other Italian cities, so it’s less stressful in some ways.

      Or you could fly down to Sicily for a few days. It’s quite different from the rest of Italy so it will feel a bit more exotic, and the weather is milder during most of the year as well. I hope that helps and let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  2. Nina T says:

    Hello, my husband and I are planning a 2 week trip to Paris and then work our way to Rome in June of 2023. While in Paris we will stay 4-5 nights…what are your thoughts on an airbnb vs a hotel? Were hoping to stay very near to the Eiffel Tower.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Nina,

      When I have looked in the past, there have been few Airbnbs with really good locations in Paris or most other large European cities. It’s definitely worth looking, but my hunch is that any Airbnb that is fairly close to the Eiffel Tower is going to be very expensive, even compared to nearby hotels.

      Another thing to think about is that one big advantage of Airbnbs in general is that you can buy food at markets and cook some meals at home to save money. In Paris, however, you’d probably only consider doing this for breakfast, and even then it might not be ideal. Breakfast in Paris tends to be a small baguette, jam, butter, and coffee at some hotels, while other hotels have a nice buffet with eggs and meats as well. When I’ve had even those breakfast buffets in Paris the food is almost always amazing. And that is even more true of lunches and dinners in random restaurants.

      My favorite hotel in Paris is called the Hotel Cler, which is on a small market street called Rue Cler, just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. They have an excellent breakfast buffet as well, and plenty of amazing restaurants nearby. Hotel rooms in Paris (especially in prime locations) tend to be quite small, and Airbnbs will be small as well, although not as small as hotel rooms. I’ll stop rambling now and hopefully this is at least a bit helpful. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

      1. Nina T says:

        Yes, extremely helpful! Thank you! I’m so excited to look into Hotel Cler! Your insight is so much appreciated!

  3. tammi woods says:

    Hello Roger,

    Great website. I have a few questions. I will be visiting Paris in December 2022. I really love champagne and want to do some tastings, do you have any recommendations? Also is it a good time to go to Nice, etc other places beside Paris while I am there until January 8.

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Tammi,

      Thank you. There will definitely be champagne tastings (obviously meant for tourists) in Paris on any given day, but you could also visit the nearby town of Reims, which is the main tourist center of the Champagne region. It’s 45 minutes away by highspeed rail and the town has a lot more to see including a major cathedral. I’ve yet to make it there myself and I imagine it’ll be somewhat quiet in December, but I’m sure there will still be tastings and tours and such.

      As for other places in December, Nice is about as good as it gets, although it’ll be fairly quiet as well. I’ve actually been to Nice in early December and the weather was chilly and it even snowed a bit one day, but overall it was nice and most things are open. Since it’s a fairly large city and a major transit hub, Nice is still active while nearby towns like Cannes and Antibes are partly shut down. And Nice has great museums and food as well. Going in, say, April would probably be better, but if your choices are staying in Paris the whole time or also going to Nice for a couple days, I would go to Nice. In fact, Nice used to be a winter resort because the weather is mild compared to the other big cities. I do think it’s your best non-Paris option that time if year, and you can still do quick day trips to Monaco and Cannes while you are there. Let me know if you have any other questions. -Roger

  4. Brittany says:

    Hi Roger,
    Thanks sooo much for the above itinerary you have created! This has helped me tremendously! But I do have a couple of questions for a future trip that I am planning. I’m planning a 2 and half (possibly 3 weeks) week trip for next summer (or September); based off of your Itinerary, I basically would be going to all the cities except Provence, Milan, and Cirque Terre. My question is to kick off the trip, which city should I start with from your itinerary (flying to Europe from Los Angeles)? In regards to returning to the states, would you recommend I fly out of Naples? Also, I would like to catch some nice beach weather, how is the weather in June or early September in France and Italy? which months would you recommend?

    Thanks so much again!
    Brittany

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Brittany,

      I’m glad this has been helpful. I’d say flying into and out of Paris would be ideal, but you could also start in Rome and do it in the other direction. I haven’t flown out of Naples and I’d think you’d have way more options and better fares out of Rome and I think there is now a high speed train from the Rome Airport to Naples if you need it.

      Those beaches should be great in June and September. They are all just so filled with Europeans during July and August that it can be frustrating, so going just before or after those months is ideal. The beach weather in southern Italy usually goes into early October or so. I hope this helps and I’m happy to answer other questions if you have them. -Roger

  5. Craig Waite says:

    Hi Roger. Fantastic site….really appreciate the info! 4 of us (2 couples) heading to France next september….Paris mid september and have 5 weeks touring before returning to Paris mid October. Keen to get your thoughts on this itinerary:
    Paris…4 nights
    Train to Nice 2/3 nights
    Train to Cinque Terre 3 nights
    Train to Venice 4 nights
    Train to Florence 2 nights
    Hire car and stay in a village near Siena 4 nights (day trips in the car)
    Drop off car in Rome 4 nights
    Train to Positino 5 nights
    Fly back to Paris and do canal trip 5/6 nights (Dijon area or Midi?) Good way to wind down after busy trip?
    This sounds OK? Not sure of best way to fit Venice in the plans.
    Really appreciate any comments/suggestions you have.
    Kind regards…Craig (NZ)

    1. Roger Wade says:

      Craig,

      I’m glad you have enjoyed the site and I’ll try to help. Your trip looks amazing and I wish I was going along! Cinque Terre should be pretty nice in September (rather than overrun in August), so 3 nights could be good. But they are small villages and I think 2 nights might be enough there. On the other hand, you’ve got the time it seems so it could be a good place to slow down for a bit.

      Venice is another interesting one. It’s small and always crowded, especially from about 10 AM until 5 PM most days. So in a way it’s a bit like visiting a theme park, and four nights is a long time in a theme park. I’d say 2 or 3 nights would be enough, but if you get out in the morning and then again in the evening, Venice is much nicer and it’s stunning.

      I think the hiring a car for a village near Siena sounds great. It should be a nice change of pace between the city visits. I think the train only takes you to Sorrento and then you have to take a bus or a shuttle to Positano, but I’m sure you’ll figure that all out. September there should be nice as well.

      And I think a canal trip around Paris would be great. I’ve yet to do one myself, but I’ve heard good things. Let me know if you have any other questions and I’ll be happy to try to help. -Roger