Italy is incredible and she knows it. Let’s be serious. The Romans built up an empire, the Medici finessed it, Bernini made it bombastic, Caravaggio brought the drama, and Fiat and Ferrovia della Stato kept it moving. There is so much to discover but we all know where you want to be if indulging in lavish Italian luxury.
Rome, Florence, Venice. The inimitable triumvirate with three distinct personalities – the unbridled lavishness of Papal Rome, the extravagant eccentricities of the Doges’ Venice and the refined splendor of the Renaissance Florence – has dominated the Italian Grand Tour thanks to their triple threat of cultural heritage, gorgeous architecture and unparalleled opulence. There’s never been a better time to travel between these three timeless cities, and immerse yourself in their whimsical personalities. For Marriott Bonvoy, I’ve researched some of the very best exclusive and unforgettable experiences.
Did you know that I lived fully immersed in Venice for a years? When I wasn’t at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection hanging Morandi paintings and talking modern art, I spent my days and nights getting lost. And it took me a few months to appreciate the straight-faced and not-exactly-Roman-friendly Venetians. They are islanders and they don’t necessarily want you to know their business. But once I cracked the surface, I found a floating fairy-tale of sophistication and secrets hidden away behind decorated facades.
Venetians love keeping a secret which is why you’ll find everything hidden- behind a mask, behind a wall and behind the scenes. Venetians keep true affluence tucked away, and the best way to understand that is to step behind the velvet rope of the Doge’s palace for an afternoon of “Living like a Doge.” Imago Artis, pioneer of artisan tourism, curates after-hours visits to the Palazzo Ducale for a full immersion experience in the day in the life of the Doges, the elected leaders of the Venetian Republic.
At the height of the Republic, the Doges’ (and their partners’) fashion choices were a potent — and colorful — indicator of power. The newly opened The St. Regis Venice brings you inside the lives and armoires of the Venetian fashionistas through its bespoke tour, “A Brief History of Venetian Fashion.”
Palazzo Mocenigo is Venice’s historic costume museum- a beautiful location with even more beautiful period costumes from the late 16th century through the 1800s. The tour takes visitors to Palazzo Mocenigo’s ancient attic for special access to the palazzo’s off-limit costumes and accessories.
The Grand Canal is beautiful- its glitter is hypnotizing so you know you’re going to want to have the most iconic Venetian experience. While any motoscafo or gondola can take you around the lagoon, Venetian guide Luisella Romeo at See Venice prefers to take her clients on a cruise in the northern lagoon on the last of the traditional trabaccolo, a traditional wooden boat used in Venice in the mid-15th century and an emblem of the Republic’s maritime heritage.
Her tour includes an afternoon on Il Nuovo Trionfo, a nearly century-old traboccolo, with a stop for lunch at the Michelin-starred Venissa on the island of Mazzorbo.
Arguably, the most luxurious Venice experiences include ample space and a stunning view, so if you can, book a table at Gio’s Restaurant, The St. Regis Venice’s canal-side outdoor restaurant, and enjoy the city’s glow at sunset. Be sure to take a peek at the dessert menu — Gio’s tiramisu could just be La Serenissima’s best-kept secret.
Let’s Go: Book a ticket on Italo (Tip: reserve the Club class Salotto, a private cabin for four) or Trenitalia’s Frecce high-speed train from Venezia—S. Lucia station and enjoy a two-hour ride to Firenze S.M. Novella station.
Florence may be everyone’s favorite city, and rightfully so. There is nothing quite more awe-inspiring that the impact of seeing the Cathedrale and its colorful marble facade on a clear morning, a rainy afternoon or any time. However, reality is quickly realized when facing the lines and crowds swarming most of its main attractions so the most exclusive experience you can have in this city is, arguably, time alone.
Imago Artis, exclusive purveyors of after-hours experiences, brings you on a bespoke, private tour that skips the lines and allows you to get up close and personal with Michelangelo’s “David,” while Context Travel takes alone time to new heights in its new exclusive Duomo visit, a three-hour walk through the Baptistery and Duomo Museum, followed by an exclusive skip-the-line entry to the Duomo and a private (as in no one else gets to do this) visit to the Duomo Terrace.
Fine tailoring and fine-crafted accessories are a part of Florence’s DNA, which is why you’ll want Couturista to curate a full-immersion fashion experience where a local fashion expert guides you through the city on customized, private visits to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Florence’s artisan ateliers and most iconic shops, like heritage brand Santa Maria Novella.
To be honest, I used to think Florence had nothing on Rome. And it was probably because the crowds overwhelmed. Then I got a different taste of the city- and I took a big mouthful thanks to Coral Sisk of Curious Appetite. She and her team of sommeliers and food experts put you on the hunt for Florence’s cult classics in a very specialized tasting tour of the city. The Curious Appetite team seems to know everyone who’s anyone in the Florence food scene, as well as detailed histories of every delectable item you taste along the way.
Let’s Go: With departures at least three times an hour, every hour, from Firenze S.M. Novella station, Italo and Trenitalia high-speed trains slip you into Roma Termini station in 95 minutes flat.
You know I have a lot to say about Rome. Everyone does. From ancient to modern eras, Rome has long embraced never-ending, no-bounds entertainment. It is Grande Bellezza e La Dolce Vita every day, and one of the best ways to understand The Eternal City is to experience it like a Roman — which means hitting the streets in style.
First, you’ll want the right kind of ride. The St. Regis Rome revs guests up with its customized, zero emissions electric 1962 Fiat 600 Mulitpla with gold-leaf detailing and a faux fresco ceiling. From the hotel to the Spanish Steps or Trevi Fountain, you’ll have access to the ultimate stylish transport around Rome.
Next step is getting the keys to the city, and in this case, that’s Vatican City. Guides at Context Travel are on a first-name basis with the Clavigero, the key master of the Vatican Museums.
Wake up for a 6 a.m. eye- and door-opening visit to the Vatican Museums where you will literally have the chance to open the doors of history and turn on the lights to the world’s richest art museum. If that’s too early, Context also opens the doors for intimate and entirely private evening visits to Villa Borghese.
Art lovers will find that there’s no better way to experience the city’s epic collection than by spending the day with art historian Liz Lev. Vatican consultant, TED speaker and long-time Rome resident, the dynamic guide has a voracious appetite for art, which is why her All-You-Can-See Smorgasbord of Artis the city’s most delectable adventure. Liz is a personal friend, and pretty much an art historical rock star. If you can book time with her, you’re sorted. And you may want to bookend her art experience with an Ancient Rome underground experience with Darius Arya, my super archaeologist Indian Jones husband.
Whatever your art flavor — Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and even a splash of Modern — Lev will customize an incredible day taking you back in time. If the Clavigero opens the keys to the city, Lev opens your mind to its enviable art history.