We just came back from our first trip to Italy, and would like to share some of our thoughts. We are a family of 4 including 2 boys 10 and 15. Before our trip I did read lots of other people's comments on T.A. forums and we took the Rick Steves' guide with us. We started in Venice and used venice.apartments.org to book the Galbajo apartment. The apartment was fine, but it could had been cleaner, it is not really in Rialto, it's about a 15 to 20 minutes walk to the Rialto area, but the location was fine near fondamenta nuova, where you get to see the real Venice and how the people go about their lives. There is a little inexpensive restaurant besides the building that fills with locals during lunch (loved their vongole pasta). It is very close to a vaporetti stop and across from Murano. The pictures and virtual tour on their site show exactly what you get but even though the people who rent these apartments are extremely professional and helpful, if there is a problem like we had (the AC not working during our stay) they call the owner of the unit and is up to him/her to fix the problem. Ours was not solved, we were compensated for the inconvenience but still not the best situation to be at the start of our 2 week vacation.
We loved Venice, I truly recommend the Venice connected card, it saved us a lot of money as we ended up taking many vaporetti trips, if you want a break from the heat, head to Lido and spend a day at the beach, we rented bikes and rode around the island(lots of traffic though). Try to buy your water at grocery stores(you will see them when you walk around) or you will have to pay 2 to 2.50 euro for a .30 cent water bottle around plaza San Marco. Our best meal was at Trattoria Bepi north of the Rialto Bridge (on the R.S guide) we were a party of 8 and had to seat inside as we had no reservations, a little hot but it was great, their tiramisu and panna cotta were to die for, the best we had in all Italy (later we learned tiramisu originated in Venice). Their black pasta with ink was great as were all of their fish dishes. Gelato at campo San Stefano was the best and inexpensive.
After 3 days in Venice, we picked up a rental car and drove to Florence, and after reading all the posts of the people driving in the ZTL zones and receiving fines later on, we were very careful reading the signs as we got close to Florence. We stayed at a great little hotel called Cosimo de Medici located in the city just out of the car restricted zone, you can drive to it without problems(following the right streets!), it is steps from the bus terminal and all the major sites. They are one of the few hotels close to the walls with parking available for their guests (for an additional 12 euros per day, cheap compared to other public parkings) so it is very convenient if you decide to drive. The girls and the gentleman at the front desk were extremely nice and helpful with tips and directions, the rooms on the 2nd floor are renovated, very clean, huge bathrooms, and COLD AC, their breakfast was also good.
Best meal wast at Trattoria Nerone(on the R.S. guide)where we celebrated our son's birthday. From Florence we took day trips to Sienna, San Gimignano and Pisa, in all you will see clearly marked places to park before entering the ZTL zones,not a big deal, Florence is the only place where it can be a little challenging to avoid the ZTL zones. The highlight of our days in Tuscany was going to Andrea Bocelli's concert at Teatro del Silenzio, it was a magical place in the middle of nowhere, filled with mostly locals, an amazing night!.
From Florence we drove to Sorrento, very crowded with mostly Italian tourists, lots of traffic as you get close to Naples. We stayed at hotel Il Nido, great service, great views, best orange juice I've ever tasted, freshly squeezed every morning, nice restaurant. We took the train to visit Pompeii (recommend vs driving), and their local bus to the Amalfi coast, don't miss their lemon products, we loved their lemon cream gelato, heavenly!and the spices they sell along the litlle streets (made easy and yummy bruschetta at home with them).
After three nights we headed to our last stop in Rome, where we dropped our rental car at Termini station, Rome was also very crowded, did all the major sites and were glad we had reservations for the museums and the Vatican as it was very hot and lines were long, we stayed one night at Matisse B$B, nice, lots of space,clean and convenient,then 3 nights at hotel Paba(closed to the Coliseum), owned by the lovely and always helpful Mme. Castelli. Food in Rome was nothing special, we did like the 5 euro lunch at Bar Tavola Calda in via Torino, you'll be the only tourist there, many choices(veggies and fruits) besides pasta (R.S. guide),and we have to mention that only in Rome we were really disappointed with one of the Restaurants recommended in the R.S. guide, it was at Tratoria de Lucia in Trastevere, where I think their popularity has gone over their heads, all the outside tables were reserved so we seated inside in the heat, not worth at all, the food was mediocre, very limited menu, only 6 to 8 choices, our son wanted gnoquis, but they only make these one day a week, their portions are small and overprice,you can see on their menu how their prices keep being cross over and a new higher price written on top, and they have the guts to charge you for the bread, 6 euros for a very crusty hard bread!!, all over the world bread is complementary, especially if you don't order it, they can charge you if you order seconds and most places don't.
After two weeks of pizza, pasta, and meats in tomato based sauces, we needed a break and ate at McDonald's in front of the Pantheon and have to say that their salads are much better than what they serve in the States, with extra virgin olive oil instead of their fatty mayo based dressings, loved their Spinach/Parmesan croquettes!. We also had Chinese at Cavour Street (across from hotel Paba) we recommend it if you need a little change, it was good and authentic.
Buy the Roma pass if you know you are visiting at least 2 of the major sites, don't skip the Borghese Gallery with the audio tour, the first session at 9:00am is the best, few people, not hot,wonderful art, you get exactly 2 hours to see everything... enjoy! You can download to your ipod many of the audio tours for the major sites and museums, it will save you some money and you do enjoy the sites better, you learn many interesting stories and facts about the period and the artists as you see the magnificent sculptures and paintings, we specially enjoyed the Rick Steves audio tour of the Sistine Chapel and St.Peter's Basilica.
So with crowds and all we did enjoy our visit to this wonderful country filled with amazing sites, exquisite art and wonderful people, and we will definitely go back. We just don't recommend it in the summer,is like going to Disney World in the summer with fast passes, heat and long lines though no rain showers, being there, done that........not again.