What's New in Italy for 2017
A visitor admires Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" in Florence's newly refurbished Duomo Museum. (photo: Rick Steves)
Italy — with more culture, crowds, and chaos per square kilometer than anywhere else in Europe — is most enjoyable when you're up-to-date on its sightseeing and infrastructure news. Here's the latest:
As in other European cities, Florence is beefing up security these days. Visiting some major museums — such as the Accademia (with Michelangelo's David), Uffizi, and Bargello — will require a little extra time and patience as metal detectors and X-ray machines for bags slow down lines.
Florence's Duomo Museum, which reopened last year after an extensive renovation, has quickly become a top sight. Highlighted by original works that adorned the Duomo, Baptistery, and Campanile — including Lorenzo Ghiberti's remarkable Gates of Paradise bronze panels — the museum offers one of Italy's great artistic experiences.
Climbing the Duomo's iconic dome in Florence now requires reservations — which is a blessing considering the previous suffocating congestion and long lines. Get your appointment for the climb either online or at the ticket office.
The museum and dome climb are covered by the same €15 combo-ticket, which also includes visits to the Baptistery, Campanile, and Santa Reparata crypt. However, the combo-ticket is not necessary for travelers who buy the Firenze Card, which covers all of these and lets you skip the massive ticket lines at most tourist sights.
West of Florence, in nearby Pisa, renovations are underway at that city's Duomo, the huge Pisan Romanesque cathedral with a famous leaning bell tower. Through 2018, the upper and front part of the Duomo interior will be covered by scaffolding, and the associated Duomo Museum will be closed for renovation. For travelers flying into or out of Pisa, the new "Pisa Mover" train offers an easy eight-minute connection from Galileo Galilei Airport to the main train station, and leaves every 10 minutes. (This train station also has regular connections to the Cinque Terre, Florence, and other points in Italy.)
Rome is, as usual, in a state of flux, with changes to transportation and construction going on around town. For example, the cute electric minibus #116, which had provided visitors an easy way to joyride through the city's medieval core, has been discontinued.
At Termini train station, entry to the platforms is now restricted to ticketholders. Fortunately, however, there are no metal detectors to hassle with, and lines are usually short. Airport access is now a bit easier and cheaper, as two new competitors — T.A.M. and Schiaffini — have started running buses between Termini station and Fiumicino, Rome's main airport.
In and around the Roman Forum's Basilica of Constantine, construction work on a new Metro line will likely be visible for the next few years. In northern Rome, Santa Susanna — home of the American Catholic Church in Rome — is closed for renovation, though you can still pick up tickets there for a papal audience, and Mass is being held in English daily in nearby churches.
Rome's ancient sites are also getting a few tweaks. Outside the Colosseum, the crude costumed "gladiators" are now officially banned from posing for photos with tourists for money (though whether these photogenic bullies will actually be deterred remains to be seen). And on Palatine Hill, the House of Augustus and House of Livia, the most intact of the hill's ruins, are finally open to the public.
Venice is still sinking, and unfortunately the MOSE Project — involving underwater mobile gates that are supposed to close off Venice's lagoon to protect the city against flooding — has been stalled by a corruption scandal. (Public works corruption...in Italy?)
Venice continues to bustle, of course, and visitors will be reassured to find a new first-aid station staffed by English-speaking doctors on St. Mark's Square. The number of traghetti (shuttle gondolas) that ferry locals and in-the-know tourists across the Grand Canal has reduced from seven to only three: at the Fish Market near Rialto Bridge, at San Tomà near the Frari Church, and at Santa Maria del Giglio — not far from St. Mark's Square. Just step in, hand the gondolier €2, and enjoy the ride.
In the Italian Riviera, the Cinque Terre's five villages, while still a delight to explore, are more crowded than ever. Cruise ships continue to dump their masses into the national park, congesting the towns and trails so much that the area becomes very difficult to enjoy when the ships are in town. If cruising, stay away from these villages. If not cruising, enjoy them outside of cruise day-trip hours.
Vernazza, my favorite Cinque Terre town, now has its own summer opera series (Wednesday and Friday nights, April through October). Twice a week, a big-name maestro from Lucca brings talented singers here to perform at the small oratory tucked behind the town's big church, which has been beautifully restored for just this purpose.
One thing that isn't new in 2017: Italy still has Europe's richest, craziest culture. If you take Italy on its own terms, you'll experience a cultural keelhauling that actually feels good.