Italy is a wonderful country full of culture, history and great food! It is also a remarkably easy country for backpackers to explore, there are plenty of hostels and infrastructure in place to support those journeying around. This Italy backpacking itinerary gives a good introduction to the country for any first time visitor.
This 3 week Italy backpacking itinerary covers some of the major highlights and can be used as the backbone of any further plans if you wish to extend it further. If you are time restricted it can be done in 2 weeks without missing too much, though you’ll really have to pack your days in to see everything (and maybe skip Capri and Lake Garda).
This plan is based on using Italy’s railway system. It’s cheap and you can usually just buy on the day using a fast ticket machine without any hassle!
Use the map to explore the route this Italy backpacking itinerary follows!
Start your trip
Naples (suggested time 4 nights, inc 1 for arrival and day trips)
Begin this Italy backpacking itinerary by flying into Naples. You’ll find an old port city that has somewhat on an anarchic feel to it in comparison to other major European cities. It’s particularly interesting for it’s old forts and buildings. The city it has an authentic feel and you’ll be sure to want to dine at one of it’s world famous pizzerias. Napoli (as it’s known in Italian) is said to be the birthplace of pizza after all. The city often gets overlooked in favour of Rome or Florence but is definitely worth a visit. With a long and dramatic history it has been a major part of Italian heritage dating back to the Stone Age. Naples itself can be explored within a day if you just want the highlights. Yes it is dirty and there is plenty of rubbish and graffiti, don’t expect clean and beautiful!
Volcanic destruction and a wonderful island
From Naples you can take some fantastic day trips by train. One major highlight of this Italy backpacking itinerary is to see the ruins of Pompeii. You can also visit the volcano that destroyed it, Mount Vesuvius. It was in CE 79 that the volcano erupted and buried the area in lava and ash. Herculaneum is another ruined city in the area that suffered the same fate as Pompeii. It can also be visited from Naples if you have the time.
Pompeii is worth a few hours to wander around and really appreciate it. There is a large area to explore by foot and a restaurant if you get hungry or thirsty. Then you can take a bus up to see the volcano. they pick up from just outside the main entrance to Pompeii ruins. You can walk to the top and stare into the crater. There are nice views of the surrounding area too.
Another recommended day trip is to the island Capri. You’ll find plenty of ferries heading there from the docks in Naples. Wander around for a few hours and enjoy the island’s scenic beauty.
Binge on history in Rome
Rome (suggested time 4 nights though can be done in 3)
All roads lead to Rome and that’s the next destination on this Italy backpacking itinerary. There are an abundance of World Famous attractions here. 4 days is a good amount of time to cover everything. You could do the city in 3 but your schedule would be packed.
To start with no Italy backpacking itinerary would be complete without checking out the Colosseum. It and the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine Hill can be visited in one morning. Tip: buy a combined ticket from the Palatine Hill rather than the Colosseum, the lines are much shorter! After lunch have a wander around the city and see the likes of the Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.
Spend your second day exploring the Vatican and the Vatican Museums. Technically the Vatican is a separate independent city-state. In fact it’s officially the smallest country in the world! So yes this Italy backpacking itinerary actually covers two countries. St. Peter’s Basilica is regarded as one of the major highlights here as is the famous Sistine Chapel. Though in truth so much of the Vatican is spectacular hence why it’s good to devote a day to explore it.
Days 3 and 4
Near to the Vatican you can find Castel Sant’Angelo, which is a cool fort that is now a museum. And if you fancy something a bit different check the Capuchin Crypt. Though be warned it’s not for the faint heated! Its decorated with the skeletons of its past Friars. There are loads of other things to do in Rome as well. I have made a top 10 here and there’s plenty more if you have the time!
If your into it (and have the energy after spending your day exploring) then take time in the evenings to relax and hang out with other backpackers. The city as a strong backpacking scene particularly at The Yellow which serves both as a hostel and a bar.
Enjoy culture and art in Tuscany
Florence (suggested time 3 nights inc day trips)
Regarded as the birthplace of the renaissance, Florence is where you can get your art and culture fix. The capital of the Tuscany region began life as a Roman city and flourished as an important centre of trade in medieval times. It is of course the renaissance for which it is best known and which dominates its appeal to tourists.
Two major sites to visit here are the Uffizi and The David. Be warned ticket queues are long so it might be worth looking up the galleries online to book in advance. The Duomo (Cathedral) is a major highlight here too. If you have nice weather then be sure to watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Day trips from Florence
From Florence you can also take the train to go on a day trip to see the Field Of Miracles in Pisa, including its famous Leaning Tower. The tower is of course one of Italy’s most famous icons and a big stop on this Italy backpacking itinerary. There are long lines to enter the buildings here (including the tower) so prepare yourself for a wait if your keen to do that. Other than that the highlights of Pisa are the scenic Arno river and the various historical churches and buildings which are scattered around the city.
Visit Pisa in the morning before hopping back on the train and heading to Lucca. Spend the afternoon here, exploring its narrow city streets and walking it’s famous renaissance walls. There are plenty of great views to be had from them. St Martin’s Cathedral is one of the main buildings to see inside the city walls, dating all the way back to 1063.
The Coastal villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso (suggested time 3 nights)
One of my biggest regret of my own time doing this itinerary is that I didn’t visit Cinque Terre. So I’ve included it here so you don’t miss out! It’s a set of five beautiful villages along the Italian Riviera. They are set along the steep coastline and are part of the Cinque Terre National Park. Its high up on my list of places to visit when I go back to Italy. Everyone I know who has been has loved it!
Head up to Northern Italy
Venice (suggested time 2 nights)
You’ll only need a couple of nights to enjoy Venice. Stay longer and you’ll start putting a big dent in your budget! Historically Venice was a powerhouse in regional politics but that has long since declined. The main attraction for me here was just to explore the cities streets and canals. I mostly just went for a wander around and enjoyed the scenery. It can be rather packed with tourists in peak season. But it’s such a unique city don’t let that put you off! Stay at Generator Hostel if you can, it’s the best backpacker budget option in the city in my view. Plus there is a certain novelty in needing to get a boat from town to your hostel!
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Verona (suggested time 1 night)
Verona is a great mix of Roman history, Romeo and Juliet romanticism (it’s set in this city) and pretty buildings and views. It’s quite relaxed despite the tourists, and easy to get around. The city has a long history and whilst not much is known of its founding the Romans definitely left their mark.
The Roman amphitheatre (aka Roman Arena) dates from 30 CE and occasionally hosts modern performances. Obviously it’s not as grand as the Colosseum in Rome but it’s still very impressive and good to check it out. Crossing over the Ponte Pietra bridge you can reach the Roman theatre ruins. The bridge itself dates from 100 BCE. It was unfortunately largely destroyed in 1945 during the Second World War. It was rebuilt in 1957 using original materials. The Roman Theatre is built on a hillside and contains some interesting ruins to explore. It also gives you great views back over the city of Verona. The ruins also occasionally host performances.
The Romeo and Juliet tourism is situation around Via Cappello. ‘Juliet’s house’ is there, it’s not actually the house of course but is flooded with tourists none the less. Its main attractions are the balcony and statue of Juliet. Look out for the wall covered in love notes and graffiti! Verona also has a ‘old town’ some nice buildings and architecture. It’s worth a wander around to see what you find!
Lake Garda (suggested time 2 nights)
Stop by Lake Garda to take a break from cities for a couple of days by relaxing on the waterfront and enjoying its scenery. Peschiera Del Garda is a well situated small town, with a great hostel in the form of Meet Garda Lake that makes it the ideal lake spot for backpackers. It’s a nice place to walk around and enjoy a good Italian meal.
You can also take a bus along to Sirmione for an afternoon too. It’s a nice commune just along the lake with a laid back feel (though plenty of visitors).
You could just have a quick one night stop at Lake Garda if you just want to check out the town and lake. It’s not far from Verona and easy to walk round. I’ve suggested 2 nights for this Italy backpacking itinerary so you can relax awhile after all the city hopping!
End of the trip
Milan (suggested time 2 nights)
This Italy backpacking itinerary ends in Milan where you can see the majestic Duomo. You can go inside and up on the roof. It really is spectacular. There are more art galleries to check out if you haven’t already had your fill. I enjoyed visiting the Pinacoteca di Brera. You can also find more art at the Castello Sforzeco. It is a castle in Milan that houses several museums. If you wish to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper you will need to have booked way in advance. Its located at the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Milan is regarded as a major city for fashion and shopping, should the interest you too.
Milan airport is one of the most well linked in Europe so a good end point. Or of course you can head to Southern France should you be continuing your travels by train! The Italian cities of Turin and Genoa are close(ish) too and Switzerland is a few hours north. If you really enjoyed Lake Garda you can also get to Lake Como easily from here by train. I haven’t been (yet!) but have friend who love it.
Where to add if you have longer?
This Italy backpacking itinerary is largely focused on central and northern Italy. Geographically sticking with that then Turin and Genoa (as mentioned above) would be natural cities to add to it. Bologna too, especially as it’s a good place to switch trains whilst travelling to Venice. Tuscany is a popular area and often romanticized. Sienna is another city you could visit here, as well as spending time in the countryside.
The most far South this Italy backpacking itinerary goes is Naples. You can get to the Amalfi coast easily from there by train, and then head further south. Alternatively you fly into Sicily to start and then work your way up the country from there.
Here is some handy advice for travelling the country.
Italian is obviously the main language here. You can by fine though with English when visiting tourist sites and many restaurants will have English menus available. Outside the cities you might not find many who speak English so if your planning to go exploring then google translator might come in hand! But inside the cities you won’t have a problem, most people in the tourist industry will know some relevant words at least.
Italy uses the Euro. There are lots of ATMs around, use ones inside banks if you are worried. I would recommend carrying some cash on you when going out to eat. There shouldn’t be a problem using your credit/debit card in hotels and popular restaurants. But some smaller restaurants and cafes will require cash, which can be preferred by some hostels and guesthouses too. Definitively check with your bank about commission rates first if you plan to pay by card.
You might have heard the stereotype that Italians eat pasta and Pizza for all their meals. Well it’s basically true! The vast majority of restaurants will be serving these. You can also get some good takeaway pizza too. If you want to keep to a budget look out for these as they can be reasonably priced. But you can also find cheap pizzerias around, especially in Napies. Venice though is going to cost a lot more than the rest of Italy so be prepared. Along with Pizza a lot more Italian food is bread based. For example bruschetta is a typical starter. In Italian it’s called an Antipasto which just means starter dish (well technically ‘before the meal’). You can also find sandwich bars around for lunchtime snacks.
If you are vegetarian (I am) you will have no problem in Italy, there are plenty of options. But if your vegan or can’t eat cheese then you could struggle. Look out for ‘marinara’ which is pizza with no cheese on. Falafel is a good European wide standard to, normally found in Turkish or Middle Eastern inspired takeaways. Be aware though some Italian cities like Venice have banned new fast food places from opening!
Between the destinations on this Italy backpacking itinerary
As mentioned at the start of this Italy backpacking itinerary the method to get between destinations is by train. Buying tickets is quick and easy form fast ticket machine. Just change the language into English then select the destination and time. There are usually cheaper trains available so check them in advance if you can. What i did was when i arrived into a city I went to the ticket machine and looked at what options there were for future days. I used my smart phone to take a screenshot.
In the cities
Around the cities on this Italy backpacking itinerary I usually just walked everywhere. This is apart from in Milan. There metro journeys were needed, but that was party because my accommodation was far from the centre.Venice may require some boat trips, especially if you stay away from the main island. For example the island of Giudecca has some accommodation on and is just south of the main island, requiring a 10 minute boat journey.
Obviously how much you walk might depend on where you accommodation is, your capability and the weather. But generally Naples, Rome, Florence and Verona are all walkable cities. Rome does have plenty of public transport too so check your options when you know where you are staying.
Italy has large numbers of hotels, guesthouses and hostels. In terms of backpacking you will find the hostel scene is focused on Naples, Rome and Florence. These along with Venice are the main types for backpacking travelling around Europe. There are hostels in other cities too, but not as frequented on the backpacker route. In the busy summer season you should book ahead to ensure you get a bed. The prices are generally in line with the rest of Western Europe but expect to pay more in Venice.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this Italy backpacking itinerary. And of course I hope it helps you plan your trip! Italy is a fantastic country to visit and well worth your time (and money!) Personally I loved all the history and culture. And of course the food! If your interested in reading more about Europe my cities guides are listed here.