Viva LItalia

With its vast history, picturesque natural beauty, and mind-blowing art and architecture, Italy is one of the loveliest countries on earth. And although it’s still predominantly Catholic and socially conservative, the tide of LGBT acceptance is shifting.

ROME

The essence of “la dolce vita” (the sweet life), Rome, also called the Eternal City, has fascinated millions of people for over 2,000 years. It has endured for centuries as one of the world’s most romantic and beautiful cities. For travelers in general—including LGBT people—Italy’s capital city is bursting with museums, art, architecture, historic sightseeing, top-notch cuisine, nightlife and hotels. There’s an impressive photo op around every corner, whether it’s a beautiful Baroque square or an ancient basilica. You’ll want to keep your iPhone or digicam handy for those jaw-dropping pics.

Can’t Miss Highlights

If for some reason you have a limited amount of time in Rome, put the ancient Colosseum at the top of your must-see list. You’ll also want to visit the famed St. Peter's, the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. The Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Roman Forum, Castel Sant'Angelo, Piazza Navona and the celebrated market Campo de' Fiori should also be your list of can’t miss sights.

Where to Stay

Speaking of the latter, the Hotel Campo de’ Fiori (Via del Biscione 6, 39 06 68806865, campodefiori.com) makes a sumptuous home base for your vacation. Perfectly situated next to the market, the hotel’s three room types—classic, deluxe and top floor—are decorated in sumptuous fabrics, throw pillows, gilded mirrors and draperies that evoke a Rome’s decadent past. Though chic discos and restaurants are right next door, you won’t hear them in your soundproof digs. Other modern touches include a free buffet breakfast, complimentary in-room Wi-Fi and bike rentals for exploring the city.

Nearly all of Rome’s must-see sights are within a 15-minute walk of Domus Liberius (via Liberia 17, 39 06 4875500, domusliberiusroma.com), a charming B&B with modern décor and a yummy breakfast spread every morning. The extra-helpful staff is happy to provide maps and point out the tourist highlights, as well as bars and restaurants where actual Romans hang out. The Metro is a few steps away from the hotel.

Where to Eat

Finding a great restaurant in Rome is like shopping in the cereal aisle—there are so many choices, it’s almost overwhelming. We say trust the locals. Babette (Via Margutta, 1 D, 39 06 3211559, babetteristorante.it) brings farm-to-table realness in a cozy cottage-like café. The French and Italian menu focuses on rustic favorites like zuppa di fagioli e cavolo nero (bean soup with black cabbage), a Roman classic, and new inventions like Danish beef carpaccio with parmesan and julienned zucchini in salmoriglio sauce.

Don’t miss the lasagna at the perennial hotspot Dal Bolognese (Piazza del Popolo, ½, 39 06 3611473, no website), which, you guessed it, specializes in the rib-sticking cuisine of Bologna. Slurp on pastas in creamy sauces and selections of boiled meat with gremolata—this is not the place to worry about your waistline.

The menu at Chinappi (Via Augusto Valenziani, 19, 39 06 4819005, chinappi.it) is filled with fish and shellfish of the Mediterranean. Even their “standard” menu will seem exotic to American palates: Gaeta-style octopus salad, an appetizer of salted cod on bitter greens, and pasta with local clams. If you’re feeling adventurous, the chef will custom-design eight seafood dishes based on the day’s catch. Hey, you only live once.

Where to Shop

Have we mentioned that Rome has amazing markets? There’s nothing like a massive outdoor mall and its throngs of hagglers and treasure hunters to show the character of a city. Check out the Trionfale Market (?Via la Goletta, 1) for fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, spices and amazing photo ops for your Instagram feed. The Mercato delle Stampe (Largo della Fontanella di Borghese) promises gifts for the librarian in your life: this “print market” trades in antiquarian books, vintage prints and engravings, postcards, music scores and more. If you’re shopping for a stylish Italian wardrobe but don’t have the budget, paw through the finds at Va Sannio (near the San Giovanni metro), a market specializing in new and vintage clothes, shoes, bags and accessories at bargain-basement prices.

Where to Play

Rome is so stuffed with things to do, your best option might be to take a couple of guided tours—don’t worry, you wont be stuck on a motorcoach or strapped to a Segway. Instead, take a small-group walking tour with a specific theme. How about an espresso, gelato and tiramisu tasting tour? Or a night-time ghost hunt through the catacombs and other spooky sites? Viator (viator.com) offers a selection of fun options. Plenty of tour companies offer day-trip itineraries to interesting sites outside Rome, like Pompeii, Capri, Naples, UNESCO world heritage sites at Tivoli and many more. Your hotel’s concierge can hook you up, or visit Rome’s tourism bureau website (turismoroma.it) for tips and discounts.

Where’s the Gay?

Rome offers plenty of saunas and discos for gay men, not so many for lesbians—but that doesn’t mean you won’t find girls here. Start at Gay Street (Via di San Giovanni in Laterano), a strip of restaurants, bars and shops with an LGBT flavor, very close to the Colosseum. Pop into Coming Out (Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, 8, 39 067009871, comingout.it) a gay café and bar where everyone seems to mingle—tourists, locals, gay and not-so-straight. Drag shows, live music and DJs are scheduled weekly.

Getting Here

It’s easy to get to Rome from New York—flights from the U.S. arrive at Fiumicino-Leonardo da Vinci airport, one of Europe’s busiest. Once you’re there, Rome has a comprehensive public transportation system, with metro (underground subway), trams, regional rail and buses to get you to virtually any restaurant, historical site, museum or disco in the city.

VENICE

There is arguably no place on earth as matchless and singularly amazing as Venice. Built in the Middle Ages as a center of trade, it’s a city full of narrow, car-free streets alongside winding canals. Of course, it’s also bursting with history and character—from its magnificent palaces, churches and bustling squares to its picturesque bridges, canals and gondolas. It’s hard to imagine a city leaving you with a more romantic impression than Venice. So come with a partner—or meet one here! All the quaint, beautiful corners and nooks of Venice are awaiting your exploration.

Can’t Miss Highlights

If your time in Venice is precious, just make sure you see the following: the Grand Canal, which is the city’s life blood; the famous clock tower, Torre dell'Orologio; Saint Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco), which is perhaps Venice's most famous landmark; the lovely city square, Piazza San Marco; and last but certainly not least, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, a domed church that is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Oh, and ride in a gondola…that experience should be a given on any Venetian itinerary, no matter your timetable.

Where to Stay

Hotel Flora (San Marco 2283/A, 39 041 5205844, hotelflora.it) provides a pretty and quiet respite from the bustle of San Marco. Cozy rooms feature original paneling, antique furniture and Murano glass accents, plus luxurious linens and free Wi-Fi. Italian coffee, pastries and homemade cakes are served for breakfast in the restful garden.

Centrally located next to Campo San Stefano, Locanda Fiorita (Campiello Novo, San Marco 3457, 39 041 5234754, locandafiorita.com) offers spare and elegant rooms with wide-plank floors and beamed ceilings. Richly patterned furnishings add a romantic touch. Nearby sites include the Museo Fortuny and Accademia Museum.

Where to Eat

As elsewhere in Italy, your culinary options in Venice range from ultra-swanky eateries to super-casual pizza joints. Venetian restaurants tend to mix together typical Venetian elements (like seafood, polenta and risotto) with other, less characteristic ingredients. A Beccafico (Campo S. Stefano, 2801, 39 041 5274879, abeccafico.com) serves up imaginative yet wholesome Italian dishes in a chic yet rustic ambiance setting, with outdoor seating. Sample the seared sesame seed-crusted ahi, deep-fried calamari and grilled vegetables. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, La Zucca (Santa Croce, 1762, 39 041 5241570, lazucca.it/en) right by the canal, will hook you up with tasty seasonal menu with a veggie vibe. On a budget? Osteria Al Cravatte (Santa Croce 36/37, 39 041 5287912, no website), is both a cheap and tasty dining option, popular with the locals and students of the nearby university. Try the fish of the day, fresh soups and raw artichoke salad.

Where to Shop

Venice is known for its beautiful art glass, today’s artisans are creating gorgeous iterations of the city’s traditional art form. Pauly & C (Piazza San Marco, San Marco 73 and 77, 39 041 5235484 and 39 041 2770279, pauly.it) established in 1866, carries antique treasures as well as contemporary pieces by leading glass artists.

Learn how to make traditional Venetian papier-mache masks at Ca’ Macana (Calle delle Botteghe off Campo San Barnaba, Dorsoduro 3172, 39 041 2776142, camacana.com), a shop that offers classes in this unusual art form. A large showroom showcases gilded, feathered, and painted masks for sale. If your itinerary happens to include an actual masquerade ball, peruse the costumes available to rent at Atelier Pietro Longhi (Rio terà dei Frari, near the Frari, San Polo 2608, 39 041 714478, pietrolonghi.com). Open by appointment only, the shop designs beautiful gowns and ensembles inspired by 18th– and 19th-century silhouettes.

Fashionistas will find plenty of bespoke clothiers and shoemakers in Venice as well. Check out Atelier Segalin di Daniela Ghezzo (Calle dei Fuseri, San Marco 4365, 39 041 5222115, danielaghezzo.it) for sui generis, handmade fine leather footwear. Green snakeskin booties, anyone? In the same vein, Francis Model (Ruga Ravano, San Polo 773/A, 39 041 5212889, francismodel.it) creates handcrafted, supple leather handbags in eye-popping colors. Compared to other Italian leather brands, Francis Model’s hoboes and cross-body bags are reasonably priced and one-of-a-kind. 

Where to Play

Don’t fight it: if you’re in Venice, you’re going to take a gondola ride (without or without a singing gondolier). Numerous companies offer gondola tours of the Grand Canal and side canals that pass by Venice’s most beautiful architectural treasures: the Doge’s Palace, Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s basilica, the Rialto Bridge and mansions of the Renaissance’s rich and famous. Row Venice (39 347 7250637, rowvenice.org) takes it a step further and teaches landlubbers how to pilot a gondola. Almost all of the non-profit group’s instructors are female, Venetian by birth (or choice) and obsessed with sharing Venice’s voga (rowing) culture with visitors.

There are other ways to get see Venice’s sights, of course. Try stand-up paddleboard (SUP) from SUP in Venice (?Castello 5034, 39 339 5659240, supinvenice.com), or a sunset cruise of the lagoons and islands outside the main city by Viator (viator.com). Skip the large, expensive group tours in favor of a walking tour led by an independent guide like Luisella Romeo of SeeVenice (39 349 0848 303, seevenice.it). You’ll see off-the-beaten-path gems and get a more personal feel for the city. Some offer customized itineraries based on particular sights you’re interested in.

Where’s the Gay?

Did you ever read the Thomas Mann novel Death in Venice? Or perhaps you saw the movie directed by Luchino Visconti? That’s a pretty gay-themed story. The reality, though, pales a little in comparison. But because Venice is one of the hottest travel destinations in the world, you’re certain to find LGBT-friendly spots, from romantic hotels to historic cafés. After an exciting day of sightseeing, relax with a cocktail at the chill Caffe Centrale (San Marco Piscina Frezzeria, 1659B, 39 041 8876642, caffecentralevenezia.com). You can also grab a late dinner at the restaurant. It’s a chic place where stylish gay men, lesbians and metrosexuals mingle on most nights.

The only genuinely queer bar in town is in Mestre, Glitter Disco, formerly Porto de Mar (Via delle Macchine 41/43, Marghera, Mestre, glitterdisco.com); although it’s filled mostly with gay men, the bar hosts a lot of fun, special party nights.

Getting Here

Venice’s main flight hub is Marco Polo Airport (Via Galileo Galilei, 30/1, 39 041 2606111, veniceairport.it/en). It’s linked to the city by rail, but if you want door-to-door service to your hotel, take a water taxi or vaporetto (water bus).

FLORENCE

Introduction

Nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany in northern Italy, Florence is a stunning and wondrous city that’s home to an abundance of museums, art galleries, historic buildings, and glorious palaces. All that character gives Florence a unique atmosphere compared with the rest of Italy. The city is spilling over with Renaissance, Gothic and Neo-Classical masterpieces of art and architecture. It’s also home to many of the world’s premier designers, so not surprisingly the shopping is stellar here. You’ll also find plentiful nightlife with a plethora of lively bars, restaurants and dance clubs.

Can’t Miss Highlights

If you’re in Florence for only a few days, you’ll need to see Il Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, which is undoubtedly the city’s most recognizable landmark. (Remember that scene in Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lecter shows Clarice Starling one of his meticulous drawings from memory? That’s the Duomo!) Also visit Piazza della Signoria, an L-shaped square that is the city’s heart; the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s Medieval arched bridge; and the famous museums Galleria degli Uffizi, Galleria dell' Accademia (the home of Michelangelo’s David) and the Leonardo da Vinci Museum.

Where to Stay

Hotel Europa (Via Camillo Benso Cavour, 14, 39 055 2396715, webhoteleuropa.com) is ideally situated in via Cavour, a picturesque street lined with stone facades and historical palaces facing Giotto’s Bell Tower and Brunelleschi’s Dome. It’s the perfect place to hang your hat while you explore the ancient heart of the city. For more of a luxury hotel experience, book a room at the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze (Borgo Pinti, 99, 39 055 26261, fourseasons.com/florence/) a five-star resort that’s perfectly located, just a short walk from the Duomo and the Uffizi. Many gay travelers recommend the LGBT-friendly Borghese Palace Art Hotel (Via Ghibellina, 174/r, 39 055 284363, borghesepalacehotel.com), a boutique hotel with old-world charm, housed in an impressive Neo-Classical palazzo on one of the city’s oldest thoroughfares.

Where to Eat

Florence has always been a stylish urban center of art—the Renaissance began here, after all—but its culinary tastes echo the pastoral Tuscan landscape. Simple and wholesome food reigns supreme. Florentines have an affinity for seasonal, frugal, farm-to-table, locavore cuisine. At Ristorante La Giostra (Borgo Pinti, 12, 39 055 241341, ristorantelagiostra.com), where you’ll enjoy exceptional food and first-rate service, try the pear ravioli, Florentine steak and tiramisu. Another Tuscan standout is Il Latini (Via dei Palchetti, 6R, 39 055 210916, illatini.com). Try the delectable prosciutto appetizer, mouthwatering osso buco and the toothsome spinach risotto. If you’re looking to impress a date or just have a world-class dining experience, look no further than Enoteca Pinchiorri (Via Ghibellina, 87, 39 055 242757, enotecapinchiorri.it.), which many consider the finest restaurant in Florence—in fact, one of the best Italian restaurants in the world. Everything on the menu and wine list is superlative, and that’s no understatement.

Where to Shop

High-end fashionistas will be happy to find some of the world’s most famous luxury retailers in Florence—including Gucci, Ferragamo, Prada, Valentino, Armani and a host of others. But there are also plenty of bargains for you frugal types as well. Generally speaking, the main area for clothing stores is on Via de’Tornabuoni, for perfumes you’ll head to the Centro Storico—and for jewelry, just explore the shops lining the Ponte Vecchio. Souvenirs associated with Florence’s art and cultural landmarks are available everywhere. Check out Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16, 39 055 216276, smnovella.it/), an old pharmacy that offers quality perfumes and beauty products such as like soaps and lotions. Brandy Melville (Via Camillo Cavour, 172, 39 055 0517386, brandymelville.com), an original brand that’s all Italian by way of Los Angeles, houses fashionable clothes that are chic, laidback and affordable. For some amazing jewelry, look into Cose Del 900/Italian Glass Connection (Borgo San Jacopo 45R, 39 055 283491, italianglassconnection.com), a retailer specializing in custom-sized, reasonably priced jewelry featuring handcrafted Murano glass beads.

Where to Play

Not surprisingly, Florence has an abundance of things to see and do, so a great option is to take a guided tour. Check out Florence Guided Tours (guidedflorencetours.com), a company that can hook you up with private and group tours, as well as create a custom itinerary for you. If you can’t get enough of the art, there’s an app for that! The Artour iPhone app (toscana.artour.it/en/) leads you on an odyssey through Florence’s artisan workshops. Sponsored by Artex, a promoter of arts and crafts in Tuscany, the app easily allows you to locate art galleries, craft shops and makers’ studios near you. If you didn’t bring your iPhone—or don’t own one—the itinerary function and all other details are available on the website.

Where’s the Gay?

Even though Florence was home to Italy’s first gay disco in 1974, the number of gay bars and nightclubs in the city is relatively small. Piccolo Café (Via Borgo Santa Croce, 23, 39 055 2001057, no website) is a cute, cozy, straight-friendly gay bar with an open-minded atmosphere. The mixed clientele here are of various ages, and the drinks are well-priced. BK Bar (Via Vittorio Alfieri 95, 39 338 1341964, bkbar.com) is a gay bar with a mixed crowd, located just outside of Florence. BK Bar has a welcoming, casual vibe and offers tasty cocktails, dancing, music videos and karaoke nights.

Getting Here

Florence is easily accessible from New York, but the trip involves a connecting flight, usually through Rome. You can also fly to Rome and then take the Eurostar (raileurope.com) to Florence. Depending on whether or not you take the high-speed train, you can be in Florence from Rome within an hour and a half to three hours.