Q: Mr. Greenberg, we are planning a trip to Italy for next spring. Our family consists of me, my husband, our son (age 24), and daughter (age 18). While I toured Europe during college, this will be the first visit for the rest of the family. We plan to start the trip by staying with friends who live outside of Milan and taking some day trips to Como, Milan, Torino, etc. From there, we would like to hit the major highlights: Venice, Florence, Rome. We were thinking of taking an escorted tour but want to be sure we find a quality tour company that will provide an authentic experience with opportunities to visit some "off the beaten path" attractions as well as the major sites. Our son is a culinary student, so a plan that would include culinary and wine tastings would be great. Do you have any recommendations to help us plan a unique and memorable trip?
–Joanne Willmot, Lewiston, N.Y.
A: Intrepid Travel, which specializes in "off-the-beaten-path" small-group escorted tours, offers an eight-day "Highlights of Italy" trip that might interest you. It starts in Venice, goes through Florence and the Cinque Terre, and ends in Rome. This tour hits both the must-see tourist sites, such as the Coliseum in Rome and the Piazza San Marco in Venice, and it also allows you to mingle with the locals at food markets, eat at out-of-the-way restaurants, and enjoy free time to explore on your own. At about $1,355 per person (not including meals), this option is a relative bargain as well.
If you have more time and money to spend, Intrepid also offers a 21-day "Essence of Italy" tour that not only encompasses Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also stops in Milan, Pisa, Assisi, and the Italian Lakes region. This one costs $3,580 per person.
For a more culinary experience, there are dozens of companies offering trips that combine cooking, tasting, and touring. Usually, however, these trips don't cover the whole country (that would be ambitious, considering Italy's size).
EpiCulinary Tours offers dozens of trips that cover specific cities and regions of Italy and last from one to five days. The tours include cooking classes, truffle hunts and tastings, market visits and tours, and winery visits and wine-tastings. And Cellar Tours offers an 11-night "Gourmet Grand Tour of Italy," which covers Milan, Venice, Bologna, Ferrara, Ravenna, and the Valpolicella wine country. It includes ham, wine, and balsamic vinegar tasting, plus pasta making, art tours, cooking classes, lake cruises, and sightseeing excursions. For this, prices start at about $4,100 per person.