2.5 Weeks in Italy and Switzerland: Planning Part 3 – Activities

Now that we had our transportation and accommodations set, we were ready to get into day-to-day activity planning. Jeremy has a tendency to build a fairly fast-paced itinerary with a few too many activities packed in, sure to exhaust us by the end of the trip.

Travel with my parents would be different.  You can’t reasonably expect a senior citizen to walk from sunup to sundown without some fairly lengthy breaks.

The basic itinerary would be 4 nights Rome, 3 nights Florence, 2 nights Venice, 7 nights Wengen, 1 night Bern, and with a 12-hour layover – 1 night in Dublin.  Here’s a favorite picture from Bern:

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While in Italy, the plan was to schedule one major activity per day, take a long lunch, take an afternoon nap/rest during the hottest part of the day, then pad the rest of the day out with a list of activities we could choose from that would vary in intensity and location.

While in Switzerland, there were a few hikes we wanted to do as a large group, but there would be lots of options to split up into smaller groups and enjoy the days differently.

Rome, Italy

Major Sights

In Rome, our major sights of interest were the Colosseum, Roman Forum, the Vatican, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

With a Thursday afternoon arrival and a Monday departure, I was weighing jet-lag and museum closure issues.  Not sure when we would wake up on Friday, I thought that Saturday and Sunday would be the best days to do the Colosseum and Vatican, but since the Vatican was closed on Sunday, that meant scheduling a Saturday appointment.  I reserved Vatican tickets 60 days in advance, basically as soon as the tickets became available.  Last time we were in Rome, we did not do this and the ticket line was ridiculously miserable.

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I was torn on the Colosseum, really wanted to visit on Friday, but thought that jet-lag might make Sunday better.  I dithered and missed the window to reserve Colosseum tickets.  Sigh.  So we got there about 40 minutes before opening, got in the fairly short line, and only had to wait about 20 minutes after opening to get our tickets.  This was a best case scenario.  If you get in line after 3,000 people have entered, the line comes to a complete standstill and they only issue new tickets as people leave.  Quite miserable.  Reserve if you can.

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Failing that, and if you get to the Colosseum later in the day, go to the Roman Forum first, get your tickets there, see the Roman Forum, and then you will qualify for the shorter line at the Colosseum.  Or can see the Roman Forum, then come back the following day, and still will qualify for the short line at the Colosseum.  Tickets are currently good a single entry each to the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill over 2 consecutive days.

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In retrospect, I should have reserved the Vatican for Friday and the Colosseum for Saturday.  With this, we could have used the Saturday Colosseum ticket again on Sunday and gone back to the Roman Forum Sunday morning when everyone was fresh.

Minor Sights

Two museums I was particularly interested in were the Borghese Gallery and the National Museum of Rome.

The guide book indicated that reserving tickets for the Borghese (use Google Translate) a week ahead of time was sufficient, but two weeks ahead of time they were sold out.  Sigh.

Failing on the reservations for the Borghese Gallery, we intended to go the the National Museum of Rome on Sunday, but everyone was tired and wanted to spend more time just enjoying the feel of the city.

Other sights we were interested in were the Capuchin Crypt, Pilgrim’s Rome, and Rick Steves’ Heart of Rome Walk that included the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, and Campo de’ Fiori.

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The boys LOVED the Capuchin Crypt.  A crazy monk decided it would be fun to decorate the chapel and a few other rooms with other monks’ bones.  Beautiful and creepy at the same time.  Perfect for preteen or teenage boys.  You cannot imagine the excitement that John had upon entering the “bone” rooms.  He was even telling/showing me what he wanted done with his bones when he died.  Um, yeah.  Hopefully not anytime soon.

After spending a few days in Rome, I felt like Pilgrim’s Rome would require too much walking for the interest my parents had in it.  St. Peter’s Basilica and the random churches we encountered in the Heart of Rome were plenty.  This was easily scratched off our list.

My parents loved the Heart of Rome.  We ended up breaking it into pieces and doing different parts each day.  Since we were staying a short walk from both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, these sights received multiple visits.  The Pantheon ended up being the end point of two different walks.  And we visited Campo de’ Fiori twice, but found that it was most interesting in the late morning and early afternoon.  After the market disappears and before nightlife starts, it feels dirty and deserted.

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While in Piazza Navona, John spotted a Gladiator Museum and REALLY wanted to go in.  Upon inquiry, I discovered it was very overpriced, but my reluctance quickly brought the price down.  Having 5 people probably really helped with this.  It was only two rooms and a bit hokey, but John read every single detail and enjoyed it so much that it was probably worth it.

Florence, Italy

While there are many major sights in Florence the main ones we were interested in were the Academia, which houses Michelangelo’s David, and the Galileo Museum, which my dad had particular interest in.

The last time we were in Florence, we wanted to see the Academia, but didn’t have tickets.  The line was expected to be at least 2 hours long and most of it was in full sun.  We skipped, but this time around we got reservations.  There’s nothing like taking pre-teen boys in to gawk at Michelangelo’s David.  John appreciated the hunting related ones more.

We crossed the Uffizi off our list since I had been there before and since my parents weren’t showing a particularly strong interest in additional art museums.  They were happy enough with the artwork found in some of the other museums and churches we had visited, so we prioritized other activities.  If you go here, make sure to get reservations.

What interested them a lot more was a day trip to Siena.  It is super easy to take a 1-1.5 hour bus ride there. The town is tiny and fun to simply wander around in, but Rick Steves has a good list of specific sights to visit.  As it turns out, everyone was having trouble with the heat wave and by lunchtime everyone wanted to get out of the heat.  Even if we left Florence at 8am, we wouldn’t get to Sienna until 9:30am, at which point it would be well over 95ºF.  And there would be few places to escape the heat.  We ended up nixing this idea in favor of staying put and spend more time exploring Florence’s markets.

Other minor sights we were interested in were the various markets, including the San Lorenzo Market, which is particularly good for leather purchases, the Mercato Centrale, and the Renaissance Walk that included the Duomo.  The first time we were in Florence, we waited in the ridiculously long line for the Duomo, then were severely disappointed by the interior.  This time around, we decided to simply enjoy the beautiful exterior and skip the line.

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I was also on a quest to find my Tuscan Ricciarelli Cookies.  They are a bit pricy, but oh-so-delicious.  One bakery was awesome, one was terrible, and the grocery store perfectly adequate.  Try these if you can!

Venice, Italy

In Venice, we had nothing in particular that we had to see.  My parents were very interested in a gondola ride, but otherwise our plan was mostly just to wander.

We did make reservations to see Basilica San Marco, but in retrospect, we should have done this in the morning, rather than the late afternoon when everyone was completely done in by the heat of the day.

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Otherwise, we would pick someone to be our “tour guide,” and they would lead us wherever their hearts desired.  When it was time to head back, we would open Google Maps and find our way back to either the Rialto Bridge or San Marco Square.  The boys always have great fun with this.  Even when you think you are heading the right way, often times you are not.  Once, I was sure we were almost back, but when I opened my map program, I discovered we were a 10 minute walk away.  I thought I had taken a street that was due north, but instead it was northeast.  It completely threw me off.

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If we would have had an extra day, I would have considered getting a water bus pass and exploring some of the islands.  Next time!

Jungfrau Region, Switzerland

The Jungfrau Region of Switzerland is my all time favorite vacation destination.  It isn’t a cheap place to visit, quite the opposite (why is chicken $20+/lb. in the grocery store?), but it so memorable that I am drawn to it again and again.

In the winter, it is a ski area, but in the summer, it is a hiker’s paradise.  You can choose to hike everywhere, or you can simply take a train or gondola up the mountain and hike down.  When you get tired, you can hop on the nearest transportation option.  You can take a picnic, or you can stop at one of the many sausage stands or restaurants.  You can admire the cows and goats, take in the stunning views, and stop at amazing playgrounds.  Wonderful!

Getting Around

You should look at the various train pass options, since list prices of Swiss train tickets can be quite high. It’s possible to reduce this with some planning.

  • This time around, we bought Swiss Half Fare Cards. We ordered these in advance from RailEurope.
  • Kids under 6 are completely free, while under-16 are free with their parents if you get the Family Card (from RailEurope as well). Hence, for a family of 4 with a Half-Fare card and Family Card, you effectively only pay the equivalent of one full fare (two adults at half-price, and kids being free).
  • To/from Wengen, we booked point-to-point tickets, using the Half-Fare discount.
  • To travel around Wengen, bought the 6-day Jungfrau Travel Pass , which covers most mountain trains, gondolas, and buses in the Jungfrau region. It was partially discounted with the half-fare card. For our Saturday to Saturday stay, we used it Sunday to Friday. There are a few restrictions, e.g. Jungfraujoch and Schilthorn always have a surcharge.
  • On other trips, where did more extensive travel within Switzerland, we’ve gotten the Swiss Pass, which covers most trains/busses in Switzerland. That said, in the mountain areas, it tends to only cover up to resort towns (e.g. it gets you to Wengen or Grindelwald, but only a discount on the trains/gondolas beyond there).

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Jungfraujoch

One of the popular tourist sites in the region is Jungfraujoch,  billed as the “Top of Europe.” It is the highest train station in Europe.  On a clear day, you will have incredible views, lots of snow, a fun ice cave, and more.  It is fun to do once, but not nearly as fun on repeat trips.  This time around, my parents and James were interested in going up, but Jeremy, John, and I were more interested in hiking. Even with the Jungfrau Travel Pass, it requires an extra surcharge (though James was free, given his type of pass).

Hiking

Our favorite activity here is hiking.  You can pick up a hiking map and other brochures at any of the Jungfrau Region train stations.  Note that all of the times are based on actual times that the local senior citizens can do the hike, so if you are a 20-year old athlete, you should be able to do it a bit faster.  On the other hand, if you are a 40-50 year old American that spends most of your time getting places via car, odds are that you will be a bit closer to the posted times.

Make sure that you always check the signs at the train stations to see whether the trail you want to go on is open.  If there is an avalanche warning, rock slide, slippery ice that will take you off the edge of a cliff, or some other problem, you do not want to be on a closed trail.  We have witnessed an avalanche across the valley, so take the signs seriously.

If you have a clear day, our favorite first hike is the Panaramaweg from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg, #33 on the hiking map.  Starting from Wengen, you take the gondola up to Männlichen, then take the amazing, slightly downhill, 1 hour, 20 minute hike with stunning views of the mountains and valleys.  Once you arrive in Kleine Scheidegg, you can either take the train back to your starting point, or you can continue hiking.  We will often continue all the way down to Wengen, although the trail becomes quite steep, so you should evaluate both your footwear and your physical fitness before you start this part of the hike.

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Another good hike from Männlichen is the Romantikweg to Alpiglen, #35 on the hiking map.  It is signed for 2 hours, 50 minutes and is a good choice on both clear days and slightly rainy days.  It is a slightly rougher and steeper trail than the previous hike, but still relatively easy.  At Alpiglen, there may or may not be cows hanging out at the train station.  From here, you can either hop on the train or continue hiking to Brandegg then Grindelwald, #34 on the hiking map.  We continued to Grindelwald once, but that section wasn’t one of our favorites, so we have never repeated it.

A bit harder, but still fairly easy, is the trail from First to Bachalpsee.  The Bachalpsee lake is beautiful!  You will encounter some steeper uphill at the very beginning, then will have gradual uphill until you reach the lake.  You can either do it as a roundtrip, #1 on the hiking map, in 1 hour, 40 minutes, or you can continue on from Bachalpsee onto a more serious hiking trail to Bort, #4 on the hiking map, adding about an hour.  If you go to Bort, there will be some fairly slippery rocks and some seriously steep downhill sections, so make sure you have appropriate footwear and use extreme caution if you expect afternoon rain showers.

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If you want to do a truly epic hike, consider doing the Faulhorn from Schynige Platte to First, #62 on the hiking map.  This will go through the Bachalpsee at the very end of the hike.  It is signed for 6 hours, 10 minutes, so give yourself plenty of time and water.  We did it 8 years ago, without kids. We were a little light on water, but were fortunately able to buy more at the Faulhorn.  It took us closer to 8 hours and left us impressed with the fitness of the local senior citizens.  Amazing!  Expect to hike through a few patches of snow and if you aren’t in awesome shape, you will be thoroughly exhausted at the end.  Some people choose to break it up by spending the night at the Faulhorn.  Make sure you check the train station signs to make sure that the trail is open.

If you aren’t up for the Faulhorn, consider the Panoramaweg loop from Schynige Platte to Lauchernhorn and back to Schynige Platte, #61 on the hiking map.  Beautiful!  It takes 2 hours, 30 minutes.  Or you can do the 1 hour, 15 minute version to Oberberghorn, #60 on the map.  Or you can simply enjoy the beautiful Alpengarten.  A great place to split up if you are traveling with a multi-generational family.  There is something for everyone.

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Another favorite is the Eiger Trail from Eigergletscher to Alpiglen, #36 on the hiking map.  If you do the uphill version, it is listed at 2 hours, 50 minutes, but we usually start at Eigergletscher and do the downhill version, which doesn’t take quite as long.  It is rocky, it is steep, it requires good hiking boots, but it goes along the North Face of the Eiger and is completely amazing.  It is often closed, especially early in the summer, so pay attention to the train station signs or you may end up stuck in snow drift, slipped off the edge of a cliff or down a crevice, or be buried in an avalanche.  We have witness an avalanche very close to this trail and have been on the trail when a pack of snow shovelers were digging out the path at the start of the season.  Both were fascinating, but gave us more respect for this trail.

If you want a safe and easy version of the Eiger Trail, consider the Jungfrau Eiger Walk from Eigergletscher to Kleine Scheidegg, #37 on the hiking map.  It is a little steep, but at only 1 hour most people should be able to do it.  Again, you will have some nice views of the North Face, not as stunning as the Eiger Trail, but still very nice.

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We also really enjoy the North Face Trail, from Allmendhubel to Murren, described in detail in the Rick Steves guide.  Once you get to Mürren, you take the funicular up to Allmendhubel, which is not covered by the Jungfrau Travel Pass, but relatively minimal cost.  From here, you follow the North Face trail signs, which aren’t as well marked as one might hope.  Beautiful!  The North Face Trail will take you back to Mürren, but we usually split off towards the end and take the very steep, yet beautiful trail to Gimmelwald.  From there, you can take a gondola back to Mürren, also not covered by the Jungfrau Travel Pass.

More Options

There are a ton more hikes, ferry tours, cute villages, and more!  This is a region that can be explored again and again!

Bern, Switzerland

With only one day in Bern, we mostly just planned on visiting the Bern Munster (Cathedral) and the Bärengraben (Bear Pit).  Otherwise, we just wanted to wander and see the sights.  A really interesting park we came across was the Rosengarten.  Definitely worth a stop!  The best part was that even though a big part of the day was rainy, most of the downtown area is covered, so you can stay mostly dry while you window shop.

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