11 August 2018

What to buy in Italy - women's clothes and accessories

I've indulged in some spending sprees in Italy over the last few months - on planned purchases in favourite shops, and on fortunate chance finds. In this article I'll share some of my current favourite shops and boutiques, along with suggestions for good things to purchase - specifically in Venice, Rome and Sicily, though some of the ideas and brands will be relevant to other Italian destinations too. I'm focussing on clothes and accessories today, and won't be covering food, handicrafts and other highlights of Italian holiday shopping.

I find that shopping while travelling is a great way to refresh my wardrobe while also acquiring items that, like souvenirs, will remind me of my holidays every time I wear them. I discover clothes and accessories that are nicer, better-made or simply different to the versions on sale in other countries. Also, shoes, clothes and accessories bought in a particular location are usually perfect for that destination's climate and conventions, so you can replenish your holiday capsule wardrobe, and wear your new items right away for maximum usefulness. Just make sure that you've got space in your suitcase to take them home.

Jewellery at Materialmente Venezia

International chains

Italy's cities are increasingly filled with the same chain stores you'll find in every European city: Zara, H&M etc. Although these aren't Italian, they may carry different stock to your local branch, and it's worth knowing that prices can be very different. In the spring I tried on a Zara jacket in London, priced at £79.99. I saw the same jacket priced at €59.99 on their Italian website, so I bought it on my next trip to Rome, where there is a big branch on Via del Corso. If you're looking for cheap and cheerful additions to your holiday wardrobe - a cover-up, a t-shirt - these chains can a safe bet and are becoming ubiquitous in Italy.

Italian goods

Italy has a great tradition of high-quality artisan products. You can still find excellent local shoe-makers and leather-workers in most towns, as well as jewellery designers. Larger towns often have a district where smaller, individual boutiques are located, so checking with a local guide or at your hotel can be a good start. Different regions also have different specialities - for example, coral jewellery in Sardinia.

Window-shopping at Altariva shoes in Rome

Italy's big fashion houses - Gucci, Armani, Prada etc. - don't need any introduction, and branches of these are easily found. Check the prices online though, as there may not be any saving to buying designer goods in Italy rather than your home country. Local high-street brands include Benetton (good for staples, variable quality) and its sister Sisley (more fashionable). Cheap Italian make-up brand Kiko can be found in the UK, but  products are cheaper in Italy: it's a good shop for interesting lipstick colours, eye-shadows, and make-up to experiment with. High-street shoe shop Bata isn't Italian, but as it has no UK presence, I've found the branches in Venice and Rome very useful over the years for well-designed and comfortable shoes (good for a wider fit) which last a long time.

Colour-coded knitwear at Benetton

Italy still has a lot of traditional small clothes stores, selling either their own designs or a curated selection. These may look unpromising or daunting at first, but even if the styles in the window are too Italian, too middle-aged, or too youthful, Italians have a very good eye for quality and cut, and among the 'unsuitables' you'll usually find good-quality individual items which work very well for a different look. Classic pieces such as knitwear or white shirts, sometimes with a twist, are often distributed among the more exaggerated styles.

Underwear can be a good buy, too, and though many international visitors will have access at home to Intimissimi, Calzedonia and other Italian brands, these can be cheaper in Italy. For several years Intimissimi has been selling attractive pure silk nighties/slips (they call them 'baby-dolls'), different colours each season and reduced in the sales. These are excellent quality for the price and wash well on a delicates cycle.
3-D printed jewellery at Maison 203 in Venice
Accessories are a really big thing here, though at the lower end of the market, not many of the leather bags you see on market stalls are really made in Italy these days. Hunting around can lead to some good-value finds, though, whether in markets or artisan boutiques. Big names for leather bags include Furla and Coccinelle, but every town will have its own local handbag shop(s) which may be more interesting and better value. In Sicily, as well as leather, you'll find the traditional woven bag called a coffa siciliana (more on these below).

I enjoy looking for jewellery, particularly if it has a local theme, is made by a local jeweller or uses characteristic local materials. One of my favourite finds was a bronze necklace engraved with the Etruscan alphabet designed by Tuscany-based sculptor Antonio Massarutto.

Scarves are a staple of every Italian's wardrobe, and there are scarves for every season in the shops here, from colourful silk scarves to stylish wool mufflers. I've even experimented with those cheap tourist square scarves decorated with local scenes; there's something appealingly timeless about them.

Gloves are another excellent buy in Italy, and there are good leather glove shops in most tourist areas: big names like Sermoneta and more local brands. They're an expensive treat, but Italian gloves are high quality, usually last well, and can add the luxurious finishing touch to a winter outfit.

Italy is very fashion-conscious, and the local style varies across the country (generally, simpler and more chic in the north, blingier, brasher and more colourful in the south, lots of black worn in Milan). But throughout the country there is also a great appreciation of well-made, flattering classics, as well as long-term trends like lightweight summer blouses, statement jewellery and trousers to suit different shapes, and these can be very good buys.

Window shopping in Turin

Keep an eye open for the work of local designers, artisans and graphic designers: even in the smallest destinations you might find workshops where young local artists produce unique and quirky accessories, printed clothes and souvenirs, often inspired by their surroundings. Look out for craft markets too, especially around Christmas, for the chance to browse special one-off items and chat with their creators.

This hot summer in the UK has made me very glad of all the summer clothes I've acquired over the years in Italy. When the weather is really hot, typical north-European summer clothing doesn't work: the styles in UK shops, for example, are often thick fabrics, stiff, lined, close-fitted or requiring substantial under-garments. Italians dress well for the heat as they are used to it - and not obsessed with baring their skin to the sun.  Lightweight single-layer dresses in cotton and linen, thin long-sleeved shirts and blouses and summery silk/cotton/linen trousers are among the things I find easily in Italy but with difficulty in the UK.

Organic fast food in the Rinascente department store, Rome
As well as for the travel-memories and the product-quality, I also enjoy shopping in Italy because it is a pleasant experience. Stores are open late, so you can pop in during your evening passeggiata for a browse and a chat. Some larger stores have interesting premises where you can visit a roof terrace, eat informally, or see archaeological remains - for example, the new Rinascente in Rome, and Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice. Mostly, though, I like popping into smaller stores when they're not busy. In Venice in particular I've found sales advisors can be very friendly and chatty. Occasionally there's a hard sell, but often I've had excellent and honest advice when trying things on, as well as long chats about all kinds of subjects from politics to perfumes. Artisan shops where you can speak with the designer/craftsperson are especially rewarding. I love getting an insider perspective from local people when I travel to new places, and a lot of insights - and even friendships - have come from shopping diversions. It does help to speak Italian, but English is spoken increasingly widely.


Via del Corso offers a wide range of high-street stores, among them some more individual Italian brands. The streets between Via del Corso and the Piazza di Spagna are good for higher-end clothes and accessories. Via Nazionale has a range of more Italian high-street shops and it's where I head for affordable shoes. The little lanes around Campo dei Fiori in the historic centre and around Via dei Serpenti in the Monti district are good for quirky little boutiques, sometimes vintage-inspired and often run by cosmopolitan ex-pats, where you'll find unusual designs, interesting fabrics, one-offs, and a style which is less mainstream Italian and more international cool.

My recent favourites in Rome include:
Ballerette - a shoe shop specialising in ballerina pumps, in many designs and colours, with a couple of branches in Rome and others in Florence, Milan and Venice.
Colourful choices at Ballerette in Rome

Sandro Ferrone - not a shop I thought was for me, this is a Roman clothing brand that is very much 'well-off older Roman lady' and possibly a little Armani in look, though cheaper in price. I reckon the target market is at least 30 years older than the models on their website. But at the shop on Via Nazionale, among the smart items for signoras I found some nice semi-formal dresses which could be dressed down or accessorized for a more youthful and less Roman look. There were also some lovely silk scarves at very reasonable prices - I bought a gorgeous parrot print which has earned several compliments and can be worn in a number of ways including as a pool cover-up.
Geppy and Marte's - these two shoe stores, a short way apart on Via Nazionale, have been among my go-to destinations for cheapish, stylish flat shoes ever since I lived in Rome on a meagre Italian salary. Marte's is smarter and pricier, with better service. This year I bought some great Spanish-made ballet pumps (Wonders brand), which I found more comfortable for wide feet than the Ballerette ones. I was so pleased with the first pair I went back to buy a second colour. Geppy is cheaper, with poorer service and more variable quality, but worth looking at for their variety. My most recent purchase there was a pair of jazzy yellow lace-ups.
Temporary Store - I have no idea if it's still there, as 'temporary stores' - cheap pop-up shops in vacant premises - come and go. I passed this shop on Via del Corso one evening this spring and saw a nice blouse in the window - the next day I went in and came away with the blouse in two colours: thin and with flared 3/4 sleeves, the design is ideal for summer in Italy's hot climate. The blouses have had loads of compliments when I've worn them. It can be hard to find clothing suitable for Italian temperatures in the UK, so I always keep my eyes open for ultra-lightweight, natural-fibre, non-skimpy clothes.

Inside Rome's Rinascente department store, Via del Tritone


I have too many favourite shops in Venice to list - lots of recommendations are included in my guide to Venice, from one-off women's clothes made by female prisoners to quirky flat shoes. Apart from papier-mache masks, which are frankly not that likely to come in handy as anything other than ornaments, the best things to buy in Venice include stylish flat shoes (it's a pedestrian city, so you'll find a lot of attractive but sensible footwear; no-one wears heels), hand-made jewellery and leather bags. It's a good city for browsing as it's all pedestrian and you'll pass interesting shops without going out of your way. My recent buys are from the following:

Nanà - this shop opened recently in Venice and I've had a couple of splurges, first in the excellent winter sale and then to buy clothes for summer. The brand is based in north-east Italy and clothes are made in Italy. While reflecting current fashions, I reckon the clothes are also in a certain northern Italian style, which is classier and more restrained than the South, but sometimes a little alternative. Many pieces have a more individual character than I usually expect from Italian brands. Most of the items I've bought have become staples in my wardrobe, and they've washed well. Last time I went with a wish-list from their website, had a big trying-on session, and came away with a massive shopping bag. My favourite purchases include: a winter jumper which made me feel like a bohemian Venetian, high-waisted wide-leg trousers which have been perfect for UK daytimes and summer evenings in the Sicilian islands, a lovely floor-length muslin dress, and a classy white shirt with a shoulder bow - I had a compliment on that one just yesterday.
Benetton and Promod - these two chains, near the Rialto, are totally unexciting, but have been the source of some cheap basics: colourful cotton and wool jumpers, and shorts.
Kiko - although there are branches in London, I had fun picking up new colourful lipsticks while passing though the lanes near St. Mark's. There are also a couple of branches of Sephora in Venice, which are good for cosmetics-lovers. I found some nice own-brand hand cream, and Shiseido sun protection lip gloss.
Materialmente - a quirky little jewellery store with designs made in Venice (there's a workshop on the Giudecca). I bought a silver 'Venetian palazzo' necklace which I absolutely love.
Fanny - This glove shop has two branches and friendly helpful staff - one sales advisor always remembers me and my previous purchases. They've got an excellent choice of colours, and I generally pick up a new pair each year to add to my collection.
Fondaco dei Tedeschi - I don't quite approve of this luxury tourist shopping mall which occupies a historic building by the Rialto, previously Venice's post office. But it has a scenic roof terrace and is quite useful for posh foodie souvenirs, accessories and perfumes and cosmetics. I bought a couple of Diptyque bits, and got some free Italian perfume samples which I've loved from a friendly sales advisor.

I've also bought one-offs in less likely shops, including a cocktail ring in handbag shop Coccinelle and a coat and jacket in the crazy Spanish chain Desigual (both in the San Marco district). Although it can take a while to get anywhere without a map in Venice, it is a great place for accidental window-shopping and impulse buys.

Jewellery at Materialmente Venezia

Sicily: Aeolian islands

Sicily is still more about smaller individual shops than global corporations. Some of the blingy local fashions may not appeal to foreign visitors, though they are still fascinating for window-shopping (I still remember a short-sleeved crystal-embellished blue leather jacket in a Palermo shop window).

My recent shopping was on the Aeolian islands, which each have their own  sense of style. Panarea is about wafting around in expensive Indonesian silk kaftans and cover-ups all in tasteful prints. I bought a short silk dress/cover-up in Bugenville Boutiqe in a blue floral print; excellent for wearing on hot days strolling, or for heading to the beach. On Lipari, Salina and Panarea you'll find boutiques with selections of Indian cotton and silk, bright bikinis and attractive printed sarongs - my favourite has a prickly-pear motif to remind me of the islands. Simpler clothes are available too - souvenir t-shirts are often tacky but among them are some excellent graphic designs featuring local motifs such as the erupting volcano Stromboli.
Bugenville Boutique on the island of Panarea

The best shopping is on Lipari, where at the Marina Corta end of town are a range of classy boutiques selling jewellery, handicrafts, clothes and accessories. I usually return with several pieces of jewellery or other accessories, most of which I've used lots and which remind me of the islands. One of my favourite buys, years ago, was a simple obsidian arrow-head necklace. This year I bought several accessories and gifts from a delightful quirky boutique, La Casa Eoliana. The speciality here is accessories featuring traditional Sicilian motifs, including the 'Eolian heart' symbol. Glamorous owner Francesca loves the Sicilian and the Aeolian islands' distinctive characters and styles, and sells items inspired by and named after the islands and their traditions. I loved the Cuore Eoliana necklaces - beaten metal hearts suspended on beads - and the colourful versions of the Sicilian coffa. The coffa is a traditional bag hand-woven from leaves of the dwarf palm. In Sicily these were used for agricultural purposes such as carrying fodder for beasts of burden. Now they are made as handbags, large and embellished with Sicilian decorations derived from local folk-art including mirrors, pom-poms, lace-edging, images of marionettes, and painted scenes. Here, of course, they are also decorated with the Cuore Eoliana. They're excellent summer bags, and I bought a small version with a shoulder chain for practicality.

Shopping on the islands is the best way to achieve the classic island style, and though prices tend to be high, buying sarongs, floaty cover-ups, white blouses, wide silk trousers  etc. here is a good way to complete your holiday wardrobe and to take clothes home which will be useful on future trips as well as reminding you of your vacation. And jewellery, of course, is a great way to carry a souvenir around with you, and update outfits at home with a reminder of Sicily. Plus, it's easy to fit into luggage.

My mini coffa siciliana paying a visit to Venice (bought at La Casa Eoliana in Lipari)

Practical tips

Check how much it costs you to use your credit card abroad versus how much you pay to get cash euros, as this will affect how much your purchases will actually cost, and how much cash to carry. I tend to prefer credit card for larger purchases just to give myself better protection in the event of a mishap like my suitcase going missing. If you are visiting from outside the EU you may be able to reclaim VAT on some purchases.

Inside the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice
If I'm thinking of shopping, I'll sometimes look up favourite shop websites in advance to plan what to look for and what to try on. You can order online for collection with the more organised Italian chain stores - but do allow plenty of time for the goods to reach the store. I try to leave room in my suitcase for potential purchases - although having an expandable case is also very handy. And I take a capacious folding shopping bag in case I need to pack new possessions in a convenient 'overflow' bag for returning home, when my luggage allowance permits. British Airways are quite generous with cabin bags so I recently travelled with a hold suitcase, a rucksack, and a big folding shopping bag containing my handbag and new clothes.

Remember that once you've left the country you won't be able to return items or report faults, so I'd recommend examining goods very carefully before leaving the shop as well as trying them on - seams, labels, fabric, fastenings.

On a final note, be aware that Italians are very entrepeneurial, and are also keen to please visitors. Especially in small shops in tourist destinations, it may be hard to judge whether items are exactly what they are said to be - real coral?  genuinely local obsidian? authentically handmade, or imported from China? I'd suggest studying items closely, making the best assessment you can of the premises and products, and then only spending what an item is worth to you, as you see/feel it, rather than paying extra for any claimed value or attribute. I'm really happy with almost all the souvenirs/clothes/jewellery I've bought travelling around Italy - I wear it, look at it, enjoy it, and don't question it again once I've made the purchase decision.
Quirky 'Marmite' shoes at Vladi in Venice

Top Italian buys - a shortlist

  • Stylish, well-made flat or low-heeled shoes
  • Statement jewellery made with local materials or themes (for example: Murano glass, obsidian, coral)
  • Lightweight unlined summer wear made of cotton, silk or linen
  • Scarves - many to choose from, easy to pack
  • Bags
  • Well-made classics
  • Beach cover-ups, sarongs, bikinis

I haven't discussed perfumes yet, but perhaps that will be something for another day...

18 July 2018

My best new travel kit

I've written about my packing, top gadgets and travel tips before, including a list of really useful travel stuff for Italy, and a sample packing list.

This year I've made a few new purchases which I've found very successful for travel so I'll share them here.

Please note that Amazon links are to Amazon.co.uk and are affiliate links - that means Amazon will pay a tiny percentage commission to Italy Heaven, helping to support the website.

Portable charger

I got fed up with my phone dying two-thirds of the way through a day of sight-seeing. When travelling I'm out for long days and use my phone for photos, videos, to share images on social media, keep up to date with emails, check maps and sometimes consult guidebooks and webpages. My battery can't cope, and I'm left having to ration my usage, which can have a big impact on travel. So although I hate carrying additional weight, a few months ago I bought a portable charger. There are others available and I took a guess on the choice, but I'm very pleased with the purchase so far. On a long day of travel I carry it with me, fully-charged and ready to re-charge my phone when necessary. On my latest island trip I'd carry it whenever I was out for more than a few hours, and then leave it in my hotel room to charge it from a wall socket during the evening when out at dinner, using my phone charging cable/adaptor. Then put it back in its little bag, and charge my phone overnight, so I'm ready to go in the morning with full battery life on my phone, and then at least one full charge (generally more) available on the charger. It provides reassurance that I can use my phone as much as I want, and on a recent 17-hour delayed journey it was invaluable - I arrived back in the UK with enough phone battery to check my onward journey and train times (I ran for a train and avoided a two-hour overnight wait, which I might not have known to do if my phone was dead). Small, portable and easy to use, and a real game-changer.
> Anker Astro power bank

Suitcase: 4 wheels, medium size

Caveat: I have only taken this case on four flights so far so can't vouch for its long-term durability.

It's quite stressful changing suitcases when you travel a lot; you get used to the packing space, volume, maneuverability and handle action of  familiar luggage. But my old 'larger' case had wheel issues, so I took on the search for a new version. I stuck to fabric rather than a hard case, as there is some debate about whether hard cases are actually more durable or secure, and I like having an external pocket, and the option of squeezing extra stuff in with an expansion zip. This John Lewis case was the most suitable I found without breaking my budget. I very impressed by how light it is, and the smooth four-wheel action is a big help when rolling it over a smooth surface without having to take any weight myself. On rough surfaces or on narrow pavements I've switched over to two wheels; the case isn't designed for this but I've had no problems so far. Other four-wheel cases I tried were designed so they simply couldn't be pulled on two wheels; I had no idea of this until I tried them out in the store. In Italy, where surfaces are often rough or cobbled, the ability to switch the method of pulling is really essential.

I have had to rescue the suitcase after an accidental skate down the aisle of a train - that's the problem with a heavier case and the four-wheel style - but in every other way this has been a great upgrade from my previous two-wheeler. The volume and shape is good, there are a couple of internal and one external pocket, there's an expansion zip, which doesn't offer a great deal of extra space but could make all the difference after a spending spree, and the size is good for a longer stay, while still being highly portable. My typical load for travel of 5+ days is 13-15kg of hold luggage (I find more than that is unnecessary and too heavy for me to manage) and this case holds that amount easily, with some space to spare. It's great so far, though time will tell how tough it is. The fabric feels thin, but seems to be strong enough. It picks up dirt easily and transfers in onto clothing, which is a mild annoyance but not ususual. I do have reservations about the colour choice - the dark blue is almost indistinguishable from black, and I'd have preferred a bigger range of distinctive colours for baggage reclaim - a grey option or a bluer blue would have been better.  It comes with a 10-year guarantee.

> John Lewis X'Air III 66cm suitcase

USB sonic toothbrush

I had to buy a toothbrush at an airport, and was tempted by this stylish sonic toothbrush into spending more than I needed to. The head is quite small, and the action feels softer than a standard electric toothbrush, but it actually turns out to be quite effective. It looks cool, which is unnecessary but nice, and is very useful for travel as it is compact, has a protective case for the brush, and charges via a USB socket. It now lives in my travel washkit so I won't forget a toothbrush again. I don't need to pack a charging cable or worry about charging it before travel; if the power runs down I can use any standard USB charger to charge it rapidly. I've only had to do that once or twice though; a full charge seems to last more than ten days (and still counting). I don't think it's for everyone (read the reviews), but I'm very pleased with it. Another step towards the perfect optimised travel kit.

SONIC Chic DELUXE Rechargeable Travel Toothbrush

Packing cubes

I wrote about these last year, and I've been increasingly pleased with them over subsequent trips. A range of sizes is very convenient for arranging everything in my case in an optimal  space-saving fashion, and keeping things apart makes packing, unpacking and onward travel convenient. When clothes don't need to be hung up, I often keep them organised in their packing cube even during my stay, transferring it to a drawer or surface as required. Cables, underwear, tops and bottoms (for example) can all be kept apart. I find one or two of the cubes useful in my hand-luggage rucksack too, to keep colder weather layers in for when they're required during night or UK travel.

> Amazon packing cubes

Soap and soap case

I've switched from using shower gel to using soap and this has had some unintended benefits for travel.  One is that it cuts down on liquids to carry. Most hotels supply soap, but since some budget B&Bs/apartments only have dispensers, I tend to carry a small piece of soap with me, cut off a larger bar, and stored in this compact soap case. Another benefit of using soap instead of shower gel is its impact on sweat levels (I read this tip online, and it's true). My travel clothing stays fresh much longer in hot weather; I can now hope for more wears from each garment, even in the hot Italian climate. 

My favourite soaps, incidentally, are from Nesti Dante (available from Amazon and TK Maxx), who produce some good Italian scented soaps including lovely destination-inspired fragrances e.g. Capri. Soaps also make good, functional souvenirs to bring home from Italy: look out for olive soap and home-made soaps created from local ingredients.

> Travel soap case
> Nesti Dante soaps

Flip-flop sandals

I love my Havaianas flip-flops, which have been a summer travel staple for a long time - I reckon they must be about a decade old and still comfortable. This summer I bought a  'sandal' version and I've been delighted with their usefulness. I'm on a permanent quest to hone and optimise the perfect minimal packing for travel and I've found these a great addition. They're not as swift to slip on as flip-flops, and they're not quite as smart as 'proper' sandals. But they cover most of the functions of both of those shoe-types, and I could have done without my old sandals altogether on my recent trip to the Aeolian islands, where the style is relaxed. These are secure enough to walk in for long distances and on more uneven terrain than regular flip-flops. They've been completely comfortable from the start. They look quite acceptable and come in a range of colours so you can co-ordinate with your holiday wardrobe. And the best thing is that you can simply walk from hotel room to road to footpath to stony beach and into the sea without thinking twice or pausing to change your footwear. For a seaside destination this versatility is absolutely great.

I walked around the hotel, across hot sand, clambered over a pebbly beach, and hiked along a footpath to ruins in these. When they got a bit of volcanic sand stuck to them, I rinsed them off. They cover more functions than any other footwear I've had, and I'll be taking them on every seaside trip from now on. Havaianas make at least three different 'sandal' styles and do versions for women and children, though apparently not for men.

I ordered two styles from Amazon; when I tried them on one sandal had a slightly uncomfortable toe post, so I returned that pair for a refund - I'd recommend checking for free returns and allowing time to try on and exchange before your holiday.

> Havaianas sandals

> My sample packing list from last year
> Really useful travel stuff

3 May 2018

iQ Hotel Roma - Rome hotel review: Impressive 4-star in convenient location

iQ Hotel Roma is a modern hotel in the centre of Rome, with good, comfortable rooms. Customer service is of an international standard rather than traditionally Italian, which will be a benefit for overseas visitors, and a nice luxury for those used to Italy. If you're looking for something characterful and quirky, this might not be the best choice, but if you want the relief of collapsing in a comfortable room after a stressful journey and knowing all kinds of facilities and assistance are on hand, this is a real treat. 

I wrote this hotel review after a two-night stay in April.

Hotel booking, location and basics

I booked a small double room at the hotel a couple of weeks before my travel, at a cost of  €460, including Rome's city tax (prices vary considerably throughout the year). While it is possible to find accommodation in the city at a much lower price, this is usually at smaller, more idiosyncratic B&Bs, and in locations outside the centre. I wanted somewhere efficient and safe, where I could leave my suitcase before check-in and after check-out. And most importantly, I wanted a convenient location.

The hotel is just off the shopping street Via Nazionale, in the same square as the Teatro dell'Opera, Rome's opera house. It's five minutes' walk from Repubblica Metro stop and only about ten minutes' walk from Stazione Termini, Rome's central railway station. The neighbourhood is respectable and well-connected. It's not as charming or romantic as the centro storico, the historic centre, about a mile away, but it is hugely more convenient if you're planning to use public transport, to travel to different areas of the city, or to take day trips. It's possible to walk to most of the city's central landmarks, though for a few longer walks, and the centro storico, I would generally choose to take a bus from Via Nazionale to save energy and skip the duller part of the walk.

In a rather bizarre blue-painted modern building, the hotel faces out over the side and forecourt of the Teatro dell'Opera. When I arrived, and throughout my stay, there was always more than one member of staff on duty at the reception desk, so I never had a long wait for attention. Arriving early in the morning, my room wasn't ready but I was able to leave my luggage securely in the hotel, and walk ten minutes to Termini station to catch the Metro for a day out at Ostia Antica. On my return, tired and hungry, I stopped off in the food hall at the station - Mercato Centrale - where commuters can choose from a range of food and drink throughout the day (excellent ice cream). The improvements in the station area, including the opening of this food hall, add another convenient feature to the hotel's location; if you can't be bothered with heading to a restaurant or want to eat/drink/shop out of hours, Termini offers many customer-friendly options. Another good quality 'convenience' food option is the small branch of Eataly in Piazza Esedra next to Repubblica metro station. Read on to the foot of this page for more tips for taking advantage of this handy hotel location.


On checking in I was given a larger room than I'd anticipated, a generous-sized double with a divan that could have been made into an extra single bed - ideal for families. On the fourth floor, it had a window opening onto the quiet internal courtyard. 

A highlight for British visitors in particular will be the very un-Italian tea tray provided, complete with kettle, tea and coffee sachets, little biscuits, milk substitute, and free bottles of mineral water, all of which were replenished daily.

Facilities in the room also included a desk, a small fridge with more free bottles of water and an invitation to use the spare shelf for my own provisions, a wide-screen TV, a large mirror (not quite full-length), and a big wardrobe with its own lighting. There was also a suitcase stand, a laptop-sized safe, autonomous air-conditioning, notes offering a choice of pillows or more toiletries, a range of lighting options and convenient electricity sockets. Even coat-hooks, so rare in hotels, were provided. With carpeting, neutral decor and Rome-themed artwork, the room felt tranquil, and was generally very quiet, although I could hear other guests talking as they passed in the corridor. The bed was comfortable and I slept well, except for the time I was woken in the night by other guests talking outside my door.

The bathroom was a decent size, with lots of space for toiletries, and a hook. There was a good make-up/shaving mirror, and a typical hotel hair-dryer. The hand towel rail was a little inconveniently sited under the basin (I needed to bend down to access). Instead of a shower cubicle, the bathroom had a bath with a shower overhead- not my preference, but may have been better for some guests. It would have benefitted from a safety rail to help climbing in and out, and a better shower-head,  and it was awkward that the glass shower screen couldn't be moved out of the way. Hand towels were the flimsy Italian kind, but bath towels were large and fluffy. Toiletries were provided: shower cap, tissues, shower gel/shampoo and conditioner. Another of the hotel's helpful touches was an extendable washing line over the bath; ideal for when you want to wash small items in the basin.

Bedroom: the wardrobe door is on the left, and bathroom on the right.

Roof terrace, public spaces and breakfast

The roof terrace on the fifth floor had been decorated and equipped well: a pleasant and stylish space with greenery, a variety of seating areas and the option of shady awnings. Visitors won't find much in the way of views, due to high buildings, rooftop tanks, satellite dishes etc, though you can admire the shallow dome of the Teatro dell’Opera alongside. As well as tables and chairs, there were also a few sun-loungers and a jacuzzi too. The terrace is popular with international guests, who always seem to want to spend a surprising (to me) amount of time in their hotel bar. Sitting in the afternoon sunshine with some work, I enjoyed a free welcome drink of Prosecco with nibbles; a very nice touch. The only drawback of the roof terrace is that smoking is allowed here, unlike the rest of the hotel, so when a guest lit up a cigar, the smell drove other guests away.

A corner of the roof terrace, with the dome of the opera house

The indoors bar-dining-working area ("co-living space") is also on the top floor, opening onto the roof terrace, and would be a good place to while away some time on a cold or rainy day. A selection of board games are on offer for additional entertainment, along with table football outside on the terrace. The bar offered reasonably priced food and drinks, with wine from about €3.50 a glass.

"Co-living space"

Thoughtful extra facilities provided by the hotel include a microwave for guests and snack/drink vending machines.There’s a small gym, secure luggage storage, a self-service laundry (tokens on sale at reception), a sauna, ice available, computer terminals, free wifi, and in the courtyard/light well is a slide and swings for small children. Two lifts served all hotel floors, so there was never a long wait, and stairs were also open and accessible.

This hotel has most of the services I’ve always imagined offering in my imaginary hotel, as I've travelled around Italy and been frustrated at accommodation standards, and it is obvious that guests, and their needs, have been thought about carefully and effectively, from the friendly and helpful English-speaking staff to a shower for the use of guests arriving early or leaving late when their own room isn’t available. Offering a free welcome drink and bottles of water doesn't cost a hotel much but it makes a big difference to guests.

Breakfast in the sunshine

Breakfast was served as a buffet in the bar, with tables indoors and outside on the roof terrace. For me, the highlight was the constantly-replenished freshly-squeezed orange juice - really rare in a hotel breakfast in Italy. The food was also generous, with a wide range of foodstuffs to suit different tastes and cultures: frittata, roast potatoes, fried bread, cold meats, mozzarella, cucumber, fried and scrambled eggs, fresh bread, cereals, fresh and tinned fruit salad, croissants and pastries. The price of breakfast may vary: during my visit it cost €9.90 (if not included in room rate). I thought it was good value, but also liked the fact it was an optional extra; before a busy day out I preferred a quick cereal bar in my room and an early start. 

As a note on payment - my booking of €460 was a non-refundable rate and didn't include breakfast. The price of breakfast was quoted on the booking page, and I could see it would be cheaper to pay separately at the hotel than to opt for a higher rate. However the quoted price did include Rome's city tax, assuming two room occupants paying €6 per person per night. Although the room costs were charged against my credit card at once, the city tax was payable on check-out - and as I was travelling alone, I of course only paid for one person. So I actually paid €459 for two nights, one breakfast, and tax. All of this was dealt with very efficiently at check-out without any prompting from me, and proper receipts were issued even though I forgot to ask (not always the case in Italy).


I chose the hotel for its location and because of the very positive reviews I'd read. It was above my usual price range, but for a couple of nights of comfort and convenience I thought it was a very worthwhile expense. Rome is a busy and chaotic city and to have a calm, well-organised retreat is a real blessing when you're sightseeing all day.

My free 'welcome drink' on the roof terrace
If you're looking for a more quirky and historic atmosphere, and you don't mind trickier travel, I'd suggest looking at the smaller hotels and B&Bs in the centro storico. But if clean, modern convenience is a priority, I think it would be hard to do better than the iQ Hotel Roma. In particular, I'd judge it ideal for: busy sightseers who want to travel around the city and beyond; international travellers who want the reassurance of high-standard service and facilities; holiday-makers touring Italy looking for a base where they can recuperate, catch up with the gym, laundry, and enjoy a bit of relaxation in the heart of a not-very-relaxing city. And of course, culture-lovers with tickets for the Teatro dell'Opera. Much as I enjoy historic character and Italian idiosyncracies, I found the orderliness and convenience of this hotel very seductive, and would probably save up to return to the hotel. This attention to detail and generosity of services provided is rare in Italy.

Small print: I paid for my own stay and travelled anonymously. If you make a booking at any hotel through my affiliate links on this page, your booking will be through booking.com who offer a price guarantee. They also share a small percentage of commission with Italy Heaven, which supports the website and keeps it online. Thank you!

BONUS: Tips for taking advantage of the location

  • Go shopping on Via Nazionale - this busy shopping street offers a range of high-street shops and boutiques, including some local Roman and Italian brands. Some of my favourite local shoe shops are here. I popped out from the iQ Hotel and bought a dress, a scarf and three pairs of shoes (!) all within a five-minute walk.
  • Catch the Metro at Repubblica: about five minutes away, the underground Metro Linea A will take you to Spagna (for the Spanish Steps) and Flamino (for Piazza del Popolo) more quickly than walking, or carry you further afield to visit the Vatican Museums or the film studios of Cinecittà.
  • Take the bus from Via Nazionale - loads of useful buses stop on Via Nazionale including the H to Trastevere and several routes to the centro storico. While walking can be enjoyable, at the end of the day many will want to save effort by catching a bus back.
  • Attend an opera or ballet - the Teatro dell'Opera is literally right opposite the hotel, so this is a perfect hassle-free location for enjoying some fine music or dance.
  • Walk to Termini - it's one stop on the Metro from Repubblica, but it's probably easier to walk to Termini. Even with suitcases it's only about ten minutes of trundling along pavements to/from the station. Handy on arrival/departures, and also for making an early start for day trips by train, or catching Metro Linea B.
  • Walk through Rione Monti to the Colosseum or Forum - Rione Monti, a few minutes away, is a quirkier historic area where you'll find bars, restaurants, hip boutiques and my favourite chocolate shop. Appealing in its own right, it's also a pleasant walking route to the sights of Ancient Rome.
  • Convenient eats: the hotel offers simple meals in its bar. Other options nearby, if you don't want to visit a restaurant, are the informal food halls of Eataly and Mercato Centrale.

13 February 2018

Ten Reasons to visit Venice in winter

I often write about how great Venice is in winter - in case any reader hasn't already got the message, here are ten good reasons why this is a really good time to visit.

 1. No crowds

Since I first fell in love with an empty winter Venice a decade ago, tourism has increased all year round. You won't ever find the city empty of tourists now. But the quietest times are still in winter, when you'll find residents outnumbering visitors, lanes which you can stroll along without queueing, and a low-key 'local' feel to the city. The sights are easily visited and admired, and you can enjoy Venice at your leisure. If you get off the beaten track you might go a long time before you see other outsiders.  As well as lower tourist numbers, there is a very noticeable difference in types of visitor. In the winter there are very few cruises, and fewer day-trippers, meaning that most of the tourists in town are overnight visitors, spread more evenly through the city, and with more of a feel for how to behave.

 2. Cheap accommodation

There is a vast and ever-increasing volume of tourist accommodation in Venice. In winter, places to stay outnumber visitors. So you'll find good value as businesses compete for custom. If you have your heart set on a special place to stay, book in advance. But if you're looking for the lowest prices, and are prepared to gamble, you could risk leaving it until the last minute, and watching as apartments and hotels drop their prices on Booking.com in the days before you arrive. I've seen some excellent deals in the lowest season, such as a comfortable 2-person apartment for €450 a week.

3. Cheap flights

There aren't so many flights to Venice in winter, but some routes, like London-Venice, are still busy enough that you get a good choice of flights each day. Prices are at their lowest, and you can usually still find cheap flights at short notice. This week I've found hand-baggage-only fares with British Airways for £36 each way.

4. More comfort

There are many reasons why travelling to Venice in winter is more comfortable. You'll get better service and more of a welcome than in summer, when Venice groans under the pressure of tourists. You're more likely to find good restaurant tables without booking, to find space in a cafe, to meet shorter queues at the airport, to get an outdoor seat on a boat, to find an empty bench to enjoy the view.

5. It might snow

Venice is cold in winter, the city's humidity giving an extra sharp chill to the air. There will probably be a few snowy days each winter, and although snow doesn't usually settle for long, while the snowflakes are falling, Venice is magical. It's a great photo opportunity, too, as snow briefly settles on gondolas or flutters down past Gothic windows.

6. It might be sunny ... or foggy

Snow may be magical, but you're more likely to encounter sunshine. Venice gets a good amount of winter sunshine, and there are glorious brisk sunny days when laundry flutters against a blue sky, the city is at its best, and hardy diners and drinkers might brave a sheltered outdoor table in the sun. Another typical condition is the atmospheric Venetian fog, so characteristic that it has its own local name in dialect. When it comes creeping in is a great time for taking moody photos of a Venice that summer tourists will never see.

7. Hot chocolate

Casanova swore by it, and rich Venetian hot chocolate is one of the great pleasures of the winter. You can drink a small cup for a couple of euros on your feet in a busy steamed-up cafe or pastry shop, or you can settle down with a luxurious and expensive glass in one of Venice's finest cafes. I love the mint hot chocolate named after Casanova in Caffe Florian.

8. Shopping and fun

As well as designer and high-street shops, Venice has a good range of small artisan boutiques where you can buy jewellery, leather goods, carnival masks, shoes, cloaks, stationery, ceramics and more. It's great for Christmas shopping, or just buying lovely mementos for yourself. And although the city is quiet in winter, in the run-up to Christmas there are festive markets, Christmas lights and special events (including a boat race of Santas), while in Carnival time there is lots to do - although there are also crowds and high prices for that particular fortnight. You'll usually find a small ice-rink in Campo San Polo for most of the winter.

9. Frittelle, panettone and other delights

Unlike the sweltering days of summer, when eating becomes an effort, winter is ideal for tucking into hearty lunches of risotto or pasta accompanied by local wine. Before Christmas the bakeries are full of speciality Italian cakes like panettone, and the popular version at Tonolo known as focaccia da Tonolo. Leading up to Carnival, frittelle (also known as fritole and fritoe) are everywhere, and each cup of coffee or hot chocolate is accompanied by one of these small doughnuts. Produced with a range of fillings including raisins, pastry cream, chocolate, apple and zabaione,  these are hugely popular and are a real, cheap treat of the season.

10. Nuisance-free living

By the middle of winter you're unlikely to encounter one of Venice's nastiest little hazards: the mosquito - and any surviving mosquitos are unlikely to penetrate winter layers of clothing. This unpleasant creature plagues the lagoon and can make summer and autumn painful and unromantic, so winter comes as a relief for the tender-skinned. The sun is also no longer the same threat, and you can explore the city without anticipating sweat or sunburn. Without sun-lotion, after-sun, insect repellent and all the other hot-weather necessities, winter permits much lighter packing.
Other nuisances you're more likely to avoid in winter include the pickpockets who descend on the city in crowded periods, and the ill-mannered trippers who block bridges and alleys and, of course, the crowds described above.

Winter in Venice lasts from December till February; Venice is briefly busy at New Year and is busy for the fortnight of the Venice Carnival. Winter won't suit everyone, of course. You do need to dress warmly - hat, coat, scarf, gloves - and the weather can be unpredictable. High water can be an occasional problem - or an attraction - depending on your perspective. But for many Venice-lovers, this is the very best time of year to be in the city and appreciate its marvels.
> When to visit Venice (a fun quiz)
> More about winter in Venice
> Find somewhere to stay

1 January 2018

Italy 2018 - Where to go, month by month


Venice is wonderful in winter - at its quietest and most 'local'. January begins with the last celebrations of Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, and this year it ends with the first weekend of the famous Venice Carnival. Inbetween you have a great opportunity to explore the city without crowds and linger in its churches, museums, restaurants and cafes. With potential for sunny days as well as icy mists and high water, it's good for atmosphere and photographs as well. Just wrap up warm.
> Venice in winter
Blue sky in Venice in January


If you're craving sunshine, one of the best chances you have for mild weather is Sicily. Although it's not tourist season and you won't find a big choice of flights (try Easyet), there is lots to do in Sicily regardless of the season. Catania makes an interesting city break, sitting between the sea and active volcano Etna, which is snow-capped in winter and offers skiing opportunities. There are historical sights to see, a picturesque city centre and colourful street markets and convenient public transport links to little coastal villages and to Siracusa and Taormina, both fascinating and beautiful destinations. Sicily's capital Palermo is also a colourful and varied city, famed for its food, which would be a good weekend break destination at any time of year. You could expect daytime temperatures in the teens in February, and an average of five hours sunshine a day. If you're feeling bold you could even head to the sea.
> Sicily


Although you could consider heading to traditional holiday areas by March, the nights can still be cold and many would consider this transitional season ideal for a city break. You'd find Italy's famous art cities less crowded at this time of year but why not consider a slightly less-known destination? Bologna is a fine university city with some wide piazzas where you can soak up spring sunshine, and you might even be able to eat lunch outdoors at one of the city's renowned restaurants or food stalls. With handsome buildings, churches, art museums and pleasant walks, it's a well-off and laidback city. An easy journey from the UK (regular flights, convenient airport), this is an ideal weekend break destination, especially for those who enjoy Italian cuisine.
> More about Bologna
Bologna in March


The Bay of Naples is an excellent holiday destination for a week in spring or autumn. In April, with lengthening sunny days, flowers blooming and spring in the air, you can find a real buzz in Naples and the surrounding areas, before the summer tourist crowds descend. Naples itself is a fascinating and vibrant city. As it's also hectic and a trifle stressful, I'd suggest combining a city centre stay - do the historic centre, the sights and the fab underground itineraries - with a few nights in a quieter location. The island of Capri will be much more affordable at this time of year, offering gorgeous scenery and walking, while Sorrento is a very good base for exploring the hills, coast and Roman archaeological sites including Pompeii. Ischia and Procida, the other two islands in the Bay of Naples, are also delightful destinations. With a bit more travel, you could add in a few nights on the glorious Amalfi coast.
> Campania


Just about anywhere in Italy will be idyllic in May. This is the perfect month for travel, with sunshine, warm temperatures, flowers and greenery - but without baking heat, too many mosquitoes or the tourist crowds of summer. You could consider a tour of Tuscany, taking in the great art city of Florence and other treasures like San Gimignano, Siena and Pisa. A countryside stay or a trip to the coast will provide a break from city sightseeing - if you like islands, you could catch a ferry to Elba or the little-known Capraia.
> Tuscany
Livorno, Tuscany


If you're not tied to school holidays, June is an ideal time to take a summer holiday in Italy. It will be hot, but probably not as uncomfortable as July or August. The tourist season will be up and running, but many seaside destinations - especially those most popular with Italians - will still be relatively quiet, without the crowds, the inflated prices, the packed beaches and the noisy discos of the Italian peak season. The Aeolian islands, in Sicilian waters, make up the most varied and beautiful archipelago in Italy, with active volcanoes, mud baths, clear waters, footpaths, archaeological sites, fishing hamlets and a lively small town. Go for at least a week and spend time on two or three of the islands, with trips to others. The journey is a bit long-winded (plane to Catania, coach to Milazzo, ferry to the islands) but it's worth the effort for an unforgettable vacation.
> Aeolian islands
Dreamy Panarea


July and August are tricky times for visiting Italy.  Traditional holiday destinations are extremely busy, and the temperature is often uncomfortably hot. A leisurely resort where you can avoid the crowds in comfortable accommodation, within reach of the refreshing sea, is a good idea for coping with the climate and crowds. Puglia, in Italy's south, will be very hot but does have lots of green countryside with high-standard rural accommodation, often with spas or cookery classes on-site. The coast is beautiful, with lots of beaches, and the region's towns, from Baroque Lecce to the charming trulli houses of Alberobello, are lovely to visit. The famous cave-town Matera, over the border in the Basilicata region, can be combined with a Puglia itinerary; the town has a colourful festa on the 2nd July which is well worth a visit.
> Puglia


Italians almost all flee their baking cities in August. They are generally divided into two groups: those who head for the sea, and those who head for the mountains. Italy's peaks offer cooler temperatures, green slopes and dramatic scenery to summer visitors, along with excellent walking, climbing and cycling opportunities. The Dolomites, in the north-east of the country, are scenic and make a good holiday base. They can be combined with one of the nearby cities, such as Verona, Venice, Treviso or Trieste. Cortina d'Ampezzo is probably the most well-known resort in the area, with good facilities and an attractive town centre.


September can begin with summer heat, but as the month progresses, temperatures drop and rain arrives. However, a late summer holiday can offer good weather, quiet beaches and a great chance to be in the open air surrounded by glorious scenery, before the inevitable return home to colder climates and the onset of autumn. Heading for islands is a good bet - a low-key island like Ponza or Ventotene will be beginning to breathe again after the summer onslaught of holiday-makers, and you'll find good food, company, boat trips, warm sea, and heaps of island charm.
> Pontine islands


October can be quiet and the weather's getting cooler, but autumn brings handsome colours to the wooded slopes around Italy's lakes. You should check ferry timetables when planning a lake trip, but generally October is a fairly good time to make an out-of-season visit to a lakeside town, admire the scenery, and perhaps take day trips to nearby sights and towns of interest. Lake Iseo is one of northern Italy's less well-known lakes, but it has its own charm, and a large inhabited island which visitors can explore on foot. Nearby sights include the city of Brescia, and the UNESCO-listed prehistoric rock carvings of the Valcamonica.
> Lake Iseo
Lake Iseo


For November, with shorter days and colder weather, a city break is a good bet. Genoa is a fascinating city with many attractions, including family-friendly sights like the large aquarium, and an interesting transport network which includes boats, escalators, unusual lifts and funiculars. There are also fine historic palaces and art collections as well as good restaurants to try local Ligurian specialities. It's also a short flight from the UK (frequent BA flights) with a conveniently-central seaside airport.
> Genoa


December is a time for wrapping up warm, hunting out the finest cafes for warming coffee or hot chocolate, and enjoying culture and Christmas shopping. Italy's most famous art cities are all good places to visit in the run-up to Christmas; you'll find speciality food stalls, Christmas markets, elaborate church nativity scenes and artisan crafts to buy as gifts. Rome is lively all year round, and in December you could enjoy the usual sights and museums, a bit of culture at the Teatro dell'Opera, strolls in the winter sunshine, and look for the little Christmas markets which pop up in the city. Venice is another good pre-Christmas destination, much smaller and more calm than the hectic capital.
> Rome
> Venice in winter
Portico of the Pantheon, Rome

Venice at Christmas