Discovering Italy on a Budget

By Marola Anes | Pennsylvania State University | ISI Florence Spring 2024

Embarking on a study abroad adventure is exciting, but it often comes with a hefty price tag. From airfare to meals and daily expenses, the costs can quickly add up. As I prepared to explore both the delights of my host city, Florence and the wonders scattered throughout Italy, I was determined to do so in a way that wouldn’t break my bank account. For me, it was crucial to truly immerse myself in the culture of my host country rather than traveling to a new country every weekend. This approach not only aligns with my goals to truly experience Italy, but it’s a lot less expensive and better for the environment. After all, what’s the point of studying abroad if you don’t immerse yourself in the local culture? I’m about two months into my program and I have compiled some of my favorite inexpensive and easy-to-get-to spots in Italy and a few travel tips I have discovered!

Starting off at the home base: Florence!
The museums and churches here are absolute must-sees, and many of them offer free entry or substantial discounts for students. Among my favorites are the iconic Uffizi Gallery and the beautiful Santa Maria Novella Church and Farmacia. Plus, mark your calendar for every first Sunday of the month because all museums offer free entrance! Wandering through the bustling streets and seeing the street performers, exploring the lively markets, and witnessing breathtaking sunsets at Piazzale Michelangelo have also become some of my favorite things to do, and they’re all free!

The charm of Italy extends far beyond the walls of Florence though. With an efficient and inexpensive train network, embarking on weekend or day trips outside of Florence is an easy task.

You have to go witness the gravity-defying Leaning Tower of Pisa in person, plus it’s only an hour away! While you’re there, be sure to explore the nearby Baptistery and Duomo, which are both beautiful attractions all conveniently located in the same area. Pisa itself is a picturesque, small town that can easily be explored in a half-day. I went in the off-season so most shops were closed but I’m sure it’s much livelier later in the season!
Estimated budget: ~ €35
– Train tickets: under €20 round trip
– Food: €15

*I did not enter the tower or baptistery but you can buy a package deal if you want to enter those. Cathedral is free to enter*

Lucca, the city of 100 churches, exceeded all expectations! From its delicious food to its budget-friendly prices and stunning architecture and buildings, Lucca was genuinely impressive. It was also filled with vintage markets, and great shopping spots amidst its historic streets.
Estimated budget: ~ €40
– Train tickets: under €17 round trip
– Food: ~ €23 (sit-down meal and snacks)

I had never heard of Viareggio, but I’m so glad I stumbled upon this hidden gem. Viareggio is an adorable coastal town within Lucca and is home to one of the biggest carnival celebrations in Europe. We visited during the first weekend of carnival and it was truly exhilarating; the energy was infectious and unmatched. I highly recommend visiting Viareggio during carnival season for an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The warm hospitality of the locals was the perfect finishing touch to our experience. My only regret from this trip is that we only stayed for a day instead of the entire weekend!
Estimated budget: ~ €56
– Train tickets: under €17 round trip
– Food: ~ €22 (sit-down meal and multiple snacks)
– Carnival entrance ticket: €17

VENICE (two days)
Venice is truly one of my favorite destinations! There’s an undeniable appeal about the city that captures your heart from the moment you arrive. Plus, you should go visit the one-of-a-kind town before it sinks. Easily accessible by a 2-hour train ride, Venice is perfect for a day trip or an entire weekend. While there, be sure to marvel at the jaw-dropping Saint Mark’s Basilica, which may be my favorite building ever. Venice radiates energy at any time of the year. Also, be sure to visit the bright islands of Burano and Murano, and don’t miss the beautiful glass-blowing masterpieces.
Estimated budget: ~ €190
– Train tickets: about €40 round trip on the fast train
– Food: ~ €80 (multiple sit-down meals and snacks)
– Entertainment: ~ €16 (boat ride and entrance fees into the basilica)
– Airbnb: ~ €50 (we had a great location within the actual island but you can find cheaper)

MILAN (entire weekend trip)
Milan is a captivating world of its own, brimming with endless adventures. One of my favorite experiences in this beautiful city was ascending to the Duomo terraces, where you get a 360º view of Milan’s landscape. Enjoy Milan’s renowned fashion shops and historic landmarks to its vibrant cultural scene and delectable cuisine. Window-shopping and admiring the beautiful architecture of San Babila’s luxury shops was also a highlight of my trip to Milan. Don’t forget to enjoy all of the inexpensive markets and street food here and spending an evening in Piazza Duomo is a must as it is full of energy, music, and dancing! If you are in Milan for the weekend, I recommend spending a relaxing, picturesque day at Lake Como! It’s less than an hour away at less than €6.
Estimated budget: ~ €235
– Train tickets: about €40 round trip on the fast train
– Food: ~ €100 (multiple sit-down meals, quick food, and snacks)
– Entertainment: ~ €30 (entrance into the duomo,
– Transportation: €12 (metro, trams, and bus)
– Airbnb: ~ €50 for two nights

Verona was so so charming, colorful, and energetic. Walk through the stunning house that inspired Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and marvel at the beautiful architecture and artwork. Verona is also filled with lots of intricate churches so be sure to stop in and be amazed. A highlight of my day trip was climbing up to San Pietro’s Castle for an amazing view of Verona and there is an amazing restaurant once you get up! The Arena was also so amazing to see and go inside. Verona truly had me in awe at every turn and I think it has been my favorite spot so far! 11/10 recommend making the short trip there!
Estimated budget: ~ €90
– Train tickets: ~ €40 round trip
– Food: ~ €30 (sit-down meal, quick meal, and snacks)
– Entertainment: ~ €20 (entrance into Juliet’s house, Arena, and multiple churches)

ORVIETO (entire weekend trip)
Orvieto is so lovely and not a place many people know about. It’s a small hilltop town in Umbria filled with the friendliest people, the most beautiful views, and so much history. So many cats too! It was very inexpensive and we got to do a lot of once-in-a-lifetime activities like touring Etruscan caves, having dinner in a cave, and going down into the famous St. Patrick’s Well! Orvieto is very high on my favorites list and I highly recommend this hidden gem.
Estimated budget: ~ €170
– Train tickets: >€40 round trip
– Food: ~ €70 (multiple sit-down meals, quick food, and snacks)
– Entertainment: ~ €15 (cave, well, church)
– Transportation: ~ €5 (cable car)
– Airbnb: ~ €40 for two nights

Some travel tips I have gathered:

1. Book trains as soon as you can! The longer you wait to book your train, the more expensive it will get (it can get up to €70-80). I found this especially true with Milan. Keep in mind this doesn’t apply to regional trains because those are all the same price at any time.
2. Student discounts! So many places offer an awesome student discount. You can get into museums, churches, etc. for just a few euros. Many restaurants and gelaterias also offer a student discount so be sure to ask. Airfare and trains also offer reduced prices for students so always look it up before paying full price!
3. Use public transportation! Italy has an awesome public transportation system, so take advantage of it. Tickets are cheap and they typically last two hours each. This is especially helpful in bigger cities like Rome and Milan.
4. You don’t always need to sit down for meals! Go into a sandwich shop or a street vendor and grab something quick. This saves you money and time! Some of my favorite foods have been from quick vendors so don’t overlook them.
5. Travel in groups! Not only is this safer but it usually makes airBNB prices cheaper.

My journey so far has been nothing short of amazing and life-changing. I can’t wait to see what the rest of this adventure brings and to create lasting memories. I hope you were inspired to discover new places and this showed you it’s still possible to travel around on a budget!