In 2008, Sean P. Finelli left behind his Wall Street career to move to Rome, where he soon became a popular tour guide with the nickname “the Roman guy.” Finelli decided to direct his passion for Rome into a new tour company that would emphasize unique and immersive experiences across Italy. And thus The Roman Guy was born.
The company is run by Finelli and co-owner Brandon Shaw, who work with their team to offer a variety of city tours and trip planning services. We reached out to Finelli and Shaw to discover what advice they’d give first-time Italy travelers, which regions of the country don’t get enough love and which Italian foods visitors must try on their next trip.
IndependentTraveler.com: What are some of the most unique tours The Roman Guy offers in Italy?
Sean: The most unique tour must be our Colosseum Underground tour, which we’ve titled Colosseum Dungeons Tour. You get access to areas that nobody else has access to. Think about the 30,000 visitors that enter the building in the summer. Only about 300 get to visit the dungeons. That’s pretty unique, and people love it.
Brandon: Our E-bike Rome Tour is a strong second. Imagine beating the heat and covering three times as much of the city as a walking tour and not even breaking a sweat. We are super-passionate about green travel and have now created a way to not only see the whole city in three hours but also add zero carbon emission in doing it.
IT: Which region in Italy deserves a little more love? Why?
Sean: Most people would pick areas like Puglia or Sicily, but I’ll go with Lazio. Yes, Lazio. Everyone goes to Rome, the capital of the region, but after that people are gone. There are amazing nearby towns like Frascati, Marino, Castel Gandolfo and Tivoli, plus beaches like Sperlonga. You can enjoy sunset beach parties in Fregene or a relaxing and luxurious holiday in Ponza. Outside of Rome, Lazio is a locals’ paradise that outside visitors could really give a little bit more love.
Brandon: My pick would be Umbria, a region in central Italy. People rarely visit Umbria on their first trip to Italy. Umbria is usually discovered when people come back on their second or third trip and are looking for something new. I say come to Umbria during your first trip to Italy — you will not regret it. Within Umbria, you have some beautiful historic cities to explore like Orvieto, “dying cities” like Civita di Bagnoregio (which only has 17 official residents) and an amazing waterfall that makes you feel like you are in a South American rain forest. And all of this is within a two-hour drive of Rome!
IT: What advice would you give someone planning his or her first trip to Italy?
Sean: Be clear about what you want to get out of the trip. Remember that the more you “see” the less you’ll actually “see.” What I mean is that you need to stop and smell the Italian sunflowers. Don’t cram so much in just to cross it off the bucket list. Make time for sitting down, relaxing and chatting with the locals. Make time for three-hour lunches. I went to Puglia for 10 days with no itinerary and it was amazing. We stopped to jump off cliffs into the water, had amazing lunches and stopped in cool-looking towns. Italy has so much that you will alway find something else to do.
Brandon: Doing a good amount of research before your trip will go a long way in making your trip more memorable. Nobody wants to waste precious time waiting in lines, so purchase your tickets ahead of time and skip the lines. Buy your train tickets in advance so you don’t have the stress of trying to find a spot on a train last minute. Look into some restaurants that you might want to visit, so you don’t end up in the typical tourist traps. Or just use The Roman Guy and we’ll do all the heavy lifting for you!
IT: Are there places in Italy that you haven’t visited yet but would like to explore?
Sean: The Dolomites. Like most travelers, I am always intrigued by photography and the Dolomites appear to offer some great adventure tourism: this massive jagged mountain range popping up from the rolling hills. What’s not to love?
Brandon: Val d’Aosta. It’s the area on the border with France. I haven’t been there but have heard that the views are amazing, as you are so close to the French Alps. I am also an avid wine enthusiast, and Val d’Aosta is renowned for their excellent, crisp white wines that suit the northern climate perfectly.
IT: Beyond pizza, pasta and gelato, which dish should every Italy traveler try?
Sean: Isn’t that all Italy produces? I personally recommend fish. Italy is a peninsula with plenty of seafood. It’s hard to recommend a particular dish, but if you are within a short drive of the sea, eat seafood. People going to Rome often want carbonara and Amatriciana, but Rome is a seafood city. We’re 20 mins from saltwater accessible via the Tiber River. Rome’s speciality is salt-crusted sea bass. They say it dates back to Roman times.
Brandon: This is a tough question since the array of food in Italy is so diverse depending on the region. We’ve actually just recently created an interactive Italy food map to inspire foodies coming to Italy. Instead of eating something other than pasta, travelers should do some research, and they will discover that there are many kinds of pasta dishes that they have never heard of. A great example is my favorite Roman pasta dish: fettuccine in a tomato sauce used to make a delicacy with oxtail. It is so good it will bring tears to your eyes!
IT: Besides Italy, what are your favorite travel destinations?
Sean: It’s hard to say this out loud since I sell Italy, but Greece is my vacation spot. The problem with Italy for me is my mind is always at work. Italy is my office. Greece offers decent food and great views. I love the shabby roads and how Greece has maintained some authentic charm. I also love how much elevation you’ll find on the small islands. There is so much to do in Greece and so much to see. The Greeks are also extremely proud and eager to share their history.
Brandon: When not discovering new hidden gems in Italy, you will usually find me in the French Alps. The mountain air is invigorating and allows you to reset. We stay in little mountain villages where you get fresh milk from the cows that morning that is still warm, and fresh cheese that was just made as well. Staying in places like these allow you to change the tempo and just savor life more. I also love snowboarding so it’s perfect in the wintertime, because you can access the slopes directly from your log cabin.
Every year, the European Union selects two cities to be designated European Capitals of Culture. Activities all year long show off the cities’ charms. Destinations large and small are selected; some are well known, while others may be new to travelers.
The latter is likely the case with the 2017 selections: Aarhus, Denmark, and Pafos, Cyprus. Here’s a primer on both cities.
Aarhus, Denmark Where: In the geographic center of Denmark, northwest of Copenhagen.
Why It’s Noteworthy: The second largest city in Denmark (after Copenhagen), Aarhus was founded as a fortified Viking settlement. Today it’s best known as music epicenter, especially for jazz and rock aficionados. Cruise ships stop there, and its port is one of the most important in Northern Europe.
Top Sights: Many of the city’s 1.4 million annual visitors tour its art and historical museums, the Old Town Open Air Museum and nearby Botanical Gardens, and the Tivoli Friheden amusement park. Wandering the city, you’ll see architecture representing a number of eras, from Romanesque and Gothic to Nordic classicism and Functionalism.
Don’t Miss: Nibbling on a typical Danish smorrebrod (buttered bread) at one of the city’s oldest taverns, Peter Gift, which dates back to 1906.
Special Events: Festivals, exhibits, author talks, concerts and other activities are planned. The city will be decked out with special garden installations between April and September. The Royal Danish Theatre will perform a Viking saga called “Rode Orm” from May 24 through July 1.
More Info: Aarhus2017.dk
Pafos, Cyprus Where: On the southwest coast of the Mediterranean island.
Why It’s Noteworthy: Pafos (also spelled Paphos) is home to Aphrodite’s Rock, a beach outcrop that’s considered to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
Top Sights: The whole city is on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage List, and picturesque scenes are at every turn. The Temple of Aphrodite attracts many pilgrims. Pafos also has a Byzantine castle, catacombs and a museum displaying archaeological artifacts.
Don’t Miss: An afternoon exploring the cliffs and beach near Aphrodite’s Rock. If you take a swim around the rock, it’s said that you will be blessed with eternal beauty.
Special Events: Because Pafos boasts spectacular weather year-round, organizers are planning many activities outdoors. Expect monthly exhibits, walking tours, performances, food events and nature outings.
It’s hard to believe there are at least 55,000 museums in the world, according to the International Council of Museums, with more than a dozen more opening in 2017. Here are the six we’re most excited about.
(Note that all scheduled opening dates are subject to change.)
Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa: Perhaps the most anticipated opening in the world is this first-ever museum in Africa dedicated to contemporary art. It’s being touted as Africa’s most significant museum in more than a century. It opens September 23.
Museum of the Bible, Washington D.C., United States: A space dedicated to the history and narrative of the Bible will open near the National Mall this fall. Noteworthy displays at the museum include one of the world’s largest private collections of rare biblical texts, a walk-through replica of first-century Nazareth and fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Ten years ago, officials from France and Abu Dhabi signed an agreement to open an offshoot of the famed Parisian art museum. After many delays, it appears the museum will open this year, though officials aren’t confirming exactly when. In a stunning building by the sea, the museum will feature permanent collections and masterpieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara, Jakarta, Indonesia: Another museum first: Indonesia’s first-ever museum of modern art. Opening in November, the private museum known as the MACAN will include 800 pieces from the 19th century through today.
Yves Saint Laurent Museums, Paris, France, and Marrakech, Morocco: Two museums dedicated to the legendary fashion designer will open in two cities of importance to him. Saint Laurent’s Parisian 30-year office and atelier will house one, and the other will be in the designer’s adopted city, not far from where his ashes were scattered after he died. Vogue reports that the museums will open in September.
Museum Barberini, Potsdam, Germany: Europe’s newest museum is a fine collection of Old Masters, Impressionism and modern art housed in a restored palace dating back to 1771. The museum is based around the private collection of businessman Hasso Plattner, its founder and patron. The museum opens January 23.
Security Shortcut ‘Clear’ Coming to Four of the Busiest U.S. Airports
Conde Nast Traveler reports that there will soon be another way to speed through four busy American airports: Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York LaGuardia and New York JFK. Clear (unlike the government-run TSA PreCheck) is a private program that lets you pay an annual fee to skip the line for document check at security.
9 Reasons You Need to Visit Mongolia in 2017
Vogue highlights the charms of a destination most travelers have never considered: Mongolia. After reading about its wide-open spaces and unique spiritual culture, we’re moving it up our must-visit list.
The City with a Chip on Its Shoulder
What unites so-called “second cities,” wonders BBC? It’s not just the fact of being a country’s second-most-populous city, but also traits such as fewer expectations and a bit of a chip on their shoulder.
Ancient History Along the Nile
This essay from the New York Times captures what it’s like to cruise Egypt’s Nile River, with all its enchantments and quirks.
This week’s video is a unique job opportunity. A family of five is seeking a nanny to travel with them and homeschool their young children — with all travel expenses paid.
Check out what you may have missed from around the travel world this week.
20 Best Photos of 2016
The Dronestagram blog offers picks for the best drone photos of the past 12 months, featuring striking shots of roads, beaches and lavender fields from a unique bird’s-eye perspective.
U.S. Government Collecting Social Media Information from Foreign Travelers
The Guardian reports that the U.S. government wants foreign visitors to reveal their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts when applying for a visa. It’s part of an effort to fight terrorism, though we can’t help but wonder whether a would-be terrorist would happily volunteer his or her incriminating accounts. (The social media info is not required in order to obtain a visa.)
Georgia’s Svan Song
Roads & Kingdoms profiles the little-known region of Svaneti, in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia. The unique culture and religion of this region is endangered by economic decline and a lack of visitors.
Inside the Life of an Oyster Hotel Investigator
Ever wondered what it’s like to review and photograph hotels for a living? Our sister site, Oyster.com, offers an interview with one of its hotel investigators, who shares what an average day is like and reveals why it’s not as glamorous a job as it might sound.
The 10 Best Low-Cost Airlines in the World
Business Insider reveals the best low-cost carriers around the world, according to a recent Skytrax survey. The winner for the eighth year in a row? AirAsia. The only American carrier on the list, Virgin America, came in second.
Each month, we’ll highlight one new trip review submitted by an IndependentTraveler.com reader. If your review is featured, you’ll win an IndependentTraveler.com logo item!
In this month’s winning review, a traveler drives across Ireland and discovers the meaning of craic. “Sean’s Bar, in Athlone (just about halfway between Dublin and Galway) is the oldest pub in Europe. Dating back to 900 A.D., the pub is still thriving and we had to check it out,” writes Alyssa Johnson. “It was worth the stop. The old bar was practically breathing antiquity. … The bartender was friendly and the sunny beer garden was the perfect place for our first pint of Guinness.”
On the Streets of San Telmo
This piece from the Globe and Mail is a funny and thoughtful personal essay about a tango lesson in Buenos Aires.
Inside the World’s First Year-Round Ice Hotel
Forbes offers gorgeous pictures from ICEHOTEL 365, located north of the Arctic Circle in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden. It’s the world’s first permanent snow and ice hotel. (Most are only open in the colder months.)
15 Tweets That Describe the Hilarious Hell of Holiday Travel
Have a laugh at this amusing roundup of holiday travel tweets from the Huffington Post. Our favorite: “If you put your bag in overhead bin near row 7 & you sit in row 20, I am putting you on Santa’s naughty list!! #Grinchmas #Holiday Travel” We couldn’t agree more.
This week’s video is the annual “Christmas Miracle” offering from Canadian airline WestJet, featuring a heartwarming gift to the community of Fort McMurray after it was devastated by wildfires earlier this year.
Today is the first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and while many of us dread the season’s chilly days and long nights, here at IndependentTraveler.com we’re looking on the bright side. Pack your snowboots and mittens, and join us for a virtual trip around the world’s winter wonderlands.
Norway is one of several countries where you can see the northern lights color the night sky.
Yaksaam Temple is part of Geumosan Provincial Park in South Korea.
Quebec City celebrates winter with numerous activities, including toboggan rides along Terrasse Dufferin.
Outside of Nagano, Japan, visitors can get up close and personal with snow monkeys keeping warm in the area’s hot springs.
In winter, you can hike through one of the ice caves near Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland.
Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon, a national park, looks even more striking under a dusting of snow.
Moscow‘s famously chilly winters make for picturesque scenes like this one.
From amateur shoots by first-time travelers to travel company promos and professionally produced films, 2016 has been a stellar year for capturing the world in video. Below are the four best travel videos of the bunch (plus a bonus video that I simply can’t get out of my mind).
The Inspiring Story of Blind Surfer Derek Rabelo
Many travel company videos are straightforward commercials promoting their products. But Turkish Airlines took a different approach this year with a touching film about blind surfer Derek Rabelo. His perspective on the ocean, for example, forces you to reexamine yours. More than 9 million people have viewed the three-minute video, which is in Turkish with English subtitles.
New York City Drone Film Festival Montage
Drone videos are all the rage among amateur and professional videographers alike, and so many are stunning that it’s hard to pick one as the best of the year. The 2016 New York City Drone Film Festival released a 2.5-minute montage of the best scenes from its 2016 submissions. My favorite snippet was the volcano flyby.
China: A Skier’s Journey
Chad Sayers and Forrest Coots contrast two ski cultures in China — the emerging middle class that is starting to embrace skiing as a leisure sport, and peoples who have skied for thousands of years as a means of survival. The staff at Vimeo selected this 16.5-minute film as the top travel pick of 2016.
This Magic World
Mexican student Mariana Osorio won International Student.com’s annual travel video contest this year with a sweet and sad 4.5-minute video that’s part autobiography, part travelogue. Osorio wrote an original song about how her violin skills gave her the ticket out of her small Mexican village — which is plagued by drug cartel activity — and into New York City.
Bonus Video: Autumn Leaves
Here’s the bonus video. Admittedly, it was first shared in late 2015, but I didn’t have the opportunity to see it until 2016. It’s easily one of my favorite videos of all time. A polite Korean tourist visiting Florence surprised some local street musicians by asking if he could join them. He took up a spot next to the contrabass and led a peppy rendition of “Autumn Leaves.” Though the musicians don’t speak the same language, they communicate beautifully through music, and feed off each other’s energy in this impromptu jam session near the Florence Duomo. The video is pure joy, and captures the essence of what travel is all about.
Check out what’s worth reading in the travel world from the past week.
The U.S. Government May Allow In-Flight Phone Calls, and People Are Freaking Out
Business Insider reports on a recent proposal from the U.S. Department of Transportation that would require airlines and booking agents to state in advance whether passengers are allowed to make voice calls on flights. Passengers are currently not allowed to make voice calls via their cell phones on certain radio frequencies, but there are no rules against chatting via Wi-Fi using services such as Skype.
50 Reasons to #LovetheWorld
Clicking through this gallery from BBC will spark your wanderlust all over again. The site has reached out to dozens of contributers and travelers for anecdotes from incredible journeys around the world.
Cuba’s Young Artists Embrace a New World
This National Geographic feature offers fascinating photos and stories from the young people of Cuba, where “individualism is creeping out into the open” after the recent death of Fidel Castro.
‘Basic Economy’ Fares Make Sense: Opposing View
When United recently announced that its new Basic Economy fares would not include overhead bin access, many travelers and news outlets responded with outrage. But this piece on USA Today makes the case for these bargain-basement fares, arguing that while they won’t suit everyone, they fill a niche for price-sensitive travelers who don’t need many amenities.