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Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two streets for strolling.

Would you rather…

… wander down this quiet cobblestone street in the Tuscan village of Sorano, Italy, or …

sorano italy tuscany flowers lane



… explore the vibrant city streets of Osaka, Japan?

osaka japan night street


Are you energized by bustling cities, or would you rather lose yourself in a quiet village? Sorano is one of Italy’s many medieval hill towns, home to several picturesque churches as well as a castle, Fortezza Orsini. Meanwhile, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city, boasting endless shops, major museums (including the National Museum of Art) and the country’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennoji.

11 Best Italy Experiences
12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot captures New Year’s fireworks over Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, Italy.

rome fireworks new year italy


Photos: 11 Best Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

See Our Favorite Rome Hotels

– written by Sarah Schlichter

naples italy Along with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

For Italian politicians, Naples sometimes seems like a problem that’s best left alone. It’s a tangled ball of social inequalities — a wriggling can of economic worms that, once opened, threatens to squirm out, all over one’s pristine Armani chinos.

For travelers, as well, Naples can seem like a place that’s better avoided than engaged with. Even we’re guilty of it. On IndependentTraveler.com’s recent roundup of 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences, Naples lost out to neighbouring Sorrento, which offers a small slice of southern Italy without the bad attitude that Naples has (perhaps unfairly) become associated with.

But sometimes the most rewarding relationships are the ones that require the most work — and with this in mind, my travel companion and I set off for the south.

We boarded the high-speed train from Rome to Naples and sat down across from a surly-looking rail worker in mucky orange overalls who pretended to be asleep for most of the journey. We had plenty of time, while watching little terra cotta villages and impossible-to-reach green mountains fly past the window, to think about everything we knew about Naples.

Our guidebook was hysterical. Everyone we met in Naples, we were advised, was out to rob or shoot us. We should treat anyone approaching us as either a “hood” or a “swindler.” I think our guidebook had been written by a 1950′s cardsharp. I pictured him sweating in his zoot suit at the very thought of the mean Neapolitan streets, battering away at a typewriter in a dimly lit tenement building, waiting for the call from Bugsy.

Unfortunately, this seems to be where many people’s perceptions of Naples are stuck. But what else did I know about Naples?

It’s the third largest city in Italy — after Rome and Milan. It is also one of the poorest places in Europe, with an unemployment rate of almost 11 percent. Its Italian name, Napoli, is derived from the Latin Neapolis, meaning “New City.” Its historic city center, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, has long been renowned for its beauty, with generations of poets and artists coming from all over the world for inspiration. It also has an enduring and unfortunate association with organized crime.

Money Safety Tips for Travelers

One of my brother’s friends claims that upon visiting Naples for the first time, he witnessed a fatal shooting before he’d even left the train station.

This kind of thing has shaped Naples’ reputation — a reputation that gives visitors a kind of thrill. Naples has a sheen of danger that reassures travelers that here they are experiencing something real, something that hasn’t been laid on for them by the tourist board.

So what was Naples actually like?

The first thing we noticed was not the danger but the heat. Naples is definitely hotter than other major Italian cities like Rome. The streets seemed more humid, and despite the sun, there were fewer people wearing sunglasses. Everything, even the escalators, seemed to move at a slightly different pace.

We enjoyed the ramshackle mix of architecture and the blue sea in the bay. It is often said that Rome is Italy’s heart and that Naples is its soul. I can’t say whether you should be frightened of Naples or not, but I do know that you should visit it if you can. Keep an eye out, of course — as you would anywhere — but don’t go expecting trouble.

Trip Review: Naples

The guy in the orange overalls that had been sharing our table got his things together in a rucksack and made his way off the train into the crowded streets. He looked as though he was on his way home, along with the hundreds of other people who had made the hourlong commute from Rome. The city is eminently accessible — there really is no reason to be put off visiting.

Naples has a charm of its own, completely separate from that of bustling Rome and cosmopolitan Milan. Despite its distinct character, and despite what our guidebook may have had us believe, Naples is not so alien as to be impossible to negotiate. It is not, as it may sometimes feel when reading about it, a whole world apart.

For more trip ideas, see our 11 Best Italy Experiences.

– written by Josh Thomas

I’ve always had a long bucket list. At last count it was up to 19 experiences, and already I despaired of ever crossing them all off. Then IndependentTraveler.com launched a new series of destination slideshows featuring 10 to 13 amazing (and often little known) things to do in countries around the world. And bang, my bucket list jumped from 19 to 25 in a matter of minutes. Now I’ve had a sneak peek at two of our upcoming slideshows, covering Turkey and France, and I’m pretty sure that 25 is about to go up to 27.

Because “misery” loves company, I feel compelled to share those experiences that most resonated with me. Lock down your bucket lists before reading on or you may find your list of must-do travel experiences growing too.

matera cave hotelsCaving
Did you know you can spend the night in an ancient cave in Italy? Neither did I until I started researching unusual things to do in the country. But once I read about the Matera cave hotels I was hooked. The idea of staying in a cave some ancient human may have slept in (but also having indoor plumbing!) is amazing to me. And the photos of the hotels with low-hanging stone ceilings, claw-foot bathtubs and candle-lit niches … all I can say is, I’ve definitely got to get there someday.

See More Amazing Italy Experiences

costa rica jungle lodgeCall of the Jungle
I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m way more excited by the thought of staying in a jungle eco-lodge (or the aforementioned caves) than a posh, five-star hotel. And though I always knew Costa Rica was the destination for eco-travelers, I didn’t realize how funky and fun-sounding the lodges there are. Like the Pacuare Jungle Lodge, which you can only get to via a whitewater rafting trip or a gondola ride. Talk about the middle of the jungle!


Check Out Other Exotic Things to Do in Costa Rica

ireland bargingBarging Right In
I readily admit I’m a bit of a Celtophile. Ireland is one of my favorite countries. I’ve been there four times and intend to go back again (and again!). But I thought I was pretty familiar with all the country had to offer until I wrote the 12 Best Ireland Experiences slideshow. I had no idea you could travel the country’s waterways on your own! Imagine steering your own barge peacefully along the river from near Dublin down to the Waterford area. Read a book, wave to the locals walking along the water, stop in a village for a brew at the neighborhood pub. What a lovely way to see Ireland’s picturesque towns and villages!

saxon switzerland national parkForest Imaginings
I don’t know what it is about primeval forests that catch my fancy. There’s just something about the immensity of them — towering trees, lofty stone cliffs, darkness carpeting the forest floor punctured by bolts of sunlight — that makes me catch my breath. So learning about the Saxon Switzerland National Park in East Germany was an eye-opener. With its tall limestone needles, evergreen-carpeted cliff faces, and miles of hikable forests, meadows and fields, this national secret is now firmly planted on my bucket list.

Other Cool Germany Experiences to Check Out

england yurtMongolian England
They had me at yurt. Yes, I said yurt, and I don’t even have to trek all the way to Mongolia. No, I can jet across the pond, make my way to a scenic English forest — the kind Robin Hood could make a home in — spend the day horseback riding and sampling the cider at a local pub called the King’s Arms, and then spend the night in an authentic Mongolian yurt. How cool is that!

Discover 12 More Great England Experiences

Shh, Don’t Tell
We haven’t launched our Turkey and France slideshows yet, but I can tell you I’m very excited to learn more about sea kayaking over the ancient ruins of a Turkish city and exploring the Celtic history of France’s Brittany region. Stay tuned.

– written by Dori Saltzman

pompeiiAlong with our slideshow of the 11 Best Italy Experiences, this post is part of an ongoing effort to help independent travelers make unique memories in both popular and undiscovered destinations around the world.

I’d heard a lot about Pompeii before I went there. Some people called it a tourist trap. One of my colleagues actively avoided it on a hiking trip to Vesuvius. And, of course, I’d read about the plaster cast corpses that supposedly littered the city’s pavements like garbage bags on collection day.

I worried that the casts would be everywhere, as I’d seen on TV, still taking up the spaces that they’d claimed more than a thousand years ago. I wasn’t sure I was ready to meet any of them just yet. Pompeii was, however, just one of those places I felt I had to visit. To be in that part of Italy and ignore it would have been awkward.

As my companion and I inched closer to the ticket office in the sweltering heat, I kept looking at something gray and huddled that lay farther up the dusty road. It was quite a long way away, but I could see the crowds parting around it like water.

We paid for our tickets and began the walk up to the city’s walls. The thing lay right in the gateway to the city, humped over in defeat as though it had just failed to escape the ashy labyrinth that Pompeii’s streets must have become upon its destruction.

The thing was, in fact, a traffic bump.

And that was the closest I came to seeing a petrified corpse in Pompeii. TV had misrepresented the place. The ruins, the faded murals, the mosaics and the quietly lurking mountains were all very obvious. TV hadn’t lied about those. Vesuvius was there, looking kind of guilty and shy, but we saw no evidence of the casts. Instead of being scattered all over the city, they were all gathered in one place — somewhere that we, without a map, couldn’t find and, in the heat, weren’t inclined to investigate further.

Our favorite Hotels in Rome

I wondered what else I didn’t know. I looked at the small, terraced houses and wondered what it might have been like to live here. I thought about the heat, which was intense, and the sun, from which there was very little shelter. The whole city seemed to be raised up, and the surrounding mountains formed a ring under the blue sky, like we were under a huge magnifying lens.

Then I saw a lizard.

lizard pompeiiPompeii, it seems, is absolutely filled with small, vivid green, furtive-looking lizards. They lie around in the sun on someone’s old front steps, climb in and out of cracks in the crumbly walls, and run away when you try to take their picture.

I wondered whether the lizards would have been there when Pompeii was a thriving city. The climate hasn’t changed drastically since then, and neither has the terrain, so I imagine that they would have been. For some reason, this made me think about Pompeii in a very different way.

I imagined Pompeiian bakers opening their shops in the mornings and chasing the lizards out of their shops with brooms, or Pompeiian theater goers delicately shooing them out of their booths. I imagined Pompeiian people sitting, just as we were, with nothing much to do, simply watching the lizards lying out in the sun.

I wondered whether any of the lizards had been caught out in the blast and turned into little, lizard-shaped paperweights.

Like any city, Pompeii has parts that are popular with visitors, as well as quiet parts, surprising parts and parts that you wouldn’t expect. We didn’t see any of the famous casts, it’s true. But meeting the lizards made us feel a little closer to the people that must have once lived in Pompeii. They might have been a little part of normal people’s everyday lives — a part that’s, perhaps, too small for most people to consider.

For more ways to see Italy’s most popular destinations from a fresh perspective, check out our 11 Best Italy Experiences.

– written by Josh Thomas

spanish steps romeOn my last night in Rome, I thought I’d gone blind.

Fortunately, it turned out that I was just very tired. The muscles in my left eye wouldn’t dilate my pupil, leaving me unable to take in more light. It was as though my pupil were a heavy barn door and keeping it open was just too much work.

Rome is not, as it happens, a relaxing place to go on holiday.

It is not a place to go if you’re looking for a more sedate pace of life. It’s a place where architecture falls over itself like people squeezing onto an over-stuffed Metro train.

We did try to have a quiet day. It was raining, so we went to Babington’s Tea Rooms in search of Earl Grey. Earl Grey tea is rare in Rome. It’s seen as more of a medicinal curiosity than a delicious refreshment, so you’re more likely to find it at a pharmacy than a restaurant. As we sipped, we ate sugary cakes that made our teeth buzz like maladjusted transistor radios.

When we’d finished, it was still raining, so we crossed the bottom of the Spanish Steps to visit the Keats-Shelley House. It’s a tiny, intimate museum, filling the space that was the poet John Keats’ last residence before his death from tuberculosis in 1821. We hadn’t meant to have such an English day, but the museum was close and, as it turned out, an excellent find.

Our Favorite Spots to Stay in Rome

As we rang the bell, we noticed an ugly knot of people gathered up, like a fist, around the column in the square. They were protestors. The armed guards outside the Spanish embassy looked nervous.

rome crowdWe’d settled into a dark room to watch a short film about the Romantic poets in Rome when a volley of shots outside drew everyone out of their seats and to the nearest window. So much for our quiet day.

We’d seen lots of protests during that week in April. A few days before, the president had been hastily sworn in for a second term to break the political deadlock that had mired the country for the last few years. Police and press crowded the streets, and jets flew tricolor smoke overhead.

Many Romans saw this as more of the same kind of corruption and cronyism that has caused many to lose faith in their political representatives. They felt dissatisfied with the slow pace of change, and the resurgent influence of Silvio Berlusconi — a man seen by many as an overt criminal — caused tempers to fray. There were blockades of expensive shops and hotels. Everyone wanted to make their opinion heard in ways that the traditional electoral system didn’t necessarily allow. Earlier in our trip we’d sat in a square in Trastavere watching some anti-fascists protesting by playing the accordion. (Didn’t you know? Accordion music is like a stake through the heart for fascists.)

Now, at the museum, we soon learned that the “shots” we’d heard had, in fact, been nothing more than a string of firecrackers that someone had let off under one of Keats’ windows.

The museum’s curator seemed sad. “It’s a vibrant city for sure,” she said, “but there’s a real dissatisfaction at the moment.”

walk rome cobblestonesFrom the outside, it looks impossible for Berlusconi to come back, but within Italy there is a lot of support — and now that he’s gaining power again, people are wondering whether anything they do will ever change anything.

We left Rome in a state of flux, but that’s nothing new. Rome thrives on change, on excitement, new ideas and influences. It is a city that has successfully reinvented itself over and over again throughout the centuries. Even when things seem hopeless, you get the feeling that a change could be just around the corner.

11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

– written by Josh Thomas

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

This week’s shot was taken in colorful Burano, an island in Venice.

burano venice italy colorful


Photos: 11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Venice Hotels

– written by Sarah Schlichter

burano islandMy parents just returned from two weeks in Italy. I visited them a day after they got back. In two hours, they only got through telling me about Venice, Florence and the Amalfi Coast (about half of their trip). They loved it all, but both got the most excited when talking to me about their day trip to the Amalfi Coast with their guide, Carmine.

Carmine is from Sorrento; he knows everyone in Sorrento and around the Amalfi Coast. His connections and knowledge of the area enabled him to bypass long lines of bus traffic, take my parents to lesser known — but equally lovely and less crowded — sites and give them real insights into local life.

11 Best Italy Experiences

So many of those insights came just by getting to know Carmine. After only one day, my parents knew all about him. They knew that all his siblings went to university for tourism, but that Carmine isn’t a school kind of person so he taught himself everything by reading. They met his boyhood friends, Mario and Luigi, who run a hotel in Sorrento. They could rattle off the names of countries Carmine has been to, how he wants to expand his guide business and how he’s having girl problems. The point is, when all was said and done, they couldn’t say enough good things about him and the memorable day he gave them on the Amalfi Coast.

Carmine isn’t the first great guide my parents have had. When I was 21, we took a family trip to Israel. That was 19 years ago, but I still remember our guide, Ron. It was from him that I learned the nickname native-born Israelis give themselves: sabra, a fruit that’s hard and prickly on the outside but soft inside. Ron took us to so many amazing places, told us the history of every place we went, introduced us to locals and even took us, very briefly, into the West Bank.

A great guide can make all the difference when traveling. Sure, you can take yourself around, using a guidebook and some Internet research, but without the color, knowledge and passion a local guide brings to the experience, it’s just sightseeing.

When Do You Need a Tour Guide?

Have you ever had a truly great guide? Where were you and what made him or her so wonderful?

– written by Dori Saltzman

Did you know that the first Wednesday in April has been declared National Walking Day by the American Heart Association? Well, now you do.

While the AHA aims to encourage more physical activity among those of us who spend hours upon hours sitting at a desk, we couldn’t resist putting a travel spin on the day — because let’s face it, most of us walk much more when we’re off exploring a new place than we do when we’re at home.

We recently asked our followers on Facebook to name their favorite city or neighborhood for strolling — and the list of places we got in response would inspire just about anyone to hit the pavement. Following are a few of our favorites:

“Assisi, Italy … peaceful, quaint & beautiful!” — Tracey Pino

assisi italy church



New York City — especially Broadway from Columbus Circle to the 80′s” — Beth Glass

central park new york city dog walking



“Old City in Jerusalem” — Rose Kemps

old city jerusalem souq souk market



“Definitely Sydney — from the Rocks all the way around to the Botanical Gardens” — Gill Harvey

botanical gardens sydney



What Not to Do in a New City

Which city tops your list of favorite places to walk?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s shot is of the cliff-side village of Manarola in Cinque Terre, Italy.

manarola cinque terre italy colorful


11 Unforgettable Italy Experiences

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Our Favorite Hotels in Rome

– written by Sarah Schlichter