The Irish love affair with Italy is centuries old and it all begins in Rome, so the best advice for your first visit to is also the oldest: do as the Romans do.
There's good reason, Rome has been a seat of politics and culture for over two millennia and it has evolved a particular way of seeing and doing things.
Irish people can enjoy a cultural shorthand with the Italians (perhaps especially with the Romans) that can lead you into some lively conversations, but it's well to remember we are temperamentally very different in often quite striking ways.
The Roman influence on Ireland is well known, but what about the Irish presence in Rome?
Did you know that Hugh O'Neill, the 16th century Earl of Tyrone, is buried in a place of high honor there in the San Pietro church in Montorio, overlooking the seven hills?
Did you know that Irish people still arrive daily to pay their respects to him? (O'Neil died in 1616, the same year as William Shakespeare, so this is not exactly ancient history.)
San Pietro boasts one of the most beguiling vantage points from which to view the city, it's a beautiful spot for our last Irish High King to await his eternal reward.
Speaking of eternal rewards, did you know that arguably the best pint of Guinness in Europe (outside Ireland) is poured at Trinity College Pub, located in the historic center of the city, just steps away from Roman-era wonders like the Pantheon and more modern attractions like the Trevi Fountain?
They also serve fantastic Irish-style meals that combine affordability and taste, so this may become a favored hangout whilst you're in the Eternal City.
To really get to know Rome, I recommend a stay in one of its grand hotels and none come grander than the Dorchester brand Hotel Eden. This legendary hotel, located in the upscale Ludovisi district, is what the Romans must mean when they talk of the 'dolce vita.'
A warm Italian greeting awaits at the Eden, one of the best-run hotels in the world. The exceptional team behind this flawless venue operates the place as though it were a Roman embassy (and in a real sense it is). Beautifully appointed rooms, sumptuous bedding, fine dining, sweeping views of the city from the elegant La Terrazza and Il Giardino Ristorante on the top floor, all make for a completely unforgettable first-time or repeat visit.
“The message we are sending is that Rome is back,” Fabiola Balduzzi, Director of Communications, tells IrishCentral. “Italy is safe. We have overcome challenging times. And at the Eden we are back with a new general manager Mirko Cattini.”
Not one to rest on its luxurious laurels, the Eden has been busy working on creating special new experiences for its guests (among whom count Madonna, Gaga, Streep, and Zendaya).
“We like to call ourselves your home in Rome so for us it is very important to give you the key to Rome and to the wider region,” Balduzzi continues.
“That's why we have teamed up with some of the city's best museums to go behind the scenes and give you private access to areas that are not normally accessible, to make closer contact with the artworks and get to know the artists better. It's something new that we would like to offer our guests and something they can not come by anywhere else.”
At the Eden, great service is the watchword. “We like to really look after our guests and to welcome back our return guests in a way that is very friendly. We take so much care with the relationship with our guests. We want to help them live the Italian way of life.”
“For us, visits to places like Roscioli is a must when you are in Rome. We are very pleased when guests appreciate our city culture because for us food really is everything.
"We try to help our guests live the best of Rome, to live it through our eyes but also to develop our relationship with you and with the local community, to sustain this kind of relationship.”
Between tours and dinners, you can relax at The Eden Spa, a discreet hideaway on the ground floor that will spoil you with deep tissue, Swedish, hot stone, reflexology, or back massage treatments.
Facials, steam baths, manicures, pedicures, waxing, and more are all available to restore your spirits after a long flight and they even boast an in-house blow dry treatment – the first of its kind in Rome – for the glamorous who want to look their best before parties or special occasions.
In a word, the Hotel Eden is special, even by the elevated standards of Rome's five-star hotels. It's a unique mixture of grand hotel, Hollywood watering hole, rock star sanctuary, and Roman holiday. Or to put it another way, it's your home in Rome. You may never leave – if you're lucky.
The Singer Palace Hotel
Another truly unique hotel for a first Roman visit combines art deco stylings with Italian elan. The Hotel Singer Palace was named after the former Roman headquarters of the famous sewing machine company.
But in 2018, the Visocchi family converted the building into a chic boutique hotel, adding contemporary touches to the historic location, which is located in the heart of Rome (and next door to Trinity College Pub).
Within a short walk, you'll reach all the signature attractions like the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Venezia, Spanish Steps, and the Colosseum.
Boasting 30 luxurious rooms, including 10 suites and 10 connecting solutions, it's a stunning venue from which to explore the city. Breakfasts are substantial and served in a rooftop dining room that overlooks the city.
Expect cloud-soft bedding, luxurious toiletries, plush towels, and ample robes with a turn-down service that is unobtrusive but thorough.
Every detail of your stay has clearly been anticipated and every effort is made to make it memorable and uniquely comfortable. Staff go out of their way to be welcoming and thoughtful at all times, and in a city where pronto is used as a greeting, you'll often be glad of it.
“We opened in 2018,” explains Rosa Visocchi, a partner of the hotel. “Most of our clients are American and we would like them to know that the Singer Palace is not just another five-star boutique hotel, there's also a history and family of experienced hoteliers behind it that makes a stay here very special.”
That experience is best seen in designer Elisa Ferrari's stunning interior designs, which combine relaxation with high luxury, featuring fresh flowers, scented candles, parquet floors, and bold textile rugs.
Oversize sofas and large armchairs take the experience to the next level and the bathrooms are among the best appointed I've ever seen (Ortigia's Sicilian Black Amber scent makes each visit a sensory delight).
The cocktail bar on the roof (Jim's Bar) and the gourmet restaurant (La Terrazze) are great places to catch the Roman sunset, buoyed by the locally sourced dishes and the intoxicating creations of a master mixologist.
Your first visit to The Singer Palace will be the start of a Roman affair, trust me.
The Key to Venice
The secret to Venice is not to stay there. I know, this seems counterintuitive, but once you've been to La Serenissima you'll discover its satellite districts like Lido are really the perfect mix of closeness to - and blessed relief from – all the thronging crowds, the inflated tourist prices, and the taxing pace of the city.
Lido - or to give it its full name Lido di Venezia – is chic, welcoming, affordable and just a scenic Vaporetto ride away from the main island, but distinct enough to have its own character and charms.
A barrier island in the Venetian lagoon, Lido is really a long narrow island and half of its sea-facing side feature pristine beaches (the warm Adriatic sea may turn out to be a highlight of your trip).
Boasting eye-catching 19th-century villas built in the Liberty style (the Italian version of Art Nouveau), Lido is world famous for being the seat of the Venice Film Festival as well as for its cinematic grand hotels, such as the gorgeous Hotel Ausonia Hungaria.
I made this hotel discovery quite by accident. Frustrated by the ballooning prices of the overbooked hotels in the summer season, I cast about for a realistic and welcoming alternative and that's how the five-star Hotel Ausonia Hungaria pinged on my radar.
Opened in 1907, in its early days, the hotel was patronized by the high society of the then Kingdom of Hungary and you can feel the history when you walk through its front doors.
That's not to say that it's a stuffy museum piece. On the contrary, the secret of this imposing building is that it's actually hugely welcoming and unusually fun to stay in.
Renovated in 2019, the rooms are a delightful mix of luxury and pop art style. Call it space age meets unexpectedly camp modernist touches. It says Palm Springs as much as it does the Golden Age and I for one was delighted by this lively mix of high art and chill vibes.
Not many check-in managers have you in stitches, but the front-of-house manager understood I was bone tired, understood I wanted an upgrade if possible, and understood I needed it now before I even had the words out.
“You are a very important person,” he said with more than a hint of mischief, allowing me to realize I had found the best-run hotel for miles.
On the way to my room, he gave me the tour, with historical details and lots of local color. I have checked into hotels from Derry to Tokyo, but this was one of the funniest and most memorable ever. It was like being greeted by M. Gustave in Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel." I was beyond charmed, a thing now almost unheard of in modern travel.
Many travelers still pass on the Lido, which seems absurd to me, since it's an undisputed jewel of the wider region and The Hotel Ausonia Hungaria is the perfect location for a first or repeat stay.
Quite literally, it's five minutes from the front door to the Vaporettos, and the station is the most picturesque in Venice and a perfect spot to catch the sunset. In fact, each evening I was also treated to the awe-inspiring sight of the International Space Station flying over the lagoon above.
If you're recuperating from a long flight the hotel features the Lanna Gaia wellness center, which includes a sauna, Turkish bath, and a range of massages. (The staff are graduates of the prestigious Lanna Thai Academy in Thailand).
The biggest pool in Lido is located on the ground floor and the best beaches are a walk away, so it's all covered. Most people don't think of Venice as a beach town but you really should.
Meanwhile, the hotel restaurant specializes in traditional Italian cuisine and throughout the summer guests can enjoy drinks on the terrace by the bar or on their spectacular roof terrace.
Other key notes: the king beds are superb, the air conditioning is robust, the waterfall showers are deluxe, and the turndown service is top-notch. The Hotel Ausonia Hungaria is a perfect Venice getaway - and a getaway from Venice – and a sumptuous, sexy spot.
The Key to Florence
Florence is possibly the most perfect vacation spot in the world. Its historic center is the cradle of the Italian Renaissance and you can see and feel its august history on every street corner.
But it's also a place where - if you're not in the know - you can have a less-than-stellar experience in terms of hotels, dining, sightseeing, shopping, and, yes, tourist scams.
The solution is to take Oscar Wilde's advice and just start at the top and then sit on it. First of all, you should book a grand hotel and ask for a room with a view. If it's your first time in the city, it's mandatory to have either a view of the Arno river or of Brunelleschi's masterful Duomo Cathedral.
For that, I suggest booking the St. Regis Florence (a historic palace also designed by Brunelleschi), ideally situated along the Arno river.
Here you'll experience five-star luxury, exquisite bedding, Acqua di Parma bath amenities, plush bathrobes, feather soft slippers, and a robust breakfast to start your day right.
A Marriott hotel, your Bonvoy membership provides ample perks and reassures you that the experience will be top-class from arrival to departure. Location is a strong point since you'll be closer to the good dining options favored by the locals.
Another superb choice for a first-time or repeat visit to Florence is the fabulous Antica Torre Boutique Hotel (literally the Old Tower).
Located on the city's smartest street on Via Tornabuoni, it's a medieval tower with a stunning rooftop view of the Duomo and the wider city.
The famous Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery are a block away, but after a long flight, you'll be especially glad of the imposing interiors, chic rooms with designer furnishings, and the modern, cloud-soft beds.
With 24 rooms spread out across two adjoining palazzi, one medieval and the other 17th-century, both feature traditional marble bathrooms with every modern touch (like soothing waterfall showers).
The two rooftop terraces (featuring a wine and spirits bar) look out over the Duomo and the river all the way to the Pitti Palace and San Miniato al Monte.
Chic without being showy and so discreet you might miss it from the street, the Antica Torre is the venue for in-the-know travelers who appreciate luxury and good value wrapped up in an unbeatable location.
For a first-rate dinner, I suggest taking the eight-minute walk to Alla Vecchia Bettola, where the penne vodka is the best I've ever tasted and the pork chop is worth walking all day for.
But for a more price-conscious but still first-rate dining experience, I heartily recommend Pitti Express, a far-from-the-tourist-traps gem that features the best homemade lasagna and tiramisu that I had in Italy.
If you're ever feeling homesick for Ireland (after all that pasta and pizza you may start to) or if you would just like a perfect pint of Guinness expertly poured, it has to be Fitzpatrick's Irish Pub.
Run by James and Sarah, an Irish and Italian husband and wife, their dream was to open a real Irish pub in the heart of Florence and sin é, they have succeeded. Tell them I sent you.