Pisa Attractions - Whale Watching with Dinosaurs.

The World's Oldest Natural History Museum is a Hidden Gem.

The Answer to: What to Do in Tuscany with Children or on a Rainy Day in Pisa.

A Top Attraction for a Visit Around Pisa - Surrounded by Tuscan Countryside.

Civilization made a giant leap one day in 1591 when a light bulb glowed in the head of Grand Duke Ferdinado I de' Medici of Tuscany. Like a parent teaching a child, this Medici ruler had the noble idea to help ordinary citizens learn about the world while fostering the advance of knowledge. So bright was his light bulb, that it shines still as the Museo Storia Naturale (Museum of Natural History) just 10 km. outside Pisa in Calci.

Pisa Museum of Natural History Mammalian Department diorama of Early Man
Mammalian Department diorama at the Pisa Museum of Natural History. Strutting your stuff never gets old. 
This excellent museum primarily uses the good old tried-and-true, get-up-close-to-the-glass-case method, and it still works wonderfully. There are a some dioramas for the nostalgic, and a few interactive displays for the moderns, but most of the collections wait patiently for your curiosity. The museum is divided into twelve departments so there are too many attractions for our humble article – we'll just try to motivate you to see for yourself.

This Museum is one of the hidden places of Pisa. You won't be crowded and it offers a nice change of pace and subject if your feet are protesting and Renaissance paintings are all starting to look alike. FYI, it's so unknown that only 5% of TripAdvisor reviews are in English yet all the reviews are Good or Excellent. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, the town of Calci is pleasant and has a knockout Romanesque church (see below).

Charterhouse (Certosa) of Calci.
CC by Marco Botta Chinnici
The Museum of Natural History was organized by 1595 from diverse existing Medici collections, making it one of the world's oldest museums. It was created as part of the University of Pisa and located at the even older Pisa Botanical Garden – which also still exists near the Leaning Tower. In 1981, the Museum was moved to a wing of the gigantic Carthusian monastery building in Calci, 10 km away.

The Museum has two separately ticketed sections – 1.) The Core Natural History Exhibits and 2.) The Aquarium & Special Exhibits. Our story describes our visit to some departments in both sections. We saved some sections for our next visit.

The Museum's displays are generally English friendly, and the building is quite well adapted for visitors with mobility issues.  Below are sections on TICKETS  and GETTING THERE .

The Carthusian Monastery (a Charterhouse in English, Certosa in Italian) is a separate and interesting Museum well worth a visit. Website: Museo Nazionale della Certosa Calci (IT)  or @certosadicalci on Facebook.  You can download an app named MusAR (IT) to guide you. Even though the app is in Italian, there are a lot of graphics which makes it helpful if you don't parla bene.


The Whale Gallery at the historic Pisa Natural History Museum
The Whale Gallery at the historic Pisa Natural History Museum. One of Europe's largest collection of whale skeletons.

This is Italy's largest collection of whale skeletons. Many are displayed full-sized in a long purpose-built hall, and they are really impressive. You can walk right up to some of them, under some others, and actually inside one. There are collateral displays to help advance your understanding of our blubbery brothers. You will never take whales for granted again.

The Best Tour of Rome's Colosseum Reviewed.

Classic facade of the Roman Colosseum
Today's iconic facade of the Roman Colosseum is actually the original interior facade. The original outer wall was 100,000
 cubic meters of  travertine stone. That stone was later used to build many Roman churches and several  palaces of Popes. 

Is a Colosseum Guided Tour Worth it?

Read our Third Ring Colosseum Tour Review with Tips and Advice. 

Where to Get the Best Photos.   Can We Skip the Line?   Colosseum Guided Tours in English.

Should You Book a Guided Tour or Tour on Your Own?
We have done both, and we believe that a Colosseum tour / Roman Forum tour is the best choice. We visited the Colosseum and the Roman Forum by ourselves on our first trip to Italy in 1984. We enjoyed it a lot, and it was easier then – inexpensive and no security. However, we now know that we missed a lot of the best stuff, and our little guide book skipped over many features that would have really interested us. Both of the sites are just too packed with layers of history and ancient buildings to be enjoyed fully without help.

The arena floor was wood covered with sand, 270 by 160 feet. Underneath were these walls of the hypogeum, a two-story underground of tunnels connecting training rooms for gladiators, cages for wild animals, and storage rooms hidden under the arena floor. Elaborate machines lifted scenery and animals into the arena. Photo from 2nd level with lens at 55mm.

Switch to a new millennium. In May, 2018, we went on a guided tour* of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and we were blown away by the wonderful experience. Not only were the lines at entry and the security check made easy, but the sites themselves came alive. Our guide presented fascinating history, facts, and anecdotes at every stop, and answered every question we had. It was very much like we had never been there before. Self-guiding is a fun way to see many places, but not the Colosseum and the Forum.

Which Tour - Top Level, Underground or At Night?
Rome Colosseum has good views from Level 1, but it's crowded sometimes.
Access to Level 1 is included with general admission. The
views are good but sometimes you'll have to wait for a spot.
We booked our tour with the The Roman Guy. Founded by a young American - Sean Finelli - just 10 years ago, we selected them because they have a strong customer-oriented attitude and consistently good reputation.  For the Colosseum we chose the 3 hour Restricted Areas Belvedere Top Levels Colosseum Tour which also includes a Roman Forum tour. We especially wanted the special viewpoints for better photos and this tour includes the restricted access third level - a/k/a the Belvedere.  Our second, back-up choice was the best-selling Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill.  The group was manageably small – about 15 people, and we each had an earpiece receiver for easy listening. Our guide was Giulia and she was hands down the best guide we’ve ever had in decades of travel. This smart Roman has several advanced degrees in history and was so knowledgeable she never needed to use a script. She is also friendly, unflappable, and dedicated to seeing that we had a good experience. Which we certainly did.

TIP:  If you book a tour with The Roman Guy, use the DISCOUNT PROMO CODE shown below.

Our Top Levels Colosseum Tour Described.
Rome tour guide with Colosseum in background.
Our Top Level guide Giulia making
sense of the Colosseum's history.
The Colosseum. After we met outside the Colosseum, Giulia guided us through the entrance lines and security with just a small wait. FYI, there's no way to truly Skip-the-Line at the Colosseum. The best you can do is take a guided tour where the wait time to enter and get through security is minimized. Our tour was a morning affair, which we strongly recommend because the longest waits occur when the 3,000 person maximum capacity is reached and new entries are paced – often around late morning.

Once inside, our Roman Guy guide, Giulia, gave us a brief but fascinating architectural and historical overview of the Colosseum so we'd know what we're seeing. Things like where it got it's name (it's not the building size), why there are holes in the walls, why was it preserved at all, how the seats were allocated, what is the connection between the Colosseum and the word 'fornication'. Did you know that the present exterior is actually an interior wall – the original exterior wall is gone – 100,000 cubic meters of stone! Did you know there's no evidence any Christians were martyred here? Freshly and smugly knowledgeable, we then headed up the steep entrance ramp ( a vomitorium in Latin ) to the first ring. 

Italian Food Specialties - The Tramezzino Sandwich

One of the World's Great Sandwiches is Celebrated in Cremona.

The English Tea Sandwich inspired This Edible Palette for Gourmets and Food Artists.

Tramezzino sandwich at Ugo Grill, Cremona with bresaola, caprino, rucola.
The Marcolino Tramezzino at Ugo's in Cremona. Bresaola, caprino, rucola.
Photo Courtesy of Ugo Grill.
Who doesn’t want a delicate and delicious English tea sandwich? I do, you do, pretty much everyone in northern Italy does. The Italian offspring born of this tea sandwich desire is the famous tramezzino. In 1925, Gabriele D’Annuzio invented these sandwiches as an inspired variation on the English version. He worked at Caffè Mulassano in Torino (still there) and he really knew the hungry inclinations of the Torinesi.

So why should a traveler care about a sandwich? Long lunches in Italy are a pleasure, and reason enough to travel to Italy.  But after a few days of long lunches and dinners it can be a relief to have a meal that isn't such a big deal. But a plain ham sandwich isn't an experience you'll remember dreamily in the depths of winter.  This is the time for tramezzini - simple, quick, authentically Italian, delicious and the food of dreams. Can you even imagine prosciutto, shrimp, and cream of asparagus.  How about a gorgonzola and salami tramezzini with mayo?

Cremona Duomo (Cathedral) and the Torazzo Bell Tower.
Cremona Duomo and the Torazzo Bell Tower.
Duomo begun 1107 AD, the Tower finished 1309.

The classic tramezzino is a small delicate sandwich made with two slices of soft white bread, crustless, spread with mayonnaise and filled with any combination of ingredients that satisfies, challenges, or amuses a needy epicure. Of course the concept has evolved and in some places now you might see the name tramezzino applied and/or misapplied to rolled-up sandwiches or toasted creations, and they might be the size of a matchbox or a multilayered affair half the size of a cigar box. Let others do what they may, here we are speaking of the classic version as celebrated in Cremona. They are hand-sized and the filling-to-bread ratio optimizes the taste, not the appearance.

Tramezzino is a diminutive of the word tramezzo, and it’s originally an architectural term meaning the division between spaces. So if you have an empty space involving your stomach between breakfast and lunch, here’s your snack. Today, it’s also used as an inexpensive, infinitely variable, and delicious lunch, an anytime bar snack, or a consolation for Hungarian train passengers (true).

Below Mighty Massa Castle, a Perfect Tordelli Waits.

Tordelli are Tortelli are Tortelloni.  Enjoy this Many Named Pasta at a Tordellaria. 

Eat Massa's Unique Piatto Tipico in an Authentic Local Restaurant.

Malaspina Castle, Massa, Tuscany.
Malaspina Castle still watches over  Massa, Tuscany. CC by Richard  Avery.
At the northern end of Tuscany, hard by the sea and the Apuan Alps, is an interesting provincial capital with a crazy name - Massa. It is full of history and busy people and stone industry enterprise, and has its own lovely beach community. Although some of Massa's historic areas were damaged in WWII bombing, much of the historic center, and one of the largest and fiercest castles in Italy survived. The Castle of the Malaspina, established before 1,000 AD, and first mentioned in documents in 1164, is still powerful looking and fearsome. The Malaspina ruled the area known as Lunigiana for centuries and competed fist-to-fist with all who challenged.   It's fascinating to visit the castle, and you can tour it on weekend and holiday afternoons.  Generally the tours are in Italian, but we've experienced very helpful guides who recognize perplexity in an instant. For hours and fees, see: Castello Malaspina Massa

Dining room at Abacab Ristorante & Tordelleria, Massa, Tuscany, Italy.
Dining room at Abacab Ristorante & Tordelleria, Massa, Tuscany, Italy.

If you'll be visiting the castle or are shopping in Massa, of course you'd like to know and try some of the food specialties. Well, there's a standout. Tordelli alla massese is rightly famous and it's delicious. It's made with a sturdy egg pasta, a rich and satisfying filling with a 'Massese' taste, and a sauce that's like the country cousin of bolognese: more robust, more sincere, more down to earth. The dish is so much a part of Massa that there are variations on the basic tradition, and there are both shops and restaurants devoted to tordelli.

Italian Time Travel from Tuscan to Etruscan

A Weekend Trip  in Tuscany - Piombino and Populonia.

Midway from Rome to Florence - Visit & Discover the Largest Etruscan City on the Sea.

Silver amphora of Baratti in the Museum of Populonia in Piombino
Detail of the pure silver amphora of Baratti in the Museum of Populonia in Piombino.  One of the finest relics
of Etruscan civilization ever found, it weighs 16 pounds. It was recovered by a Livorno fisherman in 1968. 

We think of the Roman Empire as one of the wellsprings of civilization, as an ancient and powerful state that enabled the rise of western culture. But before Roman times, when the Etruscans were in charge, Rome was a farming village, low on the scale of desirable property. The Etruscan civilization flourished for over half a millennium, from about 900 BC to 300 BC, and left intriguing traces of industry and wealth in many of their ancient centers. Populonia, now a part of Piombino, was once a busy center for Etruscan trade, and was renowned as a smelting facility, since deposits of iron, copper and tin were plentiful in the region. They minted coins, worked metal, grew wine, and traded extensively with Sardinia. Funeral customs were important to the Etruscans, and they buried their dead with painstaking care in special buildings with many personal effects.

Old lights on the way to the sea. Piombino.
Down to the sea. Piombino.

You can have a wonderful introduction to this civilization by visiting Piombino, a rather small (35,000) city in Tuscany just south of Livorno. Most visitors hurry through Piombino on their way the the island of Elba on the ferry from Piombino. That would be a shame - the town is well worth a stop. It makes a great weekend jaunt, and also an excellent stopover when traveling between Rome and Florence. It is packed with interest for history buffs and perfect for kids who are intrigued by hikes, tombs, rocks, or metals. The complete trip really needs a car, although rail connections are possible to Piombino.

Old town Piombino.   Corso Emanuele.
Old town Piombino.   Corso Emanuele.

The historic center of Piombino is small and full of one way streets, but parking is relatively easy on the perimeter, and after you settle in, most of the parts of town you'll want to see are in pedestrian zones. The small cobbled main street winds through the old town to the sea, where there is a walk along the water and a fabulous view of the surrounding islands that make up the Tuscan archipelago, including Elba. The street is lined with restaurants featuring – what else? – fresh seafood. We had lunch at Osteria Mamma Carla, where the staff are friendly, the octopus salad is wonderful and the spaghetti allo scoglio delicious.

Roman mosiac with squid in sunglasses. Museum of Populonia, Piombino.
Roman mosiac with a squid in sunglasses. Museum of Populonia, Piombino.. 
When you're tired of walking around town, it's time for the famous museum, the Museo Archeologico del Territorio di Populonia. We visited in late October, in fact on the last weekend that the site was open to the public, and hours were somewhat restricted – it's best to check before you plan your trip Archaeological Museum of Populonia. It's an easy walk out to the museum from the center of town. The museum itself is beautifully designed, and moves you along through the history of the area. It starts before history began and moves through the bronze age to Etruscans and Romans. The variety of exhibits insures something for everyone. There are early Etruscan arrowheads and spears, which look a lot like rocks to the uninitiated, explanations of early mining, dioramas with hairy people and gorgeous mosaics and an exquisite silver amphora that is as sophisticated as it is lovely. It takes a few hours to wend your way through the exhibits, it's quiet and subtly lit, you'll have a great time.

Every Answer You Need for Your Cinque Terre Trip.

Your Visit Made Easy with Our Travel Guide to Cinque Terre.

 Local Experts Answer 103 FAQ's.

Your fellow Italian travelers give clear answers on every Cinque Terre subject.

Get detailed info from experienced travelers on every aspect of the Cinque Terre. When to Go, How Long to Stay, What to See, Best Villages, Avoiding Crowds, Best Guidebook, Parking for the Cinque Terre, etc. We are Mike and Martha from Boston & Italy and we explain more about ourselves at the bottom of the article.
The Cinque Terre Village of Manarola in Twilight
The Cinque Terre Village of Manarola in Twilight          CC by Lorraine Tan

You will have a great visit to Italy's Cinque Terre region. We will also help you decide if you should get a Cinque Terre Card;  which food specialties to eat; find your favorite activity; allay mobility concerns; what to do with children; and even decide what to do if it rains.

You should know that, despite erroneous past news reports, there are no restrictions or quotas or limits or required reservations for travelers to the Cinque Terre.  To insure an enjoyable experience,  the total number of hikers on a few sections of most popular Blue trail is limited to 500 (beginning in June, 2018). The Park says this restriction will affect only peak times on peak days.

This first article does not cover Accommodation, Travel To & From Cinque Terre, or Hiking specifics. Stay tuned: we are writing more now.

Category Index

Click the Section Title to Jump Down

What are the Cinque Terre       Questions about the villages, the land, the fame, the trails.
When to Go       .                        Weather, the temperatures, the crowds, off season, winter.
How Long to Stay                      One day, Four Days,Ten Days.
Cinque Terre Card & App         Get the CT Card & the new Official Cinque Terre Park Hiking App.
What to See & Do                      Sights by Town, Activities, for you, for kids, for teens, in the rain.
What & Where to Eat                 Food specialties, Wine, Restaurant Suggestions,Veggie, Gluten-free.
Information Questions              Guidebooks, Maps, Language, Tour Guides, Websites.
Metaphysical Questions            The good, the bad, the missing, expense, crime, safety, gay-friendly.
Cell phone, wifi, internet           Signal availability, apps, wifi & getting advice.
Cars, Parking, Car Hire             Driving advice, ZTL, dropping off & getting a rental car, parking advice.
Limited Mobility Issues             Stairs, Access, Other lovely level Ligurian Towns.

Click Liguria / Cinque Terre / Portofino Map to see the Cinque Terre towns & nearby Base towns.

What are the Cinque Terre?

Cinque Terre hiking in May. Corniglia from trail 6D
Corniglia from trail 6d  near Volastra in mid May
The Cinque Terre are five small villages and the surrounding coastline in the region of Liguria, Italy. Because land access was (and is) difficult, there has been little modern development. As a result the dramatic, rugged coastline and the five little towns have a timeless romantic aspect. The Cinque Terre along with Portovenere is an Italian National Park and a United Nations' UNESCO World Heritage Site. The five villages have become extremely popular with tourists of every nation, and the Cinque Terre Park is a famous hiking destination thanks to its trails over the stunning seaside hills and through vineyards.

What are the five villages of the Cinque Terre?

  • Monterosso The largest village with the most services
  • Vernazza   The most charming village but often crowded
  • Manarola  Very photogenic with a tiny harbor
  •  Corniglia  High above the sea with the best views
  • Riomaggiore  Characteristic and closest to La Spezia.
The historic neighboring town of Portovenere and nearby offshore islands including
Palmaria are also included in the Cinque Terre UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. 

Which Cinque Terre village is the best?

  • Vernazza is the prettiest and the cutest and the most evocative. 
  • Manarola is the next prettiest and at its best at sunset. 
  • Monterosso has the best accommodations and the best beach.
  •  Corniglia has the best views. 
  • Riomaggiore has characteristic towering buildings .
 We think the result of a visitor popularity contest for Best Village results would be:
 1.) Vernazza  2.) Manarola  3.) Corniglia  4.) Monterosso  5.) Riomaggiore
Plan to Enjoy.
You can have a great trip to the Cinque Terre, but you really must learn and plan. The numbers tell you why. There are six million visitors each year to these five small towns which have a total of 4,000 residents - more visitors per resident than Venice.* We have specific advice below to help you minimize the crowds you encounter. We are not travel writers, we are fellow travelers, so the answers here are intentionally frank. Bear in mind that some of our answers will reflect our orientation toward visitors coming to Italy from abroad on a trip of one to four weeks. We are recently retired photo editors Mike and Martha from Boston and we explain more about ourselves below.

What are the Cinque Terre villages like?

Monterosso  The largest little town with a resort feel & the most restaurants and hotels. The only real beach in CT, some parking & the best train connections. There's an old town and a new section and it's fairly level. Monterosso has the most service and most activity in the Cinque Terre.   What's It Like? - Our Monterosso Photo Gallery Link