When I started researching my trip to Italy, I was kind of shocked by how little information there was about accommodations. I’m the sort of person who likes to read between 10-20 reviews of a hotel or B&B minimum before I book my stay, and I found that this was essentially impossible when it came to many of the locations I was considering.
The Gastrognome and I planned a loop focused on eating in the Emilia-Romagna region for our 10-day trip. Because I had bought our plane tickets during a flash sale with zero knowledge about traveling in Italy, we were flying in and out of Rome — something I would definitely change on my next trip! So, we’d start in Rome, then travel by train to Bologna, Parma, and Florence before catching a high-speed train to Fiumicino Airport.
I procrastinated planning for this trip like I’ve never done in my life. It’s not that I wasn’t excited, it was just that Italy seemed daunting. We’d traveled to France and Ireland in the past year, and both of those were relatively easy to plan. Within 48 hours I had accommodations, itineraries, and a few dinner reservations squared away for each of those trips.
Not so with Italy. Every time I opened my laptop to start researching, I hit a wall of identical blog posts that all talked about skip-the-line tickets for the Colosseum and little else. So this will, decidedly, not be that blog post. Nor will it be the comprehensive guide to cute boutique hotels that I wish I had when I was planning my trip. Instead, it will be a thorough review of the places we stayed in the cities we visited, so you can make an informed decision if you’re following a path like ours!
Rome: Princeps Boutique Hotel
This was hands-down, no-questions, sort-of-spoiled-everything-else our favorite place. It also took me for-ever to find it. Looking for a hotel in Rome is sort of like looking for a hotel in the middle of Times Square — everything is overpriced and nothing is where you want to be. Since we were only going to be spending one full day and two “travel days” in Rome, I opted for a location close to Termini station.
Almost everything I read about Italy screamed: stay away from Termini station and the surrounding neighborhoods! You will get robbed! Murdered! Mauled by the ghosts of bears from the Colosseum! Not true, people. Maybe it’s because I live in New York, but I found nothing particularly dangerous, sketchy, or insidious about staying a mere 2 minute walk from Rome’s biggest transit hub. In fact, it was pretty awesome.
Princeps occupies a single floor of a large former palace. The entrance can be a little tricky to spot on your first try, and like almost all of the places we stayed, there is a small door set in to the palatial historic doors for patrons to use. Getting to the hotel floor requires you to take a small and very cool old glass lift. However, it is small, so if you are claustrophobic, traveling with a ton of stuff, or have a large group, you’ll need to either take the stairs or do the elevator in shifts.
We were upgraded to a junior suite upon arrival, and the view was insane. We honestly did not want to leave our room for most of the first day, because it was so pleasant to lie on the giant comfy bed with the windows open, looking out over the city. Plus, we were jet lagged and tired, and there was a solid cappucino machine in the hotel’s lobby. Our suite had an awesome rain shower that felt particularly amazing after 12 hours of travel.
Located in the Monti neighborhood, Princeps is about a 10-15 minute walk from most of the major historic sites in Rome. We were able to walk everywhere we wanted to go — the only place that probably warranted a subway ride would have been the Vatican, which we skipped because we (stupidly) were in Rome on a Sunday. The neighborhood right around Princeps is definitely worth exploring, and we found some real gems like Grezzo vegan gelato, La Boccaccia pizza, and Bar Monti, where they have delightful live jazz several nights a week.
The good: Princeps had amazing views, a convenient location, and a well-appointed, comfortable room. On pure aesthetics, this hotel was our favorite.
The bad: You won’t be in the middle of all the action, you will have to take a walk to get there. And if you’re for whatever reason nervous about being close to the train station, there’s that. The breakfast included did not look especially appealing, but we’re foodies, so few included breakfasts will impress us. That said, we made ample use of the espresso machine and still/sparkling water dispensers.
Bologna: Casa Bertagni
This was the one we were most excited about, but ultimately had some pretty serious drawbacks. The Gastrognome cast a strong vote for Casa Bertagni due to its “wacky” vibes during our planning process, so I made a reservation through Booking.com for our two-night stay in Bologna. When we arrived, we had a little trouble with the intercom and were greeted brusquely with an, “Oh, it’s you. Couldn’t you hear us?”
When we were brought to our room, which adjoined the main office immediately beyond the front door, I was a little too stunned at first to say anything. I had booked a room with a Queen bed, knowing that in Europe the term “double room” can often equate to two twin beds. Yet there I was, standing in the middle of a vaguely surrealist study with a large table inexplicably placed between two twin beds on opposite sides of the room. The beds were hard and creaky, and the room was loud. You could hear the front door buzzing, construction, street noises, everything.
We walked around a bit trying to find the person who checked us in, but the B&B had become a ghost town. After double-checking my confirmation and much discussion with the Gastrognome (he’s very concerned with being polite, whereas I’m more of a give-me-what-I-paid-for type), I emailed the hotel about the problem. Nearly two hours later I’d received no response, so we called. The person who answered told us to email them. Eventually we had our problem solved and were put into a room with a larger bed a few steps further from the door, but the experience definitely put a damper on our first day in Bologna.
The good: Casa Bertagni is wacky, and has some cool design elements. If you’re looking for somewhere really unique to stay, this is the place! Bertagni had the second-best bathroom/shower of the places we stayed, and it was a fairly convenient (and pleasant) 15-minute walk through the cool graffiti’d porticoes of the student area to the historic center of the city. The breakfast included with our stay was also one of the best we had. The lighting fixtures in our second room were gimmicky, but cool.
The bad: This place doesn’t seem to know exactly what it is, or what it wants to be. Many of the strange pieces around the property have price tags on them, indicating that, perhaps, everything is legitimately for sale? A lot of the art is comically bad and/or just plain perplexing. Both of our rooms were very noisy and faced directly out onto the street. The worst, though, is the lackluster service. You definitely don’t get a warm welcome at Casa Bertagni, and when you’re traveling in a foreign country where you don’t super speak the language, sometimes that’s what matters most.
Parma: Al Battistero D’Oro
Overall, this was #2 for us. We arrived in Parma quite late after a long day on an incredible-but-exhausting Emilia-Romagna food tour. Our hostess, Patrizia, gave us the welcome we wish we’d had in Bologna. She met us at the gate, showed us immediately to our room (we booked the Duchess room), and circled some points of interest on a map of Parma. Throughout our stay, Patrizia was communicative, attentive, and prompt. Breakfast arrived outside of our door at a specified time each morning, check-in and check-out were both easy, and she was able to answer whatever questions we had.
The decor in our room was elegant and tasteful — a lot of the pieces in the B&B had been in Patrizia family for quite some time, and it all lent a homey atmosphere to the space. Our bed was comfortable, the shower did what it was supposed to, and the location was unbeatable. There was nowhere in Parma we wanted to go that was more than a 10-minute walk from the B&B. Most of the time, it was 5 minutes or less.
The good: Location, decor, and hospitality were the key factors that made our stay. The atmosphere was cozy and welcoming, and it was one of the most affordable places we chose to stay.
The bad: It’s an old building, and it sounds like an old building. There’s also a little bit of ambient light/noise that comes from the courtyard depending on the comings and goings of other people. If you’re a light or sensitive sleeper, this might not be for you. Also, take note that you’re getting a real B&B experience, not a hotel. There’s no lobby or common space, just the room you’ve booked. This was fine for us, but may not be right for everyone.
Florence: Residenza Castiglioni
We found this place to be a mixed bag, but just a little better than our experience at Casa Bertagni, overall. The service here was an afterthought at best. Our check-in was rushed and a bit weird, and they took us to leave our bags outside of our room, which was not ready when we arrived at the check-in time. We stayed in a Deluxe Double room, which was covered in dizzying wallpaper, had large windows that faced the street, and would have had two twin beds if we hadn’t shown up early enough to tell them that we preferred a double bed.
Like many of the other places we stayed, the room was noisy. If you are a light sleeper, you’re probably best off staying in a proper hotel than in a boutique spot or a B&B. The decor was interesting but a bit much — it didn’t really do anything for us. The bed was okay, and the bathroom was okay. We didn’t actually try the breakfast, but it looked like cereal and packaged pastries, for the most part.
The one thing that really stood out about Residenza Castiglioni, and the thing that put it juuuust above Casa Bertagni in terms of overall experience, was the location. We were in Florence about as long as we were in Rome, which is to say, not long at all, and Castiglioni was extremely close to the train station, the Mercado Centrale, Il Duomo, the Medici Chapel, you name it. We were able to stop back in our room to stash purchases, recharge our phones, and take naps pretty much whenever we felt like it. And when you’re vacationing in an incredibly busy, touristy country, naps are crucial — especially towards the end of your stay.
The good: LOCATION. Seriously, cannot be beat.
The bad: A little noisy, a little weird, but overall Residenza Castiglioni is overwhelmingly fine. Which is a negative thing if you’re looking for anything more than a convenient and comfortable place to sleep. You’re not going to leave this place feeling a sense of magic.
Here are a few overall tips and tricks when researching and booking your stay in Italy:
- Your level of fluency with Italian should play into your decision. If you don’t speak a word of the language, stick to larger hotel chains. If you can handle the basics, you’re probably fine heading into the world of B&Bs — but even with a semester of Italian under my belt, it was hard for us to communicate at some places.
- Do your research! I never would have found Princeps Boutique Hotel, our favorite stay, if I hadn’t spent literal hours sorting through every available place to stay in Rome.
- Beware of the self-proclaimed “hidden gem.” Residenza Castiglioni claimed to be one of these, but was actually a Mariott-level hotel with some crazy wallpaper.
- Don’t be afraid to visit smaller cities! We only spent one full day in Parma, but it was a nice change of pace after being in larger, more bustling centers — and we had one of our best stays at Al Battistero D’Oro.
- Know what kind of traveler you are. If you like creature comforts, like I do, then make sure your accommodations will have features like private bathrooms, natural light, desired bed size, etc. If all you care about is having a place to crash, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to find the perfect hotel when you’d be fine in a nicer hostel. There’s no correct choice for everyone, but there is always a correct choice for you.
What are some of your favorite places to stay in Italy? What places would you never visit again?