I have a couple of dear friends going to Italy who asked me for advice on nice places to visit a while ago. Unfortunately, due to situations beyond my control, my opinions are late, but hopefully not too late.
Decades ago I traveled to beautiful areas to the south of Naples... such as Capri and the Amalfi Coast, but the most recent trips have been side trips, many daily, from Bologna, where I go visit my 103 year old aunt.
This is a very rough draft, really not ready to publish, but time may be of the essence. I will clean it up in the coming days.
So, here are some of my favorites, places to stay are based on a modest budget:
Venice - There was a great book, "City of Fortune" which I started reading before going there, and kept reading while there... gave me the historical perspective of this amazing city. Now there are more tourists than residents, but the ancient beauty comes through. There is no other city in the world like this.
One of the best deals is to buy a day pass for the ferries, and just go up and down the Grand Canal, seeing both sides, at a time that is not rush hour.
The Piazza San Marco is a must. The fish market during hours of operation is super fascinating.
The Museo Storico Navale, a bit dusty but has some great exhibits.
My favorite place to stay has been the Hotel Marte, Ponte Delle Guglie. It is walking distance from the train station, and strategically located at a canal and bridge, so you can see the boat traffic throughout the day, and if you are into people watching, all the folks going back and forth. There are some very inexpensive locations to eat nearby, with many fruit stands. The hotel is a bit run down, but is fairly clean, and has some of the charm of the older homes.
Make sure you ask for canal-side room on one of the upper floors.
I tried booking through the hotel once, but they said it was full, then I was able to secure a room through an on-line booking agency. This hotel is very modest, but the price and location were right.
Murano- An amazing island to visit by ferry from Venice. If you want to get away from it all, but still get the essence of the area, I would recommend at least a night here. We stayed at the Murano Palace. A wonderful room on the water, where you can see the comings and goings of all the different types of vessels throughout the day. Was not inexpensive, we treated ourselves. Owned by a man whose family has been making glass art for generations, including the chandeliers in the rooms. Best part of spending the night in Murano is almost all the tourists leave late afternoon and you have most of the island to yourself and its residents. You will also see glass works of art here you won't see anywhere else.
Burano- A nice day trip from Venice or Murano. Beautiful colored homes. Not too many tourists.
Famous for its Merletta, or lace work. Most that is sold is now imported from Asia, and not local. If you want to purchase some locally made, ask the owner of the Murano Palace. The only overnight place to stay at the time was on top of a bar, and not advertised, so we passed.
Cinque Terre - We took a train from Bologna to La Spezia, and then the local to Cinque Terre. You can buy a day pass that allows you to take the smaller train that goes between the five towns. I believe you can also get a day pass for the ferry, or pay by the trip. Worth the ferry ride up and down the coast to see the towns from the water, if you are in a hurry take the train. You also have to buy a day pass to walk the trails, the most famous the Via Dell'Amore. Buying all these passes is easy at a single information location.
Best bet on transportation is a Google search as things may have changed a bit.
All the towns are lovely but different, our favorite was Vernazza. We spent 2 nights on a room with a window on the Piazza. After most of the day trippers leave, you have the town to a much smaller group of overnighters and the residents. Love that piazza life. I always stay at least two nights in these Italian side trips, one is not enough to get the feeling of the place.
Florence- What can one say that hasn't been said!? Super crowded much of the time.. But amazing artwork and architecture. We lucked out and found a great place to stay, outside the main tourist mobs, but close to most attractions. It was the Hotel Loggiato Dei Serviti. Located in a wonderful piazza, make sure you get a room with a view of it.
Rimini - This was a bit disappointing and would not recommend it... but if you want to see the Adriatic is probably the easiest way. Very many beaches but sand was not that great. Next time I would go to either Ravenna or Verona for a day trip.
I will add as time permits. Bologna is a great city but is usually not a tourist destination, more of a working Italian city with a very historic center... a Piazza Maggiore lively on the weekends, many outdoor cafes lively every evening. The Bolognese love going out.. a lot of walking, socializing, eating, a lot of "street life", but no super great attractions. However, for us it was a very central area to both coasts, and ended up being very convenient.