Italy has more of Europe's cultural heritage than any other country — and the Italians are doing a fine job of sharing it with their visitors. Here is the latest, gleaned from my guidebook research for 2013:
Rome has made visiting the Vatican Museum easier. You can often buy same-day, skip-the-line tickets from the tourist-information office in St. Peter's Square; it'll cost the same price you'd pay if you had reserved online (15-euro ticket plus 4-euro reservation fee).
Massive crowds line up to see Florence's cathedral — the Duomo — which is free to enter. Here's how to skip the line: If you're already planning to visit the cathedral-related sights — the Duomo Museum, Baptistery, and Campanile — that require a combo-ticket to see, buy your ticket first at the less-crowded museum. You can use it to enter through the cathedral's exit, bypassing the lines at the front door.
Florence's Uffizi Gallery is still undergoing a massive, years-long renovation that bodes well for travelers. Although a few rooms are off-limits, many more rooms have been opened to the public, such as the Caravaggio Rooms and the new "Foreign Painters Section," featuring mostly Dutch/Flemish painters (including Rembrandt) with some Spanish and French artists.
Also in Florence, Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance-era Baptistery doors — featuring the original 10 bronze panels from the “Gates of Paradise” (1425-1452) — have been newly restored and are now back on display at the Duomo Museum.
From April through September, Florence's best late-hours sightseeing is at the Palazzo Vecchio, the fortified palace where the Medicis ruled. The sight generally stays open until midnight. Also, the Palazzo Vecchio's tower has reopened to visitors, providing a great cityscape view.
Florence's Galileo Science Museum, which was recently renovated, has rearranged and dramatically updated its exhibits. Engaging video screens (in English) have been added to many rooms to help illustrate inventions and scientific principles.
In Venice, the Accademia, which is known for its great collection of Venetian Renaissance art, is open but still in a constant state of disarray, with a major expansion and renovation dragging on for years. The locations of paintings isn't yet set. The upside is that crowds have died down, so there's no longer a need to reserve a ticket in advance.
To make the most of cruising Venice's Grand Canal on a public vaporetto (water bus), catch the boat at Piazzale Roma (just before the crowded train-station stop), where you'll have your choice of seats. A few boats have seats in the bow with great views; make a beeline for these.
Formerly presented every other year, the Venice Biennale — a world-class, contemporary fair — is now an annual event. It alternates between visual art in odd years and architecture in even years. The exhibition spreads over the Arsenale and Giardini park, and usually runs from June through November.
In Naples, it's no longer necessary to make an appointment to see the Archaeological Museum's Secret Room, with its assortment of erotic frescoes, well-hung pottery, and perky statues that once decorated bedrooms and brothels at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The Cinque Terre, Italy's picturesque Riviera, is back to normal after two of its towns were badly damaged in a flood in the fall of 2011. The towns and nearly all the trails of the region are once again ready for prime time. A handy (but pricey) new parking garage has opened at nearby La Spezia's train station, making it easier and safer for day-trippers to leave their cars and hop the train to the Cinque Terre.
In fashion-forward Milan, travelers can now visit the high-end concept store called Excelsior in the Galleria del Corso, which feels more like a design museum than a retail store. A conveyor belt carries shoppers from level to colorful level to the beat of pulsing music, passing electronic art installations on the way. Even if you can't afford the $1,000 shirts, you might enjoy the basement food hall with its good food at reasonable prices.
To generate funds during a time of economic uncertainty, more and more cities — such as Venice, Florence, Padua, and Rome — are levying a tax on hotel rooms. Tourists must pay the tax in cash at checkout. It varies from 1 euro to 5 euros per person, per night, and is based on how many stars the hotel has under the government rating system.
While the Italian economy remains unpredictable, you're guaranteed to have a memorable trip in 2013. The Italian zest for life is as timeless as its ancient monuments. Go with an eye open to both the Italy of the past and the Italy of the present.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.)