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Italy Travels: Florence Frolics Part I

Visiting Florence, Italy

I’m not one for bucket lists, but visiting Italy is definitely one of the few items on my life “wish list”. I had always pictured myself studying abroad while I was in school, and that would be my way to get there. But one thing led to another and I couldn’t carve out the time to do so. (One of my few regrets.) Not only did I imagine myself visiting Italy someday, I specifically envisioned myself in Florence.

Throughout my trip research and planning, most people and books recommended spending 2 days to see all that Florence had to offer. But I went with my gut and decided to dedicate 4 days of our trip to this beautiful Renaissance city – and I’m so glad I did.

Visiting Florence, Italy

If Rome was like New York City, Florence was like Boston. And I love Boston.

Florence, or Firenze, is smaller, quieter and (I think) more beautiful. It’s definitely a “must” for art-lovers, and while you will certainly still see some group tours passing through, it’s nowhere near the level of crowds we encountered in Rome.

Piazzale Michelangelo

A trip to Florence is incomplete without a walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo. This is a quick 20 minute walk from the heart of the city. We ended up doing this walk every day we were in Florence. The 180 degree views of the city from this point are lovely. You’ll find peddlers, food stands and live musicians singing American pop cover songs from the 1990s – but we mostly just came for the views. There is also a (weathered) copy of the David statue at the top – there are 3 Davids in Florence.

Visiting Florence, Italy

There are several ways to get to Piazzale Michelangelo, and I’d recommend following the signs for the Rose Garden. It was in full bloom while we were there and I happily spent some time enjoying the smells and many different colors of rosebushes.

Visiting Florence, Italy

Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi Gallery is one of the main draws in Florence for art-lovers. This world-famous musuem is packed to the brim with amazing, historical art. The Botticelli’s were my favorite – no surprise there as they are one of the museum’s main draws.

Uffizi Florencevia SmithsonianMag

If you wish to visit the Uffizi you will definitely need to purchase your tickets online several weeks in advance. We used our trusty Rick Steve’s free audio tour, but if you follow the rooms in numerical order you won’t miss anything important. The Uffizi has a massive renovation going on right now, but we were still able to see most of the highlights. We spent about 4 hours going through the musuem, and it just happened to fall on our only rainy morning in Florence.

Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza Signoria

Visiting Florence, Italy

Directly next to the Uffizi Gallery sits the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace of the Medici family) and Piazza Signoria.

The courtyard to Palazzo Vecchio is free to enter and you can get a taste of the grandeur surrounding the wealth of the family who funded the Renaissance art period. Outside of the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of the David statue, where the original state stood until they brought it inside to protect it.

Florentine piazzas are not nearly as spirited as Roman ones, but it’s still a very cool place to visit. There is a free outdoor sculpture museum in Piazza Signoria that you don’t want to miss. The Rape of the Sabine Women is only one of the many famous statues you can ponder – free of charge!

Visiting Florence, Italy

David / Accademia

We almost skipped seeing the real David statue at the Accademia – and I’m so glad that we decided to go. The David statue is person is truly magnificent. Looking up at the massive statue is truly an ethereal experience. The room was custom built for the David statue, and the unfinished works by Michelangelo in the hall leading up to David are nearly as compelling as his finished sculptures.

via

The Accademia is small, the David statue being the only real draw, which is why we almost skipped it. We walked by the museum a few times, but the line was very long. I would recommend buying your tickets online in advance, or, like we did, get to the museum at the very end of the day and you will be able to get in pretty quickly. Again, we used our Rick Steve’s free audio tours throughout the Accademia.

I’ll be back later this week with more on Florence!

Have you been to Florence? Is there ONE place you’ve always wanted to visit more than anywhere else?

Italy Travels: Cinque Terre Part II

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre is a UNESCO world heritage park, and it’s easy to see why. The area is full of natural beauty that should be preserved. In 2011, Cinque Terre suffered from flash flooding and mudslides, and the area was massively devastated. It has since rebounded, and, as an outsider, I would have never guessed. With the exception that several of the hiking trails were still closed. The trailheads from Riomaggiore to Vernazza were closed, leaving only the Vernazza to Monterosso trail open – which is lucky for us because it’s the longest and hardest (!)

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy
The views are breathtaking from above. The Vernazza-Monterosso trail is the only one from which you can view all five villages. If you visit and do not hike in Cinque Terre, you are only getting half of the CT experience.

This hike is certainly not for the faint at heart. You are, quite literally, climbing a small mountain.

The trails are narrow and rocky – a far cry from the wide paved sidewalks you’ll see on the easier trails. Trail passes can be purchased at the trailhead for about 5 euro per person. They are good for 1 day. To purchase a trailpass that includes train passes, purchase your pass at the train station.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

I’d recommend hiking early in the morning. We waited until late morning and the trails were PACKED. And when you have a 12″ wide trail and a brigade of “older” German female hikers wielding sports bras and hiking sticks trying to pass you the opposite way…. well, you’ll be glad you decided to head out early. Otherwise you’ll have to watch them all get a hairy armpit in the face (not mine, obviously) as they clamber by.

Yes, the trails are narrow enough in certain spots that you have to touch strangers.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

While the hike took about 2 hours in the morning, we hiked back mid-afternoon in the height of the heat. It was HOT, but the trails were empty, and we did the hike in about 1 hour.

Both times were an amazing experience, but I’d certainly try to time it so you aren’t hiking with the masses.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Monterosso al Mare

Monterosso al Mare is the largest and most resort-like of the five CT villages, and has the largest, sandiest beach.  As it’s the only village accessible by car, it is also significantly more populated.

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyYou can rent an umbrella and lounge cars and sit the day away in the sun. (We looked longingly at the beach, but failed to think to bring our swimsuits on the hike with us.)

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

There is a much larger town to explore. Italy has amazing old churches hidden in every town.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

And sleeping cats lie in patches of sunshine all over Monterosso.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

If shopping is your idea of vacation, Monterosso is your place. Of all the Cinque Terre villages, it has the largest number of shops to look through.   Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Overall, Monterosso was a colorful and fun place to spend an afternoon! A welcome distraction from a morning of hiking.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Manarola

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyOn our last afternoon we stopped by Manarola  on our way out of town. Looking down on the town of Manarola is the “classic” Cinque Terre photo opportunity you see all over Pinterest and covers of travel books.

Manarola is a bit larger than Vernazza and we walked through town, among the many boats that were pulled up on to the roads. If you’re looking for “deep water swimming”, this is your place. And, although we weren’t able to test the waters, it sure looked fun!

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Before we departed CT, we added fresh anchovies to the list of local specialties we tried. They were not bad, just really salty.

We absolutely loved our stay in Cinque Terre and hope to return again someday! While I had spent quite some time debating whether to visit the Amalfi Coast or CT, I don’t regret my decision one bit! It was beautiful and relaxing.

Next step, Firenze!

Read about how much we loved Vernazza and our Cinque Terre hotel experience here!

Italy Travels: Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

I have many happy places, and I’m officially adding Vernazza to that list.

I had heard so many wonderful things about Cinque Terre, I was starting to wonder if it could all possibly be true.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

And as we sat on the regional train from La Spezia, through tunnel after tunnel of the mountainous hillside, there was an audible gasp on our train. There she was, the Mediterranean Sea.

Cinque Terre is made up of five small villages built on the hillsides of the Ligurian Sea, part of the Mediterranean. We stayed in Vernazza during our three, too short, days we spent in Cinque Terre. Today I’ll post on Vernazza, and I’ll share later on the other towns we visited, as well as our hike.

Vernazza is the second-most northern of the five towns and has a rocky beach and calm harbor. It was a welcome retreat after the bustle of Rome.

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyVernazza is for relaxing. It’s a very small town, so there are only a few shops and restaurants.

Your itinerary should include:

Sunning on the rocks in the peaceful harbor. Bring a book and a snack!

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Maybe you’ll even fancy to have a swim.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

For a change of scenery, walk through the tunnel to the rocky beach. The water over there is much colder! But that is also where the waves are.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Walk  up and down the short beach and see how much seapottery and sea-terracotta you can find.

I even managed to bring home a handful of seaglass to add to my favorite collection.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

For a mid-day snack, try one of the area’s specialities: focaccia bread, pesto, or fresh anchovies.

Or there’s always the old stand by:

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyVernazza has two gelaterias – both are delicious. Just don’t wait too late in the evening or they will be closed! (We managed to grab a cone before she put the last two flavors away!)

While this may sound like an uneventful day, believe me, the day will be over before you know it. You can’t get lost in Vernazza, so climb the many, many, many narrow staircases and enjoy exploring the town.

As far as siteseeing, there is a small church right in town. Oyou can also climb to the top of the fort, where they used to keep watch for pirates. There is a small fee to visit the fort, and if you plan on hiking the next day you’ll see much better views from there, so we didn’t bother going in.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

While you are gallivanting about town in the afternoon, you had better scope out all the restaurants and make a reservation. Most places shut down from 5pm-7pm, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get into the restaurant of your choice without a reservation.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

We choose Ristorante Belforte, and it was possibly the best meal we had on our whole vacation! I strongly recommend making a reservation for 7:00pm and showing up right on time – otherwise you will miss out on the best tables!

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyThe entire restaurant has sweeping views of the sea. Bring a sweater!

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Dip into the fresh local foods! If you’re a seafood-junkie like myself, this will be a heavenly experience. If you’re less adventurous, there are options for you too.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

While I’d recommend not missing the Ristorante Belforte experience, to anyone who is going to Vernazza, you certainly don’t have to spend a lot of money for a delicious dinner with a seaside view.

Case in point, our dinner the next evening:

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyStop at the local market and pick up some fresh tomatoes, cheese, focaccia bread and salami. Find a nearby terrace and bon appetit.

Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

The town definitely fills up in the daytime with people who are hiking or training through the five towns.

Two days in Cinque Terre, ItalyBut the evenings are blissfully quiet. Two days in Cinque Terre, Italy

Lodgings:

There aren’t any real hotels in Vernazza. You’ll need to rent a room from a small operation. We booked a room at Affittacamere Rollando. It was a simple room on the main street in town.

Check-in is only from 3-5pm. Pay with cash and they’ll take about 10 euro off the bill.

The power situation in Vernazza is tenuous, which we had read about, but also experienced! Only having plugged in an electric kettle for tea, we blew the fuse – so when the hostess shows you where the fuse box, you’ll know why!

While Affittacamere Rollando was perfectly fine, I think we would have preferred staying off the main street. The morning market traffic brought a lot of noise.

Getting to Cinque Terre

From nearly any main train station, you’ll need to switch at La Spezia to get to Cinque Terre. There is a regional train between the five towns every 1-2 hours. We missed the first regional train because we weren’t sure what to do when we got to La Spezia – look at the posting on the boards when you get out of the train! Or else you can sit in a fancy Italian McDonalds for an hour. 🙂

Vernazza was amazing! Truly a vacation destination. I think we could have stayed there for a month.

Have you been to Cinque Terre?

Italy Travels: We Came, We Rome-d, We Conquered – Part II

Visiting Rome, ItalyThe roads of Rome are hard on your feet. I loved my Merrell sandals!

Rome again, Rome again. Jiggity jig.

You can find Italy Travels: We Came, We Rome-d, We Conquered – Part I here.

3 days in Rome, Italy

Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum

One of my favorite things about Rome was something I wasn’t anticipating enjoying at all – the Palatine Hill. Palatine Hill is where all the emperors built their palaces – unfortunately it’s mostly in ruins now. But the grounds were extensive, views lovely and the rose gardens were in full bloom.

3 days in Rome, Italy

The Roman Forum is a treasure-trove of historic ruins. We went through the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum with a tour guide, which definitely made it infinitely more interesting. Even the best of guidebooks would have a hard time helping you figure out exactly what is what and the significance of it.

3 days in Rome, ItalyStepping inside the Colosseum made me feel like a little kid again. It’s one of those iconic places it’s hard to believe is real until you’re standing right before it. We used the free Rick Steve’s audio tour for the tour of the Colosseum and it took about 2 hours from start to end.

3 days in Rome, Italy

We did not sign up for a tour. But… we were standing in line at Palatine Hill and a guy was walking up and down the line offering free tours in English, particularly for American tourists. We heard the word “free” and asked a few questions – because the line was LOOOONG. He was very upfront, it was a promotional tour. He would take us through the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill for free, but if we wanted to continue through to the Colosseum he was charging a fee. We joined the group of fellow English-speakers, and after we all discussed how this could possibly be a scam, took him up on it… And you know what, it was awesome! We were able to jump the line, and having a tour guide was definitely helpful.

We did not follow him through to the Colosseum, because he had a 3x ticket markup. We went back the next day to do the Colosseum on our own. (That money was better spent on gelato, obviously.)

3 days in Rome, Italy

Getting Tickets to Palatine Hill, Forum, Colosseum

For the Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, there is one ticket for you to enter these locations. We didn’t reserve tickets beforehand. Definitely go to the Palatine Hill ticket office as early as possible in the morning for the shortest line.

We waited too late in the day on the first day, but lucked out with that random tour situation. The following day we started at the Colosseum and there were already at least 300 people in line. We walked over to Palatine Hill and we were the fourth people in line. Read the Rick Steve’s book and follow it like the Bible – it will all work out.

3 days in Rome, Italy

Pantheon

Walking into the Pantheon is like stepping back in time. It’s literally the only building that looks today as it did 2000 years ago. It’s mind-boggling. The dome inside the Pantheon is a marvel, laugh now but it’s true! We used the free Rick Steve’s audio tour for the tour of the Pantheon and spent about 30 minutes inside. Entry to the Pantheon is free.

3 days in Rome, Italy

If you’re going to the Pantheon, don’t miss Tazza D’Oro cafe. If you’re coming out of the Pantheon, look to your right for yellow lettering. Order a “caffe granita con panna” for two euro and enjoy. It’s essentially an espresso sno-cone with cream. YUM.

3 days in Rome, ItalyPiazza Navona

The home of Bernini’s Four Fountains, street performers and artistes. Piazza Navona is a great place to rest your laurels and enjoy some people-watching.

3 days in Rome, Italy

3 days in Rome, Italy

Trastevere

I won’t lie, Trastevere wasn’t exactly what I was hoping it would be. After hearing it described it as “colorful” and a true representation of Italy, I was excited to see it! And the area was definitely beautiful.

3 days in Rome, Italy

But, a desperately-needed-but-impossible-to-find public restroom, the onslaught of Italian pollen allergies, and a disappointing lunch with a rude waiter tainted the Trastevere pool for us. The neighborhood truly was beautiful, and I think we picked the wrong place to lunch. Every trip has a perfect storm of issues, this one was ours!

3 days in Rome, Italy

Rome Technicalities:

The Rome subway was an easy and accessible way to get across the city. It costs three euro to get on, and you can take it for any amount of distance. Watch out for pickpockets. They really are everywhere. Especially on the trains and buses. We saw people looking at everyone’s bags. Be vigilant.

And we got on one train that was covered in barf. Ew.

3 days in Rome, Italy

Our Hotel

We stayed at the Roma Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center just outside the city. The hotel has a shuttle to downtown Rome (five euro per person for AM transit, free for PM transit).

We ended up not having much luck with it – we missed it the first morning and were too late to fit the second morning. That wasn’t a problem because the hotel was a very easy 10 minute walk to the Magliana subway stop, and cheaper than the hotel AM shuttle! We took the PM shuttle back each night, but beware – they parked in different places each night and it is PACKED. We barely got on each night.

We were happy with it and I’d certainly recommend it. While this is not a very “Italian” experience, it was a great hotel, especially if you have Starwood Points to use! Plus – if they upgrade you to club room status there is a rooftop terrace and free food all day! Still not sure how that happened, but we were grateful!

Overall, Rome was crazy! It’s amazing how much history fits into one small space. Next time I’d definitely try to see Rome mid-week. If you’re a first time visitor like we were, three days was just enough time to fit in all the main sites without going crazy.

Oh, Roma. If the superstition about throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain is right… we will find ourselves there again someday. : )

Next up, Cinque Terre!

And hopefully some house projects soon! You know, the stuff I usually blog about!