Tag Archives: italy

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

I should add that the backpack is empty in this photo! See below for the full pack.

Let’s set the stage for this post.

In high school I went away for the weekend and packed a full-size suitcase. Yes, I managed to shove my sleeping bag in there as well, but that moment vividly stands out as the moment I recognized my true, suitcase-jamming-self. My name is Kat, and I am a chronic over-packer.

I’m starting off here, because I want to say, if I can manage to pack for 2 weeks in Europe in only a backpack, so can you.

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

Our recent trip to Italy was my second foray into backpacking, my first being our trip through England and Scotland. I can’t tell you how many fellow travelers we met on our trip (including many Americans) that saw us with our backpacks and told us of their luggage envy.

If you are taking a vacation to a resort, where you take a shuttle from the airport to your hotel and back – take the suitcase. Go nuts. But if you’re taking a vacation that includes buses, trains, walking, old hotels with no elevators, old cities with cobblestone streets, and constant go-go-go plans – definitely consider backpacking.

I’ve never received more requests for posting on a topic than this one – so here it is!

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in EuropeProof! I did it! and P.S. isn’t this work truck hilariously small?

Get the Right Pack

I bought a 50 liter camping pack from EMS (similar to this). As I come in at only 62 inches tall, I wear a size XS (they are sized by your height). I found this pack size to be manageable for carrying and will easily fit enough for a 2-week vacation. Be sure to get sized properly, it will make a big difference on your comfort level. While I certainly wouldn’t want to carry this all day, I was just fine whenever we had to walk 1-2 miles to a hotel or station.

Getting Type-A

The biggest misconception of backpacking is that you “can’t bring a lot of clothes” (according to one of the aforementioned luggage envy Americans we met). That’s not true! It just means packing smart and planning ahead.

[Enter OCD tendencies] Before I packed, I made a spreadsheet outlining what I would wear each day, ensuring that each item I was packing would be worn at least 2-3 times.

Below I’ll detail exactly what I packed, as well as random tips that come to mind if you’re looking to backpack for your next trip.

For my 2 week trip, I packed:

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

Clothes:

  • 3 pairs of pants (two jeans, one stretchy)
  • 4 short-sleeve shirts and 1 sleeveless top
  • 3 thin sweaters
  • 3 long-sleeve shirts
  • 1 dress
  • 1 skirt
  • 1 raincoat
  • 1 thin jacket
  • 3 pairs of shoes (sneakers, sandals and flats)
  • 2 leggings
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 set pajamas
  • Socks (about five pair)
  • Underthings (I did a lot of research on packing tips from other people – some people re-use their undergarments. Not this girl.)

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

A few tips on packing clothes:

  1. Rolling your clothes takes up less space, and will prevent wrinkles
  2. Pack things inside your shoes!
  3. Pack on a color scheme – everything should match with everything else
  4. Choose thin fabrics – jersey, stretchy or silky fabrics. These types of clothes take up less space
  5. Stay away from 100% cotton – it’s bulkier, will stay damp if it rains, and gets wrinkled more easily
  6. Shoes take up the most amount of space – choose wisely
  7. Wear your bulkiest clothes on the plane (blue jeans, sneakers, jacket, etc.)

Toiletries/Misc

Figure out what you can do without. For me this meant no hairdryer, no hair products, no extra purses, no clunky books. Buy the travel size items for the must-have products you need. Yes, you can bring a full-size deodorant. But you have to think about the fact that you can bring a pair of socks with the extra 3″ of space a travel-size one will save you.

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

All this reduces to just one airport-regulated quart-size Ziploc bag and one toiletry bag.

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

I packed:

  • 1 travel umbrella
  • Hat and gloves (just in case!)
  • 1 scarf and 1 pashmina
  • Sunglasses
  • 1 travel size hairbrush, hairbands and barettes
  • Tweezers and Razor
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Sunscreen
  • Solid perfume
  • Cough drops (for the plane), Kleenex, BandAids
  • Contacts case. solution, glasses
  • Shower gel, Shampoo, Conditioner, Soap, Facewash
  • Eye Makeup Removal Wipes
  • Blush, Eye shadow, Coverup, Eyeliner, Mascara, Lipstick, Chapstick
  • 2 necklaces and 4 pairs of earrings (don’t bring anything chunky)
  • Ear plugs (for the plane)
  • Excedrin Migraine and Zzzquil
  • Extra gallon-sized ziploc bags
  • 1 small re-useable grocery bag (to keep laundry in)

Entertainment/Fun

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in EuropeThis part will probably change from person to person. We’re a bit techy. Between the two of us we were bringing two camera, two Kindles, an iPod, iPhone and all the accompanying cords. I hesitated to pack the bulky Italy book, but it was definitely worth bringing.

I packed:

  • travel book
  • Kindle and Kandle (reading light)
  • Travel pack locks
  • Powershot, SD card and battery charger
  • Itinerary print-outs
  • Flexible tri-pod (L.L. Bean – it’s great!)
  • iPod and earbuds
  • Noise-cancelling headphones (for the plane)
  • Small changepurse (for all cash, U.S. Driver’s Licenses, U.S. credit cards, etc.)
  • Passports
  • Journal and lens
  • Deck of cards
  • SLR Camera, SD card, battery charger (not shown)

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

I printed out a full itinerary – complete with hotel addresses and phone numbers, daily agendas and even walking directions. This is how I plan all my trips. And, frankly, I could write a whole separate post on how I put together my travel agendas. Once I have it all planned, I printed out two copies. One went in my purse, the other was an emergency back-up that Moose stuffed in the bottom of his pack. Also, I email our itinerary to family members so they know where we were are in case of an emergency.

Choosing a travel-friendly purse:

I looked at purses for ages trying to find the right (aka SAFE) one for this vacation. I wanted to make sure I chose something that I could use in everyday life, but also that would not be pick-pocket friendly.

I chose this blue, leather cross-body bag. I liked it because it was JUST big enough to fit my SLR camera, but not too big and clunky. The way the bag closes was the clincher for me – Not only did it have a zipper, but also a magnetic snap to shut the bag. Definitely not easy to sneak open on a crowded public bus.

How to: Backpack for a Two Week Vacation in Europe

As I said, it’s a cross body bag, which is certainly one of the safest styles you can wear. I also like that the long strap can be removed and the bag can be carried by the handles.

I got this bag at Marshall’s but consider looking for a purse with similar characteristics if you are looking for a travel purse. I was extra cautious because this purse held all of our valuable items for the entire duration of the trip – passports, money, itinerary. As long as we had this purse, we were okay.
I’m certainly no pro, but I hope that helps those of you who A) are fellow over-packers and B) are looking to backpack for your next vacation!

Are you an over-packer like me? Have you considered backpacking for your next trip?

Any packing tips you can share with me?

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

At the last-minute before we went on our trip, we decided to spend a day or two in Tuscany. After some research, we decided that exploring the Chianti region of Tuscany made the most sense as we were coming from Florence.

We rented a car (which I’ll detail down below) and thought we’d take Route 222, also known as the “Chianti Road” down to some smaller towns we wanted to visit – Greve, Radda, Castellina, Panzano.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

It’s not a real vacation when you have one day that goes wrong – and our first morning of our Tuscany day was that day.  (I can’t have you all thinking that our vacations go according to plan!) After the long and tedious car rental shuffle, we took a few wrong turns and missed the Rt. 222 Chianti Road altogether. Driving in a foreign country is always an adventure, especially when somebody (*ahem, me) is terrible at directions.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Eventually we figured out a way down to Greve in Chianti, our first stop. Just driving through the region was breathtaking. The Chianti region is almost mountainous compared to the classic undulating hills of Val d’Orcia.

The first town we stopped at was Greve – one of the larger villages in Chianti. And, in our opinion, not very exciting. Nearly everything was closed due to the town market – which was not as exciting as it sounds. More like the locals chance to stock up on underwear and dish soap.

As you can see, our day is Tuscany was not shaping up to what we wanted it to be. We decided to change course and head to our hotel early. This ended up being our best decision all day!

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

via Il Borghetto website

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

We stayed at Il Borghetto in Montefiridolfi, a very small town south of Florence. Il Borghetto is an inn on a working farm – also called agriturisimo, or agricultural tourism.

We LOVED it. It was an accidental find that I stumbled across online – I was sold!

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

We spent the afternoon walking around property of the hotel – the caretaker said that nothing was off-limits. So we spent the afternoon strolling through olive groves and vineyards, and even explored an Etruscan tomb. (<— There’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.)

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the terrace of Il Borghetto drinking coffee and reading, all while taking in the spectacular views everywhere. Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

The staff at Il Borghetto was lovely, and if we ever find ourselves in Italy again we will definitely return. We even tried to cancel our hotel the following night so we could stay an extra night! (Darn those cancellation fees)

That evening we went to dinner in the town of Montefiridolfi. As the Il Borghetto Innkeeper put it, “there’s one road that leads to the one town square. There’s one restaurant in the square. If you miss it, let me know because that would mean you are amazing.”

Our dinner at A Casa Mia was definitely one of our top dinners of our vacation. There are only five tables and once you are there the table is yours for the night.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Everything about A Casa Mia was authentically Italian – the food was delicious, the tables were worn down after years of happy eaters. If you want cheese on your meal, they had you a hunk of cheese and a grater. The same person takes your order, cooks the meal and serves it to you.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

We tried vegetable tempura for the first time – I wasn’t expecting much from fried vegetables, but goodness gracious were they delicious. Definitely don’t miss it if you are in Italy!

The following day we were originally going to head Lucca, but we decided to skip it and try our hand again at exploring Chianti. We visited Panzano, Radda and Castellina, but spent most of the afternoon taking small back roads getting from place to place and taking in the sunshine.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Panzano

Panzano is a tiny town with amazing sweeping views of the valleys. There’s not much to the tiny town, but certainly worth seeing.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Radda

This was the clear winner of towns for my husband. Radda is an old town. There are a few shops to poke your head into in Radda. The town is also small and sleepy.

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Italy Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Castellina

Castellina would warrant an afternoon of exploring. Known for the Via del Volte, a covered medieval walkway, the town is sizeable with many shops and restaurants.

Castellina is particularly popular with wine lovers. We didn’t get a chance to linger at any wineries, but there were many beautiful ones in Castellina I would have loved to check out!

Italy Travels: Two Days in TuscanyItaly Travels: Two Days in TuscanyItaly Travels: Two Days in Tuscany

Our two days in Tuscany were so peaceful and relaxing! The area of Chianti is scenic and beautiful. We spent the better part of our time in Tuscany just driving around on the back roads. The food and wine were delicious.

There were wineries everywhere that were open for visiting, maybe we will do that next time! We had originally planned to stop by one, but I think a better plan would have been to make a reservation at one before you are there.

Getting to Tuscany

Tuscany is one of those places you simply can’t rely on to visit with public transportation. That’s the beauty of it I suppose! No trains, few buses, and small towns.

We rented a car from the Hertz at the Florence airport. After hearing many nightmare stories about driving in Italian cities, we decided to bus outside of the city, pick up the car there and avoid city driving altogether.

In theory, this was a good idea. But, I won’t lie. The process of walking to the station, taking a bus to the airport, and then waiting for an airport shuttle to take us to the rental cars was a pain and took forever. In hindsight, we maybe should have saved the bus fare and paid a cab to take us directly to the rental cars at the airport.

Also – rental cars in Italy are as much of a racket as they are in the U.S. The process takes forever and there are charges on top of charges. BUT, it’s cheaper than signing up for a Tuscany bus tour. So if your heart is set on seeing Italy, it’s the best way.

Well, that’s it for my Italy travel recaps! I still have a post coming on packing in a backpack, but until then, thank you for reliving my trip with me. It was a dream and everything hoped it would be!

Have you been to Italy?
What is your favorite part of Italy? How can you possible choose!?!?

Italy Travels: Florence Frolics Part II

Visiting Florence, Italy

I left off with a part I recap of our Italy travels in Florence here.

Let’s just pick up where we left off, shall we?

Ponte Vecchio

Firenze Ponte Vecchio

Perhaps the most iconic Florentine destination – the Ponte Vecchio. This covered bridge is lined with gold jewelry shops. I was thinking it would be more like a market with vendors, but the Ponte Vecchio is lined with tried-and-true small upscale jewelry shops. And at night they all close up shop with beautiful ornate wooden doors.

Visiting Florence, Italy

The top portion of the bridge is not open to the public. It was actually created as a private walkway for the Medici family to walk from one building to another because, heaven forbid, they walk outside.

Another fun fact, the Ponte Vecchio used to be where all the butchers were. You can only imagine where all the animal entrails went… when the city of Florence decided to clean up the Arno River the butchers were kicked out and the gold jewelers were in.

Duomo/Baptistry

Florence is famous for it’s Duomo. We decided the right word to describe this place is “impressive”. Calling it “beautiful” doesn’t exactly feel right – the intricate white, pink and green stone with gold filigree isn’t exactly my cup of tea but the Duomo is definitely a work of art and shouldn’t be missed.

Visiting Florence, Italy

Directly across from the main entrance to the Dumon is the Baptistry, which was smaller than I pictured, but featured a copy of the famous bronze doors. (The originals are inside the Duomo museum.)

The dome inside the Duomo was my favorite part. Brunelleschi, the designer, modeled it after the Pantheon’s dome. Apparently he told his sister that, although he could not make a better dome, he would make one that was more beautiful!

Beautiful it certainly is.

Visiting Florence, Italy

The tall tower you see next to the Duomo is the bell tower, or the Campanile. You can climb the Duomo dome or the bell tower for a small fee – we ended up doing neither since we enjoyed the views from the Piazzale Michelangelo so much.

Next to the Duomo we found our go-to cappuccino shop – 3 euro for two cappuccino? Yes please! While Florence is not extremely crowded, this particular square is where you will constantly find hoards of tourists. If the line to see inside the Duomo is long, just wait 20 minutes and try again. The crowds ebb and flow, so enjoy a cuppa while you are waiting.

Visiting Florence, Italy

San Lorenzo Market

Ahhh the fine Italian markets… of Indian men… selling South American fake leather goods. Haha!

Regardless, the San Lorenzo market is a fun place to shop/haggle/look for an afternoon.

Visiting Florence, Italy

Most of the stalls have the same items (although they adamantly refuse to admit that!) and the market is dominated by leather goods – purses, belts, etc.

Among all of those stalls though, there are definitely a few winners! Here you can find silk neckties and Murano glass jewelry.

Visiting Florence, Italy

Haggling is definitely the name the game at this market, and if your eyes linger for too long on an item they will run you down trying to sell it to you. Just stand your ground and be prepared to walk away – usually that’s how you get the best price.

Mercato Centrale

The central market is full of produce, meats, cheeses, breads and flowers and is next to the San Lorenzo markets in a large building with a glass ceiling. Even if you plan to purchase nothing, walking around the market is a must!

Visiting Florence, Italy

You’ll see beautiful fresh vegetables, munch on free samples of cheese and… see lots of weird things too.

Visiting Florence, Italy

Like massive fish, chickens, and brain-like foods.

We went to the market one day to get foods for our lunch – it was delicious. Just make your way around the market and you’ll have a big meal right away. Just make sure you have lots of small change!

If you have a bit more time to linger, there are free tasting sessions of olive oil, vinegar or wine at some stalls as well!

Food in Florence

Apparently Florentine gelato is the best of the best. And you won’t hear any contradictions from me. We tried a number of places during our days in Florence, but quickly found our favorite Italian gelateria – Santa Trinita Gelateria just past the Ponte Vecchio.

Visiting Florence, ItalyIt’s where I discovered by deep, unabiding love for grapefruit gelato – also known as pompelo rosa. The prices were good, the gelato was fresh, and the staff friendly.

We tried several different restaurants in Florence – appertifs at Bianco, a fixed price meal at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near our hotel, and looked to our trusty Rick Steves book for recommendations. Which led us to Trattoria Lo Strocatto. It was delicious food and great atmosphere for a quiet meal. Our waiter wasn’t the most pleasant we’ve ever had, but we’re chalking it up to the language barrier.

Sleeping in Florence:

I think I’ve mentioned before that this trip was entirely made possible by the fact that we were up to our ears in Starwoods points – which allowed us to book free hotel rooms for nearly our entire vacation. So you might notice this hotel is quite a bit fancier that what you’ll usually find recommended around these parts. Well, we decided to spend the bulk of our points in Florence and stayed at the beautiful Excelsior Hotel right on the Arno River.

Visiting Florence, Italy

via

The hotel was beautiful and our hotel room was like stepping back in time – in the best way. Why yes, in a 15 foot tall canopy bed. Just call me King George.

The Excelsior also has a beautiful rooftop restaurant and bar. If you are looking for somewhere swanky to drink some insanely overpriced cocktails with aloof waitstaff – this is the place. Our drinks were a complimentary upgrade, otherwise this was not really our scene. Besides the fact that our two drinks would have cost us a weeks worth of gelato(!!!). But the vibe was cool, there was live music and it’s definitely a place you go to be seen. Also, the view is one of the best in Florence.

Visiting Florence, Italy

via

Our last night in Florence was after our Italy trip, so we stayed in another hotel right by the train station – Hotel Joli. As much as our previous hotel room was luxurious, this hotel room was NOT. It was definitely hovering around the quality-level of a hostel – the rooms were definitely sparse and a little icky. That being said, the staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and the free breakfast was actually pretty good. And the location is perfect – very close to the Santa Maria Novella train station.

Overall, Florence was everything that I wanted it to be. The city is beautiful and easy to manage. You can walk from one side of the city within 20 minutes, so there’s no need to worry about buses, trains or cabs.

And being so close to Cinque Terre, Siena and Tuscany, it would be easy to spend your entire vacation in this one area of Italy.

Next up – our two days in the lush Tuscan hillside!

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?