One Short Day series: Venice

Venice for a day

Venice is one of the most popular tourist spots in Italy, and since it’s only a few hours away via train, we decided we couldn’t miss it. Even though we spent the night in Venice, we really didn’t end up with much more than 24 hours so I decided it still fit in the One Short Day series, because there is a ton to do in Venice, and we had to make the most of our time there.

We arrived at the Santa Lucia train station in Venice and quickly realized that our hotel, Canals of Venicenear San Marco Square, was on the exact opposite side of town. We couldn’t use GPS on our phones, so we bought a paper map and used it to navigate the tiny little streets of the city. It was only about a mile and a half walk, but the streets that wind through the canals are more like small alleyways, and full of bridges, so keep that in mind if you plan on visiting with anybody who has trouble walking or if you’re bringing a stroller or rolling luggage. You can also get a water taxi or use the water bus, which we didn’t really know at the time, and I would recommend stopping at any of the little booths to book a taxi or buy a bus ticket. There are no cars in Venice, so the only transportation other than walking is all done on the canals.

We spent the first part of the afternoon admiring San Marco’s (St. Mark’s) Square. St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and the rest of the square is surrounded by architecture from various periods in time such as the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace, former residence of the ruler of the former Republic of Venice) in the Venetian Gothic style from 1340 and the Museo Correr (Correr Museum) housed in the building that Napolean had built in the early 1800s.

St. Mark's Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica

We had arrived kind of late in the day and were exhausted from some mishaps we had while traveling to Venice, so we decided to just do a walking tour at our own pace. There are plenty of tours with various prices and modes of transportation available, but we did the self-guided tour using the Sightseeing Experience app. They have tours for lots of cities in Italy that you can download and play offline as you walk around the city. We got a City Sightseeing map from the currency exchange booth under the clock tower at St. Mark’s Square that correlated to the guide. It was a good way to explore the city at our own pace and see some lesser-known spots that are just as interesting and have just as much history as the high traffic tourist spots.

Gondolas on the Venetian Lagoon

Gondolas on the Venetian Lagoon

It is a pretty long tour. The distance is only around two miles, but we spent about two hours on the tour, between stopping for pictures and listening to the guide at each of the

Water fountain in Venice

One of the many (over 180) free public water fountains throughout Venice

stops. Lots of the locations are churches or museums that you can enter, which we weren’t able to do because they were all closed, but that would also significantly add to your time if you did that. If you decide to go to Venice for a longer time, it might be a good idea to break it up over a couple of days.

We got dinner at one of the many cafes that was along the walking tour and it was getting dark by the time we finished. But, like most of Italy’s major cities, Venice has a thriving nightlife. We wandered around the shops and restaurants that were still open, snacking and eating dessert. The restaurants located directly on St. Mark’s Square are exorbitantly expensive, so instead we got drinks at the to-go cafe and bar (yes, that’s a thing) and walked back to the square to enjoy the music. If you’re trying to decide on a drink in Venice, don’t skip the Venetian cocktail. It combines white wine, Aperol, and soda water, and it’s pretty tasty. We enjoyed the live bands playing in the square until about midnight before calling it a night.

The next morning we got up early enough to wait in line to enter St. Mark’s Basilica, which opens at 8:45. It’s free to enter, and audioguides are €5. If you use the Sightseeing Experience app, there’s a short section that describes the interior, which I listened to, but the audioguide included a lot more. While the general admission is free, you can pay a few euros to get into other parts of the church to see relics and to go behind the altar where the body of St. Mark is. You can also visit the museum located on the upper levels of the church, which, if we had had time, I think we definitely would have done. Even if you don’t pay for anything, I absolutely encourage you to go in. There are no pictures allowed inside, but it is gorgeous.

As with most churches in Italy, your shoulders and knees need to be covered. If you have anything larger than a purse, you’ll have to check your bag, but you need to do it before you get in line. To the left of the church is the bag check (there are signs and also attendants you can ask), and if you get to the front of the line with a bag, they will make you get out, check your bag, and wait in line all over again.

We spent about an hour and half in the basilica before heading across the square to the Museo Correr. It is one of eleven state museums and covers a wide range of the art and history of Venice. The building, the Procuratorie, was built by Napoleon when he extended his empire to Italy, but didn’t want to stay in the Doge’s Palace because of the message it might send. The museum was moved in to the building in 1922, and the first part of it was recently redone to reflect the extravagant rooms that originally occupied the building.

Period room in Correr Museum

Period room in Correr Museum

The collection boasts several sculptures by Antonio Canova as well as other items illustrating the life and culture of the Venetians. The building, and admission to the Correr, includes the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, which were also fascinating.

Canova's sculpture, Daedalus and Icarus

Canova’s sculpture, Daedalus and Icarus

Ticketing for the museum can be tricky. For €20 you can get a St. Mark’s Square Museums ticket that includes the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, and the Doge’s Palace. For €24 you can get a Museum Pass that grants entrance to the eleven civic museums in Venice. These would probably be great deals if you had several days in Venice to explore all the museums, but since we had just one afternoon, we went for a third option: paying €12 to get entrance to the Museo Correr, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, plus a tour of the famous clock tower of Venice.

I absolutely recommend the clock tower. It was probably my favorite part of our time in Venice. It is a lot of stairs up a narrow staircase, but we had a great tour guide who taught us so much about the city, and the tower gives you an amazing view of Venice.

The tour lasts about an hour, and after that we decided to grab lunch. We got some delicious-looking cheese gondolas, but before I took even one bite a SEAGULL swooped down and STOLE MINE. It’s fine. I’m not still bitter.

Anyways, with the last few hours in Venice, we decided to get a water bus ticket up the Grand Canal that winds its way through the center of the city. The No. 1 line is considered the “tourist” line, as it stops at lots of major attractions. We bought a 24-hour pass and rode the water bus up the canal, choosing a few destinations to stop at. We spent time at the Basilica de Salute, the Accademia Gallery (we decided not to go in, but we enjoyed the building and surrounding area), the courtyard and neighboring streets of the Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico. The final stop we took it to was the famous Rialto bridge, where we got off, took some pictures, and got dinner.

Rialto bridge along the Grand Canal in Venice

Rialto bridge along the Grand Canal

Of course, the big thing to do in Venice is ride a gondola. If you want to have a really authentic, get-sung-to-on-the-water gondola ride, you need to plan ahead. We did not plan. All the gondoliers are a part of a guild, so they all pretty much cost around €80 for a ride. If you plan a few days ahead, you can buy a ride for €30-€50 that you split with six people (a Google search will provide you with a variety of options). If you don’t plan ahead or just don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on a cheesy tourist attraction, there is a cheaper, easier way to ride a gondola on the canal: find a traghetto.

There are only 4 bridges that cross the Grand Canal, so for better ease of access, traghetti (the plural of traghetto) are basically ferries that cross from one side to the other. It only costs about €2 for tourists and is a good solution to be able to say you rode a gondola in Venice without the high price tag. For us, it was even useful as we took it from where we ate dinner near the Rialto fish market across the canal to the next bus stop. This post has a great explanation of how to ride a traghetto without looking like too much of a tourist, and where to find them.

Ride a gondola on the Venice Grand Canal

We risked looking like tourists to take one selfie on the gondola

We caught the water bus back to the train station and took our train back to Florence. It was a long two days, but absolutely worth it.

There’s always more to do in a city like Venice, but do you agree these are the highlights? Would you add anything to our list? Let me know in the comments below!

 

 

 

 

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Florence Favorites, Part Two

florence faves 2

Welcome to part two of my recap of my trip to Florence! If you missed part one, read it here. Pretty soon I’ll have posts about our shorter trips to Rome and Venice, but two weeks in Florence was too amazing to contain to just one post. We spent Week Two doing a lot of the “big” things people think of when they come to Florence, so hopefully I can help you figure out what’s actually worth doing and how best to do it. If you’re looking for information specifically on visiting the Duomo, check out my separate post here.

Places to Visit

If you’re looking for somewhere to explore but still have a little down time, Florence and the surrounding area has plenty to offer.

Boboli Gardens
Situated directly behind the Pitti Palace (which you can visit, although we decided not to on this trip), the Boboli Gardens were once part of the Medici family’s grounds. It costs €10 to get in, but you could easily spend all day or afternoon here if you wanted. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy wandering the expansive 16th-century garden with its meandering paths, gravel avenues,  and swaths of green meadows. Statues dot the landscape, including the Fountain of Neptune centered in a pond favored by ducks and even a heron, at least when we visited.

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The Fountain of Neptune and its pond, with a view overlooking Florence beyond it.

One of the most remarkable parts of the gardens is its magnificent view of the city. The gardens and the Pitti Palace are located across the Arno River from much of the city, and from the tops of the hills in the gardens you can see Florence and the hills of Tuscany beyond it. This openness was unusual for gardens of its time, and the lavishness is a bit strange as well, since the gardens were never used for entertaining or parties, and no one outside the Medici family ever visited them when they were first built.

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View from not as high up the hill

Fiesole
On our last Saturday in Florence, we decided to visit Fiesole, a small town tucked away in the hills above Florence. We took a cab (about €20-30) but you can also take the #7 bus. If you buy a ticket for the City Sightseeing Tour buses they also go up here, which is where we got the idea. Originally an Etruscan village, Fiesole still has an archaeological site with remains of an Etruscan temple, and the entire site is actually surrounded by a stone wall that was originally built by the Etruscans in the fourth century BC. By the first century, the Romans had come in and took out the Etruscans, so the archaeological site also includes a Roman theater, baths, and temple that was built over the original Etruscan one. Tickets to only the archaeological area are €7 full priced, but if you want to visit the museums in the area it’s €10-12, which still isn’t bad. I definitely recommend exploring the area if you decide to visit Fiesole. Once you arrive in the main square (where any bus or taxi will drop you off) it’s just down the street past the Cathedral of Fiesole (the one with the bell tower. You can’t miss it). If you feel like walking, follow the Etruscan wall around to the left, and as it curves you’ll get some wonderful views of the Tuscany hills on the non-Florence side of Fiesole.

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Roman thermal baths

For lunch, we ate at Blu Bar, a restaurant that overlooks Florence down in the valley. It wasn’t very busy, so we took our time and enjoyed the view and the weather. It’s a little pricier than where we normally ate, but really only about €13-15 on average for a meal so still not terrible.

Piazza della Repubblica
Unlike the many towns in the hills surrounding Florence that began as Etruscan settlements, Florence was actually founded by the Romans. The Piazza della Repubblica marks the spot of the original Roman forum, the center of the Roman city. Today there’s not much that remains of the Roman period, but it’s still a fun area to visit and imagine what it might have been like, especially if you’re already in the area visiting the Duomo or Uffizi. When we were there, there was a carousel that was only €2 to ride. I’m not sure if it’s there year-round, but you better believe we rode it and had way more fun than any of the kids.

Things to Do/See

There is plenty to do in Florence, and we did as much of it as we could while we were there. Especially if you go in tourist season (June through August) I recommend reserving tickets ahead of time for as much as you can. It’s well worth paying a few extra euros to not spent half your time in Florence waiting in lines!

The Duomo
Officially this church is called the Florence Cathedral or Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, but it is mostly commonly known as the Duomo (pronounced “dwo-moh.” And, img_19551.jpgcontrary to popular belief, it means ‘cathedral’ in Italian, not ‘dome’). It is what Florence is known for, and it dominates the skyline of the city. On our first full day there, we decided to wander and explore the city, and we suddenly turned a corner and it was just there, huge and soaring and also beautiful in the intricacy and detail of the design on its facade. It was simply breathtaking. From that moment, the Duomo was my absolute favorite part of Florence, and my love for it only increased when we spent a full afternoon doing basically every activity it offers. It was a pretty full day, so I decided to create a separate blog post for visiting the Duomo, which you can read about here.

Galleria dell’Accademia
Another popular spot is Galleria dell’Accademia, commonly referred to as the Academy. This is where Michelangelo’s statue The David is located. And that’s pretty much it. There IMG_2933are some other rooms with Renaissance-era paintings, and lots of plaster models for other statues, but the David is definitely its big draw. You can buy tickets ahead of time, but when we got around to it there were no spots left. So we showed up before it opened to wait in line. We got there around 7:30, and the museum opens at 8:15. We were about the third group in line, and got in with the first wave of people. They let in about 20-30 people at a time since it’s small, starting with the people who have reservations and then those of us who are in the regular line. It’s €12 full price to get in, plus €4 reservation fee if you buy online, so I recommend just getting there early and avoiding the fee, since you’re really just visiting one statue. But boy, is it worth it!

The Uffizi
Another place Florence is known for is its art museum, the Uffizi gallery. The primary reason to visit is the Botticelli room, including his masterpieces The Birth of Venus and Primavera. Other than that, it’s a lot of Renaissance art. I still definitely recommend visiting at least once, but if Renaissance paintings aren’t your thing (me), just know what you’re in for. (I know, I’m a museum person bashing one of the most famous art museums in the world. Not sorry about it). The collection also includes Leonardo da Vinci’s unfinished work Adoration of the Magi, which he sketched but never finished painting. It’s a fascinating look at his process, and the room also has a video about the museum’s undertaking to restore the drawing. Again, you should definitely visit while you’re there, but this is a place where it’s worth buying tickets ahead of time to avoid the loooong lines that inevitably await you.

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A note on buying tickets online: I’ve tried to link to all the websites to buy tickets in this post, but in case you lose track of the post and decide to just Google to website of a museum or monument, be wary. There are dozens of websites that look like the official site of a museum, but are actually third party tourist sites. The tickets will be legit, but they will charge you an extra fee if you purchase them through this site. I typically just Googled the museum, went to the Wikipedia page, and then found the official website in the summary section under the first picture on the right.

Where to Shop

We bought many of our souvenirs at the markets located throughout the city. These include Mercato Centrale (Piazza del Mercato Centrale – Via dell’Ariento), Mercado di San Lorenzo (Piazza del Mercato Centrale), and Nuovo Mercato (Loggia del Mercato Nuovo), all pretty close to the city center. This is where we bought leather purses, wallets, and even keychains. Be prepared to haggle! Otherwise you’ll definitely get overcharged.

Where to Eat

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Nutella-filled donut and a mocha

Finisterrae (Piazza di Santa Croce, 12)
If you’re looking for some delicious pastries, this is a great stop. Located on Piazza di Santa Croce, we had some trouble with service when we sat down for breakfast, but just stopping by and ordering from the counter is totally worth it to try their delicious pastries.

Obiò (Borgo de’ Greci, 1)
Also located near Piazza di Santa Croce, we ate here once for lunch and once for dinner. Their lunch menu is pretty limited (although I did cave and get a burger, and it was delicious). For dinner they have a buffet for only €10 that includes a cocktail. When we went they had salads, bread, pasta, and some casserole options. It wasn’t a massive buffet, but it was a good price if you’re looking for a cheap way to sit down for dinner and make sure you get your money’s worth.

IMG_2885Pizza Man (Locations throughout Florence. We went to Via dell’Agnolo, 105/107R)
Okay, okay, I know this sounds like a cheesy American restaurant, but it’s actually super delicious oven baked pizza that’s super cheap. You can get a pizza big enough to split or eat for two meals for just €7. You can sit down, take away, or they even deliver. It’s not hard to find good pizza in Italy, but this was one of our favorite spots!

 

And that was our final week in Florence! Planning out your time is highly recommended–there’s too much to do and see if you just wing it day by day. There’s plenty of things we didn’t have time for, but I’m so glad we had time to do all of the “big” things in Florence. Some (like the Duomo) I would definitely do again if I get to return. Others (like the Uffizi) I might not, but I don’t regret doing them once.

What do you think? Did we miss anything you think is a must-do? Did you visit any of these spots and think they were spectacular, or less than stellar? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day at the Duomo

If you’d like to read about all the other things we did in Florence, check out my other posts here and here.

The Duomo

Officially this church is called the Florence Cathedral or Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, but it is mostly commonly known as the Duomo (pronounced “dwo-moh.” And, contrary to popular belief, it means ‘cathedral’ in Italian, not ‘dome’). It is what Florence is known for, and it dominates the skyline of the city. On our first full day there, we decided to wander and explore the city, and we suddenly turned a corner and it was just there, huge and soaring and also beautiful in the intricacy and detail of the design on day at the duomoits facade. It was simply breathtaking. From that moment, the Duomo was my absolute favorite part of Florence, and my love for it only increased when we spent a full afternoon doing basically every activity it offers.

A Brief History
So why exactly is the Duomo a big deal? Construction began in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio, who was also the architect of Santa Croce. Di Cambio died in 1310, and work on the church stalled until 1330, when Giotto was hired to continue di Cambio’s design. He is the one who built the bell tower, in order to have something that was “his own” in the design of the church. Giotto died just seven years later, and Andrea Pisano was hired to continue the work until 1348 when construction was halted for a year due to the outbreak of the Black Death plague. A series of architects were hired in the following decades, and by 1418, only one thing remained: the dome. This was no easy task. The Romans had known how to build domes (see: the Pantheon) but when the empire fell, that knowledge had been lost to history. Centuries later and still no one had figured it out. Cue Filippo Brunelleschi, hired by Cosimo de Medici. Work started on the dome in 1420 and remains one of the most impressive projects of the Renaissance. It was the first octagonal dome in history to be built without temporary supports, and works because of a herringbone structure of the bricks as well as his “double shell,” meaning that there are actually two domes, one encasing the other, providing enough support to carry the weight. The dome, and the church, was finished in 1436, and it has been standing ever since.

The Cupola
You can both visit inside the cathedral, and you can climb the dome, or cupola. Be warned that it’s 463 steps up through winding, narrow staircases, often only big enough for one person to squeeze through at a time and sometimes steep enough to climb like a ladder. But once you do make it up, it’s the best view of the city and absolutely worth it.

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For tickets, we struggled finding a good booking site online, so we booked a tour (that included admission to all the monuments) through My Tours. Don’t do that. We definitely overpaid, and the guided tour as we climbed the cupola was nice, but not anything you couldn’t learn from Google (or by reading this blog!) beforehand. Turns out you can buy a cumulative ticket through the website of the museum, Il Grande Museo del Duomo for just €18 that includes a reservation time to climb the cupola so you don’t have to wait in line. My Tours has some other cool-looking tours, but for the Duomo it’s definitely unnecessary. Nonetheless, climbing is by far the best way to experience Brunelleschi’s dome, since part of it goes in between the two shells. If you’re physically able, it’s definitely a must-do.

Giotto’s Bell Tower
If your legs haven’t fallen off from climbing up and down the dome, I highly recommend climbing the bell tower. It’s another 414 steps, but it gives you a great view of the dome and the city. It’s also a little bit easier since there are three levels to stop and rest along the way up, with a nice breeze since you’re pretty high up! We went on a Monday, and there was no line when we finished the dome and went to the bell tower, which corroborates someone telling us that Mondays were the best day to go. No clue why, but it worked for us!

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The Baptistery
Ready to give your legs a break? Go visit the Baptistery, located next to the church itself.

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Inside of the Baptistery

We spent probably about twenty minutes sitting in a pew, deciphering the mosaic stories from the Bible that decorate the ceiling. It’s absolutely beautiful, and once again there was basically no line when we visited. Dante was baptized here, and the whole cathedral was very close to his heart. He regularly visited the construction site until he left Florence in early 1300s. His influence is clear in the dome of the cathedral, as images from his Inferno decorate the lower half of the dome representing hell.

 

Il Grande Museo del Duomo aka Museo dell’Opera del Duomo aka Museum of the Works of the Cathedral
Now that you’ve recovered a little bit, head into the museum, located on the opposite side of the cathedral from the Baptistery. We spent about an hour and a half here, and honestly that was enough time to see and admire all the highlights of their collection (be sure to grab a map on the way in, it points out the items they’re most known for and where they’re located). These included Lorenzo Ghiberti’s doors for the Baptistery, called the Gates of Paradise (replicas are currently on display at IMG_2535the actual Baptistery), Michelangelo’s pietà intended for his own tomb, and singing galleries designed for the cathedral by Donatello and Luca della Robbia. Be sure to visit the top floor, which is actually a terrace with a great view of the dome.

Phew! So that’s everything to do at the Duomo. As you can see, it’s a lot. We did it in one afternoon, but if you buy your tickets through the museum website, it’s actually valid for 72 hours so you could break it up into a couple days.

 

Map of duomo

Map of the plaza, from the museum’s website

 

What is your experience visiting the Duomo? Did you do it all in one day, or split it up? Wh

Florence Favorites, Part One

Florence Faves pt 1

I just got back from spending an amazing two weeks in Italy. We stayed primarily in Florence, which has become one of my favorite cities. This is the first half of a two-part post about the many things we saw, did, and ate during our time there. For the second part, click here. I hope you enjoy reading about my trip and that if you have the chance to visit Florence, you’ll be able to find some helpful tips!

Places to Visit

Florence is a wonderful place to explore, and as you wander, be sure to visit these classic spots.

The Arno and Ponte Vecchio
Running through the city is the river Arno, with a sidewalk that follows along its banks for at least the length of the city. It’s a nice, easy walk since it’s paved, but still provides a nice view. One morning I walked east along the Arno, and just before Ponte S. Niccolo (Ponte means ‘bridge’ in Italian), there’s a lovely green space with a small restaurant and plenty of shade if you feel like sitting along the bank of the Arno for a bit.

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By far the most popular spot along the Arno is the Ponte Vecchio, which translates to ‘Old Bridge’ in English. It’s famous because it’s the oldest bridge in Florence and still has IMG_2180shops lining it, which is how the bridges along the Arno used to be. Originally, these shops were occupied by butchers, but now you can find beautiful (and expensive!) jewelry for sale in them, along with some art and souvenirs. Most of the shops like these on other bridges were taken down eventually to make room for cars and other effects of modernization, but the Ponte Vecchio has survived even the 1966 flood, and is a quirky remnant of the city’s medieval history.

Piazza della Signoria and The Loggia
Florence is dotted with piazzas, or plazas, throughout the city. We stayed near the Basilica di Santa Croce (more on that in a minute!) which meant that Piazza della Signoria was just a short walk from our apartment, and we went there several nights. One weekends you’re likely to find live music and a crowded, excited atmosphere. Restaurants line the square, although they’re a little more pricey since it’s a tourist area. The piazza is in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and was the original location of Michelangelo’s David until it was moved to the Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1873. Today there is a replica of the statue at the entrance of the palace that gives you an idea of what it would have looked like. The Fountain of Neptune is also located in the piazza, but we sadly couldn’t see it since it’s undergoing major restoration currently.

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Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus by Giambologna (1599, placed here in 1841)

Near the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio is the Loggia dei Lanzi. This is basically an open-air sculpture gallery, with about a dozen original antique and Renaissance statues. These include Perseus with the head of Medusa, The Rape of the Sabine Women, and the Medici lions guarding the entrance to the Loggia. These are all original statues that were placed here centuries ago, typically by the Medici family.

These are some wonderful works of art, and I highly recommend spending a few minutes admiring them when you visit the piazza.

Things to Do and See 

During our first week in Florence, we visited some places that may not be the first thing you think of when planning a trip to Florence, but I highly recommend them.

Basilica di Santa Croce
Our apartment was located right on the Piazza di Santa Croce and had a great view of the church, so it was on the top of our list of things to do. Construction began in 1294 and it was consecrated in 1442 and is the major Franciscan church in Florence. To get in, as with all churches in Italy, your shoulders and down to your knees need to be covered. We

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Galileo’s tomb

brought scarves and jackets, but you can also purchase a kimono for €1, though I can’t say how fashionable it is since I never had the chance to see it! It was €8 to get in, and definitely worth it. It’s also known as the “Temple of Italian Glories” because people like Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are buried here. There are also memorials to Da Vinci and Dante.

The church building is beautiful, but be sure to also visit the three cloisters next to the church (included in admission and hard to miss). It’s nice to get some fresh air, and will eventually lead you to the Pazzi Chapel and small Museum of the Opera, containing some of the art that used to be located inside the church. Many of the pieces were damaged in the 1966 flood, and some have only just been restored and preserved, and there are plenty of videos and panels to learn about that process.

Left: The altar and stain glass inside the church. Right: The view of Santa Croce from the balcony of our apartment at night.

The Leonardo Da Vinci Museum
On our first Saturday, we decided to go by the Academy, where Michelangelo’s David is on display, to see how long the wait was without a reservation. It was almost two hours, so we instead decided to spend the afternoon at the nearby Leonardo Da Vinci Museum. It was only €7 to get in full price, and it’s a really fun, hands-on museum. It

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Replica of one version of Da Vinci’s flying machine

primarily consists of replicas of Da Vinci’s machines, both that he actually constructed and many based on sketches in his journals. The panels are informative for those looking to learn more about his life and work,  and there’s also a room dedicated to his painting. There aren’t any original artifacts, but it’s a great place to take kids (and kids at heart!) to burn some energy without being in the heat. You’re allowed to touch and maneuver most of the machines, plus try and build your own based on his designs. We went on a Saturday afternoon in the height of tourist season and it wasn’t crowded at all and there was no line, so don’t bother with paying more for online, skip-the-wait tickets!

Calcio Storico
When we arrived, the piazza outside of Santa Croce (and our apartment) was being blocked off and set up for an event. The following weekend we figured out what was going on: The Games. More specifically, Calcio Storico. The game calcio originated in Italy (it’s thought specifically to have begun in the Piazza di Santa Croce) in the sixteenth century. Calcio is a sort of violent mix of football, soccer, and rugby, involving passing the ball to your teammates by throwing and trying to get it into the other team’s net at one

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Musicians playing drums, trumpets, and more after the end of the game.

end of the field to score a point. Players tackle members of the opposite team resulting in a wrestling match (which typically looked more like a fist fight) until one finally pins the other to the ground and sits on them, in order to keep them from participating in the game. In the 17th century the game fell out of popularity, but was brought back in the early 1900s. Today, Calcio Storico (Storico means ‘historic’) is a tournament played every June. A team from each quarter of the city plays and the ultimate winner is crowned on June 24th, but we were there to watch the first round. Each game is preceded by medieval pageantry, as it would have been when played in its early days, and just generally surrounded by lots of fanfare. If you happen to be in Florence in the first few weeks of June, be aware that it’s happening. You may want to get a ticket to see the game (we were just able to watch it from our balcony window!), but if not you definitely want to stay away from the Santa Croce area–it’s packed with people, and many of the streets are blocked off to keep people from sneaking into the game.

Where to Shop

We didn’t do tons of shopping during the first week since we were mostly getting a feel for how prices looked, but we did end up buying souvenirs from these spots.

Sahra (Via del Proconsolo, 69R)
Of course, Italy is known for its leather, and it’s hard to think of a better souvenir to bring home than a jacket, bag, or wallet. While the latter two options you’re probably better off finding at a market, a good, reasonably-priced jacket can be hard to find. We ended up at Sahra, a leather store just down the street from the Duomo. The owner was friendly and helpful, and not too pushy–he was definitely still a salesman, but we didn’t feel uncomfortably pressured. There’s a huge variety of styles and colors in their leather jackets, and fairly reasonably priced. We ended up getting one for €180 after some haggling.

Signum (Lungarno degli Archibusieri, 14R)
This little shop was located on a side street that we walked down often, so we stopped in more than once. It carries lots of fun paper and book-related items, like journals bound in leather and marbled paper, calligraphy pens, little miniature bookshelves, and sheets of marbled paper, among many other things. If you’re looking for a unique gift that is distinctly Italian, I definitely recommend checking out this store.

Where to Eat

Of course, arguably the best part of being in Italy is eating! We did a lot of it, and I think 90% of me consists of pizza and pasta now. When you’re creating a budget for your trip, definitely plan to eat out, because you won’t be able to resist. Here are a few of our favorite places.

Ristorante Tato (Largo Piero Bargellini, 2)
We went here for lunch one of our first days, and I had some of the best four cheese pizza ever. It was only around €7, and probably could be split, except that I was starving. Located right by the northeast corner of Piazza di Santa Croce, it was a nice place to sit down and enjoy some shade, and it has a friendly staff.

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This restaurant was right next door to our apartment, and was the first meal I had in Italy. I got spaghetti and it was around €9. There’s outdoor seating, but even if you sit indoors, they have large windows they open up to catch the breeze. The food came out quickly and it has a fun, antique-y vibe to it.

Vivoli (Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7)
This was hands down my favorite place to get gelato in Florence. It has pretty standard pricing–€2.50 to €6, depending on what size and how many flavors you want. It has some unique flavors like Zabaione, a sort of custard and sweet wine flavor based on the dessert of the same name, as well as classics like hazelnut and coffee. It was by far the creamiest gelato I had, and we went there several times! It’s hard to go wrong with gelato, but if you’re looking for an exceptional spot, I definitely recommend Vivoli.

That’s all for now! I’ll have Part Two up soon. What did you think? Have you been to any of these places or done of these things? Did I miss anything? (although keep in mind there’s a lot more coming in Part Two!) Which one do you think would be your favorite? Let me know in the comments!

To read about our second week in Florence, click here. To read about our day visiting the Duomo, click here.

 

Prepping for a Mid-length Trip

Hi all! In just a few days, I’ll be leaving for Italy, where I’ll be staying in Florence for fifteen days! Needless to say, I’m pretty excited.

But a two-week-long trip like this presents some unique challenges that shorter or longer trips don’t come with. I’ve done one day trips and a semester abroad, but this trip will fall somewhere in the middle. If you have summer plans coming up that include longer trips, here are a few tips for getting ready!

Plan, but still be flexible

With a short weekend trip, you know you want to hit all the highlights. With a long trip, you know you have time to take a few days off, explore, and see where you end up. With only about two weeks in Italy, I’m determined to make the most of it, and a big part of that is planning.

I’m not typically a super-planner kind of person, so I’ve resisted scheduling out every hour of every day. Rather, I compiled an “Italy Bucket List” of sorts, pictured below. Having a Bucket List will help you know your priorities and make the most of the time you spend there, so that you don’t come back home and when someone asks, “Oh, did you go to such-and-such place?” you don’t have to cringe and admit you didn’t know about it while you were there!

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As you’ll see, some of these things involved a little more preparation ahead of time. We booked an Air BNB in Rome for a few days, as well as staying overnight in Venice. Even without those excursions, some places, like the Vatican museum, require reservations ahead of time. Knowing what you want to see and do will help you figure out what needs to be done before you leave.

Planning also applies to packing. Once you have a general idea of what you want to do, you can figure out what you’ll need to wear. Rather than bringing fifteen different outfits, choose a color palette and select items that pair well together in multiple ways, plus a few fun accessories to mix it up!

Research!

How did I make this list? Obviously, lots of Googling and asking people for suggestions, img_1900but I also like to read books and watch movies and TV shows set in wherever I’m headed. For me, the fictional story makes it easy to remember historical details, and I just enjoy it a lot more than reading tons of travel books. For this trip, I read Love and Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch, The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli by Alyssa Palombo, The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga, and I’m watching Medici: Masters of Florence, a Netflix original TV show. These cover a wide range of time periods and topics, so that I get a good overview of important historical points as well as an idea of what the city is like today. As a place or activity was mentioned that sounded interesting to me, I wrote it down.

Figure out your sleep solution

Italy is eight hours ahead, so there’s definitely going to be some major jet lag to deal with. If you’re going somewhere for just a few days, you can usually push through on adrenaline and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, staying somewhere for several months gives you time to take a few days to adjust. With only fifteen days, I don’t want to spend any of them just lying around trying to recover from a weird sleep schedule.  Figure out what helps you get to sleep fast so that you aren’t missing out because of lost sleep. Maybe it’s yoga, drinking a cup of tea, or exercising earlier in the day. When I have trouble falling asleep, traveling or not, I use this guided mediation on Spotify. It’s only about twenty minutes, and I’m usually asleep by the end of it. Just to be sure, I’ve also packed some Zzzquil. Sleep aid medicine may not be best for everyone, but I like to bring it as a backup plan, both to help me sleep on the plane and the first couple nights.

Decide now how you want to remember the trip

This is good advice for all trips really, but think out what will work best for you for capturing the trip. Maybe you like to write, so journaling is a good solution. You may not img_19041be consistent enough to keep it up when traveling for months, but for just a couple weeks you can make it a goal to write even a short paragraph each night. Maybe you’re more visual so you decide to create more of a photo journal. Or maybe you’re artsy and want to draw or paint some scenes while you’re there. For even more creative solutions, check out this article.

Whatever you end up doing, make a plan before you leave so that you have all the supplies you need and a goal. If you decide halfway through the trip you want to start journaling or taking a certain number of pictures each day, you’ll be stressed over making up for the first half of the trip. Better to have an idea of what you want to do ahead of time.

Traveling for any length of time is exciting, and spending fifteen days in a new country is definitely something I’m looking forward too, especially with just a little bit of planning. What experience do you have with a mid-length trip? Any tips you would add?

 

One Short Day series: Boston

Hi all! This past year I was in school in Syracuse, New York. Though it’s a few hours north of NYC, it still put me within easy driving distance (at least compared to Dallas or Birmingham!) of some of the Northeast’s greatest cities. This resulted in quite a few day trips, and I thought I’d share what I did on these trips with you. To be sure, each of these cities could easily fill a week’s worth of touring, but if you’re just driving through or have an extended layover, this series will give you an easy plan to make the most of your time in the city. Bonus: it’s also super affordable because, hey, I was on a grad student budget when I visited!

Up first is one of my favorite cities in the U.S.: Boston!

For my day trip, I visited here in November with my now-husband. We arrived in the city about lunch time, and I knew exactly where I wanted to eat: the Bell In Hand Tavern.

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It claims the title of America’s oldest tavern, and whether or not that’s true, it certainly has the best clam chowder I’ve ever tasted! I usually just get a big bowl of chowder, but this time we also got the soft pretzel appetizer to fill us up more, which were also delicious. Located just around the corner from Quincy Market, it’s in a great location with very reasonable prices.

From there, we spent most of the day following the Freedom Trail. The trail is about 2.5 miles through Boston and visits 16 historic locations. It’s clearly marked by red bricks in the pavement which makes it super easy to follow. You can pay for a tour, but at around $35 per person, we decided to go at our own pace. They have plenty of info on their website about each location, and most spots have ample signage so we didn’t feel like we missed anything by going at it ourselves (and this allowed us to choose where we wanted to spend our time, so we liked it more than a tour!)

The trail officially starts at the Boston Common, but our lunch location situated us near another stop, Faneuil Hall, so we started there.

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Faneuil Hall is also right next to historic Quincy Market, a great place to shop and eat (if you decide to forego Bell In Hand Tavern).  There are also always street performers that are a blast to watch.

Nearby is the Old State Meeting House, and the location of the Boston Massacre. In good weather they sometimes have performers outside, and every hour or so they have a “changing of the guard” performance.

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Inside is a museum.  We decided not go in, but admission is $10 for adults, with student and senior discounts and free for kids under 18.

We did decide to go inside the Paul Revere House. Admission is $5 for adults, again with various discounts for students, seniors, and children. It’s a small museum, but fun to see where an American history icon lived part of his life.

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If you’re looking for more Paul Revere spots, the Granary Burying Ground is worth a visit. The resting place of Revere, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin’s parents, and other notable citizens, the cemetery is free to enter and a nice shady spot to explore some historical figures.

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The Freedom Trail technically ends at the USS Constitution. While this spot is definitely worth a visit, walking to it adds an extra mile from the second-to-last stop (Copp’s Hill Burying Grounds) to the ship. Crossing the Charlestown Bridge can be nice, but I would recommend doubling back a little bit and taking a ferry from the Long Wharf North. Only $7 for a round trip (included in a day or week pass Charlie Card), it gives a great view of the city and it’s always fun to be out on the water.

The USS Constitution site includes both the ship and the museum, which are operated separately. The ship is free to enter, but is an operative navy base so visitors over 18 need to have a federal or state issued ID. Check their website before you visit also, as it’s not open year-round.

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The museum has a suggested donation amount, but is technically free to enter. If you’re really into nautical history and technology, this is for you. Otherwise, we didn’t find it particularly interesting (especially if you’ve been on your feet walking all day!)

These are just a few of the stops along the trail. If you’re a history buff, they’re all exciting to visit, but some especially notable ones include the Old North Church, King’s Chapel, and Old South Meeting House. Information on these and all the other stops is available on the Freedom Trail website (linked to previously in the article).

If you have some extra time or are looking for some indoor options, here are some of my favorite museums I visited while there for a full week:

1. The Boston MFA

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Easily my favorite museum in the city, it’s definitely worth a visit. They have a wide variety of collections (hello, Ancient Egyptian artifacts!) and interesting temporary exhibits that are constantly changing. It can be pricey to enter normally, but if you’re there on a Wednesday after 4pm it’s free, as well as a few other holidays throughout the year. Visit their website for more info.

2. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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A unique museum, it used to be the house of Isabella Gardner, and features a plethora of collections, all arranged the way she specified. And yes, the picture above is part of the museum: it’s the courtyard that the entire original museum space is centered around. There is also a recently-built modern building that has changing exhibits, but the original house is an interesting place to visit. General admission is $15, but 20 minute introductory tours are available for free, which I would highly recommend to get a better idea of what the museum is all about. Check out their website for details.

3. The Harvard Peabody Museum

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From the Peabody’s website

The Peabody is on Harvard’s campus, part of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, and is a fascinating museum for anybody interested in archaeology or ethnology. They recently renovated their upstairs space and it is BEAUTIFUL, as well as interesting for adults and older children (probably about middle school and up). General admission is $12. Here’s their website.

Of course, there’s much more to do in Boston. Have you been? Do you agree with my recommendations? What would you add?

Happy travels!

 

10 Reasons Vancouver Should Be Your Next Summer Adventure

While the USA recently celebrated a birthday, Canada also had a big holiday on July 1–Canada Day. In honor of this and my recent graduation trip with best friend Rae to Vancouver, here are some reasons that Vancouver is one of my favorite places I’ve visited in the summer.

1. The obvious: whale watching

Vancouver is right on the west coast of Canada in British Columbia, which makes it an ideal place to find a variety of whale watching options. We chose the Vancouver Whale Watch company. They had above a 90% chance of sighting whales, and if you don’t see a whale they have a lifetime guarantee so you can come back for free until you see one. It also leaves from Richmond, about 30 minutes away from downtown Vancouver, which was pretty convenient (we drove, but they also offer a shuttle service). Our guide was great, and we saw both orcas and humpback whales, as well as harbor seals and bald eagles. Whale watching is what many people think of when they think of a Canada vacation, and this was a great way to experience it.

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2. Double the vacation

Since we live in Texas, getting to Canada was one of the more expensive parts of the trip. But we figured out it was much cheaper to fly into Seattle, rent a car, and drive three hours into Vancouver. That also allowed us to have a car for the whole week, which made getting to places outside the city much easier as well (just don’t forgot to factor in costs of the car, such as parking, gas, and insurance). Being able to fly into Seattle sort of gives you a 2-in-1 trip, if you do what we did and fly in early enough to spend the day in Seattle.

3. The exchange rate

While the U.S. and Canada both use dollars, the difference between the two is notable (at least at the time of this writing). 1 USD is equal to 1.30 CAD, so your trip budget will go even farther there, whether it’s for a place to stay or a souvenir to take home.

4. The weather

While Canada in the winter may be more than these Texans could bear, in June it was the ideal weather. It stayed in the 60s and 70s (Fahrenheit), and while it was drizzly some days, it never lasted too long and we never let it get in the way. So if you’re trying to escape the summer heat, the Pacific Northwest is definitely an ideal spot.

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5. The loooong days

Since Vancouver is so far north, it means that the summer daylight lasted long enough to get everything done, and more! The sun didn’t start setting until around 9:15pm, so we were able to fill our days with activities and still be back before it got too dark, which was perfect for a girls’ trip. The city feels pretty safe anyway, but not having to walk back after sunset made it feel even more comfortable.FullSizeRender (14)

6. Proximity to…everything!

Vancouver is a great city in and of itself, but it’s also a hub of several great destination day trips. Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is a short (free!) shuttle ride away; Whistler Mountain is only and hour and a half drive up the Sea to Sky Highway, one of the prettiest places you’ll ever drive; Vancouver Whale Watch is about a 30 minute drive; Vancouver Island is a ferry ride away. A day trip to Vancouver Island is also customizable to what you want to do–three hours to Victoria on the southern tip of the island,or just twenty minutes to Bowen Island (what we did) and great hiking trails.

7. Poutine

When you Google “Canadian cuisine” (like we did before visiting), there’s really only one thing that stands out: poutine. Poutine is fries covered in gravy and curds, and then you can add toppings of your choice. We got the plate for dinner one night, and it was definitely unique. While it may not look appetizing, it was pretty tasty and you have to try it at least once while you’re there!

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8. The nature

Vancouver is within easy driving (or ferry riding) distance of amazing natural views. We went hiking on Bowen Island, explored Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, biked around Stanley Park, and they all have something to offer any nature lover. Half of my photos from the trip are just pictures of trees! Be sure to find a place to explore the West coast rainforests that are common throughout British Columbia. Yes, Canada has rainforests.

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9. And the city

Staying in Vancouver is also guaranteed to bring adventures. Whether you decide to try all the different food trucks, visit the various museums, or explore the different neighborhoods of the city, there’s something exciting around every corner. Tuesday night is pay-what-you-want night at the Vancouver Art Museum, which had a Picasso exhibit while we were there, and the Vancouver Public Library is worth visiting as well. Gastown is the oldest part of the city, as well as the shopping hub, so it’s an exciting place to walk around. Without ever needing to get into a car, the city will provide endless amounts of things to do!

10. The best of all worlds

Vancouver, we decided, really has everything you could say you want to live nearby: big city, beach, forests, mountains. You don’t have to choose one to enjoy, when they’re all within easy driving distance! It’s enough to fill any vacation with a variety of adventures and will make sure you never get bored.

Have you been to Vancouver, or another part of Canada? What did you love? Anything you would add to the list?