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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Boccadama Ristorante (Piazza S. Croce, 25-26R) 76c12d3d-6964-4049-ba7b-027c8cd75526.jpg
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?

 

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?

 

A Walking Tour of Oxford {day 20}

oxford_title.jpgHello all! SO sorry I haven’t posted in awhile. I started my internship (more about that later!) a couple weeks ago and have had zero free time since, so I’m just now getting around to finally posting. So, after a long wait, here is my post about Oxford!

A couple Saturdays ago The Group planned a day trip up to Oxford. Whilst planning, we struggled a bit finding a self-guided tour of Oxford–we knew it was small enough to walk all around, but we weren’t willing to pay for a guided tour! So we ended up putting together this tour of the city. So here it is, for your use and enjoyment!

Ashmolean Museum
Beaumont St, Oxford OX1 2PH
Cost: Free
We arrived in Oxford around 10am, via train from Paddington station. First on our list was the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean Museum is Oxford’s main and biggest museum. Founded in 1683, it was Britain’s first public museum. Having never heard of it before, we were unprepared for how massive it is. They especially focus on ancient civilizations, and we were only able to get through a few of the galleries. They have an impressively large collection of Egyptian artifacts, and one of the most important collections from the pre-Dynastic Egyptian period. Beyond just being a museum enthusiast, I am particularly interested in Egyptian history and would love to specialize in that area, so I was quite ecstatic to spend several hours wandering through this gallery.

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Lunch at Taylor’s
Mainly: 31 St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3LD

Cost: Approx £3
Since we ended up staying at the Ashmolean until about 12pm, we decided it was time for lunch. Taylor’s Deli in Oxford has several locations, one a little down the street from the Ashmolean, and they sell very cheap but very good sandwiches, along with other various things to eat. On the way we passed by the Eagle and Child pub, which we were very excited to go in, but we decided to make that our last stop of the day and not have lunch there. Instead we continued on to Taylor’s, picked up sandwiches, and then set on a short wall across the street and enjoyed people watching and eating our lunch.

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Bodleian Library
Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BG
Cost: Anywhere from free–£13
The Bodleian Library, founded in 1602, is the largest university library in the UK, with millions of printed items and manuscripts. The large price range is caused by the various tours. It is a large building and area, with a courtyard in the center and the various buildings branching off from there. It’s free to enter this historic quadrangle and the exhibition room (currently they have The Great War exhibit for the centennial of WWI). To actually enter the library area, you have to pay for a tour. They have a standard one-hour tour for £7, extended 90-minute tours for £13, and mini 30-minute tours for £5. We just did the free wandering, since we didn’t have much time anyway, but if I went back I would love to be able to go into the reading rooms to see all the books and where so many famous kings, politicians and writers have studied. If you’re interested in a tour, check out their website for scheduling and more information. Whether you go in or not, it’s a beautiful building and full of historic importance.

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Magdalen College
Oxford OX1 4AU
Cost: Free
Perhaps the most important thing to know at first about this college is that it is pronounced “Maudlin” college, contrary to what its spelling suggests. If you pronounce it the way it’s spelled, you will get quite chastised, since there is a college in Cambridge that is spelled the same way but pronounced “magdalene.” Actually important to the college itself, however, are the many prestigious alumni, including Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney, King Edward VIII, and of course C.S. Lewis. Of particular interest to Tolkien and Lewis fans are the paths behind the college. The campus itself is beautiful, but directly out the back gate is a large path through trees and around a field, and it is here that Tolkien and Lewis would walk and discuss their writing. It was a thrilling feeling to know that two of the arguably greatest (for sure two of our favorite) writers had walked here just as we were. It was one of my favorite things we were able to do that day.

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The small grassy area that the main college rooms encircle

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The eating hall for students

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The hallways that form the boundaries of the grassy area

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Another grassy meadow on campus

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Behind the college, a small stream runs along through the trees

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The paths behind the college that follow the stream are beautiful, weaving through trees and bushes, with benches placed occasionally so you can simply sit and enjoy the nature

Merton College
Merton Street, Oxford, OX1 4JD
Cost: Free or £2
This is the oldest college at Oxford University, founded in the 1200s. What we were excited about was the fact that JRR Tolkien had taught here. Normally, you can walk around the grounds for free, and go on a tour of the Old Library for £2, but while we were there they were celebrating their 750th anniversary, and unfortunately had closed the college except for various private events to honor this. Disappointed, we moved on to our next stop. Eventually we agreed that it had actually been a good thing we didn’t spend time there, as we were still barely able to fit in everything we wanted to see!

Christ Church College
St Aldate’s, Oxford OX1 1DP
Cost: £7, students £5
This college has had numerous notable students and teachers, including 13 prime ministers, John Locke, Charles Wesley, John Wesley, Robert Hooke, William Penn, John Crowe Ransom, and Charles Dodgson, who wrote Alice in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll.

But let’s be honest. We went the because its Great Hall was where the dining hall scenes in Harry Potter were filmed.

Don’t misunderstand me; we were truly excited about the rest of the history at the college, and enjoyed the full tour. But we freaked out just a little bit more when we got to walk up the stairs where Professor Mcgonagall welcomes Harry and his friends in their first year, and to see the Great Hall of Hogwarts.

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The staircase from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone–try to imagine it without all the tourists

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The Great Hall– of course, a bit of movie magic was added to make it as magical as it is in the movies

The Hall was set up for a private event so we couldn’t actually enter it, but we were able to look in and get some pictures. It ended up working out for the best, as since this part was closed off our admission price was discounted to just £4.50. The rest of the self-guided walking tour was beautiful as well, taking us through the impressive architecture of the building and especially focusing on the historic cathedral on campus.

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Oxford Castle
Prices Vary
The final attraction we had decided to visit was Oxford Castle.We had expected a grand stone building with looming towers that had overlooked and protected the city since ancient times…we were a little disappointed with what we actually found. It was a small building, but still interesting enough. Most of the interesting bits were inside, with the Unlocked Tour and the Prisons exploration, which we didn’t feel like paying for, though they were intriguing. What we did decide to do was climb the hill that is on the castle grounds. Normally it cost £1, but since the weekend we were there was Open House Oxford (where numerous locations have free or discounted rates) it was no cost to climb. Though we were tired from being on our feet all day, the hike was worth it, as it gave you a spectacular view of both the city Oxford and the countryside beyond.

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A part of Oxford Castle

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Hiking up the hill

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Made it to the top!

The Eagle and Child
49 St Giles, Oxford OX1 3LU
Prices Vary
This was perhaps my favorite part of the day. The Eagle and Child, or as it is known by locals, The Bird and Baby, is the pub where Tolkien, Lewis, and the other members of the Inklings writing group would gather on Tuesdays every week to discuss their writings. While the pub has been added onto and extends back farther, the original pub where the Inklings met is at the front part, where we sat. Several of us bought a pint of ale to try, and we enjoyed once again reveling in the fact that at one point, Lewis and Tolkien had sat here and talked of Narnia and Middle Earth.

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From here, we headed to the train station to catch a train back at around 7pm. We had spent a full and amazing day in Oxford, but there was even more we weren’t able to do. If you have time, here are some of the things we missed (and might go back to do!)

Oxford Poetry Walk– For a more literary view of Oxford, this is an audio tour so you can go at your own pace and hear Oxford as described by its years of famous poetry
The Story Museum–  A small museum we saw while walking to Oxford Castle, it looked like a really interesting place to visit, for people of all ages who enjoy reading and stories
St. Mary the Virgin Church– For a small fee you can climb to the top of the tower and see some spectacular views of Oxford
Modern Art Oxford– If you’re into modern art, this looked like an interesting place to visit
Museum of the History of Science– Whether you’re into history or science, this museum is a must-see. We just walked around the introductory exhibit and gift shop and were fascinated

Is there anything else you would suggest visiting? What would you most like to see? Comment below!

Thanks for reading!

Getting Sherlocked {day 12}

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While we were here, it was high on our list to have a “Sherlock Day.” We all loved the movies, TV show, and of course stories of Sherlock Holmes, and what better place to indulge this love than in London! After a little bit of planning, we had an entire day set out to discover key places related to Sherlock, both the modern TV show and the books.

Stop 1: Sherlock and Watson’s House
Address: …221B Baker Street
Tube Stop: Baker Street, via the Circle Line
First on our list was the “actual” location of Sherlock and Watson’s flat, the famous 221B Baker Street. It has been turned into a Sherlock Holmes Museum, with several floors of both recreations of what the flat may have looked like based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books and also of the many mysteries Sherlock and Watson solved. The museum,  £10, was worth it to us. Even without that, there’s a wonderful gift shop (be warned: you will want to buy everything) and around the neighborhood you can see his silhouette feature on everything from restaurants to dry cleaners.

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Wax figures of characters inhabit the museum. Here Holmes and Watson look down at visitors from the attic

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In one room there is a board full of notes people have left to and about Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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A bust of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Stop 2: Sherlock and Watson’s Flat (film location)– “Faker Street”
Address: 187 N. Gower Street
Tube Stop: Euston Square via the Circle line
Not quite as good as the real thing, our next stop was where the outside of Sherlock and Watson’s flat in the BBC show Sherlock. It was still really cool to be standing there and recognize the location from our (many) times of watching the show. Right next door is the cafe Speedy’s, featured especially in the “Scandal in Belgravia” episode, at the end when Mycroft and Sherlock talk in the cafe. They had food that was cheap and good so we grabbed lunch there before moving to our next location.

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~Season 2 spoilers ahead~

Stop 3: Where Sherlock jumps (film location)
Address: St. Bart’s Hospital, W. Smithfield (it’s too big to have one street number)
Tube Stop: Farringdon via the Circle line. We asked a worker to point us in the right direction once we had exited.
This spot actually ended up being one of our favorites. Apparently, after the episode where Sherlock jumps to his “death” from the roof of St. Bart’s hopsital, Sherlock fans in droves had visited the spot and filled it with temporary graffiti–writing quotes in the dust on the windows and putting sticky notes on the telephone box nearby. Thankfully most people had enough respect for the grand building to not write anything permanent on the wall itself, but the spot has become a bit of a Sherlock memorial, which we happily added to.

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Where John would have stood to watch Sherlock jump (a big part of us visiting involved trying to figure out how Sherlock survived!)

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We just had to reenact the scene, Sam even has the hair to go with it! (We might have freaked out the guy sitting on the bench back there) (Also my apologies to Mrs. K as this picture doesn’t actually prove Sam is alive and well, but we promise he is! 🙂

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Some of the graffiti on the telephone box

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Yes, someone left a print out of the screenshot of Sherlock falling

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Stop 4: The Diogenes Club (film location)
Address: British Academy, 10-11 Carlton Terrace
Tube stop: Embankment via the Circle line

Well, this stop ended up being more in theory. We wandered past Trafalgar Square and in that area for awhile and when our GPS failed to locate it, we finally gave up. But if you’re more savvy than we are at finding locations, go for it! If not you can do what we did and take a slight detour from the Sherlock-ness and hang out at Trafalgar Square for a bit, enjoying the architecture, statues, and street performers

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Stop 5: Sherlock Holmes Pub
Address: 10-11 Northumberland St.
Tube Stop: Embankment (walking distance from The Diogenes Club) via Circle Line

This you will pass on the way to the British Academy (if you make it there). It’s right past the tube stop. We had it on our list last so that we could finish there and have a drink. It ended up being too busy to stay, but we enjoyed looking around the pub and small recreation of Sherlock’s room they have on the top floor.

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From here we headed back. It had been a great day and we felt like we had fully satisfied our Sherlock obsession!
If you are interested in more filming locations, you can check out a more complete list here.

Did we miss anything? What would you have visited? Where was your favorite spot we visited? Comment below!