Every year, The New York Times publishes a list of its top picks for places to visit in that given year. This year's list of 52 Places to Go in 2015, provided an interactive look at places around the world, from Macedonia to Cleveland to Cuba. While I wouldn't turn down the chance to go to any of these places, I have had the chance to visit a few for myself so I thought I'd share my own top four picks from the list (four is much more manageable than 52, am I right?!).Read More
Well, this is it. The end of an era...Actually, its just the end of our trip to Italy!
We ended our Italian adventure by driving from Milan to Rome - this was the longest drive we made, and I feel it is worth mentioning the Autogrill. The interstate system in Italy is a bit different in that its a lot harder to come by a fast food joint for a quick bite right off an exit. Enter, the Autogrill! Truly, this place is amazing! In most cases, the building spans over the highway and will have everything you need, including a cafe if you're looking for a full meal, snacks, gifts, wine, groceries...Autogrill has it all.
We arrived in Rome pretty late at night, but Rome is one of those cities where its impossible to go more than a few blocks without seeing something amazing. This is only amplified at night when all the monuments are lit up, so by the time we had arrived at our hotel, Aleph Hotel Rome, we had our second (or third or fourth) wind and were ready to explore! We walked to the Trevi Fountain and then the Spanish steps before enjoying a nightcap, and finally, crashing.
The next day, never ones to shy away from exploring a city, we walked the mile and a half from our hotel to Vatican City. In my opinion, walking is always the simplest, easiest and best way to explore a city (its healthy too!). We took in all the sites along the Tyber River and arrived at the Vatican Museums in time for our reservation. I know I said it in Florence, but seriously, do not even attempt to go to the Vatican without pre-purchasing tickets. The lines! The pan-handlers! The LINES! Save yourself! I bought our tickets off tickitaly.com and we walked right in, bypassing literally thousands of people in the line!
After leaving Vatican City, we walked a short ways and found a quiet lunch at nearby a restaurant to begin working on our strategy to see as much of the city as possible (we really only had this one full day in Rome). Kyle discovered that Uber was offering a two hour tour for 150 euro, and we decided to give it a shot. If you're ever in city like Rome, where there is so much to see and you only have a short window of time, this is a great way to get around! We were able to see Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, the Capitale, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and Aventine Hill all within our two hour window! Our driver took us right up to each monument, we hopped out to take pictures or grab coffees, and then we were off to the next sight. We saw as much of Rome as possible at lightning speed, but with a rain storm coming in and a very short amount of time, Uber saved the day!
That evening, we took a walking food tour in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome and enjoyed some of the best food, company and conversation of our trip. Eating Italy came highly recommended and did not disappoint! As part of our Twilight Trastevere tour we enjoyed wine and appetizers in a cellar that dates back 150 years before the Colosseum, sampled Roman street food, went behind the scenes at local bakery and enjoyed the best.gelato.ever.
How else could we end our trip than at a cafe overlooking the colosseum?! * Tip: While, the pictures were amazing, this is actually a huge tourist trap. We had one drink and hightailed it out of there to enjoy a nice meal at a jazz club and cafe just down the street from our hotel called Elegance. Sounds swanky, right?! The staff was so welcoming and friendly, there was great live music, the food was delicious and the people watching...magnifico!
By far, one of the coolest experiences of my life was going to Expo Milano 2015, otherwise known as the World's Fair!
While we did not plan this prior to our trip, by the time we arrived in Milan we had heard so much about the Expo that we knew we had to go. With 145 participating countries and covering almost 500 acres, we really only cracked the surface on our one night visit to the Expo grounds. The sheer size of each pavilion alone was impressive, but coupled with some of the most innovative architecture, exhibitions, landscaping and more food options than I ever thought possible, the Expo blew us away.
Expo 2015, which is expected to draw 20 million visitors to the city of MIlan, is largely to thank for many restoration projects around the city, including the Duomo and Navigli canals that Kyle and I visited. It also played a large role in Milan's selection as #1 in The New York TImes' list of 52 Places to Go in 2015!
*Tip: Skip the Chinese food and go to Turkey for a gyro and some baklava!
Milan is located a little over an hour south of Lake Como and I was especially excited to visit for two reasons: first, I had never been before and second, THE LAST SUPPER!
Driving into Milan during morning rush hour is a truly Italian experience that everyone should try at least once! No, really - you're going to love it! *Tip: When driving in Italy, stop signs are more of a suggestion and aggressive driving is the only respectable way to operate a vehicle. So don't be afraid to drive it like you stole it.
Santa Marta Suites, our hotel in Milan, was a small boutique hotel of only 8 rooms located right in the heart of the historic city center. We absolutely loved this hotel and highly recommend it to anyone visiting the city. Each room is different, the customer service is superb and it offers a very unique experience!
After arriving in Milan, we quickly located the iconic Duomo di Milano and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, both of which are stunning. The entire Piazza del Duomo is surrounded by shopping options and, when in Milan, one simply must shop! We wandered by the high end shops located within the Galleria, including the first ever Prada store, and then made our way to some of the flea markets lining the side streets. This is where we really had fun! There were so many vintage purses, scarves, dresses, hats, and ties!
That afternoon we made our way to Navigli, Milan's canal district, where we decided to cool off in a cafe. Unbeknownst to us, we happened to be there right in the middle of preparations for men's fashion week...helloooo, male models!
The next day, we took a walking tour of the city with Dark Rome. Again, great company, great tour guide - highly recommend. The tour took us into the Duomo where we saw the statue St. Bartholomew Flayed, through the Galleria and along Milan's Brera district, which is a great spot for restaurants, or if you are so inclined, a croissant with a brownie inside (I was sooooo inclined)!
We made our to Sforza Castle, where Leonardo lived and worked while he was painting The Last Supper, before ending at Santa Maria delle Grazie, where I ticked yet another item off my bucket list!
The history behind The Last Supper and da Vinci's painting techniques and processes are incredibly fascinating - he was testing out a new method in which he used eggs in his paints; the number 3; the face of Judas is thought to be the face of one of the monastery's priors who had angered da Vinci; the "fresco" began to deteriorate within a few years after it was completed; monks actually cut off Jesus' feet to install a door so that they could reach the kitchen faster; the church was bombed during WWII and the painting was only saved because of protective sandbagging. But, I digress. Needless to say I was, and there's no other word for it, pumped to have finally seen this piece. Mission accomplished.
Lake Como has been on my travel-wish-list for quite some time and when Kyle and I decided on an Italian holiday, I knew we had to go! In my vacation fantasies I had predetermined we would be staying at a beautiful, glamorous villa, literally right on the lake, with a pool accessorized by fun and colorful umbrellas, wooden boats and even a celebrity or two!
Well, lets just say that all of those criteria are actually harder to find than one would think. I did, however, narrow it down to two fabulous options: Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio or Grand Hotel Tremezzo in Tremezzo, both of which are luxury hotels meeting all of my qualifications (minus the celebrities of course - I would have to leave those up to fate). In the end, we decided on G.H. Villa Serbelloni. As fate would have it, the travel-booking-website-gods were smiling down on me and lo and behold there was a deal available through Booking.com! If you have not yet used this website, I highly recommend you search it before your next trip. They will occasionally offer special deals for luxury hotels at a fraction of the normal price i.e. make my dreams come true!
As you can see, the hotel was stunning! If you have seen the movie Grand Budapest Hotel, that is what this hotel was like! Originally built as a holiday villa for an aristocratic family in 1850, the hotel has hosted many illustrious guests over the years, including Roosevelt and Kennedy. Situated at the very tip of a peninsula, which juts into the lake, the hotel offered the most amazing panoramic views.
Getting to Bellagio itself requires quite a hair-raising drive through the mountainous lake area. The town, which is bustling with tourists, shoppers and artists during the day, is actually very quiet at night. We spent our first two days in Bellagio simply wandering the tiny streets, eating pizza for lunch and fresh fish for dinner, often enjoying an aperitif at a street side cafe, and partaking in the town's silk shopping.
Though we were there in mid-June, the weather was on the cooler side, but we still managed to enjoy the hotel pool and the lake. If you look closely at some of the pictures, you can see snow on the very tips of the alps (allow me to name drop one more time...ALPS) in the distance and yes, the water was cold! So, if anyone ever asks...yes, yes I have done the polar bear plunge.
On our third day in Bellagio, we took the ferry to Mandello del Lario to meet our guide for the day, Mauro. I had found Mauro's company, Lake Como Motorbike, through some research online and Kyle and I were so excited about this adventure.
First, Mauro walked us to the Moto Guzzi museum in Mandello. We were suited up and sent on our way on our Moto Guzzi! We followed Mauro all over the lake, taking the ferry from Varenna to the opposite shore and the town of Menaggio. We then rode through the mountains to Lugano, Switzerland and around Lake Lugano. We came back through the main town of Como, where Mauro showed us around and took us to the home he shares with Federica Campari, a local chef who had prepared an amazing lunch for us. After lunch, we headed to Lecco where we enjoyed gelato before ending our day back in Mandello. The entire experience was absolutely incredible and we could not have dreamed of a better guide than Mauro!
*Tip: The ferry's at Lake Como are the easiest and best way to get from town to town and the ride is stunning! It's a value play too - $16 versus a private water taxi quote of $400.
We concluded our time in Bellagio with dinner by the lake and Kyle even ordered up a beautiful sunset for desert.
Ahh, Florence...Florence is where dreams come true. Seriously! Ever since studying abroad there I have dreamed of going back, and voila! Dream come true.
Our hotel was situated right on the river, directly across from the Ponte Vecchio, Florence's most famous bridge. While our hotel in Siena was all about historic elegance, Hotel Continentale in Florence was all about modern luxury. The hotel is part of the Lungarno Collection, a group of hotels owned by the Ferragamo Group, and I happened to be traveling with a Salvatore Ferragamo enthusiast. Coincidence? Definitely not.
After checking in, it was time to explore! We wandered down the street to Piazza della Signoria, enjoyed lunch al fresco with a nice side of vino rosso, and headed on over to the Uffizi Gallery. For an art history nerd, such as myself, this place is heaven. For the husband of an art history nerd, such as Kyle, this place isn't so bad either. We made our way through the da Vinci's and Botticelli's to find my personal favorite - Michelangelo's Doni Tondo. After geeking out for a bit, I decided it was time for Kyle to experience the magic of the San Lorenzo Market.
We made our way past the Duomo to San Lorenzo and the shopping commenced. When in Florence, you must buy leather (its a rule, I swear) and the best place to do it at is the market. Bonus: if you like a bit of good natured haggling, this is the place for you. All in all, I left the city a couple purses and one fabulous leather jacket richer. Mission accomplished.
Alas, the shopping had to end, and so we headed back to the hotel to enjoy our room's balcony overlooking the Arno River, before heading up to our hotel's rooftop bar for a pre-dinner drink, or as the Italians say, an aperitif. Dinner that night left something to be desired so we decided the best course of action was to check out another rooftop bar, this time at the Westin Excelsior. Between La Terrazza at our own hotel and the Westin Excelsior, we had now found the two best rooftops in Florence.
On day two in Florence, we woke up early and after grabbing a cappuccino and a croissant, we headed to the Galleria dell'Accademia. In addition to many of his unfinished sculptures, the Accademia houses Michelangelo's David, a must see. Even if you don't like art, you will appreciate the David. It, quite simply, takes your breath away.
We then headed to Florence's main Duomo, The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore to climb Brunelleschi's Dome. Though its quite a hike up many, many stairs through a very narrow, hot stair case, the view was worth it! From the top of the dome you have a 360 degree view of Florence and the hills of Tuscany.
*Tip: When going to Florence, Rome, Milan or Timbuktu do your research and figure out how to NOT spend your whole vacation standing in line! For us, I pre-purchased a Firenze Card that was literally worth its weight in gold. We walked right into every single site we wanted to see without wasting hours of our precious vacation waiting in line. In the case of the Duomo in particular, we bypassed a line of people who had probably been standing there since dawn.
After our morning hike, I visited the Palazzo Vecchio, which is where da Vinci's lost Battle of Anghiari is rumored to be hidden under a wall (nerd alert!). For lunch, we headed across the river to Gusta Pizza, said to be the best pizza in Florence. It did not disappoint!
We spent our afternoon wandering around, window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, visiting the Ferragamo flagship store and museum (yes, it exists), going back to the market to browse and finally relaxing with an aperitif at the hotel bar. For dinner, we walked along the river to Lungarno Bistrot for what was probably the best meal of our entire trip. I'm still dreaming about that tiramisu!
Sunday morning we put on our running shoes and did some more exploring, running past the building I used to live in and through side streets and back alleys until we made it back to the river and eventually our hotel. A rainstorm hit that afternoon so we sought shelter at a cafe outside the Pitti Palace before exploring some of the art galleries and surrounding neighborhood. That day, it just so happened to be Mona Lisa's birthday so the entire neighborhood was out celebrating in the squares and in parades along the streets. I do love a good birthday party.
My favorite church in Florence is San Miniato al Monte, which sits on one of the highest points in the city. The view is unbeatable and the church itself is actually very quiet and calming in a city where churches are the main tourist attractions. This one actually feels like a church. We climbed and climbed, took in the view and caught our breath inside the church before heading off into the sunset (and I mean that literally).
When in Florence, it is an absolute must to watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo, which is just a short walk from San Miniato. So, that is exactly how we decided to spend our last night in this amazing city. Cheers to you, Florence! I'll be back.
A few weeks back, Kyle and I embarked on what will henceforth be known as The Great Italian Road Trip! For ten days, we explored as much of Italy as humanly possible. After arriving in Rome bright and early, we picked up our Roman chariot, otherwise known as a rental car, and set out for the town of Montalcino.
Operating on a combined four hours of sleep, we wandered through the town, took in the stunning views and then quickly sought an energy boost in the form of the nearest pizza.
A small, medieval hill town in the heart of Tuscany, Montalcino is most famous for the many surrounding vineyards and their Brunello wines. After lunch, we headed to Mate Winery for a tour and tasting before continuing on to Siena.
When I studied abroad in Italy in college, I was able to visit Siena on a day trip and I absolutely loved it! I remember having the most amazing lunch of wine and pizza on the Piazza del Campo, followed, for some unknown reason, by a lively serenade from a two-man Italian band. All in all, I found this small city so entertaining that when planning this trip, I knew I wanted to spend more time there.
We stayed at Siena's Grand Hotel Continental, a boutique five star hotel originally built as an aristocratic palace in the 17th century. The hotel was perfect in every single way: unbeatable, location, friendly staff, good room size, clean, free (and delicious) breakfast and incredible views!
That night, we enjoyed a light dinner at a cafe situated right on the aforementioned Piazza del Campo, which is Siena's medieval town square. The "square" itself is actually a shell-shaped public space made of red brick and travertine - it is one of my favorite spots in Italy.
On day two of our trip, we woke up ready to explore Siena a bit more before heading to our next locale. After breakfast at the hotel, we visited Siena's Duomo, Santa Maria Assunta. To me, with its black and white interior stripes, this is one of the most unique churches and a must see!
*Tip: All churches in Italy are referred to as duomo's. The word is derived from the Latin word "domus," which means "house," i.e. House of God.
After, Kyle did a bit of shopping, we made one last pass through the Piazza and then we were off to our next stop...Florence! I lived in Florence during my study abroad and fell in love. I was so excited to share one of my favorite places in the world with Kyle and I can't wait to share it here soon!