24 hours in Venice

Going to Italy during Semana Santa helped me realize something about myself–I hate tourists. Not just other people, but I don’t like being one myself. It’s probably why whenever I go anywhere I even moderately connect to, I’m convinced I’ll move there one day and experience the place like only a true local can. That said, I don’t want to move to Venice. Venice is like Prague to me–too magical to be real. I couldn’t ruin Venice by actually moving there and having to worry about running late for work or changing the kitty litter or any other real life burdens. I want to preserve it’s otherworldly charm, but I do still want to go back. Because of Semana Santa the cheapest hostel I could find was over $45 and I could only afford a night there.

Venice was my second stop of 17 day trip over Semana Santa, and to be honest about the fact that travel is not all wonderful all the time, my night in Venice was not the best. Usually I love traveling alone, but after Rachel left Italy to go back to London, I was facing another week alone before Gareth and I met in Zagreb, and I suddenly felt really lonely. Add in that I didn’t arrive until the sun was beginning to set, and that Venice is not exactly the ideal place to be a single– I spent the most of the night sticking close to my hostel and on the phone with Gareth. Lame, I know.

Luckily after a good night’s sleep I remembered how much I actually love solo travel, and got my mojo back. I spent the day wandering through the maze like passages, stopping in awe every few minutes that a place like that actually exists.

    

I don’t have a ton of suggestions for how to best “do” Venice, because I don’t think I did it properly. I have a few suggestions based off of lessons I learned, however.

Book early – and by this I mean everything. Accommodation, certainly. But there are places online you can arrange a gondola share, because they are privately hired and seriously expensive. That said, the looks on people’s faces as they rode convinced me they are worth it.

Get off the beaten track – the restaurants that have their menus in a dozen different languages aren’t going to be the ones with food you never forget. One of my biggest regrets was the place I chose for dinner. I was staying in the Jewish area, an immediate left after crossing the Guglie bridge. I had wandered deeper into the city, and it was getting dark. I knew it was a bad idea, but I settled for a place on Rio Terà San Leonardo that was filled with tourists and served legitimately bad food. On the five minute walk back to my hostel, along Fondamenta Cannaregio, I passed about three places lit by candle lit and filled with Italians. Learn from my mistakes. And probably go to dinner on that street cause it looked amazing.

Buy a water bus day pass. The pass is 20 euros and a single journey is 7.50. The ride is such a good tour of the city, and to have been able to go to San Marco, Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, and back to Guglie all on a water taxi would have been great.

Set aside time to get lost – this, I did, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day. As I wandered back from San Marco to Guglie, I passed through quiet, residential areas that were nearly empty, and offered just as much charm as the packed city center. I also stumbled upon La Bottiglia, which is an amazing deli. They asked me to trust them and built me the most incredible sandwich. If you like sandwiches, this is your place.

Saint Mark’s Square – They charge an outlandish price to sit and have a drink, but you should do it anyway. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s everything you imagine when you think of Venice. Have the Prosecco, obviously. Sit and listen to music and watch people try get a photo with the pigeons. Drink in the magic of the city, and if you’re like me have to remind yourself over and over again that you haven’t fallen into a movie set, but that Venice is a real place that exists in the world.

 

Cinque Terre – Tips and Recommendations

Back at the end of August, I unexpectedly flew to Italy and was able to spend three and a half days in Cinque Terre. It was one of my favorite trips ever, and below you can find the tips and tricks I wish I had known before going!

Cinque Terre is incredibly easy to get to from Pisa. You just take the train to La Spezia, where you can change to the train line that connects the 5 towns. In La Spezia buy train passes for the days you’ll be in Cinque Terre, which makes exploring all the towns super simple. The passes are 13 euros for one day, or 23 for two, and include unlimited access to the trains, hiking trails, and (spotty) wifi. The trains run from Levanto to La Spezia and stop at each of the five towns along the way.

Because I booked so late, my options for staying in/around Cinque Terre were quite limited. Nearly all the hostels were completely booked, even in the surrounding towns. I booked the only place available, Affittacamere Patrizia. It had some reviews that made me hesitate, but lacking other options I didn’t have much of a choice. Though it ended up being expensive, it worked out because had I booked earlier I would have tried to save money by staying in La Spezia or Levanto, and the quiet early mornings and late evenings, before the crush of tourists arrived, ended up being the most magical hours of the trip. The place was strange—I booked two nights and I stayed in separate buildings each night—a bit annoying because I had to respect check in/out times, and arrange to pick up/drop off my bag around their front desk opening hours. The first night I was literally sleeping in the front room—there were three bedrooms and a bathroom off where I was staying, and the front door opened to my bed and one other. The second night I was in a new house, staying on the top floor in the kitchen, but it had a great balcony and it was the only bed in the room, so it was nearly like having my own apartment. If I had more notice I’m not sure I’d stay there again, but I wouldn’t hesitate to return in a pinch. However you can learn from me and book early, and plan on staying in one of the towns to get the full experience. I’d recommend Riomaggiore, Coniglia, or Vernazza.


Riomaggiore was the quietest of the towns, and it was quite small. The food was delicious and the place was stunning, probably the most beautiful of them all—this is where I stayed and I’d definitely be happy staying there again. There’s less to do than the other towns, but as a base it’s pretty perfect. It’s built on a giant hill, so be prepared for a steep incline to get anywhere! It had a good amount of rocks to use as a mini beach, and a few places to jump in as well. (Mom, that’s for you!)


Manarola felt quite young and hip. It was lively and had a fun vibe. The harbour had a place where it was possible to jump off, so people who were braver than I dove off the rocks. I think a lot of people list this as their favourite town, and while it was up there for me, it wasn’t the top of my list.


All the guides I read suggested skipping Corniglia if you were short on time, and I considered it. I’m so happy I didn’t! It was quite unlike the other towns—it’s high above sea level and there’s no beach access. However that gives it really nice views, and the town felt a bit more chilled and artistic. There were some cute shops, unique looking bars and coffee shops, and it had more shade than the other towns. If it wasn’t such a hike to the train and/or nearby towns, I’d consider staying here. I hiked in from Manarola and out to Vernazza, and both hikes were incredible but very hard—and the walk up to the town from the train was stairs on stairs on stairs. Be prepared for a work out, no matter how you arrive.


I loved Vernazza. It had two beaches, one hidden through a rock tunnel that was created after a huge rock slide, and another spot along the harbor next to the cliff that leads to Monterosso. The food was good, the gelato better, and I spent more time here than anyway other town.


Honestly, Monterosso wasn’t my favorite. I didn’t go until my last day, and by then was already so in love with the other four towns, I’m not sure I gave it a fair shot. I spent the least time here, and it felt much more city-like than the others. It’s the only one that has a sand beach (I HATE sand, but maybe this is a selling point for someone else), and it was set up more like a resort, which is also not my vibe. It looked big and like there would be some great shopping, so maybe spend a bit more time there than I did.


You only need to go to one place, and that’s Gelarteria Vernazza. I tried the others, and none came close.


I did some real searching, but didn’t find anything other than pastries and yogurt as breakfast options. Eggs were not a thing as far as I could tell—if someone finds them please let me know in case I ever go back!


I had dinner both nights in Riomaggiore, which was great. All the food I had there was delicious, and recommend Trattoria la Grotta and Pizzeria Da Mam’angel if you’re looking for good food that isn’t going to break the bank.


I know gelato technically is dessert (though I utilized it as a lunch), but Monterosso is also well known for Torta Monterossina Ricetta, which I tried at Pasticceria Laura and it was SO good. It was the best part of the town for me.


Bring books! I only brought one (The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, which I highly recommend), and there was so much time for reading I blew through it, and struggle to find other English books available in the towns.


I hiked Coniglia to Vernazza and Monterosso to Vernazza. They were fantastic, and if you’re in any kind of shape I highly recommend them and any other hikes that are open. They had stunning views and were a great work out—honestly both were much harder than I anticipated, and I planned poorly and did the first one right at noon, when the sun was directly overhead. Plan to go earlier in the morning, or later in the afternoon, bring a lot of water, maybe a snack, and definitely be prepared to sweat. Luckily there are beaches at either end with some seriously inviting water, and there is a cafe high in the cliffs at the midpoint of the Coniglia/Vernazza hike.


One of my favorite things to do when I visit a place is collect some kind of art, so I can bring a piece home with me. There was a really cute art store in Vernazza owned by Antonio Greco where he shows his work. I got two prints there, which make me insanely happy whenever I see them. One was by Antonio, and the other was the Imago Cinque Terre poster. I get compliments on them all the time. They were affordable as well!

Dinner at Il Teatro del Sale

Il Teatro del Sale is an all you can eat dinner followed by a show, and the kind of dining experience you’ll remember forever. You’d think it would be overflowing with tourists, but when we went we were the only non-Italians in attendance. It’s the kind of place you immediately feel at home in, almost like you’re all having dinner in someone’s (huge) living room. There are private tables and community tables and as everyone gets up to collect the next dish at the same time, it feels like one big group dinner.

It’s run by a husband and wife team, he handles the food, she handles the entertainment. Together, they make quite the pair and have turned the place into a Florentine treasure. There are hundreds of dinner options in Florence, but you can tell this one is in the heart of the city and its history.

It’s a members only club, so to attend you have to become a member. It’s 7 euros to join and around 35 for the meal. Not exactly cheap, and also the (unlimited) wine that is included is quite literally undrinkable–and this is coming from a girl who thinks Franzia and two buck chuck is surprisingly tasty. We kept checking to see if other people were drinking it, wondering if maybe it had oxidized and no one noticed, but no. It was only a small few, but some people went back for seconds. We tried to power through, if only to be polite, but it was honestly like drinking nail varnish. Suffice it to say, we did not finish our (small) glasses, and they only sell wine by the bottle. The cheapest is another 30 euros, not ideal, and not an inexpensive night.

That said, everything else was amazing. The food was delicious. Like, really, really good. And there was tons of it. I eat a lot and even I was super overwhelmed with the amount and variety in front of me. The service was excellent, though we had an amazing language barrier experience.

The way the place runs is there’s always food being served on a table that you can just go grab. While this is happening the chefs are cooking a ton of other things right from the kitchen, and when that is ready the chef yells out, in Italian, what the next course is, and you line up and wait for them to hand you a plate. Easy enough. However, this was described to us as “when the cook screams, you must go running because there is a situation in the kitchen.” After a slightly concerned second wondering exactly what situation occurring in the kitchen would cause the chef to scream, we realized what he meant. It was hilarious and sweet and so nice to not be the one making little sense in a second language for a change!

The show afterwards was my favorite part. It was two older guys, and I’ve never seen anyone love what they do so much. One of them was literally grinning and jumping around the entire time, and if I can be half as happy and content as he is, I will consider myself a success.

They serve brunch as well, and next time I’m in Florence I will definitely be back. I highly recommend this place to anyone wanting an authentic Italian experience!

48 hours in Florence

YOU GUYS. I had the most incredible Semana Santa in the history of the world. Probably. At least top 10.

Just so we have a general timeline to work with here, I left Logroño on Thursday, April 6th, spent the night in Barcelona airport once again (it went better this time). I flew out on the 7th at 6:00 am, and started a whirlwind trip around southern and eastern Europe.

Florence from April 7th to April 9th
Venice from April 9th to April 10th (too short!)
Slovenia from April 10th to April 12th
Zagreb from April 12th to April 16th
Zadar from the 16th – 17th
Split from 17th to 19th
Mostar from the 19th to the 20th
Dubrovnik from the 20th to the 22nd

Whew! It was a LOT of travel and a lot of moving around, but it was the perfect road trip itinerary and a great way to see Croatia. The only things I would change would for it to have been longer, so I could have spent more time in Venice and Mostar. Also so I could have gone to Sarajevo and Montenegro, haha. It’s never enough!

Doing Florence in 48 hours is sad, because you’ll fall in love and have to say goodbye so quickly, but totally doable. The city is very walkable, things tend to be grouped together, and in just over an hour of walking you can see the major sights.

  • I’d recommend starting at the Galleria dell’Accademia and checking out the amazing artwork and saying hello to David.
  • Then I’d head to the Duomo and see the Cathedral, climb to the top if you were smart enough to book tickets, and hang out in the plaza for a bit. Everything is so beautiful.
  • On the way to Ponte Vecchio stop at Palazzo Vecchio before windowing shopping all the gorgeous old jewelry.
  • Take a left and head to San Niccolò, a laid back and artsy neighborhood filled with great places to grab some food and have a few drinks. Even when Florence is packed around Easter holidays, you’ll still feel like you’ve escaped the tourists.
  • Make your way up to the viewpoint Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can soak in everything you’ve just seen and done. If the timing is right, you could enjoy the best sunset in town.
  • Head to Il Teatro del Sale for a unique and authentic dinner. You’ll have done all the touristy bits in the beginning of the day and end it with a view, dinner, and show that you’ll remember forever. Not a bad itinerary!

Florence was the perfect introduction to Italy, and it was the perfect time to go to Italy, considering my recent Italian news! I arrived at 8 am on no sleep, but as our (amazing, beautiful) flat wouldn’t be ready for hours, I decided to explore the city. I wandered around Ponte Vecchio (in my exhaustion it took me far too long to realize that’s where I was/it was even a bridge, haha), and looked at all the jewelry I’ll never be able to afford. I ended up at Piazza Pitti, where people were sunbathing and locals were selling artwork and crafts.

I found the perfect place to lay down and wait for Rach to arrive, and my favorite part of Florence, just by heading to the greenest bit on the map. I walked quite a ways until I got to Piazzale Michelangelo, where I was rewarded with the absolute best view of Florence. I headed down to the gorgeous Rose Garden and read my book, basking in happiness and feeling pretty astonished that I could finally call this country a little bit mine.

Rachel arrived and we settled into our flat. YOU GUYS. This flat… there are not words or pictures that do it justice. It was HUGE. And GRAND. Its front door was the biggest door I’ve ever actively used. It had a little old lift that we got slightly stuck in. The windows and shutters were dreamlike. Oh and also it had a mural painted on the ceiling, because why not. The bed was far too enticing, but seeing Rachel was just the boost of energy I needed, and we headed back across the Arno to go to Culinaria De Gustibus Bistrot. And thank god we did. Our food was amazing. We had so much of it, and they kept bringing us free extras. I cannot recommend this place enough. It was cozy, had a great ambiance, and a great place to catch up over a bottle of wine.

After an early night we decided the next day would be our tourist day. We’d hit all the major sights. Advice: book everything in advance. We didn’t and definitely should have. First we went to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see David. The line was long but there were people selling tickets to skip the line for only about 10 euros more, which seems like a scam, but is not. We decided it was worth it, especially as we had discovered we couldn’t go to the top of the Duomo at the Cathedral of Florence because they were booked for days.

I’m not going to lie, we were slightly uncultured and honestly debated if seeing David was worth it. In case you need any convincing, I am here to tell you that it is one million percent worth it. He is stunning. When I was in Amsterdam I was happy I went to the Van Gogh Museum, but none of the paintings really surprised me. I’d seen prints, they were cool to see in person but that was kind of it. David was nothing like that. He was huge. He was a masterpiece that caused awed silence and extended observation. The whole museum was worth it on its own but you guys. Don’t miss David.

From there we headed to the Cathedral and Palazzo Vecchio, which are pretty close to each other. After that it was a direct shot across the river and back to my favorite place, the neighborhood leading to Piazzale Michelangelo, San Niccolò. We grabbed a menu of the day lunch at Trattoria Cent’ori (good not great), before heading up to check out the views. We wine hopped our way back to our flat to get ready for the ultimate dining experience: Il Teatro del Sale.

We spent the next day wandering around eating, taste testing all the gelato, and checking out Palazzo Vecchio. Even though we only had a weekend there, I feel like we saw the main things, and even got out of the tourist heavy areas for more authentic experiences.