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Month: September 2016

Costa Rican Coffee Tradition: The Chorreador

Costa Rican Coffee Tradition: The Chorreador

I’m an atypical coffee aficionado. Most coffee fiends I know were downing multiple cups of joe as a high school student, or at least by the time they graduated high school.

Me? Despite being an academic overachiever and prolific procrastinator (I pulled all-nighters starting in high school), I made it through college and several years into the workforce without much in the way of caffeine, aside from the occasional chai tea latte.

And then I started teaching.

Teaching high school, involving early wake-ups (I’m not a morning person), then exhausting days on my feet followed by evenings of lesson planning and grading papers, for me meant sleeping only around 5 hours each night. And while I can function on such minimal sleep, I am not at my best always, and that is when coffee became a regular part of my morning routine. So much so that my barista would have my usual drink ready by the time I reached the front of the line and we would greet each other warmly on the street by name when we ran into each other.

In my late 20s, I finally learned how to make coffee and bought my first drip coffee machine (if you are an American buying your first coffee machine, it’s probably for drip coffee). Of course, coffee at home also usually involved a generous spoonful of sweetened vanilla syrup and possibly even sugar on top of that. Let’s just say I was not the most sophisticated coffee drinker when I first started out.

In the years since, I have been fortunate to live in two places with a strong coffee culture: Australia & Italy. Both countries pride themselves on the quality and particular proportions of coffee and milk involved in crafting the perfect espresso-based drink. And now I admit it – I am a full-on snob when it comes to my coffee.

These days, I also feel like I am pretty well versed in coffee brewing methods. Of course there are many trends as of late, but at home I stick to the more time-honored traditional ways. I still have my electric drip coffee maker in storage back in the US, as well as *just a few* other ways to get my jolt of caffeine in the morning:

Espresso Machine

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Moka Pot

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French Press

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Vietnamese drip coffee

Individual percolator coffee

So when I was recently in Costa Rica on my annual family vacation, I knew I would want to write a blog post afterward, but wasn’t sure what I’d describe. I had many beautiful experiences there, but I felt like they were mostly the typical things you’d imagine about travelling to Costa Rica: hiking, going to the beach, walking in the rainforest, and swimming in the natural pool at the bottom of a waterfall.

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One of the unique things that stands out in my mind, though – the coffee.

Costa Rica has its own brewing method for coffee that I only saw and heard of for the first time on my recent visit – the chorreador de café. The most basic chorreador consists of a tiny cloth bag (it sort of looks like a sock) that is filled with coffee grounds and then suspended over a coffee mug or other collection vessel, as boiling water is poured over top and the coffee drips into the cup or container. More formal chorreador devices have the cloth pouch suspended on a wooden stand, which can be quite elaborate, although having the cloth bag on some sort of basic handle to keep the top open and hold it over your mug is sufficient to make the coffee.

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Of all of the coffee brewing methods I’ve seen, I find this one unique because it can be constructed very simply and for not much money – possibly even from items you already have at home. Making coffee with a chorreador is accessible to pretty much anyone (and environmentally friendly!).

It also is not tied to any particular plug, something I am sensitive to as an expat. The US is on a different plug from Australia, which is on yet a different plug from Italy. Let’s just say that electric coffee methods are not so portable if you are someone on the go. In fact, you’ll notice above that with the exception of the espresso machine, all of the other coffee brewing methods I own are plug-independent. And in the more remote areas of Costa Rica where electricity was an issue – or still is – it is ideal to have a way to brew coffee that does not require an outside power source (and boiling the water can be done over a fire if needed).

In terms of the taste, I find that the coffee from the chorreador is earthy and more intense than your typical drip coffee, giving you an overtone of the flavor of the beans while being just slightly darker in appearance than you’d expect. It is definitely not close to espresso in taste, but I felt a similar jolt of caffeine after even just a small glass of the chorreador coffee. The most exciting thing for me was discovering a new lens through which I can experience coffee, this wonderful beverage I’ve come to appreciate in the past years.

It’s always satisfying to have something in mind before you take a trip and then fulfill it. What’s even more satisfying for me though – and one of the many reasons I love to travel – is for the even more satisfying experience of discovery and experiencing the unexpected.

 

Have you ever had coffee from a chorreador? Or Costa Rican coffee beans prepared another way? What did you think? And what’s your favorite method for brewing coffee?

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“Travel is . . . an Adventure in Eating”

“Travel is . . . an Adventure in Eating”

“Here, try this” was probably the phrase I heard most often when dining out with my family growing up.

It was typically uttered by my grandfather, with some morsel of food perched on his fork. As a pretty curious seven-year old, I would peer over and if I could not identify the food (or it looked slimy, or rubbery) I would shake my head emphatically from side to side. Which would then be followed by an even more insistent, “No, try this” as the fork was thrust purposefully in my direction.

I loved and trusted my grandfather, so sometimes at this point I would give him my blind faith and sample the bite on the fork before inquiring as to what I had consumed – if I inquired at all. At other points, I would ask, “What is it?” and then have an internal debate as to whether the ‘ick’ factor outweighed the potential tastiness of the bite. I didn’t always try what was on the fork, but I took the plunge more often than not.

Although many times I was pleasantly surprised at how delicious the taste turned out to be, there was still that rare occasion when I took the bite and regretted my choice. Some unexpected texture or fishy flavor would overwhelm my palate and I would make a face, and possibly not even swallow my food. And then, knowing me, I probably complained in a loud and whiny voice after the fact about being misled.

But of course, the lessons of all of the tastes pushed in my direction were many:

  1. You don’t know if you like something or not until you try it
  2. People you trust have your best interests at heart, but even with the best of intentions you can still sometimes be misled or disappointed
  3. Even though you will feel betrayed at points, trust again at the next opportunity
  4. Sometimes you’ll be (pleasantly) surprised by how reality does not align with your preconceived notions

Since starting a travel blog two months ago, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on how I got here. What is it about my upbringing or life experiences that leads me to travel often and on longer trips than most people I know? Or to be the one of my several frequently-traveling friends and relatives to decide that starting a travel blog was a good idea? (Mind you, it took me a few years of living abroad to come around to the idea, but now here I am!)

Is it something about the family I grew up in? The fact that we travelled a few times a year? Both sets of grandparents being avid travelers themselves, recently in retirement when I was little and taking the time to see the world?

Why did I study abroad when I was just 18 years old, fresh out of high school, when so many of my classmates who ultimately studied abroad during college did so a few years later? Why did I decide that travelling for a month the winter break after September 11th was a good idea, when most Americans were avoiding air travel? Why did I plan my summer job when I was a teacher around being able to take long weekend trips to visit friends living around the US? Why did I spend two years saving vacation days when I was working in DC, to be able to take a trip that lasted 3.5 weeks?

Of all of the people with exposure to travel growing up, and who lived abroad during their college years, why am I so eager to both carve out time for travel and then write about it to inspire others?

As an adult, like my grandfather, when I am having a wonderful experience (culinary or otherwise!), my instinct is to share it with others so they can experience it, too. When I’ve visited and enjoyed my time in a particular destination, and then I hear that friends will be visiting soon, I want to tell them all about the amazing sights and delicious meals I consumed. Fortunately, as you can read more about in my Welcome Post, I had already been composing lots of e-mails with travel tips for friends who asked. Thanks to my Type A personality, I tend to keep pretty thorough notes when I plan my travel of what to see and where to eat. And not only do I do extensive research before most of my trips, I enjoy the planning! (I know, I know, you’re probably questioning at this point how I didn’t become a travel blogger years sooner.)

Another legacy from grandfather is that he always said there are 3 stages to enjoying a vacation: the anticipation as you prepare, the enjoyment of the vacation itself, and thinking back about it after the fact. He was one to savor all of these, even the sometimes stressful lead-up in planning a week-long vacation for the 15 people in the extended family for our annual summer trip. Why did he take such joy, even during the disagreements or misunderstandings?

This was a man, who as he always explained it “grew up dirt poor” during the time of the Great Depression in the US. He was not one to waste any material good, and certainly not food. He would finish any little bit left on someone’s plate, even if he was already full. My grandfather also ate marrow out of bones — and I don’t mean osso bucco or the luscious marrow you might be envisioning that would be roasted in the oven and served at an upscale, trendy restaurant. I’m talking about the marrow of teeny chicken bones, that he would have to scrape out with a toothpick to eat. So yes, this is a man who savored all of the stages of travel planning, even the not-so-idyllic parts.

In my grandparents’ house in Brooklyn where they lived for over 50 years, there were pictures hung on the wall next to the staircase from the various places my grandparents had traveled together since they were first married. Each from a different location, all exotic and colorful and enticing to me as a young child. These are also the grandparents who saw travel and exploring together as a means for family togetherness.

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Starting when I was young, the family would all get together. It started off at resorts in the Borscht Belt of upstate New York (think Dirty Dancing). Then we tried something different, further than a simple drive away. We checked out an all-inclusive resort or two and went on a few cruises. Somehow my mom and sisters and cousins and I got recruited into the organizing phases. Now the vacation planning involves a complex matrix of various schedules and a spreadsheet to narrow down our destination for the coming summer.

Although this process continues today (I’m in charge of the research for next summer), the important part is not the resort or massages or excursions. The important part has always been the time spent together, which somehow always seems to line up into those 3 phases my grandfather always talked about – the before, the during, and the after of travel. It is the shared experience and memory of all of our trips together that provides many of the anecdotes and laughter when the family is around the table together for other celebrations throughout the year. And the collective closeness that comes from decades of ‘Family Vacation’ each summer.

My grandfather always said (in case you can’t tell, he had a lot of sayings he liked to share!), “travel is an adventure in eating,” and he treated our trips together as a way for us all to explore the cuisine of a new place. And still today, three and a half years after his passing, the quality and variety of the food offerings is central to choosing a destination for ‘Family Vacation.’ And certainly in my personal travels, a big component of how I explore and experience a new place is through the local food.

This is the same grandfather who gave me the weekly push at dinner on Saturday night for me to venture outside of my comfort zone, and even when it didn’t lead to the reward I had anticipated, to venture outside of my comfort zone again the following week. To make sure that if he was appreciating something, I would have the opportunity to appreciate it, too.

And that is how I became an avid traveler. And that is how I became a travel blogger.

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3 Places Worth Visiting within a 2-hour drive of Oktoberfest in Munich

3 Places Worth Visiting within a 2-hour drive of Oktoberfest in Munich

Oktoberfest in Munich is a blast and has so many surprises in store, but after a few days of drinking beer and carousing, you’re probably ready for a change of scenery. Munich’s downtown area is great to explore, but that can easily be done in a morning or two before heading to the Oktoberfest tents. If you’re looking to get out into Bavaria, see some lovely landscapes, or hunt down particular tourist attractions, there are a number of great options nearby.

Each of the 3 places I’ve listed could be done as a day trip, or part of a longer road trip in the region – it depends on how much time you have on vacation and what piques your interest. If you are planning to do some type of road trip in conjunction with an Oktoberfest visit, be sure to check out my tips for road tripping in Europe.

And here are some spots nearby to Munich to check out:

Not sure what it is, but I just love this shot

Stuttgart, Germany

I actually visited Stuttgart in the summer, but it would be a great city to check out in the autumn as well. It is one of Germany’s largest cities and has a lot of history represented around town, and also the traditional Swabian food, which is a bit different than the food traditions of Munich.

What to Do:

Here I am coming down from my ride on a continuously-moving elevator
Here I am coming down from my ride on a continuously-moving elevator
  • Take a Walking Tour (I can highly recommend Stuttgart Steps for this). You’ll get a thorough overview of the history and traditions of the region, and get to check out some of the hidden treasures around town.
  • Wander the Old Town. There is a lot to see, just pick a direction and wander! If you do a walking tour, you may have some spots you’d like to return to for a closer look.

    Cheesy kasespatzle, not all that different from macaroni and cheese
    Cheesy kasespatzle, not all that different from macaroni and cheese
  • Eat Swabian food. This involves hearty mountain food and lots of spätzle. Many menus in town indicate which dishes on offer are Swabian classics.
  • Check out the Mercedes-Benz & Porsche museums. I actually haven’t visited either of these world-famous car museums, but both are popular attractions on the outskirts of Stuttgart.

    I thought this was a Mercedes office building, but no, just the central train station. Mercedes (and Porsche) own this town!
    I thought this was a Mercedes office building, but no, just the central train station. Mercedes (and Porsche) own this town!
  • Stroll the city parks. Stuttgart has a lot of green space, and you’ll see many locals relaxing and socializing in these areas – and you should, too.
  • Visit a Winery (or several). I only went to one, Weinmanufaktur Untertunkheim, which had a huge variety of tasty white and red varietals. I was able to arrive to their city cellar without an appointment, and taste several wines guided in English by one of the staff people on hand. Depending on how much time you have, there are others in the area.
  • Check out Stuttgart’s Oktoberfest (“Beer Festival”), which is now the 2nd-largest one after Munich. If you’re visiting Stuttgart during Munich’s Oktoberfest, it will also be Oktoberfest in Stuttgart. More details are on the official website here.

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Innsbruck, Austria

Some locations in Austria, like Innsbruck, are actually closer to Munich than other German cities. Innsbruck has a very different flavor, and is a great spot to do some exploring and enjoy different food and beer traditions. Although I was there in winter when it’s a popular ski destination, there is a lot to see around town and ways to enjoy the outdoors in autumn.

What to Do:

  • Wander the Old Town. It was an option for Stuttgart above, and this is a great activity for Innsbruck as well. There is a cobblestone pedestrian area that you can wander, and a lot of the distinctive buildings and palaces are along the way.20160123_173156-2
  • Explore Churches and Palaces. There are quite a few of these around Innsbruck, many of which you’re likely to see as you walk through the Old Town. Take the time to check out at least a few, to get a feel for Austrian history and appreciate some beautiful sculptures.
  • Take a funicular to a panoramic lookout. There are many cable cars and many lookout spots at different stops up the mountains surrounding Innsbruck. Not only are the views stunning, but the Zaha Hadid-designed Hungerburg station – accessible from the city center – is a destination of its own.20160124_100027
  • Hike. Fall weather is great for hiking, and a more physically active way to take in the views and appreciate the landscape. If you’re getting restless after many days sitting around drinking beer at Oktoberfest, Innsbruck is an ideal jumping off point for day hikes. There are even some less strenuous options, where you can ascend in a cable car and do a relatively flat loop – like the Zirbenweg trail described here.
  • Drink craft beer. There is quite a beer tradition in Austria as well, and walking around you’ll see plenty of signs for either bars focused on craft beers or restaurants with a vast beer selection. Sample some local brews to get some different flavors after your Oktoberfest experience.

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Hohenschwangau, Germany (Bavarian castles)

While you may have heard of Stuttgart or Innsbruck, you’re likely to have never heard of Hohenschwangau. So what makes this particular spot in Bavaria such a draw? The two famous castles that are on neighboring hilltops include one that was the model for the iconic Disney castle. This is the one place of the three that I visited in conjunction with my trip to Munich’s Oktoberfest. You’ll likely find other Oktoberfest visitors making the same trip, but it’s not terribly crowded here on a weekday.

What to Do:

It was a little foggy and rainy. You're *supposed* to be able to see the model for the Disney castle behind me.
It was a little foggy and rainy. You’re *supposed* to be able to see the model for the Disney castle behind me.
  • Visit the Neuchwanstein Castle. This is probably the most popular one to tour, as people try to get shots with the castle that very obviously is the inspiration for the Disney castle. There are paths around the castle and onto a nearby bridge. Hopefully you’ll encounter better weather than I did on the very foggy afternoon spent there.20141001_152721
  • Visit the Schloss Hohenschwangau. In very close proximity to Neuchwanstein, you can also visit the Hohenschwangau Castle, which is the older of the two and the childhood royal home of Bavarian King Ludwig II, who built Neuchwanstein.
  • Enjoy the great outdoors. In addition to the walk up the hills to the castle if you opt out of the paid bus, like Innsbruck there is a lot of hiking possible in this area. If you stay overnight, you’ll have enough time to take advantage of activities besides the castle visits that will fill most of your first day here.

TIP! The castles have timed tickets for entry, which can be reserved for both castles in advance here or purchased the same day on site, although if you wait until the day of, your preferred visit time may not be available.

 

Have you done other day trips from Munich? What other visit do you most want to combine with a trip to Munich’s Oktoberfest?

Or do you still have Oktoberfest questions? Ask away in the Comments.

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3 Places Worth Visiting Near (within a 2-hour drive of) Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany

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13 Things I Didn’t Know about Oktoberfest (until I went)

13 Things I Didn’t Know about Oktoberfest (until I went)

But Lana, you say, it’s only September. Why write about Oktoberfest now? Well, actually that brings me right into my list of what I *didn’t* know about Oktoberfest until I went:

  1. Oktoberfest is so named because it *ends* in October. It starts in mid-September.More precisely, Oktoberfest runs for 16 days ending on the first Sunday in October, so some years there are very few days in the month of October that are part of the festivities. Some years – like this one – have October 3rd (German National Day) falling after the first Sunday, so Oktoberfest gets extended until then.
  2. Oktoberfest in Munich is the most famous, and the one on most people’s bucket lists. But it isn’t the *only* Oktoberfest. If low-key is more your scene, other Oktoberfests are held in the fall throughout Germany. Berlin and Stuttgart, along with other Germany cities, also host relatively large Oktoberfest gatherings. And there are even Oktoberfests organized all over the world! Wikipedia has a good round-up here if you’re looking for an Oktoberfest celebration a little closer to home.
  3. Accommodations (even private rooms in hostels!) are super-expensive and sell out early.When first looking into going to Oktoberfest, I wanted to be sure I had a place to sleep, and actually started by looking into local hostels. A lot of Munich hostel options turned out being *more* expensive that other local hotels, and seemed to sell out sooner. If you’re making plans relatively last-minute, I can highly recommend Hotel Uhland, where I ended up staying. You must book by contacting them personally and pre-pay, which means that they still have available rooms after other booking sites have sold out and re-release rooms if payment is not received. Plus, they offer parking and are in an excellent location – close to the metro and city center, and very easy walking distance to the Oktoberfest grounds.

    Beer festival and carnival in one!
    Beer festival and carnival in one!
  1. Oktoberfest is really a giant carnival held on a huge grassy expanse.I really thought that Oktoberfest was all about the beer. Until I went, that is. It is held on an enormous plot of land, with your typical carnival rides as far as the eye can see. There were even a lot of families with children enjoying the experience. As for riding the rides, I recommend that you pace yourself between drinking before going on a ride that will spin you and have you hanging upside down 😉
  2. Oktoberfest is FREE.Well, of course you’ll be paying for food, beer, and any rides or souvenirs you purchase, but attending itself is completely free. This could even be a relatively budget-friendly trip, if you find cheap enough accommodations (and don’t drink too much beer).img_1158
  1. Many people dress up, but don’t worry, lots of people don’t.Before I went, I casually looked into how much I would have to spend to purchase a traditional German outfit called a dirndl, and the prices were outrageous. But once Oktoberfest has started in Munich, there are deep discounts to be had, especially toward the end of the festival. I bought my entire dirndl (there are a few different parts to the outfit) at a pop-up shop for just 30 Euro. If you are the crafty type, it wouldn’t take much sewing to make your own outfit. And if you’re a man, it seems that wearing any plaid shirt and dark colored shorts or pants will enable you to fit in, and plenty of more authentic outfits are for sale as well.20140930_112934
  1. The Oktoberfest fairgrounds are not in the city center, so you could go to Oktoberfest and never really visit the city of Munich.I just assumed that Oktoberfest would take over the city center, with tents setup throughout the cobblestone streets, but this is not quite true – see #4 above. If you need a morning break from drinking (and you probably will) join the many other Oktoberfest visitors making the trek to the city center to actually see a bit of Munich. It is very walkable, with beautiful old buildings and a lot of casual outdoor eateries to take advantage of when lunchtime rolls around. Just don’t wait too long to head over the the Oktoberfest fairgrounds and snag your spot at a table in one of the tents.20140929_150058
  1. Beer comes by the LITER.Yes, by the liter! It’s a very large amount of beer – if you’re having trouble picturing it, this is a bit more than 2 pints and around 34 ounces. Plan your drinking accordingly. On my biggest day, I drank 4 liters over the course of many, many hours. You may drink more or less, but if you really want to enjoy your time at Oktoberfest, don’t overdo it on your first day there.
  2. Many people who attend are tourists, not necessarily heavy drinkers or beer aficionados.There are a ton of tourists who are coming to Oktoberfest for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then they arrive, and discover that beer is served by the liter – see #8 above. And these tourists only enjoy Oktoberfest for one day because they are too hungover to function by the second one. By breakfast Wednesday morning at my hotel, most tables were only occupied by one person because the spouse was not feeling well enough to come. Hopefully you’ve been keeping your tolerance high back at home if you’re planning to consume many liters of beer per day when you arrive. Either way though, pace yourself so you can enjoy all of your time at Oktoberfest, especially if your visit is likely to be your only one.
  3. You can only reserve space at a table in one of the tents for 10 or more people.Reserving will not be possible for most visitors who aren’t coming in that large of a group and don’t know any locals. That’s okay though, if you go to Oktoberfest on a weekday, people are generally friendly and there’s always room to get cozy and squeeze in 2 or 4 additional people at what might at first glance look like an already full table (this is possible on the weekends as well, but you’ll want to be there early in the morning to snag space).
  4. Each tent is not really a tent but a fairly sturdy wooden structure.I feel like I had heard so much about the different tents at Oktoberfest that I had a picture in my mind of a very large circus tent with fabric flaps. Instead, walking onto the Oktoberfest grounds you see what look like very large wooden lodge houses. It still a “tent” because it is not permanent, although you wouldn’t know this by looking at the buildings. Inside there are wooden picnic tables with long benches, and even proper bathrooms. So don’t worry, you won’t be roughing it to enjoy the various “tents.”
  5. Servers come to the tables.I guess I hadn’t really thought about this ahead of time, but it would be quite the chaotic scene if there were no servers. First, find a seat, then find a server to place your order (for both beer and food from the formal menu). Some tents have an assigned person for each table or there are roving servers for you to flag down. There are also roving vendors for the more portable food, like pretzels. And remember who took your order in case your beer or food gets lost in the chaos and you want to flag someone down to ask.20140930_111910
  1. Each tent is also a giant party, with a live band playing sets all day and night long. If you don’t know German drinking songs, you will by the end of your time at Oktoberfest!The music selections vary by the tent, the time of day, and span from traditional German jigs (oopmah, not polka, if you ask a German) to Top 40 hits from recent decades. And every so often – several times an hour – each band in all of the tents break out with the same German drinking song called “Ein Prosit” that everyone sings along with and toasts to at the end. The later in the day it is, the more people start standing on the benches as soon as the first few notes start. Get into the Oktoberfest spirit and learn the words here.

And Travel Savvy Gal’s *TOP* tip for Oktoberfest in Munich – Go during the week.

Everything is easier: finding hotel reservations, getting a seat in a tent, flagging down a server, and most importantly, making friends =)

Prost!!

Have you been to Oktoberfest in Munich? What were some of the things that surprised you? Or what was the most surprising thing for you from my list? Are you going to Oktoberfest and still have questions I can help with? Let me know in the Comments section below.

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13 Things to Know About Oktoberfest in Munich Germany Before You Go

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Most Frequently Asked Questions about visiting Florence

Most Frequently Asked Questions about visiting Florence

Florence is becoming a more an more popular tourist destination with each passing year. With the richness of the art there, and the flavorful Tuscan food that will have you savoring your every meal, it is not coming off tourist itineraries any time soon. In recent years, it has become even more popular, especially as the Euro has become more affordable for travelers from outside of Europe.

Over my nearly three years living in Italy, I’ve probably been to Florence around ten different times, most recently last week. Fortunately for me it is a leisurely three-hour drive from Milan or 1 hour 40 minutes on the high-speed train. And since many visitors to Italy have this as a must-see destination, I’ve mostly gone with family and friends who come to visit Milan and pass through Florence at some point as well – the food is so good, I’m always up for a trip.

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Why visit?

You probably don’t need any convincing if you’re still reading, but there are some lovely highlights in Florence that make it such a memorable destination. There is a wealth of incredible art in the many churches and galleries throughout the city, and the cuisine is quite memorable. The highlights from my many visits are:

  • the Duomo (the main cathedral) in stunning white, reddish pink, and green marble with its iconic dome
  • the original David statue by Michaelangelo in the Galleria dell’Accademia
  • Ponte Vecchio, the old pedestrian bridge across the Arno River
  • many towers and hills with expansive views of the city
  • the food and wine – Tuscany is widely considered one of the best places to eat in Italy

When is tourist season?

Well, I was there in mid-March this year, and it was already crowded. For 2016, I would say that high tourist season will be from March through October, with the very peak season from May until August. As with all travel, you’ll need to balance wanting to explore the city in nice weather and how many other people you’ll be sharing the experience with.

How much time is needed to experience Florence?

I would say within the city itself, plan to spend 2-3 days, depending on how much you like art or how much (leather) shopping you want to do. If you’re planning to take day trips to other cities in Tuscany or wine regions nearby (Chianti, Montalcino, Montepulciano, San Gimmignano, and more), plan for additional time. And be aware that many tourist attractions are closed on Mondays.

What are some ways to minimize time waiting in line and maximize time seeing the sights?

The main way to avoid the queues is to purchase the Firenze Card (Firenze is Florence’s name in Italian). It costs a whopping 72 Euros, but if you plan to see a lot of sights in a limited amount of time, it is a worthy investment. At most sights, you get an expedited line for entry, meaning more time exploring. It also means that you will have the ability to pop in briefly to sights you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, because it is at no additional cost to take a peek. Just be aware that you only get 1 entry to each location, so you can’t just split up a visit to the Uffizi Gallery over two days (or you can, but you’ll have to wait and pay to get in after your one visit on the Card).

Yeah, I think we made good use of the Firenze card...

If you do not get the Firenze Card, you can still make a few individual reservations to cover the sights that typically have the longest waits. Be sure to book these on the official websites, unless you want a tour included at (an often exorbitant) additional cost. The main places in Florence you’ll want to reserve in advance are the Galleria dell’Accademia, where the original David statue is & the Uffizi Gallery, an incredibly large collection of art rivalling the greatest art museums of the world. The official website to reserve for either site is here.

TIP! Book tickets for a particular time slot in advance if you can. Even if many days look like they have availability, you may be dismayed to find that if you wait until the last minute there is only 1 ticket left in a single timeslot so the day is not “sold out” per se, however your group will not be able to go.

TIP! Like with most tourist destinations, the best time to visit with minimal crowds is first thing in the morning. An early arrival is especially important for visits to the Duomo (doubly so if you’re visiting outside of the Firenze Card), as the line to enter can sometimes snake along the whole length of the piazza.

Why are there both red and blue/black street numbers? (aka: Why can’t I find my hotel?)

It always takes me a little bit to remember this each time I return to Florence and am looking for a specific address – there are two street numbering systems, one in red and one in blue. When you see an address in a guidebook or on your phone’s map, a lot of times it will say 25red or 25/R to indicate where you should be looking. The tricky part is that the actual numbers often do not correspond at all. So on one block you might have 25, 27, 29. and 31 in red numbers. And then randomly interspersed between them, 62, 64, 66, and 68 in black (red is for businesses, blue or black numbering is for private residences – although if your hotel is a single floor in a larger building it may have a blue/black number, so search carefully before concluding you’re lost).

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Why is there a bottle of wine already on my table when I go to a restaurant?

No, this is not just for decoration! While there will likely also be a formal wine list with bottles from particular wineries, many restaurants in Florence have a respectable house wine often in a wide bottomed bottle with a thin woven basket around the lower half. You can drink as much as you like, and they will eyeball how much is left at the end of the meal, and charge you accordingly. With this kind of hospitality you’ll never want to leave =)

 

What were the pressing questions on your mind when you visited Florence? Or are you planning a visit and have other questions I can help answer? Let me know in the Comments below.

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Answered! The most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about travel to Florence, Italy

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Where to Eat: Best Bites (and Sips) in Florence

Where to Eat: Best Bites (and Sips) in Florence

If you ask most Italians which Italian regions have the best cuisine, they’ll typically tell you Emilia-Romagna (where Bologna, Parma, and Modena lie) and Tuscany, the region of Florence. Tuscan cuisine, as you saw in my earlier post on the Top 6 Things to Eat (and Drink) in Florence, involves grilled meat and hearty dishes that leave you satiated. There is no shortage of excellent spots to eat in Florence, here are the top spots that I recommend:

Breakfast

Depending on what area of the city you’re staying in, finding a sit-down restaurant for breakfast might be tough. I’d recommend either booking accommodations somewhere that includes breakfast or finding the local “bar” (coffee place) where you can grab a pastry and cappuccino at the counter (see more about typical Italian breakfast here).

If you do go out for breakfast, watch out for the coperto (cover charge) that can be exorbitant if you sit down at a table at a restaurant in the touristy parts of town, especially near Piazza della Signoria. The one place I can recommend is in Piazza Duomo, which in general seems to have more reasonably priced options:

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Scudieri

On the corner of Piazza Duomo, I’ve popped in here for a coffee, pastry, and one of the mini breakfast sandwiches. It’s a bit pricey, but a convenient location if you are looking to grab a quick bite early in the morning before visiting the Duomo.

Lunch/More Casual Spots

I’ve listed the more casual eateries or those with a special lunch menu in this section, although they are all also open for dinner if you’re looking for more casual dinner options. These are all wonderful options for refueling in the middle of a day of taking in the sights around Florence:

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All’Antico Vinaio

(Sorry this blurb is so long, but trust me, this place is worth it!) All’Antico Vinaio is actually two places, one right across from another, and quite close to Piazza della Signoria (where the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Gallery are located). Usually when I go, one side of the street has a very long line, and there is a shorter line for the location on the even-numbered side of the street for the “osteria.” Don’t worry, the food is the same at both, and you’ll see bread and produce being hand-walked across the street by the staff. It’s best to go early or late, and to visit on a weekday, to avoid when can sometimes be quite long lines.

So what makes this by far the best panino (singular of panini) I’ve had in my 3 years living in Italy? First, the bread. It is like a thick foccacia, with a thin crust on the outside and a soft inside that can stand up to the sandwich while still absorbing its delicious flavors. Second, the quality of the meat, cheese, vegetables, and spreads. Everything is fresh and rich with flavor, like good Italian ingredients should be. There are a number of different panino flavor combinations on the wall, or you can ask the staff – all of whom seem to be at least conversational in English – for their favorite flavor combinations with the meat of your choice and they will make you a delectable panino! My favorite toppings are the porcini mushroom and black truffle spreads.

A panino here is quite large, so some opt to share, although I always get my own despite never actually managing to finish one. You can also order house wine by the glass, which is self-serve. Can you tell this is my favorite lunch spot in Florence? 😉

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L’Antico Noe’

This is really two sister places next to each other, one is a paninoteca and the other is a sit-down place, both located under a quaint stone archway between two streets. I have only been to the trattoria side, which is lively during lunch and has really good plates of typical Tuscan dishes and a few that are more interesting flavor combinations. If you’re looking for a comforting sit-down meal a bit off the beaten path, this is your spot.

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Mercato Centrale

Also listed in my Top Picks post as one of the Off the Beaten Path spots places to check out even if you’re not planning to have a meal there, the central market is also a great casual spot for lunch (or dinner). There is an array of different food stalls and communal seating, so you can order from any place you and your fellow travelers would like, and then enjoy your food sitting together. It’s also a good place to pick up food-based souvenirs, especially if there is some specific culinary product you enjoyed as part of your meal.

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Osteria dei Centropoveri

I included this osteria as a lunch option because of their fabulous set menu for 10 Euros, which includes a pasta course (primo), a fish/meat course (secondo), filtered water and ¼ liter of white or red house wine. Of course, you could have dinner here as well. At lunch on a recent weekday, the crowd was about half local and half Italian, a respectable ratio for dining in central Florence. Portions are large and tasty, and even though it was not part of the set lunch, I loved the budino di castagne dessert, a chestnut-flavored crème caramel with amaretto crunch on top. Dessert and espresso are minimal add-ons – my total bill with both was a mere 14 Euro.

Gelato

Yes, if you are in Italy, gelato is its own food group. There are a lot of decent tourist spots to get a gelato, but if you want excellent gelato it is well worth the trek two bridges down from the Ponte Vecchio to the far side of the river for:

Gelateria La Carraia

Great gelato is about both texture and flavor, and the gelato at La Carraia nails both. Flavors are intensified versions of their main ingredients, and the gelato is smooth and rich. Many people name this gelateria not only as their favorite in Florence, but in all of Italy. And a short stroll back to the closest bridge offers and excellent spot to enjoy your gelato and great views of the city.

If you’re sticking more to the central tourist area, my second favorite gelateria in Florence is:

La Strega Nocciola

When you cross the Ponte Vecchio from the side of Florence with the main tourist sites, hang a left on the first street on the other side and you’ll find La Strega Nocciola partway up the street on the right. There are a couple of other locations that are convenient, including one by the Duomo. I love their unique selections (lavender is my favorite) as well as the intensity of each flavor, especially the nocciola – the hazelnut flavor also in the name of the gelateria.

Aperitivo

First, gelato gets its own section, and now aperitivo?? If you don’t know what I mean when I say aperitivo, take a moment to check out my post here about why aperitivo is in integral part of any day, especially one spent touring around Italy. When dinner is still a couple of hours away and you want to grab a spritz with a view, there are a lot of spots (some with really fabulous views) to frequent, although a couple stand out from the rest:

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Move On: Italian Pub & Record Store

This is an actual record shop if you go upstairs. Or just come to sit outside for aperitivo, with a view of the Duomo from its location close to the Baptistery. In addition to the usual aperitivo cocktails, there is also a decent selection of artisanal Italian beer, including a variety on tap. And if you’re lucky, the night you’re there they’ll make their own potato chips in-house to accompany your aperitivo drink

La Terraza @ The Continentale Hotel

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the very lovely La Terraaza – the terrace, in Italian – that overlooks the Arno River and a lovely view of the city. It is on the roof of the Continentale Hotel, and can be accessed through the hotel lobby by taking the elevator to the 6th floor. Cocktails are pricey at 19 Euros each, but the drinks come with a plate of assorted small bites and the view and vibe is worth it.

Dinner

There are many great meals to be had in Florence, here are the places I return to again and again:

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Il Latini

Hands down my favorite restaurant in Florence, the food seems to taste better with each visit. This is one of the go-to places for the famous Florentine steak, bistecca alla fiorentina. It is a thick cut of meat seared on the outside and near-raw inside. They will not ask you how you like your meat cooked because there is only one way to prepare it correctly. The most enjoyable meals I’ve had here have been getting their set menu – a mix of house antipasti (get the liver crostini!), pasta primi (which you can opt out of if you’re not super hungry), and the bistecca with side dishes. My favorite sides are the fagioli all’ucceletto (beans with tomato) and the sauteed greens, although of course the roast potatoes are delicious too and always go well with the meat. Alright, just get all 3 side dishes. Traditional dessert that usually comes with the set menu is cantuccini with Vin Santo. In fact, if you check out my list of the Top 6 Things to Eat (and Drink) in Florence, the best versions of most of those typical foods I’ve consumed have been at Il Latini, also including the ribollita pictured above. If you have only one dinner in Florence, this should be it!

TIP! Make a reservation at least 1 day in advance. Il Latini has a 7:30pm and 9/9:30pm seating. The tourist rush is usually for the earlier time, so I recommend reserving for the later one, and then show up any time from 8:45/9pm on as tables begin to free up around then.

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Trattoria Sostanza

Another location for typical Tuscan cuisine, including the bistecca alla fiorentina, although this trattoria has specialties you can’t get anywhere else. It is most well known for the butter chicken, which is the moistest chicken breast I’ve ever eaten, with the butter bubbling up and crusting the top even as it’s served still in the hot pan. The artichoke tart is also popular, although it is a less hearty dish with less texture. The homemade meringue cake with wild berries is a perfect dessert bite if I’ve ever had one – the crunchy meringue, chocolate, smooth cream, and berries are in perfect proportion. A slice of this is not to be shared 😉

TIP! Make a reservation several days in advance, for the 7:30pm or 9pm seating. Again, the later reservation is the less touristy one. Also note, tables are communal.

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Trattoria ZaZa

Although filled with tourists, this is also a spot frequented by locals and fortunately has a large seating capacity to match. Reservations for dinner are recommended, although going around 9pm on a weeknight, two of us were seated only waiting about five minutes. The menu is vast, although I especially enjoyed the selections off the truffle menu, available seasonally starting in early autumn. ZaZa is also close to the Mercato Centrale (see the Lunch section above).

 

What were your most memorable meals in Florence? And as you can see, in Florence I tend to stick to the places with down-home traditional Tuscan cooking. How do you pick which restaurants to check out when you travel?

Where to Eat the Best Bites in Florence

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Top Picks for Churches, Art, and Amazing Views in Florence

Top Picks for Churches, Art, and Amazing Views in Florence

There is no shortage of things to do on a visit to Florence, however there is so much to do it can be quite overwhelming. I’ve spent many different trips visiting the city over the past 3 years, and have been to quite a lot of the sights.

Here are my favorite picks for the city, depending on where your interests lie:

Incredible Art

Galleria dell’Accademia

There is a vast and lovely collection here, but let’s be real, you come for one thing: the original statue of David by Michelangelo. Due to the crowds, it is best to come with the Firenze Card or a timed ticket early in the morning. Although there is a quite good David replica in the Piazza della Signoria, nothing compares to the raw beauty and craftsmanship of the original.

TIP! Only buy a timed ticket from the official website linked above, otherwise you will be paying a huge markup. You can buy online up until the day before, but it’s best to do this as far in advance as possible.

TIP! Even if you don’t have the Firenze Card or managed to reserve for a time slot, you can minimize waiting time by coming first thing in the morning. On my last visit, I was in the non-reserved line (far right if you’re facing the entrance) by 8:05am and was inside by 8:30am.

Palazzo Vecchio

This is my favorite of the art museums in Florence, because it has a variety of different types of art and a lot of period rooms with the furniture and paintings in place. The Palazzo Vecchio also houses my favorite museum room, the Hall of Geographical Maps, built at the request of Cosimo de Medici and including a hidden door to a secret passage – see if you can spot it! The Palazzo Vecchio also has ruins underneath and a tower you can ascend for views of the city (see “Towers to Climb” section below). Even if you don’t have the Firenze Card, the ticket office does not usually have a line.

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Uffizi Gallery

This is possibly the most famous art museum in Florence with its renowned art collection and huge queues. While there is no individual piece of art that I saw that sticks in my mind, I do remember being wowed by the beauty. The impressive collection will have you swooning with the rest of the visitors. The crowds are massive, and the first non-Italian to head up the Uffizi may have even succeeded in shaking things up by the time you visit.

TIP! The lines are almost always long to enter, so I strongly recommend coming with the Firenze Card or buying a timed ticket in advance from the link above (which is the official link, and saves you the huge markup of private tour providers).

Churches of Note

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Duomo (cathedral)

Florence’s Duomo is iconic with its different colors of marble adorning the outside and the red-tiled dome visible from many vistas in Florence. Definitely a must-visit spot for Florence, although go early to avoid a long wait – even if you have the Firenze Card. You can climb the dome as well as the bell tower (see “Towers to Climb” section below).

TIP! The Firenze Card won’t get you expedited entrance to the cathedral itself, so if the line is massive, you can either enter more quickly by hiring one of the tour guides milling around or use your Firenze Card to climb to the Cupola where you can expedited entry and check out the inside of the Duomo during your ascent which takes you inside (see “Towers to Climb” section below).

San Marco

This church close to the Galleria dell’Accademia is nice, but the convent turned museum is the real highlight. This is a nice spot to visit because there is not much of a line and it is also on the Firenze Card. There are several rooms around a courtyard with lovely artworks and sculpture, plus the rooms of the convent on the floor above which all have wall murals and some of which peer down into the older ruins underneath.

Santa Croce

This is a lovely basilica, although due to its location close to other attractions in the historical center, it is often crowded with tour groups. There is a lot more to see than you’d expect once you get inside, so plan enough time for your visit unless you’re on the Firenze Card and just popping in for quick look.

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, right next to our hotel

Santa Maria Novella

Many visitors pass by the church of Santa Maria Novella, as it is opposite the main train station that bears its name, but far fewer take the time to visit. Which is a shame, because this has probably been my biggest surprise in my time in Florence. I went on my second trip to the city, because I had a Firenze Card that was still valid and some time to kill before catching my train back to Milan (and am so glad I did). The highlight for me were the giant frescoes around the inner courtyard.

Around Town

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Piazza della Signoria

A piazza is just a plaza or open square, but the stunning thing about Florence is the incredible artwork and sculptures you discover. Piazza della Signoria is probably the most famous Florentine piazza, as it is bordered by the Palazzo Vecchio and Uffizi Gallery (see “Incredible Art” above). In the piazza itself, are statues of the god Neptune and Cosimo de’ Medici, a replica of Michelangelo’s David statue (where the original once stood), and often rotating works that are part of temporary art exhibitions.

Loggia dei Lanzi

This is an elevated platform also bordering the Piazza della Signoria, with a number of lovely sculptures. It is covered and has seating, so is also a good spot to sit and rest, or to duck out of a sudden rainstorm.

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Piazza della Repubblica

This is another plaza you are likely to happen upon as you stroll the city, which you’ll recognize by its dramatic archway and the historical carousel on the square itself.

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Piazza del Mercato Nuovo

Between the Piazza della Repubblica and the Ponte Vecchio, you’ll come across the “new market” with vendors predominantly selling the leather products Tuscany is known for producing.

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Ponte Vecchio

Literally meaning old bridge, the Ponte Vecchio distinguishes itself from the many other bridges crossing the Arno river since it is the only one with buildings. Today the shops are jewelry merchants, and there are nice views of the river from the break between shops in the center of the bridge. It looks so much like the neighboring streets when you approach that you may not even realize that you’ve crossed onto the bridge.

Off the Beaten Path

Galileo museum

This was an exciting discovery that is not off the beaten path geographically (it’s very close to the Uffizi Gallery), but is far less visited than other sights. There is a vast collection of scientific instruments through the ages and some great, interactive displays. The Galileo museum can also be a nice shift if you’ve been seeing lots of art all day, and is conveniently part of the Firenze Card.

Mercato Centrale

It took me a few visits to Florence to come to the central market for the first time. It is in a historical building that has been revived with different food stalls representing many types of Italian cuisine, and also selling fresh produce like any other market. It is fun just to walk around and take in the sights and smells, as well as stopping for a bite.

Great Synagogue and Jewish museum

The museum is inside the synagogue itself, and is also on the Firenze Card. Built in the late 1800s, there is a lot of detail in the artwork and architecture of the structure, and the museum provides interesting insights into the Jewish history of the area.

TIP! Be aware that the synagogue is closed on Saturdays as well as other Jewish holidays throughout the year. Check out the link above for a full list of closure dates so you can plan your visit accordingly.

Amazing Views

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Boboli Gardens

The gardens themselves are nice to visit, and happen to be connected to the Palazzo Pitti, which houses a series of smaller museums with different types of collections. As you ascend the many terraces of the gardens and wander off to the side paths, you’ll get a variety of views of Florence. This is only during the day though, as the gardens shut in the early evening well before sunset. On your way out of the gardens, veer to the right as you go downhill to check out some of the grotto areas with unique decorations.

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Fort Belvedere

The fort is usually not too crowded, is near the top of the Boboli Gardens, and has some quintessential views of Florence. While this is an uncrowded spot that many Italians visit to take in the sunset, note that there is a closing time and you may not catch the end of sunset or be able to linger afterward. The views are spectacular, though.

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Piazzale Michaelangelo

This is by far the most popular (and crowded) of the options for catching amazing views of Florence, but is especially popular for catching a broad view of sunset over the city. Do note that you will not be alone, and it will not be quiet. When I’ve gone to watch sunset, there is basically a mass migration of tourists from the river heading the same way. At the top, it is a mix of serious photographers, people selling selfie sticks, and live bands playing for money. It’s still popular though, because it’s still an incredible view and you can linger as long as you like.

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San Miniato al Monte

This is the quietest of spots, in part because it is the hardest to get to. You can get there on foot with a longer uphill walk than Piazzale Michelangelo, or arrive by bus or car. I have only been here in the morning, but can attest to great views of the city that would perfect for sunset as well. The church is also worth visiting, as one of the oldest in the area and featuring different artwork from the other churches you’ll visit in town.

Towers to Climb (aka More Amazing Views)

Campanile (bell tower of Duomo complex)

The bell tower tends to have a shorter line to enter and climb, but it’s still best to come first thing in the morning for visiting all of the parts of the Duomo. The benefit of climbing the Campanile (other than a shorter wait) is that you can get a close up view and take excellent pictures of the dome.

Duomo cupola (dome)

The dome allows a close up view of the ceiling on the inside of the cathedral along the way, so if the line to enter the Duomo is long, this can be a quicker way to gain entrance to see the cathedral, provided you have the Firenze Card. It also has panoramic views of the city as you walk around the bottom of the dome and peer in all directions.

View along the climb up the Palazzo Vecchio tower
View along the climb up the Palazzo Vecchio tower

Palazzo Vecchio tower

Incuded on the Firenze Card or available as part of the several combination tickets for the Palazzo Vecchio, this tower is the one I would recommend if you only climb one tower in Florence. It is far less crowded than the two climbing spots in the Duomo complex and since you are a bit away from the Duomo, you can see the cathedral in your pictures. In fact, this is the spot where my picture in the “About Me” section on the website sidebar comes from!

 

Normally I would have a “Best Bites” section as part of a city overview, however there is so much to do and so many great places to eat in Florence that I’ve split it into two separate posts. Stay tuned tomorrow for my top picks for restaurants, gelato, and aperitivo spots to frequent in Florence in between all of the sightseeing.

What is your favorite sight to visit in Florence? And if you still haven’t been, which attraction is the biggest draw for you?

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Top Things to Do in Florence, Italy - Churches, Art, & Amazing Views

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Top 6 Things to Eat (and Drink) in Florence

Top 6 Things to Eat (and Drink) in Florence

Tuscan food is world-renowned for its flavors and comfort, and include things that were considered peasant food, with simple, bold flavors and a richness that make this many people’s favorite regional cuisine in Italy.  While visiting Florence (which is located in the region of Tuscany), here are my top items to seek out to explore the dishes local to the area:

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Ribollita.

This is a bean soup, thickened with bread, and made with a hodgepodge of vegetables (a peasant’s soup of sorts, with various leftovers in the household traditionally being added in). Although a hallmark of Italian cuisine is having a few ingredients in the correct proportions, ribollita breaks that mold entirely. When Season 4 of MasterChef Australia (TM) filmed some episodes in Italy, one of the challenges was guessing all of the ingredients in a traditional ribollita – and there were 28!

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Crostini di fegato.

Slices of bread, which are sometimes toasted, and topped with a chicken liver pate. It is very typical of the area, and available on most restaurant’s menus. I happen to love liver, and try to grab at least one crostino with each of my meals in Florence.

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Bistecca alla fiorentina.

Literally meaning “Florentine steak/steak made in the Florentine style” this is a particular type of bone-in, thick cut steak which is seared on the outside and fairly raw on the inside. When prepared well, there will be huge amounts of flavor and very easily-chewed bites of delectable beef. Most restaurants have a minimum order of either 500 grams (~1 pound) or 1 kilo (~2 pounds). A dish that is meant to be shared!

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Fagioli all’uccelletto.

This is a typical side dish (contorno) made with cannellini beans that are stewed with tomatoes, garlic, sage, and other spices. While it sounds simple, you have not fully experienced the flavor of cannellini beans until you taste this preparation. There is a hearty richness to it that is deeply satisfying and a great accompaniment to the grilled meats you’ll find on nearly every menu.

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Tuscan red wine.

There is a wealth of excellent red wine that comes out of Tuscany, from the house red in a woven basket already on your restaurant table when you sit, to the famed varietals of Chianti, Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino . . . the list goes on. Sample some with your meals and find your favorite – maybe even take some home as a tasty souvenir of your trip.dsc_0128-2

Cantuccini con Vin Santo.

You will see this on most dessert menus (the list of dolci) as either cantucci or cantuccini, which are tiny nut biscotti to be dipped into the Vin Santo, a local dessert wine. Vin Santo almost tastes like a tawny port sometimes, although it is not actually fortified as a port would be. The nuttiness and texture of the cantuccini and the strength and flavor of the Vin Santo moistening them are a perfect pairing.

 

What’s your favorite Tuscan dish?

Buon appetito!

Lana

THE TOP 6 (1)

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How to Make the Most of a Weekend in Barcelona

How to Make the Most of a Weekend in Barcelona

Impressions

Barcelona might have been the first city I visited after moving to Europe when I actively solicited recommendations on Facebook from friends about what to do and where to eat. This was long before Travel Savvy Gal was even a bud of an idea, but even then I took what is still my approach: if I’m going to travel, I like to travel well. To me, this doesn’t mean doing the most expensive or exclusive things necessarily, but instead getting a full and rich experience of a particular place. Ten comments on my post and multiple private messages later, I knew I was wise to inquire. I was inundated with suggestions from well-travelled American friends, friends living around Europe, and even a friend from South Africa. So why is Barcelona such a beloved (and well-visited) city across continents?

Thinking back on my weekend exploring Barcelona, I see sunny skies, strolling along lengthy boulevards, the expanse of the Mediterranean, and the vibrancy of the food. I think it’s something about coastal cities that there is this open possibility that comes with every day. A feeling that makes me smile when I think of Barcelona.

I’m not sure if it was because my one and only visit to Barcelona was in springtime, or because it was my first time visiting Spain, but just entering the city put a lightness in my step. The weather was warm but not hot, and the bustle of people made me feel caught up in the bright colors and vivacity of the city. I had such a wonderful time exploring, and know you will, too!

Things to Do

There is a ton to take in in Barcelona, but you can really have a leisurely weekend and see quite a lot. Or squeeze most things in with a more ambitious schedule or by spending an extra day. Here are my top picks for what to do during your visit:

Around Town

We just happened upon a processional walking past the Cathedral
We just happened upon a processional walking past the Cathedral

Cathedral

A stunning Gothic cathedral very centrally located, this is one of the spots to definitely explore. Check out the website linked above for the various visiting house – sometimes it’s free to enter, other times there is a donation required.

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Old Jewish Quarter & Medieval Synagogue
Not far from the Cathedral, you can explore the old streets and also visit the medieval synagogue, one of the oldest in Europe. It is small and is more like seeing an archaeological excavation than seeing a modern house of worship, so a great window into Barcelona’s past.

Museo Picasso

I really enjoyed this museum, the only one dedicated to Picasso’s works during his lifetime. He first moved to Barcelona as a teenager with his family, and spent later years there as well.

La Rambla

This is a street, which is not your typical tourist recommendation, however this came up with almost everyone who recommended Barcelona sights to me. It is a large sprawling boulevard that connects the Plaça de Catalunya in the center to the waterfront, is a popular spot for strolling, and has many things to see along the way:

(I've never seen 3 types of dragonfruit before)
(I’ve never seen 3 types of dragonfruit before)
  • La Boqueria market. See the colorful produce on offer in Barcelona, and the market is also a great spot to stop for a drink or a meal (see “Best Bites” section below).

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  • Plaça Reial. This large plaza adorned with palm trees reminds me of many others and does not seem distinct to Barcelona, but has a lively scene or restaurants along its perimeter and is worth a quick peek as you stroll down La Rambla.
  • Mirador de Colom. Right before you get to the waterfront, there is a tower of Christopher Columbus dominating the center of a roundabout. Snap a few pictures before heading to the water’s edge.

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  • Waterfront. A pedestrian walkway makes the stroll along Barcelona’s waterfront as comforting as any boardwalk you enjoyed strolling growing up.

Off the Beaten Path

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Casa Battlo

Gaudi, a Spanish architect who designed many buildings around Barcelona, may be the most famous thing about Barcelona. Casa Battlo is one of the houses he designed, a bit off the beaten path, but not too far from the city center and with a ton of rooms open to the public across many levels, including an audioguide.

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La Sagrada Familia

Although still currently unfinished, this Catholic church designed by Gaudi is possibly his most iconic creation in the city. It is a long walk or short metro ride from the center, and is probably the most popular attraction in Barcelona. See the “Amazing Views” section below for more on accessing the view from the top.

TIP! Also off the beaten path are other Gaudi creations, including Casa Milà and Park Güell, the latter also providing an elevated view of the city.

Amazing views

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Towers of La Sagrada Familia

There is a lift that brings you up to the towers of the church for a high vantage point, and is worth organizing in advance as entrance capacity is more restricted than the church itself. More details are linked above.

Parc del Mirador del Poble Sec

This and other nearby gardens in the Poble Sec neighborhood of Barcelona offer wide views of the city and waterfront, and are a refreshing break as the green spaces are frequented more typically by locals than tourists.

Best Bites

Barcelona, like many parts of Spain, is all about the tapas (small plates) and the wine. This approach to eating is perfectly suited to me because I love getting to try lots of different dishes and finding a tasty accompaniment to wash it all down. In Barcelona, I felt like there was a focused approach to each traditional small plate, bringing forth flavor combinations to give you pause, and local wine that pairs so well with the typical cuisine. And I was fortunate enough to travel with a friend who is a kindred spirit when it comes to seeking out delicious meals. The top places I enjoyed during my stay:

Traditional Tapas

Papas bravas, baccala' del dia, y vino
Papas bravas, baccala’ del dia, y vino

Whether you eat here or not, this market off of the famous La Rambla boulevard is definitely worth a visit. In addition to vendors selling incredibly fresh produce, there are a lot of stands with stools or nearby tables where you can eat a sit-down meal. I squeezed in to the last spot at the bar at El Quim for a tasty Friday lunch, when I was still flying solo.

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This was one of the places recommended to me by a friend, and became the default choice for Sunday lunch as one of the few places open that day. It was so crowded when we first entered that there was half an instinct to turn right around and find a calmer place, but waiting had its rewards. The service was very friendly and our server made great recommendations, and all of the dishes were well-executed versions of classic tapas. The octopus dish was especially memorable.

Innovative Tapas

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I knew in advance that La Pepita does not take reservations (“sin reserva”), but arriving for a late lunch on a Saturday meant being able to be seated immediately. This is not your traditional take on tapas, but the restaurant is true to the principles of putting complementary flavors together on the plate that give you pause to savor each bite. The staff was also very welcoming, making for an excellent overall experience.

Dessert & Drinks

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It’s been a while now, but this pastry shop won “best chocolate cake in the world” back in 2005, and they are still serving up the special Xabina cake slice, with many layers of texture and flavor. Not far from El Xampanyet (see above) and worth seeking out.

  • El Born & Gracia neighborhoods

No particular bar stands out to me for after-dinner drinks although I frequented a few, but these two neighborhoods have lively nightlife scenes and are great areas to walk around and then you are free to pop into whatever place strikes your fancy.

On the high end

This was a budget weekend away, so I did not visit any “fancy” restaurants, however I would be remiss to not mention two very world-renowned spots for those who might be interested:

  • Tickets Bar – If you are not new to the foodie scene, you’ve heard of Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame. When El Bulli was open, it was considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world, receiving a million reservation requests for just a few thousand dining slots annually for their molecular gastronomy experiments on a plate. The Adrià brothers have Tickets Bar as their latest project, with reservations available online two months in advance.

 

 

(More) Practical Tips for Visiting

Shopping

I am not usually a person who buys a lot of souvenirs or is that into shopping as I travel, but Barcelona has so many wonderful things at great prices, that I would definitely leave extra room in your bag to take your purchases home. I had not planned ahead, so kept my buying modest: I bought a scarf that I wear often, an earring and bracelet set, as well as two Gaudi-decorated espresso glasses with spoons. But if I had more space, there were also great artist shops all around and really interesting and beautiful clothes for great prices. Next time…

 

Have you visited Barcelona before? What is your favorite part about visiting Spain? Or what you’re most looking forward to on your first trip? Tell me more in the Comments below.

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How To Spend 48 Hours - A Weekend in Barcelona Spain

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10 Reasons to Travel Anyway

10 Reasons to Travel Anyway

Excuse #1: I can’t afford to travel

Why Travel Anyway:

I hear this one a lot. Many people I know who do not travel much bemoan the fact that travel is too expensive. It can be, but it certainly doesn’t have to be! I find that because I live in a city with a decently high cost of living, there are many places off the beaten path that I can visit where my daily or weekly costs (including accommodations) is less than if I was in Milan for that same time.

Don’t have any money saved up? There are lots of ways to start putting away money a little at a time. Do you spend $5 a day on coffee out when you could brew at home? Do you eat lunch out when you could bring leftovers into the office? Do you really need another shirt that looks just like the ones you have at home? Do you splurge on taxis when you could have taken public transit? Even one of these cost-saving measures can amount to big savings toward a future trip. Plan for your goals, and start setting money aside to make it possible.

Excuse #2: Work is too busy

Why Travel Anyway:

A lot of my friends live in major cities in the northeastern United States (where workaholics abound), so I hear this one a lot. Yes, many people’s work schedules have busier periods throughout the year that really are not options for travel, however this is not typically true for the *whole* year. Or, if you are constantly busy, then work will always be too busy and then you can pick any time really to block off time for travel. The work will still be there when you return, I promise. And if you plan ahead and have a strategy to still meet all of your deadlines, most employers are willing to be flexible.

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Excuse #3: I’ll travel next year

Why Travel Anyway:

This is probably not exactly what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow . . .” but the sentiment certainly applies here. None of us know for certain what the future holds, so why keep putting off something as fun as travel? Sometimes the circumstances that make travel affordable (like the lower value of the British pound after the Brexit vote) are just temporary. It’s impossible to know ahead of time which trends will last, so if travel makes sense now, just do it!

Excuse #4: I don’t have anyone to travel with

Why Travel Anyway:

If you have never travelled by yourself, I strongly recommend it! There are many accommodations like hostels where even if you book a private room, you have the opportunity to meet other solo travellers or join organized tours. It is a great way to see a place without all of the negotiation involved when you’re travelling with others. You can stick to just the tourist sites you’d like to see, and you always get to pick what and where you eat.

Even if you’re not convinced, there is likely a creative solution for you. When I finished graduate school (and was a teacher still, so had the summer off), I wanted to take a 3+ week trip. But none of my friends could take that much time off of work and most teacher friends had gotten jobs that summer. So I travelled for a bit over 3 weeks, but with two different friends – one for the first half and another for the second half. If you’re really not interested in travelling alone, see what combination of people may be able to join you for a trip or if there is an organized tour that fits your budget.

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Excuse #5: There’s nowhere new I want to go

Why Travel Anyway:

I struggle when I hear this, because as I travel, the list of places I want to go keeps getting longer! If you’ve been happy with the trips you’ve already taken, that of course is fine, too. Why not revisit one of your favorite past destinations?

Travel is energizing because it opens your eyes to things you don’t see in a normal day at home, and takes you out of your usual routine. You’ll see the world with fresh eyes, even after just a weekend away.

Excuse #6: I have young children, so I can’t travel

Why Travel Anyway:

This one is just not true. Travel, with or without your little ones, is always a choice. I even have friends who go out of their way to travel when their children are very little, so they can come on the airplane without needing their own ticket. For friends who visited Milan with two young children, there were more frequent bathroom stops but also lots of time to walk around outside or visit a museum while the kids slept in their strollers.

Recent visitors to Milan have also included friends who left their little ones at home with grandparents. Parents need breaks, too. And for those who have the support at home of having people who can care for their child or children while they’re away, yes, you’ll miss them. But taking the time to relax away from the kids will make you an even more engaged parent when you return. Which is good for them, too.

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Excuse #7: My significant other can’t travel, so I shouldn’t either. Or he/she doesn’t want to travel.

Why Travel Anyway:

It’s challenging to find two people whose travel desires exactly align. More likely, one person in a relationship is interested in more travel than the other. And certainly in the Milan expat world, often one partner has work travel that makes them less willing and able to travel for pleasure.

So why travel anyway? First, solo travel can be hugely fulfilling and a wonderful way to take a trip (see Excuse #4 above). Just because you don’t have your significant other as a built-in travel buddy, doesn’t mean you can’t and shouldn’t take advantage of opportunities to travel on your own. And certainly being married or in a relationship does not preclude your travelling with other friends. Some of my best trips in Europe have been with friends, some of whom are married or in long-term relationships and chose to travel with me for a weekend anyway. Just make sure there is communication with your significant other about your travel plans in advance, to avoid possible misunderstandings later.

Excuse #8: Travel is dangerous, what if something happens to me?

Why Travel Anyway:

Yes, travel can be dangerous. Life in the 21st century can also be dangerous, regardless of where you live. For some people, depending on the destination, travel may even be safer than their home city. Regardless of your situation, safety is a consideration and may impact which destination you choose for your trip, however should not keep you from exploring new and far away destinations.

After the recent attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and beyond, I’ve fielded many questions about safety in Europe that you can read about here. I do not feel like day-to-day life in Europe is particularly dangerous, but it is up to each individual to make that call. The most important thing when it comes to choosing a destination you do not find dangerous is trusting your instincts. Do your research, consult which destinations are safest, follow common-sense safety tips wherever you are, and focus on the wonderful travel you’re privileged to experience. And yes, take that trip!

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Excuse #9: Travel is too stressful. Or planning travel is too stressful.

Why Travel Anyway:

Some people, like me, thrive on the research and planning that goes into a wonderful travel experience. Others drag their heels and avoid it like the plague until the very last moment, if they plan anything at all. Obviously there is quite a broad spectrum here of what level of planning each person is comfortable with, and I certainly advocate finding a balance in your own travel planning to avoid being stressed out. Some people opt for cruises or all-inclusive beach vacations to avoid this, and if that is you and what you enjoy, wonderful. If going to several different cities in a single trip seems overwhelming, find a city with a ton to do and plan a long weekend getaway there instead.

The same philosophy goes for travel itself. Yes, it is nice when travel stretches your boundaries, but not to the point of being so stressed out you can’t enjoy the experience. Be in tune with what situations get your heart racing in a panicked way, and organize your travel to minimize those situations and maximize the enjoyment and reward.

Excuse #10: I like all the comforts of home, why would I leave?

Why Travel Anyway:

I heard someone say once that everything will either be a great experience or a great story, and I feel like this attitude is especially appropriate for travel. You are outside of your comfort zone, and may not speak the language or know where to find necessities in a pinch, but that is the adventure of travelling. Of course, you can tailor your travel plans to whatever level of adventure either keeps you completely comfortable or pushes you a bit beyond your usual conveniences.

Regardless of how much you love and thrive in the comforts of home, there are so many benefits to travel! Conde Nast Traveler recently did a round up of 5 Ways Travel Makes You Smarter, and there is also a boost to your creativity and flexibility from the new situations you encounter on the road. And of course, when you do come home at the end of a trip, the comforts of home are all the sweeter =)

 

These are some of the reasons why I travel anyway – and try to convince reluctant friends that travel *is* worth it. Why do YOU travel? Any particular resources I can provide on the blog to make your travel easier or better? Tell me more in the Comments below.

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