“The Creator made Italy by designs from Michelangelo.” Mark Twain knew what he was talking about.
Italy has been my dream destination for as long as I can remember, but the fantasy really took off when I completed an A-Z project on the country in sixth grade. I owe Mrs. Holdinghausen, a geography bawse, so much.
So you can understand my awe and shock when my boyfriend surprised me on our two-year anniversary with a trip to Italy. He told me this was my dream and gave me free rein to plan whatever I wanted. (He probably regretted this after walking over 60 miles in seven days.)
After six months of planning, though I tried to keep some spontaneity, we took off from Newark with my heart racing on Feb. 6. It was finally happening: I was going to Italy.
I’ve been asked what my favorite part of our nine-day adventure was, and I simply cannot choose. Rome vs. Florence? Colosseum vs. the Vatican? Staggering amounts of gelato vs. a staggering intake of food and wine? It’s impossible to decide because every thing we did was unique in its own way and provided us with a different perspective. I loved seeing all of the sights and receiving an abundance of information on guided tours. But I also reveled in lost walks and stumbling upon 2,000-year-old monuments when rounding a corner. And the food. Did I mention the food?
With four days in Rome and four days in Florence, we saw, did, and ate a lot. Here are some highlights (alright, it’s pretty comprehensive) from our Italian holiday:
- Hike in Tivoli — I was set on not being a quintessential tourist, so I booked a sunset hike through Airbnb in Tivoli, a beautiful hillside city about 20 miles from Rome. Wow, talk about beauty. Only pictures will do this hike any justice. (Special thanks to our guide, Francesco, for such an amazing experience!)
- Afternoon in Trastevere — After readings lots of books (this is a book blog after all) about Italy, I knew we had to spend time in Trastevere. It’s a cute little neighborhood on the “other” side of the Tiber River. Walking around felt like being in New York’s West Village: quiet, quaint, and like a local. We chose to walk up a street that seemed to never stop going uphill, but we were rewarded with a stunning view. Keep reading to check out the sandwich/craft beer joint that we stumbled upon here!
- Day at Vatican City part 1– Growing up Catholic, I always had the Vatican on my bucket list, and a day here did not disappoint. The day got off to a slightly rough start after we got lost trying to find the excavations office and were then late for our Necropolis tour. Despite an eccentric English tour guide who threw some shade at us for showing up 10 minutes late, it was fascinating to walk along mausoleums of Roman hierarchy, papal crypts and grottoes, and, of course, the tomb of St. Peter. (“See that light over there …”)
- Day at Vatican City part 2 — After breaking for lunch and standing in the magnificence that is St. Peter’s Square — TV doesn’t emphasize how vast it is — we imparted on another guided tour, this time of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Grandeur is the only word I can use to describe this experience. Talk about art and a history that spoke volumes. They don’t let you take pictures of the Sistine Chapel, but that’s OK because only being present could evoke the artistic beauty of that room. And St. Peter’s, you ask? Well, Kyle’s reaction was “I wonder how much money they’d get if they sold this place?” Valid point.
- Guided tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum — I love history (hence, all of the historical fiction I read), so I was really looking forward to this morning. It didn’t let me down, especially thanks to our energetic guide, Chiara. Standing where emperors and gladiators stood and seeing where democracy was born made me yearn to learn more. Don’t be surprised if you see some related literature reviewed in the next few months.
- Wine tour in Tuscany — another Airbnb gem! Our first full day in Florence took us out to the countryside to learn about wine making and the intense industry. We were taken to a winery co-op, Fattoria Il Petriccio, and finally Fattoria Palaia for even more wine and lunch. The day was very informational, but let’s be honest: It was all about drinking the best wine I’d ever had. I love you, Chianti. Thanks for letting me bring back some bottles, and shame on you, airport security, for forcing me to only bring back two.
- Museums in Florence — Kyle and I aren’t really museum people. I’ve lived in New York for almost four years and still haven’t been to MoMa (whoops), but museums in Firenze were great. This place was the heart of the Renaissance, and you could feel its influence all around, so learning about its greats at the Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Uffizi Gallery museums was worth it.
- Aimless wandering — One of my favorite things about traveling, even in my own city, is walking with no intended destination. We did a lot of this on the trip, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it. It led us to four magnificent churches (Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome and Santa Croce and Chiesa di San Salvatore al Monte in Florence — and we were originally looking for a bathroom in these last two), the Mercato Centrale in Florence, the
Basically, there were just too many wonderful places we saw that I simply can’t write about all of them.
While 50% of the trip was sightseeing, the other half was definitely devoted to eating and drinking. These were my fave stops for treats and libations:
- Bottega Trattora de Santis — This was a recommendation from our Roman host, Luca, near our apartment. We ate here after our hike in Tivoli and on our quest to finding the best spaghetti carbonara, and this trattoria won out. Man oh man, what a treat.
- Osteria der Belli — Another rec, this time from a lovely friend of a friend who made us an entire Google map of places to try. It’s owned by a Sardinian family that makes divine Sardinian gnocchi and ravioli. This Trastevere lunch was a special meal. We also may have eaten some roasted cheese…
- Donkey Punch — This is the Trastevere gem Kyle couldn’t stop raving about. It’s owned and run out of a local’s home. You can tell this Italian stallion is a man who knows his meats and beers and has a thing for rock bands, evidenced by the 20-plus sandwiches named after legends like Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, as well as the rock star mural.
- Caffé degli Innocenti — On our first morning in Italy, we had no idea what we were doing when we walked into a coffee bar. Thankfully, we could watch other locals order and enjoy their espresso and cornetti at the bar before we tried, but let’s face it: We looked like dumb Americans. By the time, we got to Florence, we had sort of figured it out. We stopped at Caffé degli Innocenti, which was on our corner, and goodness gracious, never be ungrateful for a Nutella cornetto at 9:30 a.m.
- Tuscan winery lunch — As part of our wine tour, our sommelier, who is also a certified tour guide and amazing chef, served us a three-course meal at our final stop, Fattoria Palaia. I’m talking cheeses from the Piedmont, pasta in wild boar sauce, pork loin marinated in two types of wine and vegetable broth, and the dreamiest tiramisu on the face of the planet.
- Odeon Bistro — I was intent on learning the ways of the Italian aperitivo, and Kyle and I discovered it at this swanky bar recommended by our Firenze host. As someone who loves to dine al fresco and bar food, this place was perfect for me.
- Perché no!… — We wanted gelato from here on our first night in Florence, but sadly it closed until … my birthday! This afternoon treat served us the best gelato on our trip. I recommend the nocciola (hazelnut), which became my go-to flavor.
- Ristorante Pizzeria Gustavino — Last but certainly not, my birthday dinner! Kyle made a rez here, and let’s just say he did good work. And we left nothing at the table. We ordered a half bottle of Chianti, more prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella, a spicy tagliatelle with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, pappa al pomodoro (a local soup), and, of course, bistecca, which is a Firenze treasure. To top it off, Kyle and the waiter conspired to bring me a heavenly chocolate cake with vanilla and raspberry sauce and a candle on top. Yes, I nearly unbuttoned my pants at the restaurant.
I could mention many more, butttt … OK, I will:
- Forno Ciabattini — where we tried suppli, a traditional Roman cuisine that’s basically a fried rice ball with tomato sauce. Yeah. Yum.
- Manifattura Tabacchi — amazing cocktails with a 1920s atmosphere
- Nature Italy Srl — the tastiest consolation gelato and our first in Italia
- The trattoria near the Duomo that served lasagna with béchamel and truffle tagliatelle (’nuff said)
- All the espresso and cappuccino
- Mercato Centrale
- Yellow Bar — more carbonara and some spicy noodles. NOMS
- Gelateria dei Neri — that nocciola again
- Gilò — a fancy piano bar with a delightful espresso martini
Basically, just go and eat and drink everything
To say our Italian vacation was a dream come true sounds cliché — and like something I would totally say. But it really was. I can’t imagine a better way to experience a lovely vacation. Topping this trip, not to mention this birthday, will be nearly impossible.