I traveled to Italy with my roommates friend, Kate, who I had met only once, and I had the most amazing time!! I did not know her very well, but we definitely got to know each other, and she was the perfect travel companion. She took notes every day during our trip and sent them to me, so a lot of the memories from this post are thanks to her great note taking skills. Poor Kate got sick on the plane ride over there, so that was not a great start to our trip.
Once we finally arrived in Amsterdam, we only had 50 minutes before our flight to Florence left. Our flight from Detroit left an hour late, and of course we came in at Terminal A of the airport and needed to be in Terminal F. We ran for about 15 minutes, weaving through people; thankfully we packed light and had a carry on bag and a backpack each. We make it to our gate with just enough time to buy a water bottle. We were so dehydrated and tired that buying a water bottle was probably the happiest part of our day until we opened it and took a sip and it was sparkling water… not exactly what we expected/wanted to quench our thirst. Full disclosure: I love sparkling water now.
Our hostel was called Plus Hostel in Florence. It is super cute and had a pool with a waterfall and a bar/restaurant. Our rooms weren’t ready when we first got there, so Kate and I literally laid on these couches in a random hang out room and FaceTimed our families. Then we took naps using our backpacks as pillows.
Kate and I decided to wander around to find some food that might help her feel better. We stumbled upon a little store to buy water and a loaf of plain bread. After that experience, the first thing I googled was “How do you say I don’t speak Italian” – because we couldn’t understand anything the grocery store checkout man was saying.
Walking Tour in Florence
For our walking tour, the tour guide passed out these headphones so that we could hear what she was saying even if we weren’t close to her, which was great because we were traveling with about 30 people. The city was so beautiful and a lot quieter than I had originally expected it to be. There were a lot of people, but it was not crazy busy/packed unless you were in the main square. There are many streets that are just quiet and calm and peaceful. We saw so many of the great monuments in Florence: Piazzale Michelangelo, Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Basilica di Santa Croce, Fountain of Neptune, and many more.
Merry-Go-Round in Piazza della Repubblica
One of the cutest things I saw in Florence was this Merry-Go-Round in the Piazza della Repubblica. Our tour guide told us that every Sunday a group of older gentlemen meet there after church to talk and hang out. I thought it was so nice and adorable! I could picture my Italian grandpa being there.
Fontana del Porcellino – Fountain of the Boar
There is a little bronze boar in the city that you are supposed supposed to drop a coin in its mouth and if it falls in the grate below… this will tell you if you will return to Florence someday supposedly. Then you rub its nose. My coin made it into the grate, so I guess I will be traveling back to Florence one day, which I would not mind at all!
San Lorenzo Market
Right near the famous boar was the famous leather markets. There are so many street vendors set up with genuine Italian leather products. I bought myself a leather jacket and I bought Mike a leather wallet. This area was very crowded.
Ponte Vecchio and Arno River
The Ponte Vecchio means Old Bridge, and it gets its name because it was the only bridge across the Arno in Florence until 1218. This is a very popular area of Florence with many street vendors nearby. This was a very beautiful area, and I would recommend checking it out.
All’Antico Vinaio – Panini Shop
We went to a panini shop for lunch that was amazing. I had a salami one and they put all these different spreads on it. There was sheep cheese, artichoke spread, and much more. This shop has over 20,000 reviews on TripAdvisor, and it still has a perfect 5 stars. I would highly recommend checking this place out! There can be a long line, so try not to go right during the busy lunch rush.
My first day in Italy, I of course had to get a gelato cannoli. I got gelato every day I was in Italy… They have shops everywhere with so many different flavors. Gelato is definitely a MUST in Florence!
In the evening, we went for a wine tasting at a family owned vineyard called La Tancia. This was SO much fun. I thought that they would just pour you a few sips of each, but this woman gave bottles and bottles and bottles to us – along with homemade bruschetta and bread. It was a really good way for everyone on the trip to get to know each other and just relax after a pretty stressful day of traveling the day before. They also gave us a tour of the vineyard and facility where they make the wine. They sell their wine to Buca di Beppo in the US as their house wine, so that was a pretty cool fun fact!
Today we took a two hour bus ride down these crazy winding roads to a quaint little village called Cinque Terre, which is a protected land area of five small coastal villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. Cinque Terre is known for its colored houses and beautiful beaches. Cinque Terre stands for Five Cities, and the only way to get around is to use their train system or to walk/hike. They are limiting the number of tourists to visit starting next year to try to keep it preserved and to not have a crazy amount of tourists flocking the streets and taking away the specialness of the experience.
The only disappointing part about Cinque Terre is that we didn’t get to spend enough time there! It was absolutely beautiful and definitely lived up to the pictures that I had seen of it. If I were to plan better or go back, I would’ve went to one island with the houses and shops and then spent the rest of the day at the island with the biggest beach. The ocean was so warm and blue, and we could’ve went cliff jumping and paddle boarding if we had had more time. Guess I will have to go back!
After a day of swimming, Kate and I went to the restroom… which was literally was a toilet seat hole in the ground that you squat over. That was definitely a surprise. Other restrooms we found in the city, you have to pay a Euro to use it. So be aware of that! Something definitely new to me as an American.
On our way to Rome, we stopped in the city of Sienna, which has Italy’s oldest medieval ruins. We only stopped for a bit, but it was so hot that I had to get gelato. I had hazelnut and chocolate and it was GREAT. The ruins were beautiful, and you could just tell that there was a ton of history.
After driving some more on our way to Rome, we stopped at a village called Orvieto. Kate and I went to a coffee shop and ordered coffee and tried the wifi (which actually worked for a bit, but it was only 6 am Detroit time). When she called us up to get our coffee, it was actually an espresso. We said “coffee” but to get a coffee as we think of in America, you have to order an “American coffee”. We ended up taking it like a shot after a few sips because we didn’t want to actually drink it. After that, we hopped on a tiny bus that some of our roommates were on, and we ended up at this tiny little town with all kinds of little wine and ceramic shops and restaurants by this giant church! It looked like the area had once been castle grounds. It was so beautiful, we were very glad we had walked past the bus when we did! There was a jasmine plant growing all over the brick walls and it smelled amazing. I got a Caprese salad for lunch which was perfect because I am kind of “carb”ed out. As we were eating outside, a group of kindergarten/first grade aged kids walked by with their teachers singing. It was so adorable.
St. Peter’s Square at Night
At night, our tour guide Iraklis got us a reservation at a restaurant where he knew the owner, and they gave us a nice little three course meal for $14 Euro. We had salad, pasta with orange and tomato sauce (which I have never had before), and ice cream. After dinner, we walked around in St. Peter’s Square which is beautiful all lit up at night! Iraklis went to school for dance and had us learn a quick choreography and do it outside the church. It was truly a special memory. We ended up getting kicked out by the Italian police, though. Apparently Americans learning a flash mob isn’t exactly their cup of tea. We were being quiet so I’m not entirely sure why it was a problem but oh well! It was actually so peaceful before the police showed up, but it is a memory I will cherish forever.
Walking Tour of Rome
Our first morning in Rome, we took a walking tour. All I can say is, thank GOD I wore tennis shoes! We walked to a ton of different areas with shopping, markets, and monuments. We went inside a church in the Piazza Novana called S. Agnese in Agone and I lit a candle in memory of my grandpa who had passed away. We also got to see the Pantheon which was so beautiful. Everyone kept calling it the Parthenon – which is in Greece, but I didn’t want to correct anyone. One of the places we went to was called the Spanish Steps, which was a ton of steps in a really ritzy shopping area. There were super expensive stores there like Prada and Gucci! The steps were a orime spot for people watching! We made a quick gelato pit stop on our way to the Trevi fountain. I had dark chocolate and coconut and it was SO good. They have the perfect serving sizes in Italy… instead of giant cups where you feel sick after eating them like Coldstone or Dairy Queen. The Trevi Fountain was kind of disappointing because it was all under construction so you couldn’t even see any of it. Plus, I remember the fountain from the Lizzie McGuire movie, and you’re supposed to be able to throw a coin into it over your shoulder and make a wish. But today there was no water in it, and even if there was water you aren’t allowed to throw coins in anymore because the rust was damaging the fountain. Bummer! Speaking of water, we learned that there is so much water under the city of Rome that they just have all these water fountains all over the streets that are constantly running. People fill their water bottles up from them, dogs drink out of them. It’s kind of cool but I don’t really understand how its clean?!
In the afternoon, we got a tour of the Colosseum. When I was walking around, I kept thinking that it looked like something that you’d see in Game of Thrones. Our tour guide was really knowledgeable and passionate which made the tour even better. She was telling us about the “games” that happened inside the Colosseum and how gruesome they were. You could see underneath it the cage area where they would either keep the slaves that were going to fight or the animals that they would use. The games lasted 100 days and some thousands of animals and people died during those days. Apparently they had a layer of the Colosseum directly underneath the stage that was just full of sand to soak up the blood of whatever had died that day. It is so crazy to me that people got so much joy out of watching things fight and die. I am glad we have moved on from that (in most parts of the world).
After we were done with the tour inside the Colosseum, we got a tour of everything behind the Colosseum, which is called the Roman Forum. Basically, it is a bunch of ruins from thousands and thousands of years ago. Julius Cesar walked the same streets, which was absolutely crazy to me! There were statues and arches, buildings, and old churches. The fact that all of these have been able to withstand so much weather and time is really incredible. I wonder in 2,000 years what college students will be looking at from my time period. Probably iPads? We finished the tour in the area of the Forum where the Mayor’s office is. His office is in one of the renovated old buildings that overlooks the Forum and you can see the Colosseum in the background. It must be a pretty awesome view! Apparently no one in Rome likes the Mayor right now because a few of his staff members just got arrested for being a part of the Mafia. The Mayor claims he didn’t know, but no one believes him. Sounds like politics are pretty much the same all over the world!
At night, Iraklis organized an Opera night at an opera bar called Quartiere Flaminio. It didn’t sound like it would be very cool, but I figured… When in Rome, right? It ended up being so much FUN! It was awesome to get a cultural experience, but it also was actually really funny. The singers were really entertaining and would go out into the crowd and bring people up on stage. They even shaved a man’s beard on stage! In addition to that, there was a giant five course meal and as much wine as you could ever want. I would recommend coming here if you can!
I don’t know what I was expecting the Vatican to be but its MASSIVE inside. Apparently Vatican City is its own country. There were so many people in each of the different museums/rooms that we went into, so that was kind of a bummer… it made it harder to truly appreciate what we were looking at. It is also important to point out that you MUST have your shoulders and knees covered inside. We visited in July, so it was extremely hot there, so we had to we had to wear long skirts, and cover our shoulders as well.
Inside the Vatican, there is so much to see. When you look some of the paintings, all you can think about is how long ago these were painted, and that someone literally stood on a ladder facing up for years and years painting them, it is pretty impossible not to be impressed. When we got to the Sistine Chapel where Michaelangelo painted his most famous piece, Kate hadn’t heard that we were not allowed to take pictures. She took a lot, but thankfully her flash was off. The guards got on the intercom and made an angry announcement to put away your phones and that pictures were forbidden. Afterwards, we went to the gift shop, and I bought myself and Mike rosary’s from the Vatican. I also bought everyone in my family something as well, and they had a service where they offered to have rosaries blessed by one of the priests who lives in the Vatican and they would deliver it back to our hotel that night, so I did that as well.
Free Time in Rome
Kate and I rode the subway all by ourselves back to the shopping area we had been at during our walking tour. We were so proud of ourselves for using the map and and subway and figuring out how to get where we wanted to be! After doing some shopping and getting gifts for our family, we got some lunch at a cute little restaurant on a side street somewhere and ate outside. I finally got gnocchi! On our walk back to catch our train, we saw a guy about our age painting in the street and selling his paintings. He was really talented and we were admiring his stuff, and he started talking to us in pretty good English about how he had went to school for watercolor. So, we both bought a pack of 3 small paintings from him. I would have bought bigger ones but we were running low on Euros and needed to get some more!