A day in…Red Hook, Brooklyn!

Red Hook’s waterfront cobblestone streets give this refurbished neighborhood the ambiance of a quaint, seaside town. It is the home to numerous pre-civil war maritime warehouses converted to art galleries, restaurants and Ample Hills, Brooklyn’s favorite ice cream shop. 

Red Hook was settled by the Dutch in the 17th century.  During the American Civil War, Red Hook was the location of Fort Defiance, and later was a hub for international trade. Remnants of this era are still evident today.

Much of Red Hook was built in the mid to late 1800’s when William Beard, an Irish immigrant, purchased the land for a shipping business. He had made his fortune as a railroad contractor and continued to grow his assets by creating the Erie Basin. Now much of the estimated $170 million Red Hook warehouses are owned by a former Drug Cop, Greg O’Connell. O’Connell bought the formerly abandoned warehouses from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for $450,000. I wish I had that foresight!

Eventually, the bustling shipping industry went elsewhere, and Red Hook went into disrepair in the 1950’s with the creation of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (“BQE”) and Battery Tunnel which cut the neighborhood off from the rest of Brooklyn. Red Hook is also home to one of the largest public housing complex in New York City, having over 2,800 apartments; one of which is the birthplace of basketball player Carmelo Anthony. 

Red Hook is a peninsula jutting out into Upper New York Bay.  It is distinct for its equal parts of fisherman’s village, artist enclave and rehabilitated multi-use warehouses.  While Red Hook can be enjoyed any time of the year, the best time is during the warmer months from April through October. 

Transportation: my favorite means of transportation to Red Hook is either by ferry or bike. Here is a one-day itinerary:

Morning:

A “healthy” morning pastry…

Start your morning off at the quaint pastry shop, Baked (359 Van Brunt St), for coffee and a pastry. To burn off the pastry, walk the three blocks to Louis Valentino, Jr Park where you can rent free paddle boards and kayaks through the Red Hook Boaters during summer months. Spend a few hours taking in the breathtaking Panoramic views of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline, and the Brooklyn Bridge.  

After kayaking indulge in a slice of key lime pie from Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies. The family owned business has been around for 23 years. The proprietor and namesake, Steve ensure quality by using fresh squeezed limes and homemade crust. 

Window shop along Van Brunt St. Red Hook is home to a number of boutique stores, art galleries and even a record shop.  

Whiskey tasting in Red Hook.

Sip some whiskey with a tasting at  Van Brunt Stillhouse (6 Bay St, Tasting room hours: 2-9 on Saturday or 2-8 on Sunday, Tours 3-7PM on Saturdays) and/or Widow Jane’s (218 Conover Street Tasting room hours Sat and Sun 11-7, Tours 12, 2, 4, and 6pm). Soak up the malted barley with a lobster roll from the Red Hook Lobster Pound. 

Early Evening:

If it is the second Sunday of the month check out Pioneer Works, an artist run community center. Located in a former Iron Works building from the 1800’s that has been redesigned. They host free ‘Second Sundays’ with music, food, and a cash bar. Visitors are able to see the artists-in residency at work. More information can be found by clicking here. Most of the artists utilizes the cross section of technology and art, so don’t expect typical paintings instead its virtual reality-esque projections and social justice themed artwork. 

Red Hook has two iconic dinner spots:

Hometown BBQ (454 Van Brunt St), offers southern style pit smoked meats. 

Brooklyn Crab (24 Reed St, Brooklyn, NY 11231) three story seafood shack with corn hole and mini golf on the ground level. If you already got a lobster roll, I would go for the BBQ!

Evening:

After dinner relax with a movie under the stars back at Valentino Pier. At 8:30 PM in the summer, the Red Hook Flicks screens different movies on the pier. 

Savour a nightcap at Sunny’s:

Me and some girlfriends posing in front of Sunny’s!

As the website accurately describes it, the “knickknack-adorned Red Hook saloon that’s been around in one guise or another since the 1890s. Live music is a staple at this Brooklyn landmark.”

For those who do not want to indulge in libations, I recommend a scoop of ice cream from Ample Hills Creamery (421 Van Brunt St). The factory is able to churn out 500,000 gallons of ice cream in a year! 

Other unique bars, that are enjoyable with a group of friends: Brooklyn Winery (with great sunset views) and Sixpoint Brewery.

If you enjoy learning more about NYC, consider checking out some of my A Day in itineraries in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

A leisurely day in…Martina Franca, Italy!

Walking around the center of town in Martina Franca. Take in the beautifully crumbling baroque facades.

Located in the Puglia region of Italy, at the top of the heel, Martina Franca is an ancient town known for its fine food, home-grown wine, textiles, soccer and opera music. The white sandstone buildings are tanned with age and rooftop crevices provide space for wildflowers to grow. The green and blue shutters provide a contrast to the white and tan marble  buildings. Where some see signs of decay and decadence, most tourists will enjoy the genuineness of Martina Franca. This beautiful town provides a wonderful site for a leisurely day in the Puglian sun. 

Start your morning at Bar Adua for a coffee and pastry. The family owned business has been around since 1936. If you have the chance, try capocollo, a kind of cured ham that is the pride of the town.

Walk along the alleyways in the center of town and take in the beautifully crumbling Baroque buildings. In the ‘Centro Storico’, don’t miss the Palazzo Ducale, Piazza XX Settembre, Piazza Maria Immacolata, and Basilica di San Martino, a church built in the 18th century in the Late Baroque style.

Afternoon:

Visit the I Pastini winery. Out in the rolling hills of the Valle d’Itria, I Pastini offers tours and wine tasting at reasonable prices and sells wine to take home or to be shipped. Take the tour and learn how the farming community has lived in Southern Italy for thousands of years, and how wine is made. This region is known for red-wine grapes called “Susumaniello,” which is one of the world’s rarest wine grapes. The vineyard uses the region’s iconic truli in its original capacity, as a farm shed.

Similar to the Italians, take a siesta before the evening. 

Take a passagiata, or evening stroll to Cafe Tripoli. Enjoy an ice cream, coffee, or pastry (or all three!). Cafe Tripoli is the oldest cafe in Martina Franca.  It is the most bustling, and is very popular with the locals, which is always reassuring to tourists. I visited during Easter week, and enjoyed a zeppole, fried dough Easter pastry that is filled with custard and topped with confections and jams. Get a seat outside to soak in the ambiance and watch the locals on their passagata.

End your evening wining and dining at Ristorante Torre di Angelucco. Angela the chef and owner will take pride in explaining the whole menu to tourists, and she will make recommendations based on each diner’s desires. This quaint place will not disappoint you! The wine was inexpensive and the food was fabulous and reasonably priced. All of the fish entrees are great, along with the seasonal local vegetables.

A day in…Cambridge, MA!

The view of the Charles River (with the iconic Citgo sign in the background) from the MIT Sailing Pavilion.

Located just across the Charles River from Boston, Cambridge is easily accessible by public transit, with multiple stations on the MBTA’s red line and one station on the green line. As the home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Cambridge attracts many academics and hosts many high-tech companies.  It is the “City of Squares,” with cerebral Harvard Square, techie Kendall Square, yuppie Porter Square, eclectic Central Square, and trendy Inman Square. These are a few of the urban centers that encompass Cambridge’s bustling food and drink scene, not to mention small businesses, independent bookstores, and boutique shopping. Cambridge is a bastion of progressive politics and is very pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.  The city has become so popular, and the real estate so expensive, that it overflows into neighboring Somerville, and can be confusing at times when streets have the same names. Somerville offers a vibrant scene in its own Davis Square with restaurants and bars, live music, and independent movie houses. 

Morning: 

Breakfast: You may want to start your morning off with a quick stopover in Central Square. The area is gentrifying, as startups move into the square, and it has some interesting shops and ethnic restaurants along with stately City Hall and Post Office buildings.  An option for morning coffee would be a coffee to-go from the 1369 Coffee House at 757 Mass Ave and then walk down Mass Ave toward Flour Bakery at 190 Mass Ave, to get some delicious French pastries. If you would rather sit down for brunch I would recommend Cafe Luna at 612 Mass Ave, or try Zoe’s, a classic fifties diner, located at 1105 Mass Ave,  which offers a great, reasonably priced brunch. 

(c) Boston Globe’s 2019 photo of the Captain America Great Dome!

After breakfast, take a tour of the MIT campus, which is famous for its brainy students and also its daring architecture. The iconic Great Dome is reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. It is known as “the center of the universe” by MIT students, and has been the site of many MIT student pranks over the years: http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/by_location/great_dome.html

Do not miss the audacious Stata Center building designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and located at 32 Vassar St.

Afternoon:

Continue your day along the north bank of the Charles River to Harvard’s campus. Keep in mind that Cambridge is a very walkable city, and also has ample public transit. For those who enjoy a morning run, I would say this is one of the best routes in the Boston/Cambridge area, as you can enjoy the views of the river, the bridges and the boat houses along the way.

Photo of the John Weeks Footbridge during the Head of the Charles Regatta. The bridge connects Cambridge to Allston. Annually in October, the Charles River hosts the Head of the Charles Regatta for rowing, the largest two-day regatta in the world.

Upon your arrival in Harvard Square, grab a hot chocolate from L.A. Burdick at 52 Brattle St. and window-shop the boutiques in Harvard Square. There are many independent bookstores but my favorite is the Harvard Book Store at 1256 Mass Ave. Directly behind it is the quaint, Grolier Poetry Book Shop. As you enter the Harvard campus, you may want to join in a tourist tradition of rubbing the left show of the statue of John Harvard.  Harvard offers free student-led tours  from the Harvard University Visitor Center, in the Smith Campus Center.  See website:  https://www.harvard.edu/on-campus/visit-harvard/tours.  You can do a self-guided tour in which case you should buy a Harvard tour booklet for $3.00. Also available are privately-run guided tours with positive reviews: https://www.trademarktours.com/harvard-tour/

Evening:

For dinner there are many options. I will separate the restaurants by location. Mr. Bartley’s in Harvard Square is a casual and fun burger place. The walls are plastered with posters from college concerts and photos of celebrities who have dined there. The menu in this bustling restaurant is a political satire with such items as Brexit, Trump Tower, and Taxachusetts.  PARK Restaurant & Bar, Alden & Harlow, the Russell House Tavern, and Forage all provide good service and ambiance with a broad menu. Grendel’s Den is a student bar that offers half priced food for Happy Hour. (Massachusetts has some Puritanical laws that do not allow happy hour prices on alcohol.)

Inman Square and Kendall Square offer a variety of restaurants with good vibes and great cocktails. Inman Square has a Tiki-themed BBQ place, Highland Fried (1271 Cambridge St) or if you are craving upscale Mediterranean, Oleana (134 Hampshire St) is great!  To cap off the night with a sweet treat, I recommend going to Christina’s (1255 Cambridge St) for an ice cream and an evening stroll.  A personal favorite is the burlesque-themed tapas restaurant, Cuchi Cuchi, in Kendall Square.

Thank you to: Eli, Olga, Hannah and Chris for all your great suggestions. Especially Olga for taste testing our way through Cambridge starting with the bread at Bertucci’s back in 2005.

A day in…the Mission District!

The Mission District is named after the historic Missión San Francisco de Asís and the adjacent Basilica, known colloquially as “Mission Dolores.” In more recent times, the neighborhood has been a hip Latino neighborhood, known for its art, music and food scene. While gentrification has changed the vibe of some sections, such as Valencia Street and the neighborhood surrounding Mission Dolores Park, much of the southeastern neighborhood still holds roots as a working-class Latino enclave. While this guide is mostly focused on the Mission neighborhood, I include a stop in the Castro District with an evening restaurant option there. 

If you like exploring the bay area in day trips, check out my “A Day in” itineraries for Carmel, Oakland, Berkeley, and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Morning: 

The ornate Basilica in Missión San Francisco de Asís.

Start your morning off with a coffee to go at Four Barrel Coffee (375 Valencia St).

Take a look at  the Missión San Francisco de Asís and adjacent Basilica at the corner of 16th and Dolores Streets. The Mission, founded in 1776, is named after St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order.  The Mission church, which is the smaller white adobe building next to the basilica, was dedicated in 1791. It is said to be the oldest intact building in San Francisco, having survived the 1906 earthquake while the neighborhood buildings burned down. The Mission includes historical information about the Native Americans Ohlones, who inhabited the coastal areas around San Francisco and who were evangelized. 

Walk three blocks to Tartine Bakery (600 Guerrero Street.) for pastries. Enjoy your treat at Mission Dolores Park while people-watching and taking in the views of the city.

Afternoon:

Window-shop down trendy Valencia Street. There is a striking contrast between Valencia Street and Mission Street which caters to the traditional Spanish speaking population in the surrounding environs. 

A yummy burrito from Farolito; you can split with a friend!

Try a tasty burrito from Farolito (2779 Mission Street) for lunch. Don’t forget cash because they are cash only. Another good burrito place is Taqueria La Cumbre (515 Valencia Street) and for any empanadas lovers I would recommend Venga (443 Valencia Street). 

To work off the burrito head down 24th Street to Precita Eyes Muralists (2981 24th Street), a nonprofit organization promoting positive community change through artistic expression. Pick up a $5 map of the murals in the neighborhood and learn more about the meaning behind the artwork (most are deeply-rooted in ideals of social justice.) A significant number of the murals are around Balmy Alley, Clarion Alley, and the Women’s Building (3543 18th Street). Continue on 24th Street until Potrero Street then come back and take a right up Mission Street. 

While mural-viewing, stop for a margarita with a view of the city at El Techo, (2516 Mission Street). They have a reasonable-priced happy hour from 4-6 PM on weekdays.

Epic “Maestrapeace” mural at the Women’s Building. This portion of the mural depicts Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Guatemalan human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Finish your mural tour at the “Maestrapeace” on the Women’s Building (3543 18th Street) or continue on to Clarion Alley. Walk to the Castro to see the LGBTQ epicenter of San Francisco. Indulge your sweet tooth with a treat from Hot Cookie (407 Castro Street). Spend some time walking around and get a chuckle out of the cleverly-named storefronts. 

Evening: Dinner and a movie! 

The iconic Castro Theater

Choose between Castro Theater, Alamo Drafthouse or Foreign Cinema!

Option 1: Grab a seat at the iconic Castro Theater for a movie and grab some post-movie grub at either the nautical Woodhouse Fish Comp or stylish Fin Town. For those musically inclined, the Castro Theater does sing alongs to Disney Movies and even movies like Bohemian Rhapsody. They even provide small goody bags! More information can be found on the Castro Theater website (castrotheatre.com/singalongs.html).

Option 2: Go to the Alamo Drafthouse for dinner and a movie (reserve tickets in advance to guarantee good seating.) 

Option 3: Have dinner at Foreign Cinema, a restaurant which has a cool vibe, where you can sit outside and watch old black and white movies while you dine, or try the indoor ambiance of the building with its high ceilings with movies projected onto the wall (make a reservation, evening seating on a first-come first-serve basis; bar seating can be limited).

A huge thank you to Jamie for giving me all the tips on your vibrant neighborhood! Another thank you to Sarah for testing everything out with me!

A day in…Berkeley, CA

U.C. Berkeley is associated with political activism and it gave birth to the Free Speech Movement, the Center for Independent Living (providing accessibility for people with disabilities), and environmentalism.

A day in Berkeley, California can be an exhilarating college town experience replete with interesting walks,  good food, and a taste of post-war political history. Any tour would have to include the acclaimed University of California at Berkeley campus (known as “Cal” to sports fans) as the college dominates the city. 

https://luggageandlaughs.com/2020/05/25/a-day-in-the-santa-cruz-mountains-soquel-cove/

Morning:

Start your day in the quaint Elmwood section of Berkeley. Enjoy breakfast at Bakers and Commons (2900 College Ave). Window shop through the main College Avenue area. Don’t miss Mrs. Dalloway’s Books (the store has a robust collection of gardening books) and Goorin Bros Hat Shop, or bring out your inner candy-loving child at Sweet Dreams Candy and Boutique. 

Incense for sale at bohemian giftshop, Annapurna on Telegraph Ave.

Walk northwest to the quintessentially grungy Telegraph Avenue. If you are interested in learning about Berkeley history you can download this interactive app. You can envision remainders of the anti-establishment Beat Generation which still linger along this street, along with social problems such as homelessness.

UC Berkeley has a free self-guided audio tour (PDF, Website) for a stroll through the campus.  Personal favorites are the iconic Sather Gate, the North Building, the Campile Tower (you can ride up it for $4), the Hearst Memorial Building, the Doe Memorial Library and the T-Rex. 

Take a coffee break and absorb the campus vibe at Caffe Strada or the Free Speech Movement Cafe, both of which are Cal students’ favorites. 

Afternoon: 

For those who want to accelerate their heart rate: you can walk one mile uphill from Normandy Village (photo above) to Rose Garden and then another mile to the Indian Rock Park and take in some interesting sights. 

From the campus, head north to the aptly named apartment complex, Normandy Village.

From Normandy Village take the 67 Bus to Indian Rock Park (which provides a view of the East Bay and San Francisco – or just the fog.) From there, walk one mile downhill to the Rose Garden (there is a tunnel to the cement slide, which is equally fun for adults and children.)

Evening: 

I would recommend Jupiter, a gastropub which provides live music. For the foodies, Chez Panisse caters to an upscale market (you can also get dessert and a glass of wine on the second floor). Comal is a great Mexican restaurant (fun fact it is owned by the former manager of the band Phish). If you go to the left you will be in the less-expensive taco section. 

The iconic Landmark’s California Theater.

Berkeley has an abundance of theaters: UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), provides free screenings during the summer. Within the downtown there are a number of cinemas (Landmark’s California Theater, BAMPFA, and Regal UA Berkeley) and theatrical performance locales (Berkeley Repertory Theater, California Shakespeare Theater, and Shotgun Players). The Greek Theater is beautiful (with great views of the city) and frequently has live concerts. 

A personal architectural favorite is the Berkeley City Club designed by Julia Morgan. You have to ring the bell to enter, just mention that you are on vacation and want to look around. They have a small “museum” dedicated to Julia Morgan, who also designed the Hearst Castle.

There are farmers markets at various Berkeley locations on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. For those who like to shop, 4th St and San Pablo Ave (South of University Ave) provide a mix of both independent and large retailers. If you visit the west side, you should not miss a stroll through the Marina, nor sake tasting at Takara Sake. For hikers, Tilden Park provides beautiful views of the East Bay and, on good days, San Francisco. Those architecture lovers, note that Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck have left large footprints on the architecture around town. Sunday you can enjoy a dollar dog while watching horse racing at the Golden Gate Fields in Albany, just north of Berkeley (this could be complicated on public transit and is probably easiest via Uber.)

A huge thank you to Allison and Sean for showing me around their beautiful neighborhood. Another thank you to Shirin, Meghan, Alex, and Sarah for helping!

If you like exploring the bay area in day trips, check out my “A Day in” itineraries for Carmel, Oakland, Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Mission District.

A day in…Crown Heights, BK

Crown Heights hosts the annual Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. I would recommend going during the day, because the evening can often get rowdy. Above: a fiery female dressed in the traditional Carribean Day clothing.

The neighborhood that made national news during the three-day racially charged Crown Heights Riot in 1991 is undergoing gentrification.  Historically, Crown Heights has been the home to a large population of Jewish residents, and the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement is located on Eastern Parkway.  Crown Heights also has a large population of African Americans and people from the West Indies, and it hosts the annual Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. 

The area is forever evolving and is becoming one of the hippest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. With gentrification, Crown Heights has seen much change over the last decade, including a thriving foodie scene on Franklin Avenue.  However, Crown Heights still has great spots that showcase its roots as a split community of African- and Carribean-American and Jewish cultures. 

If you like exploring different neighborhoods in NYC, check out my day itinerary in Red Hook.

Without further adieu here is your one day tour of Crown Heights: 

The tree-lined Eastern Parkway, is a great location for biking, walking, or running.

Start your morning off with a bagel from Bagel Pub at 775 Franklin Avenue. Then grab a coffee from either Breukelen Coffee House at 764 Franklin Avenue or Little Zelda’s at 728 Franklin Avenue. 

Spend the early morning checking out the Hunterfly Road Historic District in Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville was one of the largest free black communities. Slavery was abolished in NYC in 1827 but not nationally until 1865, so this enclave became a safe haven for freed men and runaway slaves. It is one of the few historically preserved areas for the African-American community from that time period. 

Beautiful Brooklyn Museum at 200 Eastern Parkway.

Continue your tour by taking a leisurely stroll among the Cherry trees and through the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden within the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens at 990 Washington Avenue at the edge of Prospect Park.  You may also enjoy a visit to the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Both of these call for a paid admission.

For lunch, try the tacos and a Margarita from Gueros at 605 Prospect Place. They also have great lemonade! 

The area became the outpost for Brooklyn architects such as Cohn Brothers, Parfitt Brothers, and Montrose Morris who designed many mega-houses. Don’t be surprised to see Tzitzits (Jewish garment with white strings hanging down, reminding practitioners to follow the Commandments and not their eyes or heart) being worn in the neighborhood.

After Gueros, take a self-guided architectural tour through South Crown Heights. You can see turn-of-the-century brownstones along tree-lined boulevards. Most of the real beauties are on President St between New York St and Kingston St.

After some cultural and historic intake, peruse the Anyone Comics store before trying a cocktail and a slice of pie from the female-owned bar, Butter and Scotch.

Crown Heights has much to offer on the food scene. Based on what you are craving I would recommend: Barboncino at 781 Franklin Avenue for pizza, Chavela’s at 736 Franklin Avenue for good Mexican food and ambiance with its Spanish-tiled bar and día de los muertos decor, or colorful Glady’s at 788 Franklin Avenue for some delicious Jerk Chicken (and a nod to the Caribbean community that unfortunately gentrification is slowly displacing). If you are with a big group and just want to hang out for a while, Berg’n Foodcourt at 899 Bergen Street is a fun place which provides a food court with many options.

There are many bars to enjoy either a laid-back beer or a well-crafted cocktail. Franklin Park, Mayfields, The Crown Inn, Covenhoven, and King Thai all offer libations. 

If you are into music, consider the Murmrr Theatre located on the third floor of a synagogue at 17 Eastern Parkway.  It is a great and interesting locale for a concert, although I’m not sure everything is up to Code. The Way Station (a Dr. Who-themed nerd bar at 683 Washington Street) and Friends and Lovers at 641 Classon Avenue regularly offer live music and may be worth checking out.

Thank you to my (current or former) Crown Heights locals for all their suggestions on how to enjoy their neighborhood! Andrew, Lauren, Laura, Adam, Tricia and Chris!

A trulli, a cave, and a masseria oh my!

View from the courtyard of our stay in Masseria Santa Lucia.

Your first question is probably: what’s with all these weird words in the title? The answer: they are different types of accommodations that we tried while in the Puglia and Basilicata (the heel and instep) regions of Italy. My main reason for travelling to these destinations were a) I kept seeing cool instagram photos from Matera, and b) my friend Jen from World On A Whim mentioned that the city of Matera is the 2019 Cultural Capital of Europe.  So we set a date (really it’s all around my school schedule) and booked our flights. Here is a brief list of the accommodations that we stayed in:

What is a Trulli?

Photogenic Tullis. Alberobello is filled with camera-carrying tourists taking pictures of the trullis, some of which have been converted to use by the tourism industry as gift shops, museums and high end restaurants.

A Trulli is a small hut-like building with a conical roof which gives it the appearance of a hobbit or troll house.  The uniformly white bases of these iconic structures are constructed from limestone masonry and are topped off with a wheat-colored dome-like roof.  Theses idiosyncratic homes are plentiful in the Puglia region of Italy. The largest collection are located in the town of Alberobello, which is well- known for their signature Trulli houses. The region’s abundance of limestone, karst and calcareous sedimentary was utilized to create the mortarless houses. Why mortarless? As the 18th century population increased, people created the commune of Alberobello.  The local Count didn’t want to pay taxes for a new development to the Spanish Viceroyal of Bourbon and therefore requested his citizens to create housing that was easy to dismantle and fool the tax assessors.

If staying overnight, I would recommend either staying in the new part of Alberobello or outside in the countryside. While we really enjoyed walking around and seeing the trullis you could enjoy a day-trip here and move on.

What is it like staying in a cave?

While other cliffside towns are built on top of the deep ravine, the houses and entire sassi are built into and complementary to the preexisting caves.  With hundreds of years of layers placed in one building it is hard to differentiate when different additions were added.

Tragically beautiful Matera has gone from obscurity to fame over the past century.  Evacuated in the 1950’s for rampant poverty and disease, Matera was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993 and 2019 European Capital of Culture recognition.

View of the room does not give it justice. Definitely great sleep was had here, staying in a cave provides that not much natural light will wake you up in the morning.

Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic time. In ancient times, cave-dwelling settlers moved into the tofu rock caverns of the steep ravine. Eventually more people moved in and the community of cave-like dwellings became known as the Sassi (Italian for “the stones”). We stayed in a carefully renovated, beautiful cave hotel. I would recommend this unique experience.

What is a masseria?

A “masseria” is an Italian version of a plantation or hacienda. The name masseria is known mostly in the Puglia region of Italy. From the 16th to18th century,  masserias were the farmhouses in which workers and “pedrones” (English: master/boss) would reside while harvesting large farms. Italy has a number of farmhouses which are still on functioning farms and which are available as lodging alternatives. We stayed at a converted 16th century farmhouse. The owners made the best meal of our vacation, with fresh ingredients from their gardens. For a uniquely satisfying experience, I would recommend staying in a farmhouse in any region of Italy for one or two days . Research agriturismo.it or bookings.com for farmhouse lodging options.

A Mystical Two Days in Meteora, Greece

The sandstone columns topped with ornate monasteries provide a breathtaking backdrop to the sleepy town of Kalambaka and the neighboring village of Kastraki. I am sure the mountainous northern region of mainland Greece is not what you expect when thinking of a Greek getaway.

The majestic cliff-top monasteries of Meteora will awe you into feeling like you are the star of a Lord of the Rings movie. Two days in this UNESCO World Heritage Site provide a unique refuge from the hustle and bustle of Athens or island-hopping festivities. Each monastery provides centuries’ worth of history and an instagram-worthy photo-shoot. Meteora allows any tourist to admire nature and ponder the lives of the early inhabitants of this distinctive, stunning  location.

The rickety wooden ladders and pulleys were used for access to these locations and were only replaced when they broke (hope no one was on it!) You could not pay me any amount of money to try the ladders.

Meteora’s religious community dates back to a few solo hermitages in the early 11th century. The dilapidated, wooden hermitages were used until the 19th century. Eventually (mostly during the 14th and 15th century) numerous monks moved here and created the beautiful monasteries and a larger skete community devoted to the austere way of life.

Getting there: Kalambaka is a 4 hour drive or a 5 hour train ride (~30 euros) from Athens. I took the train and was able to walk to my accommodation a few blocks away. Please see the website to book trains here. I chose to make sure I did not have to switch trains, since I do not know the language and my understanding of the Greek alphabet is solely based on my college sorority days. Typically, I take a screenshot of the directions from my hotel in Athens to the train station, and then from the train station in Meteora to my local hotel, so that I know the directions once I depart the train, even if my phone has no service.

While I chose to hike up and then walk between the monasteries, I would only recommend this to those who consider themselves fit. You will do a reasonable amount of unshaded walking between the monasteries.

Tips: For my entire time in Meteora I chose to hike. While this is the norm for a good portion of the people in Meteora there are other transportation options for every type of traveller, including taxis, public busses, or chartered bus tours. Choose whichever suits your fitness level and travel style. I recommend packing sunprotection and an additional layer, both for respite from the sun, and also for entrance into the monasteries as guests are expected to cover their shoulders and legs. Women are not allowed entrance into some monasteries without a skirt. All of the monasteries have a three euros, cash only, entrance fee.

Timing: If you want to see all of the monasteries, I would recommend 1.5 days and 2 nights in Meteora, as the six monasteries have different days and hours that they are open. Otherwise, you could see some of the monasteries in one full day and night. I went during the summer, so I had some down-time after seeing all the monasteries and before sunset. Meteora was great in summer and I have heard good things about the fall foliage. This can easily be added to the beginning or end of a ten day itinerary in Greece.

Day 1: Sunset

Sunset at “Psaropetra Lookout”

Arrive in Meteora in the late afternoon, check into your hotel. Make it to “Psaropetra Lookout” for breathtaking panoramic sunsets on the mountain top. The location is clearly marked on maps, and your hotel can arrange for a taxi. Get a late dinner in Kalambaka before getting to bed in time for an early morning. Meteora is known for its religious pilgrimages and trekking tourism, so don’t be surprised to find at least one orthodox priest at every restaurant you go to. That being said there is not much in the way of vibrant nightlife. I wanted to experience the full village life and only went to tavernas (small Greek restaurants), all of which were inexpensive. The three taverna restaurants I recommend are: Taverna Paramithi (has live music), Taverna Gardenia (in Kastraki), and Archontariki Taverna. Enjoy eating in both Kastraki and Kalambaka once, just to compare the two villages.

Day 2: Hiking and Monasteries

Check on opening and closing times to determine which monasteries you are going to see on which days. I decided to make a loop of the monasteries that were open, but save two for the following day. I woke up early so I could arrive at the first monastery at opening time. Travelling from Kalambaka it was roughly a  3.4 mile (~5500 meter) hike to Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) Be prepared to climb up stone mountain stairs in order to get to the entrance. For any 007 fans, this monastery was featured in the 1981 James Bond film For your Eyes Only.

Our second event involved a 15 minute walk east along the main road (okay, it took us longer because we  stopped for picture-taking) to Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) Beware of the break in the middle of the day. The entrance is a small bridge with a terrifying drop!

Our next trek involved 4 km walk (which took about an hour) to Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.

Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays) is the most impressive of the monasteries.  Founded in the 14th century, it became the richest monastery when the Serbian Emperor Symeon Uros donated all of his money and became a monk. One can walk back to town from here or ask an attendant for directions to the bus stop.

Evening: see Day 1 Sunset itinerary, and repeat with a different dinner location.

Day 3: Half day of hiking and monasteries

For Day-3, we did a reverse loop, what I call the “Kastraki loop,” as that was our starting point. Give yourself some time to hike a few of the sights near Kastraki, such as St. George Mantilas, the ruins of old cave dwellings, and St. Nicholas Bantovas, a still-functioning monastery.

View from a monks dormatory in Moni Agiou Nikolaou

We stopped at Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.

Our last visit was to Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.) Near closing time, be alert for the call to vespers (evening prayer) made by a wooden talando.

If you are going at a relaxed pace, you can stay another night in Kalambaka. For those with a tighter schedule, I would recommend leaving in the late afternoon to your next destination.

For an easier visual here are the two hiking routes I created in numeric form.

“Kalambaka loop”, starts in Kalambaka:

  1. Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) This is roughly a  3.4 mile (~5500 meter) hike from Kalambaka town.
  2. Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) This is 15 minutes east from Moni Agias Triados.
  3. Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.)
  4. Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.
  5. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays), there is a hiking path to get here which is shaded. At the T, so to the left which will lead to the entrance.
  6. Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.

“Kastraki loop,” starts in Kastraki:

  1. Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.
  2. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays), there is a hiking path to get here which is shaded. At the T, go to the left which will lead to the entrance. This is a less travelled hiking area but the path is clearly demarcated.
  3. Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.
  4. Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.) Near closing time, be alert for the call to vespers (evening prayer) made by a wooden talando.
  5. Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) This is 15 minutes east from Agias Triados, so you will pass Agias Triados Agias Stefanou then backtrack to Agias Triados.
  6. Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) This is then a downhill walk back to Kalambaka town center, which you can either walk back to Kastraki or stay here.


A delectable three days in NOLA

Whether you are visiting New Orleans (“NOLA”) for a bachelor(ette) party, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, or just a weekend getaway prepare to indulge all of your senses with music, food, drinks and culture in this one-of-a-kind city.  The aromas of Cajun cooking billow into the streets from restaurants and houses, watering your tastebuds. Live jazz flows at all hours from the bars and cafes along Bourbon and Frenchman Street. Whatever you are coming for, the city is bursting with a melange of culture and life.

First claimed in the 17th century under French Rule, with a brief stint under the Spanish in the late 18th century, NOLA was later sold to the United States by Napoleon in the 1805 Louisiana Purchase. The medley of French, Spanish, African-American, and Creole influences are in abundance in the architecture, cooking, and culture of the city today.

Timing: Many people visit the city for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (nicknamed: “Jazz Fest”) which is usually held at the end of April/early May (details can be found here). Mardi Gras, first documented in 1699 by the French, it is now a two-week festival leading up to Ash Wednesday. For more information please follow this link.

Three people to know before you go: Maria Laveau, known as the voodoo queen of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte, a French pirate and smuggler based out of New Orleans who made a deal to help Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans from the British in return for a pardon, and  Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial, governor of Louisiana for over a decade and the last governor of New France, known for building New Orleans into the rich port city which is sometimes called petit Paris.

Arrive Thursday evening and check into your hotel.

Dinner:  Kingfish for dinner and then stop by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, located at the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Philip Street in the French Quarter. Legend has it that Jean Lafitte ran a business here, and it is also claimed to be the oldest structure housing a bar in the United States.

Day 1: Friday

Start your morning off at Café Du Monde for chicory coffee and Beignets (French deep-fried choux pastry, and don’t wear black because the powdered sugar will be everywhere!) Fried dough for breakfast? Definitely indulging in every 7 year old’s impulses! Bring money because Café Du Monde is cash only.

Enjoy the afternoon at a Swamp Tour with Cajun Encounters, and keep in mind that for a small additional charge they pick you up at your hotel. This was one of my favorite things. Listen to authentic Louisiana accents, and see wild boars and alligators.  I wore my best camo outfit to blend in. Observe how people live in the Bayou. Behold the houses on stilts with motor boats for transportation, which safeguards property from flooding.

Drake enjoying Gene’s Poboy in his music video “In My Feelings”.

Grab some po-boys for snack time. There are two po-boy shops I recommend: Gene’s, which was featured in Drake’s “In my Feelings” music video, or the Parkway Bakery and Tavern, which has been around for over 100 years.  For an afternoon activity, I would recommend one or more of the following: Do a bar-circuit to sample famous drinks (like the iconic and tropical Hand Grenade drink) while people-watching the antics of Bourbon St. It may seem like an adult frat party.  Check out the two-story verandas on the mansions in the historic garden district, or some Voodoo shops, or try all of the above.

Enjoying dinner at Three Muses. Please ignore our “sippie cupes”, for drinking in the street!

For the evening, I recommend dinner at the bohemian Three Muses. The restaurant offers live music, small plates, and house cocktails. What more could you ask for!

New Orleans has everything from Jazz, Cajun and Brass Bands playing every night. Enjoy a night of live music wandering around the French Quarter to find your favorite live music location (try Bourbon Street or, for a different vibe, the less crowded Frenchmen Street which many people find to be more enjoyable).

Make a pitstop at the Frenchman Art Market while walking through bars looking for live music.

Day 2: Saturday

Start your morning off at the Court of Two Sisters for their Jazz Brunch. The purple flowers of the willow trees cascade over the courtyard, the dappled lighting is supplemented by draped twinkle lights. The buffet offers a leisurely brunch while you imagine life as an aristocratic French Colonialist.

Learn about the history of burial in New Orleans, with a St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Tour.  A guided tour is a must, in accordance with archdiocese rules, so make sure to book ahead of time. The tour guides are local historians who will lead you through the one mile walk over cobblestones.  The guide will point out the unique above-ground burial vaults which are a necessity because of the high water table. Buried here are Homer Plessy (of the landmark civil rights case Plessy vs Ferguson), voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and a pyramid shaped tomb purchased by Nicolas Cage.

Enjoying dinner at Mr. B’s Bistro.

In the evening, try a swanky night of pre-dinner drinks at Carousel Bar. Grab seats at the spinning bar! Continue on with dinner across the street at Mr. B’s Bistro. They are known for their shrimp and gumbo! If up for it, enjoy another fun night out listening to the live music. If you went to Bourbon Street the night before try Frenchmen Street, or vice versa.

Day 3: Sunday

Check out, get a beignet to go, and fly home.

Ten Days in Italy: Rome, Florence and Venice

Imagine a burnt-orange sunset over the Tuscan capital of Florence, a romantic, moonlit glide in a gondola along the winding canals of Venice, or the buzzing Vespa traffic past three thousand years of urban development in Rome. Italy offers adventures for any type of traveller with any company: whether it be a honeymoon, a group tour, or a family vacation. With a  gelato shop at the corner of every fountain laden piazza, there is no wonder Italy was the setting for the movie “La Dolce Vita.” Do I even have to mention the birthplace of pizza? Italy is at the top of the “must-see” list for just about every traveler.

This is a simple ten day guide to Italy which should be especially helpful to first time visitors, starting with what I consider to be the big three: Rome, Florence, and Venice. Italy has an abundance of  cultural and historical sights to visit with gourmet food and fine wine to enjoy between tours. I enjoy travelling from big cities with a lot of cultural institutions to progressively smaller cities so that when fatigue sets in from sightseeing, the last few days are reserved for a more relaxed pace. For that reason this itinerary goes from Rome north to Florence and then ends in Venice with its international airport.

Gondoliers on a break in Venice, Italy.

Timing: The weather is most comfortable from April until October, and I personally prefer travelling on the “shoulder” seasons, meaning May/June or September/October, to alleviate  the long lines, congestion and heat. My two exceptions to this plan could include the Carnival in Venice, which is usually in February and during Holy Week (Italian: “settimana Santa,” the week leading up to easter).

You may also be interested in visiting the southern countryside. I wrote about the unique accommodations in the Puglia region.

Day 1 of 10: Rome

Fly into Rome.

Roma Caput Mundi is a Latin phrase meaning “Rome capital of the world” and it conjures up an image of the  historical significance of Rome.  The steeple loaded skyline reminds visitors that Rome is the capital of the Catholic Church and the seat of the Papacy. The layers of over 4 millenia worth of history interwoven into a modern city attest to the vitality and vibrancy of a city still buzzing with life (and Vespas). Simply walking the streets of Rome, sometimes referred to as “the open air museum,” opens up the famous sights including artistic masterpieces from every century of European history. While exploring without a plan will provide a treasure chest worth of sights, I would recommend sticking to a more concrete itinerary if this is your first time in Rome, or lest you miss the major sights. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it cannot be described in one paragraph nor seen in four days.

I would suggest reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, which is set in Rome. I would also recommend seeing some movies set in Rome, such as Eat, Pray, Love and the gore and glory of Gladiator to prepare you for the colosseum, or flash back to your tween years and watch the Olsen twins movie, When in Rome, for the sights of the city. Don’t forget Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.

Bruin on a Budget tip: I put out a travel alert on the Google search engine. This should enable you to receive email alerts regarding cheap flights from your home city to Rome. I work in education, so I have flexibility during the summer as to when I can book flights, and I have the patience to wait for a good deal. There are many different housing options, and one interesting and less expensive option is to stay at a converted convent. While it will not be luxurious, it will reduce costs, it may be memorable, and you may meet some interesting fellow travelers.

Get settled into your hotel and put your stuff away. Get a recommendation from the hotel as to where to dine.

Day 2 of 10: Catholic Rome

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica

Prepare to spend the entire morning and afternoon at the awe-inspiring but crowded Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica. Make sure to pre-book these tickets online to save time.  Some people have had the feeling of being herded through the exhibits, so you should plan for rest, food and water breaks. The sights are wonderful: The Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s masterful ceiling. The Matisse Chapel featuring 16 foot paper cutouts for a stained glass design of a French Chapel is featured within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums.  Raphael Rooms (Italian: Stanze di Raffaello) within the Vatican Palace, considered the eponym’s masterpiece. This over-500 year old palace is all encompassing in its number of European masterpieces.

Matisse’s colorful cassocks (robes worn by priests) within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums

Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio guide in which he offers a splendid narration of the highlights of the tour.

Have lunch near the Vatican, where there are many good places to re-fuel for the rest of the day, then take a walk by Cast D’Angelo at the Tiber River.  At some point in the afternoon, do yourself a favor and have a well-deserved nap.

There is a bustling Tiber riverside market (more info can be found here) which is open from 6 pm – midnight every night in the summer.

In the evening walk around the Tiber River at dusk.   This is a great location to enjoy a sunset cocktail. End your evening walking through Trastevere’s charming streets to a dinner destination. We had a delightful dinner at Grazia and Graziella in Trastevere. The Italians eat late, so prepare to begin dinner around 9:00 pm, unless you want to be the only diners. Back over the bridge in Campo de Fiore is buzzing with nightlife and is the perfect place for a nightcap or an evening stroll.

Before dinner, try to make it for the Call to Vespers at St Cecilia’s church in Trastevere.  

Day 3 of 10: Ancient Rome

The grandiose Colosseum is an icon of Imperial Rome with all of its ancient glory. This Flavian amphitheatre could seat 87,000 people in it’s day; just for reference the New England Patriot’s NFL stadium seats 66,829 and the Rose Bowl can seat 90,888.

Enjoy the morning filled with sights from the Roman Empire: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.

View of Constantine’s Arch from the Colosseum.

Stroll through the Campo de’ Fiori to see the locals and the tourists shopping at the farmers’ markets, and find a place to eat a leisurely lunch.

The Parthenon.

After lunch take a walk through a much-filmed route from Piazza Navona, Parthenon, Galleria Alberto Sorti, Trevi Fountain, and end at the Spanish steps. Make sure to stop for gelato as needed!

Refresh yourself with an early afternoon riposo (siesta), and before sunset, make your way to Piazza Venezia and atop the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (Italian: Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II) for a panoramic view of Rome. Saunter over to dinner at the popular Ai Tre Scalini in the Monti section of Rome, with its Bohemian style. If there is a line grab a beer at Barzilai across the street, as they have 6 beers on tap which is plentiful for Italy.

Day 4 of 10: Rome to Florence

If you are an architecture nerd like me, you will love spending the morning looking around the Art Nouveau neighborhood called “Quartiere Coppedè,” designed by early 20th century architect Gino Coppedè. Visit the nearby La Casina delle Civette, the fairy-tale like former home of the Torlonia family with its exquisite and creative details. Typically, it’s not crowded.  Grab a coffee and snack here before heading out on an early afternoon train to Florence (the high speed train takes about an hour and a half). Be mindful of which train station you are leaving from, as there are a few.

Florence:

Idyllically charming Florence (Italian: Firenze) may be my favorite place in Italy. Known as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence came to prominence during the 14th century and hit its peak in the 16th century as an economic and artistic center of the Mediterranean. A turbulent political history provides many stories shrouded in secrecy and scandals mostly surrounding the powerful Medici family. The Medicis were patrons to much of the development of the City of Masterpieces, having provided  financial support for works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli. This city is best explored on foot, walking down the cobblestoned streets while admiring the Renaissance art and architecture and the frescoe-filled churches. The capital of the Tuscany region of Italy, Florence also has much to be indulged in the food and wine scene.

Arrive from the train station and settle into your hotel. Enjoy a delicious dinner and good service at Il Vezzo.

5 of 10: Renaissance Florence

Start your day at the Accademia Gallery (Italian: Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze), where you can see magnificent artwork including Michelangelo’s masterpiece of white marble, David among other sculptures.

Mercato Centrale Firenze

Enjoy breakfast or a  snack at the Mercato Centrale Firenze. The two story cast-iron and glass-vaulted building opened its doors in 1874, and it is still offering fresh produce today. Walk around the artisan San Lorenzo Market, which is outside the central market. Don’t hesitate to join in the fun of bartering before you buy.  

A clock with the Duomo in the background.

Weave your way through the pedestrian streets towards the Duomo (full name: Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore) with its garnd bell tower.  Check out the Duomo itself, the bell tower and the Duomo Museum.

Walk across the plaza to the octagonal Baptistery of St. John (Italian: Battistero di San Giovanni), which was built between 1059 and 1128, and don’t overlook its bronze doors with “The Gates of Paradise,” which took the artist 27 years to create.

While you’re in the area, you have to give I Fratellini a try. It’s a hole in the wall food shop where you can grab a quick and delicious panini and a glass of Italian wine and blend in with the locals who make the place popular.

Saunter down to the Piazza Della Repubblica to the 1551 “New” Market (Italian: Mercato Nuevo) and rub the nose of the wild boar at the Fontana del Porcellino, which, legend says, ensures a return to Florence. Stop in the Oranmichelle Church (former granary), and down Via Calzaiuoli (pedestrian road) to Piazza della Signoria. Take in the sights of Palazzo Vecchio (or City Hall). For those who are geographically inclined, venture into the Medici wall of maps. From the Piazza make your way to Basilica Santa Croce to see the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. Enjoy gelato as needed, a few favorites are grom and gelateria dei neri.

Enjoy a siesta before an Italian-style long meal at Aqua al II.  I would recommend getting the pasta and meat sampler which includes five different pastas and 3 different steaks.

6 of 10: Oltrarno

Start your morning off with a tour of the Uffizi Gallery, which consists of 45 rooms stocked with 1500 works of art including Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. This was once the workplace of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Medici family. The nouveau riche family were generous patrons of the arts, but they were often enmeshed in scandal, backstabbing, and ambitious social climbing to the fascination of the greater population.  Catherine Medici became the Queen of France and brought onion soup, the fork and gelato to the French, in addition to her rumored poisons. As one Medici became the pope, he created the title “Duke of Florence” and subsequently “Grand Duke of Tuscany” and crowned various family members, elevating the family legacy into royalty.

At the Arno River, the landmark Vasari Corridor,  an enclosed, elevated “secret” passageway built in 1564 is worth noting.  Unfortunately, it has been closed for construction since 2016, with a reopening planned for 2021. Georgio Vasari, an artist, architect and writer who is often called the first art historian for his writing of “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures, and Architects,” built the Vasari Corridor for Cosmos I de Medici so that he could travel safely from his residence to the government palace without interacting with any of the townspeople.

Grab some sandwiches-to-go from All’Antico Vinao (get anything with cream di pecorino, artichoke spread, or truffle spread on a large focaccia.) Save these for lunch at Boboli Gardens.  Along the way, take a brief passiegiata (or stroll) on Lungarno Generale Diaz, parallel to the leisurely flowing Arno River as it provides a beautiful vantage point of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

The Arno River reflects the blush, amber, and apricot hues of the much-photographed medieval bridge at sunset. Window shop through the kiosks along the bridge.

Now in Oltrarno, make your way north to the Boboli Gardens, a beautiful public park located behind the Pitti Palace.  Enjoy the fountain of Neptune, and various other sculptures dating between the 16th-18th century. Pick a spot to sit back and enjoy your sandwich while soaking in the beauty of the park, which closes at 6:30 pm.

Take a leisurely walk over to the Basilica San Miniato Del Monte. It’s about thirty minutes, or more if you factor in stopping for photos. You can walk along the medieval walls on Via di Belvedere, opening up to the Porta San Miniato.  Be prepared for an uphill walk with some stair-climbing as the church is located at one of the highest points in Florence. Monks perform a Gregorian Chant at the church daily at 5:30 PM. You can find more information here. The church itself closes at 7:00 PM.  

Sunset from Piazzale Michaelangelo.

Take the five minute walk down hill to Piazzale Michelangelo for a romantic sunset over the breathtaking city. From this viewpoint the varied colors of the sunset are illuminated by the Florentine skyline consisting of a palette of red tile roofs, yellow and salmon-colored buildings, and the commanding presence of Brunelleschi’s burnt orange dome.

To cap off your day in Oltrarno, take a taxi to Trattoria 4 Leoni for a snack; you can’t go wrong with the pumpkin ravioli.

7 of 10:

Morning Train to Venice

Gondola’s in the Venetian Lagoon. Venice consists of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon.

The historic and still  vibrant city of Venice, famous for gondolas gently floating along winding canals, deserves a spot on your must-visit list. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Italian people fled the mainland in fear of Barbarian invasion. They found refuge in the marshy lagoons mostly occupied by fishermen. With more refugees finding safety in the islands, there was a need for more infrastructure. Therefore, the people created hundreds of canals and packed wooden stakes into the bottom of the lagoon.They  topped the wooden stakes with wooden platforms as the base on which to construct buildings and bridges. Most of the wood for this undertaking was imported by water from Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. Venice is an engineering marvel, as the sediment consisting of silt and soil was absorbed into the oak or larch wood pilings and the mixture petrified the wood into a stone-like substance.

Walking through the narrow streets, you will be impressed by the marble palazzi (palaces), fine restaurants and cultural sites located within the compact area around the square.   Depending on when you visit, you may be able to witness religious traditions such as the Carnival of Venice which is famous for its elaborate masks. Venice was home to Renaissance artist Titian, Baroque Musician Vivaldi, playwright Galdoni, and original philanderer Casanova. A sultry and sometimes scandalous history makes Venice or La Serenissima (“The Most Serene” Republic of Venice)  truly one of a kind.

From the train station take a vaporetto #1 to St. Mark’s Square and settle into your hotel. Meander through the streets before ending your night with a bellini from Cafe Florian (boasting the oldest cafe in Europe which was the first to allow women in, placing the cafe on the frequent-must-visit list for Casanova) and take in the grandiosity of St. Mark’s Square in the evening. Enjoy the music of the dueling orchestras from Caffè Florian and Ristorante Quadri.

8 of 10

Campanile and St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Start your morning on the top of the Campanile. Take in all the sights of St. Mark’s Square and meander your way to the Rialto Bridge, window shop the many jewelry stores and tourist shops. Over the bridge make your way to Mercato di Rialto selling artisan products and fresh food. Buy some fruit for the day.

Don’t miss a peak at Albert Sarria’s paper-mâché masks.  

Weave your way back over the Rialto Bridge to lunch at the no-frills Rosticceria Gislon (recommended SEPA – calle della bisse, Farini). You can order at the counter or go upstairs for the full-service restaurant. We opted for the counter service to save time.

After lunch, stop at the much-instagrammed Librería Alta Acqua, which was cute but overrun with tourists (myself included) when we visited.

We went to the Museo Correr, but if you have already seen the Vatican and Uffizi Gallery, this is far less exciting and can be skipped in deference to other sights and experiences, or for a more leisurely pace.

After lunch make your way over to St. Mark’s. Spend some time in the church. Do not miss the ornate Pala D’Oro (or golden enamel high altar). 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts.

Doge Palace: With day trippers gone and the locals enjoying the early evening, we enjoyed some respite from overdone tourism.

Top the day off with an evening at Doge Palace (Italian: Palazzo Ducale) its open until 7:00 PM. We had the place almost to ourselves.  

Don’t miss the Bridge of Sighs next door.

Meander through the narrow winding streets of Venice along canals, shops and houses for less than a mile to find a hidden gem of a restaurant: Al Timon.   Al Timon has the occasional tourist venture to this restaurant, and the engaging owner and the staff are very welcoming, but this I am happy to report that this place is quintessentially Venetian. Enjoy a glass of regional wine and/or Italian beer with a small cichetti while waiting for a table. We chose to eat at a table outside, along the canal, next to a small boat permanently docked at the edge of the water for additional seating.

We shared a large platter featuring the house specialty of Italian steak, potato wedges and an array of vegetables. Highly recommended restaurant for a memorable meal.

9of 10

Start your morning off at Museum Accademia.

Colorful streets in Burano

Take a Venetian Lagoon boat tour to the glassblowing island of Murano, stop for lunch at the colorful fisherman’s island of Burano, and step into the Basilica on the island of Torcello.

End your evening back in Venice with panoramic views from the rooftop of the upscale T Fondaco dei Tedeschi mall.

10 of 10 Fly home