A weekend in Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Capital building!

Madison, Wisconsin, “America’s Dairyland”, is known for their warm people, cold winters, and seasonal ales. Home to the Wisconsin State Capital and the flagship University of Wisconsin, similar to other college towns, there is a large university presence. As you may guess when looking at the Green Bay Packers mascot, the state is known for the dairy and specifically cheese production. While it may not be your cup of tea, I recommend trying some cheese curds while in town. The city is situated between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, and is a 2.5 hour drive to Chicago and 4 hour drive to Minneapolis, which make Madison a great weekend getaway, or a destination among a larger midwest vacation. 

When to go: The best season to go (in my opinion) is the early fall, when the weather first begins to get crisp, yet walking everywhere is still pleasant. The food and beer festivals in September located in capital square are one of the highlights. My favorite thing about Wisconsin is that when the weather gets cooler, dive bars have crock pots full of melted cheese with crackers. It feels like a party at someone’s house, all the locals seem to know each other but are friendly to visitors. Not to mention that Fall, you can coordinate with a college football game to really see Madison at its liveliest. Alternatively, the summers offer many outdoor activities on the lakes. 

Friday:

Get settled into your accommodation. Then start your evening at the gastropub, The Tipsy Cow (102 King St), where you can get a burger, beer and a side of cheese curds! If you are interested in the gastropub scene, walk the one block to Great Dane Pub (123 E Doty St). The Great Dane has pool tables and outdoor beer gardens, which make for a relaxed setting for a Friday night. 

Saturday: 

Enjoying at beer at New Glarus brewery!

Start your morning with a tour of the Wisconsin State Capitol Building (2 E Main St) afterwards peruse the Dane County Farmers market called “Saturday in the Square”. Coming from an East Coast city, I have a great appreciation for anyone who has worked in the agriculture industry.

For those who are interested in architecture, take a quick sidetrack to Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (1 John Nolen Dr), which is a Frank Lloyd Wright designed waterfront building. Return to the capitol building before window shopping State street west to the University. State Street is a vibrant street with a number of shops, restaurants and art galleries. It terminates at the university campus along with the Wisconsin Historical Society (816 State St) and Chazen Museum of Art (800 University Place). 

Spend your late afternoon in the Swiss Village of New Glarus and eponym brewery.  New Glarus was established as a Swiss Colony in 1845 and incorporated as a Village in 1901. The town retains its Swiss architecture and culture with chalet style houses and lovely quaint stores. 

Sunday:

Don’t underestimate the amount of effort it took to get up there!

Work up an appetite walking around the large and tranquil University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Then get a well deserved hearty brunch from Mickies Dairy Bar (1511 Monroe St). 

For those who have additional time, I would recommend a day trip to either Mount Horeb, the Norwegian village that has become the “Troll Capital of the World” or head to Taliesin Estate, Frank Lloyd Wright’s picturesque former home and the location for a grisly mass murder. 

If you are looking for more weekends away, check out my weekend itinerary for another Midwest college town of Ann Arbor, MI, Columbus, OH or a fun filled weekend in Chicago, IL.

Thank you to Kelly and Chris for showing me around your city!

A weekend in Chicago, IL

Chicago, the “Jewel of the Midwest,” known for its deep-dish pizza, jazz music, architecture, and …notorious mobsters. Chicago is the third largest city in the United States. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, you can get a good feel for the city during a weekend getaway. Sometimes called The Windy City (lore says its for its politicians as well as its weather), the city’s entire east side is bordered by Lake Michigan and offers miles of waterfront walking. 

Friday:

Get settled into your accommodations and then head out to dinner at Giordano’s for some famous deep-dish pizza. They have many locations, so look up which is closest to your hotel or evening plans. Gino’s East and Lou Malnati are also local favorites for deep-dish.  Save room for pizza dessert! 

After dinner, I recommend heading to The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge (4802 N Broadway, Chicago, IL 60640) for a live jazz performance. This uptown lounge was notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone’s old stomping ground.

Saturday:  “The Loop”

The view of Millennium Park from Cindy’s

Start your morning with the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s river cruise (you can start at either of two locations, I recommend starting at 401 N Michigan Ave). This is a cool and enjoyable way to see the city. The river tour guides provide a nutshell of the city’s history in addition to the city’s famous architectural sites. The price is roughly $45, and tours begin every 20 minutes. 

After the tour, walk over to Millenium Park to see the much-photographed “Bean.”  Millennium Park is located in the heart of the city, and is bordered by many cultural and art institutions. Check out the Tiffany Glass dome in the landmarked Chicago Cultural Center (78 E Washington St.), which was built in 1897 and is open to the public at no charge.  Also nearby is the former Marshall Fields Flagship store, which is now a Macy’s (111 N State St). Get a snack and enjoy spectacular views over Millenium Park at Cindy’s (12 S Michigan Ave), located on the 13th floor of the 1893 Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. 

Head up to the Old Town/Goldrush neighborhood to catch a 4:00 pm comedy show at The Second City (1616 N Wells St.), which has launched the careers of many celebrity comedians such as Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, and Bill Murray. After the show, get a happy hour drink and peruse the exquisite furniture offerings at Restoration Hardware, now known as RH (1300 N. Dearborn St.) which is located in an old arts club. 

Get some dinner in the Lakeview East neighborhood. Both N. Halsted St and N. Clark St offer a number of great dinner and debauchery locations. N. Halsted is the main strip in Boystown, the historical LGBTQ neighborhood, while N. Clark St, in the Lakeview neighborhood, is geared more towards a younger crowd and Cubs baseball overflow, since it runs south of Wrigley Stadium. 

Sunday: Evanston, IL

Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, IL, one hour north of Chicago.

Start your morning by taking the metrorail to Evanston. Get a coffee and pastry from Hewn Bakery (1733 Central St, Evanston, IL). Spend an hour touring downtown, which has many interesting galleries, small businesses, and museums. Walk over to Northwestern University’s campus, and don’t and forget to check out the waterfront views in the Lakefill section of the campus. After Northwestern, get a two-mile ride to the architectural gem that is Baha’i House of Worship (100 Linden Ave, Wilmette, IL 60091). You can ogle the lace-style details for hours!

For those who do not want to make the roughly one-hour train ride to Evanston, the neighborhood of Ravenswood in Chicago is quaint and offers much to do. It has an old fashioned apothecary. Each fall, Ravenswood sponsors a superb Apple Festival in Lincoln Square. I recommend checking it out if you have a chance.

Cheers to a great weekend in Chicago!

If you are looking for more weekends away in the Midwest, check out my itinerary for a couple of the iconic college towns of Madison, WI or Ann Arbor, MI.

Thank you to Emma, Katrina, Elizabeth, and Jimmy for showing us around your city! Thank you to Meghan and Sarah for exploring with me 🙂

A Day in…Oakland, CA!

The once gritty downtown Oakland, has seen a revitalizing in the past couple years to make it one of the hippest areas to hang out in.

Oakland, a melting pot of all cultures. The birthplace of the Black Panther Movement. At one time or another, home to writers Gertrude Stein and Jack London. Continually labeled the Brooklyn of the West, Oakland has been rapidly gentrified with a notable infusion of hipsters and young professionals. Older buildings are being refurbished buildings, as former car dealerships are now breweries, ageing warehouses become art halls, and movie theaters become school and music venues. With far more space than neighboring San Francisco, you can spread out figuratively and literally. While this is only a one day recommended visit, you could easily spend a weekend or more in Oakland itself or throughout the East Bay.

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

Timing: I recommend checking out Oakland on one of the first Fridays of the Month, when the city hosts “First Friday” events. An alternative would be to time your visit for a show at one of the famous theaters.

View of San Francisco from the Port of Oakland. The city is still a hub for freight shipments, and the iconic cranes are seen in the harbor.

Getting there: The best mode of transport in and out of Oakland is by the ferry, which provides beautiful views. The last ferry leaves at 9:25 PM. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train system is an accessible and reliable alternative.

Novels and movies set in Oakland: The Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel There, There by Tommy Orange won praise for its urban Native American narrative, mostly set in Oakland. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon is set in a record store located on the main thoroughfare which runs through Oakland and Berkeley. Movies include Fruitvale Station, a tragic biographical drama about the shooting of a young black man by BART police at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. Blindspotting and Moneyball are also set in Oakland and are popular movies.

Morning: 

Start your day in the northern sections of Oakland before making your way to the waterfront. 

Enjoy breakfast at Rockridge Cafe, a local diner which was established in 1973. I recommend the ricotta pancakes or the challot bread french toast. If you don’t feel like a sit down meal, Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Temescal will do the trick.

Take your time to window shop the quaint neighborhood of Rockridge and the trendy Temescal area. Temescal, originally a town in its own right, is now part of the larger Oakland.  Both neighborhoods are mostly residential with small commercial districts, and are worth the walk-around. Rockridge is home to Market Hall Foods, with many specialty foods and free samples. For coffee lovers, get a cup from Highwire Coffee Roasters. The local public library is one of the few locations where you can actually borrow tools.  Don’t miss Temescal Alley, the hipster epicenter, complete with artists’ spaces, trendy restaurants and a crowd-funded ice cream store. Self-designed tattoos and shaved hair are popular among the crowd here.

Mountain View Cemetery provides cascading views of Oakland and San Francisco (when it’s not foggy.) 

After window shopping make your way to Mountain View (5492 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618 )…cemetery and the adjacent Church of the Chimes. Mountain View Cemetery was designed by Frank Law Olmstead who also created New York City’s Central Park. The cemetary’s “millionaire row” features crypts of “Merritt” of Lake Merritt, “Folger” of Folgers coffee, and “Ghirardelli” of Ghirardelli chocolate. Among the famous artists and California politicians there are many! Every second Saturday there are docent led tours at 10:00AM. There are clear maps and guides to the cemetery at the office.

Church of the Chimes was designed by Julia Morgan who also designed Hearst Castle. If you are looking through the crematorium (photographed above) make a stop at John Hookers’ grave where visitors have left guitar pics on it.

Afternoon:


Take a walk down Piedmont Avenue. Don’t miss old school, Fenton’s Creamery (4226 Piedmont Ave, Oakland, CA 94611), which was featured in the movie Up. Stop for lunch at Home Room (400 40th St, Oakland, CA 94609) where I recommend their specialty dish, garlic mac n cheese with bacon and bread crumbs. In the alternative, you may want to try Burma Superstar for Burmese food or for pizza lovers you can backtrack to Pizzaiolo.

Continue your walk and burn off those luncheon calories around the picturesque Lake Merritt. If you’ve done enough walking, as I had, rent a Lime scooter for an hour to scoot around the lake. The walkway includes the beautiful Pergola, a Bonsai Garden, and Lake Chalet with its accompanying gondola. On the perimeter, you will notice the iconic Grand Lake Theater, the innovatively-designed Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland Scottish Rite Center, and the Camron-Stanford House.  Many buildings reflect Oakland’s rich history, while the ultra-modern Cathedral of Christ the Light and renovated Grand Lake Theater suggest the city’s resurgence. After your tour, you can relax with a leisurely glass of wine and a dozen oysters during happy hour at Lake Chalet (1520 Lakeside Dr, Oakland, CA 94612). 

Your walk towards downtown and the waterfront will become increasingly more congested. As it becomes more urban, you will see refurbished, multi-purpose buildings that cater to the growing arts, music, and restaurant scenes.

Evening:

For evening festivities, choose among First Friday’s festival, pub-hopping, or a show at the Fox Theater!

Option 1: I would recommend going to Oakland during one of the First Friday events, which typically run from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM along Telegraph Street between 27th and 22nd Streets, and includes food, music and artists. 

Option 2: For those who enjoy the pub scene and favor a relaxed environment, check out one or more of the many bars on Oakland Ale Trail (the full interactive map can be found here): Beer Revolution (464 3rd St, Oakland, CA 94607), Roses’ Taproom (4930 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94609), Double Standard (2424 Telegraph Ave, Oakland, CA 94612), and Drake’s Dealership (2325 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612) all have a variety of brews on tap and the last two have great outdoor seating. My female friends and I favored the decor and the vibe at Roses’ Taphouse the most. Cap your visit off with dinner at Mockingbird (416 13th St, Oakland, CA 94612).  It is known for their brunch, but their dinner offerings are also superb. I enjoyed the simple pleasures of a burger and fries, but the menu has much more to offer. 

Option 3: Another evening alternative would be to watch a show or concert at the iconic Fox Oakland Theater or the Paramount Theater. The Fox was constructed in 1928 with a Middle Eastern and Indian inspired architectural look. The Fox eventually fell into disrepair and closed in the 1960s. In 2009, the Fox Oakland Theater reopened after a $75 million restoration project. Its glamour has been restored and it’s now a charter school, music venue and restaurant.

A huge thank you to Denny for giving me all the tips on your vibrant neighborhood! Another thank you to Sarah, Allison, Laurie. Sean, Meghan, Alex, and Alyx for all your suggestions!

If you are looking for other neighborhood guides in the Bay area, check out my guides to Berkeley and the Mission District.

6 Churches to check out in NYC during the 6 weeks of Lent

In honor of Lent I am going to feature one church for each of the six weeks to check out. While this isn’t meant to be religious proselytizing, it is meant to show off the amazing architecture that New York City offers us. Check out some of these gems.

#6 Plymouth Church

The Statue of Henry Ward Beecher in the Plymouth Churchyard. “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself.“- HWB

#6 Plymouth Church (57 Orange St, Brooklyn, NY 11201) known as the “underground railroad depot” in the 1800’s. While many African-Americas sought their own freedom in the north, this became a rest stop before moving on to Canada. The congregation held slave auctions, in which communally congregants would give money to buy an enslaved person their freedom.

#5 St. Peter’s Church

The beautiful piano and natural light at St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

#5 St. Peter’s Church (619 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10022) is known as the “jazz church” for its weekly jazz vespers. This super modern church doubles as an art gallery and musical event space. This church has occupied the current site since 1904, and is the world’s only relationship between commercial property and a church; in the 70’s when National City Bank (now Citigroup) wanted to create condominiums on the site and the church negotiated 5% ownership of the whole site (and the building of a new church!) Jazz Vespers are Sunday’s at 5:00PM.

#4 Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral 

Don’t let the outside of Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral fool you…its stunning inside.

#4 The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (263 Mulberry St, New York, NY 10012) It is so hard to try to start a “creative project” right now, while everything seems so surreal. I am struggling because it feels inappropriate to post about something “normal”, I am pushing myself to post this just to keep on some semblance of normalcy, so in the future weeks when I KNOW it is going to get worse, that I will have something to do besides have anxiety/depression about the at-risk population and our healthcare system as a whole.

Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral has the only catacombs in New York City.

 Without further talk of the coronavirus, and in honor of St Patrick’s Day tomorrow, I want to write about The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, dubbed the “sexiest congregation” by Elizabeth Hasselback from Fox News.  Martin Scorsese was an alter boy here and featured some of the anti-catholic sentiment in the movie, Gangs of New York. There is actually a tunnel from the Bishop’s house across the street to the Cathedral to protect against Nativist violence in the 1800’s. This church was used for filming where the “godfather” became THE Godfather. Built 50 years before the new and far better known St.Patrick’s Cathedral that was way out in the country when it was built. 

Rehearsal practice on the 150 year old Erben Organ! The organ needs nearly $200,000 worth of upkeep, you can donate at the website, https://erbenorgan.org/

Somehow this “side project” seems more important than ever while we keep talking about having faith during a trying time. But I want to push people further, I believe in “prepare for the worst and hope for the best” so we must have faith but ALSO we must all do our best to protect our elders and vulnerable populations.

#3 Trinity Church

#3 Trinity Church (75 Broadway, New York, NY 10006). The stunning Trinity Church is nestled between skyscrapers, on the corner of Broadway and Wall St. Third time’s the charm for this Episcopal church: the first structure burned down in the Great New York City Fire of 1776, the second was torn down because of snow damage, and the third and current building was consecrated in 1846.

The ornate reredos and altar were created in honor of William Backhouse Astor, Sr. This historic house of worship was a welcome site of refuge from the massive debris in the aftermath of September 11th. Trinity’s burial grounds are the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton, Albert Gallatin (Founder and first President of NYU), and Robert Fulton (credited with creating the first commercial steamboat).

#2 St. Patrick’s Cathedral (5th Ave, New York, NY 10022)

Happy Palm Sunday. If you believe in a higher power now more than ever is the time to send global prayers. St. Patrick’s Cathedral is thought of as the St. Peter’s Basilica of the United States. Skeptics initially thought of the proposed construction project as “Hughes Folly” after Bishop “Dagger” Hughes had the idea to build this huge cathedral in what was then mostly farm or uninhabited land.  He knew that New York City was going to expand north and he would need a large church to house the parishioners. It was designed by noted architect James Renwick, Jr., who also built the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the Renwick Gallery in D.C., and Grace Church and City College in NYC. It is situated across the street from Rockefeller Center, this 5th Avenue iconic Roman Catholic cathedral is on many NYC top ten attractions list.

#1 Church of the St. John the Divine

#1. Church of the St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025)

The 6th largest church in the world! When you walk in, you realize the ENORMITY of the space. I personally love stained glass dedicated to different professions, especially sports and education. Both are rare to see inside a Cathedral.

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

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.

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Locorotondo and Matera.

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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!

If you are looking for other neighborhood guides in the Bay area, check out my guides to Berkeley and Oakland.

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 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