Hawaii

Since everyone keeps asking me for Hawaii recommendations…

Food:

Some Hawaiian classics include kalua pig (shredded pork rubbed with sea salt and slow-cooked in an underground pit), lau lau (meat steamed inside taro leaves), and lomi-lomi salmon (fresh tomato and salmon salad, with Maui onions).

The poke trend is finally slowing down in New York, but that’s only because it was never real poke. Poke was invented in Hawaii and is completely different from the glorified salad found at fast-casual poke shops on the mainland. The raw fish (usually tuna, octopus, or salmon) should be marinating in sauce (usually soy sauce, salt, green onions, and seaweed) all day and served in a plastic tub, sold by weight. The most satisfying day you can possibly have in Hawaii is going to Foodland, ordering a tub of poke from the fish counter, and eating it on the beach on a hot day.

Malasadas are originally from Portugal, but when Portuguese immigrants came to Hawaii in the 1870s to work on plantations, they brought these fried balls of dough covered in sugar, and they became an integral part of Hawaiian cuisine. Pipeline Bakeshop is the best place for them.

Shave ice is smoother than the shaved ice you find on the mainland. Waiola is my favorite. You can also add ice cream, azuki beans, and other toppings.

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Honolulu has the best Japanese food outside of Japan, so obviously there are too many Japanese restaurants to list, but here are some of my favorites. For sushi, go to Mitch’s Sushi (Obama’s favorite!), Kin Chan, or Imanas Tei. For onigiri (triangular musubis), head over to Mana Bu’s early and bring a few to the beach. Try Izakaya Gazen for tofu, Marukami Udon for udon, Inaba for tempura and soba, and Nisshodo Candy Store for some of the best chi chi dango mochi of your life.

Brunch: Plumeria Beach House at the Kahala Hotel (get the breakfast buffet)

Dim sum: Jade Dynasty (try the snow mountain buns — they’re just like the ones from Tim Ho Wan, but don’t make a fuss about them)

Korean BBQ: Yakiniku Don-Day (sit in the outside section)

Special occasions: Alan Wong or Senia

Ice cream: Bubbies — best mochi ice cream you’ll ever have!

Coffee: Island Vintage

Cookies: The Cookie Corner (so much better than Levain!)

Late-night dinner: Zippy’s (get a ZipPac at any of the locations around the island, like a local)

Coco puffs: Liliha Bakery is a diner, but everyone comes for the Coco Puffs, made of choux pastry, chocolate pudding, and chantilly with sugar.

Beaches:

North Shore: Where all the famous surfing competitions take place. The North Shore all the way on the other side of the island, so make a day out of it — explore the touristy but charming town of Haleʻiwa, pick up a sandwich at Storto’s and eat it on the beach, and stop by Matsumoto for shave ice after.

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Sandy’s: Obama’s favorite beach! If you’re not a strong swimmer, it can be pretty dangerous out here, but of course that’s why people take pride in it.

Makapu’u: Named after the Makapu’u lighthouse on the cliff beside it, this beach is right next to Sandy’s

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View of Makapu’u Beach below

Lanikai: Best beach for photos! The sand is super soft, the waters are calm, and the two islands out in the ocean were just made for the ‘gram.

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Hanauma Bay: This is one of the most touristy beaches in Hawaii (you have to pay and watch a safety video before entering), but there’s a reason why — it’s a protected marine life conservation area, so you can actually snorkel with fish. It’s also gorgeous.

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Hikes:

Maunawili Falls: This is a very lush trail, so make sure to wear bug spray, waterproof clothes, and shoes with traction. At the end of the hike is a waterfall, so you can reward yourself  by taking a swim and jumping off cliffs if you’re feeling brave. Bring a change of clothes (or water bottle to wash yourself off) before you return to your car; you will get muddy!

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Koko Head: This is basically a Stairmaster, but the views of Honolulu are worth it the steep staircase.

Diamond Head: Yes, this is extremely touristy and you actually have to pay to enter, but come before sunrise and you’ll understand why.

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Mariner’s Ridge: I forget if this one is still “officially” closed, but you know what? Just hike it. The views of both Honolulu and the Windward Side are worth it. This is a fairly easy hike.

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Other activities:

Ala Moana: As someone who hates malls, I love Ala Moana. It’s the largest open-air mall in the world, and, while it does have chains, it also has some specialty shops and restaurants that you can only find in Hawaii, and sometimes there are cultural events and performances that occur here.

Hotel hopping in Waikiki: One of my favorite pastimes. I always make sure to stop by the Moana Surfrider (the oldest hotel in Hawaii), Royal Hawaiian (the pink hotel), and Halekulani (probably the classiest hotel in Waikiki).

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ʻIolani Palace: Did you know that Hawaii was once a kingdom? We actually have a fascinating history (I’m surprised movies aren’t constantly made about it), and Hawaii is still the only place in the country with a royal palace. You can tour ʻIolani Palace and understand why many Hawaiians still want sovereignty.

Skydiving: Honestly, skydiving anywhere else seems like a waste. It’s hard to top the views of the coastline.

Sea Life Park: It’s like a toned-down Sea World.

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Drive along the eastern coast for some of the most stunning views of your life. Just be careful!

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Florence (pt. 2)

Our original plan was to take a daytrip to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small hillside town in Tuscany that we’d never been to, but we decided to revisit Florence instead, for a few of reasons: to see my favorite sunset again, eat at one of our favorite restaurants, and climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo, which we had to skip when we were here three years ago. Looking back now, I’m not sure if this was the best decision – we probably should have explored a new town – but Florence is never a bad idea.

Since we wanted to climb the campanile in the early morning to avoid the summer heat and crowds, we decided to stay overnight and rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Oltrarno (“other side of the Arno River”), similar to Rome’s Trastevere. Our apartment was on the top floor of an 18th-century building that once housed officials of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It had luxuriously high ceilings, beautiful terracotta floors, and dozens of bookshelves – but no air conditioning, and a bathroom with one of those doorless showers that gets the entire bathroom wet. In other words, we felt like true Florentines.

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Ciao, from the bathroom window!
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Terracotta floors, low bed, and high ceiling
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View of the rooftops from our bedroom

If you only do four things in Florence, do these:

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo. This sunset has ruined me for all other sunsets (I’m looking at you, Santorini). There’s something so magical about Florence’s sea of iconic red roofs, massive dome dominating the skyline, the colors of the sunset reflected in the Arno River bisecting the city, and the purple mountains in the background. Get there early to claim a good spot.

 

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Sunset
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Worth the wait

Check out Mercato Centrale, an impressive food hall and gastronomic dream. Designed by the same architect who built the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, this huge iron-and-glass complex has two floors: fresh groceries on the bottom floor, and the best food court you’ve ever seen on the top floor. Anthony and I spent a few hours on the top floor, slowly eating our way through various vendors. Each vendor specializes in a type of food (mostly Tuscan). Everything you could ever want is here – a cheese station, a pasta station, a truffle station, a beer station, a gelato station, a seafood station, a burger station, a French fry station, even a dim sum station. Everything is made fresh, and vendors use ingredients from downstairs. Did I mention that workers come around to bring you wine right to your table? Did I also mention that there’s a whole section for a cooking class, where each participant gets their own cooking station?? Next time I’m in Florence, this is going to be the first thing I do.

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Light-filled market with high ceilings and lots of seating
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Bucatini
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Gelato
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Fresh seafood salad with a glass of white wine

Climb the campanile in the morning for a more pleasant experience; climb it in the late afternoon for better photos. Book online and prepare for 414 steps. The climb is pretty easy, since there are several stops along the way. You’ll get to see the dome and all of Florence through a fenced rooftop.

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Short people problems
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View of Florence
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Through the fence
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Duomo
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Come in the afternoon for better lighting. The dome was backlit when we were there

Eat at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò, our favorite restaurant abroad. Last time we were in Florence, we stumbled upon this restaurant and fell in love. Three years later, the menu has changed slightly, and the prices are a bit higher, but the meal was probably even better than our first time here. We shared slices of pecorino and honey, a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar, roasted potatoes, salted spinach, a ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings, and a half liter of house red wine. All of this was €53.

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Pecorino and honey, salted spinach, roasted potatoes, and a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar
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Ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings
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Pouring a glass of that 7-euro house wine

If you have extra time in Florence:

Visit the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. Three years ago, we stayed at a hotel located above this museum but were always too busy to visit. Anthony was determined not to make the same mistake. This delightful museum has a spectacular array of da Vinci’s inventions, and you’ll leave with a much better appreciation of his genius.

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Flying machine?
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Workout machine
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Tank (exterior)
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Tank (interior)

Relax in Giardino Bardini, a garden that offers panoramic views of Florence. And nature, if you’re into that. During the spring, it’s particularly lovely because the trellis is filled with wisteria. Be careful of mosquitoes.

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No wisterias in this trellis in the middle of summer 😦
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View from the garden

Check out Palazzo Strozzi, a modern art museum housed in a former palace.  Currently, there’s a huge metal slide that spirals down the inner courtyard.

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You can slide down!

Have breakfast or a coffee at La Ménagère, an adorable restaurant, cafe, cocktail bar, and flower shop. It’s a great place to hang out.

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Feels just like Brooklyn

Visit the Baptistery. This small basilica often gets overlooked — it has to compete with the neighboring Duomo, after all — but inside is a stunning ceiling, inspired by Byzantine mosaics.

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Mosaic ceiling

Florence didn’t hit me quite as hard as it did three years ago. It’s an undeniably beautiful city, but after our 24 hours here, I was ready to return to the chaos and diversity of Rome. Florence has so many of my favorite things – my favorite restaurant, my favorite sunset, my favorite food hall, and my favorite cathedral – it’s odd that it isn’t also my favorite city. But whatever the reason, I’m glad we got to experience it again.

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Paris, Part Deux

My first time in Paris was three summers ago, and it’s no secret that I had not been impressed. We’d just left my favorite place in the world (Positano), and after almost two weeks in vibrant, colorful Italy, Paris felt drab. The buildings looked too uniform, everyone wore black, the skies were almost always overcast, and not all of our meals were life-changing like they had been in Italy. Moreover, I’d made the wrong decision by booking us an Airbnb in the très hip neighborhood of République. I should have enjoyed République, as it has some of the best restaurants in Paris and we were surrounded by cool locals, but for a first-timer, the neighborhood felt a little too far from the touristy sites, and we felt out of place as we had to squeeze past crowds of bobos to get through our front door.

But Paris deserved a second chance.

We wanted to travel during Thanksgiving break this year and figured we should visit a place we’ve already been since it would be such a short trip. I was willing to redo Paris, while Anthony, who had fallen in love with it last time (despite traveling with such a bummer of a partner), was eager to return. So we booked our flights and made sure we did Paris properly this time.

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First off, Paris in the fall is a hundred times better than Paris in the summer. To me, Paris isn’t true Paris in the summer — too many of the locals are away on vacation, and herds of tourists have taken their place. But in the fall, the crisp air accentuates the architecture, and Parisians’ commitment to wearing only neutral colors finally makes sense.

Second of all, our apartment was perfect this time. I found us a charming penthouse studio located in the 4th arrondissement, just a block away from Notre-Dame. It came with a small kitchen, a washing machine, lots of light, and, most importantly, a tiny balcony overlooking Parisian rooftops. We even woke up to church bells every morning! The location was centrally located — walking distance to some of my favorite places, and just a few blocks from both the Metro station and the RER.

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Thirdly, Anthony actually planned out one of our days to celebrate my birthday again — because why have one birthday when you can have another in Paris? He decided where to pick up pastries early in the morning, booked a professional photography session with Flytographer, paid for a wine & cheese pairing class, and made reservations for a fancy dinner. He was so certain that he’d never be able to top my birthday gift to him (a surprise trip to Morocco earlier this year), but I have to say, this was probably one of the best days of my life.

I can’t recommend our Flytographer photographer enough. Olga met us early on a Saturday morning and took stunning photos of us around my favorite neighborhood, Le Marais. She gave us clear directions, made us laugh throughout the shoot, and took us to lavish gardens and quaint courtyards we didn’t even know existed. Over the years, we’ve hired a handful of other professional photographers, but Olga was by far the best. Anthony only paid for 30 photos but she ended up sending us 66!

Here are some of our photos from the shoot; for more, click here.

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Roaming around Le Marais
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A secret garden
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Fall in Paris
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Obligatory cafe shot

After the photo shoot, we had a wine & cheese pairing class at La Cuisine, just a few minutes from our apartment. We started at a fromagerie called La Ferme Saint-Aubin on the island of Île Saint-Louis, where our teacher is a regular and ordered some samples for us to try. I learned that my favorite cheese is Comté, while Anthony learned that he will eat any cheese, even the incredibly smelly one that was aged for two years. After getting enough samples, our teacher, who is also a private chef and journalist, bought some cheese for us to take back to the school. There, we sat around a dining table and paired the five cheeses with five glasses of French wine. Our classmates were incredibly interesting — one was an American living in Amsterdam, another was a Navy pilot living in Italy with his wife, and another was from India but has been living in Paris for the past few months. They were ideal classmates, with a fairly impressive knowledge of wine and cheese (so they could ask all the intelligent questions that Anthony and I couldn’t), but still eager to learn more. By the end of class, I was full and tipsy, and utterly enchanted by Paris.

My birthday dinner was at a two-star Michelin-rated restaurant called Le Clarence, housed in a grand 18th-century mansion, and was probably the best meal of my life. It was definitely the fanciest restaurant I’ve been to; it easily surpassed the only three-star restaurant I’ve been to (Jean Georges in New York). When we arrived, the doorman confirmed our names and led us inside. After coat check, we walked up a gorgeous marble staircase to the second floor, which comprised three intimate dining rooms decorated in slightly different styles, each with only four tables generously spread out. Our dining room was a plush, wood-paneled library, with a fireplace and walls lined with shelves stuffed with books — some of which are secretly menus.

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We began with some amuse-bouches of breaded clams, bite-size puff pastries, and fried langoustine, then shared three varieties of bread, and continued onto sea scallops served two ways. After that, we had the best fresh brioche of my life. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat another brioche ever again. Our next course was squid, gnocchi, and langoustine. After that, our server brought over a beautiful baked puff pastry for us to admire before he returned to the kitchen to divide and plate it for us. The pastry was filled with pigeon and foie gras, served with an oyster consommé and lettuce with marinated duck heart. Perhaps my favorite part of dinner was when a man wheeled over an entire cart of cheese to us — because why not have more cheese after our wine & cheese class? This is France! He asked about our cheese preferences and gave recommendations. When I told him about my favorite cheese, he essentially said the French equivalent of “Comté is too basic for us” — in the most unpretentious way possible, of course — and gave me three alternatives. (Apparently Comté is the most highly produced French cheese in the world.) Meanwhile, adventurous Anthony was given his own assortment of cheese. Anthony particularly enjoyed one of them and asked the cheese man if he could have the name of it; at the end of our meal Anthony was handed a thick envelope containing an official note card from the restaurant with the name of the cheese. After the cheese course, we were served petit fours, followed by vanilla macarons and chocolate truffles. Three hours and nine courses later, I was in heaven.

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The cheese cart

Despite being stuffed, I pretty much floated back home — wearing my ballgown on the Metro — and cried in bed about how much I love Paris. Typical.

Paris is one of those places you need to visit multiple times to really appreciate. There are so many characteristic neighborhoods to explore and layers of history to uncover. Paris rewards those who do their research. Because we’d been there before, we felt comfortable as soon as we landed, and we didn’t have to waste time doing some of the things we did last time, like waiting in line for Notre-Dame, trekking up to Montmartre, or wandering around the Louvre. We got to see some of the things that we hadn’t seen three summers ago, like the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle, the perfect view of the Eiffel Tower from Bir-Hakeim bridge, and the stunning Palais Garnier theater. And then we got to return to our favorites, like the black-and-white columned courtyard at Palais-Royal and the excessive dome at Galeries Lafayette, which is even more ostentatious with the Christmas decorations.

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Palais Garner
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Palais Garnier
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Sainte-Chapelle
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Galeries Lafayette

I finally get it. Paris, you deserve all the hype.

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Tips for future travelers:

As with all major cities, I try to stay at apartments instead of hotels because they allow you to feel more like a local and give you more privacy. I didn’t find good options on Airbnb so I eventually used HomeAway, which is a more legitimate source for apartment rentals. Here’s a link to our exact apartment. Patrix was a wonderful host!

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Breakfast pastries on our balcony

We booked a dinner with a local French couple through Meeting the French. Sharing a meal with locals is usually one of my favorite parts of traveling, but the couple we were assigned to was a little strange (and may have been conservative — yikes!). They didn’t speak perfect English (and we Americans spoke little to no French, of course), so conversation was stifled. Nevertheless, we did learn a lot from each other, and it’s an experience I would still recommend.

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Dinner with a Parisian couple

Take the Metro. The subway system in Paris is fantastic; it’s clean, organized, and efficient. The 10-pack of tickets saved us a lot of money because it’s slightly discounted, and we could share the ten tickets between the two of us.

Some of the best things we ate (besides everything at Le Clarence): île flottante (soft meringue floating on crème anglaise) at Les Philosophes, turmeric latte at Cafe Kitsuné, chocolate cramique (breakfast pastry) from Aux Merveilleux de Fred, and chocolate mousse at Le Royal.

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My favorite French dessert

How to dress like a local Parisian in the fall: Black or camel coat, flat boots or loafers, thick scarf, and a baguette in your tote (seriously!). It’s true, Parisians don’t wear color. Also, you can tell who the tourists are because they’re the only ones wearing three-inch heels.

Make sure your apartment or hotel room has a balcony. You’ll thank me immediately.

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Drinking a bottle of wine on our balcony at dusk

Florence

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I may have enjoyed Florence even more than Venice — perhaps because I wasn’t expecting too much. However, as soon as we left the chaotic railway station and entered the birthplace of the Renaissance, I quickly discovered that the easy access to art and quality food made Florence my kind of town. The entire city seems like a museum, with a harmonious architecture style, and impressive statues and clever street art everywhere. Florence feels small and manageable, yet is bursting with culture.

Quirky street signs
Quirky street signs

Our hotel, Hotel dei Macchiaioli, is located on the third floor of a former palace called Palazzo Morrocchi and was the most extravagant hotel on our trip. In the 19th century, it was the home base for a group of avant-garde artists known as “I Macchiaioli.” The high ceilings of the lavish breakfast room were covered in beautiful frescoes. It was great staying only a few blocks from all the major sites. Every day, we walked along the main drag, which was lined with fancy clothing stores and leather shops (Florence is an important city for Italian fashion, after all!).

Frescoed ceilings of our hotel
Frescoed ceilings of our hotel

Florence’s Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, has always been my favorite cathedral — and I’ve seen a lot, even just on this trip! Its perfect dome was designed by Brunelleschi and is still the largest brick-and-mortar dome in the world. Every time I walked past it, I took photos as though it was my first time.

Duomo during the daytime
Duomo during the daytime
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Duomo during nighttime

We were in Florence during their free museum day, which was good and bad. We got into the Uffizi Gallery for free but spent about an hour standing in line. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hot outside yet. We saw everyone’s favorite Renaissance painting, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and enjoyed the museum’s views of the Arno River.

Birth of Venus at Uffizi Gallery
Birth of Venus at Uffizi Gallery

Before modern engineering, Florentines had a love-hate relationship with the Arno, which used to flood the city regularly. On one night, we crossed the river into Oltrarno, which seems to be where actual Florentines live. To get to Oltrarno, we walked across Ponte Vecchio (which means “old bridge”), a Medieval bridge along which shops were built.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio
Looking across the Arno from Oltrarno
Looking across the Arno from Oltrarno

I fell in love with Oltrarno as soon as we arrived. Young Italians cruised by on their Vespas as we climbed old steps on the left side of the road through the hilly neighborhood. We got to our destination, the Piazzale Michelangelo. The view here is unbelievable. We got there right before dusk, so we watched as the red roofs basked under the golden hues of the sunset, surrounded by purple mountains in the distance.

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo
View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
View from Piazzale Michelangelo

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Florence was one of my favorite cities, as some of our best meals were here. Everything was relatively cheap, especially after glitzy Milan and inefficient Venice. Our most expensive meal in Florence, costing €38, would have easily been about $100 in New York. You must try the bistecca in Florence. Or any beef dish, really. Their roast beef is nothing like those dry, sad-looking slices you get at wedding buffets.

Soft rosemary potatoes, a grilled meat plate, honey brie bruschetta, prosciutto pomodoro bruschetta, and grilled vegetables
Soft rosemary potatoes, a grilled meat plate, honey brie bruschetta, prosciutto pomodoro bruschetta, and grilled vegetables at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò

Florence isn’t even known for its pasta, but the pomodoro & basilica fusilli I had almost brought me to tears (I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true; ask Anthony). We were at another one of Rick Steves’ recommended restaurants for lunch, and I knew the pasta would be good because the tiny kitchen had some serious cookware — huge, old stainless steel pots, tattered by years of love. Just like with pizza, you can tell a pasta is good if the most basic sauce (tomato and basil) is mindblowing. The fusilli was perfectly al dente; the sauce just coated the noodles (unlike at most American restaurants, which drown the pasta in sauce); and the pomodoro sauce was so complex that there’s no way I’d be able to replicate it with the canned tomatoes I use in the U.S.

Pomodoro & basilica fusilli at Il Club del Gusto
Pomodoro & basilica fusilli at Il Club del Gusto

Florence seemed like the quintessential Italian city, filled with old art, good food, and simple living. I could eat here forever, but it was time to move on. Ciao, Pisa!

View from a stairwell in the Duomo
View from a stairwell in the Duomo

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Look up the specialties of each city. I don’t typically order much beef at restaurants, since I’m more of a pig and fish girl. However, since bistecca is a Florentine specialty, we made sure to order beef at every dinner we had in Florence. The moral of the story is to never judge an item of food based on your experience with it in the U.S., as America does not respect food.
  2. Don’t make plans to enter the Duomo unless you have all day. Our only unpleasant experience in Florence was on our last morning. I had tickets for us to climb up the campanile for stunning views of the city and the dome. Thinking two hours would be plenty of time, we stood in line at 9 am. There was already a line wrapped halfway around the cathedral. Everyone was confused, as there were no signs to guide us. We didn’t know which line was for ticket holders or non-ticket holders, for inside the cathedral or for the dome and campanile. When we finally got through, we had almost no time left before our train to Pisa, so we had to forgo the campanile and race down the stairs of the dome. It was frustrating after such a perfect time in Florence.
  3. My restaurant recommendations: Antica Mescita San Niccolò in Oltrarno, Il Club del Gusto, and Trattoria Anita.

BONUS! Side trip to Pisa:

Anthony had built a Metal Earth model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so we couldn’t visit Florence without taking a little detour on our way to Rome. Many tourists mistakenly make a beeline for the Leaning Tower, but Rick Steves (oh, Rick Steves, where would we be without you?) encouraged us to explore the charming town. We followed his walking tour through Pisa, which was once a powerful maritime nation. The tour led us to a lovely gelateria, and then past the University of Pisa, one of the oldest universities in the world.

Silly tourists
Tourists doing the typical poses

As we got closer to the Leaning Tower, everything got more and more touristy. Outdoor restaurants lined the streets, and tourists clogged every inch of space. We finally arrived at the Leaning Tower, which is actually a campanile of the nearby cathedral. The tower’s infamous tilt began during construction, caused by the shallow foundation that could not support the heavy structure. As decades passed, the tilt increased before the tower was completed. Restoration work has been done in the past few decades to decrease the angle of the tilt to 3.99 degrees.

Anthony's Metal Earth model and the actual Leaning Tower of Pisa
Anthony’s Metal Earth model and the actual Leaning Tower of Pisa

Even more impressive than the Leaning Tower was the tourists. Everyone was in such awkward positions, trying to get such similar shots — either pushing or holding up the Leaning Tower. Anthony and I had to be the only two who deviated — he photographed his Metal Earth, and I kicked the Leaning Tower (while giving birth to an ambulance!). How’s that for a shot?11138612_10206466555519228_3296001323673543758_n