Rome

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Rome was intimidating. After getting comfortable in quaint Florence and Disneyland Venice, we were finally in a real city, dense and sprawling. The Eternal City has a special place in my heart — partly because my grandparents used to live in Rome, back when my grandfather was still working for the UN, and partly because one cannot grow up watching Fellini films without being somewhat seduced by it.

The remains of a former temple
The remains of a former temple

We stayed at the adorable Lilium Hotel, near embassies and other grand buildings. Everything about Lilium Hotel was charming, from the French doors that opened up to our tiny balcony, to the birdcage and piano in the lobby, to the dishware for our breakfasts each morning.

Lobby of Lilium Hotel
Lobby of Lilium Hotel
Breakfast with a view
Breakfast with a view

After we settled in, we walked to the nearby Monti neighborhood, which immediately became my favorite neighborhood in Rome. The hilly neighborhood is right in the center of Rome, yet retains a small village quality thanks to its narrow side streets, quirky buildings, and bohemian character. Monti and Trastevere seem to be the “cool” areas in Rome right now. You can tell just by passing any piazza in Monti, where young Romans with cheap beer and cigarettes congregate around the fountain. We ate in Monti twice, once at La Taverna del Monti (try the fritti and carbonara!) and once at La Carbonara. Just like in Florence, food in Rome is a very good deal, unlike cities along the coast.

Rione Monti
Rione Monti
Had two of Rome's specialties (carbonara and fritti) on our first night
Had two of Rome’s specialties (carbonara and fritti) on our first night

Enormous ancient ruins are everywhere, nonchalantly scattered across the city. We trekked over to the Colosseum twice — once during the daytime and once at night — because it was just that stunning. The colossal, concrete-and-stone amphitheater is still the largest in the world and is an architectural and engineering marvel. The exits are embedded within the tiers of seats and are called vomitoria because it is where the crowd can “spew forth” and exit the Colosseum rapidly. This design has been copied over and over in modern stadiums. The Colosseum can hold 80,000 spectators and has been used for everything, from gladiator contests to executions to re-enactments of classical myths. Part of it has collapsed due to earthquakes and stone-robbers, but even in its damaged state (which offers a perfect cross-section of the structure), it is still stunning. When you’re inside the Colosseum, it’s hard not to imagine a packed stadium watching wild animals tearing naked prisoners into pieces.

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Perfect cross-section of the Colosseum
Perfect cross-section of the Colosseum

Rome was probably the hottest city on our trip, with temperatures over a hundred when we were touring the Roman Forum. If you’re here in the summer, it’s a good idea to bring along a water bottle to refill at Rome’s many public drinking fountains, and plan to take afternoon siestas. There are also gorgeous fountains all over the city, and you’ll often see Italians just sitting with their feet in them. While America seems to respect works of art by closing them off and making them inaccessible, Italy in many ways does the exact opposite by incorporating masterpieces into daily lives.

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Roman Forum
Filling up the water bottle
Filling up the water bottle

You can’t really visit Rome without stopping by the Vatican, so we made our way through the disgustingly touristy surrounding neighborhood — constantly being asked by strangers on the sidewalk if we had bought our tickets yet — and finally entered Vatican City. (We later realized that they are actually associated with the Vatican City and were trying to help us. We could’ve used that level of help in Florence!) We breezed through opulent halls and followed the signs to the Sistine Chapel. Groups of tourists were herded like cattle, in and out of the chapel, but if you stay in the middle, no one will notice how long you’ve been there. Anthony and I ending up staying in the Sistine Chapel for about 30 minutes. It was breathtaking — and this is coming from an atheist! Michelangelo spent four years of his life working on this massive fresco, depicting the history of the world. When he was first commissioned by the pope, he was primarily a sculptor, not a painter, and was reluctant to take on the project. However, the Pope was persistent. Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo was standing on scaffolding as he painted (instead of lying on his back) and must have felt considerable discomfort as he had to paint with his head tilted upwards. If you aren’t impressed with Michelangelo yet, you certainly will be after standing under his Sistine ceiling.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel

After the Sistine Chapel, we climbed 645 steps (yes, Anthony counted!) up to the top of St. Mark’s Basilica to see the view of Rome. Rome isn’t the most attractive city from above, but the view gives you a good sense of how vast it is.

View of Vatican City
View of Vatican City

Surprisingly, my favorite meal in Rome was right outside Vatican City. Hostaria dei Bastioni was recommended by Rick Steves, so we decided to give it a try despite its touristy location. A charming old man welcomed us inside his restaurant. My seafood pasta was unbelievable, so when he asked us if we wanted to try some tiramisu, which his wife makes fresh, we eagerly said yes. And, boy, I’m so glad we did. I didn’t think anyone could top the tiramisu at New York’s Via Quadranno. Unlike every other tiramisu I’ve had in the U.S., I could actually taste the sponginess of coffee-soaked ladyfingers, as well as the mascarpone and a hint of alcohol.

Seafood pasta
Favorite meal in Rome

Whereas nighttime makes Venice exponentially more palatable, nighttime heightens Rome’s sensuality. Rome wins the contest for best uplighting. As the sun sets, lanterns illuminate the streets with a warm, orange glow, evoking the oil candles used in ancient times, while the intricate details of monuments become accentuated in the most impeccable way. In other words, Rome becomes sultry.

Pantheon
Pantheon

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Rome is a perfect mix of fashionable Milan and gritty Naples, which was the next stop on our Euro Trip. Ciao, Napoli!

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Tips for future travelers:

  1. Ride the Metro. As a New Yorker, I’m always pretty curious about other cities’ subway systems. Rome only has two lines (it’s hard to build underground when you’re constantly finding ancient ruins during construction!), but we found them very convenient. An unlimited day pass cost €7. The Metropolitana di Roma stations and trains are covered in stylish graffiti, and each train has little monitor screens that play random commercials.
  2. Everything is Rome is a tourist attraction, so get advanced tickets to save time. Since I had reserved online tickets for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and St. Mark’s Basilica, we were able to skip three insanely long lines.

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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

Venice

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You can probably tell from my last post that I was pretty excited about Venice. I had been to the city long ago with my family and had grown up hearing their stories of skinny Santas roaming the deserted streets, and well-intentioned Italian women scolding my mother for carrying me around in the cold.

After a nearly three-hour Trenitalia ride from Milan, Anthony and I arrived in Venice. I was still tired from my lack of sleep the night before, but I was immediately energized when we entered Venezia Santa Lucia. The station opens up to the Grand Canal, which is literally a water highway. Cutting across the sparkling waters were big boats, little boats, speed boats, paddle boats — it was like a Dr. Seuss book. I was amazed by how effortlessly each boat just missed crashing into another.

Water highway
Water highway

Thanks to straightforward instructions from our B&B, we knew to catch Vaporetto #1 four stops to Ca’ d’Oro. Vaporettos, which are basically water buses, are the most efficient way to travel in this car-free city. Mattia, the owner of 3749 Ponte Chiodo, buzzed us in, and we walked through a secret garden behind the gate up to the residence. It was as picturesque as I had hoped. Mattia ushered us into his office on the bottom floor of the pink, three-story home. He was the main reason 3749 Ponte Chiodo was one of our favorite hotel experiences. He gave us a map of his favorite restaurants (sounds like something I’d do!) and, based on our interests, traced out some routes for us to take to various sites. He was very blunt about where to avoid and what not to eat — and I appreciate that level of taste. He led us to our room, which was the only one on the first floor. I had requested this exact room because I knew it had a view of the canal and the strongest WiFi connection. Decorated in pale yellows and Klimt prints, it was much more charming than our previous room in Milan.

That pink, three-story house on the right was our home in Venice
That pink, three-story house on the right was our home in Venice

By that point, we were pretty hungry, so Anthony navigated us to one of Mattia’s recommendations for lunch. Our route led us over the Rialto Bridge, and, just like in Times Square, it was almost impossible to get across. Obnoxious tourists (I’m just going to guess that they’re American based on their widths) blocked all paths, crammed into every photo-worthy spot, and struggled to climb the few stairs required.

Spotted on a Venetian wall: What Italians think of Americans
Spotted on a Venetian wall: What Italians think of Americans

We finally got to Osteria Bancogiro, which has fantastic seafood due to its proximity to a large fish market. We started off speaking to our server in what little Italian we could muster up, but, as we’ve noticed in every city, if you try even just a little, Italians will be grateful and continue the conversation in English. Anthony’s calamari-stuffed cuddlefish and my cold pesto spaghetti with shrimp in a tomato gazpacho were refreshing on such a hot day.

Lunch with a view of the Grand Canal
Lunch with a view of the Grand Canal

After lunch, we were still pretty exhausted and too sweaty to want to explore, so we returned to 3749 Ponte Chiodo. Now I know why Italians take siestas! We rinsed off, turned our air conditioning on high, and took a nap. Eventually, we made our way out again. As we walked along Ca’ d’Oro, we noticed all the public water fountains, which are everywhere in Italy — some more ornate than others. I had brought my green CamelBak water bottle with us, so we constantly refilled it throughout our trip (until Anthony left it on a train somewhere between Rome and Naples).

Roaming the alleyways of Venice
Roaming the alleyways of Venice

We caught Vaporetto #1 again to follow Rick Steves’ self-guided Grand Canal Tour, which took us all the way to St. Mark’s Square. Though everything was beautiful, I was a bit overwhelmed by how touristy everything felt — and the hot sun made everything feel even more tacky, almost like a Disneyland. I longed for the seductive Venice that my parents had experienced when we were here in the winter.

Too hot to enjoy the cafe seating in St. Mark's Square
Too hot to enjoy the caffè seating in St. Mark’s Square
We avoided the crowded bridge in front of the Bridge of Sighs and found a less-touristy one behind it
We avoided the crowded bridge in front of the Bridge of Sighs and found a less-touristy one behind it

On our second day, we spent the afternoon exploring two other islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass-making and, honestly, isn’t that interesting unless you plan on purchasing glass. However, Burano was a lovely escape. Though the island is famous for its lace-making, tourists now go to take photos of its small, brightly-painted homes. If someone wants to paint their house, one must send a request to the government, which then decides which colors are permitted. While Burano is clearly touristy, it felt much more relaxed than Venice, since it has no iconic landmarks and is enough of a trek from Venice that only the truly dedicated tourists make their way here.

Beautiful Burano homes
Beautiful Burano homes

By the time we returned to Venice, it was drizzling, which felt great after another sweltering afternoon. Since we had some leftover risotto from the night before, we decided to pick up some pizza, cookies, and wine and take advantage of our secret garden by having dinner at one of the tables. I love B&Bs because you really feel like you live there. I’m not sure where the four other guests were, but it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves. We borrowed a bottle opener, utensils, and wine glasses, and made sure to wash everything afterward. We felt like local Venetians.

Brought dinner to our private backyard
Brought dinner to our private backyard

It was after dinner that we learned that the magic happens after the sun goes down. The day-trippers take their cruises back to the mainland, and the city becomes shrouded in mystery. My friend had suggested a gelateria near St. Mark’s Square, but we had some trouble finding it and ended up strolling through dark alleyways. You haven’t lived unless you’ve gotten lost in Venice at least once. Venice is laced with narrow alleyways that squeeze between old buildings and often do not lead to anywhere useful, but simply provide access for local residents or businesses. One thing that impressed me was Venice’s lack of bugs and rodents. If New York had these same alleyways, there would be at least cockroaches crawling around, but we didn’t see any. Few alleyways continue for a significant distance, and there are not a lot of street signs. Getting lost in them transports you to another world — away from the tourist swarms.

Venetian nights
Venetian nights

After we finally found the gelateria, we carried our towering scoops of gelato to St. Mark’s Square and listened to the dueling orchestras. Each caffè in the square seems to have a small stage for an orchestra. While we say they “duel,” each orchestra really just take turns playing, usually songs that they know will pull American tourists’ heartstrings, like Sinatra. While you can pay (too much) to sit at the caffès, we were fine just standing and enjoying our gelato. Moments like these were my favorite in Venice.

Huge serving sizes at Gelato Fantasy
Huge serving sizes at Gelato Fantasy

When we got tired of St. Mark’s Square, we took a late-night vaporetto back to our B&B, which also felt like a different experience in the dark. Light reflections from hotels and palaces glittered against the ominous waters, and the Grand Canal felt more romantic than ever.

The next morning, I woke up with a tenderness for Venice that I hadn’t felt before. All those stories I had grown up with felt real; I just had to experience them at night. We enjoyed one last Venetian breakfast and caught a traghetto across the canal. Traghettos are like gondolas, but just cross the Grand Canal and thus are much cheaper. It was a short, no-frills ride, but it satiated our need to try a more leisurely boat ride than our trusty vaporetto. We walked to the fish market and gawked at the sword fish, snails, and octopuses.

Fish market
Fish market

For our final meal in Venice, we tried another one of Mattia’s recommendations and ate cicchetti at Bacari. This was my favorite meal in Venice. In true Venetian fashion, we ordered different cicchetti (basically, crostini topped with different ingredients, served on a toothpick) with a glass of house wine and ate at the bar. We tried shrimp, tuna, salmon, pumpkin, octopus, and caviar cicchetti. Everything was cheap and unbelievably fresh.

Round one of cicchetti at Bacari
Round one of cicchetti at Bacari

I had heard about a unique bookstore called Acqua Alta, so we made our way to it. Just like the night before, we enjoyed meandering through the alleyways and discovering things along the way. Acqua Alta stuffs their used books into boats (hence, the flood theme), and stacked old encyclopedias into a staircase in the backyard. There is a nook in the back at which you can sit facing the canal and occasionally get your feet wet when the tide rises. We met the eccentric owner, who beamed with pride as he told me what other little oddities his bookstore held.

Acqua Alta
Acqua Alta
Climbing up the stairs of encyclopedia at Acqua Alta
Climbing up the stairs of encyclopedias at Acqua Alta

By then, it was time to head to Florence, so we picked up our luggage from 3749 Ponte Chiodo and caught our last vaporetto ride to the station. Ciao, Firenze!

One last look at the gorgeous Venetian architecture
One last look at the gorgeous Venetian architecture

Tips for future travelers:

  1. There’s a reason why Italians take siestas. If you’re visiting during the summer, plan to spend an hour or two resting in the early afternoon to avoid the worst heat of the day. It doesn’t get dark until almost 9 pm, so you’ll still have plenty of time to explore after your siesta.
  2. If you’re under 29 and staying in Venice for multiple days, look into Rolling Venice passes, which give you unlimited vaporetto rides and discounts to some museums. If only the U.S. realized that anyone under 30 is still not an adult!
  3. Any time you can buy online tickets in advance for major sites, do it. Our pre-purchased tickets to St. Mark’s Basilica allowed us to bypass a huge line.
  4. You must partake in the cicchetti tradition while in Venice. It was my most memorable meal there because we actually felt like Venetians. Anthony and I shared six cicchetti and two glasses of wine and spent no more than €15. I get tired of flavors quite quickly, so tapas-style meals are perfect for me. Cicchetti allow you to try all of Venice’s seafood offerings.
  5. Two recommended restaurants that will make you feel Venetian: Bacari for cicchetti and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni for dinner overlooking a small canal or in their backyard. Try Venetian specialties like polenta and risotto.
  6. Get lost in Venice. Wander around at night. Listen to the dueling orchestras in front of St. Mark’s Basilica. Enjoy the idiosyncrasies this unique city has to offer.
The Lagoon
The Lagoon

Milan

Anthony and I just came back from a 22-day trip to Europe. We visited Italy (Milan, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Positano, Amalfi, and Sorrento), Paris, England (Brighton, Oxford, and London), and Madrid. These next few posts will cover my experiences in each city, as well as some tips for future travelers.

Initially, I hadn’t wanted to go to Milan; in fact, the only reason we started our European trip in Italy’s fashion/banking capital was because it was the cheapest city to fly into from JFK.

After landing at MXP, we had some trouble buying our Malpensa Express Train tickets. The ticket machine by baggage claim wouldn’t take either of our credit cards and didn’t accept cash. We must have looked like such stereotypes: two anxious, disoriented Americans scurrying around helplessly at the airport. Fortunately, Anthony asked someone for help (“Parla inglese?”), and we were directed downstairs, where there were more ticket machines. The next machine we tried accepted cash, so I was grateful that we had brought a couple hundred euros with us. We rushed down to the platform and just made the train about to shut its doors. About 35 minutes later, we were dropped off at Cadorna, right in the center of Milan. It’s infuriating that New York doesn’t have a convenient train to the airport, thanks to taxi lobbying (and, more generally, American capitalism).

Riding the Malpensa Express Train to Milan! He's all ready with our Rick Steves guide book.
Riding the Malpensa Express Train to Milan! He’s all ready with our Rick Steves guide book.

As soon as we exited the station, that’s when it hit me. It’s hard to explain, but it reminded me of the same feeling I got when I first visited New York years ago — that overwhelming sense of passion and vitality and a need to live there. All around us were different modes of transportation: Fiats and Smart Cars, Vespas, jaywalkers, street cars, bikers. Beautifully-dressed men and women (in heels!) biked around the city, often using BikeMi, Milan’s public bike sharing system. The city was a lovely mix of grand old buildings and modern designer shops. Out of all the Italian cities that stole my heart, Milan turned out to be the only one in which I could realistically imagine myself living.

Milano Cadorna station with BikeMi bikes ready to be rented.
Milano Cadorna station with BikeMi bikes ready to be rented.

Using my Google Maps (thank goodness my T-Mobile plan gives me unlimited texting and data all over the world!), Anthony found our hotel effortlessly. One thing I’ve learned on this Euro trip is that we’re the perfect traveling pair. I did all the research and planning beforehand, while Anthony navigated in each country.

I plan, he navigates.
I plan, he navigates.

Our hotel, Hotel Star, was located on a side street just off a major pedestrian-only road. I’m glad I knew what the outside looked like, so it was easy to spot Hotel Star’s orange sign. The hotel was recommended by Rick Steves, and though it was probably our plainest hotel room, the location (just a few blocks from the Duomo and Galleria) couldn’t be beat. Another thing I learned from this trip is that Rick Steves is my idol. Almost all of his advice has been spot on, and I only hope he’ll expand his travels to Asia since that will be our next trip.

View from our hotel room -- just like Brooklyn!
View from our hotel room — just like Brooklyn!

I wanted the first dinner of our trip to be nice, so we ate on the top floor of La Rinascente, an upscale 150-year-old Milanese retail chain, now with eleven shops all over Italy. I had heard that this particular shop has a direct view of the Duomo, which seemed like a fun way to start off our adventure.

View of the Duomo from dinner at La Rinascente
View of the Duomo from dinner at La Rinascente

La Rinascente is located on Piazza del Duomo, which also houses Milan’s beautiful Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and a bunch of palaces. Italy does piazzas well. It’s really unfortunate that the U.S. values cars over humans and has nothing in comparison to the huge open squares we’ve seen all over Europe. Piazzas are the perfect place to socialize, cool off on a warm summer day, and appreciate the surrounding architecture. Italians are known for enjoying life, and being in a piazza is the easiest way to witness that stereotype first-hand.

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo

After entering La Rinascente, we made our way to the seventh floor, where eight restaurants are located. We decided on Maio because the seating looked great and the prices were reasonable. We were escorted to a table right up against the Duomo, which had to be one of the best seats in the house. I started off with a glass of rosé — because we’re in Europe! Every restaurant we went to in Italy gave us a bread basket, and they varied in quality. Those that were extremely good, offering at least two types of bread and crispy breadsticks from Turin, were usually not complimentary; we noticed a small fee on our bill afterward. Another thing we had to get used to paying for was water. Since Italians prefer sparkling water, we had to ask for “acqua naturale,” and sometimes our servers interpreted this as free tap water, and other times our servers interpreted this as bottled still water. But think of it this way: you don’t have to tip in Italy!

Wine every night in Italy.
Wine every night in Italy.

My risotto alla parmigiana was made with parmesan and pearls of balsamic vinegar. Anthony ordered polpo del mediterraneo, which is octopus with chickpea hummus, papaya, and valerian leaves. It wasn’t as good as some of the mind-blowing meals we’d soon have all over Italy, but Maio definitely gave us a taste of glitzy Milan. We watched as groups of well-dressed Italians streamed into the restaurant as the night went on.

Risotto alla parmagiana
Risotto alla parmigiana
Popolo del mediterraneo
Poplo del mediterraneo

After dinner, we roamed around the piazza, making our way to Milan’s Duomo. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Milan's Duomo
Milan’s Duomo

We didn’t spend too long at the Duomo, since we’d be returning to it at the end of our trip. The magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II beckoned us in. The Galleria is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and was named after the first king of Italy. American shopping malls are such a disgrace to this place, which has open-air, glass-vaulted arcades, a huge dome in the center, and mosaics depicting Italian history. Luxury stores and restaurants are the only businesses allowed in the structure. Apparently, when McDonald’s tried to renew its lease here, the mall denied it and instead opened up a second Prada store in its place.

Beautiful mosaic tile floor at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Beautiful mosaic tile floor at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Besides designer shops, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II also houses my favorite gelateria in the world — and we had gelato almost every day in Italy. While Ristorante Savini serves overpriced food, its fantastic gelato is served from a neighboring stand. For only €3, I was given a huge serving of the most complex pistachio gelato I’ve ever had, with a wafer on top. Anthony’s madagascar vanilla gelato was even better — and when is vanilla worth talking about?

Savini's pistachio gelato. That's a small!
Savini’s pistachio gelato. That’s a small!

After I had taken enough photos of my gelato and the beautifully-lit Galleria, we made our way back to our hotel. I fell in love with the winding streets, many of which have restricted access to cars.

One more shot inside the Galleria
One more shot inside the Galleria

Later that night, I woke up at 4 am, not because I had any issue with our hotel room, but because I was too excited. Unsurprising for someone who used to be so excited for my first day of elementary school that I used to sleep with my backpack. After a couple of hours of lying still eagerly, Anthony finally woke up at a normal hour, and we went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast. It was so lavish! We had gotten there as soon as the breakfast opened, so a woman was still bringing out more and more trays of food. Italians don’t really do breakfast — think coffee and a pastry. We would learn (and get sick of) this later, but for our first breakfast in Italy, Hotel Star did well. I was amazed by the assortment of bread, meats, spreads, and cookies. I picked up a sugar cornetto, pâté, parmareggio, nutella, speck, toast, and milk (since I was too lazy to figure out the self-service espresso machine). At one point, scrambled eggs and bacon were brought out, which we would never see at any of our other hotels. Hotel Star sure knows how to cater to Americans.

Italian breakfast. For my next course, I had a more American style breakfast of eggs and bacon.
Italian breakfast. For my next course, I had a more American style breakfast of eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, it was soon time for us to go to catch the train to Venice. If only I had known I’d like Milan so much! We checked out of Hotel Star and walked about 40 minutes to the train station. You know we’re New Yorkers because that walk was nothing, and it was a great way to see Milan and fall in love with it more. We passed through the swanky district near La Scala and the more business districts where impressive women in 3-inch heels glided across cobblestone streets.

Milano Centrale is one of the primary railway stations in Europe, connecting Italy to France, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, and Germany. I was glad I had booked our Trenitalia tickets online. Trenitalia is the main train operator in Italy. For traveling to different cities, this is the most efficient way of getting around. We had reserved seating that shared a table with an old American couple from the Bay Area. I caught up on my lack of sleep the night before and woke up in another world. Ciao, Venezia!

Trenitalia to Venice
Trenitalia to Venice

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Make sure to have some euros when you arrive in Europe. You never know where the nearest ATM will be, and you can’t always depend on plastic.
  2. Some hotels, especially in these old cities, can be difficult to find. Do your research and figure out exactly how to get to them and what they look like from the outside. Lots of hotels realize how tricky this can be and will give you directions, while TripAdvisor is a great place for advice and photos.
  3. If your travel plans are set, book your Trenitalia tickets in advance. It’s cheaper, you’ll have more time options, and your seat will be reserved.
  4. When you are only in town for a night or two, location is key. Initially, I had made reservations at an Airbnb, hoping to get a real Milanese experience, but it would have taken us 30 minutes to reach all our sites. I ended up cancelling the reservation and finding a hotel just a few blocks from everything. Save those live-like-a-local experiences for when you have at least five days in the city.