6 day in Arizona: Phoenix, Sedona and the Grand Canyon

FullSizeRender 9Well, it’s September and this trip was in March, so I think it’s time I recap it … before I forget it all. (Kidding, AZ is so stunning AND we learned some amazing news there. I can’t forget it.)

My college roommate, Natalie, recently moved to Phoenix and chose to get married there. My brother-in-law, Brian, quit smoking over 2 years ago and I promised him a flight somewhere if he quit for a year. A few texts later, Brian and his wife, Jess, were joining us for a trip to Phoenix, Sedona and the Grand Canyon, ending in Vegas.

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As co-matron of honor, I flew in Thursday night to stay with Natalie and get ready for the wedding. On Friday, we went to Scottsdale for a baseball game at Salt River Field, which is an amazing park. (Pro tip: Take a hat if you’re on the lawn! Thankfully, there’s free sunscreen throughout the park.)

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Steve, Jess and Brian flew in Saturday morning and we checked into our amazing Airbnb that was only about 5-10 minutes from downtown Phoenix, in Coronodo. We had a 3 bedroom home with the most stunning backyard, complete with a hot tub, living room, fireplace, and TV. (Steve spent some time there watching March Madness games.) Steve and I left Jess and Brian to enjoy it while we attended the rehearsal dinner at Ocotillo (where we actually saw another wedding happen). Definitely recommend for cocktails!

While I was wedding prepping on Sunday, the trio visited Jess’ uncle’s bar in Scottsdale, Four Peaks Brewery. I grabbed breakfast AND lunch at the awesome Desoto Market, an open marketplace. (Breakfast was from Tea & Toast and lunch for everyone was delicious salads from RADish.) I have to mention Mercantile, the salon where we had our hair and makeup done, because it’s also the most perfectly curated shop. Mike and Natalie were married at the University Club, where the orange trees were the perfect wedding backdrop.

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We were up very early on Monday morning to drive to Sedona. On the way, we stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument in Camp Verde. Over 800 years old, MC is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in North America. It’s really awe-inspiring.

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We stayed at my family friends’ stunning home on the golf course with ridiculous views of the mountains. (Thank you again, Barb and Bill!) We didn’t want to waste a minute, so we immediately set out to visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross and Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village and hike Cathedral Rock. The Chapel has floor-to-ceiling windows (so I’m not sure who could pay attention during service) and (fun fact!) overlooks the estate owned by the creator of LASIK.

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Tlaquepaque (pronounced tlakeˈpake) is a Southwest-style open shopping center filled with small shops featuring local artisans. Jess and I tried to have our auras read, but the aura-ist(?) wasn’t in on Mondays.

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We wanted to squeeze in a hike, too, so we quickly set off to Cathedral Rock, which Barb recommended. (That link says it’s a mile, but we added on a few more by connecting trails.) We stopped to take so many pics, and each one was more gorgeous than the previous. It was really jaw-dropping in a way that I didn’t expect.

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I can’t recommend any restaurants in Sedona because we decided to take advantage of being in a beautiful home by making dinner and hanging out in the hot tub. WE ALSO FOUND OUT THAT JESS IS PREGNANT!! It was a total shock and Steve and I are SO excited to be aunt and uncle to our little niece. Learning the news in the home of people who I love while visiting a town I fell in love with with people who I love was pretty much perfect.

After an amazing day in Sedona, we drove to the Grand Canyon on Tuesday high on the most amazing views and baby news. The Grand Canyon did not disappoint. We ventured a little past the tourists and enjoyed space where it was a little less crowded — and without safety barriers. Brian and I immediately sprinted to the edge while Jess begged us to stay back, but the views were too crazy to not see up close.

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We spent as much time there as we could, soaking up every view around every turn. We had a 4-hour drive to Vegas in front of us and wanted to at least be able to hit up the slots, so we set off. An accident re-routed us, so we missed the Hoover Dam, but next time!

I had just been to Vegas in February for Natalie’s bachelorette party and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. I booked a suite at the LINQ, overlooking the High Roller. It ended up a little more tame than expected because of the pregnancy news, but we got to take in some sites and lose plenty of money playing slots.

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General tips/observations

  • Plan to spend more time in Sedona, if you go there! In the end, we wished we’d gone back to Sedona for a night rather than Vegas, but lesson learned.
  • Phoenix was a lot cooler than I anticipated! (Not in terms of temps; there was a 90s+ heat wave when we were there.) There were a lot of cute shops and great food.
  • Plan to hike. There are so many amazing trails. We only got a very, very small sample.
  • Be really, really careful at the Grand Canyon. Steve spent the drive there reading us weird stories about how people died there, and many of them revolved around being startled by something like a chipmunk and stumbling over the edge. Really.
  • Prepare for varying temps. Since it’s mostly desert, the daytime temps can soar and then the evening drops pretty quickly. Tank tops and sweatshirts are your friends.

Would I go back?

I didn’t think I’d be super into Arizona, but I ended up absolutely loving it. We didn’t have anywhere close to enough time in any location, so we’re definitely planning to return. Steve and I want to spend more time in Sedona, see Flagstaff, and hike the Grand Canyon. Have you been to Arizona? Are you as into it as I am now?

Want to read about my travels? Check them out and tell me where I should go next! 

3 Days in Charleston, SC

When Steve and I were debating our winter getaway (which is our Christmas gift to each other), we had some pretty strict criteria, and Charleston hit it all:

  • Direct flight from Baltimore
  • Warmer than Baltimore
  • Good food + lots to do
  • Walkable
  • Somewhere neither of us had been

Many friends had been to Charleston, so we set off with so many recommendations. We spent three awesome days there; here’s where we stayed and what we ate and did:

STAY

Something important to know about Charleston is that everything south of Broad Street is mostly residential. It’s full of gorgeous old homes and amazing waterfront views, but it’s counterintuitive to most cities, where the majority of activity is in the city center.

We normally do Airbnb, but I had a few hotels.com night, so we opted for the Hampton Inn – Historic District. We could easily walk to everything and were right off of King St., the main shopping street in Charleston.

EAT/DRINK

  • Pearlz Oyster Bar (The oysters were good, but Darling’s were better)
  • Darling Oyster Bar (My favorite meal — the scallops)

DO

  • Stroll along Rainbow Row, Waterfront Park (don’t miss the famed pineapple fountain!), through the Battery and White Point Gardens, and admire the gorgeous, massive homes South of Broad.
  • Check out a ghost tour, like the ones through Tour Charleston. It wasn’t scary, but it was a quick way to get to know the city.

  • Find the alleys! Charleston is full of them. Philadelphia Alley was my favorite.

  • Spend some time at church — or at least looking at them. St. Philip’s Church is said to be very haunted, and the Unitarian Church graveyard is where Edgar Allen Poe’s wife, Annabelle Lee, is buried.
  • Make a custom candle at Candlefish, which is a gorgeous shop and has a whole library of scents.
  • Tour historic homes, like the Nathaniel Russell House. Admittedly, Steve wasn’t a fan, but I love seeing how the rich and famous lived years ago.
  • Walk through Charleston City Market and buy soaps from the Old Whaling Company.

  • Take the ferry to Fort Sumpter National Monument.

  • Spend a day at Magnolia Plantation & Gardens. We walked the property for hours, saw SEVEN alligators, then toured the swamp. (It is outside of town; we Ubered.)

A few other places we walked by but didn’t go into include the Old Slave Mart, The Pink House, and the Old Exchange Provost and Dungeon. There’s definitely more to see, eat and do!

I definitely recommend spending at least three days in Charleston — more if you can!

3 Days in Amsterdam: Canals, Cuypmarket & Cannabis

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Waaaaaaay back in June, Steve and I spent a week in London, I hopped a train to Paris for two days, and now, months later, I realized I never wrote a recap of our 3-day weekend in Amsterdam. Since it’s been so long, I don’t recall the exact timeline, so I’m just recapping places to stay, things to do, and where to eat — plus, obviously, a little cannabis info. It is Amsterdam, after all.

A quick 2-hour Eurostar ride put us in Brussels (where we had time for a brief layover dinner) and another 2-hour Thalys train had us to Amsterdam Centraal, one of the most architecturally stunning stations I’ve seen.

WHERE TO STAY

Those who had been to Amsterdam recommended two areas: The Jordaan and De Pijp. The former is more residential and centrally located, while the latter is a little farther from most attractions, and we found an awesome Airbnb (on Rombout Hogerbeetsstraat, which I loved saying).

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Everything in the main part of Amsterdam is very walkable, and there’s reliable public transportation and trains. Everyone speaks English, so you can stay in most places and be able to get easy access to the major sights.

WHAT TO DO/SEE

First thing: Get tickets to the Anne Frank House as far in advance as you can! We had one month’s notice and still couldn’t book them.

We skipped biking, Amsterdam’s most famous activity, because our Airbnb hosts told us that if you’re not super confident on a bike, you’re basically just an asshole in the way. No thanks. We’re big walkers and planned to see miles of the city that way.

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If you’re a runner, Amsterdam is amazing. It’s so scenic and there are great parks. One morning, we ran through Westerpark, near where we stayed. Another day, we ventured a little farther to Erasmuspark. Both were beautiful with plenty of room to log a few miles without too many loops.

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We did venture into the Red Light District during the day. (Our hosts advised against it at dark; it’s perfectly safe but full of drunken tourists.) It’s home to Oude Kerk, Amsterdam’s oldest building and parish, which is absolutely stunning — and directly across from women posing half naked in windows. (You can’t take pics. Sorry, kids.) Right by the church is also one of several public urinals in the city. (Really.)

Albert Cuypmarket in De Pijp is an open-air market of over 100 shops spanning several blocks. Wander Albert Cuypstraat and Ferdinand Bolstraat, the main streets, and check out all of the vendors. (There are plenty of places to grab your t-shirts and keychains, too.)

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Bloemenmarkt flower market is basically all of the world’s tulip bulbs in one place. Row after row of beautiful flowers and bulbs line a canal. I considered bringing some home to my mom, who loves tulips, but I worried about getting them through customs.

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We walked by Koninklijk PaleisLeidseplein, and Dam Square and checked out the i.amsterdam sign behind Koninklijk Paleis. (It’s impossible to get a cool pic like you see on websites; it’s crawling with people.)

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Vondelpark was one of our very favorite places. We walked this one rather than run and it was turn after turn of gorgeous greens, beautiful rose gardens, and amazing architecture. Even in the slight mist, it was really a sight to see.

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We bought tickets to the Van Gogh Museum and had about 45 minutes before our entrance time. We popped into the local Albert Heijn and grabbed cheese, bread, olives wine and beer and had an amazing picnic on Museumplein, the gorgeous green space outside of the museum. The museum itself was pretty cool, but not as exciting as we’d thought. (I’d also just seen Starry Night in Paris, where it was on loan to the d’Orsay.

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Hempstory is a cute boutique full of all of the legal hemp products you can take back to the States, like soaps and candles. We stocked up on a few souvenirs for family here.

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We wandered through Haarlemmerbuurt, a cute neighborhood of shops and cafes, most of which line Haarlemmerdijk. As always, though, don’t skip the side streets in Europe. There are so many hidden walkways with amazing  boutiques and restaurants.

There’s also a cool area called The Nine Streets made up of (you guessed it) nine streets of great shopping. It was late on a Sunday when we were there, so most places were closed, but it was fun to do a little window shopping.

WHERE TO EAT

I had to look back at my credit card statement to jog my memory on some names, but here’s the rundown of our culinary adventures in Amsterdam:

Harar Coffee: We quickly learned that many of the small neighborhood cafes in Jordaan only took cash (euros) and we were mostly credit-card based, but the woman at Harar Coffee gave us a free cup when we didn’t realize they didn’t accept cards. We promised to come back the next day to pay, she graciously agreed, and then was closed. Please pay the cute shop a visit if you’re in the city!

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Foodhallen: An awesome indoor food market that also has artisans selling wares on the weekends. I had AMAZING jamon tapas from Jabugo Bar Iberico and a delicious fruit tart from Petit GâteauSteve enjoyed a few beers and the bahn mi from Việt View, which he remembered when I asked him right now — it was that good. If you’re there on the weekend, check to see if Koi d’Azur has a table set up. I bought an amazing stamped initial necklace and actually just ordered another necklace.

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At one point, we needed a break and Steve wanted to catch some of the Euros. We grabbed seats at Regular & Jack and were entertained by both the game and the patrons who were in full Euro gear. Per the norm, Steve has a massive beer and I had a pretty decent red wine for a sports bar.

Cafe Sonneveld was less than impressive. The food was mediocre and the service was really, really slow. We left after a little and wandered into The Huyschkaemer, another canalside cafe, I don’t recall what we had, but this location is fantastic and the restaurant is really cute and cozy.

We had a great flight of beers at Brouwerij De Prael, one of Amsterdam’s breweries. (I can’t drink beer, but did sample these. There was a slightly floral one that was so good.) There’s a great shop downstairs where you can sample and buy things like beer liqueurs.
La Perla pizza sits on two sides of Tweede Tuindwarsstraat, a street full of restaurants and bars in the Jordaan. I don’t remember Steve’s pizza, but I know that I had the Prosciutto san Daniele because I always order the prosciutto.

I picked up a delicious 80% dark chocolate bar at Vanroselen Fine Chocolate (which smelled better than you can imagine) and found the best stroopwaffel place in Amsterdam, Lanskroon. While most are smaller in size, Lanskroon’s stoops are HUGE and so amazing slightly warmed.

We had one of our favorite meals at Morgan & Mees, a hotel close to our rental that also has a restaurant. There’s a stunning courtyard at the entrance where sipped drinks and watched people go by while the sun set over the canal.

And remember, Albert Heijn is an awesome grocer with many stores throughout the city. As mentioned above, it’s great for grabbing picnic essentials and other items you need, food or otherwise.

CANNABIS CENTRAAL

Yep, it’s very legal in Amsterdam. Basically, coffee shops (not cafes) are where you go to buy weed. There are more than 200 in the city and you’ll know if you’re at one by the green and white license sticker in the window. Everyone is super knowledgable and cool about it. There’s even Cannabis College, where you can vape, have THC tested, take classes, and more.

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General tips/observations

  • Everyone is really tall and really blonde. Sometimes it felt like Steve was on the short side — and he’s 6’3″.
  • An ideal way to figure out where you’re going is to count canals … but it’s very easy to lose count, as well.
  • Most bathrooms in places like Burger Kings (hey, when you gotta go) are pay to use. It’s just some pocket change — but have some on hand.
  • Amsterdam is pretty compact and easy to hit a lot of main areas in a weekend. More time is needed to get to neighborhoods on the outskirts and the ‘burbs.

Would I go back?

Absolutely. I feel like we only scratched the surface on Amsterdam. I love cities on water, and Amsterdam is so water-centric. I still want to go to the Noord area, go on a boat, run through more of Vondelpark, and venture outside of the city to see the windmills and tulips.

2 (more!) days in Paris: The college roommate edition

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Steve and I only had one full day in Paris last fall, so when we learned we were going back to London, I booked a train to Paris for two days. I planned to take in the sights and sounds solo, but by good fortune, my college roommate, Natalie, who is currently traveling the world, was in Western Europe at the same time. She and her traveling friend, Katy, were able to arrange their schedules to join me for two days in Paris!

(Just want to know my thoughts on certain places? Look for the BOLD words. Just want general tips/observations? Skip to the end.)

Day 1: Crazy travel, my Airbnb, Montmartre, sunset at the Eiffel Tower

In the US, you show up 5 minutes before Amtrak leaves, hop on the train, and you’re set. Eurostar used to be like that, but what I took as a suggestion to arrive 30 min before your train is actually a requirement now. Oops.

After missing Train #1, I paid to get on the next train, went right through security, and stopped dead in my tracks. I’d forgotten my passport in the hotel safe. SERIOUSLY!? At this point, looking back, I’m glad that I was meeting Natalie because otherwise, I likely would’ve thrown in the towel. Instead, I hopped on the Tube back to the hotel, back on the Tube, and paid AGAIN to change my ticket.

After all of that, I was on my way to Paris! I easily found my Airbnb just 5 minutes from the train station and met Sandra and her husband and daughter. (It was my fist time staying with others!) They were all lovely and not at all intrusive; I just came and went as I pleased. (They were also kind enough to let me come early to drop my bag and held it for me the next day so I didn’t have to lug it around Paris.)

Natalie and I had been messaging and sent each other THE EXACT SAME PLACE to meet in Montmartre (eerie), La Cave Gourmande, which didn’t feel too touristy. It was SO crazy to walk around the corner to see one of my closest friends running toward me; we hugged and I said, “I cannot believe that we’re seeing each other — IN PARIS.” It was all a little surreal.

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Katy and Natalie told me all of the tales of their amazing travels while we had some red wine and a light lunch. We popped into a few shops and I took them to see Sacre Coeur, the beautiful chapel overlooking the city that Steve and I visited in the fall. We walked through the church and wandered the streets, in awe of the gorgeous old homes and shops.

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As we passed Montmartre Cemetery, I asked, “Sooo, how do you guys feel about cemeteries?” Cemeteries in Europe are totally different; they’re really pieces of sculptural art combined with parks. (Remember San Miniato in Florence?) Luckily, they were totally into it. We checked out the map and saw that Degas was buried there, so we set out to find it. After a lot of walking/getting a little lost, we found it.

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We found a metro station and took it south so that we could go to the Eiffel Tower. There was a lot of security because of the Euros (soccer), but we got through quickly and hiked the 669 steps to the second platform for an unreal view of the city. We bought wine and settled in for the sunset, which didn’t happen until almost 10pm.

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Since Natalie and Katy were staying in the 17th, we went back to Montmarte for dinner. It was almost 11pm, so options were more limited, but we settled on Cafe Marcel. I indulged on a dinner of only red wine, bread, and cheese after walking more than 14 miles … and IT. WAS. AMAZING.

Day 2: The D’Orsay, Luxembourg Garden, Notre Dame, Marché des Enfants Rouges

I struggled to wake up on my second day in Paris; my loft was SO HOT and the bed was not the most comfortable, so I only got a few hours of sleep. I grabbed a croissant at a local boulangerie and  met up with Natalie and Katy at the D’Orsay Museum after a bit of a detour due to a flooded metro station. We enjoyed it, but were sad that several areas we wanted to see were closed for renovations.

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I can’t recall where we had lunch; it was a small cafe on an adorable street in St. Germain des Pres. I knew that we were close to Luxembourg Gardens and it was a gorgeous day; I really wanted Katy and Natalie to see it. The park was packed and kids were out with the push boats; it was really idyllic.

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The one thing that I really wanted to do was see inside Notre Dame; Steve and I were only able to walk past it last year. We waited in a pretty quick line to check out the (free!) 800+-year-old church. The French-Gothic architecture is absolutely amazing and Katy gave me a quick religion lesson so I’d better understand the purpose of the different areas. Between my love of art history and architecture, I was in complete awe the whole time. The line for the towers was pretty long and I had to be back at my Airbnb by 5pm to get my bag and catch the train back to London, so we skipped it — but next time!

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We walked through le Marais neighborhood; now see why my friend Emily always stays there. It had such a cool, young vibe and so many great shops and restaurants. (I’ll definitely be staying there next time.) We checked out Marché des Enfants Rouges, Paris’ oldest covered market, which was mostly closed at 4pm but looked like a great place to grab lunch.

I said my goodbyes and was on the 6pm train, back in time to have dinner with Steve in London!

General tips/observations

  • Plan for security! After recent terrorist attacks, the UK and EU have really ramped up security.
  • Take a chance on a shared Airbnb. It was easy, I was barely there, and it cost so little.
  • As always: Walk. The metro is great, but walking allows you to see so much more.
  • Remember your passport 😉

Would I go back?

While I had the most amazing time with Natalie and Katy, Paris didn’t enchant me as much as it did the first time. It felt a little dirtier, a little grittier. That said, walking through Le Marais made me realize how much I haven’t seen (and how much I want to spend time in that neighborhood), so I definitely plan to go back to take in more of what Paris has to offer.

4 (more!) days in London: Southwark, Notting Hill, Chelsea, Shoreditch

4 days

When Steve heard on the day we returned from Turks & Caicos that he’d be going back to London for a week for work, I WAS SO EXCITED. I loved London in the fall and was so excited to see it in the spring. While I was in the city, I’d be working remotely, so I chose three different neighborhoods to spend time in while working: Notting Hill, Chelsea, and Shoreditch.

I was also really excited because Steve and I didn’t have a day together in London last year,  so to fly there together and have all day Sunday (and dinner some evenings) was a big plus.

(Just want to know my thoughts on certain places? Look for the BOLD words. Just want general tips/observations? Skip to the end.)

Day 1: Spitalfields Market, St. Dunstan-in-the-East, St. Katharine Docks, Butler’s Wharf, Bermondsey St in Southwark

After an easy flight and quick ride on the Heathrow Express (which I highly recommend) and then using the HailO app (no sponsorship — it was just awesome!), we were at the Grange Tower Bridge, just north of the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, both of which I visited last fall. It was a great location, much closer to things that stayed open in the evening, unlike our previous hotel. We set off to get lunch at Spitalfields Market, which was bustling. We perused the stalls and I picked up a cute dress. We grabbed chicken naan wraps at Scarlet Grill, which were so messy but so good.

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After lunch, we walked a good distance to St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a church from 1100 that had been destroyed during the London fire and the blitz of WWII. The old structure is now a small park and was so gorgeous. Then we walked to St. Katharine Docks (which I was excited about since they spell Katharine like my Katharine!) The marina is a gorgeous mix of old and new with lots of shops and restaurants. It’s so cool to know that places like this have been around for 1000+ years.

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We crossed the Tower Bridge to Butler’s Wharf, one of many wharfs along the River Thames. It’s also converted to mixed use space and made for a gorgeous walk. (The area is also called Shad Thames, if you’re researching.) From there, we went to Bermondsey Street in Southwark (not pronounced SOUTH-WARK — it’s SOWTHERK.) Southwark is a cool up-and-coming neighborhood, home to Borough Market, the Tate, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

I wanted to go to Jose on Bermondsey, but they were closed, so we walked the street, checked out the shops, and ended up at Woolpack for a drink before dinner. EVERYONE was having the Sunday roast and hanging out on the back patio, which was soaked in sun — abnormal for London. (Steve had a really good IPA here, Beavertown Brewery Neck Oil, which was light and kind of floral.) We decided on Garrison Public House for dinner, where I had an amazing beetroot gnocchi with watercress, cashews, and Brie sauce, and Steve had the fish and chips. (I stole his mushy peas — YUM.) (Also, it’s listed as pretty expensive, but it wasn’t at all.)

Jet lag was kicking in hard core, so we walked back over the bridge and passed out by like 11pm.

Day 2: Southwark Park, Notting Hill, Kensington Palace, Commercial Street Tavern, and Hawksmoor

Seen on my run

Seen on my run

I vowed that if I took up space with running stuff when packing, I was going to go. I set off early over the Tower Bridge, along Butler’s Wharf to Southwark Park. I got a little lost looping through and ended up doing 5 awesome sightseeing miles.

I hopped on the Tube and went to Notting Hill to Granger & Co, which Casey recommended. I had wifi, an outlet, and an excellent acai bowl and avocado toast. Oh, and tea! Of course. Perfect to knock out a few hours of work.

During lunch, I walked along Portobello Road to check out the market, which was less impressive than I thought. I guess it was a Monday, so it wasn’t as lively, but it was kind of standard vendors.

I set up office #2 at Continental Pantry, which had a very cool vibe and good food. (I loved my prosciutto and fig sandwich and chocolate croissant.) The cafe had colorful couches, quirky lighting, and was quiet for the afternoon. After work, I went to Kensington Palace, which was closing the last time I went. I was so sad that the newest section about Diana and more recent royals was closed, but I still loved seeing the palace and thinking that I was SO CLOSE to the royal family. (British police, I don’t mean that in a creepy way.)

Kate stood in this exact spot the VERY NEXT DAY

Kate stood in this exact spot the VERY NEXT DAY

After a quick stop at Zara (of course) and a bike ride through Hyde Park (because who can resist?), I met up with Steve to go to dinner. We stopped for drinks at Commercial Tavern, which is such a cool place. I had a massive gin & tonic (they have a whole G&T menu!) and couldn’t stop looking at the space. It was kind of like grandma’s house, if grandma was super cool and hip and fun.

Dinner was at Hawksmoor Spitalfields, which I was told is THE place to go for steak in London. I don’t eat red meat, but Steve does, and he throughly enjoyed it. I attacked another plate of pasta — ricotta dumplings with spring veggies — and loved it. We split (aka I ate 92% of) THE MOST AMAZING DESSERT, the sticky toffee pudding with clotted cream. I don’t know what the hell clotted cream is, but this dessert is SO FREAKING GOOD. I could smell the chocolate and toffee as soon as we walked in and salivated every time I saw someone order it.

Day 3: Groupon UK, Natural History Museum, Chelsea/South Kensington

On Tuesday morning, I got in another run along St. Katharine Docks to Wrapping, lucky to have another gorgeous day on the water.

Before I left, my colleague put me in touch with the Groupon UK comm team, so I stopped by the office to meet them. They have an amazing view of the Thames and it was awesome to hear what they’re working on and similarities/differences between Europe and the US.

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Before I went to my next coffee shop, I stopped at the Natural History Museum to see the architecture. It’s mind-blowing to see these structures and imagine how they created them. I walked through South Kensington to Chelsea and set up shop at L’etto Caffe, where they kindly let me hog the outlet. I had a gorgeous egg white omelette with spinach & tomatoes with sourdough toast.

I had to check out the shops on King Street and at Duke of York Square, but quickly realized I couldn’t afford to shop at any of them. It started raining and I had to get on a call, so I ducked into Polpo, a cute Italian place. One thing I love about Europe is that because the countries are so close, you’re getting a guy who is actually from Italy running the place. The broad bean, mint and ricotta bruschetta was so good, even though it sounds kind of weird.

Dinner that night was at Dickens Inn at St. Katharine Docks, which had reasonably good wood-fired pizza, but the service was pretty terrible. I had to be up early and it was close, so it worked.

Day 4: Shoreditch: The Book Club, Redchurch Street, BoxPark

Maybe not cocktail time ... yet

Maybe not cocktail time … yet

Day 4 was actually two days after Day 3, with a quick trip to Paris in between, which I’ll post about soon. Since the day was a little shorter because of travel to Amsterdam, I stayed in the area and hung out in Shoreditch. How could I resist a place called The Book Club?? There are no books inside, so I’m not sure where the name came from, but it was great food and a perfect work space. (I wanted to swap out the poached eggs for scrambled egg whites, which was very difficult for them to understand, but they got it.)

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With the little time that I had, I ventured to Redchurch Street, a great shopping area, and stopped at Labour & Wait, which I’m fairly certain is the most Instagram’d shop in London. It’s so cute and the owners were really nice. I popped into a few more places and then checked out BoxPark, an awesome former shipping container turned into shops and restaurants. The top is all food and drinks and the bottom are basically micro shops.

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Off to Amsterdam! (But the Paris post will come first.)

General tips/observations

  • Definitely take the Heathrow Express to/from the airport. Taking a cab is SO expensive and takes forever.
  • The sun DOES shine in London! It was sunny and in the 70s almost the whole time we were there.
  • The chip credit cards are good, but the US is still lagging. Apparently now people can just wave their cards and enter a PIN. They immediately know you’re from the US when you put in a chip card.
  • Walk as much as possible. There are so many things to see, and it’s easiest to see them by foot.
  • There were these gorgeous wood and fabric chairs in Hyde Park, by the lake. There were about 50 of them — with no security. Nothing tying them down. And no one took them. They’d be gone in a second in the US.
  • People are baffled by Trump. I’ll leave it at that.

Would I go back?

Remember how I wasn’t super excited to go to London the first time and then ended up loving it? I love it even more now. Obsessed.

1.5 days in Paris: Boulangeries, pâtisseries, et fromageries

paris cover

**I started this post before Nov. 13, when Paris was viciously attacked by ISIS. It’s taken time to finish it. Coming back to it after the attacks has given me a new perspective on the city and appreciation for its people. Vous êtes belle, Paris.

By day 10.5,  we’d been to London, Barcelona, and Florence. Steve battled food poisoning, delaying our trip to Paris. I contemplated skipping Paris and heading straight back to London, but re-routing was a logistical nightmare — at a high cost. We decided to make the most of a day and a half in Paris, and I’m so glad that we did. I had two goals: see the major sites and eat all of the bread, cheese, and pastries that I could.

(Just want to know my thoughts on certain places? Look for the BOLD words. Just want general tips/observations? Skip to the end.)

Day 0.5: Saint-Germain-Des-Pres, Le Molière, and Larnicol

We landed in Paris around 6:30pm and were greeted by our final Blacklane driver. After a quick drive, we were at our adorable Airbnb flat in Saint-Germain-Des-Pres (6th arrondissement). We chose the neighborhood for its fairly central location, which ended up being extra convenient  when we were short on time.

We walked around the neighborhood for awhile and settled on a little cafe, Le Molière, and both had delicious croque chevre sandwiches and frites. When in France, always go for the cheese. I was desperate for macarons but most places were closed. We found Larnicol, which seemed a little touristy, but it worked for a quick fix.

Day 1: Sacré Coeur, Montmarte, Tuileries Garden, Louvre, Notre Dame, Luxembourg Gardens, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Eiffel Tower

With only one full day in Paris, I planned to pack it all in. It was probably one of the most exhausting but most exciting days on our trip. The whole day was just visually intense. You hear that Paris is beautiful, but really — it’s stunning.

A lil' church atop a hill

A lil’ church atop a hill

View is okay, I guess

View is okay, I guess

We started north with Sacré Coeur and grabbed a quick late breakfast at Le Studio Cafe. The crepes and chocolate croissant were ok, but nothing amazing, so I’m not even going to bother finding the link. The chapel is in the Montmarte (18th arr) neighborhood, the highest point in the city, and offers pretty amazing views. We did a quick loop through the building before walking through Montmarte, which is the most adorable, quaint area outside of the touristy areas. There are stairs everywhere because it’s such a steep hill.

Steve agreed to buy one for me

Steve agreed to buy one for me

My Fitbit went wild

My Fitbit went wild

As we walked down the hill toward the city center, we passed so many cute shops and obviously had to duck in. We snagged some honey from Famille Mary and a delicious cream puff from Popelini. We stopped at a bookstore where we tried to speak to the owner in French and Steve got something about yellow being the color of infidelity in France.

GIMME THE PUFFS AND NO ONE GETS HURT

GIMME THE PUFFS AND NO ONE GETS HURT

Yes. Just yes.

Yes. Just yes.

Our next stop was Tuileries Garden (which Steve argued should be called a park). (He was also not amused when I told him that Kendall Jenner had been there the week prior.) The garden was beautiful in the fall and I was itching to go for a run.

Paris

My favorite part was the two goats that are in the moat. According to Prof. Google, they are an endangered breed of goats, Chèvres des Fossés, that eat the grass where mowers can’t reach. It made me sad to see them on chains, but I guess if it’s keeping them alive …

Smoke break

Smoke break

The gardens end at the famed Louvre, which is 8458436598436934623x bigger than I imagined. You always see that pic of the glass pyramid and think, “Ok, yeah, the museum is in there and some area around it,” but it’s like five palaces surrounding it. I’ve heard people say that they’ve spent days there. We had zero time for that, but we’ll be back.

It's a lot more than this pyramid, kids

It’s a lot more than this pyramid, kids

From the Louvre, we walked to Notre Dame. Wow. WOW WOW WOW. After Sagrada Familia, this has to be the most impressive architecture I’ve ever seen. I’ll be back in Paris just to spend a few hours here. (A week later, the pics of the armed military outside the beautiful building were heartbreaking.)

Those gargoyles. Much fear.

Those gargoyles. Much fear.

I talked to Steve about things like "flying buttresses" and I think he was confused

I talked to Steve about things like “flying buttresses” and I think he was confused

We passed over a bridge with some love locks, which the government have to cut off now because they’re weighing down the bridges. We did spot a few pretty old ones mixed in with the 2015s.

Paris

Next was Luxembourg Gardens, which Steve agreed were more garden-like but still very park-esque. I kept stopping to take pics of flowers that I knew my mom would love.

My fav pic from our entire trip

My fav pic from our entire trip

You can imagine that we were pretty hungry by this point, so we went back to our apartment, tried to stop at Patrick Roger, which I’d heard has the best macarons, but it was closed. We went to Cafe Jade in the 6th arr for a late lunch. After eating (including cheese, of course), we set off to the Arc de Triomphe. While pretty cool (and apparently the views at the top are great), it was surrounded by a very busy traffic circle, so it was hard to take a pic or appreciate its beauty.

Paris

We strolled down the Champs-Élysées and admired the ridiculously expensive stores before hopping the metro to the Eiffel Tower. The sun was just starting to go down and we caught the tower in beautiful light. Couples were having picnics, kids were playing in the park, and it was kind of the most picturesque place to end our travels.

I see London, I see France

I see London, I see France

Paris

After milling around for awhile, we went back to get ready for dinner at Vins et Terroirs in the 6th arr. Dinner was basically a clusterf*ck — I kept speaking Spanish out of pure exhaustion, Steve accidentally ordered raw ground meat when he had just gotten over food poisoning — but it was a pretty hilarious end to our travels. We grabbed drinks and desserts at nearby Tennessee before saying good night to Paris. 

General tips/observations

  • The Metro is so easy! It’s really well marked and once you understand the zones (Zone 1 is basically all of the main parts of Paris), you’re good.
  • Don’t miss out on the cheese, bread, and pastries. I could live on just those three.
  • Speaking a little French is appreciated — even if you swap it out with Spanish.
  • The French — in my experience — were very friendly. I didn’t get the sense of snobby French people that you hear about.
  • If you’re willing to walk 14 miles + some metro rides, you can cover what we did in a day!

Would I go back?

I can’t wait to go back. Paris was so beautiful and there’s so much that I want to see. I’d like to go everywhere we went and spend more time there, plus many other places. I feel like we got a great bird’s eye view in a day, but we need to see so much more.

4.5 days in Florence: Pasta, piazzas, & (food) poisoning

florence cover

When I started planning Florence, I wasn’t 100% sold. I was a little worried that we’d be bored and there wouldn’t be enough to see. WRONG. We ended up with four days in Florence instead of three (story to come on that) and I cannot wait to go back.

(Just want to know my thoughts on certain places? Look for the BOLD words. Just want general tips/observations? Skip to the end.)

Day 1: Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, il Duomo, Basilica di San Lorenzo,Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, and so many piazzas

After another easy Vueling flight (which was $100+ cheaper and 18 hours shorter than taking the train), we were picked up by another Blacklane driver, Alessio. This guy was AWESOME. He was in the Italian military and knew everything about Florence. He taught us so much on our 20-minute drive from the airport. It was fascinating to hear about WWII from the perspective of an Italian; “You saved us!” he exclaimed.

The ceiling in our Airbnb

The ceiling in our Airbnb

We dropped our bags at our Airbnb, which was hosted by the wonderful Mariaclaudia. The building was amazing: painted ceilings, old irons gates, and incredibly heavy wood doors. We were starving, so we went to La Prosciutteria. We opted for a board and we weren’t disappointed. It was at least half my height and piled high with smoked meats, fresh-baked bread and delicious cheeses. The owners were so friendly; everyone was greeted with a warm “buongiorno!”

Look at that charcuterie! AMAZING.

After stuffing ourselves, we set out on foot to explore. It was a little dreary with rain, but everything was still so stunningly beautiful. Florence (or Firenze) is a city of plazas (or piazzas). We started at Piazza della Signoria, which houses the Loggia della Signoria and the Uffizi Gallery. We (and several hundred people) stood in the center and just took it in.

'sup, Neptune?

‘sup, Neptune?

We were very close to il Duomo, which is the dome on the Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, the main church in Florence and the fourth largest in Europe. The dome was created by Brunelleschi and the facade of the church looks pink and green from the marble used. (This is all basically an art history and architecture geek’s dream.) Fittingly, the piazza here is Piazza del DuomoWe also popped in to a really cool record shop and I took the pic below from the upstairs window.

Look at the pretty pink!

Look at the pretty pinks and greens!

We also passed through the Piazza San Lorenzo, which hosts a lively market of vendors selling leather goods and scarves and the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Piazza della Repubblica with the giant arc, and the Piazza Santa Trinita at the end of the Via de’ Tornabuoni, the street of extremely high-end shops.

Another day, another European arc

Another day, another European arc

We crossed over to Oltrarno (literally: the other side of the Arno [River]) to find Gusta Pizza, a pizza place that many, including fellow Baltimore blogger, Colleen, raved about. Unfortunately, it was packed and we were way too hungry to wait. We crossed back over the river and went to Gusta Leo, a pizza place that my friend Nancy, who studied in Florence, recommended. We were so excited to dig into our fresh, hot real Italian pizzas.

Florence

A few people also told us about an American bar, the Lion’s Fountain. It feels like you’re transported back to America. Tips are encouraged, beer flows, and the ceiling is lined with American college t-shirts. (It’s also packed with 19-21 year olds who are studying in Florence.) Randomly, they served a delicious mojito. We didn’t have a college shirt to sign, but we did leave our mark.

If you walk in from the patio, look at the ledges to the left and you'll see us

If you walk in from the patio, look at the ledges to the left and you’ll see us

Day 2: Mercato Centrale, Uffizi Gallery, Bottega d’Olio

Like other cities, Steve and I immediately zero in on the markets. We hit up Mercato Centrale, the largest market in Florence. Downstairs is a traditional market with old-school vendors; upstairs is a modern market with a large bar and cafeteria-style seating. We grabbed drinks and piadas after strolling the stalls and checking out the cooking school (and Eataly!).

World's best trail mix

World’s best trail mix

Florence

We booked tickets for the Uffizi Gallery, Florence’s most famous museum that houses paintings from Botticelli, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio, and more statues that you can count. You could easily spend hours there, but we only stayed for about two hours. We saw A LOT, but there was so much outside of the museum that we wanted to see.

Seriously, these ceilings are out of control

Seriously, these ceilings are out of control

Steve knew which paintings were important because they were covered in glass

Steve knew which paintings were important because they were covered in glass

We knew that we wanted to get olive oil and soaps while we were in Florence and I’d heard about Bottega d’Olio from Girl in Florence, a blogger whose blog I’d been stalking pre-trip. (Seriously, if you’re going, follow her.) It’s tucked away in a super small piazza, Piazza del Limbo, and we missed it a few times. The owners were so friendly and we stocked up on oils and soaps. (Go there if for nothing other than the smell. Amazing.)

Could this shop be any cuter?

Could this shop be any cuter?

We asked the d’Olio owners where we should grab something to eat, and one walked us around the corner to Amble, a great little cafe that’s really tucked away, but worth the hunt. There’s no table service but plenty of places to sit and grab a glass of wine and appertivo. They prepared a huge charcuterie plate for us to share.

Such cute outdoor seating at Amble

Such cute outdoor seating at Amble

I couldn’t wait any longer for gelato, so we stopped at Gelateria del Neri near our house. OH. MY. GOD. This is heaven. This is what it is. It smells like olive oil and tastes like real Italian gelato. I have nothing else to say.

I wish I knew who these people were so I could send them this cute pic

I wish I knew who these people were so I could send them this cute pic

After the world’s best gelato, we had the world’s best dinner at Trattoria Anita, another small little spot recommended by Nancy. They were so friendly and even though they closed at 11pm, they kept telling us not to rush and enjoy our wine. We had a huge carafe of the house red (in Italy, just do the house wine! It’s amazing.) and started with bruschetta with the freshest tomatoes. Steve ordered the ravioli with gorgonzola and I had the tagliatelle with fresh chopped tomatoes, basil, and sautéed mushrooms. It was so simple and SO delicious. We ended dinner with a split tiramisu; I could’ve easily polished one off myself. Plus, the whole meal was only €37.

LOOK. AT. THIS. PASTA.

LOOK. AT. THIS. PASTA.

Day 3: Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, Basilica di Santa Croce, Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Pitti, Biboli Gardens, San Minato al Monte, Piazzale Michelangelo

Wow. I didn’t realize how much we did on the third day. We walked through the smaller market in our neighborhood, Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, and bought a few olive oil dipping bowls for ourselves and as gifts. You can tell this is where the locals go; not many people spoke English.

We walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, which is similar to the Santa Maria in style, but slightly smaller. In the back is an amazing leather workshop, the Scuola del Cuoio, once run by monks. We went inside to tour and see the artisans at work. Steve bought wallets and I bought a bracelet. The church itself is the burial place of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli.

Florence

So cool to see the artisans working on leather

So cool to see the artisans working on leather

We grabbed lunch at Divina Pizza, a really cool place that allows you to choose the size of your slice on foccacia-like bread. It’s basically pizza tapas and the flavors were amazing. (You’d think you’d get tired of pizza in Florence, but you don’t.)

Are you drooling yet? I am. Sorry if you're near me.

Are you drooling yet? I am. Sorry if you’re near me.

After lunch, we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge over the Arno. The bridge is lined with dozens of jewelry shops. The shops were originally housed by butchers, but they would dump old meat into the river — not so pleasant. The city eventually moved jewelers in to the spaces.

Back in Oltrarno, we went to the Palazzo Pitti, home of the famed Italian family, the Medicis. It was also used as a base for Napoleon in the 18th century. We bought tickets on site and toured the Palatine Gallery, the Royal Apartments, the Gallery of Modern Art, and the Costume Gallery. It’s honestly hard to describe the palace; it’s truly just a piece of art in architecture.

Just a modest family home

Just a modest family home

When the matriarch of the Medici family moved the family to the palace and wanted gardens for her 11 kids. In the family typical style, they basically built the equivalent of Central Park in their backyard. The Biboli Gardens are immense and so beautiful. And we found cats! Between the palace and the gardens, we spent about 2-3 hours hangin’ with the Medicis.

Florence

My cat friend! We named him Prego

My cat friend! We named him Prego

More gardens, more cats

More gardens, more cats

Since we’d be walking SO much, we grabbed at taxi at a stand to San Miniato al Monte, one of the highest points in Florence. Legend has it that St. Miniato  was beheaded, picked up his head, crossed the Arno and walked up the hill. The chapel was built in the spot and St. Miniato is buried in a crypt inside. (Lots of other people are buried outside.) The church itself is stunning and the view of the city is incomparable.

This view. WOW.

This view. WOW.

Nothing but a dead body here

Nothing but a dead body here

Once of my fav pics, surrounded by crypts

Once of my fav pics, surrounded by crypts

You can easily walk down the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, which a lot of people said is the best view in Florence. The view is amazing, but I couldn’t get over how commercialized it is. The piazza itself is a parking lot. It was sad to see cars parked in this beautiful, historic space.

On the walk back down, we cut through a rose garden to the left of the Piazzale. A gentleman at the top was locking a gate but said that we could get out at the bottom. Um, nope. The gate at the bottom was locked and we were locked in. We found someone to help but he only spoke Italian and didn’t understand how we were in there and what we needed. After some hand signals and sad attempts at Italian, two young guys who spoke both languages came by and helped us. Free!

Steve wandering through the maze

Steve wandering through the maze

It was time for our afternoon drinks and apertivos, so we went to Brew Dog, a craft beer bar where Steve had IPAs and was a happy man. We split the Misto board and I stopped at Gelateria Neri to load up on a little more gelato before our afternoon rest.

We stuck close to the neighborhood for dinner with a recommendation from our host. We went to Acquacotta, a little trattoria where the waitress’ husband and sister worked the kitchen. Steve had ravioli with pheasant and I had the another simple pasta with chopped tomatoes. It wasn’t quite as good as Anita, but I still liked it.

Florence

Unfortunately, we don’t know if it was the red meat from Brew Dog or the pheasant — neither of which I had — but Steve fell horribly ill with food poisoning that night. We were scheduled to leave for Paris at 4pm the next day, but there was no way he could travel.

(Unplanned) Day 4: Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella, Strozzi , and massive naps

Once we knew that we were staying, I quickly booked a local hotel and rescheduled our travel with Vueling, Blacklane, and our Airbnb host in Paris. (All were super easy!) We moved to the hotel and Steve immediately fell asleep. I struck out on my own and grabbed lunch at Oil Shoppe, an old sandwich shop that Nancy frequented in her study abroad days. It definitely still caters to students, but you can get a good sandwich for very cheap and the owner was really friendly.

If you want to hit on college kids, this is your place

If you want to hit on college kids, this is your place

I got a little lost looking for my next stop, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella. (Say that 3x quickly.) It’s said to be the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world. It’s basically a museum but you can actually buy stuff. The people working there are a little snobby but it’s cool to see the space and check out the medicines, like acqua de Melissa and other ancient preparations. The building itself is like a museum, as well.

Most beautiful pharmacy ever

Most beautiful pharmacy ever

Our host had recommended a show at Palazzo Strozzi, “Divine Beauty,” so I checked it out while I was Steve-less. The Strozzi itself is a beautiful old church and the exhibit included other European artists like Picasso, Chagall, etc. I was pretty exhausted after being up half the night with Steve, so I went back to the hotel to nap with him.

Florence

The buildings are as beautiful as the art inside

The buildings are as beautiful as the art inside

I grabbed a sandwich from Pane e Toscana for dinner (which is actually ranked #6 of 2000+ restaurants in Florence!) and we walked for a bit so Steve could get some fresh air. He was coming back to life!

(Unplanned) Day 4.5: CLET & more pasta

Since we didn’t have to leave our hotel until 2pm and Steve was feeling better, we wanted to make the most of our last few hours in Florence. We went back over to Oltrarno to visit Clet Abraham‘s studio. Clet is a French artist who alters road signs with funny, witty decals. We would see them pop up all over Firenze and loved seeing where he creates.

Florence

After some wandering, we settled on Caffe degli Artigiani for lunch and it was THE BEST last meal. It’s a bit hidden and looks really small on entry, but there are more tables in the back. Order the pasta of the day and a bottle of red and you’re set. I had the ridiculously fresh orrechette and Steve had lasagna; it was a very close second for my best meal in Italy.

Please take me back so I can eat ALL OF THE PASTA

Please take me back so I can eat ALL OF THE PASTA

General tips/observations

  • Skip the Academia if you don’t have a lot of time. It’s mostly the David, which I’m sure is super cool, but we didn’t want to spend that much time (and money) for one thing.
  • Skip the cafes/gelato places right around the piazzas. They tend to be more touristy.
  • Walk! We only took a taxi once. There is no metro; just the bus.
  • Like most other places in Europe, tipping isn’t necessary. We’d occasionally round up for things but often if you’re using a PIN/chip card, there isn’t an option.
  • There’s free WiFi around the center of town and it works pretty well.
  • People were so friendly! Of the four cities we visited, we thought that the people in Florence were the friendliest.

Would I go back?

100%. I can’t wait to go back to see more of Florence and spend some time in Tuscany and Cinque Terre along the coast. I want to cry as I’m writing this because I loved it SO MUCH. SO MUCH.

Ciao, bella Firenze!

Ciao, bella Firenze!