Last February, one of my best friends texted me a picture of her 3 week long vacation dates and said, “I really need you to come travel with me.” And I said, “Okay let’s do it. Let’s go to Italy.” The rest was history.
I’ve been wanting to go to Italy since I got back from studying abroad in France in 2012. I am about 25% Italian, and always loved learning about the food, culture, and history so deeply embedded in the country. I had my heart set on going there, an I knew my next stop in Europe had to be Italy. Now I am just itching to go back! After several weeks of planning and many Rick Steves’ YouTube videos later, I was off! Seemingly prepared, yet having no idea what really lay ahead, I tied up all the loose ends at work, packed my bags, and mentally prepared myself as best I could for adventure.
I want to share with you my trip to Italy this summer. Partly for selfish reasons – to have a place to remember it and relive it myself. But also to share some of my favorite places, restaurants, and experiences of my short time in Italy. I’m sure there are thousands of bloggers out there sharing the same trip, probably many of the same activities, but I hope to make this beneficial and entertaining. Planning trips can be really hard. Hopefully this will help answer some questions and show you how incredible of a place Italy truly is!
San Lorenzo Market, Pizzaria, and Gelato
My first stop in Italy was Florence. My friend Gabby was already in Italy, so I was flying solo to meet her. I had been traveling for about 18 hours after some delays, not being able to read a train ticket, and just general overall confusion with the bus systems…but I made it! I was starving and delirious, but just happy that I managed to make it to our Airbnb without getting taken or my phone battery dying. So I dropped off my bags and we began our time in Florence!
After wandering around for a bit and getting our bearings, our first stop was to the San Lorenzo Market to find some beautiful Florence leather and other goodies. It was almost unbelievable to walk block after block and find more stalls filled with leather purses, wallets, scarves, belts, clothes, journals, and souvenirs. Know that prices are soft – never pay what they ask! We paid about 30-40% less than their asking price for most things. After we made some purchases it was time for my first Italian meal.
Italian pizza is literally amazing. The crust is super thin and they keep the sauce and toppings really light. People really do eat a whole pizza for lunch and it’s not a big deal. Gabby and I opted to split a pizza or entree and a salad for most of our meals and this was really satisfying. It allowed us to try all kinds of authentic Italian dishes while still getting in some greens and preventing us from getting overly full.
All of the restauraunts we went to were precious. They were exactly how you’d imagine Italian restauraunts look like. So rustic, full of character, warm colors, very tasteful and classic.
It is customary in Italy to end your meal with a shot of Limoncello. This is much more abundant in the South, but we made fast friends with our waitress and the chef, so the shots came! We obliged.
Against my will, my travel buddy bought us tickets to go see a play about the Medici family on my first night in town. I don’t have much to say about this since I literally kept falling asleep during the play. Except not to go see a play when you are jet lagged. We grabbed some gelato on the way home to rest up for another full day in Florence!
Bell Tower Climb, Santa Maria Novella, Pesto Gnocchi
Day two in Florence started off with one of my favorite experiences in the city: climbing the bell tower of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral! We got an early start, grabbed a croissant and espresso to go, and arrived just in time for the doors to open. We bought a pass to the Duomo museum, which included the major monuments surrounding the museum and started the day with lots and lots of steps!
The views were amazing. Miles and miles of terra cotta roofs. What I loved seeing most were the little terraces with greenery and flowers, some even with people drinking their mornings coffees still in their pajamas. What a peaceful way to start your day!
We climbed to each level of the bell tower and finally made it to the top, which had about 7 huge bells. After some rooftop pics and final views of the city, we headed back down the many steps to visit the museum and baptistry. We learned about the construction of the dome and the church, saw some holy relics, and some very expensive doors and altars made from silver and bronze.
So much gold leaf. And I’m so into it.
The cathedral was breathtaking! The sheer size of it is incredible, but seeing all the perfect architectural lines and craning my neck to look up at the the sky-high ceilings and dome was just a crazy experience. This church and its smaller counterparts are the heart of Florence. Everything seemed associated to them, and that dome is definitely my most prominent memory of the city.
We needed some time to kill before heading out for an excursion out into the Tuscan countryside, so we stumbled upon this unique church. The Santa Maria Novella church. I mean, just look at those doors! Gorgeous. After reading up on this church, we found out that a 600 year old perfume and pharmacy shop was associated with the church and was definitely worth taking a look. We walked into this ornately decorated building filled with bottles of perfumes, supplements, teas, herbs, spices, and chocolates. I could have spent all day there! Most of the products are made locally, with recipes dating back hundreds of years. All of the sales ladies were tall, beautiful, and very knowledgable about their products. I bought a ginseng supplement, but sadly lost the bottle on a bus. I still regret not buying a perfume! Some of them smelled amazing, and they’re made with all natural ingredients.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff. Pictured above is Arancini. This is a fried ball of rice, spinach, and mozzarella, served with these delicious mystery sauces. We picked this up from a little shop on one of the main streets by the train station, and it was so delicious. That’s one of the best things about Italy – you can’t find bad food. They just don’t serve it. Everything is quality and delicious. They don’t accept anything less!
AND THIS. Pesto. Gnocchi. To be quite honest I found this place a yelp and someone recommended this dish. It sounded good and I was too tired to look through the menu so I just went with it. But I am so glad I did because that dish was amazing! I love pesto, but that was the first time I had gnocchi and it was magical. Everything else at this place was great too. I highly recommend giving them a visit!
The David, Central Market, and Ponte Vecchio
Our last full day in Florence was jam-packed with activities. We didn’t want to miss a thing! We woke up early to make it to our 8 AM reservations for visiting one of the most iconic statues of all time: Michelangelo’s David.
The mammoth sculpture is housed is the Accedemia museum, along with a few other works of Michelangelo. The David is the real MVP. He’s the first thing you see when you walk in, and you’ll be taken aback by the size of him! Definitely use the Rick Steves free audio guide here instead of purchasing one. It was short but informative. Once we finished up the tour it was time to visit the Central Market!
There are several markets in Florence, but the Central Market is the largest and indoors. Hundreds of vendors set up shop in this large building selling fruits, vegetables, fish, cured meat, pastas, herbs, spices, cooking oils and vinegars, candy, pizzas, breads…..the list goes on. This was another place I literally could have wandered through all day! If you plan on cooking during your time in Florence, make this one of your first stops. They also have an entire second floor dedicated to little restaurant stalls, where I had a delicious Italian cannoli made just minutes before I ate it. The market even has a big kitchen for cooking classes! I really wish I would have taken a cooking class. Most are at least $100, so I felt like that was too expensive, but I really think it would have been worth it for me.
Once we had our fill of the market, we headed across the river to the Plaza de Michalengelo. We were told this park provides one of the most spectacular view of Florence, and it surely did not disappoint. You can clearly see some of the most iconic buildings of Florence – the Dome and Cathedral, the Ponte Vecchio, and other famous churches and landmarks. They say the view is even more magical at dusk, so try to plan an afternoon picnic if you can! We also visited a little rose garden near this park, which was a beautiful spot to rest our feet for a few minutes while we took in the view of the city.
Next we headed to one of the oldest and most famous bridges of Florence, the Ponte Vecchio. The bridge is home to lavish gold and silver jewelry shops. Apparently the Medici family did not like the smell of fish and seafood, which was originally sold on the bridge. So they demanded more refined goods be sold there! Be prepared for crowds here. There was a never ending flow of people walking back and forth across the bridge ogling the jewelry and taking pictures on the bridge with the river in the background.
Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to a little something called apertivo. This Italian phenomenon offers free or very low priced food from about 6-9 PM, depending on the place. You pay for your drinks, which may or may not be discounted, but get some free snacks along the way. How cool is that?! I made it my goal to find an apertivo each day in Italy. It is just the best way to wind down, rest your feet, and get some energy after a long day of exploring. After we fueled up at apertivo, we walked back over to the bridge to watch the sunset. It was such a romantic spot – there were countless couples and honeymooners getting the perfect picture with the sunset! It really was such a special spot, and the perfect way to end our stay in Florence.
- I found this map helpful to view the locations of major attractions in Florence.
- Rick Steves is a boss. Here is his guide to Florence. Download the free app and do his walking tours! Such a great way to familiarize yourself in the city.
- This ticket gets you access into the Museum of the Duomo, the Baptistry, to climb the dome and bell tower, and the crypt of the cathedral.
- Restaurant with the Pesto Gnocchi – favorite meal in the city
- Tickets to visit the Accedemia
- Restaurant with the great view of the Ponte Vecchio. Make sure you go at apertivo to get the complimentary snacks!