Bologna, Italy

Bologna was supposed to just be a pit stop on our way to Croatia so we just planned to stay one night, but after walking around the city for a bit we quickly fell in love and wished we had planned to stay longer. It’s home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088 and it still is greatly a student town keeping it’s energy young and vibrant. Not to mention, the whole town itself is pretty vibrant just in its blush red colored buildings. The city’s historical center is one of the largest in Italy which makes it a perfect place to wander and just get lost. We stumbled onto yet another leaning tower - "seems like Italians need a lesson in tower-building, geez!" I chuckled to myself as no one laughed...

We had a perfect lunch at a quirky rustic-style wine bar called Swine Bar where we tried some pasta Bolognese (of course) and some other amazing dishes paired with the delicious wine and topped off with a perfect espresso at the end of the meal. I could get used to that. Mark down Bologna as another city I’d like to live in. After that short but sweet visit, we headed off to Croatia!

Milano, Italy: The Expo

Milan just oozes with glamour and poise. Even the people on the streets all look like models (and they very well might be considering it's one of the fashion capitals of the world). Of course, it’s large and cosmopolitan, but it has many delightful little areas as well. First, we had to get the main attractions out of the way. We started our “tourist day” in the Piazza Castello, walked through the grandiose Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and ended up in the Piazza del Duomo to admire the ornate façade of the cathedral (the Duomo di Milano). My favourite out of these sites was by far the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Its epic glass ceilings and gold embellishments really make you feel like a hollywood star walking in the red carpet. We even found the famous bull on the mosaic floor. Apparently, you’re supposed to spin three times on the bull’s.. um.. privates for good luck. Other than the bull’s balls.. Milan is pretty much just as sparkling and glamorous as you would imagine. No wonder it’s the fashion capital of the world.

Again, I think we made a great choice by staying in an area that felt a bit more local and a bit further away from the main tourist attractions. We stayed in the “Zona Tortona” right by the Porta Genova metro station. This neighborhood has been known to attract a crowd of young creatives, photographers, and designers with its thrift stores, vintage shops, art spaces, and cafes. It’s come a long way from its former days as an industrial warehouse-filled run-down area… hmm reminds me of North Brooklyn & Bushwick! 

I was most excited to visit Milan because our friend Federica is living there now. After our tourist sight-seeing filled day, we met up with her and she took us around the Navigli District. This area is the mecca for cool bars and hipsters in Milan (and it just so happens it’s right around the corner from the Zona Tortona where we were staying!). She took us out to a nice restaurant and then we walked along the canal bars ending up in “La Darsena,” Milan’s newly reopened city dock. Here, young people line the scenic river banks, chatting and laughing with beer bottles and cigarettes in hand. The city is filled with a great lively spirit and of course, many loud and loving Italians. 

The next day we went to check out the World Expo. The chosen theme for the fair this year was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”. Over 140 countries showcased their newest technology and solutions for world hunger in pavilions of all shapes and sizes. Many exhibits had multi-sensory and interactive displays. One of my favorites was Brazil’s pavilion with a crazy trampoline net as an entrance that overlooked the "Green Gallery" below, which is made up of a series of planter boxer with flowers and fruits from Brazil. Another pavilion that stood out was Save the Children Foundation’s highly informative and interactive installation that was built using simple wood and recycled materials. The stands where you could buy traditional food and drinks from each country were a great and simple way to get to know a little bit about a lot of countries’ cultures and cuisines. The free WiFi throughout the whole fair was a nice bonus for us travelers too. Unfortunately, many of the exhibitions were lacking vital information and failed to prove any concrete action towards guaranteeing healthy, safe, and sufficient food for everyone while respecting the Earth and its natural resources. Even though I believe there was some room for improvement overall in the Expo, I think it’s still great to have such a large global push to promote innovation for a sustainable future. 

Bergamo, Italy

The old city (Città Alta) of Bergamo is a tiny town straight out of a picture book. It’s just two hours away from Verona, and about one hour away from Milano. This city holds a lot of well preserved history and amazing Renaissance art that is for the most part overlooked in comparison to it's neighboring cities… which is great for us, because we get to enjoy it sans the big crowds! The cobblestone streets are lined with bakeries and pastry shops (with the cutest vintage signage), and for some reason, big pianos. Randomly just sitting here and there, inviting strangers to sit for a minute and play music - how cool! There's a beautiful sundial sculpted into the floor of one of the piazzas, and wait for it... yes, there's yet another tower. Of course there's a tower. There's just too many towers in Italy. We somehow didn't feel the need to climb this one. We had a delicious dinner (a little overpriced, but good) and we found our way to the Summer festivals area where there are free open-air concerts and people dancing on the street every night of the Summer! What a great way to spend a Tuesday night! 

Verona, Italy

It was also our second time in Verona. We had traveled to the romantic city of Romeo and Juliet many years back with our high school choir. Being there, walking along those old streets, really brought back a lot of happy memories. Not a lot has changed in the past 7 years. Some parts of Verona felt a bit more clean and walkable which is nice, but for the most part, it was just pleasant to walk in the same markets and streets we travelled years back - this time with a completely different group of people. We also noticed some interesting contemporary architecture (some more Scarpa works here) living next to ancient clock towers and bridges. 

Venezia, Italy

The fist time we went to Venice, it was on a day trip from Verona on a cold Spring day and it was raining - not the best way to appreciate the beauty of a city that has been around since the fifth century. This time around, we went in the beginning of Summer with a slightly different outlook on life and a bigger backpack. Venice gets targeted as one of the “most touristy places of Italy” but this, as many other surrounding cities, has its authentic and beautiful parts as well. Maybe it’s the fact that you have to walk everywhere, rather than use cars, but Venice this time around seemed much bigger than last time. Apart from the main piazzas and cathedrals, there are large parks to walk though and there’s a fun nightlife too!

The night we arrived, there was a Juventus (Italian professional football club) match against Barcelona… and as the only Spanish girls in the bar, we felt a little awkward as our team beat theirs within the last few minutes of the match. We casually (and quietly) left the bar after some quick cheers and went on a search for other bars where no one knew we were of Spanish decent. We stumbled into several different hangout areas. Sta Teresita's piazza was filled with a hip-looking younger crowd, while the Canal del Instituto de la Misericordia was filled with an older crowd and a strip of nicely decorated, artsy local bars and restaurants.

For daytime activities, consider checking out the 1950s Olivietti showroom designed by Carlo Scarpa! It's pretty much hidden in plain sight right in St Mark’s Square and is often overlooked by tourists. It's not on your typical Venice tour guide list, but it's definitely worth checking out if you're at all interested in good design.

As for gondolas, I’d say do it. It’s worth it. Besides, you never know when you’ll be back in Venice! It’s one of those once in a lifetime occasions where you just have to sit back and enjoy the ride… and not think about your wallet slowly disappearing into thin air… Our gondoleiro, Andreas, was very funny and kind. He even let us drive the gondola for a little while. We found out there's only a tiny group of people who are allowed to be gondoleiros. It's a family business, passed down from one man to the next, and in ONE case, there was a daughter who decided to follow in her dad’s footsteps. Yep, there’s apparently only ONE female gondoleira, so if you see her give her props for it!

Firenze, Italy

Florence is obviously best known as the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to work of Brunelleschi, Giotto, Botticelli, and of course, Michelangelo (some of our art world superstars). Therefore, it’s clear that it’s like a dream come true for anyone who is into art history. It is very well known though, so during the day (say between 10:30am and 4:30pm) the main tourists sties are packed with tour groups. The best time to see the sites is either really early in the morning or late in the afternoon. They won’t let you go inside past 5pm, but many of the sculptures and churches are just as beautiful from the outside. As with Rome, we had pre-paid tickets to see Michelangelo’s “David,” which saved us a bit of the hassle of dealing with long lines and elbowing tourists.

We decided to climb to the top of the Florence Cathedral and it was actually way cooler than expected. Its famous terra-cotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and bell tower designed by Giotto are beautiful and highly worth checking out. With only one way up and one way down, it can be pretty claustrophobic to climb inside the small passageways that go up the curved dome tough. We also decided to climb the much-less-claustrophobic bell tower for the great views of the dome itself (oh the pictures!). Another fantastic panoramic view of Florence is from the Piazzale Michelangelo although the afternoon didn’t provide us with the best lighting for pictures. 

The nightlife here calls for cozy bars with dim light and servers with thick rimmed glasses covered in tattoos. There are also many youngsters drinking outside in the piazzas (yes, it’s legal). La chiesa di Sant'Ambrogio, for instance, is a well-known hangout spot. I just can’t help but say it, I love Tuscany! 

Lucca, Italy

Lucca is amazing, and it’s not at all touristy like many of the other places we’ve been to so far. It’s as beautiful as Rome but without any of the tourists! One of my favorite cities in Italy so far! The entire city is scattered with what seems like thousands of adorable piazzas, one of which used to be an ancient Roman Amphitheater. This uniquely round piazza is one of those places that you just have to see in person, because its magic simply cannot be captured using photos or video. Even the churches and cathedrals had a cool unique style. The columns were all different and playful.

The outer walls of the medieval fortified city were turned into a park that locals frequent for jogging, cycling, walking the dog, or simply to enjoy the breathtaking view with a bottle of wine. We found cute restaurants and bars in every corner while we walked the cobblestone streets of the old city. One bar was so packed, the bearded Italian hipsters spilled over to the street. When we asked why this particular bar was so popular we were told it was  2-euro wine night - I'm in! The short visit left me the strong desire to return to Lucca one day, and take the time to explore to really see what this quaint city is all about.

Italian Riviera

Welcome to the Grand Italian Riviera! This place must have been amazing sometime between the 1920s and 1950s, but it seems they didn’t develop much since then… We stayed in Rapallo. I’m not sure if it was just a weekday or if we were “off-season” by going in the early Summer, but the place was pretty deserted. The view of the beach and harbor is nice with a cute little fort sitting right in the water, but the people in the town all seem a bit on the older side (think Florida with the happily retired elite). Like in the Amalfi coast, there seems to be no nightlife, and this town in particular seems to be filled with a bunch of pastel colored houses in serious need of repair. This area reminds me of the Côte d'Azur in France but more run down. Instead of the charming ‘trompe l’oeil’ outdoor frescos you find in Cannes, the Italian twist on the tradition attempts to create the illusion that the houses are more embellished than they truly are. Unfortunately, the painted pediments, shutters, and window frames are all peeling and fading off the walls, braking the illusion of the façade. We visited the glamorous town of Portofino and the neighboring Santa Margherita, but after that we were happy to skip Cinque Terre, leave the Liguria region behind and return to Tuscany to visit Lucca and Florence. 

San Gimignano & Pisa, Italy

Tuscany is filled with those famous scenic landscapes of rolling hills, vineyards and olive groves. It’s beautiful. The sun hits the ground in a way that makes everything glow. As we were driving through the countryside on our way to The Italian Riviera, we made two notable stops: San Gimignano and Pisa. Two very different places, but both prospering from their clear main source for economic development: tourism. 

San Gimignano is has a very unique quality that sets it apart from its neighboring medieval towns. Apparently, San Gimignano was filled with feuding noble families back in the day. Of course, each rich medieval finance bro needed a tower that was bigger and better than their corresponding “Mr. Jones” to protect and defend their families’ pride. This constant battling formed what is now known as “a medieval Manhattan” with 72 old towers standing tall (14 of which remain today). On the other hand, Pisa is just pretty much just a bunch of tourists looking really silly with their leaning poses and their selfie-sticks. Don’t do it. Don’t. Okay, maybe just one picture…

Siena, Italy

No amount of pinocchio-themed souvenir shops and over-priced gelati parlors can take away the charm from Siena. The medieval old city will transport you back in time. Walking around, you quickly notice the city is divided into different parts, each showcasing a different medieval house with their corresponding flag - noting by the dragon flag outside the window of the apartment we were renting out, it seems we were now officially Targaryens (or really just rooting for the Drago contrada or district, situated to the north-west of the old center).

In the heart of the old city, you find "The Piazza del Campo" with its beautiful half-circle-fan-like structure that leads up to the "Palazzo Pubblico". The piazza is unique in that it slants and actually funnels into the town hall with its big secular tower called "la Torre del Mangia” making it the focal point of the city. This must be the first old European city I’ve been to where there isn’t a church in the center, but instead a town hall, which makes me think ancient Sienese were quite progressive! In this piazza is where the people of Siena hold their biannual “palio” race (a traditional medieval bareback horse race). But that’s only two days out of the whole year. The rest of the time, the piazza is simply the perfect spot to sit in the tilted ground and enjoy a bottle of cheap-yet-amazing wine from the 24hr mini-market. So that’s exactly what we did. And trust me, after climbing up and down 400 steps in a tiny claustrophobia-evoking tower, there’s nothing better than enjoying a plastic cup of wine while watching that last strip of sunlight disappear though the sides of the tower.

Amalfi Coast, Italy

To be honest, the Amalfi Coast wasn’t as great as I expected. We went with high hopes of beautiful beach villages and a Mediterranean paradise… and sure there was definitely some of that, but for the most part we just found hoards of tourists and a terrible public transport system. We decided to call Sorrento our home-base, and from there take the bus to Positano and Amalfi. Sorrento is a small summer vacation town filled with condominiums on the outskirts and a small commercialized old city centre. Pretty much your standard touristy summer spot. It seemed like the majority of the people there were German or British vacationers that were thrilled to talk about their money and their wealth as they lavishly enjoyed meals in luxurious restaurants and wore big hats to cover their precious skin from the sun. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that It felt like the place is no longer an “authentic Italian destination” but rather a tourist hub that has lost its uniqueness to the evil hands of cheesy tourism.

Don’t get me wrong though, Sorrento is not all bad! During the day we took a stroll across a lemon farm right in the centre of the city where they make their own limoncello (and give you free samples). We glanced out to the horizon for a beautiful view of Mount Vesuvius and then walked down a steep path cut into the cliff and landed on the coast. It’s such a shame.. it would have been such a beautiful view from down there if every part of the beach wasn’t privatized and closed off for overpriced restaurants… We still gave in to the tourist trap and bought a drink-with-beach-chair-included to layout for a while. Besides, they do make some delicious seafood (yum fresh sardines!). By night, the streets fill with youngsters all holding their motorcycle helmets as they go out with their friends. It’s almost like a fashion statement. So amusing. But we quickly found out that is was really hard to find a good bar in Sorrento. It seemed your only option was to get a drink in restaurants that look somewhere between an american diner and a french café. Another option was a “club" appropriately called “American Bar” with a stripper pole, a disco ball, and karaoke. Not really my scene thanks.

The next day, we woke up fairly early to catch a bus to Positano. To put it simply, this bus ride was CRAZY. The bus drivers must go through some insane training to be able to pull off those tight turns in such tiny streets on top of a huge cliff! When we finally reached Positano in the over-crowded bus, we were greeted with a beautiful view of the coast. The further we walked down, the more I was ready to leave… There were tourists everywhere. To the point where you feel you can’t even really walk.. or breathe. All the shops and restaurants were completely catered to those typical “rich American tourists” with everything spelled out in English and priced up double or triple the normal price. We didn’t spend too much time there. We got right back on the bus and continued to Amalfi. Personally, Amalfi was so much better! It’s just bigger, so the crowds have a bit more space to disperse. We walked along windy streets and found the perfect place to have some delicious Neapolitan style pizza. Yum!

On our way back to Sorrento, it was absolutely impossible to catch a bus. The lack of organization was incredible. There were lines of people complaining everywhere and yet no bus to be found. So, as the “carpe-diem” travelers we believe ourselves to be, we impulsively decided to hop on the bus that said Ravello instead. Best idea ever. We successfully escaped the hoards of tourists and landed on a charming mountain top village. Ravello is not on the coast, but it’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s a very small town with great views of the mountains and adorable medieval passageways. It’s known as the “City of Music”. After a quick look around, we were finally able to catch a bus back to Sorrento. What a day! 

Pompeii, Italy

BELIEVE THE HYPE - Pompeii is really an amazing place. I've never experienced such clear peek into an ancient culture - especially one that was as advanced and as interesting as Ancient Pompeii. As you probably already know, the entire ancient city was buried under ash from Mount Vesuvius' volcanic eruption in 79 AD. Even though it was a horrible tragedy for its inhabitants, the city itself was partially destroyed, yet greatly preserved. The most amazing part is that there's still so much more to uncover. If you’ve ever had an art history class, or if you just like ancient Roman history, you will probably understand the nerd-tastic giddy happiness I felt by strolling around those ancient streets. It saddens me that many of the tourists that visit don’t respect the delicate preservation process and are slowly causing this place to disappear once again - and this time for good. If you have the means, I highly suggest thinking about giving a little bit to help preserve this unique archaeological site. There are many volunteers and well known archeologists working on site, but they are in desperate need for more funds. Click here to donate. 

And yes, Pompeii is one of those places that inevitably jam packed with tourists year-round, so we made it a point to be up bright and early to be of the first to go in. Later in the afternoon, the giant tour groups arrive in their buses from Naples and the other surrounding cities and it becomes a bit harder to enjoy the history. As for the non-ancient Pompeii, it sucks. Don’t even bother. Get in, see the ancient part, and get out. Trust me.

Castelmezzano, Italy

After our quick stop at Matera, we were determined to find another lesser-known small town called Castelmezzano. And of course, we got lost on the way. We knew we were close, but we kept running into tiny closed off dirt roads. Finally, when we had almost decided to hitchhike the rest of the way, we were able to find the right street. When we finally got there, the payoff was well worth the journey. 

We passed through a long, dark tunnel, BOOM! There it is, A beautiful hidden gem behind the mountain. Castelmezzano is one of those tiny towns where everyone knows everyone else by their first name and you wonder how people choose to live so isolated from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, thanks to our extended little adventure trying to find the way in, we were now late for lunch. Italians everywhere are pretty strict with their feeding times, but there will almost always be at least a handful of restaurants open specifically to serve lost and confused tourists. Not here though. It was 3pm or 4pm and NOTHING was open. Does everyone hide away for a siesta? Church? I honestly have no idea, but the truth is that the whole place was like a ghost town. The few people we did run into were the kindest and gentlest Italians I’ve ever met. Nobody spoke any English or Spanish, but with the art of hand gestures and the little bit of broken Italian we knew, we were able to make a new friend. Antonio saw we were starving and invited us to sit in his bar. I’m pretty sure he walked all the way to his house just to find the ingredients to whip us up some delicious sandwiches. Those sandwiches, a bit of white wine, and Antonio’s warm smile were enough to re-energize us for the rest of the drive to Pompeii. 

Matera, Italy

The incredible ancient province of Matera was built in and around a big canyon carved out by the Gravina River. The whole region of Basilicata (in southern Italy) is filled with limestone caves, canyons, and crazy rock formations that apparently were inhabited since Paleolithic times. We spent a couple of hours hiking though crumbled buildings and pathways in the Historical center "Sassi”, which truthfully is QUITE the workout - but so worth it! It’s the kind of place that’s perfect for aimless wandering. Anywhere you stop, you’ll have a postcard-worthy panoramic view right before your eyes. It’s hard to believe it was known as “the shame of Italy” back in the 50s and 60s because of the poverty of its inhabitants at the time. Thankfully, ever since UNESCO placed the site on the World Heritage List, it has completely gained a new life though tourism and preservation - but the kind of tourism that hasn’t ruined it’s great authentic cultural ambiance. 

Alberobello, Italy

Funny little cone-shaped stone houses have made Alberobello a quaint tourist destination town in the East coast of Italy. We drove all the way from Rome through fields and fields of olive trees and vineyards to get to this adorable place that looks like it was taken straight out of a fairytale. 

We stayed in the more ancient part of town, inside one of the stone houses they call “trullis” which are uniquely local to this area of Italy. With over 1500 trullis, Alberobello has the largest concentration of these quirky houses in the world. Some still have ancient keyholes and barred windows, while others have been renovated to become more comfortable for its new residents and tourists. 

It's a really great site to see, all these hobbit-esque white houses with their little cone-shaped rooftops placed along winding cobble stone passageways - there's really nothing else like it.

Caserta, Italy

On our way to Alberobello, we made a stop at the Reggia di Caserta (Palazzo Reale). It's a pectacular 18th century Baroque palace known as the "Italian Versailles" and just as you would expect... IT'S HUGE.  In fact, it's the largest royal residence in the world with over 2 million m³ and covers an area of about 47,000 m² (according to Wikipedia). It's also (more importantly) the setting for Queen Amidala's royal palace on Naboo in the 1999 film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Vatican City

We’re not particularly religious people, but we felt like we had to spend a typical touristy day and check out the Vatican. There were some things we knew to expect - and were mentally and physically prepared for. Famous Renaissance masterpieces, long lines, crowds in organized tours with selfie sticks, elaborate Catholic relics, all that jazz. If you ever go to the Vatican, preparation is KEY. By reserving tickets online weeks in advance and arriving at the break of day, we were able to skip impossibly long lines and stampedes of tourists. 

First off, I do have to admit that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura really are worth the hype. They are such impressive works that they definitely deserve all the attention they get. But to our surprise, we found much more than what we expected to see in the Vatican. Pagan statues, astrology, cartography, mythology, and contemporary art all have a place to shine within those holy walls. 

One of my favorite discoveries was the Gallery of Maps. It's basically a huge corridor that most people will rush through on their way to the Sistine Chapel. They’re unfortunately missing out on a collection of beautifully painted topographical maps from the 16th century. Curiously, within these huge frescos you can also find mermaids, griffins, and all sorts of mythical creatures. If you’re lucky you’ll also notice the beauty in the many terrestrial and celestial globes in the halls of the Vatican Museums. These were used in ancient times to aid in the study of geography and astronomy by charting and illustrating both the earth and our surrounding constellations. These allusions to the praise of science seem appropriately placed near the “Raphael rooms” which display some of the famous frescoes of the Italian Rennaissance master. My personal favorite is The School of Athens. It highlights the importance of knowledge and features many of the philosophers and thinkers that still influence the world we live in today. It’s a painting that celebrates the cosmos and whatever lies beyond as well as the physical earth and mankind.

There’s also SO much modern and contemporary art. The art showcased includes works by very well known artists such as Rodin, Van Gogh, Dalí, Matisse, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Klee, Chillida, and Picasso. Then, as a grand finale, you have the Bramante Staircase. All in all, there’s definitely a lot more to the Vatican than the Pope.

Rome, Italy

After a quick improvised “tour” of the city by our very kind and knowledgeable taxi driver, we arrived in our adorable little apartment in Rome. This cute little spot we found using Bookings.com, was wall-to-wall with an old church and had windows that faced directly into a small piazza. The friendly owner at the local gelati shop below our flat made us feel right at home in what would be our neighborhood for the next few days. This is not the Rome I heard about from friends…

Yes, Rome is filled with stampedes of tourists (just like any other big city with important monuments), but yes, you CAN avoid the crowds… for the most part. We stayed in that little apartment in a side street close to Campo di Fiori which feels is a bit less touristic that staying right by the Coliseum like I’m sure many tourists do. By day, Campo de Fiori is an open air market, and by night it fills with young local Italians. It’s also just a short walk from Trastevere which is a “hip” area filled with cute restaurants and bars.

Of course, there are certain things you just have to see if you like history and you’re in Rome. Those few main historical sites, unfortunately, will be filled with tourists regardless of the time of year and time of day you choose to go. “Off-peak” season will of course be more manageable, but another little trick that can help you out is to purchase tickets to main attractions ahead of time and show up as bright and early as possible.

During our few days in Rome, we tried a few “aperitivos” which are an Italian version of a happy hour where you get seemingly ENDLESS amounts of hors d'oeuvres or tapas for the price of one drink. My life will never be the same. Highly, HIGHLY recommended as well as some good ol' cacio e pepe. Mmm...