Italy: April 6-14, 2017.
Hi guys! I haven't even written up my last trip to Paris yet, but let's tackle Italy while it's still fresh in my head.
We've been thinking about Italy for quite some time now and ruled it out last year because Bubba's spring break coincided with Easter. Given the proximity of Vatican City and Rome, we were scared that the crowds would be too much during Holy Week. This year, Bubba's spring break coincided with Easter week yet again, but this time we didn't care. YOLO.
I'm a planner. I like things organized. I do stuff like this in Apple Numbers:
Yes, I seriously am serious about being as prepared as I can and having important information all in one place.
I was researching hotel after hotel in Rome and I wasn't too excited about the options (be it availability, location, or price). I didn't want to gamble with Hotwire Hot Rates because we've never been to Rome and we didn't know the area so we went with AirBnB again. I was drawn to the apartment we booked because of the natural light and the decor. I had no idea what Via del Corso was and I wasn't even sure if being near the Spanish Steps was good. Turns out, we were literally in the heart of the city! Everything was within walking distance. Piazza del Popolo was 2 blocks to right. Villa Borghese was just beyond the Piazza. The Spanish Steps were a 5 minute walk. Trevi Fountain a 15 minute walk; same for the Pantheon. The Colosseum wasn't far off either, but we opted to take a taxi there (more on taxis later). Food and shopping were steps away too! The unit itself was very spacious. We were checked in and greeted by Abi, the manager. She took the time to show us around the unit and gave us her number in case we needed anything. There was some water and milk already stocked in the refrigerator. There was a learning curve to opening the front door of the apartment, but eventually, we figured it out. During the day, we could hear the hustle and bustle of Via del Corso from our room. It was a real treat when we could hear a street performer singing below our window; she had a beautiful voice and her song choices were soothing (Olivia even commented "she sings so good" and always wanted to stop by to put "coins" in her jar). At night, it was pretty quiet though so noise was not an issue for us.
The one thing we all agreed we needed to see was the Colosseum. We opted to do a children's tour because Bubba loves Roman history and Roman mythology. I knew this was something he would dive right into. I looked through Trip Advisor for reviews and ended up with Pinocchio Tours. I emailed them to coordinate a time and day and they were nothing but amazing! We like to get up early in the morning to do things because of the potential crowds and the potential heat so we chose an 8:30am tour.
The area surrounding the Colosseum is blocked off to through traffic, so the taxi dropped us off right in front of the "wedding cake" building. We walked past the forum to meet our tour guide, Francesca, in front of the metro exit. Francesca knew her stuff! She was eloquent, passionate, friendly, and very good with children! She's an archaeologist and would share personal stories regarding finds in the area. She walked us through the tour line and we started on the third level. Before she began, she said we would be playing a game; kids versus parents. She would share information and she would ask us questions throughout the tour; whoever answered first would get the points (and extra points if we wrote in roman numerals). Bubba was all in. Competitive mode took over, but so did his knowledge. We were so impressed how he held real deal conversations with Francesca. He knew everything about everything. She was talking about the she-wolf and Bubba says "Lupa." She said in all of her years doing this, no one has ever known the Italian word name for she-wolf. The highlight of Rome was seeing Bubba in his element. Obviously, he did end up winning the game. Francesca had a prize for Bubba and Olivia at the end of the tour; an archaeological set for Bubba and a Colosseum snow globe for Olivia. Francesca has a soft spot for mosaic tiles, so she picked up a special rock during our walk up the Palatine Hill and gave it to him as a souvenir.
The tour included the Colosseum, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. Knowing that we have children, she made sure to stop and note when there was a restroom (because there are very few) or a vending machine for drinks. We didn't bring our stroller because we knew it might be difficult to use it in certain areas and Olivia did just fine! The 3 hour tour didn't ever feel long and not a single soul complained! We all loved it. Bubba loved everything and Olivia loved roaming stairs and open fields.
I was really hesitant to try the Vatican tour. I kept reading reviews that it wasn't that great for kids, but Niti wanted to go so I booked.
We started our tour by meeting Walks of Italy at the green cafe in Piazza de Risorgimento. A bunch of people were waiting in a line to be checked in and were all spread into smaller groups. Our group consisted of all adults (although other groups had children and strollers; we didn't bring ours) and our tour guide, Tong. He handed us all headsets and from the cafe, we walked to the entrance of Vatican City. While waiting, he told us little details about the Sistine Chapel because that would be our first stop. You're not allowed to talk or take pictures in the chapel, so he wanted to tell us as much as he could beforehand. Of course everyone knows the Sistine Chapel.. Michelangelo.. art.. history.. genius.. but I've never learned the little details. All of it can be googled, but it's pretty awesome to learn something new while you're actually there in person. Our tour guide was pretty funny too.
Throughout the beginning of the tour, Olivia wasn't really feeling it. Bubba was kind of bored part way through too. We only lasted a little under 2 hours before we just had to go (I think it was supposed to be 3 hours and 45 minutes long). We apologized to our group, returned our headsets, and made our exit toward St. Peter's Square. The Vatican is the Vatican.. but kids are kids. If they weren't enjoying it.. we weren't either.
We went to the square, found some gelato, and just hung out.
During our last evening in Rome, we walked up the Spanish Steps and around to get to Villa Borghese (this is the long way). When we stepped into the gardens, we only wish we had gone here everyday. It's amazing. So kid-friendly. Gazebos with rides for children. Carousels. Playgrounds. Fields of green to walk/run around. Bicycle rentals. A mini train/trolley. We loved it. The sun was setting as we were leaving the park and we came upon a terrace with the most beautiful view. We exited toward Piazza del Popolo where the kids ran through bubbles. It was a great way to spend our last night.
Antico Osteria Brunetti was down the street from our apartment. We went here on our first night in Rome. We didn't have reservations so stopped by right when they opened. Bubba ordered a delicious pasta alle vongole. I ordered the steak in a red wine reduction. Service was so-so here, but we enjoyed our meal.
We didn't have reservations for dinner at Babette either. Niti called in and they said they don't have any opening, but if we went in right at opening and left before 9pm, they'd be happy to welcome us. They had a vegetable soup as a complimentary appetizer and surprisingly, Liv loved it. We ordered the carbonara, some steak, and a seafood pasta for the kids. My fav thing there: the bloody mary. I never drink, but when I do, it's that. One of the best ones I've ever had. Service was very warm and welcoming.
We needed a quick bite to eat when we returned from the Vatican, so we looked up restaurants within a street away from our apartment. The weather was perfect so we sat outdoors at La Luna d'Ora and had a simple lunch. No surprise.. we ordered steak again (with a side or arugula). We tried their carbonara as because the waitress said it was better than most, but Niti preferred Babette's.
Osteria 140 definitely hit the spot for seafood. Every dish we ordered from the raw bar was SO good. The prawn sampler. The oyster variations. Everything. This restaurant was the furthest out we ventured but worth it. The cooked dishes weren't our favorite, but the raw bar alone would be why we recommend this place. They had the best service as well. They treated us like family. They even brought out live uni (sea urchin) for the kids to see and touch.
The asian cravings kicked in so we decided to try Zuma. We have one in Miami but have never been. It was good, but nothing awe-inspiring. Best dish we had was the wagyu tataki.
Hamasei was another stop. They grilled their salmon to perfection. We ordered the lobster sashimi alongside a sashimi platter on the menu. We had some sushi. Tried some tempura items. It was your typical Japanese/sushi restaurant.
We stopped into Ginger to order daily green juices/smoothies for the kids. It gets pretty busy here, but if all you want is a smoothie, just let the host know and they'll let you right in.
Gelateria was our first gelato stop because it was on the way to our apartment. I didn't try it, but it was gelato so the kids loved it.
We stopped into Don Nino on our way from Trevi Fountain to the Pantheon. The espresso was too strong for me. Bubs had chocolate. Liv had pink (strawberry). Niti ordered Pistachio. I felt the flavors were kind of flat. There was no oomph. The place itself was beautiful though.
There was usually a line at Venchi. The pistachio here had more depth to its flavor than the others we tried.
We had some lemon gelato at a snack stand outside of St. Peter's Square. Not the biggest fan of lemon/lime flavors, but this one was surprisingly good.
Giolitti was our favorite gelato place in Rome. We tried pistachio, strawberry, and chocolate. We stopped in during our walk back from the Pantheon.
Francesca recommended San Crispino to us, but we didn't get to try it.
We pre-booked train tickets to Florence to coincide with check-out of our AirBnB and check-in of our hotel in Florence. We opted for one class higher than economy for a bit more comfort. The ride took about 1.5 hours to get to the S.M. Novella train station in Firenze. We walked from there to our hotel (10 minutes).
We stayed at Firenze Number Nine Wellness Hotel. Florence is so tight-knit and cozy that everything was within walking distance. This hotel was a great location and the staff were very friendly. Breakfast was included in our rate and we really enjoyed it. One of the best breakfast buffets we've had in Europe.
I definitely prefer the vibe of Florence over Rome. It felt slower-paced and more chill. People were friendlier. Crowds were smaller. I could understand why people fall in in love with Florence. There wasn't much to do with the kids, but we loved going to the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica everyday. If we needed a quick snack or a short break, we'd go into the book store right next to Hard Rock Cafe. Olivia loved playing in the cubby hole they had for kids upstairs.
We walked past the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore everyday when heading to the main hubs of the city. From there, you'll go past Palazzo Vecchio it's a short walk to the river and to Ponte Vecchio. We didn't visit Michelangelo's David because the lines were always so long and we didn't want to put the kids through it.
During our first night in Florence, we looked up Impressione Chongqing and decided to give it a try. There was a line full of asian tourists upon arrival so we knew there must be a reason why. We put our name down and the wait wasn't that long. They do not hold back on flavors here. Everything we had was pretty good. The two dishes I remember are the spicy crab in a wok and the fish with sauerkraut (not the kind you put on hot dogs; the green pickled asian one). We ordered other things too and I don't think any dish was bad. Out of all the restaurants we tried in Italy, this one was the bang for your buck.
Mercato Centrale is a must-go. It's a food hall. Plenty of options from pasta, burgers, steak, and seafood. We went an hour before we had to leave Florence, which was not a great time because a lot of restaurants (even around the city) close from 3/4pm til 7pm. We ordered a bone-in steak and a burger. The Vietnamese in me thought about the asian markets next to Impressione Chongqing and how we could've bought sauce-making ingredients to Mercato Centrale to eat at the steak and seafood restaurant (which were next to each other).
Taxis in Italy were not my favorite. One driver didn't want to take us where we asked to go and told us to walk. Another driver assumed we were ignorant tourists and tried to tell us fares were flat rate; we walked a block down to another taxi stand and he used the meter. At night time, a different driver took us back to our apartment and made up a fare. When we asked about the meter, he pretended to check and said it said x amount, when it was actually off. When we got into the airport train station from Florence, we needed a taxi to get to our hotel near the airport. None of the taxis wanted to drive that way because it was too close. The taxi line coordinator told us to walk down to the other taxi stand. At stand #2, none of the taxi drivers here wanted to take us either. Luckily, there were local cab drivers across the street. They were pretty expensive for such a short ride, but apparently that's the norm (we asked the hotel staff).
The VAT refund process at FCO was so much easier/simpler than CDG. We didn't check in any bags, so we went through security first. After we got through security, the detaxe lines were right around the way. There were two separate lines for Global Blue and Premier Tax. We stood in a short line, handed over our forms and were asked if we wanted it in cash or back to our credit card. Because refunds are higher in Italy than in France, we opted for cash in euros (since we're heading back to Europe in June). It's so nice not to have to wait around to see if our credit card is actually credited. Sometimes, they lose the forms or it gets lost in the mail, so ALWAYS take photos of your forms before mailing them out! If you're heading out of gate E, take advantage of the duty-free savings. They had the lowest prices of any other duty-free I've ever been in. For reference: Valentino rockstuds were 595 euros, D&G Taormina pumps were 595 euros, an Hermes twilly was 119 euros.
Was Rome/Florence as crowded as we thought it might be during Holy Week? No.. not really. We could easily use our stroller while roaming the streets. There were some areas with cobblestones, but Liv didn't really mind the bumpy ride.. she thought it was fun.