sightseeing

La Joie de Vivre in Paris

Paris is such a romantic, magical city but, like Rome, is another one of those that can be greatly influenced by your experience. My first trip to Paris was everything but. I was a poor college student living abroad, trying to pack in as many sights and museums into my long weekend as possible and eating dinner consisting of a baguette, Babybel (not even French cheese....what was wrong with me?!) and cheap wine from the Monoprix in my hostel room each night. By no means were my friends and I living like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City and to boot the Parisians we encountered were rude so we had no desire to go to a bar. After leaving I never saw the appeal to return, but return I did, with my husband when he had to go for a work trip a few years ago. Thank goodness for that trip because it changed my entire perspective on the city so much that we are always looking for a good excuse to visit the City of Lights.

Paris is just a 7-hour direct flight across the pond for us East Coasters and both Air France and Delta offer several flights to Charles de Gaulle (CDG) per day out of Boston, New York and D.C. Once you're there, the Metro is a clean and efficient way to get you just about anywhere in the city. I recommend spending at least 3 nights, so you can at least see the city's icons and enjoy some Parisian culture. Here is my list of things to do while you're there as well as my favorite places to stay.

WHAT TO SEE & DO 

See the Eiffel Tower twinkle. Every night, this famous landmark lights up the skyline but what's even more spectacular is that every hour on the hour it will twinkle for a minute. Wherever you are, pause and feel the magic. A great place to take this all in is from the River Seine or the Trocadéro. It doesn't get any more romantic than that. (Metro: Trocadéro, École Militaire)

Admire the views from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. This landmark's location in Place Charles de Gaulle where 12 major boulevards intersect make for some amazing bird's eye views, especially at night when the city is all lit up. I actually prefer this view over that from the top of the Eiffel Tower because you can actually see the Eiffel Tower, which in my opinion should never leave your sight during your entire stay. (Metro: Kléber)

Explore the city by bike. This is a great and fun way to get your bearings and get an overview of this city's landmarks. Plus burn some calories from all those croissants! There are tour companies that offer a guided option bringing you past all the major sights or you can grab a bike from the city's bike share (called Vélib) and venture out on your own. That brings me to....

Experience Saint Germain via a picturesque picnic cycle. If you're feeling extra Parisian and are looking for a more off the beaten path bike ride when you've already been there done that, I suggest hopping on your Vélib bike, grabbing some provisions from some local shops and ending your ride through this lovely neighborhood at a pretty park for a picnic. The bikes even come with a cute little basket to fill with baguettes and cheese and wine. Timeout can help you map out your route, just try to avoid doing this on a Sunday when many shops are closed. And while we're at it.... 

Discover Saint Germain on foot. Known by locals as the 6th arrondissement, this gorgeous area is filled with high-end retailers, art galleries, bookshops and quintessential Parisian cafes. Located on the Left Bank of the River Seine, the 6th is known as one of the ritzier, more upscale neighborhoods of Paris and where Hemingway used to hang out among other famous writers. Definitely dedicate an afternoon to strolling its boulevards and side streets and Paris will win you over. A couple memorable streets to check out are Rue des Canettes, with banners of French flags hanging above, and Rue de Buci near the intersection of Rue de Seine with beautiful flower markets and cafés. And of course you can't avoid (and you shouldn't) the main drag of Boulevard Saint-Germain(Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Mabillon) 

Wander the quaint, hip neighborhood of Le Marais. Located on the Right Bank of the River Seine is this area also known as the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. It is such a cool, fun area to explore and hang out in. Here you will find some good boutique shopping which is a nice break from the designer labels and this is the area that the Jewish population settled during WWII so today there are still many kosher patisseries, falafel stands, etc. Wander the streets-- Rue des Rosiers, Rue Vieille du Temple, Rue du Tresor, and the surrounding area. Very quaint and enjoyable with lots of cafés and creperies. (Metro: Hotel de Ville, Saint-Paul, Bastille)

Say hello to the Mona Lisa. Obviously. Located in the Museé du Louvre is this masterpiece by Leonardo DaVinci. It's quite a touristy thing to do but you can't go to Paris and not see this! The Louvre also offers much more to see and I recommend at least purchasing advance tickets that let you skip the line. Or if you'd like to make this a learning experience, there are plenty of guided tours offered by Viator and others. (Metro: Louvre-Rivoli)

Sit down for tea at Ladureé. A luxurious patisserie known for their macarons but they have other traditional French pastries as well. There are a few locations around the city, but be a traditionalist and go for the original. (18 Rue Royale; Metro: Madeleine, Concorde) 

Shop 'til you drop. Paris is home to many of the famous designers we long to fill our closets with. You'll find many of them on or near Avenue des Champs-Élysées and Rue Saint Honoré/Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the Place Vendôme area. You'll be delighted to know that those French labels cost less when you purchase them in France. TIP: Hang onto your receipt, get to the airport early and go to a VAT refund desk to get extra money back from taxes. They will give you Euro on the spot or refund your credit card if you paid that way. (Metro: Concorde, Pyramides, Tuileries)

Snap a photo with some gargoyles at Notre Dame cathedral. This cathedral is a perfect example of French gothic architecture with gargoyle statues and a flying buttress. Free to enter the cathedral but you must purchase tickets and wait in a (long) line to climb the bell tower. (Metro: Cité)

Take a cruise down the River Seine at night. This city comes alive at night. After all it isn't called the City of Lights for nothing. A great way to see the city all lit up is on a relaxing river cruise. Boats depart Notre Dame area or Eiffel Tower area regularly and last for 1-2 hours. There are several operators--Vedettes Bateaux and Bateaux Mouches--to name a few. For a boat with a bar, check out Canauxrama.

WHERE TO STAY

SAINT GERMAIN for a smaller, more charming, upscale atmosphere on the Left Bank with local culture but still centrally located for seeing the sights. As noted above, it's quite a lovely area.

Hotel Verneuil - A charming boutique hotel down a quiet Parisian rue but in the heart of it all. Decor is classic French with luxurious toiletries from L'Occitane. Standard rooms are a bit on the small side, so I recommend upgrading if you can. There is a concierge to help with your stay, an honor bar in the cozy living room and a room for breakfast if you so desire. (8 Rue de Verneuil)

La Villa Saint-Germain - An upscale, sleek, sophisticated boutique hotel with many amenities you'd find at a larger hotel including a bar, breakfast room, room service and a gym. (29 Rue Jacob)

Hotel d'Aubusson - A grand, chic boutique hotel (and a little more of a splurge) with a lovely ivy-covered patio, jazz/piano bar & cafe previously frequented by literary giants Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus. Rooms are spacious for this city and toiletries are by Hermès. Guests have access to various board games & video consoles as well as 24/7 room service. (33 Rue Dauphine) 

Relais Christine - A 5-star hotel in a beautiful mansion setting tucked down a discreet side street. Rooms are on the larger side for the city, decor is that from a luxe country home and amenities include a relaxing spa, gym, breakfast room and honesty bar. (3 Rue Christine)

LA VENDÔME for a luxe, grand atmosphere on the Right Bank with all the high-end designer shopping in the heart of all the action. 

Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme - This 5-star hotel is definitely more of a splurge but is one of the most luxurious places to rest your head. Decor is traditional and royal and the hotel has all the amenities including a lovely courtyard offering al-fresco dining. (5 Rue de la Paix)

Renaissance Paris Vendôme - A luxurious 5-star option with big name brand but boutique feel. Decor is contemporary and amenities include a spa with indoor pool and trendy hotel and champagne bar. (4 Rue du Mont Thabor)

Westin Paris Vendôme - A palatial, upscale, 4-star option with views of the Eiffel Tower and Tuileries Gardens. Amenities are what you'd expect for a hotel of this calibre and it boasts a restaurant with a charming courtyard. (3 Rue de Castiglione) 

Now that we've got the basics down (you've got lots to do!), stay tuned for my next post which will be all about how to fuel your stay at my favorite haunts. Because that is just as important, if not more! Au revoir!

When in Rome...

There's no denying that one has to see Rome when visiting Italy....and that it is one of the most touristy places in all of the boot. But what people may not realize is that it's possible to have a local, off-the-beaten-path experience in the Italian capital city as well. You may need to make more of an effort than you would in other places to find some true Italian culture but once you ditch the tourists, you will learn to love this city.

Getting to Rome is easy from the States and Alitalia offers direct flights from several U.S. cities to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO). In just about 8 hours from the East Coast you can be sipping on a Negroni, chowing on some cacio e pepe, and strolling the romantic streets of the Eternal City, the same streets that emperors once ruled. Chè bello!

How you spend your time will greatly influence whether you love or hate this city. After all it's BIG and it's busy. There is so much to see and do, especially if you're a Roman history buff, that you could keep busy for weeks on end. So here is what I think you should prioritize on your upcoming trip to Rome: 

WHAT TO SEE & DO

Colosseum & Roman Forum - I mean....pretty self-explanatory. Purchase tickets ahead of time that let you skip the (very long) line. Tickets purchased on the official site are cheapest and include entrance to both but do not include a guide. If traveling in the summer, try and check these sights out in the morning before it gets too hot because there is a lack of shade.

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum

Roman ruins

Roman ruins

The Vatican & St. Peter's Basilica - Another one that doesn't need an explanation. Consider doing a guided tour with skip the line access because there is a lot to see here and it helps to have a bit of commentary. Also, lines get very long!

St. Peter's preparing for an event...a large mass perhaps?

St. Peter's preparing for an event...a large mass perhaps?

Old map of the Florence area in the museum...I spy Certaldo <3

Old map of the Florence area in the museum...I spy Certaldo <3

Spanish Steps - Located in the area known as Tridente, the steps are a great place to pause and enjoy a gelato followed by some serious designer shopping. Despite all the tourists this is a lovely neighborhood once you get winding through the streets.

Trevi Fountain - The grandest of fountains and a favorite of mine. If you can, wake up super early to see this when there are no crowds because during the day it is absolutely chaotic & filled with tourists all trying to get a selfie. 

Pantheon - An ancient Roman temple that now functions as a church. Make sure you go inside and check out the oculus, it's impressive. If possible, try to visit in the morning because the line to get in can get pretty ridiculous. Free & no tickets needed.

Piazza Navona - One of the bigger, more famous, picturesque squares. Great for people watching.

Campo de' Fiori - This large square is an open-air food market by day, and popular spot for bar hopping by night although the crowd skews young.

Piazza del Popolo - A large square located in the upscale Tridente neighborhood perfect for a glass of prosecco and people watching (as the name suggests!)

Trastevere - A charming neighborhood on the other side of the Tiber with lots of small, winding cobblestone streets and ivy-covered trattorias. 

where to stay

Being such a large city, there is an overwhelming amount of hotels to choose from. Your best bet to narrow it down is to first decide which neighborhood you want to stay in and then start looking at the hotels in that area. My preference is the lovely neighborhood of Tridente, but Centro Storico is another smart choice.  

TRIDENTE - Stay here if you want to be in an upscale, shopping district with a mix of grand streets lined with designer stores and charming little side streets filled with cafes and bars. The Spanish Steps are located here so you can expect many areas to be crowded with tourists and locals alike but all you have to do is tuck down one of the side streets to escape the crowds and experience the charm. 

Piazza di Spagna 9 - A small, luxurious, boutique B&B-meets-art gallery with chic and modern decor overlooking the piazza where the Spanish Steps are located. Some rooms have balconies and there is a breakfast room onsite. Artwork changes regularly and guests can purchase some of the art on display! (Piazza di Spagna, 9)

Crossing Condotti - A small, boutique-y townhouse with cozy, traditional decor and an honesty bar & kitchen with drinks & snacks. No restaurant or breakfast but all the more reason to have a cappuccino with the locals and discover a nearby trattoria. (Via Mario de' Fiori, 28)

J.K. Place Roma or Portrait Roma - For more of a splurge, consider staying at one of these stylish, luxurious options. The former offering an onsite restaurant, the latter being only 14 rooms but boasting a fabulous rooftop terrace. (Via di Monte d'Oro, 30 & Via Bocca di Leone, 23) 

An empty Piazza di Spagna!

An empty Piazza di Spagna!

Neighborhood florist in Tridente

Neighborhood florist in Tridente

CENTRO STORICO - This neighborhood is for you if you want to be in the middle of the historic center and a stone’s throw from the famous sights. It will definitely be busy and touristy but it is a good area to stay in as long as you’re not on one of the main roads or piazzas. There are so many old, narrow alleyways and tiny little piazzas jam-packed with restaurants and bars. As long as you know which places to avoid and don’t fall into one of the tourist traps you will enjoy it.

Hotel Raphael - Covered in ivy, this full-service Relais & Chateaux property offers traditional yet luxurious accommodations and a lovely rooftop terrace for cocktails and organic, vegetarian-centric meals. Reserve one of the Richard Meier rooms which offer a bit more contemporary decor. (Largo Febo, 2)

Relais Orso - This rustic-chic yet modern boutique hotel is one of the more affordable options, which makes it possible for you to upgrade to a suite with hot tub on the private terrace. No restaurant, but there is a rooftop bar. (Via dell'Orso, 8)

Hotel Indigo St. George - Despite being part of large American chain IHG and on the outskirts of the neighborhood, this is a fabulous option with some charming Italian flair. Decor is contemporary yet luxurious and the vintage Fiat 500 photography in the rooms is a fun touch. There is a romantic spa with Turkish hammam and a large hot tub onsite too. (Via Giulia, 62)

No question that seeing the sights is important here, especially if you've never been, but it's just as important if not more to balance that with some cultural exploration of your own. Stay tuned for my next post, which will be all about the eating and drinking that should be happening on your next Roman holiday. Ciao for now!

What to See in Florence, Italy

Out of all the major Italian cities--Rome, Venice, Naples, Milan-- I'd have to say Florence, or Firenze as the Italians say, is my absolute favorite. Not only does it have a special place in my heart (thanks to my recent wedding in Tuscany) but it has amazing Italian charm and some of the best food and wine in the entire boot. Oh and of course the Renaissance art and history! Even if you're not a history buff it's mesmerizing. Getting to Florence is pretty easy. There are two airports that serve the city--one in Pisa (PSA) and one in Florence (FLR). Pisa is a much larger airport with many more flights but is about an hour and a half outside the city. Florence airport is tiny (think 2 runways) but only about 20 min from the city center. There are currently no direct flights from the States to either airport so you will have to connect somewhere in Europe depending on the airline you fly. Note: I would recommend against flying into Pisa unless it offers extremely discounted prices. After traveling for 8+ hours, on a red-eye nonetheless, the last thing you want to do is have another hour and a half train or drive. We had a good experience flying Alitalia to Florence airport. Our layover was in Rome, which was great because we got most of the flying over with in the first leg and the second flight was a quick jump. Plus I got to have gelato while waiting for the next flight, benissimo!

Florence is a pretty compact city, so most hotels will put you within walking distance of where you'll be spending your time. The city itself is mostly located on the north bank of the River Arno so aim for staying there. The river is beautiful, especially at night when locals sit along the bank with a glass of wine watching the sun set so you can't go wrong being near the river. Note: Don't stay near the train station--it's a little gritty and always busy with tourists dragging their suitcases (this is a general rule of thumb for most European cities). 

There is so much to see and do in Florence, but here are my top picks that I think will give you a good mix of sightseeing and experiencing the wonderful Florentine culture:

Piazzale Michelangelo - located on the south side of the river and perched up on a hill, this is where you will find the BEST views of the city. It's an absolute must-do.

Il Duomo - the main church of Florence and an architectural marvel, this is a must-see. It's free to go inside the church but you have to buy tickets if you want to climb the dome or the bell tower. Honestly, you will get a better view from Piazzale Michelangelo but you must go inside to see the detail of the artwork on the inside of the dome and to just stare at how huge it is. In high season, be prepared to wait in a crazy long line but you can buy tickets on Viator that let you cut the line (SO worth it). 

Piazza della Repubblica - a beautiful square for people watching. The Savoy hotel has a wonderful terrace overlooking the piazza and a fabulous cocktail list. Fun to go for aperitivo (happy hour) or a night cap.

Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio - another square hopping with city life and the Palazzo is actually Florence's town hall. It is a really cool medieval building to see and the piazza is a great place for people watching, grabbing a gelato or coffee and wandering around.

Mercato Centrale - lovely market full of stalls of fresh fruit, veggies, meat, fish, pasta, olives, you name it. Puts any farmer's market I've seen in the States to shame! TIP: knowing a little Italian will go a long way here.

Boboli Gardens - beautiful, peaceful gardens located behind the Palazzo Pitti, this is a great place to escape from the craziness of the city.

Statue of David - even I couldn't miss this one. Located at Galleria dell'Accademia. You can purchase tickets online in advance so you don't have to wait in line as long (totally recommend that).

And if art museums are you're thing, check out the Uffizi Gallery. It's apparently one of the oldest and most famous art galleries in the world with tons and tons of Renaissance art.

Last but absolutely not least, you cannot experience Florence without eating and drinking the Italian way. Stay tuned for my next post which will be all about what draws many of us to visit Tuscany--the food and the drink!

Ciao for now!

River Arno, Florence Italy
River Arno, Florence Italy
Il Duomo di Firenze
Il Duomo di Firenze
The amazing view of Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangelo
The amazing view of Firenze from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Colorful produce at Mercato Centrale
Colorful produce at Mercato Centrale