Vacation to London

This is the last installment of a five-part blog series all about the details of our travels to Europe the past 2 years. So far, I’ve covered our time in Italy with the Amalfi Coast, RomeTuscany+Florence+Venice+More, and our time in Paris.  Today, I’m sharing about our trip to London two months ago.

London

Getting There & Around: We flew into London Heathrow airport. Once you arrive, follow signs for the Underground. We took the tube directly from the airport into the city- it was easy and much cheaper than the Heathrow Express (and not much longer either).  We bought a couple of Oyster cards and filled it up with money to use throughout our trip – you can refill at stations as necessary. We took the Underground everywhere throughout the city; Google maps makes it easy to figure out your route.

When we flew out of London, we left from Gatwick. Since our flight was early in the morning, it was before public transportation started running to the airport. Instead, we hired Hummingbird car service to pick us up from our apartment and drive the hour-long ride out there. It was half as cheap as Uber or a taxi.

What to Pack: Late March/early April is a tricky time in London.  We happened to visit during the first weekend they had Spring weather and only had one night of rain. But, it snowed just a couple weeks later!  Here are the top items I would recommend packing to make sure you are prepared for that time of year:

  • IMG_3870Layers + Jacket – I debated bringing a coat, but knew it wouldn’t be necessary in Italy (the second part of our trip).  I was glad I had a jacket that I could wear over layers when it was chilly, but I also took it off a few times when the sun was shining warm.
  • Flats (Shoes) – Bring a few cute pairs of flats that are comfortable to walk in. I don’t think I ever saw anyone wearing heels in the entire city.  Even if you take the tube, you’ll still be doing lots of walking.
  • Umbrella – While it only rained one evening, it certainly caught us by surprise. Bring a small umbrella that’s easy to pack in your purse and have on hand when the weather changes.

Where to Stay: Anywhere in central London near an Underground stop is going to be great. We stayed in the South Kensington neighborhood and it was a beautiful area with lots of restaurants and shopping. We absolutely loved our flat – this adorable Airbnb. Sign up with this link and get get $20 in travel credit for your next vacation!

Sites to See: There is so much to do in London… plenty of museums to visit and famous places to see. Here’s what we decided to see:

  • Kensington Palace Gardens – FREE! We did not go inside Kensington Palace, but instead just saw it from the outside and walked through the surrounding gardens and park.  We also enjoyed Afternoon Tea onsite at the Orangery (see under Eat/Drink below).Kensington Palace
  • London Eye – Reserve tickets in advance to skip the long lines and visit at sunset so you see the city both during the daylight and as the city lights begin to turn on.  This was a great experience for our first night to help us get a feel for the layout of the city.  The ride lasts 30 minutes.IMG_7034
  • Big Ben – FREE! Of course you have to see the famous clock tower! Make sure to visit both at night and during the day.
  • Tower of London – Buy your tickets online in advance and pick up from the Group Tickets counter onsite to avoid lines. This palace was the home of many former monarchs and has a rich, dark history (many know it as the site of Anne Boleyn’s beheading).  The Beefeaters (guards officially called Yeoman Warders) guide a FREE tour every hour on the hour leaving from the front gate – I highly recommend taking it to learn some fascinating bits of history.  Don’t miss the Crown Jewel exhibit… you’ll have to wait in line once you get inside the complex, but they are absolutely stunning. It’s also here that you’ll get some fabulous views of old Tower Bridge.
  • Borough Market – Across the London Bridge, you’ll find an outdoor farmer’s market with lots of unique, local foods to eat.
  • IMG_7072Old London – FREE! This area of London was the central town in Shakespeare/Elizabeth I times. Download Rick Steves’ audio guide to walk through the area and learn about the Great Fire, the many churches built afterwards by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren, Fleet Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the original Twinnings tea shop and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub where Charles Dickens and Dr. Johnson wrote and drank.
  • Westminster Walking Tour – We took an awesome walking tour with Free Tours by Foot (the tour is technically free, but they work for tips) of the beautiful Westminster area. We began at Buckingham Palace for the Parade of the Horse Guard and Changing of the Guard.  Seeing these events in this tour saved us tons of time and allowed us to get the best view – we are so glad we didn’t wake up early to spend hours waiting at the gate to watch. We saw St. James Palace (built for Anne Boleyn by Henry VIII), 10 Downing Street, the former location of White Hall Palace, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
  • British Museum – FREE! This beautiful museum is open to the public and displays many historic artifacts.  The museum website has great guides for what to see if you only have an hour, 3 hours or all day at the museum. Highlights for us were the Rosetta Stone, Egyptian mummies, Parthenon sculptures and Assyrian lion hunt reliefs.
  • IMG_7178Windsor Castle – There are so many options for day-trips outside London and I had such hard time choosing… I don’t regret this choice at all! It was easy to get there: train to Windsor/Eaton Central from Paddington Station in London (40 minutes total). When we arrived, it was lunchtime, so we stopped for meat pies & pints at the Duchess of Cambridge pub across the street from the castle. It was not crowded at all this time of year (late March) so we got right in with no lines.  You get a free audio guide to take you through the castle’s main sites: the State Apartments and St. George’s Chapel. The State Apartments are just stunning with medieval knights armor, swords, guns and coats of arms all over. In St. George’s Chapel, you’ll find the burial sites of Charles I, Henry VIII and Jan Seymour. Plus, you are likely to see another Changing of the Guard while you are there.

Where to Eat & Drink:

  • IMG_3815Breakfast: The Muffin Man – This adorable place was just around the corner from our apartment in South Kensington.  We both got pots of tea to drink, then hubby got the full English Breakfast (complete with baked beans) and I chose toasted scones with clotted cream and jam. Everything was delicious and it was a ton of food for super reasonable pricing.
  • IMG_3829Fish & Chips: Rock & Sole Plaice – The oldest place for fish and chips still makes everything according to their original recipe. We chose the cod fish and chips – the regular is a huge serving. The homemade tartar sauce was amazing!
  • Pub Pies & Pints: Barrowboy and Banker Ale and Pie – This old bank building was transformed into a pub and the keep the beer in the old vault and cellars below.  We grabbed a couple of local pints and shared a meat pie for lunch, which was perfectly filling and delicious.
  • IMG_3728Afternoon Tea: Orangery Restaurant at Kensington Palace – This beautiful building is just off the palace gardens and is the perfect setting for Afternoon Tea.  At 27£ per person, it is one of the more reasonable options.  You can add glasses of champagne for an additional cost. The three-tiered tray of food is certainly enough for a meal – we barely finished it between the two of us.  It includes a selection of tea sandwiches (I loved the egg mayonnaise and hubby loved the coronation chicken curry wrap), soft scones with decadent clotted cream and strawberry jam, and several delicious mini desserts on top.  As for teas, the Lady Earl Grey was my favorite!
  • IMG_3811Curry: Dishoom – Our BEST meal of the trip… do not miss this spot!  There are several locations around London and all will have a queue if you arrive after 7, maybe earlier. The drinks (especially the green tea old fashioned) are amazing and the food is unforgettable.  Our server was great in helping guide us through the menu and decide on what to order, so if you’ve never tried Indian food, don’t let it scare you.
  • Cocktails: The Blind Pig in Soho – With a very speakeasy-like entrance (we almost missed it!), this cool bar had some incredible hand-crafted cocktails.

P.S. Looking for more details? I reviewed hotels, restaurants and sites on TripAdvisor here. Or, feel free to email me with questions and for more details at healthyhopefulblog(at)gmail.com.

Vacation to Paris, France

I’m currently writing a five-part blog series all about the details of our travels to Europe the past 2 years. So far, I’ve covered our time in Italy with the Amalfi Coast, Rome and Tuscany+Florence+Venice+More.  Today, I’m sharing about our 4 days in Paris, France!

Paris, France

Getting There: We flew into and out of Paris Orly airport – much easier to navigate than Charles De Gaulle airport and closer to central Paris. You can take a bus, the RER train or a short drive in a taxi directly to town – all easy to find when you arrive.

Where to Stay: Anywhere in central Paris that is close to a Metro subway stop will be perfect for navigating the city. We stayed in a rental apartment just a block from the Siene in the 7th arrondissement (district); it was walking distance to several main sites and just across the street from a Metro station.

What to See, Do, Eat & Drink: Here’s how we spent our four days in Paris…

Day 1 (a half-day due to travel)

  • Eifel TowerPicnic at the Eiffel Tower – We found fresh baguettes, coconut macaroons and pan au chocolat (chocolate croissants) at Le Moulin de la Veirge bakery on our walk towards the Eiffel Tower. We saw on the lawn gazing up at the towering monument, enjoying the delicious carbs.
  • Sunset Seine River Cruise – I’m so glad we did this our first night to get a feel for the layout of the city. There are several boat companies to choose from and I would highly recommend the one we took – Vendettes du Pont; it’s a smaller boat than the other cruise, was only 10 euros and the tour guide’s English was very understandable. Sunset was the perfect time as we sawEifel Tower Lights the city by sunlight on the first half of our journey and then saw the city lights for the second half. Get a glass of wine, sit on the top and enjoy!
  • Eiffel Tower at Night – You must visit this site both during the day and at night. When the sun sets, the twinkling lights on the tower are just magical!

Day 2

  • Musée de l’Orangerie – We visited this museum first because the line is shorter (only an hour) to buy the combo entrance ticket to this and the d’Orsay for 16 euro. I absolutely loved this small museum…the gallery with Renoir and Picasso paintings and the spectacular Monet waterlily murals.
  • Jardin des Tuileries – The beautiful gardens next to l’Orangerie and the Louvre are perfect for a relaxing stroll. We found a cafe here to eat lunch at and enjoyed quiche Lorraine and a croque madame.Tuilleries
  • Sainte-Chapelle – A royal, gothic chapel with stunning stained glass windows illustrating key moments in the Old and New Testaments.Sainte Chapelle
  • Notre Dame – Just down the street, you can walk inside this incredible church for free. The arch ceilings and overall grandness of the place were just phenomenal.
  • IMG_3384Crepes at Aux Ducs de Bourgogne – This family-run restaurant serves delicious, authentic savory and sweet crepes with house-made cider. The apple caramel crepe for dessert was amazing. Plus, they are gluten-free!
  • The Louvre – My husband had already faced the massive crowds to visit this museum once and said “so not worth it;” instead, we opted to visit just the outside in the evening. We enjoyed a violinist playing as we explored the pyramids and building’s exterior.

Day 3

  • Croissants and Coffee at Brasserie Bourbon – We visited this place around the corner from our apartment, both for breakfast and drinks. It’s right across from several government buildings and filled with politicians and government workers. The food, drinks and prices were good – definitely get a hot chocolate if you visit when it’s chilly!
  • Orsay ClockMusée d’Orsay – This old train station turned museum is filled with masterpieces, and the building itself will dazzle you also (peak inside the restaurant if you don’t eat there!). When we arrived, we skipped the line (see Musée de l’Orangerie) and went straight to the 5th floor Impressionism gallery.  The works by Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Picasso were beautiful.  We quickly walked through the rest of the museum, but then got hungry to head for lunch…
  • Pre Aux Clercs – The French onion soup here was to-die-for. My mouth is watering just thinking back.
  • MacaronsMacarons at Ladurée – We stopped for a decadent dessert across the street- incredible macarons in all different flavors… the Marie Antoinette was my favorite. You must try this French treat!
  • Arc de Triomphe – Visit this monument commissioned by Napoleon where 12 streets converge into one intersection. Then follow down the Champs-Élysées to do some window-shopping.
  • Picnic on the Seine River – Do as the locals do: grab a baguette and bottle of champagne and enjoy a picnic along the banks of the Seine River.Siene

Day 4 

  • Boys Day Trip to Roland Garros (The French Open) – A quick 30 minute Metro ride away, the boys had purchased tickets to the French Open and enjoyed a day watching the pros play tennis on the clay courts of Roland Garros.
  • IMG_5838Girls Day Trip to Versailles – An easy RER C train ride takes you to the countryside to the beautiful palace. Buy tickets in advance, but still expect to wait in a shorter 30 minute line to get in. You’ll get a free audio guide to take you through the Palace. It was just as beautiful as I had dreamed – the gilded ceilings, marble mantelpieces, enormous chandeliers and the Hall of Mirrors. After seeing the palace, we walked through the gardens to the Grand Canal and then on to the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon (where Marie Antoinette lived).

P.S. Looking for more details? I reviewed hotels, restaurants and sites on TripAdvisor here. Or, feel free to email me with questions and for more details at healthyhopefulblog(at)gmail.com.

Vacation to Italy – Tuscany, Florence, Venice & More!

In case you missed it, I’m doing a five-part blog series all about the details of our travels to Europe the past 2 years.  So far, I’ve covered Rome and the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Today, I’m sharing about our week-long journey to the central-northern part of Italy including Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Lucca, Maranello & Venice.

We rented a car in Rome and my brave husband drove the windy roads of Tuscany with the daring Italian drivers. We found the most incredible Tuscan villa on Homeaway… located on an olive farm in the country up on a hill, close to the town of Lucca. It was about a 3-hour drive north from Rome and was was our home-base for most of the week and we either drove or took the train to each destination as day-trips from there. The benefit of staying in a rental home is that we were able to cook breakfast and dinner at home and just eat lunch while we were out for the day – it saved lots of money, especially compared to the cost of a hotel. And our experience felt so much more authentic! Here’s how we spent our whirlwind week:

Tuscany – Day 1

If you can rent a car and drive through Tuscany, I highly recommend it. It was absolutely a dream seeing the rolling hills, walled towns, fields of poppies and vineyards. As we drove north from Rome, we made two stops:

MontepulcianoMontepulciano – This beautiful walled town sits up on a hill and offers stunning views of the countryside. We visited the Piazza Grande for a quick lunch, enjoying the view of a medieval church and town tower. Next, we visited a couple of the town wine cellars built underground in Etruscan caves. We only had a couple hours here but I probably could have spent a day wandering the whole town.

Siena DuomoSiena – Visiting the enormous main square – the Piazza il Campo – and its tall Palazza Pubblico tower was our first stop in town.  Get a gelato and join the crowd of locals enjoying the day. Then, we visited the gothic Duomo – quite beautiful. I’ve heard great things about climbing to the top to see the views, but we didn’t have the time. Siena is charming and retains so much of its medieval vibe!

Note: If you drive and visit any of these towns, be sure to park outside the city (you’ll pay for parking) and walk in.  They will charge you a fee for driving within the city… it’s only open to locals with a special permit.

Pisa – Day 2

Pisa is the most touristy place we visited in all of Italy. There are tons of people visiting from cruise ships and lots of tour groups. When you arrive in town, you are accosted by vendors selling cheesy souvenirs and the traffic is crazy. But, if you can make it past all that and through the wall separating the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) – it’s all worth it. Those vendors aren’t allowed in there and the craziness dies down a bit… you are met with the most beautiful green lawn area, a perfect setting for the sites:

  • Leaning Tower of PisaBaptistery – Italy’s largest; climb to the top of this domed building for great views of the area. The wooden pulpit made by Pisano is also quite interesting.
  • Duomo – FREE! Enter through the last remaining Romanesque bronze doors into the stunning church, covered with gilded ceilings and medieval paintings. You’ll also find the open tomb of the patron saint of Pisa.
  • Leaning Tower – The church bell tower is the main site, of course. We didn’t go inside, but it’s still fascinating to look at from the outside. Grab a gelato and enjoy the people-watching of everyone taking pictures with the tower.

We only spent a couple of hours in Pisa, so it’s the perfect road trip for a day when you want to get some rest!

Florence – Day 3

Getting There: Taking the train to Florence was super easy – it puts you right in the center of town for a quick walk to the sites. We arrived in the morning and then took a train out that evening, buying our tickets right at the station.  Most station workers speak enough English to help guide you to the right platform, so definitely ask for help.

Sites to See: 

  • DuomoFlorenceFREE! The exterior is over-the-top, while the interior is quite simple compared to other churches we saw. The frescoes on the dome are quite amazing.
  • Baptistery – Right across the street, this was under construction when we visited so we didn’t go inside, but the bronze doors on the outside are gorgeous – known as the Gates of Paradise.
  • Ponte Vecchio – The main bridge over the Arno river offers a beautiful view of the city and a chance to do some jewelry shopping as it is lined with vendor stalls.
  • Accademia Gallery – Reserve tickets online in advance (10.50 €) and pick them up in a shop across the street. FlorenceEven the “reserved” line was an hour wait because of the limit of people in the building at one time.  Walk-ups were sure to wait for hours. This museum is where you’ll find the famous statue of David – it is so much larger than I expected and really was amazing (I snuck a picture on my phone!). The half-finished Slaves statues by Michelangelo were also pretty neat.
  • Uffizi Gallery – Again, reserve your tickets online in advance (10.50 €); you’ll walk right in here. This museum is huge and would take hours to fully explore. It’s filled with Renaissance paintings and several masterpieces you’ll remember from art history: The Birth of Venus and Primavera by Botticelli, The Annunciation by Leonardo di Vinci, Holy Family by Michelangelo and Giotto’s Maesta, Madonna of the Long Neck and Venus of Urbino. Download Rick Steves’ audio guide to help you find the highlights of the museum if you only have a couple hours.

Spending just one day in Florence was certainly a whirlwind. If I went back, I would spread it out over two days to get a better feel for the city. Plus, two museums in one day is always exhausting, but it would be hard to pick just one!

Where to Eat:

  • FlorenceIl Due Fratellini – Visit this tiny shop in an alley to get a delicious, fresh panini and glass of wine for only 5€ – I got the arugula, truffle & pecorino with champagne. Stand in the shade of the alley to eat and drink so you can return your glass when you finish.  This was one of my favorite meal experiences in Italy!
  • Cafe Carrozze – Grab a gelato and enjoy the view of the Arno river.
  • Venchi – Another place to stop for delicious gelato – this place is famous for their chocolate, so that’s certainly the flavor to pick.

Cinque Terre – Day 4

Cinque Terre, part of the Italian Riviera, is a section of the coast with a cluster of 5 small towns covered in colorful homes. There is a train and plenty of hiking trails that join each them together.  Depending on the amount of time you have to explore, you can visit all five or pick a few – we picked three to see.

Getting There: We drove to La Spezia, a port city just south of Cinque Terre, and took the train from there to the towns. We started by going to the furthest town which is only a 15 minute train ride away – Monterosso al Mare.

Monterosso al Mare – This was my favorite town that we visited in the area. It’s more spacious than the rest and has a large, beautiful beach. It offers a great view of the town next to it – Vernazza. We ate lunch in town at Via Venti – incredible, fresh seafood and a glass of the local white wine.

Vernazza – A two minute train ride from the previous town has a cool natural harbor and a small beach you can access through a cave right off the main street. If you’ve seen pictures of Cinque Terre, this is one of the most common ones – apparently there are some great views of it from the hiking trails above, but they were closed due to mudslides from rain earlier in the year. This town was quite touristy and not so clean, so we ate some gelato on the beach, then hopped a train to the next town.

Manarola – You’ll ride the train through a tunnel where locals slept during the WWII bombing raids and arrive in the colorful town to a piazza full of children playing. There’s no beach here, but there’s a rocky, deep swimming hole. We enjoyed limoncello (there’s debate if the beverage originated in this region or the Amalfi Coast) at a bar balled Zio Bramante and then followed the Rick Steves’ walking tour hike to see the town from the hills. There were so many stairs that I lost count, but walking through vineyards and lemon trees to see the colorful landscape was so worth it.

Lucca – Day 5

LuccaThis beautiful town is known for the Renaissance walls that still stand around the historic city center. Trees line the path all the way around the top of the wall. Rent a bike for an hour or two and ride around the top of the wall, enjoying the surrounding landscape and a peak into the gardens and homes below. Then, ride through the town on its cobblestone streets and explore the lovely old churches.   We stopped for a refreshing glass of wine after our bike ride at a place called Fuordi di Piazza.

Cooking ClassAfter visiting the main town, we drove just outside town to a private cooking class with Chef Paolo Monti at the Cucina Italiana cooking school. We learned how to make fresh pasta and thirteen different pasta sauces. It was incredible to go behind-the-scenes with a chef who cooks for his restaurant daily and learn his authentic recipes.  He told us about how he visits the local farmer’s market daily to get fresh seafood, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables.  We started by chopping lots of fresh produce and then throwing it in pots on the stove with plenty of locally grown & produced olive oil.  PastaThe sauces were all made from fresh veggies and tomatoes, real cream, pancetta, and lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  One of the best parts was that he had his pots of fresh herbs right on the kitchen counter and would pick them straight off the plant, tear them up and throw them in the pots as we cooked.  Every ingredient was simple and fresh.  If you ever go to Italy – do this!  It’s in my top lifetime experiences and taught us so much more about the culture we were visiting.  Plus, it was the best meal of our trip!  My brother wrote all about the class on his travel blog here.

Maranello – Day 6

This day was mainly a travel day for us as we packed up from our home in Tuscany and drove across the country to the other coast. Maranello was a perfect mid-way point and a reward for my husband for driving us all over Italy as it is the home of Ferrari!  We had an incredible pizza for lunch at Pizzeria Bufala – the owner taught us all about the farms where he gets his organic mozzarella.

MaranelloThen, we drove down the red rose-lined streets to the Ferrari Museum.  The exhibits are very well done and fascinating for even those who are not into cars (me!). They had a California Dreaming exhibit while we were there with all the old cars in famous movies and tv shows. If you’d like to test-drive a Ferrari, there are plenty of places to rent them all over town.

Venice – Day 7

Where to Stay: Venice is a bit expensive, and we had a hard time finding a place that fit our budget. So, we opted to stay in a town just north – Treviso – at the modern, intimate Hotel Rovere, with a lovely breakfast included.

Getting There: From Treviso, we took the train (only 6€ round-trip) into Venice St. Lucia station – a quick ride that puts you right in front of the Grand Canal.

Sites to See:

  • The streets, bridges and canals of Venice are romantic and beautiful! Get lost. Wander around aimlessly. You won’t regret it.
  • St. Mark’s Square – This square is filled with cafes, pigeons, orchestras and lots of tourists. You’ll notice the crowds thicken as you get closer. It offers a great view of the lagoon and is surrounded by the beautiful Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica (visit the inside for free if the line isn’t too long).
  • Rialto Bridge – Stop for a quick picture or pass under it as you take the vaporetto water taxi through the Grand Canal.
  • Gondolier Lessons – Instead of paying for an expensive gondola ride, get the experience of what its like to steer one. My brother, dad and husband took the lessons – you can read all about their experience here.

Where to Eat & Drink:

  • Aperol SpritzCantina Aziendale Agricola – Take a break from the heat in a bar filled with locals.  We we got the best (& cheapest!) Aperol Spritz – a cocktail created in Venice.
  • de Mamo – Down the tiniest alley, we found this romantic little spot for lunch and had the most incredible meal – maccheroni with asparagus and crab. Plus, they bring you complimentary truffles for dessert.
  • Grom – Yummy, organic gelato!

P.S. Looking for more details? I reviewed hotels, restaurants and sites on TripAdvisor here. Or, feel free to email me with questions and for more details at healthyhopefulblog(at)gmail.com.

 

Vacation to Rome, Italy

In case you missed it, I’m doing a five-part blog series all about the details of our travels to Europe the past 2 years. I started with our week in the Amalfi Coast and today is all about my favorite city in the world – Rome!

Here’s a quick overview of our two trips and the destinations I’ll be covering. In May 2014, we visited Rome, northern Italy (Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Lucca, Maranello & Venice) and Paris over 16 days with my family. In April 2016, my husband and I visited London, then returned to Italy to the Amalfi Coast and back to Rome over 13 days.  Follow my blog to make sure you get all future posts delivered directly to your inbox!

Rome – The Eternal City

Getting There: You will likely fly into Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino airport, which is only about 30 minutes from central Rome and it’s easy to get to the city from there.  Taxis are expensive and often charge extra surprise rates for luggage, so I’d recommend either taking the train into the city or hiring a private car service… ask your hotel or vacation rental host about this option – the flat rate is 50€.

You can also take the train into the city from another destination in Italy or Europe. We took the TrenItalia rail line from the Amalfi Coast and arrived at the station in the center of Rome (Roma Termini). We used Google maps to figure out a quick bus from there to our apartment and it was easy!

Rome is an old city and the streets are small and not always accessible to vehicles. I wouldn’t recommend driving there, but we did rent a car to drive away from the city up to Tuscany and that was simple- just get on the highway immediately and be prepared for lots of round-a-bouts on your drive through Italy!

Piazza NovanaWhere to Stay: Both times we have visited Rome, we have stayed near the Piazza Navona and loved our location. It’s perfectly in the center of town and within walking distance to all the sites and lots of great restaurants. The first time we visited, we stayed in this HomeAway apartment just steps from the Piazza Navona. It was a bit loud at night (Italians like to stay up really late!) but fit 5 of us perfectly, and for a good price.  On our visit last month, we stayed in this Airbnb apartment just down the street… away from the noise and perfect for the two of us. We loved the atmosphere of the apartment and our host was very responsive. Plus, you can’t beat that price! Sign up with this link and get get $20 in travel credit for your next vacation.

Sites to See: There are so many incredible historical sites to see in Rome and certainly something for everyone.  We are not much for museums and churches, so we limited our time spent in those. Here are my picks for 10 can’t-miss sites in Rome and how much time you might want to allow to see them:

  1. Colosseum (1 hour)What’s more iconic Rome than this towering site? Get there when it opens and reserve tickets in advance so you don’t have to wait in line. We took a private tour and it was incredible to learn all about the history of the Gladiator games, how religion was involved and the politics surrounding the build. It also provides a great view of the city, especially many of the sites in the Roman Forum you should visit next.
  2. Trevi Fountain (15 minutes) – FREE! You’re walking down narrow streets and suddenly happen upon this beauty. Trevi FountainThe Bernini sculpture is awe-inspiring (if you like this sculpture, visit the boat at the bottom of the Spanish Steps and the fountains at Piazza Navona) Bring a coin to throw in the fountain with your right hand over your left shoulder to ensure you return to Rome…. it’s worked for us so far! Be sure to visit both during the day and when it is lit up at night.
  3. Roman Forum (2 hours) – Right next to the Colosseum… this is the heart of ancient Rome. It was part of our private tour, but you can also download a Rick Steves’ free audio walking tour and listen while you walk. I recommend visiting in the morning before it gets hot (there is not much shade) and buying tickets in advance so you can walk right in. Start at the Arch of Constantine and walk through to see the ruins of ancient temples and the main forum where Romans would gather for political discussions and commerce.
  4. Pantheon (30 minutes) – FREE! A unique domed building framed with a portico of Corinthian columns. PantheonThe rotunda fits a perfect sphere and is topped with its “oculus” as the only source of natural light. It was built originally as a temple to all the gods and is now a Catholic church (they will constantly remind you to be quiet by yelling “silenzio!”). The famous painter Raphael is buried there, as well as the first two kings and a queen of Italy. I recommend downloading Rick Steves’ free audio walking tour and listening to it while you are there.  This is also a great site to visit at night when it’s all lit up.
  5. Borghese Gardens (1 hour) – FREE! A beautiful public park with gardens and some great views of the city. Rent a bike and ride around to enjoy an afternoon!
  6. Vatican Museums (2 hours) – These museums are some of the best in the world thanks to the very rich Popes and Catholic church. You could spend hours and hours in each gallery, but we took a guided tour to see the highlights. Buy tickets in advance to avoid waiting in the hours-long line to enter. You’ll see the famous statues of Apollo, Laoconte and Hercules, animal statues and mosaics from ancient Roman homes, a gallery of 16th century maps, silk wall tapestries and gilded ceilings (the interior decoration is as lavish as the artifacts themselves).
  7. Sistine Chapel (20 minutes) – You’ll enter the chapel on your way from the Vatican museums to St. Peter’s Basilica. It is silent inside to appreciate the enchanting ceiling masterpiece painted by Michelangelo, reflecting the story of creation when God gave life to man.
  8. Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (20 minutes) – FREE! This church is the home of the chains that held St. Peter in prison and you will see them encased in front of the altar. But the main star to me is Michelangelo’s Moses statue to the right of the altar. A beautiful sculpture you can donate a euro to light up (or wait til someone else puts in a coin).  For a church so plain on the outside, it was quite beautiful inside!
  9. Travestere neighborhood (1 hour) – FREE! Just south of central Rome across the Tiber River via Isola Tiberina (the island). You’ll see beautiful medieval buildings, cute cafes and two stunning churches – St. Cecilia and Santa Maria (apparently the first church to honor the virgin Mary). I recommend downloading Rick Steves’ free audio walking tour and listening to it – it was fascinating and guides you to the main sites.
  10. Streets of Rome – FREE! Of course you’ll get to walk the streets from one site to another, but take some time to wander aimlessly on the old streets… take the smaller ones that are less crowded. You’ll happen upon some beautiful buildings and lovely cafes perfect for a cappuccino or Aperol Spritz. Simply walking around the city is one of my favorite parts of Rome… especially at night when everything is lit up so romantically. Just be sure to wear good shoes – your feet will thank you!

Where to Eat & Drink:

  • CarbonaraRistorante Maccheroni (near Pantheon) – This authentic Roman restaurant was recommended by our airbnb host and it did not disappoint. The homemade tonnarelli pasta carbonara was delicious!
  • Caffe Ciampini (near Spanish Steps) – Outstanding views, romantic patio, great food and service. A bit pricey, but worth it for a special night!
  • Piccolo Arancio (near Trevi) – Lovely place away from the Trevi-tourist craze and full of locals. The fried artichoke and orange cream ravioli were superb!
  • L’Antica Bierra Peroni (near Trevi) – get there before 7 or plan to wait in line with the locals… this beer and sausage pub has great food and drinks for even better prices!
  • Caprese SaladLa Taverna dei Fori Imperiali (near Colosseum) – adorable family-run place full of locals for lunch… had the best caprese salad there!
  • San Crispini – Gelato (near Pantheon) – we’ve been there 4 times now in two trips! The serving size is good and flavors are awesome – our favorites are chocolate hazelnut and straccietella (Italy’s yummy version of chocolate chip!)
  • Frigidarium – Gelato (near Piazza Navona) – this place was right around the corner from our apartment and had a line every time we passed it. Totally worth the wait… huge serving of delicious gelato that you can get dipped in dark chocolate for free.
  • Ask for the house wine – We always ask for the house wine (specify white or red) whenever we visit a restaurant in Italy. The quality has always been great and it will save you lots of $$. You can order by the glass, 1/2 liter or liter.
  • Drink from the water fountains – As you are walking the streets of Rome, you’ll see water fountains all over. Carry your water bottle and fill it up for refreshing, cool water straight from the aqueducts that’s totally safe to drink!

Add this place to your bucket list and enjoy the beautiful city of Rome!

P.S. Looking for more details? I reviewed hotels, restaurants and sites on TripAdvisor here. Or, feel free to email me with questions and for more details at healthyhopefulblog(at)gmail.com.

Vacation to the Amalfi Coast, Italy

Welcome, new blog followers!! I know that many of you discovered my blog through my Instagram photos of our recent trip to Europe… You asked and I’m answering- this post begins a five-part blog series with all the details on our trips to Europe. Healthy & Hopeful is not a travel blog, but I’m a big fan of vacations and the importance of having a work-life balance to reduce stress for better health.

Here’s a quick overview of our two trips and the destinations I’ll be covering. In May 2014, we visited Rome, northern Italy (Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Florence, Lucca, Maranello & Venice) and Paris over 16 days with my family. In April 2016, my husband and I visited London, then returned to Italy to the Amalfi Coast and back to Rome over 13 days.

Today, I’m starting by sharing the highlights from our most recent trip to the Amalfi Coast:

Sorrento

Getting There: We flew into Naples, so the easiest way to get to Sorrento was on the Curreri bus – as soon as you walk out of the airport, it’s parked right in front (Curreri is the bus company name – you’ll see a paper sign on the front window). You buy your ticket for 10€ cash right from your driver. The drive was supposed to take an hour, but traffic made it closer to two. The bus will drop you off at the train station in central Sorrento.

Sorrento AirbnbWhere to Stay: From, the train station in Sorrento and walked 10 minutes down the street to our Airbnb (get $20 travel credit here). Our 3rd floor apartment (totally worth the stairs!) for $100/night had a beautiful balcony and view of the hillside and was perfectly located to explore Sorrento. Sorrento is easy to walk around and fairly compact, so as long as you stay near the town center, you’ll find your location convenient. There are several hotels up in the hills that I’m sure have incredible views, but we liked being able to walk everywhere rather than wait for a shuttle.

Where to Eat:

  • Taverna dell’ 800 – We ate a quick lunch here and enjoyed homemade pasta & prosecco for cheap.
  • Gelato @ Raki – I’m not sure why everyone raves about Davide… the service, portions, pricing and taste are all way better at Raki. We loved it!
  • Ristorante ‘O Parrucchiano La Favorita – Breathtaking atmosphere… rooftop Mediterranean garden perfect for a romantic night. The service and food were great too – I highly recommend the Taste of Sorrento pasta IMG_3968dish: homemade gnocchi, ravioli & cannelloni tossed in the local Sorrento tomato sauce.
  • Ristorante Bagni Delfino – This was our favorite meal in Italy… it’s on the Marina Grande, on a pier over the water with a view of Bay of Naples & Mt. Vesuvius. We had the seafood risotto & gnocchi di sorrento- both were huge but we ate the entire plate they were so delicious. Plus, they bring free bruschetta & limoncello. Make reservations!

IMG_7191For Beautiful Views: There are two public parks on the edge of town that are at the top of the cliffs rising above the sea – both provide fantastic views of the Bay of Naples, Mt. Vesuvius and the beaches & piers down below:IMG_3935

  • Piazza della Vittoria – be sure to peak into the colorful, wisteria-framed terrace of the Hotel Bellevue Syrene next to this park.
  • Villa Comunale – on your way in/out, take a peak into the cool, columned garden of the Convento di San Francesco

Shopping in Sorrento: There are SO many small shops throughout Sorrento you can spend hours walking through the narrow streets browsing. My two favorites were:

  • Sapori e Colori Fabbrica di Limoncello – This limoncello production shop will welcome you with tastings of chilled limoncello and an assortment of lemon treats – chocolates and cookies with limoncello filling. We also bought a hand-painted ceramic limoncello cup here to remember Sorrento by.
  • Antica Sartoria – This women’s clothing shop is full of super cute beach wear for reasonable prices. (Quite a contrast to all the other expensive linen shops in town)

Nearby Day Trips: Sorrento is the perfect home base for exploring sites nearby. We took a couple of days to visit the ruins of Pompeii and the island of Capri.

Pompeii

Getting There: The Circumvesuviana train leaves from Sorrento every hour and is a 20-30 ride through the mountain tunnels to the ruins of Pompeii (get off at Pompeii Scavi stop). You can purchase your round-trip ticket at the ticket office at the station and you will likely see the train sitting there waiting for you.

Touring the Ruins: Instead of paying for an audio guide, we downloaded the Rick Steves Pompeii walking tour guide on our phones (you do not have to have service or wifi to listen once you’ve downloaded). His walking tour was great, included a map to help guide you – though you should pick up a free map at the ticket office too – and helped us see just the main sites. The ruins of Pompeii cover a very large area and it would really take days to see all of it. You would waste a lot of time with the self-guided option, seeing things that may not be as remarkable. Rick Steves’ guide included 18 major sites & we walked over to see the Amphitheater (mini Colosseum). We spent around 4 hours there and it was just perfect.

What to Wear: Pompeii is HOT, so dress accordingly. There is little breeze and the ruins attract sunlight & provide little shade. Pompeii was probably 15 degrees warmer than Sorrento. Also, wear tennis shoes. The streets are really rough to walk on and your feet will hurt if you don’t, I promise.

Capri

Getting There: Take a 20-30 minute ferry ride (schedule) to the island from Marina Piccola. You’ll see the ticket office (arrive early to get a spot) or you can book online. I highly recommend leaving by 9 am so you can get there early to begin your day (we slept in and felt rushed all day). To take advantage of a round-trip ticket price, you’ll have to leave the island on the 4 pm ferry.

IMG_7368Exploring the Island: When you arrive, you’ll dock at Marina Grande. As soon as you get there, head over to the Motoscafisti Capri ticket booth and book your boat tour around the island. Choose the 2 hour tour that goes all the way around the island- it’s only a couple more euros and a way better deal than the other two short rides that only go to one main site each.  On your tour of the island, you’ll see several different caves, the ruins of Villa Jovis (home of Emperor Tiberius), and the famous rock formation Faraglioni rocks – and you’ll drive through the arch, kiss & make a wish! The last stop is the Blue Grotto, a beautiful glowing blue cave with a tiny opening… small row boats will come to your boat and you pay them 13€ cash to row you inside for 5 minutes. I didn’t think it would be worth the price but it was truly a once in a lifetime experience!

After our boat tour, we took a very full bus 20 minutes up to the town of Anacapri. We visited Villa San Michele (entry is 7€ cash), a house museum created by the 19th century Swedish writer and physician Axel Munthe.  The villa has the most heavenly gardens and incredible panoramic views of the island.

Capri is expensive, so budget accordingly. We only ate lunch on the island but all the transportation really added up. It was worth it for a day-trip, but we certainly couldn’t have afforded to stay overnight.

Positano

Getting There: We took the SITA bus from Sorrento to Positano – it leaves from the main station and you can buy your ticket directly from the driver. Get there early as the seats will fill up fast.

When we left Positano to go to Rome, we took the ferry from Positano to Salerno (a 70 minute ride). The 5 minute walk from the port to the Salerno train station was easy with luggage and to navigate. You can then take a train to all the major cities in Italy – the trip to Rome only took a little over 2 hours. I highly recommend buying your ticket online in advance to save money.

IMG_4013Where to Stay: We stayed at Hotel Savoia and loved it! We booked on TripAdvisor for a very reasonable price. The hotel is located up on the hill, great for a beautiful view, and a great location, close to both the SITA bus stop and the walkway down to the beach. We booked a Double room with partial sea view – perfect because while you want to see the water, the colorful homes that make up the town are the most beautiful part of Positano. We loved spending evenings on our private balcony drinking vino & playing cards.

What to Do: Positano is known for it’s beaches, so definitely spend some time there. Spaggia Grande is the main, larger beach, but a 10 minute walk along Via dei Positanesi d’America will get you to a smaller, less crowded beach: Spiaggia del Fornillo.  When you’re not at a beach, walk the steps of town browsing ceramic, beachwear and sandal shops. Don’t forget to peak inside the gold-domed church – Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta.

IMG_7434

IMG_4086Where to Eat:

  • Ristorante Max – art gallery + wine bar… they have a beautiful terrace, great service and incredible food. Get the fresh fish of the day!
  • CHEZ BLACK – This place is right on the beach, so it’s a bit pricey, but we enjoyed our meal and view there. Since we went right at the start of the season (early April), it was one of the few places open.
  • Vini é Panini (The Wine Shop) – Get sandwiches (ask for proscuitto & mozzarella), prosecco & fresh fruit for a picnic on the beach or on your hotel balcony on a rainy night. Note: this does not show up on Google maps, so to find it, IMG_4021go to the church and face away from it – it is just down the steps to the right.
  • Lemon Granita Stand – The best local granitas were from this small stand that opens in the afternoon near the corner of Via dei Mulini and Via Cristoforo Colombo next door to Antica Sartoria.

Day Trips Nearby: Positano was our favorite town on the Amalfi Coast, and I am so glad we chose it as a base to explore the area from. We took a couple of days and explored nearby Amalfi and Ravello.

Amalfi

You can take a SITA bus (ride could be up to 1 hour, arrive early at the stop for a spot) or a ferry (20 minute ride). Either option will drop you off just a block away from the main piazza.IMG_7532

When we arrived in Amalfi, we walked to the piazza and climbed the stairs up to the massive Duomo – apparently where the apostle Andrew is buried. The inside is just beautiful! We spent the rest of our day touring a lemon farm, tasting limoncello and taking a cooking class with the Amalfi Lemon Experience – read all about that incredible experience here.

Ravello

Take the SITA bus (20 minute ride) up to Ravello from Amalfi. You can buy your ticket from the Tabbachi shop across from the bus stop. Ravello is a small town up high on the mountain with beautiful views. There are two main Villas where you can enjoy panoramic views of the coast:

  • Villa Cimbrone – at the far edge of town… we walked all the way there to find out they were closed for movie filming. womp womp.
  • Villa Rufolo – when you enter town through the tunnel, on your left. It’s an ancient villa with beautiful gardens and views. We were not disappointed.

IMG_1748

IMG_1746Eat lunch at family-run Cumpa Cosimo for a delicious meal and friendly service. The fresh mushroom fettuccine was one of my favorite meals of the trip. Plus, they provided complimentary bruschetta and chocolate cream profiterole for dessert. Longhorn fans – look for the Bevo!

We spent about 3 hours in Ravello; it’s a perfect morning or afternoon trip, leaving the rest of your day to enjoy the beach.

The Amalfi Coast was absolutely stunning and one of the favorite places we’ve visited in Italy – it’s absolutely a destination to add to your bucket list!

What destination should I cover next?

P.S. Looking for more details? I reviewed hotels, restaurants and sites on TripAdvisor here. Or, feel free to email me with questions and for more details at healthyhopefulblog(at)gmail.com.

Thrive Market: My Favorite Deals

If you haven’t yet joined Thrive Market, you are missing out! Think of it as Whole Foods + Costco + Amazon. It’s a membership-based online store full of healthy non-perishable food and household products at fantastic discounts. Plus, they have a great mission to provide healthy groceries to families in need. In my recent post about buying all-organic groceries on a budget, I recommended this as one of my favorite ways to save money (and time)!

Here are a few of my favorite items to purchase and how they compare to the prices I was paying at Whole Foods and elsewhere.

Tomato SauceOrganic Tomato Sauce

  • Thrive Market price: $2.95 for 2 cans
  • Whole Foods price: $4.38 for 2 cans
  • Savings = $1.43 (33%)

Einkorn SpaghettiEinkorn Spaghetti – made from einkorn flour, an ancient wheat that is not toxic like today’s wheat and even safe for many who are gluten-free.

  • Thrive Market price: $2.55
  • Whole Foods price: $3.49
  • Savings = $0.94 (27%)

Honey MustardHoney Mustard Vinaigrette with Avocado Oil – this is the healthiest, yummiest salad dressing you can get… very rare to find one made without toxic vegetable oil!

  • Thrive Market price: $5.65
  • Primal Kitchen Online price: $7.95
  • Savings = $2.30 (29%)

Olive OilOrganic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

  • Thrive Market price: $10.45
  • Whole Foods price: $13.99
  • Savings = $3.54 (25%)

CollagenCollagen Hydrolysate Powder – tasteless and water soluble, I add this to smoothies, soup or juice for collagen support for healthy joints, hair, skin and nails and extra protein

  • Thrive Market price: $16.45
  • Amazon price: $21.49
  • Savings = $5.04 (23%)

Raw Dog FoodRaw Turkey Dehydrated Dog Food – I recently made the switch to this raw dog food and my pup loves it! Learn more about why I switched here.

  • Thrive Market price: $49.95
  • Amazon price: $64.79
  • Savings = $14.84 (23%)

Earl GreyOrganic Earl Grey Tea

  • Thrive Market price: $4.95
  • Whole Foods price: $6.49
  • Savings = $1.54 (24%)

Beef Bone BrothGrass-Fed Beef Bone Broth – I make lots of my own chicken bone broth, but never my own beef bone broth.

  • Thrive Market price: $8.95
  • Amazon price: $15.95
  • Savings = $7.00 (44%)

Graze SticksNitrate-Free Grass-Fed Beef Sticks – these are my favorite easy protein snacks!

  • Thrive Market price: $17.95 for a pack of 12
  • Amazon price: $19.95 for a pack of 12
  • Savings = $2.00 (10%)

Sign up now and save 15% off your first order by using this link! Plus, they will donate a Thrive Membership to a family in need when you purchase yours. P.S. you always get free shipping on orders over $49!

 

Italian Lemon Farm Tour + Cooking Class

Last month, my husband and I took a two week trip to Europe to visit London and southern Italy. We had a wonderful vacation full of stunning views, delicious food and fantastic vino. One of the highlights of the trip was the Amalfi Lemon Experience

Amalfi DuomoWe stayed in the beautiful, small town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast. A short cliff-side drive or ferry ride takes you to the slightly larger town of Amalfi. The main piazza (town square) is a quick walk from the port and the star of the town – the duomo (cathedral) that is absolutely breathtaking both inside and out. We sat at the bottom of the church steps as the morning bells rung and waited for our ride up the hill to the lemon farm.

Valley of the Mills Lemon FarmsThe lemon farm is located up through the town into the Valley of the Mills – a valley lined with lemon groves and old paper mills. When arrived at the Aceto family lemon farm, we toured a small museum with the family’s collection of area artifacts. We learned about the history of the main industries of lemon farming and paper milling – lots of hard work.  This lemon farm has been in the family for many, many generations.

Limoncello ProductionNext, we saw the production room where they make small batch limoncello and then got to sample some! Their limoncello is unique, and especially delicious, because it is made with grappa – an alcohol made from grapes – while most is made with grain alcohol. We tasted regular limoncello, creme di limoncello (think a lemon version of Bailey’s) and a dark chocolate sauce infused with limoncello – all amazing!

Amalfi LemonsWe began the steep trek up each level of the lemon farm, walking through the garden terraces. The Acetos are committed to maintaining a sustainable, organic lemon farm when so many have started using pesticides. They believe in producing high quality fruit that is nutritious, delicious and healing. 

We met the 80 year old patriarch who still works daily on the family farm.  He brought down a basket full of lemons picked fresh. Salvatore, his son and our tour guide/host, pushed his thumbs right into a lemon the size of an orange and cut it into slices with a pocket knife. Each of us ate a whole slice (including the rind) and it was delicious.. soft and sweet, just barely sour. The Aceto family eats several lemons each day and he noted that it is the essential oils in the lemon that keep them healthy. They use lemon as a remedy for all ailments and keep their immune systems strong with natural vitamin C. Sal’s personal anecdote was that he went to work off the farm for several years and was always getting sick… as soon as he returned and lemons re-entered his daily diet, he has been healthy.

Lemon PergolasIt was fascinating to learn about the organic gardening process. If a tree catches a disease, they do everything they can naturally to save it because it takes a new tree 25 years to produce the amount of fruit that the mature, old trees produce.  They use other citrus trees to help graft any the new lemon trees. And the trees are planted under hand crafted wooden pergolas that support the branches and the heavy fruit; plus, it allows the top leaves to provide shade to the fruit below.

Lemonade and Lemon CakeAfter our tour of the farm, we joined the family on the outdoor kitchen terrace, overlooking the valley. They served fresh lemonade and lemon pound cake as we enjoyed the view. Then, they brought out the wine and we began our Mediterranean cooking class with Ramona.

First, we prepared Antipasto Parmigiana – a recipe I cannot wait to try out at home. Grilled eggplant slices topped with fresh tomato sauce, smoked mozzarella, grated Parmesan and basil, rolled up, then baked to melt the cheese (if you don’t eat them all before putting in the oven).

Next, we whipped up the dessert – lemon tiramisu… using the local specialty limoncello instead of traditional espresso. Those went in the fridge to chill as we moved on to making the fresh pasta. We kneaded the pasta, rolled it, cut into ravioli pieces and filled with a mixture of fresh cod and potato – unique, but good!

Once the food preparation was complete, we sat down at a long table with the whole family to enjoy our several course lunch:Lemon Tiramisu

  1. Bread with olive oil, garlic and mint
  2. Antipasto Parmigiana (recipe here)
  3. Cod & Potato Ravioli topped with cherry tomato & basil sauce
  4. Fresh tuna steaks with lemon
  5. Lemon tiramisu – pictured (recipe here)
  6. Espresso with lemon peel (delicious! also great for relieving headaches!) and limoncello as a digestif

It was a wonderful meal, made even better with the hospitality of the large Italian family… filled with many laughs, stories and glasses of wine. Thank you, Aceto family, for the perfect day in Amalfi and unforgettable experience!

Lemon Farm