Rome, Italy

I thought Rome was absolutely incredible. I was constantly in awe of how well-preserved and how ever-present the history is in the city. You can be waiting to cross a busy street with an office building on your left and some not even remotely famous but still super fascinating ruins on your right. When I told my mom I was going to the Colosseum, she asked if I had to make a long journey to get there. Nope, it's two stops on the metro from where I was staying. It's totally incredible.
 
My time in Rome was a bit of a whirlwind. I walked for hours on end every day just trying to soak it all up and was understandably tired every night. It's just such a big, impressive, interesting city. It was one of those places I loved instantly and I didn't feel like it was overrated. At one point I remember thinking “how can anyone not like Rome?!”. I was lucky to be there as tourist season was winding down (though it was still packed with tourists) and when the weather wasn't quite so hot (though it was still very hot some days). I can't imagine what it's like in the middle of summer, and I'm glad I was there when I was.
 
I loved how history and modernity were just smushed up against each other everywhere you looked – it makes for such a surreal, fascinating city. It's touristy, but there's a reason it's touristy: the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, St. Peter's cathedral and the Sistine Chapel are all larger-than-life and beautiful, and it is completely understandable why so many people come so far to see them. It was a really special experience.
 
Favourites:
  • Enoteca Provincia Romana: this place is on the fancy side, but they sell a selection of fresly-made sandwiches to go for $5. I went two afternoons and got a yummy, cheap sandwich which I ate while sitting next to some beautiful ruins.
  • Il gelato di San Crispino: this shop (now a small chain of shops) was apparently mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love, but I had it recommended to me by a fellow traveller. Really delicious and authentic gelato in amazing flavours.
  • Il Vittoriano: this beautiful building totally took my breath away when I first saw it. It's huge! It's free to climb up all the gorgeous steps and go inside, and the views are really great. You could also choose to take an expensive elevator ride to the top of the building (my budget elected not to) where I've heard the views are even better.
  • The Roman Forum!! I was more excited to see the Colosseum when I got to Rome, but I actually found it a bit underwhelming. The Roman Forum on the other hand I hadn't really heard much about before I came to Rome, but is now one of my favourite things I've seen on this trip. It's beautiful, and you can really get a feel for how things might have looked back in the (Roman) day. I wish I'd had more time there. Another tip: visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum on different days, there's too much to see. Also, a great time to go is around 5PM, when the crowds have thinned out and the sun is less glaring.

 

Bologna, Italy

I love Bologna. As soon as I arrived, I was instantly soothed by its atmosphere: it's old, but it's full of young people; it's international, but it's full of locals; it's scholarly and intelligent, but it doesn't feel pretentious. It's full of amazing food and amazing gelato, and it's full of bookstores (some of which are open past midnight, some of which serve food and wine, some of which share a storefront with a bar – yes, a bar). It's a student town, so food and drinks are relatively cheap (though I'm told, apartments are not), and people are friendly.

The university is officially the oldest in the world, and it's a great school that students come to from all over to do exchanges. I was staying at an awesome hostel that felt more like an apartment, and I was the only tourist there (everyone else was there to work or study and trying to find an apartment). Every person staying in the hostel was from a different place: one night we had Canada, Israel, France, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, and the UK sitting around a table. That was really cool.

Something else really cool is the nearby Gelato University. It's precisely what it sounds like! People go there to learn how to make gelato. They offer quite an intense program which lasts about a month and has lessons all day every day. I went on a tour of the museum, but was disappointed I didn't get to see how gelato was made. So a couple weeks later, on my way to Venice from the Amalfi coast, I made a quick stop in Bologna again to hang out with some of the friends I made the first time, and take a gelato lesson!! It ended up being a private lesson with the sweet, funny Master Gelato Maker at the school, Makoto (that's her in the last two photos). We spent the day learning the theory of sorbet (the theory of gelato takes about a week to explain in their university course) and then making strawberry sorbet and marscarpone and pine nut gelato. I got to figure out quantities, measure, mix, pour, and try (and fail) to artfully put the gelato in a tray after it froze in the machine. My sorbet and gelato went in their shop's display case to be sold! It was such a cool day.

All in all, I loved this city. There are beautiful main squares where people gather, they close the streets to cars every weekend so the whole old city is open to pedestrians, there are those beautiful porticos (arches over the sidewalks) everywhere, there are some of the most beautiful churches, and there is the best gelato (that delicious marscarpone and pine nut flavour is called 'Leonardo' in Bologna, and I didn't see it anywhere else in Italy). The city feels very special.

Favourites:

  • Pizza Casa: from the outside, this looks like any old hole in the wall pizza place, and back in Canada I wouldn't expect much from anywhere that looked like this. But this is Italy, and this hole in the wall place has a huge stone wood burning oven in the back, and produces quality pizza. The pizza is cheap and absolutely delicious: I got the marguerita pizza with extra onions and it was divine. They sell cheap drinks as well, and it's located right in the university area.
  • San Luca: this is a beautiful church up on a hill, but trust me, it is really up on a hill. I underestimated the ascent. You pass under 660 porticos by the time you get there, all uphill on either stairs or slanted sidewalks. It's HARD. But the views from the top are beautiful, and the church is gorgeous.
  • Osteria della Orsa: just around the corner from Pizza Casa, this is a really nice little place that serves great fresh pasta dishes and cheap wine. Everything I tried there was delicious.
  • Hostel il Nosadillo: great location, great people, and lovely staff. It's small and cosy so it feels like an apartment, it's bright, it was always clean and it was an awesome place to meet people because everyone hung out in the kitchen.
  • Cremeria Funivia: such good gelato. Really unique flavours and amazing texture. Not far from the main square!
  • Librarie Coop: this bookstore is open late and is special for having a sprawling cafe/restaurant inside. My two favourite things in one place!

 

Florence, Italy

Looking back, it feels like all I did in Florence was watch the sunset. It was my favourite part of every day that I was there. Florence, while beautiful, felt overly crowded with tourists to me during the day. I much preferred the evenings, when I’d hike up the stairs to the less busy Piazza Michelangelo to watch the sun set over the city from above. The views from up there on the hill were my favourite way to see Florence: spread out, lit up, calm and peaceful-looking. The view seemed to change every few minutes as the sky darkened and I took about a million photos because it was so beautiful. There was always a guy playing songs on his acoustic guitar, and vendors selling cheap bottles of wine and snacks and touristy things, and the atmosphere was lovely.

One of the nights, I hiked up to the San Miniato church for the sunset and was lucky enough to hear some of the monks who live there singing inside. Once they were done, one of them came out and opened up the little store and lots of locals who had been relaxing (waiting?) outside flooded in to scoop up the fresh gelato made by the monks each day. I bought the “crema” flavour and ate it while looking out over the Tuscan countryside as the sun set. It’s one of my best memories of Florence.

During the days, I walked. A lot. I tried to find restaurants I’d had recommended to me and was alternately frustrated that they were closed (I was in Italy in August, after all) or excited that they were open and that I got to try someone’s favourite sandwich, or gelato, or pizza. I toured the Duomo and climbed the campanile, I took a daytrip to the leaning tower of Pisa (overrated in my opinion, but pretty cool nonetheless), I went to the Uffizi gallery, I shopped and bargained in the famous Mercato Centrale for souvenirs.

My hostel wasn’t too good for meeting people, or maybe it was just a bad week for it, but my last night, I met some great folks, two of whom I saw again a few days later in Rome! We all took the bus up to watch the sunset and had dinner at a restaurant where (since none of us spoke Italian), we struggled to order but had lots of fun anyways, and drank lots of wine and it was nice. On the way home, we got gelato, of course.

While I didn’t love Florence as much as some of the other places I’ve been, I still really enjoyed my time there.

Favourites:

  • All’ antico vinao: this little sandwich place is so good I went back three times. It’s all so fresh and homemade and delicious, and the staff is friendly (and often commandeered the choice of toppings for my sandwich, which I allowed because I assumed they knew best – and they did, it was always amazing). Cheap sandwiches and local wine that I always ate on the curb while people watching and laughing at cars try to get around the big line outside the shop and make their way down the narrow street.
  • San Miniato church: their terrace and steps are the perfect place to watch the sunset
  • Gelateria Neri: awesome flavours, great-tasting, and best of all: on the same street as the sandwich place. ;)
  • Le Botteghe de Leonardo: yummy artisanal gelato, however sort of far from the heart of the city
  • Gusta Pizza: yummy, generous portions, not expensive. Mine got a bit liquidy/soggy in the centre, but otherwise the tomato sauce was delicious and since I ate it in a beautiful square outside, I was happy.

Cinque Terre, Italy

My time in Cinque Terre was like a dream. A sun soaked, pastel-coloured, flowery, delicious, friendly dream. Everywhere I looked, I wanted to take a picture because every single vista there is worthy of a postcard (and luckily they sell lots, which was great for me because it was the perfect opportunity to send out a few letters to my loved ones from this beautiful place).

I was staying in a hostel that was more like a shared apartment. To get to it, you had to climb about seven flights of steep stairs and were constantly winded by the time you got inside. But the windows were always flung wide and we had views of the adorable houses (complete with little old ladies hanging out their underwear to dry and lots of little flower boxes), lots of sun, and could always hear the humble bustle of the little street below. It was such a perfect place to stay. Everyone I met there was friendly and awesome, and we became fast friends.

There are 5 little towns in the Cinque Terre: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. I was staying in the first, Riomaggiore, which is the most southern of the five. I explored all five and loved them all, but Monterosso less so (it is much more resort-like, more touristy). I would highly recommend staying in Riomaggiore or Vernazza. The towns are all similar, but each has its own unique views and setup. To get to Corniglia, you have to climb about 400 steps from the train station, but it's nestled into the cliff and the views are wonderful. Vernazza has loads of character (it has a little castle overlooking it and lots of places for rock jumping), but Riomaggiore was my favourite. For all intents and purposes it has two streets: one that leads from the train station to the town and on to the harbour and beach, and one main street packed with little restaurants, gelato shops, and souvenir shops. There's a little cathedral (I was lucky enough to stumble into mass there and hear some beautiful singing) and an old fortress on the top of the hill (with amazing views over the water and nearby cliffs), but not much else “to see” which was such a happy change. It was wonderful to just relax and enjoy and not have to be a tourist for a few days.

Every night I was there, I went down and sat on the rocks and watched the sunset over the water. We drank wine and ate fried seafood out of paper cones and sandwiches with spicy cheese, pesto and sundried tomatoes. We always ended up staying longer than we thought we would, lingering as the sky changed colours. One night we drifted from the harbour to one of the two bars in town and then back again for a late-night swim (during which I sliced my foot open on a clam, but whatever it was worth it, yolo!)

During the days, I explored the other towns. My favourite day was the one where I did the two hikes that were open (there is a trail connecting all five towns, but the trails between the first 3 were closed due to storm damage when I was there), from Corniglia to Vernazza and then Vernazza to Monterosso. I loved those hikes. It was hot, and it was actually quite difficult: so many stairs and ups and downs. My legs were shaking after the first one, but I'd enjoyed myself so much that I did the second one anyways (after a much needed break for pizza, beer and gelato – hiking fuel..). But it was so worth it. The heat brings out the essential oils in the herbs and fruit trees that grow wild along the trail, so the whole walk smelled like pine and lemon and rosemary. It felt so good to work hard and look back on where I'd hiked from and just be totally spoiled by all the completely gorgeous views on either side of me as I walked. It is unbelievably beautiful. By the time I got into Monterosso I just felt so happy: I guzzled like three bottles of water filled from a little fountain in the square and waded in the sea and was just so happy.

I can't say enough about how much I loved my time in Cinque Terre. I don't really have any “favourites” for this post because I don't know the name of any places we went to. Except for Pizzeria Fratelli Basso in Vernazza, that place has the best pesto pizza. Outstanding. But as for Riomaggiore, just walk up and down the street and try the take out pesto pasta or numerous pizzas or the little sandwich shop. You'll see. You'll be happy.