Do you ever have instances where a person, place, or thing keeps popping up in your life relentlessly and you’re like “ok universe, I hear you…”. This happened to me back in 2008, about 6 months after I graduated from college. I was working at CBS Outdoor, living in SF, and within a 3 week time frame I literally had 4 or 5 people tell me “you should totally work for this company called Backroads. You get to lead biking trips around the world” Whaaaaat? So, I listened…I applied…and 3 weeks later I was on a plane to France to be trained as an active travel tour guide. Oh yeah, and then 3 weeks after THAT I got kicked out of the country for 2 months. But that’s a story for another time. 🙂
Well lately, I’ve got Italy on my mind, folks. Why? Well first of all, my brother and his fiance are going there on their honeymoon, so a topic of conversation happening there…and then, I just booked tickets to go to a VERY dear friend’s wedding in Rome in September (WAHOO)…and then randomly I have had 2-3 people ask me for advice on places to go and see and eat and drink within the past week or two. I think perhaps because I used to live there and all…or maybe, I’m just a self-proclaimed know-it-all and when I hear the words “Florence” I go “OH! You just have to try this one restaurant”…whatever the reason, dishing out advice on Italy sends me into a state that is kind of resemblant of Lucy when she sees a tennis ball…too overwhelmed by excitement to function.
When I lived in Italy, I was either in work, work, work mode, or…I ate, ate, ate & drank, drank, drank…& rode my bike…and then drank some more. SO…maybe think about bookmarking this page for the next time you are headed to the land of La Dolce Vita as a reference, and hit up these spots! It’s just a small collection of favorites in what I like to call “The big 3” – Rome, Florence, and Tuscany because I refuse to send people to Venice. We can start there…but I got tips for DAYS, ya’ll.
+ Here’s one major side tip I would add: when going to Italy (in the high summer or spring months), pack light. Florence is one of the shopping capitals of the world. If you are going there it’s a good idea to save up before and get some good shopping done while you are there, at the San Lorenzo Markets (outdoor markets with more leather and ceramic goods than you can stand). The emptier the suitcase the better!
Alexanderplatz – I love this place because it is full of locals and not something you would “typically” do in Italy. It is a super fun jazz bar in the Prati neighborhood (hard to describe, but its off the “Cipro” metro stop. If you are looking at St. Peter’s Basillica from the front, the neighborhood is to the right and back a little bit). My old apartment during my study abroad was around the corner. Ahhhhh, the nostalgia!
Old Bridge Gelato – (their website is super broken and not functional but I had to include it here because that is just SO adorably Italian and I love it). The BEST gelato, in Piazza Risorgiamento, also to the right side of the vatican…a tiny hole in the wall but aren’t those always the best? Gelato + Pope = YES.
Bar della Pace – The quintessential aperitivo spot, near Piazza Navona on Via della Pace – we’re talking ivy on the walls, cobblestone streets, men playing the accordion, you want that “typical Italian experience”, well this is it. I used to go here allll the time. There are some super cute restaurants right around there, so I suggest you just wander and pick something. I’ve been to Barone, right across from it, and Osteria del Pegno, right around the corner.
- Ristorante Ambasciata d’Abruzzo – I’m not even sure I have the capacity to describe how incredible this place is in just a few words…but as far as food (both quality and amount of it), location, ambiance, and price goes, it’s a 9.999999.
Craving an America Pub after all that wine? Fiddler’s Elbow and Bar “The Friends” (ha!) are both great. On opposite sides of the river, but both pretty cool…I would recommend “The Friends” bar first because it’s on the locals’ side of town, close to Ponte Vecchio.
–Da Il Latini – GO HERE. DO IT NOW. It’s quite possibly one of the best dining experiences I have had in Italy. They don’t take reservations, it doesn’t open until 7:30, the owner is this adorable white-haired man who comes out to schmooze with the crowd while you wait (sometimes offering cheese and wine samples). At your table, it’s a very “what are you serving tonight” type of ordering, and if you go in the fall, it will likely be chingiale – delicious wild boar! – or bistecca della fiorentina really good steak likely made from the Chianine cattle. After more schmoozing by the cute owner at the end of your meal, he comes around and writes a price on the butcher paper table cloth, so best to flirt with him…he’ll probably knock a few $$ off. Talk about Italian charm at it’s finest!
–Vivoli Gelato – so amazing. Sort of ‘off the beaten path’ but if you google it, the map can show you where it is! They have very weird, unique flavors to get outside your typical pistachio rut. Or maybe that’s just me. I am obsessed with pistachio gelato.
Pop Cafe – in Piazza di Santo Spirito (which is also across the river – you’ll see a lot of my suggestions are not in the “touristy areas”), and a super locals spot! Very fun for either coffee and a panino or an aperitivo drink. Often times they have live music.
Cafe Fiorentina in San Giovanni Valdarno ( a 30 minute train ride south of Florence – my old “hometown” as a Backroads leader). So stinkin’ small town it doesn’t even have a website. We went here maybe every single day for aperitivo. They had the best selection of snacks, a killer negroni (for those of you who know me well, you know I lose my marbles over negronis), and excellent “aperol spritz”. Sitting right on the main square, it’s a perfect spot to people watch, rub elbows with the locals, and practice your Italian since literally nobody there speaks English. Over time, this place really did contribute to Italy feeling like “home” for me. It’s worth a trip down there.
+My other piece of general advice – embrace the aperitivo, and when in Tuscany, the “Passegiata” – this happens around 6/6:30pm in small towns. All of the residents come out and stroll, socialize, have drinks, let the kids play, etc. before returning home for family meal. It is so much fun, very relaxing, and very much showcases that Italians truly live life to savor everything from food, to family, to community. Life is slow, fully enjoyed, and methodical…except in Rome. Then it’s just “pazza”.
+disclaimer – Tuscany is HUGE. There are a thousand directions you could go with a trip to Tuscany, but the below are just some of my tip top favorites. Want more suggestions on other towns? Feel free to ask!
Siena (with a car – this place is virtually impossible to get to without one). Honestly just go here, no special restaurants or bars to recommend because everything is good – and so is the shopping! 🙂 The main Piazza is where “Il Palio” is hosted every year – a fantastic horse race with a very cool history behind it. Read up about that here ’cause we ain’t got all day. This area of Tuscany is also home to Brunello di Montalcino, my absolute favorite red wine ever in the history of ever. Drink it all, bring some home, SAVOR THAT SHIT. If a man ever surprised me with a bottle of 1997 Brunello I’d capture him and make him marry me. Not kidding.
Panzano/Gaiole in Chianti & Radda in Chianti (with a car) – all 3 of these are totally doable in one day – they are closest to Florence or anywhere else in Northern Tuscany. In Panzano, definitely, definitely go see “The Singing butcher” at Da Mario andhave lunch there on the terrazza (you seriously gotta love the ghetto-ness of websites in Italy. Am I the only one who thinks everything everyone does in this country is adorable?) This is a FANTASTIC view of the Chianti vineyards. In Radda, go to Bar Dante and ask for Fabrizio – he’s almost as schmoozy as the owner of Il Latini but you’ll find that greasy adorable Italian men are not rare…embrace it and have fun with it. Honestly, the drive from town to town here is the highlight – the views are simply exquisite. And if you don’t indulge in a little Chianti wine as you go…you’re wrong.
Cortona (with a car). The oldest Etruscan city in Italy, and in my absolute favorite region of Tuscany, the Val di Chiana (artfully named after the Chianina beef cattle – gee, wonder why I resonate with this place). The Etruscans were the species before us – if you get a chance to tour the old cities, now a level of topography below us, do so! You’ll never believe how short these folks were. In the summer, the sunflowers – OH THE SUNFLOWERS – in this place are just to die for. I recommend Villa Marsili to stay, and Osteria del Teatro to eat. This is fun town to just wander and explore, it’s very hilly, and if you want some exercise, hike to the very very top of the town. The views will not disappoint.
Lucca (by train via Florence, or car) – where the Dal Porto family hails from! This is a walled city, boasting an adorably cute “downtown”, shopping, cafes, and an excellent bike culture. My family’s deli is actually just outside the walls, if you are at the train station facing the town, walk along the wall to the right about .75 miles. It’s called “Pizzicheria” on the main drag, Viale Giussepe Giusti. Shameless self promotion, check! But seriously go to Lucca…and if you are in a car, check out some of the “bagni” (hot springs and baths) around the area. To die for.
Have fun! Heading elsewhere? Let me know, I’d be more than happy to expand my list of recommendations. Make sure you adequately flirt with an Italiano, walk like you own the country, don’t EVER order a “coffee to go”, learn the difference between “grazie” and “prego” (please, please do this)…and enjoy the most adorably corrupt, crazy, passionate, full of love and amazing wine, gorgeous country on the planet…buon viaggio!