Italy - there is simply no place like it. La dolce vita, la bella Italia - home to opera, ancient civilizations, and my favorite food in the world, which goes far beyond pizza, pasta, and wine (but how glorious they are...). I have felt connected to Italy my entire life (I'm half Italian) and I fall more in love each time I go. A few caveats: you and I are not the only people who love Italy. Florence in July, for example, is packed with American tourists (all tourists, really!). Try going in the shoulder season - I love it in March, April, May, October, and November. Trains may or may not run on time. Italians definitely have their own timetable and this precise New Yorker has to let go a bit whenever I am in Italy. That is the beauty - sink into it and enjoy the serene sunsets, the extraordinary daily life, and the food - of course, the food!
Florence is a dream of a city - when you walk around a corner and see the Duomo peeking through the streets, it gets you every time. It's also one of my favorite cities for dining in the world. But heed the summer warning - the crowds are horrendous, it's hot, and there is a two-hour line for every museum. Book your tickets ahead (use this official site) and practice your patience (not my strong suit).
The sidewalks are ridiculously small. Be prepared to shimmy your way past hordes of people, or dodge speeding motorcycles and taxis by walking in the street. You get used to it. Forget your heels - bring cute flats or sneakers. I like to dress up a bit for dinner. And plan on an aperitivo every evening before dinner, especially when it's sunny - the Florentine sunsets are dramatic and so wonderful. This is a great article on the art of the aperitivo and places to go in Florence, written by Dina Honke of Olive Oil & Lemons.
Cafes & Coffee
Gilli - Favorite morning ritual in Florence: an amazing cappuccino and croissant with views of the antique carousel and great people watching. It's well-known and I love it.
Rivoire - Touristy but if you can grab a patio seat on a nice day, it's fun to have a view to the copy of "David." Known for their hot chocolate.
Ditta Artigianale - This could be straight out of Brooklyn or L.A. Fantastic coffee, free, fast WiFi, and lots of seats (they have an upstairs section, too) - a favorite for young Florentines. A few locations - I like the one near Palazzo Pitti.
La Ménagère - It could be in Santa Monica and I love it. Beautiful space with lots of tables to enjoy coffee/food, a restaurant, plus they sell flowers and home goods.
Rivalta Cafe - A lovely indoor/outdoor bar that attracts a local crowd along the Arno, close to the Ponte Vecchio. Perfect for an aperitivo.
Golden View Open Bar - A favorite in Florence for years (read: all my American friends know it) and it really has the best golden view of the Ponte Vecchio. Lots of small bites that are included with your drink during aperitivo. P.S. - The name makes it sound like it's on a rooftop. It's not. Also, if you want the best views, book a dinner reservation and ask to sit near the window.
Caffè Giacosa - Founded in 1815, this classic spot is known for inventing the Negroni. It is now owned by Roberto Cavalli. Love the outdoor tables.
Le Volpi e l'uva - Just around the corner from the crowds on the Ponte Vecchio, this is one of the city's most beloved wine bars showcasing only small, unique producers.
Don Nino - With all the tiny, crowded cafes around the Duomo, this one has great quick bites, coffee, and a picture-perfect view from the tables outside.
All' Antico Vinaio - I waited nearly an hour for a sandwich, which is ridiculous. It's a fantastic sandwich for five euros, though, and worth it if the lines are relatively short. The best one is La Favolosa.
Belmond Villa San Michele - Set in the hills of Fiesole (a 20-min drive from central Florence), this property has gorgeous terraced gardens, a pool overlooking the city, and an original facade designed by Michelangelo. If you can swing it, spend a night or two here, and the rest downtown.
Four Seasons Florence - One of my favorite properties anywhere. A ten-minute walk from the Duomo, it is an urban oasis with a private garden and beautiful pool, set within two centuries-old mansions.
Apartment Rental - I seriously loved the apartment we rented in Florence. It was a two-bedroom with a perfect location, spacious and comfortable, with a lovely, welcoming host - for around $230 a night total. Email me if you want the details!
I've done my gelato research in Florence. You really can't go wrong with any gelateria, but these are my favorites. Nothing blew me away until I tried Gelateria dei Neri!
Venchi - I like the location close to the Piazza della Repubblica. You are first captivated by the chocolate waterfall in the back, then annoyed by pushy tourists taking photos of it, then happy with your cup or cone of gelato.
La Carraia - Grab the mini size here for ONE EURO (all gelato is inexpensive in Florence!)!
Vivoli Gelato - Famous family-run gelato spot (since the 1930's).
Gelateria dei Neri - My absolute favorite, for the ricotta con fichi (ricotta with figs) - it tastes like a sublime, light caramel with tiny hints of fresh fig. Please try it!
Trattoria Cammillo - I ate here twice on my last trip and if I had only one night in Florence, I would come here. Family-owned for three generations. The pasta with peas is divine (and so is the chicken curry!).
Alla Vecchia Bettola - A 15-minute walk from the center and so worth it. This was my new favorite find in Florence - the chicken with artichokes, house pasta (penne alla vodka), spring peas, the table wine, EVERYTHING! Do not leave without having the tiramisu - I don't even like tiramisu and this was beyond.
Trattoria Le Antiche Carrozze - Perfect for a long lunch in the center of Florence, right across from the Ferragamo museum. Get the spaghetti pomodoro, pappa al pomodoro (tomato bread soup), and grilled vegetables. You'll be sitting with Italians, even though it's close to all the sights.
Cibreo - I've had a couple of memorable meals here - if it's your first trip to Florence, this place is a must.
Cantinetta Antinori - Tucked away in the 15th-century Palazzo Antinori, this is a wonderful lunch or dinner spot on a first trip to Florence, owned by one of Tuscany's famous wine families. (There is even an outpost in Zurich now!)
Irene at Hotel Savoy - A gorgeous dinner with a view onto the Piazza della Repubblica. The spaghetti pomodoro is unforgettable.
Buca dell'Orafo - You walk downstairs to a tiny cave-like room, likely packed with Americans. We all heard about it somehow. The food is delicious - and please have the apple cake at the end.
see & do
Boboli Gardens - The gardens behind the Pitti Palace are lovely for a walk - they are hilly and not meticulously maintained. But the sculptures and layout is beautiful.
Museo Galileo - Great for kids (I'd hire a kid-friendly guide next time) and adults. You'll see just how far ahead they were in Florence and during the Renaissance. Fascinating!
The Accademia - For David. In all his great, glorious beauty. I can't get enough of him. Please read Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel of Michelangelo's life, before you go to Florence!
Bargello Museum - My favorite museum in Florence for the stunning sculptures - don't miss Donatello's Bronze David or Michelangelo's Bacchus (one of his earliest works) and Pitti Tondo (made after David). The building itself is also pretty stunning - you enter into a courtyard.
Climb the Duomo (or the Tower) - Both are great workouts (more than 450 steps) and incredible views. Don't go if you're claustrophobic.
AquaFlor - Beautiful perfume shop near Santa Croce - a small entrance door belies the labyrinth of rooms within. I bought the tomato leaf home scent.
Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Antique Carousel in Piazza della Repubblica - Take a ride, even if you don't have a kid!
Dreoni Giocattoli toy store - Open since 1923, this is a kid paradise with a labyrinth of rooms to explore.
(And yes, the Uffizi Gallery. Buy tickets ahead of time!)
Like Paris, I didn't fall in love with Rome immediately. It's not quite love-at-first-sight when you're a broke 19-year-old student traveling through Rome on a sweltering July day. But over the years, after returning a few times, I have grown to love it so much. And Roman Holiday is one of my all-time favorite movies, with the most heartbreaking, perfect ending and interaction between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. As in most places of Italy, Rome is filled to the brim with tourists any time of year. On my most recent visit, in February, the weather was cool but not cold and great for walking, with a lighter tourist crowd. Go in the off-season!
Il Gelato Di San Crispino - Unlike Florence, where gelato is a daily must, I only had it once in Rome. But the preservative-free flavors here are worth it, like the light, creamy "San Crispino" ice cream, or fresh-walnut and dried-fig.
Duocento Gradi - Located near the Vatican, this spot has a grab-and-go, brightly lit feel, but it has perfect panini for a quick lunch, starting with the freshly made, crisp and chewy bread. I loved the sardines, mozzarella, and zucchini flower version. Don't count on a table (but they turn over fast).
SEE & DO
Villa Borghese Gardens - For some of the loveliest walks and views in Rome. Don't miss the beautiful, small lake (they rent rowboats if that's your thing).
Borghese Gallery - Beautiful showcase of Bernini sculptures, and paintings by Raphael and Caravaggio. Book ahead - they limit the number of visitors.
Via Margutta - A beautiful, car-free street behind Via del Babuino with art galleries and shops.
c.u.c.i.n.a. kitchen store - If you're a kitchen gear freak like me, make sure to stop in. Everything you could want, displayed in a utilitarian space. Close to the Spanish Steps.
Limentani - A huge kitchen supply store in the Jewish Ghetto where all the Romans register for their weddings. We bought two Alessi pots and carried/lugged them home on the plane. Worth it, because every time I see them, I think of Rome!
Aventine Hill - One of Rome's seven hills, this one is famous for the Cavalieri di Malta Keyhole - when you peek in, you see how the garden perfect frames the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. You'll know it when you see the line of people there (photos are impossible). But don't miss the amazing view of the Vatican and Rome's skyline from the Orange Garden (also known as Savello Park).
Pantheon - A must-see. A friend told me she always goes to the Pantheon, stands under the oculus, and lets the weight on her shoulders rise up through it. How beautiful is that!
Palazzo Colonna - This private palace was a highlight of our trip. The jaw-dropping Sala Grande is famous as Audrey Hepburn gave her farewell speech to Gregory Peck here in Roman Holiday. Of course, that was black-and-white, and this is WOW color! Only open Saturdays from 9am-1pm. You can choose to see Princess Isabelle's apartments, as well, but we skipped that.
Colosseum - A must-see in Rome, of course, but I recommend taking a tour with Context Travel. You get skip-the-line tickets and the best "docents" (guides) in the city.
The Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica - Same as with the Colosseum. Definitely go with a guide. Context Travel is my favorite - small groups (no more than six people), and amazing guides. We had Jose, who was above and beyond!
For as long as I live, I will never forget our days at Rocco Forte's Hotel de Russie. I have been lucky to stay in the world's great hotels, and this tops the list. If I need a happy place moment, I think of our room's view to Via Margutta, the Roman rooftops and sunsets. The garden is the place to be in the summer. Please order the iced coffee here too - it's their version of an Italian shakerato and the smoothest, frothiest, most delicious coffee ever (unsweetened but tastes faintly of sweet cocoa!). We skipped a restaurant reservation one night to enjoy people-watching at the Stravinskij Bar. Cocktails come with quite the spread – sliders, salmon tartare, olives, breadsticks, and vegetable crudité.
Hotel Anahi - A nice three-star option with the best location close to Piazza del Popolo. The rooms are creaky, the bathroom door didn't shut correctly, and the shower/bath combo is seriously old-school, but if you're looking for an inexpensive but comfortable option, this fits the bill. It's all about the location. Skip the breakfast here - there are too many great places in Rome!
Babuino 181 Luxury Suites - A beautiful boutique option on Via del Babuino!
Flavio al Velavevodetto - You have to try cacio e pepe, Rome's famous pasta dish (with pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper) at least once, and this version was my favorite. It's located in working-class Testaccio, built on the site of an ancient Roman dump, and an enormous space, with rooms snaking down the bottom. When you run into Americans all the time in Rome, it was a welcome feeling to dine with tons of Italians/locals here.
Al Moro - A classic Rome spot near the Trevi Fountain, you'll find a mix of tourists and locals. Known for their pasta and artichokes, it's worth a dinner reservation if you've never been! It reminds me of Cammillo in Florence, though I love Cammillo so much more. Try their spaghetti alla moro, with guanciale and egg yolks (a version of carbonara).
Armando al Pantheon - The perfect place to have lunch near the Pantheon. It's been a beloved family-run trattoria since 1961, serving the best of Roman staples like cacio e pepe and spaghetti carbonara. But I fell for the spaghetti alla verde (lemon pasta with arugula and parmesan). The chargrilled lamb chops also stood out.
Osteria Gensola - Known for seafood, this cozy restaurant in a less-trafficked area of Trastevere is a wonderful spot for dinner (and where we spent Valentine's Day 2018).
Dar Poeta - For great pizza in Trastavere!
COFFEE and wine
Sant'Eustachio - Open since 1938, this beloved spot is touristy (I threw a few bags of coffee in my bags for gifts), but we went back every day for espresso and the addictive, single-bite bombolini alla crema (sweet Italian doughnuts filled with a bit of cream). Get the gran caffé, their version of an espresso – with steamed milk, if you want (and make sure to say you want it unsweetened before they dump sugar in). If you sit outside, the price of your order will double. Make it a quick break at the coffee bar.
La Buvette - They have a full menu at this charming cafe on Via Vittoria near the Spanish Steps, but it's also popular for a quick coffee break. Try a cornetto (Italian for "little horn") or a mini orange-scented olive oil cake with your espresso.
Caffè Farnese - A pretty cafe overlooking the Palazzo Farnese (close to Campo dei Fiori, but not in the madness). Great for coffee, skip the food.
Caffè Peru - Around the corner from Farnese, this is a total local spot and feels like a bit of a time machine. For sitting down, go to Farnese. For a taste of real Roman life in the middle of the city, come here. Or do both!
Ciampini - Beautiful cafe and location. Sit outside and people watch.
L'Angolo Divino - A small, dim wine bar just far enough away from the madness of Campo dei Fiori.
Places I Didn't Love:
Piperno - Located in the Jewish Ghetto, this was just a lunch fail from start to finish. They were perfectly nice, but the food was oversalted, and it felt like a tourist trap even though it's in this tiny, beautiful courtyard. Might be better in summer with outdoor seating, but we wouldn't go back.
Caffe Canova - Tadolini - One of Rome's grand cafes, and I tried three times, but each time, the service was truly horrible. Like nose-up-in-the-air, "Why the hell are you here" terrible. So while you might want to pop in to see all the sculptures if you're strolling Via del Babuino, I can't recommend it beyond that.
LAKE COMO, ITALY
Lake Como is so special, one of the most beautiful places in the world. It's jaw-droppingly gorgeous and surprisingly big. It takes an hour to drive from Point A to Point B depending on where you are (for example, Bellagio is at least an hour from the main town of Como). The architecture is gorgeous and so Italian. You're one hour from Milan, 45 minutes from the Swiss town of Lugano, but you won't want to go anywhere once you settle in Como. I highly recommend staying in Tremezzina at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo or one of the smaller B&B's on the lake. You won't regret it!
The main town of Como is pretty cute but I like spending time in the smaller villages and towns along the lake. Still, if you find yourself in Como - here are some recommendations: Gelateria Lariana, La Colombetta, Osteria L'Angolo Del Silenzio, Pane e Tulipani
A must - Il Gatto Nero (Cernobbio): Definitely have a long lunch here. Try to book a reservation before. The view is incredible (see photo above) - it' s a twisty, windy ride up and so gorgeous. A favorite of George Clooney, of course.
Near Cernobbio is the Villa d'Este, another gorgeous resort on the water. It is worth it to stop for a drink or coffee. When we went, it was free to just park in the garage, so don't valet! The views - wow! Eat lunch at Il Gatto Nero and then go down the hill to have a drink or coffee here.
In Tremezzina, the Grand Hotel Tremezzo is one of my favorite hotels in the world. Wander in the back gardens, have a drink on the terrace, or enjoy dinner here. The general manager, Silvio, is truly amazing. There is also a great wine bar in Tremezzina called Cantina Follie. It is charming and very local. Go to the top - there's a nice terrace.
Next door to Grand Hotel Tremezzo is the Villa Carlotta - worth it to see one of Como's grand old villas and beautiful gardens.
About 20 minutes from Grand Hotel Tremezzo was another one of my favorite places for lunch or dinner (get there early enough for sunset and it's incredible). It's called Locanda La Volpe - and it's just so cozy and fabulous and the outside seating has an amazing view!! I am all about the views.
Definitely get over to Bellagio for lunch or just a lazy day of wandering on the cobblestones - there are many public ferries and any hotel can help you. It's very close to Tremezzina. I love the tired aging beauty of Villa Serbelloni (a grand old hotel) on Bellagio and also bought a new summer bag at Saraceno - beautiful bags and interesting jewelry.
Book at the very famous Locanda dell'Isola Comacina on an island - it's decades old. They serve the same lunch they've served since 1947, I think. After you arrive by boat, you are led on a short tour of the island and they a long lunch (fish from the lake, roast chicken, oranges and vanilla gelato and more). Cash only. Everyone talks about this place.
A boat tour is really worth it, to see places like Villa Balbianello from the lake.