In planning for our 7-day 5-island adventure, we decided to pick two of the islands for driving tours, two of the islands for beach days, and one island for an “adventure.” I posted on the CruiseCritic boards seeking advice on which islands to do a beach day. Hands down, St. Maarten was a top pick.

We booked a beach day excursion directly through the cruise ship to avoid the hassle of planning. Here’s the description of the St. Maarten Beach Rendezvous shore excursion:

Travel through the Dutch side of beautiful St. Maarten during this unforgettable day of fun, sun, and relaxation. Sit back and enjoy the narration given by the guide during your journey to Kim Sha Beach. Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted with rum or fruit punch, as well as a lounge chair. Enjoy ample time to participate in a water sport, sunbathe or explore the stretch of beautiful white sand before heading to the beach restaurant for a delicious seaside lunch. On the way back into town, you will have the option to stop in Philipsburg for some leisurely shopping. Duration: 4.5 hrs.

After about a 20 minute shuttle bus ride, we arrived at Kim Sha Beach on Simpson Bay. Chairs were included. We also purchased a shared umbrella for our two chairs for $4.

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Kim Sha Beach, St. Maarten

The beach was not crowded at all. We all had front row seats. Kim Sha Beach on Simpson Bay is calm and has a very gradual drop-off. The first few feet in the water has sand/shell bits that are rough, but then it smooths right out and is quite nice!

Lunch and a complimentary drink were included in the excursion at the Greenhouse beach bar. Choices were a bang-bang shrimp baguette, chicken breast, or grouper. Wifi was included as well.

Even though this was a Celebrity Cruises excursion, I didn’t feel rushed. We had ample time to enjoy the beach. The first few minutes we got there, we kept getting interrupted by vendors (foot massages, back rubs, jewelry, dresses)…but after the first 5-10 minutes they all left.

On the way back on the shuttle bus, you had the option of being dropped off near downtown Philipsburg, or being taken back to the port shopping area.

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St. Maarten

It was a relaxing and sun-filled day!

Here are some pics from St. Maarten. Check out my Flickr album for more from our Caribbean cruise.

Caribbean Cruise: St. Croix

On our winter 2017 cruise we stopped in St. Thomas. Now on our 2018 winter cruise, we got to add another one of the U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Croix.

The ship docked at Frederiksted. After breakfast onboard, we exited the ship and made our way to our pre-booked tour, the “Panoramic Drive.” It was booked directly through the cruise line for sake of convenience. Heres the description:

Explore St. Croix’s historic, cultural, and natural sites on this exciting driving tour of the island. Marvel at St. Croix’s tropical beauty and captivating views as you make your way along the island. Learn about the cultural traditions of the islanders before arriving to the historical town of Christiansted. Browse the shops or enjoy a stroll over to the famous Fort Christiansted before departing to port. Duration: 3.5 hrs.

The tour was aboard a small shuttle bus. At no time did the tour feel crowded or rushed. We drove through the island, learned about the history and culture, and made a few stops along the way for pictures.

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St. Croix USVI

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St. Croix USVI

The tour stopped in Christiansted where we had an hour to putter about. Because it was Sunday, almost everything was CLOSED. So if you have St. Croix as a Sunday port stop, I suggest booking a tour or making it a beach day. Otherwise there will be lots of closed shops.

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Christiansted, St. Croix USVI

The tour dropped us off back at the port in Frederiksted where we walked down the beach by the pier and picked up a few souvenirs from a couple of the shops that were open. Also saw some cool stilt walkers!

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Stilt walker

After coming from cold Wisconsin, the warm temps, blue skies, and greenery of St. Croix was much appreciated!

Below are a few pics from St. Croix. Check out my Flickr album for more.

In December we spent one week island hopping through the Caribbean on the Celebrity Summit. Not a bad way to spend a week! We have grown to love cruising. It’s your hotel. It’s your transportation. And your place to eat, have fun, and relax.

This was our third cruise. We started in 2016 with an Alaskan cruise on Princess Cruises. We did that to get our feet wet. We weren’t sure if we would like it. But of course, we got hooked! Then in 2017 we did our first let’s-get-out-of-wintery-Wisconsin cruise and sailed on the Celebrity Equinox. That was a great trip too.

Choosing this Cruise
We enjoyed the Celebrity Cruises experience last year. We don’t need water slides or belly flop contests to keep us entertained. We just want to RELAX. So, Celebrity is a good fit. We also wanted an almost absolute guarantee of warm temps and sunshine, so that’s why we opted for a Southern Caribbean itinerary from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Plus we fell in love with Old San Juan when we visited in 2017 and wanted to see it again. In the depths of winter in January 2018, we booked this cruise when a good deal came along. All of the ports-of-call, except Puerto Rico, were new to us.

Below is an overview of the cruise experience.

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Itinerary

  • Friday, Dec. 7: Fly to San Juan, PR. Spend night at Sheraton Old San Juan.
  • Saturday, Dec. 8: Leave San Juan on Celebrity Summit
  • Sunday, Dec. 9: St. Croix, USVI – island tour
  • Monday, Dec. 10: St. Maarten – beach day
  • Tuesday, Dec. 11: Dominica – waterfall/rainforest tour
  • Wednesday, Dec. 12: Grenada – river tubing
  • Thursday, Dec. 13: Barbados – beach day
  • Friday, Dec. 14: Day at sea
  • Saturday, Dec. 15: Return to San Juan, Fly home
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Celebrity Summit, pool deck

Embarkation
Painless. There was a port strike that happened earlier in the morning but was resolved by noontime. From the moment we stepped out of our taxi at the Pan American Pier to the moment we were in our stateroom, only 15 minutes had elapsed. And we have no special “perks” or “status.” Just luck I guess. Our room was ready when we got on board.

Stateroom
Balcony cabin, deck 7, room 7020. Spacious, comfortable bed and pillows, couch, good storage. Quiet–never heard any noise from above or next to us on either side. Balcony space was nice…we spent a lot of time out there. A slight smell coming from the shower drain and a couple of the shower tiles were cracked. We also knew that the ship was scheduled for dry dock soon. Great location, easy access to elevators. I thought being more forward in the ship we might feel more motion, but all was calm.

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Celebrity Summit, balcony stateroom

Service
Great service from Ryan, our cabin steward. He worked like a magician, that guy! Also enjoyed our wait staff in the MDR from Tammy and Kelvin. Took time to explain menus and suggest items. Had to make three trips to Guest Relations because we kept de-magnetizing our seapasses. Service was quick and friendly. They also happily exchanged some larger bills for smaller bills for us.

Food
This is highly subjective, so take it with a grain of salt (hey, that’s a food pun!). I wouldn’t say I would rave about the food here (last year on Celebrity Equinox we had a 3-night specialty dining package–so it’s unfair to compare). This year, we ate all dinners in the MDR. I had two things I would rank as “excellent” — a braised beef ragout with gnocchi as a starter (I could have eaten plates and plates of it as a main) and the slow braised lamb wrapped in phyllo. There were a couple misses: the seafood in the Mediterranean seafood orzo was chewy (a la rubber bands) as was the sirloin steak. I also had the teeniest tiniest chocolate lava cake I’ve ever had. Breakfast was good in Oceanview Cafe (the buffet), but lunch found me circling a couple times to pick something out and I’m not picky. Pizza in OVC could be good…or not. Sometimes nice and crispy, other times greasy and limp. But at least I didn’t have to cook for a whole week!

Facilities
This was the smallest ship we’ve been on and found it naturally easy to navigate. It did not feel crowded at all! Easily found open tables in the Oceanview Cafe. It was easy to get on and off in each port. There was some evidence of the need for the dry docking. Carpet frayed here and there. You could tell our balcony probably needed scraped of the many coats of paint and be redone. There generally wasn’t a problem getting a chair in the pool area if you wanted some sun…or even some shade too. Because this itinerary was so port intensive, we didn’t have time to enjoy as my areas as we have done on previous cruises.

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Celebrity Summit

Onboard Activities
Again, since this cruise was so port intensive we were not expecting a lot. And in return, Celebrity did not provide a lot. The singers and dancers are always good, but the plot-less shows can get kind of repetitive. Neither of the comedians were funny to us, but we like edgier humor and that doesn’t really match us with Celebrity’s demographic. The magician/comedian (how about pick one!) was awful. On the plus side: We really enjoyed the live music. Since the cruise left from San Juan, there was more Latin music…another plus for me.

Disembarkation
Super simple. Walked off when our group number was called. Luggage was already waiting. Line moved fairly quick for Customs and Immigration and then again to get a taxi.

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Celebrity Summit, docked at Dominica

Ports…

I’ll blog more about the ports-of-call later, but here’s a quick overview:

St. Croix: Sundays in St. Croix are SLEEPY. So be advised to plan an excursion as a lot of shops are closed. We enjoyed our island tour though.

St. Maarten: We did a beach day here. No complaints. Kim Sha Beach at Simpson Bay is a nice area. Very relaxing!

Dominica: Beautiful green and verdant island. Really loved our rainforest/waterfall excursion. Some of the scenery reminded me of Hawaii.

Grenada: Similar to Dominica in being green and pretty. Loved our river tubing adventure. Would not hesitate to do that again.

Barbados: We did another beach day here. Harbour Lights at Carlisle Bay has a fantastic stretch of sand with crystal clear water.

With this port-intensive itinerary, the week flew by so fast. But all good things must come to end. We enjoyed our week in the Caribbean and look forward to booking future cruises!

Here are some pics from the ship. For more, check out my Flickr album.

The Charm of Old San Juan

Last year we visited Old San Juan during a Caribbean cruise out of Miami. We fell in love. Colorful buildings, friendly people, easily walkable, good food, and great culture. What’s not to like?

In planning our annual winter escape for December 2018, we decided to do a cruise again. However, instead of leaving from the usual ports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, we opted to leave from San Juan instead. This gave us a chance to explore Old San Juan some more instead of just a half-day port of call.

Up early, we flew out of our home airport of Milwaukee on Southwest Airlines, connected at Baltimore/Washington, and arrive at San Juan’s airport in the afternoon. After being whisked away by taxi we arrived at the Sheraton Old San Juan to check in. We like its central location. Everything in Old San Juan is no more than a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel.

When we had left Milwaukee in the morning, it was 22 Fahrenheit. Now it was 82! We put on some shorts and headed out on the streets of Old San Juan.

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Old San Juan

I love the colors in Old San Juan. Everything is absolutely vibrant–a feast for the eyes! Speaking of feasting, we were hungry after a day of air travel. We wandered around and found ourselves in Plaza Colon. We found a restaurant – Cafe Berlin – and both of us had delicious plates of mofongo.

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Then we walked around after dusk enjoying Old San Juan all lit of for the holiday season.

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Old San Juan

The following morning, we explored Old San Juan a bit more. Last year, we toured the El Morro fort. This time, it was off to its counterpart, Castillo San Cristobal. Finished in 1783, the expansive fort has good vistas of Old San Juan. Your ticket will also get you into the El Morro fort too. So if you have time, try to visit both.

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Castillo San Cristobal

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Castillo San Cristobal

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Castillo San Cristobal

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Castillo San Cristobal, looking towards La Perla and El Morro

After touring the fort, we meandered through the streets of Old San Juan taking in the sights.

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Old San Juan

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Cats of Old San Juan

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Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista

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Looking towards La Fortaleza

There was a colorful surprise on Calle Fortaleza leading to La Fortaleza, the official residence of the governor–umbrellas! This special art installation celebrates the people of Puerto Rico. It’s definitely worth a stop (while it’s there) for a great Instagram capture!

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Calle Fortaleza umbrellas

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Calle Fortaleza umbrellas

For a self-guided walking tour of Old San Juan, check out TripSaavy.

Here are some pics from Old San Juan. For more, check out my Flickr album.

Venice is, of course, a classic Italy “must do.” As it should be! However, if you have more time in the area, I recommend taking a tour of the nearby islands of Murano and Burano.

Murano is known for glass blowing and Burano for intricate lace. If you arrive to Venice via the Santa Lucia railway station, you can easily get boat transportation to both islands. Since we were with a group, we opted for guided transport between the islands.

The brightly colored houses of Burano were the highlight of the day…well worth the trip for me!

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Burano

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Burano

Have some cash on hand so you can bring back an authentic glass souvenir or some lace. Venice, especially in the summer, can be quite crowded. Murano and Burano are well appreciated as “slower” places.

Below are some photo highlights of Murano and Burano. For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Rome, the eternal city. Can it be done in a day? Of course you won’t be able to take a deep dive, but you can devote yourself to a couple major sites and do quick walk-bys through others.

Tip #1: Plan ahead! Map out your itinerary and get any tourist attraction tickets ahead of time. Even with that, unexpected things will happen. More on that in a bit.

During our Italy travels, we were based in Florence. So Rome was an easy daytrip. We booked the first fast train from Firenze S.M. Novella train station to Roma Termini train station.

Tip #2: If you’re coming into Rome from another Italian city by train, look at a map of Rome. For us, Roma Termini was more centrally located to what we wanted to see. Other trains will call at Roma Tiburtina, but that was farther out for us.

Tip 3: If traveling by train, make sure it’s one of the fast ones, like Trenitalia’s Frecce trains (arrow trains). You don’t want to waste time on a slow train.

We arrived at Roma Termini at 8:30am with our itinerary of two major sites: the Colosseum and the Vatican. I had been to Rome when I was in college and I always regretted not touring the Colosseum. So it was time to make that right! At 9:00am we would start a guided tour of the Colosseum. It was an easy 19 minute walk to the Colosseum. We met our tour guide outside the Colosseo metro stop. This tour, booked through Viator, included both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

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Colosseum

The guided tour was fantastic. It was much better than just walking around on our own…and we got to jump the line. The history and cultural tidbits were amazing. Our tour guide had a graduate degree in archaeology and was clearly passionate about the topic. Maybe a bit too passionate, because she kept us 30 minutes after our supposed ending time!

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Roman Forum

Tip 4: If you get behind schedule, consider taking the Metro if it’s convenient. We quickly got on the subway from the Colosseo metro stop and took it over to the Vatican, the next item on our list.

We exited out of the Ottaviano metro stop and even with Google Maps, started to get a bit turned around. So here’s the next tip.

Tip 5: Be wary of people with “Tourist Staff” badges. They may work for companies that are trying to upsell you on Vatican Museum tickets. All we wanted were directions to the Vatican Museums, but they were intent on leading us to their offices!

We finally found the entrance to Vatican Museums and walked right in with our timed tickets. The museums are sumptuous, with decadent works of art. The highlight of course is the Sistine Chapel. Beware though, no photography allowed in the chapel.

Now this is where things start to go awry. We were massively behind schedule after art-gawking in the Vatican Museums. At the height of summer tourist season, our next stop: Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica had a line that went on…and on…and on.

So we made the decision to skip. We had been there before. If I was a first-time visitor, I would probably pick touring the basilica and the its dome over the Vatican Museums, but that matches my interests…so your mileage may vary. We did however, stop in St. Peter’s Square for photos.

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Vatican: St. Peter’s Basilica

Tip 6: Have a Plan B. So we had seen two major important sites – the Colosseum and the Vatican – but now it was time to see Rome on foot.

From St. Peter’s we walked down Via della Conciliazione towards Castel Sant’Angelo. There we crossed over the Tiber River on the pedestrian bridge – Ponte Sant’Angelo.

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Castel Sant’Angelo

Then we walked around the historic center, making our way over to the lovely Piazza Navona where we had a late lunch and some gelato.

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Piazza Navona

Satiated, we then walked to the magnificent Pantheon, built around the year 100! It’s free to enter.

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Pantheon

From the Pantheon, our next call was to the touristy Trevi Fountain. Be prepared for the hoards here, but muscle your way in and get the pic of you throwing a coin in the fountain. According to Wikipedia, around 3,000 euros a day are thrown into the fountain!

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Rome: Trevi Fountain

Our final stop was the famous Spanish Steps. The steps were designed by an Italian, but financed by the French, and built to commemorate peace between France and Spain. It’s primo people watching! We had a long sit and soaked up the evening June sun.

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Spanish Steps

Tip 7: Keep track of your time! Looking at our watches it was time to start walking back, grab a bite to eat, and head towards the train station for our 8:30pm train.

So was this an ideal day? It was jam-packed, that’s for sure. Of course, Rome deserves more than a day. But for what we did, I that it was definitely worth it!

Below are some photo highlights of our Rome daytrip. For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

For those picture perfect postcard views of Florence, you need to go up! There are two vistas and two (wait, make that three!) towers/domes you will want to climb. So put on your sneakers and do some calf exercises, because you are about to feel the burn!

1. Piazzale Michelangelo
Those famous shots of Florence, with the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio? Those are usually taken from Piazzale Michelangelo. What is a piazzale? It’s like a piazza (a square) but with one side open.

Be forewarned: You won’t be the only one here. Particularly as sunset approaches, people camp out on the steps, having a glass of wine, some pizza, and possibly a snog. Sunset is absolutely golden. You will need to arrive around two hours prior for a primo viewing spot. The steps are good for relaxing, but my preferred spot is standing at the corner where the two sides of balcony meet. It has some absolutely fantastic views of the Duomo, the Arno River, and the Ponte Vecchio.

If crowds aren’t your thing, then aim for before 10am–that’s before most of the cruise ship daytrippers and tour groups descend upon the city. Once on a Sunday morning, I felt like I had the piazzale to myself. From the Ponte Vecchio in central Florence, it’s about a 20 minute walk. Make your way up the scenic steps of the Scalea del Monte alle Croci to get to the piazzale

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2. San Miniato al Monte
Speaking of crowds, to avoid them altogether, all you need to do is go up a little bit higher. Near Piazzale Michelangelo is San Miniato al Monte, a historic one thousand year old church.

Here you have good views of the Duomo and main sykline, but less views of the Arno. It’s peaceful and relaxing. Give yourself time to tour the historic church and cemetery.

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3. and 4. Duomo and the Campanile 
I hope you’re not scared of heights, but no visit to Florence is complete with a Duomo tour. People are often surprised: The facade of the Duomo is so ornate, but the interior – minus the dome – is rather plain. The real star however is the 463 step climb to the top of the cupola. You have to hoof it all the way; there is no elevator. Warning: If you’re claustrophobic and scared of heights, this probably isn’t for you. However, you’ll be treated to outstanding views of the terra-cotta roofs of Florence and the surrounding countryside.

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But you work here is isn’t done yet! I also recommend climbing the Duomo’s campanile, or bell tower. This one is 414 steps. Again, no elevator. Yes, your calves might be killing you, but the reason to climb the campanile is because you can get some outstanding pictures of the Duomo.

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5. Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio, literally “old palace,” is the seat of Florence’s government and was, at one time, home to the Medici family. It’s sumptuous and ornate and worth your time. Make sure you get a ticket that includes admission to the tower. At the top, you have a perfect vista of the Duomo.

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If you’re a photography lover, I recommend all five. If you’re in a rush, definitely do Piazzale Michelangelo and the classic climb to the Duomo cupola.

Below are pics from the vantage points described above. For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

 

Check out this article by Canadian Affair about Alaskan cruises: https://www.canadianaffair.com/blog/7-unexpected-delights-alaskan-cruise/

I had the pleasure of being interviewed for the article. The Alaskan cruise I took was my first cruise ship experience and I loved it! Here’s a little bit about what I had to say:

“When I think of Alaska, the word ‘adventure’ is what pops into my mind. It really still has that sense of the ‘last frontier.’ It’s a combination of all the natural beauty – the mountains, ocean, glaciers, forests, lakes, and wildlife – that make it a travel destination bucket list. On an Alaskan cruise, you get to experience the untamed wilderness, whether it’s watching a glacier calve or seeing grizzlies up close. For me, that’s not an experience I can get back home and that’s what makes an Alaskan cruise so inviting. It’s all about experiences! Taking a cruise was the best option to cover Alaska and see places like Ketchikan, Juneau, and Skagway that are not accessible by automobile.”

This was hands-down one of my favorite travel experiences. I will go back!

No, I’m not saying that Florence is in a intermediate state. This past June, Limbo was the area where we resided–Piazza del Limbo to be more specific.

What I love about Florence is the history. And yes, there is a story about limbo. The piazza is built over an old cemetery where Florence’s unbaptized babies were buried during medieval times – hence, Piazza del Limbo. The square also features one of Florence’s oldest churches – Santi Apostoli.

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Piazza del Limbo

We stayed directly across from the square in an apartment building titled Bagni Nelle Antiche Terme, or Baths of the Ancient Spa. The area had been home to the city’s baths. The Florentine has a great overview of the neighborhood and its history.

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Bagni Nelle Antiche Terme

Along the street, Borgo Santissimi Apostoli, there are a couple of good restaurants. I recommend Le Antiche Carrozze – great for an aperitivo or pizza. Nearby there is also a nice hotel, Hotel Berchielli.

Not too far away was my “favorite” intersection: Puragtory and Limbo – you could be there for eternity, haha! It also features one of Clet’s work of street art.

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The corner of purgatory & limbo

But the must do is a stop-in at the teeny tiny bottega and gift shop – La Bottega del Chianti. Only about four people at a time can squeeze into the shop! If you can’t find something there that you like, then it doesn’t exist. Half their inventory is painstakingly placed on the outside wall every morning! Lots of wine, oil, cheese, and more. Check out the Tripadvisor posting.

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La Bottega Del Chianti

Our apartment had no a/c in June, so open windows it was! You could hear the clippity-clop of the horse-drawn carriages going down the street. Every afternoon I was treated to the sounds of an opera singer practicing her music. At night, we would walk down to watch the street performers at Piazza di Santa Trinita. Centrally located, our apartment was a quick three minute walk to the Ponte Vecchio. Location was A+.

For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

 

Whether you’re visiting Florence in the heat of summer or the coolness of winter, a daily break (or two or three!) for gelato is a must do. But don’t just head to the nearest gelato place. Last year, I gave some advice on the topic:

Gelato: Avoid places where you can see the gelato from the store front window. Especially if the gelato is molded into a mountain-like form. Although eye-appealing, it’s usually old. Go to a place where you have to step inside to see the gelato. My favorite flavor? I love frutti di bosco (literally “fruit of the forest”)—it’s mixed berry.

Speaking of flavors: Yes, frutti di bosco (mixed berry) is my favorite, but I also like to mix and match the following:

  • cioccolato fondentedark chocolate
  • bacio = chocolate hazelnut
  • amarena = black cherry
  • pistacchio = pistachio
  • limone = lemon
  • fragola = strawberry
  • ricotta e pera = ricotta cheese & pear

Depending on the size of the cone or cup, you can usually pick 2-3 flavors.

So where should you go? Hands-down my favorite place for gelato in Florence is La Carraia. There are two locations: one in Oltrarno on the Arno (Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25/r) and one near Santa Croce (Via de’ Benci, 24/r). There’s often a line–even at 10pm–but it moves fast.

Otherwise, I also like La Strega Nocciola, Perche No?, and Gelateria dei Neri.

Check out the pic below…now THIS is a perfect Florence evening. Happy eating!

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La Carraia gelato, Florence