|OUR FLORENCE ITINERARY: You’ll notice that climbing the Duomo and visiting museums like the Uffizi Gallery aren’t on here. If that’s your jam, buy tickets online to skip the crowds. I prefer unique experiences and just walking the streets to soak up the culture and local feel. When we plan our Girl Trips, each person gets to pick an activity that is a “must do” and we schedule it on the itinerary after researching all the options. I have now personally experienced the following adventures, all of which I highly recommend, and can’t wait to share with you! I hope your trip to Italy will be as memorable and fun as our Girls Trip 2021. Enjoy the journey!|
DAY ONE (Arrival)
We stayed at an ARBNB in the Oltrarno neighborhood-an area filled with sidewalk cafes and artisan shops. Less tourists, more locals. Airport transfer: our ARBNB host recommended a driver in advance, and we used him throughout our trip ($45 pick-up at airport & $50/hour for taking us on day trips-very nice Mercedes Van with room for five passengers). We walked around the neighborhood, got some groceries and unpacked.
Dinner –Trattoria 4 Leoni – Florence – Trattoria 4 Leoni – Florence Eat outdoors on Piazza della Passera-no English spoken by the waiters so download an app to translate the menu. The steaks were huge if you are a meat-eater and the pasta delicious.
Shake off jet leg and work out those legs at Boboli Gardens (reservations needed for weekends $13/during week $10/day but you can buy online or just get at the gate) Walk up the hill and get a stunning view of Florence. Use the back entrance on Via Romana-less crowded. Spend hours wandering. Wear comfortable shoes. Bring water.
Evening private tour of Torrigiani Gardens with host who lives at the family villa and dinner on the terrace made by his wife. email@example.com 250 euros for 3 people-cash only (euros).
Private walking tour for our group of three. Axel, our guide, took us all over Florence on both sides of the Arno so it was a great way to start our trip. We tasted everything: cheese, meat, pastry, wine, gelato! (Book online-we paid $209 USD for 3 people-plus we tipped our guide at end of tour-cash only (euros) for tips everywhere in Italy even restaurants. You can’t add a tip to the bill.).
Lunch at Babae, featured by Stanley Tucci (in Oltrarno) Opens at noon– book table on WhatsApp. They have a functioning wine door. Cheers!
All day Tuscany tour of winery at Corzano and Paterno Farm, 50020 San Casciano in Val di Pesa, 40 minutes each way driving from Florence. Duration of tour/tasting is two hours. Arrange your own transportation. Book online: 30 euros per person-a bargain that included: Vineyard walk, cellar and dairy tour with a description of the production process. A light outdoor lunch with wines, cheese, cured meat, veggies, fruits, dessert and tasting of three wines.
Private Cooking class just outside Florence-they provide transportation from Florence city center. Includes plentiful lunch with wine. Majla and her husband host you in their family villa. Cost was 135 euros per person and absolutely worth it to learn how to make pasta from scratch the Italian way.
Dinner at rooftop bar SE-STO on Arno -on top of Westin hotel. Gorgeous view of Ponte Vecchio bridge and river. Make reservations. May not get them if not staying at the Westin but you can try. We got in.
Artisan Workshops Visit – Florence Artisan Tour – ArtViva will tailor to your wishes. We asked to see artisans making jewelry and leather goods. Private guide for 3 people was 50 euros each. Maria was our tour guide and interpreted for us so we could speak with artisans. Of course, we bought some great pieces to take home with us!
Dinner at rooftop bar in Piazza Santa Spirito: Loggia https://www.palazzoguadagni.com/loggia-roof-bar/
Local neighborhood walk in the Oltrarno with a visit to the market in Santo Spirito square and quick stop at Brancacci Chapel Cappella Brancacci, Florence – TripAdvisor and Parrocchia Collegiata Sant’Anna Cagliari (both places we were only ones there-you just walk in to see the fabulous chapels).
Dinner on the patio at La Loggia | Ristorante La Loggia in Piazzale Michelangelo (open 11-11 daily) Great view overlooking the city. Walk across the road past the parking lot to the edge and take stunning pictures of Florence.
EVERY DAY-EAT GELATO Recommend these two places but there is no “bad” gelato: Gelateria La Carraia and Gelateria Santa Trinità (Oltrarno) are both amazing. Look for gelato in covered metal containers not large colorful mounds on display if you want the local stuff.
SHOPPING-as much as you can fit in your luggage or do like we did and buy another big piece of luggage to check on your way home-cheaper and safer than shipping stuff: Most stores are closed on Sunday. Other days usually open 10-1 And 3-8-but it’s Italy though so who knows when they will be open! Stroll and visit the small shops in the Oltrarno run by the artists themselves selling their creations: leather, paper, jewelry, art. Artisans we visited on our tour:
Ginerva Gemmi (jewelry) and Frau Leman (leather). Both female artisans with unique pieces.
NAA Studio showcased typical Florentine jewelry with stamping on silver.
We bought a lot at the Leather School-real Florence artisans working on sight and wide selection of locally made leather. They ship to US for free if you buy enough. They also stamp your initials on leather for free onsite as you wait.
Angela Caputi jewelry https://www.angelacaputi.com/en/ via S. Spirito 58R. Her collections are carried at museums and are stunning. I get so many compliments on the pieces I own. Several stores in Italy. They do not sell online so buy what you want while you are in Italy or regret it.
For more of my blogs about Florence, go here: https://travelswithmelinda.com/category/florence/
Tag: Girls Trip
Florence: Reflections on Italian ARBNBs-Girls Trip 2021
We stay in ARBNBs for our Girls Trips so that we can each have a bedroom and a bath but can come together in common spaces to spend time together, at least the few times we are not out running around. We also like a kitchen, so we don’t have to eat out every meal. Our Florence ARBNB was in a villa in the Oltrarno neighborhood and owned by sisters, who rent out half of it (3 bedroom/2 bath) with a full kitchen and lovely outside space and then they live in the other half with their multi-generational families. What follows is my reflections on our Italian ARBNB journey!
Our villa oozed Italian charm but “cozy” it was not. Is that Italian living? While this post covers in detail what our ARBNB stay was like with lots of cautionary tales for future travelers, so they know what to expect, but please don’t think it was a bad stay. We will cherish being able to experience the Italian lifestyle, hard beds and all! That’s what I love about travel. It exposes you to the way other people live and makes you appreciate your own lifestyle when you get back home. Win-Win.
When I travel, I do love staying in apartments/houses in local neighborhoods to get a real feel for the country and culture. That being said, I am American and used to all things soft and convenient. I have multiple plush throws in our home, soft throw pillows, comfy chairs and large couches, etc. There was nothing soft in this ARBNB, but it was a very nice place so I’m thinking it’s probably the same all around Italy? The beds were very hard, the one couch we had was hard, the patio furniture was metal and hard. You get the theme. Hard. Perhaps that it is on purpose to encourage people to leave their homes and get out and be social? One cultural difference I appreciated was seeing families and friends congregating to eat at the local cafes vs. staying isolated in their homes watching endless TV shows. Everyone talking and enjoying life together-what a concept!
Spread out over three floors (with stone sloping steep stairs and a tiny elevator only to help with luggage), we did get quite the workout over the week. When renting an ARBNB in Europe, prepare for lots of stairs as elevators are a rare commodity. The tall original windows (4x longer than typical American windows) with indoor wooden shutters were utterly authenticate and charming. There were no window screens, though, which seems so dangerous to have around children if you are staying on an upper floor. I looked around other houses in Florence and the “no screens” seemed to be common. Also, the windows were wide enough when open to have an entire flock of birds (or bats) fly in while you are getting some breeze not to mention the insects (yes, they have mosquitos here) so, as picturesque as they were, we did try to keep the windows closed most of the time so as not to come home to a nest of birds in our space. I did make sure our ARBNB had a/c in the bedrooms. We each had a wall (not window) air conditioner to moderate the heat. If you are going any time it is hot, be sure to check the listing for a/c, which is not standard, and read the reviews to see if it works well. The thick stone walls did act as natural insulators as well as keeping out the heat.
I will say the bedroom sizes here were very large compared to the usual tiny dimensions of bedrooms in Europe. Don’t expect to sink into memory foam. The mattresses and pillows are thin and hard. The sheets vintage 1950 and the blankets were thin and rough. Sleeping like an Italian, you will probably walk 20,000 steps a day exploring beautiful Florence, so sleeping shouldn’t be a problem. You will be worn out!
Our place in Florence had a washer, which was terrific, and as is typical in Europe, there was no dryer. There was an outside clothesline you could hang items on to dry-just lean out the second story window and try not to fall as you place your items on display for the courtyard to see. I let my sister Becky do the hanging! We also used the drying rack (identical to the one I purchased in China for same use) and put it up in my bedroom to hang stuff on. Warning-these washers are so loud you would think a plane is taking off and landing. Do not run when you are trying to go to sleep!
Everything we needed for a happy week-long stay was provided. The function was there but it took a while to get used to the coarse towels. No need to get microdermabrasion now! Just give yourself a thorough rub down with these towels and you will say goodbye to that top layer of skin and feel years younger. None of this soft, fluffy towel stuff that pampered Americans are used to. If you use wash cloths, bring your own or buy some when you arrive. Wash cloths are not part of the towel assortment offered in most of Europe. I missed the warming towel racks like you find in Paris, which I love. Warning on the toilet paper: Charmin Ultra it is not. Ouch.
Our floor layout was not “open concept” and probably the result of chopping up the family villa into sections so they could rent out half and retain the original family living in the other half. You entered our ARBNB into the reception area on the ground level, where you check in and then enter your apartment. The only couch and 2 chairs are on this ground floor as well as a full bath. You then walk up 33 concrete stairs (luggage can go up in a service elevator). On the second floor, you have 2 bedrooms, a full bath and the kitchen/dining area. Up another flight of stairs is the attic bedroom, which thankfully Patti offered to take.
So, I would have loved to have had at least one comfortable couch on the main living level because going up and down the stairs to get to the main floor living room wasn’t practical and I can only sit on hard wood chairs for so long to eat dinner but not much after that. I’m just a soft American used to humongous soft sectionals, big screen TVs (no tv here) and even cushions on any hard chair or patio set. Here, it is wood or metal so get up and walk around the beautiful neighborhood instead of staying inside.
The bathrooms were bigger than most European ones with the usual handheld wand instead of an overhead showerhead with folding screen to keep water from escaping onto the floor. Of course, there was a bidet alongside the toilet. With ancient plumbing comes the lack of water pressure and flushing as loud as a freight train because water has to rise through all those ancient pipes from the lower depths on the villa. Whoosh! As is often the case in Europe, don’t expect lots of closets and hangers for your clothes. You may get an armoire but probably not. Pack less. Do laundry more.
I love coffee. A lot. I tend to drink about 3 mugs of coffee each morning. Here in Italy, they have these teeny tiny metal coffee pots that make a very small cup of coffee. My first attempt at making coffee at our ARBNB was a major fail. After doing some online research I can verify that you must put the water in the bottom, then the coffee goes in the middle, and you put it on the stove and the water shoots up as it is heated and somehow coffee is made. But only a tiny sip or two of coffee in one of the tiny cups provided. No mugs here. Nope. And forget just going out to get a Starbucks Grande Americano. No Starbucks in Florence proper-closest one is 20 miles out of the center of town, so I wasn’t able to get my usual Starbucks city mug to commemorate my trip this time. However, I’m going to Milan later this year and look forward to getting a mug at their new Starbucks roaster. Yes, Florence has lots of cafes, but they serve expresso in, yes, teeny tiny cups. They don’t seem to have “to go” capabilities. It is not part of the culture. Italians down an expresso at the bar, chat a little and quickly go about life. Unlike Americans who get their big, complicated coffee drinks from the drive-up window to take to work with them. So, when in Italy, adjust your expectations, embrace the local culture and enjoy the journey!
Accommodation questions to ask yourself before booking your vacation:
- For ARBNB, look for “super hosts” and flexible cancel policies that allow you to cancel up to a week before you travel and still get a 100% refund. As someone who has lost big $$’s due to medical stuff popping up at the last minute that caused us to cancel reservations, the cancel policy is so important.
- Read all the reviews. I don’t rent anything without multiple reviews. Comfy beds, a safe convenient neighborhood and cleanliness are important to us so I look for those features in the reviews.
- How many bedrooms and baths are required-does everyone need their own bath? Harder to find that in Europe where one bath for a three bedroom is normal, and that’s if you can get three bedrooms,which is huge for Europe standards.
- Do you need a kitchen-are you going to cook or go out to eat? For two weeks or more, I really need a full kitchen but can do without for less time.
- Outside space-garden or patio? This might be a safety concern but for others who like to enjoy their wine sitting on a balcony it may be a necessity.
- Wifi? We travel and I work remote so this is super important to me. While I can use my phone as a hotspot because I pay the international daily fees ($10/day), it’s not as stable for virtual calls.
- Is there cable with English-speaking channels or a Smart TV where you can sign into your own apps like Netflix (just remember to sign out before you leave)? I don’t watch a lot but you never know when you may need to check out the news. We were in the UK when the Queen died and we did watch the local coverage.
- Safety, safety, safety-ALWAYS check out the neighborhood where you would be staying before renting. Thom and I once stayed in a very local, somewhat sketchy neighborhood in Portugal where I didn’t feel so safe at night so we stayed in vs. going out after dark. Yes, it had a low nighly rate but for good reason. Check out the general neighborhood (you may not have an exact address on an ARBNB when booking) on Google maps. Are there restaurants, shopping, groceries, churches, etc. View the local area through street level cameras to get a feel for it.
HOTEL-if an ARBNB doesn’t work for you
- Let’s talk check in time and check out time. If you stay in a hotel and arrive on a red eye early in the morning and can’t check in until 3 pm, hotels will typically check your bags for you so you can start immediately exploring. An ARBNB is less likely to be able to do this for you but you can ask. So, depending on your flight details, you may want to decide on a hotel vs. an ARBNB.
- Want a pool or fitness center? I average walking 10,000-20,000 steps a day on vacation so I usually don’t need a fitness club.
- On-site status members’ club at a hotel important to you? As my business travel peak when I was making many trips all over the world, I had free access to the hotel clubs with free booze and food which was wonderful. I was very brand loyal in booking rooms just for this great perk. Marriott all the way!
- View necessary? I like a view, preferably water, and will pay extra for it. Hotels may be more likely to have great views.
- Accessibility to shops and cafes-is walking distance important? For longer terms stays, a grocery may be important to be close by. Remember, most groceries deliver now.
- Pet friendly? When we travel locally by car, we bring along the pooch.
- Kid friendly-I’ve rented places just for this feature if my grandkids will be with us so they are happily engaged playing while the adults relax.
Florence-Walking Food Tour-Girls Trip 2021
With our shins and calves aching after walking for miles, we prepared to do it again on Day 3 of our Girls Trip 2021. So much to see and do! Today’s adventure was a walking food tour booked through TripAdvisor. Our guide, Axel, met us on the steps of a church for our three-hour tour, and we were off to a caffeine stop at a lovely little café. No Starbucks here in Florence or Grande size coffees! The cafes serve espressos and tiny Americanos and cappuccinos. Most don’t have “takeaway” cups so expect to down it quickly at the café and get a quick caffeine jolt.
Our food tour stops after the café included Florence’s oldest market Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio which has been around since 1873. We wandered among the many butcher shops, cheese shops and food stalls where locals were buying their lunches. We bought coffee beans and hand cream at a little grocery stand-all made/grown in Florence and enjoyed tasting the “in season” fruit selection of peaches, plums, and grapes. Outside, there was a local market with clothes and household items. I got the first of many Italian pillow covers for a few euros. Great souvenir that doesn’t take up too much room in my luggage.
After the market, we walked to a tiny alleyway where we sat on the smallest of stools and sampled cheeses (not a big thing here other than parmigiana) and meats. Just when you think you can’t eat any more, you do. Now, to our credit, we did walk a lot! And the people watching was amazing. Across from our table was a small stall selling tripe (lining of an animal’s stomach) and wild boar (who roam the countryside and are hunted) panini sandwiches-both traditional Florence meats. No thank you!
The best taste of the day might have been at a bakery (of course) where the chocolate (big chunks) and cherry biscotti was to die for. My sister bought a big bag and has since ordered the biscotti shipped to her home in the US and also has learned to bake a similar version herself to feed her biscotti addiction. Yes, they were that good. Softer than the hard stuff we get in the US and bursting with flavor, they were baked in the little shop we visited. Ahhh the aromas of baking biscotti in Italy. Perfect.
Then, afternoon had arrived and it was time to bring on the vino! After touring the cellar of a wine store, we sampled the local white wine and had bread with truffle cream. Very tasty pairing indeed! The local balsamic vinegar is used on everything as is the olive oil.
As we walked over the Ponte Vecchio bridge, we learned an interesting history lesson from our guide: When the Germans were marching up through Italy, the General was told to blow up all the bridges in Florence to slow down their pursuers. Even he couldn’t bring himself to blow up the medievial Ponte Vecchio bridge. He blew up the rest of the bridges (which were rebuilt to look the same) and saved the Ponte Vecchio from destruction. Thank goodness for it is lovely to look at. Filled with gold shops and tourists, it’s not a place I would want to hang out but to photograph it with the reflection in the Arno river is lovely. To see the rowers out on the water with it in the background is stunning and iconic to Florence.
It was a hot day and the final stop on our tour was fortunately at a gelateria that makes its creamy sweetness locally as the line out the door would attest to it’s popularity. I had a 2 scoop cup topped off with a sweet wafer cookie-coffee and caramel crumble. Due to the heat, we ate quickly as it melted and bid adieu to Axel. You do tip the guides (euros only)-don’t forget!
Walking through a quiet side street off the beaten path, we saw a really well preserved “wine door” similar to what Stanley Tucci had featured on his Florence special. They used to pass wine through these doors to customers. We also saw some street art, which a local walking by who spoke English told us is against the law so you don’t see it widely across the city.
We headed home for showers, rest and a dinner with Gusta pizza leftovers, enjoyed in our private courtyard garden. Enjoy the journey!
Florence Artisan Shopping Tour-Girls Trip 2021
Shopping is always on the itinerary for any Girls Trip. In Florence, our ARBNB was located in the artist epicenter of Florence called the Oltrarno, so we decided to go on a tour of local artisans, see them in action, and buy directly from the person making the beautiful creations. Artisan day! When we are crafting our itineraries for our Girls Trip, we try to have each person pick one “must do” activity. Patti picked this tour as her activity for us because she is an artist, excelling in sewing, knitting, drawing, etc. Designing a curated trip just for us focusing on women artists, the ArtViva tour folks asked for direction in what we wanted to see, and we shared that we were primarily interested in leather and jewelry making. Our expert guide, Maria, picked us up at our ARBNB and took us on a walking tour to local artisans in our Oltrarno neighborhood.
Frau Leman creates her own leather and fabric handbags, luggage and accessory designs. Each piece is handcrafted by her in her cozy studio/shop. She took time to explain to us the different types of leather and why she picks a certain kind for each of her designs. She weaves in colors to all her pieces even if the outside is all one color, adding a pop of color to the lining or the side vents. After talking to artists like Frau Leman, I appreciate even more the time it takes to design and actually create the unique pieces they sell. Of course, we wanted to support these local artisans, so we just had to make some Christmas gift purchases while we were there. We also have their information now if we want to buy items online and have them shipped to use in the US. Frau Leman Firenze Leathergoods (@frauleman) • Instagram photos and videos via della Chiesa 21R
The other main leather shopping we did on our trip was at the Florence leather school Scuola del Cuoio. I’ve visited there several times and always come away with beautifully handcrafted items for myself and others. On the last visit, I scored a multi-color (black and red) glass case that I got monogrammed in gold (for free and done on site as you wait after you purchase). My sister ordered holiday presents for her office staff and had them shipped to the US (free shipping if you spend over $120 euros). Unique and high quality, there is something for everyone at the leather school. From bookmarks and leather bracelets to belts, journals and higher ticket items like their icon bag (which I want to get on my next trip!) to leather jackets. The shop is tucked away and hard to find but well worth it! You won’t be disappointed.
NAA Studio showcased typical Florentine jewelry with stamping on silver. The artist had an intern from the design school working for her to hone her trade. The intricate designs showcase the history of jewelry in Florence and Italy. One thing I noticed about the artisans is that their work is typically focused on one specialty that they are experts at like leather handbags or silver jewelry.
Ginevra Gemmi incorporates earthy and sculptural jewels shaped into earrings, rings and necklaces in silver, bronze and rough stones. She also photographs nature to showcase and inspire her designs even using the actual organic material such as leaves as her base, molding the metals around the leaves to get that natural look. You get a sense that she loves her little workshop/store space and enjoys talking to customers. Her puppy is her assistant and greets customers when not taking copious amounts of naps. I now own several of Ginevra’s designs-a braided bronze ring and hummingbird earrings. I’m sure these won’t be the last artistic pieces I collect from her! Ginevra Gemmi Gioielli (@ginevra.gemmi.gioielli) • Instagram photos and videos via della Chiesa 29 Rosso
Our guide Maria pivoted quickly when we told her mid-tour that we would like to see some modern jewelry design too. She quickly jumped on the phone with her contacts and arranged for us to go by the Angela Caputi store in the neighborhood. The designer herself was at the workshop with her team. It was a very special moment when she stopped and talked with us through our guide as the interpreter. We even got a selfie! Her creations are inspired from American movies of the 1940’s as well as her long-standing passion for fashion. Her worldwide reputation has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York and at the V & A Museum in London. Her creations have also been seen in many films and on the runways. She has six boutiques that sell her work including the one we visited in Florence. I admire her style-the white hair, the black dress, the unique eyeglass frames and, of course, her jewelry. She uses bold designs and colors with simple materials such as synthetic resins. I am very happy to say that I now own several jewelry pieces from Angelia Caputi and get compliments on them every time I wear them! Shop Angela Caputi jewelry https://www.angelacaputi.com/en/ via S. Spirito 58R
After all this shopping, we stopped for a caffeine boost at a café on Piazza Santo Spirito where a market takes place every morning. From clothing to hardware to vegetables, the tables were full of hidden treasures that are sold to the Oltrarno locals. I jumped right in and found a beautiful vintage scarf for a few euros and Patti got a lovely leather bag for less than 20 euros. We also bought some figs to take back to the ARBNB, which were the most amazing figs I have ever tasted. When in Florence, take time to go to a local market and explore.
Whether you want to take a tour to meet and watch the artists create or just want to wander the Oltrarno on your own, sticking your head into any shop that catches your interest, don’t miss this special experience in Florence. Most artists will welcome your interest and explain their artistic process if they have time. They will certainly appreciate your purchases to help support their efforts. Enjoy the journey!
Florence-Torrigiani Private Estate Tour-Girls Trip 2021
Our Florence Girls Trip 2021, after an eleven-hour sleep, began with a walk around our local neighborhood in the Oltrarno. More local and less tourist is always my preferred location when travelling. Locals, especially artisans, live in the Oltrarno neighborhood which is on the “other” side of the Arno River far away from the tourist madness surrounding the Duomo. Our ARBNB was in a villa owned by sisters, who now rent out half of it (3 bedroom/2 bath) with a full kitchen and lovely outside space and then they live in the other half with their families. It was lovely. Spread out over three floors (with stone sloping steep stairs and a tiny elevator only to help with luggage), we did get a workout over the week.
Just outside the villa gates (secured with key and very safe) and directly across the street was the back entrance to Boboli Gardens. Taking advantage of the beautiful weather, we strolled the paths, walked up many flights of stairs (get in shape before you come to Italy!) and saw beautiful views of downtown Florence and the countryside. Totally worth a few hours of your life to soak in the beauty of this oasis. We exited on the far side away from our ARBNB, which is next to Pitti Palace, and picked up some groceries for the week at the local Carrefour market.
After a brief rest, we were ready to walk the Giardino Torrigiani gardens in the family estate located in the Oltrarno. The largest private garden in Europe within the circle of the walls of a city, it covers over 17 acres. The Torrigiani family has owned the grounds since the early 1800’s. My sister discovered this unique experience on one of the many travel sites we researched for our trip. I emailed one of the Torrigiani family members and set up all the details.
Tommaso Torrigiani took us on a private tour of his family’s gardens, which showcases many elements with different influences from the Masons to the UK and was laid out to represent the seasons of life from birth to death. He shared the history and stories of his family’s heritage. The grassy field has been used in the past to relaunch the local football team. The beautiful tower is the Torrigiani family pillar and houses a library and a crypt. I will never forget herbs crumbling under our feet as we walked the garden, releasing their fragrances. Of course, the hemlock tree was used for nefarious poisoning in the past, so we avoided touching that one. A riverbed, dug with hopes of tapping into the city water, has laid dry for centuries as the water rights were denied to the family. Now and forever, it will be a river of leaves only.
Following our stroll, we entered the impressive family villa, meeting Uncle Vieri along the way. Ciao! We climbed the grand staircase to the outdoor patio where we had our multi-course dinner. I’m a vegetarian so they went out of their way to provide a sampling of local Tuscan delicacies that didn’t involve meat. Course after course kept coming out from Tommaso’s wife, our chef for the night, with local Vermentino white wine freely being poured and shared. Tommaso joined us for dinner and explained each course, where the ingredients came from and the history of the family recipes. Together, we enjoyed an amazing Italian feast:
Tomato and mozzarella with his family’s home grown olive oil and basil harvested from the property
Cheese, pear puree and grapes
Liver pate (for everyone but me!)
Tuscan bread soup-a traditional way to use leftover Italian bread, which generally has no salt and is pretty tasteless
Roasted pepper and cheese crostini
As the crescent moon beamed at us high up in the sky and the party at the villa next door kicked up, complete with music, we ended our adventure and walked just a few blocks back to our place, ready for a good rest. Truly an experience I will never forget. Enjoy the journey!
Florence Cooking Class-Girls Trip 2021
Including a pasta cooking class in our Florence Girls Trip 2021 itinerary was a “must do”. When in Italy and all! Well, I can now make pasta! The ladies and I spent an amazing day taking a private cooking class with Majla the owner of The Accidental Tourist. Majla picked us up in Florence and drove us out to her family’s villa about 25 minutes outside Florence. Of course, it was up a narrow twisty road with hairpin turns that she executed at high speeds. She was a great driver, but I can’t imagine doing this every day! Since we were all “ladies of a certain age” we got along great and chatted away throughout the day.
Twenty-four years ago, Majla and her husband started The Accidental Tourist, conducting cooking classes and also hosting guests in their villa. Tastefully decorated in a unique style, the rooms they rent are quirky and memorable. Majla and her husband live in these rooms in the winter when there are no guests visiting but, in the summer, they move downstairs and rent out their living quarters. I loved the bed in the kitchen. Majla explained that having a bed in the kitchen was routine so that any family member who didn’t feel well could still feel included in the family food preparation.
Their home, like many here in Italy, is populated with many branches of their extended family-four different family units. This 900-year-old villa has been in their family for six generations. It features a lovely outside play area for the entire family to enjoy. The tower, she explained, was built along with others all across Italy in the 1100’s to signal messages between local towns. Along with the tower, a well was built so her families have inhabited this homestead for many, many years.
The local square is named after her grandfather because he hid people in their tower during World War II. He was epileptic and didn’t have to fight in the war. Instead, he stayed home, and since he spoke German, he negotiated with soldiers to save his village and the people there. Majla still has his 1899 piano. Her grandfather made his living with it and taught music at colleges and wrote music. He also was a music critic and translated Kafka into Italian and was a friend of Einstein’s cousin. What a family history!
We booked a private class just for the three of us, but you can also book to be part of a group experience, which will only have eight people max. Prices vary depending on the experience you book but it is well worth the cost especially given the unlimited headache-free Chianti wine for all guests. If you need even more reasons to book a cooking class, for every meal served The Accidental Tourist provides one meal for a homeless person. Win-Win!
Overall, making the pasta was not that time consuming and fairly easy to do. Eating the pasta was even more fun! After we made all the noodles, Majla’s husband Marco started cooking the pasta for our lunch. In the interim, we had some other dishes including the best tasting ripe figs I’ve ever eaten. What a feast!
Homemade pasta is very delicious and doesn’t even need a sauce. I learned that only Americans drown their pasta in sauce. The ingredients they use in the cooking class are 100% organic, non-GMO, farm-to-table. The pasta is low in gluten. Just some olive oil, grated parmesan cheese and maybe a pesto sauce. The bread isn’t great in Italy-no salt-but it can be used to soak up the sauces. Below are the pasta making steps we were taught, but I also watch the YouTube video through a link Majla shares to remind myself before I get out my pasta machine (yes, I bought the same one we used in class!) and start cranking out delicious pasta. Enjoy the journey!
This is what I learned in the class:
- Use non-GMO flour and pinch of salt and stinging nettle and mix into pile on table. If you want to try something different, sprinkle some stinging nettle powder into your flour. This herb is used for medicinal purposes.
- Make a well in dry ingredients and crack an organic egg in center. Use a fork to stir the egg and start then to incorporate the flour. Use just enough flour to make a dough ball. Use sifter and put ball in and sift rest of flour around it. It will collect just what it needs, and you can discard the rest.
- Then start squeezing the dough from hand to hand. Use leftover flour to coat hands frequently.
- Knead the dough with heel of your hand on the table, using weight and folding over.
- When a glossy ball, cover in beeswax or plastic and rest at room temperature for up to 12 hours (minimum of 1 hour).
- Shape the dough into long flat pieces and then start feeding into the machine to flatten further and make thin. Do one pass through for each number on the machine (1-6).
- If you want to be fancy, you can put whole sage leaves rolled between pasta sheets after all thin and then go thru manual pasta machine again.
- Cut strips of pasta (two fingers for length of noodles) and then feed into the pasta machine to make noodles. Majla recommends that the noodles should only be long enough to twirl into one bite on your fork.
- Use hand cutter for shapes other than noodles.
Book a class with The Accidental Tourist directly on their website: The Accidental Tourist
- If you’d like to stay after cooking, eating and drinking, you can BOOK A NIGHT at the villa and…
- If you are a digital nomad, looking for a place to work, or simply a magical place to find inspiration BOOK A STAY at the villa. I want to do this next time I’m in Florence!
Getting Around London-Girls Trip 2022
London is a busy city where cars, double decker buses, taxis, Ubers, bikes, scooters and horses share the roads, and the Tube whisks you quickly under all this traffic chaos. Yes, I said horses. As in the Guards making their way to their daily shift at the Palace that we passed by one morning. Remember to follow these rules and you might just live: Stand on the Right; Mind the Gap; Look Left. Don’t be scared of getting around London-just read the details below, develop a plan and get out there and enjoy a truly amazing city!
Here’s my advice for any London trip-start with considering how you will travel from place to place and factor into your agenda realistic travel time. Traffic is terrible, as in most big cities, and going from one end of London to another can take well over an hour. We ended up cutting out experiences on our agenda just because it would mean spending hours in traffic going across town and our party opted out of the Tube during rush hour periods because it was just too packed. Even if you would like to get a taxi/Uber, there will be times such as rush hour or when it is raining that street traffic will be tremendously slow and expensive and/or unable to obtain. My cell service (AT&T) was spotty as well in London, making it sometimes hard to connect to an Uber or even use Google maps to find our way. Tip: just to be safe, while you have Wi-Fi, take a screenshot on your phone of the directions/map just in case. Have a backup plan too-in case you can’t get an Uber, can you grab a bus or walk? Is there a hotel nearby where you can get help from the doorman to get a taxi?
As you are grabbing your preferred form of transportation, remember that in London they drive on the right-hand side of the road so ALWAYS LOOK LEFT. I try to remember to always look both left and right before crossing any street in any country just to be safe. Bikes and scooters are prevalent and they tend to not always follow the suggested flow, i.e., they go up the one-way street any way they want. When getting onto the Tube, remember to MIND THE GAP between the platform and the train so you don’t fall onto the tracks. That would be bad. It happens. On the escalators getting out of the Tube, STAND ON THE RIGHT so that people who want to walk up the escalator can do so on the left. Got it?
If you have booked tickets and need to be somewhere at a specific time, leave plenty of time to get there and use travel apps like Rome2Rio or Citymapper to compare your options and see estimate of time each option will take. Walking will be faster than almost any ground transportation due to the traffic. Next best options are buses and the Tube (subway). If anyone in your party is physically challenged, walking thousands of steps a day may not be an option. Also, many Tube stations have lots of stairs. Go to this site (Transport accessibility – Transport for London (tfl.gov.uk)) to see which stations have elevators.
Bus/Tube (subway) For both the bus and Tube, download Apple Pay or Google Pay on your phone/smart watch to tap at the turnstiles to pay. Otherwise, you are fumbling for a credit card to tap, and you probably don’t want to have a credit card out and about with other people nearby who could snatch it (yes, it happens so be smart). You don’t buy paper tickets anymore-it’s all tap to pay here. Just know that even between rush hours, you will still be standing closely to others on the Tube. If that’s not your jam, then plan another form of transportation. We didn’t use the bus because it would be just as slow as a taxi/Uber using the street surface and you have to find the right bus stop and wait while hoping you’ll get a seat vs. standing up.
Taxi/Uber If you really want a car ride, then go with Uber first and, as a last resort, a taxi. Why? Well, with Uber you have a fixed price when you input the pickup and drop off locations on the app on your phone. It is in the best interest of the Uber driver to get you there quickly. With the taxi, you are on a meter and the driver may or may not take a direct route. We tried both and always the Uber was cheaper by 20% or so. When using Uber, find a landmark like a hotel or restaurant and get the address to enter into the Uber app and make it easy for the driver to find you. Our average wait time for an Uber in London was 5-10 minutes.
Boat Another form of transportation is taking an Uber boat up and down the river. For under 10E, you jump on and off at various stops. Fast and fun!
London is a tourist town where clueless people wander down the middle of the streets, especially the smaller side ones after they have had a few pints. This does not mean the streets are car free so don’t follow suit unless you are positive that it is a pedestrian only area. Stay safe out there, walk the beautiful city streets and soak up the culture. Enjoy the journey!
Citymapper or Rome2Rio-best transport apps. Shows you travel details, estimated time to get there and prices too.
GETT app to get taxi’s.
TfL Go for Tube travel. Shows map of various lines and reports cancellations. Tap on a Tube station on the map to see facilities like lifts and bathrooms.
GETTING TO/FROM AIRPORT
London’s major airport is Heathrow (LHR) but close by is also Gatwick (LGW). Besides grabbing an Uber or taxi, both airports have public transportation options to get from the airport to the city. Get all the info here: Trains To & From London Heathrow Airport – Maps, Tickets | Rail Europe
TSA REQUIREMENTS WHEN LEAVING FROM UK AIRPORT
Liquids that are in your carry-on luggage will need to be in a single (one bag per person only) transparent, resealable plastic bag into which you put your liquid containers which holds no more than a liter (anything that can be “smeared” is considered a liquid) and measures 20 cm x 20 cm (US quart size). You must take this bag out at screening point so make sure it is readily available to get.
Examples of items you may not think are “liquids” would be honey, jam, lipsticks/lip gloss, etc. This are considered “smearable” and must adhere to the restrictions. You can take liquid containers larger than 100ML through security if they are for essential medical purposes, special dietary requirements or contain baby food or baby milk. My friend tried taking a snowglobe through security and she almost had it confiscated but she persuaded them. I wouldn’t risk it.
London Eat and Drink-Girls Trip 2022
First night in London for Girls Trip 2022 and anxious to explore our Covent Garden neighborhood, we checked out the shops and cafes at Covent Market. After exploring and admiring the holiday decorations, we stumbled into Punch and Judy pub and luckily found some cozy inside seating. The pub had a “self-serve order at the bar” model, so I served as our waitress, clearing the table and ordering our food. We had to try the classic fish and chip with mushy peas, which we all shared, but the dessert was the star of the night-Sticky Toffee pudding with clotted cream. To. Die. For. Seriously, I need to return to London just to enjoy this again!
I’m not much of a foodie and when Thom and I travel, we eat on the run and rarely make reservations to dine. However, the ladies take their food seriously, so we researched and made reservations for each day. When in London, eat Italian? Sure! La Mia Momma-featured on Stanley Tucci’s show he did in London, which is where he lives, this Italian place in Chelsea was outstanding. Real Italian “mommas” take turns cooking and deciding on menu items from their local regions. Not sure which momma was cooking the night we were there, but my pistachio ravioli and pistachio Tiramisu were “lick the plate clean” good. We went to the Chelsea 257 Kings Road location, but they have several spots. Reservations are a must.
Next up for dinner the following evening was a London staple, the Ivy Mark Grill. Our location in Covent Garden was warm and inviting with delicious food and awesome service. “It’s the IVY, darling!” pronounced our waiter as he gave me a “look” and explained that they would NOT just “throw some vegetables together” on a plate for me for dinner as I had just asked because they had all arrived at the table on separate plates. He whisked away the offending plates and properly plated them for me, so they looked appropriately Ivy classy. All good!
Before the theater, we enjoyed an early dinner at Brown’s, an institution with all the classic British favorites right by our ARBNB. We enjoyed the warm paneling and attentive service. We all tasted from each other’s plates and, as we usually do and shared a fabulous dessert. Gin and tonics are a classic British cocktail. Patti had never tried gin so what better place than London to give it a taste. Gin and tonics all around the table. Cheers!
I would stay in Covent Garden again just for the delicious egg tarts at Pastel de Nata. Coming and going from various adventures, we would stop in and grab a few. You can watch them being made and eat them warm right out of the oven. This was my favorite food in Portugal and China (where KFC had the best!) but I’ve never been able to get them in the US. Yum!
Located just a few steps from the egg tart place was Mr. Foggs tavern where we enjoyed one of our most memorable evenings in London at the Cockney Sing-A-Long. To experience this very British version of karaoke, we reserved our table in advance and got our song sheets along with some cocktails and dessert when we arrived. Packed with patrons singing their hearts out, the friendly song leader with the amazing moustache went from table to table between songs to meet and greet and ask for any song requests. I would definitely go back to Mr. Foggs for a fun evening any time I am in London!
My sister is a hot chocolate connoisseur so on our Girls Trips, so we are always looking for the “best” hot chocolate. Close to Neal’s Yard, a charming colorful side street of shops and cafes, we walked by Hotel Chocolat – Luxury Chocolates and Chocolate Gifts and gave it a try. Oh, lordy! It was liquid chocolate with whipped chocolate mousse topping. Becky was in heaven. We also picked up lots of their house made chocolates (including boozy ones) for Christmas gifts.
Our last night in London, we just wanted to stay close to the ARBNB and luckily one of the hidden culinary gems of London was literally right across the lane from us on Goodwins Court in Covent Garden. Giovanni’s, a family run Italian restaurant with cozy tables overseen by the charming owner, Pino Ragona. We admired the wall of pictures of celebrities who have enjoyed this place, trying to name them all, as we ate our pasta. A few steps home after our fabulous meal and we were off to pack. Perfect ending for Girls Trip 2022. I’m ready to start planning our next trip in 2023 to Paris.
I would recommend Pret a Manger (on every street corner it seems) for everyday food for breakfast or lunch. They have cold options like wraps-my favorite was a spicy chickpea veg option. They also have soups and sandwiches they can warm up. All for under $10 and very tasty. They always seem super busy with the locals queuing up to get takeaway, so the food is stocked daily and fresh. For breakfast, they have pastries galore, yogurts and coffee drinks. Taking a train trip? Stop at Pret for a takeaway lunch on the train so you don’t arrive at your destination hungry. Most trains don’t have food service. Pret is my go-to place in London!
Places I’ve researched and want to go to next trip:
- The George by the Shard traditional British food and great service. Classy.
- Café in the Crypt across the street from the National Gallery (Fish and chips/huge portions/apple crumble and custard for dessert).
- Bertie Blossoms owned by Ed Sheeran on Portobello Road in Notting Hill.
- Gordon’s Wine Bar-the oldest wine bar in the city (in summer snag an outside table along the Thames River) near Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden.
- The Swan near Hyde Park. Pub and restaurant.
- Cahoots Post-war theme speakeasy. Live music Friday-Sunday. Very popular-make reservations.
London is the perfect town for foodies to try everything from classic British fare to any type of cuisine you are looking for. Enjoy the journey!
London-Girls Trip 2022
Arriving on the train from Bath where we started our Girls Trip 2022, we got settled into our ARBNB in Goodwin’s Court. This lovely historic lane in Covent Garden was used by the Harry Potter set designers as one of their inspirations for Diagon Alley. The curved front windows of the townhomes and gas street lanterns illuminating the cobblestones is indeed lovely and very Harry Potteresque. We stay in ARBNBs for our Girl Trips so that we can each have a bedroom and a bath. However, next time maybe we won’t book a five-level townhouse. It was huge, fancy, and in a great location but way too many steep stairs we had to crawl up after busy days wandering around London!
We had timed our visit to occur in mid-November after London had turned on their spectacular Christmas lights. I’ve travelled all over the world but never have I ever seen a big city light up like London does for the holidays. Streets are strung with lights, entire building facades are decorated and don’t even get me started on the lavish decorations inside the classic huge department stores like Harrod’s. It is THE most wonderful time to visit London. Besides shopping and taking in theater performances (see my separate posts on those!), we planned out an agenda to include Parliament (we are political junkies), a private taxi tour (vs. taking the Hop On, Hop Off bus), a fabulous museum (only time for one this trip!) and grabbing a view at Sky Garden. London is an awesome city that requires multiple trips to even begin to see it all. For This first time visit to London for Becky and Patti, they got a great overview. I’ve been to London many times in the past for both business and pleasure and I always look forward to a return visit to see new things!
Our first morning in London, we journeyed across London to visit Parliament. The House of Commons and the House of Lords were both in session so there were no tours of the building going on because they were working. If you come when they are not in session, you can take a self-guided tour and see all the beautiful historic rooms, which I highly recommend. Thom and I did that a few months ago and loved it. But this time it was all about seeing Parliament debates. Ah, the political drama! After standing in the rain until the appointed time that we were told we could enter the great hall to get ready to go into the gallery, the security guards finally took pity on us and let us in about 30 minutes early. We checked out the great gift store (yes, they sell booze and lots of other cool stuff), used the facilities and waited while the docent warned us about the protocol involving the Speaker of the House Processional. About a hundred of us tourists lined up in the entry way to the House of Commons and stood at attention while all the pageantry took place. The Speaker walked right by me and said hello. Nice chap! Then, after he entered the Chambers, we all went up to the gallery after leaving our possessions (no cameras allowed) checked outside the gallery in the secure cloakroom. You sit above the action and can also watch on several monitors. The day we were there the representatives of the Treasury were discussing the energy crisis with members of Parliament and how they were going to help citizens stay warm this winter and pay their energy bills. We are political junkies so enjoyed seeing their government in action.
PRIVATE TAXI TOUR
We arranged a two-hour private Black Taxi Tour instead of taking the Hop On Hop Off bus, which I often take on trips depending on how much time I have to see the top sites in the place I’m visiting. We had a week in London and wanted to see specific sites, so the personal tour worked well for us to get the lay of the land. We booked our tour through Viator and told our tour guide to meet us at St. Ermin’s hotel, which was close to Parliament. We walked over after our Parliament experience and had a quick bite and tea at the hotel before our tour, which ended up being in a bright green taxi not the classic black one. At least the other cars could see us coming to get out of the way!
The guide was anxious to tailor our trip to what we wanted to see and also guide us to the top sights in London. We requested Buckingham Palace (of course) and the Princess Diana memorial. We got to see all the sights, jump out quickly while the tour guide waited with the car so we could get pictures and walk around. It was a full two hours of the best of London. It didn’t cost much more per person than the hop on, hop off bus would have been, and it was just our party of 3 in the car. Our guide dropped us off in our neighborhood afterward. Fun day!
VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM
We could only work in one museum on this trip, but I hope in the future to see all of the London museums. Good reason to return! So many fine museums in London and the entrance is FREE! From the moment you walk up to the Victoria and Albert Museum V&A · The World’s Leading Museum Of Art And Design (vam.ac.uk) you are impressed. The building is majestic and beautiful. The thing that makes this museum so unique is that there is something for everyone. Tip: this museum (and others) are open late on Fridays and are less crowded then. Also, make sure you have lunch in the V & A café. Not only is the food good but it’s gorgeous-oldest museum cafe in operation in Europe. Also, shop in their gift store. I bought a few Christmas presents from the wide variety of jewelry collections they offered. They carry various European designer collections to choose from including my favorite from Italy, Angela Caputi.
The best view in town at Sky Garden – London’s Highest Public Garden is FREE. Just reserve timed entry tickets online in advance (released 30 days in advance) and show up, get in line with your tickets, and go through security. Then you are whisked up to the garden view. You can go outside on the balcony, but we enjoyed coffee and treats inside while getting some great pictures. I love the comfy couches that you can relax into and rest while enjoying the view. There are tiered levels, and they often have events on the upper level like yoga classes. Enjoy the journey!
London Theater-Girls Trip 2022
One of the many reasons that I love London is the theater scene. We try to go to NYC every year and always see a Broadway show. While some of the same shows are currently on stage in both places, there are some West End exclusives too. On this Girls Trip 2022, we checked out one London show exclusive and one classic musical available in many places.
The London theater district aka the West End is spread out over a larger area than the Broadway area in NYC. These theaters are lovely old buildings for the most part and rarely is there a bad seat. Usually, you want to arrive at least 30 minutes at least prior to the performance in order to find your seats and go to the bathrooms. I am always shocked at how few bathrooms they have at these venues for women so plan ahead! Some theaters allow you to buy beverages and bring them to your seats and others make you chug down your beverage in the lobby. Cheers!
First show on our trip was & Juliet, a “coming-of-age jukebox musical” that is a glorious eruption of dance and song. Shakespeare is introduced at the beginning and his wife suggests he change the ending to Romeo & Juliet, wondering what would have happened if Juliet did not kill herself. At Romeo’s funeral, Juliet finds out that Romeo had many female AND male conquests besides her. Oops. Juliet takes a liberating road trip to Paris with friends and hilarity ensues especially when Romeo returns to pursue Juliet again. Winning many awards in the UK while playing at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London, & Juliet will close in March 2023 and has already moved to Broadway in NYC. A very diverse cast sings cover tunes from the Backstreet Boys to Britney Spears. This show can be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates music, dancing and an original story.
Our second show was the classic musical Mamma Mia. We all watched the movie prior to going to London to refresh our memory of the story and practice singing along! It was well staged, and, at the end, the talented cast all came back to the stage to lead a singalong of a few tunes from the show. We danced in our seats while we belted it out and loved every last minute of it. What a great way to spend your evening in London!
We only had time to check out two shows on this trip but on a previous trip, Thom and I went to the Globe Theater and saw a wonderful modern (goth punk style) rendition of Romeo and Juliet. Opening in 1997, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, is a replica of the original theater, set in an open-air space with capacity for 1,400 patrons. It is located on the banks of the River Thames, in the Bankside Cultural Quarter. If you want to interact with performers, get tickets to stand vs. sit. When we went, the show moved from the stage to the floor and back, all the while staying in character. So. Much. Fun. Their shows go on even if it is raining so come prepared with a poncho. If Shakespeare isn’t your jam, not to worry. They also put on modern plays, music concerts, film screenings, etc. Attend a show, take a tour of the theater, and experience what it might have been like in Shakespeare’s days. Located somewhat close to London Tower, a perfect day might be taking a tour of London Tower, lunch and shopping at Borough Market and then taking in a theater performance at the Globe. All within walking distance, if you like to walk!
No trip to London would be complete without diving into the theater scene. Enjoy the journey!
Buying tickets and theater manners
With regards to theater manners, I would suggest not standing to dance and sing with your favorite musical unless everyone around you is doing it. Otherwise, you’re “that person” who is ruining the view for others. That goes for leaning too. For Mamma Mia, we sat in Dress Circle seats on the side of the theater and were on the railing. Which was fine until the very tall person next to me leaned way forward to check out the side of the stage, obscuring the entire stage for me. I tapped on her shoulder and asked her nicely to please lean back in her seat. While she was outraged, she did it and I enjoyed the rest of the play. Awkward yes but it had to be done. So don’t let some rude patron ruin your night. Be polite and tell them to behave. And, of course, for the singalong at the end, we all stood up and danced the night away!
We bought our theater tickets in advance at a savings (20-40% off face value) on TodayTix | Theater Tickets to Musicals, Plays, Broadway, More. Similar to TKTS where we buy our NYC Broadway tickets, you get a discount that gets steeper the closer to the date you attend the show. We wanted seats together (single seats are really cheap if you don’t mind sitting separate from your party!) with a good view so we booked a few months in advance. You can also check out the tickets on https://officiallondontheatre.com/tkts/ which is the London TKTS site. If you are really flexible and want to show up the night of the play and see if you can get “rush” tickets, which are tickets that are still unsold and cheap-usually single tickets and may have some obstructed view-that is the most economical way to see a show. Tickets are all digital and you just pull them up on your phone to be scanned when you enter the theater.