A First Time Trip to Rome and Florence

Rome and Florence are tourist destinations unlike any other I’ve been to. They are in late May and early June also teeming with college kids finishing their semesters abroad, spilling into plazas at night. They are hot, crowded, and wonderful cities that I’d visit again in a heartbeat because sometimes being a typical tourist abroad is blissful. 

Maybe it was that we flew into Italy right as the season warmed, a welcome change from rainy spring, because the crowds didn’t bother me in the least. Sure, there were moments of waiting in humid lines. And yes, we did watch a particularly intoxicated American fall asleep at a fountain around midnight, who thankfully awoke before we had to rescue him like awkward faux mom and dad Americans we are. And yet in both cities we ate really, really well. I know that’s what everyone says about Italy but the food and the wine and the gelato and the coffee are really all I need to feel like I’d gotten away from home for a bit. Spending nights in plazas, sipping cheap peronis without needing a plan is exactly my kind of casual respite.

We flew first to Milan on a good deal with Alitalia, hustling on a high speed train to Rome. We walked around Rome by day and night for several days,  hardly ever taking the metro.  We drank two, sometimes three cappuccinos a day always standing at the counter, speeding into the day but still crashing from heat and walking exhaustion. We rode a double bicycle through the Villa Borghese, which turned out to be less whimsical vacation and more hilariously difficult, battling Italian drivers and skidding down hills while I laughed unlike I’ve laughed in while.

Rome was graffitied, gritty, and pockmarked with with hot trash piling everywhere. Yet it was also beautiful, old, and differently dense than New York City, with quiet back street cobblestone neighborhoods right around the corner from literal Roman ruins. I was most impressed by the Rome of working Italian people living their lives despite the tourism facade, stopping at coffee counters in the morning because it’s just a normal everyday ritual.

We left Rome for Florence by high speed train too, my burgeoning art history afficiando ready to lean into the tourism of such an amazing city. I stood like a child in front of so many larger than life paintings, trying to see right into the grain of the paint strokes, inspecting faces in early Renaissance frescos with amusement.

We waited in line for close to two hours, fending off so many line jumping Italian grandmas for the Uffizi.  Brian read me the entire Rick Steves walking guide to the galleries as we meandered around. I loved it thoroughly, like a kid.

We gazed upon Duomo everyday, staying right nearby. We sat in manicured parks as well as open church squares in the Oltrarno neighborhood after dark. We ate late after spending days walking up and down hills, staring at churches so much older than things I can imagine. We shared Florentine steak and pasta with house wine at a small Tuscan restaurant called Osteria Cinghale Bianco where we just happened to get a seat without a reservation.  It was absolutely one of the best simple meals I’ve had, the kind of serendipitous moment you can’t repeat.

We flew back through Milan, a funny thing to be a little familiar now with this northern Italian city I’ve stopped over in twice. We too took a moment to gawk at its epic Duomo. More summer tourists arrived for Italy just as we departed, feeling a little like we were temporarily studying abroad in our thirties.

Rome

seeing
All the greats are here, of course.
I loved the otherworldliness of the Pantheon the most, it felt like it belonged in Battlestar Galatica (nerd alert.)
Walking through the heart of the city to see the Trevi fountain at night.
Stranger but lovely was the Capuchin Crypt.
I found the Vatican Museum not as awe inspiring as St. Peter’s, though.
Capolitini museums were worth it for the awes inspiring Roman statues as well as the view of the forum. 

staying
The Monti neighborhood was lovely and very slice of life Rome right by the main tourist destinations. We opted to stay in a hotel there.

eating
Travestere for all dining and especially Dar poeta pizza.
A cute cafe spot for breakfast in Monti called La Casetta.
There’s a mini chain worth it called La Prosciutteria
The best gelato I had was Fanta Morgana.
Pasta Chef for street food carbonara that delicious and budget friendly.
Lunch and apperativo around Campo di Fiori
Antico Cafe Greco for a little posh old school cappuccino

Florence

seeing
Duomo! 
Walking everywhere, especially at night across the Ponte Vecchio.
The Boboli Gardens for meandering and the views.
The Uffizi
Piazza della Signoira  with a beer in the evening, observing people.
Piazza Santo Spiritu for a lively night scene, too. There was a cute cafe with to go spritz.
Leather goods everywhere, you can tell the more artisan stores if you wander a bit.
Ceramic goods from Tuscany at La Botteghina Del Ceramista
Santa Maria novella for the beautifully patterned church and the famed perfume store.

staying
We stayed right by the Duomo in a side street airbnb on the top floor. It was lovely.

eating
Aperitivo at the Santa Croce hip spot Oibò
Pizza off the beaten path at Marlborghetto
Sandwiches everywhere, in little delis tucked on so many streets.
Old school pastries at cafes like Bar Pasticceria Cucciolo and La Loggia degli Albizi
A fantastic Tuscan dinner at Osteria Cinghale Bianco

Ruminating on things eaten in Paris last year

Maybe it’s that my sister in-law is headed to Paris right now. Or that I’ve recently joined the fan club for those normal French pharmacy beauty products that just seem so much better every time I use them, like this dry shampoo and this really basic moisturizer. It’s probably also that I was in Paris a year ago crazily enough, and being stuck inside during a snow day had me wistfully thinking about that late winter trip.  If you’re looking for even more inspiration, Cup of Joe’s recent city guide of Paris has me thinking France is always a good idea, whatever the weather.

Of particular note to me, even a year later:

baguettes, always good, with butter even better
gastro pub Les Deux Cigales , very delicious
mint tea at the Grand Mosque of Paris worth the marauding pigeons 
all pain au chocolat forever!

 

A Guide to Cheap Eats in Tokyo and Kyoto Japan

everythingiate_japan

 

While we were Japan for two weeks we saved money by eating cheaply everywhere we went. I can’t think of one meal I ate that was more than $15 dollars per person. Traveling to country that is quite expensive when it comes to transit and housing, we were surprised by how well we could eat without spending too much. The wonderful thing about Japanese food is that it is uniformly delicious in Japan, from 711 to the train station restaurants, everything I ate was fresh and prepared with care.

To be sure, there is a lot of wonderful food we didn’t eat. Perhaps next time (there has to be a next time!) we’ll dine with a famous sushi chef or have a traditional kaiseki style meal. But this time. we were both content to eat like cheap hungry locals looking for a deal.

My favorite cheap eats in Japan:

Onigiri

We bought onigiri from train stations, convenience stores, small mom and pop stands, and anywhere we saw their iconic rice and nori triangle shape calling to us. The Japanese don’t eat in public while on their spectacular transit system but it seemed like onigiri were an exception to this rule.

Each onigiri costs around a dollar and some change making it a fantastic deal. They were perfect to carry with you to a bench or a park, or to eat while on a train platform. We learned the character for salmon (鮭) to quickly be able to recognize the ones we liked the most. The best part was the genius packaging the nori came in so that you could unwrap it separately from the rice, meaning your little snack’s outer layer was neat and never soggy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

It seems like a gimmick but it is the best gimmick because conveyor belt sushi is obviously cheap but very fresh. These places were pretty much a win-win for the adventurous tourist in Japan. Each piece was around a dollar and change. Add on a large Asahi beer and you’ve got yourself a filling meal.

We returned multiple times to Genki Sushi in Shibuya—though not exactly conveyor belt, it’s robotic meaning you order by the piece and it’s delivered to you like magic! We also ate a Musashi sushi in Kyoto multiple times too, they have several locations, which was a real conveyor belt sushi place. Everything was fresh and well prepared, better than fast sushi you’d get anywhere else in the United States.

Ramen

Ramen is everywhere, just like I assumed. But ramen is too good to stop eating, even if you’re on you’re forth bowl during a trip to Japan. We stuck to the fast ramen places where you can quickly order by machine out front, just the kind in train stations meant for the business crowd having a meal before a long commute home.

The best ramen to me was found in the hard to locate but very popular strip of ramen restaurants called Tokyo Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. We returned twice to that hidden but popular strip of restaurants.

My favorite ramen at Tokyo Ramen Street was not traditional, though. It was full of vegetables, red pepper noodles, and a vegetarian broth. It was savory and interesting, topped with so many crispy garlic chips and a spicy tomato paste. Each bowl was around 9 dollars, enough to fill you up for lunch or dinner.

Bentos

Grabbing a bento either at a restaurant during lunch time  or in the huge food mart depachikas in department stores, was a perfect way to try sushi, udon, tempura, or soba for less than dinner prices. Restaurants almost everywhere, especially in train stations, will have good deals for lunch bentos.

I was very impressed with the depechicka at Mitsukoshi in Ginza—-they even had a roof of lawn  you could lounge on with your food.

Just wandering a train station to find food turned out to be a culinary destination in itself, and almost every train station has something to eat in it.

Yakitori

A fun part of not speaking Japanese but still putting yourself out there was standing amongst the business men in Izakayas, informal pubs known for their red lanterns on the outside. Inside, you can get a mug of draft beer and lots of skewers of chicken, sauced or salted, for under 10 dollars.

Izakayas are also a nice way to experience night lifewithout having to commit to a bar or night club scene. We especially liked the well traveled Piss Alley in Shinjuku.

Street Vendors 

Whether you’re in Osaka or Tokyo’s Tsukiji market or Ueno park,  you can sample lots of Japanese fast cuisine by eating from street vendors. Look out for fresh green tea mochi with red bean paste inside (my favorite,) gyoza, yakitori, crab, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, tamago, grilled oysters, fresh sashimi, and different flavors of soft serve among much, much more.

We ate dishes from the street as often as we could. At the Tsukiji market in Tokyo we split sashimi eaten standing up with green tea to wash it down. It was devine, the best fish I’ve ever had so far for about 20 dollars.

Vending Machines

Every blog post, guidebook, and video I watched before traveling to Japan told me about Japanese vending machines existing everywhere. So despite being prepared I was still overwhelmed with adoration for their ubiquitous presence.

We made an effort to try them every day, multiple times a day. Besides wonderfully bizarre names (Calpis? hmmm) they featured great packaging and crazy selections to sample from every side street to train station to temple you’ve just walked a million steps up. All you need is a 100 or so yen most of the time. Salt and Fruit was my absolute favorite drink.

It was also convenient to have beer vending machines in both cities! We’d often save spending on alcohol at dinner and just grab an Asahi for our balcony at the Airbnbs we booked.

Honorable Mentions

711 and Family Mart convenience stores were my second homes. You can get cash out in their ATMs. They have coffee machines to supplement my exploration of vending machine can coffee. They’re also not like our American counterparts, meaning you can grab a fresh noodle bowl, onigiri, sushi, udon, or even a croissant instead of a bag of chips. Oh they also have pocky and Japanese candies!