Everyday Life in Split, Croatia

The view of beautiful Split, Croatia from a Marjan Park viewpoint.

The view of beautiful Split, Croatia from a Marjan Park viewpoint.

Croatia has been the surprise of the year for us. We picked this country because of its status as a Non-Schengen country within the EU. When you’re in Europe as long as we’re planning to be here, you have to really pay attention to visa rules in various countries. (I have a spreadsheet for this. I have a spreadsheet for everything… that hasn’t changed on our year of travel!) As Americans, you can be inside the Schengen-Visa group of countries for 90 days of any 180 day period without jumping through hoops to get an official Visa. (The Schengen-Visa group consists of most major European countries.) We picked Croatia as a place to spend about 40 days before heading back into the Schengen area, and MAN we are glad we did!

Croatia’s people are incredibly warm and friendly, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking, almost everyone speaks English, and most importantly for long-term travelers, it’s an inexpensive place to be! If Croatia wasn’t already on your travel list, it needs to be. Go ahead, update your spreadsheet. Put Croatia at the top!

By the time this post gets published, we’ll be in Zagreb, Croatia’s capitol city. After that, it’s onward to Budapest for four weeks. So for the next few weeks, I’ll be playing catchup and will be putting out posts about our adventures here in Croatia. We’ve been on several day trips: One to Dubrovnik (a City fit for Kings!), another to explore still war-torn Bosnia, and a wonderful trip to Krka National Park with its impressive waterfalls.

Stay tuned for those posts! In the meantime, here’s a peek at what everyday life in Split, Croatia has been like since we arrived here a few weeks ago. Happy Travels, friends!

When to Visit Croatia

I was serious when I said Croatia needs to be in your travel list. But when should you visit? We’ve been told by MANY locals that you should avoid July and August at all costs. Cruise ships descend on Croatia’s best cities during this time, making all of Croatia’s best attractions absolutely packed to the point of being unbearable. In addition to the crowds, accommodations are at their highest prices and the heat can be unbearable!

If you can, visit in June or September. Locals recommend September if you plan to hit the beaches so the water has warmed up a bit. June is perfect for folks who aren’t interested in water or don’t mind the cold.

One of Split's Beaches. We sure wish it was warm enough for swimming!

One of Split’s Beaches. We sure wish it was warm enough for swimming!

We’ve enjoyed being here in February and March, the lowest of the low season, when it’s rare to see other tourists. When we were recently at Krka national park, we saw just SEVEN other tourists in our entire day there! SEVEN! Low season is great, but it does come at a cost. Some restaurants and shops close up for all of Winter. Buildings everywhere are under construction. Sometimes it’s cold and rainy. We didn’t get to swim at the beaches. If you’re coming for a whole month like we have, low season is fine because you can hunker down on cold, rainy days. If you’re short on time, it’s best to avoid Winter.

During the Winter low season, there are crazy wind storms! These ships broke free of their lines and blew across the bay!

During the Winter low season, there are crazy wind storms! These ships broke free of their lines and blew across the bay!

Wind damage from a winter wind storm! This tree was blown over and uprooted, tearing up the sidewalk!

Wind damage from a winter wind storm! This tree was blown over and uprooted, tearing up the sidewalk!

Probably the worst thing about low season, though, is that the ferries operate on a very, very reduced schedule. We wanted to make a day trip to the nearby island of Hvar. But doing that involves a 2-hour car ferry early in the morning, then a 40-minute bus ride on a bus that may or may not actually be running. (Still no word on what you do if the bus isn’t running!) Reaching old town Hvar, where many shops and restaurants are probably closed up for Winter anyway, proved to be too much of a challenge for us to endure. In the summertime, a passenger catamaran runs several times a day, shortening the trip to just a 1-hour ferry ride each way! You heard it hear first, folks, we’ll be coming back someday in September!

Running in Split

Panoramic View from the top of Marjan Park

Panoramic View from the top of Marjan Park

If Kevin and I had to pick just ONE reason that Split has grown so near and dear to our hearts, hands down it would be Marjan Park. Marjan is an enormous park (the size of New York’s Central Park!) located right next to the Split’s city center. On any given day, the park is full of people enjoying the great outdoors.

Can you think of a more beautiful place to run?!

Can you think of a more beautiful place to run than this?!

It’s hilly, green, beautiful, surrounded by beautiful blue water, and it’s largely free of car traffic! A full lap around Marjan Peninsula is about 6 miles, perfect for a sunny Springtime run.

Here's Kevin, running in the pedestrian-only area of Marjan.

Here’s Kevin, running in the pedestrian-only area of Marjan.

If running’s not your jig, it’s also a wonderful place to hike up and take in some beautiful views. We had a great picnic there on the second day of Spring.

Check out this awesome picnic spot!!

Check out this awesome picnic spot!!

Our Apartment Here in Split

We lucked out and got a fantastic 2-bedroom 1.5-bathroom apartment here in Split. We really took a gamble on this one – it was brand new listing on Airbnb and didn’t have any reviews yet, which is normally a HUGE red flag for us. But the owner gave us a great deal so we decided to go for it.

Our apartment is located on the first floor of a building with about 6 apartments. All the other building residents are part of the same family, related in some way to our fantastic landlord Stjepko.

Everyone in the building has been SO friendly, and we learned that they have a relative living in Seattle! Small world. Here’s a video peek at our apartment here in Split:

For 34 nights in this fabulous apartment, we paid $765 (price includes utilities and all Airbnb fees). That works out to just $22.50/night! Not bad for a ritzy 2-bedroom apartment where Kevin and I each get our own bathroom. (Keep in mind we’re here renting at super low season. Prices in Summer would probably be quite a bit higher.)

This apartment is perfectly located, has super fast Wifi, a well-equipped kitchen, the most comfy bed ever, and is in a quiet, safe neighborhood. If you ever find yourself traveling to Split, we recommend checking out the listing on Airbnb.

Grocery Shopping in Split

Split's Outdoor Market

Split’s Outdoor Market

Split has supermarkets all over the town center just like any other European city. Shopping at these markets is pretty easy. (Except for the time we accidentally bought 2 pounds of sandwich cheese. Conversion error…) But we usually prefer to go a bit more local with our shopping, and have spent a lot of mornings roaming around Split’s outdoor Green Market.

Split's Outdoor Market, open every day!

Split’s Outdoor Market, open every day!

Located just east of Split’s historic old city, the Green Market is impossible to miss. It’s really hopping in the morning, especially on sunny days. Food stalls start wrapping things up around 1pm, so be sure you arrive early!

Flower Vendors at the Outdoor Market

Flower Vendors at the Outdoor Market

You can find everything at the green market, from salted dried cod to prosciutto to nuts and dried fruits to wild asparagus. There are butchers and bakers and candlestick makers, there is a flea market area, and you can stock up on socks and underwear. You can buy flowers and fresh fruit, home-churned butter, homemade cheeses, and all sorts of produce. There is no shortage of bakers here, either – snag a whole bag of cookies for under $1!

A meat and cheese vendor at the market. Check out the dried hanging cod in the booth!

A meat and cheese vendor at the market. Check out the dried hanging cod in the booth!

Daffodils from the Green Market for less than a buck!

Daffodils from the Green Market for less than a buck!

We became especially fond of one fruit vendor we returned to every few days. By the time we’d been here a few weeks, he’d wave at us and say “Dobar Dan!” when we walked up. (Dobar Dan means good day!) Every time we’d buy fruit from him, he’d try to convince us to get some strawberries. We kept saying no because apples and pears are so cheap here, but finally we gave in and bought some in our last week in Split. He was so excited he hollered “Yah!” and gave us two thumbs up! We will never forget that guy.

This is our favorite fruit vendor!

This is our favorite fruit vendor’s booth! He’s the guy in the far left of the photo, with the red stripe on his jacket.

Another vendor we visited regularly was the egg lady. She is a lady probably in her 70s and sells eggs by the 10-pack (there’s no such thing as a dozen eggs in Croatia. I don’t know why, they always come in 10s!), and we can tell she doesn’t know quite what to make of us. She doesn’t speak a bit of English, and we don’t speak a bit of Croatian. I’m pretty sure might think we’re complete weirdos for being here as tourists in March, but that’s okay.

Split's Outdoor Market

Split’s Outdoor Market

More stalls at Split's market, right next to the old city wall that's hundreds of years old!

More stalls at Split’s market, right next to the old city wall that’s hundreds of years old!

A Photo Tour of Split

The town of Split is surprisingly sprawling for being the home of just 190,000 people. Luckily, everything a tourist needs is located right in the city center. Split is over 1700 years old, and is situated right on the coast of the beautiful Adriatic Sea. The historic city center is built inside and around the Diocletian Palace (a UNESCO World Heritage site), which was built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in AD305. Nowadays, homes, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses are built right into the walls of the palace. Here are some photos to give you a taste of lovely Split, Croatia:

Another photo in Marjan Park. This is the highest viewpoint you can get to, and has a huge Croatian flag flying!

A photo in Marjan Park. This is the highest viewpoint you can get to. The red, white and blue Croatian flag is always flying high above the town of Split.

The view from the top of Marjan Park.

The view from the top of Marjan Park.

Another Marjan Park shot. This cute little chapel sits on one of its many viewpoints.

Another Marjan Park shot. This cute little chapel sits on one of its many viewpoints.

The Diocletian Palace walls are such a fun backdrop for the outdoor market.

The Diocletian Palace walls are such a fun backdrop for the outdoor market. In the back there is the tower that belong’s to Split’s Cathedral.

Everyone here is a fan of the Split Hadjuk football team! Their logo is everywhere.

Everyone here is a fan of the Split Hadjuk football team! Their logo is everywhere.

Split's famous Gregory of Nin statue. Rubbing his toe is said to be good luck!

Split’s famous Gregory of Nin statue. Rubbing his toe is said to be good luck!

Another shot of Gregory of Nin. He lives just outside the North Wall of the Diocletian Palace.

Another shot of Gregory of Nin. He lives just outside the North Wall of the Diocletian Palace.

A beautiful sunset over one of Split's beaches.

A beautiful sunset over one of Split’s beaches.

It's easy to kick back, relax, and have a coffee in one of Split's sunny plazas.

It’s fun to kick back, relax, and have a coffee in one of Split’s sunny plazas.

The charming historical center of Split.

The charming historical center of Split.

There are about 2 dozen peacocks living in our neighborhood in Split!

There are about 2 dozen peacocks living in our neighborhood in Split!

Peacocks in Split!

Peacocks in Split!

We love Split. :-)

We love Split. :-)

We Want to Hear From You!

Have I convinced you to visit yet? Go ahead. Book your flight. You won’t regret it!

A Jadrolinija Ferry from Italy to Croatia

The view from our Jadrolinija Ferry as we came into port in Split, Croatia.

The view from our Jadrolinija Ferry as we came into port in Split, Croatia.

One thing I’ve been repeatedly annoyed with during our year abroad is the total lack of helpful information online. We’ve come to be VERY spoiled in Seattle, where everyone seems to have a stellar website created by a brother or cousin or friend who is a web designer. In a lot of countries we’ve visited, businesses just don’t have websites. When they do, visiting them is like time traveling back into the 1990s, the time of Geocities and animated gifs and purple fonts. Again and again, the most helpful information we’ve been able to find comes from blog posts written by other travelers.

Beautiful Split as we arrived at 7 in the morning.

Beautiful Split as we arrived at 7 in the morning.

When it came to taking an overnight ferry from Italy to Croatia, I was predictably disappointed in the information the interwebs had to offer. I spent hours and hours searching the internet to try to figure out what to expect. Did we need to book a cabin or can you sleep in common areas? Is it acceptable to bring food onboard with you? Are sharp items forbidden from baggage? Is there a limited liquids rule? How early do we need to arrive? Where do we go to check in? Can you buy food onboard the ferry during the 11-hour trip?

Ancona, Italy at Night before we left Port.

Ancona, Italy at Night before we left Port.

Taking the Jadrolinija Ferry from Ancona to Split was every bit the adventure we hoped it’d be. There was an all-men’s Croatian choir. There were surly Italian and Croatian truck drivers (first and foremost, it is a car ferry), there was a run-down interior that made me feel like we had teleported to Atlantic City circa 1980. Since we were armed with sleeping pills, booked an actual cabin, and brought a bunch of snacks onboard, it was definitely not the nightmare ferry crossing I had feared. In fact, it was pretty fun and I’d do it again.

Hello, Croatia!

Hello, Croatia!

To try to help other travelers, and to show our blog readers what shenanigans we got into during the ferry crossing, we put together answers to some of the questions we had before taking the Jadrolinija Ferry from Ancona, Italy to Split, Croatia.

Is It Ok to Bring Booze (and Food) with You?

Absolutely! In fact, you’d be the odd person out if you didn’t bring at least a liter of wine with you. We only brought two tiny 200mL bottles of red wine along. We might have been the only sober people onboard, except for a 10-year-old girl and (hopefully) the boat captain. (PRO TIP: Bring your own cups unless you’re cool drinking straight from the bottle. Hey, I don’t judge.) Most of the Italians and Croatians who clearly take the overnight ferry all the time brought coolers FULL of food and booze.

Bring Your Own Wine! Yes!!

Bring Your Own Wine! Yes!!

There is some food available for purchase onboard. You can have a full-on sit down dinner in the fancy onboard restaurant. (Note: all it takes to qualify as “fancy” with me is the use of white tablecloths.) The restaurant prices were very reasonable, especially for a “cruise”. I use the word “cruise” loosely.

The Restaurant on our Marko Polo Ferry

The Restaurant on our Marko Polo Ferry

There’s also a snack bar area where you can buy snacks, beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks. The one thing you should bring plenty of is WATER. It’s overpriced onboard, and I wouldn’t trust what comes from the tap in the bathrooms with my life.

Is There Entertainment Onboard, Like a Normal Cruise?

Exploring the Boat to entertain ourselves.

Exploring the Boat to entertain ourselves.

The short answer? No, unless you count people watching as entertainment. We traveled in February, the lowest of lows as far as tourist season goes. What looked like it might be a duty free shopping area was a total ghost town. There was a dance floor in the lounge area, but like I said, we had less than a half liter of wine on us. It takes more than that for me to start my own dance party.

The Dance Floor! Conveniently located next to the children's play area, because that makes perfect sense.

The Dance Floor! Conveniently located next to the children’s play area, because that makes perfect sense.

We happened to win the cruise lottery, though, and ended up on the ferry that was transporting one of Croatia’s finest all-men’s a capella choirs! I’m not sure Kevin and I have ever been on a boat together without encountering some sort of musical group. In Germany, we ended up on a Rhine River ferry boat with a full-on Oktoberfest Oom-pah band!

The outdoor "cocktail area" on the back of our Ferry.

The outdoor “cocktail area” on the back of our Ferry.

Back to the Croatians though. Having them on our boat was everything I hoped it would be, and more. They belted out tunes with abandon for over a half hour before the boat disembarked. And when I say they belted it, they really belted it. One of the gals who worked on the ferry boat even stood with us and translated the Croatian lyrics for us! Most of the songs were fisherman’s tunes traditional to Croatia, about things like missing your wife and family while you’re at sea. Some were about lost love or lost friends.

The Croatian Men's Choir!

The Croatian Men’s Choir!

We fell asleep to the rumble of the boat engines and the sound of the choir singing in the lounge after they had their dinner. It was really a special part of the cruise.

Should I Book a Cabin?

Cabins onboard our Jadrolinija Ferry

Cabins onboard our Jadrolinija Ferry

That depends on you. Do you like roughing it? Can you sleep even when there are lights on? Are you traveling with a pillow and blankets? Do you feel comfortable sleeping on a hard, semi-dirty carpeted floor next to a man who smells like prosciutto? If you answered yes to all of those questions, then just book the cheapest passage possible – a “Deck” seat. “Deck” doesn’t mean you’ll be sleeping outside. It just means you have to hunker down and sleep in the boat’s common areas – the lounge, the chapel, the children’s play area, the dance floor. MOST people who seemed like ferry regulars seemed to have just Deck tickets, and they made themselves at home in the lounge.

The Lounge on our Jadrolinija Ferry, the "Marko Polo".

The Lounge on our Jadrolinija Ferry, the “Marko Polo”.

We booked the cheapest cabin, a couchette, and were SO glad we did. We’re traveling pretty light, so we don’t have things like blankets or pillows to make a deck ticket do-able. It was also nice to be able to lock our bags in our room and explore the boat without all our stuff. Also, I think there is a time and a place for the smell of prosciutto. Two in the morning is not the time.

Ferry Veterans, hunkering down for a night in the lounge.

Ferry Veterans, hunkering down for a night in the lounge.

Our simple couchette cabin didn’t have a sink or bathroom, it was just a room with four bunks which we had all to ourselves. We were just down the hallway from a shared bathroom that was a bit rustic, but not a nightmare. Added bonus? If you book a cabin you get free breakfast onboard in the restaurant!

Sunrise Breakfast - Complimentary with Cabin Purchase!

Sunrise Breakfast – Complimentary with Cabin Purchase!

Seat tickets are also available, but literally NO ONE had one of these on our ferry. The seat room is a brightly lit room full of tightly packed seats that recline slightly. I do not recommend this option.

Here’s a peek at our Cabin:

Our Couchette Cabin. Small but Mighty.

Our Couchette Cabin. Small but Mighty.

Cabins on a Jadrolinija Ferry. Moderately comfortable.

Cabins on a Jadrolinija Ferry. Moderately comfortable.

To book tickets, do it ahead of time directly with Jadrolinija.

So What Is the Price Breakdown?

Our Jadrolinija Ferry

Our Jadrolinija Ferry

First, everyone pays a bare Per Person Fee called “passenger taxes” (You pay this no matter what accommodations you book) of 114 HRK (about $16).

Then, on top of the bare per person fee, you have to select your “accommodation”. Here are some options we considered:

  • Deck Ticket: 301 HRK (about $43) per person
  • “Seat” Ticket: 361 HRK (about $52) per seat
  • Cabin 4-berth Couchette: 811 HRK (about $116) for 1 person, 540 HRK ($77) per person for 2, 3 or 4 people
  • Cabin 2-berth outside with shower/toilet: 1484 HRK total ($212) for 2 people or 1114 HRK ($159) for 1 person
  • Berth in a Unisex 4-berth couchette: 540 HRK ($77) per person

The couchette ended up being most cost effective for us. So the total fare for Kevin and I for the Ancona to Split ferry was 2*114 HRK for Passenger Taxes plus 2*540 HRK for our private couchette cabin, which came out to a grand total of 1308 HRK, or about $187. Not bad when you consider it was an 11-hour journey with beds to sleep in and breakfast included. It sure beat the cost of flying!

Can I Bring Liquids or Sharp Objects Onboard?

Our Boat, the Marko Polo.

Our Boat, the Marko Polo.

We saw so many things onboard that made us do a double take. One man had a huge butcher’s knife to prepare his dinner in the lounge. Another group had a full sized rolling cooler with drinks and dinner supplies. Another group brought a couple big chocolate cakes onboard with them. One guy had a handle of vodka.

Within reason, you can bring anything your heart desires onto the Jadrolinija ferry. I prrrrobably could’ve smuggled Kevin onboard in a big suitcase to save money. But we’re not quite THAT cheap… Yet.

Where and How Do I Check In?

Jadrolinija Ferries, where you board by just walking on via the car ramp and roaming around until you find the right stairwell. Very organized.

Jadrolinija Ferries, where you board by just walking on via the car ramp and roaming around until you find the right stairwell. Very organized.

Ugh. The Jadrolinija ferry check-in process is just awful. Imagine the run-around you get when dealing with health insurance in the United States. Now take that experience, and change the context to traveling, and change the language to Italian and Croatian. THAT is the joy that checking into the Jadrolinija ferry will bring you. There’s a reason we opened our wine and started drinking midday before we left on our ferry:

Day drinking outside the Jadrolinija Ferry Check-in Building.

Day drinking outside the Jadrolinija Ferry Check-in Building.

I made a google map showing all the important locations for Jadrolinija ferry check-in:

Here’s what you should know to get through check-in without wanting to strangle someone:

  • Arrive more than 2 hours early! Do not even think about cutting it close. You want to allow lots of extra time to account for unhelpful employees, slow check-in lines, busses that run infrequently, and last-minute trips to the store to get extra wine.
  • If you arrive by train, you’ll arrive to the main Ancona Train station (the red pin on the map). If it’s raining and the timing lines up, you can connect on a train to the Ancona Maritima station (the blue pin on the map), which is much closer to the main Ferry area.
  • The ferry check-in building is nowhere near the ferry departure point. On the map above, Ferry check-in is at the red star, while the green star is the main ferry area where the ferries dock. At the main ferry area (green star), there is luggage storage (EURO 2/bag) and free bathrooms, and this is where you’ll go through passport control before boarding your boat.
  • There is a FREE BUS that runs every 20 minutes or so between the Check-in Building (Red star) and the Main Ferry Building (Green star). We were glad we used the bus, because I would EASILY get lost in the area around the Check-in building and there are no sidewalks.
  • Passport Control opened 2 hours before our boat departure. Unless you have a deck ticket and want to stake out a nice sleeping spot in the lounge, there’s no rush to board. Take your time exploring Ancona, have some dinner at a local cafe, buy some biscotti from one of the town’s many bakeries, then get on the boat when there’s less than an hour before departure. Once you’re onboard, head to the reception desk to pick up the key to your cabin, and hunker down for the night!

We Want to Hear From You!

A Jadrolinija Ferry docked here in Split, Croatia

A Jadrolinija Ferry docked here in Split, Croatia

Do you have any interesting cruise stories? Are you planning to take A Jadrolinija Ferry from Italy to Croatia? Leave us a comment to let us know!

Drinking and Eating and Drinking in Rome

There are three things Kevin and I love to do when we travel to a new European City: Eat, Drink, and Walk. Fortunately for us, walking 10+ miles sightseeing each day helps to offset the massive amounts of food we eat and all the beer and wine we guzzle down. So that’s good news.

I think food is one of the greatest ways to experience a different culture. You don’t have to speak the language to point at something and hold up your fingers to wordlessly ask for two servings. We did our best to get a taste of everything Rome has to offer, from eating flaming pasta flambé to testing out Rome’s burgeoning beer scene. I think we did a pretty decent job for having only three days there.

Read on for the things we most enjoyed eating and drinking in Rome!

The Aperitivo, Italy’s Best Tradition

In Italy, the word aperitivo literally means a pre-dinner drink that is meant to stimulate the appetite. Traditionally, an aperitivo might come with some light snacks like olives or chips. Nowadays, most bars have scaled things WAY up and are offering a full-blown buffet aperitivo. In many Italian bars, you can get an alcoholic drink plus access to their buffet for just 8 to 12 euro! While we didn’t hit up an aperitivo in Florence (they’re everywhere there, too), we did visit two different bars for an aperitivo in Rome.

Rec23 Bar

Located in the trendy Testaccio neighborhood, Rec23 was a great first foray into the aperitivo scene. They have an extensive list of cocktails, which is what drew me here in the first place. I wanted to try the Testaccio Mule, which is their take on the Moscow Mule cocktail made with ginger beer that I fell in love with at a speakeasy-style bar in Kansas City a couple years ago.

Kevin's Taxi Driver cocktail and my Testaccio Mule cocktail. Sooooo delicious.

Kevin’s Taxi Driver cocktail and my Testaccio Mule cocktail. Sooooo delicious.

The Aperitivo at Rec23 is available daily from 6:30pm to 9pm. Some nights it runs until 10pm. Some nights they have live music! For just 10 Euros, you get a cocktail and unlimited trips to the buffet.

The buffet food definitely fell more in the “bar food” category than the “Italian food” category. That was fine with us since we’d been in Italy for almost two weeks, but you might want to look elsewhere if pasta/pizza is on your must list.

Rec23's Buffet

Rec23’s Buffet

Rec23's Buffet

Rec23’s Buffet

Rec23's Buffet

Rec23’s Buffet

Fafiuché Wine Bar

Fafiuché's Aperitivo Buffet

Fafiuché’s Aperitivo Buffet

Fafiuché sits in the Monti neighborhood, not too far from the Roman Forum. Their Aperitivo that runs daily from about 6:30pm to 9pm is just 8 euro! You pick a glass of wine from their extensive wine menu, then get one trip up to the buffet. The food here was decidedly more Italian than at Rec23 – the buffet had lots of little crostini (toasted breads with various toppings and spreads), cheeses and cured meats, plus a few warm dishes, and even a little cake for dessert.

Flaming Pasta at Trattoria Vecchia Roma

Well, we’ve done it. We found a pasta that all future pastas will be measured against. At Trattoria Vecchia Roma, their house specialty Bucatini all’amatriciana Flambé will blow you away. After preparing the pasta, they pour alcohol into a huge pecorino romano bowl, light it on fire (to heat the pecorino bowl up and melt its cheesy innards slightly), then mix the pasta right in the pecorino bowl! It. Is. Amazing. And it was also amazingly delicious.

The flaming pecorino romano bowl.

The flaming pecorino romano bowl.

In goes the pasta!

In goes the pasta!

The delicious Bucatini all'amatriciana Flambé!

The delicious Bucatini all’amatriciana Flambé!

The servings are enormous at Trattoria Vecchia Roma, so be sure you arrive hungry. I’m not exaggerating – I felt like I would burst at the seams for at least 2 hours after eating, and didn’t feel hungry for 8 hours. The pasta was just too good to leave behind…

The menu at Trattoria Vecchia

The menu at Trattoria Vecchia

We also ordered Spaghetti alla Carbonara, which was VERY good. The bacon they used still makes an appearance in my food dreams every now and then.

The wonderful Spaghetti alla Carbonara at Trattoria Vecchia.

The wonderful Spaghetti alla Carbonara at Trattoria Vecchia.

The food was SO good and our server was so friendly that I didn’t mind having to pay for the bread they brought to our table without asking. I usually hate it when restaurants in Italy do that. Maybe the half liter of wine we had with our lunch dulled the pain.

Best Gelato in Italy – Gelateria del Teatro

Gelateria del Teatro has great gelato, and they know it. They charge a little extra because it’s so good, but I think it’s totally worth it.

Our Gelato: Dark Chocolate and Cheese & Cherry on the left, Mille Feuille and Chocolate Mint on the right. Yum.

Our Gelato: Dark Chocolate and Cheese & Cherry on the left, Mille Feuille and Chocolate Mint on the right. Yum.

The cherry and cheese flavor BLEW MY MIND. Admittedly, I am a cheesecake lover – my annual request for my birthday is white chocolate raspberry truffle cheesecake with oreo cookie crust from Cheesecake Factory. (Only 259 days to go until I get it again…) If that cheesecake and vanilla ice cream had a love child, it would be Gelateria del Teatro’s cherry and cheese gelato. I’m salivating at my desk here in Croatia writing this post… We might need to return to Rome solely to get it again.

Rome’s Up and Coming Beer Scene

It has been fun to travel through Europe and learn about beer in each country. Kevin does his best to hit all the top-rated beers everywhere we travel, and Rome was no different. One of my friends recommended a bar named Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fa in the Trastevere neighborhood that has a dozen or so microbrews on tap, so we obviously had to go!

Any bar with a big display case of legendary beers is okay with me.

Any bar with a big display case of legendary beers is okay with me.

We headed to the bar and were pleasantly surprised at their selection. They had quite a few microbrews from Italy, and even had some harder-to-find sour beers from Belgium. For the bargain basement price of 20 euros (I’m joking, to be clear, I do not consider this a bargain), you can get a big bottle of Belgian Cantillon Lambic. We skipped the hefty price tag and went local on our beer choices.

A delicious Menaresta Pan Negar Stout on the left, and a wonderful Lambrate Quarantot Double IPA on the right. Kevin is a happy man when he has an IPA in hand.

A delicious Menaresta Pan Negar Stout on the left, and a wonderful Lambrate Quarantot Double IPA on the right. Kevin is a happy man when he has an IPA in hand.

We also happened past a beer shop named Domus Birrae near Roma Termini station. We popped inside because they had a sign saying they sold homebrew equipment, and we were curious to see what they had. The homebrew section was a bit sad (think stacks of Mr. Beer kits instead of real brewing equipment), but we were SUPER excited to recognize some beers from our neck of the woods:

Look, Rogue beers!! I don't enjoy the Voodoo Donut beer varieties from Rogue, but I'd recognize that flashy pink bottle anywhere.

Look, Rogue beers!! I don’t enjoy the Voodoo Donut beer varieties from Rogue, but I’d recognize that flashy pink bottle anywhere.

Kevin’s Life Dream Fulfilled

Westvleteren 12 is widely regarded to be the “best beer in the World”, and is brewed only in small batches by monks at a monastery in Belgium. This beer is notoriously hard to get a hold of because of the rules surrounding sales. It’s supposed to be available only at the brewery in Vleteren, Belgium. Buyers are required to make a reservation ahead of time and show ID because sales are limited to one 24-pack per person every 60 days! In 2013, a limited amount of Westvleteren 12 was shipped to the United States and sold for $100 per 6-pack (crazy, right?!?) to raise money for a new monastery roof.

Lucky for us, Kevin did some internet sleuthing and found a bar in Rome selling this rare beer. Technically it was being sold on the black market. (How do we always get ourselves into these situations?) We’ll take what we can get.

For 15 euro, we got a bottle of Westvleteren 12 at La Boticella in Rome.

For 15 euro, we got a bottle of Westvleteren 12 at La Boticella in Rome.

When we arrived to La Boticella in Rome, they had just two bottles left! We paid 15 euro for one, and sat and sipped and savored. Westvleteren beer aside, it was just a cool bar. The owner was excited to talk Seahawks Football with us in spite of the fact that he’s a Steelers fan. (We tried not to hold that against him.)

This bar has a Jesus statue wearing a Patriots helmet. So that was fun.

This bar has a Jesus statue wearing a Steelers helmet. So that was fun.

The owner even told us we could have one of the custom Westvleteren chalices to take home for free! We’re planning to give it a place of honor in our home when we’re back in Seattle.

La Boticella, a fun bar in Rome.

La Boticella, a fun bar in Rome.

In the end, we decided that this beer is definitely worth trying if you ever see it anywhere in any bar in the world. Is it worth planning a thousands-of-dollars vacation to Belgium for? No, we don’t think so. But if you ever happen to be in Belgium with a car and some free time, you better go get a case or we’ll never speak to you ever again.

Other “Don’t Miss” Foods in Rome

Tiramisu at Pompi

Pompi is the self-proclaimed Tiramisu King of Italy. They have a handful of locations now, which means service feels more industrial-assembly-line than personal, but DAMN they have a tasty Tiramisu.

The goods: Pompi's Classic Tiramisu.

The goods: Pompi’s Classic Tiramisu.

Delicious coffee-laced layers of heaven.

Delicious coffee-laced layers of heaven.

The lines reportedly can stretch the whole block during high season, but we were the only ones in their store near Plaza di Spagna in February. Tiramisu will cost you 4 euro at Pompi.

Pizza Bianca at Forno Campo de’ Fiori

For a quick, cheap lunch, Forno Campo de’ Fiori is a great stop. They serve up delicious Pizza Bianca, which is sort of a naked pizza. If pizza dough and focaccia had a baby and topped it with salt and olive oil, it would be something like Pizza Bianca. It sounds simple but MAN is it delicious! They serve several types with toppings, too – we had the tomato mozzarella and the zucchini varieties. (Zucchini was the surprise winner!)

Forno Compo de' Fiori

Forno Compo de’ Fiori

The selection! Point at anything, show them how much you want, and you pay by the kilo!

The selection! Point at anything, show them how much you want, and you pay by the kilo!

They also have sweet pastries and other types of breads. You really can’t go wrong here.

We Want to Hear From You!

Writing this post has made me want to return to Rome immediately. Have you been to Rome? Did you enjoy the food? Leave us a comment and let us know where we should eat or drink on our next visit!

Old-Ass Roman Shit: Sightseeing in Rome

Kevin and I in front of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican

Kevin and I in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

In my previous blog post announcing that we’re heading home in May, I talked a little bit about how long-term traveling can sort of turn you into an asshole. It can make you stop appreciating the fact that the ruins you’re seeing are thousands of years old. Cathedrals start to blend together, you stop caring as much about the history of the sights you’re seeing, and you start to feel kind of like a jerk about not appreciating your travels.

We hit peak travel fatigue in Rome, epicenter of old-ass Roman shit. We spent just 3 nights there, which I think was enough for one trip. It would be so easy to spend a whole week there and totally wear yourself out with sightseeing – I think it’s better to bite off a small chunk of Rome and savor it.

Even still, we found ourselves getting pretty fatigued Sightseeing in Rome. It is a huge behemoth of a city – we walked over 10 miles each day, maxing out at 14 miles one day! To keep our sanity, we started joking about all the old-ass Roman shit surrounding us everywhere, which is where this blog post gets its name. Don’t get me wrong, we LOVED Rome and loved visiting all of its wonderful sights; we just also happen to need jokes to get us over the tourist-fatigue-hump.

We barely made a dent on Rome, but tried to hit all the most major sights. I know I’ve raved about Rick Steves’ Guidebooks in my blog posts before, but I think there’s probably no city where you’ll be happier to have a Steves’ book in hand than Rome. I hope you enjoy this old-ass Roman shit as much as we did.

The Pantheon

The Incredible Pantheon

The Incredible Pantheon

It’s not often anymore that an ancient site leaves me so awestruck that my jaw hits the ground and I’m at a loss for words. That is exactly what happened when we rounded a corner in Rome and the massive Pantheon came into view. There’s something incredibly magical about seeing something in real life that you’ve spent your entire life looking at just in photos. In person, the Pantheon was even more impressive than I could’ve imagined.

Rome's Pantheon

Rome’s Pantheon

Because the Pantheon is free, it can sometimes be absolutely packed with a wait to even go inside! Lucky for us, we visited in February. Thank heavens for low season and small crowds.

Check out these massive columns!

Check out these massive columns!

The Pantheon was originally a Roman temple dedicated to all (pan) gods (theos), hence the name Pantheon. The structure we know today as the Pantheon was built here around A.D. 120 on the site where the original older temple (built all the way back in 27 B.C., holy smokes) once stood.

The Pantheon became a Christian Church after the fall of Rome, which saved it from "architecture cannibalism" (is that when buildings eat other buildings? kidding).

The Pantheon became a Christian Church after the fall of Rome, which saved it from “architecture cannibalism” (is that when buildings eat other buildings? kidding).

The Pantheon’s Dome was the model for the Florence’s Duomo’s famous dome, which launched the Renaissance and inspired all domes built afterwards, including St. Peter’s Basilica and the dome of the US Capitol Building.

The Pantheon's Impressive Dome is made of concrete, which the Romans invented. It gets lighter and thinner towards the top. At the base, the dome is 23 feet thick, but the top is less than five feet thick and made with a lighter-weight concrete.

The Pantheon’s Impressive Dome is made of concrete, which the Romans invented. It gets lighter and thinner towards the top. At the base, the dome is 23 feet thick, but the top is less than five feet thick and made with a lighter-weight concrete.

The Colosseum

We unexpectedly walked past the Colosseum in the dark on our way home from dinner our first night in Rome. I can’t get over how small these Roman sights make me feel. Their sheer enormity makes me feel itty bitty, but the impressive design and crazy history makes me wonder what dent I’ll leave on history. I better get cracking on my legacy, I guess.

The Colosseum at Night. It closes before sunset, so there were almost no other people around. It was nice and quiet, and most importantly, there wasn't anyone around trying to sell us anything! Hooray.

The Colosseum at Night. It closes before sunset, so there were almost no other people around. It was nice and quiet, and most importantly, there wasn’t anyone around trying to sell us anything! Hooray.

We also saw the Arch of Constantine at night - I think it's even more beautiful lit up at night than it was during the day.

We also saw the Arch of Constantine at night – I think it’s even more beautiful lit up at night than it was during the day.

The Colosseum is almost 2,000 years old! It was built at the peak of the Roman Empire in A.D. 80, and is an impressive representation of the feats that Roman Engineers were able to achieve during that time.

Panorama of the Colosseum

Panorama of the Colosseum

We learned that the Colosseum’s real name is “The Flavian Amphitheater”; tuck that one away in your brains for trivia nights in the future. Back in the day when killing was a spectator sport, it could hold up to 50,000 screaming Romans.

The Colosseum has been damaged over the years. Earthquakes caused some of this damage, but mostly pieces were lost during the Middle Ages and Renaissance when huge chunks of stones were scavenged and carted away to build other buildings. In fact, only 1/3 of the original Colosseum structure remains, the rest has been restored.

The Colosseum, where killing is a spectator sport. In this photo, you can see the underground passages where animals, prisoners, and gladiators moved around. It was covered with a wooden floor and sand when the Colosseum was actually in use.

The Colosseum, where killing is a spectator sport. In this photo, you can see the underground passages where animals, prisoners, and gladiators moved around. It was covered with a wooden floor and sand when the Colosseum was actually in use. Part of the arena floor has been reconstructed in the back there to give you an idea of what it would’ve looked like.

This is the Emperor's Box, marked now with a cross.

This is the Emperor’s Box, marked now with a cross. I thought that was strange given that so many people died here.

Trying to decide if the gladiator should live...

Trying to decide if the gladiator should live…

Traveler Tips: It costs 12 euro to get into the Colosseum, but that same ticket gets you into the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. If you’re traveling in high season, it’s a good idea to go online and purchase your tickets in advance so you can skip the line. We hear that in high season the Colosseum is much less crowded in the afternoons when the temperature is at its hottest. In February, we showed up in the morning without reservations and had to wait about 25 minutes to go inside. If the line is really long, head over to The Roman Forum, where the line is usually shorter to buy tickets! See the Forum first, then come to the Colosseum and use the same ticket to enter later.

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum. We got a beautiful day, and had a fantastic visit. PRO TIP: Bring along snacks!!

The Roman Forum. We got a beautiful day, and had a fantastic visit. PRO TIP: Bring along snacks!!

This is it, the epicenter of old-ass Roman shit. This is where Rome was born and bred, the place where all the magic happened It was the political, religious, and commercial center of Rome. According to my Rick Steves’ guidebook, it’s “arguably the most important piece of real estate in Western civilization.” Armed with my Kindle, we followed Rick’s walking tour through the Roman Forum.

First we saw the impressive Arch of Titus, with a less than happy background story. The arch commemorates the Romans’ victory over Judaea (Israel) in A.D. 70. They enslaved and brought back 50,000 Jews and forced them to build this arch and the Colosseum.

The Arch of Titus

The Arch of Titus

I also thought that the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (built in A.D. 138-161) had an interesting backstory, too. After Rome’s downfall, many of the buildings here in the Forum were pillaged and scavenged to build other new structures elsewhere in Rome. In the photo below, you can see diagonal cuts on the columns, marks left by an unsuccessful attempt to use rope and vinegar to cut through the columns and take them away!

The Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina.

The Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina.

The Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina was used as a church starting in 1550, during the time of Michelangelo. The green door was actually at street level during those days! Excavations in the 1800s revealed the lower staircase.

While at the Forum, we also learned the interesting story about the Vestal Virgins. These women were selected at the young age of 10 to hold this prestigious position, and were responsible for keeping the sacred flame in the Temple of Vesta burning at all times. It was considered an honor to be selected to be a Vetsal Virgin – they were highly regarded by all Romans and even had their own private box at the Colosseum. The Virgins were required to serve a 30-year term. If they served faithfully, they received a huge dowry and could marry. If they didn’t live up to the Virgin name, they would be ridiculed in a parade (strapped to a funeral car, no less) then buried alive! Usually, the no-longer-a-virgin was given a loaf of bread and a candle before they locked her down in the crypt. I can’t decide if that makes it more or less torturous?

These three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which was built in the fifth century B.C. to commemorate a Roman victory.

These three columns are all that remain of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, which was built in the fifth century B.C. to commemorate a Roman victory.

Somewhere near the Arch of Septemius Severus (pictured below with Kevin), we realized that J.K. Rowling pulled a bunch of names for Harry Potter characters out of Roman History. The other name we recognized in the books is Remus. In roman mythology, Remus was abandoned by his mother, then rescued and raised by a she-wolf. (Now it makes perfect sense that Remus was the name of a werewolf in Harry Potter.)

Kevin in front of the Arch of Septemius Severus, built A.D. 203.

Kevin in front of the Arch of Septemius Severus, built A.D. 203.

In the very center of this photo behind me is the Column of Phocas. In A.D. 608, the Byzantine Empire gifted this column to the fallen Roman empire to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon into a Christian Church. It was sort of a last-nail-in-the-coffin gesture. I like to think this column represents their middle finger.

In the very center of this photo behind me is the Column of Phocas. In A.D. 608, the Byzantine Empire gifted this column to the fallen Roman empire to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon into a Christian Church. It was sort of a last-nail-in-the-coffin gesture. I like to think this column represents their middle finger.

These 8 columns are what remains of the Temple of Saturn, which was the Forum’s oldest temple (built in 497 B.C.).

These 8 columns are what remains of the Temple of Saturn, which was the Forum’s oldest temple (built in 497 B.C.).

I can’t even fathom how long ago 497 B.C. was – it’s hard to get a grip on how old this stuff is.

The Vatican Museum

Kevin and I aren’t huge museum people. But knowing that the Vatican Museum is one of the top handful of museums in all of Europe, we knew it was a mandatory stop. We heard that 3pm is the least crowded time to go (it closes at 6pm), and when we showed up at that time there was absolutely no line whatsoever to get in! Victory!

Sadly, no photos are allowed of the Sistine Chapel. Here is a consolation photo of Raphael’s School of Athens Fresco:

Raphael's School of Athens in the Vatican Museum.

Raphael’s School of Athens in the Vatican Museum.

Some of our other favorite photos from the Museum:

From the modern art section.

From the modern art section.

At the Vatican Museum, even the ceilings are considered art. Here's an impressive three dimensional ceiling.

At the Vatican Museum, even the ceilings are considered art. Here’s an impressive three dimensional ceiling.

The Vatican Museum's beautiful courtyard.

The Vatican Museum’s beautiful courtyard.

Another courtyard shot. Look how small the crowds are - paradise!

Another courtyard shot. Look how small the crowds are – paradise!

Kingly Kevin. Nailed it.

Kingly Kevin. Nailed it.

Our favorite part was the hall of statues next to the courtyard. I like to come up with creative things that the statues could be thinking, based on their body positions and facial expressions. I captioned some of the photos below with some of my ideas…

The Vatican Museum's hall of Statues

The Vatican Museum’s hall of Statues

Catch ya later bro!

Catch ya later bro!

I call this one "Four brothers grown up but still fighting."

I call this one “Four brothers grown up but still fighting.”

Just hanging out, feeding my PET EAGLE. No biggie.

Just hanging out, feeding my PET EAGLE. No biggie.

We decided this one is Kevin's doppelganger.

We decided this one is Kevin’s doppelganger.

I loved this one, because I'm pretty sure he's just laughing hysterically. At the very least, he's a jovial man with an awesome beard.

I loved this one, because I’m pretty sure he’s just laughing hysterically. At the very least, he’s a jovial man with an awesome beard.

And now the word is out. Kevin and I go to museums and spend our time giggling at the statues. Can you believe we’re full fledged adults?!

St. Peter’s Basilica

After hitting up the Vatican Museum, we took the secret hallway out of the Sistine Chapel over to St. Peter’s Basilica. This exit is marked “groups only”, so we tagged along with a tour. I should tell you that the tour was an African American group from the States, and it’s possible that we stuck out, slightly. It actually was sort of hilarious, but the guards let us right past anyway.

St. Peter’s is billed as the most impressive church on Earth, and it’s the largest church in the world. It is absolutely massive, with an incredible dome, an impossibly ornate Altar by Bernini, and it even has its own Michelangelo sculpture. St. Peter’s is so big that birds roost inside; in addition to the birds, it can hold up to 60,000 standing people during worship services!

Inside the massive St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Inside the massive St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

The impressive dome!

The impressive dome!

Bernini's Bronze Canopy. It looks small in such a huge space, but this thing is seven-stories tall!!

Bernini’s Bronze Canopy. It looks small in such a huge space, but this thing is seven-stories tall!!

Michelangelo's famous Pietà sculpture, depicting Mary with the body of Christ taken down from the cross. He sculpted this when he was just 24 years old.

Michelangelo’s famous Pietà sculpture, depicting Mary with the body of Christ taken down from the cross. He sculpted this when he was just 24 years old.

A guard outside St. Peter's Basilica, wearing some pretty snazzy duds!

A guard outside St. Peter’s Basilica, wearing some pretty snazzy duds!

Rome’s Many Piazzas

One of the best things about Rome is just walking around the city exploring its many different Piazzas. Each one has a completely different vibe. Some have open air markets, some have street vendors and musicians, and some have protests and riots, but all of them are great places for people watching!

Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps

Piazza di Spagna is just a great place to hang out. Its famous Spanish Steps are one of the best spots in Rome to grab a takeaway Gelato and do some serious people watching.

The Spanish Steps are under here somewhere! The day we visited there was a choir singing on them.

The Spanish Steps are under here somewhere! The day we visited there was a choir singing on them.

Perched on the steps, you’ll get to watch the locals hang out and chain smoke and you’ll also have a fun view of the Sinking Boat Fountain.

The Sinking Boat Fountain, like all fountains in Rome, is still powered by an aqueduct!

The Sinking Boat Fountain, like all fountains in Rome, is still powered by an aqueduct!

If you’re unlucky, you may stumble upon a footbol-game-induced riot near the Spanish Steps. When we walked through Piazza di Spagna after the football riots on February 19th, the ground was sticky with beer and covered with broken beer bottles, and the beautiful fountain was completely trashed:

The Sinking Boat Fountain after a soccer match between the A.S. Roma football club and the Dutch Feyenoord Soccer Club.

The Sinking Boat Fountain after a soccer match between the A.S. Roma football club and the Dutch Feyenoord Soccer Club.

Piazza Navona

Piazza Navona at Sunset

Piazza Navona at Sunset

This square was originally a racetrack in A.D. 80! It’s fun to stand in the square and imagine chariot races that happened here so many years ago. In the 1800s, Rome would flood this square with water to cool off the neighborhood – isn’t that nuts?! Today, Piazza Navona is home to the massive Four Rivers Fountain, and is filled with cafes, artists, and street musicians.

Campo de’ Fiori

Easily my favorite piazza in all of Rome was Campo de’ Fiori, which literally means Field of Flowers. This neighborhood has a much more bohemian vibe than other areas of Rome, which probably has a lot to do with centuries of unplanned urban development in this area. The charming ramshackle buildings make a fun backdrop for the square – some are even built right into the old outer wall of ancient Rome’s Theater of Pompey!

Aside from the hodgepodge buildings, this neighborhood is also known for being free spirited, and it’s not out of the ordinary to come across anti-authoritarian protests. In fact, there was a demonstration near the Giordano Bruno statue when we first visited!

Giordano Bruno was tried and found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition because of his denial of several core Catholic doctrines. He was burned at the stake in this square in 1600, where a statue honoring him now stands.

Giordano Bruno was tried and found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition because of his denial of several core Catholic doctrines. He was burned at the stake in this square in 1600, where a statue honoring him now stands.

Campo de’ Fiori also has a produce market in the mornings, and there are always flower vendors around!

There are many Flower Vendors at Campo de' Fiori, appropriate for a square whose name means Field of Flowers.

There are many Flower Vendors at Campo de’ Fiori, appropriate for a square whose name means Field of Flowers.

Piazza del Popolo

Do you feel like watching the sun set over St. Peter’s Basilica? Head over to the viewpoint at Piazza del Popolo for the best views in town:

Sunset from the viewpoint at the North end of Piazza del Popolo.

Sunset from the viewpoint at the North end of Piazza del Popolo.

Other Rome Sights

The Trevi Fountain

I’ve been raving about traveling during low season. Want to know why it’s sometimes a bummer to be here in February? Take one look at the Trevi fountain and you’ll know:

Completely dry, and almost fully covered by scaffolding! We avoided the crowds but missed out on the waterworks.

Completely dry, and almost fully covered by scaffolding! We avoided the crowds but missed out on the waterworks.

Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

If you’re into churches or art, this freebie is definitely worth the stop! The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi is near Piazza Navona and has a beautiful interior. There are frescoes painted by Domenichino, but the church is most famous for its Baroque paintings by Caravaggio.

Inside the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

Inside the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

We Want to Hear from You!

Have you visited Rome? What was your favorite site? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Day Trips from Florence: Pisa and Lucca

Il Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa's Field of Miracles

Il Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa’s Field of Miracles

Kevin and I have learned in our travels that we definitely prefer sightseeing that involves being outside. Nothing makes me cranky like spending hours at a museum that is dimly lit and packed full of tourists. In fact, on the rare occasions when we DO visit a museum, we spend a couple hours researching online to figure out the least busy time to visit. Also, we never go to a museum without an emergency chocolate bar on hand. What can I say? We know ourselves very well now.

So we were excited about a couple day-trip-worthy destinations within a stone’s throw of Florence that were entirely outdoor affairs. Pisa, home of the iconic Leaning Tower, is definitely worth the trip. The other destination we visited was Lucca, a charming little town surrounded by an entirely intact medieval wall.

There are other Day Trips from Florence we would’ve liked to do, like a visit to Siena or a trip down to Orvieto, but we decided to avoid charming-medieval-town-fatigue and hit those on a trip in the future. Plus, we’d love to come back in the fall to see Tuscany when the trees are starting to show their Autumn colors!

Pisa: More than Just a Tower

Contrary to what I’ve thought my entire life, Pisa is SO much more than just its Learning Tower! If you have the time, consider spending a night in Pisa like we did. We arrived late in the evening, had a nice dinner, and were able to visit the Leaning Tower in the morning before all the tour busses and huge groups arrived at around noon. It was amazing how much busier things were at noon than they were at just 11am! Totally worth the overnight to avoid the crowds.

In addition to crowd avoidance, staying overnight lets you give the city the time it deserves. The beautiful Arno River runs right through Pisa, and has a river promenade that is perfect for a relaxing stroll.

The Arno River in Pisa

The Arno River in Pisa

Say Cheese, Mr. Bicycler!

Say Cheese, Mr. Bicycler!

If you happen to be in Pisa on a Sunday, the streets will likely be lined with lots of people selling crafts and homemade goods!

Pisa's Sunday Market

Pisa’s Sunday Market

Pisa is a fun city to explore and get lost in, and had so much more character than I expected:

This mural in Pisa is called Tuttomondo (Whole Wide World), and was painted in 1989 by Keith Haring, an American artist. He brought NYC graffiti in to the world's mainstream. Amazingly, it’s still in great shape all these years later.

This mural in Pisa is called Tuttomondo (Whole Wide World), and was painted in 1989 by Keith Haring, an American artist. He brought NYC graffiti in to the world’s mainstream. Amazingly, it’s still in great shape all these years later.

You may even find cute little red cars in Pisa that make you look like a GIANT!

You may even find cute little red cars in Pisa that make you look like a GIANT!

While you’re in Pisa, though, you MUST visit the iconcic, touristy Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Tower is part of a much bigger complex called the Field of Miracles, which also consists of a beautiful Duomo (Cathedral), a Baptistry, a hospital-turned-museum, and the Camposanto Cemetery. (Fun fact: the Tower is actually the Duomo’s bell tower!)

Pisa's Beautiful Duomo

Pisa’s Beautiful Duomo. Construction to build the Duomo began in 1064! That’s one old-ass building.

The Baptistry also has a noticeable lean.

The Baptistry also has a noticeable lean.

The only site at the Field of Miracles that you can enter for free is the Duomo. It’s totally worth having a peek:

The Duomo at the Field of Miracles is SO beautiful.

The Duomo at the Field of Miracles is SO beautiful.

The interior of the Duomo

The interior of the Duomo – gorgeous!

The back of Pisa's Duomo, with its famous bronze doors.

The back of Pisa’s Duomo, with its famous bronze doors.

It costs a whopping 18 euro to climb the Leaning Tower. We didn’t go up because I think the outside is pretty darn impressive itself. Be warned, you should definitely reserve Tower tickets online a couple weeks in advance if you want to do the climb. Without reservations, you reportedly might have to wait up to 3 hours in peak Summer season to go in!

Unbeknownst to me, the Tower has an incredibly interesting backstory. It was built over two centuries by at least three different architects. Construction was first started back in 1173. Just five years later, construction on the Tower’s base and first level arcade was finishing up when someone said, “Um guys, do you think the Tower is leaning?”.

Turns out that some genius thought a 13-foot deep foundation would be sufficient for the behemoth Tower, but boy were they wrong! The marshy, unstable soil at the Field of Miracles proved to be a challenge to all of its buildings. The Baptistry and Cathedral both have noticeable leans, as well.

Can you see how asymmetrical the back of the Duomo is? Over the years, repairs have been made to correct leaning.

Can you see how asymmetrical the back of the Duomo is? Over the years, repairs have been made to correct leaning.

Undaunted by the Tower’s noticeable lean, construction continued until the first four stories were finished. After that, construction was mysteriously halted for 100 years. Around 1272, another architect gave things a go, making an effort to correct the lean by angling the next three stories away from the Tower’s lean direction. This was apparently not a winning effort, because the Tower again sat idle for almost another century.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Finally, the last architect to work on the project, Tommaso Pisano, built a belfry on the top, again kinking it even further away from the direction of the Tower’s lean. The Tower was finally completed, but its lean was getting worse every year. Efforts to stop the lean were ongoing for hundreds of years until 1550 when efforts to reinforce the base kept the Tower’s lean from increasing any further.

Unfortunately, in 1838, engineers made a huge mistake and destabilized the tower when they were pumping out groundwater under the Field of Miracles. The Tower’s lean began to accelerate once again, and the beautiful structure was in jeopardy. In 1990, the problem was solved once and for all. It was closed for repairs, and a whopping $30 million was spent on restoration. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to halt the lean: engineers tried drying the soil with steam pipes (with no luck), used steel cables to anchor the Tower to the ground (nope), and even buried 600 tons of lead on one side of the tower as a counterweight to stop the lean (still no success).

Pisa's Awesome Tower

Pisa’s Awesome Tower

Finally, the engineers tried sucking out 60 tons of soil from under one side of the Tower, which allowed it to sink further into its correct position and decrease its lean. I can picture the conversations between engineers on the soil-sucking day: “You double checked the math, right?” “Yes, but perhaps we should stand back.”

With a price tag of $30 million just for recent repairs alone, I can start to understand why it costs so much to go inside.

That is one severely leaning tower!

That is one severely leaning tower!

The history of the Tower is pretty neat, but honestly I think the best part of seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is taking out-of-context photos of people who are doing the classic I’m-propping-the-tower-up-with-my-hands pose. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite photos doing just that (click to enlarge):

Have you been to see Pisa’s leaning tower? Are you in one of my spoof photos? Leave us a comment and let us know!

Lucca: Italy’s Most Impressive Fortress City

Lucca's Impressive Medieval Wall

Lucca’s Impressive Medieval Wall

Lucca is a small, quaint, unassuming town in Tuscany. Without any one big draw, it doesn’t get a ton of tourist action. But the reason you travel to Lucca is to relax, take in the beautiful scenery, enjoy the cute old buildings (which are surprisingly intact, because this city has never been bombed), and walk its impressive medieval wall.

We took the short train ride from Florence to Lucca, and walked into town. First, we had to cross a formidable moat:

Lucca's Enormous Moat. Enormously Disappointing.

Lucca’s Enormous Moat. Enormously Disappointing.

Arguably the most fun thing to do in Lucca is walk its wall. It’s a short 2.5-mile-long walk, and the views you earn are gorgeous. Some photos from our wall walk:

Runners on the wall! The wide path is fantastic for running.

Runners on the wall! The wide path is fantastic for running.

Snow Capped Mountains in the distance.

Snow Capped Mountains in the distance.

Winter scenery on Lucca's wall.

Winter scenery on Lucca’s wall.

Lucca's Wonderful Wall

Lucca’s Wonderful Wall

A beautiful view of a church tower from the wall.

A beautiful view of a church tower from the wall.

Isn't Lucca quaint? I loved it!

Isn’t Lucca quaint? I loved it!

Inside Lucca's Wall!

Inside Lucca’s Wall!

After walking the wall and getting your bearings, it’s fun to just explore the cute winding streets of the old city area inside the wall. You’ll stumble onto a different church every few blocks, wander past bakeries and gelaterias, and see lots of cute little stores.

Cute winding streets in Lucca.

Cute winding streets in Lucca, completely devoid of tourists in the off season!

Lucca's beautiful Church of San Michele.

Lucca’s beautiful Church of San Michele.

This is the San Giovanni Church, the first cathedral of Lucca. The entire floor has been excavated to reveal layers of Roma houses dating back to the time of Christ. We didn’t get to visit since it’s only open on weekends in the Winter. Boo.

This is the San Giovanni Church, the first cathedral of Lucca. The entire floor has been excavated to reveal layers of Roma houses dating back to the time of Christ. We didn’t get to visit since it’s only open on weekends in the Winter. Boo.

Lucca's San Martino Cathedral.

Lucca’s San Martino Cathedral.

And of course, any trip to Lucca isn’t complete without sampling some foods that are hard to find anywhere else in Italy. First, we tried Cecina, a garbanzo bean crepe-like baked concoction. It was super cheesy, greasy, and starchy. Exactly what I’ve come to expect in a European snack.

Cecina from Pizzeria Da Felice

Cecina from Pizzeria Da Felice

Lucca’s other specialty is Buccellato, a sweet bread with raisins and anise flavoring. As they say, “Coming to Lucca without eating the buccellato is like not having come at all!” So try it we did.

Our buccellato from Buccellato Tadeucci, a 130+ year old pastry shop!

Our buccellato from Buccellato Tadeucci, a 130+ year old pastry shop!

We Want to Hear From You!

What is your favorite little town in Italy? Lucca? Orvieto? Pisa? Siena? Leave us a comment to let us know!

Escapades in Florence, Italy

We went on a winery tour in the Tuscan Countryside.

We went on a winery tour in the Tuscan Countryside.

We spent nine indulgent nights in Florence, Italy. I thought we spoiled ourselves in Spain and Portugal, but we set the bar at a whole new level in Florence. Between the wine, pastries, cheeses, gelato, breads, pastas, and the Chocolate Fair (yes, there was a CHOCOLATE FAIR in town during our stay!), we may have gone a little overboard.

Here’s a rundown at some of our escapades in Florence. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible if this blog post causes chocolate cravings, induces carb binges, or makes you want to open that bottle of Chianti midday.)

We Ate and Ate and Ate.

We had a lot of great food in Florence. We learned we don’t really care for truffles (truffle fungus, not truffle chocolates, of course!), we fell deeply in love with Buffalo Mozzarella, and we learned how good a sandwich can really be.

I didn’t get a picture of it, but if you’re ever in Italy and see bite-sized Buffalo Mozzarella balls (Mozzarella di Bufala in Italian) at a grocery store in Italy, BUY THEM. It’s probably the best cheese I’ve had in my life. We just ate it plain from the container; it was so good I couldn’t bear to taint it by combining it with anything else!

That’s enough of that. On to more food!

A Religious Experience at Due Sorsi & Un Boccone

If you’re reading this from Florence, stop what you’re doing, put down your computer, and go get a sandwich from Due Sorsi & Un Boccone. Now. Do it!

Doorway to Heaven

Doorway to Heaven

We tried out Due Sorsi & Un Boccone (which is Italian for “Two Sips and a Bite”) because it was recommended in Rick Steves’ Italy Guidebook. We usually take Rick’s restaurant recommendations with a boulder of salt, but this time he really hit it out of the park. The service is incredibly friendly, the sandwiches are incredibly tasty, and the prices are super affordable!

Located a couple blocks North of Florence’s Duomo, this spot is pretty much on the way to anything. All their sandwiches are just €3,50, and you can get a class of wine for just €1! All their sandwiches come on Schiacciate Bread, which is pretty much just flattened focaccia. It’s like eating a little slice of heaven.

The Wonderful Menu.

The Wonderful Menu. Any three ingredients for just 3.50 euro!

Best Pizza of our lives at Gusta Pizza

This is a big claim, but I’m ready to say it. We had the best pizza of our lives in Florence. We ventured into Gusta Pizza and each managed to take down an entire pizza and big glass of wine. Kevin practically had to carry me home because I was so full.

The Wood-fired Pizza Oven at Gusta Pizza.

The Wood-fired Pizza Oven at Gusta Pizza.

The Goods! Up top is Calabrese, which has spicy salami. It was the clear winner. Below is a simple Margherita Pizza, also delicious.

The Goods! Up top is Calabrese, which has spicy salami. It was the clear winner. Below is a simple Margherita Pizza, also delicious.

Desserts

Cannoli is not common in Tuscany – it’s much more of a Southern Italy thing. Luckily, Kevin is ridiculously proficient when it comes to Google Searches, and managed to find a place where we could get our Cannoli fix. Carabe Gelateria serves up fresh made-to-order Cannoli that is out of this world.

The delicious Cannoli! Just €2,60 each.

The delicious Cannoli! Just €2,60 each.

In Italy, there’s a gelateria everywhere you turn, even in February. We tried a few different places, but were impressed by the serving sizes and variety of flavors at Gelateria de Neri.

We also happened to be in town during Florence’s Chocolate fair:

Two words: Free Samples.

Two words: Free Samples.

We Looked at Naked Men. I Mean Naked Statues.

This one’s more of an indulgence for the ladies. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Florence probably has the highest density of nude male statues of any city in the world. Combine the nude statues with plenty of wine and tasty food and you’ve got a world class city, in my opinion.

What strikes me is how nonchalant they all look about their nudity. This one is the "Fountain of Neptune".

What strikes me is how nonchalant they all look about their nudity. This one is the “Fountain of Neptune”.

These buns, I mean these ones, are in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

These buns, I mean these ones, are in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

We Saw Florence’s Sights.

Contrary to what you might think at this point, we saw more in Florence than nude statues.

The Duomo

Florence’s Duomo has a fun claim-to-fame. Its famous Renaissance dome by Brunelleschi was the first of its kind and became a model for all domes to follow (including the US Capitol building). The Duomo was built before the technology existed to build such a dome, so a huge gaping hole was left in the ceiling! The confident Italians were not deterred, though. They knew someone would come along and figure it out. Luckily, Brunelleschi came along and got ‘er done!

The Duomo is decidedly more impressive viewed from the outside than from within. Since we visited in February there were absolutely no lines to get in so we headed inside for a quick peek. However, if the line is long, you should know that it’s totally skippable!

Orsanmichele Church

This church is clearly the underdog of Florence’s church scene. It was originally built in 1337 and used as a grain market! It wasn’t until 1380 that its conversion to a church began. The outside is home to copies of many famous statues, if that’s your jam. The inside is a lot more fun to look at than the interior of the Duomo – you can still see chutes in the wall where grain used to be poured in, and it has a pretty impressive altar. Plus, it’s free and never crowded!

Inside Orsanmichele Church.

Inside Orsanmichele Church.

Beautiful Orsanmichele Church.

Beautiful Orsanmichele Church.

Piazzalle Michelangelo Viewpoint

For the best views and a good workout, hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s a pretty decent slog uphill, but you’re rewarded with sweeping views of Florence. There’s even a couple places to get gelato at the top.

The view from Piazzalle Michelangelo.

The view from Piazzalle Michelangelo.

The Ponte Vecchio Bridge

The Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio deserves its reputation as Florence’s most famous bridge for its backstory as well as for its oddball appearance.

Check out this oddball. The bridge, not the lady.

Check out this oddball. The bridge, not the lady.

Originally, butcher shops lined the bridge and the river became a handy (but super smelly) place for them to toss their garbage. in 1565, the royal Medici family built an enclosed passage over the bridge to use for their daily commute between their Pitti Palace and their offices in the Palazzo Vecchio. (Tough commute, AMIRITE?!) The Medici family didn’t care for the smell caused by the butchers, so they pushed them out in favor of ritzy jewelry shops like the ones that line the bridge today.

The coolest part of the Ponte Vecchio’s story, though, is from WWII. All of Florence’s bridges were destroyed by the Germans in 1944 except for the Ponte Vecchio! Rumor has it that the bridge was specifically ordered to be saved by Hitler himself. He was so fond of the bridge that he couldn’t bear for his troops to destroy it; instead, they used debris to obstruct both entrances and prevent access, but did not destroy the bridge itself.

We Went on a Wine Tour Where the Company Stated That Their Goal Was to Get Us Drunk.

We went on a Tuscany Wine Tour called the Grape Escape. If that isn’t the greatest name for a wine tour in the world, I don’t know what is. This tour is geared towards people in their 20’s and 30’s, and we were informed upon our arrival that the whole point of booking a wine tour is so you have a driver and can drink as much as you want. So far so good! So drank we did.

I can't clearly recall, but this was wine #6 or so at Tenuta Torciano Winery.

I can’t clearly recall, but this was wine #6 or so at Tenuta Torciano Winery.

Our small group of five loaded up into a van with our nice driver and headed out into the Tuscan countryside to the heart of the Chianti region. First stop was Tenuta Torciano, a winery that also produces olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

Snacks at Tenuta Torciano. These were fun for tasting with all the different wines. We even got to taste a 30-year-old balsamic vinegar!

Snacks at Tenuta Torciano. These were fun for tasting with all the different wines. We even got to taste a 30-year-old balsamic vinegar!

Next stop was San Gimignano, the most adorable, most picturesque town I’ve visited. It’s a ridiculously well preserved medieval town perched on a hilltop, surrounded by vineyards and lush countryside. Fourteen of its original medieval towers are still standing, and the winding streets are so cute it’ll make your chest ache. (Pro tip: never visit San Gimignano in the high season, when it is reportedly packed to the gills with tourists. It was delightfully empty in February!)

Fun fact: one couple on our wine tour was from the US, and we later ran into them in the Colosseum in Rome! Small world.

We climbed all the way up to the top of the Rocca tower, and were rewarded by amazing views of the Tuscan countryside.

We climbed all the way up to the top of the Rocca tower, and were rewarded with amazing views of the Tuscan countryside.

Last stop of the day was Fattoria Poggio Alloro, a farm/winery/olive-oilery/B&B just a couple kilometers from San Gimignano. This may have been our best stop solely because of the view:

The view from Fattoria Poggio Alloro. The town on the hilltop is San Gimignano.

The breathtaking view from Fattoria Poggio Alloro. The town on the hilltop is San Gimignano.

It was also a fun stop because the tour guide was so nice and low key and down to earth, which isn’t always easy to find in a winery. We don’t know a whole lot about wine, and I appreciate it when people don’t give me attitude because of that.

If you’re in Florence for a few days, we think that The Grape Escape Tour is definitely worth its 50 euro price tag. We toyed with the idea of assembling a tour ourselves using public transit, which would’ve been a disaster.

We Had the Most Oddball Valentine’s Celebration Ever.

Have you ever celebrated Valentine’s Day by going to a church for a Vespers service (entirely in Latin) with Gregorian Chant Singing? We have! We hiked up to San Miniato al Monte Church, perched on Florence’s hilltop above Piazzale Michelangelo. They have Vespers services every evening with Gregorian chanting, usually around 5:30pm.

The front of San Miniato Church.

The front of San Miniato Church.

It was fun and eerie walking around inside the dark church with the chants emanating all around us:

We Saw a Sunset in Fiesole.

If you have time in Florence, take ATAF Bus #7 up to Fiesole. The ride is only 15-20 minutes, but you get incredible views over the whole city of Florence! Plus, sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the city and walk around in a small town.

Hike up to the viewpoint near La Reggia restaurant, where you’ll find the cute, simple little Church of San Francesco.

We Regretted our Airbnb Choice.

We happened to find a pretty cute little Airbnb in a great location. Those are the only nice things I can say about it. Let it be known, if you have an aversion to smoke, it is a terrible idea to gamble that a smoking-allowed Airbnb apartment “won’t be that bad”. It finally aired out after a few days, but we wished we hadn’t made that mistake. Lesson learned!

 

Our Guide to Lisbon, Portugal

One of Lisbon's Iconic Trams!

One of Lisbon’s Iconic Trams!

We knew embarrassingly little about Lisbon before traveling there in February. Part of being on the road for a year is that you just get tired of researching destinations. If a couple people tell us they really loved a city, it’s almost guaranteed to land on our let’s-spend-a-whole-month-there list! It’s a pretty easy test to pass; if it’s safe and has a cost of living a lower than Seattle, we are IN!

Lisbon's Arch of Triumph, located on Praça do Comércio.

Lisbon’s Arch of Triumph, located on Praça do Comércio.

Lisbon was one of those trips we made on a total whim. We couldn’t spend a whole month there because of our visa limitations here in Europe, but we’re glad we gave it three nights. Lisbon feels like a small version of Paris, complete with its own Triumphant Arch (pictured above). It’s a fun city to enjoy on foot and is full of vibrant neighborhoods with lots of character. What it lacks in good food (we were sorely disappointed) it makes up for in its incredibly fascinating history. People also repeatedly tried to sell us weed – one guy even tried to sell us cocaine! So that’s something.

What to Do in Lisbon

When we weren’t buying weed and cocaine (totally kidding), we spent our days exploring Lisbon, riding adorable trolleys, drinking coffee, and eating pastries. We gathered those up here in our Guide to Lisbon. Some of our favorite things to do in this vibrant city:

Learn About the Huge Earthquake of 1755

This was the most fascinating part of our trip. I had no idea that Lisbon had been through such a tragic disaster. In November 1755, on a Sunday morning when much of Lisbon was at church, a giant earthquake hit the city. The massive quake’s magnitude is estimated to have been about 9.0, a true monster. People who were attending mass were killed in huge numbers, crushed as the churches crumbled around them.

Many people panicked and fled devastation by scrambling onto boats for safety, only to be met by a tsunami that raged up the Rio Tejo river. The huge 20-foot wave capsized ships, roared over the seawall, and came as far as 800 feet inland. Then came the fire, started by fallen candles or cooking fires that were burning when the quake hit. The city burned for five harrowing days, completely engulfing the downtown area of Lisbon.

It’s estimated that 90,000 of Lisbon’s then 270,000 citizens were killed in this terrible event. What I found really interesting is that many Portuguese people thought that this was God’s way of punishing them for the Inquisition. (At the height of the Inquisition in Portugal in the 1500s, thousands of Jews were murdered.) King Jose I was so traumatized by the earthquake that he resisted living in buildings for the rest of his life; he moved his royal court to the neighboring suburb of Belém where he set up a huge complex of fancy tents.

There are two sights where you can still see the vivid reminders of the 1755 earthquake.

The first and best is the Convento do Carmo was almost completely destroyed by the quake, but its Gothic arches were left standing as a permanent reminder of the devastating event. We went back and forth about paying the €3,50 to go in, but we’re so glad we did. I think this is one of Lisbon’s most underrated sights. It’s definitely impactful to stand in what use to be the church’s nave, imagining the horror that people went through on that day.

The small museum housed in Convento do Carmo also has two mummies on display that were unearthed during the earthquake. (As if the quake itself wasn’t terrible enough… did they really need MUMMIES to be coming out of the ground too?! I mean COME ON.)

The other sight which still shows damage from 1755 is the Church of São Domingos:

The Church of São Domingos is located on the square that was once the center of the Inquisition. Now, this square holds a monument bearing the Star of David as a memorial to all those who were killed during the sad events. The church was heavily damaged in the earthquake in 1755, and many thought God was punishing them for the atrocities that happened on the church's doorstep the 1500s.

The Church of São Domingos is located on the square that was once the center of the Inquisition. Now, this square holds a monument bearing the Star of David as a memorial to all those who were killed during those sad times. The church was heavily damaged in the earthquake in 1755, and many thought God was punishing them for the atrocities that happened on the church’s doorstep during the Inquisition in the 1500s.

This church was rebuilt from the ruins left by the earthquake, and there are still places inside where you can see char marks from the horrible fires that followed the quake.

Inside the church, char marks are still visible from the fires that followed the earthquake.

Inside the church, char marks are still visible from the fires that followed the earthquake.

Visit the Monastery of Jerónimos in Belém

This building is spectacular, and was built by King Manuel as a thank-you-gesture for the discoveries that early Portuguese explorers made all over the world. It is ginormous (300 yards long!), and is divided into three parts: church, cloister, and maritime museum. The church piece is free and totally worth doing. The cloister costs €10 and is fun to see if you’re really into architecture or churches. We skipped the Maritime Museum.

The outside of the Monastery is just breathtaking.

The outside of the Monastery is just breathtaking.

Another view of the Monastery of Jeronimos, this time with doors. I'm still obsessed with doors.

Another view of the Monastery of Jeronimos, this time with doors. I’m still obsessed with doors.

We saw the tomb holding Columbus' remains in Spain, now we get to see the tomb holding the remains of the famous Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama.

We saw the tomb holding Columbus’ remains while we were in Spain, now we got to see the tomb holding the remains of the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama!

I paid to visit the Cloisters while Kevin hung out in the park across the street enjoying the gorgeous day. He’s becoming quite the photographer with his iPhone; here are a few pictures he snapped:

A fountain in the park.

A fountain in the park.

I really enjoyed my visit into the Cloisters – the Manueline architecture is just beautiful:

The Cloisters at the Monastery of Jerónimos.

The Cloisters at the Monastery of Jerónimos.

(Click any of these photos below to enlarge them.)

Also upstairs is the High Choir where monks would stand during church services. They were not permitted to sit during mass, so they used the arm rests on the wooden chairs to lean on during services.

Also upstairs is the High Choir where monks would stand during church services. They were not permitted to sit during mass, so they used the arm rests on the wooden chairs to lean on during services.

Walk… A Lot

We are firm believers that the best way to explore a city is on foot. Rick Steves has something like four walking tours in Lisbon in his Portugal guidebook, so with my Kindle in hand, we explored the city with Rick’s guidance. Some of our favorite things:

The Elevator Da Gloria Funicular. Spoiler alert: it's faster to walk up the hill than to take the funicular.

The Elevator Da Gloria Funicular. Spoiler alert: it’s faster to walk up the hill than to take the funicular.

The amazing view from the Miradouro de São Pedro.

The amazing view from the Miradouro de São Pedro.

Lisbon is known for its tilework. So many buildings here are completely covered with unique, beautiful tiles.

Lisbon is known for its tilework. So many buildings here are completely covered with unique, beautiful tiles.

More of Lisbon's iconic tilework. These crumbling tiles are at the Largo Santa Luzia viewpoint in the Alfama neighborhood.

More of Lisbon’s iconic tilework. These crumbling tiles are at the Largo Santa Luzia viewpoint in the Alfama neighborhood.

Be sure to visit the Largo Santa Luzia viewpoint for incredible views!

Be sure to visit the Largo Santa Luzia viewpoint for incredible views!

Behind Kevin is the 25th of April Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. It looks like the Golden Gate Bridge because it was built by the same company. We liked it because it's named for Kevin's birthday!

Behind Kevin is the 25th of April Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world. It looks like the Golden Gate Bridge because it was built by the same company. We liked it because it’s named for Kevin’s birthday!

Underneath the 25th of April Bridge, looking across the Rio Tejo river.

Underneath the 25th of April Bridge, looking across the Rio Tejo river.

Graffiti in Lisbon's wonderful Alfama neighborhood.

Graffiti in Lisbon’s wonderful Alfama neighborhood.

Check out this dilapidated building on Praça da Figueira. There are tons of plants growing on the roof, windows are missing, and parts of the roof are severely slanted. Even though this is a prime spot in Lisbon, this building has been under rent control for decades. Demoralized owners have just let their apartments deteriorate, and the building is nearly empty except for a few people lingering there, living in terrible conditions.

Check out this dilapidated building on Praça da Figueira. There are tons of plants growing on the roof, windows are missing, and parts of the roof are severely slanted. Even though this is a prime spot in Lisbon, this building has been under rent control for decades. Demoralized owners have just let their apartments deteriorate, and the building is nearly empty except for a few people lingering there, living in terrible conditions.

When we didn't walk, we rode the subway, where men playing accordions walked around with chihuahuas on their shoulders. Of course.

When we didn’t walk, we rode the subway, where men playing accordions walked around with chihuahuas on their shoulders. Of course.

What to Drink in Lisbon

Port

Alright, I’m going to continue exposing my ignorance about Portugal for a moment. It wasn’t until we had already booked our bus/train tickets from Sevilla to Portugal that Kevin and I realized that Port Wine originated in Portugal. To be specific, it gets its name from the town of Porto, Portugal. Makes sense, right? The realization sure made me feel like an idiot.

Our time in Europe has largely been about experiencing as much local beer/wine/liquor as possible, and we made no exception in Portugal. We discovered that The Port Wine Institute has a fun location in Lisbon called the Solar do Vinho do Porto where you can stop in and order from a selection of over 150 different ports! Prices start at just €1,50 per glass. They’re definitely speaking my language with those kinds of prices!

So we hit the Port Wine Institute, and we hit it hard. The service is a bit icy, so brace yourselves before visiting. In fact, when we asked for help choosing between two Late Bottle Vintage ports, the bartender told us, “well, if you don’t know much about port they’ll taste the same to you.” Ok, ma’am, we’ll take the cheaper one then.

Regardless of the somewhat unfriendly service, we still managed to enjoy ourselves. Sometimes it’s just fun to sit and relax in a room full of leather sofas and wood-beamed ceilings, surrounded by hundreds of port bottles, and pretend you’re a multi-millionaire.

Wine

We stopped in at the Vini Portugal Wine Tasting Center to try some of Portugal’s finest wines. You pay by the pour, but glasses start at just a euro. After testing 6 different wines, we feel comfortable declaring Spain the wine winner of the Iberian peninsula wine contest. Sorry Portugal.

Ginjinha

To top off our booze tour of Lisbon, we tried Lisbon’s famous local drink called Ginjinha. It’s a sweet liquor, made from ginja berries, brandy, cinnamon, and sugar. Lots of places around Lisbon sell shots of this stuff for 1-2 euros. We tried it at “A Ginjinha”, the most well-known hole-in-the-wall bar, located right on Largo de São Domingos.

Here's Kevin with his Ginjinha shot.

Here’s Kevin with his Ginjinha shot.

Honestly, I’d rather drink cough syrup than this stuff. At least then there might be some medicinal benefits. But you have to try it if you’re in town.

Where to Stay in Lisbon

If we ever return to Lisbon, you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll stay at the Lisbon Story Guesthouse again. We booked a small, simple room in their hostel-style guesthouse for €40/night including breakfast.

This was our first foray into sharing a bathroom, and I was so surprised that it did not make me irrationally angry like I expected. The entire guesthouse (including shared bathrooms) was spotlessly clean!

To top it off, breakfast was fabulous. They had six types of homemade jam plus NUTELLA!

The breakfast spread at the Lisbon Story Guesthouse.

The breakfast spread at the Lisbon Story Guesthouse.

If you’re traveling to Lisbon on a budget, we highly recommend giving this place a try!

Where to Eat in Lisbon

I almost left this section out. If you’re crazy about meat and bread, Lisbon may be the place for you. However, if you enjoy a green vegetable every now and then, I wish you luck traveling there.

We did manage to find a few things that made us happy, though.

Pastéis de Belém

Pastéis de Belém is a must-visit for custard tarts.

Pastéis de Belém is a must-visit for custard tarts.

This cafe is the birthplace of Lisbon’s famous custard tart called the Pastel de Nata. Obviously, we had to stop by and try them out! This place is so popular that they crank out upwards of 20,000 custard tarts each day. Since they are making so many, you’re almost guaranteed to get one fresh out of the oven, which makes all the difference in the world!

Restaurante o Tábouas

On a whim, we stepped into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant across the street from our hotel to try their lunch special. For just €3,50, you get a Bifana (pork sandwich), big bowl of vegetable soup, and either a fresh squeezed orange juice or a beer! It was delicious, and was certainly the best bargain we found in Lisbon. If you want to give it a try, it’s located here.

We Want to Hear from You!

Have you visited Lisbon? Did we miss anything? Did you manage to find any restaurants that made you happy? If the answer to any of those questions is YES (or if you just want to say hi!), please leave us a comment!