Bonjour everyone! Paul & I recently got back from a 12 day vacation to Italy & Paris. We had originally come up with our itinerary based on friends’ recommendations and Rick Steves’ books, and we ultimately decided to visit four European cities on our trip: Rome, Florence, Cinque Terre, and Paris. Below, I’ll do a breakdown of our experiences in each city. *All photos in this post were taken with my iPhone. Paul took much better/more photos with his professional camera, and I’ve posted that album here.
To get to Rome, we took a nonstop flight from LAX to Paris’ CDG airport (11 hours), then took a shuttle from CDG to ORLY (which took about an hour), and from there we took a shorter flight to Rome (2 hours). It was pretty much an entire day of traveling, and I’m not a very good traveler, so thank goodness for Dramamine!
In Rome, we stayed at Hotel Romae, which was about a 5 minute walk from Roma Termini (their main train station). This was super convenient. If you’re planning to visit Italy, I’d recommend finding hotels fairly close to the airport or train station, so you can save money on transportation. (In Paris, the subway system is pretty amazing, so it doesn’t matter as much.) Our room was small, but cozy and clean. All basic amenities included, along with free wifi.
We were in Rome for 2 full days, and we went on several of Rick Steves’ self-guided walks, which hit all of the main tourist points: The Roman Forums, Colosseum, Vatican City, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, Pantheon, Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain. On our very first day, we were jipped by a very insistent Roman soldier into taking pictures with him, and he ended up charging us 5 euros per person. Sigh. At least we learned our lesson early on in the trip. Later, I almost got tricked again by a guy offering me “free roses” at the Spanish Steps, but Paul saw right through that one. Bottom line: Don’t trust anyone!
I think we walked the most in this city. We also got lost one night (because of a local giving us wrong directions, ironically), and ended up going in a big circle. We walked so much that night, our legs turned numb. Food-wise, there was pizza and gelato on every corner. The pizza in Italy has super thin crust, and there’s something about the cheese that makes it taste so authentic. So yummy! We also bought some salami, cheese, and bread at the local market one evening for dinner.
From Rome, we took a high-speed train to Florence (2 hours). Those Frecciarossa trains feel like you’re like riding the Hogwarts Express. Fun!
In Florence, we stayed at Hotel Pitti Palace, which was about a 15 minute walk from Florence’s SMN train station. Again, super convenient, except for having to roll your noisy suitcase down the cobblestone streets. But if you arrive super early in the morning like we did, the streets are pretty empty. This hotel was probably the nicest one on our trip. The room was spacious, with a large bathroom, free wifi, and they offered free breakfast. (None of our other hotels did. If we could re-book hotels, we’d find ones that had free breakfast – so worth it!)
We were in Florence for 2 full days. This city is much less crowded and touristy than Rome, and we didn’t walk around as much, other than doing Rick Steves’ Renaissance Walk, which hit the Duomo, Baptistery, Orsanmichele Church, Ponte Vecchio, and Arno River. We also went to Accademia Gallery to see the Statue of David (pretty cool), and Uffizi Gallery, which was far less interesting than we expected. We took it easy on the second day and went to Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, and hiked up to Piazzale Michelangelo for the beautiful view. Here we ran into our good friends Steve and Angela, who had the same exact itinerary as us! Food-wise, even more pizza, gelato, and wine.
From Florence, we took a regional train to Cinque Terre (2 hours). While in Cinque Terre, we stayed in Vernazza at La Camere Torre, which was waaaay up on the cliffside and accessible only by stairs. SO MANY STAIRS. Poor Paul had to carry both of our suitcases all the way up there. But the view at the top was worth it. Our room was teeny tiny (with hardly any amenities and no wifi), but our balcony was big, and we cared more about the view, which was the main reason we wanted to visit 5T. We went out to the balcony to look at the view every chance we got.
Vernazza is a sleepy little town, with lots of locals. I would recommend maybe staying in Manarola if you want more liveliness/places to eat. We were in Cinque Terre for (almost) 2 full days, and it was the one city I was looking forward to the most, but because of certain circumstances, we didn’t quite enjoy our stay as much as we’d hoped. It rained for most of our stay, which meant many of the trails were closed and we couldn’t hike between all five towns as we’d hoped. Plus, there was a train strike for 24 hours, so no trains were running on our second day, which meant we ended up staying in Vernazza for most of the time. While it rained, we stayed inside and watched “Midnight in Paris” on the iPad.
We also missed dinner plans with our friends Steve and Angela on the first night (when trains were still running), because we looked up the place incorrectly on the map and got off at the wrong stop. We decided to hike it, since the two towns were right next to each other, but the main way was closed, so we had to take the longer way. By the time we realized that this was an dangerous/impossible hike and came back to the train station, the next train ran too late to make it to our reservation. At that point, we got on the train to come back to Vernazza without train tickets (since they’d never checked ours before, we thought we’d get away with it), but of course that’s the one time the conductor decides to check tickets, so we had to pay a fine of 10 euros. Sad night.
Apparently, Cinque Terre is known for its pesto and seafood, so we tried pesto lasagna, penne with prawns, and fried seafood in a cone. It was all fresh and delicious. If you’re looking to maximize your time in Europe, I’d consider doing one full day and one night in 5T. It’s small enough that you can cover all of your ground in a single day, in my opinion – as long as the trains are running.
From Cinque Terre, we took a super early (as in, 5 am) morning high speed train back to Rome (3 hours), and then took a flight from Rome back to Paris (2 hrs) for the final leg of our trip. This was another long day of traveling, and we finally reached our hotel at around 7 pm that night.
In Paris, we stayed at Au Pacific Hotel, which was quaint and also had free wifi. Paris was by far my favorite city! We were in Paris for 3 full days, which gave us plenty of time to transition to learning the French greetings, instead of Italian. The people here are surprisingly friendly, especially if you greet them with “Bonjour”/”Bonsoir” and said “Excusez-moi, “Merci” and “Au Revoir.”
Our hotel was a 10 minute walk to the Eiffel Tower, which ended up being our favorite spot, and we walked by it several times per day. We calculated the entrance fees to many of the museums and attractions we wanted to visit, and it made sense to buy the Paris Museum Pass (which was 42 euros/person for 2 days) and gave us access to many popular sites.
Like I mentioned before, the subway system in Paris is pretty intricate and very handy. On the first day, we took the subway to our first destination (Bastille), and then spent the next 10 hours walking through Paris and visiting Le Marais, Notre Dame, Ile St. Louis (tried the best gelato flavors ever @ Amorino Gelato – Speculoos and Sea Salt Caramel shaped into a rose), Saint Chapelle, and the Left Bank, leading back to the Eiffel Tower/Trocadero.
The second day, we purchased an all-day RER/Metro ticket, and took advantage of it by taking the subway everywhere. We visited Versaille, Montmartre (Sacre Couer), Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, Musee D’Orsay and L’Orangerie, and went back to Le Marais for dinner at Cafe de Musees. We also discovered a place called Chez Feyrouz near our hotel which had the most delicious ‘chawarma’ wraps, and we ended up getting them at least once per day, including for our last meal in front of the Eiffel Tower on Champ de Mars. Paul still dreams about those wraps… I dream about the crepes with Nutella.
After a final look at the Eiffel Tower, we headed back to the airport, where we bought ourselves two farewell Laduree macarons and boarded a 12 hour flight back home, during which we watched a few movies and I ate the yummiest ice cream bar of my life. Paul jokes that I literally bolted awake the second they came up the aisle with the ice cream. Hey, my tummy knows when it’s about to get something good.
- Bring a nalgene bottle with a filter (our in-laws gave us two as Christmas gifts, thanks Danny and Daniela!). You can fill up at any water fountain and not worry about getting sick. Also, buy water at the supermarket (you can get a giant bottle for 0.30 euro). They charge for water at restaurants, so you might as well spend that money on wine instead and drink your own water afterwards.
- Download a free language translation app on your phone. This will be a huge help when you’re trying to ask an unexpected question or find something last-minute.
- Travel light! I ended up overpacking – I brought a bikini and sundresses, which I didn’t even wear because it was too cold :( Same with shoes – you only need one pair of comfy shoes. I packed some flats and sandals but I hardly wore them. We each had 1 suitcase and 1 backpack, which made it easier to navigate the trains and stairs.
- Watch out for pickpocketers/gypsies at train stations. They will follow you around and beg for money until you get on your train.
- If you don’t like looking at physical maps, you may want to purchase some international data so you can look up locations on your phone, otherwise you can only use wifi at your hotel, so plan ahead.
It was a wonderful vacation, and now we’re glad to be home and reunited with our child aka dog, Dodger: