Top Five things to see in Florence

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Florence, home of the Renaissance, is packed full of museums, culture, art, food and more. Florence planted the I want to move to Europe seed in me. I fell in love on my first arrival and we have since returned many times. It is a city we will never tire of.

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How to arrive?

Santa Maria Novella is the main train station. We have arrived in Florence by train. Like most European train stations it is very central. The Frecciarossa is fast, comfortable and convenient.

Driving in Florence isn’t as nerve racking as driving in Naples, but with that said, you are still driving it Italy. It’s crowded and rules are meant to be broken. You might even find two marked lanes with 4 lanes of traffic on them. This can all happen before you reach the city center, which is why I wouldn’t recommend driving into the city.  If you must drive, the parking in Florence is better than many large Italian cites. Park on the outskirts of the city center and walk, bus, or taxi into the city center. I have found this site useful for locating parking in Florence.

The Florence airport is a few miles northwest of Florence. You can hop on a bus or grab a taxi to the city center. The train does not connect with the airport but there are many bus connections to the station.

Where to stay in Florence?

I think it depends on your travel situation. If you are traveling through for a few nights I would recommend staying in the city center to make the most of your time.  We have always had good luck finding accommodations on booking.

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But if you are staying in Tuscany for a few weeks, I would recommend staying in an agriturismo. We have stayed outside of Florence for a few weeks and enjoyed coming into Florence when we weren’t relaxing by the pool.

A must see? Our TOP 5 Picks

Our list of what to see is long but the following are the top 5 things I would not miss:

1.Uffizi Gallery, amazing collection of Italian art. I’d recommend making reservations before.

2.Accademia,  Michelangelo’s David is here.  Make reservations, it pays to think ahead.

3.Duomo, The Famous Gothic Cathedral in Florence

*Don’t forget to climb to the top of the Duomo – the lines are usually long. Our best luck has been arriving early to wait in line, before it opens at 8:30.

4.Pitti Palace,  There are 3  Museums inside a beautiful Palace.  I would recommend viewing the outside gardens, they are breathtaking.

5.Ponte Vecchio, The famous bridge in Florence lined with shops

This is just a start. Every time we visit I feel like there is always something new to see/stumble upon.

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I’ll end with a review on a restaurant called Il Latini. I must say we have been a few times but our first experience was our favorite. The restaurant is still very good but more tourists have found out about this hidden gem.

On our first visit, years ago, the crowd started to gather right before the opening, at 9 pm. Inside you could see the employees enjoying a huge feast (Great staff motivation if you ask me).  Once their meal was finished, they opened the door and started yelling off names from the reservation list. We yelled our name out, while waving our arms (yes it was that crazy),they grabbed my hand and pulled us in.  There was no menu, all you can drink table wine, and food fit for a king.  Give it a try if you find yourself in Florence.

Skiing in the Dolomites

The Dolomites are in the Northeastern part of Italy encompassing the provinces of Belluno, South Tyrol, and Trentino. The whole area is actually a UNESCO world heritage site and we were lucky enough to finally make a visit there.

We decided we wanted to take a family ski trip this year and, although Switzerland is an obvious choice, we wanted to try something new. So, we pulled out the map and started scouting out the Dolomites. There are plenty of ski resorts to choose from but we settled on Paganella in the village of Andalo.

We stayed five minutes outside of Andalo in Molveno Italy. Molveno is a quaint town situated on a lake with a little town square. It is scattered with restaurants and boutique hotels. We traveled this time with another family so we decided to rent a home together.


The ski resort of Paganella was a great family resort. They have a handful of ski schools you can choose from.  The adult all day ski pass was 42 Euros. Which for a resort of its size seemed like an incredible price. They were running a promotion when while we were there and our family of 5 was able to ski for 155 Euros a day. WOW! What a deal.

 

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As far as the slopes were concerned, there were many beginner/medium runs. For advanced skiers, there was only one black run, but it did happen to be the training run for the Norwegian Olympic Ski team.

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I feel like we have not even made a dent in our skiing in the Dolomites. This was our first trip of many to come.  There are so many resorts we would like to try. Have you been skiing in the Dolomites? Do you have a recommendation? We would love to hear from you.

Family Adventure Podcast

 

We had the opportunity to do a podcast last month with Family Adventure Podcasts. We were honored to speak with them about our personal story moving abroad. If you haven’t discovered them, they have an awesome podcast with inspiring stories of family adventures. I am not sure our story is as inspiring as theirs. They lived on a sailboat and sailed with their family for 3 years. How amazing would that be? If you get a chance please check it out and listen. Hopefully, we can inspire some to live out their dreams. Their story has inspired us to look into sailing as a family. Hooray for traveling families.

Link to the Podcast #111

Stresa and the Borromean Islands

Stresa and the surrounding area is one of our favorite places in Northern Italy. The city of Stresa is set on beautiful Lake Maggiore with views of the nearby Borromean Islands. The area is only an hour train ride from Milan, which makes it convenient to visit if flying in or out of Milan.

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When you arrive in Stresa I would advise purchasing your tickets to the islands first. Then spend the morning exploring Stresa.

When we visit the Borromean Islands we have always chartered a boat. The boats and their skippers are near the ferry station in Stresa, but no worries finding them, they will find you. The skippers, with their hats, will be hanging around the parking lot waiting to sell tickets on their boats. They have a fixed price and are reliable. We have used their services many times. For more information, you can check it out here.

Take a short stroll through the town of Stresa and fall in love with how quaint it is. The shops dotted along the cobblestone streets sell beautifully hand painted pottery, Italian leather bags, and other local goodies. During the tourist season, there is a small tourist “train” that drives through the town, which is a nice way to see some of the surrounding area and the Grand hotels.

When the stores close for lunchtime head over to the Isola dei Pescatori. This island is dotted with fantastic little restaurants.

After lunch, take the boat to Isola Bella and explore the Palace and gardens. The guides on the boats will give you a drop-off/pick-up location with flexible times. (every half hour, etc.)

In spring and summer months, Stresa is bustling with tourists. In fall and winter, the tourists are gone and the beautiful town is downright sleepy. We have visited every season and our favorite is the springtime. Remember, during the winter months many of the shops have closed on the islands and you can not tour the gardens of the palace.

One of our favorite places is the gardens of Isola Bella where white peacocks roam. Make sure you also tour the Borromeo Palace, it is furnished throughout with fascinating artifacts and history.

If you are in the area for longer than a day, here are a few other recommendations:

  • Take a 20-minute cable car ride up on The Cable Car Motorone. From the top, you have breathtaking views of the Alps and the lake.
  • The Lago Maggiore Express train is a gorgeous way to explore more of the surrounding area and see parts of Switzerland too.
  • On the outskirts of Stresa is Villa Pallavicino. This Villa is set on 37 acres of land with animals and plants throughout. You can enjoy a train ride through the park or a leisurely walk.

 

Castles, Palaces, Walled Cities

Traveling with kids can be daunting, especially if you fail to keep them entertained. Thankfully, there are thousands of castles in Europe. Seems like everywhere we go there is a castle to explore. The kids are fascinated with castles (think…dungeons, dragons, swords). We have explored our fair share of castles and I thought I would highlight a few of our favorites.
The Neuschwanstein Castle Hohenschwangau, Germany
One of the most famous castles in Europe
 
We have visited here a  few times, as the kids like to call it their castle. Neuenswander is a family name, so the kids feel they have a claim to it….. wouldn’t that be nice.
The castle is in Bavaria, Germany.  Since it is famous,  I recommend buying your tickets online.  We have waited hours in peak season for a tour.  A tour is included with the purchase of a ticket .
You have the option to tour both castles. The other, smaller castle, was King Ludwig II fathers’ castle.  If you want to get an idea of the time period furniture and decor, I recommend also touring the Hohenschwangau Castle.
Once you buy your ticket you have to walk up to the castle. The walk is beautiful in the summer but freezing in the winter. I recommend, especially with kids, taking the bus or hiring a carriage to the top. The horse drawn carriage was a favorite for our kids.
 
The Prague Castle – Prague, Czech Republic
The Prague castle is noted to be the biggest castle in the world.  To me, it seemed like a little city in itself. There are many churches and palaces all built within the walls.

There are different types of tickets you can purchase to tour the castle.  Decide which works best for you. A “long visit ticket” may prove too long for little kids.
* A note to the reader, the castle may appear closer than it really is. You may find that your mid afternoon stroll turns into a walk filled with tears and ice cream bribes.  It’s recommended, by me, a fellow “let’s walk – it looks close” person, to just take the tram.

 

The Sanssouci Palace – Potsdam, Germany
Palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia 
 

The grounds of the Sanssouci Palace reminded me of the Palace of Versailles, seemingly going on forever.  Potsdam is just outside Berlin and home to many summer Palaces. The above picture does not do justice. The grounds are immaculate with multiple Palaces scattered throughout.
You can buy tickets for a guided tour upon arrival.  The area is crawling with tourists during the summer, but we found  the lines were manageable.  If find yourself in Berlin and need a break from the city touring, I can highly recommend taking a break in Potsdam.

 

 

Palace of Versailles – Paris, France

It’s only fair if I make a comparison to the Palace of Versailles, I also review it.    Home to Louise XIV The Palace of Versailles is fascinating.  For our kids it was also a great history lesson regarding the French Revolution.  The grounds are just as amazing as the inside. I found this castle to be so ornate in detail, unlike the inside of the Neuschwanstein castle.
Buying your ticket ahead is highly recommended. This is a definite must see while in Paris.

 Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg – Orschwiller, France

 

Overlooking the Alsace valley of France, this Chateau has a breathtaking view.   The few time we have visited, spring and summer season, we have had no problems with the lines. You can purchase your tickets upon arrival and go on a self guided tour.The castle has some impressive furniture inside its apartments.  Our kids were kept entertained with the drawbridges and cannons along the tour.

 

Rothenburg ob der Tauber – walled city in 
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
 This little city is, by far, the most darling medieval town we have visited. The town is completely surrounded by a wall. A walk around the city wall is a must. Guided walks through the town are offered to fill you in on the history.  I’d recommend the night tour with a medieval guide carrying a torch to light your way. You can visit the tourist center inside the wall to purchase your tickets. The town is also famous for the shop Wohlfahrt, another must see. 
Château de Chillon – Montreux, Switzerland
This Castle sits on Lake Leman, in the French speaking part of Switzerland. You might ask- what’s so cool about his castle? You can hire out the castle for birthday parties (weddings too). How cool is that?  Besides being able to party in the castle, you can also tour it.  You can purchase a guided tour and get an in depth history lesson.
Carcassonne – More than just a board game, 
a walled city in Carcassonne, France
Our boys asked for years to visit Carcassonne. The only knowledge they had of this city was from a beloved family game we play, Carcassonne. So, when we informed them we would take a road trip there, they were ecstatic.
The fortified city has it’s own drawbridge and 53 towers to watch out for the enemy (in the past, of course).  I could best describe the city as imagination-gone-wild for the kids.  No tickets are needed.  It’s free to explore the grounds.  You can walk through the walled city anytime but many of the restaurants and shops are closed  in the off season (winter months).
Civita di Bagnoregio – Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy
 
And in the spirit of walled cities I figured this city needed to be mentioned. The city itself, perched up on a hill, is a site to see.  No cars are allowed in the city,  you must park before crossing the bridge. There are a few spots of metered parking close to the bridge. From there you can walk across the bridge to the beautiful town of Civita di Bagnoregio.  No tickets are required to tour. The town is pretty secluded but it’s a great little town to explore. Not to mention, a breathtaking picture.