Honeymooning in Italy, Part 1: Florence

Way back in late May/June of 2018, Andrew and I went on our honeymoon to Italy. It is still the best vacation we've ever taken together, and we wish we could go back every year. I had so much fun planning this, because Italy is everything the two of us could ever want in a vacation destination. It has some of the best food in the world, a rich history, gorgeous artwork and architecture, beautiful scenery, and warm friendly people. I wanted to document our travels, mostly because I like being able to revisit happy memories, but also because a lot of planning went into this, and I hope at least a little bit of that can help other people traveling to Italy.

So without further ado...

On May 27, we flew from Newark to Rome. Our flights were a dirt-cheap $450 on Norwegian (score!). Flying to Rome was considerably cheaper than flying to Florence from NYC, even though we had no intention of spending time in Rome (I've been before, and it wasn't really my speed). Therefore, as soon as we landed in Fiumicino Airport, we hopped on a train to Florence. Would I do this again? Depends on if you value money or time. In the future, I probably wouldn't, but it's up to you! The train itself was fairly pleasant. Hooray for European infrastructure!

Our charming Airbnb was only a 10-minute walk from Santa Maria Novella train station. It was clean and well-appointed, but dear God was it hot and humid in there! Make sure your Airbnb has air conditioning! It must've slipped my mind to check in the Airbnb listing, and we quickly found that we were no match for the summer humidity. We kept our windows open as much as possible at night, but the windows in the building lacked screens, so I racked up quite a few mosquito bites over our two nights there. Lesson learned.

We were pretty ravenous as soon as we checked in, so we booked it to Trattoria dall'Oste for an early dinner. My inner glutton was doing cartwheels at the prospect of trying the famous Florentine steak for the first time. Also known as bistecca alla fiorentina, Florentine steak is a giant hunk of beef cut from the loin of a special kind of Tuscan cow called Chianina. The beef is then hung for a longer period of time than the average cut of beef before it's butchered. It looks like a porterhouse on steroids. Seemingly every restaurant in Florence has bistecca alla fiorentina on the menu. Given its great reviews and proximity to our Airbnb, I made a reservation at Trattoria dall'Oste through the Fork.

We opted for the three-course set meal for two, which was about 56. Our first course was a plate of cured meats and cheese, which was a welcome sight after a day of plane food. It looks a little messy because we dug in before I remembered to take a picture.

And here was the main event--a giant Florentine steak for two with roasted potatoes and a few sauces on the side.

Dessert for each of us was torta della nonna (a cake made of two layers of pastry crust with lemon cream inside). Also included in the price was a bottle of house wine to go with everything.

While well-priced and tasty, it wasn't the revelatory steak experience that we were expecting. We made the mistake of telling the waitress medium-rare when she asked us how we wanted our steak cooked. I realize now after reading more about bistecca alla fiorentina that it should be served rare, as Chianina beef is prone to becoming tough when cooked. This is indeed what happened. To get the inside of such an enormous slab of meat to medium rare, the outside was unfortunately more like medium well. Another lesson learned: Order the steak rare in Tuscany.

Everything else was excellent though. Andrew was especially impressed by the house wine and felt that if this was any indication of the quality of wine in Italy, we were going to have a great honeymoon.

We waddled out of the restaurant very much stuffed, but wait--it was only 7:30PM and the night was young.

"What do you want to do?" I asked Andrew.

"Well, what are the options?"

"We could walk around and take in the city. We could get gelato."

"Let's get gelato," he said immediately. Our stomachs heaved at the thought, reminding us that we had just eaten a three-course meal of pig, cow, potatoes, and cake and that a walk would be required first.

So we walked across the river Arno, down darkening streets, past Italians eating dinner at their normal hour (aka too late for us), until we stumbled upon a piazza with the best vibe, Piazza Santo Spirito.

It featured this sweet church.

We loved how simple and unadorned it was. The two little "knobs" on either side were especially endearing. We didn't know it at the time, but this is Basilica di Santo Spirito, was built in the 15th century and apparently features a crucifix carved by Michelangelo when he was only 17. Unfortunately, we did not go inside (we had no idea if it was still open), but we did sit beside the fountain in the middle of the piazza and soak in the atmosphere, no tourists in sight. Children played, couples flirted, dogs chased each other, and families gathered for dinner at the restaurants all around the piazza, all in the presence of this magnificent historical church. We felt very lucky to be in Italy.

We eventually tore ourselves away and walked further, arriving at the much-loved Gelateria la Carraia. 

Here's my cone with 1) white chocolate and pistachio and 2) ricotta and pear. Both were awesome. 

Here's Andrew's cup of 1) pistachio and 2) hazelnut. This was his first encounter with real Italian gelato, and it was love at first bite. 

The gelato was fantastic. I haven't eaten enough gelato in Florence to call it the best, but it was easy to see why other people do.

We sat on a bridge overlooking the Arno, eating our gelato. Florence is beautiful by day, but it feels especially magical at night with the bridges and buildings on both sides of the river all lit up. Afterwards, we meandered back across the river towards our Airbnb, still taking in the beautiful city and enjoying the cool night air.

We ended up outside the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio at one point, which I had gone inside of during my last trip to Florence. The giant piazza was full of tourists.

The Uffizi looks extra impressive at night.

Finally we ended up along the river again and got our first glimpse of the Ponte Vecchio.

We love to walk around new cities while on vacation. In all, we spent two hours just aimlessly walking around before we ended up back at our Airbnb.

The next day, we woke up and walked 20 minutes to the Duomo di Firenze, where I had booked us tickets to climb the Duomo. During my previous trip to Florence back in 2012, I had climbed the nearby Giotto's Campanile, which gave me great views of Brunelleschi's glorious dome as seen here.

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This time I wanted to climb to the top of the cupola. Note to travelers: If you want to climb the Duomo, you need to reserve tickets for a time slot ahead of time.

We had to wait in a short line, during which I tried and failed to take a picture of the outside of the Duomo. It's massive and striking. Definitely one of the most stunning cathedrals in the world.

We waited in a short line before they finally let us in through a side door and up a back staircase. We climbed and climbed up narrow staircases, feeling a little claustrophic. There are 463 stairs in all to get to the top of the cupola. We had a nice break partway up to admire Vasari's frescoes of the Last Judgment, which were completed in 1579.

At the top, we were treated to some nice panoramic views of Florence. On the right is the bell tower that I climbed in 2012.

On the way back down, we got an even closer view of the frescoes. We found this evil lizard-person particularly entertaining.

Funnily enough, I forgot to take a picture inside the actual cathedral that day, maybe because we were sweaty, tired, and hungry by the time we came back down, having skipped breakfast and chosen physical exertion instead. The interior is remarkably plain compared to the exterior. In case you're curious, here's a photo I took from 2012.

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After our climb, we walked around the exterior again (which takes a long time on its own because as I mentioned, the cathedral is huge!), admiring all the details. It's gorgeous.

For lunch, we grabbed a couple of panini from a tiny little store called Sandwichic. The panini were a little disappointing considering my extremely high expectations (I think I had hyped up the words "artichoke spread" a little too much in my head), but were an enjoyable enough lunch. Andrew was happier with his sandwich than I was.

By this point, the sun was high in the sky, and it was extremely hot outside. I had planned for us to go to the Galileo Museum, but we got there right as it closed (I hadn't realized it closes early on Tuesdays.) We were very sad and very sweaty.

My backup plan was to walk around the Bardini and Boboli Gardens, but I hadn't expected us to react to the heat so poorly (probably as a result of us starting the day off with a climb). The thought of staying outside was less than thrilling.

What do we do when we're tired and hot? Get gelato of course!

Oh Gelateria dei Neri! You entered our lives at just the right time! Widely regarded as one of the best gelaterias in Florence and conveniently located a few minutes from where we were standing, it called out to us like an oasis in the desert. We couldn't have been happier to find a table inside to enjoy our gelato. I got the mint and the mango cheesecake. Andrew kept it classic with stracciatella and fior di latte. I wouldn't normally go for mint, but given how hot it was, it was perfect. The mango cheesecake was, if possible, even better. It tasted more like cheesecake than cheesecake itself does. Andrew thought Gelateria La Carraia was the best gelato we had in Italy, but my vote would be for this place.

While enjoying our gelato, we decided to brave the long walk and cross the river to see the Pitti Palace, which neither of us had seen before. Like most things in Florence, it's rather big.

Home of the powerful Medici family, then later the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and the House of Savoy, it's a grand, sweeping royal palace inside with lavish interiors and loads of artwork. It's not Andrew's usual choice of activity, but we were both glad to be somewhere air conditioned. I'd say if you like palaces and/or Italian history, this is definitely worth the price of admission (16 euros).

On the way back to our Airbnb, we passed by many areas that were packed with tourists. No thanks.

Is it just me or is Florence more crowded than it was 6 years ago?

We decided to have another early dinner, this time at Trattoria il Contadino. For 27 euros, you can have two appetizers, two main dishes, two side dishes, and wine. I couldn't resist.

Andrew's first course was fettucine with pesto sauce. Andrew loves pesto. This was sadly a little bland, although the pasta was perfectly cooked.

My first course was gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese and nuts.

This was un-freaking-believable. Easily the best pasta dish I've ever had. The gnocchi just melted in our mouths, and the gorgonzola and nut sauce was so flavorful. Andrew was skeptical since he does not like gorgonzola, but once he had a taste, he couldn't stop eating it. I still think about this gnocchi and sigh longingly. 

Andrew's next course was roasted rabbit with a side dish of spinach with oil, garlic, and chili. 

It was alright. We have no qualms about eating rabbit (Andrew's eaten it many times at my parents' house), but this wasn't the most tender rabbit we've had. It was also a bit too salty. 

I got the pork shank with a side dish of roasted tomatoes. 

The pork shank was also a little on the drier and saltier side, but I think it was a little better than the rabbit. Neither of us were huge fans of our main courses, but the roasted tomatoes were a stand-out and definitely the second-best thing we had that night, after the gnocchi of course. 

Overall, it was a mixed bag. Is it the best meal we could have had in Florence? No. But for the gnocchi alone, I was really glad we ate here. 

None of the dessert options appealed to us more than the prospect of more gelato. So what did we do after we left?

Yup, we went back to Gelateria La Carraia. We got gelato three times in less than 24 hours.

I got the strawberry cheesecake and the chocolate mousse. I mainly wanted to compare it to the mango cheesecake I had at Gelateria dei Neri earlier that day. This one wasn't as good. The chocolate mousse was interesting. Somehow I wasn't expecting it to be an actual mousse, but that's what it tasted like. It was very sweet, and I had a difficult time finishing it, but hey, at least it didn't melt.

Andrew got the fior di latte (he was also trying to compare it to Gelateria dei Neri) and some kind of dark chocolate flavor. This was when Andrew decided Gelateria la Carraia was his favorite gelateria in Florence. He absolutely loved the fior di latte. I had a bite of the dark chocolate which was intense and very good. 

Since we are creatures of habit, besides going to the same gelateria as the night before, we also walked to the same piazza as the night before to enjoy our gelato. 

I don't know what it was about this piazza, but we wanted to live here. It just had such a peaceful vibe. 

We packed up our suitcases that night, expecting an early start to the morning. We wanted to get to the rental car company as soon as it opened to avoid the line. I had made a reservation online through Kayak, but we were still nervous about having to wait for a car. 

In the morning, we grabbed some chocolate and pistachio croissants from Bar Pasticceria Piccioli on our way to Europcar. I didn't take any pictures because we were in a hurry, but the croissants were great. Highly recommend. 

Once we got to Europcar, there was a small line, but within 30 minutes, an employee was parking our tiny little Fiat Panda on the street. Wheeeee!!!!! We were so excited. And also more than a little nervous. It was our first time driving in a foreign country. Before we left, we read up on driving in Italy and knew enough to avoid ZTLs, which are restricted traffic areas, that can land you with a hefty automatic ticket. Our biggest fear was that Google Maps would lead us right through a ZTL on our way out of the city. Andrew focused on navigating the busy Florence roads, while I kept my eyes peeled for the dreaded red circle, like so: 

Driving in Italy: 5 Easy Ways to Get Italian ZTL Fines and How to ...

Mostly due to Andrew's expert driving, within half an hour, we were out of Florence, on our way to the Tuscan countryside! 

And that's it for Florence! Stay tuned for the next part of our trip. 

Part 2, here.

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