You can probably guess I’ve been dreaming about traveling to Europe since I was a little girl. Pretty sure it’s a major bucket list item for most people! This trip was supposed to be our original honeymoon, but timing and expenses didn’t allow us to book it so soon after our wedding. So, after a little more time and (a lot) more money saved we decided to spend the 2015 Christmas and New Year’s holidays in Italy and France. Hooray!!
*Full disclosure* We did stop and think… Do we really want to spend our holidays away from the sun and 70F degree weather?? And trade that for 40F degree weather with a chance of rain/snow?! The answer was yes, absolutely. We always vacation somewhere warm, so we were trying something different for a change. And as a bonus I got to shop for a new Winter coat! Double win.
Let me tell you, once the destinations are decided the hard work starts. Which cities do we want to visit? Where do we want to stay – – comforts of a hotel or value of an Airbnb? How long should we stay there for? Is that enough time?! Over two weeks in Europe you think would be enough time, right? We agonized over the itinerary for close to two months before finally deciding on:
- Rome, Italy
- Cortona, Italy
- Florence, Italy
- Paris, France
Christmas would be spent in the Tuscan region and New Year’s in Paris. Are you kidding me?! The dream trip was just getting better!
We decided on Rome for the obvious reason – – history. There are so many historical sites relatively close to each other, and watching “Roman Holiday” as a young girl with my Grandma ruined me. I had to sit on the Spanish Steps and eat a gelato! There’s a romanticism about the city and I couldn’t imagine traveling to Italy and not visiting Rome. Oh yeah, and Italian food. REAL Italian food. Enough said. Tuscany was also a place I saw in my dreams. Just the sound of it. TUSCANY. So full of promise for beautiful and serene landscapes, amazing wine, and new discoveries. I sound like a guide book for suckers, but it was idyllic in my head and I had to go see it for myself.
And to travel all this way and not see Paris!? No brainer.
Since this was our “big trip” we decided not to completely skimp on all of the lodgings and chose mostly boutique hotels and one Airbnb. Strategically, we chose the Airbnb in Florence as it was our last stop in Italy before flying to Paris. And at that point with 13 days of traveling under our belt, we’d probably need to wash some clothes. We used a few different sites to help us find bookings, e.g. Booking.com, Hotels.com, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, but in the end it was all about location. Wherever was closest to the center of where we wanted to visit, we booked. We also were at the advantage of not traveling during peak season, so rates were a bit lower than in the Spring/Summer.
After 14 or so hours of travel, we arrived in Rome around 10:00pm Italy time. It was a doozy of a day. I don’t typically have problems flying, but the long haul from San Diego to London was rough for me (we had a short layover at Heathrow before our connecting flight to Rome). Note to self – – don’t wear all of your warm, bulky clothes on a long distance flight. We successfully packed one carry-on luggage each for 17 nights in Europe (seriously!). Which meant I had to wear my biggest, bulkiest clothes and shoes to save space in the bags. Molto male. I think I overheated stuck in the middle seat of a Boeing 777.
Luckily, we’d booked a car from our hotel to pick us up at the airport and I was so happy to see that nice, elderly gentleman with our name on his clipboard waiting to pick us up. He spoke almost no English, but we managed. And the trip of broken languages began…
Because there are SO many sites to see in Rome, and being the overly eager (sometimes neurotic) planner that I am, I knew we needed to buy some admission tickets in advance. Most of the coolest places don’t need admissions tickets like The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, the Trevi fountain, etc. Some do, like the Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Honestly, every street you walk down is cool. Every church you see in a piazza or tucked away on a side street is cool. Every little neighborhood, restaurant, shop, building door, plate of food is surprising and incredible. It’s just awe-inspiring the size, architecture, and history of everything around you.
Of course, two of our must-sees were Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. It was about a 30 minute walk from our hotel to Vatican City. Surprisingly, or not surprisingly, it didn’t feel that long since we had so much to look at. I completely understand how people truly fall in love with discovering new places. And though I adore San Diego, walking around this city will never be the same.
Visiting the basilica was free, but we purchased our tickets for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel ahead of time. It’s pretty easy to do – – just Google “Sistine Chapel advance tickets” and you’ll have your choice of sites to compare prices. It did save us a little as we got into the ticket admission office a bit quicker, but I can imagine it’s more significant during peak season.
Saint Peter’s was breathtaking. No other words. The immensity of the structure and all of the detail within the church was just overwhelming. One of our favorite places to see and experience.
The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel were also remarkable. I took three Art History classes while in college, but everything I thought I knew went out the window. I became another visitor just in awe of the talent and details.
Photos were not allowed within the Sistine Chapel, but I can tell you that seeing The Creation by Michelangelo in person was both incredible and frustrating. After walking through the entire Vatican Museum, the tour essentially ends in a cattle corral into the Sistine Chapel. It was incredibly special to be in that room, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other people who are looking every which way except where they’re walking dampened the experience a bit. Even though it was off-season, the room was packed. Ideally, you take a seat on one of the benches around the perimeter of the chapel and take it all in, but every spot was occupied with hundreds still standing. Not sure I should have expected anything less, but at least I can check it off the bucket list!
Lastly, the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. Purchasing our tickets in advance for these definitely saved us some time. We were able to use a different line than folks just purchasing their tickets at the site. Another thing we didn’t anticipate was how well equipped these large European cities are for tourists. I mean, there is a guided tour for everything in Rome. The Colosseum obviously being a main attraction. We were dodging tour groups left and right while maneuvering the structure.
The Forum and Palatine Hill are adjacent to the Colosseum. We lucked out and had beautiful weather to walk these old houses, temples, columns, basilicas, etc. It was a really nice day spent bundled up, walking arm-in-arm with my guy.
Admittedly we probably missed A LOT of the historical significance of the things we saw in Rome, but to be honest….we were perfectly content just seeing some cool things, enjoying each other’s company, and eating really good food.
Stay tuned for the next leg of the trip – – Cortona and Florence in Tuscany!