Roamin’ Around Tuscany

Italy has a lot of amazing places to visit, but Tuscany is in a league of its own. Here is a road map of some must see cities and towns to visit while you explore this gorgeous region.

When most people think of Italy, they tend to think of pizza, pasta, vino, and of course the many landmarks from the canals of Venice to the colosseum in Rome. For me, there is no better place than the rolling views and sunsets of Tuscany. I may be biased since I was born in Pisa, but every time I return, I find more hidden gems all throughout this region.

Visiting the larger cities allows you to capture the rich history of Tuscany, but the beauty of Tuscany lies in its small towns on your way from one city to the next. I’ve put together a little road map to get you started on your trip throughout Tuscany.

Map of Tuscany
(All time allotments are driving times from Vicopisano)

Where to start? Vicopisano!

A short 30 minute drive east of Pisa you will find the adorable little medieval town of Vicopisano. I would recommend that you stay here while spending a few days (or weeks even) exploring Tuscany. It is a quiet town with lots to do from hiking, wine and olive oil tasting, cooking classes, and tons of markets on the weekends. You can find the most authentic, chic, and charismatic rooms or even houses to stay in that makes it feel like you are returning home after a day of exploring. Stay in a tower house at Casa Colomba or the little 1 bedroom studio at Nido Bianco – you can’t go wrong! During your stay in Vico, learn about the history of its once many towers and the ancient books that still remain in the tower house or take a stroll in the Tuscan countryside as you pass cyprus trees and poppy flowers.

View of Vicopisano
View of Vicopisano from winery and olive oil makers

Iconic Pisa

(25 min drive)

Pisa is a quaint city with the river Arno flowing through it dividing the city into east and west. On the west side lies Miracle Square or Piazza dei Miracoli. Imagine walking under a thick century old stone wall where on the other side you encounter an immense pearly white marble tower (that just so happens to lean), with lush green grass and a massive marble cathedral – it will appear as if you have stepped into a painting. The square, especially the tower, never ceases to amaze me. The grandeur of the white marble is something that takes you by surprise. You cannot leave Pisa without attempting to find the perfect place in this grand square to take your perfect picture with the leaning tower to make everyone back home jealous. Get creative with it!

Leaning Tower of Pisa
What kind of iconic picture can you take?

If you want to wander the city to get a different vibe, walk along the Arno and see where the locals hang out. If you’re lucky enough to plan around it, visit Pisa in June during the Luminara di San Ranieri (June 16-18) to see a century old tradition where every bridge and building along the river is lit up for 2 days by candlelight. It is an evening that you will not forget!

Luminara di San Ranieri
Luminara di San Ranieri along the Arno

Head to the beach – Marina di Pisa

(35 min)

You can’t go wrong with the food in Italy, but for some of the best seafood, head to Marina di Pisa. This is a must for some delectably fresh seafood caught that day. Remember Italy is all about the food, so before you dive into the platters of calamari and anchovies…yes anchovies, head to Sunset Cafe to watch the sunset over the horizon while you enjoy an aperitif and nibbles. Sit on bamboo mats on the sand and watch the golds, pinks, and oranges paint the sky that lead you into the evening.

Bike around Pisa’s old medieval rival, Lucca

(40 min)

Meet Pisa’s medieval rival – Lucca. The unshakable solid wall that once used to protect the city against invaders still stands and provides visitors an above view of the city if one chooses to walk or bike around it – which I highly recommend. Besides the beauty of the trees that line the path and listening to Italians carry on conversations as you pass, the beauty also lies with the city itself. From the red roofed houses to cathedral towers to gardens sprinkled throughout the city, you get a glimpse of how life may have been centuries ago. Once you have biked around the walled city, you have earned yourself a plate of pasta. Venture to the city center square, Piazza dell’Anfiteartro. You will enter through one of four gateways that leads you into the square, actually elliptical in shape, which is surrounded by a ring of buildings that once used to be an old Roman Amphitheatre – an enchanting backdrop while eating a lovely Italian meal in the open piazza.

Biking along the wall in Lucca
Biking along the wall in Lucca

Visit some of the most famous landmarks and paintings in Firenze

(1 hour)

No trip to Tuscany would be complete without a visit to the dynamic city of Florence; a major city during the Medici family years. You can take a walking tour of the city that gives you insight to buildings and secret passageways that the family once used to travel unbeknownst to the people and artisans along the Ponte Vecchio. While on Ponte Vecchio stroll by the stalls to gaze at the ornate gold jewelry and lavish gems that line the bridge. Wander and get lost in The Uffizi museum to witness the masterful paintings of da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and so many more. The building itself, once a palace, is its own art piece from floor to ceiling. One important statue that is not located inside the Uffizi is the statue of David – perhaps the most famous statue in the world. You can first marvel at this statue just outside of the Uffizi in the piazza; just be aware this not the original David. The real statue is safe in another museum, Galleria dell’Accademia, protected from the elements.

Piazzale Michelangelo
View from Piazzale Michelangelo

Perhaps one of the best views of this city, the center of the Renaissance age, is from the Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can see the Duomo and all the red terracotta roofs that surround it. Best to take this in at sunset, as Italy has some of the most beautiful and divine sunsets I have ever seen.

Walk back in time in Siena

(1 hour and 40 min)

One of my favorite spots to visit is Siena. There is something unique and different about it compared to its neighbor, Florence. No matter which road you take, all roads lead to the Piazza del Campo. This is the famous square where The Palio occurs every year on July 2nd and August 16th. Most of the year you will find the Piazza to be a quiet open space to grab a cappuccino or a pizza and people watch. On the days of the Palio, it is transformed into a medieval race track with sand, as horses race around the square to determine which neighborhood wins the victory bragging rights for the rest of the year. Each neighborhood is represented by a mascot and a distinctive flag, so as you wander the streets of Siena you will see all sorts of mascot memorabilia for sale. What better way to become a part of the festivities than finding the mascot that speaks to you and join in on the fun!

Castellina Chianti

(1 hour and 20 min)

Besides Vicopisano, Castellina is probably the smallest town on this list, but well worth the visit. It’s a sleepy town filled with store fronts selling genuine leather purses and belts, authentic wood cutting boards, and much more. There are unsuspecting tunnels that you can stroll through to go from one end of the town to the other, a museum in a castle, and a church with an early 15th century fresco of Madonna with Child. It’s so small that you can easily combine this visit with Siena while you treat yourself to yet another deliciously creamy gelato.

Visit Roman Ruins in Volterra

(1 hour)

This is my most recent find and one that I would like to explore further. Volterra sits upon a mountaintop and overlooks the wide expanse of the countryside below. It is a city that dates back to 7th century BC and still has evidence of Roman influence from the Roman Theatre ruins and Parco Archeologico. The Roman Theatre is a spectacle in itself as you can still see several rows of seating that lie against the hill for people to watch and listen to music or theatre, while the park still has water basins that look like tubs strewn along various parts of the green lawn. Be sure to bring quality footwear, as there are many steep hills you may be venturing over.

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Walking into Volterra

Stroll through the city of towers – San Gimignano

(1 hour and 10 min)

All medieval cities once had a variety of towers to keep the city safe, but due to war or simply urban renewal, many towers have been destroyed over time. Luckily, San Gimignano has been able to safeguard 14 of their towers; hence, its nickname of the City of Towers. Despite the fact that the town is a busy tourist attraction, you can still witness many locals living their day to day life. You will see their laundry hanging to dry or old men sitting on a doorstep together enjoying an espresso and probably talking about the most recent soccer match. I do recommend arriving in town as early as possible though, because once the afternoon arrives, so do all the tour buses. Luckily there are some hidden streets not ventured by many, so you can still get away from the crowds if you’re willing to get lost in adventure a bit. Besides eating at the Gelateria Dondoli which has the claim to fame for having the “Best Gelato in the World” in Piazza della Cisterna, a must see spot is Punto Panoramaico to gaze out over a classic Tuscan view and to watch the sun slowly rise or set over the towers.

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Looking out upon the Tuscan countryside from Punto Panoramaico
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Laundry in San Gimignano

There is so much to discover in Tuscany that one trip won’t ever be enough. Whether you have a home base, like in Vicopisano, or if you take up a new apartment every few days, the memories and beauty of Tuscany will never fade; if anything, they will only have you coming back for more.

Buon Viaggio!

Road Trip Around Ireland

My first trip without friends and family was with an organized group called Contiki, to the enchanted island of Ireland. This couldn’t have been a better first trip to do on my own. I loved it so much that I want to go back and explore more of the western side of the island. Besides the beauty of the green countryside and the jagged shorelines, the Irish people are what makes the adventure to this little island in the northern Atlantic so memorable. The Irish are the wittiest, funniest, and most genuine people I’ve ever met. If you end up sitting next to someone at a pub, don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with them. Even better yet, if you find a pub that has live music, don’t be afraid to get up and dance the night away!

Why Contiki?

Contiki is a great organization for travelers, ages 18-35. Their trips incorporate culture, adventure, downtime, and plenty of wiggle room for those who want to venture out on their own. The best part of using an organization such as Contiki is that the planning of the trip is entirely done for you, so no need to think of where to go, how to get there, what type of activities to do, etc. Just buy your plane ticket and show up! Their trips show you the best of what the country has to offer, at a relatively decent price for young travelers. Along the way you meet like minded people from all over the world, with whom you form a bond with over the span of your trip and sometimes even beyond. So if you are nervous about traveling overseas either by yourself or with friends, then check out what Contiki has to offer because once you do it once, you’ll want to go back for seconds!

Vibrant Dublin

Arriving in Dublin was definitely a whirlwind. Going from the United States to Europe, you always end up losing a day of sleep since you get to your destination so early, but don’t let this stop you from exploring. Despite how tired I was, I couldn’t contain my excitement about finally being there; so I pushed through as long as I could without any rest…which was probably way too long, but…YOLO right?!

Dublin is vibrant with a mix of old and new architecture and so much history. My first stop was Temple Bar. It is actually more amazing than pictures can show. The bright red paint makes it stand out from the rest of the store fronts, but it’s the flower plants and vegetation that gives it its true charm. I knew this would be a spot I’d be coming back to, particularly to try my first real Irish Guinness. While walking along the cobblestone streets, I stumbled upon Temple Bar Food Market that sold artisan breads, cheeses, olives, and so much more local and seasonal food items. It was adorable and had so much for the senses to take in. The presentation of the cheeses and olives, and the pastries were out of this world. I could have gone home with so much charcuterie and cheese, but chose some finger foods instead, as I continued to wander the brick-layed buildings and streets.

After restoring yourself with some local food, I recommend taking a stroll across Dublin’s first pedestrian bridge, Ha’penny Bridge; people watching in St. Stephen’s Green and searching for four-leaf clovers; walking the grounds of Trinity College and, if you’re lucky enough, visiting The Book of Kells Exhibition; and, finally, just taking in the entertainment and window shopping throughout Grafton Street.

Ha’penny Bridge
Ha’penny Bridge
Grafton Street Entertainment
Girl and her balloon being entertained

In the evening, Dublin is a completely different city. It comes alive with its music streaming out of every pub and jolly people enjoying pints (or half pints) of Guinness everywhere. Stroll down Dame Street to check out the local pubs before returning to Temple bar. The spirit of the Irish people fills the air and is so contagious that you will feel the energy on every street and in every person you pass. The best advice I can give for Dublin’s nightlife is to become a part of it; dance all night long, sing at the top of your lungs, and let loose like you’ve never let go before.

Must See Cities and Activities

Kilkenny was one of my favorite little spots on the trip. It is not a large town, but has a massive castle in the middle of town which now belongs to the people of Kilkenny. They are able to use the grounds as if it is their own, so you will see soccer games, birthday parties, and picnics all over the green lush rolling grounds. To see this small medieval town in its entirety, take a bike tour to learn about its history, ride along the river, and throughout the castle grounds.

Kilkenny Castle
Kilkenny Castle
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Grounds of Kilkenny Castle

Pucker up and head to Blarney! Blarney is known for a chunk of limestone rock that was embedded into the castle walls. Legend has it that whomever kisses the stone will acquire the gift of gab. Whether the gift of gab is bestowed upon you or not, walking the lush green grounds of the castle and seeing the vivid purples and reds of the flower blossoms makes the small trek up the castle well worth it.

No trip to Ireland is complete without a visit to the Cliffs of Moher. To really capture the magic of the cliffs, spend a few hours hiking the trails following the edge of the cliffs. If you’re lucky enough, the cliffs will be in clear view, but if they are hidden behind the thickness of fog, don’t fret. Patience is a virtue and it will reward you as eventually the thick white fog lifts and the cliffs will appear in front of you in all of their majestic beauty.

Just call me Galway girl. To me, Galway is by far the prettiest area and most authentic part of Ireland. Spend multiple days here if you choose to plan your own trip. You won’t regret it. Galway is a great homebase allowing you to explore the western side of Ireland. Do not forget to explore the adorable streets of Galway filled with cobblestones and multi-colored building facades. This is where you will hear the most “trad” Irish music no matter which street you are on….and if you request a street musician to play “Galway Girl”, don’t be surprised if they give you a confused look…yes I was that person!

A great day trip from Galway is to take a ferry over to Aran Islands to experience how life on these tiny islands is. Visit the largest of the islands called Inis Mór (Inishmore). The ferry ride isn’t always for the faint of heart as the waves over to the islands can make the ride quite choppy. So if you need your dramamine make sure to take it prior to boarding. The best way to see what the island has to offer, along with its rich archaeological history, is by bike. Close to the ferry drop off, one can rent a bike and grab some groceries to have a picnic at some point along the journey through and around the island. At the opposite end of Inishmore is the historic site of Dun Aonghasa. It is a three terraced walled fort that sits upon the 300 ft high cliffs. Archaeologists have done multiple excavations and discovered items from 1500 BC. The vistas from the top of the cliffs, as well as looking down the cliffs to the clear blue-green waters, are breathtakingly spectacular, albeit slightly unnerving. Along the path to these ancient ruins you will find smaller stone structures, horses and sheep, and fields upon fields neatly divided by hand-built stone walls that distinguish property lines.

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The thrill of sitting on the edge of the cliff

Time to cross the border into Northern Ireland to visit the UNESCO site of Giant’s Causeway. The red hexagonal rock columns jutting out from the ground is one that can’t be missed. As you walk along the marked path you will see all forms of rock structures that you can climb. At times these formations act as a staircase to the next rock. I highly recommend obtaining an audio device before starting your journey through this remarkable place. The audio will give you a glimpse into key rock formations that tell the tale of a giant. Fionn the giant is said to have built the causeway as a way to reach and challenge a giant in Scotland. So while you’re taking in the majesty of the causeway, pay close attention to the fable and keep an eye out for one of Fionn’s shoes.

The last stop on this whirlwind tour is Belfast and Londonderry. Besides being the home of “Game of Thrones”, Belfast has some rich history to include political and religious turmoil. Let us not forget that it is also the birthplace of the Titanic. The story of the Troubles can be experienced via a walking tour through the city to see murals and various architecture that represent people’s emotions and their stories. The walking tour will not only provide a visual of the stories of people affected between 1971-1998, but the story of the awful attack of Bloody Friday and how far the city has come since the Peace Process agreed by the two parties in 1998. The detailed stories will bring you back in time and allow you to experience the somber history.

Londonderry Murals
Londonderry Murals

But the value of the experience is recognizing that despite our differences, we as a human race are capable of overcoming such turmoil and unrest.

This tiny island made up of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has so much to offer and is rich in history. The Irish people are some of the best storytellers and have some of the best fun using all their musical talents. A trip to Ireland will provide a wide range of activities for all types of people. You will fall in love with this little piece of land and it will leave you a lasting memory. And if you are like me, you will leave wanting you to see more of what this green luscious land has to offer.

Sláinte!

What Does Traveling Mean to You? Here’s What it Means to Me!

Traveling means something different for everyone, but we all have a common theme. Traveling broadens our minds and shapes our idea of life. Have you ever sat down to think, what traveling means to you? Here’s what wandering to far off places means to me.

Wandering to far off distant places has different meanings for everyone. For me, traveling is a way to be spontaneous, learn, and get out out of my comfort zone. I think if we love traveling it’s because we all seek some sense of adventure no matter how big or small. I have been lucky enough to travel since I was a little girl. I had parents who instilled in me qualities all independent travelers need – open mindedness for others and their culture, as well as confidence. I don’t think if I had these qualities I would be where I am today. Neither for my passion for travel, nor my daily life.
Snorkeling in Phi Phi Islands
Snorkeling in Phi Phi Islands
People often ask which place I have visited is my favorite. I honestly can’t answer that. Every country is so unique and I will always have special memories linked to them: the “firsts” of something, throwing catch in front of Buckingham Palace, stepping into elephant tracks while drinking tea on safari, snorkeling in crystal clear water to find Nemo’s, waking up before dawn to watch the clouds dissipate to unveil Machu Picchu, or even a first solo trip biking through France. The list goes on and that is why I can’t have only one favorite.
These experiences shaped me into who I am today and have fueled my desire to seek adventure and have more of those special moments. For this reason, I am inspired to travel more each year and sometimes to places not as well-known. It is also important for me to share my adventures with friends, family, and any other traveler I may be able to inspire. Traveling has many ups and downs, but in the end it’s only the ups we remember. Exploring unknown areas, either with a group or by yourself can seem daunting for many, but I’m here to tell you that you CAN do it. You will survive and you will only become more confident from each trip you take.
I hope you come along this journey with me, because I’m far from hanging up my carry-on just yet!
Solo Biking through Alsace, France
Solo Biking through Alsace, France