Updated: Feb 21, 2020
My top 10 list of the things that made me say Brava in Venice, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, & Rome.
Italy is a simply magical land. You can feel the ancient breath of the country and the people's deep knowledge and obsession with Bella Figura, simply put living the best possible version of your life. This phrase, which I was introduced to in Kamin Mohammadi's book by the same title, which technically means beautiful figure, is the idea of making everything as beautiful as possible. This is not strictly speaking about personal beauty or vanity. It is more an attitude about how you experience your life. If you are going to eat your lunch you could eat it at your desk or on the couch...or you could sit with a beautiful place setting, have fresh flowers on the table, and some soft music playing In the background while you enjoy your lunch. This idea is very similar to the subject of my first book How to Live a Romantic Life, and it is something I strive to do everyday.
The Italians have perfected this mentality and it is apparent in every experience I had in the ethereal and delicious land of Italy. I hope you enjoy my top 10 experiences and they help you plan your own adventure to the land of produce and pasta.
1) Olive Oil Tasting - Caniparola MS, Italy (close to Cinque Terre)
Yes it seems odd to start off with olive oil tasting when this region of Italy is home to some of the most wonderful wines in the world...but stick with me. Frantoio Moro is a family run business that presses some of the very best olive oil I have ever had. You enter into the cozy store front were a old wooden booth and table have been set with a feast, Bella Figura indeed. They have family made pesto, local whole garlic that has been marinated in local herbs and their own delectable olive oil pressed from the bounty of trees you can see from the window. Tomatoes packed in olive oil, bread made from their family mill, cheeses, an olive oil cake made by the family’s Mamma, and yes wine from a vineyard down the street. It would be so over the top millennial #lifegoals if it weren't all so genuine. They walked us around the picturesque groves, should us the old stone mill that is used to make the flour for pasta, bread, and pizza (all different kinds of course no all-purpose here), and then detail the entire processes of obtaining that manner from heaven Olive Oil. We were there for hours, I didn't want to leave. It was the most fully Italian experience I have ever had. We left with bags full of there plenty. Jars of pesto, stuffed peppers, garlic, bottles of oil, the recipe for the olive oil cake (which I am still playing with due to our active dry yeast and heavy flour—will post when I have the kinks worked out) and packages of flour we had seen them mill that d—which will later cause my husband and I to get stopped at customs because it does indeed look like a bag of cocaine ;) It was my favorite part of the trip. I can't wait to return. Well worth the trip in from the coast if you are in the region. Oh and the entire experience is a mere 35 euro a person.
2) Markets in Florence -- San Lorenzo Market pictured below
Nothing will make you feel more like a citizen of Italy then shopping in the local market. It is a colorful experience that makes your local grocery super store seem drastically underwhelming in comparison. Here local fruits, vegetables, nuts, oils, cheeses, bread, meats, and well everything delicious from the Italian culture has coalesced into a shopping experience that you would won't soon forget. You can talk to the shop keepers about how best to prepare your loot and taste everything before buying. It makes the tomatoes you buy in a plastic container in the American market seem like a different category. Go, eat, and enjoy.
3) Seafood in Venice, Italy
It stands to reason that an Island city with canals as their streets would know a thing or two about seafood. This New Orleans girl has quite high standards of dishes. The Venetian classic called Arrabbiata (which means angry --referring to the spicy red tomato sauce that brings the dish together) can be made with clams, scallops, lobster, shrimp, and really whatever they have caught that day. It is incredible. Charles and I ate it literally everyday and I couldn't get enough. Sitting outside with a warm breeze and a backdrop of one of the most photographed cities in the world is well...Bella. Our favorite place was Casa Bonita.
4) The Wine...all of the wine
It is no big surprise that my love for wine is as strong as Dwayne Johnson is muscular. So I would have been an easy sell...but my beer loving, whiskey drinking husband is quite another story. The entire time we were in Italy my husband drank Chianti Classico with vigor. The wine was so incredible and affordable I may have been in danger of having more wine than water...ok I definitely did. The flavors are almost as delicious as the scenery but the combination is nothing short of perfection. Italians however how very specific rules about their wine. Just like milk should not be consumed after 11am, an afternoon cappuccino is strictly forbidden as well as a tell time sign that your are not from there. They always serve wine with food because that combination of flavors is a perfect marriage that they celebrate with gusto. Cheese, bread, and olive oil are the usual aperitivo, the ceremonial afternoon wine and nibble observed by the entire country...basically their version of the British afternoon tea. The vineyard we visited was very close to the Olive Oil and mill we had visited earlier that day...and truthfully we should have done them on separate days because the beautiful spread of food that was served with our wine was barely touched even though it was wonderful. L’Vnae was a beautiful vineyard and tasting room that housed a distillery and wine museum. We can taste varities of Lemon Chino (Lemon Cello is from the south part of Italy, Chino from the north). They had wonderful varities made right there such as rose chino. Be careful it is as delicious as it is dangerous as it is delicious. The wine museum was fascinating. It had historical photographic, browning at the tips with wisdom, of the original family that had started making wine on that land almost a century ago. Charles and I then bought a case of wine and shipped it back to the US. It total it was around $120...for the quality of wine I would have paid twice that and what a story! Of course if you go further into the Chianti region there are very famous wineries. However this small family owned and operated vineyard was...perfecto.
5) Lucca - The Town, the music, the history
Lucca is an ancient walled city in Tuscany. I have a special connection to the city as it was the home of one of my great heroines, Matilda of Tuscany. I carry the symbol of Matilda as a tattoo on my inner left wrist...and now my amazing niece holds the same name and sports the same notorious copper hair. Although they live a millennia apart these two are connected in more ways than name and hair color. Walking this ancient city, which supposedly held the Shroud of Turin for many years, is part history lesson and party modern Italy. The bricks that encapsulate the town are heavy with the stories of this medieval hamlet. This town is now host to an annual music festival that brings in some of the most notable names in music. Just as a taster this years’ line up includes Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, Cat Stevens, and Lenard Skynard. The festival takes place in July...which is not my favorite time to visit Italy as the tourist are too much to really enjoy the country at this point. However this New Orleans Jazzfest type is a Hallmark of the city and one hell of a show.
6) Under the Tuscan Sun
Italians love to sun bathe. Escaping to the beach for the summer is a time honored tradition. The cities are built with ample outdoor space to enjoy the sun all year round. Whether in an outdoor cafe or on your own private balcony. One of my favorite acitivies in Italy was simply being outside in it’s outdoor playground. The cities are built to be walked. The old cobbled streets may be a death trap for your Italian leather heels but strap on a pair of flats and take to the streets. On a trip to Rome, many years ago on a break from University in Madrid, my two girlfriends and I missed our flight from Madrid to Rome. We booked ourselves on the next flight and got into the city around 1am. We decided to not to let the night go to waste and spent the wee hours of the morning roaming around Rome. It is always a welcome surprise when you turn a corner and are slapped in face with an ancient structure alive with light and memories just around the corner. To this day I am grateful we missed this flight and spent the early morning exploring the cities with no tourist. Seeing all of the sites that have been immortalized in stories a million times over. So put on your walking shoes and explore!
7) Dogs are welcome — and loved
If you have a furry family member this is the country for you, well really all of Europe. Having my little Belle pup with me made me instantly feel like one of the locals. Italians LOVE dogs. In Venice she literally had shop keepers giving her treats everyday. They are welcome in all restaurants and markets. You feel instantly like one of the locals by have this tiny ambassador at your feet. Belle had an amazing time visiting to sites, getting a lot of fresh treats from the market and shop keepers, riding the train, and going into the most glamorous shops for mom to buy fine Italian goods. Wineries love dogs, the olive oil factory loved dogs, the restaurants loved dogs. Belle loved chasing the local pigeons and getting her own taste of Italy. If you are thinking of bringing your furry family member with you to Europe please read my full article How To Bring Your Furry Family Member to Europe or listen to my Podcast. I give you all the details on how to do it without hassle.
8) Let Them Eat — Everything
I know this should go without saying but Italian food is simple delectable. As you all may know from my article on Outdoor Vegetarianism I have a bad reaction to most American meat. For a girl that grew up in Germany eating sausages on an almost daily basis that was an intense lifestyle change. However in Europe I have absolutely no problems indulging in more carnivorous fares. My body loves it. I don’t get any stomach aches or pains like I do with almost all US meat. Makes you wonder... however meat is not the only thing on my menu by a long shot. Pizzas with crust so light and thin you will have a new definition of heaven. Ingredients so fresh that you may be able to spot where they were grown on a walk around the town. The Italians try and refrain from importing any produce. They think the vegetables get “jet lagged”. This is why you won’t find an avocado anywhere but you can spot at least 8 kinds of tomatoes and so many varieties of mushrooms you will wonder if anyone could name them all. Their connection to food is rooted in their culture more than the art that fills the Uffizi’s halls. My typical Italian day went something like this: Wake up — espresso — walk around —eat lunch — walk around — gelato stop —walk around —wine stop — walk home to change for dinner — wine and a dinner that last at least 2 hours — home — more wine —sleep. It doesn’t suck. Follow that itinerary and you will be sure to enjoy all that Italy has to offer, which is plentiful.
9) The sights and sounds of Italy
I know this might be a betrayal of my German heratage but the Italians sure knew how to create a show stopping piece of art and architecture that stands the test of time. Look what happens when the government properly funds the arts. Yes the crowds at some of the attractions can be a little too much to handle during the summer months, it doesn’t stop you from basking in awe of their majesty. For the Tower of Pisa try to avoid midday. There is very little shad and it can get uncomfortably hot. I prefer the Trevi Fountain very late a night...like midnight. I discovered this on that fateful trip to Rome mentioned earlier in this post where we missed our flight from Madrid and didn’t arrive until 1am. The city was silent and then we turned a corner and were literally slapped in the face with this regal masterpiece. The Colosseum is pretty much going to be crowded all the time. This one I do enjoy during the day but it is lite at night and quite impressive in the inky black backdrop. Charles and I found an incredible pizza place a few blocks away tucked in a corner called Li Rioni. Go enjoy a pizza and then take a walk to the Colosseum...sounds like a great night to me! Opera was invented in Florence and they have a special love for the music. If you have the opportunity attend an Opera. Yes it is not everyone’s vintage, but even Charles has attended a few with me and gotten something out of it. The Uffizi is an absolute must for me. In my opinion better than the Louvre. Enjoying the beautiful architecture as well as the endless hall of ancient busts...all with stories that are both shocking and amusing. It is literally walk through the history of Italy. I would recommend buying your tickets before hand and then picking them up. The line for that is around the corner from the main entire and much less crowded. These are a great way to pass the time between meals which is the real art of Italy.
10) Italy you can bring home — aka fashion from Italy’s top designers
The names of Italy’s most celebrated designers roll with the reverence of a deity off Italian lips. Gucci, Dolce & Gabana, Versace, Bottega Venta, Valentino, and many many more. Italy celebrates beauty in many ways including fashion. Venturing into these flagship stores in their home country is an experience to remember. As I walked into Gucci and saw this gold straw hat on a velvet cushion with the iconic Gucci bee adoring it’s lush black ribbon I knew it had to be mine. The experience is enthralling. You really feel like you are buying a piece of Italian art. Make sure to keep your receipts and customs paperwork on your return flight to the US. You get a good amount back in VAT (Value Added Tax). Even if you just walk around the stores it is art you can touch and feel, and if you are lucky wear.
There you have it my top 10 tour guide tips on how to enjoy Italy. Although there really is no wrong way to experience the country I hope this helped you find some new adventures to add to your bucket list. Remember you can bring the Bella Figura back with you into your everyday life. It’s just part of the secret sauce that has been flavoring the culture of Italy for years. Go, taste, touch, smell, and bring home the feeling to enjoy everyday.