My daughter had never been to Europe (and I had only been once before), so I promised to take her to celebrate her 21st birthday, under the condition that she plan the entire trip. She had to figure out where she wanted to go, how many days, where we would stay, and how we would get around. She got to work on it and after realizing she had too many countries, narrowed it down to a smaller amount (but still a lot, in my opinion). Her plan was the following: fly Los Angeles to Munich, take a train to Nuremberg for the day, take a late afternoon bus to Prague, a train to Budapest, a plane to Milan for a few hours, a train to Venice, a train to Florence, and then a train to Rome. We would then fly home to Los Angeles with an overnight in London. Whew…sounded exhausting, but I was game. I worked on getting the airfares, and she went to work on finding Airbnbs. I was really surprised how reasonably priced the Airbnbs were. I was able to book Los Angeles to Munich direct on Lufthansa using 30,000 United Airline miles each. I was also able to book Rome to Los Angeles on British Airways using 30,000 American Airline miles each. There were additional fees for taxes and airline seats, as well. I recently discovered something you may want to look into when booking trips: I used American Airline tickets to fly on British Airways; however, I later discovered that I could have used my Chase points and transferred them to British Airways Avios points (1:1 ratio) and at the time I could have booked the same ticket for 12,500 points. This is something I will definitely look into next time. I then spent the next 6 months researching all of these different countries on Trip Advisor, Rick Steves, online research, and friends’ advice.
The morning of our flight we arrived at LAX and were pleasantly surprised to find out that the international terminal now offers TSA precheck (I was told this just started in April 2018). Once we were through security we went to the KAL Lounge--I have access to it thanks to my Chase Reserve credit card that gives me a free Priority Pass membership. The lounge had a variety of complimentary foods, as well as complimentary drinks including sodas, wine, and liquor. It was very comfortable hanging out in the lounge.
When it came time to board our flight we were very happy with our seats. I did quite a bit of research on www.seatguru.com and decided on seats 98 H and 98 K. These seats are basic seats located on the upper deck in the last row. The seats still reclined but we didn’t have to worry about anyone pulling on the back of our seat as they got up to go to the bathroom. Even though we were sitting in front of the bathroom, I never noticed anyone using it (I was fearful people were going to stand around my seat waiting to use it). This section of the plane only has around 40 seats that are economy. The seats in front of us were business class and first class, so our section was very small and easily contained. Food and drinks were served quickly. By the way, they also offer complimentary drinks, including wine and liquor (love having my Baileys on the rocks while flying). The entertainment center offered a very nice selection of movies and TV shows. There is a USB port under the armrest that most people would not notice, so be on the lookout if you need one. WiFi was offered by the hour or the entire flight. I purchased WiFi for the entire flight for 17 Euros.
One of my big concerns when traveling through Europe is access to the Internet. My cellular company (Verizon) charges $10/day, and I was going to be gone for 21 days. Additionally, I had multiple devices that I would need Internet access on, as I was traveling with my daughter. While visiting the Los Angeles Travel and Adventure Show I discovered Vision Global Wifi. They offer a hot spot device that can be used on multiple devices at the same time (up to 10 devices). They charge a daily rate but after a certain number of days they offer a flat rate. The device I rented worked in all of the countries I visited (Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, Italy, and the United Kingdom) and it cost $90 for the 30 days (even though I only needed it 21 days). This device saved me in Venice where my Airbnb did not have working WiFi. We also used it every day for Google maps to figure out how to get everywhere. It was a lifesaver. The plan I was on gives you 500 MB to use per day, and then it slows down after that (one day I did reach my limit as I think I accidentally downloaded my photos on Google so it used up my data). The service slowed down so much I was not able to use it until it reset. The rest of the trip I never went over my limit, and the battery lasts a long time so we never had any issues with running out of battery. They mailed it to me a couple of days before my trip and included a return box for me to ship it back when I returned; so easy. I would definitely recommend getting this device if you will be traveling abroad and need Internet service and don’t want to spend a fortune with your cellular company. They offer a variety of different plans with different amounts of data so you can see which one works best for you. https://visionglobalwifi.com/ The company is offering Peachheaders a discount for a limited time. By using "peachhead" you will get 10% off and a free external battery rental. Just make sure to select the external battery on the check out screen. The 10% will only be applied when the long-term discount has not been applied.
Part 2: Munich, Salzburg, Nuremberg
Once we arrived at the Munich airport and got our luggage, our Airbnb host picked us up from the airport for 50 euros. We were so happy not to have to figure out transportation the minute we got off the plane. We found a great Airbnb located near public transportation. The apartment was very cute with a bed and sofa in the main room and a little kitchen and bathroom. There was also a coin washer and dryer in the basement. The cost was $100/night (including taxes and Airbnb fees).
After checking into the Airbnb we decided to explore Marienplatz, the city’s main square. We took the nearby subway and only had to make one transfer. We purchased a 3-day inner city transportation pass for 2 people for 29.30 euros. You have to validate the ticket the first time you use it and then you just hold onto it in case a controller comes up to you and asks to see it. If it is not validated you will have to pay a fine in cash on the spot. The ticket is good until 6:00 AM on the 4th day.
We walked out from the subway and were in awe of the beautiful buildings. There were a variety of stores and restaurants so after walking around a bit we went to Ratskeller Restaurant for dinner, a very large and popular Bavarian restaurant that seats 1,100 people and has 15 different dining rooms. The restaurant provides English menus. They sat us at a table for 4 and later on two other ladies joined us, so don’t be surprised if other people join your table. We had really good potato pancakes, Munchner Goulasch, and Huhnchen Cordon Bleu that we both loved. The restaurant was so cool to walk around in. After walking around we hopped on the subway home to get ready for the next day.
We started our first day with a walking tour of the city with Radius Tours. We met them at the Main Central Train Station and Jova, our tour guide, walked us through the city telling us interesting stories and facts about this city. I had no idea that 80 percent of Munich was destroyed by WWII. Jova was very entertaining and even extended the tour since we were all having a great time. We took a break to purchase beer to drink as we walked because that is what they do in Munich, walk the streets drinking beer.
After the tour we stopped to have lunch at Zum Franziskaner. The restaurant had a variety of rooms to eat in and a lovely outdoor covered patio. You need a reservation for that room, so if you are going to eat here plan it advance. The food and service were very good for lunch.
After lunch we took the subway and tram to Nymphenburg Palace. As I walked up to the palace I was in awe over the grand size of this building. It was built in 1664 and extended in 1701 and 1715. The Great Hall is exquisite with the ceiling fresco, the paintings, and the chandeliers. Nymphenburg Palace was a popular summer residence for the Bavarian rulers. You can rent an audio guide that explains the different rooms, as well as the art and furniture. After touring the Palace we visited the Marstallmuseum next door. The Marstallmuseum is the former “riding stables” of the Palace and has court carriages on display. I purchased a combo ticket for the Palace and Marstallmuseum (11.50 euros) along with the audio guide. There is also a garden that you can stroll through behind the building that is free.
For dinner that night we went to Wirtshaus in der Au. You know it is a good restaurant when it is located off the beaten path and still very crowded. I was able to get a reservation that night and they sat us at a communal table. The restaurant was packed and the service was great. The drinks were very good and refreshing. I had the Stenz and my daughter had the Raspea. We ordered the Schlutzkrapfen, a ravioli filled with creamy lemon-thyme-mascarpone, and the white asparagus special, served with a filet. Both of our dishes were wonderful.
We started our next morning at Mr. Pancake, a very small restaurant with around 10 tables and only 8 different menu items (all pancake variations). I had the Mr. Banana Pancake with Nutella, and my daughter had the Mr. Bacon. Both were wonderful and I have to say this was the best bacon I have ever had, so if you do visit this restaurant be sure to get the bacon with your pancake. After breakfast we visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. Admission is free but I purchased the audio guide. It was a little difficult to match up some of the guides with what we were seeing as the numbers did not correlate, but I am still glad to have had the audio guide. It was a very solemn day.
In the evening we went to dinner at Schneider Brauhuas, a very popular restaurant for Bavarian food. We had the “Wiener Schnitzel” and the “Pork Knuckle,” both of which were very tasty. We finished our “German filled evening” with a beer at the famous Hofbrauhaus, where everyone was drinking big glasses of beer and moving to the band playing German music. It was a great way to end the evening.
Our last day in Munich we took a day trip tour to Salzburg with Radius Tours. We were so lucky to get Verena as our tour guide. She was thoroughly entertaining, had a great personality, and made sure we were always together (even when we had to switch trains due to an issue they were having). Once we arrived by train to Salzburg we took the bus to the city center. We crossed over the Makartsteg Bridge, the pedestrian bridge over the Salazach River connecting the new part of the city with the old town (Alstadt). The bridge is covered with love locks wherein people write their names and throw the key into the River. Once we crossed the bridge, Verena walked around with us pointing out the various sites that we would want to return to on our own. After a 90-minute tour we had 3 hours to explore on our own. After walking around the cute streets and shopping, we stopped at Gasthof Goldgasse to have lunch and Salzberg’s famous dessert, a Salzburger Nockerl. The soufflé is baked to resemble Salzurg’s snow-capped mountains. It was amazing, so light and fluffy. It takes 20 minutes to bake so be sure to let them know ahead of time that you will be ordering it. After lunch we took the funicular to the Hohensalzburg Castle. What a fun place to explore. There was no line for the Funicular so we just hopped on. It went pretty fast so the ride is only around 15 seconds. The cost was 12.20 euros for both the funicular and exploring the fortress and the amazing views from above. Once we returned we walked around the streets further, explored a church that was beautiful, and visited the Mirabell Gardens where scenes from The Sound of Music were filmed.
The following morning we departed early for Nuremberg. We had a DB Ice Train ($29 each) scheduled for 8:48 a.m., but when we arrived early at 8:18 I was informed our train was leaving early at 8:22…we ran to the train and jumped on. There were plenty of seats and it was a very comfortable ride. About 30 minutes into the ride they came to check our tickets and we discovered that our actual train had been delayed and we got on the earlier train. This still does not make sense to me, as this train was the correct number. She said no problem but we were sitting in first class seats and we had a 2nd class ticket so we had to move back to those seats. I didn’t realize that our ticket had a car number and seat numbers that we had reserved for us…lesson learned.
Once we got to Nuremberg, which took a little over an hour, we put our suitcases in luggage lockers and went to explore. We had lunch at a wonderful restaurant called das Paul overlooking the river. The food was amazing and beautifully displayed. After lunch we walked to Nuremberg Castle, a group of medieval fortified buildings. We purchased a combo ticket for 7 euros each that gave us access to the castle, the deep well, and the tower. It was so much fun exploring. The castle had various rooms with medieval items such as knights’ gear and weapons. It was amazing to be in rooms built in the 1100s. The deep well takes groups in every 30 minutes to demonstrate how deep the well really is. To visit the tower you need to climb a lot of steps but when you reach the top the views are spectacular.
After the castle we just walked the streets. We found the street calledWeißgerbergasse, which was our favorite street. Every house surrounded by cobblestones was so cute. This is such a beautiful city with the beautiful houses and shops, bridges over the river, and magnificent churches.
Apps that were helpful in Munich:
MyTaxi - enter credit card info in advance
MVV – Transportation information with timetable for Munich
DB – Status of DB Bus and Train for Munich, Nuremberg, and Prague
Part 3: Prague
We had a 4:50 DB bus scheduled from Nuremberg to Prague (20 euro each). The bus left right on time and was a very comfortable double decker bus with Wi-Fi. Once we arrived at the bus depot in Prague (right in front of the train station), I walked to the parking lot in front of track 1b, which is where Ubers will pick up. The first Uber couldn’t find us but the second Uber arrived in 4 minutes. From there it was a 10-minute ride to our Airbnb. We arrived at our Airbnb and were very happy with this apartment. It had 2 large bedrooms, a small kitchen area, and a washer. It was located in old town in Josevov, walking distance to the city center.
Our first morning in Prague we had a free walking tour set up with Sandemans New Europe Tours. This was my first time doing a free walking tour, and I was pleasantly surprised. There were a lot of people waiting for the tour, but once it started they broke us up into smaller groups. We were lucky enough to get Brandon, who was amazing. He was very funny and told us stories that were captivating. I only wish my history teachers were that much fun. After an hour and a half walking around we stopped at a restaurant for those who wanted to eat or drink. The restaurant was very nice in that there was no pressure to purchase anything, but we were able to just hang out and rest and use the restroom. We sat at a table of young people and it turned out all of them were traveling on their own. We all became quick friends. After the short break we continued our tour and ended near the Charles Bridge. I was sad when the tour came to an end (Brandon was that good). We walked along the river and stopped at Marina Ristorante to eat lunch. It was a beautiful setting along the river, and the food was very good.
We then crossed the bridge and walked around a bit and then went to the Mind Maze for a little adventure. I had never done one before and had no idea what to expect, and it was a total blast. We chose the Alchemist’s Chamber, where my daughter and I spent over an hour locked in a room, working together, attempting to unravel clues to discover the Philosopher’s stone. Every now and then we had to be given tips, but when we discovered something new it was so exciting, and when we discovered the stone it was a real sense of accomplishment.
The next morning I woke up early so I decided to explore Prague before the city got crowded. I first walked to the Charles Bridge, which is stunning in the morning when no one is around. I then took a walking tour following Rick Steves app the Prague City Walk. The walk started in Wenceslas Square and then on to the National Museum, into the Lucerne Arcade to see the upside down horse statute, and then into the Franciscan Garden. The tour continued, but I had to return for breakfast. After breakfast we explored the city by going on our walking tour to see the Lennon Wall, St. Vitus Cathedral, and Prague Castle. As we approached Prague Palace they were just beginning the changing of the guard ceremony that happens at 12:00; timing is everything. After the changing of the guards the line to get through security for the castle and church were so long that we walked around a bit and got a bite to eat. When we returned there was no line at all for security, but the line for the church was very long so we just walked around the buildings. When we finished we were worn out so we called an Uber. They work very well in Prague.
The astronomical clock is under repairs until the end of 2018 but I was able to go to the top, which had incredible views of the city. Additionally I took a tour of the Old Town Hall’s Underground, which was truly amazing. Prague used to be lower but due to flooding, every year they would save the mud and build on it until they could build the city higher up. There are still a large number of buildings that are underground. Under the astronomical clock we toured five buildings. They ranged from a house, to a baker’s house, to a prison. There was even a well in one of the houses. It was such an interesting tour. I highly recommend it.
After our tour we walked to Wine O’Clock, a restaurant I discovered through Trip Advisor. We arrived at 7:30 and managed to get the last two seats at the bar. Everyone else who showed up after us was turned away. It is a very small restaurant, so be sure to make a reservation (and bring cash). The restaurant serves food tapas style, and everything was truly amazing. We enjoyed the Bruschetta, tomato, garlic, and basil, Mozzarella salad caprese, crispy filo salmon, and the Gratinated goat cheese with honey, pine nuts, and salad. We finished off our dinner with the warm lava cake. The wine options were wonderful, as well. It was truly an enjoyable evening.
While walking back to our Airbnb we stopped in at the Bed Lounge, a cocktail bar with couches so you can truly relax while having your drink. It was so nice and comfy we thought this would be a great place to hang out if we got tired while we waited for our midnight train the next night.
Our last day in Prague we started out our morning by going to Den Noc, a pancake and wine place. Yes, I said wine…the husband loves wine, and the wife loves pancakes, so they combined the two. We only had the pancakes, but I have to tell you they were heavenly. We got one sweet one with Nutella and strawberries and whipped cream, and another savory one with cranberries, arugula, and feta cheese. They were both incredible. We also had scrambled eggs, which were super fluffy, and bacon that wasn’t crispy but was so flavorful. After breakfast we visited the Jewish Synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery. I would definitely recommend visiting Pinkas Synagogue. There are pictures that were drawn by children at Terizin Concentration camp that are quite emotional. You can purchase a ticket that is good for a number of the synagogues and the cemetery, and the ticket is good for 7 days. I had read that if you purchase your ticket at a synagogue other than Pinkas there is no line to purchase the tickets, and then you can just walk into all of the Synagogues. Even though I had heard about this great tip, I went to Pinkas Synagogue first and had to wait in a long line to purchase my tickets.
Later on that day we went to the Invisible Exhibition. I had done this once before in Tel Aviv and wanted my daughter to experience what it is like to be blind. You are led through a variety of rooms that are pitch black. We were led by Lenka, who is blind. You move through the rooms by using your hands to guide you and you try to figure out what type of room you are in and what objects you are touching. We finished in the café where you can purchase a snack with coins, as the guide explained to us the differences between each coin. It was a fascinating experience.
It started raining, so we took tram 22 just to tour the city. It takes you all the way to the castle. Prague is a very walkable city, and we pretty much walked everywhere, with the exception of a few Uber rides. On the last day, since we were taking a midnight overnight train ride, we purchased a 24-hour public transportation pass. We discovered on our last day how easy it was to use their public system and how quickly the trams arrive. Next time I would make a point of using them, as I walked over 20,000 steps every day I was there.
Apps that were useful for Prague:
Taxify app – like Uber, update credit card info in advance
Liftago app – like Uber, update credit card info in advance
Pubtran – public transportation app
Part 4: Budapest
I took my first overnight train from Prague to Budapest. You can purchase the tickets directly from CD Ceske draky. I purchased a private coach for two for $100/person, but I did not get the one that included a bathroom. I am not sure if those rooms are bigger, but if they are, I would purchase that next time. Our room was so small it barely fit our suitcases (our suitcases were big and I hope to pack lighter next time). There is an outlet in the room and a little sink to wash up. The bathroom is down the hallway. They will notify you around 30 minutes before your train departs which track you are on. They will wake you up an hour before arrival. The beds are not really comfortable (think college beds), and they only provide one pillow. I am not sure if I would do an overnight train again in the future but didn’t want to lose a day traveling on the train, as it was an 8-hour ride.
Upon arrival at the train station in Budapest we took a taxi to our Airbnb. We found a great 2-bedroom apartment located on the historical Vaci Street where there are shops, cafés, and restaurants and it is a 10-minute walk to Old Town Square. We started our morning with a free walking tour. You just show up at 10:30 at Vorosmarty Square and they break you up into groups. We had a pretty large group, but our guide was great, and he handled the group really well. The tour lasted 3 hours and covered both Buda and Pest sides. We even ended up at the Palace in time for the changing of the guards. Later that day we were walking around trying to figure out where to eat and we decided on Trattoria Mamma. We enjoyed all of our items (Bruschetta, Caprese salad, and a Margherita Pizza). After dinner we went to Rudas Thermal Bath. Our tour guide recommended this one, and I am so glad he did. It was only a 15-minute walk from our apartment, and they have a bath outside overlooking the Danube River…it was such a beautiful night sitting outside in the warm water with that view. This bath had several different baths ranging from hot to very cold water, a variety of saunas and steam rooms, and a swimming pool. After dinner we hopped on a bus and went to the Szimpla Ruin bar. What a scene. There were so many different rooms with unusual objects, lights, and decorations. There was music playing and they even had an amazing live band playing in one of the rooms. It was definitely a fun evening.
The following morning we went to The New York Café for breakfast. This has to be one of the most beautiful and elegant restaurants. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they are also known for their pastries, so you can go for just dessert, as well. We arrived for breakfast and then had dessert. Be sure to make a reservation in advance; there was a long line when we left. Ask for a table near the live music as they have a 4-piece orchestra play music while you dine. They come out every hour and play for 15 minutes. The violinist was absolutely incredible. It was so nice to listen to this beautiful music in this elegant setting. We loved it so much we stayed to see him perform a second time. It was truly a magical experience.
After breakfast we visited St. Stephens Basilica, an incredibly beautiful Church. From there we went to visit the Budapest Parliament. You should purchase tickets in advance ($19/person). You are led on a guided tour throughout the Parliament as they explain the details of the building. It was beautiful. There is also a crown that is guarded by two guards. We were lucky enough to be there when they were doing the changing of the guards. It was very cool to watch. After the Budapest Parliament we walked along the river to see the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial to the Jews in Budapest who were shot along the river. They had to take their shoes off since they were considered valuable. It was heart wrenching to see all of the shoes lined up. For dinner that night we went to Trofea Grill Etterem, an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet. When we walked in we were told that we could only stay for 3 hours and the price included unlimited food and drinks, including prosecco, wine, and cocktails. I was surprised to see a large cocktail list including cosmos, margarita, kir royal, and piña coladas. The food at the buffet didn’t thrill me, but they also have a grill area where you inform the chef what you would like cooked on the grill and it is prepared there and ready in 5 minutes. We both really enjoyed the chicken, shrimp, and salmon. It was only $23 a person, so it was a great place to go for a casual and affordable meal.
The next morning we walked 10 minutes to A La Maison for breakfast. This breakfast was one of our favorites. We had the Nutella Mousse French Toast and the Nutella Mousse American Pancake. Both were amazing. The ambience was lovely and made for a perfect morning. After breakfast we went to the Pest side to do the Labyrinth. We went underground and explored the caves where Dracula was held prisoner. It was such a cool experience. There was a dark cave area where you couldn’t see anything, and you had to feel your way around to get out of the room. After that we just wandered around the caves trying to find our way out. It was a fun experience. From there we went to the Great Market Hall (or Central Market Hall) to have some Ghoulash, and then we went to Gelarto Rosa for a gelato that is beautifully designed into a rose…so cool. After that we met up with a free walking tour to visit the Jewish Quarter. On the way back to our Airbnb we stopped at the Zoo Café, a little café that has reptiles and animals that you can hold, pet, and play with while you dine. They have a limited menu of non-alcoholic beverages and pastries and sandwiches. While you dine, they bring around different animals for you to play with. While we were there we played with a baby turtle, a snake, a chameleon, a bearded dragon, and a bunny. It was such a fun experience.
Our last day we visited the Vajdahunyadvar Castle. We just walked around the outside but it just so happened that there was a festival going on that day so there were booths set up with food, rides, activities for the kids, and a stage with performances. We finally tried our first Langos and it was really incredible….straight out of the deep fryer with sour cream and cheese topping. Highly recommend it. After we walked around a bit we went to the Szechenyi Baths. The outdoor baths were great. One was warm and the other was cool. The cool one was the perfect temperature on this hot day. In the center of the bath is a circular bath, which is almost like a lazy river as it pulls you around. We really enjoyed hanging out in that area. The indoor area has a number of baths and saunas, but we just hung out in the outdoor baths. While I liked the outdoor area, I preferred Rudas Bath, as it seemed much cleaner inside. I would recommend doing the Rudas bath in the evening for the beautiful view at night while sitting in the outdoor bath.
Our last night in Budapest we had dinner at Zeller Bistro, where they have an outdoor patio and live music. The food was great, but what really made the evening was sitting in the beautifully decorated patio listening to the two men playing guitar and singing all of my favorite songs.
The public transportation is really great in Budapest. We used Google maps to get around, and it was great with guiding us on what trams and buses we should take. You should purchase a multi-day pass if you will be staying a few days. Once you validate your ticket you don’t need to pull it out unless they ask you for it. If you forget to validate it you could be fined. We used the Budapest Card to get around Budapest as it gives you unlimited use of public transportation along with free entry into museums and the Lukacs Baths, free walking tours, discounts on tours, restaurants, baths, and a free mobile app. It was a great way to explore the city without having to purchase individual tickets for everything.
The next morning we had an early morning flight, so we booked Blacklane Car Service to pick us up at 4:45 AM. They were right on time, and our driver was very pleasant. You can set up an account in advance and book everything online. The prices quoted online are very reasonable and include all taxes, tolls, fees, and gratuities. If they are picking you up from the airport they include a 60-minute wait time and all other pickups include a 15-minute wait time. They picked us up in a luxury black vehicle.
Part 5: Milan, Venice, and Florence
Our next visit was to Venice. We couldn’t get there directly from Budapest, so we flew to Milan on Ryan Air ($60 per person) and spent the day in Milan walking around and shopping. I purchased a one-day suburban pass for 4.50 euros, which was good for 24 hours for the metro. The Duomo was truly an incredible site. After exploring Milan for the day we took a train to Venice for $26 per person. I had recently discovered a company called Prontopia: think Uber but without cars. You contact them via their app and someone shows up within minutes to help you with whatever you may need: showing you around Venice, helping you from the train station to your hotel, helping to make reservations, etc. Michaela was my Prontopia girl, and she was a lifesaver. She met us at the train station and helped me with my luggage to our Airbnb. If you knew how I pack (I am an over packer) and you know how many bridges there are on the Venice Canals, you can understand the importance of someone like Michaela coming to my rescue. I had no idea how to get around on the canals, so she took us to our Airbnb (a cute little 2-bedroom place in a 6th century building) and then once we were settled in, she walked us to a restaurant where I had a reservation. We had dinner at Trattoria Bar Pontini, a cute little restaurant right on the water. I made reservations in advance and requested a table outside. It was a beautiful evening, and a man playing an accordion came and played for us, and when he found out it was my birthday, he played and sang Happy Birthday in Italian. It was really special. The food was wonderful, and it was a great way to spend our first evening in Venice.
We started out next morning with the Secret Itineraries Tour through the Doge’s Palace. I got lucky and was able to purchase tickets for $20/person ahead of time online. This ticket also gave us access to tour Doge’s Palace, as well. The tour was pretty cool. It takes you through the prison and torture room and other rooms built in the 14th and 15th centuries. You even see where Casanova was housed as a prisoner. The tour was 1 hour and 15 minutes. We got there early and walked around the palace before the tour. It was quite extravagant. We spent the rest of the day walking around Venice, getting lost and shopping. I wanted to take a ride on a gondola. They charge $80 for 30 minutes for anywhere from 1-6 people. We thought it would be great if we could find someone to share the gondola ride with us. Somehow we got very lucky and saw some women waiting for a gondola. They invited us to join them, but just as we were supposed to board the gondola, they had to cancel due to weather (it was starting to rain). They told us to come back 30 minutes later. We did and sure enough the rain stopped, and it was a beautiful day. We hung out with the mom and daughter we were going to share the gondola with. We had such a great time that after the gondola ride we met up for dinner. We ate at Trattoria al Gazzettino, and it was wonderful. They really make you feel loved by giving you complimentary items before and after your meal.
The next morning we were departing for Florence. I had Prontopia meet me at my apartment in the morning to help me to the train station with my luggage. They recommended that we take the waterbus from our apartment to the train station. This was so much easier, as the waterbus stop was just outside our apartment. I was so happy not to have to haul our heavy luggage up and down those bridges. The waterbus only cost 7.50 euros each way per person. We then took the train to Florence ($39/person) and arrived in the afternoon at our Airbnb, so we spent the day walking the streets of Florence, saw the Duomo, which is magnificent from the outside, and the highlight of the day was seeing Michelangelo’s David at the Academia--truly a spectacular sight.
The next day we visited the Bubobli Gardens. It was very peaceful and beautiful. After dinner, while walking back to our apartment, we ended up in front of the Duomo. It is truly a beautiful sight at night. We noticed the doors of the church were open, which is very unusual, so we went to find out what was going on, and we were told it was a celebration and that the bishop would be coming out. What followed next was the most beautiful sight. A procession was led with thousands of people from the church, including the bishop. The church bells were ringing, and people were carrying flags and candles and singing as they proceeded down the path. It was such a magical sight.
Part 6: Rome
The following morning we took the train to Rome Termini ($38/person). When we arrived in Rome, we started to wait in line for a taxi, but the line was really long and there were not any taxis lined up, so I tried calling an Uber and, sure enough, they showed up within 4 minutes. It was awesome. We arrived at our Airbnb and then walked to dinner at Antico Arco for their finger foods tasting menu. Everything was truly amazing and different. Our Airbnb was located in Trastevere, which is a wonderful location to hang out. There are a number of great restaurants, street entertainment, and vendors selling items along the street. It is a very lively area with a lot of great energy.
I had the Omnia Vatican & Rome Card card, which gives free entry into various museums and attractions, so I used my card to get into the Colosseum. I was lucky enough to be able to purchase tickets in advance for the Belvedere tour, as this is a new tour they just starting doing last year. I had a reservation at 2:45 so at 2:20 they allowed us to go into the Colosseum to explore while we waited for our tour. The tour was wonderful. It takes you up to the top levels of the Colosseum and gives you the history of the Colosseum and the surrounding areas. After the tour we were exhausted, so we hopped on the hop-on, hop-off bus that comes with the Rome Card and rode around the city until we were near our Airbnb in Trastevere. If you are buying tickets in advance for the Colosseum, their website is very confusing. There is a great thread on TripAdvisor with a wonderful woman named Donna who answers all of your questions, so I would suggest reading there for advice. https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g187791-i22-k11525592-o110-2018_underground_belvedere_booking_process_Updated-Rome_Lazio.html#92289236
Also, if you are looking for a place to eat near the Colosseum, we had a wonderful lunch at Taverna del Fori Imeriali. They open for lunch at 12:30 and be sure to make a reservation in advance.
The next day we just walked all over Rome and visited the various sites including the Pantheon, Tivoli fountain, and different Piazzas. The following day we had reservations at the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. We had a 9:00 reservation and needed to check in at 8:45. In the morning I checked Uber and it was going to cost $30, but I also checked MyTaxi app, which I set up before I left town, and it was only $11, so I used My Taxi app. It worked great. Once we arrived we checked in and waited until 9:05, at which time Omnia led the group on a long walk to the entrance. We passed a super long line of people waiting to get into the Vatican, but with the Omnia Vatican & Rome Card you get to skip the line. We walked to the other side, where we waited in a short line to get through security. Once inside we were free to explore on our own. You can wander through on your own, get an audio guide, or listen to Rick Steves’ Podcast and have him guide you through the museum. You are eventually led to the Sistine Chapel. When you leave the Sistine Chapel you can go to the left to exit the museum, or you can go to the right to visit St. Peter’s Basilica. This is very important! If you go to the left, you will have to wait in a long line to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, but if you exit to the right where it says “groups” (there was no one stopping us from entering without a group), you can go straight to St. Peter’s Basilica without waiting in the long line.
Part 7: London
The next day we were finally flying home; however, we had an overnight layover in London. We used Blacklane car service to take us to the airport in Rome. Once arriving at the airport I was very happy to hear that I had the option of picking up my luggage in London or sending it straight through to Los Angeles. I opted to have my bags sent straight to Los Angeles, so when we landed in London we just had to clear customs (which took 30 minutes), and we were on our way. I booked a room at the IBIS Styles London Heathrow, which was close to the airport. From terminals 1, 2, and 3 there are free buses that drop you off near the hotel, but we were in terminal 5 and I didn’t know how to get to the other terminals, so we paid $5.00 for the bus that stops at different hotels. I didn’t have any pounds yet, but they let me pay using Apple Pay. After checking into the hotel we crossed the street to take the free bus to terminals 1, 2, and 3, where we were then able to get on the tube to the city. Again we were able to use our Apple Pay to pay for the tube. We took the tube to Covent Garden, which was about an hour ride, and had dinner at Simpsons in the Strand, known for their prime rib served on carts. It was a lovely dinner, and then we walked around London and saw Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and Picadilly Circus. It was a great way to spend our last night on vacation.
Apps I found useful in planning this trip:
Say Hi – Translates language using voice
Snap and Translate – Take a picture and it will translate the words or objects
Cool Cousin – Recommendations from locals
Like a Local – Recommendations from locals
Sandemanns Tour – Free walking tours
Tripit – send in your confirmations and it keeps an organized itinerary
Mobile pass – download to have faster access when going through customs
Culture Trip – explore travel
Duo – Face Time for those without iPhones
Rick Steves Audio – walking tours of cities, and other useful information
VisitaCity.com – great website to help you organize your activities and map how to get to each location
Fork App – Dinner reservations online with discounts
I was provided complimentary or discounted services to help facilitate my review from the following: Radius Tours, Prontopia, Visional Global Wi-Fi, Omnia Vatican & Rome Card and Omnia Kit, and City of Prague (Old Town Hall’s Underground), Blacklane Car Service, and the City of Budapest (Budapest Card).