Tag Archives: Italy

Italy, Part Four: The Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast with kids

Of all the traveling decisions we made on this vacation, hiring a car service to get us to the Amalfi Coast was the best one; the ride is gorgeous, but harrowing.  Extremely narrow roads skirt cliff edges all along the coast and the guard rails leave a bit to be desired.  Local drivers speed along these tiny roads and pass anyone going too slow — we saw cars overtaking slower drivers even while going through the narrow tunnels cut into the cliffside. 

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Giant tour buses have to make three-point turns at certain switchbacks where the buses can’t make the 180-degree turn in one go.  It was terrifying.  I white-knuckled it through the entire trip and had to close my eyes a few times as we wound around the hairpin turns.  Our driver though, thought nothing of it — he lived there his whole life and this was simply second nature for him. 

The scenery was AMAZING and the destination was well-worth the drive.  My absolute recommendation though is to leave that trip to the experts and hire a car!

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We stayed in a beautiful Airbnb apartment in the lovely village of Praiano, which is situated on the coast right between Positano and Amalfi.  We were there just before the real tourist season began, so Praiano, much smaller and more residential than it’s two more well-known neighbors, was very, very quiet.  In fact, it was almost too quiet — during the high season I would DEFINITELY stay there rather than in Positano or Amalfi, which are packed to the gills with tourists, but in the off-season, very little in Praiano was open.  Live and learn.

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Praiano is an absolutely gorgeous village though, and we loved our apartment — the view from the porch was pretty hard to beat.

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While on the Amalfi coast, we wanted to relax a bit, do less touring of important sights, and just take in some of the natural beauty of the area.  We spent a day on the beach in Positano, which was gorgeous, and although the water was way too cold for me, the kids got in and loved it.  Positano was such a lovely town — there were great shops and cool restaurants and all the pretty pastel-hued houses are built into the side of the mountain, some practically hanging out over the water.

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On our second day there, which happened to be Quinn’s 6th birthday, we hiked the Path of the Gods, an amazing and famous walking trail that winds along the top of the ridge from Amalfi to Positano and offers breath-taking views of the Mediterranean and the rocky coast. 

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There is a path the intersects the long hiking trail in Praiano, so rather than go to Amalfi to start, we simply walked up the mountainside from our little house and joined the trail about 2/3 of the way through.  In order to get to the trail, though, we had to climb 1,000 steps from the road in Praiano up to the hilltop where we joined the official “Path of the Gods”.  The steps were steep, unevenly spaced and of irregular height, and some were crumbling away a bit.  And, as with everything in Europe, there were no guardrails or handrails. 

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About twenty minutes into our climb, I began to seriously doubt our decision-making; I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to make it all the way up with the four kids.  My legs were burning from all the stairs, some of which were tall for even me to step up to, so they were really tall for the children.  And I was nervous about the kids’ lack of fear — I didn’t want to scare them so they weren’t enjoying the hike, but I did want them to understand that caution was required.  Since we didn’t know how far we’d really gone and how far ahead the stairs joined the walking trail, I was hesitant to suggest turning back in case going on was a shorter, less precarious route.  Although neither Matt nor I actually mentioned turning back during our hike, we both admitted afterwards that we considered it.

I’m so glad we didn’t.

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We made it up the stairs and joined the Path of the Gods, and walked the next few miles along the ridge line overlooking the terraced farms of vineyards and lemon orchards and the impossibly blue Mediterranean. 

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The weather was perfect.  The views were amazing.  And not once did any of the children complain.  I have had quite a few proud moments as a mother, but this day, this hike, ranks high on the list.

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The following day we took a boat trip to Capri.  Boarding from the little beach in Praiano, we spent about 2.5 hours cruising across the Mediterranean on the way to, and then encircling, the island of Capri.  It. Was. AMAZING.  IMG_1379

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The water is ludicrously blue, the boat went straight into some of the caves and grottos around the island, and I could happily have spent the entire day on the boat just cruising around. 

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The island of Capri was beautiful, as well — and all the cabs had convertible tops! We didn’t do many of the recommended tourist attractions there, though.  All we did was take a stroll through the adorable and quaint main part of town, have some lunch and, of course, gelato.

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Then we walked down the hill to a lovely beach where Matt and I plunked down on the smooth rocks (no sand on this beach) and the kids joyfully plunged into the (freezing) sea. 

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The Amalfi Coast was by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and if we had planned correctly, we’d have flown straight home after our relaxing few days there. 

Instead, though, we headed back to Rome for one more night.  While it was lovely, we were all quite over the tourist-ing.  The kids didn’t want to see another single sight (although we did force march them to the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, both of which were very cool but ridiculously crowded).  We were done with restaurants (although we did head back to Trastevere and have one more amazing meal).  We were tired.  We were ready to go home. 

Our trip to Italy was, in a single word, epic.  It has now moved into first place on my list of favorite countries, and I can’t wait to go back.


Also, read about our other Italian Adventures: Rome, Florence, and Naples!


 

Italy, Part Three: Naples, Vesuvius & Pompeii

Naples with Kids

We took the train from Rome to Naples on the third day of our trip and again, loved the train ride.  It’s a really relaxing way to travel, seeming to slow down the often-frantic pace of traveling and forcing you to sit and look out the window as the scenery goes by.  We found train travel in Italy to be a fantastic way to get around this beautiful country!

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We arrived at around 10:30 AM and took a taxi from the train station to our next Airbnb apartment, which was very cool and VERY modern.  The apartment had several lofted sleeping areas that the kids LOVED, but for the sake of safety, we wouldn’t even let them sleep on the highest one.  (Not to mention that it was lofted above the room Matt and I were planning to sleep in, and the whole point of the Airbnb is so I don’t have to share a room with my kids on the trip!)

Naples sort of shocked me though; it is a DENSE city. 

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We had three very important events planned for our short (one-night only!) stay in Naples: a horseback ride up the side of Mt. Vesuvius, dinner with an old friend of ours who just moved to Naples for work last fall, and a tour of the ruins of Pompeii.  We were only in this area for about 30 hours, but we packed a lot in.

We booked the horse ride up Mt. Vesuvius months in advance; I read about it on Pinterest while researching the trip and, as far as I can tell, Horse Riding Naples is the only company that does this type of tour up the volcano. 

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It. Was. Epic.

Bridget and Gabe each had their own horse, but Owen and Quinn rode with me and Matt.  Although they were both annoyed that they couldn’t be on their own even though they’d both ridden before, once we actually started up the side of the mountain, I was really relieved the smaller kids were with adults.  Parts of the trail were really narrow and pretty rocky and uneven; in some areas my boots touched the rocky outcrops on either side of the trail we rode through.  Although it was absolutely breath-taking and amazing, if Owen and Quinn had been on their own I would have been really nervous about their ability to stay on through the particularly steep sections and to keep the horses going in the right direction.

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The ride itself really was not difficult at all; there was another family with us who had never ridden a horse at all before, and they had no trouble.  The guides and the horses know what they’re doing.  The scenery was pretty unbelievable the whole way up the side of the mountain.  But I was still glad that my smallest children — both weighing in under 60 lbs — were attached to adults with a little more strength and sense.   IMG_0888

When we reached our clearing, bordering a lava field from the last eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 1944, and looking out at the most amazing vista of Naples and the Bay of Napoli, we dismounted to give ourselves and the horses a little rest and so we could explore this incredible location.  It was breath-takingly beautiful and just unreal. 

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The kids spent a good twenty minutes climbing around on the lava, picking through the rocks and pocketing some souvenirs.  Our guide Roberto pointed out some key sites and showed us the smoke rising from the crater higher up on the mountain, evidence that Vesuvius is still very much an active volcano.  It was absolutely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

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After an equally amazing descent back to the stables, Roberto shared with us some lovely red wine made by his family from their vineyard located just a little ways away there at the base of Vesuvius.  Our other guides, it turned out, were Roberto’s uncle and his cousin!  The whole experience was so unique; rather than feeling like tourists simply looking at and hearing about this renowned and historic location, we were actively exploring it alongside people who had lived there their whole lives.  Such an immersive experience is hard to come by on a short trip, and I was so grateful for the experience.  The children ABSOLUTELY loved it and have said it was the coolest thing EVER.

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That night we met our friend Liz at a little restaurant not far from our apartment for dinner.  In Italy most restaurants don’t open for dinner until quite late by American standards, but we made a reservation for 7:30 — the earliest possible time to book.  We were literally the only ones there.  The food, as you’d expect, was amazing, and it was lovely to catch up with an old friend in a new place.

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The next morning we woke up and packed up — we had a tour of Pompeii that morning and instead of returning to the apartment afterwards, we had a car service picking us up at the entrance gate to Pompeii to drive us to our next stop on the Amalfi coast. 

Although there was a direct train from the station near our apartment to the Porta Marina gate of Pompeii ruins, we decided instead to take a cab.  With 6 suitcases and 6 backpacks, the train, though a much cheaper option, sounded a bit daunting.  Our cab driver brought us right to the Pompeii train station we’d have gotten off at anyway — we wanted to go there because there was a bag check service where we could leave our luggage while we did our tour of the ruins.

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We met our tour guide Jeanette, again from Angel Tours, at the gate to Pompeii and she expedited us through the line, another benefit of the tour service.  Jeanette was an extremely knowledgeable and personable guide; she kept the kids absolutely engaged throughout the day.  Pompeii was big — bigger than I anticipated — and we saw a lot of it.  Again Gabe was really proud of his knowledge of Ancient Romans when he was able to answer several questions on the tour. 

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Before our trip we’d also made a point to read a few books geared toward Owen and Quinn that would give them a better understanding of what we’d be seeing: Vacation Under the Volcano is a Magic Tree House book about Mt. Vesuvius that did a really good job of explaining what happened without being terrifying.  We also read the Magic Tree House non-fiction companion book about Ancient Rome and Pompeii that I highly recommend if you’re traveling to Pompeii with younger kids.  And actually, I read both books out loud to all the kids over the course of a few evenings before the trip, so I think even my older kids learned a lot from the books that they were able to relate to the real thing when we were there.

The most interesting thing I think we all took away from our tour of Pompeii was this: scientists have learned that Vesuvius has a fairly regular eruption cycle.  The last major eruption took place in 79 A.D. and covered the city of Pompeii in the ash that preserved it until the present day.  Prior to that, the last major eruption was approximately 1,900 years earlier, and then again about 1,900 years before that.  There are also usually smaller eruptions about every 60-70 years, but those don’t generally result in major destruction — the last one took place in 1944 and created the lava field on the side of the mountain that we saw on our horse ride up Vesuvius.  However, 72 years have passed since the last minor volcanic eruption of Vesuvius.  And 1,937 years have passed since the last major eruption.  Some people believe that the volcano “skipped” the last minor eruption because she is gearing up for the major one that’s due…basically now.  You could almost see the gears in the kids’ heads turning as our tour guide posed the questions to them and let them do the math.  A bit unnerving certainly, but our guide assured us that scientists monitor the volcano very closely for any uptick in activity, so we were perfectly safe.  That little tidbit, though? An absolute highlight that has been widely discussed over and over since the trip.

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Although we were only in the Naples area for less than 2 days, it was one of the most interesting parts of the trip.  Between the incomparable horse ride up the face of an active volcano and the in-depth tour of the incredible ruins at Pompei, I felt like we’d really made the most of our time there.  I’d highly recommend both activities if you’re planning a trip to that area!


Also, here are Part One in RomePart Two in Florence of our Italian vacation!


 

Italy, Part Two: Florence

Florence with Kids

When we first booked our trip to Italy, we planned on spending the first two days in Rome.  In our planning, though, we learned that our second day there was the day of the Roma Marathon.  Because of that, many train stations and tourist sites would be either closed down or completely packed.  Not wanting to spend the day fighting crowds and getting stuck in travel delays, Matt and I looked for an alternative and decided to take the train from Rome to Florence for a day.  I am SO glad we did –Florence ended up being my very favorite city of the whole trip.

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The train from Rome to Florence could not have been easier and we basically spent the entire ride looking out the windows and gasping at the gorgeous scenery.  It took us a little over an hour, and the train station in Florence was walking distance to the city center.

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Have you ever been somewhere, and even though it’s your first time, you immediately feel as though it’s familiar and you could happily live there?  That’s how I felt in Florence.  It was just a gorgeous city and an amazing day.

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We saw Il Duomo, which was so completely unlike every other building I’ve ever seen, it took my breath away.  It is simply majestic.

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We strolled across the Ponte Vecchio.  We explored narrow little winding roads and went in shops both high-end and low. 

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Our day in Florence was one of the least structured of the whole trip — maybe that was why we all loved it so much!  We didn’t do any tours, just strolled around this gorgeous city, saw the big sites from the outside, popped into shops and ate a lovely lunch in a gorgeous piazza looking at a replica of Michelangelo’s David. 

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As we sat at lunch, I squeezed Matt’s hand in total joy — it was exactly how I pictured our Italian vacation when I dreamed about it for the months leading up.  It was so perfect, I couldn’t believe it was real.

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Everywhere you looked, there were artists setting up easels and painting.  There were leather shops where old Italian gentlemen sat at giant industrial-looking sewing machines and stitched soft leather bags as you watched. The pace seemed slower than in Rome and the city smaller and more quaint. 

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On the advice of friends who’d been there, we took a long-ish, practically vertical walk through the city up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and were rewarded with the most picturesque views imaginable. 

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The uphill climb was completely worth it, even though I did end up giving Quinn a piggy-back ride for the last mile or so because his legs were just spent.  Gelato helped him regain some energy though.

On the train ride home, we all sort of dozed off, tired from the busy day before and another full day of walking.  It was a lovely, quiet, calm train ride.  We got back to Rome in time to grab some delicious sandwiches from the shop across the street from our apartment.  We ate dinner at “home” and the children watched Dora the Explorer in Italian on television.  Relaxing nights like that are one of the main reasons I love Airbnb so much — we’d be cramped and annoyed trying to eat dinner in a hotel room, but we were all tired and didn’t want to go to another restaurant.  Having an apartment of our own is the perfect set-up.

When we go back to Florence someday — and I know we will, because it was one of my very favorite places I’ve ever been — we’ll plan much more than a single day in this gorgeous place.

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Also, Part One of our Italy trip is here.


 

Italy, Part One: Rome!

Rome with kids

Our trip to Italy was just an epic, epic vacation.  I spent the entirety of the week marveling at our surroundings, exhausted by the amount of walking we did, amazed at the amount of pasta and gelato we consumed, and grateful that I was taking this trip with my favorite people.  This was one for the books.

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We spent the first few nights in Rome in what ended up being my favorite accommodations of the trip: an amazing loft apartment in a cool building in Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome consisting of narrow winding cobblestone roads, ivy- and wisteria-covered buildings, and seriously cool shops and restaurants.  I loved Trastevere; I could move there tomorrow and be perfectly happy.

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We were picked up from the airport when we arrived by a car service which took us straight to the apartment; it’s slightly more expensive, but it’s infinitely easier than trying to find a cab that fits six people plus luggage, plus the driver already knew our destination.  This particular car trip was insane; the tiny streets of Trastevere were PACKED with people out on a Friday night, so as we drove to the apartment, people were pressed up against the van windows, backing up against the walls of the buildings on either side of the road–it was like we were famous movie stars and the paparazzi surrounded the car trying to get a photo.  People literally knocked on the windows, tried peering in through the tinted glass, and at one point a group sitting at a bistro table outside a bar had to get up and move their chairs in to make enough space for the van to pass through.  It. Was. Insane.

When we made it to the apartment, it was after midnight, so we crashed and got up early the next morning to start a full day of tours.

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We packed a lot into our first day in Rome, but there was nothing I would have changed.  We booked tours of both the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums with a company called Angel Tours and they were absolutely wonderful to work with.  They helped us plan our tour times, were communicative and made sure we knew exactly where to go and who to look for, and our tour guides were extremely knowledgeable and friendly.  I would HIGHLY recommend using them if you’re planning to go to any of the sites where they operate — we also used them for a tour of Pompeii later in the week and it was great, too.

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Although we’d never really done organized tours on any trips before, with places like the Colosseum and the Vatican, Matt and I really felt like we wanted to understand what we were seeing, why it was significant, and be able to come away feeling like we really understood and appreciated the places we were visiting.  And we did — the kids were constantly engaged, we learned a ton but the tours were never boring, and the pace was perfect.  I am so glad we did it–we got SO much more out of it than if we had done a self-guided excursion of either location.

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Our tour guide at the Colosseum was Barbara, and she was so informative and wonderful with the kids.  Our children were the only ones on the tour — the rest of our group was made up of adults, but the other tour members were really great about letting the kids up front, making sure they could see and hear, and even helped Matt and I keep an eye on them if someone got overexcited and ran ahead or lagged behind.

Our guide told the kids about the Roman water fountains — spread throughout the city, these fountains are free and provide clean and cold drinking water.  The kids loved it; we looked for them all day and always stopped to get a drink!

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Gabriel had studied Ancient Rome in school this year and he was really proud that he was able to answer lots of the questions the guide asked.  The tour lasted about 3 hours and included the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill. When it ended, Barbara recommended some great lunch places nearby and also gave us directions for how to get to our next destination at the Vatican.  Overall it was a really incredible morning and a great start to the trip.

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We had AMAZING pizza for lunch, then headed to the Vatican for a tour that afternoon.  Knowing the kids might be toured-out after three hours of walking in the morning, we booked a slightly more expensive (but worth it) private tour so that if they completely ran out of energy, we could cut the tour short and head for gelato. 

Our guide at the Vatican was Marina and she knew simply EVERYTHING about what we were seeing and just how to keep the kids engaged.  We learned all about Michelangelo and how he painted some pretty funny images into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as a way of thumbing his nose at a few people he wasn’t very fond of — including the Pope at the time.  The kids were able to find the parts of the painting we talked about as we looked at the ceiling of the chapel.  They remember so much of what we learned — we had a conversation about it last night, in fact, and they were listing all kinds of details about the painting and Michelangelo. It made me so grateful that we have this opportunity to travel here and so excited to see them learning so much (and actually retaining it!). 

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There was also a really cool modern art installation that the kids were able to interact with — something I just did not expect to see at the Vatican.  They all worked together to push it and it began rotating; it was really amazing and I loved that it showed them a different type of art, something they could touch and move.  It was a great contrast to the paintings and sculptures that surrounded us in the rest of the Vatican museum.

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 We ended the tour with St. Peter’s Basilica, which was immense and gorgeous and ornate and awe-inspiring.  Once again Marina was able to point out things that interested both the children and the adults, including the mummified remains of a Pope, which the boys thought was so cool and creepy.  Unfortunately, none of us had the energy to walk the hundreds of stairs up to the dome to see the view of the city — next time!

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After our Vatican tour, we had nothing else really “planned” for the rest of the day other than dinner.  In Italy, most places don’t even start serving dinner until 7PM, which is late by our standards, but when in Rome (literally), do as the Romans do.  We made a 7PM reservation, then spent the time between our Vatican Tour and then getting our first gelato (SO YUMMY) and relaxing in the Piazza del Popolo, where a street performer blowing giant bubbles kept the kids entertained.

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We had dinner that night in a restaurant recommended by a friend of mine called La Buca di Ripetta.  The food was amazing — I had pear ravioli, which sounds strange but tastes delicious.  I highly recommend it!  My the time we finished eating it was past 9PM and I was honestly amazed the kids were still standing.  When I checked my phone later, I saw that we walked a total of almost 9 miles that day!  

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Although we did walk A LOT, we also took cabs to get from one place to another.  Most of the drivers were okay with putting all six of us in one car, and it was actually cheaper to take a cab than to pay the subway fare for six people.  The cab drivers were ALL extremely friendly, helpful, and talkative and they pointed out sites as we drove and told us stories.  The kids loved it and by the end of the nine day trip they were taxi pros. 

We also tried to use as many Italian phrases as we could — we all learned please (per favore), thank you (grazie), hello (buongiorno) and good-bye (ciao or arrivederci) before the trip and used them all day long — even the children.  It makes a huge difference to at least make an effort to use some native phrases, and people were always happy to help us out with pronunciations.  Plus a lot of people spoke at least a little English, so we never had trouble communicating.

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Takeaways from our first day in Rome:

  1. Book a tour of the most important/expansive sites to get the most out of your visit (I wholeheartedly recommend Angel Tours).
  2. Eat gelato at least once a day! 
  3. Make dinner reservations in advance and plan to eat later than normal if you’re usually on an American timetable.
  4. Try to speak Italian whenever you can — people are always happy to hear you make an effort!
  5. Look for the water fountains and use them to get a drink or fill your water bottles — the kids loved that!  They stayed super hydrated that day. 🙂

Our first day in Rome was amazing and really set the tone for the trip.  We packed a lot in, but the kids were absolute champions and really loved everything we did — although it was tiring, it was amazing. 


Also, here’s how we packed for the Italy trip, and my thoughts on trying new things and seeing new places.


 

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