4-Day Road Trip Through Coastal Maine

No one told me about the wildflowers in Maine.

During a trip this past August, I was astonished by the vibrant colors this northern state wears in late-summer. She was dressed in a blanket of green ferns with accents of every hue, painted on a backdrop of blue skies. It was an unkempt, dazzling landscape to let my mind wander through as we drove by the harbor towns of New England, saltwater heavy in the air.

Below are the highlights of my family’s trip to Portland, Wiscasset, Boothbay, and Bar Harbor. Note: We are all seafood lovers, so there was a food-heavy angle to our itinerary. 

I hope your adventure “down the coast” is filled with as many tasty meals, crisp beers, and beautiful wildflowers as ours was!

Maine’s Portland Head Light in mid-August

Maine’s Portland Head Light in mid-August

Portland

What to Do:

Portland is the largest of the towns we visited. The Old Port area is the perfect place to stroll—its cobblestone streets and 19th-century brick buildings are quaint relics of a time past.  During the day, walk the rows of converted warehouses that hold small boutiques and knick knack shops. At night, enjoy the robust restaurant scene or grab a drink at a local brewery. There are also several sightseeing services offered from the wharfs along Commercial Street.  

If you have a car, drive the 20 minutes to the Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth (pictured above). Grab a lobster roll and a blueberry soda at the Bite Into Maine food truck near the parking lot—this was our favorite roll of the trip. Then walk up and down the coast and snap some photos of the iconic 80-foot light house. It’s been guarding Maine’s rocky cliffs from shipwrecks since 1791. 

While we didn’t have time to visit other attractions, the Portland Museum of Art and a restored Victorian mansion are both within walking distance of the Old Port area.

Restaurants: 

Central Provisions serves an eclectic mix of small plates with quality ingredients. We ordered 11 or 12 plates for four people, which was just the right amount of food. My family sampled dishes like bone marrow toast, bluefin tuna crudo, and suckling pig—my parents even tried their first foie gras (I was shocked and proud!). But the favorite dish of the meal was crunchy cod cheek tempura that melted in your mouth like butter.

Central Provisions doesn’t take reservations, so we put our name down at 6:30 pm and walked around Old Port for about an hour and a half. To kill time, we had an appetizer of oysters and cocktails at a restaurant down the block called Eventide—we stood at the bar to avoid the line. If you like dirty martinis, they make a mean one with olive brine, oyster brine, hot sauce, and gin (or vodka, if you must).

Duck Fat is right next door, and another staple in the Portland food scene. Known for their poutine, sandwiches, and milkshakes, this café makes for a good lunch option. I also sampled a tasty, local IPA here called Liquid Riot. We stopped by this establishment on our last day of the trip, right before heading to the airport.

I have no complaints about the three restaurants listed above; each of them is worth a visit. But Central Provisions made for a memorable evening and was dubbed a highlight of our trip.

Wiscasset

Wiscasset is a small town situated right off of Route 1, the main highway along the coast of Maine. Because we were doing a lengthy road trip to see multiple harbors, we wanted to be close to this road. So we found a two-bedroom cottage on Airbnb with porch views of the Sheepscot River. It was centrally located and perfect for our party of four.

While driving from Portland to Wiscasset on Day 2 of our journey, we stopped at Castle Tucker, a historic mansion open to visitors during the summer and early fall. I adore old houses and their history, so my interest was piqued throughout the whole experience—but I will warn you, the tour was quite long. I think our guide had us for about 1.5 hours. Get all of the details about Castle Tucker, here.

The actual town of Wiscasset has a few cute boutiques, an antique shop opened in the afternoons, and the famous Red’s Eats lobster stand (warning: the line can get very long). Castle Tucker is about a 4-minute drive from Wiscasset’s main drag.

If you head about 10 minutes north, you’ll find Shuck Station Raw Bar in Newcastle, Maine. We ordered 2 dozen oysters and found some favorite (briny) varieties. These included Mere Point, Johns River, and “Wild Dams”—or wild oysters not specifically from a farm. This converted gas station-turned-restaurant was a great casual lunch spot with more than just oysters on the menu; my dad got another lobster roll and some tasty fries. Throughout the summer, they also have live music on the weekends. Note: The Mere Points with a dab of lemon were my favorite oyster combination of the weekend—but I like ‘em salty!

Boothbay Harbor

I visited Boothbay in high school (which is now many moons ago) but I wanted to return and do something on the water. One of my dad’s collogues recommended the Cabbage Island Clambake, an experience where visitors can take a cruise to a family-owned island and enjoy a big lobster dinner on its shores. I quickly booked tickets.

Our night started with a slow sail through Boothbay, past lighthouses and little islands, while the captain told us a few fun facts about the harbor. We opted to stand outside on the boat’s deck to get a good view. Capacity is limited within this area of the ship, so be sure to quickly walk up to the top of the boat when you first step foot on board. Also even in mid-August, it’s a good idea to bring a light jacket.

When we arrived on the Moore family’s island, their 99-year-old matriarch Bennie Alice greeted us. Believe it or not, she still works in the gift shop! My mother loved talking to her—Bennie told Mom that the family boat was named after her because none of her children could decide on which wife to name it after. Ha!

We roamed around the grounds a bit, then settled into a corner table on the porch of the family’s house/restaurant. At the first bell, a bowl of fish chowder was brought to our table along with a few drinks we’d ordered. At the second bell, we all lined up to get our meals from a fire pit at the edge of the water. Each tray included two lobsters, a bowl of oysters, a potato, an onion, an egg, and corn on the cob. After our meal, blueberry cake and coffee were served.

maine-lobster-britney-fitzgerald

You can confidently assume we were very full and very happy with our “eat like a local” experience.

 If you’re interested in the Cabbage Island Clambake, be sure to book your reservations in advance—it sells out quickly! You’ll pick up your tickets day-of at Pier 6; only or check are accepted. The whole experience takes about four hours. Both the boat and the island have a cash bar. And if you don’t know how to crack a lobster, the staff will show you exactly how it’s done.  

Bar Harbor

After an evening of sipping wine on our cottage’s porch while watching the fog roll over the Sheepscot River, we woke up early and hopped in the car for a two-hour drive north. Our destination: Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park and the town of Bar Harbor.

The scenic route took us through small towns and fields full of wildflowers. As we neared Acadia, the landscape changed—rolling hills became steeper and jagged cliffs lined the coast.

We’d made reservations at Jordan Pond House, a restaurant that’s been serving popovers and tea near the base of Jordan Pond since the 1890s. The local lobster stew, blueberry mojito, and—of course—a popover topped with butter made for the perfect lunch before a short walk around part of Jordon Pond. The only downside to this establishment? The parking situation is pretty bleak. We had to circle a series of two parking lots with no cell service for about 30 minutes before magically finding a spot. Give yourself plenty of time to get situated if you are driving to this restaurant.

The view from Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park

The view from Jordan Pond House in Acadia National Park

Next we drove about 20 minutes to the town of Bar Harbor. It was bigger than we thought it would be, with several rows of shops, pubs, and restaurants. I’d suggest walking down to the water and then cutting up the Shore Path for some beautiful views of the coastline—you can spot this path on Google Maps. There are also whale watching cruises and scenic boat tours available off West Street.  

Bar Harbor definitely caters to tourists—it’s packed with little inns and souvenir shops. There was even a cruise ship in the harbor when we arrived. But the town encompasses quintessential New England and we were glad we stopped by for the afternoon. 

A glimpse of Bar Harbor, Maine

A glimpse of Bar Harbor, Maine

On our drive back toward Wiscasset, we took a slightly different route through the quaint town of Camden to get to our dinner reservations. The little village was surrounded by Victorian mansions that had been converted into B&Bs, each of which were glowing with warm lights as we drove by at dusk. Next time we visit Maine, I’d like to add Camden to the list! 

Into Rockland we drove to eat at Primo, a restaurant situated on a working farm that prides itself on having a “full circle kitchen.” The dining area is in—you guessed it!—another converted Victorian mansion, complete with several intimate dining areas, a winding staircase, and two upstairs bars. 

Primo describes its story best: “What started out as one chef and two cooks in the kitchen, one greenhouse and one acre of vegetables has now become a full staff of 60 with 2 greenhouses, over 200 laying chickens, 150 broiler chickens, 5 ducks, 15 pigs and 3 acres of vegetables continuously rotating throughout the season.” Everything we sampled was fresh, and every piece of the animal was used in one dish or another. You don’t have to be daring—there’s pasta and fish on the menu—but we did sample some pig ear and pig brain! Guess what? Tastes like bacon. 

After a delicious last dinner in Maine, we drove the 40 minutes back to our cottage and took up our posts on the front porch. We watched as the nightly fog rolled through Wiscasset and fanned out over the river, like a blanket being spread over a sleepy village. 

Tips for your Maine adventure: 

  • We made a few reservations in advance, as Maine is much more populated during the summer season. The Cabbage Island Clambake, Jordan Pond House, and Primo Restaurant all require planning. 

  • Give yourself a little time to just pull over and explore small towns. We did this once, but we missed a cute flea market because of our schedule! 

  • Renting a car is basically mandatory. There’s not much public transportation.  

  • On our next trip, I’d love to visit a brewery, do a whale watching tour, and take a hike up Cadillac Mountain! But I’m happy with what we accomplished in three nights :)

  • I always travel with a quick-dry towel, Band-Aids, a travel guide, and a portable battery for my phone.


Maine is a beautiful place that I paradoxically want to hoard to myself and share with everyone I meet.
— John Hodgman

What to Pack for Vacation: 10 International Travel Essentials

At least once a year, I like to save up some money and take a week-long trip. Whether it’s vacationing in Rome with my family of seven, or sleeping in a tent on the beach with my high school best friend, it’s crucial to escape New York City for a few days and embrace another type of adventure.

Over the years, I’ve learned some personal hacks: For instance, I now know that I prefer the aisle seat on an airplane because I always have to pee (at least twice) and I get anxiety about waking people up and asking them to move for my small bladder. I know how to use my credit card to get a free trip to Europe via points. I know I should always bring a shower cap so that I don’t waste an hour each day doing my hair. And so on.

I’ve also learned what to pack for my optimal overseas experience—and I’d like to share my findings with you! Below is a general list of 10 travel essentials. Note: If you’re headed to Iceland or somewhere cold, here is a more specific packing guide.

Ryan and I on our Saint Lucia honeymoon in 2017.

Ryan and I on our Saint Lucia honeymoon in 2017.

Let’s start with what to pack for the plane.

1. Sleep Mask

This soft sleep mask is contoured, so you’re still able to blink with it on—I personally don’t like when my eyes feel plastered to my cheeks. It also has an adjustable, Velcro strap, meaning your head is never squeezed. Grab a three pack for less than $10 on Amazon

2. Noise Cancelling Headphones

Some might say that I’m… sensitive to noise. They are correct. For instance, I hate if the person next to me on the subway is chewing gum with their mouth open—or if my neighbor on a plane starts snoring. So for Christmas last year, my parents gifted me with some brilliant, Bose noise-canceling headphones.

These little pillows of softness have been life changing (it’s worth noting that I live in the lovely but LOUD New York City). Being able to turn off the world around me when I’m trying to sleep or get work done is important. Another perk: these wireless headphones don’t insert into the ear, so I can wear them for most of a Transatlantic flight without feeling sore.

If these headphones are out of your price range, be sure to bring some ear plugs! You never know what the plane situation is going to be like.

3. Other Plane Necessities

Before boarding, I always make sure I have the following in my backpack:

  • Passport

  • Headphones (see above)

  • Sleep mask (see above)

  • A few Advil + Tylenol PM

  • Mints + chap stick

  • Toiletries bag

  • Phone charger

  • Toothbrush + facial wipes

  • Wallet + phone

  • Pen (for handling Customs)

  • Inflatable neck pillow: Does anyone have a good recommendation for this? If so, please leave a comment below—I’m looking to upgrade! I prefer an inflatable one for space, but am open to options.

Hiking the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2016

Hiking the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in 2016

And here’s a list of trip essentials:

4. Portable Battery

My husband bought these two products, both of which I’ve used in different circumstances. The Anker PowerCore has two jacks, making it perfect for when you’re traveling with a companion. We use this frequently on family trips.

This Jackery Portable Charger is a lighter option and great for solo travel. I also just throw it in my purse for everyday usage when I’m bopping around NYC and might not have access to an outlet for a few hours. It’s probably my favorite little purchase of 2019.

5. Outlet Converter

If you’re traveling from the United States to Europe or another part of the world, don’t forget that you’ll need an outlet converter. This one is my preferred companion because it has several outlets, as well as a USB port. I’ve probably been using this same model for about five years.

6. Quick-Dry Towel

Even if you’re not camping, these microfiber towels can be helpful in multiple travel situations. Let’s take a trip down memory lane for some examples:

  1. I used one in Mykonos on the beach because the hotel charged per towel. This was the cheaper option.

  2. My friends and I packed these for a trip to Iceland because many of the hikes end with a hot spring. This towel was much easier to lug in a backpack than a regular one.

  3. I used it in Turkey when we ran out of towels at our Airbnb. And because it dries pretty quickly (much faster than a regular towel) my backpack didn’t smell like mold on the way home.

 You get the picture. Things happen, and sometimes you want your own towel. Here are the two that I’ve used for most of my journeys: one from Amazon and one from REI.

On our way to the Blue Hole on Malta’s island of Gozo in 2019.

On our way to the Blue Hole on Malta’s island of Gozo in 2019.

7. Guidebooks + Podcasts

They may seem outdated, but a book can come in handy when your wifi isn’t working in a foreign country. I always get a guidebook for every new place I visit—when planning a trip, it’s the second purchase I make, right after the plane tickets. My favorite series is by Lonely Planet: I love that many of the recommendations come from locals or travel writers who’ve really explored the area. I also trust most of the food recommendations. If you’re more of a pictures person, I think DK Eyewitness has great visual guides and maps in their city-specific books.

And I’m always down for anything Rick Steves says about museums and attractions. He also has an app and web downloads available with podcasts for specific venues, like the Pantheon or the Palace of Versailles. My family frequently used the podcasts in Italy—they give awesome tips for how to walk through a museum or historic venue. (We even bypassed a huge line by using a hidden door in the Sistine Chapel, thanks to Steves!)

8. Raincoat + Umbrella

Don’t forget these basics, especially when traveling in spring. I venture into drizzly weather with an Eddie Bauer waterproof jacket that can double as a wind breaker and is easy to stuff into a backpack. I have a heavy duty umbrella for New York weather, but use this Repel Windproof umbrella for travel. It takes up less room, and has a handy automatic open/close function.

9. DSLR Camera

I love my iPhone camera—it does a great job capturing regular life. But there’s nothing like the clarity of a DSLR camera, particularly when the lighting is difficult or when what you’re trying to capture is far away (think, skyline shots). I also like to print my photos when I get home, and that’s when you can really tell the difference between the technology.

I’m a Canon person, simply because my parents bought me my first one as a graduation gift. It’s been traveling the world with me for the last 10 years, and I’ve never experienced an issue with the camera or the lenses. Here’s the latest version of the Canon Rebel that I’ve been using—it’s the perfect purchase for a hobby photographer. I also upgraded and bought the 18 - 135mm lens for most of my travel photos (this lens option is also available in the first link so you can purchase the body of the camera and the lens together). It has a wide focal length range, and is a step up in quality from the 18 - 55mm starter lens. You won’t need to change out your lens with this guy when traveling; it does it all. The only other lens I’ve purchased over the years is a 50mm for portrait shots. (If you have children or puppies, this one will blow your mind.)

It’s worth noting that if you’ve never used a DSRL camera before, you should practice a bit before you next adventure. I remember watching a few YouTube videos to learn the basics back in 2010! But if I can do it, believe me, so can you.

10. Collapsible Water Bottle

This is my latest purchase. I hate carrying a water bottle around—it takes up too much room and it’s always the first thing I toss out of my luggage when I’m tight on space. But I also get tired of purchasing one-off plastic water bottles; it’s not good for the environment or my wallet. Enter, the collapsible, silicone water bottle. I’m excited to take this on my next vacation.

Bonus: Travel Fan

Ok, this is not essential for everyone—but it is for me. Remember how I said I was noise sensitive? I also have a hard time falling asleep without the sound of a fan, especially if I’m sharing a room with snorers. This travel fan doesn’t make too much sound; just enough for me to black out. I will say that I have to leave the cord plugged into a USB outlet all night because the battery dies quickly. However, the lack of space the fan takes up in my suitcase was more important to me than the strength of the battery.  

Thanks for reading! I hope you found these tips to be helpful. For more travel essentials, check out my list on Amazon.

My family visiting Florence, Italy in 2018.

My family visiting Florence, Italy in 2018.


Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
— Gustave Flaubert

Disclosure: some links in this article are affiliate links. This means, at no additional cost to you, I may earn a commission from a purchase you make. All products listed above have been bought and tested by me :)

9-Day Italy Trip—Part 3: Cinque Terre

Welcome to Part 3 of our digital journey through Italy! This post will focus on our one-night stay in Cinque Terre. If you’re planning your own trip, be sure to check out my family’s Venice itineraryDuomo experience, and Florence tips. A guide for Tuscany and Rome will be published soon.  

CINQUE TERRE

This picturesque portion of Italy is comprised of five villages on the Italian Riviera: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Paths connect these villages, and one of the prime attractions of this region is hiking between the quaint and colorful towns. While once an isolated area that was difficult to access via most forms of transportation, trains now connect the villages to each other and to more central locations. Cinque Terre, which literally means “Five Lands,” didn’t become a popular tourism spot until the 1970s and has since been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park.

The village of Vernazza.

The village of Vernazza.

WHERE TO STAY

My family opted to hop a train from Florence to the largest of these villages, Monterosso al Mare, where we spent one night at La Cabana Hotel before heading to Rome. The quaint, family-run inn has gorgeous views of the Mediterranean, and the room price includes a sizable breakfast. My husband and I splurged on one of the “Junior Suites,” which included a terrace and hot tub. We liked the idea of having a place where the family could relax together. Monterosso also doesn’t have the same night life scene as some of the larger cities we were visiting, so the hot tub provided us a fun evening activity.

The hotel is situated above the main town and is about a five-minute drive from the train station. Free shuttle service to and from La Cabana are available via the front desk. You should coordinate with the staff before arrival to ensure a smooth check-in process—we had no issues scheduling an early morning car through the hotel. You’re also able to walk down to Monterosso’s main street thanks to a paved path through olive trees, but I wouldn’t recommend it with luggage. The walk takes approximately 10 minutes.

We really enjoyed our stay in Cinque Terre—it was a relaxing portion of our journey placed strategically between the busy days spent in Florence and Rome. While we loved our large and affordable Airbnbs, it was also enjoyable to have a somewhat luxurious night in a proper hotel—we didn’t have to take the trash out or strip the sheets before leaving!  

THINGS TO DO

BOAT TOUR

There are ferries and boats galore in Cinque Terre, and if the weather holds, I’d highly recommend seeing the five towns from the water. The Fitzgerald family hired Captain Stefano for a three-hour private boat tour—and it was such a success!

Just three sisters, exploring Cinque Terre by boat!

Just three sisters, exploring Cinque Terre by boat!

After checking into our hotel, we picked up (delicious) pasta to-go and a bottle of wine for our tour. Stefano met us at the main port—his boats always leave from Monterosso, which was the main reason we opted to stay in this village. He doesn’t mind if you bring snacks and beverages on his vessel, though we double-checked with him via email to be polite. 

It was slightly too cold to swim in mid-May, but we managed to see all of Cinque Terre’s five towns, explore two of them by foot, and learn about the history of the area. (If you opt to walk around a few of the villages, just know Stefano stays with the boat while you’re out and about.) 

The view from the village of Manarola.

The view from the village of Manarola.

The cost of our excursion was €100.00 x hour x boat and had to be paid in cash. This was very reasonable when divided between my party of seven (the max for one boat). We left a 20% tip, meaning each of us paid about $50 for a memorable afternoon with a hilarious, Italian captain.  

Lastly, some of my best pictures from Italy were snapped on the boat! The pastel-painted villages change colors in the setting sun, and the Mediterranean makes for a beautiful backdrop. Stefano explained to us that he has taken thousands of photos of Cinque Terre, but it never feels like quite enough.    

HIKING

As mentioned above, the main attraction of Cinque Terre are the hikes between villages. Four of us opted to hike from the neighboring town of Vernazza back to Monterosso. (The other three were dropped off by our boat captain directly to the port of Monterosso.) The Blue Trail hike took us about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and was a little over 2 miles long.  

To enter the trail, look for signs to Monterosso and an ascending path along an alley above the church of Saint Margaret of Antioch. You’ll continue to climb up through olive trees and vineyards before the terrain levels out a third of the way through your journey. Be sure to turn around and snap a few shots of Vernazza before getting too deep into the forest!

The path can be somewhat uneven and a few spots are narrow. As your hike comes to an end and you begin to descend into town, you’ll see lemon trees and the roofs of Monterosso. 

Tips: Landslides shuttered some of the trails several years ago, and current weather can close certain paths. Be sure to check the status of your hike before taking off. This website and this website helped keep us up to date. I would also not suggest wearing flip-flops on the trail; I was very comfortable in these lightweight tennis shoes.   

LONGER HIKE

We didn’t have time to complete the longer hike between Vernazza and Monterosso before sunset (you do not want to be on these old paths at night). But there is another trail option that will take you past two sanctuaries toward the top of the park. This hike is supposed to be around 3 hours and 30 minutes.

CASTELLO DORIA

Looking for a historical spot to visit while in the town of Vernazza? Check out Castello Doria, the oldest surviving tower in Cinque Terre. It dates back to about the year 1000, and it offers up a beautiful 360-degree view of this Mediterranean village. The short but steep hike to Castello Doria will take you through winding paths of quaint, old houses. Once at the top, there is a 1.50 Euro entrance fee—be sure to have cash! Take the narrow staircase to the very top of the tower for one of the tallest views in town.   

OTHER THINGS TO DO:

  • Go to the beach in Monterosso—it’s the “beachiest” of the villages

  • Visit one of the nearby vineyards

  • Take a pesto-making class—this region is known for this sauce!

  • Go cliff jumping in Riomaggiore

  • Pick up regional goodies at Cantina du Sciacchetra in Monterosso

  • Check out views of Manarola while sipping wine at Nessun Dorma

  • Walk around the village cemeteries

Where to Eat

GASTRONOMIA SAN MARTINO

Don’t let the buffet-style counter and plastic dishes fool you—this place whipped up some of the creamiest pesto pasta I’ve ever eaten! There was no need for more toppings or salt; the regional pesto was perfection and the trofie pasta (a Northern Italy style-pasta that is twisted and made with a little potato) melted in my hungry mouth. We took our lunch to-go, and devoured it on our boat tour of Cinque Terre.  

DA ERALDO

After our hike back to Monterosso, we were famished and seeking another regional dish: seafood! So we went to Da Eraldo, and sat outside at a classic, Italian red and white checkered cloth table. We munched on cheese appetizers, sipped white wine, and ordered incredible seafood pasta dishes filled with prawns, squid, mussels, and salty garlic sauce. I also sampled Cinque Terre’s famous sardines, served with hunks of butter, slices of bread, prosciutto, pesto, and olive oil. This was one of our favorite meals of the trip.  

TIPS:

  • The weather is always changing here. In May, we wore jeans, short sleeves, and rain jackets.

  • As mentioned above, be sure to check which trails are open before starting your hiking journey.

  • Sometimes, when the trails are “closed” it really means the checkpoint isn’t open. Tourist information centers in the towns will have more information.

  • If you plan on hiking multiple trails and using public transportation, look into purchasing the Cinque Terre Card. It was unnecessary for us because we took a boat tour, but it could be useful if that’s not in your budget.

  • I love all of Rick Steves’ guide books—this pocket-sized one is for all of Cinque Terre.

And here’s a few more photos from our trip!


Who that has ever visited the borders of this classic sea, has not felt at the first sight of its waters a glow of reverent rapture akin to devotion, and an instinctive sensation of thanksgiving at being permitted to stand before these hallowed waves?
— Edward Forbes, The Natural History of the European Seas

9-Day Italy Trip—Part 2: Florence

Welcome to Part 2 of our digital trip through Italy! This post will focus on Florence—if you’re planning your own trip, be sure to check out my family’s Venice itinerary and Duomo experience. Guides to Tuscany, Cinque Terre, and Rome will be published soon.

FLORENCE

I wasn’t sure what I’d think about Rome or Venice, but I knew I’d love Florence before even leaving Brooklyn. A town that birthed the Renaissance and is surrounded by the green hills of Tuscany is all too easy to adore.

A view of Florence, Italy from Piazza Michelangelo

A view of Florence, Italy from Piazza Michelangelo

WHERE TO STAY 

“Should I look up a Marriott in Florence?” my dad asked from the couch of our Venice apartment. The whole family wore matching expressions of exhaustion and frustration.  

About two minutes prior, Mom had checked her email for the first time since landing in Italy. It was the end of an eventful day, and we were taking a few minutes to plan the next afternoon’s key swap with the Airbnb host in Florence.

But instead of details about how to access the apartment, the host had sent us a long message. The first sentence started with an apology, and then something along the lines of “the apartment you were going to stay in has flooded.” Mom and I both gasped out loud.

Luckily, after some frantic Whatsapp messages, we were able to contact the host—he had another apartment for us that would work. My sister Grace would no longer get her own room; instead, she’d have to board with me and my husband. But it was certainly a better option than spending hours looking for an affordable hotel in a foreign city.

I’d give our Airbnb mixed reviews: the owner was able to resolve the situation, however, he wasn’t very friendly or helpful. The apartment, located in Piazza dei Ciompi, suited our needs and had a fabulous garden where we drink wine every evening. My husband didn’t enjoy the mattress on our bed, but the AC worked well and the natural sunlight in the back two rooms made for a lovely wake up call. 

And if you’re traveling with a smaller group, this Airbnb was highly recommended to me. It didn’t work for our numbers—but the view looked incredible. 

THINGS TO DO

STATUE OF DAVID
Seeing David in person is vastly different that looking at a picture of Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece. Don’t like museums? This one has about three rooms—you can handle it. Don’t understand the importance? Download Rick Steves' podcast and listen while you walk around the gallery. It’s like having a free, personal tour!

Tips: Purchase tickets ahead of time to skip the line. Use this link for the official ticket website. Allow at least 45 minutes to an hour at this museum. Note that it’s closed on Mondays.

The Statue of David in the Galleria dell'Accademia

The Statue of David in the Galleria dell'Accademia

DUOMO
The cathedral, the baptistry, and the climb to the top of this building’s iconic dome were memorable moments of our Florence experience. We ran out of time—but there’s even more to see, including a bell tower and an ancient crypt. For more on our Duomo climbing experience, check out this blog post.

Tips: Buy tickets ahead of time to skip some lines. We purchased the 18 Euro passes for access to all the monuments for 72 hours. A separate (free) reservation must be made if you’d like to climb up the dome.

The Duomo's ornate cathedral.

The Duomo's ornate cathedral.

PIAZZALE MICHELANGELO
This was one of my favorite adventures in Florence. After lunch and a little rainstorm, we walked from the Uffizi Gallery over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and through the quaint neighborhood of San Niccolò. Our destination was Piazzale Michelangelo, a hill that offers stunning views of Florence.

Tips: If you are visiting in spring, don’t go straight to the top! We stopped at a rose garden on the way up to the lookout point. It was nearly deserted and offered beautiful vistas. Once you’ve snapped a few photos, continue your journey to the peak of the hill. Grab a beer, take more pictures, go to the bathroom (for a Euro), and enjoy Florence’s Duomo-dominated skyline.

Piazzale Michelangelo's rose garden.

Piazzale Michelangelo's rose garden.

PALAZZO MEDICI RICCARDI
My husband, my brother-in-law, and I stopped into this Renaissance palace that was once owned by the infamous Medici banking family. Built in the mid-1400s, this stone structure holds a wealth of frescoes, tapestries, Venetian chandeliers, and government history—including artifacts, like a bed that Neapolitan slept in! One of its rooms is still used today by state agencies.

Tips: It’s worth mentioning that this is one of the only museums open on a Monday in Florence. We arrived around 4pm and experienced no line. Tickets cost 7 Euro.

One of the (casual) parlors at the Medici Palace

One of the (casual) parlors at the Medici Palace

MERCATO CENTRALE
Stop by this large market and food hall to sample everything from buffalo mozzarella to wine. This is one of those places to go if everyone in your group wants to eat something different and you’re all traveling on a range of budgets. Full disclosure: We walked around and did some shopping, but didn’t eat much here as it was around dinnertime, and we had made reservations at La Giostra!

Truffles at the Mercato Centrale

Truffles at the Mercato Centrale

PASTA CLASS
While some of us were exploring the Medici palace and the Duomo’s baptistry, my mother and sisters opted to take a pasta making class. They learned how to roll several different types of pasta with a small group of people during a three-hour session. If you’re looking for a deeper dive into Italian food, three of my friends who traveled to Florence in 2017 also highly recommend this course.

OTHER THINGS TO DO:

  • Uffizi Gallery – It’s one of my big regrets that we couldn’t fit this in—but our free day in Florence was on a Monday, when the famous Uffizi is closed!

  • Boboli Gardens

  • Bargello

  • Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

  • Giardino Bardini

  • Forte di Belvedere

  • Santa Croce

  • Palazzo Vecchio

  • Vasari Corridor

WHERE TO EAT

TRATTORIA ZAZA
This restaurant was a pure delight. We made reservations several weeks in advance, and my husband told the staff we were celebrating a special event (Mother’s Day in Europe!). We were lucky enough to be escorted to a private dining room, complete with antique furniture, a large wooden table, and candle-lit walls.

Of the restaurants in Italy that we visited, this was one of the only places that served me a truly excellent cocktail. The Negroni was spot on, and the 10 Euro jug of house wine for the table was an excellent follow up. Food highlights included the gorgonzola and truffle gnocchi, the famous Florentine T-bone steak that I split with my husband, and the seafood risotto that my sister wouldn't share. 

GUSTA PIZZA
Unsure when we’d get home from a full-day tour in Tuscany, we decided to order in food one night. Family-run Gusta Pizza had been recommended to us by a slew of people—and it didn’t disappoint. We each ordered our own pizza (they’re slightly larger than a personal pizza in the USA) and chowed down on crispy dough loaded with fresh basil, mozzarella, and olive oil. Gusta uses a wood fire stove, which makes each pie slightly different. I remember telling my sister that I “wasn’t very hungry,” and then promptly devoured my whole pizza and all of her leftovers. 

Tip: Don’t want to wait in line? Order from your hotel or Airbnb with this website

ALL'ANTICO VINAIO
This no-frills sandwich shop is famous for its fresh ingredients and sizable portions. It’s a tasty lunch option that usually has a line—but it moves quickly, and if you visit after 1:30 pm you’ll have missed most of the rush. There are no tables and chairs, so we sat underneath the nearby Uffizi Gallery’s awning. Tip: The Dante sandwich’s truffle cream is fantastic!

All'Antico Vinaio's Dante sandwich.

All'Antico Vinaio's Dante sandwich.

LA GIOSTRA
My husband’s cousin recommended this spot to us, so we made reservations two weeks before our trip. The review? Dad claims his seafood pasta at La Giostra was probably his favorite dish in Italy! Our meal began with a glass of Champagne and a sampling of appetizers, on the house. We then ordered the famous pear ravioli, a creamy plate of burrata, and several other tasty dishes, followed by the tiramisu. Sips of limoncello were served with our check. This experience was one of our pricier meals—but the service, samples, and Tuscan-inspired food made it well worth the extra Euros.

One of the tasty pear and gorganzolla dishes at La Giostra.

One of the tasty pear and gorganzolla dishes at La Giostra.

TIPS:

  • Download Rick Steves' podcasts for the museums that you’re interested in visiting—you’ll have more context and can skip the audio guide fees. (We really enjoyed listening to his episode about the Statue of David!)

  • If you're moving around town all day, consider getting a portable battery for your phone. Traveling alone? Here's a great high-speed option for less than $20. If you're visiting as a couple or with a group, we enjoyed using this external battery pack—it has two charging ports!

  • The Firenze Card didn't work for us because we were only going to be in Florence proper for two days. But if you're visiting multiple museums, it may be a good option for you! The three-day pass lets you skip lines to many of the top tourists attractions—however, you'd have to go to quite a few museums for the card to pay for itself.

  • If you're near the Duomo and looking for a sweet treat, we loved the gelato at Edoardo. They had both basic flavors and bizarre ones—like toasted sesame!

  • Taking cabs? Unlike in NYC, you can't just stick your hand up in the air to hail a cab. Instead you should look for taxi stands. Some locations to find a cab are shown in the map below; use the button in the top left to see the full list.



You will begin to wonder that human daring ever achieved anything so magnificent.
— John Ruskin, "Mornings in Florence," 1875

Like this article? Pin it!

Like this article? Pin it!

Climbing the Florence Duomo: Claustrophobia and Joy

“Mom, you’re doing great.”

She looked at me with a strained smile and latched her hands onto the walls around her. We were in a dark circular stairway, narrow enough for only one person to pass at a time.

My family was climbing the 463 steps of the Florence Duomo, an iconic pink and green cathedral in the city’s center. The old stone hallways surrounding us were constructed in the 1400s, and the prominent dome (pictured below) was designed by one of the “fathers of the Renaissance,” Filippo Brunelleschi. The tip-top of the dome was our destination.

The view of the Florence Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo

The view of the Florence Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo

Part one of our climb was relatively easy. Space was tight, but the line was moving quickly. I ran my fingers over smooth, worn stone and thought of the people who had walked through this building over the centuries. Which clergymen had access to these stairs? Could the public of Florence visit the top of the dome in the 1700s—or even in the 1970s?

My mother doesn’t like small spaces that have minimal exits; she likes a getaway plan, and I don’t blame her. This tiny passageway wasn’t ideal for her anxieties, but she pressed on. We all wanted to see 360-degree views of Florence from one of the tallest buildings in town.  

My sister Kathryn snapped this photo—do you see the fear in our faces yet?

My sister Kathryn snapped this photo—do you see the fear in our faces yet?

My family had now reached the second part of our climb: we walked through a door and onto a 3-foot wide ledge, lining the inside of the dome. The ledge sits 130+ feet in the air and has a plexiglass wall, giving visitors a chance to admire the cathedral below and a ceiling of frescoes depicting the Last Judgement, above. The paintings were so close, you could almost touch them.

However, I can’t say that I truly got a chance to study these works of art.

I wouldn’t consider myself terrified of heights—I stand on roofs, hike up hills, and love a good Empire State Building view. But something about that 3-foot ledge constructed in the 1400s made me squirm. Why had it not already broken away and fallen to the ground!?

As we walked onto the ledge, my mother said, “I thought the top would be more open than this,” in a nervous voice.

“We’re not at the top yet, Mom” I replied, trying not to look green. I swiveled my head around. Was anyone else in full panic mood? No, no… all seemed calm.  

And then I saw my sister, Grace.

“Keep moving, people!” she shouted to a crowd of tourists snapping photos of frescoes. She power walked, not glancing at the cathedral below or the works of art above. I giggled as she practically pushed the woman in front of her through the next door, away from the plexiglass ledge. I had a momentary flashback of her panic attack in Scotland when I’d made her climb a steep hill in the rain. Poor sister. Would she ever travel with me again?

The ledge, the plexiglass, the frescoes, and Ryan's head.

The ledge, the plexiglass, the frescoes, and Ryan's head.

Part three of the climb consisted of more circular stairs up, up, up to the top. But the line wasn’t moving very quickly, and suddenly the small stairway high in the sky seemed like a stone prison to at least half of our group. Dad’s knee was bothering him, Mom was closing her eyes, and my sisters were glancing worriedly at our parents. Even my husband and brother-in-law looked ill at ease.

The Fitzgeralds (in particular, Mom) get chatty when we’re nervous, so we began joking with the British tourists in front of us.

“Hear there’s a Starbucks at the top,” the Brit said, obviously trying to lighten the mood. I laughed and shifted my weight onto the other foot. How long had we been standing here? “I’ll get myself a Venti,” he said. “We all deserve Ventis!”

A few silent moments went by. 

“You’re wicked for making me do this,” the Brit’s wife said. We were still standing in the same spot of the narrow stairwell. He turned to me. “Now, look! Your family’s given my wife the anxiety.” We all laughed—and after what felt like 20 minutes but was probably 5— the line began to move once more.

The final phase of the climb consisted of steep, curved stairs with metal hand railings. There was a tour guide in front of us who shouted down to her group, “You are now scaling the inside of the dome,” to which my mother yelled back up, “No sh*t!” with a nervous laugh.

And then, right at the breaking point—when I truly didn’t know if my family or the British couple were going to make it—we crawled through a portal onto the roof of the iconic Duomo.

And what a sight we saw.

Terracotta roofs for miles

Terracotta roofs for miles

On the hill is Piazzale Michelangelo, a great place to get a view of Florence. See those stairs near the parking lot in the center? We grabbed a beer and sat there post-Duomo climb.

On the hill is Piazzale Michelangelo, a great place to get a view of Florence. See those stairs near the parking lot in the center? We grabbed a beer and sat there post-Duomo climb.

The Duomo's bell tower, officially called Giotto's Campanile—which you can also climb.

The Duomo's bell tower, officially called Giotto's Campanile—which you can also climb.

The rain held off as we explored every angle of Florence and marveled at this romantic city on the cusp of Tuscany's hills. Our journey up to the top was well worth the effort. A least... for me. You'd have to ask my parents their thoughts ;)

Tips for Climbing the Duomo:

  • You must reserve a ticket in advance to go to the top of the Duomo. We purchased 18 Euro 72-hour pass so we could come back and see the Baptistry, and booked a 10:30am time slot for the climb. Click here for tickets.

  • Consider your tolerance for tight spaces and heights. My mom made it, so you probably will too! But if you have an extreme phobia, this adventure may not be your cup of tea.

  • Do not wait in the ticket line when you arrive at the Duomo if you have already purchased passes online. The entrance for climbing the Dome is via the Porta della Mandorla (north side of the cathedral).


To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature.
— Mark Twain

9-Day Italy Trip—Part 1: Venice

Welcome to Part 1 of our digital journey through Italy! This post will focus on our overall itinerary and stay in Venice. If you’re planning your own trip, be sure to check out my family’s , Duomo experience, Florence tips, and Cinque Terre post. A guide for Tuscany and Rome will be published soon.  

My sisters and I have traveled to Europe several times, both for adventure and for work. In 2009, I interned at a local newspaper in Ireland for credit during a summer in college—and after that? Hopping on an eight-hour flight and crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean didn’t seem so daunting.

Our parents are a different story: they didn’t grow up in a community where a quick trip to Spain was the norm. They got jobs, had babies, and remained happily vacationing in the USA. But last year, they expressed interest in a family trip abroad—and Italy was their dream destination!

Never been to the land of wine and pasta? Here’s our nine-day itinerary (created in May 2018), with a focus on the big hits: Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, and Rome. This post will center around Venice—stay tuned for more!

The Grand Canal in Venice

The Grand Canal in Venice

Itinerary

Day 1: Fly from USA -> Venice
Day 2: Venice -> Florence
Day 3: Florence
Day 4: Florence and Tuscany
Day 5: Florence -> Cinque Terre
Day 6: Cinque Terre -> Rome
Day 7: Rome
Day 8: Rome
Day 9: Rome -> Fly to USA

Notes

Traveling as a group of seven meant some extra planning was required. We made dinner reservations two or three weeks in advance, booked Airbnbs several months ahead of our trip, and requested two private tours about five months out. We also bought train tickets and museum entrance passes a month before our adventure. Italy is one of the more tourist-heavy countries I’ve traveled through (similar to my home in NYC!), so extra planning only means less time standing in line. I also used several travel blogs and a Lonely Planet guide book for recommendations.

The Rialto Bridge, as seen from our gondola on the Grand Canal.

The Rialto Bridge, as seen from our gondola on the Grand Canal.

Venice

This little town on the water surprised us. My husband and I weren’t prepared to enjoy Venice as much as we did, based off recommendations and travel guides. But despite the slight Disney World feel around the Rialto Bridge, my family was glad to see the colorful canals of Venice—before they crumble into the sea! Grabbing a spritz in the quieter neighborhoods and strolling through Doge’s Palace afterhours were both highlights of our trip.

WEATHER

Acqua alta, which translates to “high water,” can be common in Venice—particularly in November and December. Sometimes the flooding only last for a few hours. You can check if the canals are spilling onto the sidewalks with the city’s official acqua alta forecast website. And if they are? Pack some rain boots! Hunter won’t fail you, and Sam Edleman has travel-chic options.

Where to Stay

We opted for an Airbnb on the cusp of the Cannaregio and Castello neighborhoods, near the Ospedale (in English, “hospital”) water bus stop. This was one of our favorite Airbnbs throughout the trip. The AC and Wi-Fi worked well, and the outdoor roof decks provided a perfect place for my family to rest with a bottle of wine. They also let us leave our luggage in the downstairs foyer after checkout, which allowed us to explore sans suitcases.

Tip: If you’re hoping to stay in iconic Venice, don’t book a hotel or Airbnb in Mastre (Venezia Mestre). This is the mainland part of the city, so you would need to hop on a train or bus to access the Venice pictured in this post. That said, cheaper housing options are readily available in the Mastre district. Figure out which is more important to you: the price or the location?

Shot from the sundeck of our Airbnb in Venice

Shot from the sundeck of our Airbnb in Venice

Getting to Venice from the Airport

We could easily access our apartment from an Alilaguna boat, which is the public airport transportation in Venice. Tickets cost 15 Euro per person one way, and 27 Euro for a roundtrip ticket. Expect to stand in line for 10 – 40 minutes depending on the time of day.

You can also hire a private water taxi, but it’s quite a bit more expensive. Rates seem to hover around 107 Euro for four people, plus an additional 10 Euro charge per passenger. You can book these boats once you've landed. If you schedule one through a hotel concierge, be sure to get a quote, as markups can be high. 

Things to Do

Weave Through Waterways

Yes, we took a gondola ride—and we didn’t regret it! Rates are 80 Euro per boat during the day, and each boat fits about 5-6 people. Our party split into two groups and spent less than what an Uber costs from Downtown Brooklyn to JFK Airport. If you can’t find a gondolier on the quieter streets, head to the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge.

Doge’s Palace

The grand and gothic Palazzo Ducale maintains extended summer hours, so we skipped the line and entered this museum at 10 pm (post-dinner, pre-gelato). We wandered the halls of Venice’s landmark building for an hour with only a handful of other tourists. The palace was built in 1340, and was the residence of the Doge, or elected ruler, of the former Republic of Venice.

St. Mark’s Bell Tower

This was a last-minute addition to our itinerary: My husband, my sister, and I ran over to Piazza San Marco early on our final morning in Venice and rode the elevator to the top of the iconic belfry. The views of city's blue-green canals and terracotta skyline were stunning. We waited in line for 30 minutes, hung out in the tower for about 8 minutes, and then rushed back to the Airbnb in order to catch our vaporetto (water bus) to the train station. Spoiler alert: we made it. And tip: Skip-the-line tickets are available if you plan in advance—whoops!

venice st marks bell tower view

San Giorgio Maggiore Bell Tower

I landed a day later than the rest of the family, so they explored this one on their own. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the less-trafficked bell tower and its panoramic views of Venice. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore is free to explore, and the trip up to the belfry is 5 Euro. My family used a vaporetto to reach the island where the church and tower are located.

Other Options

  • Hop over to the island of Murano to see glass blowers at work, or Burano to see where lace is made.

  • Visit the famous opera house, La Fenice

  • Walk through the Gallerie dell'Accademia

  • Tour St. Marks Basilica

Where to Eat

Happy Hour

Venice is known for the Prosecco-based Aperol spritz, but we ended up sipping on these aperitifs all over Italy! The cicchetti tradition is also popular: cicchetti (pronounced chee-KET-eeh) are small snacks served with your early evening drinks in bàcari (cicchetti bars). My husband and I broke away from the group and strolled over to Osteria Ai Do Pozzi—pictured on the right—for a little happy hour sampling. We found ourselves surrounded by Italians, sipping wine on an outdoor patio in a quiet square. Venice’s calm Castello neighborhood was charming, and this little pub in the center of it was a nice place to rest for an hour before dinner. 

Dinner

Breakfast and lunch were typically small affairs—but our family wanted to do dinners right. So we made a reservation at Osteria Oliva Nera, also located in the Castella neighborhood. The owner of the “ristorante” had a fantastic dry wit and served our party delicious dishes of seafood. We also tasted the in-season fried zucchini flowers, which are not to be missed! Before heading over to Doge’s Palace for the rest of our evening, the owner gifted us with boxed samples of olive oil.  

osteria oliva nera venice zucchini flowers

Last-Minute Tips

  • Download the Vaporetto app to learn more about the water bus system.

  • We couldn’t find SIM cards at the Venice airport. You can, however, find a TIM store with international SIM cards available on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge, past all the market booths. Here is the exact location on Google Maps: http://goo.gl/maps/GdWcQ

  • We did not experience any flooding during our trip, but we did have one rainy day. My top travel umbrellas include this small one (less than 7 inches, includes a case) and this more sturdy one (about 11 inches).

  • If you’re coming from the United States, remember to pack an outlet converter. Here’s the one I use.

  • Simply wander Venice’s small and winding streets at dusk to enjoy the magic of this city.


Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.
— Truman Capote

Like this article? Pin it!

venice-italy-two-day-itinerary

5-Day Scotland Road Trip: The Highlands + Isle of Skye

In March 2016, I went on a five-day road trip with a close friend and my youngest sister through Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands. We hiked the Isle of Skye, rode horses around Loch Ness, and stumbled upon traditional folk music in small pubs. Planning a trip through the Highlands? Here’s our day-by-day itinerary and map.

5-Day Road Trip Map 

5 day road trip map scotland highlands

Itinerary Overview

Our destinations were based on the fact that we were all flying into Glasgow, and that we wanted to see the Highlands—more specifically, the remote Isle of Skye. With that in mind, here’s where we chose to venture:

Day 1: Glasgow > Glencoe > Fort William
Day 2: Fort William --> Glenfinnan Viaduct --> Fairy Pools --> Portree
Day 3: Portree --> Quiraing --> Kilt Rock --> Lock Ness --> Inverness
Day 4: Inverness --> Aviemore --> Dalwhinnie Distillery --> Glasgow
Day 5: Back to the airport

It was a jam-packed experience, but we wouldn’t have changed much. One possible alteration? Spend more time in Inverness or on the Isle of Skye than in Aviemore. It’s a cute vacation town, and we were there to have lunch on an old-fashion steam train that goes through the countryside. But if you’ve ridden a train before or don’t have children, it’s not a must-see. Still, the experience was nice for breaking up our long journey back to Glasgow.

Below is a breakdown of what we did and where we stayed, along with a brief history of each town. Enjoy your digital journey through Scotland!

Glencoe

Things to Do:
We simply pulled over on the side of the road and starting walking through the picturesque fields. It was a pretty gloomy day, so we didn’t stray too far from the car. But if you’re looking for more guidance, here are some hiking trails in the area.

Two-Sentence History:
This lush glen has a sordid past: Thirty-eight unarmed people from the MacDonald Clan were slaughtered by troops in 1692 because the MacDonald’s had not quickly pledged allegiance to the new English monarchs, William and Mary. You’ve also seen these memorable vistas in several movies including, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Skyfall," and "Braveheart."

Glencoe, Scotland

Glencoe, Scotland

Fort William

Things to Do:
The next morning happened to be Easter Sunday. We were greeted with a momentary lapse in rain, a perfectly arched rainbow, and hot breakfast from our hosts. That day we explored the Glenfinnan viaduct and monument—another location that would be recognizable to any Harry Potter fan, as the Jacobite Steam train that blows above this field is also known as the Hogwarts Express. Other options: Ben Nevis mountain is one of the main attractions in this area. If we’d had time, we would have enjoyed the gondola ride that goes up nearby peak, Aonach Mor 

Where We Stayed:
We lodged at St. Andrews Guest House near Fort William’s city center. Once an old 1880s choir school, this stone mansion has been converted into a family-run, six-room bed and breakfast. During the evening, we dined at one pub and drank at another just a few blocks from this cozy castle—no driving needed. We met a group of nearly incomprehensible Scottish blokes, sampled some local beers, and slept off our jet lag.

Two-Sentence History:
While this small town is now a popular place for tourist to pass through, it was once where Jacobite’s fought (and failed) to take control in the 18th Century. Fort William and its surrounding areas have also been featured in “Outlander,” “Braveheart,” and “Harry Potter.”

Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the Hogwarts Express flies by. 

Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the Hogwarts Express flies by. 

Isle of Skye

Things to Do:
We took a boat to the Isle of Skye on Day 2, and drove directly to the Fairy Pools. (By “directly,” I mean we missed the small sign, got lost, and had to ask an old Scottish man on the side of the road where to go.) The pools are beautiful crystal blue watering holes and waterfalls surrounded by ice-capped mountains. That evening, we had fresh seafood and cheap Talisker whiskey at a restaurant in Portree. On Day 3 we drove by the Old Man of Storr, took pictures of Kilt Rock, and did a 6-hour hike through the Quiraing. This was by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen on earth—but we got quite lost when the fog rolled in. I would suggest purchasing a map since there’s almost no cell service on the island. Read more about the Quiraing walk here. 

Where We Stayed:
Our Airbnb was located outside of Portree at this contemporary Scottish cottage. The house was beautiful, had strong wifi, and would have fit up to six travelers. However, you are out in the middle of nowhere, so prepare for the night before leaving town!

Two-Sentence History:
The island has strong Gaelic roots and ties to prominent Scottish clans, with the population peaking in the 1840s at over 23,000 inhabitants. But famine and Highland Clearances—or the eviction of tenants from common lands—during the 19th Century left the island’s population at about 7,000 by 1971. However, Skye and Scottish islands on the whole, are slowly growing in numbers again via a 2011 census. (Editor's note: I'd move to Scotland.)

Taking the (unexpected) ferry to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. 

Taking the (unexpected) ferry to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. 

Inverness

Things to Do:
After our long Quiraing hike, we hopped in the car and drove toward Inverness, a town near the famous Loch Ness. On the way we took pictures of Skye’s incredible views and Eilean Donan Castle. Before heading to our B&B for the night, we stopped at the Highland Riding Centre and took a quick horseback ride to a viewpoint of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. That evening we found traditional live music at a pub, and enjoyed walking through the city streets.

Where We Stayed:
We stayed at Glendoune B&B. There was free parking available, and the house was a short walk from city centre. Our hosts were very kind and knowledge. They also tricked my sister into trying black pudding for the first time, much to the amusement of everyone in the dining room ;)

Two-Sentence History: 
Inverness has been dubbed the capital of the Highlands, and still maintains strong connections to the Gaelic language. It's also well-known in pop culture: Inverness has ties to Shakespeare's famous tragedy, "Macbeth," and is featured in "Outlander," a popular book series by Diana Gabaldon.

Highland Riding Centre in Scotland

Aviemore + Dalwhinnie + Glasgow

Things to Do:
On Day 4, we drove back to Loch Ness so we could explore Urquhart Castle on foot (and look for the infamous monster lurking in the deep lake). Then we headed south toward the vacation town of Aviemore where we boarded an old steam train for lunch and tea. After our meal, we drove to Dalwhinnie Distillery for an excellent Single Malt Scotch Whiskey tour and tasting. Finally, we continued on to Glasgow where we would spend our last evening in Scotland.

Buchanan Street, Argyle Street, and the boho West End are all popular destinations within this bustling city. We walked through the University of Glasgow over to Ashton Lane for dinner and cocktails. If you are looking for traditional live music, check out Ben Nevis, the Lismore, or Wintersgills depending on the night. When we were in town on a Tuesday, Wintersgills was hosting a live folk music session in their back room—and it was a highlight of our trip. We were the only tourists in the pub, and heard some fascinating songs and stories. 

Where We Stayed:
We opted for the Argyll Hotel, a family-run lodging in a traditional Georgian building near city centre. Parking was a bit difficult because we arrived during rush hour, but since we were so close to busy streets full of cafes and shops, we didn’t need to use the car again until it was time to go to the airport. We also got an upgraded room when we arrived due to a cancellation.

Two-Sentence History:
Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and cultural hub: The national opera, ballet, theatre, and orchestra are all based here, as well as a large selection of museums and libraries. Artists like Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, and Chvrches have also boosted the active Glasgow music scene.

On Day 5, we had a quick breakfast and headed to the airport. All of us were bummed to leave this beautiful country and swore to return to see the Eastern portion of Scotland soon. I hope this guide helps you plan your own journey—if you have any questions, feel free to sound off below!

Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness

Here are a few more pictures from our Scotland road trip:



The (Infamous) Quiraing Walk in Scotland

“We’ve been on this freakin’ mountain for hours... Hours! HOURS!!”

My sister was sitting on a steep slope in Scotland and having a full-blown panic attack. There were tears streaming down her muddy face. The fog surrounding us was so thick that all I could see was Grace, our travel companion, Alice, and my dirty, bloody hands.

Let me explain how we got here.

The three of us booked a five-day trip to Scotland specifically to drive through the Highlands and visit the remote Isle of Skye. The Quiraing is a massive landslip on said isle that includes high cliffs, plateaus, peaks of rocks, and small ponds. There’s a popular “Quiraing Walk,” as United Kindomers say, that begins at the car park and loops through scenic views. After looking at ethereal photos of Lord of the Rings-esque mountains, all of us were excited to spend a morning hiking through this epic landscape.  

The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

We started researching our adventure. The Quiraing was classified as a medium-level hike. According to one website, “It covers a distance of 6.8km, with the average time to complete the walk being 2 hours (with no stops).” Assuming we would take photos and pause along the way, we allotted three to four hours for the loop.

Our journey began with exactly what was promised: beautiful views of sharp cliffs and rolling green fields. The slope was gradual, but the edge of the path was somewhat steep—not enough to harm you, but maybe enough to roll your ankle. About ten minutes in, we reached what our travel website said was “one of the more difficult parts of the walk.” After scrambling over a rock gorge to cross a stream, we relaxed. That hadn’t been so bad.

The Quiraing walking path at the beginning of our hike. 

The Quiraing walking path at the beginning of our hike. 

“Man, those people have some legit gear,” I noted to my fellow adventures as we passed a group of English hikers. They had metal walking poles, some rope, and were chowing down on protein bars.

We were now wandering through a valley of strange vegetation, and awed by its otherworldly appearance. The murky ponds looked like black craters on an unknown planet. It was a lighthearted hour: We screamed “Sound of Music” lyrics into a rock formation that produced echoes over the canyons around us, and laughed at our ridiculousness.

Then, we made a mistake.

The term “cairn” is Scottish Gaelic for a human-made stack of stones. These are often used as trail markers. After leaving the Valley of Happiness, we walked up a Rock Bed of Doom and came across a cairn that highlighted a split in our path. To continue our journey up the mountain, we knew we needed to take the gravel road to the left. However, we did not foresee the turn in Scotland’s moody weather that would make this trek immensely more difficult. 

Example of a cairn on our hike.

Example of a cairn on our hike.

Our first sign of danger was when I slipped on fresh mud, and nearly took a bad tumble. I caught myself on a barbed wire fence, which promptly sliced my hand open. It wasn’t a terrible cut—but our overall mood shifted.

We had now been traveling through the Quiraing for three some hours. After consulting a sweet (lost) British man and his son, we determined that we were only at the halfway point. Both parties decided it was best to continue on rather than turn back and see repeated views.

I snapped some photos as we continued up the mountain, but suddenly a wave a fog washed over our unsure group. Visibility was next to nothing, and the slope got much steeper. A smattering of rain intensified the situation. Grace and I began climbing like four-legged animals with our hands and feet both touching slippery surfaces. We looked like little monsters, with mud on our fingers and faces. 

The beginning of the end. 

The beginning of the end. 

Suddenly, disaster struck. Grace put her foot into a cutout groove of earth, but the ground gave way and she momentarily slid toward the edge. While none of us were in true danger of falling to our deaths (I think?), there was a moment of panic as we assessed our mud-soaked situation. And that is when my youngest sibling began to sob.

“Put your butt on the ground,” I said repeatedly. “Sit down!”
“It’s wet! It’s freakin’ all mud!” she said, near hysterical.
“Grace, we’re already covered in mud. Sit down. You don’t like heights, and this is more difficult than we thought. You need to connect with the ground for a second.” I peered over the edge and got my own wave of vertigo.

She listened, and we both sunk into the mud while rain freckled our faces. The group of hikers with their damn metal poles stepped around us, and I almost laughed.

The panic-inducing path (and Ledge of Death).

The panic-inducing path (and Ledge of Death).

“We only have a little further to go. I’m sorry... just up a few more steps,” I pleaded. Grace reluctantly agreed to move and we made our ascent to the flat peak. We saw Alice and our (lost) English friends. We saw a lone sheep. We saw another man who had guided us at the basin of the Quiraing—everyone seemed a little out of breath. But most importantly, we saw the car park. The end was in sight, and a wave of fresh motivation fell upon our hodge-podge group.

Fickle sunshine appeared as we made our way down the mountain. Alice was much quicker than us sisters, and hopped toward the finish line like a billy goat. But my ankles give out and Grace’s knees pop. The journey down this blasted slope was taking an insufferably long time.

“Grace.”
“Yeah?” she called from up above me.
“I'm sliding down the rest of the way.”
“What? Sliding?”
“Yep. The rain has already turned this path into a stream and I’m tired of trying to keep my balance.”

We were now on hour six of this adventure.

I sat on my butt and pushed into the ground. I bumped my way down the Quiraing at a pleasant speed, then turned around and shouted at Grace. “It’s so much easier!” She, too, plopped onto her bottom and began a quick descent.

Now, I am aware that we looked like idiots: two Americans in puffy coats, smiling and sliding down a slope of wet grass. But one does not simply “walk” the Quiraing. In our case, this full-on hike was more of a beautiful slip-n-slide, with moments of exhaustion, awe, and terror.

“Yer doin’ alright there, then?” a Scottish man asked as we Mud Monsters passed him and his child (his child!) walking up the mountain.
“Absolutely!” I responded.

“Ah, bit muddy s’it?” another woman asked us as she ascended. 
“Yes, indeed!” I smiled.  

Grace and I were now deliriously laughing. We arrived at the bottom of the Quiraing with muddy butts, happy hearts, and hungry stomachs—which, are all the ingredients of a perfect adventure.

Later that evening I looked up the Quiraing Walk to see how the heck it was classified as “medium level.” Upon further research, we discovered that the loop is “medium level” in length, “hard” in difficulty, and “not recommended” in misty conditions. 

Well.
We made it. 


Tips for the Quiraing Walk 

  • Do your research, and invest in a walking map. Cell service isn't great on the Isle of Skye, so our digital guide didn't help much.  
  • Pack snacks. We were starving after our six-hour adventure and consumed an unhealthy amount of burgers, hotdogs, and fries post-walk.
  • If you choose to take the left path at the cairn, be watchful of the weather. Remember: when the fog rolls in you won't be able to see anything from the top of the mountain. 
  • If you're uncomfortable with heights, take the right path. We were told there are spectacular views of lochs and hills of Heather. 
  • Here are decent step-by-step directions for what to expect on your hike. 
  • Bring a camera, a rain jacket, some Band-Aids, and wear proper shoes. 
  • Despite how long the hike took us, the Quiraing was a highlight of our trip. 

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
— Gustave Flaubert