Culture Vultures in Florence

After several days on the Cinque Terre coast, our next stop was Florence. We were ready for history, art and architecture. When we arrived mid-afternoon, it was sweltering hot — felt like 100 degrees. We walked from the train station (Santa Maria Novella), with one rolling luggage each in tow, to Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast, across the River Arno.

Gourmet dinner made by Vary, owner of Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast.

Gourmet dinner made by Vary, owner of Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast.

We were dripping from sweat. We could have taken the air-conditioned taxi, but decided we might as well from the get-go get a flavor of the city, since 3 days would go by so quickly. We dodged throngs of tourists and passed by many fashionable clothing shops (lots on sale), pizzerias, gelaterias, Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace. We did not stop because our first priority was to get rid of our load and to cool off in our air-conditioned rooms. Eduardo and Vary, the friendly, gracious owners, welcomed us with ice-cold bottles of water. Ahhh! Water never tasted so good! After the 2 1/2-hour train ride, heat and crowded streets from the Cinque Terre coast, we plopped ourselves on the beds and expressed a sigh of relief, savoring the cool air. Our next thought was, wow, we have arrived in the historical city of Florence, the cultural center of Italy.

Here are the highlights of an amazing 3 days:

– the River Arno

florenceriver

– Pitti Palace (former home of the Pitti and Medici families)

– Piazza Signora (grand statues)

piazzasignora

– Uffizi Gallery (the Botticelli paintings were our favorites). I would highly recommend getting a private tour guide to take you through the gallery. We appreciated the history and background he shared in front of selected paintings. Otherwise, the Gallery becomes overwhelming if you tried to look at everything.

– Palazzo Vecchio (with the massive and artful Salone dei 500)

sala2

– La Accademia (with the original David statue)

The "pink" David in the outside courtyard.

The “pink” David in the outside courtyard.

– the Duomo

duomo

– the Baptistery (with Ghiberti’s door)

baptistery

Favorite Travel Web Sites

Planning trips has become so much easier for the at-home travel organizer. There are many travel web sites that can help you with different aspects of your itinerary. Here are my favorites.

Kayak.com for flights and air fares. kayak.com compares data from Expedia, Priceline, and others all at once, so you can do one-stop shopping.

Seatguru.com shows you which seats are bad, good on a particular flight for a particular airline. The best feature though, especially when traveling with children, is being able to find out whether a long, overseas flight has entertainment options for children. I always try to book my family on a 747 or 777, not caring which airline, because many have seat-back tv’s with personal controls — in coach!!

TripAdvisor.com for hotels, things to do, and discussion forums for your particular destination. See my previous blog Why I Love TripAdvisor for more detail.

i-escape.com for “boutique hotels and hip hideaways”. This web site gives you alternate accommodations (b&bs, houses for rent, boutique hotels ) to big hotel chains. These accommodations often times give you a more relaxed, authentic experience. For more insight, read my blog on Hotel vs. Bed and Breakfast.

Google Earth for viewing and exploring your actual destinations. You can get a birds-eye view of the town you’ll be visiting, or zoom down to the street that your hotel is on. Google Earth gives you a great visual of your travel path from one city to the next.

Hotel vs. Bed and Breakfast

Have you ever been faced with the dilemma of whether to book a hotel or a b&b? When is one the better choice over the other? In many places, whether you’re in Venice or Chiang Mai, both are equally good choices. In smaller towns, you might only have b&bs. In the US, most b&bs offer a romantic experience for couples, so are not accommodating to families especially with small children. In Europe, many b&bs are set up for families, with rooms that have triple or quad beds. Busy downtown locations will likely only have hotels. If you are taking a multi-week trip, my recommendation would be to do a combination, so that you balance the charm and hospitality of b&bs with the full-service offerings of hotels. Here are my top selection criteria. Of course, there might be some criteria common to both. For example, there are b&bs with historical interest.

When to choose a hotel

– Preference for your favorite hotel chain, like a Marriott or Four Seasons, especially if you have points or have enjoyed these hotels in the past.

– Location. For example, if you are in New York for just the weekend and have tickets to a Broadway musical, then you should book one of the big hotels in Times Square.

– Historical interest. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok has its history dating back to the 1880s when the original hotel welcomed travelers and businessmen involved with trade in Siam.

– Workout and recreational facilities. If you need to workout, you’ll need a good fitness room. Or, if you have kids and it’s 95 degrees outside, you’ll need a swimming pool.

– Concierge services. Major hotels have concierge desks in the lobby to help you with organized tours.

When to choose a bed and breakfast

– Preference for a small and relaxed atmosphere. You don’t have to dress up to look presentable for breakfast. The owner greets you with a big smile and seats you at your favorite table.

– Independence and flexibility. You’d rather come up with your own choices of what to do that day and where to have dinner, rather than relying on a full-service concierge desk or dining in the hotel’s restaurant every night.

– Meeting new people over breakfast. From experience, people we’ve met in b&bs are generally friendlier and happy to get to know you too, especially if you all come from different parts of the world. People you meet are part of the travel experience.

– For long stays and with children, is a more cost-effective option, especially with breakfast included.

– You enjoy the genuine interest and charm from the owners when asking about your day’s experiences, or if there’s anything else they can help you with.

– Fewer rooms mean fewer people, so you avoid the crowds in the lobby, elevator — and at breakfast, especially if you’re in a rush to get your day going — and get more personal attention from the staff.

What do you think? Do you have any favorite b&bs?