Tuscany Travel Guide: Florence, Siena, Chianti and San Gimignano

Widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and historic regions in Italy, Tuscany was the second stop on our multi-city Italy vacation.  From its lush vineyards and rolling hills in the countryside to the delectable cuisine paired with bold and oh-so tasty wine to the endless views and medieval history, I can truly say Tuscany embodies all that Italy is.

We spent 4.5 days in Tuscany with Florence as our home base.  A lot of people confuse Tuscany as its own town when in fact it is the fifth largest region in central Italy made up of cities, hill towns and small villages.  Florence is the most populous city and the capital of Tuscany and is celebrated as the birthplace of Renaissance known for it exquisite artwork, museums, churches and palaces.

Day 1:

We took a high speed train from Venice (included in our package) on Friday afternoon and arrived in Florence in under 2.5 hours. We didn’t have anything scheduled on the first day so we spent the day wandering and exploring our neighborhood.  We had drinks at La Ménagére, a trendy and eclectic restaurant, flower shop and cocktail bar followed by dinner at Ciro and Sons.  I would definitely recommend going to both if you’re ever in the area.

Where We Stayed:

We stayed at Hotel Cerretani Firenze by Sofitel located in the heart of Florence’s historic center (stones throw away from the Duomo di Firenze) and a 10 minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station.  For as much as there is to see and do in Florence, it’s still small enough to be able to walk everywhere and see all the major sites in the four days we had. The most popular and important sites in Florence that we made sure to visit include:

  • Uffizi Gallery (world-renowned art museum)
  • Palazzo Vecchio (town hall)
  • Palazzo Pitti/Pitti Palace
  • Boboli and Bardini Gardens
  • Duomo Firenza/Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (Florence’s main cathedral)
  • Santa Croce (principal Franciscan church and burial place for Michelangelo among others)
  • Accademia Gallery (houses Michelangelo’s David)
  • Ponte Vecchio (oldest bridge in Florence)
  • Piazzale Michalangelo (square that offers panoramic views of Florence)

Since there’s quite a bit of history and important sites to visit, we weren’t exactly sure where to begin so we booked a couple of tours through a company called Walks of Italy.  I would highly recommend scheduling a tour or two when visiting cities like Florence and Rome so you can appreciate the history and culture that much more.  Unlike other tour companies, Walks of Italy keep their group sizes small (10-15) and their tour guides are not only extremely knowledgeable, but they’re also passionate and engaging making the tours so much more enjoyable.

Day 2:

We booked The Best of Florence Walking Tour with David and the Duomo, a 3.5 hour tour of Florence’s most famous sights including express entry into the Accademia Gallery for an up close and personal experience of Michelangelo’s David and his unfinished Slaves.  I took an art history class in college, but I never appreciated art history more so than after our tour.

5 Fun Facts about Michelangelo:

  1. He was never married or considered a “womanizer” unlike his younger male counterpart and rivalry, Raphael. One theory as to why Michelangelo focused so much on the male physique while also portraying women as muscular and manly is that he was homosexual.
  2. He lived off of only bread and water because he had a hard time keeping food down as he often dissected cadavers to understand the human anatomy better, yet lived to be 88 years old.
  3. He considered himself a sculptor not a painter even though he was often commissioned to decorate and paint for the pope resulting in his most famous frescoed ceiling inside the Sistine Chapel.
  4. He only completed 5 sculptures in his entire career.
  5. It took Michelangelo 4 years to complete the 2,000 square foot ceiling inside the Sistine Chapel while standing on a wooden plank of a scaffolding sixty feet in the air while working looking up.

Our tour also included visiting the Duomo di Firenze (Santa Maria Cathedral) which is the third largest church in the world and the last to have been built in Florence.  It took 140 years to complete.  There is no fee or express entry to go inside the cathedral and sometimes the lines can be long, but luckily there was a short line so we had time to visit the inside of the church as well.  If you really want to see the Duomo in all its glory, you can purchase tickets to climb to the top of the cupola for an incredible view of the city (we did not).  The Gothic style architecture, design and fine craftsmanship that went into building the cathedral is just incredible.  John and I concluded our day of exploring with a walk to the Piazzale Michelangelo square which offers a panoramic view of the entire city.  The view during sunset was absolutely breathtaking.

Day 3:

On our third day in Florence, we had an early morning tour of the Uffizi Gallery and the Palazzo Vecchio.  The Uffizi Gallery is the most prominent and one of the largest art museums in the world that houses some of the best pieces of art from the Italian Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and is one of Florence’s top tourist sites.  The Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall and the history of Florence as it was the house of government and power for the republic.  It also holds a replica of Michelangelo’s David.  After our tour, we explored more of the city with a stop at Santa Croce (the burial place for all the greats such as Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo Galilei) followed by a little hike up to the Bardini Gardens. The Wisteria tunnel in bloom was really pretty to see. For dinner we decided to venture out of our neighborhood and go south of the Old Bridge.  They have some really cute restaurants in the area and I would suggest checking out the neighborhood of Nicchio if you have the chance.  We assumed that we’d be able to find a restaurant and walk in without reservations, but this area seemed to be where most of the locals hung out and a lot of places were already booked.

We stopped at a local wine bar called Enoteca Obsequium which offers wine tastings for €30 a person and includes your own sommelier.  We skipped the tasting this time around since we got there late, but we will absolutely make reservations on our next visit.  We concluded our evening with dinner at Paoli restaurant for La Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak) which is 1kg of a Porterhouse with the filet and contre-filet separated by the T-bone, cooked rare.  It was delicious!  Although the restaurant came highly recommended with 4-star online reviews, our overall experience was tainted by the lousy service we received and how rushed and dismissed we felt.*Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the oldest bridge in Florence and one of the most famous and beautiful bridges in the world.  There are many shops built on it and rumor has it that Adolf Hitler saved the bridge from destruction during WWII because it was just too beautiful to destroy.

Day 4:

On our last day in Florence, we took a day trip to Siena, Chianti and San Gimignano also through Walks of Italy.  We literally booked this tour the day before and since we had such a great experience with them, we thought this would be the best way to venture out and explore the hill towns.  We were picked up in the early morning with Siena being our first stop where we walked around at our leisure while also going inside the Siena Cathedral.  We then had lunch at a local farm house in Chianti where we were served a four-course homemade meal complete with a tasting of their very own wine before concluding our day in San Gimignano, a small hill town best known for its medieval towers and stunning views.  The Tuscan countryside is about a 45 minute drive from Florence.

Our hostess with the mostess at il vecchio maneggio! Our Walks of Italy fam!

John and I both fell in love with Tuscany and we can’t wait to visit again.  I would highly encourage you to visit this beautiful region at least once in your life and you may just come back feeling like you left a piece of your heart there.  I know I did.  Until next time..

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Travel Diary: Venice & Burano Island

Buongiorno!!

Now that we’ve had a chance to get settled back at home, I’ve had time to upload some of our photos and give you a little glimpse into each city we visited on our 2 week Italy trip.

Day 1:

Our first stop was Venice.  We arrived in Venice on Wednesday mid-morning and left early afternoon on Friday so we had 2.5 days to explore Venice.  This was plenty of time to see all the beauty and charm this romantic city has to offer.**Fun Fact** Venice is the capital of the province of Venezia and the region of Venato in northern Italy which is known for its art, beauty and canals.  It’s an island city and the only way to get around is by foot or water.  The streets are only made for pedestrians so be prepared to walk and wander.

Although the side streets and small alleys can get tricky, Venice is fairly small and there are signs everywhere so don’t be afraid to get “lost” because you’ll eventually find your way back.  Honestly, getting lost is the best way to really immerse yourself in the city and to truly see what Venice has to offer. Just make sure to have a map on hand!  On our last night in Venice we actually did get lost.  Both of our phones died and we only had our good ol’ trusted paper map that the hotel gave us to help navigate. Thankfully John is direction savvy and actually knows how to read a map so we found our way back within 30 minutes even in the dark.  Venice was really safe and no one bothered us.  Everyone is still out and about even after 10pm so if you do get lost and need directions, I’m sure someone will be able to help you out.

Where We Stayed:

We stayed at Hotel Papadopoli by Sofitel which was located off the Grand Canal in Santa Croce, near the Piazzale Roma, the principal arrival point in Venice (about a 20 minute drive from Marco Polo airport).  We had a private transfer which was included in our travel package (read about our Costco travel package here) who dropped us off at our hotel.  Although our hotel was within walking distance from the main transportation hub, once you reach a certain point, you can’t enter with a car.  Luckily our hotel was less than 10 yards from where the driver had to park and he was nice enough to walk us all the way to our hotel and help with our luggage.

We arrived at our hotel just before noon so we just dropped our stuff off and ventured out for the day. We chose a canal side restaurant for lunch by Ponte delle Guglie.  It’s one of two bridges to span the Cannaregio Canal in Venice. Venetians aren’t really known for their cuisine so I didn’t make it a point to remember the names of the restaurants we dined at, plus there’s one restaurant after another so you can honestly just pick anywhere to eat.  I’d suggest staying away from restaurants with photos on the menu as those are known for being more touristy.  The owner or manager of the restaurant we had lunch at was this cute little Italian man who was extremely friendly, barely spoke any English and really made our first meal in Italy that much more enjoyable. After lunch we spent the day wandering and exploring the city.  Our hotel was about 25 minutes walking from Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square which is the main square of Venice.  **Note** St. Mark’s Basilica is the cathedral church of Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice.  It’s free entry, but it was a bit crowded so we didn’t go in.After a looong day of wandering the city, John and I stopped at Hotel Monoco which has a cute outdoor patio for some cocktails while we enjoyed the peacefulness while overlooking the Grand Canal.

Day 2:

On our second day in Venice, we purchased ferry tickets to Burano.  I think we paid about €40 round trip for both of us.  We stopped at the Rialto Bridge (the oldest of 4 bridges spanning the Grand Canal) for a quick photo op on the way to St. Mark’s.  Isn’t it a gorgeous view??  It was a lot less crowded than at sunset (sunset photos at the end of the post). **Fun Fact** Bridge of Sighs was built at the beginning of the seventeenth century with the intention of connecting the Old Prison and interrogation rooms in Doge’s Palace to the New Prison.  There are a couple of theories as to how the bridge got its name.  One is that the prisoners who walked across the bridge on their way to the executioner would “sigh” as they crossed the bridge while getting their last glimpse of the outside world.  The other theory is much more romantic.  If a couple kisses under the bridge while on a gondola during sunset, they will enjoy eternal love and so the lovers’ “sighs” would be due to an overwhelming feeling of romance of the whole scene.  Which theory do you prefer?

Burano Island:

Burano is an island in the Venetian lagoon known for its brightly colored fisherman’s houses and lace work.  It’s about a 45 minute ferry ride from the pier. There are several restaurants and little shops all over so we just walked around and had lunch before we went back.  If I had woken up earlier, we would’ve probably stopped in Murano as well which is only 20 minutes from the pier and is known for its glass making factories.  Since we had to choose, we both thought Burano would be more worth seeing and it really was.  Isn’t it just stunning??

P.S. All of our photos were taken with my Iphone camera.  I didn’t feel like lugging around my bigger camera, but it worked just as well. After a couple hours in Burano, we stopped back at Hotel Monaco to find a gondolier to take us out at sunset. They had quite a bit of gondoliers in front of the hotel the night before, but honestly, they’re everywhere along the canal so you can easily find one.  It costs about €120 for a 40 minute gondola ride so make sure to find a gondolier you really like since they do expect a tip and consider bringing a bottle of wine to make it even more romantic.  Our gondolier just whistled which wasn’t worth an extra tip, but he did get a really good sunset photo of us right in front of the Rialto Bridge so we’ll give him that. We ended the evening with dinner at a restaurant with outdoor seating overlooking the Rialto Bridge.  Again, there are so many restaurants to choose from so I didn’t write down the name, but I don’t think you can go wrong.On on our last morning before heading out to Florence, I slept in and so I didn’t get a chance to have a cappuccino at Caffè Florian, an iconic cafe from the early 1700s and the oldest coffee house in the world.  (Bummer!)  At least one of us did..

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Seasons in Stilettos Turns One

Today marks the first anniversary of my very first blog post going live and of Seasons in Stilettos coming to fruition. What seemed like just a silly idea to keep my mind stimulated and busy on the weekends, turned out to be something I sincerely enjoy doing and what I look forward to.

I truly had no idea what to expect as a blogger and while I’m still learning quite a bit each day, I believe that Seasons in Stilettos has come a long way in such a short amount of time. When I first started, even just a few months ago, I wasn’t exactly sure in which direction the blog was going or if my content was eye-catching and if it appealed to readers. Although it gets discouraging at times and there are days when I feel as if maybe I got a late start in the game and this isn’t worth pursuing when I compare myself to fellow bloggers who have been doing this for years and have upwards of over 100k to a million followers on Instagram alone, I just have to remind myself that I’m doing this for me and not to worry about impressing anyone else. Everyone has to start somewhere, right?

In the past year, I’ve learned that it takes dedication, patience, drive, consistency and hard work to be successful, as with anything. I’ve also learned that when you’re genuinely passionate about whatever it is you’re doing, surprisingly, it doesn’t feel like work. Who would’ve thought some of those inspirational quotes on Pinterest actually have some merit to them?! I’ve been able to recognize who is genuinely happy for me and who would like to see me succeed in any endeavor I pursue, while also recognizing those who don’t care and are watching from afar waiting for me to fail. I’ve learned a new set of skills, surprised myself with hidden talents I didn’t even know I had, made new connections, have overcome hurdles and I’ve exceeded my own expectations. I may not have a ton of followers on social media or am able to quit my day job, but I’ve been able to see that there are plenty of opportunities out there and the possibilities are endless as long as you put your mind and heart into whatever it is you’re doing.

While my brief reflection is in no way intended to be sappy or sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, I do want to give credit where it’s due to a very close friend of mine, Jennafer (Jenna) Ashley, of Fresh and Fit, who encouraged the idea of taking my love for fashion with my (very brief and little) past modeling experience and combining that with my expertise in finding great deals and the ability to express myself to actually do something with it.

Jenna turned her passion into a career and is now a food blogger, recipe developer, e-book author, photographer and a #girlboss who continues to encourage, inspire and support me daily. She has helped me with all of the technical and back end stuff for creating my website, is always there to answer any questions when I get impatient because I can’t figure out the settings on my camera, has taken the majority of my photos for me, shares her resources and puts up with my constant indecisive text messages of “which photo looks better.” She has literally been my cheerleader and definition of a great friend who genuinely wants me to succeed. I’m certain we could all use a friend like her in our lives and I’m lucky to have her in mine.

So friends, now that Seasons in Stilettos officially turned one (YAY!!) and I’ve gone a little deeper and more personal to give you an insight into my first year as a blogger and what I’ve gained out of it, I hope you’ll continue to follow along while I use my blog and social media as a platform to share my personal style, my thoughts and bits and pieces of my life with all of you.

[Photography credit]: Gaby Abboud of Gabmaster Photography

Hair & Makeup: Daniela Kosta with CALM Skincare

Below are some behind the scenes photos with my good friend and very talented makeup artist, Dani, from my most recent photo shoot and one I actually put some effort into my appearance for. 🙂

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Highlights of 2016

Well friends, another year has come and gone and it’s already the second week of January. I swear, the older we get the years just seem to go by so much faster, don’t they? I guess that old saying, “time flies when you’re having fun” rings true. Anyway, now that the tree is boxed up, the confetti has settled and all the hustle and bustle of the holidays has subsided, I want to take this time to reflect on the year that was and highlight some of my favorite moments, milestones and accomplishments of 2016 that contributed to a successful, fulfilling and memorable year.

  1. I celebrated my 32nd birthday in February. Any reason to get together with my nearest and dearest is reason enough to celebrate, notably every new day we’re alive.
  2. John and I traveled to Park City, Utah for the first time on a snowboarding, skiing and snowmobiling trip (making it back in one piece). You can read all about it here.
  3. I started my fashion & lifestyle blog, Seasons in Stilettos, as a hobby, just before my birthday and published my very first post in March.
  4. My bestie, who’s getting married in two months, asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding making it my seventh time around as a bridesmaid (while also having the privilege of being a MOH twice).
  5. John and I celebrated our second wedding anniversary in May and ELEVEN years together this past December. (Phew! That’s a long time.) You can read about our 2014 destination wedding here.
  6. I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with a very special girl who’s been battling Wilms’ tumor (kidney cancer) for the past two years. Her attitude, strength and resilience has touched a lot of people, including myself, and continues to remind me what matters most in life. Continued prayers for Princess Sophia! You can read her story here.
  7. I completed my fifth work anniversary as a Legal Assistant at my current employer.
  8. I traveled back to my homeland of Belgrade, Serbia after seven years to visit my mother and older half brother who still live there.
  9. I traveled to Austin, Texas for the first time for a girls’ getaway and bachelorette party to celebrate our girl who’s getting married in NOLA this year. (Insert squeal here!)
  10. I received news that I’m going to become a first time aunt to a baby boy in March.
  11. My sweet and adorable goddaughter celebrated her third birthday while her baby brother turned one.
  12. I’ve let go of past hurt and resentment and have rekindled old relationships.
  13. I traveled to Akumal, Mexico to witness the union of my sister-in-law to the love of her life in a beautiful and intimate beach ceremony, in addition to celebrating milestones and special events for friends and relatives throughout the year.
  14. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series after an 108 year drought. #flythew
  15. John and I ran our first half marathon in Milwaukee, WI.
  16. My closest gal pals and I hosted our eight annual Girls’ Christmas Party and Secret Santa, a tradition we hope will continue for years to come.
  17. I received news that one of my best friends is expecting later this year (I’ll let her make the announcement).
  18. John and I flew in a private helicopter for our first time on NYE and then witnessed two of our best friends get engaged later that night.

With that being said, 2016, you were good to me. 2017, bring it on!

Shop my NYE look:

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A Peek Into Our Home For Christmas

Welcome to our humble abode! It’s the day before Christmas Eve and I’m giving you a peek into my favorite room in our townhome and how we decorated it for the holiday season. When it comes to interior decorating, I prefer a neutral color scheme and minimalist decor for a clean overall look.

For the longest time, our pre-lit artificial Christmas tree was covered in red, silver and gold decorations when it was set up in a different room. The “white room,” as I’d like to call it, is my favorite room in the house because it has a ton of natural light coming through the sliding french doors that open up to the front patio, a large window by the fireplace, ivory-painted walls, white leather furniture and a white shag rug that we just recently put in there. Last year was actually the first year we put the tree in the white room and since John and I tend to butt heads when it comes to how we decorate the house, we compromised and made some minor changes to appease one another and our different styles so we’re both happy with the way it turned out.Since we have a purple accent wall and purple drapes, I wanted to incorporate a pop of purple on the Christmas tree with just a handful of purple ornaments to offset the white and silver decor on the tree and throughout room. The faux fur stockings that hang off silver snowflake stocking holders that I bought at Target a couple years ago are just the perfect touch to give the room a slightly cozier feel while I opted for white, gold and silver wrapping paper for the presents under our tree to keep the look consistent. (Pssst! I’m letting you in on a little secret. Kudos to the hubs for doing such a fantastic job wrapping all of the presents under our tree.)All of our Christmas decorations including the ornaments on the tree and wrapping paper are from Hobby Lobby, Michaels or Home Goods. I’ve linked similar options below:

[Photography Credit]: Jennafer Ashley of Fresh and Fit

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