Europe week 2: Italy – Milan, Florence, Bologna

October 3, 2018 |  Category:   travels

When I think of Italy, I think of dry summer heat and intense sun. I think of how it suddenly started raining buckets when we got off the train from Milan to Florence and how we ran rolling our suitcases behind us to our hotel 6 blocks away, umbrella-less and wet. I stopped in the middle of the narrow cobblestone streets not caring if I got soaked because the view I saw in front of me was so charming it stopped me in my tracks. I think of the warm, terra-cotta colors of the buildings in Bologna and the endless stretches of porticos overhead. I think about the spectacular churches that were beyond disbelief. And, I think about the food. How every pasta dish we had – even at the bar around the corner from our Airbnb our first night – was better than any plate of pasta we’ve had back home.

We dream about the pasta still.

Italy was a new experience for all of us. Unlike Paris or even our very short layover in Amsterdam where we stepped into cities that were familiar, our first trip to Italy felt like a totally new sensory experience – the colors, the language, the light, the food.

After a week in Paris, we took an 8 hour train to Milan and spent the night in the city. There was one thing that I wanted to see and that was the Duomo. Forever on my bucket list, it did not disappoint. The only thing that could have topped it was to come back again during sunset hours to watch the sky turn orange and violet from the upper terraces, just as I’ve seen it in videos and photos years before.

Florence was actually a late add-on for this trip and I can’t believe that we hadn’t considered it initially. Many cite Florence as one of the world’s prettiest cities and you believe it the minute you arrive. The Duomo in Florence is as different as can be from the Duomo in Milan – one is Gothic with its ornate spindly spires that reach high to the sky, the other a wonder of masonry and stone that changes in the light like a chameleon. The Florence Cathedral has to be seen in person. Words and photos just fail.

But the reason we came to Italy in the first place was Bologna. It’s not a typical stop in a multi-city Italy tour, and you sense it if you’re coming right from Florence which is tourist heaven. The streets by comparison are quiet and uncrowded, and you won’t find tourist shops that line every street like in Florence. The energy is also very different. But the food! We came here to eat and left in total adoration of the city’s terra-cotta, yellow, and orange colored houses. One thing about Italy is that the food is very moderately priced. We enjoyed the best cappuccinos for 1.50 euros and the best plates of pasta for 9 euros each. Despite the fact that you have to pay for water in Italy when you dine out, the no tipping culture means that a family of 4 can eat very well for a reasonable price. In the last few years as word has gotten out about how much of a food city Bologna is, tourists have been coming. As much as we enjoyed Florence for all the art, history and charm, we left Italy loving Bologna.

One of the reasons why Bologna remains high on our list of the highlights is because of the food tour that we booked. I mentioned on my previous post that it was a splurge – it wasn’t cheap by any means, but it was worth every single penny. We saw wheels of parmesan cheese being made by a master cheesemaker first thing in the morning; we visited a balsamic vinegar company housed in the attic of a family home and learned just how much a labor of love, family and tradition true balsamic actually is; and we toured a prosciutto factory which I admit, was a little too intense at times. I know, however, that we will never eat the same quality prosciutto that we amply sampled on our tour that day. The bottles of wine flowed all day, samples of cheese and meat were offered until we couldn’t sample any more, and we ended the day with a 3 hour late lunch in a private winery in the hillside country outside of Bologna. The tour guides were fantastic and we met travelers on our tour from all over the world. It was like having a big extended family meal which is why it made our trip to Italy so special. After all, traveling is not just about the sights and the food. It’s about connecting with people, isn’t it?

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  • Amy October 3, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    Happy to share about your European experience Jenna. I’ve watched your IG stories and pics during your journey and the architecture in Italy is particularly breathtaking.

    We’re from Hong Kong and have sticked to Asia for vacation since we had kids. This year, we also finally brought our kids (8 and 11) to Europe for the first time for a two week trip. I would have chosen London if I had to pick a place but my husband is worried about terrorist attacks so we finally set the destination to the Scandinavia. We went to a few cities in Denmark and also stopped over at Helsinki for a few days since we took Finnair. We absolutely fell in love with Denmark and even googled about whether we could immigrate there. Though it doesn’t appear as rich in history and architecture as some cities in Europe, Denmark particularly Copenhagen is absolutely beautiful and we can totally see why it’s crowned the happiest place on earth. Everyone in Copenhagen speaks fluent English and is friendly, plus we felt very safe needing not to worry about pickpockets everywhere. We also had a wonderful time cycling in the most bike-friendly city of the world. On art, we visited the Louisiana museum of modern art in Copenhagen which has a super awesome architecture to blend art with outdoor as well as the ARoS in Aarhus where you can have a rainbow panaroma view of the city on its circular skywalk in different hues (google for pics pls!) They are both one of the most beautiful modern art museums I’ve ever visited.

    I very much agree that while a trip to Europe was a splurge, it was totally an eye-opening experience for all of us and will have lasting memories that we are going to share for a long time. On budget, we actually cooked about half of the trip (which we enjoyed and our kids preferred because they’re tired and wanted to be “home” after a long day) so the food costs weren’t much. Actually Denmark in particular is not expensive at all (apart from accommodation which we splurged in) as its currency isn’t Euro.

    Sorry for the long response but there was just so much to talk about Europe isn’t it!

    Where are you planning to go next in Europe? Scandinavia really blew us away and we are planning to visit Norway and Sweden next!

    • Jenna October 5, 2018 at 9:38 am

      Thank you for such a long, thoughtful comment! We would love to visit Scandinavia soon. Mark is part norwegian and we do have a Norwegian in-law so it’s a natural next visit. I think if you can do it financially – and I recognize not everyone can (and we couldn’t for many years) it is so so worth it. I’m actually wanting to return to london again and my teens are very interested in London, so I’m going to try and make it happen.

    • Anna October 13, 2018 at 6:06 am

      Actually, Denmark ist quite expensive foodwise compared to Germany, for example. The Euro as such does not make a country expensive. Still, I totally understand your love for Denmark, which ist why many Germans (like us) go there a lot although it is expensive 🙂

  • Steph October 3, 2018 at 8:30 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I’m hoping to go next year in May and I will make a point to take that tour you mentioned.

    • Jenna October 5, 2018 at 9:38 am

      Oh Steph, you won’t be disappointed if you do! Promise.

  • Alysha - seattle October 4, 2018 at 6:37 pm

    I was hoping you’d post the other portion of your trip, excellent! We’re currently planning a similar 2 week trip with our 12 year old (and meeting up with our 19 year old college student) in Europe next summer and was anxious to see how your plans were laid out. France and Italy are the top of our list so I’m glad you published your full experience. And the food tour sounded like a dream! Thank you for sharing. And just wondering if you mostly did AirBNB/VRBO or did you sprinkle in a few hotel stays too?

    • Jenna October 5, 2018 at 9:40 am

      I hope this is helpful! France and Italy is a great combined trip. On my previous post I did lay out where we stayed. So we rented an airbnb in Paris and Bologna, but stayed in a hotel overnight in Milan and 2 nights in Florence. Hotel Globus in Florence has the friendliest staff ever!

  • Christina October 4, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    The only place I’ve ever been to in Europe is Florence and the surrounding areas of Siena and San Gimignano. I spent ten glorious days by myself and it was incredibly retorace. While in Florence I found myself attracted to the other side of the Arno much more and spent much of my time there minus a few must see tourist spots. Oh this post makes me wistful for another trip.

    • Jenna October 5, 2018 at 9:41 am

      I would love to explore the region more. I do hope to return someday as well!

  • Eva_Lotta October 5, 2018 at 6:39 am

    Thanks so much for posting about the trip! Love your photos and your artistic outlook on things.
    Bologna definitely goes to the top of my list now, after your post.

    • Jenna October 5, 2018 at 9:41 am

      Thank you Eva! Yes, Bologna was a bit of an adjustment after Florence and the vibe is so different, but we loved it.

  • Caroline October 5, 2018 at 9:31 am

    Your photos are beautiful !
    I often travel to Italia (i’m French) and i have visited a large number of italian cities, but Bologna is my all-time favorite. The food, the arcades, the colors… And the University of Bologna is known as the oldest university in Europe !

    • Jenna October 5, 2018 at 9:42 am

      Oh yes. we went to the library and the room where autopsies were performed at the University. So much history!

  • Youwon October 26, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    The photos are amazing T . T Thank you for sharing