Climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome in Firenze – with Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsBrunelleschi’s Dome is THE architectural symbol of Firenze.  Sure, other beautiful buildings exist, but this Renaissance feat of engineering has them all beat in the art history popularity contest.

The best way to observe Brunelleschi’s groundbreaking design of a dome within a dome is to crawl inside and see it up close.  But that doesn’t come without a price.

Not only will you have to pay ten euros per adult, but your legs will join your children in protest as you complete the 16,402 steps to the top.

Just kidding.  Well, about the number of steps, anyway.Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsWhen you DO reach the top, the only word you’ll manage to utter is, “Wow.”  That is, if you can even breathe after all that climbing.

Dazzling views of Firenze – this is your reward for waiting in the never-ending queue and conquering the 15th century StairMaster.  For a moment, the pain will be forgotten and the beauty of the panorama will overwhelm you to the point of tears. Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsWait, that’s not you crying.  It’s your three year-old son who just realized how far up he is.  Cue massive freak out.

Promises of gelato are the only thing that’ll save you in this mess.  Well, that and getting the heck out of dodge.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsOnly, that’s not so easy either.  Cue massive traffic jam.  Apparently Brunelleschi didn’t design his dome for 21st century tourism…

You’ll grip your kid’s hand tightly because gee those steps seem to have gotten a heck of a lot steeper in the last twenty minutes.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsDon’t forget to swipe one last look at the incredible fresco inside the dome while you cross your fingers and hope that your kids don’t notice the grotesque figures being eaten alive in terrible judgement and wind up with nightmares for years.  Sheesh.

Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch and before you know it, you’ve made it out alive!  And, relatively unscathed…  In, up, out, down, and done.  Brunelleschi’s Dome – what more could you want in Florence?Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsActually, tons.  Firenze offers so many options, it’s impossible for travelers to see it all in a matter of days (or even weeks!).  Want to know what made our list?

Here’s a quick rundown of a few places we dragged the kids…

SANTA CROCE.  I love this beautiful church almost as much as Santa Maria Novella (see below).  We didn’t step inside, because I didn’t have my art-history-for-majors-who-have-minorly-forgotten-everything guide with me.

However, one thing that really struck me about both of these churches is their amazing entrances are merely facades, pretty stickers stuck on ugly brown box basilicas (for a visual, check out the second photo).

These flashy fronts were constructed with money from who-knows-where that could’ve been used for who-knows-what merely to conceal an ordinary building.  I wondered what God must think of these churches…Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsThrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsSANTA MARIA NOVELLA.  Another member of the art history hall of fame, you can’t help but adore this place.  It’s just so… frilly!

Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsPIAZZA DELLA REPUBBLICA.  If your kiddos love carousels, you’ll want to make a stop here.  Bring a few coins and a bit of honesty.  We easily could’ve hopped on without paying.  The cashier was a young homie with his feet on the desk and his hands glued to his phone.  No one checked tickets or shooed the children off after the ride.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsPERCHÉ NO GELATERIA.  We tried several ice cream shops, but many are mediocre and all are very expensive (double the prices we paid in San Gimignano).

Doc Sci searched high and low for peanut butter gelato.  Unfortunately, he didn’t find any, but Yelp tells me we should’ve tried Antica Gelateria Fiorentina.  Ahh, well, the honey and sesame from Perché No helped to ease the pain.Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsTHE BARGELLO.   I’m fascinated by sculpture, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Donatello Room and a few early Michelangelos.  Except for the pieces in the open courtyard, I was rather disappointed by the rest of the museum.  The third floor was completely closed during our visit.  Boo!Thrifty Travel Mama | Firenze & Climbing Brunelleschi's Dome with KidsAfter climbing Brunellschi’s dome and then wandering the streets of Firenze under the omnipresent Tuscan sun, we were BEAT… and nearly fell asleep on the train back to Pistoia!

But despite the crowds, my aching feet and sweaty brow, I couldn’t resist the charm of Firenze.  Even in my exhaustion, I looked forward to returning.  Lucky for me, I would only have to wait a few days for my next visit to the heart of the Renaissance…

Fancy a visit to the Uffizi with your family?  Click here for my Six Tips for a Successful Visit to the Uffizi Gallery with Kids!

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-Marigold

Exploring Tuscan Hill Towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, & Lucignano

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThe landscape of Tuscany is littered with tiny hill towns.  Many of these enclaves are not well known outside of the immediate area (Torrita di Siena), while a others appear as regulars in the guidebooks (San Gimignano).  So, how do you know which ones to investigate and which ones to ignore?

Honestly, I have no idea.

Not the answer you were expecting?  The truth is, that even though I travel often and trip logistics is a hobby (okay, obsession) of mine, I still end up overwhelmed.  Too many options, too little time!

Don’t worry – I won’t leave you completely in the dark.  Here are two approaches that will help you sort through the list.  What?  You have no list yet?  Consult your nearest Lonely Planet, Best Small Towns in Italy or Wikipedia.

Location

With three small kiddos, this it the method I use most.  Punch your villa / vacation rental / hotel location into Google maps.  Zoom out a bit until you can see the surrounding location names.  Use the driving directions feature for any towns not immediately visible.

And since location and transportation go hand in hand, don’t forget to factor how you will get from your lodging to your day trip location.  I am a big fan of public transportation, but I have to say that in Italy, I much preferred to go by car to the small towns.

Be advised that if you’re traveling roads other than the autostrada (interstate with tolls) or the raccordo (highway), driving times will be longer than what is shown in the search results.  We limited our list to locations one hour or less by car.

Travel by bus in Italy is intermittent and rarely on time.  Train travel is better, and if you choose this method you’ll have any easy time narrowing down your list as few hilltop villages feature railway stations.

Interest

What are your family’s interests?  Love wine?  Try Greve in Chianti.  Enjoyed Under the Tuscan Sun?  Don’t miss Cortona.  Into religious history?  Stop in Assisi.  Find out what each town is known for, and narrow the list from there.

Today, I’d like to feature three hilltop towns we explored: Montepulciano, Pienza, and Lucignano.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Montelpulciano with KidsMontepulciano surprised me with its attractive alleys (really!), quiet streets, and unique shops.

As we trekked up the shockingly steep streets, I felt like REAL people lived here despite the obvious presence of tourists and souvenirs.  Perhaps as evidence, we happened upon two playgrounds frequented by Italian families.

We did not, however, see many children on the streets of Montepulciano.  One possible explanation is that cars are not banned in the city center.  Sure, these areas are technically pedestrian zones.  But, I never felt comfortable letting go of my child’s hand for fear of being run over by the constant stream of trucks and whizzing Vespas squeezing through the narrow lanes.  Alas, this is Italy – and we quickly grew accustomed to the perpetual hand holding.Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill Towns

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsOf all the landmarks in Montepulciano, T-Rex and Screech enjoyed the well at the Piazza Grande the most.  Doc Sci went all nerdy on me trying to explain the physics of lowering and raising water-laden buckets.  I tried to admire the architecture but found it difficult to ignore the twenty gazillion plastic chairs and concert equipment mucking it all up.

Montepulciano is known for its wine, so savor a glass or buy a bottle to go.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Pienza with KidsPienza was designed to be the “perfect” Renaissance town (more history and why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site here).

The architecture is lovely for sure; but, best of all, it’s flat and quite small.  In fact, if you don’t stop to gawk or eat, you could walk the entire thing in 30 minutes or less.

The centro storico is a treat for art or history buffs… that is, if you can manage an eyeful in between the crowds.  Better to wander behind the main square and catch a breathtaking view of the Val D’Orcia landscape.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsBesides a great spot for a family photo, this punto panoramico is an excellent area to give your nose a rest.  Pienza is known for its pecorino cheese, and they’ve got the stench to prove it.  If you don’t mind the odor, feel free to sample the different varieties offered in the shops.  But hold on to your pocketbooks and purchase your edible souvenirs at the grocery store across from the Agip gas station on the SS146.

Other than a decent playground on Via Enzo Mangiavacchi, we didn’t find many hidden gems in Pienza.  I’d say the village is worth a quick stop especially if Renaissance architecture is your thing, but refrain from making it the star of your day.


Thrifty Travel Mama - Lucignano with Kids Prior to researching villas, I’d never heard of Lucignano before.  We ended up booking Casal Gheriglio which lounges at the foot of the hill.  On one of our hang-out-and-do-nothing days, we decided to wander up and have a look.

What a treat!  Billed as a model example of how medieval towns should be, we appreciated the orderly streets… with nary a tourist in sight.  Lucignano was a breath of fresh air after the chaos of Siena and the crowds of San Gimignano.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Taking the Kids to Tiny Tuscan Hill TownsThough almost every nook and cranny was shut up on the day of our visit (Ferragosto), the playground was filled with families.  We couldn’t help but stare and giggle at the old men playing cards at the outdoor cafe.  What we assumed was Italian trash talk stood in sharply contrasted their pressed shirts and neatly combed white hair.  Perhaps Rick Steeves might have missed this “back door.”

If museums and shopping are what you’re after, look elsewhere.  Lucignano hasn’t yet been overrun by tourism.  The locals do have to eat, so you won’t be without a trattoria, pizzeria, and gelateria.  But, streets are hushed, and the most interesting thing to do here is burn up your camera taking photos… which is just fine with me.

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!

Signature-Marigold

Savoring the World’s Best Gelato in San Gimignano

Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoMost travelers visit San Gimignano to see the stone skyscrapers of “Medieval Manhattan.”  But little did we know that some mouthwatering eats can be found in this infamous tourist trap.  And at budget prices, to boot!

Let’s mix things up and start with dessert first, shall we?  Forget the biscotti and tiramisu, delicious as they are, and head straight for the gelato.  Sampling the various flavors and comparing the different shops is something the whole family will want in on no matter where you go in Italy.  However, in San Gimignano, you only need to make one stop – Gelateria Dondoli.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoThe multitude of flavors in this ice cream parlor will boggle your mind (see them here, here, and here), and the line out the door will make you wonder if the whole shebang is even worth it.  Have some faith my friend, you’re about to taste the best gelato in Italy!

I must admit, our unadventurous souls shied away from the most creative flavor combinations like raspberry with rosemary or gorgonzola with walnut.  However, I couldn’t resist a spoonful of the champagne – unbelievable!  Other favorites: espresso, cinnamon, mango, and wild berry yoghurt.  But, who cares what we liked – keep sampling until you find the one, or twenty, that you dig.

And, to put the cherry on top, this incredible ice cream shop is one of the cheapest in all of Tuscany.  Apparently all the Gelato World Champion fame hasn’t gone to their heads.  The title has, however, made the neighboring gelateria green with envy.  Don’t be fooled by their sign touting “the world’s best gelato.”  In this case it’s best to argue semantics and to keep your eyes peeled for the crucial word champion.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoUnfortunately, no “world minestrone championship” exists.  But if it did, it would be a bore since Trattoria Chiribiri is the clear winner.  Progresso ruined my opinion of minestrone for years; but one big bowl from Chiribiri has me stalking websites for a similar recipe.

Soup not your thing?  No worries.  Order the beef in Chianti or the gnocchi with cream sauce instead, and insist that the waiter bring you an extra loaf of bread.  You’ll be sending the plates back to the kitchen cleaner than a whistle, trust me.  Trattoria Chiribiri served us the BEST restaurant meal of our Tuscan vacation (second only by Trattoria da Leo in Lucca), and for under 35 euros no less.

For more on Trattoria Chiribiri, check out my review on TripAdvisor (look for the shoes!) or the recommendation in Frommer’s.  You can also browse their website, but I should warn you that the food photography is atrocious and does not reflect the quality and flavor of the dishes.Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San Gimignano

Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoSince I have your attention, I may as well share a few notes on San Gimignano itself.

In this village, everyone’s a tourist.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a single soul without a backpack or camera.  While this is annoying in some respects (no “authentic” Italy here), in other ways it’s a relief.  For once, it’s easy to blend in.  Just strap on a DSLR, add a fanny pack for flair, socks with sandals if you can stomach the look, and you’ll fit right in.  Really.

Most sandal and shutter-stocked sightseers head straight for the towers.  We weren’t keen on sharing a small staircase with fragrant strangers, so we opted to view the village and countryside from the Rocca.  In addition to being extremely budget friendly (read: free), those with sturdy legs will get the best view of the stone high rises from here.  For east side scenery, follow the signs to Punto Panoramico.Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoThrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoThrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoTo ditch the crowds, follow the path outside the walls counterclockwise starting at the Porta delle Fonti.  You’ll be treated to Tuscan views peeking through the olive-laden trees.

Spend the afternoon checking out churches or gagging at the grotesque in the Museo della Tortura.  Whatever you do, you’re bound to have a pleasant stay in this famous city.  Despite its overpriced tourist heart, San Gimignano still offers budget gems to travelers who know where to look.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Savoring the World's Best Gelato in San GimignanoPractical tips for visiting San Gimignano:

  • Toilets – All public potties are pay-to-pee, fifty cents a pop.  Drink responsibly, and use the bathrooms in restaurants you patronize.
  • Prams – Many streets are incredibly steep (a central theme in Tuscany..).  You’ll see the Italians using strollers, but save yourself the struggle and stick with a backpack carrier.
  • Prices – If it’s souvenirs you’re after, don’t buy them in San Gimignano.  Other Tuscan hill towns are cheaper.  For instance, a package of pici noodles costs 1,98 euro in the grocery store.  An identical bag in Pienza sells for 2,50… or 3,50 in San Gimignano.
  • Timing – For day trippers, try to make the extra effort to arrive very early or stay late.  The empty streets and perfect lighting will make for beautiful photos.
  • Playgrounds – We found two areas for the kiddos.  The first is near the Rocca.  Head to the south side, and you’ll see a set of steps leading to it further down the hill.  The other is on the east side of Via Folgore da San Gimignano.  It’s behind a gate, but visible from the street.
  • Parking – You can save a bit by parking down the hill at lot P1 (1 euro/hr).  We left the car in P2 (2 euro/hr), but it was worth it not to have to hike up the hill in the hot sun or wait for the park-and-ride bus.

This post is part of Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series.  Click on the link to view our bucket list and recaps of each excursion!Signature-Marigold