Reykjavik – Where to Stay and Eat

It’s no secret that Iceland is probably one of the trendiest countries to visit right now, and it’s not hard to see why. For those looking for a trip that is like no other, Iceland fits that bill. As the site of where they film Game of Thrones and created the world from Interstellar, it’s easy to wander around the country and feel like you’re on another planet.

The capital of Reykjavik is about a 50 minute drive from the airport. When you fly in, be sure to stop in the Duty Free liquor store to stock up on some alcohol for your trip if you want to save some money (liquor is very expensive in Iceland due to the taxes). Beer and wine can be purchased in country though for reasonable prices (Einstock and Borg are both excellent beer options). Vínbúdin was our store of choice frequently (this chain has locations throughout the country).

Driving around the country is quite easy, and it seems like most of the rental cars come with GPS. Everyone speaks English and are all very friendly, so it’s not hard to get around–which is lucky because any tourist trying to pronounce Icelandic words will undoubtedly be spewing out gibberish.

As I alluded to earlier, food prices are quite high. But despite the prices, the quality of most of the food we ate was excellent. DO NOT BUY BOTTLED WATER. It’d be a total waste of your money. The tap water is probably the cleanest tasting water I’ve ever had. Keep in mind that when you run the water hot, it smells a little funky, like rotten eggs, because of the sulfur, but it’s fine when it’s running cold.

Reykjavik itself is a very unassuming city. There are no skyscrapers, and the atmosphere is very slow-paced and chill. I’d recommend giving yourself a weekend to see everything in Reykjavik, but you probably don’t need much more than that. Most of the highlights from the trip are from the sights outside the city, and I’ll be getting into each of those in upcoming blog posts.

One other thing–obviously Iceland is cold. But what I hadn’t realized is how much the cold would affect the battery on my cell phone. So my advice would be to make sure your phone stays as close to your body as possible, and on the really cold days (especially when you’re out on the glaciers), be very judicious in choosing when to take pictures. My phone died on several occasions just from being out in the elements too long. My advice is also to invest in a portable charger like I did to kick start it back to life in the car.

Where to Stay

Hótel Óðinsvé
Þórsgötu 1, 101 Reykjavík

Great location, fantastic front desk staff. Don’t bother trying to put the address in the GPS because for some reason those Icelandic letters in the street name don’t show up. Instead, put the hotel name in the “Points of Interest” category and it should show up that way. For $300 a night, three of us shared one of their 3 bed flats.

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Where to Eat

SandholtBrauð & Co., and Bergsson Mathús for breakfast
Address and hours on their respective websites.

It’s gotta be something in the water. We were convinced of it based on how good the bread in Iceland is. Any one of these locations offers delicious brunch options with their pastries, such as chocolate croissants and raisin danishes, being the highlights. Sandholt and Bergsson Mathús are good options if you want to sit and eat. Bergsson Mathús is a bit smaller, and cozier, but Sandholt has more food options, including lunch options to-go. I recommend grabbing sandwiches from Sandholt for lunch later in the day, especially if you’re going to be driving the Golden Circle. Brauð & Co. is more of a grab and go place; be sure to grab one of their cinnamon rolls.

Sandholt

Brauð & Co.

Bergsson Mathús

Grillmarkaðurinn
Lækjargata 2a, 101 Reykjavík

This steak house was a little tough to find; we kept missing the small sign that leads to an alley which takes you to the building it’s in. This restaurant is quite pricey, but not any more pricey than going to a really nice steakhouse in the states. On the menu were various items which you probably won’t find elsewhere (such as puffin and whale). Full disclosure: We tried both the puffin and whale. Was there a bit of cognitive dissonance doing it? Absolutely yes. And although we were assured by one of our tour guides that the whale that is served isn’t the “endangered” kind, it still felt a little off. But alas, we tried it, and my advice — don’t bother. It’s nothing to write home about. You can order sashimi and it’s practically the same thing. What is worth writing home about from Grillmarkaðurinn? The black sea salt butter that came with the delicious bread (the bread again!), the 27 day aged ribeye, and the Golden Circle cocktail.

Sjávargrillið
Skólavörðustígur 14, 101 Reykjavík

You can make the argument that the single best entree may have been the 27 day aged ribeye from Grillmarkaðurinn, but I think most from my group would agree that Sjávargrillið was the best overall dining experience. The prices were a bit lower and the ambiance was a little brighter and more casual. The specialty of this restaurant is seafood, and that’s what we went with and on the whole, the entire meal was a winner. Each of our entrees was excellent: the catch of the day catfish with mashed potatoes, the salmon with cous cous, the fried cod with cous cous, and grilled tuna with bok choy. The appetizers included lobster tacos, carpaccio, and Arctic char. But the highlight was the creme brûlée with liquid nitrogen pistachio ice cream dessert which one member of our party declared “This is it!” and joked that his trip at that point may as well have been over.

Hot Dogs
Various locations

They love hot dogs in Iceland. Not totally sure where that love comes from. But it’s a lot like how Hawaiians love SPAM type thing. The street hot dogs are a good drunk food or if you just want a snack. They’re not really any different from a New York hot dog, but the bun is toasted and the gravy they put on it is pretty tasty.

Where to Drink

Mikkeller & Friends
Hverfisgata 12, 101 Reykjavík

This dark, cozy, bohemian style beer house offers 20 different styles of beer on tap. It’s definitely a great spot if you want to lay low after a long day of sightseeing, but because you’re so closely packed in with other customers, don’t be surprised if a conversation sparks with your neighbors.

Bjórgarðurinn
1, 105, Þórunnartún, Reykjavík

This beer garden could not be more opposite in atmosphere to Mikkeller & Friends. Located within the lobby of a hotel, this beer hall was brighter, had higher ceilings, live music, and the clientele was much more professional. That being said, the beer offerings were still quite excellent and Bjórgarðurinn had more more of a food menu.

Questionable Restaurants

Matur og Drykkur

We came to Matur og Drykkur in order to have a  traditional Icelandic meal. I feel a bit torn because I don’t want to give it a “bad” review; the service and atmosphere were actually quite nice. But the food was, shall we say, unique. Some of us really didn’t like it, other were okay with it. Personally, I didn’t hate it, but it is a meal that will test your palette.  A lot of the food is really salty. And the cod head I ordered was truly bizarre–again it didn’t necessarily taste badly, it was just weird. So my advice is this: If you really want to step out of your comfort zone, give this place a try. But don’t go if you’re really hungry, or are not willing to pay a high price for a meal that may not necessarily sit well in your stomach.

The bizarre cod fish head…

Slippbarinn

We stopped by here for a drink before dinner, and it wasn’t bad. But it also wasn’t as great as the reviews would make it seem. The cocktails were perfectly decent and fun, but for the price I’d prefer to spend my time and money somewhere else.

Coming Up: Things to do in Reykjavik

Hoi An

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, it’s probably safe to say Hoi An was my favorite. Remember when I said that Luang Prabang was surprisingly my favorite part of our last SE Asia trip? Well in the same way, Hoi An is the city that wasn’t as famous as Hanoi or Saigon and that I knew the least about (like Luang Prabang), yet its small village, relaxing atmosphere made it the best part of the trip.

Where To Stay

La Residencia
35 Đào Duy Từ, Cẩm Phô
Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam

I really liked this hotel. The location is perfect because it’s right outside of Old Town on the west side, so it’s closest to all the street food and the Night Market. The room we had was large and comfortable enough for three people, had a balcony, and the hotel provides a really good breakfast buffet. The employees were also very friendly and helpful and the price, unsurprisingly, was great ($53/night). It’s a bit of a walk to get into town, but it’s not overly exerting. And it’s much quieter at night because it’s not in the center of everything.

What To Do

The best way to take in Hoi An is to just walk around and get lost with all the other backpackers. Hoi An isn’t as remote as Luang Prabang, which makes it a bit more manageable in terms of getting around (there are no rickety old bridges that you have to cross over and over again to get into town). But it’s also not as touristy as Siem Reap, so it’s not overwhelmingly in your face like that city.

In order to see most of the historical sights within Old Town like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation you need to buy a 120 dong ticket. You’re forced to purchase one at ticket booths on the outskirts of Old Town. Do not lose the ticket because they will check to see if you have one every time you walk in and out of Old Town.

Hoi An’s architecture was able to survive a lot of the 20th century wars, so strolling through town is like walking through a time capsule. In the evening, the Night Market bustles with pedestrians under the hundreds of colorful lanterns and, like the market in Luang Prabang, is filled with vendors where you can get souvenirs.

Get suited up.  They may as well call Hoi An “Tailor Town” because there are dozens of tailoring shops that line the streets of this small town. Some are obviously better than others, but in general I think you’ll find a deal on clothes no matter where you go. My buddy and I ultimately ended up getting suits made at Kimmy Tailor (which is a top rated store in both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor). For $420 I bought 2 tailored suits and a tie. The process took three trips over the course of our stay there, but they can do it in fewer if you’re pressed for time (they just won’t be able to make small adjustments).

As of this writing, the suits have held together well and are still top notch. A competing store that we considered, Bebe Tailor, offered 2 suits for $385, and while that price is lower, Kimmy’s employees seemed a bit more on top of their work and the material was a little bit better. But if you’re a woman, Bebe does offer far more women’s options (my sister ended up getting a tailored suit from Bebe for $150).

Eat all the cheap food.  Specifically, eat Cao Lau. This is a dish you’re only going to find in Hoi An, and it was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. The noodle dish is the perfect mix of pasta-y, salty, veggie, meaty, crunchy deliciousness with just the right amount of broth–all for $1. Also, go to Banh Mi Phuong and get a banh mi sandwich. Look for the place with a picture of Anthony Bourdain proudly displayed. Order the #9 (Pork, Ham, and Pate) for one of the best sandwiches you’ll get for 75 cents. If you go at lunch, expect a line.

Take a ride in a Basket Boat. In all honesty, we kind of ran into this activity by accident on our hike out of Hoi An to find Pho Dua Coconut City. On our way, we saw the Le Ha Basket Boat outfit and decided on a whim to give a go. For 100K dong, you can paddle your way through the coconut fields in a bamboo fishing basket. It makes for a fun, really unique experience. Our guide also provided us with Asian conical hats which made for some pretty ridiculously hilarious pictures. Note: I couldn’t find a website for the company; it was a pretty local outfit. At the end, our boat guide actually guided us back to her own house along the river where we disembarked.

Light a candle and put the lantern into the Thu Bồn River. Hoi An is the most tranquil at night, and the hundreds of candles floating down the river are a huge part of giving it that serene evening atmosphere. There are several meanings behind the floating candles, but I think it’s best to take the beauty of the tradition and interpret it however you’d like that’s personal to you.

Take a Jeep tour.  More to come in the next post.

Quick Tip: Getting back into the U.S. from Mexico requires a big cooler

I recently traveled to a friend’s beach house in Puerto Peñasco/Rocky Point, Mexico and discovered (but not at all surprised) that while you can get into Mexico really easily, getting back into the U.S.? Not so much.

This is a just a quick tip for those of you who are driving into Mexico and planning on driving back into the U.S.  Pack a cooler–a big one.

This was us for 3 hours

The traffic jam we hit trying to cross the border added about 3 hours to our drive, and most of that 3 hours was spent sitting in the 100 degree sun baking our van.  Despite the A/C being on full blast, only hot air was filling up the van because we were moving an inch every 5 minutes. We did not prepare for such a wait, and I’ve never experienced as much jealousy as when I could see folks in the cars around us popping open their coolers and drinking ice cold waters and beers.

Traffic, traffic, traffic…

While there were a few folks on the road selling drinks, tamales (yes, we bought some and they were delicious), souvenirs, and use of their toilets, even for Mexico the prices were a rip off, so you may as well get that cooler filled up yourself.

I’m not sure if all the border crossings are like this (we were crossing into Arizona), but I would suspect that they are.  And it probably should have been an obvious thing to prepare for; it was just an oversight on our part–one that you should make sure not to make.

But of course it was all worth it because for 4 days I got to see this…

Hanoi: Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

While I’ll get to the rest of what to do in Hanoi later, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum deserves it’s own post. Ho Chi Minh is considered the father of Vietnam and is commonly referred to as Bac Ho (Uncle Ho) to the Vietnamese. His name and image are everywhere; even Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. So a trip to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex is a must-do when you’re in Hanoi.

The complex is a massive memorial the holds the mausoleum itself, where you can view the body of Ho Chi Minh, along with other memorials, the Presidential Palace, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and his Stilt House. It’s important to make sure that you make the mausoleum the first part of your trip to the complex (don’t confuse the museum with the mausoleum). It’s only open from 8 am–11 am on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (last entry is at 10:15 am) and is closed from September 4th–November 4th when the body is sent to Russia for maintenance.

When we showed up to the complex at 8 am, it was absolute chaos. Hundreds, possibly even thousands of people were everywhere. Soldiers lined the streets, directing different groups to different areas. The main square was an intimidatingly open space with lots of granite and Vietnamese and Soviet flags piercing the cloudy sky. In the middle was the mausoleum in all of its glory, standing tall and ominously with giant a red HO CHI MINH branded on it. It has the looks of a communist Lincoln Memorial. Hundreds of schoolchildren, all with the same adorable uniforms, stood in random lines at different points in the square. They all (and literally ALL the children) would charmingly wave and shout “HELLO!” to any person who remotely looked like a tourist. It was a strange contrast to the intimidating scene of Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.

The square was so big that we had no idea where to go; there were lines everywhere. We first walked through a metal detector that we assumed lead to the right place, but each time we stepped in one direction, a soldier or guard would ferry us a different way. After thirty minutes of just walking with random groups around the mausoleum, we finally made it to what we thought was a ticket booth for the body viewing. We were wrong. It was a ticket booth for the museum complex. The person who worked in the booth spoke relatively good English and told us that it was free to view the body in the mausoleum, but we needed to get in line (obviously…).

So we walked back to where we started and just started to randomly ask every soldier if they could tell us where we needed to go. Finally, we found a sentry in a pearly white uniform who spoke English. He told us that we needed to walk down the street and find the end of a specific line, which he pointed us to. It was at this point that we picked up a lone Dutch backpacker who was also wandering around having the same issues as us. She had overheard our conversation with the English speaking soldier and that we actually made progress figuring out what the hell to do. So she tagged along with us as we walked, and walked, and walked until we found the end of the line.

From there, the hour and a half wait began. But it was not without it’s entertaining parts. Much like lines at Disney World, the line to get into the mausoleum wrapped in and out of random courtyards and gardens. We spent the wait time getting to know our new Dutch friend. She told us she was doing a three month solo backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia because she just graduated from law school (jealous much?). And because she was a tall, blond, European, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the mass of shorter Vietnamese schoolchildren, she couldn’t go a hundred feet without being stopped by a random kid and asked to take a selfie. I’m not exaggerating–dozens of girls would stop her, ask for her to pose with them, and then walk away before the day was done. It was one of the more amusing things I’ve ever seen in my travels. But that’s what makes traveling great: the people you meet. Our new friend would eventually end up spending the rest of the day and night with us.

As you get closer to the entrance of the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, there are multiple signs with rules to follow. No pictures. No shorts. No bags. No chewing gum. No hands in pockets. No talking. On and on… You can tell that they take the body viewing extremely seriously, which is understandable considering that Ho Chi Minh is the biggest figure in Vietnamese history. As you walk up the stairs into the massive gray structure the decibel level of voices creepily gets lower and lower.

When you turn the corner to walk into the chamber, the lighting is a dark glowing red, and in the middle of the room, to my great shock, is the body Ho Chi Minh. It’s just there. Out in the open. I figured we’d see a coffin or sarcophagus, but no, he’s on fully display. Ho Chi Minh is dressed in a black robe with giant Vietnamese and Soviet flags hanging above and behind his body (think the Smithsonian Star-Spangled Banner sized flags). The body itself is in incredibly good condition, which makes sense considering that they send it to Russia every year for two months for ‘maintenance.’ It is an absolutely surreal, creepy scene.

As the soldiers move the visitors along, one of the most flabbergasting experiences I’ve ever had happened in my travels occurred. My buddy whom I frequently go on trips with is a great travel companion. I value his company whenever I’m off in some exotic land because he keeps his a good head on his shoulders and is always willing to experience new things. But there are times, such as this one, where I go…

“Uh, what?”

So he’s in front of me in line, and we’re right at the spot where the body is directly facing us. He turns around, looks me in the eye, and laughingly asks “Dude, who is that?”

“Are you serious right now??”

I see the Dutch backpacker and my sister, who are in front of him, turn their heads, completely dumbfounded. Under the watchful stare of the soldiers that fill the room, I tell my buddy (keeping my mouth shut to try and be subtle), “Duuuddddeeee, shut up and keep walking,” as I stare daggers at him.

When we leave the chamber (you only really stay in there for about thirty seconds), I ask him what the hell he was thinking and if he wanted us to get shot. I’m all for being a smart-ass and joking around every once in a while, but I could not believe he would make a joke right at that moment. However, what came out of his mouth next was even more bewildering.

“No, seriously…who was that?”

From left to right: Dutch backpacker, me, my sister…

So after taking a cab to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, looking for how to get in for thirty minutes, waiting in line for an hour and a half, walking into the massive Lincoln Memorial type building with the giant words HO CHI MINH written on it, to see, without question, the biggest historical figure in Vietnam’s history, my buddy still brain farted the shit out of the experience and wasn’t sure who we were looking at…

SMH…

When all is said and done, we had a good laugh about it. I handed him my Lonely Planet with the history of Vietnam earmarked for him to read while the Dutch backpacker retrieved her bag. Believe me, it will be a story I will be telling at his wedding, funeral, and many other events for years to come.

After the mausoleum visit, the rest of the complex is relatively anti-climactic. I’d say you don’t necessarily need to do it, but if you have time, since you’re there, you may as well. For $1, you can see his Stilt House, the Presidential Palace, and the museum. We didn’t actually go into the museum because it’s closed for two hours at lunch, so I can’t really give you a review of that. But the viewing of Ho Chi Minh’s body in the mausoleum itself is definitely something worth waiting around for and experiencing.

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Coming Up: The rest of What to Do in Hanoi.

Video: Safari in the Entabeni Game Reserve

Going on a safari is a must when traveling to South Africa.  There are several safaris available in country (the most famous being in Kruger National Park), but the one we chose was in the 22,000 acre Entabeni Game Reserve.  After a quick flight to Johannesburg from Cape Town, the bus ride out to Entabeni is about 3 hours.  Our tour guide on the bus really hams it up as we enter the reserve and the gates open, announcing over the loud speaker “Welcome…to Africa” (cue the John Williams music).

Everyone on the bus had the exact same thought.
Everyone on the bus had the exact same thought.

In order to maximize the time, they start the safari right away, so be prepared to have anything you need for the next few hours and into the evening because it does get very cold as the sun goes down.  We hopped off the bus and into open air Land Cruisers (while your luggage makes its way to the lodge). These are not your suburbanites’ Land Cruisers either.  These vehicles are the real deal, taking 10 of us over boulders and on 45-degree rocky inclines and declines.  I’ve got to hand it to the folks at Disney World because the rocky wildness of the Indiana Jones ride is a spot on copy of how ruggedly off road we were going.

We spent a few hours out in the safari and immediately saw wallabies, which got everyone amusingly super excited. I say amusingly because seeing a wallaby is like getting into a tizzy over seeing a squirrel in the city; by the end of the trip, after seeing hundreds of wallabies, no one gave a shit about them. So don’t go crazy wasting film on them if that’s the first thing you see.

We did however also see rarer creatures in the wild.  Because there are too many animals to list out, you’ll be able to see what we encountered in the galleries below. Over the next few days we’d go on excursions at sunrise (waking up very early) and sundown, as those are the best times to try and see the animals. They key animals that you want to try and spot are the big five game animals: the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros.  During our time we were lucky enough to see all except the leopard, a historically hard animal to spot because they usually only come out at night and are very shy.

Our lodge was located at the top of a mountain in the reserve and it takes about 30 minutes to get from the lodge to the main areas where the animals reside. The lodge itself is extremely comfortable and the tap water there is safe; we were not roughing it at all.  Huge rooms, hot showers, comfortable beds, outdoor patios, a spa, and a pool–the place has it all.  And don’t worry, they have South African plug adapters available for guests.  We were however warned to stay in lighted areas as to not get attacked by an elephant or rhino or something.

All the rangers who acted as our guides were highly knowledgeable, super friendly, and worked very well together over radio to call out where particular animals could be sighted.  For example, believe it or not, trying to find elephants is NOT as easy as you’d imagine.  Despite their size, elephants are actually extremely quiet (unless of course you piss them off), so it did take a lot of driving, tracking, and radio chatter among the rangers to pin down their location.

If you can get access to one, I’d highly recommend bringing a camera with a telephoto lens.  Although an iPhone works fine, the rangers might not necessarily be able to get you super close, so you’ll really want the real deal if you’re going to take pictures.  By the end of the trip, I wanted to stay another week.  It literally is the Lion King come to life out there (I swear we saw the cliff that had to be the inspiration for Pride Rock).  With the animals walking right up to and around the Land Cruisers, you’re equal to them like no where else in the world.  Specifically the cheetahs–yeah they’re really badass–and the lion parents with their playing cubs were so close you could pet them (and then immediately get your hand ripped off).  It’s a beautiful experience, one that’s worth the price and time to get.

Red Rocks Amphitheatre

Red Rocks Amphitheatre
18300 W Alameda Pkwy
Morrison, CO 80465

I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my time and I have to say that Red Rocks is arguably one of the best places to see a show.  Before going, I had heard from several people that it was an amazing place, so the hype level was already high going into it.

For those of you that don’t want to drive to get there, a $35 train that leaves from Union Station in downtown Denver is available.  When you arrive, the first thing you should be prepared for is a bit of a steep hike up to the amphitheatre.  Give yourself a little time to do that, especially if you decide to tailgate beforehand.  Since I still wasn’t fully acclimated to the thin air, by the time I made it to the top I was wheezing like an old man.

You’re allowed to bring in food, but no drinks (including water).  And obviously weed isn’t allowed, but I’m more than certain that most people brought that in.  One other tip: Make sure to pack in layers.  This actually applies to everywhere in the Denver area.  I haven’t been to a city where the temperature varies as much as it does from minute to minute as it does in Denver.  It could be 75 degrees and pleasant one minute and then a cloud covers the sun and it becomes bone chillingly cold the next.

Most of the amphitheatre seating is general admission so if you really care about the band you’re seeing you should show up early.  That being said, there’s not really a bad seat in the house.  The incline of the seats is steep enough and there’s a ton of room between your feet and the seat in front of you.  You can easily stretch your legs forward and not even come close to hitting the head of the person in front of you.  This not only gives you an unobstructed view of the stage, but it also gives you a lot of room to dance and allows beer sellers easy access to get through (they serve beer pretty late into the night, 10:30 seemed like the cutoff time).

But the real star of the amphitheatre is the sound.  The sound goes right through you.  It’s incredible.  We went to see the Thievery Corporation and they were great to watch there.  Even if you’re not familiar with them, you probably know their song Lebanese Blonde from the Garden State soundtrack.  Because they have such an eclectic sound, it’s hard to describe how your body gets so enveloped in the music.  As the sun goes down and the stars come out, the rocks that make up the ampitheatre illuminate and it really feels like you’re in a time machine that’s stuck between today and the ancient Roman times.  If you’re in Denver and a fan of music, my recommendation is to try and plan a night out at Red Rocks regardless of who is playing.  The venue also shows movies and offers yoga as well, but getting there for music should be the top option.

Loro Ciuffenna

After our long weekend in Amsterdam, we hopped on our flight to Italy and began that segment of the trip in the Loro Ciuffenna region.  Located about an hour south of Florence, Loro Ciuffenna is a nice Tuscany getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Our group rented out a giant villa via AirBnB near the small town of Arezzo, which is easily accessible by train from Florence.  The villa itself however requires a car, so if you want to stay there, renting one is a must.

Here’s the link to the villa we stayed in.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Loro Ciuffenna, which is perfect if you’re looking to just relax and enjoy the rolling hills and vineyards.  However, with your car you’re within driving distance of Siena, Florence and several other Italian cities that make for good day trips.

We spent only a few days in Loro Ciuffenna, and most of it consisted of getting good and drunk off of delicious Chianti wine.  Our group also hired a chef to come to the villa a couple times and cook us some Italian meals (they clean up too).  But here are some other highlights from Loro Ciuffenna before I get into the ins and outs of Florence in the next post.

Toscana Mia Cooking School
Località Poggio S. Polo, 2, 53013 Gaiole In Chianti SI, Italy

This was A LOT of fun.  I would highly recommend this cooking class, especially if you’re in a group and want to experience Italian cooking in a local’s home.  It’s a bit far outside of Florence, so you’ll really need to either be in the Loro Ciuffenna area or in Italy for a while and can afford to spend a whole day doing this activity.  The standard menu that they’ll teach consists of Bruschetta, Mushroom Tagliatelle, Tuscan Chicken, and Panna Cotta (and of course plenty of Chianti is provided throughout).  Though when booking the class you can request any particular Italian fare you want to learn how to make.

The family run cooking school isn’t as “individual” as I had hoped; I thought that each person would have a station and everyone would be able to make their own individual meals.  However, there was plenty of food to be made for the whole group, so everyone had ample opportunities to help cook each segment of the meal.  This class is great fun for any group, family, or couple looking to get a little messy and enjoy a fantastic meal that you can say you helped create.

 

Ristorante La Cantinella
Localita’ Montemarciano
70/G, 52028 Terranuova Bracciolini AR, Italy

This is one of the best meals I had the entire trip (if not the best).  Ristorante La Cantinella is a fantastic restaurant to go to if you end up staying in that villa.  I’ll be honest, the food was amazing, but not amazing enough to travel far to try, so if you’re staying in Florence, I’ll have recommendations in the city for you in a few posts.  But regardless, the meal was truly wonderful, and the ambiance was classy, but relaxing at the same time.  If you’re able to get a table on the patio, you can watch the sunset over the Tuscan hills.  And this place was very affordable – for the type of food we were getting, the price was probably half of what you would pay at a nice Italian restaurant in the States.   Even the good bottle of wine we had was only about 16 euros.  My recommendations: try the Pici with Duck Ragu and the Rabbit with Spinach.

Antica Macelleria Falorni
Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, 71, 50022 Greve FI, Italy

If you do go to the cooking school, stop by the nearby town of Greve.  Within the main piazza is Italy’s oldest butcher shop.  Packed with wall to wall meats, this place is every vegan’s nightmare, but certainly is a sight to see.  Be sure not to miss the cheese cellar downstairs as well.