Best Things to do in New York at Christmas Time

I am convinced that there is no better time to see New York City than at Christmas. All of the Christmas lights are up, the weather is perfect for bundling up and drinking hot chocolate, and it’s ice skating time! Maybe you’ll even get lucky and meet some New Yorkers who are filled with the holiday spirit?

Matt and I travelled with his family to New York this past Christmas, and we had a great time! We hit up all of the typical New York places to see, but there were some things we did that are only available at Christmas time. If you’re thinking of visiting the Big Apple during the holiday season, then consider this your guide so you don’t miss anything!

Rockefeller Center

This is probably the most iconic spot in New York for Christmas. Everyone’s either heard of it or seen a picture of it. I knew I wanted to go ice skating just to say I’d done it, but I had heard the crowds were nightmarish. We went to Rockefeller Center on one of our first nights so we could see the gigantic Christmas tree, and I couldn’t get over the amount of people there! The crowd was so bad that you had to stand shoulder to shoulder with strangers, and there was definitely no moving quickly. Heaven forbid you get separated from your group!

To try to fight the crowds I have these suggestions: don’t go on a weekend (especially evening). If you want to get pictures with the tree or angels across from the rink, try to go on a week night. There will still be a lot of people, but it won’t be as bad.

If you’re wanting to go ice skating, then there’s no better way to do it than buying tickets for the “early skate” option. Yes, it means waking up really early. But this was the best thing we did! With the early skate tickets, you’re allowed out onto the ice an hour before it normally opens. We arrived right on time for check in and there was not a SINGLE PERSON on the ice. We had the entire rink to ourselves so we got to hobble around the rink at our own pace, and we got free hot chocolate! Since there were no crowds on the sidewalks either, we got to take pictures of the tree and angels without anyone photo bombing us. Early morning in the city was so peaceful that I’d recommend waking up early to see Rockefeller Center even if you don’t plan on ice skating.

Type A Tidbits: 

Buy your ice skating tickets online ahead of time.

Check out Magnolia Bakery for the best banana pudding and cupcakes if you do the early skate… they open at 7 AM, and you can beat the rush! We tried to go here one evening for dessert and the line was around the block! You’re allowed cupcakes for breakfast on vacation!

Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall

Seeing the Rockettes perform in their Christmas Spectacular show is a New York City Christmas tradition! They started performing during the holiday season in 1933, and they haven’t slowed down since! I was so excited to see them, and I loved the show! I will say that it wasn’t entirely what I was expecting… the show was only 90 minutes and some of the acts were VERY cheesy. Families with kids would love this though! I’m glad we went, and we’ll probably go again if we’re in New York for Christmas, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be. I think I hyped it up in my head for so long that they just couldn’t live up to my expectations. The dancer’s choreography was beautifully in sync, and the costumes were fantastic. If we go again, I would like to sit a lot closer so we could see the facial expressions and details on the costumes. We were in the balcony, and I think that’s a little too far away for the whole experience. So if you can afford to spend the money for closer seats, then I think it would be worth it.

Saks Fifth Avenue Light Show

Across the street from the Rockefeller Christmas tree, is the most magical light show! Saks Fifth Avenue decorates the entire front of the building, and displays an LED light show set to music. The show begins every 10 minutes so if you miss the beginning, then just wait around for the next one to start. Don’t forget to check out the elaborately decorated store front windows too! And, yes, expect it to be very crowded!

See the decorations all over the city!

New York City does a great job of decorating everywhere for Christmas! Near Radio City Music Hall, you can find the giant red Christmas ornaments and the string of Christmas lights. The decorations don’t stop there though… you just have to look around!

We loved the city so much that we’re already planning next year’s trip! Thanks for reading!

Gelato Tour Through Italy

If you’ve been following our Italy series, then you’ve probably noticed something missing… GELATO!!! How can you even talk about Italy without mentioning the most perfect version of frozen dessert? I wanted to combine it all into one post so it’s easy to find where to sample the absolute best gelato in Italy.

I hadn’t tasted gelato until we arrived in the country, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect. The best way I can describe gelato is a denser, meltier, creamier type of ice cream. It doesn’t hold its shape well because it’s so soft so the server usually has to scrape the sugary goodness into a bowl or cone. If we’re getting detailed here, gelato has less air whipped into the ingredients so it results in a denser texture. It’s also made with milk instead of cream so there’s less fat per serving. With there being less fat, I never felt super full after eating gelato.

Try not to get overzealous when you spot your first cafe… you have to be careful! It’s so easy to get tricked into eating “fake” gelato! When you’re trying to find the perfect gelateria, make sure you don’t go to any place that has heaping mountains of gelato in the case. That’s a good indication that they’ve added fillers to make the gelato stiffer and “go further.” You also want to be careful and stay away from super bright colored gelato. That’s another indication that they’ve added artificial flavors and dyes. Gelato is so good on its own… no need for all that fake stuff!

So where do you need to go to find “real” authentic gelato? I’ve organized it by city so it is easier to search!

Venice

La Mela Verde

La Mela Verde is a small hole-in-the-wall gelateria right on one of Venice’s gorgeous canals. The flavors are traditional, fresh, and homemade! We got the caramel and hazelnut to-go and strolled along the canals, but we should have stayed around for seconds!

Florence

Perche No

Perche No is consistently on the “top 10” lists in Florence. Their gelato is made fresh every morning, and the texture is so smooth and creamy. Their seasonal flavors like rose, lavender, or apple pie are fantastic!

Venchi

Venchi Cioccolato is the ideal spot to buy rich chocolates. When I found out that this famous chocolate boutique also made gelato, I was sold. We scooped up some stracciatella (milk base gelato with bits of chocolate shavings mixed in), and bought some of the Venchi chocolate bars as gifts for our friends back home! The stracciatella was extra delicious because Venchi uses their own homemade chocolates to flavor the gelato.

Siena

La Vecchia Laterria

We stumbled on this place while exploring the streets of Siena, and it was exactly what we needed on a warm afternoon. I tried the straciatella and Matt went with the coffee… both fantastic!

Montepulciano

Dolcivoglie

I wish I knew more about this place, but it’s right on the square and one of the only (if not THE only) spot to buy gelato in Montepulciano. I’m learning that I’m pretty boring when it comes to my gelato flavors… I went with chocolate and straciatella. Matt chose the panna cotta and the tiramisu. And this is what a real gelato case looks like… no crazy colors and no heaping mountains!

Positano

Ristorante Covo Dei Saraceni

This cafe is near the pier in Positano so plan on getting your gelato and heading to the beach! We tried their gelato, but the real winner here was their lemon sorbet served in a real lemon! The fresh citrus taste made for the perfect afternoon snack.

Rome

Fatamorgana

Like I’ve said before, Rome was our favorite city to eat in! That was true for the gelato as well. Fatamorgana, in the neighborhood of Monti, is known for their crazy flavor combinations… rose petal, black rice, and even avocado! They even have dairy and sugar free options! I will say that their gelato was one of our favorites, but their portion sizes are way too small for the price.

Grom

You might be familiar with Grom because it’s a chain that’s made its way to the US! I usually try to stay away from chains, but I kept seeing it come up on everything I read about gelato. I’m so glad we tried it! While not our favorite that we tried, it was nice to know that good quality gelato can be found in train stations and airports all over!

Giolitti

One of the oldest gelaterias in Rome, Giolitti had a line of people coming out of the door! We braved the crowd and shouldered our way to the front to see what flavors they had. SO MANY CHOICES. Definitely add Giolitti to your to-do list. The caramel was so good… worth the wait!

Fior di Luna

In the hipster neighborhood of Trastevere, Fior di Luna is the perfect spot to rest while out exploring the area. I don’t remember exactly what flavors I had, but I’m sure it was some combination of chocolate, hazelnut, or caramel. And they were delicious.

So if you’re in one of these cities and find yourself with a spare minute or two, make your way to any of these on the list for some of the best gelato in Italy!

Rome: Where We Stayed and Where We Ate

I was on a mission in Rome: to find the best cacio e pepe and to find the best carbonara the city had to offer. I’d read a lot of articles and reviews ahead of time so I had a pretty good idea of where to start. But the only way to declare a winner was to taste as much pasta as I could.

When we got off the train at Termini Station, the scene was chaotic, but we made our way outside and waited in a taxi line that stretched around the corner. While we waited in line, we were approached by several nicely dressed men that were offering us a ride with no wait! However tempting this may be, do not leave the taxi line for any of these offers! These men represent unofficial taxis and are known to rip off tourists by quoting one price, but then demanding another when you arrive at your destination.

Where We Stayed

We stayed in some rental apartments right on the edge of Piazza Navona. The apartment was clean and decorated in a more modern style. The rooms were tiny, but they did have a great continental breakfast that you could eat on their terrace. Out of all the places that we stayed, this one was definitely our least favorite. I know Rome is expensive so we would probably stay here again for the right price, but we weren’t very fond of it. The rooms were so small, and the ceiling was extremely low. We stayed on the top floor so we must have been under an attic staircase or something because Matt had to duck even just to stand up in the bedroom. While the location near the piazza was nice, taxis had trouble finding our building. Several times they dropped us off and had us walk the few blocks to our apartment. Walking is fine with us, but wasn’t ideal when we had all of our luggage!

Where We Ate

Di Rienzo

The location of this restaurant is perfect! We sat outside under the umbrellas and had lunch while watching people come in and out of the Pantheon. Looking back, the food here was fine, but I’m sure the prices were higher just because of where this restaurant is. We wanted something extremely close to the Pantheon because we had a lot of ground to cover that afternoon. So if you’re okay with paying for the location, then this is a great spot!

Roscioli

Roscioli is a deli that doubles as a restaurant in the evenings. There are only twelve tables available each night so reservations are a must. We had a broccoli tempura here that was amazing, but the real reason we came was to try their cacio e pepe. Cacio e pepe literally translates into “cheese and pepper.” It seems like with this dish, that the simpler the ingredients are then the better it is. Homemade pasta is tossed with fresh Pecorino Romano cheese and leftover hot pasta water. The hot water melts the cheese into the pasta and creates a gooey, yummy sauce. The dish is topped with black pepper before being sprinkled with even more cheese. I knew Roscioli was known for their cacio e pepe, but I had no idea I was going to like it was much as I did. I mean, it’s just pepper and cheese, right? No, no it’s not. It’s way more. Congratulations Roscioli… y’all know how to make some pasta.

Pasta Chef

We were rushing around so much on our first full day in Rome, and I knew we wouldn’t have time for a sit down meal. Luckily in Rome, that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality. Pasta Chef is an amazing counter-service take out restaurant that makes their pasta fresh every day and serves it in to go containers. I got fettuccine with mushrooms and Matt had (of course) lasagna. It was super fast and so convenient. We need something like this in America, y’all!

Flavio de Velavevodetto

We went here to try their pasta carbonara and it lived up to the hype. I had heard it was fantastic, and while it was excellent, we had some that was even better the next day. We did get to try their aracini (rice balls filled with cheese) and their fried meatballs. All of it was so good! This restaurant is built on one of Ancient Rome’s landfills. In the back of the restaurant is a window that you can look out of and see the trash that buries the back wall. It’s mostly old pieces of pottery so it sounds grosser than it actually is. I mean who doesn’t want to have one of the best meals of their life on top of an old trash dump?

Da Enzo

When you get tired of the busy streets of Rome, you must take an afternoon to explore Trastevere. This neighborhood is beautiful and charming with narrow cobblestone streets and wisteria climbing the walls. Trastevere is home to artists and Rome’s version of hipsters. A lot of young people live here so it’s a very fun place to walk and explore. I had heard about the artichokes at Da Enzo, and since it was artichoke season while we were there, we couldn’t miss it! Da Enzo prepares their artichokes “Jewish” style which is frying it whole. When it came to the table I didn’t know really how to eat it. The young couple next to us told us we could eat the whole thing and then had a good laugh at the silly Americans who’ve never eaten a Jewish style artichoke before. It was salty and crunchy and so good that we ordered a second one. After that, we moved on to the main course. I ordered pasta Amatriciana which is a tomato sauce with pieces of fried pork cooked in the sauce. I’m not even going to tell you what Matt ordered.

Perilli

This is the holy grail of Italian food in Rome. I’m so glad we saved it for our last night because everything else following it would have been a disappointment. One of my favorite Italian food bloggers said that if she only had one Italian meal to eat, then she would go to Perilli. I took her advice and attempted to make reservations. They didn’t reply to my email, nor my message on social media so I ended up having to get our concierge at the apartments to make it for us. The restaurant was a pretty long cab ride away, and once we got there we discovered that no one spoke English. This is so rare for Rome. I knew immediately we were in the right place. We were the only Americans in the restaurant (which is another sign this place is going to be fantastic). Since we had tried Jewish style artichokes for lunch, then we needed to try Roman style for dinner. While the Jewish is fried, the Roman style artichoke is marinated and then roasted in the oven. Different, but still delicious. I ordered carbonara and Matt had Amatriciana. This is where we found the best carbonara in Rome. If you order pasta carbonara in America, you get pasta with a heavy cream sauce that usually has peas and bacon in it. It could not be more different in Rome. The carbonara is prepared simply with egg yolks, Italian bacon, and parmesan cheese. The egg yolks are stirred into the hot pasta and create a fantastically rich sauce without becoming heavy. I’d go back to Rome just to have this again.

Here’s our restaurant summary for Rome:

Best cacio e pepe: Roscioli

Best carbonara: Perilli

Best overall restaurant experience: Da Enzo

I feel terrible picking winners because every one of these places is unique and prepare their food with such pride and skill. I’d be lucky to have a meal from any of these places again, but I hope this helps you if you’re trying to narrow down your choices!

Exploring Christian Rome

In last week’s post, I explained how we divided Rome so that we could tackle it. Ancient Rome has so many things to see, but Christian Rome has just as many. The ornate churches and beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible are breathtaking! Here’s where we recommend for a quick tour through Christian Rome:

(I should add the disclaimer that pictures aren’t allowed in many churches in Rome. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of photos, and when I could take a picture, the lighting was usually very dim.)

The Catacombs of Rome

The catacombs are an underground burial site that began in the 2nd century. It’s the creepiest feeling walking through the dark tunnels with graves on either side of you! Some of the graves have been excavated, but some still remain untouched. We saw bits of pottery and even some bones that were still in their original burial site! The guide was so interesting, and necessary, because it’s so easy to get lost down there.

Holy Staircase (Scala Sancta)

According to Roman Catholic tradition, Constantine’s mother travelled to Jerusalem and brought this staircase back. It is believed to be the stairs that Jesus climbed on his way to his trial in front of Pontius Pilate. Now it is customary for Christians to travel from all over the world to climb the staircase on their knees. Seeing everyone so reverent and respectful was an experience we won’t forget.

Archbasilica of San Giovanni

I’m not Catholic so a lot of the hierarchy and traditions confuse me. However, I do know that this church is absolutely gorgeous! The high altar is beautiful and worth the visit alone.

Vatican City

There’s way too much information about Vatican City for me to include in a brief post. We booked the early morning tour of the Vatican, and it was the best thing we did that day. Yes, that meant we had to be at Vatican City at 7 in the morning, but we got to enter before any of the crowds were allowed in. We were able to take our time through the museum, and the halls were completely empty! If you do a quick internet search, you will see that the hallways in the museum are usually packed shoulder to shoulder. You can’t even cross the hall to see something on the other side. You basically have to just move with the crowd. But this was not our experience at all (thanks to the early morning tour!). In addition to the museum, we were able to see the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Square, and St. Peter’s Basilica. All are a must-do!

Type A Tidbits:

Unbeknownst to us, we visited Vatican City on the Day of Ascension. Since this is a Catholic holiday, no tours were allowed to be given inside the church. Our tour guide spoke with us outside and quietly waited in the back while we took our time looking at everything. We had to save all of our questions for her until we were back outside.

No talking is allowed inside the Sistine Chapel! I wanted so badly to tell Matt to “look at this!” or “let’s go over here,” but we had to keep silent. Obviously people don’t adhere strictly to this rule so anytime the noise level got above a whisper, the guard would say “Silenzio!” in a loud, booming voice!

Watch for the Swiss Guard in their colorful uniforms!

It seems like every corner in Rome has a church. And not just any church… they’re all some of the most beautiful art and architecture I’ve ever seen. You can’t go wrong! Narrowing it down is a real struggle, but hopefully this gives you a little bit of insight!

Exploring Ancient Rome

Rome is so overwhelming! There’s so much to do, way too many places to eat, and definitely not enough time. I tried to organize our travel days in Rome into two categories: Ancient Rome and Christian Rome. We devoted our first day in Rome to exploring the ancient Roman buildings and ruins. Here’s what not to miss:

Pantheon

Before our tour through Rome, I had no idea what the Pantheon was. I was surprised to find out that it’s a church and the most well preserved building of ancient Rome. It’s free to go inside, so make sure you take a moment to appreciate the architecture and admire the oculus in the center. The oculus is open to the sky so drains are built into the Pantheon floor for when it rains.

Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain is gorgeous! When you’re walking towards the fountain, you’ll actually probably hear it before you see it. Hundreds of people visit here every day to throw their coins in. It’s believed that if you throw a coin into the fountain, using your right hand over your left shoulder, then one day you’ll return to Rome again. We threw our coins in so we’ll see if the legend comes true! Approximately 3000 Euros are thrown into the fountain every day. A Catholic non-profit organization collects all of the coins each week and uses the money to care for the poor and sick in Rome.

Type A Tidbit

Be aware that the Trevi Fountain is so crowded. It’s hard to fight your way to the front, and it’s almost impossible to get a good picture.

Palatine Hill/Roman Forum

The Palatine Hill and Roman Forum were the most underwhelming part of our day. I’m not sure what I expected, but it’s just a lot of ruins. This is the most ancient part of the city, and was considered to be the center of Rome at that time. The Palatine Hill was dedicated to emperors and temples while the Roman Forum was full of government buildings. There’s no shade here so bring some water with you.

Spanish Steps

If you’re running out of time, then this is the place I recommend skipping because it’s literally just a lot of steps. An Audrey Hepburn film in the 1950s made the Spanish Steps famous, but other than taking a few pictures, there’s not much to do here. Many people gather here to eat lunch or relax in the sun, and there is a beautiful fountain in the piazza.

The Colosseum

No trip to Rome is complete without visiting the Colosseum. I remember rounding the corner and seeing it for the first time. It’s way bigger in person, and so intimidating! To think of all the history in this building is incredible. We had a guided tour through the Colosseum, and we learned so much. Our guide explained the architecture, the events that used to take place there, and the culture surrounding the gladiator games. Try to watch the film Gladiator before your trip. Our guide referenced the movie a lot, and it had been about ten years since I had seen it!

It’s possible to do all of these things in one day, but you’ll be exhausted. To fully appreciate everything, it’s probably best to spread it out over two days. Of course, that also depends on what time of year you visit. We visited in May right before the really busy season, so we didn’t experience very many crowds. Again, I have to stress the benefit of taking a guided tour or hiring a guide. Most of the time, passes to skip to the front of the line are included in guided tours. This saved us so much time at the Colosseum! But no matter how you choose to tour Rome, include as many of these stops as you can!