Museums of Florence – A guided tour

Florence is a small and very scenic Italian city in the heart of Tuscany. I will direct you to the picture below rather than trying to put it into words.

Florence Italy Bridge

View of the Arno and the bridges in Florence.

What I can say is that Florence has a little something for everyone. When it comes to tourism, they are going for the high score. You could easily spend days just taking in the sights, sounds and food. If you can tear yourself way from the views, I would highly recommend taking a day or two to experience the incredible museum collections. There are some unique museum offerings that you would have trouble finding anywhere else.

The most popular museum choice is the Uffizi Gallery. Travelers come and wait in long queues to glimpse the treasures inside. Admission is €11 (€6.50 if there is no special exhibit, but there usually is a special exhibit.) and you can reserve a time for €4 extra and skip the line entirely if you wish. As budget travelers, we did not pay extra and spent an hour waiting in line despite being there before 9AM. There really are some outstanding pieces of art. Di Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael are all present. They are incredible to see if you successfully fight your way past the tour groups and get an unobstructed view. The museum is, in a word, busy.

If you are in Florence and are interested in a more relaxed alternative to the Uffizi Gallery; I have a secret for you. Museo Galileo is located directly next to the Uffizi Gallery. Find the hour long line at the Uffizi and go around the corner; you can’t miss it.

Galileo Museum and Uffizi Museum Florence Italy

Uffizi (left) and Galileo Museum (right). I told you that you can’t miss it.

If you love science and technology as much a Molly and I do, you wont be disappointed. You may feel like enrolling in a physics class, however. It is incredible to speed through over 500 years of scientific history in just a few museum floors. The collection houses historically significant globes, sextants, original Galileo telescopes, orreries, and Armillary Spheres!

Galileo's Telescopes, Galileo Museum, Florence, Italy

Original Galileo telescopes!

Armillary Sphere Galileo Museum, Florence, Italy

Giant Amillary Sphere! Just like in your living room, right?

Some pieces are historically significant, others intriguing and some true head-scratchers. If you don’t like scientific equipment – how about Galileo’s middle finger? It’s there too.

Galileo Museum Interior, Florence, Italy

Interior of Galileo Museum. Don’t touch those metal objects, by the way.

We spent over four hours walking the Galileo Museum but you may be able to see it all in about two. There were no lines and no groups fighting to see the educational videos. Admission to Museo Galileo: €9. Pro tip: Save your ticket stub from the Uffizi gallery and get a €2 discount at the Galileo museum!

As wonderful as Museo Galileo was, it still wasn’t the best value in Florence. For only €10 per person you can get a ‘combo-ticket’ that will get you to the top to the Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore), the crypt of the Duomo, the top of Giotto’s bell tower, the Baptistery and to the Gallery Opera di Santa Santa Maria del Fiore. The views are tremendous from the Duomo and the Giotto’s bell tower. You can practice taking ‘selfies’ in all 360° of the Duomo’s roof if you like.

View from middle of Giotto's bell tower Florence Italy

View from the middle of Giotto’s bell tower.

Roof of Duomo, Florence, Italy

On top of the Duomo.

Best part? The combo-ticket is valid for 24 hours from when you first use it. We used part of the combo ticket in the morning and completed the rest of the activities after a break for lunch at Dolce Vegan (So good! Go there and get the lasagna. You’re welcome).

If you get the combo ticket, be sure the visit The Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. It has some incredible pieces which compliment those highlighted at the Uffizi in addition to ‘The Gates of Paradise.’ I’m not sure which was more interesting to me; the gates or the immense environmentally-controlled preservation chamber.

The Gates of Paradise Florence Italy Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore

The gates of Paradise in Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. They look the part.

Get your combo ticket and take your time visiting any or all of the five attractions situated in or around the Duomo. Oh, and be prepared for some stairs.

Florence, in my estimation, is the perfect storm of Italy. Pizza, pasta, (vegan) gelato, amazing views and incredible museums. Go and make Galileo proud. If you want to make us proud, please like us on Facebook!

For more Italy information, check out Molly’s post about Venice.

Venice from a Vegan’s Perspective

Venice panorama taken from the back balcony of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Venice panorama taken from the back balcony of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

I had been looking forward to getting Venice. The canals, the islands, the art. I’d heard so many wonderful things about it, how could I not look forward to going there?

The Grand Canal at a quiet moment

The Grand Canal at a quiet moment

Then, a day before we were to arrive in Venice I looked it up on Happy Cow (as I do for all places we are headed for. You need to know where your best options for food are located!). One vegetarian restaurant? That’s it? And it isn’t even a vegetarian restaurant, it is a health food store kind of place. (And Dan and I even stopped in there. It really isn’t particularly vegan-friendly. No vegan cheese to buy. But they did have wheat meat.)

Needless to say, my “love affair” with Venice ended before it had even started. Here are my biggest gripes with Venice:

Something is amiss here...

Something is amiss here…

#1: It is full of tourists, not Venetians. The smart Italians left Venice when the water started to rise. Due to this fact, the islands of Venice have more tourists on them than locals. And every local who does still live there is involved in the tourist industry, which leads me to…

#2: Everyone is trying to sell you something. From stupid 1 euro pig shaped sticky balls that vendors keep splatting on a piece of cardboard on the ground to stores selling the gazillion dollar brand name purses, everyone on the islands is employed to shill. As budget travelers who have no money or room for that crap, we were not amused.

#3: The water “buses” take foooooooooorrrrrrrrreeeeeeevvvvvvveeeerrrrrrrrrrr. And they are packed to the gills! All the time! Even in October. Dan and I kept remarking on how insane it must be on the boats in Venice in the summer during high tourist time if it is this crazy in October.

#4: It smells bad. Who thinks Venice is romantic? It smells like garbage! Even in October! Again, I can’t imagine how much worse it is in the summer. Those canals… They stink!

#5: Lastly, there isn’t really any vegan food. Yes, you can easily get a vegetarian pizza “senza formaggio”, but as it is Venice it will cost you twice as much as it would anywhere else in Italy.

Seeing as how I am unlikely to talk anyone out of going to Venice (since it is Venice, after all…), I will now try to be constructive and make your stay as pleasant as possible. Here are my tips to achieve that:

#1: Stay on the islands of Venice, not Venice Mestre (mainland, or “terra firma” as Dan likes to say). Yes, it will be ridiculously expensive, but it will save you a 15 minute bus ride before getting on those god-forsaken boats every day. Plus, when the Italian transit workers strike, you won’t have to worry about being able to get home at the end of the day. You’ll just walk. You would get to avoid being crushed by an oncoming mass of people all trying to stuff themselves onto the only bus for perhaps ever, due to the strike, as some people I know had to do. (Who could I be speaking of?)

#2: See the art. My absolute favorite parts of Venice were the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Venice Biennale. Amazing, amazing art is located on those islands. Go search it out. The art really saved our time in Venice for me.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

#3: See the neighboring islands. If you are going to sit on a bus on the water forever, shouldn’t it at least be taking you somewhere awesome? Murano and Burano are the places to go. Still full of tourists, but unique and interesting in their own ways. Murano is famous for glass making. My advice before you go is to google the real Murano glass artists and visit their shops. Just to look, since everything costs more than my weekly budget, but that is where the art is. Everywhere else on the island is just peddling tchotchke, probably made in China. Also, the free glass blowing demos are actually really cool. Go to one or two. Then just wander the island and you may see some guys making glass in a workshop with their doors open because it gets hot in there. Watch that for a longer while since they are making the real thing. Not just for show. Burano is totally different with even fewer tourists. Burano is famous for lace. I am not a lace person or anything, but the craft-woman-ship is amazing. And Burano is also famous for its painted houses. Just walk around the small island marveling at the houses. And people actually live here! We saw some locals. It felt more like a real place than Venice did.

#4: Food-wise, we mostly bought veggie focaccia from the grocery store and ate that a lunch time while we were in Venice. It saved us a bundle and tasted good. But our one food recommendation while you are in Venice is Fritto & Frutta. They don’t use eggs in their batter that’s on the veggies, and they know what vegano is. Just ask for all the veggie options and you will be all set. And wash it down with a fruit smoothie. It will make the deep fried deliciousness, and the difficulties of Venice, go down much smoother.

Travel Cost Breakdown From Our Time in the UK and Ireland

People say to us all the time “Wow, how can you afford to travel for six months?” Travel can be expensive and, as long-term travelers, we are always very aware of our costs. Since we finished traveling in the United Kingdom and Ireland some time ago we are going to share actual numbers from our trip so you can get an idea about long-term travel costs in these generally expensive areas.

Our travel budget has one simple strategy. Write it down! If you write down every single purchase and expense while traveling – and know your spending limits – you will always know where you stand.

Molly examining trip expenses in our travel notebook

Molly calculating trip expenses in our travel notebook

Writing it down will keep you from forgetting that $2.00 coffee or falling into the ‘How much was lunch last Thursday?‘ trap. Keeping track will also allow you to do one of my favorite things: Data analysis! I broke down all of our expenses for the 32 days we spent in England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland into five cost categories. These categories are lodging, food, entertainment, transportation, and miscellaneous. We use the Currency app by Jeffrey Grossman on our iPhone to convert all of our costs to USD.

Lets lay out the big number first. Our average total cost of travelling in the UK and Ireland turned out to be $131.43 per day (or, just under $66 per person per day). We have each made our $66 dollars go pretty far. In most cases we have had our own private room, eat out for lunch, pay for museums/entertainment and travel to a new location about every 4-5 days. The one expense not factored into the UK/Ireland numbers above are our flights from New York to London via Iceland. We budgeted intercontinental flights separately and will talk about these costs at the end of our trip. Travel costs for this post reflect all local travel throughout Ireland and the UK including one flight, two train trips and numerous bus trips. Every item adds up and the chart below shows how our daily costs were divided, percentage-wise, among our categories:

For our ‘once in a lifetime’ around-the-world trip we are not looking to set any records for traveling inexpensively. If you enjoy couch surfing and eating ramen noodles i’m sure you could spend less. We happen to be spending a significant amount of our budget on awesome vegan food. (Vegans – go to London, you won’t be disappointed!) We are personally traveling to see all of the great sights and experience all of the wonderful (vegan) cuisine. The occasional $15.00 entree does not have to break your entire budget if you leave room elsewhere.

It should be noted that Molly and I aren’t big drinkers. We did seek out local brews/wines/ciders wherever we were, but we purchased them from grocery stores. I think we only went out to a bar once (to watch the Chelsea vs. Manchester United soccer game while we were in London), but they happened to be pouring the cheapest cider and beer I’ve ever seen. In other words, if you plan to go out drinking all over Europe, you should adjust your budget accordingly.

Our ‘miscellaneous’ category is almost non-existent. As long-term travelers, we do not have much extra real estate in our backpacks or our budget. This means that we almost always say no to souvenirs. We have a week of clothing which we wash and only replace when needed. Our few miscellaneous purchases have been things like a beard trimmer, stamps and postcards, batteries, etc. And we are not carrying any solar-powered waving Queen Elizabeth figurines home with us in our bags.

As a result we have made our money go far. We spend almost two entire weeks in London which is one of the most expensive cities you can travel to. Dublin can be costly as well. There are places in the UK and Ireland which are more budget-friendly that we also traveled to such as Liverpool, Glasgow, and Derry. If you are willing to venture away from Dublin and London to some smaller cities you can find some great deals.  AirBnB has been one of our favorite resources to find an affordable place to stay. In most places we found that $50.00-$60.00 per day is a reasonable target for a private room.

Eating, sleeping and traveling will encompass the vast majority of your expenses. This is especially true for vegans who want to experience all of the great food in London (parts #1, #2, and #3), and Dublin, and Glasgow! Entertainment costs may actually be lower in the UK and Ireland when compared to other countries. Most major museums in the UK are free and there are a ton of affordable options. Check out our post on affordable activities in London, or our post on affordable options in Dublin, or our post on an affordable and different day in Glasgow.

I can recap the entirety of this post for you in three sentences (for those who aren’t interested in the numbers): Don’t let the strength of the Pound and Euro against the dollar scare you off from traveling to the United Kingdom and Ireland. There is plenty to do and see and eat for a budget traveler. Just be aware of the numbers and you’ll be fine!

Now get to traveling!

Berlin’s Awesome Vegan Food Options

As we have mentioned before, Dan and I have mostly been using AirBnB during our European travels to find places to stay. This means that for the price of two hostel beds (usually) we can stay together in someone’s second bedroom and have access to a kitchen. This is a very good perk for budget travelers. So, following in our European footsteps we used AirBnB for our place in Berlin as well. We stayed in a great apartment with a small but adequate kitchen.

We were in Berlin for one week. We use the kitchen only once. What can I say? Berlin has too many vegan options and is just too darn affordable for these New York City vegans. In fact, we ate so much food in Berlin, I’m just going to share the highlights. (But I will not be covering the delicious Mio Matto or Voner, as Dan did such an excellent job of that the other day)

Kopps:

Kopps Vegan Restaurant

Kopps Vegan Restaurant

This is a very elegant vegan place. We had a few dishes that were good but not fantastic, but this Lentil Burger was too good to not mention.

Lentil Burger with amazing fries

Lentil Burger with amazing fries

And the fries! I have never in my life had fries that good. No idea what they do to them, but yum. Plus having fries at a vegan place is the best because they give you vegan mayo to dip them into, which is a very European (and tasty) thing to do.

Chay Viet:

They may not actually have their own website, but damn do they make amazing vegetarian Vietnamese food. We actually went back to Chay Viet later in our stay because it was so good the first time! Due to the lack of website, and thus menu, you will have to deal with vague food descriptions. Sorry! But trust that everything shown below was delicious, and they have menus in English so no need to worry about the language barrier.

Tofu and banana (?) skewers with peanut sauce

Tofu and banana (?) skewers with peanut sauce

A delicious pancake appetizer

A delicious pancake appetizer

A super tasty basil leaf appetizer

A super tasty basil leaf appetizer

Dan's rice noodle and veggies dish

Dan’s rice noodle and veggies dish

Dan's soup with fried wontons

Dan’s soup with fried wontons

My coconut curry with veggies over rice noodles

My coconut curry with veggies over rice noodles

Not pictured above (because the picture came out blurry) is the super tasty fried banana dessert over coconut sauce I shared with a lovely Berliner friend. Also not pictured (because we forgot to take one), the fantastic iced lime, soda water, and cane juice drink I got both times we went to Viet Chay!

Cookies Cream:

Hidden entrance to Cookies Cream

Hidden entrance to Cookies Cream

Yes, this place is hidden in an alley behind a hotel and impossible to find if you don’t read the fine print on your reservation. It is rare to find a vegetarian restaurant on the cutting edge, but that is what Cookies Cream is. Innovative food in a swanky atmosphere. The prices match though, so keep that in mind. Also, I wish they had more vegan options, so we could have tried more things. Something to work on, Cookies Cream. Also, these are not actual menu descriptions because to see their menu online you have to sign up for their mailing list. No thank you…

Salad with cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and chocolate shavings

Salad with cabbage, mandarin orange slices, and chocolate shavings

Amazing eggplant dish with corn sauce and green beans

Amazing eggplant dish with corn sauce and green beans

Mushroom dish, with mushroom foam, squash sauce, and some balled veggies

Mushroom dish, with mushroom foam, squash sauce, and some balled veggies

Sweet and sour cherries dessert. Amazing.

Sweet and sour cherries dessert. Amazing.

Sun Day Burgers:

Sun Day Vegan at the Mauer Park Flea Market

Sun Day Burgers at the Mauer Park Flea Market

They only sell one entree out of their little truck at the Mauer Park Flea Market (an amazing thing to visit in Berlin itself), but it is a good one: A burger which consists of a whole wheat bun, tofu steak marinated in soy sauce & ginger, lettuce, tomato, beet root, cucumber, caramelized onions, fresh coriander, sprouts and topped with a smoked chipotle chilli, mango chutney, or Thai peanut sauce. All for 4 Euro.

Dan's Sun Day Burger with peanut sauce and a healthy bite taken out of it (by Dan, of course)

Dan’s Sun Day Burger with peanut sauce and a healthy bite taken out of it (by Dan, of course)

Dan got the peanut sauce and I got the mango chutney and we both recommend what we got. The burgers weren’t really burgers, but they were epically delicious.

And, perhaps the best for last:

Sfizy Veg:

Sfizy Veg

Sfizy Veg

What is there bad to say about this place? Maybe it is inconveniently located to most everything in Berlin, but I don’t care. Get your butt over there because the food is outta this world good. No, they don’t have an English menu. Yes, the menu has about 200 items on it (really). No, you will not be able to choose and will just end up pointing at something. But don’t worry. It will be fantastic!

Giant German menu

Giant German menu

Dan's organic beer is simply called Beir. My blood orange drink.

Dan’s organic beer is simply called Bier. My blood orange drink.

Traditional bruschetta and a mushroom variety

Traditional bruschetta and a mushroom variety

My pizza with artichoke hearts, olives, and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

My pizza with artichoke hearts, olives, and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

Our awesome Berlin guide's pizza with veggie ham and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

Our awesome Berlin guide’s pizza with veggie ham and four (4!) kinds of vegan cheese

Dan's pizza was a green pizza: pesto, cheese, olives, tomatoes, arugula, and grated vegan parm

Dan’s pizza was a green pizza: pesto, cheese, olives, tomatoes, arugula, and grated vegan parm

Half-eaten vegan tiramisu. Too tasty to remember to take a picture of until it was half eaten.

Half-eaten vegan tiramisu. Too tasty to remember to take a picture of until it was half eaten.

In case you can’t tell, Berlin is a vegan haven where most people would least expect it: Germany. But don’t let the Germans’ love of all things wurst (braut and curry come to mind) discourage you. Germany is filled with vegans and vegetarians and Berlin is definitely a hub for amazing vegan food. So go forth and enjoy. We certainly did!

Board Games and Vegan Treats: Berlin’s Friedrichshain Neighborhood

I have a little travel secret. When I go to new places, I often google around to see if there are any cool game stores in town. When Molly and I are home in New York, we often play board games with some friends. It has been fun traveling around the world and seeing what kind of games people like in different countries. But Berlin really took the cake because Berlin has a “play cafe” called Spielwiese.

Spielwiese storefront, Berlin

Spielwiese storefront in Berlin

We were quickly hooked and actually stopped in twice more. Let me illustrate what I mean by a “play cafe”.

Spielwiese, Berlin

Molly with Powergrid! Surrounded by other board games

They have hundreds of board games and card games of all types imaginable. You pay a small fee to use the games and can stay as long as you like to play. Spielwiese also rents our their board games. There is a small cafe (sadly, no vegan options) and a refrigerator full of people-pleasing beverages of both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties.

Spielwiese Berlin

Molly and I playing Powergrid

If board games are your scene, and you happen to be in Berlin, I highly recommend checking out Spielwiese. It’s a unique cafe with offerings that you do not see very often. I do have some good news for you gamers located in New York City. The man working at Spielwiese informed us that a similar style cafe will be opening soon in New York near NYU.  The Uncommons currently has a Kickstarter campaign if you are interested in supporting or following the project!

The only problem with Spielwiese is that they have NO vegan food. What are two hungry vegans to do? Lucky for us, there are some excellent options in Berlin’s Friedrichshain neighborhood.

You know you have arrived in a veg-friendly town when you see not one, but two Veganz locations – a supermarket where every product is vegan! The store location pictured below at store location at Warschauerstraße 33 is about a 5-10 minute walk from Spielwiese.

Veganz, Berlin, Vegan

The inside of Veganz in Friedrichshain, Berlin!

The model for Veganz is clearly working. According to their site they plan to have 21 stores open throughout Europe by the end of 2015. (Maybe New York next?? Please?!?) Veganz is great for picking up a wide variety of grocery and household items to cook up your own vegan feast! If you are in the mood for baked goods in Berlin, the Veganz locations also house the vegan bakery Goodies. Their chocolate croissants and cinnamon buns come highly recommended by us!

Goodies, Vegan, Berlin

Vegan baked goods from Goodies! (Housed in Veganz, Berlin)

After a marathon shopping session at Veganz you would be wise to check out Mio Matto. Mio Matto is a vegan restaurant conveniently located above this same Veganz store at Warschauerstraße 33. The restaurant opened just two weeks before our visit to Berlin and upon our arrival they were already on top of their game. Each dish really blew us away. Check out the pictures below of our feast.

Berlin, Vegan, Mio Matto

Antipasti for two at Mio Matto in Berlin

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

Vegan Calzone at Mio Matto

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

One of many pizza options at Mio Matto

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

Vegan Hot Chocolate!

Vegan, Berlin, Mio Matto

Cannoli at Mio Matto

Yes, the dishes were as good as they looked. What surprised us about the food was its affordability. Most of the pizza and pasta dishes were in the $8 – $10 (USD) range. You will find a huge menu here of mostly pizza and pasts dishes. There are other less carb-filled options too. It was a great value for a nice evening of vegan dining.

If you are looking for something a little bit more quick and casual, but just as delicious, you should head to Voner. It is just down the same street as Spielwiese. Look at these spuds!

Vegan, Berlin, Voner

Vegan “special” fries at Voner

Do yourself a favor and get an order of these”special” fries. Molly and I agree that they are the best vegan cheese fries we have ever had. They are seasoned fries that come topped with cooked onions and vegan cheese sauce. Yum yum. We ordered two additional items from the menu including the signature vegan doner! Doner is the same as shwarma, as far as we could tell. Voner makes their own vegan doner “meat”, and it is really very good!

Vegan, Berlin, Voner

Vegan Doner at Voner!

Vegan, Berlin, Voner

Vegan Cheeseburger at Voner

Voner takes the crown for quick and affordable food. Our entire meal – with a local beer – was around 15 euro and it was far too much food! The fries and doner are worth the trip – or perhaps multiple trips!

There was too much great vegan food in Berlin to cover in one post. Please check back soon for more Berlin coverage!