After arriving in Heathrow after our overnight flight, we immediately started our adventure with a walk to some of London's most famous landmarks. We ooh-ed and ahh-ed over Big Ben and Westminster Abbey for quite a while before hopping on the Tube to explore Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and catch a glimpse at the classy London-ers.
We woke up to some dreary English weather the next day as we got ready for our guided tour of central London. Our amazing tour director/Italian guardian angel, Vinnie, accompanied us as we met up with a local guide who showed us famous sites like Buckingham Palace, Royal Albert Hall, Shakespeare's Globe, and the Tower of London.
Day 2 (Cont.)
After our tour, we hit the town on our own for the rest of the day. We started with a trip to the top of Tate Modern to view the city from above. Then we crossed the Millennium Bridge (without running into Death Eaters) to view St. Paul's Cathedral. After an extensive walk through the rest of the city, we did some shopping and ate fish & chips in Covent Garden, followed by a very exciting trip to King's Cross Station to pass through Platform 9 3/4!
This day was really special for me. After nearly 5 years, I got to return to the University of Oxford, where I had studied English Literature for a term. Some of our group took an optional excursion about 2 hours away to the city of Oxford, where we got to explore the University and learn about the amazing history there. We even got to see some Oxford students on graduation day. I was so thrilled to visit my old college and study spots and it made me so happy to introduce my sister to this beautiful city that meant so much to me. It was like being home again.
Day 3 (Cont.)
After we returned from Oxford, we went straight to the outskirts of London- to St. John's Wood- to cross the famous Abbey Road. For huge Beatles fans like me and my sister, there was no greater thrill. As we approached the Studio and signed the wall out front with our favorite Beatles lyric, we met Kevin, the head of security. After hearing that we were from Philadelphia, he secretly invited us inside the gate for a photo on the front steps and then proceeded to give us a full private tour of the studio and all the recording rooms! It was a once in a lifetime experience that we'll never forget!
Early the next day, we bid farewell to London and hopped on the Eurostar train to go under the English Channel towards France. I was so happy to be returning to Paris. The city just feels magical and every time I see the Eiffel Tower, I just can't look away. As soon as we arrived, Vinnie took us to some of his favorite spots around the Eiffel Tower so we could get our pictures from every possible angle. As the sun started to set, we boarded a boat for a wonderful cruise down the Seine river. In my opinion, this is one of the best ways to introduce yourself to Paris. You really get a feel for the city and get a small glimpse of some of it's most famous sites.
Day 4 (Cont.)
When we returned from our evening cruise, we all enjoyed some free crepes (thanks to Vinnie) and then took a trip up the Eiffel Tower to see the city from above. I didn't get to do this the first time I was in Paris, so it was such a thrill to be able to look over the City of Light like this. It was absolutely beautiful.
After our magical night with the Eiffel Tower, we set out the next morning for a walking tour of Paris with a local guide. We saw some great spots like the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysees, but one of the highlights for me was returning to Notre Dame Cathedral. The gothic architecture of this church is stunning and I love how quiet it is as you stroll through the sanctuary. The beauty and slightly haunting nature of Notre Dame makes it irresistible.
Day 5 (Cont.)
Our walking tour ended (conveniently) in the Louvre. Before setting off on our own for the rest of the day, we explored the world famous museum and spent some quality time with Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. Then we strolled the gardens of the Louvre while drinking the world's best (and I mean the BEST) hot chocolate from Angelina; a cute little spot just around the corner.
Day 5 (Cont.)
After the Louvre, we decided to spend the rest of the day in my favorite section of Paris, Montmartre. Marked by the bright white Sacre Coeur on top of the hill overlooking the city, Montmartre is everything to fantasize Paris to be like. Everywhere you look, there are quaint cafes, cobblestone streets, and brilliant colors (especially as you walk through the artist's square). We had a wonderful time shopping in the side streets, chatting with local artists, and eating quality French cuisine in an outdoor cafe.
Day 6 (Cont.)
Being big fans of Impressionist art, our next stop was the Musee D'Orsay, an old train station turned art museum. We made sure we got our fill of Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas before relaxing by the banks of the Seine and exploring the Latin Quarter with some more of that amazing hot chocolate. To wrap up out stay in Paris, we spent the evening admiring the Champs Elysee by night and gazing at the Arc de Triomphe one last time.
As much as I loved Paris, I was thrilled to be returning to Rome. It had been 8 years since I was last in the Eternal City and I had forgotten how magnificent it is. Not only is it beautiful, but the history is fascinating. We started our stay here with another walking tour followed by some incredible free gelato thanks to Vinnie. In the evening, we acquainted ourselves with our home base, Piazza Navona, and had our first Italian meal at a great cafe with live music.
The next day, we took a brief step outside of Italy and made our way to the 4th country on this trip, Vatican City. Here, we got to see the famous St. Peter's Basilica and explore the incredible artwork in the Vatican Museum, the highlight of which was without a doubt, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.
Day 8 (Cont.)
After returning from the Vatican, the rest of the day was ours to explore. We easily navigated the narrow streets with gelato in hand as we did some shopping and took in the magnificent city. One of our favorite spots was Campo di Fiori, an outdoor market with incredible charm and authentic Italian food. It was a great place to meet locals and take in all the sites, sounds and colors of Rome.
Day 8 (Cont.)
That evening, the majority of our group went out for a special 5 course meal and a live opera show featuring some Italian classics. The food was fantastic and it was a great opportunity to get to know the group better. The opera singers were a riot and very entertaining to watch. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were all stuffed and had huge smiles on our faces.
The next day, we finally got to visit one of the 7 Wonders of the World. Seeing the Colosseum and learning the incredible history held in the Roman Forum was fascinating. Every time I see this place, I'm amazed that it's still standing and I love knowing that I'm walking on roads that have been around for thousands of years.
Day 9 (Cont.)
After the Colosseum and Roman Forum, we went and got ourselves some of the best pizza we've ever had. Right across the street was the location of Julius Caesar's murder. As we looked at the ruins in the center of the road, we noticed that it was now converted into a cat sanctuary. So of course, we had to go visit the many adorable cats they had living there. For the rest of the afternoon, we continued to walk the streets, spent some time at the top of the "Wedding Cake" and then ended the evening with a walk through the beautiful Villa Borghese and a wonderful meal with our new friends.
Our final day in Rome came much faster than we would have liked but we were determined to make the most of it. The entire day was ours so we got up bright and early and made our way back to the Roman Forum where we visited the cell believed to have held the Apostle Paul when he was arrested in Rome. It was incredible to see and very humbling. After that, we ventured to Trastavere across the river. This vibrant neighborhood was much more residential and a nice taste of what true Roman life looks like.
Day 10 (Cont.)
Our last day in Rome- and the end of the trip for that matter- wrapped up with our Farewell Dinner. We had a great meal together, spent some quality time with our group, and had our last chance to say goodbye. We saw a lot of wonderful things on this trip, but the friends we made will definitely remain one of the highlights.