I did it. I survived a European vacation in Italy with six of my family members—none of whom are vegan!
As someone who prefers solo travel, I’m definitely feeling the adjustment lately with recent group trips. Even with people I love dearly, it’s challenging when your travel styles don’t align. If I’m being honest, after 11 days of trekking through Italy, I was ready to come home. But overall, it was a spectacular trip and I am grateful for the experience. I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to Italy that my experience visiting with my family!
In November 2017, doctors found a tumor in my mom’s brain. She has glioblastoma—an aggressive form of brain cancer. As she continues to undergo intense treatment, she’s imagined additional ways to treat herself and her soul: time with family and traveling. So she and my dad, brother and I—along with my grandfather, aunt, and uncle—packed our suitcases and set out for marvelous Italia!
As you can imagine, with seven people in the compact towns of Italy there were plenty of moments of chaos—international phone plans not working, miscommunication, and limited car space, to name just a bit of what made the experience extra…shall I say, exciting. We even ended up in an Italian emergency room, fussing with Google Translate to communicate with the receptionist about the reason for our visit (fear not, everyone is fine!). It all worked out in the end, of course, but it wasn’t always easy!
Certainly, it was a challenge to balance our various wants and needs. This became an issue for me, in particular, since it meant I repeatedly ended up with limited food options. Though I had done considerable research ahead of the trip (I found, reviewed, and mapped out the vegan and vegan-friendly eateries in all the areas we’d be visiting, and I printed out a food translation cheat sheet), it turns out that the best laid plans do, indeed, go awry.
My family’s flexible itinerary for the trip meant we could decide on a whim where to travel, what to see, and what to do. It also meant that almost never ended up where we originally planned, or we did but the timing wasn’t quite what we expected and it wasn’t the best time for a meal. On more than one occasion, we ended up literally in front of one of the vegan restaurants I identified, but it was between meal times. Then, when our day’s agenda was altered on a whim, I didn’t have a good enough international phone plan to look up places on the go. Thus, my food experience in Italy was sadly not as I anticipated or hoped it would be.
Instead of visiting the neighborhood restaurants where grandma cooked in the back while family members served in the front of house, we ended up at the tourist trap pizzerias. Every restaurant we visited, it seemed, followed the same blueprint for everything….menu, decor, etc. While these restaurants provided a level of comfort and some semblance of familiarity and accessibility for my American family, they lacked authenticity, creativity, and (quite frankly) remotely decent food. At least for a vegan, that is. I can’t speak to all the pizzas and other dishes my family ordered. But the cheeseless pizzas, penne pomodoro, and grilled veggies that comprised almost every meal I ate were pretty sub-par.
Although my favorite way to explore a new place is through my stomach, I let my food preferences take a backseat this trip. This trip was meant for my mom, first and foremost. Outside of that, I wanted to make sure my entire family was happy. We were all under a bit of stress from the get-go (there were some anxious people in this bunch, I tell ya!), and I realized that what made the most of us happy was eating somewhere convenient and accessible. Thus, we ate at essentially the same restaurant for every single meal.
Of course I did sneak in a few truly spectacular eats. Our trip brought us to places throughout Tuscany, and to Rome. Each town we visited had charm and character like I had never experienced before. Here are my favorite meals from the places we visited:
La Dispensa di Amelia | This was perhaps my favorite meal of the trip. My entire family joined me for dinner at this all-vegan spot in Arezzo. The chef came out to help interpret the menu, and everything was absolutely perfect! Rich and flavorful, with inspirations from other cuisines (a lot of Indian influences!). Plus, the atmosphere was super cozy (it reminded me of Copenhagen!), adorable, and featured some badass vegan art on the walls! I would 100% recommend this spot if you’re in Tuscany!
Universo Vegano | The benefit of being the navigator is picking the end destination, Universo Vegano it was! Now, if I wanted to make a new life for myself in Italy (or anywhere, for that matter), I might consider buying into this vegan franchise. Universo Vegano had fast food and sandwiches, but I was there for one thing: I just had to get some vegan pastries! By the time we visited Florence, my family had been enjoying three days worth of non-vegan pastries without me! I had a pain au chocolat, a blackberry croissant, a jam butter cookie, and a chocolate and hazelnut truffle. All spectacular! I wish I had gone back.
Scuie’ Scuie’ | Well I learned quickly that most of the places I wanted to eat required reservations. So we missed out on another Florence spot that I wish I could have visited, but we got to enjoy Scuie’ Scuie’ instead! This non-vegan eatery is owned by a wonderfully friendly man whose daughter happens to be vegan. She’s certainly had an influence on the menu. The casual presentation (the name essentially means hurry, or move it) shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting, because the friendliness adds such warmth. I was a little sad that a few things from the menu weren’t available (the owner ended up suggesting something which I accepted, but I was really craving a few other things). It was a bit overpriced for the experience, atmosphere, and food; but it pleased my entire family.
Festival del Gelato | Using Happy Cow to find vegan gelato, I stopped in one location first, but found they had just a single vegan flavor. I was pretty disappointed so I walked a little further to Festival del Gelato (aka Ice Cream Festival) and had a cappuccino and coffee mix of gelato—it was so scrumptious, I wish I went back!
Osteria del Borgo | Though I had a reservation at the nearby, all-vegetarian restaurant at Fattoria San Martino—one of those moments where miscommunication (or just a lack of listening) among family members presented a challenge…). We ended up in downtown Montepulciano and found that Osteria del Borgo had a vegan burger. It sounded like a crowd-pleasing restaurant and the view out from the patio was breathtaking! The vegan burger was a very nice surprise! The colorful patty was bursting with flavor, and paired well with the arugula spread.
iVegan | By the time I got to Rome, I had a less-than-stellar success rate getting vegan meals that were also satisfying. So upon arriving in Rome, I instantly set out for a vegan market and stocked up! iVegan is a little organic market and food counter west of the Vatican City. I bought a vegan cheese wheel (made in Arezzo, where my family stayed for the first part of our trip!), some pastries, and some sweets to take with me on the plane. From the food counter, I ordered a rosemary burger, which was so good. The rosemary elevated the experience—the fragrance of the herb, juxtaposed with the simplicity of the burger….though, this burger was anything but simple! Flavorful and textural, everything about it was tremendously satisfying. Maybe I was just starved for some vegan food made with love, at this point, but I really do think this was a good burger! And thank goodness for that block of cheese I bought, because it kept my food experience a little more exciting than it would have been for the remainder of my stay in Rome!
Now, while the food I eat is usually the highlight of my travels, this trip had a bit more focus on the other experiences. As you can imagine, visiting areas that date thousands of years old meant there was plenty to see, explore, and enjoy.
My family was sure to visit some of the most well-known sites. In Florence, our hotel overlooked the vibrant Ponte Vecchio, where the hustle and bustle of vendors and visitors extended from the early morning well into the evening. We also made the most of an hour by seeing some of the gorgeous masterpieces on display in the Uffizi gallery. Of course, the most grand attractions from the trip were located in Rome.
Though our little troop wasn’t the fastest-moving, we managed to knock out one hell of a tour during our first full day in Rome. We started outside Castel Sant’Angelo, walked over to Campo de’ Fiori for the farmers market, walked up to the Pantheon and over to the Trevi fountain, at which point we hopped onto a double-decker sight seeing bus which took us around the Altare della Patria (wedding cake), and down to the Colosseum. We did a tour of the Colosseum (which was a lousy tour, but exciting to be inside) and then we walked down to Circus Maximus. Finally, my brother and I propped our feet up at a rooftop bar overlooking the Tiber, the Piazza della Boca della Verita, and a gorgeous mix of ancient and new architecture.
On day two in Rome, we had even less time to rest our feet between touring the Vatican—first, spending an hour in the Basilica di San Pietro and then walking through the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel (a multi-hour ordeal!). The Vatican Museum and chapel tour was absolutely worth it! Our English-speaking guide, Deborah, was hands down the best tour guide I’ve ever experienced. As if the stunning art couldn’t already speak for itself, Deborah animated our experience with her rich knowledge of the work and the masters, calling attention to brilliant details that may have been otherwise overlooked. I am so happy with that experience (even despite walking around on an empty stomach until 5pm!).
More than the famous sites, though, my favorite way to experience a place is to explore—to spend time in parks and piazzas and get lost wandering the streets. Certainly, there were great opportunities to spend time to explore throughout Italy!! We wandered a bit more in Rome between sight-seeing, but mostly just got lost trying to find the rental car return! Most of our wandering, however, happened in Tuscany. In Arezzo, we spent a good bit of time at our villa on the vegan-friendly and organic winery, Podere di Pomaio. In town, we strolled along the shopping streets, through a market, and stumbled upon a beautiful pocket park outside the Palazzo Pretorio (pictured).
When visiting Florence, I wandered the streets, hoping to enjoy the surely breathtaking views from the Boboli Gardens. Sadly, I arrived before they would open and I couldn’t stay to wait. That’s the problem with ignorant wandering…you occasionally discover that you can’t access what you hoped to see! When I couldn’t see the gardens, I decided to stroll around the quaint streets filled with life and character.
Our drive back to Arezzo from Florence afforded us the opportunity to stop and spend an afternoon in Siena. Though we were foolish, and didn’t realize you couldn’t drive into the city. That was problem #1 (and a problem for our group with limited mobility). Problem #2 was that an injury my grandfather sustained before arriving in Italy had begun to bother him … enough so that we had to head back to Arezzo and get him some medical attention after only 30 minutes or so of walking around (of course, we had plenty of time to look in awe at the views from the city’s edge; absolutely marvelous!).
For our last day in Tuscany, we took an afternoon trip over to Montepulciano. There, we again marveled at the gorgeous vistas from Tuscany’s hilltop towns. Oh…and we also enjoyed some tasty wine! Between all the sights and exploring, we hardly had any time to breathe. Nevertheless, we got in some poolside relaxation at our villa, which provided a comforting home for each day’s return. As I said, by the end of the trip, I was exhausted, spent, and ready to be home. But with only a few days of rest behind me now, I’m already imagining my trip back.