vacation

Introducing: Piedmont – Italy’s great wine region

As you drive up and around the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont region in Italy, it becomes clear that the area is known for a specific key export:  wine.

Grape vines are everywhere.  AND if you have the pleasure of touring the area in the beginning of September as I did this year, you’ll be sure to spot several hardworking Italians tending their soon-to-be-harvested crops – just as their ancestors have done for centuries.

A Piedmont vineyard where a tractor has kicked up some dust while driving through the vines

A Piedmont vineyard where a tractor has kicked up some dust while driving through the vines

My boyfriend and I traveled to the region last month for a friend’s wedding and were shocked by the scarcity of American tourists. The region is about a two hour drive southwest of Milan and produces wines that rival those from Tuscany (in fact, the region’s famous Barolo wines are known as the “King of Wines”). The most famous of the Piedmont wines are from the towns of Barolo and Barbaresco, and we were lucky enough to tour both hillside villages while sipping their local products.

Tasting wine at Marchesi di Barolo

Tasting wine at Marchesi di Barolo

Vines in the Piedmont region

Vines in the Piedmont region

Because of the location of our friend’s wedding, we stayed in a very tiny town called Castiglione Tinella at the Albergo Castiglione B&B. While the hotel classifies itself as a B&B, I would argue that it is more like a small boutique hotel. Before the trip we decided to spend a little extra for a room with a shared balcony so we could sip our coffee in the morning while peering past the local buildings to the vineyards on the nearby hillside.

The door and window to our balcony at the hotel

The door and window to our balcony at the hotel

While the breakfast spread and friendly hotel staff were enough to justify the cost of our pleasant stay, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we wondered over to the hotel’s pool area on the outskirts of town! It looked like something out of a travel magazine.

The pool deck at Albergo Castiglione overlooking the neighboring hills

The pool deck at Albergo Castiglione overlooking the neighboring hills

Breakfast spread at Albergo Castiglione

Breakfast spread at Albergo Castiglione

They had an immaculately manicured garden area with an infinity pool that overlooked the surrounding hills. On one of the days we were there, the sky was so clear we were even able to see the Alps in the distance – roughly 100 miles away! If you squint, you can spot their snowy caps in the photo below. As someone who loves wine, scenery, and summertime, the scene felt like my personal Eden.

LOVING the view

LOVING the view

While the hotel experience and amenities were excellent, the location was about a half hour drive from the two aforementioned Piedmont towns that we were most interested in touring. Both Barolo and Barbaresco have their own distinct personalities, despite being quite close to each other as the crow flies. Barolo feels like a busy market town, complete with touristy kitsch, an old castle, and many enotecas (wine shops). Barbaresco is much smaller and more laid back, with the town running down a single road from the historic enoteca to the old tower (Torre di Barbaresco).

Marchesi di Barolo stores and ages its wine in these large oak barrels, which help add flavor

Marchesi di Barolo stores and ages its wine in these large oak barrels, which help add flavor

Wine bottles from the 1800's when the Marchesi di Barolo vineyard was first established!

Wine bottles from the 1800’s when the Marchesi di Barolo vineyard was first established!

Walking along the streets in the town of Barolo

Walking along the streets in the town of Barolo

View of the Enoteca Regionale from the main road in Barbaresco

View of the Enoteca Regionale from the main road in Barbaresco

After touring both towns, I find it difficult to recommend one over the other. When it came to wine, I preferred Barolo’s rich, luxurious reds. However, I enjoyed Barbaresco’s serene ambiance lacking crowds of tourists. While we were in Barbaresco, there was a point in the late afternoon (around 4:30pm) when we reached the top of the old tower and no one else was there – we had our own private 360-degree views for nearly ten minutes! How completely unfathomable to be alone at a tourist landmark in Europe in late summer!

Taking selfies on the top of the tower - because there was literally no one to take our photo!

Taking selfies on the top of the tower – because there was literally no one to take our photo!

View of the town of Barbaresco from the top of the tower (Torre di Barbaresco)

View of the town of Barbaresco from the top of the tower (Torre di Barbaresco)

We highly enjoyed our weekend in the Piedmont region, and recommend to anyone who loves wine that they should visit before it is “discovered” by more Americans.

Hotels:

Albergo Castiglione – Castiglione Tinella

Villa Pattono – Costigliole d’Asti

Restaurants:

Caffe Roma – Costiglione d’Asti

Verderame – Castiglione Tinella

Trattoria Antica Torre – Barbaresco

Divin – Barolo (good for a quick lunch)

Vineyards, Enotecas, and Tastings:

Marchesi di Barolo – Barolo

Ceretto – Alba (excellent tasting experience with great view)

Enoteca Regionale del Barolo – Barolo (automated wine tasting)

Enoteca Regionale de Barbaresco – (located inside a former 19th century church)

San Francisco Trip In Review: Days #2 and #5 in Downtown SF

On the second and fifth days of our trip to San Francisco we continued to explore the city itself, inclusive of the residential neighborhoods. During this time the grittiness and artiness of the city began to reveal itself as we left the shiny tourist strongholds.

To be completely honest, being visitors from New York City where neighborhood gentrification has happened in rapid fire over the past twenty years, we were shocked by two things we saw in San Francisco:

  1. the lack of other human beings on the sidewalks walking from point A to point B.
  2. the number of homeless people living on the streets.

Additionally, the Uber car service app is quite common in San Francisco to get around town, and we used it frequently for two specific reasons: avoiding unsuspectingly tall hills and troubled neighborhoods. Uber is relatively affordable, too, especially if you are travelling with more than one person. The Uber Pool carpooling option was an attractive $7 per ride to get both Derek and me around the city. Although using the car service brought up our estimated transit costs for our trip, we typically arrived at our destination much faster than we would have if we had used the bus or the BART train.

Day 2 Overview:

We woke up in the morning in our hotel room and wandered outside to find breakfast – specifically wanting to seek out a local café rather than head to our typical go-to Starbucks. And we were in luck! We stumbled upon Bartlett Hall Café, where we ordered breakfast sandwiches and mochas to bring back to our hotel room’s patio.

Enjoying our breakfast sandwiches and mocha coffees from Bartlett Hall Cafe on our patio at the Hilton Union Square

Enjoying our breakfast sandwiches and mocha coffees from Bartlett Hall Cafe on our patio at the Hilton Union Square

Once we wrapped up breakfast, we took an Uber to the home where the 90’s show Full House took place, while simultaneously meeting up with Derek’s brother and our friend Liz. The “Full House house” had been painted a darker color since the show ended, and I most likely would not have recognized it had I been quickly driving past in a car.

The setting of my favorite childhood TV show - Full House

The setting of my favorite childhood TV show – Full House

Next we walked to Alamo Square, where we took photos in from of the Painted Ladies antique row houses (which were where the Tanner family picnicked in the opening credits of Full House). Although it was a cloudy day, the distant downtown skyscrapers hovering in the background made the photo iconic. Incredible.

Derek and me in Alamo Square in front of the Painted Ladies

Derek and me in Alamo Square in front of the Painted Ladies

After wondering around Alamo Square and taking in the view, we grabbed a late lunch at a local pub called Fly Bar. The individual pizzas we ordered were delicious, but unfortunately took a long time to arrive at our table. By the time the food arrived we were STARVING, so the pub fare helped restore our energy.

Walking to Fly Bar to grab lunch

Walking to Fly Bar to grab lunch

So many wires strung up for the trolley and bus public transit lines!

So many wires strung up for the trolley and bus public transit lines!

From the pub, we walked towards Golden Gate Park to meet Derek’s cousin David outside of the California Academy of Sciences building. The park is long, narrow, and lush, with winding roads that reminded me of Manhattan’s Central Park. Museums dot the landscape, and David took us up to a free observation deck at the de Young art museum that overlooks the entire city via a 360-degree panorama. Being up there brought back fond memories from the Gravity Bar at the top of the Guinness Factory in Dublin.

Statues in Golden Gate Park

Statues in Golden Gate Park

Sculptures outside the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park

Sculptures outside the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park

Sprekles Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park

Spreckles Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park

Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

Hagiwara Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

Views from the observation deck at the de Young art museum (continued)

Views from the observation deck at the de Young art museum

Views from the observation deck at the de Young art museum (continued)

Views from the observation deck at the de Young art museum (continued)

After our time in Golden Gate Park, David motioned us toward the nearby neighborhood of Sunset where he lives. We grabbed a pint at a neighborhood bar called Blackthorn, which had a pretty back patio seating area, several pool tables, and an open-mindedness towards dogs off their leashes. Overall, it felt like one big living room where I was sipping my cold cider next to locals only.

Derek and his cousin David in a booth at Blackthorn in the Sunset neighborhood

Derek and his cousin David in a booth at Blackthorn in the Sunset neighborhood

After leaving Sunset, we grabbed our bags at our hotel and waved goodbye to the city for a few days while we headed up north to Sonoma County. More to come in a future blog post on our trip through vineyards and valleys as we road-tripped to the Dry Creek and Mendocino – but for now I will skip to our return to the city on day 5.

Day 5 Overview:

After the weekend road trips, we came back into the city of San Francisco on Memorial Day to check off the remaining sights on our sightseeing itinerary. Yet again we stayed at a hotel in Union Square – this time Hotel Fusion – but quickly hit the pavement.

After we met up with our friend Daniel-Linh, we looked at the map and decided that it would make the most sense to walk to the Mission District rather than take a bus due to the close proximity (as well as to avoid the body odor of the homeless man at the bus stop). However, we did not realize that the neighborhoods we were about to traverse would be practically deserted for the holiday weekend. We were fine. We were completely safe, even though we walked passed a fight on the sidewalk on Mission Street. Mostly, it just didn’t feel like home, so it was a healthy dose of departing our comfort zones.

Once we reached the Mission District area, I was so hungry from the walk that we yelped a nearby taqueria in hopes of finding some authentic Mexican food. And we were in luck! We found a place called Taqueria Los Coyotes that was exactly what the doctor ordered. Derek and I are very picky about the authenticity of our Mexican food, and this place filled the bill.

My delicious meal at the taqueria - one chicken taco, one shrimp taco, rice, beans, and guacamole

My delicious meal at the taqueria – one chicken taco, one shrimp taco, rice, beans, and guacamole

Me checking my phone at the taqueria - loved the Mexican tile on the walls!

Me checking my phone at the taqueria – loved the Mexican tile on the walls!

After lunch we walked to Mission Dolores to take some quick snapshots, and then to the nearby Mission Dolores Park. Unfortunately the park was under heavy construction, so we decided to meander through the Mission District as a consolation prize. Luckily, the area is filled with beautiful street art and murals, and we were able to capture photos of several that intrigued us.

Colorful homes in the Mission District

Colorful homes in the Mission District

Me on the Mission Dolores steps

Me on the Mission Dolores steps

Pretty mural on the side of a community building in the Mission District

Pretty mural on the side of a community building in the Mission District

Street art in the Mission District

Street art in the Mission District

Alley filled with street art off of Mission Street

Alley filled with street art off of Mission Street

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

Street art in the Mission District (continued)

After an afternoon of walking, we waved goodbye to Daniel-Linh and made our way back to our hotel to freshen up. For our last evening in San Francisco before our flight the next morning, we wanted to grab a drink with my childhood friend Rachel one last time.

So, we used the Yelp app to locate a top rated bar in the Tenderloin neighborhood near our hotel that had recently opened called Piano Fight. The venue hosted a free comedy show at 9pm, so we ordered a drink and watched several comedy sketches over the course of an hour. Spending time with my old friend laughing and drinking a local California wine was the perfect way to spend my last night in San Francisco.

Me and Rachel enjoying drinks and a late dinner at Piano Fight

Me and Rachel enjoying drinks and a late dinner at Piano Fight

My Important Traveler Takeaway:

Overall, Derek and I enjoyed learning about the residential neighborhoods of San Francisco as we were led around by our friends who live in the city. As a traveler, my experiences are the most meaningful when I see how other cities and countries have dealt with problems that they face, so I can learn about the effects of those choices.

With San Francisco, its foggy, temperate weather can be both a pro and a con for the city. Certain SF neighborhoods rarely see the sun and locals wear jackets and pants into the depths of summertime in order to accommodate the climate. Additionally, while America typically does not support the same gypsy culture that travelers encounter in Europe, many homeless Americans wind up in San Francisco. In order to survive, the homeless have created communities among themselves and support each other. Lastly, the dichotomy between the poor and the rich (and highly educated) in San Francisco is palpable as you walk the streets. The residents of San Francisco have adapted and found their own solutions to these problems, and appear to live in harmony together.

All in all, it’s admirable to see San Franciscans literally come together and boost themselves up out of the fog to help their city remain one of the most beloved and iconic places on the planet.

How To Pack For A Vacation In San Francisco and Sonoma In Just Two Carry-On’s

“If you’re going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you’re going to San Francisco
You’re gonna meet some gentle people there”
“San Francisco” by Scott McKenzie

I’ve been humming the soft melody of this famous song as I pack my carry-on today for my upcoming trip to San Francisco.

Problem: I don’t own any flowers to put in my hair. #NotAHippie

As a teenager, I watched the Forrest Gump movie several times and owned the soundtrack – both of which featured this song. To me, this classic tune befits the free-spirited history of the city of San Francisco, and reminds me of the open-minded nature of its residents. Similar to New York City’s history, San Francisco was built by dreamers.

Chinatown in SF with trolley going down the street

Chinatown in SF with trolley going down the street

As you read in last week’s blog post, I’ve planned several types of activities for my upcoming vacation. I’ll admit I am by no means an expert on packing for San Fran in the springtime since the only other time I’ve been was in December. That said, I’m going to take you all along for the ride as I piece together my SF springtime wardrobe and other travel essentials.

The first thing I did was check the weather to understand how many layers I would need each day. The difficult aspect is that I will be in the city of San Francisco for two-thirds of the trip, where the highs are estimated to be in the low 60’s next weekend. However, on Saturday and Sunday I will be in Sonoma County where the highs will be 15 degrees warmer in the upper 70’s!

As a result, I need to pack both dresses AND jeans – major bummer when it comes to saving space. On top of that, the expected temperature variance means that I’ll need to bring BOTH sandals and closed-toed walking shoes, along with a pair of nice shoes for fancier restaurants. Three pairs of shoes – eeeeek! Thank god Derek’s brother miraculously has a hair dryer at his apartment so I don’t need to bring my own!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s how I’ve packed for SF in two carry-on’s.

SF Packing List:

In the backpack:

  • Laptop and charger
  • Camera (with case, charger and memory cards)
  • Cell phones and chargers (work and personal phone)
  • California guidebook
  • (2) magazines
  • Eyemask
  • Day purse (with wallet, travel medicine kit, headphones, pens, house keys, mints, mini hand sanitizer, etc.)
  • Small empty water bottle
  • (1) pair of sunglasses
  • Hotel reservation print-outs

In the roller duffle:

These are all of the things that I am packing in my roller duffle (top left corner)

These are all of the things that I am packing in my roller duffle (top left corner)

  • (2) toiletries bags
    • (1) for liquids
    • (1) for non-liquids

      Unpacked toiletries bags

      Unpacked toiletries bags

packing 7

Packed toiletries bags

  • (1) umbrella
  • (1) bag of instant coffee and oatmeals for the mornings
  • (2) leather belts
  • (2) pairs of jeans
  • (1) pair of shorts
  • (1) black skinny stretchy fabric pants – wearing on the plane
  • (1) wool jacket – wearing on the plane
  • (1) canvas jacket
  • (1) black cardigan sweater
  • (1) blue linen blazer
  • (1) light weight zip up sweatshirt
  • (2) good quality cotton tshirts
  • (2) ¾ sleeve blouses – wearing one on the plane
  • (2) sleeveless blouses
  • (2) dresses
  • (2) black cami’s – wearing one on the plane
  • (1) tshirt for sleeping
  • (1) pair of cotton capris for sleeping
  • (8) pairs of underwear
  • (1) strapless bra
  • (1) regular bra
  • (6) pairs of socks
  • (1) pair of black waterproof ankle boots – wearing on the plane
  • (1) pair of fashionable sneakers
  • (1) pair of black strappy sandals
  • (1) hair straightener
  • (1) set of earplugs
  • (1) makeup bag

    My makeup bag (I love cosmetics)

    My makeup bag (I love cosmetics)

  • (1) small bag of jewelry and hair accessories
  • (1) evening purse
  • (1) daytime cross-body bag
  • (2) lingerie bags for dirty clothes separation

Just like with my packing guides for Europe and Florida, I’ve been able to pare down my packing list to just the essentials that I know I will need, plus one or two extra outfits – just in case. (I mean…I’m AM a girl!)

packing 1

Everything is packed and ready to go!

Took a little effort, but the duffle bag zipped all the way closed

It took a LITTLE effort, but the duffle bag zipped all the way closed

Because I focused on the essentials, I don’t expect to have to buy anything extra on this trip. As you saw last week, this trip is going to be pretty expensive despite only being gone for six days, so the less things I need to pick up in SF, the better.

To close, I have to be honest with you: my boyfriend and I will probably ship home a few cases of wine to our apartment as Sonoma County souvenirs. But…I mean…it’s not like I’d ever pack numerous bottles of wine in my carry-on anyway so…no harm no foul for this packing post!