There are three things that I always factor in when I am about to decide my next travel destination: good food, fascinating culture and/or history and Instagrammable architecture.
The third one may sound silly, but I do enjoy sharing pictures of beautiful places, as well as finding out places what other places people go.
Having carefully thought about these three factors, Italy came to mind. Not Rome, not Venice nor Milan; this time I chose to explore the Tuscany region.
In five days, I managed to cover Florence, Siena and the Cinque Terre area. The reliable train system in Italy made it easy for me to wander around the region.
Here are five tips to enjoy Tuscany at its best, based on my experience:
Avoid touristy ristorantes -- go to osteria instead
It is important to carefully choose where to eat, because I was once served frozen lasagna in a restaurant located in a famous piazza in Siena.
To avoid disappointment, this time I focused on osteria - a typical Italian place to eat. I was not able to find the classic spaghetti bolognese or pizza in osteria because they only served their own local dishes.
For example, when I went to an osteria in Cinque Terre, as it was near the sea, they served fried fish or fish stew fresh from the ocean. In Florence, the osteria served pasta or meat with wine-based sauce, simply because the city is near wine-producing village Chianti.
Cure homesickness with some Asian cuisine
After spending a few days in Italy, I really missed Asian food and craved some Asian delicacies. So I did some online research and found a very fresh sushi restaurant in La Spezia, a few minutes by train from Cinque Terre. There is also a homemade dim sum restaurant in Florence city centre where guests can watch the chef making dim sum dough in the kitchen.
This Asian food has been adjusted to Western tastes, but still satisfied my Asian tongue.
Try the many flavors of ice cream
In a big city like Florence, gelaterias are never more than a few minutes' walk away, especially in the city centre.
They are not all the same. Some gelaterias are typical and traditional, and serve only a limited range of flavors. Others are more innovative, offering flavors including nutella and macaroon. I always stick to lemon or straciatella, tastes that never fail!
In addition to ice cream, the region is littered with pasticeria ( pastry shops ) selling various kinds of delicious sweet pastries. My favourite Italian pastry is cannoncini, a pastry filled with vanilla crème.
Embrace the culture, history and arts
Florence is one of the centres of culture, history and art in Tuscany. With limited time, I focused on two main galleries: the Accademia and the Uffizi.
I booked tickets well in advance so I could skip the long queue to get in to both galleries. It took me an hour to quickly scan every room filled with paintings in the Accademia, and I dedicated more time to embrace the beauty of Michelangelo's David.
The Uffizi is bigger in size and has a larger collection, so I allocated three hours, which was enough. What mesmerized me the most were only not the paintings in the gallery room per se, but the paintings on the ceiling of the Uffizi. From the terrace on the top floor of the gallery, I was able to gaze upon the towers of the Palazzo Vecchio tower while sipping coffee.
Prepare your camera for some picturesque architecture
Tuscany's architecture is a paradise for photography enthusiasts. In Florence, the city centre has it all.
Three key spots for picture-takings are: the Piazza del Duomo ( the square with the main church ), the Piazza della Signoria and the Ponte Vecchio bridge, home to antique jewellery shops since the16th century.
An hour and a half a way by train from Florence, Siena is worth visiting. Its city centre is listed on among UNESCO world heritage sites.
In summer, tourists and locals gather in Siena's Piazza del Campo to watch the famous medieval horse race tradition, the Palio di Siena. Even though the palio was not on, strolling around the old town took me back to the medieval age, and I ruminated that this corner of Italy must have been witness to countless moments of historical import.
After spoiling my eyes with the medieval buildings in Florence and Siena, I went to Cinque Terre for a change of scenery. The pastel colors of the houses of the hills of the fishermen villages were very iconic and yet very Instagrammable ( without much filter needed! ).
Cinque Terre, which means five villages, is connected by regional train and it takes a few days to actually explore all five. As a day-tripper in Cinque Terre, I spent my time in the most scenic villages, Riomaggiore and Manarola.
As I climbed to the very top of Riomaggiore, I managed to get the best panorama of the sea and the surrounding villages perfectly crowned by a magnificent sunset.