World’s worst places: Top 10 places you do not want to visit in 2012

Update: Check out the World’s Worst Places of 2013 here

What comes to mind when you think of the world’s worst place? While it is easy to complain about rural Wal-marts, La Guardia, Applebee’s, and any government office with motor vehicle in its title, none of those places escalate the game from nuisance to immediate danger. All of them can be horrible, yes, but a threatened existence they do not pose.

The places on this list are the bad places. Some have run out of hope. Others have fought war for so long it is the new normal. Most are exceptionally dangerous and heartbreaking. And while none of them are fighting for write-ups by travel bloggers or inspiring travel with the NetJet set, some of these locations may someday be on the travel map. After all, it was not long ago that current hot-spots like Cambodia and Croatia would have made such a list.

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world's worst places

10. Harare, Zimbabwe
Recently voted by the Economist as the world’s worst city to live in, Harare is a unique study in failed fiscal policy. The once acceptable city fell into disrepair during Zimbabwe’s severe bouts with hyperinflation and corruption. The troubles began in the early 21st century when Zimbabwe’s inflation rate increased to 112.1%. Sounds terrible right? As it turns out, those were the sunny days. In 2008, the inflation rate peaked at 231,150,000% per annum. In U.S. terms, this means that if you deposited $10,000, it would be worth about 4 thousandths of a U.S. cent in one years time. That sucks. (For the record, 10,000USD = 46.720 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars in 2009.)

This sort of economic arrangement allowed Harare to fail. There are not enough printers in Zimbabwe to print enough of its Z100 Billion notes, and when a loaf of bread costs trillions, doom is soon to follow. Unemployment grew to 80% and many services faltered. Today, foreign currencies have been adopted but the damage has been done. Much of Harare is in disrepair, and few foreign companies care to directly invest in the troubled city. That said, it is probably the safest place on this list to visit with flights direct from London on the national carrier – Air Zimbabwe.

world's worst places

9. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
The lone entry from Oceania is the ultra-diverse Port Moresby of Papua New Guinea. PNG is home to over 820 languages – more than any other country in the world. As such, its capital Port Moresby boasts a diverse crew of opportunists and island cultures. It was recently voted by the Economist as the 137th out of 140 places in the livable cities index, making it a tough place to get by.

Rapes, Murders, and HIV are just a few of the daily tragedies that befall this enclave at the edge of the map. Here, even riding in cars is a dangerous activity. Gangs called Raskols are known to rob vehicles transporting foreigners at gunpoint.

Port Moresby is best used as a temporary gateway to nearby dive sites and for flights to PNG’s jungle interior and its solitary treks. Reaching Port Moresby is easy from Australia on PNG’s national carrier Air Niugini.

world's worst places

8. Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo
37 years ago, Ali and Foreman traded blows in one of boxing’s most historic matches. The match took place in Kinshasa. At the time, the country was known as Zaire, and the future looked hopeful for the mineral-rich nation. But as is common in 20th century African history, corruption at the top derailed the future. The country became a model for African kleptocracy as President Mobutu matched Zaire’s national debt with deposits into his personal bank account in Switzerland – to a tune of 4 billion (1980) U.S. dollars. He was forced to flee in the late nineties.

By 1998, the Congo region was engaged in the Second Congo War – the most deadly military conflict since World War II. In the end, over 5 million perished, and to this day the mineral-rich country has a per capita (nominal) GDP of about $186.

Chinese foreign direct investment has allowed Kinshasa to grow into a more reasonable place over the last decade, though it is not yet ready for its tourist close-up. Violence and political instability still ravage the second most populated city in Africa. It has come a long way from the time of Mr. Kurtz, but the heart of Africa is still an exceptionally complicated place. Just a month ago during the presidential election, thousands fled Kinshasa in anticipation of violence, and tanks rolled in to police the streets.

Tens of thousands of orphaned street children call the slums of Kinshasa home and are also routinely accused of witchcraft by locals. Carjackings are one of the more common types of tourist robbery, especially outside of the city center. And one more thing, photography is illegal.

Reaching Kinshasa is easy from Paris on Air France.

world's worst places

7. Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. While its infrastructure exceeds that of lesser favelas and its view of Rio is truly breathtaking, it is also home to several hundred thousand Brazilians packed onto a steep hillside. It is a playground for modern day little Li’l Zes.

With one of the highest murder rates in the world, Brazil has been cracking down on violence in anticipation of hosting both the Olympics and World Cup. In fact, local authorities have effectively declared war on this slum in an effort to clean it up and push out the drug cartels, and just a few months ago, Rocinha was occupied by the military and police forces. Their aim is to restore government control in the sprawling favela. While progress has no doubt been made, when visiting Rio (which is generally safe), it is wise to avoid favelas unless accompanied by a local guide.

world's worst places

6. Sana’a, Yemen
“Just off the horn of Africa…” is a common statement that generally precedes a story about modern piracy. And just on the other side of the dangerous Gulf of Aden where such piracy goes down is treacherous Yemen – a land frozen in time.

It is a time machine to the modern edge of the Islamic dark ages. On one hand this brings old world Arabian architecture and cultures of antiquity, but on the other, it brings out Islamic fanaticism. It is a place of child brides and a training ground for Al Qaeda. Men walk around freely with weapons per their religious rights, and these weapons range from the ubiquitous Jambiya to battle-worn Kalashnikovs. Sana’a is old, dangerous, and has its share of political unrest. As a westerner, you can keep your travel plans safer by avoiding Yemen.

The tragic thing about Yemen is that it possesses such beautiful sights. It has unbelievable Red Sea beaches, Socotra Island (Similar to the Galapagos and on my own personal travel shortlist), and old forts amid craggy mountains.

Reaching Sana’a, Yemen is possible from Dubai, Doha, London, and Sharjah.

world's worst places

5. West Point, Monrovia, Liberia
Clean water, electricity, basic services – all things we take for granted in the West. In the West Point area of Monrovia, a city named for James Monroe, these are luxuries. West Point, a peninsular slum jutting out into the Atlantic, is home to a special breed of disgusting squalor. Home to 75,000 Monrovians, it is one of Africa’s most notorious and crowded slums. Cholera is at an epidemic level, drug use is rampant, teenage prostitution is a commonality, and toilets are scarce. In fact, since it costs money to use neighborhood toilets, many Monrovians in West Point just crap in the streets or on the beach.

Vice did a great series on Liberia a few years ago. In the series, they meet with with an ex-war leader known as General Butt Naked – the commander of a group of child soldiers called the Butt Naked Brigade. He earned this name by charging into battle wearing only sneakers and his AK-47. Aside from sacrificing humans and partaking in cannibalism, he also regularly communicated with the devil. Today, he is a minister.

Delta flies from Atlanta to Monrovia, Liberia.

world's worst places

4. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Just as turbulence occurs where hot and cold air meet, similarly a point of human turbulence occurs in this nasty city where Mexico meets the United States. Drug violence, government incompetence, and poverty mix to form what has been called the murder capital of the world (this dishonor has since been ceded to Honduras). As drug wars continue to rage, Juarez continues to be a dangerous place. The drug cartels continue to fight for one of the most valuable things in the world – access to the United States narcotics market.

Neighboring El Paso, oddly, has one of the lowest murder rates in the United States. In fact, among major cities, El Paso is tied with Lincoln, Nebraska for having the lowest murder rate in the United States. It is indeed strange to have such a dichotomy separated by a river.

Flying to Juarez from a number of cities is easy, but don’t do it. Go to Cancun and fist pump instead.

world's worst places

3. Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Take one of the most damned places on the planet, knock the hell out of it with an earthquake, and you get the worst of Haiti – Cite Soleil. Port-au-Prince is generally a place of ephemeral hope and naked truths, and at its most rotten corner is this heartbreaking slum.

Cite Soleil is one of the largest slums in the northern hemisphere. It is a place where what you see is what you get, and what you see is abject third world poverty. The slum is void of sewers, schools, electricity, or healthcare facilities. It is the kind of place where relief workers are swallowed whole by the earth. In 2007, UN peacekeepers attempted to access the neighborhood and were welcomed with gunfire.

On top of this, many dangerous gang members escaped prison during the earthquake of 2010 and have returned to this crumbling slum. Reach PAP, Haiti from Miami on Insel Air.

world's worst places

2. Kandahar, Afghanistan
Surrounded by gorgeous mountains, it is a tragedy that Kandahar is so awfully dangerous. A one time trading center and strategic foothold, Kandahar is a victim of its perfect location between the world’s of East and West. It has been a point of interest since Alexander the Great stumbled upon it in the 4th century BC. For centuries, traders passed through this city when traveling between Asia and Europe. As result, wars have also passed through and control has changed hands over its centuries of existence, from Mongols to Arabs to Brits and beyond.

Kidnappings, suicide bombings, and other criminal activities have turned it into an absolute monster of a destination. War has a way of creating this sort of general lawlessness. Having a 28% national literacy rate does not help matters.

As a weird footnote, Kandahar has an Armani Hotel, though it is not licensed by Giorgio. Its TGI Fridays, once a bastion of Americana and cheese sticks in Afghanistan, has allegedly been shut down. One can reach Kandahar from Dubai on Ariana Afghan Airlines. During Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden used this airline for Al Qaeda operations including the smuggling of guns, money, and opium. Today, sanctions have been lifted against the troubled national carrier.

world's worst places

1. Mogadishu, Somalia
Still crazy after all these years, “Mog” has perhaps the most terrifying disclaimer (ever) hovering above its entry on wikitravel. It states, “Mogadishu is regarded as the most lawless and dangerous city on Earth and is currently experiencing a major food and refugee crisis. It is not safe for leisure or tourism. If you are planning a visit for international aid work, etc, you will need expert advice and planning.”

Civil War has raged for decades, and the government controls only a few blocks of the city. It is a base for modern pirates, the backdrop for the true story surrounding Black Hawk Down, and it is said that machine guns are frequently used by drivers to negotiate through car traffic. It is a land without law, a soulless place at the edge of Africa. Much of it bears more resemblance to the last level in an especially difficult video game than to life on Earth. It is more modern warfare than modern world.

Oddly enough, several supermodels were born in Mogadishu including Iman and Yasmin Warsame – a footnote of beauty for an ugly place. Flights to Mog can be booked on Jubba Airways from Jeddah and Dubai. Good luck with that. Seriously though, if you decide to go, be sure to wear a bulletproof vest and hire a small army of Ethiopian soldiers.

The malls of Dubai: Skiing, scuba diving, and shopping

Dubai Malls

Every country has its own culture of shopping. Italy has the pedigree, with worn estate leather goods from Tuscany and glittering catwalks fueling Milan’s couture. America boasts 5th Avenue, the biggest week in fashion, and the cookie-cutter malls of middle-America. Shopping in Paris is as elegant as it is expensive, where visiting the temples of Chanel, Dior, and Hermes is like a Hajj for fashionistas. Getting fitted for a suit on Savile Row in London is a gentlemanly apex, one that is best achieved while gently pulling on a cherry-wood pipe and commenting on cheeky matters from a pink-tinged page of the Financial Times.

In Dubai, The malls are king. Vast expanses of high end extravagance, these oases from the draping emirate heat are stocked with Gucci, Tom Ford, Louis Vuitton, and any other brand that peddles four-figure handbags to the jet set. Just as America brought the shopping mall to retail prominence, Dubai has perfected the art, blown it up, and put it all back together with megatons of glitter, pomp, and reckless luxury. But more so than brands and shine, the malls of Dubai also have other extraordinary features. A skating rink and a movie theater? That is so 20th century. How about scuba diving, snow skiing, and visiting the tallest building in the world? Welcome to the malls of Dubai.

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The Dubai Context
Dubai is a culture of shopping. From its historical role as a trading port, the city has grown out of the sand on the back of traders traveling from South Asia to the markets of Europe and beyond. With this came an understanding of the international ebb and flow of trade. It became a hub for the trading of gold, spices, and pearls. Many of Dubai’s souqs still operate as such, and wooden cargo ships from Bengal line Dubai Creek.

Dubai Malls

Still today, Dubai poses a dominating presence in international trade, and by 2013, little known Al Maktoum International Airport could become the busiest cargo airport in the world. With this sort of action, over time, any city will grow up. But a city like Dubai did so almost overnight. The malls are a symbol for this explosion of excess and success, however fleeting it may or may not someday be.

The Dubai Mall
At almost 12 million square feet (3.77 million square feet of retail space), Dubai Mall spreads out across downtown Dubai in the shadow of the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa. By total area, Dubai Mall is considered the largest mall in the world – a claim made all the more believable during long strolls through its massive never-ending corridors. With its size and elegant trappings, this is unmistakably THE mall of the Middle East and a temple to the newest religion of the region – shopping. This is where wealthy Emirati, Saudi, and Qatari women come to purchase the designer duds that remain cloaked under burqas. This is where the Middle-west meets the Middle-east.

dubai malls

The mall boasts twelve hundred shops, the tallest building in the world, and a massive aquarium filled with sharks, tropical fish, and corals. The Dubai Aquarium is great to look at, but why stop there? For scuba divers, a mall dive site may seem contrary to the spirit of exploration. But, after suiting up and hitting the tank, the unique experience will win over even the most pessimistic diving purists. Flanking a reef shark while, just meters away, robed shoppers grasp Fendi clutches is a surreal exercise in atypical diving. A dive in Dubai Mall costs roughly $170. For a much cheaper and dry option, check out the Aquarium tunnel and underwater zoo for $14.

“At the Top” is a spirited jaunt to the observation tour of the stratospheric Burj Khalifa. Access to the attraction is located on the lower ground level of the Dubai Mall, and it costs about $27. After checking in (making reservations is hypercritical during busy days), the world’s fastest elevator rockets patrons to the 124th floor at 30 feet per second. The observation deck is only 55% up the Burj, but it hardly feels that way as you glance out at the curvature of the earth. The view is second to none, and just moments later, you can be back in the mall, at the food court dining at Hot Dog on a Stick, Fatburger, or any other of the random western eateries seemingly plucked from Middle America.

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Just outside the mall entrance is a daily impromptu car-show of Ferraris, Bugattis, Lambos, and Porsches, each representing offensive and loud corners of the rainbow. Of course, it is just a parking lot, but in a country where license plate numbers routinely fetch 7 figure payouts, the parking lots are more colorful than a Skittles commercial. Banana yellow, Qatari royal blue, and hellfire red are just some of the colors blasting eyes with candy hues. Indeed, Dubai is a place that appreciates fast Arab horses and faster Italian cars.

If you wish to stay near the Dubai Mall, the Armani Hotel in the Burj Khalifa is a great though expensive option. The interiors are minimalist, the halls are spaceship chic, and the beds are cloud-like. Rooms start at a painful $454. For cheaper options, search aggregator sites like Kayak for a slew of sub $100 options in downtown Dubai. For an interesting and delicious dining option, check out At.mosphere on floor 122 of the Burj Khalifa.

Mall of the Emirates
The original Dubai super-mall is beginning to show her age, at least relative to the newer and larger Dubai Mall. Only in Dubai can a half a decade old mall look dated, but 5 years feels like 20 years in Dubai time. Fast change makes for faster obsolescence. But, the Mall of the Emirates has a weapon that even time cannot rob – a winter wonderland complete with ski slopes, tubing slides, and snowfall in a city that receives about 5 inches of rainfall per year. Here, Emirati children engage in snowball fights while their parents carve down man-made ski runs. This is Ski Dubai.

dubai malls

It is easy to forget you are in the middle of the desert as you don a down jacket and boot up to hit the slopes. Complete with a ski lift and a mountain chalet, Ski Dubai is as strange as it sounds. Whether you are hypersensitive about 21st century water shortages or you run sprinklers mid-day in August, gazing out at the indoor slope will incite a WTF moment. It is surreal, magnificent, and, perhaps most surprising to your desert adjusted body, very cold.

Beyond the wintery attraction, the Mall of the Emirates boasts a ridiculous amount of high end shops. From Audemars Piguet to Brioni, the shopping center is no slouch in the luxury department.

Connected to Dubai Metro on the red line, the Mall of the Emirates is very easy to visit.

The Future
Dubai seems built to embrace the impossible. The buildings soar above clouds, islands magically appear just offshore, and the malls are built to the exacting standards of this patented Emirati creative indulgence. It is Disney meets Arabia, with just a pinch of batshit insane. In the book Alice in Wonderland, the Queen muses on impossibility, telling Alice “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” A similar approach to the impossible has carved the skyline of Dubai out of the rolling desert dunes. It will be interesting to see if shifting sands and global economics will allow these impossibilities to stand the test of time.

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All photography by Justin Delaney @justindelaney

Support for this program was partially provided by DTCM, with no limits on editorial or photographic content.

Blogger Justin Delaney

Justin Delaney Introducing a new blogger at Gadling, Justin Delaney…

Where was your photo taken:
This photo was taken in Dahab, Egypt on the Red Sea – one of the coolest places I have ever been. Here I am enjoying a well deserved sheesha after climbing Mount Sinai.

Where do you live now:
I live in Dallas, TX.

Scariest airline flown:
On a flight from Bagan, Yangon Airways had me gripping my armrest in white knuckled terror. As we flew over the plains of Burma, the plane bobbed and weaved nature’s windy jabs, and I felt my stomach slingshot to the back of my throat. Their slogan, “You’re safe with us” seemed ominous under these circumstances. My terror hit a personal threshold when the flight attendant spilled a drink on some guy’s head three rows up. Panic spread throughout the cabin. I kissed the ground when we landed. A few months later, their aviation license was revoked.

Favorite city/place:
Hong Kong is my favorite city. Nothing hustles like HK. It is grimy and beautiful – everything about that city is balanced like yin and yang. Most people do not realize that beyond the forest of skyscrapers, Hong Kong is 40% parkland. My favorite place is 100 feet underwater in Indonesia, getting to know some local pelagics.

Most remote corner of the globe visited:
The rain-forest of Northern Sulawesi in Indonesia is about as far off the map as one can get. I stayed in an old bungalow on a deserted beach about a 2 hour drive and one hour walk from civilization. Not the best place to get food poisoning, but it happened.Favorite guidebook series:
I am a Lonely Planet guy.

Type of traveler:
I am definitely a flash-packer, meaning I carry a backpack, but it is filled with electronics and a Nikon DSLR. I also prefer guesthouses and hotels with free wifi and comfortable beds, though I am fine with slumming it.

When I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m…
Eagerly awaiting acceptance letters from MBA programs.

Favorite foreign dish?
In Rome, I fell hard for Pecorino al Tartufo. It is a Florentine cheese with embedded black truffles. Some people day-dream about beaches or days at the spa; I day-dream about cheese.

Next Trip
This May, I am marrying the love of my life in St. Croix and following it up with a trip to Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Dubai. My fiance, Kristin, also has a passion for travel. We have visited 25 countries together since we started dating in 2008.

In Italy: The Florence meanderings

Florence is so much more than a city. The past of this small community on the banks of the Arno is forever intertwined with invention and progress. The Renaissance began here, advancing all forms of intellectual inquiry and creation. The Medici, essentially the world’s first modern bankers, built a Florentine empire with a strong patronage for the arts. Once the center of the banking and art world, it now exists simply as a quiet city in the Tuscan hills. Florence has come down gracefully from its apogee unapologetic and ready to just be. It forges on ahead with shops full of artisans; architecture that has shaped our conception of beauty, and an art scene that may never be eclipsed. The Florence experience serves a welcome respite from the supercenter and highway lifestyle. Florence is more than a city. It is an ideal from which every other beautiful city should be measured.

Once you have arrived in Florence, the beauty can be overwhelming. I do not have a cure for Stendhal Syndrome, but I do have some experiences for you to enjoy while exploring this old town.

Bistecca

My first night in Florence, I sauntered by a dimly lit restaurant on my way back from the gym. In this restaurant, called Perseus, gigantic cuts of meat hung gracefully from the ceiling. That settled it. I had to go. And go I did. Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a gigantic mass of beef similar to a multi-story T-bone weighing at least a kilo (2.2 lbs). They cut the beef extremely thick and cook it over burning wood coals. Black and crusty on the outside, scarlet in the center, this robust cut is a true carnivorous delight. The meat is so tender; you could eat it with a fork and spoon. The type of beef used is from the prized Chianina Cow, the largest breed of bovine in the world. It is also one of the oldest. These cows have roamed the hills of central Italy since the age of the Roman Empire.

Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a famous Tuscan indulgence, and is quite easy to find around Florence. To be sure you are getting the real thing, find a local place that appears to be busy. I happened upon Perseus, and they slapped me silly with their decadent beef, fresh baked bread, and nutritious greens. I left that place with a smile and not a care in the world. A good cut of Bistecca starts at around 45 Euros, but don’t expect to finish it alone.

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Drink the Local Stuff

The countryside surrounding Florence boasts some of Italy’s finest vineyards. Chianti flows like the Arno River in this part of the world, and the straw-flasked bottles are an ubiquitous sight along the streets of Florence. A great place to sample wine is at an enoteca. These are wine shops that cater to all classes and tastes. Some are small street booths to stop for a quick glass while the upscale ones serve elegant meals with their wine offerings. No Florentine experience is complete without nosing into one of these establishments for some nectar from Chianti.

Enoteche range from the basic Casa de Vino, to the opulent Cantinetta Antinori. For a truly wonderful experience, take a tour of the Tuscan countryside and check out the surrounding vineyards. Some great vineyards to visit are Le Cantine di Greve, Castello di Meleto, and Castello di Brolio. Italy and Wine offers great wine tours of Tuscany.

Visit with David

David looks like, at any given moment, he could break free of his pedestal and take off down the hall of the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Michelangelo created a true masterpiece. Nothing really prepares you for its chiseled perfection and gargantuan size. This statue has been considered a masterpiece for over 500 years, and standing there in front of it only confirms this well-worn denotation. His alive eyes insinuate a level of intimacy beyond the customary experience with a fine work of art. He seems to follow you around the room.

Michelangelo’s David is housed in the Galleria dell’ Accademia north of the Duomo. If you are visiting during peak season, then purchase tickets ahead of time online to avoid wasting time in line. Entry is €6.50, and fees are added with online purchase. Open 8:15am-6:50pm Tuesday through Sunday. A replica is available in Piazza Della Signoria, but you need to see the real deal.



Brunelleschi’s Ambitious Dome

The Duomo began its life in 1296 by artist Filippo Brunelleschi and was finished by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436 Emilio de Fabris in 1886. It is still, today, the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. To complete this herculean feat of engineering, Brunelleschi reverse engineered many lost Roman masonry techniques used in old structures such as the Pantheon in Rome. He also invented several new machines to complete this impossible commission made possible by Medici wealth and renaissance intuition.

The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline, and is thus quite easy to locate. The climb to the top is almost 500 steps up narrow stairwells filled with tourists. I know that part sounds awful, but the views of Florence and surrounding Tuscany from the top is well worth the torment. For a fantastic view of the Duomo, climb the adjacent Campanile, which is much quieter. Cost to climb the Duomo is €8, but free if you just want to enter the cathedral. Hours vary by day – Monday-Wednesday, and Friday 10:00am-3:30pm; Thursday and Saturday 10:00am-4:45pm; Sunday, 1:30pm-4:45pm. And to make things even more confusing, on the first Saturday of the month, the Duomo is open from 10:00am-3:30pm. The Campanile is €6, and is open daily from 8:30am-7:30pm.

Shop for a Fine Vintage

Florence boasts Guccio Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Salvatore Ferragamo as native sons. As the list goes, so must the shopping. And while these names come with stratospheric price tags more likely to inspire shock than awe, Florence is also filled with some seriously amazing second hand boutiques. These small shops peddle vintage Gucci, Pucci, Valentino, Prada, and more. The finest vintage shop in Florence is quite possibly Elio Ferraro. Check out the website for sure.

Guccio Gucci started the House of Gucci as a craftsman supplying leather goods to the equine set of Tuscany. Florentine leatherworkers have established themselves as some of the greatest in the world, and Gucci’s wide spread success illustrates this point sufficiently. A fine way to bring home some fine Florentine leather craftsmanship without dropping hundreds of Euros is to purchase gloves. My black and red leather cashmere lined gloves are one of my favorite possessions. They cost me about €50, and are softer than a whisper.

The Secret Vasari Corridor

During World War II, the Germans blitzkrieged much of Florence. They bombed all of the bridges crossing the Arno River, except Ponte Vecchio. Rumor has it; Hitler found it too beautiful to destroy. This is an unlikely tidbit of local lore, but not as unlikely as Ponte Vecchio’s secret passageway. The Medici commissioned a secret passage leading from the Uffizi Palazzo Vecchio, over Ponte Vecchio, and to their home at Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. This was done so that they did not have to be bothered walking among commoners. The passageway is called the Vasari Corridor. It begins on the top floor of the Uffizi at a nondescript wooden door, passing covertly over the rooftops of the city.

Getting access to the Vasari Corridor used to be near impossible without bribes or connections, but now you can book a bundled Uffizi/Vasari tour here for around €100. The corridor is set to close down for 3 years at the end of 2010. Walking Ponte Vecchio with the commoners at the street level is also beautiful. The bridge is filled with old world jewelry shops. Ponte Vecchio is a popular and romantic sunset spot.

The Dead in Santa Croce

The Basilica di Santa Croce houses 16 different chapels, and is considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. The grounds are filled with frescos, sculptures, and most impressively – a fine collection of worthy tombs. Like a Hall of Fame for notable Italians, many individuals of great renown are buried here: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Rossini. The aesthetics do not disappoint either. The Basilica has several quiet courtyards to solemnly admire. If you happen to visit in early February, then check out the artisan chocolate festival in Piazza Santa Croce right out front. They give out prodigious amounts of free samples.

Santa Croce is located in the Santa Croce neighborhood next to the Biblioteca Nazionale. Doors open at 9:30am and close at 5:30pm, except on Sunday, when they open at 1:00pm and close at 5:30pm. Cost is €5. The 2011 Artisan Chocolate Festival has not yet been announced, but will likely be the first weekend of February. Cost to enter the chocolate festival is free.



Boboli Gardens

Spending an afternoon admiring the ornately appointed lawns behind Pitti Palace will put the Medici wealth into perspective. They began as wool traders and eventually came to form the most respected bank in Europe. They used their wealth and influence to build up Florence as a banking and art center for Europe. They sent family members to the papacy, invented double-entry bookkeeping(debits and credits!), and in many ways, initiated the Renaissance. They had fantastic taste and the Boboli Gardens were their backyard. Be sure to check it out.

The Boboli Gardens open at 8:15am daily, though closing time varies by season. They close at 7:30 in the Summer, 6:30 in the Spring, 5:30 in the Fall, and 4:30 in the Winter. Entry to the garden is through Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno and costs €6. Pitti Palace boasts 7 different galleries, and was the original home of the Medici. The Palatine gallery houses the Renaissance stuff, and they also have a silver museum, carriage museum, royal apartment museum, a costume gallery, porcelain museum, and a museum of modern art.

The Uffizi Gallery

The Galleria Delgi Uffizi is the top art museum in Florence. Once the base of operations for the vast Medici empire, Uffizi translates to offices. The Uffizi has an extremely simple U shaped layout, and floating from room to room is effortless and awe-inspiring. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Da Vinci’s Annunciation, the Uffizi impresses with over 1500 master Renaissance works. The frescoed corridors lined with statues lend a divine aesthetic to the experience.

During high season, the line for the Uffizi can take upwards of 3 or 4 hours. To expedite this process and ensure that you are not wasting precious Florence time in line, book your tickets in advance here. If you go in the winter, then you can get away with just showing up. The Galleria degli Uffizi is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:15am to 6:50pm. Cost is a low €6.50, though booking online adds a few Euros to the fee.

Eat, eat, eat, and eat

I used to eat at this Chinese restaurant as a kid. I always wondered how their food was so freaking good. I would just shovel the stuff in until my instincts waved a white flag. Later, I found out that every entree was showered in monosodium glutamate – the bastard child of salt and science. I understand that now. The food in Florence also defies my notions of how good something should be. Everything tastes so fresh that I almost feel insulted by the banalities I drag out of the supercenter back home. Salads seem to grow straight out of the plate. Tomatoes burst with flavor and are “real,” not aberrations genetically tinkered to ripen as they jostle down the interstate. Whereas the secret to good 80’s Chinsese food was msg, the secret to great Italian food is closeness to the source, and of course, love. Everything feels as though it has been loved to fruition rather than simply cooked. From chocolate to pecorino to truffles to basil to gelato, everything tastes, as it should – perfect.

The Tuscan Countryside

While most of Florence can be explored on foot, taking to rural Tuscany requires some sort of wheels underfoot. Some great options for exploring the surrounding countryside include tours on bicycles, cars, or even by Vespa. A great car tour company, The 500 Club, rents out classic Fiats for you to drive in an arranged convoy. Tuscany Bike Tours offers a great bicycle tour of the Chianti region. If you want to take to the Italian countryside by Vespa, then check out Tuscany by Vespa.

To reach Florence from the United States, Alitalia offers a code share with Delta from New York, and Lufthansa flies from Boston and San Francisco. None of these flights are nonstop. From London, you can fly on Ryanair for under $30 nonstop to Pisa, and take a short train ride to the heart of Florence for about $16. It is difficult to find an inexpensive flight directly to Florence in Europe, but budget airlines easyjet and Ryanair serve nearby Pisa International Airport. Florence is just an hour and half express train away from Rome, so you can also fly to Rome and take the train to Florence for around $60.

Daily Pampering: The art of food and exclusivity at Rao’s New York

Today’s Daily Pampering comes from one of our Seed.com writers, who found a little luxury – albeit in uncommon form – in a hidden New York gem…

When we walked into Rao’s New York, the record did not scratch to a stop as it does in popular metaphor. We would have welcomed such subtly. It was more akin to the entire record player crashing onto the floor in slow motion. We were out of place, and it was blatantly obvious. Here we were, dressed as though we had a small town prom to get to later in the evening. The rest of the room? Bombastic Italians, casually dressed. I saw a tracksuit or two, t-shirts everywhere, and nary a tie in sight.

“The web,” I nodded discouragingly to myself, “what a freaking liar.”

We had done research for our dinner, and the Internet made a point to instruct us to wear “our nicest clothes.” I had spent an hour that day looking for new cuff links specifically for this meal. Cuff Links, mind you, that no one would ever notice. But I thought what the hell, nice dinner date in New York, best Italian restaurant in the city, and the hardest reservation this side of El Bulli. I am wearing new cuff links, dammit.

Here I threw you in the deep end without properly explaining the context. Rao’s is allegedly the best Italian restaurant in New York. They have 10 tables, 1 dinner seating, and only open their doors Monday through Friday. To mitigate this extremely limited dinner availability, they use a “standing reservation” program with their regulars. Regulars come on the same night weekly, having done so for decades, so they essentially own their table for that specific night. Outside of this, they only take reservations for one or two tables each night, and those reservations go years in advance. They take under 300 new reservations per year, and even sold a reservation on eBay with a $20,000 “buy it now” price. If you call them, an Italian voice plainly instructs that they are no longer taking reservations. This is not a hard place to get into. It is an impossible place to get into.

Rao’s does not welcome you with open arms, provided they welcome you at all. We walked in with our aforementioned prom outfits on, and were immediately presented with a psychological gauntlet. The maitre d’ claimed we had no reservation. He walked into the back for a few minutes, and come back shaking his head. I nervously tugged on my jacket and my date fussed with her small silver clutch. We pulled up emails on our iPhone attempting to outsmart his gambit with hard evidence. This just exasperated the issue because he mistook the date of the message for the date of our reservation. Eventually, he smiled and pointed to a table that had been ready for us before we even walked in. They were just screwing with us.

Our meal felt earned at this point, and we were ready to order. Calm now, I took a slow cursory glance around the room. It appeared as though we had walked straight onto a Scorsese set. I could envision Pesci beating some guy to near death next to the bar while Ray Liotta nervously shuttered the front door. Aside from my imaginative wandering though, the restaurant felt fairly prosaic. I suppose that is the charm. The modest surroundings lend a feel of honesty to the experience that dressing it up would likely disprove. Like the fresh ingredients they use, Rao’s wastes no time on filler with garish aesthetics either.

There is no menu. The maitre d’ came up, sat down, and told us all about their food: the firmness of their fusilli, the freshness of the pomodoro, the thinness of the veal. Had I no restraint, I would have drooled an Arno river into my lap. It was dinner foreplay, and man this guy was a good kisser. The bad blood of our vetting had vanished, and he was extremely affable and gracious. Like a culinary consultant, he helped us design our meal without being even the slightest bit pushy.

Mozzarella was spoken about at length, as were peppers, mussels, and calamari. We settled on 3 antipasti, 2 pastas, a meat course, and 2 desserts. To start, we had some lightly breaded calamari, firm but yielding. We also had a plate of cooked red peppers and delicious fresh mozzarella with tomato and basil to round out our antipasti trio. For pastas, we had a penne vodka and fusilli pomodoro, with a side of meatballs that textured like ambrosia clouds sent from heaven. Lastly, the veal parm came out to thunderous applause, in my head. Rich cheeses smothered the veal just to the brink that it seemed the distinct flavors had reached some sort of bicameral agreement in which neither would overpower the other. Each dish passed the next like Ludwig Van’s slamming hands – intense, perfect, and to be appreciated for a long time.

I pondered if humans could explode, and then I ate more.

The meal was near perfect, easily a 9 out of 10. Dessert was a sliver of homemade New York cheesecake and a few scoops of black raspberry ice cream. So, is Rao’s all hype? Absolutely not. They fed us a meal that we will never forget. It is a shame we will probably not be able to go back for a very long time. I really wanted to try the seafood salad. Maybe they will take a 2015 reservation?

Luckily for those without marathon patience or old world connections, Rao’s operates a near perfect replica of the New York experience at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. They have 2 dining rooms and a full bar to accommodate foodie pilgrims. Also, unlike their Bronx East Harlem flagship, dinner is served nightly. Check out their menu on Zagat here.

Pricing at Rao’s New York is reasonable considering its massive reputation and exclusivity. Antipasti dishes range from $11 to around $20. Pasta Courses start a little under $20 and scale upwards of $30. A meat course will set you back $20 to $40. The meatballs, which defy the boundaries of goodness, cost a mere $11 for a pair. Dessert offerings cost $10 or less.

Justin Delaney is a Seed.com contributor. All the photos above are copyright Justin Delaney. Read his blog (and check out more of his top-notch photos) at Goboogo.