Mosque of Córdoba, Spain | A Walk to the Mezquita’s Mihrab (Video)

Walk down the center aisle of the Mosque of Córdoba (la Mezquita) to view the spectacular mosaic-clad mihrab and unique eight-point dome over the maqsura. This section of the mosque was built by Al-Hakam II from 961-965

The Call to Prayer Explained

To get a translation of the call to prayer, see our related post.

Off the Beaten Path in Sicily: Palermo’s Qanats

The qanat (pronounced ka-naht) is an Arab-designed underground canal/irrigation system that directs water from a high-elevation aquifer water source to a town or agricultural area along a perfectly-calculated and very slight downward grade (see illustration). Invented by the Persians in 1000 BCE and functioning as a “below-ground aqueduct,” it is ideally suited to warm, dry climates, such as Sicily.

Visiting a qanat in Palermo

A vestige of Sicily’s Islamic period, Palermo’s qanats make for a fascinating visit. SottoSopra is a local nonprofit that guides small groups into a still-functioning qanat. You can contact them online or by telephone (+39 091/580433). If you don’t speak Italian, it might be best to have your hotel call and set up the appointment for you and to get explicit directions. It’s important to be aware that the water is cool and you get into it up to your chest, so come prepared with clothing that you can get wet (they will provide boots).

Qanat Underground Aqueduct Diagram by Approach Guides

How a qanat delivers water from a high-elevation water source to a lower irrigation area.

Where to eat in Palermo

Here are some of our favorite places to enjoy a bite to eat after a day spent touring the city:

  • Osteria Paradiso. Via Serradifalco, 23 (close to the Zisa). Only open for lunch, this is a very good place for super-fresh seafood and pastas. The owner speaks only Italian (and there are no written menus) but you can just ask them to bring out any of the pastas mentioned and you will be very happy. Closed Sundays.
  • Antica Gelateria Lucchese. Located on the south side of Piazza S. Domenico, 11, this is one of our favorite gelaterie in Palermo. Go with a granita here — the mandorla (almond) is the most traditional and delicious. Locals order their gelato in a brioche.
  • Mi Manda Picone. Via Paternostro 69 at Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi. Excellent wine bar that has a very extensive list of Sicilian wines by the glass. The bar also has a restaurant attached, so you can get food, if you wish.

London Architecture: Wren’s Churches (Video)

Following the Great Fire of 1666, King Charles II of England appointed Christopher Wren as chief architect in charge of rebuilding the city. In this Insights series video, Approach Guides’ founder Jennifer Raezer introduces Christopher Wren, offers insight into his distinctive style that defined London architecture during the early 18th century and points out her favorite London churches.

This video was created in conjunction with our travel guidebook to London.

Oftentimes out a great tragedy is born great beauty and such is the case for the City of London’s churches.

The Great Fire of London, 1666

On an early September morning in 1666, a fire that began in a bakery and Pudding Lane raged throughout the center in London. The fire destroyed everything in its path including St. Paul’s Cathedral and 87 parish churches. After the fire, Christopher Wren was appointed chief architect by King Charles II and was tasked with rebuilding what had been lost. It was a project that consumed him for the rest of his life, The fruits of his labor are on full view today — marvels of architecture wedged among modern city.

Wren’s Churches: Characteristics

As you explore Wren’s churches you will notice that although each church is unique in its architecture, there are some very consistent characteristics that carry through from church to church. The first thing you’ll notice is that his churches were designed to admit abundant natural light. He used clear glass windows with round tops, breaking from the standard stain glass windows have earlier Gothic churches. Given his preference for natural light Wren’s architectural decoration is conservative, favoring clean-lined stone colored walls and whitewash ceilings. Finally his church is typically have a square or rectangular plan tower on the west side. These towers often topped by an elaborate spire which is unique enough to differentiate the church from others in the city.

St. Mary Bow Tower - Christopher Wren

St Paul’s cathedral

Wren’s most famous works Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The two most defining features of this massive cathedral are its stunning facade and its enormous dome, which was very dear to Wren’s heart. The facade is defined by a two-story arrangement with two tiers of paired Corinthian columns. These columns form a pyramid topped by sharply angled triangular pediment which points towards the dome above. In addition the two towers on either side of the facade support Wren’s most advanced spire design.

Wren’s dome is a wonder of eighteenth-century engineering: at the time that’s completion there are only four downs in the world that were larger. When viewed from the inside you will see that the dome’s primary illumination is from the drums clear glass rectangular windows.

St. Paul's Dome - Christopher Wren

Wren’s City Parish Churches

St Bride

Among Christopher Wren’s other churches, there are several that stand out, including Saint Brides, which is easily identifiable by its wedding-cake-like spire. Consisting of five levels this is one Wren’s most iconic spires and is his tallest in the city. Once inside you’ll find a space that is both impressive and intimate. The church is filled with natural light and showcases some of the best preserved black and white marble flooring that was favored by Wren.

St. Brides Interior - Christopher Wren

St Stephen Walbrook

Another outstanding churches Saint Stephen Walbrook. This church likely held a very special place in Wren’s heart: it with his parish church. One of the most notable features of this church is its dome. In fact it was England’s first dome and most likely served as a prototype for St. Paul’s.

St. Stephen Walbrook Exterior - Christopher Wren

This church is generally regarded as being Wren’s most well-conceived architectural space. When you walk inside, you will see that light floods into the interior from numerous windows and the dome lantern. In addition, although it has a rectangular plan, you’ll notice that the interior communicates a highly centralized organization.

St Mary Aldermary

Another highlight church is Saint Mary Aldermary, which is unique for its Gothic aesthetic. Its tower is a masterpiece and one of Wren’s most formidable designs. Aanyone who knows Wren’s architecture is bound to be a little surprised when they see the interior of Saint Mary Aldermary. Upon entering, you notice the high ceiling which features plaster fan vaulting. Shallow saucer like domes run the length of the nave and fill the entire ceiling with elegant tracery.

St. Mary Aldermary Interior - Christopher Wren

Guidebook to Wren’s Churches

These churches represent just a small sample of Wren’s masterpieces and the great thing about these churches is that they are located in a very small area in the center of London and can be easily visited in just a few hours.

Guide to London: Wren’s Churches

The city ravaged by the Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding the city’s cultural nexus, St Paul’s and 51 city churches. We invite travelers to explore Wren’s legacy with our latest travel guide.

Architectural Walking Tour of Torino

The city of Turin (Torino in Italian) is often written off as an industrial city and overlooked by tourists who pass quickly by onto the surrounding vineyards and rice fields of Piedmont. However, to miss this Baroque architectural gem during your travels to Piedmont would be a mistake. Torino offers elegant Baroque cafes, delicious Gianduiotti (hazelnut chocolates) and a charming old Baroque city, giving tourists a glimpse into life of the Savoy court.

The powerful Piedmontese Savoy kings chose Turin as their capital in 1563. However, it was not until the arrival of the great Baroque architect Guarino Guarini to the city in 1666 that the Baroque style, which has come to define the modern city, gained momentum. This was exactly the same time that the Baroque in Rome had lost momentum (note that the great Roman Baroque architect Borromini died in 1667); accordingly, Turin (and Piedmont more generally) became the new center for the Baroque style and remained so for the next 100 years.

Dome of Chiesa di San Lorenzo (by Guarini in Torino)

The interior dome of Chiesa di San Lorenzo (by architect Guarini)

Walking Tour of Baroque Turin

This walking tour, which can be done in a few hours, guides you through some of Turin’s most beautiful Baroque sites, including several off-the-beaten-path highlights. Works by all three of Turin’s great Baroque architects are represented: Guarino Guarini (1624-1683), Filippo Juvarra (1678-1736), and Bernardo Vittone (1702-70).

  1. Your starting point should, of course, be Palazzo Reale. All of the big name architects to pass through the Savoy court – Vitozzi, Morello, Juvarra, and Alfieri – made a contribution of some kind to this royal residence. The interior rooms are simply stunning and a true testament to the theatricality of Baroque and Rococo art. Be sure to take a stroll through the gorgeous gardens attached to the palazzo.
  2. From here you are just a few seconds away from Palazzo Madama where you can admire two masterpieces by Juvarra: the masterful Scalone Juvarriano (staircase) and the building’s beautiful undulating facade (notice how this is enhanced as the protruding elements are lighter in color).
  3. Heading toward the back of the piazza you’ll come to two Guarini masterpieces: la Chiesa di San Lorenzo (church) built between 1666-168 and la Cappella della Santa Sindone (chapel) built betwen 1668 and 1694. Guarini’s works are, in our opinion, the most visually compelling of all of the Baroque sites in Turin.
  4. From here we suggest you take Via Garibaldi and follow it to Piazza Statuto. A number of the gems of the Piedmontese Baroque await you along this street (and on nearby side streets): la Chiesa di San Francesco d’Assisi designed by Vittone and Mario Ludovico Quarini; la Chiesa di Santa Maria di Piazza (this is another highlight stop; discussed in detail in our Approach Guide to Italy: Italian Baroque), a work also by Vittone; la Chiesa del Carmine by Juvarra; and the Military Quarters (on via del Carmine, at the corner with corso Valdocco) built by Juvarra between 1716 and 1728 and later touched up by Ignazio Birago di Borgaro in 1768.

Don’t miss: Torino’s local specialties

Guide and eBook to the Regional Foods of Italy
Each region of Italy has its unique specialties and distinct culinary tradition, and Torino and the Piemonte (Piedmont) region offer some of the best. Some of our favorite regional dishes, like funghi porcini (porcini mushrooms), rice (used to make the region’s famous risottos), and tartufi (truffles).
Guide and eBook to Italian Wines
Piedmont is the land of world-class Barolo and Barbaresco wines, but there are also many bargains to be found. Our Guide to Italian Wines gives travelers what they need to order the best local wines, such as a dolcetto (red) or an erbaluce (white).

Shopping in Florence, Italy

One could easily spend a month taking in Florence’s world-class art and architecture, indulging in traditional Tuscan food and wine and browsing all of the shops the city offers. For those shopping-focused days, here is a list of our favorite stores in Florence – our list includes shops that sell unique items that you most likely won’t find outside of Italy or even Florence.

Approach Guides’ favorite stores for shopping in Florence

  • Yesterday’s Fausto Santini Outlet (Via Calzaiuoli, 95R; tel 055/239 8536). High-fashion shoe maker, with prices that are 1/3 of those in the Milan boutique.
  • Roberto Ugolini. (South side of Piazza Santo Spirito on Via Michelozzi, 17R; tel 055/216 246) Handmade shoes. Very expensive, but very special.
  • Paolo Carandini (Via de’ Macci, 73R; tel 055/245 397). Paolo Carandini sells his handmade leather goods out of his tiny workshop; he also sells his products at Kate’s Paperie and Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.
  • Angela Caputi (Via S. Spirito, 58/R; tel 055 212 972) Designer of large fashionable jewelry
  • I Mosaici di Lastrucci (Mosaics by the Lastrucci family). (Via dei Macci, 9; tel 055/241653) A very impressive shop wherein they do the pietre dure technique as it was done in the 15th century. Great craftsmanship.
  • Liu Jo (Via Calimala, 14/R; tel 055/216164). Italian brand of women’s clothes – only available in Italy.
  • Panerai (Piazza S. Giovanni, 16R; tel 055/215795). Officine Panerai, based in Florence, was the official watch brand of the Royal Italian Navy in the early 1900’s. You can buy watches here or simply browse their archive of historical timepieces.
  • Arte e Cuoio (Lungarno Alberghi, Srl on Via de’Tornabuoni, 2; tel 055/27264095).  Beautiful, handcrafted leather products.

Wine in Florence and Tuscany

Italian Wine GuideAfter a long day of sightseeing and shopping, Florence offers the perfect backdrop for a glass or two of Tuscan wine from nearby vineyards. Check out our Italian Wine Guide to learn about Tuscan grapes and appellations, and which vintages (years in which a wine was produced) to look out for and which to avoid.

 

Guide for exploring the Last Supper Frescoes in Florence

Last Supper Frescoes of FlorenceThe presence of large number of Last Supper frescoes (called cenocoli in Italian) in Florence’s historical city center allows visitors to view several sites over a few hours or a few days, giving them a brief but complete lesson in comparative art history. In this travel guide, we highlight the best of the Last Supper frescoes of Florence (spanning 1335-1645) and look at how they relate to Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic depiction in Milan (1496-98). Learn more about Last Supper frescoes in Florence

Best Wine Bars in Venice

After spending the day touring Venice and exploring its St. Mark’s beautiful architecture and mosaics, relax with the locals at a Venetian wine bar and enjoy an aperitivo of cichetti and ombre.

Wine Bar in Venice

Wine Bar in Venice

What to order in an Italian Wine bar

Cichetti

Cichetti (chi-KEHT-tee) are the bite-sized “Italian” brethren of tapas (basically, small snacks). Some of the most popular cichetti include salumi (especially soppressata and prosciutto di San Daniele); crostini topped with baccala (salted cod) and alici (anchovies); and cheeses such as piave, a local cow’s milk cheese similar to parmigiano-reggiano.

Ombre

Ombre (OHM-bray) are small glasses of wine (ombre translates as “shadow”, apparently where the Venetians traditionally drank the wine). We suggest sticking to the local wines while in Venice, such as a sparkling white prosecco from the Valdobiadenne DOC or a smooth, medium-bodied red from the Valpolicella DOC.

Best wine bars in Venice

Wine bars in Venice are also known as cichetteria. These are some of our favorites:

  • Al Marca (Campo Cesare Battisti, near the fish market, just off the Rialto bridge in San Polo). Perhaps our favorite in the city. Good for wine, aperitifs (try the local favorite: spritz con Aperol or Campari), and mini sandwiches with wine in the evening and coffee in the morning. Stand outside in the campo with the rest of the crowd — this bar is just a hole in the wall place.
  • La Cantina, 3689 Strada Nuova, Cannaregio; (39-041) 522 8258. Open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. Very good place, with good wines and probably the best tasty small plates of meats and seafood.
  • I Rusteghi. Campiello del Tentor San Marco; 041/523 2205. Just off the Rialto bridge and right around the corner from Alle Botte in the corner of a small campo, it’s a little more upscale than Alle Botte and its less busy atmosphere allows for interactions with the family behind the bar. Drinks and small sandwiches. The frizzante rose is worth a try.
  • Banco Giro, 122 Campo San Giacometto, San Polo; (39-041) 523 2061. In summer, open 10:30 a.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday night and all day Monday. Good place, very laid-back and usually not too busy. You can find this bar behind the markets on the right side immediately after you descend from the Rialto Bridge. Banco Giro also serves sit-down dinners in the quaint upstairs.

Explore Venice’s Distinctive Culture

Guide to St. Mark's Basilica

Perhaps no other single monument better embodies the city in which it stands. As the source of the Venetian Republic’s legitimacy, St. Mark’s Basilica increasingly became the symbol of its accrued economic, political, and military strength.


Guide and eBook to the Regional Foods of Italy

Each region of Italy has local specialties and distinct culinary traditions, and Venice and the surrounding Veneto region offer some of the best. Some of our favorite regional dishes listed in this Guide to the Regional Foods of Italy, include baccala (salted cod), polenta (boiled cornmeal), salumi (especially soppressata and prosciutto di San Daniele), and risi e bisi (rice with peas).