I realized in Siena that having high expectations can sometimes backfire on you when reality just cannot live up to everything you had imagined. In the case of Florence, it was the complete opposite; the high bar I had set in my mind for the Tuscan capital was not only reached, it was utterly surpassed.
It’s the one Italian city we could truly see ourselves live in. Considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has been a cultural an artistic pole for many centuries, and the architecture wowed us at every corner.
We were swept off our feet from the very beginning, even despite starting off on the wrong foot. Yeah… we sorta kinda took the bus going in the wrong direction for 20 minutes or so. If it wasn’t for two nice Italian guys eavesdropping on our conversation, we would’ve ended up on the other side of town before correcting our trajectory. On the bright side, it gave us an opportunity to see the city. I’m a grand optimist.
To get acquainted with Florence’s many sights, we booked a €5 walking tour on our first day. While we’re on the topic, the only thing in the city that annoyed me a bit was the insane amount of walking tours taking up most of the streets. I had tried one in Panama and hadn’t particularly liked it, but I thought I might give it another shot. Well… my advice to you is to purchase a city guide and walk around based on your interests. Florence is walker-friendly and there’s a lot of monuments, art galleries and museums to visit.
Here are some pointers for you.
You cannot go to Florence and not see Piazzale Michelangelo. It offers the best panorama over Florence. There’s also Fiesole, on the other side of town, but if you need to choose between the two, Piazzale Michelangelo all the way. You can either get there by foot if motivation strikes, or take the number 12 bus like we did.
Dating back to the 14th century, this famous Florentine landmark is the oldest bridge on the Arno River, and the only one in the city that wasn’t destroyed during the bombings of 1944. Some say Hitler himself gave the order not to destroy it.
What makes it so special? Besides the long historical heritage that I won’t get into, the bridge is renowned for having built-in shops all along it. Originally hosting butchers and merchants, Ferdinand I became annoyed with the smell and had them replaced by noble artisans, mainly jewelers, in the 16th century.
To this day, the jewelry shops are still there. I tried to give Martin a few hints as to which rings I liked. Hopefully he took some mental notes :)
Cattedrale Santa Maria del Fiore
We weren’t leaving Florence without visiting its cathedral and climbing its campanile. Throughout my travel posts, you’ll notice that we’re big bell tower enthusiasts; if we see one, you can be sure we’ll make our way up there to A. get some exercise, and B. enjoy a beautiful view of the city. And C… I can’t think of a third witty reason.
So first, let me say WOW! No matter how many times we walked by it, the third biggest church in the world gave me chills. Constructed in the 15th century, its tiled exterior is made out of three different types of Italian marble (green, pink and white) that were added in the 19th century. That may seem like a weird colour combo but the result begs to differ.
Another thing that struck us was the never-ending lineups. We made sure to arrive a bit before opening time and purchased our tickets directly at the bottom of the tower.
414 steps later, we had an amazing view over the entire city and on the Duomo. We actually waived hello to people who had climbed up to its top. You know all those beautiful close-up pictures of the Duomo you see on Internet, well they’re taken from this tower.
When we got back down, the line for the campanile was way shorter than the Duomo’s, so I think it’s safe to assume that you should start with the latter if you really intend on doing both. We agreed that the tower sufficed and got in line to enter the cathedral instead… *cough*free entrance*cough*.
With the majestic exterior, we were really eager to see the interior. I was expecting another Basilica San Pietro like in Rome. Well, once we stepped foot inside, we found ourselves stumped by how… how do I put this nicely… by how plain and sober everything was. It’s as if they blew their whole budget on the marble tiles outside, but forgot to leave some spare change for interior decorating. It’s not worth the 30-minute wait, unless you’re visiting the crypts too.
While entrance to the cathedral is free, you can purchase the €10 ticket for all the monuments, including the crypts located underneath it.
I love visiting markets and this one was one of my favorites. I’m pretty confident you can go there without ever needing to shop at the grocery store. There’s everything one might need: fruits and vegetables of course, but also all kinds of cheese, pasta, wine, specialty oils, etc.
We first went there with our cooking class and were treated to an amazing tasting of truffle products and balsamic vinegars. Italian specialties at their finest.
I especially got the tingles on the second floor. The first floor is quite traditional with local farmers and artisans (which is usually more my style), while the upstairs has a more modern décor while preserving that vintage feel.
You should head there around lunch time to grab a treat at one of their inviting little restaurants.
If you’re interested in learning about Italian cuisine but are short on time, they offer an interesting cooking demonstration around lunchtime. For €35, you get to watch someone cook your meal and explain the details and subtleties while you’re enjoying a glass of wine.
In our case, we preferred to go all out and book a real Tuscan cooking class.
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Although we didn’t care that much for our walking tour, it allowed us to discover a little street called Via de’Neri. It struck a chord with me so I immediately took note of it and we came back the following day to get properly acquainted with its restaurants, shops, music store and gelateria.
That’s right, I still haven’t gotten over gelato.
It’s quite simply a cute, lively and authentic part of town that you don’t read about in the brochures. I love finding “hidden” spots like this that I can recommend to friends and family.
You can find it between Palazzio Vecchio and Basilica Santa Croce, which just so happen to be two items that we didn’t squeeze into our schedule.
One of the perks of living in Florence is that civil unions are celebrated at the Palazzio Vecchio, the city hall and also a museum. Our awesome Airbnb hosts recently tied the knot there a few months prior to our stay.
From the first evening we met, we got along with them like a house on fire. We spent the entire week having great conversations and discovering each other’s cultures. And drinking vino.
They brought us to some of their favorite local spots and gave us a taste of real Florentian life.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it again, we could both really see ourselves living in Florence. Maybe once we’ve wrapped our heads around German, we’ll give Italian a shot ;)