They say that you haven’t really seen Italy until you’ve seen Florence. This gorgeous town is where the Renaissance period began and today, Florence is very much a work of art in itself. Sure, it’s an incredibly popular tourist area, but its full-on Italian splendor and sophistication will leave you breathless nonetheless. Today’s guest contributor, Kris Bordessa, is taking us on a lovely jaunt through the city to see it’s art-centric highlights and show us how to avoid some of the crowds along the way.
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The biggest mistake on our recent trip to Italy? Not staying longer in Florence.
My husband and I were in Italy to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary and had planned a route to take us through many small, relaxing towns in northern Italy, but we couldn’t simply bypass Florence – after all, that’s where David resides. While planning the trip, we agreed that two full days in the city would allow us to see the sights and sufficiently tax our small town tendencies.
We could easily have spent a week.
The city of Florence – birthplace of Dante, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo – has a rich history dating back to its birth as a Roman settlement in 59 BC. But above all else, Florence is famous for its art.
Wander the Streets of Florence
Like other cities in Italy, Florence maintains a “no-drive” zone in its city center, making it very pedestrian friendly. The limitation on vehicles surely plays a big part in helping the city maintain its casual, low-key atmosphere. For the most part, we found Florence to be not too crowded, but when we did feel the need for a little more quiet, it was easy enough to slip off onto a side street to explore the small shops or grab a pastry and cappuccino.
There’s a surprise around every corner in Florence, so wear your walking shoes! Elaborate frescoes on buildings, fountains burbling, grand marble statues, or a bench for quiet contemplation; you never know what you’ll find. Be sure to seek out Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, where you’ll see an assortment of marble statuary including a replica of David. Seeing the replica made me wonder if it was really worth the effort to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece. Trust me. It is.
While the famed Ponte Vecchio is highlighted in more than one travel guide, unless you’re shopping for jewelry or like crowds, you’ll probably enjoy it just as much viewed from the banks of the River Arno.
With warnings about crowds at the Accademia, we opted to purchase “skip the line” tickets for first thing in the morning. As luck would have it, in spite of a ticket snafu and a long queue of people charging the door, we were among the first people in David’s chamber. There were audible gasps as we got our first glimpse. David outshone every piece of artwork we saw in Italy – including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome – but the architect who created the chamber for David deserves applause, too. The space complements the massive statue perfectly.
There are a number of other impressive exhibits at the Accademia, but if you’re pressed for time, ask someone to direct you to the Coronation of the Virgin between Angels and Saints, a tapestry dated 1336. I stood there gawking at it for long enough that the security guard started to look at me suspiciously.
If you get lucky enough to get in before the crowds, head straight for David – you can come back to look at the rest of the artwork.
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
Every Italian town has a duomo (cathedral), it seems, and based on our own experience passing one by is an impossibility. Each is a piece of art in its own right and the duomo in Florence was no exception. While the interior of the duomo is quite simple compared to some we saw, the mosaic exterior, crafted from red, white, and green marble, is just stunning.
The adjacent bell tower is open to the public. Anyone who wants to attempt 414 steps to the top is welcome to do so for a small fee. And we did. The view from the top is remarkable, but the climb is not for the faint of heart. The stairs are crowded and very narrow, with no handholds and very few places to step out of the way for faster visitors. Going down – hello, rubber legs! – was just as challenging. I didn’t see the ambulances at the base of the tower until after we’d descended, but having been to the top and back, I suspect that they are there for good reason.
Set aside an hour or two to wander through this fresh Mercato Centrale and you’ll wonder why you don’t have access to something like this in your town. The huge assortment of locally grown fresh produce tempted us to buy more than we could eat during our stay. Locals shop here for pretty much all their needs including fresh meats (and yes, we saw some horse meat), fish, charcuterie, cheese, pasta, dried fruits, and legumes. (It’s no wonder the grocery stores are relatively small.)
Head upstairs and you’ll find an Italian version of a food court – no corn dogs or slushies here. Pick up a brick oven-fired pizza, fresh meatballs, bread, pastries, pasta, and – of course — wine. We couldn’t resist stopping for a cannoli and a fruit tart.
The bread in Florence is made as it has been for thousands of years – with no salt. While we appreciated the continuing tradition, we opted to skip the somewhat flavorless bread, saving those calories for an extra gelato at the end of the day.
After touring the Uffizi Gallery my husband was feeling like he’d had enough art and then some, but there was still so much to see. We stayed a stone’s throw from Pitti Palace but didn’t have a chance to do more than stop out front. We could easily have spent a couple more days just aimlessly wandering or people watching with a glass of wine. And we completely missed the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a perfumery that dates back to 1612. The good news? I know right where to begin our next trip to Italy!
If you’re planning a trip to Italy, check out our Italy Travel Planning Guide for some great travel tips!
All photos by Evan Bordessa Photography