My interest in Florence was piqued after I read Inferno by Dan Brown – why deny it. Therefore, my points of interest very much coincided with the places mentioned in the book – the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi, the Vasari Corridor, the Boboli Gardens. I arrived in the afternoon and set off from the hostel on a walking route I had prepared that would take me past a good few of the interest points, and at the same time give me plenty of time and space to simply wander and get a feel for the city. Florence isn’t a very large city so everything seems to be within easy walking distance which should be taken advantage of.
I spent 3 days total in the city so my itinerary was fairly packed, but never so much that I felt stressed out by it. I saw all the main tourist sights including two art galleries and managed to find a couple of great eateries while there. This is how I did it:
The first thing I aimed for was of course the Duomo, or the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – it’s actually quite hard to miss. I caught a glimpse of it at the end of a side street while walking from the central station towards my hostel, which worked wonders as a teaser for the real thing. After having circled the Duomo for a bit I moved on to Palazzo Vecchio with its funny looking tower and Piazza della Signoria with its little open air museum.
Then across Ponte Vecchio to end my little walk at Piazzale Michelangelo at the other side of the river. I loved the view from Piazzale Michelangelo – Florence at its very best; from above in the soft light of sunset.
The people I’ve been talking to when I’ve been here (fellow room mates at the hostel basically) have all been answering the question ‘how do you like Florence?’ with ‘oh I love it! It’s beautiful!’, and I don’t quite understand it. Florence is many things, but not exactly beautiful. It is situated in beautiful surroundings and it’s got some wonderful sights to see – but the city itself, it’s streets and buildings – I wouldn’t call them beautiful. It’s the never ending, dirty, yellow houses and the feeling that no matter where you go there’ll be more tourists, even at the end of September. Florence is incredibly touristy, and it is such a relatively small city that it seems to me to be having trouble ‘soaking them up’ – they’re simply everywhere!
Second day started at the Duomo to which I had bought a ticket the day before so that I could spend an hour and a half wandering around, seeing the Medici chapel and chancing upon the Mercato Centrale (a place I would love to go back to and get something to eat later on), instead of queuing for the Cupola.
I had decided to start at the Cupola simply because that would be the most physical challenge, and then I could relax with the cathedral proper and the baptistry afterwards. I’ll say this – you do not want to go up there if you have any kind of claustrophobia, because that is a tight squeeze when you have to go up a narrow staircase, people in front of you, behind and next to you when the up-goers and down-goers occasionally meet.
The view of the dome itself is very rewarding, and you do get some time to look at it properly, at least on the way up. I also liked the view from outside the dome, although I imagine the photo opportunities are better from the Bell Tower where you actually get to take a shot of the Duomo from up close. Took a walk through the cathedral afterwards – while it is dazzling in size I didn’t find it that spectacular otherwise – again for me the star of the show was the dome.
The baptistry was an unexpected pearl – the domed roof of golden mosaics was absolutely gorgeous, and because it was so small it simply felt much more intimate. And there’s no queue. I’ll have to add that the queue to enter the cathedral was almost non existent when I went in around 11.30 – it seems that the longest queues are to the two high up view points.
For lunch I found a restaurant that happened to lie just around the corner from the hostel, and came highly recommended by my Lonely Planet guide book. It’s called Trattoria Marione, it’s just a small place, very busy, slightly Italian chaos with one of the waiters occasionally breaking out into song whilst carrying stuff back and forth. I was greeted with a ‘one?’ and then pointed towards a table; this seems to be the custom in this part of Italy. The atmosphere was what I would expect from a proper ‘frequented by locals’ little place, and I enjoyed it so much. I ordered spaghetti with tomatoes and basil and a glass of Chianti Classico (no further description!) and it was awesome.
In the afternoon I went for a rather short visit to the Boboli Gardens – wanted to see the covered walkway and the grottos that are referenced in Inferno, and found them both. Liked the gardens, but didn’t have the energy to go exploring too much. I am seriously reconsidering my choice of footwear for this vacation.
I hardly know the first thing about art, but when you’re in Florence you must visit the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Academia if you’ve got the time, the same as you must visit the Louvre in Paris if you’ve got the time. Fundamental law of travel. Thus, I wanted to take advantage of the late opening hours on Tuesdays and spend the evening at the Uffizi. My guidebook suggested limiting the visit to 3 to 4 hours – I was out after 2 hours and I don’t think I hurried it. I really tried to appreciate the paintings and the sculptures, the building itself and the views from it, but man, is there a lot to appreciate!
The highlight for me was the Birth of Venus, as that was the only piece that I actually knew beforehand, but I did genuinely like what I saw, at least until I got tired of it. My feet were absolutely killing me at the time, so that didn’t help..
The last thing on my ‘Florence to-do list’ was to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia and see the real David, having already seen at least two of the replicas scattered across the city. On my third day I came up to the museum at about 8.30 AM and there were already throngs of people – I had made my reservation beforehand and could therefore simply walk up, collect my ticket, and waltz in in front of everyone else with no waiting time whatsoever. Why people don’t pre book is beyond me.
The gallery itself was rather astonishing. I was certainly better able to appreciate it than the Uffizi – it was a lot smaller, with lots of very big and bright paintings (easy to understand), and with plenty of sculptures (which I discovered a fondness for in the course of my Florence visit). The hallway down towards David is lined with unfinished Michelangelo sculptures which I really liked, but of course David was the star of the show, and I was utterly fascinated. Look at his hands, his feet, his facial expression! That is absolutely magnificent, and I spent as much time as anyone else trying to take artful pictures of the old lad.
As I said, I really liked this museum, in part because it was so easy to take in size wise. After having thoroughly scrutinized David I moved on to the parts next to him – more big paintings and sculptures, and then this big hall full of statues and paintings, very exciting looking, but closed off for visitors so instead of being able to walk around the hall and get a proper look at the things, we could only stand in one end of the hall stretching our necks to the limit in trying to see everything in one go, before having to let the person behind you move up.
That evening I went to eat at a place called Gusta Pizza, another ‘loved by locals’ place. There was a queue out the door when I arrived just at evening opening time, and I was so glad to have gone. Not only was it a delicious pizza, but dining out also turned into a social experience, as you will be sat to eat with strangers at round tables when there are so many people at a small place like that. I ended up having a lovely chat with another solo traveler, a guy from Costa Rica who seemed to have been all over Europe, and a couple from the Netherlands.
I spent my last day in Florence simply wandering around – I set out from my hostel near the train station to find Vivoli, once the best gelato in the city (I didn’t think it was all that special to be honest), which was in the other end of the old part of town. I don’t know what, but something happened on those walks that afternoon. It was like a light dawned on me, and I could suddenly see not only the charm, but the beauty of the city that everyone else but me seemed to be able to see right away.
But there it was! There was the narrow street with all the locals queuing up to a favorite eating place; there were the two old Italian guys laughing with each other at the end of a long work day – something simply fell into place, and Florence is now absolutely a city I would want to return to.
Have you been to Florence before? Share your stories in the comments below!