So, I had to go to Florence last month. How could I not? Everyone who has been to Florence loves it. It’s beautiful, they say. There’s so much to see, they say. “The art!” “David!” I couldn’t tolerate a lifetime of admitting, “No, I didn’t make it to Florence when we lived a few hours away because I had these small children…”
The opportunity arose. I went. I went solo, and I powered through as much as I could handle in my two nights there. These are some of my notes. There is nothing new or surprising here, just a glimpse into one of the world’s magical historic cities.
The Duomo (cathedral) is at the heart of the tourist experience. It’s remarkable and massive, in close vicinity of museums, galleries, piazze, shopping. You will see it if you go. I headed for the ticket booth first thing my first morning there and hiked to the top of the campanile (bell tower) for breath-taking views.
A ticket into the Duomo offers admission to the campanile, dome, baptistery and cathedral; their opening times are staggered so you can beat the crowds at each. By the time I finished the climb up the tower the dome was open, so I tested my legs with a climb to its top, too. Seeing Vasari’s 430-year-old frescoes of the Last Judgement up close was awe-inspiring.
The view from the dome was as spectacular as from the campanile, though much more crowded. Both stairwells were narrow and crowded; I highly recommend doing these first thing in the morning, especially in the summer! Having seen the dome up close and the interior from on high, I didn’t feel compelled to enter the Duomo for the regular tour.
The baptistery was a quick and worthy visit. Its gold ceiling will take your breath away!
Piazza della Signoria
This piazza in front of the Palazzo Vecchio features a beautiful fountain, a collection of statues – including a replica of David – and loads of tourists. You can catch a horse carriage tour from here, enjoy an overpriced lunch with a great view, pop into the Palazzo, or just pass through to get to the Uffizi Gallery. Coming here tipped me off that Florence is brimming with things to see and that it would be impossible to see them all.
I saved the Uffizi for last, holding it in reserve in case of rain. By then I was already oversaturated on medieval and early Renaissance art. I had my guide book and my Rick Steves’ audio guide, prepared to hit the highlights before I left town. Arriving first thing spared me from a long wait in the line – it can get quite long!
There’s a replica of Michelangelo’s David in the Piazza della Signoria. You will see it and think, OK. And? But go to the Galleria anyway. Seeing David in his luminescent, perspective-distorted perfection is an unforgettable experience. You won’t regret seeing the real deal in person; anyway, you also get to see some of Michelangelo’s “Slaves,” unfinished sculptures that give a profound sense of the subjects being trapped in the marble, waiting to be set free. Astounding.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Here’s where you’ll find a handful of famous tombs: Michelangelo, Gallileo, Machiavelli. The Santa Croce church is must-stop for the history buff in your group.
So, the old bridge isn’t quite as picturesque as you might imagine, as much as you hear about it. But it’s worth a walk over, to peer in the windows of the jewelers and take in views of the Arno river.
I’m still processing what I saw here. Floor-to-ceiling displays of paintings, preserved apartments and sitting rooms of dukes and duchesses, magnificent frescoes and sculpture after sculpture…those Medicis really appreciated the grandiose. Imagine what it might have been like to be entertained in the halls of the Pitti Palace while you’re there!
These formal gardens, behind the Pitti Palace, are a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of green you don’t know you’re missing when you’re inside Florence. Sculptures, fountains, trees, all provide a break from the bustle of tour groups.
I’m a sucker for blank journals, and the traditionally marbled books available around Florence were a must-buy on my souvenir list. It was a happy coincidence that I wandered into the Il Papiro shop on via Guicciardini, where I was treated to a demonstration on the decorative marbling technique.
When hunger strikes, go to Mercato Centrale. There are two floors: the first is a traditional market selling a variety of Tuscan and fresh foods. Think delis, bakeries, cheese mongers, produce stands, olives, olive oils, and vinegars. The next floor is a food hall offering a variety of meal options, from pastries to sandwiches to traditional Florentine steaks. It’s a perfect stop for the weary traveler who doesn’t want to wander far to find just what to have for dinner.
A friend recommended this place. The bartender at the hotel recommended this. Go here. Wait in line. Watch the cute ragazzi make sandwiches. Eat a life altering sandwich. Seriously. Fresh focaccia, truffle oil, whatever else… delicious. There is no seating; grab your sandwich and head to a bench in a piazza.
And then… plan a trip back because it’s 100% certain that you haven’t seen all you need to see.