Florence was the starting point for our ten-day Italy trip (covered in another post). Compact and full of architectural and artistic “must sees” from the heights of the Italian Renaissance, Florence quickly became a very special place to us. Add in the fantastic food, Tuscan wines, quiet nights when the tourists seem to disappear, Florence was full of surprises. The simple walk down a Florentine street with a view of the Duomo is that unforgettable moment of a perfect trip.
Arrival. We arrived on a direct flight to Rome’s Fiumicino airport, cleared Customs, quickly found the local train to Rome’s Termini station, and quickly changed to a high-speed train to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella (“SMN” on signage). Rome to Florence is a popular route with 22 trains per day and Italy’s high-speed rain is smooth, fast, and clean. Must be all that EU money. We touched down just after 9am and our train pulled in to SNC around 12:30pm. We’re still convinced that the train was the fastest — and cheapest — choice for this transfer. It also allowed us to see the beautiful scenery along the way (or nap) and then upon arrival in Florence walk, rolling suitcases over cobble stones, to the Rodo Hotel just steps away from the Duomo.
The Firenze Card. A lot of ink has been spilled concerning the Firenze card. Steeply priced, it provides line-free access to the major Florence “must sees” for a 72-hour period. We were only in Florence for about 60 hours, but we found the card tremendously valuable for two reasons. 1) We could stop into museums at our leisure, meaning if we ran over at one, we didn’t have to skip lunch to make our afternoon entry time. 2) We could step into churches or palaces on a whim and not feel like we needed to align time spent with the entry fee. Even with some of the funky hours and early closures (in which there are many), we tallied up our list and we far exceeded the Firenze card fee. And when you’re on vacation, there is nothing so great as eliminating stress.
Walking Florence and Getting Local. Florence is compact. All of the major places to visit are located within a radius of thirty-to-forty minutes. As we do with any city we visit we like to orient ourselves by taking a Rick Steves’ walking tour (available in Rick’s Italy guidebook). The walk is about two hours long — or three if, like us you stop for gelato followed by a crisp, cool Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
We like this walk because it starts at the Duomo, stops at the Piazza della Signoria, then the Uffizi courtyard, and finishes at the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. Although we’ll end up seeing the inside of many of these places over the next three days, this walk down the Via Calzaiuoli is a lot of fun.
A highlight of a spring evening in Florence is grabbing a bottle of wine, some charcuterie and cheese, and joining the locals canoodling at dusk on the Piazzale Michelangelo, which provides an incredible view of all of Florence and the Tuscan hills in the distance.
The Duomo, Baptistery, and Campanile. The Duomo, as referenced, is visible from all over Florence. The church is in the Gothic style and its exterior pink, green, and white striped marble are neo-Classical. The history of the church is fantastic; it was built in the Middle Ages with a giant hole in the roof waiting for technology to catch up and allow the dome to be built. Filipino Brunelleschi designed the dome within a dome in the 1400s, building off the architectural features of the Pantheon’s dome. The Duomo’s dome has been the model for Vatican City’s St. Peter’s and Washington DC’s Capitol. Inside the Duomo is not as impressive as the outside. Large as it is sparse, the better part of the visit is to climb to the dome or visit the Campanile, which the the adjacent 270-foot bell tower with masterful views of the Duomo and the surrounding city. If planning to climb the Palazzo Vecchio, most suggest climbing the Campanile to get up close views of the Duomo’s dome but obstructed views of the city. If you only want to climb one, most suggest the Duomo.
The Baptistery across the piazza is also a marvel of artistic splendor. The bronze doors of the octagon are themselves high art; Ghiberti used mathematical laws to create the illusion of receding distance on an otherwise flat surface. Inside take a quiet moment and marvel at the ceiling mosaics created by workers from St. Mark’s in Venice. The Last Judgment portrayed on the ceiling tells the story of judgment – saved on the left, damned on the right. Bring binoculars to take in some of the scenes. Our favorite were those on the hell side of the ledger — demons, monsters, and the like torturing the damned. The imagination of the artists just runs wild.
Accademia, Bargello, and Uffizi. It’s museum day and we are never ever going to have a museum day quite like this one. Starting early at Accademia, we are immediately struck by Michelangelo’s David under a dome at the end of a long hallway. We notice most tourists moving quickly by us to quickly get to the David.
But we slowly meandered the hallway, taking in Michelangelo’s other works including the powerfully unfinished Prisoners series. Here we see the master mid-work, almost freeing these men from their bonds of stone. Unfortunately, it was never finished and some of these marble-carved people will never be freed. Poetic yes and also a bit haunting. Then when we come upon David and truly understand what all of the fuss is about. It is amazing to see how lifelike he is: his right hand pressing into the flesh of his right thigh, his eyes committed to the task at hand. His size is incredible. And here we find out why: he was supposed to stand on the roofline of the Duomo, but then got moved to the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio.
The Bargello is a former police station turned prison and looks like a mini Palazzo Vecchio. This museum is a must see for Donatello’s sculpture of David, the first male nude sculpture during the Renaissance. The courtyard rooms are fantastic collections of Michelangelo, Ghiberti, and Brunelleschi as well as many Donatellos.
Finally, we ended our day exploring the single best collection of Italian paintings anywhere in the world — the Uffizi Gallery. In a U-shape around an inner courtyard, the Uffizi includes so many great works of art from Leonardo, to Titian, to Caravaggio. The focus of our visit, not surprisingly, was the roomful of Botticellis and the absolutely stunning Birth of Venus and Spring.
The Medici Are Everywhere. We think this was the part of Florence we liked the most — just learning about how much the Medici spent on art and architecture so that way people long into the future would remember them. This is again when the Firenze Card came in handy as we could quickly duck into and out of various Medici family palaces. First, we returned to go inside the Palazzo Vecchio. While Cosimo I made this his palatial home with various high-end art throughout, the highlight is the Grand Hall, which is lined with massive frescoes.
Next, we ducked in the Medici-Riccardi Palace, which gets one star in most tour guides because of its frescoes. The tiny Chapel of the Magi contains colorful Renaissance frescoes well worth the visit. The courtyard is also very pleasant on a spring afternoon.
Nearby are the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels. Designed by Brunelleschi with Donatello bronze pulpits, the church is also home to the Laurentian Medici Library, which was designed by Michelangelo.. Leaving the Basilica, the Medici Chapel features architecture, tombs, and statutes by Michelangelo. The family’s final resting place is stunning with soaring ceilings.
Every Florentine Who Is Any Florentine Goes to Santa Croce. Eventually, to be buried. Built in the early 14th century, this is one of the prettiest churches in all of Florence. Decorated with stunning green, pink, and white marble on the outside, the interior is sumptuous. Open wood beams cris-cross the ceiling and vibrant colors surround the altar. Here is where you can find the glitterati of Florence: Galileo, Dante, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Donatello, Rossini. We meandered and stayed a while. One of our last stops within Florence.
Some other highlights of our trip include a visit to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, the Ponte Vecchio to see the long passageway from the Pitti Palace to Uffizi, the Church of Santa Maria Novella and its exquisite chapels, the Dante Museum, the Piazza della Repubblica, and San Lorenzo Market.
The Essentials: lunch at Mercato Centrale (a giant iron and glass enclosed space with some of Florence’s best restaurants with stalls upstairs), dinner at Osteria il Cantinone (locals only) or Acqua al 2 (a mix but popular), sleep at Rodo Hotel.
Note: This post is from our April 2016 trip to Italy.