Florence, Italy…it really is that good!
Text and photos submitted by Cheryl Levitan
No words can express the magnificence of Florence, capital of Italy’s Tuscan region. As a medieval world center of trade and finance and one of the Renaissance’s wealthiest cities, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has breathtaking architecture and art from those periods around every corner. Considered the birthplace of the enlightenment and modern thought, which marked the Renaissance, Florence has continued its relevance in today’s world for restoration, innovation and international standing as a fashion capital.
It’s therefore no surprise that Florence finds itself high on most travelers’ “bucket lists.” Despite cruise ships frequently touting this city as a port of call, however, its location 60 miles inland from the nearest harbor makes that claim a bit deceptive. To fully experience Florence requires time, and time isn’t what a day trip or cruise tour provides.
This city must be savored slowly like a fine wine or good meal, with moments of quiet reflection to appreciate all the flavors and feel fully satisfied. Certainly reserving “skip the line” tickets ahead of your visit can reduce your chances of standing in two- to three-hour lines at popular sites. But by staying in a centrally located hotel or rental, these “hot” spots can be visited before or after the throngs of tour groups. There’s little wait at both the Uffizi Gallery and Galleria dell’ Accademia galleries at their 8:15 a.m. opening or an hour or two before their 6:50 p.m. closings. Rather than enduring prime-time lines, overnight visitors are free to walk through this small city’s narrow streets (where most vehicles are banned) and experience the full breadth of the culture by visiting local shops, markets, cafés and hidden gems that day trippers never get to see.
Every visitor’s must-dos:
- Piazza della Signoria: This L-shaped area is considered Florence’s main square. The political and economic power that this city once wielded is exemplified by the imposing statue of Neptune lording over the large fountain in front of the Old Palace (Palazzo Vecchio). Recognizable for its tall clock tower, this was once the residence of the powerful Medici family, rulers of this region from the late 1300s to early 1700s. The palace became the city’s town hall when a grander abode was bought and renovated across the river. A replica of Michelangelo’s David joins Neptune in the square, as does the first Medici Grand Duke Cosimo on horseback, as well as fine bronze and marble statues in the adjacent open-air, high-arched loggia (covered terrace) once used for public meetings and ceremonies.
- Uffizi Gallery: Originally the administrative and legal offices of the Medici-led government, the Uffizi is now the most popular art museum in Florence and one of the largest and best-known museums in the world. Adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria, the two wings of the gallery are separated by a narrow courtyard, which leads to the Arno River. Famous for their patronage of the arts, The Medics sizable collections were gifted to the city of Florence under the Patto di famiglia negotiated by Anna Maria Luisa, the last Medici heiress. Filled with an incalculable number of priceless Italian Renaissance works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and the like, the Uffizi was opened to private visitors in the 16th century, officially opened to the public in 1765 and formally declared a museum in 1865.
- Galleria dell’ Accademia: This museum is best known for the 14-foot-tall, gleaming white-marble statue of David, one of the most recognizable works by Tuscany’s own sculptor, painter and architect – Michelangelo. A marvel of artistry, proportion and anatomical understanding, it depicts David before the battle, slingshot over his shoulder (almost as an afterthought) to illustrate that his victory over Goliath was one of cleverness, not sheer force. Originally in the Piazza della Signoria, it was replaced by a replica in 1873 to protect the original from further weathering. The gallery holds Michelangelo’s “prisoners” as well, those sculptures left unfinished, forever “trapped in stone” after his death.
- Duomo: This cathedral’s red-tiled dome, intricately pieced marble facade and graceful bell tower dominate the cityscape. Florence’s most iconic landmark, it was begun in 1296, but took 150 years to complete. The view from the tower and/or top of the dome (especially toward sunset, when the lines are surprisingly short) is nothing less than spectacular. Be forewarned that those views come only after a climb of 414 or 463 steps, respectively. After seeing the impressive frescoes in the dome and baptistry, many chose to people-watch in the surrounding square while eating a gelato (in flavors that include lavender) or traditional Florentine Lampredotto (tripe) sandwich.
- Ponte Vecchio (opening spread): The only bridge crossing the Arno to connect central Florence with its Oltrarno district until 1218, its three distinctive lower arches support arcades of goldsmiths’ shops on either side. The west side’s central shops were removed by Mussolini to create a viewing gallery before Adolf Hitler’s state visit in 1938. Still affording the perfect panorama of the city, that view may well be the reason that the Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge left standing after the Germans fled Florence in World War II.
Must-dos off the collective radar:
- Walking the Vasari Corridor: This was built in 1564 by Georgio Vasari as a monumental covered walkway to link the Uffizi offices of the ruling Medici duke to the newer residence at Pitti Palace on the other side of the river. A little over half a mile long, it begins in the west corridor of the Uffizi Gallery, continues along the river raised up on high arches, turns 90 degrees to travel over the shops on the Ponte Vecchio, then down through a church until ending in the Boboli Gardens surrounding the palace. When built, the shops of the Ponte Vecchio were filled with butchers and skin tanners. The awful offal stench quickly led the duke to declare that these shops be filled only with goldsmiths. Visitors can now blame Vasari when their wallets are much fuller on one side of the river before stopping in these tantalizing storefronts! Restored and opened to the public, the corridor can only be visited by appointment. Providing magnificent views from its windows, the passageway also contains more than 1,000 17th- and 18th-century paintings and a collection of self-portraits by famous 16th- to 20th-century masters.
- Street signs and trash cans: These normally unremarkable items are remarkably interesting in Florence. Signs begin their functional lives here just like those throughout Italy. But over the last eight to 10 years, select ones have undergone a metamorphosis as “additions.” Stickers designed by an artist known as Clet have allowed them to sport clever and humorous messages while continuing to fulfill their original purpose. And while visitors may give little thought to trash, it is a major issue in a city of 380,000 people, which receives more than 10 million tourists annually. Rising magnificently to the challenge, Florence has well-distributed, yet seemingly small and unobtrusive metallic containers clearly marked for the correct trash “grouping.” The magic lies underneath; each receptacle above-ground is attached to a much larger one below street level. And the trash collection trucks? They’re high-tech, hands-off marvels!
- Florence for the scientifically minded: The legacy of the Medici family spans science and medicine as well as art and architecture.
- The Galileo Museum: A 17th-century physicist, astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, Galileo is considered the father of modern science. The museum displays a variety of scientific discoveries as well as displays illustrating the science behind items as seemingly simple as soap bubbles, but it was the amazingly correct anatomical models from the 1700s to teach obstetrics and its complications that we remember. So advanced to the general knowledge and practice at the time, I found the displays absorbing. To say that my husband (trained in OB/GYN) was transfixed would be an understatement.
- La Specola: As the oldest public museum in Europe, La Specola was a huge hit when it opened in 1775 with the largest collection of bizarre anatomical models in the world. A three-hour guided tour of both museums is offered by walksinsideitaly.com.
- Row your boat down the Arno: Join a rowing crew on a history-packed tour. Book in advance (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ensure an English-speaking guide.
- Salvatore Ferragamo Museum: A fashionista’s dream, this museum – located below the store in a 13th-century palace – contains the wooden shoe forms to create famous clients’ custom shoes as well as innovative shoe and clothing designs from the 1920s until Ferragamo’s death in 1960. Our private tour was led by Ferragamo’s grandson, Salvatore, with a hotel rooftop wine tasting to follow (both winery and hotel were part of the Florentine-based Ferragamo empire). To say that Salvatore was the poster boy for the quintessentially Italian man is not an overstatement (and the wine and view over the Ponte Vecchio were just as impressive!).
- Leather shopping: Better than any perfume, the smell of leather literally wafts out of storefronts and markets throughout Florence. Bargaining and deals are occasionally possible, but you pay for quality (especially near the major squares).
- Mercato Centrale: This 1800s’ cast-iron and glass building has a ground floor with a fresh market and specialty food shops and an upper-level gourmet food court that seats 500. Surrounding the building are outdoor stalls selling everything from leather to souvenirs.When planning a trip to Florence, choose spring or fall, when the temperatures are comfortable and crowds smaller. As more people globally have the wherewithal to travel, the tourist industry and rental companies like Airbnb have grown to accommodate them. Popular destinations Florence now find themselves too crowded in summer for visitors and residents alike.