Florence: Birthplace of the Renaissance

Following my time in Amsterdam, I was ready to go back toward the Mediterranean and warmer weather. I have always wanted to go to Italy so I could not resist taking a trip through that country. I love Italian food, and my friends who have visited Italy always confirm that it is a great place to visit. I was really excited to finally make my way there and decided to start my Italian trip in Florence. Below are the things I did and saw in Florence:

Things to Do:

Florence Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral with its impressive dome is an iconic part of the city. The Duomo can be seen from several points in the city, but visitors will want to see the whole cathedral, including the inside of the dome. Visitors need to buy tickets ahead of time to climb up the Duomo and then make a reservation with a set time to do this. Visitors have to have a ticket first before they can sign up for a time slot, but all of this can be done online. The best option is to buy the combo ticket, which will include entry into the Duomo, cathedral, cathedral museum, bell tower, and baptistery. These are all located off the same square, Piazza del Duomo, and can easily be done in the same day. But visitors do have up to 48 hours from the first use of the ticket to visit all of the buildings. For the Duomo, there are limited slots available, and when I was there I was fortunate to grab one of the last slots before they filled up for a few days so visitors should plan ahead and book early. Visitors need to be in line at the start of their time frame and ready to go. There are a lot of stairs to climb to the top but there are places to stop along the way. Seeing the painted inside of the Duomo up close is impressive and seeing the views of the city from the top of the Duomo is great. This is the one must do in this piazza and a must do for this city! Plan to spend 1.5 hours climbing up and down the Duomo and stopping to take in the views.

Piazza del Duomo. As stated above, this square contains the Florence Cathedral, Cathedral Museum, bell tower, and baptistery. Since the piazza surrounds the cathedral, it offers great views of the marble panels. There are several benches around the cathedral for visitors to take a break and rest their feet from climbing and walking. There are also lots of places to eat in this area so visitors can grab a glass of wine and bite to eat while looking at the cathedral. The Cathedral Museum has a coffee shop with seats outside that makes a nice place to get an espresso in the morning. The bell tower, which is located next to the cathedral, can be climbed. Unlike the Duomo, visitors do not make reservations to do this, and instead must wait in line. This also has a lot of steps so visitors may not want to do this on the same day as the Duomo. The views from here are not as great as from the Duomo so if visitors only have time or the energy to do one, do the Duomo. The museum, which is also located next to the cathedral, has some great pieces, including Donatello’s Magdalene so it is definitely worth a stop. The baptistery is also worth a peek inside to see the golden dome. Again, it is located next to the cathedral. Visitors should plan to spend about an hour to climb up and down the bell tower (taking short breaks), an hour or 1.5 hours seeing the highlights of the museum, and about 15-30 minutes looking around the inside of the baptistery.

Uffizi Gallery. This museum features classic Italian renaissance art, including works by masters like da Vinci and Botticelli. This gallery is well laid out and easy to walk through but visitors may want to take a guided tour in order to get more in depth knowledge about the key works here. I saw several groups during my time there in different languages, but these were not done through the museum. Visitors would need to book a guide outside of the museum. Visitors could also choose to do an audio tour or to buy a guide book, both of which are offered through the museum. I chose to just walk through at my own pace without any type of guide and had a lovely time. This galley does have limited space so the number of visitors allowed in at any time is capped. Visitors should plan to buy tickets ahead of time using the official museum website. The tickets are slightly more expensive but allow visitors to pick an open time slot and skip the ticket line. Visitors must pick up their online tickets from the window (located next to the museum) 10 minutes before their time slot. Then they will go directly to the line to enter the museum. Visitors may still have to wait, but the wait will definitely be shorter than the regular ticket line. In my opinion, it is worth it to pay a little extra to have a time slot and be able to skip the line. This gallery is an absolute must visit for art lovers. Seeing the beautiful masterpieces in person is amazing. I especially loved seeing The Birth of Venus. Visitors should plan to spend about 2-4 hours here.

Accademia Gallery. This is another renaissance gallery but much smaller and with more statues than the Uffizi. Since the space is smaller, a tour guide is not really needed but an audio guide, which is free with admission, is useful given the size of the space. Visitors will want to come here to see the famous statue, Michelangelo’s David. This work really is a showstopper and worth a visit to this museum. His other statues that are housed here are equally stunning. Again, visitors should plan ahead and buy tickets online so that they can reserve a time and skip the ticket line. The extra fee is worth a guaranteed time to see this work and to spend less time in line. Plan to spend an hour here.

Ponte Vecchio. This recognizable bridge may be a tourist trap, but it is still a fun place to visit. The bridge is lined on both sides with jewelry shops so visitors in the market for jewelry should definitely head here. The jewelry here is on the pricey side, but it is legitimate. Even those not in the market will enjoy doing some window shopping. Crossing this bridge feels like walking down a street. It is an easy stroll, and visitors can end their walk by grabbing a glass of wine somewhere near the bridge where they can view it. Plan to spend 30 minutes here browsing the shops.

Piazzale Michelangelo. Visitors will need to make a small ‘hike’ to get to this square, but the views will be worth it. This square has some of the best views of the Florence Cathedral and Duomo. Most people will come here at sunset, which is a great time to get pictures, so be prepared to fight the crowds. Get here a little early to get a good spot or just be patient if the good spots are taken. Everyone will definitely get a good picture or two. There is not much up here in terms of food and shops (at least not at sunset) so come for the view but plan to eat somewhere else. Plan to spend about 30 minutes here taking in the views.

Shopping:

This is a great place to buy a leather jacket. Visitors can find plenty of styles and colors. The cheapest ones will be found in the stalls on the streets of San Lorenzo market. However, these are likely to not be made of Italian leather or made in Italy. The mid-range priced ones will be found in the shops around this market area. These are likely made in Italy but may not be made of Italian leather. The workmanship on these jackets though will look nice. The most expensive ones will be found in the Italian boutique shops. These will likely be made in Italy and with Italian leather so very authentic. I chose to go with the mid-range option. The jacket I got was very nice and well made. It was well fitted and a great cognac brown color in a nice Italian cut. The mid-range jackets cost around 200-250 euros, which is cheaper than what a similar jacket would cost in the U.S. At these prices, I was tempted to buy two. Visitors will not regret buying a classic jacket that will last a long time and will not go out style.

This is also a great place to buy street art in Italy. Visitors will find prints being sold in all the popular piazzas and, of course, can buy copies of famous works in souvenir shops. I ended up buying  a large copy of The Birth of Venus that was being sold in the Piazza del Duomo. The price after negotiation was good, and it will make a great wall piece back home.

What to Eat:

Although paninis are often not the first thing to come to mind when thinking about Italian food, Florence has some great panini shops. These sandwiches are a must eat here. One place that I really liked is Panini Toscani. This place is rated number one on TripAdvisor for a reason. The service is great. As mentioned in numerous reviews, visitors go in, and the owner will have give them a small selection of meats and cheeses to try first. Then they choose their favorites along with bread and toppings to create their own sandwich. These paninis were simple but really delicious and priced reasonably. The shop is located in Piazza del Duomo next to the cathedral. This shop has limited seating so I suggest taking a panini to go and finding a seat on a bench to eat while looking at the cathedral. This place is popular so be prepared for a bit of a wait. The other place I really liked is Il Bufalo Trippone. This place has a more extensive list of paninis with unique combinations of meats and condiments. All of the sandwiches looked tasty. I had one with truffle that was really good. My only regret was not discovering this place sooner so that I could try more sandwiches. Again, the price is very reasonable. I am not a huge sandwich person but the paninis in Florence are great and a good cheap eat.

Where to Stay:

Staying near the Duomo or off of any of the major piazzas will provide beautiful views but will also likely cost more. I chose to stay in an Airbnb that was about a 20 minute bus ride from the city center. It was a nice residential area and a 5 minute walk to a bus stop. It was cheaper than staying closer to the center and was still convenient to the major sites but was not as convenient to shops and cafes. I did all of my eating closer to the city center. However, the cheaper cost for me offset any inconvenience of not being next to shops and cafes.

Getting Around:

I arrived to Florence by plane from Amsterdam. Vueling airlines was having a great deal on ticket prices. There is an airport shuttle bus located near the terminal just follow the signs after exiting the airport. It is not clear how often it leaves, but I just went to the bench and waited with others. Tickets cost around 6 or 7 euros and cash is paid directly to the driver. The bus goes to the central train station where travelers can catch other buses to the rest of the city. When I arrived, it was late at night so the city buses were no longer running. Instead, I went to the taxi line and took a taxi to my Airbnb. Once in Florence, it is easy to get by on foot or by bus. The bus system runs regularly and is easy to figure out since it is linked to Google maps. Tickets must be bought before boarding the bus and validated on the bus. They are sold at any of the tobacco shops located throughout the city. Once I found a shop, I bought a group of tickets to last through my trip. When I departed Florence, I left by train to Bologna. I decide to go by train because it was the fastest option, and tickets were not expensive. I took a bus to the train station. My train was early evening but my check out was in the morning so I arrived to the station early and paid to have my baggage stored there for a few hours while I explored the city. I came back to the train station closer to the departure time to pick up my luggage and then waited in the main area until my train popped up on the screen with the platform number. I had booked my ticket online ahead of time and printed it out at the company ticket machine. Train tickets must be printed and validated before boarding. Be careful when booking tickets to choose the right train station because there are several stations considered to be in Florence, but the Santa Maria Novella station is the central one.

Overall:

I really fell in love with Florence. I was a little worried that it was over hyped and my expectations would be too great, but thankfully this was not the case. This city really does meet and exceed all expectations. I visited this city alone and had a great time wandering around and discovering everything at my own pace. I stayed here for four days, which is sufficient time to see the highlights, but travelers may want to stay longer after falling in love with this place. I came here in October so it was not peak tourist season and waits were not as bad as they likely are in the summer. The weather was nice. Perfect weather to wear my new leather jacket. I would definitely recommend coming here in fall to avoid crowds. This city is for travelers who love renaissance art and history.

Additional Tip:

Florence is not really a city for spontaneous travelers (at least not for travelers who want to visit the tourist sites). The buildings here are full of character but old so they are not made to hold the large crowds that flock here today. The number of people that can fit inside are limited so getting tickets ahead of time is important. I was lucky to still be able to book tickets for sites when I first arrived, but during peak season these tickets are likely to sell out days or weeks ahead of time. Travelers should really start booking things before they arrive.

Because I enjoy reading books set in the places I visit, I read E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, which is set in Florence for the first part and in England for the second part. This classic novel is on a lot of best novel lists so it is definitely worth a read for those who love classics. For those interested in reading novels for travel, however, this novel is more of a critique on English society in the early 20th century than a look at Florentine society. Still, the description of Florence will be recognizable when walking around the city.

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