If you are looking for a city filled with renaissance charm, natural beauty, breathtaking art, and amazing food, Florence is probably a trip you want to make. This was not my first trip to Italy, but it was the first time I have been in Florence. I was sent to Italy on a work trip (I know, rough life), so my husband and I decided to leave a few days early and explore Florence, since we had never been there before. It was truly incredible, and one of my favorite places I have ever been.
We arrived in Rome on a nonstop flight from Newark, and promptly took the direct train from the Fiumicino airport to Florence. It was about a 2 hour ride on a high speed train, and it made just a few stops along the way. To be perfectly honest, I fell asleep about 30 minutes into the train ride and did not wake up until we were almost at the Santa Maria Novella train station. I guess that means it was comfortable! But honestly, Trenitalia was great to us this trip, and the high speed trains are amazing.
We took a taxi from the train station to our hotel, Hotel Berchielli. Taxis are very expensive in Florence, and it is hard for them to get through the tiny back roads filled with pedestrians. It is best to walk, but with our suitcases we opted for cabs to and from the train station. Hotel Berchielli has my highest recommendation. The gorgeous hotel is situated right on the Arno river, and has a perfect view of the Ponte Vecchio. When we booked, I requested a room overlooking the water. I am sure this request cannot always be accommodated, but they delivered big time for us and the view was incredible. They also have a fabulous breakfast every morning that is included in the price. Their cappuccinos were excellent.
Even though we had been traveling for over 24 hours at that point, we are crazy people so we cleaned up and hit the city immediately after check-in. We knew we had to maximize our time in Florence, since we only had a couple days. I had done research ahead of time, and we decided to purchase the Firenze Card. For 72 Euros, you get access to 72 museums for 72 hours. The card is expensive but worth it. It ended up being about the same cost as adding up the museums we went to, and allows you to skip the long lines at the Accademia and the Uffizi. In my opinion, it was worth it for the flexibility and includes entrance to any sight you might want to see (except for the Gucci museum. Sad). Check the website to find locations to either pick up your prepaid card, or buy it on the spot. It will be activated the first time you use it.
Our first stop of the evening was the Duomo itself. We decided it was a good way to get familiar with the city, and we honestly may have been a little tired to take in a museum of great artistic masterpieces while running on no sleep. The Cathedral (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) is a little bit confusing when it comes to the Firenze card. First, you have to go to the ticket office, which is located to the right of the Baptismal if you are looking at it from the cathedral steps. We walked in circles for a good long while looking for it. You take your card into the ticket office and they give you a paper ticket that is good for entrance into all of the Cathedral’s many sites. You can then use a little machine outside of the office to book a time to actually climb the Duomo steps. We booked a time for the next day, since they were sold out for the rest of the evening, but we didn’t end up climbing the Duomo. More on that in a minute.
We began by waiting in a long line, even though we weren’t sure why. It turned out to be for entrance into the Cathedral itself, which you didn’t actually need the ticket for. That admittance is free. It was a beautiful cathedral, but we were particularly intrigued by the small museum exhibit in the basement. You need your paper ticket to get in, but it is an interesting look at the excavation of the site. It struck me that the site of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore has been a holy site dating back to ancient Roman times. It has been repurposed and rebuilt through each era for a new form of worship.
The next stop was the Duomo museum, which is back outside and toward the Dome. The museum is called the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, and is across the street from the Dome. We didn’t spend a huge amount of time in the museum, though I’m sure you could. We focused on some of the more well-known pieces, such as Ghiberti’s bronze doors that were created for the original Cathedral façade, Donatello’s wood Mary Magdalene sculpture, and Michelangelo’s Pietà. We took a moment to sit in front of our first Michelangelo of the trip, and consider the emotional self-portrait created by the artist in his old age. We were getting tired by this point, but I picked up my nerdy tourist guide book to make sure we weren’t missing anything in the museum. At that moment, I happened to notice that Rick Steves suggested not climbing the Dome itself, but climbing the Campanile (Bell Tower) for an equally amazing view of the city, and a view of the Dome itself! So off we went.
We began our hike of the Bell Tower at about 5:30 pm, which was absolutely perfect. It was not crowded at all (thank goodness because I can’t imagine climbing those stairs in a line), and the lighting turned out to be gorgeous when we reached the top and the sun set across the city. I do want to say it was not an easy climb. Total, it was over 500 stairs, and toward the top they were spiral, tiny stone steps in a very enclosed area. I only say this because I saw no warnings anywhere. The nice part is there are landings along the way that provide a place to take a break, take some pictures, and stop if you don’t feel up to the rest of the climb. If you go all the way up, you will end up on the roof of the Campanile and you can see that you are almost eye to eye with the people who climbed the Dome. I can’t compare the two experiences because we did not end up climbing the Dome, but I thought the Campanile provided an amazing view that included the Duomo, and there was no crazy reservation/waiting in line necessary. Be careful, the trek down was almost as difficult as the climb up!
After a dinner of warm pasta and good wine at a little place we wandered into, we were passing the lovely Caffè Gilli and decided we needed to stop for dessert. The café is gorgeous, and they had a heated outdoor patio on the chilly evening. Needless to say everything was fantastic, and we visited Caffè Gilli both days that we were in Florence.
If you haven’t picked up on this by now, I have two (maybe more) nerdy passions in life: art history, and literature. So unfortunately for poor John, our second day in Florence was dedicated to all the art museums, searching for Michelangelos. I had heard horror stories about the lines to get into the Accademia (where Michelangelo’s David lives), so we woke up early and were at the museum by 8:30 am (it opened at 8:15). I couldn’t recommend doing this more. There were no crowds, and even though we would have been able to get in the reservation line with our Firenze Card, it was amazing to walk right in with no wait. I have a picture of David with absolutely no one in the frame, which I’m sure is a rarity. The museum was built to house David, so he really is the main exhibit. On either side of the walkway to David, Michaelangelo’s Prisoners are on display. I enjoyed seeing all of the unfinished pieces as a glimpse into his process. I really don’t know how to describe seeing David. It was one of those pieces of art that I thought couldn’t live up to the hype, but it did. It was incredible.
We wound our way back through Florence, stopping at other museums along the way. We went into the Medici Chapels to see the chapel that Michelangelo designed and did the artwork for. There are four of his sculptures in the chapel: Dawn, Dusk, Night, and Day. The chapel was lovely, and the sculptures were unfinished, like much of Michaelangelo’s work. We then trekked on to the Bargello, which has a Donatello room upstairs, and a supposed Michaelangelo room downstairs. I was extremely disappointed to find that the Michaelangelo sculptures that were supposed to be on display were currently on loan to the Met in NYC. The irony. I loved seeing Donatello’s David, which is a sharp contrast to the strong, confident David portrayed by Michelangelo. Because I am a literature nerd, we stumbled upon Dante Alighieri’s house and decided to go in. Let me save you some time and 4 Euros—this museum is not very interesting. I did enjoy seeing the great poet’s Florentine home, before he was exiled.
Of course a mid-morning break was necessary, so we found an adorable restaurant that was serving breakfast at the time. We only wanted coffee, so we sat at the charming bar in the main dining room and I had the best cappuccino I have had in my whole life. Konnubio was a lovely restaurant that had an incredible looking breakfast buffet, and their menu looked delicious. We did not have time for their upscale dining experience on this trip, but we will definitely make a reservation for dinner the next time we are in Florence.
We may have made a mistake by ending our art history tour with the Uffizi, which is a stunning museum, albeit huge. One of the most amazing things is how old the museum itself is—construction began in 1560. Artists such as da Vinci and Michaelangelo used to visit the Uffizi for inspiration, which is hard to even imagine. I particularly enjoyed the Botticelli room and the da Vinci room, but I know very little about medieval art, which is what is mostly housed in the museum. One of my favorite parts of the museum was the gorgeous view of the city, and the lovely rooftop terrace complete with cappuccinos. If we had more time in Florence, I would have dedicated half a day to the Uffizi. As it was, we spent about three hours there and though we saw almost everything, we didn’t have time to take it all in.
It was quickly obvious that it is very difficult to get lost in Florence, since all streets lead to the Duomo. After our marathon of museums, we took the rest of the afternoon to wander Florence and explore the gorgeous, wandering, cobblestone streets. The city is incredibly ritzy, and most of the shopping was couture stores. I heard a lot of buzz about the San Lorenzo market, but unless you are in need of a leather backpack, I’m not sure it’s worth a special trip.
We ended our evening at Trattoria Dall’Oste, which we stumbled upon in our wandering of the city. The food was excellent, though I am not a proper carnivore to appreciate the selection of raw meat hanging in the entryway. My carbonara was delicious, and the house wine was fantastic. It was just what we needed to end a long day on our feet in the cold. While in Florence, I learned the difference between all the words used for restaurant. An “osteria” is more of a pub or bar, a “trattoria” is more of a casual dining experience, and a “ristorante” is fancier with nice table cloths and likely to be more expensive.
I enjoyed every second of beautiful Florence. The city is filled with charm and grace, and though it is rather touristy, there is absolutely a reason why. My last tip is to check out this pronunciation guide I found, which saved me from some embarrassment since I tried to pronounce Italian words with a Spanish accent. It doesn’t work.
Have you been to Florence? What was your favorite thing you saw/ate? I can’t wait to go back!