It was nearly a race against time as my taxi raced from Via Appia to Rome’s main train station. I was going to Florence for the weekend and was lucky to have made it with 45 minutes to spare. Waiting for the train in Rome was a similar experience to that of Penn Station in NYC. A lot of quality people watching. I was pleased it didn’t have that very specific “train station” smell that haunts Penn Station. A cross between sweaty gym sock and a moldy orange. Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel furry. The benefit at this train station was that it had free wifi, something I was exceptionally happy to see considering the “high-speed internet” I pay for in Germany is slower than dial-up. This is how to make the most of a weekend in Florence; Tuscany’s most popular city.
Florence is located a little under an hour and a half by train from Rome making it an ideal weekend getaway and easiest way to reach the city. That train ride was filled with views of landscapes you see in magazine ads of Tuscany. Pure delight. Two and a half days is a sufficient amount of time to see Florence’s best.
Stepping off the train in Florence any time from summer to mid autumn can only be described as stepping into an oven. The sun is high, shade is limited, and thankfully low humidity. This kind of heat made me feel like I’m back home in Colorado. It was tolerable. Minus the sweating. How can Italian’s prance around in this country at high noon and not break a sweat? Nothing is as embarrassing as raising your arm above elbow point to reveal a damp ring rapidly outgrowing the width of your arm that served as it’s hiding spot.
While taking the train is the easiest way to get to Florence. Schlepping your luggage across cobble stoned streets to your hotel is not. But it’s more scenic. Taxi costs can add up and by costly I mean I would have used the cab fare for a decent authentic meal instead. Sometimes I just enjoy doing it the hard way if only for the experience to reward myself later at a job well done, or not.
This capital of Tuscany is a city brimming with rich history, art and liveliness. Though the main part of the city itself is quite small, it doesn’t disappoint. Italy has a strong food culture and here in Florence the table and meals shared on it are a staple in everyday life. Just like art, food is everywhere. In Florence it’s not just any kind of food, it’s high quality, seasonal, fresh and ever changing. Florence is a city that embraces life.
The first order of business is to locate and check into the hostel that had no air conditioning. To be fair, the service, location and safety were more of a priority for me. This 1st world “problem” actually proved to be a good thing because it forced me out to explore the city.
The hostel was located in Florence’s Oltarno district, which literally translates to “the other side” of the Arno. I headed back in the direction whence I came to take in the sights. Once I crossed the Arno river I headed north towards the Piazza Di Santa Maria Novella. The cathedral of Santa Maria Novella was one of the first and largest of it’s kind in Florence. It’s adjoining buildings also still standing leave a lasting impression of mixing both gothic and renaissance architecture. In the plaza just outside the church’s doors are two obelisks, it was here that Cosimo the first used it as markers for his famous chariot races. Veering off the plaza and along the long wall of the church you’ll find street artists working on their current chalk masterpieces and other vendors showing off their wares. I had something else in mind.
Florence is an outdoor museum. It’s also known for it’s artisanal heritage in leather goods, fashion, shoemaking, paper making and many others. I wanted to see what the city had to offer by starting at the Mercato Centrale. You’ll find stall after stall of leather goods just outside the entrance. Whether it’s of good quality or not, just keep in mind the price tag. Inside the Mercato it’s a cornucopia of delicious Italian produce, artisanal cheeses, meats, homewares and other knick-knackery. While outside you’ll find the leather goods, fabrics, clothing and other souvenirs.
If it’s too hot for you, walk over to Via Cavour and take a bike tour (or one of many bike tours around). It’s an interesting and active way to see the city and your guide will tell you a few secrets and tidbits of the city you didn’t know before. If biking is not your thing, luckily the walk south towards Florence’s most iconic landmark, the Duomo, is lined with cafes for your customary Italian wine break.
Once you reach the Piazza Del Duomo, you can clearly see that the cathedral dominates the square it sits in and for good reason. The Duomo’s dome is what kicked off the Renaissance and was the first dome at the time to be built in over 1,000 years. The mastermind behind the project was that of a gold smith that had no architectural background. Just like the pyramids, the way it was built remain a mystery.
Everywhere in Italy, restaurants are everywhere. The smell of drifting strings of delicious meals linger in the air, the sounds of cutlery clinking together, and toasting glasses. Dinner time in Florence is a cherished and important time and restaurant proprietors put out the very best. One type of restaurant you should never miss out on is a Florentine Steak House. The meat is aged and proudly put on display and sold by the weight and is shared with your table. Bare in mind that the possibilities of getting it well done are quite slim. The steaks are from the Tuscan region so be sure to pair your steak with a local Chianti wine. It’s what Florentine’s say is a perfect marriage!
On the second day I left the hostel well before dawn. Since my hostel was in the Oltarno area I headed for an urban hike towards the Piazzale Michelangelo. Located on a hill overlooking the river and Florence’s old district it offers a panoramic view of the city at sunset. Since sunset is the most popular time to go, I wanted a different experience and to see it while the sun was rising. While walking towards the park, it was quite amazing to witness the city waking up and slowly be enveloped by a warm autumnal glow.
Once I was fed up with the impossibly beautiful sight of the Tuscan hills, I headed back across the river to a café and relax with a cappuccino and croissant. There, I mapped my second day’s assault on Florence. Shortly afterwards, I made my way to one of Florence’s silliest tourist attractions, the “Porcellino” statue. Most Italian cities have a variety of legends and “good luck charm” things to do. The Porcellino is a medium height bronze statue of a “piglet” or wild boar at the entrance of the Mercato Nuovo. It is said that if you feed the statue a coin and it falls through the grate and you rub it’s snout it will mean a return to the Tuscan capital. Keep in mind, that the statue standing there is actually a copy. The original, cast in 1634 can be found in the Palazzo Mozzi.
Nearby the little piglet statue is the Piazza Della Signoria. The fort looking building is the old Medici palace and just across it to the south are their former “Uffizi” or offices, which now houses one of the finest Italian art collections in the world. The Medici family ruled Florence for nearly three centuries and were notable for being patrons of the arts and spearheading the Renaissance movement. The Medici’s also protected Galileo from the inquisition, were loyal patrons of Leonardo Da Vinci and assisted the ignition of the reformation.
When I visited the Uffizi gallery, I took one look at the queue that was starting to snake around the entrance and swiftly bypassed it by having purchased my city pass online. I took a moment to quietly applaude myself for being the smart cookie. You can also reserve your ticket to the gallery over the phone if you don’t want to buy a city pass. The art inside the Uffizi takes you on a tour of the history of Italian art but to some it can be a bit much. Once you’ve have your fill, head over to the Galileo museum where you will find the instruments, inventions, and other such things the genius was working on in his lifetime.
Next, I wanted get up close and personal with Michelangelo’s statue of David. The larger than life statue can be found in the northern part of the city at the Galleria dell’Accademia. The hallway that leads up to David is lined with Michelangelo’s unfinished works and truly a sight to be seen. By now my stomach was starting to protest and I was in need of a pick me up and stumbled into a nifty little juice bar called Shake Cafe. Once fueled up, it was time to walk the medieval streets some more and be seduced with an exquisite array of Italian design. The fashion in Italy is classic and polished and available for any type of budget. Italy still prides itself on domestically designed and produced garments. My eyes glazed over the dresses, the shoes…oh the shoes!
First off, let me just say that shopping does you in and after an afternoon of doing it I was famished. Now was the perfect time to search for a delicious authentic Florentine enoteca. I ended up crossing the river back to home turf on the Oltarno district and found such restaurant called Osteria Cinghiale Bianco. Here you can find delicious Tuscan food with friendly wait staff. Honestly the food was the best part but being a Celiac can be a bit difficult if you let it be so. I thought Italy would be the death of me with it’s gluten-tainted foods and I was sorely wrong. Even in Florence you have a great array of gluten-free, vegetarian and raw cuisine all within the old part of the city and Oltarno district.
My favorite restaurant in Florence is called Quinoa. A gluten free place with a charming courtyard, great music, and tasty cocktails as well. It’s a fairly popular place to dine with lunch and dinner hours. It was here that I met my new friend, also an American from New York who also lives in Germany (what are the odds).
As the 48 hours in the Tuscan capital comes to a close, I finish the evening by taking a nice slow walk back to my lodgings and taking in the city one last time.
Planning can be tough, so here is a nifty “starter” map of things to see, places to stay and where to eat and drink in Florence, Italy.