Inspired by his many Florentine wanderings and wonderings, American travel writer and musician Thymn Chase introduces us to the city of David and Dante. Photos by Katarzyna Adamek.
The world has been obsessed with this little Tuscan outpost ever since she was a blushing bambino. For more than two millennia Florence has seen countless invasions (armies and tourists), political and religious turmoil, warring factions and numerous cycles of financial boom and bust. Like tectonic forces acting on coal to produce diamonds, so History has acted upon Florence to create some of the most magnificent masterpieces the world has ever seen. From Michelangelo’s breathtaking marble boy toys, to Botticelli’s sexy shellfish, to Ghiberti’s daunting doors and Brunelleschi’s curvaceous wall hanging over it all… that sweet and sultry Renaissauce stimulates the senses and sits so nicely in the soul. There’s enough eye candy here to hold you over for the better part of a lifetime. So don’t worry if you can’t cram it all into a few days because whether you know it or not, you will be back… they all come back.
Best of the Beaten Track
The problem in Florence is not what to see, but rather what not to see. Your first stop should absolutely be the Uffizi Gallery – not only because it’s the biggest and best, but it is also the hardest museum to actually get into (reserve tickets ahead of time or be prepared to wait it out). Once you’re in, you’ll stroll by some of the most famous European paintings in the world. For art-lovers the Hours will literally fly by (…along with the Graces, Muses and Fates). For all you fellow travellers there are benches and restaurants along the way to ease your appreciation. The Ufizzi’s permanent collection includes works by Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael, Durer, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and many other dead canvas jockeys. Be aware of the souvenir shops waiting for you at the end (do you really need to wear David’s junk? Really…?).
Next up I suggest hitting the streets to enjoy some of the mind blowing architecture piled along the piazzas. Il Duomo (aka Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) is hands down the iconic architectural symbol of Florence and it is truly a sight to behold. The gargantuan Gothic structure was built on the site of a 7th Century church but it wasn’t till the end of the 13th Century that it started to take it’s current shape. The dumbfounding dome was added in the 15th Century by Brunelleschi (his friends called him Bruno). Part of its magnificence is the sheer architectural innovation employed to thrust the dome into the Tuscan sky. It is worth shilling out the extra cash to climb the massive structure for yourself.
Just round the corner from the Duomo is the Accademia Gallery which is the hottest spot in Florence as it houses Michelangelo’s most famous works, including his original David in all it’s soft-core Chip & Dales glory!!! Believe the hype and deal with the lines because this is one fit fella you’ll never forget.
So you’ve bathed in the beauty and marveled at the marble so let’s talk about the elephant in the room… Florence is mercilessly jam-packed with annoying fanny-pack wearing, stroller-pushing, T-shirt-buying tourists (present company accepted). If you’re looking to escape the mobs and/or mix it up with the locals check out these spots:
The south bank of the Arno is where the young, alternative, bo-ho type Florentines tend to congregate. You’ll find some of the best bars, clubs, restaurants, book stores, hostels etc here. Make sure to check out La Cite – one of the funkier book store/ cafe’s/live music venues in the whole city and Pop Cafe which has one of the best aperitivo’s (see ‘Drop In’ below) in the city but is also the epicentre of the city’s blossoming counter-cultural scene.
Head north of Il Duomo on Il Cavour and cross the outer ring of the old City. Cross Piazza Liberta and keep heading north until you see a sign for the Giardino dell Orticultura. This beautiful park & open air garden stretches into the hills that overlook Firenze. It is a true slice of beauty and tranquility and if it wasn’t for the amazing views of the old town you might just forget what city you’re in.
La Buona Vista! Far and away the most beautiful view of the Florence skyline. Perched on a hill in the southeast, the Piazza Michelangelo is built around a huge bronze replica of Mikey-Angel’s dashing Davie. This is a great place to come day or night with a bottle’a red (but you didn’t hear that from me). To really get your money’s worth try getting to the Piazza via one of the many paths leading up to it. Inhale….. then exhale.
If the crowds are reallllllly getting you down grab a bus to Fiesole. After a windy 15-minute ride into the hills you’ll find yourself perched high above the city far away from the crowds and faced with one of the most breathtaking views you may ever see. Yeah, it’s worth it.
Experience & Events
So this when I break all the unwritten rules of travel-writing and encourage you to indulge in perhaps the biggest European travel cliche of them all: Riding a Vespa through picturesque Chianti vineyards in Tuscany with the wind in your hair… If you spend more than 10 minutes in Florence you’ll notice that “Chianti Wine Tours” are as aggressively over-marketed as David genitalia paraphernalia. Cliches aside, I’d be lying if I didn’t say taking a wine-fueled tour of Tuscany is absolutely everything it is cracked up to be. Okay so maybe the Vespa is a bit much (we recommend renting a car and making a day/week/life of it). Nevertheless, getting lost in the meandering sun-burnt hills searching for the keys to Chianti is as close to perfect as you are likely to find in a touristic experience on this planet.
While there are countless festivals and celebrations throughout the year why not plan an Easter getaway? Besides all of the gorgeous pageantry, medieval feasting and religious revelry Florence has a unique tradition called Scoppio del Carro – literally “Explosion of the Cart”. And this is not some gimmick or veiled metaphor; I’m talking straight up pious pyrotechnics! At the end of Easter Mass an explosive dove flies out of Il Duomo and explodes a huge ox-drawn cart in a display of awesome explosions… only in Italy folks. The origins of this peculiar holiday are a bit murky but the spectacle is truly unforgettable. Come and see how Fire(nze) works!!!
Florence more or less invented what we call tourism and this little firecracker of a town has been a tourist destination for the better part of the last Millennium. Throughout this period most of the accommodation were “family”-run grand old hotels and many of them haven’t changed in centuries. If Italian grandeur is what you seek then look no further than the palatial serenity and rustic Tuscan elegance of Il Salviatino. The hotel is perched on a hill in the North-East and about a 15 minute bus ride from the city centre. The isolation of the location adds to the mystique and exclusivity. If you left your platinum card at home and are looking for more affordable digs then look no further than Hotel Christina. This medieval palace has 9 spacious and meticulously designed rooms at amazingly affordable prices. It also has arguably the best location of any small hotel in the city. Perfect for star-crossed lovers or lost-car rovers. If you’re pack-backing it and are looking for a top notch hostel then get thee to the Academy. The cozy and comfy environs matched with their friendly and frankly amazing staff will make you feel right at home. Plus it’s pretty cool to lay your dome almost literally under Il Duomo. If you’re really on a tight budget however make the hike up to the campground above Fiesole for the most luxurious camping experience you may ever have. For the exhilaration of independence with the comforts of home you could also opt instead for apartments.
Well, you’re in Italy folks and Florence is a prime contributor to the country’s countless culinary accomplishments. There are of course the classic Italian restaurants such as Centopoveri where you can dig in to some of the best pizzas and pastas you’ve ever twirled your fork around. But if you’re looking for more standard Florentine fare with flair drop in to La Spada and try the mythical Bistecca ala Florentine or some rustic white beans and sausage. If there’s a certain Sophia or Silvio you’re looking to impress then splash out at La Dolce Vita for some elegant fusion delicacies and fine wines. Street food fanatics are also in luck as there are some choice morsels for your mouth to explore. Like pizza, the grilled panini (panino in Italiano) sandwich has been adopted and co-opted by many sandwich-slingers worldwide. But if you think you know what you’re in for seek ye out the panino wizard in the corridor around the corner from the Lion’s Fountain (one of the MANY Irish pubs). Once you sink your teeth into a hot mortadella, gorgonzola and arugula your life just may well be changed. Oh what’s that I hear… you’ve been there done that and want to try something truly exotic? Look no further then the legendary Lampredotto sandwich which is made from the… wait for it…. the fourth and final stomach of a cow. You can find them at Trippaio (Tripe seller) stalls located near most of the markets around the city (seek ye Mercato Sant ‘Ambrogio).
Florence is all about the aperitivo. If you aren’t familiar with this tradiccionne then get ready to fall in love. The concept is simple… the bar/bistro/restaurant/cafe provides an ample and often bountiful buffet in the happier hours of the night (6-9pmish most weeknights) and all you pay for is what you drink. Make sure you check out Moyo‘s posh and often exotic offer or head over to San Carlo for a full fledged feast of Italian tapas and top-rank cocktails. The best thing about aperitivo culture is that many of these bistro’s are instantly transformed into hopping night clubs or bustling bars once the plates are cleared. If you’re looking to skip the dinner course and head straight to the bar then let Lochness Lounge be your gateway. Every night they host different theme nights including ridiculously amazing drink specials (hydroponically infused gummy berry shots!) live music and movie nights. Their slogan says it all – get messy with Nessy….
If and when you stumble back out onto the cobble stone(d)s and seeking more liquid trouble then The Blob is the only force worth reckoning with. It is dark, sinister and almost impossible to find and no you won’t get out of here alive. This is the absolute epicentre of Florentine alternative and ex-pat debauchery. There’s a twist however because you don’t get in if you’re not registered as a member – which you can do on their website. Many of the best night clubs in Florence are private ventures and not officially open to the public.
Florence is pretty well connected especially if you’re on any sort of Italian tourist route and are traveling by train or bus. Italy recently improved it’s fast-train infrastructure so if you’re coming from Rome, Venice or Milan you’ll arrive in a few hours. The cost of convenience is great though so be ready to shell out for these sleek trains. If cheap airlines are you’re game you’re a little out of luck as currently no carriers fly into Firenze directly (ok Air Berlin does but that’s it). Your best bet is either Ryanair to Pisa and a 30 min. train, or Wizzair to Bologne and a 2 hour train. If you’re really looking to get here on the cheap, just remember that God gave people thumbs long before Playstation was invented.
Start your online peregrinations at The Florentine, a really good expat mag that will give you plenty of insight into the torrents and currents of Florence…
You are likely to encounter no fewer than 156 other English guides about Florence, most of which will take you down the same crowded streets and coral you into tourist trap after tourist trap. A good alternative is a tiny little book called My Local Guide Florence. It is written by locals and is jam packed with tons of amazing info, anecdotes, stories and recommendations most of which you won’t find in any other guide book (want to play ping pong next to a planetarium?). If literature is more your bag Florence has had more words spilled in it, around it and about it than almost any other City in Europe. Why not start with the classics: Dante’s Inferno, Machiavelli’s The Prince and, for you lovers out there, settle into E. M Forster’s A Room with a View. A personal favorite of mine is Irving Stone’s classic portrayal of Michelangelo’s life: The Agony and the Ecstasy.
Soundtrack to the City
View Florence City Guide in a larger map