We made our first visit to Florence with great anticipation. We hoped that we would find fabulous art treasures, a historic centre and great food in a stylish city. We were not disappointed
Florence (Firenze) has a reputation as a fine city of Renaissance culture. We expected to find wonderful art and buildings. Surprisingly we also discovered quiet corners of relaxation, in the piazzas and gardens of the Oltrarno and in the hills above Florence. In addition Florence offers quality shopping influenced by the Florentine innate sense of style, particularly in jewellery and leather.
We visited Florence in May and chose to fly with Easyjet to Pisa. There is an excellent train service from Pisa airport to Florence Santa Maria Novella (SMN) station. The train journey follows the River Arno and is a relaxing way to arrive in Florence (duration 1 hour 20 minutes, single fare Euro 5.60). It is possible to fly directly to Florence, but expensive. Our preference was to spend our budget on a more expensive hotel.
Where to Stay
Our hotel base was the Hotel Brunelleschi (Piazza Santa Elisabetta 3) close to the celebrated icon of Florence, the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral). The hotel is centrally located and is cleverly designed, combining an old medieval tower with modern well-appointed rooms. We were impressed with the friendly and efficient service. We particularly liked the small roof terrace which had fantastic views of the Duomo nearby and of the city skyline. Just a word of caution, we were woken by the cathedral bells early each morning, not a problem for us as we had planned full days of sightseeing.
We approached the Duomo through the narrow medieval streets and were amazed by its sheer size, relative to the other buildings and its magnificent white, green and pink marble facade. We decided to climb the dome (entrance Euro 8.00) to get a closer look at Brunelleschi’s remarkable design and at the Vasari frescos decorating the dome’s interior. The views over Florence from the top are impressive. It is worth getting to the Duomo complex early to avoid the huge queues and excitable school parties.
Galleries and Gardens
Our choices from the many museums and galleries in Florence were the Galleria dell’ Accademia (entrance Euro 10.50) and the Galleria degli Uffizi (cost Euro 10.50). Again to avoid the long queues at the museums we used a booking agency to pre book the tickets from the UK for an arranged entry time. We used the online service Weekend a Firenze (www.weekendafirenze.com).
The Accademia is the home of that other great symbol of Florence, Michelangelo’s statue of David. Displayed under a domed skylight at the end of a long hall, you are drawn towards his huge, imposing figure. We were fascinated by Michelangelo’s unfinished Prigioni (prisoners) series which clearly demonstrate the muscular figures emerging from the surrounding block of marble.
The Uffizi is publicised as one of the world’s great art collections and its treasures do justify its fame. There are works by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael and Canaletto among others and you need to allow plenty of time. Highlights for us were the Botticelli paintings which convey a great serenity, despite the crowds of people viewing them.
Historic Florence is very compact and the major sights are all within easy walking distance. One of the great pleasures is just wandering through the sunlit streets and discovering a pavement cafe for coffee. Getting lost is part of the fun, but you can’t get lost for long! The Oltrarno ( literally 'beyond the Arno') area of the city is particularly relaxing for wandering. It is approached via the Ponte Vecchio, a picturesque ancient bridge lined with jewellers.
Oltrarno is the location of two contrasting gardens. The first is the Renaissance Boboli Gardens, a series of green formal walkways and vistas, originally created for the Medici family. However we much preferred the less well-known Bardini Garden (www.gardens-of-tuscany.net). This is a colourful old hillside garden that has been the subject of a major restoration programme, following decades of neglect. Its features include a baroque stairway, camellia garden, rose garden, wisteria pergola, azaleas, grottos and statues. Best of all is the Belvedere Terrace, particularly in late afternoon, from which you can relax with coffee and light refreshments and take in the panoramic views of Florence and the River Arno. (Joint entrance fee for Boboli/Bardini gardens Euro 10.00).
Where to eat
As expected there were many options for great food in Florence, with a wide range of restaurants. Our particular favourite was Terra Terra (Via delle Oche 21, tel. 055.21.76.51). This was a small family-run establishment specialising in authentic Tuscan and Sardinian cuisine. Two courses plus wine for two people cost approximately Euro 50.00. In the evenings it was pleasant to walk to the atmospheric Piazza della Signoria, home of the Palazzo Vecchio, the historic place of government. The Piazza della Signoria is celebrated for its many remarkable statues displayed in the open air Loggia (terrace) and outside the palace. These are artistically floodlit at night.
Outside the City
Escaping the city for an afternoon, we visited the old village of Fiesole, set high in the peaceful hills above Florence. The views from Fiesole over Florence and the surrounding Tuscan countryside are superb. Fiesole also contains many Roman archaeological remains, including a Roman theatre, often used for summer festivals. Rather than use the expensive tourist bus to get to Fiesole, we used the regular bus service (route 7) from the SMN railway station (single fare Euro 1.20). Whilst waiting for the bus the station cafe is a source of good, cheap coffee and is well used by the locals.
Where to Shop
Florence offers great shopping and there are many unusual jewellery shops and stylish leather shops selling brightly coloured handbags. The traditional place to buy gold is at the shops on the Ponte Vecchio. However, we headed for the Gabriella Nanni jewellery shop, hidden away at Via Lambertesca 28 (www.gabriellananni.it). This designer specialises in affordable, contemporary jewellery made of vivid Murano glass set in silver mounts. These were my choice for an unusual souvenir of Florence.
There is a superstition in Florence about Il Porcellino, the wild boar fountain in the Mercato Nuovo. It is said that if you rub his snout you will return to Florence one day. We weren’t taking any chances and visited Il Porcellino before we left.