I’ve got lists. Lists for work. Lists for the house. Lists of places I’ve visited that I want to share along with the many photos I’ve taken as I travel around. Yup, lists. And that’s about as far as it goes. I made them: check. Accomplishing them has proved difficult in the last seven months. Little things like balancing my checkbook or making my health care selections for next year are put on the back burner until Will Robinson’s B9 Robot starts screaming Danger! I’m beginning to feel like I’m lost in space.
Here’s to one of the many things on my to-do list. Since my trip to Italy over a year ago many things have transpired and I haven’t had time to share one of my favorite places! I’ve worked on it a bit here and there, but working 50 hour weeks and traveling 3.5 to 4 hours a day in the car commuting to work is making me cross eyed. When I finally dump my crap in the door, walk the dog, make dinner and sit to eat, it’s close to 7:30 at night. Quite frankly, at that point I’m too tired to even think about writing. On weekends I try to have a life, snapping photos as I go, so I’ve got a lot to write about, but no energy to actually write.
Today, I’m finally sharing my thoughts and photos of Florence down on virtual paper. If you’ve never been, this is one for the bucket list. Of that, I am certain!
Divided by the Arno River and connected by the Ponte Vecchio, one of the most famous bridges in the world, the city of Florence has a history that spans many centuries. Best known as the “cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence is a historical and architectural marvel.
Visiting any place for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. Imagine how you’d feel popping out of the train station in Florence after leaving Venice only hours earlier. The difference between the two cities is staggering.
Now off to the hotel! Wait…I didn’t have a hotel booked for that first night in Florence. After working with Diana Corridori from Italy Translated my trip itinerary changed a bit and the hotel where I reserved my stay was booked for the additional night.
About Diana: Diana is a Texan expat married to an Italian who specializes in trip planning, everything from a concierge service to full-service trip design. She reviewed my trip plans and offered ideas to optimize my travels around Italy. Thanks to her I realized that I was a little overzealous in my trip goals. I was attempting to squeeze in as much of Italy as possible in a short time – but that’s how I roll. Go big or go home, right? If you’re heading to Italy, I highly recommend contacting Diana to see how she can help you!
Back to the no hotel situation. No hotel? No problem! I wasn’t going to fret over not having a place for us to rest our weary heads that evening. Instead I used the Hotel Tonight app and booked a hotel while I was on the train to Florence. What I love about the Hotel Tonight app is that you can be spontaneous and book your hotel on the go, from anywhere, on your phone. The rates are reduced because the app focuses on last minute space and offers a variety of hotel choices from basic to luxurious.
The first night we stayed in Florence was at the B&B Repubblica. The entrance was tucked away and a little hard to find, but the B&B was fantastic! The space was newly remodeled & the bathroom was sleek and posh. We had a stunning balcony view overlooking the Piazza della Repubblica. The woman on duty when we arrived was incredibly friendly.
The rest of our time in Florence was spent at the Hotel Pendini. Hotel Pendini is on the same piazza as the B&B Repubblica, but is a little more upscale. The Piazza della Repubblica is a great location from which to see the city – it puts you within walking distance of all the things you’ll want to see in the city. But, if I was heading to Florence again I would happily stay at the B&B Repubblica. I loved the large, two story French doors overlooking the Via Calimala.
The Piazza della Repubblica was once a Roman encampment before the city sprung up in place of the camp. Eventually it was the Jewish ghetto and market, and then it was converted into the piazza we know today.
Florence is a walkable city, much like the other cities we visited in Italy. I particularly loved that because I felt like the walking cancelled out all the calories we were sucking in around every corner. I mean, can you pass up gelato or pasta when you’re in Italy? That doesn’t even seem reasonable. And traveling with a human vacuum cleaner [Juston] pretty much ensured we were shoveling in some food about every couple hours. I wish I had Juston’s metabolism!
Before heading to Italy I purchased the Rick Steves Italy Travel Guide. Who am I to dispute his expertise? Rick has traveled to Italy a million times and his guide had some fantastic trip tips and ideas. It certainly saved us time on things we wanted to do while in Italy. Depending on how many days you have in Florence will depend on what you have time to do while you’re there.
The Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)
The lines at the Duomo and all the buildings that accompany the cathedral have lines upon lines so plan on getting there early. When planning your visits you’ve got some options. If you’re going to be in town more than a couple days the three-day Firenze card is a good idea. It covers the entrance to the many sites in the city, including the Duomo, the Baptistery, the dome, the Campanile, the Duomo Museum, and Santa Reparata. If you’re only going to be there a day or two, the best way to go is the combo ticket.
I’ve got a thing for churches. The architecture and art are always impressive. The interior of the Duomo is rather simple, compared to the elaborate white, pink and green marble facade, except for the stained glass and the interior of the dome itself. A large fresco depicts the Last Judgement in layers, almost like layers on a wedding cake, up to the narrowest point of the dome itself. Simply stunning.
In stark contrast, the Baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni) is much more ornate, beginning with the large bronze doors called the “Gates of Paradise” portraying different stories from the Bible. Once you enter, you are greeted with geometric marble designs, a walkway above that looks down on the lower level, a gilded mosaic dome featuring Christ along with Saints and angels, mosaic floors, artwork, and stone statues. The mosaics are awe-inspiring, and I love anything that sparkles.
We didn’t climb to the top of the Duomo. Instead we chose the Campanile. That’s a lot of steps, y’all. One thing you can count on in Italy is walking and climbing. My advice? Wear comfortable shoes. Some days we walked 8-10 miles in a day.
When in Florence, art is a centerpiece to the culture, hence the “cradle of the Renaissance” moniker. It is seen in statues and sculptures, architecture, music, science, religion, and art. This cultural rebirth was seen in many things, but art certainly was one of the most important changes seen in this movement. Lines are very long at the galleries in Florence so to save yourself time you’ll want to make things easy on yourself by purchasing tickets in advance.
Accademia Gallery (Galleria dell’Accademia)
Fortunately there are numerous places to see art while in Florence, and the Accademia is one that should be on your list, if only to stand in front of the statue of Michelangelo’s David. While the sculpture of David is mesmerizing, the Accademia also houses large collections of paintings by Gothic artists, plaster cast models used in sculpting marble works of art, and 16th century paintings.
Ahhh, be still my heart. The Uffizi Gallery was originally constructed adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria by Cosimo de’Medici as offices “uffizi” for the Florentine magistrates to conduct official business on one floor and the top floor was a gallery for Medici art. The Medici family were patrons of the arts and the last Medici, Anna Maria Luisa, bequeathed the family collection to the Tuscan state upon her death. Later the Ufizzi became a museum housing over two centuries of Medici art, open for the public to view.
Today, the Uffizi Gallery is the most visited art gallery in Florence and highlights paintings by one of my favorite artists: Botticelli. The Uffizi is the home of several key works of Botticelli. The Birth of Venus, my favorite, is even more spectacular in person than you can imagine. The vibrant colors and the realistic detail is Botticelli’s interpretation of the classical story of the birth of the Goddess Venus. Standing naked, Venus is modest, her beautiful face looking serenely outward while she floats towards the shore on a shell.
La Primavera (which means Spring), another work by Botticelli, is set in an orange grove. The dark background makes the colors of the subjects pop in contrast to the darkness. This painting also features the Goddess Venus, along with the west wind Zephyrus, the nymph Chloris, and the Goddess of Spring [Flora], much like the Birth of Venus. Mercury, the Three Graces, and a blind Cupid (the son of Venus) are also featured in this romantic painting of spring, fertility and love.
Of course there are many works of art that even a novice such as myself can appreciate. Be sure to put this one on your things to do list in Florence. Like the Accademia, purchase tickets online ahead of time to avoid long wait times. You’ll be glad you did!
Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria
The Piazza della Signoria is adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace of the Medici family. They referred to it as the Old Palace after the Medici moved across the river to the Pitti Palace. The Palazzo Vecchio is old. Today, it is also the town hall and where the mayor and city council work.
Being from the US, a relatively new country in terms of age, it is hard to imagine the scale and age of the architectural structures across Italy, or Europe for that matter. They are imposing and unlike anything you’ll find in the US. Juston and I were both in awe of the Palazzo Vecchio.
The Medici’s were quite the family, and one of the most famous. Murder, intrigue, affairs, power, religious connections-they had it all. But the Medici didn’t construct the palace. In fact, the palace was constructed many decades before by the commune and people of the town of Florence as a secure place for the magistrates. Rough times require defensible structures.
The palace was constructed on the ruins of the Uberti family palace. It sounds to me like the Uberti family weren’t exactly loved by the Florentine people and they wanted to make sure it was known. So here we are: a defensible palace with battlements allowing for molten liquid to be poured on attackers below built on the ruins of this family. It’s quite the statement.
Eventually the Medici family took up residence here and their dynasty began. They were the long ruling, wealthy leaders of this state, patrons of the arts, architecture and learning during the renaissance. Florence and the arts owe a lot to this powerful family.
At one time, Michelangelo’s David stood at the entrance to the palazzo. Today the original is at the Accademia Gallery and a replica stands at the entrance. Once you enter there is a courtyard with a fountain in the center and frescos on the walls surrounding.
Perhaps the most stunning room of all in the palace is the Salone dei Cinquecento. Large frescos depicting key Florentine battles cover the walls of the great room. Here, in this imposing room, the Grand Duke would receive visitors.
The remainder of the palace is filled with living quarters, offices, a chapel, loggias and the like, all decorated with priceless works of art. They have names fitting a Marvel Comic such as the Apartments of the Elements, Terrace of Saturn, the Lion House, and the Hall of Justice.
Part of our tour included going up to see the view of the city from the battlements of the palazzo. What a view! We toured in the early evening. Views of the city danced in the early evening light, highlighted by street lights. Simply breathtaking.
Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens
The weather, for the most part, was sunny and beautiful while we were in Italy. In spite of our good fortune, there were a couple days where storms rolled through and we got a little soaked. The good thing about a strong rain is that it beats down the number of tourists, allowing for less crowds. That’s what happened the day we visited the Boboli Gardens and the Palazzo Pitti. Sure it made for a bit of humidity after the fact, but it was so worth the cloudy skies!
The Palazzo Pitti was originally the home of Luca Pitti, a wealthy banker in Florence. He wanted a home to rival that of the Medici and sought to build a massive residence on the south side of the Arno. Eventually the palace was sold to Eleonora di Toledo, wife of Cosimo I de’Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It served as the home of the ruling family, housing their extensive art and other collections, until the last Medici, Anna Maria Luisa, died.
The land behind the palazzo was purchased to create a large park and gardens to accompany the house. Today, the Boboli Gardens is a mixture of terraces, fountains, walking paths, and statuary.
Napoleon used the palace for a time, and finally it was used as the primary palace for the newly formed Kingdom of Italy when Florence served as the capitol. Victor Emmanuel III donated the palazzo to the nation in 1919 and it is now a museum showcasing the many Medici works of art and other pieces collected during the Italian Unification.
Of course there are many other sights in Florence and I haven’t even touched the food. Traveling with a barely adult male means you eat a lot, and frequently. Oh, and pizza is a top choice. Sure, Juston tried many different dishes while we were there, but pizza and tiramisu ruled many days.
I’m sure we ate at some touristy restaurants, but we also took some advice from Rick Steve’s and tried some off the beaten path restaurants too. No matter where we stopped to grab a bite the wait staff were kind and helpful and the food was delicious. Can you really go wrong in Italy?