Florence has a way of capturing your heart. I have now visited three times, once in college with a few friends (1997) and twice with Grant (2013 and 2017). Each time I have been, I have found something new to love and remember about the city.
As the capital of Tuscany, Florence is the heart of this region. With a population just under 400,000, you will find all the amenities of a big city, with much of the charm of a small town. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and the culture and art housed here will entice just about anyone.
From the art galleries to the gardens to the amazing food, there is something for everyone to enjoy in Florence.
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Updated January 2018
Dinner in Florence and the Festival of San Giovani
Grant found an amazing restaurant, Antica Trattoria da Tito, less than five minutes walking from the hotel. This was seriously the best dinner we had in our month-long trip in Italy! Dinner consisted of fabulous wine, cheese, pasta, steak and pannacotta.
It was here that Grant discovered his love for Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Beef Florentine). At Tito’s, this popular dish is served only one way – al sangue (very rare). Seriously, there was a sign on the door and on the menu letting you know that you will not get your steak prepared any other way. This is why Grant enjoyed the steak and I chose something else!
Up to this point in our trip (about three weeks), we ate very little beef, if any. Most of our meats were pork, with some chicken mixed in. Grant was more than a little excited to finally find a steak. This dish far exceeded his expectations.
At one point, Tito’s was one of the top-rated restaurants (#1 or #2) in Florence on TripAdvisor – not an easy feat when there are more than 2,000 restaurants. It seems to have fallen a bit lately but is still ranking fairly well. We have recommended this restaurant to anyone visiting Florence. Seriously, Grant has said on more than one occasion he would fly back to Florence just to have that steak again.
Festival of San Giovani
After dinner, it was time for fireworks! June 24 is the Festival of San Giovani, the patron saint of the city. Apparently, there are a decent number of things going on during the day – I don’t even know what all festivities there were, but most of the shops were closed. We did not plan this at all but it was a nice surprise!
The day ended with fireworks over the river. The fireworks were as good as any I’ve seen in the US. Several times I thought, “Oh, this is the grand finale,” but then they kept going! Since we didn’t return home until July 5, we let counted this as our US Independence Day celebration.
Florence Day 1
After waiting for some rain to pass, we walked down to the River Arno and across the Ponte Vecchio (the iconic bridge in Florence). For me, it is not a terribly exciting bridge, honestly. The bridge is really just a bunch of jewelry shops. But, this bridge holds a lot of history and is a must-see landmark in Florence.
What I really enjoyed was finding the bridge next to the Ponte Vecchio that we hung out on during my first trip to Florence in college! Seriously, the next bridge over is much less crowded and offers fabulous views of the Ponte Vecchio and River Arno. For me, it held some great memories, too.
The Palazzo Vecchio, just a couple blocks from the bridge, is another amazing palace, but not that dissimilar to the one we visited in Venice: lots of big rooms with very ornate ceilings, walls and floors!
The biggest draw of the Palazzo is the copy of Michelangelo’s David outside. Honestly, though, the copy does not compare at all to the real thing. Go inside if you really want to tour the palace. Otherwise, save your time for the real artwork.
The Uffizi Gallery is a magnificent art gallery. And while we thoroughly enjoyed it, neither of us are art enthusiasts, so it was probably a shorter-than-average visit. Also, several rooms were closed due to a reconstruction effort, so that sped things up a bit for us.
We really did enjoy everything we saw. But, wow, there are there some ugly babies in the Madonna and Child paintings!
Basilica di Santa Croce
Another highlight of Florence is the Basilica of Santa Croce. It is the principal Franciscan church in Florence and the largest Franciscan church in the world. The church itself is extremely ornate, like so many others in Italy.
The most interesting part of this church, however, is probably its tombs. Quite a few famous Italians are “buried” here, including Galileo, Michelangelo, Marconi, and Machiavelli.
Inside the church, there is a small museum with some of the restored “ruins” from the 1966 flood. The church is close to the river and when it flooded, there was about five meters of water and mud in the church and surrounding area. Several paintings and other items have recently been restored and were on displayed.
Florence Day 2 – Oltrarno
After finally figuring out the busses (not terribly difficult with an up-to-date map, but not as easy as the guidebooks led us to believe), we started our day “oltrarno,” which literally means “beyond the Arno” or on the other side of the river. All the best stuff over there is in one huge complex called the Palazzo Pitti, the largest museum complex in Florence.
We toured a lot of museums, filled with treasures, gems, clothing and art…all housed, of course, in amazing buildings (an old palatial “house”). As we visit many of these palazzos and museums, we have to remind ourselves to look up and down, as the ceilings and floors are often just as amazing as the art and artifacts on display! The biggest “name recognition” of the day was probably seeing Napoleon’s bathroom.
Directly behind Palazzo Pitti is Boboli Gardens. The gardens were huge; we could easily have stayed there the majority of the day. The landscaping, fountains, and statues were awesome and there were fabulous views of the city and the country hillside!
Back on the “main” side of the river, we also saw a museum on Galileo and another art museum. The Galileo museum was interesting with all kinds of old instruments. While we enjoyed the visit, a science teacher (or any science enthusiast) would probably understand and appreciate it more!
The art museum was the Palazzo Strozzi. We probably would not have gone if it wasn’t covered on the museum pass that we bought, but there was a special exhibit called “Springtime in Renaissance” which is a traveling exhibit that will be at The Louvre next. So, we figured it must be pretty cool. The Renaissance part of it was fairly interesting. We have to admit though, at this point we’re sure we have seen hundreds of Madonna and Child paintings, so when we stumbled into a room full of them, we didn’t stay too long!
The “main” part of the Palazzo Strozzi was an exhibit called “An Idea of Beauty.” It was several rooms of various modern artists using quite a few different mediums – painting, photography, video, marble, just to name a few. So many parts of this museum just didn’t make sense…it’s hard to put into words. At least the €25 was already included in our pass!
Florence Day 3
Our last full day in Florence was full of some big sites! Don’t ask me why we saved these for the last day…they certainly should be at the top of your list of must-see landmarks.
After walking past it a few times, we finally made it into the Duomo and the Baptistry. While both are very impressive, the Duomo is more exciting on the outside, while the Baptistry is more impressive on the inside (the doors, of course, are amazing, but even they are replicas). We did go to the associated museum and saw the original doors, “The Gates of Paradise” and they are, indeed, absolutely magnificent!
We also went to the Santa Maria Novella church, which is very large and ornate as well. It is the biggest church after the Duomo and, while the outside is not nearly as impressive, the inside does not disappoint!
We ended our sight-seeing with the Galleria dell’Accademia, which is where the original David is on display. Again, even more impressive than you could imagine! The detail on the statue is perfect. It would take amazing talent to paint or mold (with clay) something that spectacular, yet this was chiseled from marble!
In addition to David, there are a few other cool things in the gallery including a Musical Instrument display…Grant finally got to see what a “Hurdy Gurdy” looks like (it is referenced in Macbeth by one of the witches). There are also several unfinished Michaelangelo sculptures, which just drive home the fact that these sculptures are chiseled from one huge hunk of marble!
In all, Florence is our favorite large city in Italy. The beating heart of the Renaissance, this city exudes culture and art, as well as Tuscan cuisine and wine, which are easily favorites.