Florence, or Firenze, is the birthplace of the Renaissance. With statues, beautiful and distinctive yellow buildings with green or brown shutters and museums around virtually every corner it’s got days of exploring in store for both newcomers and return visitors. Best to chunk it into bite sized pieces, especially when you’ve got a week here. Fair warning – this post is longer than usual, because its chocked full of a week’s worth of exploring.
Oltrarno, the south side of the Arno. Last time we were here, we stayed right on the Arno River, which splits Florence north and south, at a hotel with amazing views of the Ponte Vecchio and it’s multi-story buildings with jewelry shops. When we arrived this time, on the Italian holiday the Monday after Easter, Florence was a flurry of activity and chaos. Rather than fight the pre-pandemic level crowds, we escaped the hoards, across the bridge to the Piazza Pitti, which was our go-to spot for breakfast last time. We then spent the remaining daylight wandering through the Oltrarno neighborhood. We finished it off at the bar of the Hotel Lungarno, our lodging last time, for a beverage as the sun was receding and gave the buildings across the river a brilliant burnt yellow hue, reflected in the still waters of the Arno. The Arno isn’t always so tame and the bridge across this stretch has been taken out by floods several times, but the reinforced version built in 1345 has survived since then, including during the 1966 flood and during World War II when it was the only Florentine bridge spared by the Nazis in their quest to control the river.
The Ponte Vecchio
On our second day across the river, we explored the Boboli Gardens with pre-booked tickets to avoid the lines. It turns out the long, long queues of the Easter Monday holiday also receded as people returned to work or school and this was unnecessary, but never a bad idea to pre-book in Florence. The Boboli Gardens were once the private garden of the Medici family whose residence was the Pitti Palace (see more on this below under the “Medicis” section), behind which they sit, and offer a bit of respite from throngs of tourists and great views of Florence. The gardens of Versailles in Paris were modeled after the Boboli Gardens.
The Boboli ticket also provides access to the next door Bardini Garden which, in our view, was far superior both in views of Florence and the beauty of the garden itself. From the fruit orchards (which were in full bloom in late April) to the Wisteria Pergola to the views from the Belvedere, we were told by our bartender the night prior not to miss the Bardini Gardens when we told him we were going to the Boboli ones. Yet another data point in the case that you should always listen to your bartender.
Further east, along the same line of hills, you’ll find the Piazzale Michelangelo. This square is free (yay!) and also offers great views of the Duomo, Florence and Arno River and contains a bronze replica of the real David (better than the one in the Piazza della Signoria, but nothing compares to the real thing, more on this below). To access it, you can take the road or, better yet, climb through the Rose Garden below which apparently is the spot for sunbathing for those in the know.
The Renaissance Path. Rick Steves has several tours of Florence on his app and on day two, seeing rain in the upcoming forecast, we postponed any museums and took his Renaissance Walk tour which takes you from the remarkable and unique Duomo Cathedral, with its pink, green and white marble exterior, to the Piazza della Repubblica to the Piazza della Signoria with its many statues. From there, you progress down the Piazzale degli Uffizi where you are looked upon by the Florentine founders of the Renaissance arts and sciences to the banks of the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio.
If you had only one day in Florence, this is the walk to do. It’s not long and you’ll know where to return if you want to climb to the top of the dome of the Duomo or visit the Uffizi galleries or spend half (or more) of your salary on a watch at the Ponte Vecchio. Keep in mind that most of the museums in Florence have very long lines and may sell out, so advance booking is recommended. Many are also closed on Mondays, like many museums in Europe, so plan accordingly.
Fortunately, we had more than one day, so post walk we just returned to the Piazza della Repubblica to people watch, eat pizza and listen to the live jazz from street musicians.
I returned to the Duomo on our final day, while my better half was working, to climb to the top of the Brunelleschi’s Dome. As evidence that you need advance tickets for many things florentine, I could not get an online ticket to climb up until a full week after our walking tour. If you come in summer, book before you take flight. The dome climb is steep (almost 500 steps) in narrow little passageways and then along the inside of the dome way up above the Duomo floor. I climbed with a large group of overly energetic, over-testosteroned teenage Italian boys (letting them pass at first opportunity) racing to the top and hooting and yelling (apparently, they don’t know the word silenzio in Italian or couldn’t read all of the signs encouraging it), crowding and trying to pass all of the other middle-aged climbers for a smoke at the top. I chose to descend before our time was up on the ticket in the midst of a much quieter French family, but the raggazi (boys) were making their descent and I exited into the sunlight just as I heard their yells and hoots approaching me at the top of the stairway I was in. All that excitement aside, do not climb if you don’t like heights or are claustrophobic, but if those don’t bother you, the views of the dome from the inside and the views of the city from the outside of the cupola are really quite something.
The Bargello Museum, just near the Piazza della Signoria, would be my suggestion for a pairing with Rick’s Renaissance walk (we did it on our sixth day here). Inside, you’ll find early statues from Michelangelo and works of Donatello, including his David in bronze.
You’ll also see the the bronze pieces of Abraham sacrificing Isaac which were the dueling entries from Ghiberti and Brunelleschi (who did the aforementioned Duomo dome) for the contest to decide the artisan who would create the bronze doors of the baptistry of the Duomo. Ghiberti won, Brunelleschi lost, leaving him with time to do his magnificent dome instead. These contest works also inspired the renaissance artists and launched the Renaissance movement on its way in Florence.
There are plenty of less famous statues and artworks to browse and the building itself, an old city hall, is pretty amazing. My favorite non-Rick Steves audio tour items were a small wooden altarpiece depicting the stigmata of Saint Francis (just fresh from a visit to Assisi, I guess, moved this one to the top) and the statue depicting Florence’s triumph over Pisa, reminding you that long ago these Italian cities were at war with one another.
The Madness of the Uffizi Gallery. Start outside. Admire the statues lining the courtyard: Dante, DaVinci, Machiavelli, Galileo. If you were a remarkable figure in Florence’s renaissance art, literature or science worlds you are here.
Once inside, have a guide. We used Rick Steves’ recording. You can use a real live person or an audio guide but we find that without a guide of some kind, you can get lost in the many paintings and miss the key things. What we like about Rick Steves is he points you to the most interesting pieces, gives you a little history, makes a few bad jokes and does it all in a reasonable period of time. He almost makes you forget the throngs with whom you are sharing a few moments of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus or Primavera or one of the several Annunciations and Madonnas With Child or Adorations of the Magi from Byzantine to Renaissance.
And Rick is right, the view at the end of the hall is one of the best of the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno River in Florence.
David and Michaelangelo. Melissa came here before I did for the first time. She came in winter with two friends and when she returned she went on and on (and on) about the David in the Academia here. So, when we came to Italy 10 years ago, we obviously had this atop the list. But, I’ll be honest… waiting in line in the rain with umbrella vendors swarming (they made two sales with us) I kept thinking: “you have to like this, or at least pretend that you do well”. I’m not good at faking a reaction and lying though. A poker player, I’m not. So, I was nervous. I thought, this might be the end of me for her if I’m not enthralled. Suffice it to say, we survived that little crisis. The David is miraculously done. We’ve since seen a lot of amazing things in our travels and it still sits atop the list. David is hard to describe and pictures don’t capture it. If you’ve never seen it, its worth the line, rain or shine. Go.
This time, thinking that, on our own, we might miss something we booked a tour through Viator. It was worth it and not just to hop to the front of the non-moving “no reservations” queue on another rainy day during which we chose to visit the Academia. One thing that’s nice for those inside, once you actually get there, is that the Academia meters the number of people allowed in at any given point in time so you can actually enjoy it relatively crowd free.
Our guide emerged, hat askew not because he’s a hipster but because he was slightly disheveled. Partially untucked polka dot shirt poking out of his sweater above almost yellow jeans, he looked like an Italian version of the actor DJ Qualls from Road Trip (yes, I Googled him – I’m not some weird fan club member). Fortunately, art history was his specialty, not raunchy comedy (not that there’s anything wrong with juvenile comedy, mind you). From him, we learned about Michaelangelo’s unique style of carving marble from front to back without a model, potentially slipping his chisel and rendering the sculpture nicked or irrecoverably damaged and useless, and giving an unfinished work (of which there are several here) an appearance of the statue emerging from the block of stone. We learned that other sculptors had rejected the piece of marble which ultimately became the David because of its poor quality so that when Michealangelo “imprisoned himself” for three years to carve David the stone was not only of poor quality it was also damaged. We learned about the slow process of moving David from the Piazza della Signoria to the Academia, whose dome was built to house and protect David, for four days and nights, so as not to damage the statue. We learned that David stands firmly planted with one foot to exemplify stability while the other, in the style of the Greeks, is on the move, ready for action. We learned that David’s head is oversized for his body because he was originally intended to sit atop the Duomo so Michaelangelo designed him to appear to scale from far below. We learned that Michaelangelo’s squat nose was the result of a fight when he was young and learned about his other works: in the Sistine Chapel, the “Prisoners”, housed here, which he was carving for Pope Julius II, commissioned for, the Pope’s tomb, but never finished. And much much more. Well worth it, thank you DJ’s doppelgänger.
And Finally… the Medicis. The Medicis helped launch the Renaissance with their housing and hiring of renaissance artists to create works for their gardens and homes. The Medicis were a politically and religiously influential family of Florence whose roots were in textiles but whose power came from banking. They were kicked out of Florence in the late 15th century, marking the end of their most influential period here. But the fingerprints of their influence remain in the museums, art, churches, buildings and statues all over Florence.
On the Oltrarno side of the Arno, you can visit their Boboli gardens and/or the Pitti Palace and grab lunch in the Piazza Pitti. We had already visited the gardens so we focused on the palace on our return. The ticket to the palace will get you into both. The palace is cool and it’s filled with art, but frankly, it’s overwhelming with almost no descriptions of what you are looking at. It was also redone in the 19th century so, with few exceptions, you aren’t really seeing what it was like in the time of the Medici’s. We much preferred our other museum visits. However, here were our highlights:
1. There are portraits galore. They weren’t necessarily the best looking folks but it’s fun to see their busts or portraits in their former residence.
2. There is a restored painting of the Medici Popes which is very cool and the description of the painting is worth spending some time reviewing. It was done by Raffaello and there is a Bible in the painting which is unique and they believe is now in Berlin. They have no idea how the Pope had it in his possession or how Raffaello had an opportunity to see it, let alone paint it into the painting.
3. Some of the ceiling frescoes are still original. The Medicis liked to have themselves painted into paintings they commissioned. The one below has a young Medici price being torn from the arms of Venus by Minerva to be handed over to Hercules, the protector of the Medici family.
4. This interesting painting is of Cosimo’s (the patriarch of the Florentine Medicis) “favorite dwarf”. Which begs the question, or questions: how many dwarfs did he have and what had the others done to fall out of favor and why is this dwarf naked? We know from the description he is preparing for a bird hunt and the back side of the painting is a painting of his actual backside, birds in hand with owl perched on his shoulder. Interesting… right?
After lunch, stroll across the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio below the Medici’s private passageway over to their offices (the Uffizi) and head up to the Riccardi Medici Palace. The garden there is filled with statues and orange blossoms, the basement with marble busts, the upstairs with frescoes, portraits and period furniture. This less visited museum was worth it (and better than the palace in our view) to fully immerse in Mediciville for an hour and ponder what it must have been like to be so rich that you’d hire someone to paint your own portrait, and those of your family members, into the procession of the Magi in your own private chapel.
To Sum Up. In any place, especially cities, our favorite thing to do is to get lost in the neighborhoods, find a cafe, park, bar or gelateria and people watch. Italy has so many beautiful places and Florence embodies the country with its beauty, energy and variety. From the beautiful piazzas (my favorite in the evening is the Piazza della Signoria, for lunch it’s the Piazza della Repubblica for the street music while you dine), to the Arno’s bridges, to its statues and gardens, Florence is chocked full of so much to see, do and eat. It was one of our favorite places before this trip and having a little more than a week here only further cemented that place on our list. Che bello!
Final note: while this may sound blasphemous, after several weeks in Italy we were ready for some non pizza or pasta meals. While we did have some good pizzas and pastas here (queue the wild boar ragu) and sampled florentine beef filets, our favorite meals were the non Italian ones. The Persian restaurant, Ristorante Persiano Tehran, and the traditional Florentine steak house, Antico Fattore, were our favorite dinners and we loved the chicken curry at Bistrot della Galleria and the Poke Bowls at this little spot I cannot find the name of on Piazza Pitti. Our favorite lunch spot on Piazza della Repubblica was Vineria del Re and a good one right in our neighborhood was FrancescoVini. And finally, if you’re looking for a cheap sandwich, ignore whatever review the hoards must have read about All’Antico Vinaio and go a few steps past it to get the same thing in about a quarter of the time.