As I’ve mentioned, I spent my study abroad semester in Florence, Italy so it holds a special place in my heart. It’s particularly special because I went abroad during a very difficult time in my life. I was struggling with several issues – all of which were mostly resolved by the time I came home. Florence was a city of healing for me. It’s also where I learned photography, ignited my wanderlust, and became extremely comfortable in my own skin. Last year, I got to share parts of that with my husband as we spent part of our honeymoon in Florence. I realize that Florence cannot be all those things for everyone, but I do want people to experience “my” Florence. It will always be on my list of places you should go.
Florence Travel Guide – Getting Around:
I have flown directly into FLR around 10:00pm and grabbed a cab to the city centre. Easy enough. In 2010, I flew into Pisa and boarded the Terrevision bus to Florence Santa Maria Novella (the main train station). We around midnight, so we just snagged a cab to our hotel. There’s a taxi line outside the main entrance. Just exit the platforms and keep walking straight ahead. In 2015 and 2016, we arrived via train from Rome (easy trip) and Pisa (even easier trip) and grabbed a cab to the St. Regis Florence. Arrival is basically the only time when I will use cabs because cobblestones shred plastic wheels. When I studied abroad, I happily walked to/from the train station to my apartment with my weekender bag. It doesn’t take more than 10-15 minutes to get most places. Despite throngs of tourists, it’s manageable.
After dropping off luggage, the best way to truly experience Florence is to walk it. If you take cabs, you’ll miss the beauty of the city. I love ducking down small streets to see where they lead, climbing through winding streets that lead to the Pizzale Michelangelo, and watching the world go by in large piazzas. Florence does all of that extremely well. Cabs are expensive. The city is a complex maze of one way streets. You’ll miss a lot of Florence’s charm if you just take cabs from one big site to the next. Wander. Explore. Get lost. You’ll never be far from home because Florence just isn’t that big.
Florence Travel Guide – Where to Stay:
After realizing that my Florence apartment will never again be my home, I have made the deliberate choice that the St. Regis Florence (2015 and 2016) is my home now. I love their rooms, I love their staff, I love that their location is slightly removed from the crowds, and I love listening to the Arno rush by my room. Whenever I was sad or lonely during my study abroad semester, I would sit on the banks of the Arno. Sometimes I would write in my journal. It would remind me that life is beautiful and there is so much yet to be explored. The St. Regis Florence river view rooms offer me that constant reminder.
A more budget-friendly option is the Hotel California, which is one block away from my apartment in Florence. (I lived on via dei Servi) My mom and I stayed here for the nostalgia factor and the location. It is a perfectly adequate hotel with a decent breakfast, a rooftop terrace with a view, and a very kind staff. It is not particularly fancy. In fact, it reminded me A LOT of my apartment. If your goal is sightseeing and you don’t need a lot of ambiance, it’s a very economical option with a great location.
Florence Travel Guide – Where to Get Your Culture On
Florentine museum culture can be daunting for even the most fervent art lovers. (I know; I’m friends with some of them.) My husband and I do not fall in that category, but here are some things we did to get the most out of the rich Florentine culture.
Skip the Line Small Group Uffizi Walking Tour* – Our guide, William, was incredible. In fact, had we not waited so long in our trip to book this tour, we would have hired him for private tours. The Uffizi is absolutely daunting, and we really had no perspective for Renaissance art. William walked us through various rooms of the Uffizi, helping us understand not only the art but also the political context in which the Renaissance was born. Obviously, we saw the “big” works of art like The Birth of Venus, but William also taught us a lot about what makes Renaissance art different. He showed us how these artists were able to take flat paintings to new dimensions using color. I found it to be a great introduction to the museum, the time period, and the art. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Uffizi for the first time. William’s passion for the subject was contagious and he refused to be deterred by the somewhat sluggish enthusiasm by our group. The only drawback of this tour is that it begins at 1:30; I recommend going on an empty stomach so as not to experience the post-lunch lag. If you decide not to do a tour, buy your tickets in advance or have your concierge reserve them. Don’t spend all day in line. Seriously. Skip the line. It’s totally a thing.
Museo Leonardo da Vinci – If you are traveling with scientists, engineers, or children, this museum is for you! It’s tiny, but they have rebuilt some of da Vinci’s contraptions exactly as his drawings called for and it’s incredible to see how progressive he was for his time period. When I visited the da Vinci Museum, I realized what a “Renaissance man” truly is. I know that we like to classify ourselves as “math people” and “non-math people”, but da Vinci really proves that you can do both. Art and science can complement each other. Bonus/fun fact: It’s located on via dei Servi and right across the street from my apartment! You can wave hello to the Turkish restaurant that made my clothes smell like their food.
Academia – Yet another amazing site that was a block from my apartment (and right down the street from the Hotel California). The original David is housed here, so again, you’ll want to buy tickets in advance. Book a skip the line tour/ticket or have your concierge arrange your visit. I’ve seen these lines snake for blocks down via Ricasoli during high season so save yourself the headache.
Museo Galileo – This wasn’t my favorite museum to visit, but I’ve recommended it to other scientist/engineer types and they LOVED it. You’ll have to decide for yourself. There are some really cool things in here, but there wasn’t as much about Galileo has I had hoped. It’s tucked away on the back side of the Uffizi and offers some beautiful views overlooking the Arno. I would go when it’s least likely to be crowded because it could feel pretty stuffy. We found after lunch to be a good time for us.
Florence Travel Guide – Florence with a View
Piazzale Michaelangelo – I’ve talked about this place before. It remains one of my favorite places to watch the sun set. You can take a bottle of wine, some snacks (hello Eataly – you’re so affordable I can’t even be mad that you took over my favorite bookstore), and really enjoy the experience along with a couple hundred of your closest friends (take that for what it’s worth). The sunrise from there can be particularly beautiful and less crowded, but it requires you to get moving pretty early. I’m hoping to explore a couple of other vantage points on another trip, but for now the Piazza Michelangelo stays on the list because it allows you to experience the vibrant colors of sunset that inspired numerous artists from the Renaissance and beyond.
Boboli Gardens/Pitti Palace – If you want to feel like you have this place to yourself, go when they open. We arrived shortly after opening, and despite a few school groups, we managed to wander around the gardens for a few hours. At some point, we emerged onto the terrace near the Porcelain Museum and found ourselves staring at the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside. Absolutely breathtaking. You don’t even realize how far above the city you get and, all of the sudden, you find a completely difference side of Florence. One of my favorite experiences ever. I still love to imagine what it must have been like to live there and have those gardens be your backyard. (I’m quite intrigued by the idea of the Vasari Corridor that runs from the Uffizi but I’ve yet to explore it.)
The Golden View Restaurant and Bar – Again, maybe it’s the nostalgia factor (my friends took me here for my 22nd birthday) but there’s something magical about getting a table overlooking the Ponte Vecchio at night. There’s an extensive menu (something for everyone), live music, energetic ambiance, and a view. What’s not to love? (I’ll own the fact that it might be considered a little touristy. I definitely come for the view though.)
Florence Travel Guide – Romantic Florence
Facibeni Fotographia – We hired Cristiano for a portrait session in Florence and we were not disappointed. He did a fantastic job capturing us in my beautiful city. These portrait sessions (we did L’Amour de Paris in 2015) are some of my favorite souvenirs. They have made planning Christmas cards so much easier. It’s also a fun way to get advice from a local on places to go, things to see, and what their favorite experiences are.
inTavola Cooking Classes – My husband really loves tours when we travel and I really love experiences. I particularly love experiences where I can bring something home. (Making pesto in Cinque Terre? I brought the recipe and alllll the goods home.) Cooking classes are a great way to do this. I’ve taken the pizza and gelato class at inTavola; it does not disappoint. (Again, pizza and gelato. What’s not to love?) inTavola has small classes and the lessons are very hands on. At the end of the class, you descend into the (very nice) basement to enjoy your creations with your new friends and wine.
Florence Travel Guide – Bonus Round
Best Bistecca all Fiorentina – Trattoria Sostanza – In the coming weeks, I’ll do a breakdown of the two competing restaurants that show up on all the lists (Buca Mario and Sostanza), but I’ve been coming to Sostanza for over 10 years and they win. It’s not fancy, it’s not elaborate, it’s not big, and it can be impossible to get into without a reservation… but it’s worth camping out for before they open and begging for a table when they do. (Just kidding – you don’t have to beg. They are the nicest and quite friendly.) If you want ambiance, Buca Mario is a solid option… but Sostanza edges them out for us. If you’re not a red meat-eater, their petti di pollo al burro (butter chicken) is solid, too. Many might argue it’s their better dish.
Most Under-Appreciated Sight – Basilica of St. Croce – Everyone comes to Florence to ooh and ahh over il Duomo and its dome (and rightly so) but keep walking and find St. Croce. It looks quite a bit smaller than the Duomo, but the inside reveals that you can’t judge a basilica by its facade! In the early morning light, it is positively enchanting. You have to go inside. I also love the artists that hang out in the piazza – they don’t get started until mid-morning, but I find their work to be more authentic than the more touristy areas of Florence.
Cheapest Meal in Florence – Gusta Pizza – Besides picking up easy supermarket essentials at Conad (definitely worth it – I still dream about fresh green olive focaccia that I devoured in the Piazza Signoria one afternoon), Gusta Pizza is the solid option for a hot meal in Florence that won’t break the bank. Favorited by students (undoubtedly for its prices), there’s usually a line and you’ll have to fight for a shared table. The pizza is served piping hot and fresh, and you could take it to go if you don’t want to fight for a table. It’s across the Arno and a 15-minute walk from the city center, but it’s worth it.