Florence is a museum. Yes, there are many museums in the city, but the old city IS a museum. It seemed that around every cobblestone street, there was another testament to the Rennaissance and one of its patrons – the Medicis. Piazzas, pontes, castles, galleries, and museums populate the historic city center. A and I explored it over three days, arriving early afternoon via train from Milan, staying two nights, and then departing for a road trip through Tuscany. In this post, I offer up our itinerary – it blends exploring the major sites across three days, with the necessary apertivo enjoyed every late afternoon and gorgeous dinners at night.
Day 1: Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and Ponte Vecchio
The stately marble Florence Catherdral (Doumo) is the first major site to see, we practically ran there after settling into our hotel. A had been to Florence eight years ago, but I think it still had magic for her. When we first saw it through the surrounding buildings, I felt her sigh. The catherdral is stunning and grand – Gothic architecture in the facade of rose windows, pointed arches, and carvings. The makeup is pure Florentine – three kinds of Italian marble. The Campanile (Bell Tower) stands like a guard at 376 feet high. We could not turn our heads away and ate a late lunch at one of the resaturants right in the square. A and I switched seats after the first course so we could equally share in the views.
Inside, the inlaid marble floor stretches like a field. We stopped along the way to look up and see the detail of the stained windows and the 24 hour clock by Paolo Uccello. The main attraction, however, is Brunelleschi’s dome. The gold story of the last judgement from the Bible bursts forth from the gray and green interior stone. I took pictures at every step, as each one revealed a new detail, a new scene in my point of view.
We finished our visit to the Duomo and walked towards the river Arno and the 13th Century bridge Ponte Vecchio. It is the only Florentine bridge to have survived World War II. You’ll know you’re on the right one because of the crowds. The bridge is covered inside and out with jewelry stores, which bulge over the river.
Day 2: Uffizi Gallery, Piazza della Signoria, and Climbing the Campinile
I got tickets to the Uffizi Gallery for as early as I could – both in day and time. I booked our time two months prior to coming and the earliest available reservation was 11:30 a.m. We walked from our hotel to the Piazza dell Signoria to make it there in time and as soon as we reached the square, crowds. Tons of people. Loads of people. All in the same position – heads up to the medieval castle and arms outstretched with cameras. A surmised, after seeing several people with Carnival stickers that it was cruise day – a day when the cruise ships doc in nearby Livourno and bus the interested passengers into Florence for the day. Away from one sea to this people sea.
The chaos continued past the Palazzo Vechio and the statue promenade, to the Lines of Uffizi. I will capitalize because they are a destination in themselves. There are a collective – lines for groups, lines for reservation holders, and lines for those who just showed up (note: NOT recommended). The latter line strung out from the entrance around the building and was noted with a sign stating “2 hours.” A found a spot in the line for those with reservations and I went to door number 3 to pick up our tickets at the appointed time. I joined her. There was somewhat of a system to the madness and it took us about 1/2 hour to get into the museum.
We rented audio guides, which I recommend for the 6 Euros because there are so many people reading the little placards at each piece the narrator gives the overview and story of the paintings or sculpture. The Uffizi is laid out in a U shape over two stories and the works of art are displayed in chronological order. This is helpful for non-art history types like myself who appreciate seeing each work building upon the foundation of the time prior. We started in the 13th century with depictions of Madonna and Child. These works have a flatter perspective (I learned!) and it was a big deal to “ground” Mary and Baby Jesus on a throne, making them more “earthly.”
In each room, at each painting and era, I could see the styles changing, the dimensions going from flat to full, to more human. By the time I reached the Bottecellis (Birth of Venus and Primavera), the paintings felt positively lush. And, for this visitor, a welcome break from the Biblical scenes. The audio guide helped me interpret the mythology and actually read the painting and see the stories and symbolism happening (again – not an art history major, just an appreciator). By the time I saw the Holy Family, one of Michaelangelo’s only paintings, I truly appreciated the artistic innovation brought on by his artistic forebearers. They paved the way to his sensual dimensionality and his genius showed through. The figures were bursting off the canvas in rippling shapes and movement.
At the end of the second floor “U” there is a terrace cafe that looks over the Piazza della Signoria and the tower feels very close. A got a prosecco and a snack there – a necessary break from the gallery viewing. The Ufizzi first floor covers the 16th and 17th centuries from both Italian and non-Italian artists. I continued to see the art evolution with more royal (read: Medici) portraiture and gruesome scenes out of Greek mythology. Medusa’s Mask by Carravaggio tells the story of her slaying in just one scene done, I thought, in a very creative way. (Note: A interpreted this for me, a benefit of traveling with an art history type).<BR
After being inside for several hours, I walked outside to the statues in the Logia dei Lanzi and snapped pictures of the statues of ancient Rome include the Rape of Sabine and Perseus all proud with Medusa’s head. I rested among the art, something I could not do inside the Ufizzi.
Our time at the Ufizzi definitely made us hungry so we stopped for lunch to gather strength and then headed back to the Duomo for our afternoon activity: Climbing the Campinile. We promised ourselves a drink from a nearby rooftop bar after climbing the 400+ steps. Motivated, we entered, paid the five euros, and started up. And up. And up. And up. Finally to the top and there was Duomo and Florence, terra cotta rooftops wedged into each other, towers and steeples spiking through, and, across the Arno, the green carpet of the Boboli gardens. That evening’s apertivo was enjoyed from the rooftop of la Rinascente with the sun setting and turning the Duomo golden.
Day 3: Michaelangelo’s David and the Oltrarno Neighborhood
Our appointment to see the David at the Galleria dell’ Accademia was early – 9 a.m. early, which for this girl on vacation felt like a time to wake up for work. I purposely chose as early as possible, two months ago, to avoid the crowds. And mission accomplished. There were barely any lines, the cruise ships must have departed or not yet arrived.
I wish I could have taken a picture of the first glimpse of the marble statue, but no cameras were allowed inside. It’s breathtaking, as in – I gasped or the breath was stolen or flushed of my body. Natural light from the dome above creates a spotlight on the work. It is magnificent.
Along the hallway to the David are half-carved statues from marble blocks 10-12 feet high. I looked close. They are a lesson in the detail required to represent the body in rock, in such smoothness. Large chisel marks give way to smaller and then what looked like tiny brush strokes before a perfectly arched knee or elbow or shin. Block by block, flake by flake, from stormy sea to calm waters of stone. I felt humbled by the amount of work and skill these half-finished statues took – a more natural scale of time, one born of hands and rock waiting for something to emerge versus a mechanical pounding chipping away at what exists. I was prepared to see and hopefully understand the David.
I felt pulled towards the statue with some force that also prevented me from looking away. He must be viewed and studied at every angle. Every curve of his nails, his buttocks, his legs and hands. His face carries an expression that can be seen from the right side of the display. He’s scared, determined. I wanted to follow his gaze and stand with the same grit in front of his Goliath.
To see David, is to see perfection in art, genius and mastery. But it’s still the human form. I realized in looking at him and all the people looking at him, that we carry this perfection with us each day, on ourselves, as our bodies. We have to thank Michaelangelo for capturing it so magnificiently, this divine and perfect form, our own human form.
After visiting the rest of the Galleria dell’ Accademia, I wandered past the Duomo, crossed the Arno and walked a walking tour of the Oltrarno neighborhood, famous for it’s craft shops, churches, and the Palazzo Pitti, essentially the Versailles of the Medici ruling family. It was early, so I grabbed a cappacino at one of the cafes near Santo Spirito and sat in the square before heading into the cool church. I walked towards Palazo Pitti. I couldn’t find many “traditional” craft stores open, instead I wandered down Via Maggio and Via Romano discovering three stores that were more modern craft shops: &Company, a curio shop, Guilo, a book, bag, and clothing store, and Corralina, a housewares shop.
I picked up souveniers and headed to the Palazzo Pitti. Feeling a little museum-ed out, I bought ticket number 2 and walked through the palace and up the hill into the Boboli Gardens. Where I napped. Later that evening Amanda and I met up for apertivos along the river and dinner on a rooftop, the picture window creating a frame for the lit up Duomo. The mulit-course dinner with exceptional service was a perfect end to our time in Florence. The next day, we picked up the rental car and headed out to the Tuscan countryside.
Hotel: We stayed at the Hotel Stella Maria. The two-star hotel had very friendly staff, clean, high-ceilinged rooms, and included breakfast and wifi. We paid 85 Euros for a double room. This was not actually the hotel we booked – the hotel we booked was closer the river, but much, much less safe and clean to what showed on the booking web site. We found Stella Maria after doing a cursory search on booking.com via A’s iphone and walking in the direction of hotels on Via Fume. I definiltely recommend the Hotel Stella Maria.
Restaurants of Note: Our last night’s dinner was at the top floor restaurant at the Grand Hotel Baglioni. White table cloths, exceptional service, delicious vino de la casa, delicious food, and THE VIEW – the Duomo lit up and framed by a large picture window. If you’re looking for more of a budget option. The hotel aslo has an apertivo hour on the rooftop terrace. Near the river, is the Ristorante il Profeta, which serves a menu in the tradition of the Medicis. In the Oltrarno neighborhood, I really enjoyed a budget lunch of pizza at Gustapizza, right near the Santo Spirito church.
Apertivs of Note: The best apertivo hour we enjoyed was at the Westin Excelsior and it’s Happy Moments menu. We did go to Harry’s bar along the Arno, but it was the view and riverside drinking that made the drink worth the price.
Tickets to the Uffizi and the David can be found on the official site.