For my mum’s birthday this year, my sister and I surprised her with a weekend away to Florence. They flew from Amsterdam while I flew from London, and from the airport it was only 1.50 EUR to get the tram directly into the city centre. We found a hotel on the Via Nazionale that allowed three people to share a room (incl. breakfast); and it was a good thing that we were very central, because it rained quite a bit!
The first morning we headed toward the Duomo, just to have a look around the main square. We were never expecting to be able to go in, and the enormous queue (despite the waterfall of rain coming down from the sky) confirmed our pessimism in this respect. The Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, is one of the main landmarks of Florence. Construction began at the end of the 13th century, but was not completed until the first half of the 15th century – and the actual dome was finished even later. The amazing neo-gothic, red, green and white marble façade that decorates the exterior of the cathedral was actually a 19th century project. Fun fact, the first bishop of Florence was called Zenobius (later Saint Zenobius) (4th-5th century CE!) and his relics are now in the Duomo.
Anyway, we admired the Duomo from under our umbrellas and then wandered over to the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana (the Laurentian Library of Florence) instead. No queues there at all. We opted for a library-only ticket, which I think was 4 EUR per person. This 16th century library was heavily supported by the Medici family, designed by Michelangelo, and still contains thousands of historic manuscripts and early books as well as a collection of ancient papyri. I cannot believe people were queuing for the Duomo in the rain instead of going to see this! In the reading room, books were originally chained (to protect against theft) – although this is not the case any more today (surviving continuous chained libraries are incredibly rare now). Happily, there was also a special exhibition on maps while we were there, which included a map of our (almost) home town in Holland, Alkmaar!
Back into the rain then. Since we were in Florence around the 1st of December, Christmas shopping was in full swing. The streets were beautifully decorated with warm yellow lights and all the shop windows had special displays. I had a fun errand to run: a gift for a colleague in Morocco; which meant we had to visit all the stationary stores, and admire the beautiful Italian marbled paper. Taking random lefts and rights we eventually ended up on the Ponte alle Grazie, for a beautiful post-rain view of the Ponte Vecchio.
The Ponte Vecchio (literally, the old bridge) is the other famous sight of Florence. It is a bridge that had shops built on it – originally butchers but nowadays fortunately (for me, as a vegetarian) jewellers. According to the Internet, there would have been a bridge there during Roman times already, but several constructions well into the Middle Ages were destroyed by floods. The bridge you can see today primarily dates to the 14th century, and it was basically the only bridge in Florence not destroyed during WWII. There are many of these types of shop-bridges around Italy, and in fact around the world (think also about the Galata bridge in Istanbul!); but that does not make the Ponte Vecchio a less unique sight. The walk across it is pretty short however, and unless you were planning to buy jewellery (standard holiday activity?) you will quickly find yourself back on the Via por Santa Maria – one of the main shopping streets of Florence.
Since we had only walked around at this point, we thought it was time for a museum. With specific plans for the big galleries over the next few days, we opted for the National Archaeological Museum of Florence. I think adults were 8 EUR (mum), students or those under 26 were 2 EUR (sister), and, as it turns out, archaeologists or archaeology students (which I do still classify myself as) are free. The exhibition opened with a (special?) collection of Egyptian items, and then lead on to a history of Florence and Tuscany. There was some pre-history, and then of course an enormous Roman/Etruscan collection. There were really beautiful artefacts and objects there, including the bronze Chimera of Arezzo and one of the best-preserved painted sarcophagi I have ever come across (photo below!). The museum is huge and our brains were well exhausted after 2 hours (and a day of walking around the city). We skipped some extra Egyptian bits, and possibly more; I would say 4 hours + a cup of coffee would be the recommended time spent there really!
Time for a glass of wine. We ended up at a very nice place where it was 4.50 EUR per glass the first evening, but then made it a quest to find cheaper wine all weekend – and established eventually that a glass should definitely cost less than 3.50 EUR; 5-6 EUR for half a litre; 8-10 EUR for a litre. We had dinner at Braciere Malatesta Firenze that evening, which I can hugely recommend. Very good prices so near to the centre, and excellent food. I do think it is probably better suited to meat eaters (which my family isn’t) but we had good pasta and pizza and it had a great atmosphere.
The next day we created a battle plan over breakfast and set out for the Uffizi Gallery. It was a Saturday, so we were expecting it to be busy, but the next day would be the first Sunday of the month, and thus probably busier. Since we were anticipating major queues we headed there for opening time with the idea we’d buy a coffee and spend some time waiting. However, when we got there the queue was not massive, and all we had to do was wait for people with reserved tickets to enter first (who looked like they had either spent as long as us, or longer, in the line btw!); it took about 20 minutes, and we were in! Reserved tickets cost double and all the websites and blogs recommend them; but I got in on my student card and my sister on being under 26, which are not valid discounts online. The only full ticket we had to pay was mum’s, so in total we paid half, or less than half, of what reserved tickets would have cost, saving in the region of 40 EUR.
The Gallery is huge (several floors, starting at the top floor) so either plan your day wisely (with a lunch break in the middle; there is a (quite expensive) cafe) or strategically (skipping certain eras/artists). The Uffizi has been visited by people from all over the world for centuries, and its collection consists primarily of Italian Renaissance art. Amongst others, there’s Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. The building itself is amazing as well, with beautiful hallways (and we got great winter light coming in through the windows!) and stunning views of Florence, including the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. The crowds are worst in the first hallway and adjoining rooms, after that it gets a bit more quiet; presumably because tourists as part of tours or groups are forced to give up after 1 or 2 hours. So, do not linger in those first few rooms, but move along; and return there later if there are pieces you were really wanting to see. Despite the masses, it is worth a visit.
Afterwards, we had lunch (there were hundreds of people queuing for pizza sandwiches? It looked like New York, insane! so we skipped that and found somewhere more quiet) we went for a walk by the river, enjoying a little bit of sun in-between the showers. We ended up at the Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce. We decided the tickets were a little bit pricey (no discounts), and to see if it was open the next day on free Sunday instead (spoiler: it was Sunday so therefore it was, somewhat logically in hindsight, closed). A lot of very famous people are buried there (Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini) and it sounds like it might have made for a possible more interesting but definitely calmer visit than the Duomo. In any case, we decided to have a look around the Christmas market in the square instead. It was very small, but there were some unique stalls (especially some very lovely jewellery, infinitely more affordable than that on the Ponte Vecchio) and it felt rather festive.
We then tried to go explore the Mercato Centrale (or San Lorenzo Market), but at this point it was a bit late in the day and most shops there were closed (and of course, it is also mostly closed on Sundays; not great planning on our part). This indoor market is over a century old, and nowadays also includes a load of food stalls and restaurant type shops in the upstairs area. Personally, I think it would have been an excellent place to obtain a good block of parmigiano to go with our evening glass of wine. Next time!
On our final day we decided to brave the Galleria dell’Accademia (mainly because we found that the Santa Croce was closed!). Since it was free were were expecting very long lines, and did not even bother going particularly early. However, the line only extended on one wall of the building, not into the square (when we got there), and it moved very quickly. We were inside in under 5 minutes, and paid nothing! I think most people just went there to take a quick picture of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David – who has been standing there since the 19th century! – forgetting there is also an excellent collection of musical instruments as well as an entire upstairs gallery (the latter we did not actually have time for ourselves, as we had to get to the airport!).
We just about had time to squeeze in some lunch, and some more wine (ok maybe an entire bottle of wine) at Simbiosi before making a run for the train station. I’d had to change my flights for an unexpected conference in Morocco, and suddenly had to travel to Bologna. Note for future travel: great trains, great rail connections. Until next time, Firenze!