Once my parents and I had boarded our train at Termini Station in Rome we found our seats and settled down for the ride north to Florence. We were all seated together with my parents facing forward on one side of small table while I was facing backwards. It had been six years since I had taken a train north from Rome but because I had traveled so much around Italy in both 2012 and 2015 it felt strangely routine. This would be our first transit day while in Italy and I think it was a good introduction for my parents to the European train network since it was a simple train ride with no connections. I think it was also this day that I started to feel the gathering storm of the sickness that would make things miserable for me for quite a few days on the trip. Then again it might have actually been the day before that—I’m not totally sure.
As the train steadily glided northward I tried to be productive and get things in order while my parents enjoyed the passing scenery. I contacted the host of our next apartment to let her know of our approximate arrival time. She replied back that she was running a bit late that day and needed an extra 30 minutes before she’d be at the apartment to let us in. While not ideal, this was a very minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things and I let her know we’d be fine until she was able to arrive. I then did some more reading to help plan out our time in Florence and see if there was anything I had forgotten about when I was doing research at home. When the train got close to Florence we met another family of Americans on the train who were on vacation in Italy. They were from Minnesota and the cool November weather in Italy was quite pleasant compared to the weather they were getting back in their home state.
Santa Maria Novella is Florence’s main train station and kind of small compared to Termini Station in Rome. We needed to get from there to our apartment that was a block east of the duomo (cathedral) but since our host was running late we we’re exactly in a hurry. Having visited Florence twice beforehand I mostly remembered the route from the train station to the duomo and given how small the historic core of the city is we didn’t take long to get there. To use up a bit more time we slowly walked around the duomo taking pictures. A couple of sections of the duomo’s exterior were covered in scaffolding for restoration work and some of the stonework looked like it could use a scrubbing.
When we got to the apartment we still had another ten or so minutes before our host would get there so we just waited outside for her. Our host first pulled up in her car to say hello and then told me she needed a quick minute to park her car. Once she had done that she came back and took us up to the apartment, which was on the fourth floor of the building it was in [Clarification: Europeans would call it the third floor]. There was no elevator in the building but my parents were still strong enough that this wasn’t a problem. This apartment would be my favorite place that we stayed at while in Italy and I think it was my parent’s favorite too. It had good beds, a nice bathroom, a full kitchen, a washing machine, a spacious living room/dining room area, and was very clean and well maintained. Being right in the heart of Florence we were also an easy walk from most of the city’s attractions. On top of all that the big window by the dining table had a view of the cathedral’s dome. Each morning and evening as we sat down to eat my parents could look out that window at one of the city’s most famous sights. We set our things down in the apartment and then set out to do a little sightseeing while the sun was still up.
We walked back to the duomo and then went south along Via dei Calzaiuoli until we arrived at Piazza della Signoria, the main square of Florence. This square has been an important focal point of Florence for centuries and is home to the Palazzo Vecchio from which the city has been administered since the 1300s. We’d be coming back to Piazza della Signoria a few more times during our stay in Florence due to it’s location and we moved on from there further south towards the Arno River. To get there we passed underneath the Uffizi Gallery and once at the river we headed east towards our main destination.
That destination was the panoramic viewpoint at Piazzale Michelangelo. Located up on a hill in the southeast corner of central Florence, Piazzale Michelangelo is just a big parking lot but it’s a parking lot with possibly the best view in Italy. Some people drive up there or take the bus but we hiked to the top and got there as the sun was starting to get low. From up there you can see the whole of Florence’s historic core and even though it can get crowded up there the view is worth whatever hassle the tourist hordes give you. It was mostly cloudy that day so the lighting wasn’t quite what I wanted but I still got some good photos.
When my parents and I felt we were done taking pictures we came down the hill and took a scenic route on our way back towards the city center. We first wandered through the backstreets of Florence’s Oltrarno District as the sun was going down and the city lights were starting to come on. Oltrarno literally translates to “beyond the Arno” and is the part of Florence that is on the south side of the Arno River. Much of the tourist horde that visits Florence each year stays on the north side of the Arno but there a number of attractions in the Oltrarno such as Piazzale Michelangelo, the Pitti Palace, Basilica Santo Spirito, and some really good gelato shops that are worth checking out down there.
To get back across the river we crossed Florence’s oldest and most famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio Bridge we see today was finished in 1345 and is the third version of the bridge (the previous two bridges were destroyed by floods in 1117 and 1333). Unlike other bridges in the city, the Ponte Vecchio is covered in jewelry shops and my parents and I did a little window-shopping as we slowly made our way over the bridge. In the old days it was mostly butcher shops that were on the bridge but they got booted out in the late 16th Century to make the bridge classier (and less smelly). Running over the top of the stores is a covered passageway called the Vasari Corridor that used to connect the Pitti Palace on the south side of the river with the city’s town hall at the Palazzo Vecchio on the north side. The corridor allowed the Medici family to get from one place to the other without having to come into contact with the lower classes they ruled over.
While heading north back towards the duomo we quickly stopped at the bronze Fontana del Porcellino sculpture. Sometimes referred to as Il Porcellino, which means “the piglet” in Italian, this fountain looks like a wild boar and it used to supply water to the market where it is located. It’s a tradition among visitors to Florence to rub the boar’s snout and then put a coin into its mouth and let the coin fall through the grate below. This supposedly brings good luck and ensures a return visit to Florence one day. I took part in this tourist tradition so hopefully at some point in the future I’ll find myself back in Florence again.
From there we cut over to Via dei Calzaiuoli, the street that connects Piazza della Signoria with the area in front of the duomo. This is one of Florence’s main shopping streets and it’s completely pedestrianized. During the time we were in Florence the city had put out decorative lights that hung over the street, making for a nice walk back to the duomo, even though it was pretty crowded.
When we got back to the duomo area we headed east to the apartment and rested there for a little bit. For dinner we decided to go to the San Lorenzo Market, which is over in the northwest part of central Florence. We got there only to find that it was seemingly closed. This actually wasn’t the case—while the stores on the lower level were indeed closed the upper level restaurants were open and we had merely arrived on one of the sides of the building that is locked at night. I pulled up Google Maps on my phone and saw that there was a supermarket right by our apartment, so we went back and bought food there before returning to the apartment.
After dinner my mom was done walking for the day but I wanted to head out for some gelato and my dad came with me. Having visited Florence twice before, I knew exactly where I was going and I led my dad back down to the Arno River and across to the south side. We’d be going to two gelato shops that I had eaten at in the past and I wanted to still see if they were as good as they had been. The first was Gelateria Santa Trinita, where I had some excellent chocolate mousse gelato. After that we moved west a block. Along the way my dad stopped to look at the house/apartment listings in the window of a real estate office. I don’t think my parents have any actual plans to leave America but Florence was their favorite city in Italy and if they moved there they’d probably see about finding a home in Florence. Anyways, we then came to my favorite gelato shop in Florence, La Carraia. I first visited La Carraia back in 2012, before the Trip Advisor crowd discovered it, and it has consistently impressed me every time I’ve gone there. My dad and I got some great gelato there and we’d be coming back there one more time before we left Florence. Were I traveling by myself I would have gone back multiple times.
Having finished our gelato, we crossed the river back to the north side and then followed Via de’ Tornabuoni northwards. This turned out to be a good choice since Via de’ Tornabuoni is another scenic street and was much less crowded than Via dei Calzaiuoli had been. We stayed on Via de’ Tornabuoni all the way until we reach Via dei Pecori and then we headed back east to the duomo and the apartment where we’d end the day.
The next morning after breakfast we decided we’d start with two places just a bit north of the duomo: the Basilica di San Lorenzo and the Accademia Gallery. On our way to them we stopped by one of the city’s tourism offices to purchase Firenze Cards that would get us in to all the places we’d be visiting for the next two days and (perhaps most importantly) let us skip the lines at the Accademia and Uffizi galleries. Firenze Cards are not cheap, so they’re only worth buying if you’re going to be doing a lot of sightseeing in Florence. If you’re only visiting a very small number of attractions you’re better off just buying individual tickets.
With that little bit of business taken care of we went over to the Accademia Gallery. A light rainfall was coming down that morning but with our Firenze Cards we only had to wait a minute or two outside before we were able to get in. The gallery was the same as I remembered it from 2012 and 2015, though it had a new exhibit on musical instruments from the Renaissance. While that exhibit was nice and the Accademia has a few rooms with paintings and sculptures, there really is only one reason people visit the gallery: to see Michelangelo’s David. Probably the most famous statue ever made, David is right around halfway through the tour route of the Accademia and always has a crowd surrounding it. While on one hand this means you don’t have to go far to get to David, on the other hand it means that everything that comes after David is kind of a disappointment. Once you’ve seen David all the other sculptures look second-rate by comparison. We spent at least an hour inside the Accademia before heading back out into the rain to continue our sightseeing.
We next came to the San Lorenzo Church. This was the parish church of Florence’s ruling Medici family and is probably best known for its unfinished exterior facade, which is the result of the church’s construction fund running out of money. Renaissance artist Michelangelo submitted a design for the facade in the 1500s and there’s been talk over the years of using it to finally finish the church but as of right now no action has been taken. We quickly looked around the church’s cloister and then went inside the church itself. Unlike the outer facade, the church’s interior is completely finished and we spent some time in there looking around and drying off. I particularly like the color and lighting of parts of San Lorenzo—the area around the high altar has something like a slight blueish tint. San Lorenzo doesn’t get as many visitors as the duomo and it can be a good place to visit if you’re feeling overwhelmed by Florence’s crowds. As an interesting side note, San Lorenzo might be the oldest church in Florence. The original church—which was demolished to construct the current version—was consecrated in 393 and San Lorenzo was also Florence’s cathedral until the seat of the bishop was transferred to Santa Reparata, a church that is now underneath the duomo.
Once we were done at San Lorenzo we returned to the area by the duomo to see about getting reservations for climbing the cathedral’s dome. In the past you would wait in a long and very slowly moving line to go up the dome but these days you have to make a reservation at the duomo’s office that is right next to it on the north side. The reservation was free since we had Firenze Cards, however the next available slot for us wasn’t for another two hours so we decided to go back to the apartment to eat lunch. Having an apartment just a block away from the duomo was very convenient and whatever premium we paid for staying in such a good location was worth every cent. It was around this time that the rain thankfully stopped.
Lunch at the apartment was a nice break and after we had eaten we still had over an hour before our reserved time to climb the dome so we did two other duomo-related activities. First we climbed the duomo’s bell tower, which is known as Giotto’s Campanile in honor of the architect who came up with the original design of the tower. If you only had time to either climb the bell tower or climb the dome I would tell you to climb the bell tower, which might surprise some people. There are actually several things that the bell tower has going for it. The duomo bell tower does not require reservations to climb, it normally doesn’t have a line outside of it, and I personally think it has a more scenic view at the top than what you get from climbing the dome. This is because when you’re up in the bell tower you can see all of Florence and the dome, whereas when you climb the dome you can’t see much of the dome itself. One disadvantage the bell tower has, however, is that there are metal safety nets at the top, so if you have a camera with a large lens you might have trouble getting the photos you want. These safety nets used to have large gaps in them that you could easily fit just about any camera through but at some point after my last visit in 2015 the city added a second layer to the nets and now the gaps are a lot narrower. The next thing we did, after coming down the bell tower was go into the duomo’s large octagonal baptistery. On the east side of the baptistry are replicas of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors that Michelangelo dubbed the Gates of Paradise. It took Ghiberti 27 years to finish the bronze plates and decorations of these doors and they are considered one of the first great pieces of Renaissance art. Inside the baptistry the most notable feature is the gold mosaic ceiling. This mosaic is medieval and it reminds me a lot of the mosaic ceiling of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.
By the time we were finished with the baptistry it was close to our reserved time for climbing the dome and we got in line on the duomo’s north side. As we were standing around waiting to get in I realized how much better the reservation system was than the old system where you just got in line and waited to climb the dome. Under the old system your only chance of going up the dome without having to wait two hours (or more) was to show up really early before the dome opened. With the reservation system there is a chance that you might not be able to get the time slot you wanted the most but you’re standing in line a lot less. After a little while the duomo staff started letting us in and we began our climb. Before you get up to the top you actually get an up-close view of the art on the underside of the dome, which is pretty neat, and you pass through some rooms that show some of the tools used to build the structure. To reach the top of the dome you have to climb the space between the inner and outer domes and the passageways are narrow at several points but when you finally arrive at the top you step out to sweeping views of Florence. It was getting dark when we got to the top of the dome and we got to take in the nighttime view of the city. The narrow lanes of Florence were like little ribbons of light criss-crossing the city and connecting its various squares and historic buildings.
The main part of the duomo had closed for the day when we got down so we didn’t explore the church’s interior, though we saw a bit of it while climbing and descending the dome. Being late November the days were shorter and the city’s sightseeing attractions were on reduced hours, which meant we couldn’t get as much done each day as we would have if we were visiting closer to summer. We wanted to do one more thing to wrap up the day, however, and I saw that the duomo museum was still open for another hour so we went there. The museum is just behind the duomo on the east side and holds a lot of art that’s been removed from the duomo and its baptistry for preservation. Among other things it holds Ghiberti’s original bronze doors for the baptistry and a pieta by Michelangelo. If you had gone inside the duomo and were wondering why the interior seemed rather plain compared to a lot of other churches you’d discover that all the missing art is hanging out in the duomo museum.
After finishing at the museum we returned to the apartment for dinner. Later that night we all went out again so my mom could see Via de’ Tornabuoni and some of the other things my dad and I had seen the previous night. Later on I ventured out on my own to a gelato shop right by the duomo called Gelateria Edoardo. It was pretty good, but not as good as Santa Trinita or La Carraia.
In the morning I did a quick run to the grocery store for one or two things and then after breakfast we went back to the San Lorenzo Market and spent some time looking around the various food stores on the ground level. The market has quite a variety of foodstuffs to choose from and I purchased some dried fruit while my parents bought a few other things. We then went up to second level of the market and quickly walked around the food court up there. There were a few dozen people eating there but in the morning the restaurants aren’t overly busy. We also noticed while we were up there that there was a cooking class going on in a large showroom. I’m not much of a cook but getting some lessons from a master Florentine chef would have been cool thing to do if we had time.
We then made our way down towards Piazza della Signoria and along the way the rain started coming down again. I remember I was starting feel a bit worse that day but the flu-like ailment that was building up inside me hadn’t reach full strength just yet. When we got to the piazza we briefly stepped into the inner courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. If we had more time we would have gone into the civic museum but we needed to get to the Uffizi so we just looked around for five minutes before departing. Along the walls are frescoes of old maps of Florence and there was also wedding photo shoot was going on while we were there.
Thankfully the entry lines for the Uffizi are shielded from the rain and while the wait to get inside was a bit longer than at the Accademia we didn’t have to stand around for too long. Once we got through the gallery’s security checkpoint we went up the stairs and started our tour. The Uffizi used to hold the offices of the magistrates who managed the city but over time it steadily transformed into an exhibit of all the art that the Medici family accumulated. In 1865 it officially became a museum that was open to the public and today the Uffizi is one of the most popular art galleries on the planet. Despite having visited the Uffizi twice beforehand I had forgotten just how much art the gallery holds and my parents and I would spend over two hours in there. A ton of stuff that you’ve likely seen in art history or European history books is in the Uffizi, with the most notable works such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus being on the upper level. People seem to skip over much of the art on the lower level, which I can understand since after seeing all the wonders of the upper level you might be feeling overwhelmed, but if you’re not on a tight schedule there’s some good stuff in there too.
It was already the afternoon when we finally finished at the Uffizi Gallery and we then crossed the Ponte Vecchio to the south side of the river to head up to the Pitti Palace. On our way there we stopped at a small pizzeria for a quick bite that turned out to be not the greatest pizza ever but it was good enough. From there it was just another two minutes walk uphill to the palace entrance. The Pitti Palace, called the “Palazzo Pitti” in Italian, used to be the home of a Florentine banker named Luca Pitti. In the 1500s the palace was sold to the Medici family who enlarged it and eventually made it their family residence. Because it was a place where people lived, the Pitti Palace’s collection of treasures has a lot of expensive furniture, luxury goods, and chandeliers along with paintings and sculptures. In the back of the Palace are the Boboli Gardens, however they closed for the day before we got to them. We still got to see parts of the gardens through the windows of the palace but I think my parents would have liked them a lot, especially my mom who is an avid gardener. The sun had gone down when we exited the Pitti Palace and we then crossed the river back to the north side and returned to the apartment.
For dinner that night we went back to the San Lorenzo Market and found the correct outdoor entrance that took us up to the upper level with the restaurants. It was a Saturday night and the entire level was packed with people. We must have spent 15 minutes walking around, looking both at our dining options and searching for a group of three open seats next to each other. When we finally got a group of three seats my mom held down the fort while my dad and I ventured out for our meal. I was tasked with getting some roast chicken from a particular restaurant while my dad went to go get some pasta. We divvied up our dinner when my dad and I got back and my parents had some wine to drink while I bought a soda. The family next to us at the table turned out to be another group of Americans though I forget exactly which state they were from. Our dinner at the San Lorenzo Market was a good one and I’d recommend it to anyone visiting Florence. Just know that it can get very crowded at certain times.
After finishing our dinner we went all the way down to La Carraia so that my mom could experience some of the gelato there. We also visited the Florence bus station to see about buying bus tickets for the next day but we were told that you cannot buy tickets for future dates. That merely meant we’d be buying tickets the next morning and it wasn’t a big deal.
The following morning we packed up our backpacks and prepared to leave Florence. I woke up that morning feeling miserable and the cold, rainy weather that day wasn’t helping. To this day I’m not sure where or how I got infected with what felt like the flu but my mom theorized that I might have gotten it from her. My mom works as a schoolteacher and consequently is bathed in disease nearly every day, so maybe she was unwittingly carrying something that got passed on to me. Both of my parents remained completely healthy throughout the trip and in retrospect it was probably for the best that it was I out of the three of us that got sick. I’m still young enough that I can power through something like the flu whereas my parents would probably be slowed down much more.
We left the apartment for the last time a little after 10:00am. That day the Florence Marathon was being held and both the start and finish lines of the race were right by the duomo. Despite the rain, the race was apparently in progress without any delays and it would be some time before the winner crossed the finish line. We didn’t stick around to see that, however, and proceeded on to the bus station where we purchased our bus tickets to Siena. It was going to be over an hour before the next bus to Siena departed and I personally would have liked to use that time to do last-minute sightseeing near the bus station but my mom thought it best that I stay out of the rain as much as possible so we instead went over to the nearby train station where we bought tickets for our future train ride north to Venice. Then we just sat around in the mall beneath the train station until about 10 minutes before the bus’ scheduled departure at which point we then walked back to the bus station. The bus showed up on time and soon we were on board and leaving Florence. Despite the rain we still had a great time in the city and I think my parents enjoyed this part of our trip more than any other.