Summer, what there was of it anyway, is just about over. Summer holiday memories and tans are fading (or the sunburn is peeling) and if you’re anything like me, it’s time to get back to regular routine. However, regular routine for me means dreaming about the next time I can go travelling. Surely it must be time to plan an Autumn break? Let me make the case for an Autumn break to Florence, Italy.
I’m one of those awful creatures, the (beginner) culture vulture. When I go places, I want to learn stuff, see stuff, experience new foods, hear different languages (particularly Italian) which is why, for a cultural city break, the Tuscan city of Florence is hard to beat. Sitting in the heart of some of the most beautiful Italian scenery, Florence is a city filled to the brim with cultural treasures, historic buildings and good food. But it’s more than that. It’s a place to shop, a place to people watch; it’s a city you feel you could really live in.
You can get to Florence by air; a small airport services Florence and its surrounding celebrity cities like Pisa and Siena. From the airport, a taxi to town costs 20€ (plus a small surcharge per passenger). You can also travel by rail. I have flown myself but, given that I reside in Switzerland, I would be more likely to take a train the next time I go. Finding somewhere to sleep shouldn’t be too much of a problem. There are thousands of hotels for all budgets and apartments to rent. Renting an apartment gives you a retreat on a hot busy day to decompress with lunch time panini. Weather-wise, Autumn is still warm in Florence with average temperatures in the 20’s°C. Rain isn’t so much a factor in planning a visit to Florence since a lot of your sightseeing will be indoors but when the sun is shining, there’s still plenty to discover outside.
So, what’s to do there?
Florence is absolutely full of cultural things to see and do. A visit to the Uffizi Gallery is, of course, a must for any first-time (or second, third, fourth-time, as the case may be) visitor to Florence. One of the oldest and most famous art galleries in the world, the Uffizi is a place to see renaissance masterpieces by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Caravaggio and so much more. Tickets to the Uffizi are often sold out on a daily basis so booking online well in advance before you leave really is a must. Beware of third-party ticket sellers though who will often charge as much as twice the cost of the ticket. Also, be aware that even though the Uffizi only lets visitors in every fifteen minutes, it is still very busy with tour groups and can be uncomfortably warm and stuffy. You may also need to practise the art of the subtle shoulder charge to edge your way into a good viewing spot of the more famous artworks.
The Uffizzi is not the only museum in town though. There is a lot for the art and history lover to work their way through. The Accademia (pre-buying tickets for this also a good idea), the Bargello, the Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Vecchio, are all worth your time. But you don’t need to be inside an art gallery to appreciate renaissance art because the streets of Florence are home to many, many wonderful pieces of sculpture. The Piazza della Signoria boasts a Roman Loggia, almost an outdoor art gallery, with many different, beautiful pieces of sculpture both renaissance and classical. Look to the left of the Loggia and see Michelangelo’s David standing in the sun. (OK, it’s a replica the original is in the Accademia. But this is the spot it was commissioned for and the effect is wonderful.) And don’t miss (you can’t miss) Ammannati’s exceptional Neptune Fountain. A five-minute walk away, the amazing marble masterpiece that is the Piazza del Duomo may even bring a tear to your eye with its beauty.
Florence’s many, many churches also serve as museums, housing some magnificent works of art and the tombs of some of the world’s most accomplished people; Michelangelo’s tomb can be found in Santa Croce along with Galileo and Machiavelli. However, for me, Florence’s churches are architectural marvels. The dome of Florence cathedral is a wonder and you can climb nearly to the top if you have the stamina to tackle 400-odd stairs. The Basilica of San Lorenzo, unassuming from the outside in its unfinished, boring, brown brick, belies the incredible collection of architectural pearls housed within the complex. Compare Brunelleschi’s Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy) to one of Michelangelo’s most celebrated architectural achievements, the Sagrestia Nuova (New Sacristy). The New Sacristy houses a couple of massive Michelangelo sculptures which are unfinished and give a great insight into the process of carving a block of marble into a masterpiece.
A not-so-little oasis
Florence doesn’t have many green spaces so a visit to the Boboli Gardens would be a welcome break from art and history for a while. Quite expensive to visit at €10 per adult though and you need some good lungs to haul yourself up the steep slope of the amphitheatre garden to get great views of Florence and Tuscany. Worth the effort though, I promise you. Take a bottle of water/drink with you for hot days.
Sightseeing-wise, what I’ve just told you is only the tip of the iceberg. Even before I’d left after five days, I was already planning a return visit to see everything I’d missed. The Gozzoli Frescoes for example.
You’ll need to eat.
Before you head out for the day, treat yourself to a cappuccino and a pastry from one of the cafe bars. Try to stay away from cafes in the more touristy areas; the price of coffee varies widely from 5€ in the Uffizi Gallery cafe to 1.20€ in a less central cafe. Same too for panini at lunch time, a glass of prosecco in the evening (9€ on the Piazza della Signoria, 4€ in a wine bar two streets away from the cathedral) or dinner at night. I was warned that Florence was expensive for eating and drinking before I left. I only really found this to be true when eating in the main squares. A pizza and a glass of wine in the Piazza de Santa Croce was less than 15€. Some restaurants offer tourist menus, three courses for 15€ which I found to be good value. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a gelato while wandering the city. It was invented in Florence after all.
Gastronomic top tip/warning: Crostini Toscana, a popular Florentine antipasto dish, is chopped up chicken liver. It’s not my thing, it may well be yours.
I mentioned shopping, didn’t I?
You won’t walk far in Florence before coming across one of its multitude of leather shops. If you’ve a hankering for a new leather jacket, it’s worth bringing some extra euros with you to buy it in Florence. You like gold? Jewellery? The world-famous Ponte Vecchio is a bridge dedicated to the art of jewellery design & creation, lined both sides with more jewellery shops than your credit card can handle. Of course, you can also find boutiques of big & little name designers, big makeup shops and shoe shops and buy as many souvenirs as you can fit in your suitcase from the historic Mercato Nuovo. Pottery and ceramics also have a hold on the tourist trade and can be found in many gorgeous little gift shops. Oh, the window shopping I’ve done in Florence.
Another couple of points before I stop waxing lyrically about one of Europe’s most beautiful and historic cities- it’s very walkable. Florence is a small city with the main attractions all within a small radius. So, as long as you book accommodation in the centre of town, taxi money shouldn’t have to figure into your budget. There’s a city tour bus, one of those open-top double deckers most European cities operate now but the round trip isn’t very long and obviously, the buses are too large to navigate the intricate network of tiny ancient Florentine streets in the city centre so the tour skirts around the outside of the city.
Before I left, I had read about personal safety. The item I read warned tourists to be careful of their belongings and for women to be careful. Because of this I didn’t wear expensive jewellery or sunglasses while I was there and kept a good hold of my crossbody handbag at all times. However, my girlfriends and I all agreed that none of us felt threatened or unsafe at any time. Don’t get complacent though. Just as when you’re travelling anywhere, keep yourself safe at all times.
So, have you booked yet? Can I come too?