Why I went here? It is the birthplace of The Renaissance which makes it an obvious stop in any Italian tour, especially if coming from Rome. The two cities are a mere 90 minutes apart via rail. Beauty, art, and food were the main draws for coming here.
Best time to visit? Spring for the wildflower blooms, the artichoke season, and nice weather. Summer is best, if you want to visit the countryside. The sunflowers are in bloom and the images of Tuscany we often see are taken during these periods. It can be very hot though.
Best way to get there? Florence is a relatively small town for a provincial capital. The airport closest to the historical town is not even big enough to handle international arrivals so if coming from the US, your best bet is to fly into Rome or Milan and take the train to Florence. If connecting in Europe, you will most likely fly into Pisa and will connect via rail to Florence. The main station is Santa Maria Novella. Rome and Milan are both 1.5 hrs by train. One way train tickets cost anywhere from 19-45 euros. Pisa is 1 hr by train and the cost is anywhere from 10-21 euros.
What to see/do? Florence is where The Renaissance began and to view the best collection of that era, head over to The Uffizi. This building, adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, contained the offices (hence Uffizi) of the Medici family, Florence’s most influential family. The museum is not large but can be overwhelming at times. Within the walls hang some of the most revered and beautiful paintings in the world. The ceiling is completely covered with frescoes and the corridors are lined with paintings and sculptures commissioned or obtained by the Medicis. Ticket reservations are highly recommended since this is the most popular attraction in Florence. If you are craving more art, visit The Accademia Gallery and its most famous resident…David. This Michelangelo masterpiece is considered to be the most perfect male modeled sculpture. He stands seventeen feet tall, pondering his fate as he awaits his battle with Goliath. Other notable works of art include paintings and sculptures of other Renaissance greats like Boticelli and Giambologna. The Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore is also a popular attraction, particularly the infamous Brunelleschi dome. The church is free, but you’ll have to pay a small fee of $10-12 to visit the museums and to go up the dome. As with any churches in Italy, dress appropriately. You will not be allowed in if your knees or shoulders are showing. The Baptistery across the Duomo is also worth a look, particularly the bronze doors that guard the north and south entrances. The Campanile adjacent to the Duomo allows tourists to climb up its stairs (also for $10-12) where you’ll be rewarded with some of Florence’s best city views, including a close up of the infamous red dome. Florence is also a pedestrian friendly city. Walk around town and discover the numerous works of art on display. Stop by the Ponte Vecchio for lovely views of the Arno, venture into one of the city’s many churches, and hike up the Piazzale Michelangelo for great views of the city.
Food and drinks: Some of the best foods I ate in Italy were in Florence. Firstly, there’s Trattoria di Mario near the Mercato Centrale. This place is your version of fast food Italian food. It’s only open for lunch, takes only cash, has a different menu every day, and has communal seating, but all of those can be overlooked because this family run restaurant has some of the best pastas in town. The ingredients are fresh (they get them from the adjacent market) and almost all of what they serve is made in-house. The Mercato Centrale is worth the trip if gathering items for a picnic basket or edible souvenirs for home. It is open daily, from 7am to 2pm. Italians are big consumers of wine and because it is not very expensive, it is my recommended drink. Synonymous to Tuscany is Chianti, but the region also produces very good whites, particularly in the southern parts. Like France, it is very unlikely that you will get a bad bottle of wine here.
Where to sleep? Hotels in Florence can be terribly expensive, therefore as an alternative, seek out B&Bs or apartments for rent. TripAdvisor has an extensive list and the reviews associated are reliable. I stayed at Emerald Palace hostel in Florence and although it was centrally located, (loved the bit that it was minutes away on foot from Mercato Centrale), it did not have the welcoming touch that I have been accustomed to in hostels stay anywhere.
Daytrips: A tour group called Walkabout Florence has a couple of day tours that I highly recommend. The first one is the best of Tuscany, which includes visits to the cities of Pisa, Siena and San Gimignano as well as a Tuscan lunch in an organic farm. The second is a hiking tour of the Cinque Terre. My personal preference is the latter, although only by a hair. The trip takes you into all five villages: a unique offering. The tour guides are highly knowledgeable and make the trip enjoyable. If you do prefer independent trips, visit Siena or Lucca. Both towns are an hour and half by bus.
Why I would go back? Florence is what I imagined an Italian holiday would be. The city center is small enough that you can simply explore it on foot. It is also for that same reason that the city feels intimate even when there are hoards of people on the street; none of that chaos experienced in southern parts of Italy. Here, I was able to peel off a layer of my inhibitive self, relax and not agonize about what to do next.