More than 5 years have passed since my Erasmus experience in Florence, the capital of Tuscany, Italy, and I still feel nostalgic when someone mentions it or I run into a photo of the place. Firenze (its name in Italian) leaves an indelible mark on the hearts of all of us who have once walked its streets and been intoxicated by its unique atmosphere. Wherever you look you will see art, historic buildings, unique churches… It was not in vain that the French writer known as Stendhal experienced his famous indisposition, a picture of dizziness, exhaustion and tachycardia known as The Stendhal Syndrome that would come from an empacho of art. A kind of emotional saturation by being exposed to much beauty in a short space of time that manifests itself with physical symptoms.
Florence has so much to see and enjoy that not even in a lifetime would we be able to see everything, but since I was lucky enough to spend several months of my life there, I’m going to tell you a few things you can’t stop doing if you visit the City of Art. And don’t worry, we’ll combine “must-see” visits with more alternative plans to prevent you from collapsing because of too much art!
1. Piazza del Duomo
How about we start with one of Florence’s most famous prints? Yes, we’re talking about Piazza del Duomo!
It is dominated by its immense cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Il Duomo and undoubtedly one of the essential places to see in Florence, as well as an authentic icon of the city.
The queues of tourists waiting to visit one of its attractions, who walk through it and stop to make a selfie with the imposing marble facade of the Duomo behind and the fiaccherai waiting with their horse-drawn carriages that some tourist wants to ride fill the square with life.
In front of the cathedral we find the Battistero, which is also worth a visit. It was the place where all the Christians of the city were baptized (hence its name). Take a good look at one of its three entrances, that of the gates known as “The Gate of Paradise”, a real jewel! Although it is a replica, because when the original doors began to show signs of deterioration they were moved to a place where they could be kept properly.
And next to the Duomo, the impressive Campanile di Giotto, a kind of tower intended to house the bells that, as used to be done in Italy, were built in a building apart from the church to prevent vibrations from damaging it.
2. Piazza della Signoria
From Piazza del Duomo we go down Via dei Calzaiuoli, a very lively commercial street, until we reach Piazza della Signoria, which is considered the most important in the city and which, I must confess, is my favourite.
This square houses the Palazzo Vecchio, a beautiful historic building with a tower 94 meters high known as Torre di Arnolfo. The Palazzo Vecchio can (and should) be visited, as part of the building itself, very well restored and preserved, houses a museum. Today it is also the seat of the city council.
But in the Piazza della Signoria we find many more tourist attractions, such as the replica of the incredible David by Michelangelo or the Fontana di Nettuno, which was the first public fountain of the city and consists of an impressive set of statues dominated by Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea and Waters. It was the work of Bartolomeo Ammanatti.
And we came to one of my favorite corners of the city, the Loggia dei Lanzi. This is a beautiful Gothic-style portico that was built to house assemblies and ceremonies and ended up becoming an open-air museum for the set of sculptures exhibited there. The most important is undoubtedly Cellini’s Perseus, which represents the Greek myth in which this character cuts off the head of Medusa. It is said that this statue hides a self-portrait of the author himself (look at the nape of Perseus).
One thing I used to do when I lived in Florence was sit in the loggia and observe around me, soak up the atmosphere while admiring the statues. In spite of the terrible myth it represents, I recognize that one of my favorites is Giambologna’s The Rapture of the Sabines, which is thought to be admired from any perspective.
We come to the favorite part of many: the chapter of food! You know that in Italy eating well is almost a religion, and Florence is no exception!
You can not fail to try the steak alla fiorentina, a sirloin of veal similar to the Galician steak prepared in a very special way. Of course, organize yourself to share it with your fellow travelers, because we are talking about 1kg of meat!
A good idea if you’re just in time and want to eat good, nice and cheap is to buy a slice of pizza al taglio or go to a tiny place called All’antico Vinaio, in Via dei Neri, where for about 5€ you can get some schiacciate (a kind of sandwich) that you will never forget. Beware of sitting in any corner of the street to eat it: you could be fined! It is better to eat while walking or to look for a suitable place to stop.
The aperitivi are also very common in Florence. Before dinner, people gather with friends in some bars where you can order a drink for between 6 and 8€ (since you’re there, we recommend you try the Aperol Spritz) and serve yourself freely from the buffet of food they have available. It’s a good occasion to try different dishes!
And, of course, you can’t stop trying pizzas and Italian pasta. A good place to do so is in Mostodolce, a small brewery located in Via Nazionale (near the train station) where you can enjoy a delicious traditional home-cooked meal accompanied by artisan beer.
You can’t leave Florence without eating a good ice cream. One of the most famous ice-cream parlours is La Carraia, which has several stores in the historical centre. It will be difficult to choose the flavour!
4. Ponte Vecchio
It’s the turn of another of the icons in this city: the Ponte Vecchio. This is the oldest bridge in Europe and it is very curious to admire how the houses and premises that occupy it (mostly gold and jewelry shops) stand out from the back, hanging over the river Arno. Apparently it was the only bridge in the city that survived German bombs during World War II.
Unfortunately, this bridge also had the custom of attaching locks that symbolize the love of the couples who hang them, but please, don’t do it! It is a practice that damages the bridge and costs the city money because they have to be constantly removed.
Instead look at the top of the shops that fill the bridge: you’ll see windows running through it. This is the Corredor Vasariano, a passageway that connects the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river. It was designed so that the Medici could get around without mixing with the people of the city at a time in history when they had lost some popularity.
A good idea to get the most classic photo of Firenze is to admire the Ponte Vecchio from its neighboring bridge, Santa Trinità.
And since we mention the Palazzo Pitti, which was also residence of the Medici, let’s go to the other side of the river, an area also known as the Oltrarno. There we can visit this imposing Palazzo, rest for a while lying in the sun in the square that precedes it while admiring its facade, and stroll through the most bohemian neighborhoods of Florence (Borgo San Frediano and Santo Spirito), full of shops, galleries and artists’ workshops.
It is also in this area where the Bóboli Gardens are located, a green oasis within the ideal city for walking, resting and learning more about the history of the Medici. These beautiful gardens are no less than 45,000 square meters filled with trails through meticulous vegetation, marble statues, fountains, pergolas, several caves, and even a small lake! You have to pay admission, but it’s worth it.
6. Café and Piazza della Repubblica
Tired, aren’t they? We’d better stop for coffee. A good place to do this is Café Concerto Pazskowski, one of the oldest establishments in the city and located in Piazza della Repubblica. It is worth taking it at the outdoor tables, admiring the square and its famous merry-go-round. Depending on the time, we may be lucky enough to attend one of the mini live music concerts organised by the establishment itself.
A good trick to make the visit cheaper is to enter the place, order the coffee (or any of its delicious pastas) at the bar and take it yourself to the outdoor table, because if you sit directly and ask to bring it you will be charged the service (and it is not cheap). As you enter, take the opportunity to admire the interior of the place, a meeting point of reference for countless Florentine intellectuals or passing through Florence in its golden age. Oh, if the walls could speak…!
Would you like to buy a souvenir from the capital of Tuscany? I recommend you do it in any of their markets. One of the most famous is San Lorenzo, where you can buy souvenirs and typical products, such as leather handicrafts, in the stalls that are set up in the adjacent streets every day except Mondays, or enter the building of the Market and take the opportunity to buy food at their stalls or dine in their establishments.
Another market not to be missed is the Mercato Nuovo, also known as the Porcellino because it houses a famous bronze sculpture depicting a wild boar. This sculpture, which is in fact a fountain (because from the mouth of the animal a trickle of water comes out), is the “Fontana di Trevi” of the Florentines, since there is a legend that it is able to grant wishes in exchange for coins. You have to rub the coin against the animal’s snout while you make your wish and release it. By the way, if the coin slips through the crack, it means you’re going back to Florence!
8. Views from the heights
We’ve already kicked a good part of the city’s historic center (which is a World Heritage Site, by the way), but how about a little perspective? Florence has some key points that will allow you to see it from the heights.
One of them is the dome of the Duomo, designed by Brunelleschi. You can go up to admire the view, but you must be prepared to climb its 436 steps! You can also get to the top of the Campanile di Giotto (414 steps), but my favourite picture is the one offered by the viewpoint of Piazzale Michelangelo, on the other side of the river.
This viewpoint is an ideal point to see the sun rise or set over the city. If you do it first thing in the morning you will be very calm, practically alone, but it is worth going there in the middle of the afternoon and sitting on its stairs to enjoy the view enlivened by the live musicians who perform every afternoon in the place. The experience results in a magical moment of communion among all present and of connecting with oneself at the same time. I am not responsible for the tears of emotion that may arise!
Well, did you really think I was going to forget the most important works of art in the city? Don’t miss the Ufizzi Gallery, where we find one of the largest and most important art collections in the world. Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Tiziano… As indispensable as it is impressive. I recommend you take a guided tour so you don’t miss a thing!
And, of course, you cannot leave Florence without personally admiring its most beautiful inhabitant: Michelangelo’s David. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia and, although it houses many other important works, this sculpture alone is worth a visit. Sit on the bench around the David, unhurriedly, and take your time to look at it. It’s so perfect that it even looks like he’s breathing!
10. Street art and city corners
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But the art of museums and galleries is not the only art we find in Florence. The city is full of street art, and as we walk through it we will have the opportunity to buy plates and canvases from artists who show their works standing on the street, admire painters who reproduce famous paintings painting the floor with colored chalk, and have fun locating the work of one of the city’s most famous street artists, Clet Abraham. Clet has reinvented Florence’s road signs by adding elements that give them a touch of humour, which more original!
This city has such a particular charm that just walking through its streets is already an experience, but if you also visit some key corners (outside the tourist circuit) you fall in love with the place without remedy. One of them is the Piazza della Santissima Anunziata, where if you look towards Via dei Servi you will get a picture worthy of the best of the posts in Instagram, because the dome of the Duomo rises above the houses of typical Florentine aesthetics. You can choose to include in the image or not the equestrian sculpture that dominates the square.
And speaking of the dome of the Duomo, it is interesting to enter the enclosure of Le Oblate (in Via dell’Oriuolo), an old convent that houses a library and a cafeteria from which you can admire it face-to-face while tasting a good cappuccino.
11. Santa Croce
The church of Santa Croce, which is no more and no less than where Stendhal experienced his famous Syndrome, deserves a separate mention. This important Franciscan church, precious both inside and outside and symbol of Florentine art, houses the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante Alighieri and Machiavelli, among many other very important figures; and also the Pazzi chapel, another marvellous work by Brunelleschi.
The square with the same name as the church, very extensive, rectangular in shape and always full of life, is a good place to sit and let yourself be soaked by the atmosphere of the city, either on the staircase in front of the chiesa or on one of the benches surrounding the central part of the square, admiring its facade.
12. A walk through Tuscany
And, of course, you can’t leave this incredible place without leaving the city and discovering the most rural Tuscany. Any little village where you want to stop will transport you to a world of toasted and green colours, delicious food, cobbled streets and spectacular views, but I highly recommend you to visit San Gimignano, Lucca and Siena (where every summer the Paglio is held, a horse race between districts that maintains the original tradition). You can also visit Pisa and its famous leaning tower, although the city does not have much more to offer.
About the author
Mariona Sanz (Barcelona, 1989) Mediterranean journalist and writer in Lapland. I travel slowly and write about Sustainability, Responsible Tourism and Personal Growth. I love animals, walking through nature and reading by the fire. IG @sanzmerions / marionasanz.com.
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