I arrived in Florence early morning on the train after leisurely working my way up via Rome, Capri, Pompeii, Siena, Assisi, Umbria and Tuscany. On my first visit to Europe, I’d now traveled through several countries in Europe. But it quickly became clear to me that Italy had something special. The spell had been cast, and I was basking in its intoxication. Was it the art, the history, the wine, the food, the scenery, the passion of the people?
Undoubtedly, it was a combination of all of these. I knew it wasn’t the weather, because it had been raining here more than anywhere else in my travels, including England. But even the rain had its charm against the backdrop of Umbrian hills and centuries-old villas. Italy was hands-down my favorite country in Europe, and I couldn’t imagine that Florence would disappoint. It didn’t.
Florence, Italy, is a cultural feast for those with even a cursory interest in art history. The home of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Florence was once the capital of Italy. It is now the capital of my favorite region in Italy, Tuscany.
As I walked past the Piazza del Duomo, it dawned on me that this was an urban experience completely unlike any I had ever had in the U.S. Yes, there were crowds, traffic and noise as you might expect in a city of a million inhabitants. But these elements were easily overlooked in an atmosphere of urban aestheticism and layers of history.
If you have limited time here, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and numbed by the sheer volume of centuries of art and culture. Florence can be best appreciated and savored with an extended visit – perhaps a gap semester or year-long stay where you can take your time to savor its gifts and allow the richness of its aesthetic treasures to settle over you.
For the traveler here for only a brief stay, advance planning is highly recommended. There are spots that you should make your priority. The Uffizi Gallery has probably the best collection of Renaissance art, but it’s closed on Monday and often closes early on Sunday. Same with the Accademia where Michelangelo’s David resides. So it’s obviously best to schedule around those days of the week. At the Baptistry, to one side of the Piazza del Duomo, Ghiberti’s door with its intricate carvings and design represents to many the dawn of the Renaissance. Climb the nearby Campanile for an amazing view.
After arriving, it’s a good idea to go to the tourist office, near the train station, to pick up a free map of the city. There are a wide variety of prices for accommodations. If you’re in town for a longer stay, you might consider renting a small apartment as it may be more economical and comfortable.
As in many European cities, the best way to get around and experience the city is to walk. The one bus I took was packed, and I soon found this was unnecessary. On a hot summer day, a hearty stroll provides a good excuse for some gelato stops. For those who find walking difficult, a Hop On Hop Off tour bus is available, as in most large European cities.
Train is preferable to car in getting to Florence from Rome. I loved taking the train in Italy; the Eurostar takes about 2½ hours from Rome and is much less stressful. Sit back and enjoy the view. You don’t want to battle Florentine traffic, including those little Vespa scooters. One note about Italian drivers for those walking: pedestrians do not have the right of way. I found this out firsthand in Rome when I nearly became roadkill across the street from the Coliseum.
Florence reached the height of its influence on world culture during the Renaissance. Many of the masterpieces of the time have recently been restored using modern techniques. Read up a bit on this key period in Western history and some of the artists involved. This will add to your appreciation of what you see and provide strategies for a more targeted itinerary.
The great patrons of the arts, the Medici family, helped make the Renaissance possible through their sponsorship of such artists as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Donatello. Lorenzo de Medici had a particularly keen eye for artistic talent and took in Michelangelo at the age of 13.
For some true insight into what fueled the Medicis and inspired the masterpieces of the time, view the PBS documentary series on the Medicis. It’s available through Netflix. The struggles and risks involved in the building of Brunelleschi’s iconic dome and the political and personal skirmishes during this period provide a greater understanding of the forces and motivations behind the artistic flowering.
Here are some other recommended places to visit during your stay here: The Basilica de Santa Croce, Bargella Museum, The Church of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels, Pitti Palace, Boboli and Bardini Gardens, Piazzale Michelangelo, Duomo Museum, Galileo Science Museum, Church of Santa Maria Novella, and the Oltrarno Walk.
These are only some suggestions – it’s up to you to do your homework to determine your own priorities. For me, the planning is almost as fun as the trip itself, and the internet makes it easier than ever. Corse Felici!