My first trip to Florence was the thing of my dreams. I’d finished AP European history a couple weeks before and considered myself a savant, spouting off Machiavelli this and Michelangelo that. In a single day, I fell in love with the city and its food, the sights, the people. (But mostly the food.) I swore I’d return, and, not one to say things I don’t mean, I kept my promise to myself – all too willingly. Fortunately, four years later, I proved that not only do I remember at least a portion of what I learned, but that my sisters have more interest in gelato than in Lorenzo de Medici’s role as a patron of the arts.
We’ll get to what you should see in Florence soon, but, given that we pretty much thought with our stomachs throughout Italy, let’s cover the eats first. If you’ve ever been in a school cafeteria you’ve seen a panini – or at least the disgraced cousin of a panini. I know your lunch lady is probably a doll, but she has nothing on a few absolutely stellar Firenze sandwich shops. Panini Toscani, situated in the shadows of the Duomo, is a tiny little shop with a line out the door most afternoons. The owner of the place takes the time to explain each bread, cheese, and meat available to you and then lets you try before you buy. I was basically full at the end of the demo, but, of course, ordered an amazing panini with a bunch of toppings and some sort of magical bread. Note: Maybe steer clear of the Florentine Crunch. It’s ultra-crunchy, and our little sister, Fiasco, about knocked a bracket off trying to bite through it. All’Antico Vinaio was even more crowded than Panini Toscani. The restaurant/deli has two locations, both along the same street, and consistently has a line stretched down the street throughout the day. We suggest getting ‘El Diablo’ and then taking to the streets to either meander while munching or people watch in Piazza della Signoria.
Fuoco Matto and Il Buffalo Tripone were the highlights of our evenings. The first a trendy pizzeria with awesome pasta too. I got some sort of truffle macaroni delight, which was, by and large, the winner of the three meals served. Food and Fiasco’s food was still good, but the cheese and flavor levels on my pasta made me want to marry the chef. Their tiramisu, which we ordered first because dinner and dessert don’t always have to come in that order, was fluffy and too yummy to properly describe, and the complimentary prosecco and limoncello certainly didn’t hurt. Il Bufalo Tripone is a wine shop with an above-average selection of charcuterie and fromage (fancy speak for the only meal my mother could probably eat every day for the rest of her life) that seats a mere five people during dining hours. We asked the couple that owns and works the place for recommendations, and then ordered literally everything they said, which was probably the best possible choice one could make. The sampler platter had some varieties of cheeses and meats I’d never heard of, but all of them were equally delicious, and the two open-faced panini they suggested had the most amazing sauces on them.
Now that we’re done with eating, let’s get on to seeing. Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance, the home of countless important historical figures, and the current site of a whole slew of very beautiful art. There’s no shortage of things to see and do, it just comes down to what you prefer. So, let’s break it down into “Musts” and “Shoulds”.
The Duomo is an undeniable must-see when in Florence. There’s just no way to replicate the feeling you get when you first see it. The compound is comprised of the Cathedral de Santa Maria del Fiori, Cupola di Brunelleschi, Campanile di Giotto, and Baptistery of San Giovanni, includes the massive gilded bronze doors dubbed the Gates of Paradise by none other than Michelangelo. I knew precisely where it was from the last time I visited, but kept my mouth closed until we rounded the corner, only to hear Food gasp from behind me. At this point we’ve been to somewhere around 50 churches and countless beautiful buildings, but if anything can make us gasp it’d be a massive complex comprised of enlaced pink, green, and white marble. I won’t go into the details of the architects, artisans and various characters that had a hand in shaping the church into its form, but it took a century and a half and involved some of the greatest names and artistry in existence within Firenze.
The Arno River splits Florence in half, but the city remains joined by several bridges, the most notable of which is Ponte Vecchio. A few dozen small shops line the bridge, mostly jewelry stores (so obviously walking along it was roughly similar to asking me to walk through fire without getting burned). We tried on engagement rings that we’ll never buy before getting charms and gelato, then basking in the picturesque views and taking a few very awkward selfies.
Walking uphill from Ponte Vecchio, you not only get a calf workout but eventually reach the Piazzale Michelangelo, which has some of the best views of the city and a massive bronze replica of the David. Walk uphill 5 more minutes, climb every mountain, ford every long set of stairs, and you’ll see San Miniato al Monte, a quiet basilica with an extensive and elaborate graveyard. Call me strange, but this was fascinating. I got lost wandering through it, succeeded in losing both Food and Fiasco, and then got yelled at by a monk when I was running through the labyrinth trying to find them again.
Loggia dei Lanzi and Piazza della Signoria are an easy must when in Florence due to not only their proximity to the center but also because they are, delightfully, free! Loggia dei Lanzi is an open-air art gallery full of sculptures, including one of my favorites – The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. In this case “rape” means abduction. But also probably the traditional English sense… it’s a cool sculpture, and it’s all carved from one block of marble, which I consider to be an impressive feat. Go look at it. While we’re talking grand piazzas, the Piazza della Repubblica was the old site of the forum and is now home to a bunch of cafes and a very cute carousel.
I’m a huge fan of art. A huge fan. But even I say enough’s enough, and Florence has so much art that it’s overwhelming. The two massive art museums in town both contain priceless works that I hold near and dear, but I still suggest choosing one and focusing on it for a few hours, rather than trying to cram both into a day. You’ve gotta decompress, ya know? My favorite is the Uffizi, largely because it contains my favorite works by Botticelli (Primavera and The Birth of Venus), but many choose to go the Gallerie dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David in person. If you’ve seen the replicas in Piazza del Michelangelo and Piazza della Signoria, I don’t see why you’d wait in a three hour line to view David’s terrified face (and shrunken… uh… member) in person – it’s kind of like trying to muscle your way in front of everyone to see the Mona Lisa. You just end up hot, pissed off, and relieved that it looks exactly like it looked in all of the photos you’d already seen. In order to avoid standing dejectedly for hours rather than walking around, purchase tickets in advance here for the Gallerie dell’Accademia and here for the Uffizi.
Michelangelo also had a hand in creating the Capelle Medicee, a massive mausoleum to the legacy of the Medici family. It houses five of Michelangelo’s most famous works, including the paired Dusk and Dawn, Night and Day, and Madonna and Child. Michelangelo was not interred here, but rather at the Basilica di Santa Croce, yet another church within Florence, this one housing the remains of Galileo Galilei, Leonardo Bruni, Niccolo Machiavelli, and a post-mortem tomb for Dante Alighieri, despite him having been banned from the city prior to his death.
The Gardens of Boboli within the Palazzo Pitti are some very well-groomed formal gardens that were only open to the immediate Medici family for a long time but are now available to anyone with a ticket. It’s lush and pretty and contains a lot of sculptures and fountains. Palazzo Vecchio, the current town hall and previous seat of power for the Medici dukes, is primarily a museum, housing (you guessed it!) more art. Frescoes, sculptures, and two lost paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Florence has enough history, art, and culture to last someone a lifetime of excavation and examination. It’s worth visiting a few times over and eating twelve meals a day while there. Not to mention an extraordinary amount of gelato. Until next time, XoXx Fernweh & Food