Florence is for Lovers

The Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II.

The iconic Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II.

Instead of dragging the reader through a play-by-play of the three days that Amanda and I spent in Florence, highlighting a few of our favorite sites and experiences should provide a window into one of my all-time favorite cities. After Naples and Pompeii, we took a high-speed train to Florence — it was a bit pricey, but the train was nicely furnished and took a mere two and a half hours.

In no particular order and certainly not in an exhaustive list, here are some of my favorite Florentine experiences.

Wandering the Streets

For some reason, Lonely Planet really lays into Florence — especially the historic city center. While the city can become hot and crowded during summer, people flock to Florence because it’s a beautiful city with a lot to offer. If anything, December was the perfect time to visit — we traded off longer daylight hours for almost no crowds or lines, while the weather hovered at a blessedly sunny and pleasantly crisp 50 degrees most days.

Wandering toward the Duomo.

Wandering toward the Duomo.

Some of my best memories of Florence aren’t distinct events; they’re hazy images or sensations cobbled together from many disparate streets, sounds, smells, and views. Wandering through the narrow side streets full of pedestrians, looking for the leather shop I visited eight years ago. Seeing the bright white lights reflected off the imposing Duomo at night. Grabbing bread, cheese, salami, and olives and eating lunch near the open-air museum in the Piazza della Signoria. Munching a panino with a glass of wine in a side-street café just off the Ponte Vecchio.

Wandering along the Ponte Vecchio, with a rower in the River Arno.

Wandering along the Ponte Vecchio, with a rower in the River Arno.

The Food

In Florence, we managed to eat well without spending too much — the city caters to all sorts of budgets (totally unlike Venice, for instance). Amanda and I would often just have a coffee and pastry for breakfast, running about €4 total.

A typical breakfast: cappuccino and a rice pastry (surprisingly good).

A typical breakfast: cappuccino and a rice pastry (surprisingly good).

For lunch, we’d stop at a grocery store and pick up meat, cheese, and other handheld foods for a few euros each. And of course, I prevailed on Amanda to stop for gelato at least twice a day (when in Italy, why not?).

Panino and wine from a café hidden just a few blocks from the Ponte Vecchio.

Panino and wine from a café hidden just a few blocks from the Ponte Vecchio.

Combine all this with random finds like a stall on the south side of the River Arno, where we found a farmer/brewer who insisted we try his cheese and meat after I bought a glass of the artisanal beer he brewed, and we were rarely hungry.

One dinner, we had simple but well-prepared portions of lasagne al forno with a glass of house wine from the set menu and were out the door with change leftover.

On our four-year anniversary, we splurged and ate at the Trattoria da Tito, where the atmosphere matched the food. Tito himself greeted us as the sounds of Italian music piped into the restaurant. The waiters played games with each other and with us (one took a selfie when we asked him to take a picture of us), and the food was excellent. I had medium-rare beef strips with artichoke, while Amanda had a delicious cheese and butter pasta. House wine and complimentary limoncello from Tito topped the night off.

Our four-year anniversary dinner at Trattoria da Tito.

Our four-year anniversary dinner at Trattoria da Tito.

An excellent dinner.

An excellent dinner.

Sunset over Piazzale Michelangelo

We almost missed out on this experience after a long day of walking, but thankfully we kept climbing the stairs on the south side of the River Arno until we made it to the Piazzale Michelangelo, which presents a commanding view of the city.

As the sun set, the entire landscape lit up with beautiful shades of red, yellow, green, blue. Pictures do a better job here than words.

Sunset over Florence, viewed from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Sunset over Florence, viewed from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Amanda at Piazzale Michelangelo.

Amanda at Piazzale Michelangelo.

Sunset

A view of the city after the sun had fully set.

The Duomo

No trip to Florence would be complete without visiting the Duomo, technically the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. This structure took nearly 150 years to construct and the dome was designed by the famous architect Filippo Brunelleschi. In addition to the imposing dome and bell tower, the most striking feature of the Duomo for me has always been its beautiful polychrome exterior, covered in intricate red, white, and green marble.

The Duomo from ground level.

The Duomo from ground level.

The front entrance, with its beautiful exterior.

The front entrance, with its beautiful exterior.

The bell tower.

The bell tower.

Amanda and I climbed up the bell tower and were rewarded with fantastic views of the Duomo, the city, and the countryside.

View of the basilica's dome from the bell tower.

View of the basilica’s dome from the bell tower.

Looking out onto the city of Florence, with historic landmarks -- like the Palazzo Vecchio -- visible.

Looking out onto the city of Florence, with historic landmarks — like the Palazzo Vecchio — visible.

Renaissance Art

Including this on a list of Florence highlights is so obvious it’s tantamount to cheating, but even if this art existed in a vacuum without such a lovely city, it would be reason enough to visit. When I was last in Florence with a large group of high schoolers, we didn’t get to go to either the famed Galleria degli Uffizi or the Galleria dell’Accademia.

The Accademia holds the original copy of Michelangelo’s David, an image that has become synonymous with Western culture. After walking past Michelangelo’s four unfinished Prisoners, seeing the original sculpture in searingly white marble is surreal, and I’m tempted to agree with an art critic quoted on the plaque below the statue that seeing the David renders seeing all other sculpture unnecessary. Michelangelo made an unprecedented decision to depict David at the moment he decides to fight Goliath, not victorious with the dead giant’s head under his heel as David was traditionally shown. And he started work when he was only 26. David held special meaning for the early Florentine republic: He was always positioned with his eyes toward powerful Rome, a warning glare.

I braved certain imprisonment to bring this iPhone photo to you.

I braved certain imprisonment to bring this covertly snapped iPhone photo to you.

The Uffizi, one of the oldest and most famous galleries in the Western world, is full of enough work to fill thousands of dissertations, but the works that really stuck with me were both paintings by Botticelli: Birth of Venus and Primavera (known as Allegory of Spring in English).

There were also a couple works by Leonardo da Vinci, paintings by Titian and Caravaggio (including the original painting of Medusa on a shield that is on the cover of many Greek mythology books!), and a painting of the Madonna by Raphael. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed in any of these galleries, but Wikipedia actually has very high-quality photographs available.

Of course, the rest of Florence is full of beautiful sights — enough squares to while away weeks lounging in them all, beautiful bridges spanning the Arno (the iconic Ponte Vecchio, for instance), and gardens and parks like the spacious Boboli Gardens. It’s one of my all-time favorite cities.

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