June 3, 2016
Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Florence. I much prefer taking day trips to the Tuscan capital from Siena or a rental house in the countryside, which was what we did this time. We did this day trip with friends who had never been to Florence, and they had followed my suggested itinerary of some of the greatest hits with a few lesser known sights. A little rush, a little tiring by the end, but entirely doable for those who don’t want to pay the Florentine price for food and accommodation.
9:00 – Piazzale Michelangelo
The best view of Florence is located on the other side of Arno River from the town center at Piazzale Michelangelo, and this is where we began our day. A little known fact about Florence — for six years from 1865 – 1871 it was the capital of the recently united Italy and the city underwent a period of urban renewal to match its newfound status. One of the creation of this period was Piazzale Michelangelo, designed by Giuseppe Poggi to commemorate the legendary artist.
9:30 – Boboli Garden
On the way from Piazzale Michelangelo to town center you will come across the Palazzo Pitti, the former residence of the House of Medici, whom between the 15th – 18th century ruled Florence and bankrolled much of the Renaissance movement.
Behind the palace is the Medici’s former private garden, a lavish 11 acre of green space with an expansive view of the city. Its name Boboli is actually a corruption of the word “Bogoli”, the original owner of the land before being purchased by the Medicis. What looks like a simple garden from our modern perspective is in fact a groundbreaking creation back in the 16th century, starting from the fact that the location had no natural water source and required the construction of an intricate irrigation system to carry water from the nearby Arno River. Many elements that defined the 16th-century Italian garden style, such as wide gravel avenues, a heavy use of stone, the employment of statuary and fountains, and the garden’s general spaciousness, were first introduced here.
The Boboli Garden might not merit a detour and the €15 entrance fee is steep, but acting as an along-the-way stop it does offer a glimpse of the Medici’s former influence over Florence. This is also your last chance of some open space before crossing the Arno into the city’s tourist heart.
10:30 – Uffizi
Don’t say I haven’t warned you — the area surrounding Florence’s three principal sights of Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and Duomo is one of the most congested places in Europe. 16 million tourists descend upon this city of 350,000 annually and most of them never venture away from the Uffizi or Duomo.
One month in advance you should have ordered the tickets for both the Uffizi and Accademia. These two world-class museums completely justify this slight hassle. Don’t be spontaneous and arrive without an online reservation — the queue easily lasts for more than an hour and sometimes tickets are even sold out. The Uffizi’s online ticket costs €23 each. Or if you intend to follow all the stops on this itinerary you can purchase the €50 Florence card that will cover most of the city’s attractions and public transport for three days. The queue is shorter for Florence Card holder but not as seamless as reserved ticket holders.
Constructed in 1581, the Uffizi Gallery was initially designed to be the offices of the Florentine magistrate, administration and state archive. Display of the Medici’s prominent art collection was designated to the main floor and a room called the Tribuna degli Uffizi. Eventually the building served solely as the Medici’s art gallery and after the fall of the family it became one of the world’s first public museum in 1765.
Just like the Rijksmuseum is to Dutch art and the Museum of Cairo is to Egyptian antiquities, Renaissance paintings equals the Uffizi. After enduring centuries of stagnation during the Middle Ages in which art was not viewed as a creative expression but rather a monotonous devotion to the faith, artists in 15th century Florence reevaluated how art should be defined. What emerged was the Florentine School, led by the likes of Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo, which emphasized on depicting subjects in a naturalistic manner with realistic proportion, lighting, space and form. Bankrolled by the banking family of the Medici, art was expanded beyond the religious realm and included subjects like human portraits and Classical antiquities. What resulted was an artistic movement that transformed the western world to this day.
Allow two hours for a greatest-hit tour highlighted by Luppi’s Madonna and Child (c.~1450) and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1480s), onward to Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch (1506) and The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo (1507), and conclude with Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Caravaggio’s Medusa (1596).
13:15 – lunch at Trattoria Sostanz
Florence has a few iconic dishes — tripe sandwich, Bistecca Alla Fiorentina and butter chicken. I find most of the sandwich joints to taste about the same. As for the t-bone steak, you should head to Chianti or Siena. So that leaves us with one choice — Trattoria Sostanz’s butter chicken.
Located on Via del Porcellana a few blocks from the Duomo, this unassuming eatery has been serving simple local dishes for decades. Patrons are crammed to every remaining space of the tiny interior sharing the few available tables with strangers. Despite some raving this is where locals eat, during our visit we only came across other fellow tourists. Let not kid ourselves — it is impossible to get off the beaten path in Florence.
One order came with two pieces of chicken breast (€20) that was served in a small metal pan. The chicken was first deep fried then put into an oven with a generous portion of butter. The meat was tender and not as oily as expected. Seasoning was kept to a minimum and the flavor that stood out was the chicken itself. A good experience but one that I am not eager to try again — the butter, while not a negative, doesn’t do much to the overall taste of the dish.
15:00 – St. Marco
An underrated aspect of Florence is its huge wealth of Renaissance arts. If you can tolerant the crowd you can easily spend days here without seeing everything. People from all around the planet come to see the works of Michelangelo or Botticelli, but how many have even heard of Fra Angelico, one of the best celebrated artists during the Early Renaissance?
In most other cities, St. Marco, a former convent and home to the largest collection of Angelico’s frescoes, would be a top draw, but in Florence it is a relatively obscure afterthought. Which is the perfect place for a post-lunch stroll without bumping shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. Its €4 ticket is also lighter for your wallet than the hefty fees you have paid at other attractions thus far.
Angelico’s works are scattered around the convent with frescoes dotting its many rooms and halls. His style was simple and direct, fit for a setting like a convent and revealed the artist’s own humility and piety.
16:15 – Accademia
Enjoy St Marco’s tranquility? Good, but now is time to rejoin the crowd and pick up your second reserved ticket at the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David (c.1504) since 1873. Initially planned as a museum dedicated to the Renaissance artist, the Accademia only manages to secure a small collection by Michelangelo, yet its single drawing card is so famous the gallery is one of Florence’s most visited sites.
Many people wonder, as there is a replica of David next to the Uffizi in the Piazza della Signoria, why pay €16.5 for ticket to see the exact same thing? I am not an art expert who can point out the differences between the two, but the 17 ft tall marble original, squeaky clean and free from erosion, appears to stand prouder than its outdoor counterpart. €16.5 is a small price to pay to marvel at mankind’s closest attempt to a perfect sculpture.
17:15 – Giotto’s Campanile
You won’t be able to see everything on this day trip, and one of the things you will miss is going inside the Duomo to glance at Federico Zuccari’s magnificent frescoes. Unfortunately the Duomo doesn’t have an online ticketing system and queuing lasts for hours on average.
Although you won’t be going inside, you can climb the 414 steps at the adjacent bell tower for a sweeping view of the cathedral. Completed in 1436 after more than 140 years of construction, the Duomo’s most striking feature is no doubt its brick dome, the largest ever built and an engineering breakthrough at a period when Gothic buttresses were the norm.
The €15 combined ticket also includes entry to the Museum Opera del Duomo and the dome but it is highly unlikely you will have time for them.
19:00 – Ponte Vecchio
On a bridge along the Arno River facing the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, is an unexpectedly peaceful spot on top of a stone support over the fence. If you are lucky you will find it unoccupied and for once you can enjoy an iconic Florentine view without being surrounded by others.
Romans had first built a bridge across this narrowest section of the Arno, and after a few incarnations the current structure was rebuilt in 1345. It was the only intact bridge in Florence after German retreated from Italy during World War II and today it is lined up with gold merchants.
That concludes the day trip. If you find yourself wanting more of Florence, you might be one of millions who call the Tuscan capital their favorite city in the world. On the other hand, my preference is to get out of town immediately after seeing its main sights and have a reasonably priced dinner in Chianti.