Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Florence In May

Florence skyline shot from uffizi gallery

On his many trips to Italy, German poet Goethe once said, “We’re all pilgrims who seek Italy”. And I mean who can blame the man, he is certainly right. Italy, the land of pizza, pasta, calzone, dolcetti, gelato, iconic art, and exquisite culture, used to be a dream destination for many as travelling in the pre-German Romantic period was expensive and obviously, a privilege reserved for the rich….but uh well, how time has changed and thanks to today’s low budget airline era, jetting off to sunny Italy has never been easier. And what’s good for Goethe is good for the travel-hungry millennial after all, right?

Off to Florence it was and it wasn’t by accident either. Have you ever watched Dan Brown's Hollywood adaptation Inferno? I LOVED that film and it was mainly because of the incredible locations the movie has been shot in. For those who haven’t seen the film, the main protagonist Professor Dr Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in hospital with severe amnesia. 

He can’t remember where he is, how he got there or what has happened to him until further events evolve and it is revealed he’s been stationary in Florence. There’s also Felicity Jones, whose character helps Langdon to escape and in true Dan Brown fashion, there is a conspiracy and epic hunt across iconic historical and religious sites in Florence and Venice, but mainly Florence. It is literally a 2h advertisement showing off all the beauty this city has to offer.

Anyway, the film captured the charm of the city magnificently and I really wanted to go after seeing the movie. At the very latest when the chase ended up in the Boboli Gardens which are located in the stunning hills surrounding the ancient town of Florence.  The chance for a visit came around last year during the Spring Bank Holiday when I stayed for four days. I'd say four days is a good amount of time if you visit Florence for the first time and to get a taste for the city. However, the atmosphere is incredible and there's a lot to do and to see. I've left out a few sights which give me a good reason to come back to Florence one day. 

The Best Time For Visiting Florence

Having been to Rome in late October/early November once, wearing light T-shirts and summer dresses in 25 degrees, I was aware that Italy in the high season of summer might be a suicide. Hence why the perfect timing was shortly before summer kicked in and the Spring Bank holiday seemed an ideal date to go sightseeing in Florence. The temperatures were perfect at around 26 degrees to stroll around town in the day, sit outside in the warm summer evenings and watch a clear night sky perfect for stargazing. 

How To Get To Florence From London

As Florence is part of the UNESCO world heritage and boasts of historical buildings, the city aims to preserve its charm and heritage. Air traffic is a huge source of noise and pollution. Therefore the city has restricted most of it and controlled heavily through a small airport outside the city. Flights directly to Florence are also a bit more expensive and at odd times, so the alternative would be to book a flight to Pisa which is around 1h away by bus. Low-budget airlines fly daily and regularly to Pisa from London with a flight time of approximately 2h.

Pisa airport is very small and slightly chaotic so it would be best to head straight to the exit and hop on a bus to Florence. Different operators go to Florence and the return tickets for the ride will cost around 12 EUR. To be honest, the bus journey is very straight forward and you’ll get to see a bit of the Tuscan countryside, too. 

Once you arrive in Florence, it is actually one of the key experiences to enjoy a city without any constant flight traffic. It allows the city to preserve an untouched charm and it would spoil the atmosphere of the city completely if there were tonnes of flights circulating over the city every other minute. In fact, Florence has been voted as one of the best cities to visit in Italy and I personally can see why. Here are my top tips for a first-time visit to Florence:

heidi-kaden-lopyreva-side streets of Florence
matteo-lezzi-Uffizi Gallery Court
david-tapia-san-martin-Florence Duomo

What To See & Do In Florence

Oh, where to start! There’s so much to do and see in Florence, you certainly won’t be bored at all. I stayed for four days and left out a few sights for a hopefully soon-to-come second visit. The biggest sight is the city and its incredible atmosphere. 

Yet one of the most visited cities in Italy, it has certain corners which are still very unspoiled and left authentic so you will have a good time wandering around exploring. Having been drawn to Florence through the Inferno film, I wanted to check out all the sights which served as a film location but on top, I got to enjoy some amazing experiences which are part of the Florentine lifestyle. Those included:

  • Palazzo Vecchio - inside is the Hall of 500 an impressive hall with magnificent frescos and elaborate ceiling work which will leave you speechless. In the Inferno film, this is the location of the iconic scene where the assassin gets killed and falls through the ceiling.
  • Boboli Gardens - the garden is huge and in some parts left very natural so it’s a joy to wander around in its maze-like hedges and get lost in it. The garden has three main parts that spread over the surrounding hills, including a rose garden and Parco Bardini.
  • Uffizi Gallery - this is a MUST for any art lover. It’s like the MOMA in New York or the Louvre in Paris. You can’t come to Florence and not indulge in some fine Italian art. You’ll see Botticelli's Venus, Spring and other Italian treasures in this highly curated art museum.
  • Right by the Uffizi Gallery is a small tourist information which sells combi tickets. The tickets are 38 EUR and include entrance to the Boboli Gardens, Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti and are valid for three consecutive days. Enough time to cover all of your sightseeing.
  • Please note, some sights in Italy are closed either on the first or last Monday of the month.
  • Florence Duomo - Undoubtedly Florence's major landmark didn't make it on my visiting list this time but I'm keeping it for a second visit. As the Duomo is THE tourist attraction, booking tickets in advance is advisable. 
  • Indulge in Florence’s diverse culinary scene. There are tonnes of lovely restaurants, cafes, and gelateria, so you can literally spend an entire day just going from one place to another and eat your weight in delicious Italian cuisine. La Dolce Vita at its best!
  • The little narrow streets around Mercato Centrale Florence/ Mercato di San Lorenzo are full of street sellers. Furs, fine leather, and souvenirs are mostly sold by locals and the atmosphere is similar to bazaars in Marrakech. It is a great hustle and bustle, as there's lots to see, smell and of course to eat. Inside the market hall, is a huge food market that sells local produce, street and finger food which make it ideal for a quick lunch/afternoon snack. 
  • As the capital of Tuscany, Florence is also known as one of the most romantic spots in the world. It's no surprise, that a daily evening activity is to watch the sunset from any of the many bridges in Florence. Hundreds of people - tourists and locals alike - gather to watch the spectacle. They sit down with their ice cream or beer and simply enjoy the calming sight of the warm sun setting in the West. It’s a huge part of the Florence lifestyle and a wonderful tradition to finish another day in this beautiful city.
  • The absolute perfect spot for watching the sunset must be Plazza Michelangelo as it is up in the hills with an unspoiled panoramic view over the city. Stargazing from up there must be insane!
  • The surrounding hills of Florence offer some fantastic scenic routes, especially as the gardens are all linked and there are some lovely villas to spot. Here is an example of a tour:

Tour: Exploring the Hills of Florence

  • Start at the Ponte Vecchio and cross over from the North to the South. You’ll end up on the Via de Bardi. Follow the road East for a good while until it becomes slightly narrow and residential. Eventually, you’ll reach a huge wooden door on the right which is the entrance to the Parco Bardini. It is almost unassuming so you can easily walk past it. If the park is closed, turn right and walk a few meters back. To your left should be a small street going uphill called Costa Scarpuccia. Be warned it is very steep.
  • At the end of Costa Scarpuccia, turn left into Costa S. Giorgio which will lead you to the main entrance of the park, but in this case, you want to walk further up.
  • Costa S. Giorgio will split into Via del Forte di S. Giorgio which is a small, narrow street with a lovely romantic cottage that will lead you to the entrance of the Boboli Gardens.
  • If you stay on the Costa S. Giorgio, follow it to its end and then turn left onto the Via di Belvedere. This is a wonderful country road with olive trees and wild vegetation. It goes downhill and can be a little steep. Follow it for around 20 mins and then it will lead you to Via Bastioni.
  • Turn right to Via del Monte alle Croci which is again, a bit steep as it has lots of stairs to climb up another hill. On the left is a rose garden for a little break, however, continue to walk up the hill and you will end up in Plazza Michelangelo which is THE spot for breath-taking views over Florence and a superb spot to watch the sunset and do some stargazing. 

ponte vecchio in beautiful florence
river arno in florence
small narrow streets in florence
boboli gardens with rose gardens in florence
florentine villas in the surrounding hills of florence

Where To Eat & Dine In Florence: My Personal Favourites

Wherever you go in Florence, you won’t starve! The city has a rich food and dining scene and I’ve not eaten badly during my stay at all. Some of the best places in town can be found here:

  • Breakfast: Paszkowski located on the Piazza della Republica in the city centre serves a lovely continental breakfast including pancakes. There’s of course eggs, beans and ham for the British and freshly pressed orange juice at affordable prices. I came here twice.
  • Another breakfast spot can be found down the road. Caffe La Posta on Via Pellicceria offers European breakfast for 10 EUR. This includes coffee, orange juice and the choice between pancakes or eggs, bacon and a croissant. It’s a great deal for a quick and uncomplicated breakfast.
  • Via S. Miniato in the area close to the rose garden has some lovely little restaurants seamed closely next to another.
  • Sesto on Arno Rooftop Bar & Restaurant at the Westin Excelsior Hotel boasts with stunning views over the river and the dome. It’s pricey but lunch is definitely doable at around 30 EUR per person. It's a high-end restaurant so dress appropriately and be aware that they do charge a compulsory 22 EUR per person in the evening, regardless if you only want to go for one drink or make use of their buffet.
  • Florence is popular for its succulent Florentine steak which can be ordered at Trattoria 13 Gobbi in Via del Porcellana. The award-winning restaurant is THE place in town for the traditional Florentine dish. The steak is huge and usually comes on its own.
  • Plazza Santo Spirito on the Southside of the river is another area for fine al fresco dining. In the evening the square transforms into a hustling and bustling chaos of mostly young people going for drinks and meals out. Ristoranti Ricci was my choice one evening for a much-needed pineapple pizza.
  • Il Borro Tuscan Bistrot on the Northside of the river is a fine-dining bistro that has a daily changing menu with some lovely Florentine creations. The place is very stylish and elegant serving quality, fresh food. I tried a risotto with goats’ cheese foam and pine nuts which was exquisite.
  • TOP TIP: there’s another lovely rooftop bar called La Terrazza Continentale on top of the Continentale Hotel located at Lungarno degli Acciaiuoli. The entrance is a bit hidden and you have to specifically request to go up to the roof bar. I guess as space up there is pretty small, the roof bar has still been kept as an insider tip. It’s tiny but has great views over the river, Plazza Michelangelo and the Ponte Vecchio.
  • Gelato: get your ice cream fix from Venchi, which is one of the cheapest Italian ice cream chains I’ve known, or if you want to support the locals I can recommend Gelateria La Carraia, Gelato Artigianale, and Cantina del Gelato.

pizza time in florence
rooftopbar la terrazza continentale
palazzo vecchio during a summer evening
summer evening in florence
Ponte Vecchio in florence shot from the rooftop terrace of continentale hotel
view over florence from Sesto de Arno restaurant
tord-sollie-bridge life in florence during the summer

There you go, these are all my tips for a first-time visit to Florence. Even if you prefer to explore for yourself, I'm pretty sure you will create long-lasting memories in this unforgettable city.

Thanks so much for reading, 

Till next time,

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