Florence is an interesting city for me because, at times, it gives me serious shades of Venice: that is, it’s much more overrun with tourists than I would like it to be. At the same time, though, I get it – it’s a lovely city, and why wouldn’t you want to visit? And for me, Florence is one of those spots that’s just plain worth it, tourists and all. I’ll gladly bump elbows with a pack of tourists if I happen to be bumping elbows with Michelangelo, too.
I’ve written a bit about Florence already – about the art and the food – but the truth is I have much more to say about my time there (and, as is evident from this photo-laden post, plenty of pictorial evidence, too). Here, then, a few (okay, more than a few) moments I want to remember.
One: Surviving an Unexpected Hailstorm
I arrived in Florence via train, and as I exited Santa Maria Novella, I noticed that the skies were starting to look ominous. I had considered just walking to my hotel, but I decided to grab a cab instead, given how dark the skies were – and thank God I did.
By the time I made it through the taxi line, it had started to rain. By the time my cab pulled out of the train station parking lot and into the city, it had started to outright downpour. And, by the time we drove a block or two, it had started hailing like crazy.
I had never seen anything like it: the rain was pounding down fast and furious, the wind was gusting, and the hail was slamming our windows. Within minutes, the streets had flooded and branches and other debris had fallen everywhere. My cab driver kept exclaiming, “Mamma mia, un disastro!” And it was, truly it was.
After struggling through the streets of Florence – several roads my driver tried were closed – I finally made it to my hotel. After unpacking and settling in, I headed out into Florence to find that several of the streets were covered with huge piles of hail. It was truly bizarre!
Two: Strolling Along the Arno
One of my favorite travel pictures ever is from 2005, me standing with a group of my friends on the Ponte Vecchio as the sun went down over the Arno, setting everything spectacularly aglow. Thinking back on that night has always given me nostalgic, rosy-colored memories of Florence, the kind that make you think you might just be over-romanticizing the place in your mind. This trip, I realized that, nope, I was not. The Arno is actually that glorious.
At any time of day – and I walked along the river at pretty much at all of ’em – the Arno, and more specifically, the buildings and bridges lining it, is gorgeous. But at sundown it is particularly magical, with the already warm-colored buildings becoming even warmer in the evening light. Strolling along (often with a gelato in hand) was one of my favorite ways to pass the time.
Three: Admiring the Duomo
I don’t have anything new to say about the Duomo, Florence’s oft-photographed and iconic central landmark, other than to add my voice to the millions of tourists expressing their awe. The thing that always gets me about the Duomo is its sheer size: tucked among the city streets, it’s almost impossible to snag a camera shot with the entire building in the frame. And catching a glimpse of its famous dome in the distance as you turn onto a street will always be one of my favorite things about Florence.
Four: Exploring Santa Croce
In a sense, every other church in Florence doesn’t even have a chance, given how magnificent the Duomo is. But while it may be less impressive, Santa Croce is worth a visit nonetheless. I love the church’s exterior, with its hint of pink, and inside there are treasures too – namely, the tombs of some pretty notable Renaissance VIPs, like Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and Machiavelli. You may have heard of them.
Five: Finding Sandwich Nirvana at All’Antico Vinnaio
One thing I became a huge fan of while in Florence was popping into a deli and getting a sandwich. While I’m notoriously picky about deli meat back home – i.e., I don’t eat it – deli meat in Italy is a whole different beast. It is top notch.
Of all the sandwich spots I tried in Florence, All’Antico Vinnaio was by far my favorite. And, clearly, it was everyone else’s favorite, too, as there’s almost always a big crowd of people queued up there. Once inside, I ordered a sandwich with prosciutto, pecorino, truffle cream, rucola, and olive oil on focaccia. The gentleman who made my sandwich gave me a little smile and nod of approval after I had rattled off my selections, which I took as a good sign – and it was. The sandwich was insanely good, not to mention huge and, at five euros, an enormous bargain. I loved it so much I went back the next day, too.
Six: Admiring the View from Piazzale Michelangelo
Florence is a postcard perfect town, and one of the best ways to realize this fact is to take a look at the city from above. I grabbed a cab and headed first to San Miniato al Monte, a church perched atop a hill, to poke around. Then, I walked downhill a bit to Piazzale Michelangelo, home to one of the city’s most iconic viewpoints. It sure is gorgeous up there!
Seven: Perusing Mercato Centrale
I love a good market, and Florence’s Mercato Centrale is definitely that. While I had visited the market during my food tour, I knew we only scratched the surface and so I was eager to get back. I browsed through the stalls, piled high with colorful, fresh produce and amazing-looking cheeses, and grabbed a cheap but fantastic pasta lunch from one of the vendors.
Eight: Stopping by the Medici Chapel
The Medici Chapel does not, in my opinion, photograph that well – it’s just a bit too dark – but it is spectacular in person. The sheer scope of the building, with its high ceilings and gilded surfaces, is incredibly impressive.
Nine: People Watching in the Piazzas
One thing Florence, and all Italian cities, really, has in abundance is piazzas. Piazza della Signoria just may be the epicenter of everything in Florence, a spot where everyone seems to converge. Though it’s a little too crowded, if you can nab a seat under the shade of the Loggia, this is a fantastic spot to sit and people watch.
Nearby, at Piazza Repubblica, there’s more people watching to be done. I also love the old fashioned carousel that sits in the middle of this square – a colorful addition to a stately piazza.
And at Piazza dei Pitti, I couldn’t help but admire the buildings lining the square – I thought they were all so gorgeous, in their cream-colored hues with hints of blue.
Ten: Learning to Make Pizza and Gelato from Scratch
As far as I’m concerned, any trip to Italy has to involve liberal amounts of the country’s five major food groups: pizza, pasta, gelato, wine, and cheese. Bonus points if, in addition to eating them, you learn how to make them. Which is exactly what I did when I partook in Florencetown’s Pizza & Gelato Making Class.
Over the course of the evening, we created our own pizzas from scratch: making our own dough, letting it raise, topping our pizzas, and then using the pizza paddle to transfer them to the oven (which is tougher than one might think!).
While there wasn’t time to make gelato from start to finish (since it takes hours in an ice cream maker to achieve that), our instructors let us see part of the process in action and explained the rest. They explained that gelato is one part cream to two parts milk, the opposite ratio of ice cream, which makes it taste differently (and makes it less fattening, too). They also explained how to spot a good gelateria: look for colors that are not overly bright, smaller bins of gelato (as opposed to enormous vats), and no more than twenty flavors – these factors will give you a good idea whether the gelato is homemade, right there on the premises.
Florence was, for me, a tricky destination to return to: after spending the summer of 2005 there, and then subsequently romanticizing it in my mind for the next nine years, I was curious to see if it lived up to my own hype. Luckily, yes, it still does.