After visiting Rome and Cinque Terre, Mrs. CurryOnTravel and I took the local commuter train from La Spezia to Florence, our gateway to Tuscany. Luckily, for us, we were not the only Americans on-board. “Dolcezza di non fare niente,” is what the sixty-five year old grandmother said to me. After living in Florence for more than three months, my fellow American, told me this is what she enjoys about Florence, and this is what sets it apart from other Italian cities. “To really experience the ‘sweetness of doing nothing’, sit in a café or a restaurant and truly watch other people living their lives.” Of course, we had to add that to our must-do list.
What to do there
Florence is one of the more popular and well-known regions of Italy. Located in Tuscany, it is what most non-Italians associate with when they think of Italy. With a rich history in art, architecture, cuisine, and wine; it is not hard to see why this is a favorite spot for many visitors.
Mrs. CurryOnTravel and I stayed about 5 minutes from the Firenze Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station. Though convenient, the area is busy even at night and it was noisier than our taste. After checking in, we had a few hours to explore the city. Like Rome, you can stroll down a street in Florence and come across a beautiful site to see. The alleys can take you all over the city, and it is easy to get lost but perhaps that is part of the fun of travelling.
Hacking Tip: Florence has many options for public transportation. From the tram to the local bus, you can get from one end of the city to another in 15 minutes. Though not as big as Rome, Florence is generally safe and a joy to explore by foot.
Heart of Florence
The closest cathedral to the station is the Catedral de Santa Maria Novella (guess how they came up with the name of the station?). Saint Mary is very important to Florentines, and you will see many churches and cathedrals dedicated for her worship. With an obelisk in the front, the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella may not be as gaudy as other churches, but it’s simplicity is beautiful.
Santa Maria Novella
Going south from Catedral de Santa Maria Novella, we made our way close to the Arno River, to visit the Palazzo Vecchio and the Signoria Palace. As the sun is cooling in the evening, the crowds seem to grow in the area. Surrounded by restaurants, the place is popular for folks to dine or enjoy the ambiance. Mrs. CurryOnTravel and I brought a small bottle of wine to sit on the steps of the palace and enjoy. The security guards were smiling as they saw tourists truly taking in the site, as the sunlight moved across the Palazzo Vecchio’s tower to welcome the night.
In our first evening, we decided to try the Mercato Centrale, or the central market. By day it is a standard grocery store on the first floor, and by night the market changes to a food court. The first floor is closed, and visitors take the escalator to the second floor to enter the court. The floor is surrounded by different stands for cheese, pizzas, pastas, wine, burgers, sushi and desserts. For us, it was street-food heaven. The market can be packed, so take your time as you move from stall to stall. My humble request: try the fresh cannolis, the vendor adds in the filling after you order it.
The next morning, we began our day-trip through the small towns of Tuscany. Starting in Siena, we explored the once-rival of Florence with it’s charming alleys, the famous Duomo di Siena, and the Piazza del Campo. The gothic duomo is magnificent, and one can compare it to the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris with the different artists that have worked on it. A section of the church is devoted to an artist that spent time building or rebuilding a portion. Histories can be traced in the church as artistic hands changed and where a new touch was added.
Duomo di Siena
After leaving Siena, we stopped at a local winery. Like a scene out of Godfather II, you can see the vines and the grapes in the hills. In the horizon, you can see the towers of San Gimignano. You can gather around with family and friends, passing the wine and the pasta (we are in Tuscany!) while feeling the wind of the hills. A well timed break, to enjoy the lunch and recover for our next stop.
How can you refuse this offer?
Our tour included a stop at one of the most famous destinations in Tuscany: Pisa. Pisa is a small village in Tuscany, however it is always filled with tourists who come to admire The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Visitors can buy tickets to go inside the tower, and see the view from the top; or you can spend the time trying to take the perfect selfie. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, next to the Leaning Tower, is another pick of ours. Anyone shopping for souvenirs can find a bargain in Pisa. The tents are propped up outside the city gates, and the vendors are open to bargaining. Other than the tour, travelers can take the local train from Florence to Pisa, running several times a day. The stop is only a few hours away.
It really is leaning
Hacking Tip: We booked our tour through Viator®. They work with a local company that manages the tour, and it was one of the best decisions we made. Taking care of the logistics, such as providing lunch, buying Duomo di Siena tickets, and organizing a tour; allowed us to enjoy the day. They accomodated our request for a vegetarian meal, and it was one of the best meals we had in Italy. The wines we tasted were spectacular, and I may have had one too many. Many tours are available for a day-trip to Tuscany, however, the level of service and the attention to detail is not as keen as with Viator®. It was a day-trip, an even though meals and bottled water were provided it is wise to keep some snacks and drinks.
On our last day in Florence, Mrs. CurryOnTravel did what we always wanted to do: visit the Basilica di San Lorenzo, or the Duomo. At the heart of the city, the basilica is one of the oldest churches in Florence. Brunelleschi completed the structure with the double dome on top of the church, and giving Florence a crown of it’s own. Visiting the church is a must, and the view from the top is unbeatable.
The crown jewel of Florence
After the Basilica di San Lorenzo, we walked next door to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Beautifully decorated, the church will remind of you of gothic duomo in Siena. The front door is divided in six sections portaying a different scene from the Bible.
Santa Maria del Fiore
Hacking Tip: Tickets are booked very early due to a heavy presence of tourists, so I recommend to book the tickets to popular spots online. There are many walking tours and guided tours in Florence, perfect for anyone interested in learning the history. Many tours offer bicycle cabs, for a 90-minute tour of the most famous spots for those in a time crunch.
The city is divided by the Arno river, and it is in fact due to the river that Florence was a powerhouse during the Medici era. Starting as merchants, before moving on to banking, the Medicis transferred their goods through Arno to other ports in the region. There is no better spot to view the river than Ponte Vecchio. After passing the jewelery shops, take a few minutes and gaze into the horizon, as if a ship is coming into the harbor.
View from Ponte Vecchio
The next place on our list was the Pitti Palace. Originally built by the Pitti family, the Medici family took over the palace during their reign. Walking through the Pitti Palace, you get a sense of the wealth and power of the Medici family. The Medicis are credited with comissioning the buildings that decorate Florence to this day, and their personal residence did not disappoint in comparison. We felt we were touring the Versailes Palace all over again. The Boboli Gardens, next to the palace, were later added by the Medicis, and both are worth the visit.
Medici’s version of Home Improvement
There are several notable musuems in Florence, such as the Uffizi Gallery and Galleria dell’Accademia. The musuems are interesting, however, if you had your share of art musuems then feel free to pass them. For avid shoppers, Florence has something for you as well. With designer stores for men and women, it will be hard to only do window shopping as you walk the alleys. The gold and diamond merchants have some of the best designs that are imitated by many around the world. In the land of the Medicis, it is hard not to shop like royalty.
For our last dinner in Florence, we visited the Ciro and Sons restaurant, close to the Santa Maria Novella cathedral. After a long day of exploring the city, it was time to take stock of what we have seen, and bathe in the sweetness of doing nothing before our next destination.
How to get there
There are many routes to Florence, though certain spots in Tuscany can be remote. Florence is a train ride away from Rome, Venice, or, in our case, La Spezia. From there you can rent a car, take the bus, or the local trains to your desired Tuscan spots.
Where to stay
As mentioned before, the hotels and rooms close to Santa Maria Novella station can be convenient; however, they are noisy in the late evening. I’d prefer hotels north of the Arno River, as it is close to great restaurants and tourist spots.
Let me know if I can provide more information about Florence, and I’d love to hear how your stay was. Did you enjoy Sienna as much as we did? Drop me a note.
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