10 Fun Things in Florence
A cradle of the Renaissance.
A decadent feast for eyes of art and architecture.
The epicentre of culinary highlights of Italy.
A perfect weekend getaway destination – although you are guaranteed to fall in love and not want to leave as your working week looms…
One of Europe’s foremost and most beautiful cities, Florence has its roots in the Roman Empire. However, its importance did not surge until the 14th century, when it became the birthplace of Renaissance, producing such genii as Leonardo da Vinci and Filippo Brunelleschi. Florence is one of those places you absolutely cannot miss – a time capsule that instantly transports you to the magnificent era of the Renaissance.
Having visited Florence a couple of times, I have decided to put together a list of my ten favourite things. Let me know what yours are!
1. Ascend Giotto’s Campanile for sweeping views of Florence’s gorgeous cityscape.
Climbing il Duomo is all the rage in Florence, which unfortunately results in appropriately long queues. If you have little patience for wasting your precious time queuing, climbing Giotto’s Campanile is a wonderful, if not even better, alternative – you will be rewarded with most stupendous views of il Duomo itself! This slender, free-standing tower is a showpiece of Florence’s Gothic architecture, and the ascent should not take more than a few minutes.
Once at the top of the Campanile, you will be rewarded with a view of Il Duomo and its surroundings like the one above…stunning, isn’t it?
Il Duomo, officially known as Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, with its intricate pink, white and green marble facade, is Florence’s most iconic landmark, and a magnificent feat of Italian architecture, taking more than 140 years to complete (1296 – 1436).
The most outstanding feature of this edifice is the huge dome, designed by one of Italian Renaissance’s foremost architects, Filippo Brunelleschi. Il Duomo was missing a dome during the first 100 years of its construction, because this cathedral called for an octagonal dome higher and wider than any that had ever been built, with no external buttresses to keep it from spreading and falling under its own weight. Eventually, Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious solution, a feat of engineering far ahead of its time.
2. Get your mind blown by some of the most impressive and beautiful art in the world.
The Uffizi Gallery and Galleria dell’Accademia are Florence’s two prime destinations to see a dizzying array of splendid Renaissance art. Florence, in general, is an art lover’s heaven. Ever since completing an Art History course at Sotheby’s Institute, I fancy myself somewhat of an art connoisseur, therefore given the fact that according to UNESCO almost a third of the world’s art treasures reside in Florence, re-visiting the Tuscan capital was of utmost importance to me. The Uffizi Gallery boasts the world’s largest collection of blue-chip Renaissance art, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus , largely collected by members of the Medici family during the 16th and 17th centuries. Whereas, Galleria dell’Accademia is where you will find Michelangelo’s groundbreaking masterpiece: colossal statue of Carrara marble portraying David as a symbol of Florentine freedom. Visit Bargello National Museum for some of the best original sculpture.
To skip long queues, book your tickets in advance through the official website.
6. Roam the streets of Florence for hours on end.
The fabric of Florence has changed marginally since the times of the Renaissance, with its narrow paved streets, gorgeous palazzos and the mighty river Arno transecting the city through its core. Florence is unexpectedly small, and simply roaming about for a few hours is the best means to get to know this romantic and magnetic city.
3. Become enthralled by Florence’s most striking frescos at Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is a monumental complex fronted by green and white marble facade, which houses some of the most important Italian Renaissance frescos, including Masaccio’s superb fresco Holy Trinity (1425), one of the first artworks to use the then newly discovered techniques of perspective and proportion – did you know that the idea of perspective and vanishing point, something that we take for granted nowadays, was not developed until the early 1400s by Filippo Brunelleschi? – as well as vibrant and striking series of frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was Michaelangelo’s mentor. The spacious, barely furnished Basilica is nowhere as busy as the other sights in Florence, providing an opportunity for a relaxing hour in the afternoon and a quiet escape from the crowds.
4. Window- shop for jewellery on Ponte Vecchio
Since joining the team of Gem-A-Porter, a leading jewellery blog, a few months ago, I have had a penchant for jewels crafted from all sorts of precious metals and gemstones. Granted, because of the stunning historic surroundings, the jewellery shops on Ponte Vecchio are somewhat of a tourist trap, yet simply browsing and trying on these exquisite jewels can do no harm! And, of course, if you succumb to the temptaion, you can always bargain..
5. Defeat a Bistecca alla Fiorentina
As a true carnivore-at-heart, my favourite dinner was at Buca Lapi, known as a “temple to beef” amongst locals and tourists alike and hidden in the basement of an 11th century palazzo, where we successfully defeated a massive portion of Florentine Steak. Bistecca all Fiorentina is featured prominently on menus of many a restaurant throughout the city, yet finding a truly great one can be a bit of challenge. However when the steak is done properly, it is heaven on earth for meat-lovers. Bistecca alla Fiorentina is delightfully rich; the rare meat flavourful and so tender, it almost seems to melt in your mouth! Florentine-style steak is unique because of the breed of the cattle used, Chianina beef.
6. Get your modern art fix at Museo Marino Marini
A pleasing counterpoint to the abundance of Renaissance art, and not to be missed by contemporary art lovers. Marino Marini eclectic scultures are displayed in a contemporary adaptation of an old church. Marini is one of Italy’s greatest 20th century sculptors and is particularly famous for his series of stylised equestrian statues featuring a man with outstretched arms on a horse. The building itself is a very memorable experience – a highly original re-interpretation of the interior of the old church as an airy contemporary art gallery – and worth a visit if you are not much of a modern art enthusiast.
7. Contemplate life whilst admiring Fra Angelico’s serene frescos at Museo di San Marco
Museo di San Marco is a spiritual and peaceful oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of Florence, famous for its many stunning frescos delivered by the hand and brush of an Early Renaissance painter, Fra Angelico, who was perhaps the most influential art figure of his period. These frescos can only be appreciated by seeing them in real life: at first glance comparatively simple, they are truly impressive and intimately capture figures’ emotions.
The bottom floor houses a cloister and some side rooms, but it is the beautifully preserved dormitory upstairs, which is the highlight of Museo di San Marco. As soon as you reach the top of the stairs, you are greeted by Fra Angelico’s masterpiece Annunciation (in the photo above). Behind it there are more than 40 monks’ cells, each graced with a fresco by Fra Angelico – each one more heavenly than the one before. Fra Angelico’s frescos evokes a feeling of serenity and make a lasting impression.
Italy is the second largest producer of wine in the world, and Tuscany is home to some of the finest wine regions. The history of viticulture in this region dates back to its settlements by the Etruscans in the 8th century BC, and nowadays Tuscany is well known for stellar red wines: Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, all primarily made with the grape of the local variety, Sangiovese. There are some excellent wine bars, or enoteche, dotted about Florence: Le Volpe e L’Uva (a tiny enoteca off the beaten path for those looking to hide away from the crowds), Enoteca Pitti Gola e Cantina (overlooking the Pitti Palace – what a magnificent view to accompany your wine tasting!), and Vinoteca Alessi (the favourite of the bar staff at the St Regis)
9. Find your favourite building. Mine is the Florence Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni).
Across from il Duomo, you will come across one of Florence’s most beautiful buildings, the Baptistery of St John. One of the oldest buildings in the city, the octagonal baptistery is known for its three sets of magnificent bronze doors, especially the two by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The east doors (the ones in the photo above – because of the scaffolding in front of the building I could not manage a better photo) were called the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo himself.
The vast and airy interior of the Baptistry, its ceiling crowned by a spectacular mosaic ceiling, reminds me of the interior of the Pantheon in Rome, my all-time favourite building. Many notable Renaissance figures, including members of the Medici family and Dante, were baptised here.
10. Witness a champagne sabering ritual at the St Regis
Using a champagne saber is an alternate and a very theatrical means of serving sparkling wine, dating back to the the times of Napoleon. Every day at 7pm, bottles of champagne are popped at the bar of the St Regis during the evening ritual – a dramatic, yet contained explosion and a fun and elegant way to begin your evening of indulgence with an aperitif as the sun goes down on the Arno river.
Now for the most important tip: Do not forget to purchase your Firenzecard!
Firenzecard costs 72€ and it is a 72-hou (three day) r universal ticket that gives you free admission to the major museums in Florence (the list contains 67 places, including the Uffizi Gallery, Galleria dell’ Academia, Palazzo Vechhio amongst many others!). You will have access not only to permanent collections, but also to exhibitions and all other activities held in that museum without further cost. In addition to free admission, the Firenze Card allows you to avoid long queues at the ticket offices of main museums.
Where to stay…
Affordable Luxury: Al Palazzo Del Marchese di Camugliano – this elegant, spacious hotel with 12 rooms is set in the 16th-century building on a quiet narrow street in cetrak Florence with original frescoes adorning its walls and a charming internal garden. A hidden gem.
Luxury: St Regis Florence – located within a historic palace designed by Brunelleschi, this superb hotel captures the Renaissance grandeur with a modern twist. The place in Florence to stay if money is no object. You can read my full article about this regal hotel here.
Where to eat…
Buca Lapi – For the best Florentine steak.
Tamero – Local favourite for a delicious pasta.
La Bussola – Excellent truffle pizza. Enough said.
Cavalli Caffe Firenze – for the best coffee in Florence that comes with a signature chocolate swirl.
Gelateria Lungarno – for the best gelato on the banks of river Arno.
A few more photographs for your inspiration…