Florence, Italy Review
What should you do with a few days in the birthplace of the Renaissance? Read my report and review to find out.
Where to begin when you're dealing with a the birthplace of THE RENAISSANCE? I mean, that's a pretty crazy fact to start out with. And they aren't kidding with this city - you can actually look at the doors that supposedly kicked off the style and the period. Just really wonderful stuff from a historical standpoint. It's one of Italy's most famous cities, and for good reason. It's beautiful. It's very walkable. It's really old (us new world folks love us an old city in Europe). Florence is one of the main cities in Tuscany, a region famous in its own right. It's a perfect city to take in a short stay, which is exactly what we did. Three days there were perfect.
If you're staying in the city center, you're going to have really great access to the main sights, and you can pretty much walk to them all within 10-15 minutes depending on how many Prada stores you get distracted by. On that note: let's not forget this is also a modern city that people live in, and it's filled with some world class shopping. Italian high end luxury brands, bespoke suit makers (with some amazing fabrics I might add) - you can get your fill of tax reclaimable goods here for sure. And hey, maybe replace that boxy interview/funeral/wedding suit you have in the closet, eh?
But, you can also find yourself outside the tourist area and quickly be within micro-sized streets that are fun and interesting (read: hard) to drive on, but be rewarded with true local feels and a view that is incredible. We stayed in this area and I'll tell you about that later. Within the city, go ahead and hit the sights. You've got numerous museums, shopping, walks, gelatto to eat everywhere (I mean this, EVERYWHERE), and plenty of general architecture gazing. Couple that with some great dining options, and you're gonna love it.
This is my Florence, Italy City Review and Report.
What To Do In Florence
Get lost in the city center, that's the best recommendation I have for you. Take the little side streets. Explore. You're going to come across something interesting, and it's super safe. Probably start at the Duomo, of course.
Florence is a tourist heavy city - and I'd say it's best to avoid in the high seasons. There just aren't that many places to put all those people. That rules out Easter through September. (though very early May is OK and when we went - but it was by no means "slow"). So keep that in mind in your planning. The weather is gorgeous, but you're not the only one that had that idea to take a stroll through the city. Most of the American Midwest and eastern Europe had the same. But, don't let my attempts at snide humor discourage you. There's SO much to do in this small place.
The very obvious stuff are also mostly "must do" things. The museums. Like Paris, another tourist heavy city, there's a reason it's so full of tourists. The sights there are just incredible. So while I always love to try and get out and visit the local areas, in some cities you just need to see that stuff. In Florence, that means the Uffizi Gallery. We're talking one of the most famous museums in the world, and it's full of incredible Italian art from all sorts of different eras. You'll see lots of heavy religious themes, sculptures, and even paintings by the old Italian masters. Honestly though, some of my favorites in the museum were the ceilings - I'm not kidding, remember to look up! Some examples are included on this page, but they were mind blowing. Hard to imagine humans could make this kind of thing so long ago. But, when you have 25 years to dedicate to a single project and not have to worry about the angle your partner got on your newest Insta pic, you can become a master. And they were.
But, you're not done yet with the museums. The Galleria dell'Accademia is the other must see for most people. In here, you'll find one of the most famous sculptures in mankind's history, The David. For both this and the Uffizi, I'd pretty much insist you buy tickets online ahead of time. Ticketing can be complete zoos here, with such high demand. Do yourself a favor and buy them ahead of time to skip some of the lines. Further, there is another small museum dedicated to da Vinci and his creations. As far as time to dedicate to these, I'd say a half day in Uffizi is a good amount without being overkill. The others you can probably do both in an afternoon as they're smaller. Here's where you can buy tickets for Uffizi and Galleria:
Stick with the official site.
Example Ceiling in Uffizi
While some might think this is going to sound corny, I'd highly recommend grabbing Rick Steve's Italy book, and doing his guided walk for the city! Crazy right? No I'm not 80. But here's why it's great (and frankly, all of them are; I use them in quite a few European cities): they give you almost step by step guided tours to follow, and explain all sorts of facts about the places and spots along the way. He actually gets in depth enough in his instructions to say things like, "Ok, walk around the building counter clockwise and find the statue with the ....". It's that detailed. And, another secret that I can't prove scientifically, I think there are a lot of walking tours or guides out there that use his tours as a baseline. Just a theory from what I've seen. I mean, I would if I was a guide just starting out. So, if you want to control your own destiny and not be in a group (though I do support Free Walking Tours across the world, too) - this is a great option. In Florence, he takes you down a Renaissance Walk that hits all the major spots. It starts at the Duomo, and ends at the Ponte Vecchio, which is pictured above.
Now about that Ponte Vecchio - I was ok observing it from the outside. It's really historic and pretty cool looking. But one look inside of it and you'll see what I mean - tourists packed in tight! Ultimately, we did walk through it because why not? You're in Florence, see the big sights. But I didn't find much of personal value in it, and seeing it was enough for me. Hey - you might like all the little nick nacks in there, and the world class jewelry stores. Give it a shot while you're here!
Don't stop there however. Stop inside all the churches and cathedrals. The Orsanmichele Church was a standout. It's pictured in the middle just above this paragraph. And, don't be afraid to get a little modern too. Into fashion? Florence is the birthplace of Gucci. There's a gallery of sorts called Gucci Garden, and honestly it's really cool. Has all sorts of creations on display from recent times, to the 60s, and sometimes older. My girlfriend is a designer, and she said it converted her to a fan of Gucci just seeing some of this stuff in person. The store on-site is full of items you can only get there. Expensive, but if that's your thing, you're gonna love it. I'm not into fashion, but still found it worth a visit. Oh - the entrance fee of 8 euros, gets split as 50% of the ticket goes to Florence restoration projects. All those tourists cause damage, so you'd be helping a good cause. Beware the Instagrammers though!
Lastly, get across the river! There's all kinds of little antique shops and other places scattered around over there. You'll find better prices I'd imagine where they are speaking Italian first. And for all you shoppers, about a 45 minute to 1 hour drive away is the Prada factory outlet. When you're dating a designer, it's a must. So, be sure to Google that if you want to get some pretty nicely discounted items. I will say don't expect this to be your regular Polo/Gap/J Crew style outlet malls. It's still expensive! Just less so.
What To Eat In Florence
I'll be honest here - when I started researching places to eat in Florence, I was completely overwhelmed. And, I'm completely used to doing research so that's saying something. It so heavily caters to tourists now, that I frankly think you need to be a bit careful. Not for any nefarious reasons, but because you don't want to end up in some run-of-the-mill trap serving subpar food for high prices. I do tend to stay higher end with my choices, but I found it really reasonably priced overall.
The first stop we made, was America East. Just kidding, that's not it's name. But, it was pretty much full of Americans. That's not a bad thing - they were all nice people as most of us tend to be. So if you're looking for two old Italians playing cards in the corner and maybe being yelled at by the nonna in the kitchen cooking the patrons' meals, this isn't it. It's called Lo Scudo. We were sent here by the good folks at Del Posto - a Michelin starred restaurant in NYC. So we figured it had to be good. You'll be comfortable with speaking English here. The staff was super nice, the owner/manager comes around to check on you as you eat. It's very cozy. And the food is accessible and delicious. That's my main point - I don't mind if it's full of tourists. I'm a tourist. We need to eat too. The place was welcoming, had the exact kind of decor you're looking for in an Italian restaurant, and the food was DELICIOUS. Fresh pasta galore. Local steak. Was a great meal. We had the squid ink linguine with vongole, the carbonara, and the osso bucco. All lovely and to my eye, authentic. You'll love it.
Next recommendation I have for you, is a bit across the river near the Boboli Gardens. It's called Culinaria and if you don't make the effort to go here while you're in Florence, you're doing yourself a disservice. And them. They deserve your business. The gents here are doing local vendor supplied, farm to table food. And they mean it. They'll tell you where it's from like it's an episode of Portlandia. Though, I don't know what the name of their chicken was. But she was delicious. I'm kidding! I ate the pig. But not only is this place hyper locally sourced, it's all wonderful and simple food. We're talking, 4-5 ingredients not counting olive oil and salt. We had prawn tartare (amazing), Chianti "Tuna" (hint: it's not tuna and pictured above), as well as a couple of the pasta dishes. So good. THIS is a local spot. So, there's my recommendation for local. The best part was the pricing. Most items on the appetizer and pasta menu were like 10-13 euros. Incredible for that kind of slow food.
Lastly, our big dinner. You knew this was coming. I looked into the different Michelin rated restaurants in town, and wasn't blown away by what I was reading. But, one did catch my eye, and that was Il Palagio. It's the restaurant inside the Four Seasons, so you can imagine what we're talking about in terms of style. We dressed up and made reservations, and taxi'd on over. The interior is amazing, and I think it will really impress. For our last meal, it was what we were looking for. The service was impeccable, the food an extremely high quality, and presented in style. It's what you're wanting in this kind of place. I'm considering a full review, so let me know on the Instagram post if you'd all like that.
In this case, I don't have a ton of recommendations around breakfast and coffee, as we ate in our hotel each morning (you'll understand why in a minute when I tell you about it). But, I can point you to a great resource for ALL kinds of food in Florence. This site helped me tremendously, and is the only reason I found the Culinaria gem. To note, I've no affiliation with the site. Just helping fellow Wanderers to find their way as best they can. The site owner also does food tours of the city, which could be very cool! Here's her site:
It's really well done and really informative. She does a great job on the site and on Instagram. So, all credit to The Curious Appetite for guiding me to Culinaria. She also has a good section on coffee, which I did take notes from though I did not end up needing to use the spots in the city. Grazie mille, TCA!
Where To Stay In Florence
I don't really even know where to begin here! That's a lie, I do. But, I can say that for such a small city, there are a TON of options for where you can stay. Ultimately, it comes down to what you value, and what your budget is. Like always. I think I'll do a post on that in my blog - how to decide where you want to stay. Maybe? Back to Florence - I honestly did HOURS of research on this topic, and I'm glad I did. You can go low end, high end, ultra high end, and even self cater. I can't possibly give you all the options here, so I'll tell you about what I looked at. I will say that I did not find Airbnb to be of particular value in this city. For the similar costs of a nice hotel, I'd just assume stay there unless the property was amazing. On to the ideas and my experience.
So, since we were only staying for a few days and we were splitting the cost, we decided to stay somewhere nice. That means we had a decent budget. I will say that you won't lack options in the 3 Star range in this city, nor the 4 star, either. I will also say that in the many, many reviews I read, some of the "luxury" hotels didn't appear to hold up to people's original ideas or expectations. So, try and do your best to pay attention to the different cues you're seeing in your reviews.
Ultimately, I thought I had decided on a hotel, The Roma Hotel. It's right on the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, and looks gorgeous. Really nice overall reviews as well. We did walk past it, and it's a wonderful area. Busy enough for the city vibes, but JUST far enough outside the main area that it feels more local, and not stuffed full of tour groups and things like that. There's a few, don't get me wrong. It IS a hotel, haha. But check it out if you want a nice hotel. For even a step higher, you should check out the Four Seasons. We ate here, but did not stay here. It's an AMAZING hotel from what I saw. If that's in your budget, that's probably your top bet, though it is a little outside of center.
Where did I stay? Well, let me tell you. I said almost just earlier because, well, I came across another option quite accidentally. I'm not even sure how I found it. In a list somewhere I'm sure. But, we saw it, and both agreed we HAD to choose it. The Hotel Torre Di Bellosguardo. It's an old (I mean OLD) villa that's been turned into a boutique hotel. It's on a hill above the city, so offers an AMAZING and unique view of Florence that really, I don't think most people get to see. It's really special. The grounds are amazing (gardens, citrus trees, etc.) and while being outside of the city, we reached the river to cross into Florence in 15-20 minutes walking and taking our time. It was lovely. It is up a hill however, so keep that in mind if you're not able to be very mobile on your own.
On-site, you'll find all sorts of amazing touches. There are 15th century frescos all over the ceilings. The tower we stayed in (we got one of the suites) was built in the 13th century. Thirteenth! I know us Americans like old stuff, but that's old for anyone. It truly was fantastic. We had breakfast provided every day of the typical European continental, but everything was super local, and bursting with flavors. Meats, cheeses, fruits, pastries, some pancakes, hard boiled eggs, etc. But the breakfast patio, my god. We loved coming each morning. They also allowed you to make your own fresh pressed blood orange juice. Wow, so cool. At night, we took cabs to dinner and home. I'd say they were about 10-12 euros each way. Further, the walk down to town has two options: the road, OR THE OLIVE GROVE. I mean, THIS is what you think of when you think of Tuscany and Italy. We took that way one day and it was just peaceful and nice. Skip it if it rains though. For a wonderful and quiet escape from the bustle of the city, with unmatched views and grounds, this is your place. Pool on-site too. Lastly, this place was built by a mentor and good friend of a guy called Dante. You might have heard of him.
Some things of importance. While I'd classify this as 4-5 stars, I would not go here if you like being waited on hand and foot by your hotel. It's just not that kind of place. The service is there if you ask for it - the staff is small. But otherwise, they see it as their job to leave you alone. That's just fine with me. They helped with cabs, parking, dinner reservations, taking our luggage to our room, etc. All I had to do was ask. Another thing, is there is no kitchen/restaurant on site. There is a really cool wooden-bar room, and I think each night they do bring in some catering. But, we wanted to eat out in Florence so was not a problem for us, and I of course knew this going in. Lastly, this place is old. The fixtures are old. The heating is old. Etc. Go in knowing that, and you'll be fine. But don't expect things to be built like your brand new apartment in London or New York or whatever. If you'd rather the heart of the city and brand new stuff, the Roma Hotel again is probably a good choice.
Something tells me the pictures might pique your interests.
Final Thoughts On My Florence City Review
Florence is pretty much a must-see city, it really is. And that's even with the amount of tourists there. I generally dislike those environments, and seek out other cities. But it's so historic, so famous, and filled with such lovely things to eat! I would just very much recommend planning the season you go, if you have that luxury. There aren't many slow months, but you'll have more elbow room if you can choose then. The architecture, the stories, the images, all made my first proper visit to Italy an amazing one. Yes! This was my first proper trip to Italy. I'm such an idiot for holding off for so long. But if it's any indication how much I liked it: we're already planning our next trip back to that beautiful country. Grazie mille, Florence.
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