Florence Must-Dos: What to see and do in Firenze!

IMG_5249Sure, you could do it. You could hop from museum to church to bridge and see much of it’s beauty in just a weekend. A day, even. Yes, Florence is a small city. Very walkable. But…wait for it…she’ll getchya. You’ll be back. Or you’ll extend your regrettably brief stay. Or perhaps, like many have been known to, dare I call it, you will end up staying put for the long haul.

It’s widely known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The longer I live here, the more I realize there is to see. Florence is so historically, culturally, artistically astounding that it was here where the term “Stendnhal Syndrome” was coined. Also called “Florence Syndrome,” its a psychosomatic disorder where individuals feel totally overwhelmed when in the presence of what they perceive to be immensely beautiful – particularly art. Stendnhal, a French author, was in the midst of the artistic works and tombs of great men like Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, when he wrote this of his experience: “I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling…”IMG_2975

With millions of visitors each year, its no surprise that Florence has been named one of the top cities in the world to travel to in modern times and days of old. Firenze is often referred to as the “Renaissance City,” but legend has it that Julius Cesar founded Florence in 59 BC as a Roman military settlement. Here are a few of the “must-see-and-do” things in Florence, according to a local who is in love with learning all about her hometown, this capital of Tuscany full of creativity and achievement.

The Duomo, duh. Many people advise that you avoid the crowds of people who want to climb to the top of the giant dome, particularly on hot days when you’re sandwiched between the unforgiving space of the walls, but I say it’s always worth it. The duomo still dumbfounds me every single time I look at it, which is really hard to avoid since it’s so imposing, towering over you from nearly every point in town. Each time I make the climb up, especially when I get in between the two layers of the dome, I’m mesmerized by its miraculous construction. Can you believe that this ginormous dome was built by the hands of men six centuries ago? Their “technology” being rope pulleys powered by hand and oxen?. Going up in the dome also gives you the chance to lay eyes on some of the original tools used in constructing this architectural wonder. Conceived by Brunelleschi, a goldsmith who had no formal training in architecture and a fiery temper, he went to Rome to study ancient architectural marvels like the Pantheon, which at the time was the world’s largest dome. The one Bruno founded here in Florence became the biggest in his time and remains the largest masonry dome in the world today. Created without supports thanks to his ingenious design of the inner shell of bricks in a herring bone pattern (not just for looks!) and a horizontal stone chain which reduced the stress and allowed the weight to be evenly distributed, mysteries still remain about how on earth this massive dome managed to be constructed and stand strong for so many centuries. So run your fingers along a few of over 4 million bricks laid between the big wooden beams and lose yourself in wonder of this magnificent masterpiece.

As I ascend, when I reach the first level where you are still inside the dome, I look down before looking up at the frescoed inner circle. I imagine a desperate Cosimo de’Medici looking upward at a big gaping hole, exposing the cathedral to the elements for a good 50 years before Brunelleschi liked it and put a dome on it. (cue Beyonce song).

IMG_8513Before walking through the innards of the dome, you are treated with a close up of Vasari’s “Last Judgement” fresco that you see from way down below in the cathedral. Coming face-to-face with petrifying demons penetrating doomed souls with sharp looking objects in unmentionable places may not be so much of a “treat” as it is to give you nightmares, but it’s still bound to get your attention on some level. When I finally feel the sun on my face when I step outside under the lantern at the top of the dome, I imagine the masons who were building it up there over 600 years ago, eating lunch. Boss Bruno ordered that lunch be delivered to the workers, rather than have them pass precious time descending for food. Lunch was always complete with wine, of course, but wisely watered down so that no workers hit the ground hard after hitting the bottle!

Once back at ground level, don’t miss the downward steps under the cathedral that reveal ruins of the original church, Santa Reparata. It will take you back to when the soil was first struck to build a religious space here back when Christianity became accepted as Rome’s official religion in the 4th century. To enter the cathedral itself is free, but a single ticket costing 10€ gives you entrance to all of these fascinating places: Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Opera Museum (the museum is currently closed and reopens in November 2015). Website: http://www.museumflorence.com/ Via della Canonica, 1 50122, Firenze Tel: +39 055 2302898 Email: opera@operaduomo.firenze.itIMG_3215

Palazzo Vecchio, the tower above and the amphitheatre below, and the fascinating piazza it dominates. I must write something zeroing in on all the interesting things that lie in this piazza. But the Palazzo Vecchio is one place you must enter. It is one location that I want an exclusive, top secret, extra-special tour of. There are layers upon layers of history in this one concentrated space in town. Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, all built on top of each other like layers of a cake. Cake layers with secret tunnels and doors as the icing in between. Excavations that began only as recently as 2004 have revealed remains of a Roman amphtheatre, Medieval roads and tunnels. Its name in Italian means the “Old Palace” because it was the original home of the Medici, Florence’s most important family in history, who later crossed the Arno river to Palazzo Pitti when they wanted a bigger back yard (hello, Boboli gardens) and less noise from the lions (exotic pets of the era) abiding nearby the palace on the street now known as “Via del Leone”. But it was originally built long before the Medici came along in the 13th century as a seat for the city’s leaders, and it is still today Florence’s city hall as well as a museum. IMG_8484Highlights of the museum are the breathtaking Salone dei Cinquecento, a grand hall adorned with massive frescoes by Vasari depicting battle scenes of the republic, and the Room of the Maps for globally minded enthusiasts like you and I. Then there are the apartment rooms, decorated by the likes of Michelangelo, Donatello and Vasari. I strongly encourage you to go up into the tower as well during your visit. It’s well worth the views and the historical thrill; see my post about it here. Don’t run off before witnessing the very first foundings of this fortress, go underground and see the Roman ruins dating back to the 1st century.

Relax in my favourite piazza in the city afterwards, the Piazza della Signoria. A wonderful open-air museum itself with its abundance of sculptures, and an entertaining people watching spot, often complete with street music for your ears’ delight along with that of your eyes. I wouldn’t worry about sitting down to eat at the overpriced, not so authentic restaurants in the piazza, but consider an Italian-designer style cappuccino at the Gucci Caffé with this beautiful background. Gucci Caffé, Piazza della Signoria, 10, Tel: 055 7592 3827

When you visit Palazzo Vecchio, gucci cafe you can enter the museum or the tower for 10€ each. It’s definitely worth it to pay just 14€ for access to both the museum and the tower. Comune di Firenze – Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria 50122, Firenze Tel. 055 2768325 http://museicivicifiorentini.comune.fi.it/en/palazzovecchio/visitamuseo/

Want to see MORE of Palazzo Vecchio, at a simple click? Much of Palazzo Vecchio isn’t seen by the public. But Google has actually helped some parts of the palace be revealed to the naked eye with something called “Google Art Project.” 147 high resolution images are made available for a more intimate look at paintings on the ceilings of the Salone dei Cinquecento that stand 20 metres from the floor of the museum, and more close-ups for the Room of the Maps, for example.   http://museicivicifiorentini.comune.fi.it/en/palazzovecchio/evento10.htm

Uffizi – a treasure chest of timeless artistic masters – You can’t come to the Renaissance City without going to the world’s most famous Renaissance museum. Whether or not you are an art enthusiast, you will be astounded by the brilliant works of the Italian “great men” and many other European masters all forged into one grand space at the Uffizi. If I go on and on about what you need to see in this world-renowned museum, then I will probably poop you out before you even set foot in the entrance. I’ll just suggest you consider booking a ticket online prior to your visit to avoid lines, especially in summer months. I’d also highly recommend that you read up and print documents before going so you’re ready with a game plan for your must-see works by artists like Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Giotto, Rembrandt, Rubens (just to name a few!)…or possibly even book a tour or get an audio guide to help you along. UffiziNo matter how you tackle it, give yourself plenty of time to wander the rooms with abandon. You brain will be swirling afterwards, so settle down with gelato. Yes, another one. When you walk towards the Arno river from Palazzo Vecchio, the entrance to the Uffizi is right there on your left, close to the famous Florentines statue lineup. Piazzale degli Uffizi, 50122 Firenze Tel: 0552388651 Email: direzione.uffizi@polomuseale.firenze.it, http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/?m=uffizi

Santa Croce – geniuses at rest. After you have seen the works by some of the greatest artists of all time, go drop by and say hello to a few of the fellows where they have been laid to rest. Sure it looks kinda like the Cathedral’s face on the outside, but many don’t know what important things – or people – are on the inside. Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan basilica in the world, and it contains countless paintings and other works of art, including fresco cycles by Giotto. Many illustrious characters of history are buried here, including Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Galileo. Tickets to tour the church as well as the Pazzi chapel next door are 6€. There is a ticket that admits a bonus visit to the nearby Casa Buonarroti, a property formerly belonging to Michelangelo which is now a museum paying his tribute, for €8,50. Piazza Santa Croce, 16, 50122 Firenze, Tel: 055 2466105, http://www.santacroceopera.it/

Also worth visiting while at Santa Croce is the Scuola del Cuoio, THE Florentine leather school where you’ll watch artsans hard at work at their craft just as they were in ancient days of Florentia. It is located on the back of Santa Croce. Entrance to the school is free, but I bet you will be leaving with a gorgeous, carefully crafted leather bag or at least a bookmark imbossed with Florence’s giglio emblem so you can take a piece of Firenze home for yourself or your favourite people.Scuola del Cuoio Via San Giuseppe 5R 50122 Firenze, Tel: 055.244.533/4, Email: info@scuoladelcuoio.com, www.scuoladelcuoio.com
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Piazzale Michelangelo and San Minato. Can you say “picture perfect sunset?” You won’t even need to buy postcards after you snap a shot from up here. Once you get a few, put down the camera and just let the panorama be ingrained in your memory. At any time of day, or multiple times of day, you want to see this view. The Arno river splitting the town in two, surrounded by the terracotta roofs dotted with the silouettes of prominent landmarks, with of course, the centre of attention, the grand cathedral and its duomo. Lose yourself once more in wonderment of how many millions, many famous folk, have wandered these mystifying streets over centuries of time. Stop at a market before trekking up for some bread, meat, cheese and wine to “cin cin” with. Surely, this bella città deserves a toast. Piazzale Michelangelo, 50125 FirenzeIMG_2224

San miniatoThe Basilica di San Miniato gives you a view similar to the Piazzale but with less crowds and a stunner of a church to go along with it. All you have to do is walk up the road a bit from the Piazzale and you’ll see it on your left. This church was built around the year 1000 is one of the most finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Tuscany. Going inside makes you feel as if you have stepped that far back in time. It’s completely free to visit, and if you arrive at the right time, you’ll have the hypnotic experience of hearing Gregorian chanting from real, live monks. Via delle Porte Sante, 34, 50125 Firenze, Tel: 055.2342731 http://www.sanminiatoalmonte.itIMG_0268

Feast your eyes on the fine specimen that is David at the Galleria dell’Accademia. It’s hard to believe that Michelangelo constructed such perfection from a one large piece of marble. Interestingly this wonder was once made to be placed upon the top of the facade of the Cathedral, meant to draw the eyes of viewers up to the heavens. As heavenly as David is, he was instead placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio to scare off enemies, and then later called off guard duty to stand proud in the gallery. Indulge in an intimate look-over of this Michelangelo masterpiece. The extreme close-up the museum environment offers allows you to note the bulging veins and the intense stare in David’s eyes. You might also observe that from this close, his hand and face are not exactly proportionate with each other. Recalling that David was meant to reign the ramparts of the Cathedral from on high, and that Michelangelo was an obvious genius with perspective in mind, you’ll understand why his man hands might make his head look a little miniscule.daviddavid hand Other Michelangelo works line the walls of the David room; among them are his Slaves who were intended for Pope Julius II’s tomb, a project Michelangelo was forced to abandon in order to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome. On the right of David is the unfinished Pietà Palestrina, often attributed to Michelangelo. Many people miss the marvel of the rest of the gallery when their aim is to solely gaze upon the David. It’s worth a little extra time to get lost in a particular type of wonderment that witnessing unfinished works of Michelangelo and his followers. These curious pieces play with your imagination and fabricate possible stories to go along with the creations you are in the presence of. The gallery also houses late Gothic and Renaissance paintings on the ground floor, and a remarkable collection of musical instruments from the Conservatory of Luigi Cherubini. Let these works serenade your heart and soul! Via Ricasoli 58-60, Tel: 055 2388609. Email: galleriaaccademia@polomuseale.firenze.it, http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=accademia

Ponte Vecchio. The “old bridge” that never gets old. I’m soon going to write a blog post focusing solely on this dear “old bridge.” It’s my most favourite in the whole wide world. Of course you should cross it and allow the jewelry shop windows put a twinkle in your eye, and take in a little street music sound thanks to the musicians that play guitar most evenings here. By the way, I am certain these guys live in my neighbourhood, because I see them frequently. I keep wanting to have a moment to stop and thank him for making this city even more enchanting with street music soundtracks. I love the music that fills the streets here – it totally sets the mood. But back to the Ponte Vecchio. This unique structure should also be adored from afar (also because it can get quite crowded). Mosey on over to her neighbouring bridge, the Ponte Santa Trinita, and maybe grab yet another gelato while you fixate on the prettieness of the Ponte Vecchio (a couple of really great gelaterias are right there!) While you’re gazing, just ponder a few minutes about it’s powerful history while you watch the Arno pass fiercly under each of those bridges. It just so happens that Hitler himself was so awestruck by this little Ponte Vecchio that he ordered that it not be destroyed in the Second World War. It was the only crossing point over the Arno that was left in tact when the German troops retreated during liberation. If even the likes of Hitler can be so moved by a quaint yet distinct structure, then surely you will be too.

Ponte Vecchio was built to replace an earlier bridge. Until 1218 it was the only bridge that allowed you to cross the Arno. The one you see today is a rebuild when the original was washed away during a flood in the early 14th century. Food storefronts, mainly butcher shops, used to vacate the Ponte IMG_6105Vecchio. Then when the Medici decided to put the Vasari corridor across town so that they could pass from home to office above and unseen by commoners, Ponte Vecchio became a goldsmith centre of town. I mean, who wants to smell that rank stench of meat that the butchers would chuck into the Arno? Certainly not the Medici. Grand Duke Ferdinand gave the boot to the butchers in 1593. Since it has been jewelers that have occupied the Ponte Vecchio, golden treasures have been discovered in the waters below the bridge, rather than stinky meat and fish scraps. The gold makes it much more romantic. She’s sweet yes, but strong: the Arno has been known to be pretty treacherous, and she still stands.IMG_0158

oltrarno artisanWalk to the other side – explore the Oltrarno. Cross those bridges! Shame to those who visit Florence but don’t set foot off the beaten path and appreciate the town from a more local point of view. The Oltranro (meaning “over the Arno”) area is brimming with many “hole-in-the-wall” artisan shops, restaurants, and cafes, that contain unique treasures and gastronomical delights. Delight yourself!

See and be seen – go for aperitivo. IMG_5476If you didn’t already prepare an aperitivo picnic to fill that gapping jaw when you see that view from the Piazzale, then head on down to centro for aperitivo. How does it work? You pay for a drink, usually around €8 to €10, then you can fill up as your please on appys like mini sandwiches, bruschetta , meats and cheeses, couscous, pasta, and pizza. It’s a social ritual here in Italy, and it’s often a great cheap dinner!

bargelloGo to jail. Once for art and once for eats. Visit the Museo Nazionale del Bargello and Le Murate. They say that Bargello is to sculpture what the Uffizi is to paintings. Italy’s leading gallery of Gothic, Renaissance, and other sculpture, but not only. This small fortress holds and protects gold treasures, antique cutlery (including the first forks, invented in Florence!) and paintings. Works include those by Michelangelo and Donatello. But who was Bargello? It’s not a name, but rather the old Florentine word for the cheif of police. Constructed in 1255, this was the chief’s headquarters, and it also featured a prison and courtroom. It’s one of the oldest buildings still in tact in the city. It’s one of my favourite museums, partly because it’s obviously more understated that the Uffizi of Galleria dell’Accademia. In fact, it became a museum in 1865 because the Uffizi was too full of masterpieces, so they had to transfer a number of them to Bargello! Relax a while after seeing more wonderful works of art in the beautiful courtyard. http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=bargello

Le Murate means “the walled up” because in its past it was a place that enclosed people, but now IMG_6414unites them in one of the coolest, multifunctional spots in the city. Its hard to believe this happening spot was once the quiet covenant where nuns walked. Moving from being the residence of saintly ladies to the jail cells of men, it now serves a number of purposes. It is made up of public housing, shops, a cafe with a lovely courtyard to have your cappuccino in, a restaurant where you can have a delicious, inexpensive traditional Tuscan meal in old barracks, and a bar that regularly hosts musical shows, art and cultural exhibitions. So go be free in these confinements!

Have a cow. Florentines are proud carnivores and they flaunt it with their bistecca fiorentina. If you think you’ve had steak before, you’ve got another thing coming. Bistecca in Florence is the biggest, thickest, chewiest, pinkest T-bone you’ll see. It may be too pink and chewy for many anglo-tastes. But before you get some hard glares shot at you for asking to cook it longer, taste it as-is for an authentic experience. bisteccaAt first I didn’t think I’d like it, and I now salivate at the thought of it. It’s meant to be shared at the table. Drizzle a little olive oil over it and give it a sprinkle of sea salt. Order a side of grilled vegetables and your secondo part of the meal is complete. One of my favourite places for bistecca fiorentina is at Le Fonticine restaurant, right by Santa Maria Novella station. Your steak is served sizzling hot, sliced before your eyes, and served to you on a platter with a paper that authenticates the region and quality of the cow it was selected from. Buon bistecca appetito!

Gelato madness is a must. At least once per day. But I already mentioned that a few times IMG_5637throughout this article, and why state the obvious really? Just eat as much as possible, as a general rule. Not only are you allowed because you’re a tourist, but its insisted here. Don’t be a silly tourist though when it comes to eats. Get the goods on gelato here in Florence by reading this post.

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JUST WANDER. Be found by being lost. I’d say this is one of the best parts of traveling and adventuring, wherever you find yourself in the world!

Well that’s the “must” list from this local. For now. I know it’s missing plenty of things. It’s already long, and it was so hard to keep a shorter length as it is! Stay tuned for many more upcoming posts that will reveal less obvious parts of this mystifying city, many of which many Florentines don’t even know about…I told you, it’s a labyrinth a treasure chest, this town! Firenze, tesoro, sei sempre bellissima. 

What would you include on a “MUST see in Florence” list?

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