If you’re passionate about the Renaissance period and everything Michelangelo ever touched, brushed, or treaded on, then Florence is the place for you. This fabulous city is so filled with the rich, thick air of history that you feel the weight of exquisite art in every corner around you. It then starts closing in gracefully and embracing you, until it rests in your heart. That is the moment when you feel an invisible hand pulling you to the ground. You feel like you want to bow down on your knees and say “Hey! I don’t wanna go anywhere else. Heck I don’t even want to get out of this very street!” I’ve lived with that sentiment since I first saw Florence. On the very first day that eternal bond was created between myself and that beautiful old city, and I plan to keep going back again and again.
One of the best things about Florence for those who are staying for just a few days is that the historical center of the city – the hub of all the major places to see – can all be navigated on foot. Essential must-sees like the Uffizi Gallery (home to some of the loveliest works by Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Caravaggio), the Ponte Vecchio, Galleria Dell’Accademia (home to Michelangelo’s magnificent and eternal David), the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), the basilica of Santa Croce (the burial place of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo) are all within less than 15 minute walks from each other. And throughout your walks within this old city you’re embraced by the beauty of renaissance and baroque architecture.
If you’re a Michelangelo freak like myself, apart from the fact that David should certainly be your first destination, I strongly recommend the San Lorenzo complex, home to the basilica of San Lorenzo, the Casa dei Medici (home of the ruling Florentine family and major sponsors of most renaissance art of the period), and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, or the Laurentine Library. Inside this complex you will get to see more of Michelangelo’s beautiful, albeit it less famous sculptures, and through the library you will get to meet Michelangelo the architect, and climb the beautiful staircase he designed and created, and admire the designs of the glass windows.
For those who admire internal decorations of old palaces, I strongly recommend Palazzo Vecchio (the Uffizi Gallery’s adjacent neighbor) and Palazzo Pitti (the Italian version of Versailles) with room after room of awe inspiring ceilings, floors and ornaments that take your breath away.
If at some point you feel the need for quasi infinite space and greenery, all you have to do is reach the Arno river, cross any of its beautiful bridges, and you’re on the other side. The other side of the Arno is significantly less clustered, and it can be the best place to capture some of the most breath taking views of old Florence. Right behind the San Niccolo` neighborhood and with a tiny climb you can reach Piazzale Michelangelo where a two hundred year old copy of the great David statue is placed as an honorary monument for the great artist. The vast area of the hill overlooks the Arno and from there you get to see the entire historical center with all of its glory.
It would be hard to specify good places or bad places to eat, because it’s almost like ALL pastas and ALL ice creams are delicious in Florence, but here are some of the places that in my view, top the already good ones.
Reaching the Arno river from the Uffizi Gallery, you can walk alongside it to the right and admire the architecture of the Santa Trinita` bridge with its four beautiful statues (that I couldn’t stop taking pictures of). Crossing that bridge and with a little walk to the right side you will reach gelateria La Carraia. I’ve eaten ice-cream far and wide all over Italy, but nothing compared fully to La Carraia. If you like pistachios, I strongly recommend their famous Delizia Carraia flavor. Trust me on this one.
For the best pizza in Florence no need to get anywhere out of the Santa Croce neighborhood. Two of the best places are Osteria del Caffe` Italiano and Il Pizzaiuolo. The latter is very popular and it’s usually hard to find a place to sit, you need to get there even before it opens. But in my view, Il Caffe` Italiano’s pizza tops it. It has a pizzeria attached to it that only serves 3 types of pizza baked on a fire oven. It’s that special!
Another light and fun place to eat is the Mercato Centrale, which is just a few steps away from the San Lorenzo complex. I have to say that the fresh pasta booth in that fun food court is by far the best I’ve had.
For a more refined dining experience I strongly recommend Gustavino in via della Condotta. It is home to some of the finest Tuscany wine selections.
And here is the interesting part. I was in Florence for a month as a student of Italian and art. One of the things I cared about the most during my one month stay was to live more as a local than a tourist. It was important for me to remain close to the center, where all my classes were, but I still needed a taste of everyday life in the regular city. Through a friend’s strong recommendation I made the right choice and chose to stay in Campo di Marte—a beautiful and quiet residential area that is just within a 25 minute walk to the historical center. I had no high expectations in terms of answers to all my queries as a newcomer to a foreign city, but I was blown away by the hospitality of Roberto, the owner, and the overwhelming warmth and helpfulness of his friend Francesco, who was very much “the man” for me, the one I went back to for all kinds of detailed questions, from “where do I throw away the trash” to whining about finding the right transportation (because my lazy behind didn’t wanna walk everyday). He would always answer my email queries within less than 10 minutes. Every time! You could time him.
The studio I was staying in was fully equipped. I did not need to bring anything other than my own clothes. Things I had brought with me (like a small travel iron and a tiny boiler) were useless when I arrived. There was a pressing iron and an ironing board, and yes of course there was a boiler! There were two sets of clean bedsheets and two sets of towels of all sizes. There was a reliable internet connection and a TV that I kept on all the time when I was home to help me further understand the spoken language. I was able to host my sister for an entire week without an extra pay except for the required city tax.
Unlike the buildings of the historical center, this building is of a modern architecture and the studio is of a modern style. I realized how fortunate I was everyday as the students around me in my class were complaining about the lack of heating in the old buildings or the lack of adequate insulation in the old windows. When I used to hear my Italian neighbors in the hallways I felt fortunate because yes, this is precisely what I wanted. Italian everywhere!
One of the best things about staying in Roberto and Francesco’s place is that with a little extra fee there are bikes available in the garage. A bike can get you to the historical center within less than 10 minutes, but somehow I didn’t feel the need to use one. On the days when I didn’t want to walk I would take the bus (there is a bus stop right in front of the building) and enjoy the daily conversations of the bus riders. I was happy to get as much interaction as I could and to get a taste of the everyday life and culture of the city.
So to wrap it up I have to say that yes, I will come back to Florence again and again, and I will definitely stay in the same place I stayed in Via Lanza, Campo di Marte. Thank you guys for making my stay memorable!
Article by: Arwa Mahmoud