You should visit Florence because, despite wars, floods, and the crush of tourism, Florence remains the most tangible connection to the reawakening of Western civilization during the Renaissance. Florence reminds us of the battles fought, and those we still fight, to express ideas freely and challenge social norms – not just through its art, but through the society that yielded the art. Visit Florence because being in it will cut through your cynicism about being “just another tourist” and envelop you in beauty which defies belief.
If you’re the type that travels with a constant eye towards not looking like a tourist, you can certainly accomplish that in Florence. But why would you? Just slip into the flow. You’re probably not going to eat the best meal of your life. You won’t live like a local. You’ll stand in lines with pouty teenagers. Worth it.
The best way to experience Florence is to put yourself in the early 15th century. Brunelleschi is building the Duomo. Donatello has cast the first freestanding bronze nude male since antiquity. The Medicis are running the city and fueling a new generation of artists. Find that Florence in the Florence of today, and walk in those footsteps.
Escaping the Bubble
While you may never truly “escape the bubble” in a city with such a significant tourist industry, there’s still a lot you can do. You’ll want to stay near the city center, but it’s an eminently walkable city. Find a place north of Santa Croce and you’ll be around university students and close to “real” (non-tourist) Florence. Try out the local bars near your place, then pick one for your morning espresso and pastry. Go back every morning. Say hello each time. Ask for advice.
Visit the Sant’Ambrogio market to shop with locals (though get to the central market as well). If you’re content with just living like a Italian, rather than a Florentine, look for special events in the city. Fortezza da Basso often hosts events targeted at an Italian audience.
If you really want to escape the bubble though, your best bet is to escape Florence. While the hill towns above the city can be just as packed with tourists, there are innumerable small towns nearby to explore. Don’t plan too much. Go to the train station and look at the schedule. Where can you get on a regional train in less than half an hour? Pick one. You’ll be able to get back (just don’t stay too late). Maybe you’ll discover a treasure. Maybe you’ll find a dying town with fading fascist architecture. Either way, you definitely won’t see tour groups following a leader holding a miniature flag.
Your feet will serve you for most of your time in Florence. The Volainbus service will get you from the airport to the city. After that, plan to walk. If mobility is an issue, the ATAF electric busses provide easy transport across the city. Whatever you do, don’t rent a car.
Florence is an amazing city to be a pedestrian. Most of the streets in the core are pedestrian-only, and when you need to cross traffic, the intersections are easy to navigate. It can take some time to get your bearings, but if you can catch sight of the Duomo you’ll know where you are.
There’s more than just city streets in Florence too. Everyone who’s able should make the hike up to San Miniato al Monte. The Boboli gardens provide plenty of paths to explore as well, if you need to get off the pavement.
For a more substantial hike, try the walk from Settignano to Fiesole. It’s an easy bus ride away, and you’ll get a spectacular view of the city below. The path itself can leave something to be desired when it comes to signage, but that just provides a good opportunity to ask an Italian for help.
The whole city is a sight, and your guidebook will walk you through the details. It’s worth spending a little time thinking about how you’ll experience the sights though. A special sight deserves a special visit. Being the first one through the gate when San Marco opens in the morning means a blissful, quiet, reflective hour in the courtyard before the tourist busses arrive. Being at San Miniato at sunset means hearing the monks singing, watching the sun set over the city.
While there are a few places nobody should miss, and which you should book in advance (the Uffizi, the Academia), a lot of the fun of Florence is letting your heart guide you. Does the Duomo captivate you? Do you want to know how it was built? Visit the Museo Dell’opera Del Duomo. Interest in the science behind the Renaissance? Get to the Museo Galileo.
You’re not going to see everything. Not on your first visit. Not on your fifth visit. There’ll also be another amazing church to pop into, or a museum that appears out of nowhere on a side street. The city is the sight. Wander, and stop where you want to stop.
If having an amazing Italian meal is your goal, Florence will demand some work. Italians, as a matter of course, don’t serve bad food. But the restaurants in the city are catering to a diverse, complex audience with a variety of demands beyond just the best possible meal. Remember that restaurants read all the same “tips to finding the best meals” that you do. A handwritten menu, or a menu on a chalkboard, doesn’t guarantee much.
Much of the joy of Italian food is simple food made from amazing ingredients. Do a little research about what’s in season. Find a place serving that. Don’t go expecting to seek out a specific dish. Because Italian food is mostly a reflection of those amazing ingredients, your best bet is often a picnic or a home cooked meal.
If you’re the type that likes to do a bit more research for special meals, you can at least research like an Italian. Instead of browsing the English reviews on a site like TripAdvisor, change your language to Italian. Which places do the native speakers rate most highly? Trust the people who grew up eating Italian food, not the tourist from the midwest eating gnocchi for the first time.
Get Yourself to Florence
This site is all about the belief that we should want to visit everywhere. Florence is one of those cities that will call you back. It’s not just the art, it’s not just the architecture. It’s the energy that lingers from the spark that started there and rebooted the west. Let it melt your sarcastic, cynical brain.