The Italian city of artistic wonder.
When you think of Florence, it's impossible not to think of the beautiful, massive Duomo and Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. Of Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Repubblica. Of Uffizi Gallery and all the lingering presence of Renaissance Tuscany. These are the familiar touchstones for tourists flocking to see pieces of beautiful history and perhaps imagining just for a moment that at any moment they might pass Michelangelo in the streets.
It is a city easy to see in a single day, but worth spending more in.
From Santa Maria Novella train station, we walked the twenty minutes to our hostel through streets flanked by old buildings and bustling with busy everyday life. The telltale glowing green crosses of the pharmacies dotted along our way until we finally reached WOW Florence Hostel. Located up the street from the Accademia and a short 10-15 minute walk from the main sights, this hostel seemed slightly newer and had an elevator. It also has a very cool superhero comic book theme.
This was our first time staying in a hostel. Our room was surprisingly decent sized, and their private rooms come with a private bathroom. The one in our room was a small standing shower with a curtain, as seemed to be par the course everywhere we stayed in Italy. It had a desk and a sizable double bed, Wi-Fi, and was clean and comfortable. For about 56 euros a night when I booked, I'd say this hostel is a great bargain in a pretty good location for those wanting to visit Florence on a budget. And it also appeared to have AC, which was a godsend in high 90 degree temperatures.
Because we arrived in the late afternoon, we decided to head over to Ara! to try some suppli, and then meandered our way towards the Santa Maria del Fiore. I also had gelato on my mind and one of the places recommended by historian Ada Palmer (who happens to be an acquaintance) on her blog, was just around the corner from all that. Admittedly, this was also the point where I was feeling a bit hot and cranky so really, the gelato was to save the day. And why not see some beautiful art history on the way?
It's one thing to see the Cathedral in pictures and quite another to see it in person. For some reason I had always through the dark marble accents were black or dark gray, but they're actually a deep pine green. The architectural detail and sheer size of this massive structure can take one's breath away for a moment. Brunelleschi's dome stands out prominently amidst the white, pink, and green, and it's truly a wonder of Gothic style amidst a decidedly Renaissance setting. Just past the Duomo area is a street of shopping not too unlike London's Oxford Street, where I might have been distracted by a Kiko Milano store and ended up with a sparkling orange eyeshadow and matte orange-red lipstick, as you do. Quite a good little brand so far from the two things I've bought, and decently affordable. I also perhaps fell into stopping by a pharmacy and took advantage of a sale and the better pricing of La Roche Posay in Europe and walked away with a few things, as you also do when you are me.
But more importantly, gelato!
We made our way to Perche No!, which was indeed delicious and makes one of the best tasting dark chocolate gelato I've ever had, and a truly spectacular hazelnut. This is the part where I failed as a blogger and didn't take a photo. I was unfortunately distracted by said gelato. With many seasonal flavors and excellent quality, Perche No! was my favorite, and Vivoli gets honorable mention.
The next day we decided to get lunch at Mercato Centrale, which is lovely and well worth a visit for the food and new use of the first floor. We had a pretty good pasta meal of delicious bolognese and orange Fanta, which in Italy is more like Orangina than the straight up bold orange sugary water here. I also got a cannoli filled with ricotta gelato which was A+ would eat again, and my boyfriend got an excellent fiore de latte with strawberries.
After lunch, it was time to explore more. This is also where I admit to more travel faux pas: we forgot to prebook tickets to Uffizi Gallery and when we decided to wander by, the line was going to be at least two hours. After a minor bit of more grumping, I suggested we bail on the gallery and take the bus over to Piazza del Michelangelo on the other side of the Arno. It goes without saying if you do want to visit the museums in Florence, book tickets ahead of time and save yourself the waiting.
Getting around Florence is rather easy with the help of Google Maps by using the directions and setting it to public transport, or if not you can ask your hotel for a bus map. You can buy bus tickets at most tobacchi shops, which tends to be the easiest as they're so ubiquitous around the city. The 12 and 13 bus will heads to Piazza del Michelangelo, and if you're near Ponte Vecchio you can catch the D bus to take you across river to the 12 stop and catch the 12 from there.
So what is at Piazza del Michelangelo that makes up for missing out on beautiful paintings and art?
The view isn't too half bad, if one likes a sweeping view of classic Florence and the Arno river with the hills in the background. Your mileage may vary. As the other side of the river is more suburban feeling, the bus ride is quite a pleasant ride too away from the bustling urban center and tourists. The plaza is quite big and open, and there's some garden nearby to explore, or one can move on form here to Boboli Gardens.
We chose to head back to the city center to find dinner, and settled on the much recommended Trattoria ZaZa. Is it tourist-friendly? Yes. English menu? Yes. HUGE menu? Yep. It should scream tourist trap and yet, ZaZa is such an interesting exception.
The decor is super interesting, the waitress we had was friendly, and more importantly? The food was good, really really good. I started off with a dish I was determined to have before leaving Tuscany and one I make home quite a bit: pappa al pomodoro or tomato bread soup. And ZaZa's version does not f*ck around. This is comfort food at its best; rich, velvety, hot, tangy and sweet and bursting with flavor. I could easily have declared this my favorite thing I ate in Florence, despite everything being good. But the soup was just a starter, a very filling starter, and I ended up not eating all of my main dish, a beef stew of meat simmered in red wine and peppercorns that was also totally delicious.
Ignore the mixed reviews and definitely give ZaZa a try.
On our last morning in Florence, we had pre-booked a driving tour with the Fiat 500 Touring Club, located on the other side of the river and about 35-40 minutes from our hostel. We had worked with them to book a taxi to pick us up and get us there for the 9am tour...and then that morning we learned there was a taxi strike that had suddenly occurred. It should be noted this isn't totally unusual and one of those situations where really, you just ultimately got to go with the flow.
After a few phone calls with the Touring Club, they let us know which bus to take and worked out to meet us at one of the 11 bus' stops across the river, where our tour guide actually picked us up in one of the old Fiats that are part of the tour and had held the tour a few moments for us. After briefly going over how to drive a double clutch and how we planned to navigate the tour, we were off to drive beyond the city and out into the Chianti countryside. Something our guide stressed was to take pictures, but to also put the camera down and just take it in because you can miss a lot if you're just clicking away. He ended up being right. We drove through a smaller neighboring town and out along vineyards and olive trees, taking in gorgeous views of the Tuscan landscape as we made our way to a small vineyard stop in Chianti region for pictures.
I highly recommend the Fiat 500 Touring Club, it's one amazing way to spend a morning as they offer a short tour, 9am-11:30am. Or, you can do longer tours that include lunch or wine tasting. They're also located right next to a bus stop, so we were able to make it back near SMN station with plenty of time to grab lunch at La Cocotte, a cute cafe on Via Nazionale a few blocks from the train station that has quite a tasty burger and makes a very great iced shakerato. And soon after that, we were on the train and winding through Tuscan countryside to make our way to our last destination, Rome.
Do I regret not fitting in museums when in Florence? Maybe a little, but I also tend to prefer to explore cities themselves and to me that's the best exhibit. If we were to visit again, I would prebook to visit Uffizi, and probably visit in the fall when it's cooler and less tourist-heavy. While I think staying in the historic city center area has its advantages, I'd be curious to try staying across the river in the more suburban side or even check out agriturismo places. The Fiat Club mentioned they are also situated on a B&B, and I've never totally minded being at the mercy of public transport on vacation as long as it's somewhat reliable.
Now if only Florence wasn't such a ZTL zone. But I digress.