There’s a globe on my desk, partly for decoration but mainly for inspiration. Looking at Italy, it seems so tiny–especially compared to Canada. From Milan to Florence to Naples, surely you need only a week to explore it?
Not so. I’ve been lucky enough to vacation several times in Italy, and I’ve learned that it’s best explored one delicious bite (or region) at a time. Still, when I booked 10 days in Florence last summer, I wondered if I would end up bored and restless.
What Florence is all about
As it turned out, I wish it had been a month. Florence’s sublime cathedral, photogenic piazzas (squares) and famed museums are, I learned, just the beginning. This city of some 400,000, just an hour’s flight and as little as 90 minutes by train north of Rome, represents all that makes Italy appealing. The food, the scenery, the culture, and that intangible, wonderful Italian-ness of it all.
A walkable city with a spectacular landmark to navigate by
Best of all, Florence—Firenze to Italians—is a compact city perfect for exploring on foot. In fact, many streets are pedestrian-only. In a couple of hours you can stroll from the Accademia gallery, home of that famous statue of David, to the delightful Duomo, or cathedral, and the picturesque Ponte Vecchio (“old bridge”) with its glittering jewellery shops lining either side. No need for a rental car–parking is a classic Italian headache–or even taxis. But if you do need a cab, one can be easily found on the main squares.
And as any visitor soon finds out, the Duomo also makes a handy reference point as local regulations ban any building higher than its beautiful dome. Look up, look around, and chances are you’ll see it.
Get the Firenzecard to maximize your cultural immersion
Culture is of course a big drawing card here, so a Firenzecard will be your best friend and a must-have. It provides 72 hours of visits to over 70 museums including the Ufizzi and the Accademia. At 85€ (the Euro hovers around the CAD $1.45 mark) it is excellent value for money. Add 7€ to make it a Firenzecard+ and it will include unlimited local public transportation for the duration of the pass, which activates with your first visit to one of the museums. Buy it online or in Florence at several museum ticket offices and tourist information centres.
Shop for everything from souvenirs to fresh local produce to renowned Italian designers
Not surprisingly, shopping in Florence is a popular pastime with visitors. Choices start with knickknacks at the countless sidewalk stalls and go on to mainstream brands such as H&M, plus countless stylish, independent boutiques. And then there’s the stunning perfectionism of designer shops such as Salvatore Ferragamo and Stefano Ricci: sublime style and impeccable quality for the discerning shopper.
The indoor Central Market is also worth a few hours. It brims with vendors selling picture-perfect produce and preserves as well as a good selection of eateries including a wine bar. What a wonderful way to mingle with the locals. The market is open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight. Outside, the adjacent open-air leather market’s crush of stalls await the shopper hunting for the perfect trophy purse, belt or wallet. Bargaining is encouraged!
A foodie walking tour is the way to go
Connecting with the locals is a growing travel trend, and tour operator Urban Adventures offers small-group walking tours all over the world including 10 different tours in Florence alone. During the two-hour Market Tour, our guide Nemi shepherded us around yet another local market which was a riot of colour and activity with traditional meats and cheeses and piles of fruit and vegetables. Along the way, we were treated to tastings of coffee, prosciutto, bread, wine and fruit. Our guide regaled us with fun insights into Italian culture. “On Sundays we typically have a huge five-course family lunch which ends with a discussion on what to have for dinner!”
“On Sundays we typically have a huge five-course family lunch which ends with a discussion on what to have for dinner!”
Discover how some of Italy’s top artisans work at The Leather School
For a quieter outing, The Leather School (Scuola del Cuoio) is an oasis of calm located inside the monastery of Santa Croce. This family-run school and shop specializes in lovingly-crafted high-end handbags, belts, wallets and other leather goods. It is one of the few workshops where the public can still see artisans and apprentices at work. They demonstrate the painstaking craftsmanship which is the school’s hallmark.
A base for exploring Tuscany’s wine country and charming towns
Another reason a week or 10 days in Florence is not too long is that it is also a great base from which to tour the many charms of the region of Tuscany. Pisa, with its famous leaning tower, and Siena’s picturesque medieval streets are both easily doable on day trips by train.
Many local tour companies offer group or private day excursions including tours by bike (conventional and electric) or Vespa, the iconic Italian scooter. And Florence is also less than an hour’s drive from wineries where rich, red Chianti classico is created. Full or half-day tours include transportation, tastings and cellar tours. And included in the price are breathtaking vistas of the famous Tuscan hills, straight out of a painting.
Essential reading material
The Florentine, a free monthly English-language magazine, is packed with cultural and sightseeing news for tourists and for foreigners living in the city, and includes listings of events held in English. You’ll find it at foreign-language schools, restaurants and more; or read it online at theflr.net.
When to go
And now, a word about crowds. Florence can be packed at times. During the month of June last summer, for example, the city was buzzing with thousands of tourists. Plus some 30,000 visitors for the Pitti Uomo men’s fashion show which is held there twice a year. Because many of the streets and squares cannot accommodate large buses, pedestrian traffic can be heavy. Lines snake around the Duomo and leading to the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries. Advance reservations are absolutely a must for these and even so, admission may take some time, even with your Firenzecard.
Mid-week is quietest, weekends are busier, and Italian holiday weekends are busiest (for national holidays, check out this website). Helen Farrell, editor-in-chief of The Florentine magazine, is a British expat who has lived in Tuscany for 17 years. Her advice? “Go off season. The winters are generally mild and there’s the probability of having a piazza all to yourself or just sharing it with some locals. April is when the nice weather kicks in, or if you must come in the summer, get up early in the morning or explore at night when you can really feel the medieval and the Renaissance in Florence.”
So don’t worry. A week, or even 10 days in Florence is not too much. You may find yourself, like me, planning a return visit as soon as you get home.
Tips for travelling foodies
Chances are, food is one reason why you’ve chosen Italy for your vacation. If it’s your first time, I suggest taking the time to study up on the somewhat mystifying customs of ordering food in Italy. Keep the following tips in mind:
- The coperta is an automatic cover charge of 1-2 euros per person for setting your table and providing bread. Whether you eat it or not.
- Unlike most North American restaurants, side dishes and vegetables (contorni) are ordered separately from your main course.
- You can save money by drinking your morning coffee standing up. If you opt for a table, you’ll be charged extra for table service.
- In terms of tipping, most locals leave a couple of euros, not a set percentage the way we do in Canada.
Want more European travel inspiration? Check out these recommended journeys:
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