During our month in Italy we were hoping to spend a few days exploring Florence. But circumstances forced us to stay in Rome during the time we’d allocated for it. In the end that worked out pretty well: the kids got to see Rome for the first time, and we were there during the big Easter celebrations.
And we did still manage to make it to Florence for a day trip…
Situated in the north of Tuscany, Florence is renowned for its art and architecture, for romance, food, and generally for being the heart of the Renaissance. In fact, Florence is so full of world-class art and has altered so little since the Renaissance that the whole of the centre of Florence is a Unesco World Heritage site.
It’s a surprisingly compact city and easy to get around on foot, with narrow cobbled streets and the River Arno running through it on its journey from the Apennine Mountains, out to Pisa and the Ligurian sea.
Getting to Florence by train
Our day trip to Florence was from Lucca, the Tuscan town we’d made our base for a couple of weeks.
The fastest Lucca to Florence train takes about an hour and twenty minutes, with lots of stops along the way. Around €8 per person each way, it runs throughout the day. Return trains from Florence seem to get a bit less frequent after 8pm.
The day we chose to go to Florence happened to be Labour Day (International Workers’ Day), a national holiday in Italy. We’d already bought the train tickets when we were passing the station the previous day, so we decided to brave the crowds…
Note: Italian train ticket machines can be really slow and there’s often only one member of staff at the booth, or no-one at all in smaller towns. Queues in the stations were often just about long enough to make us panic about possibly missing our train. Try to leave plenty of time to buy your ticket, or get them in advance of the day if you can.
Labour Day – The national holiday didn’t seem to matter. Everything in the city looked to be open and running as usual, and crowds were far fewer than we’d been expecting. We’d even heard somebody in a restaurant a couple of days earlier exclaiming about having to fight through hordes of tourists when she was in Florence. But that certainly wasn’t the case for us. Tourist hotspots were busy, but definitely not unbearable.
When Easter falls at the end of April it means there are a lot of Italian national holidays (4) during a relatively short space of time. But apart from Liberation Day when there were people everywhere in Lucca, we really didn’t notice many places closed or excessively busy due to the holidays.
You could easily spend all day in Florence queuing up and wandering around one museum after the next, gaping in wonderment at all the incredible artwork. If that’s your thing, the recommendation is to get there as early as possible and probably start with the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David; one of the Renaissance’s most iconic masterpieces. Entry queues can get very long, although you can purchase skip-the-line tickets online before you go.
There are plenty of replica David statues in Florence, although apparently they don’t come close to matching the magnificence of the original.
Having just one day in a beautifully sunny Florence, it felt too warm and too short on time to venture indoors for long.
5 things to see and do
Duomo – probably the number one landmark in Florence. It’s iconic and awe-inspiring. This is the building that helped set the tone of the Italian Renaissance.
Having caught a first glimpse of the Duomo at the end of a narrow street, I was instantly struck by its breathtaking scale. And much more impressed than I’d imagined I was going to be. It’s staggeringly ornate, with a pink, green and white marble facade and a bell tower at one end. You can walk right the way around it.
Note: Reservations are needed to climb the dome. You can book online or at the ticket office opposite the northern entrance. Price is €18 and it will also allow you to enter the crypt, the baptistery, and the campanile. Entrance to the cathedral itself is free, but you’ll need to queue.
I heard a Florence tour guide telling his group that the exterior of the cathedral is vastly more impressive than the interior and most of the artistic treasures have been removed. We decided not to go in.
As ever, be wary of tourist traps. This is definitely one of them. An ice-cream from a shop by the Duomo – albeit a nice one with a chocolate pistachio cone – cost me a whopping €7!
Ponte Vecchio – dating from 1345, this is the bridge that you’ll see on all the guidebooks and in so many pictures.
It’s the only Florentine bridge to survive the Second World War and it’s quite a sight. Buildings seemingly hanging off the sides, with big open-sided arches in the middle. Lined by jewellers’ shops all the way over, it’s free to cross and is well worthy of some photos from either side. Stop at the arches in the middle because you can get some good pics with the mountains in the far distance.
Above the jewellers’ shops on the eastern side is the Corridoio Vasariano, a 16th century passageway which allowed the infamous Medicis to walk between their palaces in privacy and comfort. To see it close-up you’d need to book a guided tour.
The bridge can get quite busy with tourists but we ended up returning to it throughout the day when we were heading to other places so there’s plenty of opportunities to see and photograph it.
Panoramic views from Michelangelo Square – this is another Florence must-do. Piazza Michelangelo is on a hill on the Arno river’s south bank and offers an incredible view of the city, with the recognisable sight of the domed cathedral in the centre of swathes of browny-red rooftops.
It’s quite a climb up the huge stone steps of via del Monte alle Croci but it’s definitely worth it. Part of the way up is the Giardino delle Rose, filled with aromas from an abundance of multicoloured roses, and a great place to stop and rest for a while. You could also bring a picnic and sit on the grassy hills staring in awe at the views of the city across the river.
The climb to the piazza at the top didn’t take longer than about 20 minutes and, ignoring the car park behind, the views really are phenomenal. Or you can get the bus, but who wants to forego the sense of adventure and achievement?!
It was a sunny day and I hadn’t drunk enough so I had a headache by the time we got to the top – although there were drinks and snacks to buy, as well as restaurants with magnificent outlooks (remember you’ll probably pay a premium for the view).
Going back down is much easier and we ate alfresco at a nice little restaurant at the bottom of the hill.
Santa Croce – both the Basilica di Santa Croce and the piazza it’s located in are personal highlights from my trip to Florence. I loved the square itself – it’s fab for people-watching from the steps of the church. Like a perfect slice of some of the very best piazzas in Italy, it contains all the comfortingly familiar elements: statues, restaurants, a palpable history and relentless numbers of selfie-taking tourists wandering through.
The Basilica is the largest Franciscan church in the world with sixteen chapels, supposedly founded by Saint Francis of Assisi. Construction of the current church began in 1294. It has a neo-Gothic facade in shades of coloured marble, in stark contrast to its more austere interior. To go inside costs €8 Euros for adults and €6 Euros for children (11 to 18). Do take one of the free maps in English to help you understand where and what everything is.
The church is still beautiful inside, particularly the enormous stained glass windows. There’s a powerful sense of reverence and history, with enormous tombs all around, and breathtaking frescoes by Giotto in the chapels to the right of the altar.
Among the most well-renowned tombs are those of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini and they’re easy to spot thanks to a continual gathering of tourists beside them. There’s also Dante’s empty tomb, among countless others. And don’t miss Saint Francis of Assisi’s robes which are also on display.
It’s definitely worth paying to go in Basilica di Santa Croce, and there’s much more to see than it first seems. It won’t take more than about an hour and a half, but there’s no rush to leave if you want to take longer. And the welcome daylight upon exiting the church makes its gardens feel pleasantly elegant and serene.
Statue-spotting & people-watching – a perfectly compact city centre and the huge array of tourists and relaxed atmosphere makes Florence a brilliant place to meander and soak it all in. There’s always something going on and when you tire of looking at statues, it’s always fun to turn the other way and look at the people looking at them.