Visiting Florence (Lessons Learned & Some Do’s and Don’ts)

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Since we moved to Italy back in August, I had been DYING to go to Florence. Rome is cool, but Florence is the birthplace of the Italian language, home of Michelangelo’s David, burial place of so many of Italy’s greats…so you can imagine how excited I was two weeks back when I finally got to see it.

Unfortunately, I was just a tad bit disappointed by Florence and I’ll tell you why in this post (hopefully by the end of it, you’ll know just what we did wrong and how you can do better).

Rome is beautiful and rich in history, but the reality is that it’s also dirty, grungy, way too crowded, and the traffic is killer (and I mean killer). For some reason, I had imagined Florence to be much better (maybe that was my first mistake?). Maybe because it’s further north (which, let’s face it usually tends to be better about many things than in the south), or maybe because it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, whatever the reason, I didn’t expect it to be as frustrating as it was.

Jaime took this picture, but I had the “vision” for it, as he says. 

We planned Starting with Florence on Monday, but it turns out a lot of museums and attractions are closed on Mondays. I’m sorry, this is a little annoying. I can understand restaurants closing in the afternoon, and most businesses being closed on Sundays, but why MAJOR museums such as the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia need to be closed is beyond me. Even Rome attractions are open on Mondays!

So after a little rescheduling, we decided to instead have a nature day and visit the Medici Villas outside of Florence and the Giardino di Boboli inside Florence. We checked online for opening dates and times to be sure, but even though the Medici Villas are UNESCO sites, we could not find an official website, so we had to dig around some sketchy tourist sites until we found a few that agreed on opening times.

Bright and early on Monday morning, we drove to the first Medici Villa, Villa Castello. Lo , and behold, turns out it was closed for whatever reason (even though it supposedly opens on Mondays). Trying to remain optimistic, we went to Villa Petraia, which is about 1.5 km away. This one was thankfully open, free, and giving free tours every hour. I was honestly not impressed. The gardens were not very well taken care of and the tulips that were planted were half-dead already. I was honestly surprised because the place had very good reviews on TripAdvisor, so I’m thinking that maybe we just went at a bad time of the year. From my experience though, it’s not something that I would recommend, especially if you have to take public transit to get there.

At Villa Petraia

The view from above. You’re also supposed to see Florence in the distance, but we didn’t see it. 

After, we proceeded to the Giardini di Boboli, also in Florence. After finding a parking spot, and paying for it, too, turns out Giardini di Boboli is open on every Monday except the first and last Monday of the month, and guess which Monday that was? The first. Needless to say, we were upset, but I guess now we know that research and planning is paramount.

Later that afternoon, we picked up Arya and tried to improve our image of Florence by getting Jaime’s favorite sunset shots at Piazzale Michelangelo. Luckily, this time Florence did not disappoint!  It was absolutely stunning!

We also went to Piazza della Signoria, which has a copy of David in the location the original one once stood, since we needed to get a picture of it with Arya.

The next day, we visited the Basilica di Santa Croce, burial place of some of the Italian greats, such as Galileo, Michelangelo, & Machiavelli. It also has works by Donatello and many other greats. Entrance is not free (another point of irritation for me; if St. Peter’s is free, then every other church should also be free), but it is definitely well worth it.

Galileo Galilei

Titled Liberty Enlightening the World, this was a statue by Pio Fedi as a memorial for
Giovan Battista Niccolini.
She represents the freedom of creative genius and holds in her right hand
broken chains signifying the defeat of tyranny. 

Michelangelo

Dante Alighieri

That day we had lunch at Trattoria La Casalinga, where we had the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina. It’s just a T-Bone steak, but it was amazing: juicy, succulent, 600 grams of pure perfection. In the afternoon, we thought about going to Galleria dell’Accademia, but the line to get in without reserved tickets was ridiculous, so instead we made a reservation for Thursday morning.

Behind me is the famous Ponte Vecchio. 

On Thursday, we started with Galleria dell’Accademia, I marveled at David’s beauty while Jaime sulked around because he couldn’t take pictures, then we headed a couple of blocks down to the Duomo.

From the top of the Dome, with the Basilica di Santa Croce in the background.

Now, Florence’s Duomo is impressive. The dome of the cathedral is HUGE and even though St. Peter’s dome is actually bigger, this one is more impressive in my opinion just because you can actually stand closer to it, while St. Peter’s you can only see from a distance. The history of the building of this cathedral is also very interesting. Construction was started in 1296 and finished in 1436! The dome, engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, was to be higher and wider than any ever built up to that point, with no buttresses to keep it from spreading (funnily enough, buttresses were forbidden in Florence because it was a style used by it’s enemies from the north). You can read more about the architectural problems presented by the building of such a dome and Brunelleschi’s solutions in the Wikipedia page of the Florence Duomo, but needless to say he was successful and now the Duomo is the main feature of Florence’s skyline as well as the inspiration for St. Peter’s dome.

One of my favorites. First, I saw a man literally laying across the ledge in a funny “sexy” pose, so I got the idea to sit on the ledge. Pretty soon, everyone was doing the same. 

We spent the rest of the day visiting the other various parts of the Florence Duomo (five in total!), and that was the last of our exploration of Florence. In the end, I feel like we barely skimmed the surface, since we still have to see the Uffizi, Galileo’s Museum, and the Giardino di Boboli, at the very least. Luckily, we already know we’ll be heading back to Florence soon enough this summer when Jaime’s siblings come visit (!!!!). Below you’ll find some of my tips if you’re going to visit Florence, as well as some useful websites for more information.

1. Watch out for Mondays! (Or just make sure you do serious research before planning dates)
Many of Florence’s major attractions are closed every Monday or some Mondays of the month, as we furiously figured out. Also, some have special hours on certain days. Basically, don’t assume that because it’s a perfectly regular business hour for you that it will be a regular business hour for a Florentine (or an Italian, in general).

2. For the best view, Piazzale Michelangelo.
I’m pretty sure this is probably in every guidebook known to man, but I cannot stress this enough. It is gorgeous and another bonus is that there is a small free parking lot right on Piazzale Michelangelo!

3. For Galleria dell’Accademia, reserve tickets.
Here’s the thing about Galleria dell’Accademia: it’s a tourist trap. Everyone that comes to Italy, wants to see David and those clever bastards know it. Tickets are 6.50€ at the door, but if you reserve ahead of time, you must pay an extra fee of 4€ (why, I do not know). However, the catch is that if you come  at any time during the summer (or as early as April), the line to get in wraps around the whole building. So either you spend half the day waiting in line (and if you have that kind of time, more power to you), or you spend a total of 10.50€ to see David (because unless you’re an art enthusiast, there’s not much else to see in there).

4. Info on the tickets for the Florence Duomo. 
The 10€ ticket is valid for ONE visit to each of the different parts of the Duomo (the Dome, the Bell Tower, the Baptistry, the Crypt, and the Museum). The Cathedral by itself is actually free, but I don’t think they announce that clearly enough when you buy the ticket because we didn’t realize until we showed our ticket at the door and the guard said it wasn’t necessary. We also weren’t the only people in line who made that mistake. Also, make sure that you allocate a good amount of time for the Duomo because the line for each different part is tremendously long (we waited 45 minutes just to get into the Dome). Or, this is one of those places where it pays to be there right when it opens at 8:30 am.

5. Speaking of times…
In general, a good rule of thumb when you’re visiting big cities like Rome or Florence (or even New York) is to make the effort and get out of your hotel by 8:30 or 9:00 am. I know that this sounds like hell (at least to me it does), but I have to say that if you do this, then take a nice nap after lunch, you usually avoid the heat and the large crowds and lines. So your day becomes much more productive and relaxing. This was our modus operandi in New York and it should have been our MO in Florence, too, but I resisted :). Note that this is probably not wise during the winter, when it is actually warmest during the afternoon.

Useful Websites:
– Florence Cathedral (Duomo) – http://www.museumflorence.com/en
– Galleria dell’Accademia – http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=accademia
– Uffizi – http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/en/index.php
– Basilica di Santa Croce – http://www.santacroceopera.it/it/default.aspx
– Giardini di Boboli – http://www.giardinodiboboli.it
– Medici Villa Petraia – http://www.visitflorence.com/what-to-see-in-florence/medici-villa-petraia.html
– Medici Villa Castello – http://www.visitflorence.com/what-to-see-in-florence/villa-medici-castello.html