- As I reluctantly approach my 30th birthday, I sometimes look back over the last number of years and think ‘how have I changed over the last decade?’ It turns out I’ve changed quite a bit. These days I generously throw peppers (or capsicums as Antipodeans like to call them) into everything I create in the kitchen. In my pre-20s this was a vegetable I could never stomach. Also, today I am happily content when sipping on a glass of red wine, when before I was a staunch supporter of white. Finally, over the last twelve months I do my utmost to attend my ever-busy gym more regularly than my equally ever-busy McDonalds. But one other aspect of my life that has changed as I get older is that I now have a greater appreciation for art more than ever. That is why I looked forward to my trip to Florence so much.
Built on the River Arno, Florence (or Firenze as the Italians call it) is home to Italy’s most important art collection. According to UNESCO, approximately 60% of the world’s most important pieces of art can be found in Italy. Somewhere in the region of half of these are in Florence. It was, after all, birthplace of the Renaissance.
Italy's most important art gallery
The Tuscany capital’s most celebrated art gallery is Galleria degli Uffizi (open Tues-Sun from 8.15am-6.30pm; admission €6.50). The gallery has over 40 rooms in all where works by masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael hang proudly from the large walls. The Uffizi’s most famed possession is Boticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ which delights thousands of onlookers daily in Room 10. Five doors down in Room 15, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Annunciation’ is another print which manages to keep art lovers’ attention that little bit longer than most other paintings. Galleria degli Uffizi is the city’s number one attraction and the queues outside are testament to this. Arrive early or book your tickets online.
Florence’s other attraction which looks naked unless there is a mile-long queue trailing from the entrance is Galleria dell’Accademia (open Tues-Sun 8.15am–6.30pm; admission €8). Located just a short stroll from Piazza del Duomo, it is best known as the residing place of Michelangelo’s immortal ‘Statue of David’. Carved out of one solitary piece of stone, it took him three years to complete. Even though this isn’t the largest of museums, it is still worth the €8 just to gaze at the world’s most famous sculpture for a while.
If you can’t find it in you to join the (sometimes) excruciatingly long queues, Il Duomo (open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-6.30pm, Sun 10am-5.30pm; admission free, €6 for the dome) should be tip-top of your ‘things to do’ list. This hugely impressive cathedral is the city’s most instantly recognisable building and an eternal emblem of this engaging city. Before passing through its tall doors you’ll find it hard not to marvel at its unique green, pink and white marble façade. Once inside, it will be equally difficult not to unlock your eyes from the delicate frescoes on the dome’s interior. The view from the top of the cupola (dome) is just as impressive, and ultimately rewarding after dragging yourself up the 463 steps to the top.
The great outdoors
Due to its Mediterranean climate, this is a city where you will need to feed a desire to stay in the great outdoors as much as possible. Thankfully, Florence is home to some of Italy’s most vibrant squares and each one is a real feast for the senses. Piazza della Signoria, perpendicular to the entrance to the Uffizi, is one of the main arteries of the city and it’s hard to think of a better place to people watch. It is also home to one of the fake Davids, and, incidentally, was home to the original until the mid-19th Century. You’ll find yourself in it at some stage, mark my words.
Another very central square you should pencil in to your itinerary is Piazza della Repubblica. Adorned by an ornate fountain in the centre of the square, this busy piazza was once the site of the Roman Forum. You can’t avoid passing through either of these central squares.
One square, however, you need to wear a little more shoe leather to get to is Piazzale Michelangelo. Across the Arno from the historical centre (you can cross Florence’s best known bridge, the Ponte Vecchio to get there) and home to the other fake David (a slimier, green one), it actually resembles a car park more than a square. But the views it boasts over the city are breathtaking and if you manage to catch a sunset from there one sultry, summer evening it will be an unforgettable experience.
After dining out in scores of restaurants that line the tourist trodden streets of Rome and Venice, I can safely say that eating out in Florence is a far more enjoyable experience than in either of the aforementioned. Restaurants are plentiful and, even around tourist hubs such as Piazza della Signoria, you can find a genuine ‘trattoria’ or ‘osteria’ that isn’t trying to rip you off.
One such restaurant is Vini e Vicchi Sapori (Via dei Magazzini 3/r, open Tues-Sat noon-3pm and 7pm-9.30pm, Sun noon-3pm). Tucked down a small lane just off that square, this small eatery is warm, welcoming and the staff are willing to make your visit a pleasant one. They do a selection of Tuscany specialities for around €7 while most pasta mains hover around €6. Across the Arno in the San Niccolo district, Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo (Via San Niccolo 60/r, open Mon-Sat from 12 noon-3pm and 7.30pm-midnight) is a favourite among locals and the perfect place to recharge the batteries after catching a sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo.
If your budget can’t stretch to a serving in a restaurant, and you’re thinking more of ‘food on the run’ when your stomach begins to make uncompromising sounds, The Oil Shoppe (Via S. Egidio, open daily 9am-6.30pm) is a well-established sandwich bar. Here you can choose from a wide selection of meats to fill sandwiches for only €3. And if you’re the type of person that likes to try local delicacies, then you should get a snack from a ‘trippai’ (tripe stand). These traditional Florentine stands sell 'lampredottos', or sandwiches with tripe (cow’s stomach) for €2.50-€3. It might not sound too appealing, but as the phrase goes ‘When in Rome…’, or, in this case, 'When in Florence...' There's one in Piazza Cimatori, two minutes from Piazza della Signoria.
Florence after dark
As a result of over 20,000 American students descending upon the city annually, Florence is an extremely lively city once the sun settles behind the rolling Tuscany hills. Most bars can be found in the Sante Croce district. Red Garter (Via de' Benci 33/r, open daily from 5pm-2am) attracts beer-guzzling backpackers and students on most nights. Located on the same street, Lochness (Via dei Benci 19/r, open nightly from 10pm-4am) is, in light of their opening hours, a true ‘after dark’ venue. Their motto is 'Get messy with Nessy'. Nuff said.
On the nightclub front, things get significantly more expensive with most clubs employing a ‘card policy’. The way this works is this – upon entering the club you receive a card from a burly bouncer. You then put your drinks ‘on’ this card and subsequently pay for your drinks plus admission on departure. Simple but expensive. Central Park (Parco delle Cascine, open Tues-Sun 10pm-6am), ten minutes west of the city centre and Maracana (Via Faenza 4/r, open Tues-Sun midnight-4am) are two of the city’s most popular clubs and both practice this.
Florence is a classic Italian city. With some of the country’s best art galleries, it is a culture vulture’s dream come true. But it is tailor-made for those wishing to engage in outdoor activities as there is so much to do under the blue, Florentine skies. Most importantly (to some), there is a wealth of choice in terms of after dark venues for those intent on dancing most of their way through their stay. So, as you can see, Florence has something for everyone. Miss it at your peril.
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