We arrived in Florence by train and immediately you could tell that the pace of life had changed compared to Rome. People seemed less hurried, wandering the streets, just taking everything in, enjoying being there! It was great. As we stepped out of the train station we were met with the loudest birds crowded around the tress outside I had ever heard, there must have been thousands! We ran for cover from the birds not wanting our first experience of Florence to be an unpleasant one! We caught a bus to our base for our stay in Florence which was the Diva Hotel. It was a short bus ride, probably 20 minutes but the buses run pretty regularly and to a good time table. The bus stop was just at the end of the street from the hotel. If you’re having to stick to a budget then this hotel is fine for a base to explore Florence.
As soon as we had dropped our bags off we headed back into Florence to explore. I had read Inferno by Dan Brown his latest Robert Langdon novel which is largely based in Florence and this had really whet my appetite, I was even more excited to see the sights and take everything in. The streets seem much narrower in Florence and you feel like you can almost never see that far ahead of you, but then from no where you’ll catch a glimpse of something amazing that halts you in your tracks.
Our first stop was the Piazza del Duomo, where the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is(Cathedral of St Mary of The Flower – commonly referred to as the Duomo). Construction started on the Duomo in 1296, it was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio and took nearly 150 years to complete. Pieces have been added over the years to this amazing iconic landmark. I can’t think of any other more distinctive cathedral in the world, it’s just amazing. Lit up in the hours of darkness the white, pink, and green marble facade is almost blinding and the red tiled cupola dome and roof really stand out.
The cathedral is massive and a trip inside has to be done. There is so much art inspired by Dante Alighieri’s epic poem The Divine Comedy which describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The interior of the dome is decorated by huge 16th century frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari called The Last Judgement. Commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici this is an example of one such work. Standing and looking at this, some of the scenes are really pretty shocking, Demons sticking flaming spears into lost souls backsides, it’s shocking now, I was struggling to imagine the shock and the effect this would have had on the masses who stood inside when it was completed. Florence really came across to me as a brave place with a history of not being afraid to shock or horror in the pursuit of creativity with it’s strong links to the renaissance and legendary artists Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Donatello (can’t help but think of the ninja Turtles Doh!). So much of this seems to have been driven by the ruling family of the time the Medici’s who were so forward thinking and the characters behind so many brilliant historical stories all over Europe.
If you’re of reasonable fitness a climb up to the top of the dome really really has to be done. It is quite hard work but it’s such an amazing experience. As you make your way up you stop off at a viewing platform inside the dome where you are within touching distance of the paintings, where this photograph was taken. As you make your way up further you are walking through narrow passage ways and stairways between the ceiling and the roof of the dome, I thought it was really cool. Then when you make it to the top the views you are rewarded by are pretty incredible. You can see right across the city on all sides, there is no modern high rise architecture here blocking the view, you are on top of the world!
We also climbed the bell tower, a later addition to the square which you can see above, this gives you nice views back towards the dome.
As we continued exploring Florence to me it felt like every other shop was a major designer fashion shop. Gucci, Dolce & Gabana, they seem to be everywhere here! It was reinforcing my thoughts that Florence was still trying to be the trend setting fashionable city which it had been under the Medici’s.
The fortress palace Palazzo Vecchio is located in a really lovely square Piazza della Signoria. There are some really good bars and restaurants here which have outdoor seating in the square. We had a great evening eating here with blankets and flaming heaters provided by the restaurant, it seems like Italians just refuse to eat indoors!! The great wine helps fight off any cold as well! The Palazzo Vecchio was the centre of political life in Florence, the Medici’s also lived here for some time too. It is now a museum and its decoration inside is worth the visit, but on top of that it houses works of art by Michelangelo, Vasari, and Donatello.
Inside the covered area there are copies of famous works of art, outside the doors there is also a copy of Michelangelo’s David. In the square there is also an interesting fountain with a sculpture depicting Neptune. The restaurants around this square were really pretty reasonably priced and I would definitely recommend spending an evening here.
Another of Florence’s most iconic sights is the the Ponte Vecchio bridge which dates back to 1345. It has been the home of jewellers since the 16th century and still has Cartier and other high end jewellers alongside some more local independent stores. It’s pretty amazing that there are still wooden supports holding up the crowded buildings on the bridge which to me didn’t look like they would be strong enough, it’s a real charming area, and the bridge is the setting for an exciting scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Unsurprisingly with Florence’s links to the Renaissance art period there are some first class museums here housing really really iconic world renowned pieces. Michelangelo’s David must be right up there with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as one of the most famous works of arts in the world and must be priceless. The Galleria dell’Accademia houses David and it is another one of those places that lived up to or surpassed my huge expectations. When visiting Paris and I have been to see the Mona Lisa, the crowds and people jostling for space to try and take photographs and selfies in front of the painting really spoils the experience for me. When going to visit David it couldn’t be more different, it’s housed in a massive naturally lit hall and you can comfortably take some time here taking it all in. You get the feeling of being in the presence of greatness here, that’s the best way I can describe it. I’m not a massive art buff and only really look into it when I’m visiting somewhere and I had no clue that David is the David from the stroy of David and Goliath and he’s carrying his catapult on his shoulder.
Another really good museum is the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo situated behind the Duomo in Piazza del Duomo. It has loads of works by huge artists including Donatello and Michelangelo and also tells the story of the construction of the Duomo which amazes you when you think of when it was built. There is also a really nice coffee shop where for €2.00 you can have a Latté looking out through floor to ceiling windows at the piazza and cathedral outside, this was a return stop for us!!
Florence was just amazing and like Rome really lived up to my high expectations in every way possible. The relazed atmosphere and friendly locals really made this city a pleasure to visit, I know Rome is probably number one on most peoples lists when thinking about Italy but Florence for me really was as enjoyable. Joining the locals for their traditional relaxed evening stroll around their proud city taking everything in…I couldn’t stop smiling.
We used the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide while we were in Florence. These pocket guide books are really great, packed with photo’s web links and a really handy pull out map, I recommend getting this prior to going on your trip. Click the image below to find out more.
Thanks for reading, enjoy your travel missions!