After two days of exploring so much of Tuscany- happily returning to our hotel in Florence with heads full of stories, cameras full of photos, and bellies full of wine- it was finally time to get to know the city we made our home base for the first part of our trip to Europe.
Unfortunately, we had only allocated half a day to do it.
So we begin with a word of advice: don’t give yourself half a day for Florence. Give yourself several days. Give yourself a whole week. Stay longer if you can. Like any great city, you can’t possibly get to know Florence so quickly. It takes a while to learn its personality and its people.
But just in case you’re like us, with limited vacation time but a deep desire to experience everything the world has to offer, here’s how we spent a lovely Sunday morning exploring the piazzas, statues, and gelaterias of Tuscany’s regional capital city.
Duomo di Firenze
Our morning started early, as most of our mornings do; we checked out of our hotel and started walking toward Piazza del Duomo. When you think of Florence, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore- most often called Il Duomo di Firenze– is probably the first image that comes to mind. Built over more than 140 years, the cathedral was completed in 1436 when the majestic dome was finished. Today, in addition to the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an attraction for millions of people around the world. On that morning, though, it was an attraction just for us.
Our singular focus for our morning was to climb Giotto’s Campanile– the bell tower. Visitors to Florence have the opportunity to climb to the top of both the bell tower and the dome itself, and most people choose to climb the iconic dome.
Why did we choose to climb the bell tower instead? We wanted to get a few panoramas of Florence’s cityscape, which included the dome- and you can’t get a photo of the dome if you’re standing inside of it! The bell tower opens at 8:30 on Sunday mornings, so we hoped to arrive early enough that we could avoid a long wait to climb to the top.
We first set foot in Piazza del Duomo just after 8:00 AM, and aside from a few sleepy shopkeepers unlocking their doors, we were alone. It would be a few hours before we would recognize how incredible that was. At that hour, the piazza was quiet, empty, and peaceful. At 8:15, with just a few of us in line, the doors opened and we purchased our tickets to enter the bell tower and begin the climb up to the top.
Climbing the bell tower requires scaling 414 steps, and almost every corner presents a new challenge. We pushed through lengthy stretches of stairs, narrow spiral staircases, and steep sections that made us question why we thought it was such a great idea to pay 15 Euro just to torture ourselves. We rested for a few moments here and there by the small ventilation windows where a cool breeze refreshed us, and we reminded ourselves that it would have been so much worse during the heat of summer. When we finally reached the top, though, we all but forgot about our aching legs as we gazed out at the city that stretched out below us. We visited on a particularly overcast day, and even the gray clouds seemed to brighten above the duomo in front of us.
We spent a lot of time at the top- maybe 30 minutes- which is probably much more than most visitors need. After we finished taking photos, we stood up there for a long time as we took in the view. By then there were no more than a dozen people at the top with us, and we all had plenty of space to take pictures and enjoy our time without running into each other. There isn’t a lot of space to move at the top of the bell tower, and with the crowds that come later in the day, it would have been a much more uncomfortable- and probably faster- visit for us if we hadn’t been there when the doors opened.
Walking down is physically easier but not without its challenges. On the way up it was us against the tower as we climbed stair after stair. On the way down it was us against the crowds. The stairs are narrow in most sections and don’t have railings, so passing people isn’t always possible and we spent a good amount of time waiting for a break in the steady stream of visitors to scurry down a flight before encountering the next group.
By the time we made our way to the bottom, it was clear that our early arrival was a great judgment call. The line of people waiting to buy tickets stretched almost clear across the piazza! We couldn’t believe our good luck not only with exploring the empty bell tower but also with seeing the piazza so completely empty just an hour before. The stark contrast between early morning in Florence and watching as crowds poured in like running water stayed with us, and we were glad to see Florence at its most peaceful and its most vibrant.
Piazza della Repubblica
After a quick stop to grab a couple bottles of water, we walked over to see the Piazza della Repubblica. We spotted the famous arch from the top of the bell tower and decided to go take a look. It was a bustling hub of activity, full of street artists, live music, and a nice carousel for the kids. Piazza della Repubblica is located on the historic site of the city’s first forum. A large column known as the Colonna dell’Abbondanza stands on the spot that was once considered to be the center of the city.
We took some pictures of the arch, enjoyed a little people watching and then continued along our way to the next piazza.
Piazza della Signoria
With time steadily ticking toward our goodbye to Tuscany, we made a short walk to Piazza della Signoria. The piazza has a long tradition of being the political hub of Florence, and even today it is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists alike. It’s proximity to the Uffizi Gallery makes it a very appealing stop for tourists. Another reason people seek this area out is the impressive collection of original statues on display in the Loggia dei Lanzi, many of which we knew of only through history books and long forgotten art classes. The Loggia dei Lanzi is located in the corner of the Piazza della Signoria and it’s essentially an open-air gallery of famous sculptures from the Renaissance period. There are statues by Michelangelo, Giambologna, Bartolommeo Brandini, Cellini, Donatello and more.
Adam’s favorite was Giambologna’s Hercules and Nessus, which was carved from a single block of marble in 1599. Interestingly, my favorite was a temporary piece by Jan Fabre- a golden turtle statue with a tiny man riding it called “Searching for Utopia.” Along with many kids who flocked to see the comically large amphibian with its little human passenger, I admired the shiny reflection and its place in the midst of richly historical buildings, which felt like a reminder that even the oldest cities are always changing.
Among the many statues on display in the piazza is a replica of Michelangelo’s iconic David, which is located in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. The original can be seen in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, but be prepared to purchase a ticket to see that. Thankfully, this replica is free to the public.
Pasta and Gelato
I can’t mention our trip to Florence without a few notes on the food. While perhaps not the most local choice (the restaurant had menus in almost every language, after all!), we stopped into Trattoria Za-Za for what became a truffle-infused three course meal. Truffles are not the easiest to find in the USA, so seeing them in large quantities on Za-Za’s menu was all it took for us to request a table for two. We inhaled truffle bruschetta, and I savored every bite of the truffle pasta in cream sauce that I ordered while Adam did the same with a delicious pizza. Combined with glasses of Chianti Reserva that we felt confident in selecting (thanks to all we learned on our wine tour!), it was a memorable meal.
Although the tiramisu on the dessert menu was tempting, we opted for a stop at a gelateria in our final Tuscan moments before collecting our luggage and heading for the train station. Gelato in Florence is plentiful, as it is throughout Italy. We sampled quite a bit of it while we were there, and you really can’t go wrong when it comes to picking a shop that sells it. We selected one just a few blocks from our hotel. Most gelaterias seemed to serve numerous flavors- this one had more than 20 in their case- so I ordered a scoop of coffee and a scoop of pistachio while Adam tried one with berries. All of the flavors were really good (and seemed like a bargain at just 3 euro per cup!).
With that, it was time to board a train toward Venice and say goodbye to a city we had barely met. Of the cities we have visited in Italy, Florence stands out as a favorite. When I consider why that is, I immediately think back to the quiet moments standing below Giotto’s Campanile as well as the quiet moments standing on top of it. To be able to carve out peace from a hectic schedule in a popular tourist spot is rare, even for those of us who travel quite a bit. It’s the unexpected experiences that stay with you and shape your impressions and perceptions of a place. Our trip to Florence was just that- it was all of the beauty, good food, and sightseeing we knew we would find paired with the tranquility we didn’t expect. Someday we’ll return to recreate it- and next time we’ll stay a bit longer. There is still so much of Firenze that we need to explore.