Florence, home to the Medici and birthplace of Renaissance, is like no other place on earth. Surrounded by rolling Tuscan hills this city boasts awe inspiring museums, churches, galleries, fabulous cuisine, culture and shopping that can keep visitors busy for weeks.
So, where to start? And to avoid the tourist traps? Read our local’s tips to help you make the most of your time in the Tuscan capital…
1) Avoid the queues
Art museums are the main draw for tourists in this city. Most of these occupy historic (i.e. small) buildings and so numbers of daily visitors are limited. If you want to avoid queuing for several hours outside these establishments it is best to book your tickets in advance.
Alternatively you can purchase a Firenze Card for €72 which gives you admission to many of the city’s main sights and lets you skip the queues without making reservations.
And remember, museums are closed on Mondays so plan accordingly.
Tourists at the Piazza Duomo, Florence, source: Flickr/Alexander Baxevanis
2) Getting around
Many people arrive in the city by train, and expect to take a taxi to their hotel, however because of the size and number of one-way streets, the fastest and most convenient travel is on foot. The station is located in the centre, close to Piazza Santa Maria Novella and near the other main attractions and from here, nothing is more than a 20-minute walk.
Tuscan countryside, source, Hotel Savoy
3) Get out of the city
There’s actually an affliction termed ‘Stendhal Syndrome’ that is said to affect those of a sensitive and nervous nature who visit Florence. It’s named after the French author who was left dizzy, sick and overcome after visiting too much art and Renaissance architecture in 1817. It may sound ridiculous but there have since been many cases where tourists faint in the face of miraculous Florentine beauty.
So, if you feel overcome by art (or it’s just not your thing) and want to escape the city there are many stunning Tuscan villages within easy reach of Florence. San Gimignano, with its Medieval towers, is probably the most famous of the lot. Volterra and Cortona are both known for their views have some best views in Tuscany. And of course a visit to the villages in Chianti region, where you can sample wine directly from the vineyards, should not be missed.
Volterra, source: Flickr/Polina F
4) Cash is king
It’s a good idea to keep cash on you when in Italy. Small independently run cafes, restaurants and shops, of which there are many, often have minimum card expenditures.
Italy has years of mistrust in banking systems and merchants pay huge card bills. It may seem backward, but it’s better to just carry cash than to argue with a bar tender because he won’t let you put a €1 coffee on your travel money card.
5) The waiter isn't being rude when he leaves you alone to eat
This phenomenon isn't unique to Florence, but it's worth mentioning because it catches so visitors many off-guard. Italian food rituals command that food (and people) take their time, so it's up to you to wave a cameriere (waiter) down and ask to order and also for the bill. The same relaxed attitude also applies to tipping for meals, which is rarely done in Italy.
The city’s most revered dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, is definitely worth sampling when you’re in town. Usually a T-Bone or porterhouse cut this steak is huge and designed for sharing between two or three people.
If you want to avoid disappointed looks from the waiters then don’t ask for it to be ‘well done’. The bistecca alla Fiorentina is, by default, served rare in the middle order to maximise the flavour and texture of the meat.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina, source: Flickr/McPig
7) When to go
Spring and autumn are generally mild and so are the best times to visit weather-wise. Unfortunately most other tourists have the same idea so these periods (along with summer) can be busy. January and February are cold months, but if the sun’s out this can actually be a beautiful time to see the city and avoid the crowds.
July and August are hot and humid, which is not ideal for sightseeing. There are also the occasional summer storms, which are visually spectacular but not great if you’re caught out in one.
If you do find yourself in Florence in the summer then there is, of course, one fantastic way to cool off...
Florence is the birthplace of gelato and some of the country’s best gelaterias are here. Our favourite is La Carraia, located on the Oltrarno side of Ponte alla Carraia that serves modestly priced cones generously laden with light and soft gelato. Another good option is Vivioli, which known for its fabulous flavours.
A word of warning though, there are unfortunately quite a few gelateria’s serving overpriced industrially produced gelato to unsuspecting tourists. To check quality of an establishment take a look at the colour of the pistachio gelato, it should a natural green colour and not too bright. And check the prices before you buy. A cone should never cost more then a few euros.
La Carraia: Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25r, Florence; +39 055 280695, www.lacarraiagroup.eu
Gelato in Florence, source: Flickr/Derek Key
Most foreigner’s ideas of aperitivo come from the French aperitif which is a pre-dinner drink served on its own to stimulate the appetite. Aperitivo in Italy is a totally different affair.
If you buy a drink in most bars between the hours of 6-9pm you will be charged an ‘aperitivo price’ (a couple euros more than usual) and are then given licence to eat as much bar food as you like. This ranges from miserly nuts and crisps, to full-buffets packed with freshly prepared, local goodness.
Bicycle in Florence, source: Flickr/Lauren Hammond
10) Learn some Italian
Most people in tourist friendly Florence speak excellent English. Despite this it's always an idea to learn some conversational language that helps build a rapport with the locals. Here are some basics that should get you through any eating experience in Italy…
Prendo (I’ll have) tre birre, un caffè, una pizza etc.
Per favore, Grazie (please, thankyou)
Un tavolo per due (a table for two)
Il conto per favore (the bill please)