After Czeching out Prague, we ventured south to the absolutely incredible country, Italy. We decided to spend our time in Tuscany (Italian: Toscana | German: Toskana) and were based in the Tuscan capital Florence (Italian: Firenze | German: Florenz). Exploring Florence was a first for both of us and an experience that is one of our favourites… although, Italy as a whole captured our hearts. The city is known as the “cradle of the Renaissance” (la culla del Rinascimento) because of the architecture of the buildings, churches and monuments. The city is absolutely stunning. Time in Tuscany is never long enough! We chose to stay in Florence because we both wanted to see the city, and also travel to Siena and Pisa.
Our mornings started with a continental breakfast, coffee and croissants looking over the city and mountains. How could there have been bad days when they started like this?! The splendidness of Florence is obvious and we completely understand why it is one of the most attractive cities in Italy, and Europe. In South Africa, we drink cappuccinos at any time of the day. In Italy, cappuccinos are a morning drink only. By chatting with the locals we learned that it’s a tell-tale sign that you are a tourist (you know, apart from the cameras, backpacks and travel maps and guides we all carry). Instead, Italians live on espressos!
The buildings, churches and monuments really are wonderful! If you are lucky to be in Florence for a while, you can take your time sight-seeing. If your time is more limited, there is a 15€ ticket that gives you access to all monuments for 48 hours.
One of the most well-known and beautiful sites in Florence is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo. It is absolutely exquisite! The Duomo and its gothic architecture, with intricate detailing and statues, can hold your gaze for quite some time. Naturally, there are hundreds of tourists around and in the Cathedral. If you are planning to enter it, try to dress ‘appropriately’ – no shoulders and knees exposed. There are dress checks before entering. If you are not covered up in the required places, the staff sometimes provide you with things to cover yourself or you will be refused entry. While the summer heat is intense, bring a shawl to cover your shoulders if you can. No hats or sunglasses were to be worn either.
If you are willing to climb 463 steps in a dark and tight space to the top of the dome, you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of Florence sprawling below. Tickets need to be booked ahead of time. The Giotto’s Bell Tower can also be climbed to have panoramic views of the city.
From the Duomo we ambled towards the Old Bridge and emerged into the Piazza della Signoria (a Piazza is a town square). The Palazzo Vecchio (Town Hall) overlooks this more L-shaped square. There are shops and restaurants lining the square’s borders. Again, the Italian summer heat is real! We sat at one of the restaurants (chosen for the mist blowing fans around the tables) and sipped on freshly squeezed orange juice and ‘people watched’. We don’t know if it was the heat or if we were really thirsty, but that orange juice was divine! There was one bridal party after another celebrating in the square and their happiness, singing and dancing could only make you smile.
There are also sculptures and statues placed around one corner of the Piazza with a copy of David by Michelangelo on display. We walked through the sculptures absorbing the history. Of all the Piazzas, this one was one of our favourites and we always revisited it. Seeing the Piazza at night with the sculptures lit up, musicians on street corners, and happy people around is something that will stay with you always
We didn’t do any of the available tours in the Palazzo Vecchio but we can believe that the view of the city from the Town Hall would be amazing. The Uffizi Gallery, a famous art museum, is next to the Piazza della Signoria.
The Old Bridge or Ponte Vecchio is another iconic symbol of Florence. It is the oldest bridge in the city (completed in 1350) and used to be a part of the city’s defences. However, by the 16th Century, the bridge no longer served as a defence but as a home to shopkeepers. Today there is a stream of different jewellery shops along its edges.
There are large crowds on the bridge but there are places to sit and look out over the river. There are other bridges where you can look across to the Old Bridge if the crowds are too intense.
Getting there: We flew from Prague to Bologna. From Bologna, we took the train to Florence.
How to get around: We walked around the city but you can make use of public transport. We used the trains to get see parts further out (often only one stop out) or to travel to different cities.
Best time to go: We visited in summer and it was great but very hot. We were told that late Spring (rain is common in April) and Autumn are the best seasons because of the changing skies and lower temperatures.
Nearby cities (by train from the central station: Firenze Santa Maria Novella – Firenze SMN): Bologna is a ~30 min. Rome is ~1h20. Siena is ~1h30. Pisa is ~1h.
Food: eating at restaurants is expensive, as expected. This doesn’t mean you can’t find pizzas or sandwiches at cheaper prices. In South Africa, the bread provided to a table at a restaurant is free of charge. This is not true in Italy. If you eat the bread, you will be charged for it. Dinner meal times in South Africa are typically between 18:00-20:00. While in Italy, dinner meal times are typically only from 20:00 onwards. This meant restaurants opened later than we had anticipated.
Gelato: Yes, it is as good as everyone says! We ate so much ice-cream and it was always delicious. There are Gelato shops all over the place.
Tipping: almost all restaurants include a 2€ surcharge on all bills so you don’t need to add more if you don’t want to.
Other monuments to spend time at include: the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata, the Uffizi Gallery, the Museum, the Basilica of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and Museum and the Boboli Gardens. Tickets can also be bought online here.