Florence in high season – mad, bad and dangerous for you?
This mad dog is back from Florence!
After seeing to the killer migraine and draining a few humongous blisters, I now want to tell you all about it. Is Florence in high season a good idea?
As I reported earlier, I had little choice my destination this time. Florence is my friends’ favourite city and she wanted to meet up there. This then turned into a mini reunion with her European friends from university, and instead of two, it was four middle-aged girls roaming the city. We had just over 48 hours to eat, drink, be merry and explore a bit of the city, and this is how it went.
Arriving in Santa Maria Novella
I stepped out of the Mussolini-era Santa Maria Novella Station around 17.00, hot and bothered, but excited to step into an unexpected architectural treasure. Despite tourists in a rush half-running you over with their colourful trolley suitcases. Florence in high season! Across the busy station plaza and a huge traffic crossing, a large advertising hoarding, stuck onto the back of Santa Maria Novella (the church) greeted visitors to Florence in an appropriate manner and advertised lingerie. The front of Santa Maria Novella was much less crowded, and pretty as I remembered it. Although I had light luggage, just a day pack with a bit of underwear and toiletries and my camera in it, I decided to save the church for later.
Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy-Perfumery
Coffee first, then that pharmacy. Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in full. In my memory, it was toiletries wonderland in a fancy convent. And for those vegans and animal friends, their products, as far as I know, are not tested in animals. Finding a scent that is animal testing-free had been a challenge recently, so I was looking forward to try their citrus flavours. I found it quickly, but a sniff of their cologne put me in granny’s parlour rather than the Sicilian lemon grove I had hoped for. And – it was prohibitively expensive. 90 EURO for a bottle of Cologne? Err, thanks.
Even if you’re not into overpriced toiletries, the showroom (and original pharmacy) is stunning. It wasn’t too crowded, either, mainly Japanese customers sniffing the goods and taking pictures, all very civilised.
The joys of AirBnB and a treasure hunt
So I walked on, the Duomo peeping through the narrow streets, and as I got closer, some loud drumming (turned out to be Hare Krishna) and very large crowds made me want to run away as quickly as I could. The sun was still burning, and as I gingerly stepped between street artists, queues and random crowds, I wishes we’d met somewhere less… busy.
I found our accommodation quickly, using the last bit of my phone battery, then stood outside locked doors… thankfully, I had printed everything out, and soon my friend opened the door!
Hungry, we had a little dinner, then went to the meeting place for the “Treasure Hunt”, where you roam the streets of the old centre looking for small details and historical tidbits – upside-down balconies, Michelangelo graffiti, lions paws…
It was fun, but not quite what I had expected from a walking tour! After sitting in the Piazza Repubblica with lots of drinks and coffees (the Feltrinelli Book shop has a great cafe with reasonable prices and outdoor seating!) we went to sleep.
Let the art start! Cappella Brancacci
And sleep we didn’t… uncomfortable beds! But it would not put us off getting up early and paying a visit to the S’ant Ambrogio Market in our neighbourhood… indeed, all low-key, with an excellent market where you can stock up on your Italian favourites and fresh fruit. After breakfast from fresh Italian goodies in our apartment, we almost ran to our next appointment.
Thinking that all of Florence would be one long queue, I had, in my finest Italian, requested a reservation to visit the Cappella Brancacci. Our tickets were timed for 10.00. Bit unfortunate, then, that the Convent of Santa Maria del Carmine, of which the Cappella Brancacci is an integral part, was right across town. We arrived, having passed all the lovely-looking shops and cafes, with our tongues hanging out, unable to speak, and sat down very quietly before we could summon the strength to walk around the tiny chapel. They seem to restrict access so well that hardly anyone was there!
Move away from the biggest crowds and go to Oltrarno
Then we sauntered back past all those lovely shops and cafes, had a delicious ice cream at Sbrino, looked at the market stalls outside the Basilica di Santo Spirito before entering the basilica itself – no queues, no entry fee, but pretty late renaissance architecture, a late masterpiece of Brunelleschi, who also designed the Duomo.
We never moved too far from the square all afternoon. It had everything you would want in generous amounts – cafes, restaurants, a bit of culture… The rest was trailing after my friends in shoe and leather shops, skimming the Piazza de’ Pitti and the Ponte Vecchio (only do it if you don’t mind touristy shops and crowds).
We only got up to have ice cream. Sbrino is a small place close to Santo Spirito, so good, we went twice!
Ooh yes, and my friend has a serious shopping addiction – but worry not, you can feed it in Oltrarno, which has mainly small boutiqu-ey shops. The historic centre has chain stores, designer and smaller Italian chains and lots of leather shops.
We observed some paper making at Il Papiro. This was in the most touristy bit, between Palazzo Pitti and Ponte Vecchio. They have a lovely showroom, though, with paper making, and a humongous choice of artisan apper ina smaller atelier off the showroom.
Then we took an aperitivo in the cafetteria (actually more like a bar) of the Biblioteca delle Oblate. It has a great terrace with close-up views of the Duomo and cheap drinks. Then we moved on to dinner.
I still had room for culture, and having been a bit sleepless, planned to get up really early the next morning… firstly, to escape the sun, secondly… ah well… you guess it! Most churches would be open from 7.00, too, so perfect to admire some more arty bits before boarding the plane home in the evening…
Sunday Morning Church crawl
Having set the alarm for 05.30, I eventually peeled out of bed at 07.30… and vowed to stay in a hotel next time. The sun was bright but not burning a hole in my head, so strolled leisurely, past the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Foundling Hospital) and Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, past the early morning queues at the Galleria dell’ Accademia and past the refreshingly empty Duomo to the Piazza della Signoria. I sat there, for a while, admiring the slowly filling piazza and stretching my burning feet.
Then, as bars began to open, fuelled by a few cappucchini, I made my way to the Chiesa di Ognissanti, where I rested my feet a little longer, admiring the bits of art in the church – a Botticelli here, a Giotto there – and all free! Then I walked back to Basilica di Santa Trinita, requiring more coffee. If you want a small-scale Florentine painted chapel, I recommend you visit Santa Trinita! To the right of the main altar is the small Sassetti Chapel, painted with beautiful frescoes of Florentine Society by Domenico Ghirlandaio. I stayed for mass, and was ready to eat lunch by 11.30.
The “big” one: Santa Croce (yes, I missed out the Duomo on purpose)
I walked very slowly back across the river. I don’t know how many kilometres I walked on that day, but my decent walking shoes seemed not so decent anymore (I wished I had my worn old trainers!) and I was well blistered and sun-burnt. I walked very slowly, but still, it was pretty painful! Although it was the brightest, hottest time of the day, it was heaving to the point it was no longer fun!
The Chiesa di Orsanmichele, originally a granary, and providing respite from the sun, was nearly empty – despite being in the thick of the tourist route. Another ice cream, and I was ready to tackle Santa Croce. I nearly got to the point where touristing stopped being fun – despite having drunk three litres of water already, I was incredibly hot, thirsty, and in pain, but only had four more hours before catching my train to Pisa Airport.
And Santa Croce was rammed, again – first a queue to get tickets, but thankfully, the church is so large, it never seems crowded. If you are into funerary monuments, you’ll love it here – although some of the greats are buried elsewhere, here you find grand but somewhat depressing funerary monuments to Michelangelo, Dante Alighieri and Galileo Galilei. Many famous chapels were under scaffolding and not accessible to view – especially the Cappella Peruzzi, and some minor painted chapels to the right of the altar. Even the Cappella Bardi was somewhat cordoned off.
If you want to see frescoes close up, your best bet is the Cappella Brancacci or Santa Maria Novella.
And then, some final shopping!
Then, time for one more shop, the Scuola de Cuio – about 100m from Santa Croce, through a small gateway to the left of the church, you will walk through quiet gardens, around the church, to be led into a little yard. It all looks not very shop-like, but here is a truly artisan school of leatherwork. They maintain a cavernous showroom on the first floor, and prices are – reasonable. No, don’t look for the latest styles here, but if you want a classic – a briefcase, a cross-body bag, or small gifts, this is the place to come for great quality.
Still, after all that shopping, manageable luggage and hand luggage only.
Santa Maria Novella: Save the best for last
As I dragged my sorry feet back to the station, I decided to visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella too, despite the entrance fee, and despite my limited time, And here, where outside people were milling and jostling for space, for 7.50 EURO you get peace and quiet and beautiful art – in fact, if you love renaissance painting but aren’t into studying the entire output of Giotto, come here! It’s pleasant, it’s quiet, art is scattered through the church in the form of yet more painted chapels, one of them the insanely painted Cappella Strozzi with frescoes by Nardo de Cione, and some more in the cloisters and the sacristy. I will probably do an extra post on the delightful queue-free Renaissance art on Florence.
And with one final glance at the wonderful art, I turned back towards the train station and boarded that train to Pisa… to come back with more time and more money.
So… Florence in High Season…Good idea or bad idea?
Any my verdict is: Florence is great any time of the year. But for a first-time visit, do yourself the favour, avoid Florence in high season and stick to the cooler season, perhaps early spring or late autumn, and bring as much money as you can to get nice accommodations and plan on some hefty entrance fees!
I paid a modest 130 EURO for a Friday to Sunday return flight from Berlin to Bologna and back to Berlin from Pisa. Pretty good for Florence in high season, especially considering school holidays had just started in Berlin.
Train/Bus from the Airport
From Bologna, there is a rather overpriced direct coach to Florence, which costs 25 EURO and takes approximately 90 minutes. I took the Airlink Bus to Bologna Centrale (6 EURO) then a local train to Firenze Santa Maria Novella (10 EURO). If you have time, here is your chance to stop over in Bologna, which is a beautiful, low-key city. If you have less time, pre-book your train at Trenitalia, where a high-speed train takes less than an hour to Florence, but you’ll better be sure your flight arrives on time otherwise you lose the connection.
Getting to and from Pisa I found much more convenient – there are at least three trains an hour, all of which charge about 9 EURO per trip but are considerably fast, and requite a short walk of 100m in Pisa Centrale to use the light railway Pisamover to take you directly to the airport terminal. Pisa Airport is tiny and has a rather poor reputation for service – it was rammed when I was there, and my late evening flight was delayed due to late arriving aircraft, but security was quick and pain-free at the airport and therefore I cannot really say anything bad about it.
Where to stay
Florence in high season means accommodation in this already over-visited city will be at a premium. We stayed in a private room in an apartment near the Synagogue to the east of the Duomo. I’m still using AirBnB although I had patchy experiences with them. For high summer, their prices were competitive compared to small one-and two-star hotels. We paid about 55 EURO for a twin room and ended up having the entire apartment to ourselves, which was great. Lovely apartment, clean, but the beds were so uncomfortable (mine was like a narrow camp bed) so I won’t recommend it! In all my AirBnB stays in Italy to date, beds were always an issue, by the way. Perhaps they’re just not into good guest beds that much?
If you have any suggestions for good accommodation in Florence, please let me know! I would love to return (on low season) so your tips will be put into practice!
I admit, I did like the look of the Westin Excelsior right by the Chiesa di Ognissanti a lot, but normally a whole holiday costs me less than a nights stay there! Okay, maybe on my honeymoon! It looks top classy, great location, really nice rooms, but it is really expensive. If you want class on a budget, check out the Antiche Dimore di Firenze, a collection of small residences in the centre of Florence, usually for less than 100 EURO per night.
What to See
I’ll post more about sights (other than the obvious) separately, but here are some that I mentioned in the above post:
According to their online presence, you will need a reservation. The Civic Museums of Florence website advises that you can buy tickets through the site, but whenever I tried, I got no availability. I eventually made a reservation by Email. Tickets are 7 EURO per person – a lot, but worth seeing, especially as they severely limit access so it’s never crowded. Santa Croce costs 8 EURO to visit and the most famous frescoes are currently under scaffolds – oh, and the queues can be a bit forbidding. Santa Maria Novella charges 7.50 EURO and was really empty when I visited. At first, the church is not looking too appealing, but as you explore side chapels and the museums, this one probably gives you the most value for money.
What about the Uffizi?
Ummm, yeah, the weather was so good, and I did not want to spend hours in a crowded museum to get the most out of my 24 EURO entry fee… so I didn’t visit. As soon as I have a couple more days in the city, I promise! If you do want to see the gallery relatively hassle-free, pre-book. Their off-peak season is November to February, which tells you something about visitor popularity! . Try to go for 8am or late afternoon. Only a limited number of people are allowed in at a time, so queues and visitor numbers tend to be biggest late morning.
And the Galleria dell’ Accademia?
Without wanting to sound like a complete philistine, it’s mainly famous for Michelangelo’s David, which you can admire in copy in the Piazza della Signoria, queues are long and the displays are somewhat crowded and uninspired.
Preferring art in small dose and in situ, I prefer to visit churches and palaces, where the art was intended to be hung, if possible and I was somewhat bothered about the huge crowds rolling through the exhibition halls of those major galleries.
Where to Eat
The short answer is: nowhere near the Duomo or the Piazza di Signoria, although there are notable exceptiona, like Gelateria Edoardo right by the Duomo. My bet is to head over to Oltrarno (use the Santa Trinita Bridge and head on) for more local food. We had dinner in a rather nice restaurant called Il Vivandiere on our first night near Santa Croce – great on ambiance, with okay food. Florence in high season is still no excuse for poor food!
Saturday evening, with more local places pretty full, we chanced upon Salsamenteria de Ciompi in S’ant Ambrogio. How they managed to make it to currently No.38 out of 2184 restaurants on Florence on Tripadvisor I do not know. The food was okay, solid, the pasta really homemade, but I think they might have used up last year’s black truffles… okay, the dish was only 14 EUROs, but it has put me off truffles for a bit.
I went to Gustapizza after mass on Sunday – it was only 11.30 and they had just fired up their oven. It was already heaving but I loved it. Where else can you have a really nice sit-down lunch for less than 10 EURO in Florence? They serve pizza only, Neapolitan-style, very fast, super tasty, quality ingredients. Not the place for your romantic dinner.
I supplemented my carb-rich diet with lots of fresh fruit from S’ant Ambrogio Market and countless espressi and cappucchinos in anonymous bars, always enjoyed at the bar, where an espresso shouldn’t cost more than 1 EURO and a cappucchino no more than 1.50 EURO. What really pissed me off was that Florence was the first place where you had to pay for a glass of water with your coffee, but hey, that’s Florence!
Florence, for all its touristy-ness, has some pretty decent ice cream parlours! Even Florence in high season has enough ice cream so queues move very fast.
My favourite was Sbrino (Via dei Serragli 32, no website though they are on Instagram) – tiny, somewhat off the beaten path, friendly, and decent choice of milk ice cream and (vegan) sorbet, all natural flavours, decent prices, and overall, extreme friendliness. They only opened a few month ago, and no doubt the ice cream connoisseurs will find this place quickly!
Followed by the more famous La Carraia just down the road – again, well enough off the beaten path to be less than overrun, good flavours, somewhat less intense in flavour than Sbrino but very natural tasting, and not expensive.
Then came nothing for a while. They say Vivoli is the best ice cream place in Florence, if not Italy, and well, it’s really good! Quite creamy and very sweet. Although quite in the centre, not exactly overrun – or we were just lucky.
After dinner one evening I passed Il Procopio (Via Pietrapiana 60, no website) and had to have a scoop. It was just okay, nothing to write home about.
Last on my list because of their mean portions: Perche No! Their 3.50 EURO cone was measly, though their sorbet tasted excellent.
And that’s all the ice cream I could eat in two days, folks. Did I mention that we went to Sbrino about three times, too? Of course, tastes vary, but if you want something so tasty, that it makes you drool all over that postcard you were writing home/your instagram ice cream post, then head across the river to Oltrarno and have an ice cream feast at La Carraia and Sbrino!
Where to shop
Florence is full, absolutely chock-full with shops. The centre has all the European High Street chains as well we Italian chains, and, of course, designers. There is even a whole palace dedicated to Salvatore Ferragamo. Besides, you find a plethora of leather shops, more market stalls with leather stuff than you can take, and of cours,e countless souvenir shops, interior shops, shops with weird little bits (crowned skulls are big this year) and true specialty shops. I am a rubbish shopper a the best of times, but I do like well-made things and usually look out for something typical that I might need – and I partially succeeded.
Cosmetics and scent
First, let’s start with that pharmacy… Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Even if you don’t buy, make a visit to admire the beautiful old pharmacy, complete with ceiling frescoes. I’ve used their soaps and toothpastes, and they are good quality, ethically produced and cruelty-free, but in my opinion, they are selling out a bit with their line in bathrobes and accessories. The scents, traditional as they may be, are a bit to fusty and old-fashioned for my liking. But you can try everything and make up your own mind.
For slightly lower prices and fresher scents, you might like to try the Farmacia Santissima Annunziata (Via dei Servi 80) in the centre – beware that unlike most tourist and high street shops, they are closed on a Sunday.
What Florence is famous for, is, of course, its leather. You will find countless shops in the centre, all telling you they sell the finest Italian-made leather. But did you know that Italy has sweat shops and slave labour, too? So, when you spot that cheap bag or jacket, it’s probably cheap because it’s fake. Mercato Nuevo, San Lorenzo Market, numerous shops along the tourist paths… browse with extreme caution. You know that a “typical leather smell” can easily be recreated by synthetics, right? I’d buy from a reputable shop. If I buy any leather at all, I restrict myself to one item a year, and for that, I want good craftmanship. I went to the Scuola del Cuio (behind Santa Croce).
Last not least, paper making and decoration has a long tradition in Florence. Spot the multicoloured paper inside old books and old desk trays – yes, that’s Florentine paper. A lot is machine-printed, but you can see and buy traditional paper at Giulio Giannini, among others. That tourist favourite, Il Papiro, has an even larger range or authentic Florentine marbled and printed papers at slightly better prices, they sometimes demonstrate paper marbling, and I found them friendlier, too. They are actually a Florentine company that has expanded as far as the US, but what you buy there, is produced the traditional way in small batches.
Markets and Artisan shops
In the Oltrarno district are many tiny shops, often restorers, antique shops and artisans. I wanted to look for a door knocker, but the shop was already closed. Best to come here during the week or on a Saturday morning.
For food items, I highly recommend the long-ish walk to Sant’ Ambrogio Market. I bought some sun-dried tomatoes at a quality I’d never get in Germany, for the standard 5 or 10 EURO per kilogram, as well as plenty of fresh foods ready to consume on-site. There’s even a small thrift section! It’s the best market for food in the centre of Florence. Mercato Centrale is supposedly more touristy, with a whole level dedicated to small restaurants.
I generally use the Rough Guide to Italy* . But you can also get a 2018 Pocket Rough Guide to Florence*. And a series I really love for those off-the-beaten track places, is the “Secret” guides by Jonglez. They are just on sights, no restaurants, no hotels, but full of inspiring ideas! There is, of course, one on Florence*, and I wish I had read that before I went – but I probably would have found it even harder to leave!
Disclaimer: As you can expect from this straight-laced incorruptible traveller, I paid for everything but the odd aperitivo myself. I don’t believe in giving in unbiased review of something you haven’t paid for yourself. Likewise, I’m not going to make affiliate links to places where I did not stay, money or not. If you follow a link, it will be non-affiliate, unless marked with an asterisk. I make money in my day job, thanks.