Ooooh yes, dear friends, me, who’ll waffle on endlessly about preferring independent travel without crowds, is going to Florence for a weekend in July. It sounds a bit bonkers, since I always try to take my holidays outside main season and school holidays. But then a friend whom I haven’t seen for nearly ten years texted that she’ll be in Europe in July and suggested we meet up.
Why not Florence?
To be honest – I have been to Florence twice, and wasn’t too keen to return, following a rather crowded experience on a trip round Tuscany there back in … October 2005. It could only worse, couldn’t it? My friend is visiting from Malaysia, and while undoubtedly there is very significant cultural heritage in Malaysia, she doesn’t have renaissance cities right on her doorstep, and she homed right in on Florence.
The town is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, home to one of the greatest art museums of the world, but it is also really crowded. Honestly, I haven’t heard of “Tourist go Home” protests in Florence. It is miles from a large cruise port (yes, this can spoil your trip trip to Barcelona, Rome, Mallorca or Venice, and the day trippers add little to the local economy as they are pretty all-inclusive on their ships that they return to at the end of the day), but nevertheless, my first trip in 1990 was when your average family went away maybe once a year, and 2005 really really knackered the beautiful Florence vibe for me.
Alternatives to Florence
Honestly, I tried to sway her.
Rome is my favourite city in Italy but it gets crazy busy and hot, too.
Palermo? Napoli? Beautiful but probably sooooo hot in July. Slightly tricky flight connections, too.
Bergamo is thought to be beautiful and Ryanair flies there.
Pisa is a no-frills airline hub. So, what about Lucca? Lucca is wonderful. Not quite as serene as here at one of the many villas near Lucca but relaxed, charming, and cultured.
Bologna also comes up high in the no-frills stakes. A great down-to-earth city. And Ravenna and her early Christian mosaics are close by.
But no, no, the great Renaissance City of Florence and her undoubtedly huge streams of tourists it is.
So, what’s the problem?
I am worried it’s going to be unpleasantly filled to the brim with tourists, over-priced and you cannot see its beauty for the crowds. I visited Florence as part of a Emilia-Romagna-Tuscany road trip back in 2005. Florence was my least favourite city then. In October, it was uncomfortably crowded, noisy and expensive, and after trudging round a few of the famous sight for a day (and failing to get into most without queuing for a couple hours), we quickly buggered too to Lucca. Similarly crowded Siena wasn’t much better. Oh, and San Gimignano. It was more like a theme park.
We did the tourist trail, admittedly, but there were plenty of places that were just not as developed as some to others. Excuse the pixelly compact camera pictures – it was 2005 after all, DSLRs still out of my reach and my old film camera not completely retired.
Pienza and Montalcino were my favourites. Volterra was pretty cool but somewhat developed. Lucca was great – plenty of sightseeing, yet somewhat in the shadow of neighbouring Pisa. In my eyes, though Lucca wins. Just don’t go there on a day when there is a Pisa vs. Lucca football game, like we did. Driving between all these smaller towns was wonderful, too, and there are some great driving routes to experience the picture book countryside of Tuscany. A drive from Florence to Siena via Greve on the SR222 ‘Chiantigiana Road’ is probably the most famous, one, and while its doubtlessly scenic, I would recommend the Val d’Orcia drive on the SR2 from Siena to Buonconvento, then on to Pienza. It was really quiet back in 2005.
But we wont have time for this now, and my friends’ heart is set on Florence. We’re not going to take a road trip either – we’ll have 48 hours in town, and these cute Fiat500s are just for admiring.
So, what to do to make this Florence trip leisurely and fun?
I could throw a bit of alcohol on it. But I can drink plenty at home, and besides, I doubt that my friend will touch any alcohol. So maybe not.
I could drag her off to the most obscure places Florence has to offer, far away from the city centre. In 2005, we got off on a pretty good start and started our trip in Forli – this was where Ryanair was flying back then, and it’s such a backwater, we scored a hotel room for something like 50EURO in some kind of palace. We also wandered through Bologna in the rain with barely a tourist in sight, ate wonderful pizza followed by wonderful ice cream right in its main square, and drove to Florence in more rain on some weird route over the Appenines because we couldn’t see the point of paying the motorway toll.
Our accommodation in Florence was ace, though (private guesthouse with only a couple of rooms we just turned up in / some other full guesthouse phone them, cannot quite remember) was wonderful. Outside the centre, with places to eat and drink and be merry without blowing our modest budget. I remember it was really tricky to find, but well away from anything touristy. It was simple yet comfortable.
My friend has already sorted the accommodation out, and we’re a few minutes walk from the Duomo, Oh my. But at least we won’t have to walk for miles to get to the centre. Also, since its an AirBnB, I am hoping the place has a bit of local colour.
We could pick out sights that somehow avoid the crowds. Get up early to see places that are always accessible like the Ponte Vecchio. The sun will rise at half past five.
Of course, Piazzale Michelangelo is a must for the beautiful view on Florence. It’s easy to get there by Bus 12 or 13 from Santa Maria Novella.
Or roam the city streets late. We booked a walk to take place in the evening, at the request of my friend. Perhaps it will be cooler then, and since it’s a small group, we may get to see a few bits and pieces away from the tourist trail.
To avoid queues, I endeavoured to pre-book tickets for the Uffizi here but the entry prices were a bit steep. 20EURO plus booking fee just because its high season? I know I know, the Uffizi houses thousands of priceless works of art, but shouldn’t they be made a bit more accessible? Especially when low season tickets are just 12EURO. The City of Florence might not be creating enough income from the bazillion of tourists already. Entry tickets are timed and limited, but there is no guarantee that we’re going to queue here, there and everywhere to see the more prominent works, and besides, who wants to spend three or four hours in a museum when you have only forty-eight hours in such an amazing city?
Florence Churches are works of art – and contain wonderful paintings
So we decided to give this a miss on our very short trip, and I reserved tickets for the more manageable Cappella Brancacci instead.
We’ll endeavour to see the somewhat less visited churches and admire their art. A lot of them will charge entry fees (only in Florence!) but at least there may be no large crowds. And, I admit I have done the “I want to pray here” speech a couple of time, worked perfectly in Italy, and I actually do go and pray when I go to a church, and I usually make a donation as well.
Here’s Santa Croce – not exactly an insider tip, no, but beautiful from how I remember it. And it will open at the crack of dawn – at least for those who wish to attend for prayer – just enter at a side door to the left of the front.
At present a ticket to visit will cost 8 EURO and you will have a lot more access rather than just the prayer area but at least you can pray in the Niccolini Chapel where Stendhal was overcome with emotion and developed symptoms now known as Stendhal Syndrome. SO must be a good one. Of course, as a freeloading pilgrim you will be miles from the famous Giotto frescoes of the Bardia and Peruzzi Chapels closer to the altar. But have a look what you’d like to see – Santa Croce is an amazing art museum in itself- and plan your visit in advance by using this handy map.
Santa Maria Novella
Similarly famous, the church of Santa Maria Novella will at current charge you 7.50 EURO to admire the Dante-inspired frescoes by Nardo di Cione and the monumental frescoes in the Spanish Chapel, as well as some works by Sandro Botticelli and Paolo Uccello.
Doesn’t look as if you are granted access just for prayer unless you’re a member of a religious order. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to pinch the euro cents here, and I’ll probably buy a ticket to see the priceless art, but I am somewhat annoyed that Florence is cashing it in when the great churches of Rome, and other Italian city are essentially free to visit for everyone, especially when there is plenty other opportunity to generate tourist income in Florence. Here is an article on the subject, and I fully agree – as Europeans, we can pride ourselves to give access to people of all faiths in our churches as places for reflection, and also to admire the art that has accumulated in them over centuries.
What about the other churches of Florence?
The church of Santo Spirito, on the other side of the Arno, may be a bit less crowded. Its another early Renaissance Filippo Brunelleschi masterpiece, a bit more modest than the Duomo, built roughtly around the same time, yet totally different in looks. Their website is in Italian only, and it looks like this one’s not free to visit either and it keeps pretty tight touristic hours: 10-13 and 15-18 though their confession times are pretty generous.
Brunelleschi also had his hand in the design of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, known as being a principal burial place for over fifty members of the Medici family.
San Miniato al Monte
San Miniato al Monte may be good if you fancy a hike up the hills from Piazzale Michelangelo, with views to match. San Salvatore in Ognissanti has a fresco by Sandro Botticcelli (Saint Augustine in his study) and also a fresco of the Last Supper, not by Michelangelo, but by Domenico Ghirlandaio – allegedly it served as an inspiration for the more famous Michelangelo rendition. This one has a very simple website and keeps visitor-friendly hours of 9.30 – 12:30 and 16:00 – 19.30.
By this time, we’ll probably be completely templed out.
Maybe, we’ll get up really early
Florence is known for its renaissance architecture, grand squares and vistas. Perhaps it may help to get up at 5am and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. If a coffee outlet is open by that time, it may not be a problem. Perhaps I’ll try. Obviously, I didn’t on my last visit, even though we rose quite early, but by the time we had driven into Florence, parked our car on Michelangelo and somehow made our way into the centre, the first cafes started to open up and ten years on and in high season, one might not see the statues for selfie sticks. This is more like reality here.
Where to eat in FLorence
Now that it looks like I better save up a fair bit to pay all these entrance fees, let’s think about food and drink! In 2005, we just walked to a pizzeria near our guesthouse. It was cheap, and good. I also remember going to Vivoli for some outstanding ice cream. As well as another, more central one, Festival del Gelato. Apart from that…. I found the food in Florence rather unremarkable. But I heard the Mercato Centrale is a nice place to eat (and buy provisions). Other than that, the idea is to just forego dining with a view and walk out of the central area for dinner. If you have any restaurant recommendation, please share!
Last not least – what would a journey be without some really good shopping? And by that, I don’t mean trinkets by the Dome or San Lorenzo market (though they had some really nice fake Chanel scarves and nice paper). I am thinking quality stuff that you will enjoy on a daily basis or for a long time.
Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy
I am thinking cosmetics and lotions and potions from Officina Profumo Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella. Of course, you can buy their products in various fancy shops all over Europe, but will they have the Carta d’Armenia? Or all flavours of incense? Or the Antica Speziera 2 pills? I love all citrus scents (I probably have ten already, but since I stopped using anything that’s tested on animals the choices are getting pretty slim) so perhaps I try their L’Acqua di S.M.Novella or Acqua di Colonia Russa. And their Dominican flagship store at Via della Scala, in existence for 600 years, is one of the most beautiful shops I’ve seen. It will probably be absolutely rammed (lots of Asian tourists there last time). And, although they do not appear on Peta or carry the Leaping Bunny seal, but they have no outlets in China and their website says they never test on animals. Even Cruelty free Kitty hasn’t got an answer yet.
Also, Florence is known for its paper. And its leather. Perhaps time to buy the only leather item I am allowed per year here – as long as its beautifully made and will last a life time. Any hints will be gratefully appreciated.
Let’s see how that first high-season trip in many years pans out
I am excited to see my friend again, and I am excited to visit Italy again! For the past few years, I managed to go to Italy at least once a year, but I skipped one last year. I think 2000 is the last time I visited in high summer, and it was the Great Jubilee AND the largest transplantation conference in the world, so I was somewhat tied to a schedule. I barely crept out of EUR where I was based then, though having an audience with John Paul II. was the highlight of the trip, and I wouldn’t miss this in the world, but it was hot, my room was ridiculously expensive and I dared to venture into the centre just a few times. So, will it be crowded and hot? I hope not. I’ll duly report back. In the meantime, please let me know if you recommend any place in Florence that you’re willing to share, or perhaps you’ve been to any of the places mentioned here recently and can elaborate?