Florence (pt. 2)

Our original plan was to take a daytrip to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small hillside town in Tuscany that we’d never been to, but we decided to revisit Florence instead, for a few of reasons: to see my favorite sunset again, eat at one of our favorite restaurants, and climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo, which we had to skip when we were here three years ago. Looking back now, I’m not sure if this was the best decision – we probably should have explored a new town – but Florence is never a bad idea.

Since we wanted to climb the campanile in the early morning to avoid the summer heat and crowds, we decided to stay overnight and rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Oltrarno (“other side of the Arno River”), similar to Rome’s Trastevere. Our apartment was on the top floor of an 18th-century building that once housed officials of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It had luxuriously high ceilings, beautiful terracotta floors, and dozens of bookshelves – but no air conditioning, and a bathroom with one of those doorless showers that gets the entire bathroom wet. In other words, we felt like true Florentines.

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Ciao, from the bathroom window!
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Terracotta floors, low bed, and high ceiling
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View of the rooftops from our bedroom

If you only do four things in Florence, do these:

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo. This sunset has ruined me for all other sunsets (I’m looking at you, Santorini). There’s something so magical about Florence’s sea of iconic red roofs, massive dome dominating the skyline, the colors of the sunset reflected in the Arno River bisecting the city, and the purple mountains in the background. Get there early to claim a good spot.

 

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Sunset
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Worth the wait

Check out Mercato Centrale, an impressive food hall and gastronomic dream. Designed by the same architect who built the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, this huge iron-and-glass complex has two floors: fresh groceries on the bottom floor, and the best food court you’ve ever seen on the top floor. Anthony and I spent a few hours on the top floor, slowly eating our way through various vendors. Each vendor specializes in a type of food (mostly Tuscan). Everything you could ever want is here – a cheese station, a pasta station, a truffle station, a beer station, a gelato station, a seafood station, a burger station, a French fry station, even a dim sum station. Everything is made fresh, and vendors use ingredients from downstairs. Did I mention that workers come around to bring you wine right to your table? Did I also mention that there’s a whole section for a cooking class, where each participant gets their own cooking station?? Next time I’m in Florence, this is going to be the first thing I do.

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Light-filled market with high ceilings and lots of seating
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Bucatini
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Gelato
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Fresh seafood salad with a glass of white wine

Climb the campanile in the morning for a more pleasant experience; climb it in the late afternoon for better photos. Book online and prepare for 414 steps. The climb is pretty easy, since there are several stops along the way. You’ll get to see the dome and all of Florence through a fenced rooftop.

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Short people problems
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View of Florence
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Through the fence
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Duomo
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Come in the afternoon for better lighting. The dome was backlit when we were there

Eat at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò, our favorite restaurant abroad. Last time we were in Florence, we stumbled upon this restaurant and fell in love. Three years later, the menu has changed slightly, and the prices are a bit higher, but the meal was probably even better than our first time here. We shared slices of pecorino and honey, a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar, roasted potatoes, salted spinach, a ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings, and a half liter of house red wine. All of this was €53.

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Pecorino and honey, salted spinach, roasted potatoes, and a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar
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Ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings
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Pouring a glass of that 7-euro house wine

If you have extra time in Florence:

Visit the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. Three years ago, we stayed at a hotel located above this museum but were always too busy to visit. Anthony was determined not to make the same mistake. This delightful museum has a spectacular array of da Vinci’s inventions, and you’ll leave with a much better appreciation of his genius.

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Flying machine?
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Workout machine
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Tank (exterior)
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Tank (interior)

Relax in Giardino Bardini, a garden that offers panoramic views of Florence. And nature, if you’re into that. During the spring, it’s particularly lovely because the trellis is filled with wisteria. Be careful of mosquitoes.

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No wisterias in this trellis in the middle of summer 😦
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View from the garden

Check out Palazzo Strozzi, a modern art museum housed in a former palace.  Currently, there’s a huge metal slide that spirals down the inner courtyard.

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You can slide down!

Have breakfast or a coffee at La Ménagère, an adorable restaurant, cafe, cocktail bar, and flower shop. It’s a great place to hang out.

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Feels just like Brooklyn

Visit the Baptistery. This small basilica often gets overlooked — it has to compete with the neighboring Duomo, after all — but inside is a stunning ceiling, inspired by Byzantine mosaics.

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Mosaic ceiling

Florence didn’t hit me quite as hard as it did three years ago. It’s an undeniably beautiful city, but after our 24 hours here, I was ready to return to the chaos and diversity of Rome. Florence has so many of my favorite things – my favorite restaurant, my favorite sunset, my favorite food hall, and my favorite cathedral – it’s odd that it isn’t also my favorite city. But whatever the reason, I’m glad we got to experience it again.

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Florence

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I may have enjoyed Florence even more than Venice — perhaps because I wasn’t expecting too much. However, as soon as we left the chaotic railway station and entered the birthplace of the Renaissance, I quickly discovered that the easy access to art and quality food made Florence my kind of town. The entire city seems like a museum, with a harmonious architecture style, and impressive statues and clever street art everywhere. Florence feels small and manageable, yet is bursting with culture.

Quirky street signs
Quirky street signs

Our hotel, Hotel dei Macchiaioli, is located on the third floor of a former palace called Palazzo Morrocchi and was the most extravagant hotel on our trip. In the 19th century, it was the home base for a group of avant-garde artists known as “I Macchiaioli.” The high ceilings of the lavish breakfast room were covered in beautiful frescoes. It was great staying only a few blocks from all the major sites. Every day, we walked along the main drag, which was lined with fancy clothing stores and leather shops (Florence is an important city for Italian fashion, after all!).

Frescoed ceilings of our hotel
Frescoed ceilings of our hotel

Florence’s Duomo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, has always been my favorite cathedral — and I’ve seen a lot, even just on this trip! Its perfect dome was designed by Brunelleschi and is still the largest brick-and-mortar dome in the world. Every time I walked past it, I took photos as though it was my first time.

Duomo during the daytime
Duomo during the daytime
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Duomo during nighttime

We were in Florence during their free museum day, which was good and bad. We got into the Uffizi Gallery for free but spent about an hour standing in line. Fortunately, it wasn’t too hot outside yet. We saw everyone’s favorite Renaissance painting, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and enjoyed the museum’s views of the Arno River.

Birth of Venus at Uffizi Gallery
Birth of Venus at Uffizi Gallery

Before modern engineering, Florentines had a love-hate relationship with the Arno, which used to flood the city regularly. On one night, we crossed the river into Oltrarno, which seems to be where actual Florentines live. To get to Oltrarno, we walked across Ponte Vecchio (which means “old bridge”), a Medieval bridge along which shops were built.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio
Looking across the Arno from Oltrarno
Looking across the Arno from Oltrarno

I fell in love with Oltrarno as soon as we arrived. Young Italians cruised by on their Vespas as we climbed old steps on the left side of the road through the hilly neighborhood. We got to our destination, the Piazzale Michelangelo. The view here is unbelievable. We got there right before dusk, so we watched as the red roofs basked under the golden hues of the sunset, surrounded by purple mountains in the distance.

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo
View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo
View from Piazzale Michelangelo
View from Piazzale Michelangelo

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Florence was one of my favorite cities, as some of our best meals were here. Everything was relatively cheap, especially after glitzy Milan and inefficient Venice. Our most expensive meal in Florence, costing €38, would have easily been about $100 in New York. You must try the bistecca in Florence. Or any beef dish, really. Their roast beef is nothing like those dry, sad-looking slices you get at wedding buffets.

Soft rosemary potatoes, a grilled meat plate, honey brie bruschetta, prosciutto pomodoro bruschetta, and grilled vegetables
Soft rosemary potatoes, a grilled meat plate, honey brie bruschetta, prosciutto pomodoro bruschetta, and grilled vegetables at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò

Florence isn’t even known for its pasta, but the pomodoro & basilica fusilli I had almost brought me to tears (I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true; ask Anthony). We were at another one of Rick Steves’ recommended restaurants for lunch, and I knew the pasta would be good because the tiny kitchen had some serious cookware — huge, old stainless steel pots, tattered by years of love. Just like with pizza, you can tell a pasta is good if the most basic sauce (tomato and basil) is mindblowing. The fusilli was perfectly al dente; the sauce just coated the noodles (unlike at most American restaurants, which drown the pasta in sauce); and the pomodoro sauce was so complex that there’s no way I’d be able to replicate it with the canned tomatoes I use in the U.S.

Pomodoro & basilica fusilli at Il Club del Gusto
Pomodoro & basilica fusilli at Il Club del Gusto

Florence seemed like the quintessential Italian city, filled with old art, good food, and simple living. I could eat here forever, but it was time to move on. Ciao, Pisa!

View from a stairwell in the Duomo
View from a stairwell in the Duomo

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Look up the specialties of each city. I don’t typically order much beef at restaurants, since I’m more of a pig and fish girl. However, since bistecca is a Florentine specialty, we made sure to order beef at every dinner we had in Florence. The moral of the story is to never judge an item of food based on your experience with it in the U.S., as America does not respect food.
  2. Don’t make plans to enter the Duomo unless you have all day. Our only unpleasant experience in Florence was on our last morning. I had tickets for us to climb up the campanile for stunning views of the city and the dome. Thinking two hours would be plenty of time, we stood in line at 9 am. There was already a line wrapped halfway around the cathedral. Everyone was confused, as there were no signs to guide us. We didn’t know which line was for ticket holders or non-ticket holders, for inside the cathedral or for the dome and campanile. When we finally got through, we had almost no time left before our train to Pisa, so we had to forgo the campanile and race down the stairs of the dome. It was frustrating after such a perfect time in Florence.
  3. My restaurant recommendations: Antica Mescita San Niccolò in Oltrarno, Il Club del Gusto, and Trattoria Anita.

BONUS! Side trip to Pisa:

Anthony had built a Metal Earth model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, so we couldn’t visit Florence without taking a little detour on our way to Rome. Many tourists mistakenly make a beeline for the Leaning Tower, but Rick Steves (oh, Rick Steves, where would we be without you?) encouraged us to explore the charming town. We followed his walking tour through Pisa, which was once a powerful maritime nation. The tour led us to a lovely gelateria, and then past the University of Pisa, one of the oldest universities in the world.

Silly tourists
Tourists doing the typical poses

As we got closer to the Leaning Tower, everything got more and more touristy. Outdoor restaurants lined the streets, and tourists clogged every inch of space. We finally arrived at the Leaning Tower, which is actually a campanile of the nearby cathedral. The tower’s infamous tilt began during construction, caused by the shallow foundation that could not support the heavy structure. As decades passed, the tilt increased before the tower was completed. Restoration work has been done in the past few decades to decrease the angle of the tilt to 3.99 degrees.

Anthony's Metal Earth model and the actual Leaning Tower of Pisa
Anthony’s Metal Earth model and the actual Leaning Tower of Pisa

Even more impressive than the Leaning Tower was the tourists. Everyone was in such awkward positions, trying to get such similar shots — either pushing or holding up the Leaning Tower. Anthony and I had to be the only two who deviated — he photographed his Metal Earth, and I kicked the Leaning Tower (while giving birth to an ambulance!). How’s that for a shot?11138612_10206466555519228_3296001323673543758_n