My enchanting trip to Florence: Put it down on your bucket list

Published: April 5, 2014
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Panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo. PHOTO: FAHAD FARUQUI

The train from Lucerne took me to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station, where I was glad with anticipation to see my old friend, Stefano. He and his lovely wife were my hosts for nearly two weeks, while I explored renaissance art and architecture, fiaschetteria (wine shops), gelaterie (ice-cream parlours) and upbeat fashion houses, amongst other things in Florence.

The one thing I adore about Florence is that you can visit many of the major tourist attractions on foot. And, if you’re one of those modern-day travellers who simply want to click and move on to the next statue, painting or museum, you can go through all of Florence in just four days.

Because of the abundance of foreign students who’re here for exchange programs, you’ll find someone or the other to explain the way in English. My friend Stefano often joked,

“You know what? Italians speak English, so you can ask a local if the map doesn’t work for you.”

Reading a map is an art, and even though I have travelled the world, I need some old school verbal instructions to find my way. My standard response to my friend’s sarcasm was,

“Finding a local in Florence is next to impossible.”

To say Florence is a ‘happening place’ would be an understatement. For tourists, in peak season, it means long lines at practically every museum, restaurant and even gelateria.

Arno River from Vasari Corridor. Photo: Fahad Faruqui

Stefano’s Florentine-style apartment with an old wooden ceiling was minutes away from Ponte Vecchio – a covered bridge atop River Arno that was once home to fish markets but was later turned into a gold bazaar on the orders of the Medicis who didn’t like the pungent smell when crossing the Vasari corridors.

Nowadays, you’ll find a Florentine music band standing halfway through the bridge, luring tourists towards their music every time you cross the bridge.

Things to see

How much time you spend in each gallery varies from person to person. I am one of those who like to see each and everything and read the description of almost everything that strikes my fancy, which is why I’ve revisited some of the Florence galleries numerous times.

The best way to start your Florence adventure is by taking a segway tour. It is the best way to get around the bustling crowd during peak season. The tourists are often amused by segways, which means you’ll get more importance on the narrow alleys of Florence for just being on top of one.

It’s easy to learn. And loads of fun!

You’ll get a tutorial before you actually get on the segway for the tour. They’ll take you through the major attractions and give you the essentials. By the end of the tour, you’ll have a decent sense of direction that will help you plan your days in Florence.

Uffizi Gallery is a must. You can’t do justice to it in a day. But I have known people who’ve gone through it in just half a day.

Serendipitously, I was in Florence for the finals of Calcio Storico Fiorentino 2013; in English: historical football – in other words, football with no rules. Getting a ticket for the game was out of the question, but just watching the procession from the entrance of the gallery, where I just happened to be, was a treat.

The multitude of colours in the square, music and the costumes of those leading the players were breathtaking. And, thanks to my luck, I couldn’t have been at a better spot to watch and enjoy it all!

Women wearing traditional Florentine costume awaiting to join the parade. Photo: Fahad Faruqui

While there are plenty of tours to choose from, I did a ‘secret passage’ tour at the Uffizi that nearly all Dan Brown readers ought to do. The fascinating part was when an American tourist corrected the tour guide by saying,

“That’s not what it says in the book.”

I took that trip largely because that was the next tour offered when I entered. However, if you get to be in my place, skip that tour and take a more informative one about artwork in Uffizi.

Piazza del Duomo, the largest standing dome, is worth admiring from inside. If you don’t want to spend extra to go on top – which is not advised if you’re claustrophobic – you may skip that. But, if you truly wish to admire the dome, take a bus or taxi ride up Piazzale Michelangelo for the panoramic view of Florence.

Galleria dell’Academia (Accademia Gallery), Museo di San Marco (Museum of San Marco) and Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace) are treasures of Florence that you must not miss.

You may want to check if there’s a concert being held in Palazzo Pitti. I watched a Vivaldi concert organised by Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Teatro Comunale Florence) in that majestic setting and it was a treat in itself.

As you walk out of the Palazzo Pitti, you’ll come across a few artists; I met Joseph Moussa, an artist originally from Lebanon, who is there nearly every day. I found his work quite unique.

If you’re staying for more than a couple of days, definitely go to Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens) and the Giardinio di Bardini (Bardini Gardens). If you’re in Florence for longer and have an appetite for more, there is a lot more to see and I can’t possibly give an exhaustive list here.

But if you plan to cover a lot, you can go to 33 museums if you buy the Firenze Card, for a mere sum of €72, which is valid for three full days. You’ll even get to skip the line at Galleria dell’Academia.

Raffaello Romanelli in his studio. Photo: Fahad Faruqui

The most unique place I visited, by chance, was the Galleria Romanelli (at Borgo San Frediano 70, just a few meters from the Gate of San Frediano), which many tourists miss out because it is a bit away from most tourist attractions.

Originally a church, it later became Lorenzo Bartolini’s studio in the early 1800s, which was then inherited by Pasquale Romanelli and then Raffaello Romanelli. If you visit the studio today, you will not only see the stories of the Florentine masters but, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet Raffaello Romanelli, who is a sixth generation sculptor of the Romanelli family.

Where to shop

For brand-lovers, Florence is their heaven on earth. The boutiques carry limited collection ladies bags; and men folk can get custom made Neapolitan suits.

If you’re looking for deals, there’s a wonderful designer outlet store called ‘The Mall’ in Leccio Reggello, where, if you’re not driving, you can easily go to by bus. It has great deals! I bought two Versace couture bags for my mother, which she loves. If I had bought them from Florence or the high street in London or New York, I would have paid twice or even thrice more than what I paid at the outlet.

If you’re a stickler for good olive oil, you can get stuff in wine shops, but that is in no way better than what you get in a grocery store. The only difference is that when you buy olive oil from a wine shop, they will tell you which region in Tuscany it is from and which vineyard produced it. Not that it matters.

You can get the same quality and much cheaper in a grocery store.

My top four gelateria in Florence

1) Gelateria La Carraia, located at Piazza Nazario Sauro, just across Ponte alla Carraia in its southern side. It’s good if you’re walking on the elegant Via de Tornabuoni, where many fashion boutiques such as Prada, Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, amongst others, are located – just walk across the bridge.

2) Gelateria Vivoli, at Via Isola delle Stinche 7-red, which is very close to the Church of Santa Croce. They offer small servings but it is one of the oldest parlours in the city.

3) Gelateria Perché no! (The name is ‘Perché no’, meaning ‘why not’). It is located at Via de’ Tavolini 19-red, in a narrow street crossing Via de’ Calzaiuoli, the beautiful street where you can walk from Piazza del Duomo to Piazza della Signoria.

4) Gelateria Badiani, at Viale dei Mille 20-red, is just a few steps from the soccer stadium.

My four favourite eateries

1) My absolute favourite is the father-daughter run restaurant called Osteria Di Giovanni. The owners, the Latini family, are known in Florence since they’ve been in business, from 1898, when they started a fiaschetteria, not far away from where the restaurant is now.

Giovanni Latini and his daughter Caterina Latini are two of the most hospitable hosts I came across in Florence. Even on the busiest day, both the father and daughter will visit your table to ensure that everything is alright. Though it is pricey (about €30 or €40 with a very good bottle of wine included; top may be €50), they do Tuscan food wonderfully.

If you plan to have one high end dinner during your stay at Florence, this is the place to go.

2) Vico del Carmine, at Via Pisana, just a few steps outside the Gate of San Frediano.

This pizzeria is owned by the Neapolitan family Calascione and is the place where you can have a real Neapolitan pizza. It’s quite renowned for its seafood as well. The interiors depict a Neapolitan alley.

3) Obika is one of its kind. Its founder Silvio Ursini, who hails from Naples, was inspired by Sushi bars, and thought of launching a bar that gives you a taste of the delicacy of his town: Mozzarella di Bufala. They have mozzarellas that are to die for. They have a decent-sized menu that offers dishes and pizzas with mozzarella as the main ingredient. It’s a must for all cheese lovers.

4) La Spada at Via della Spada, a side street of Via Tornabuoni towards Piazza Santa Maria Novella. It’s run by the Ferrara family, a hardworking clan from Abruzzo, who cook good meals from their Region at very reasonable prices. I’ve had a wonderful three course meal lunch for €11.

These were all the places I visited during my visit to Florence. The city is buzzing with life and has so much to offer with its art, beauty and delicacies. If you aren’t booking a flight already, I would definitely suggest you chalk it down on your bucket list as one of the places you have to visit before you die.

Fahad Faruqui

Fahad Faruqui

An accomplished journalist, who has written for the Guardian, Washington Post, The Huffington Post amongst others as well as an educator who lectures on topics ranging from Sufism to Journalism, currently working as an assistant professor at SZABIST. He is an Alumni of Columbia University. He tweets @fahadfaruqui (twitter.com/fahadfaruqui)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.