High speed rail makes Florence accessible from Rome and Venice but if you think you can visit David, climb the Duomo, admire the Uffizi and stroll through Palazzo Pitti in a single day you need to rethink your plans. Cramming too many sights into too little time is a mistake that will leave you physically exhausted and culturally confused. One church, one museum, one garden and one meal however is possible on a day trip to the city and much more satisfying than failing to see it all.
The remedy for a short visit therefore is to let the city guide you and be sufficiently flexible to know when a line is too long. Everything is worth seeing in Florence so if you miss Michelangelo’s miraculous statue you can visit his chapel, if you can’t climb Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome you can gaze upon it from Palazzo Vecchio and if the Uffizi entrance is besieged by tourists you can admire the church frescoes that inspired the artists inside.
Early risers can catch the first train from Termini or Santa Lucia and start the morning at the Mercato Centrale (Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 055/239-9798, daily). There are many neighborhood markets but this is the biggest and most animated. Hundreds of Florentines arrive every day to purchase fresh produce and meet with friends. Browse local food at the stalls and if you’re hungry order a tripe sandwich from Narbone.
From the market it’s a short stroll down pedestrian only streets to the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo, Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun. 1:30pm-4:45pm, free). By this time the city is fully awake and large crowds are busy observing the Baptistery doors and waiting to enter the Cathedral. The line to the top can be over an hour long during the summer and after visiting the inside of the church for free you can get an equally good view of the city a few blocks south at Palazzo Vecchio where things are generally quieter. The inside of the city’s most illustrious building also provides a vivid idea of how Renaissance elite once lived.
Getting into the Uffizi (Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, www.polomuseale.firenze.it, 055/238-8651, Tues.-Sun. 8:15am-6:30pm, €12.50 or Firenzecard) is always tough even with reservations and you could spend many hours inside but if it’s frescoes or sculpture your after the Museo Nazionale del Bargallo is a valid alternative. There are far less visitors here and you can admire sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello in peace.
Cross the Ponte Vecchio and disappear into the side streets of the Oltrearno neighborhood in search of lunch. You can settle for pizza or do your stomach a favor and sit down to sample local specialties like papa al pomodoro or bistecca al fiorentina. Both dishes provide the calories necessary to complete a whirlwind tour and are best accompanied by a carafe of house wine. Choose a trattoria with outdoor tables like Osteria Antica Mescita (Via Borgo S. Jacopo 16r, daily 12pm-12:30am, €7-12) where you can observe Florentine street life.
If you want to get another view of the city climb to San Miniato al Monte (Via delle Porte Sante 34, 055/234-2731, daily 9am-1pm and 3:30pm-8pm and until 7pm, free) and discover Florence’s unexpected bucolic side. From here you can backtrack and follow the medieval walls towards Forte Belvedere and the Boboli or Bardini gardens. A walk in the park can make travelers with train anxiety jumpy and you may develop a sense that there’s something else you should be doing. This is a common feeling on daytrips but is equally felt on longer stays when the artistic and cultural possibilities can be overwhelming. It’s known as Stendhal Syndrome after the French writer who described and suffered from the ailment even though he spent weeks in the city.
Cross a different bridge back over to the historic center and visit either Santa Croce or Santa Maria Novella. Both are religious complexes containing church, monasteries, chapels, frescoes and cloisters. Santa Croce (Piazza Basilica Santa Croce 16, 055/246-6105, Mon.-Sat. 9:30am-5:30pm, Sun. 2pm-5pm, €6 or Firenzecard) is slightly more crowded but it’s also Michelangelo’s final resting place and worth a pilgrimage. Afterwards stop for an espresso break at the counter next to locals or find a gelateria and take your cone for a walk without consulting a map. The best discoveries are made accidentally and Florence’s side streets are a destination in themselves.
By now it may be time to think about boarding a train but if you have some minutes to spare and an appetite grab a super-size sandwich from All’Antico Vinaio (Via dei Neri 74r, 055/238-2723, Tues.-Sat. 12pm-4pm and 7pm-11pm, Sun. 12pm-11pm, €5) for the journey back. Then navigate your way back to the station past the Pallazo Vecchio and Duomo for a farewell to Florence.
Your Guide to Italy:
Moon: Rome, Florence & Venice