Florence is the flower of Italy. This was my second time visiting this beautiful city. The first was in March two years ago and it was quite a bit colder and greyer. It was still stunning and I instantly fell in love with it, but there is something especially magical about Italian summers and the way that the warm yellow buildings seem to absorb the sunlight. That being said, I strongly advise a trip at the beginning of the summer. The further the summer progresses, the hotter and more crowded with tourists Florence becomes.
Florence is an artist’s city. The architecture, the river, the rolling Tuscan hills all lend themselves well to the artist’s canvas. It’s almost enough to make me put away my computer and pull out a sketchbook … almost. The streets are full of street artists as well as the occasional student or amateur painter set up with an easel and a paint palette on the pavement. There are tons of art courses – some excellent, others … less so. They are expensive but you get what you pay for. My sister was in Florence at the same time as myself studying portraiture painting at the Charles H. Cecil Studio. She raved about it. In fact, she wouldn’t shut up about it. She was ready to jump ship and forgo her already accepted place at Leeds University starting in September, to run away to Florence and become a struggling artist. My parents convinced her to at least give university life a chance to which she agreed, but I know her heart is still in Florence.
As for me, I think I’ll stick to admiring the art – there is certainly plenty of opportunity for that in Florence. The Uffizi houses some of the best of Italian art and perhaps one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Michelangelo’s David, is in the Galleria dell’Accademia. I would definitely recommend booking ahead of time for the Uffizi to avoid the long lines and it is worth getting up early to go in the morning when it is less crowded. The Palatine Gallery also has an impressive array of art in the Palazzo Pitti which is also home to Florence’s Museum of Modern Art. Though my favourite part of the Palazzo Pitti would have to be the ostentatious Royal Apartments. Added to these galleries are the beautiful ceiling paintings, wall frescoes and alter paintings found in Florence’s churches and palazzos. The Palazzo Vecchio has some wonderful ceiling paintings and the Basilica di Santa Croce’s chapels are full of incredible frescoes. You can also pay a visit to the tombs of Galileo, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo while you are there.
Even for those who are not blown away by art or architecture, Florence has a lot to offer. The natural beauty of the Tuscan hills surrounds Florence. The Arno River flows through the heart of the city, providing some pretty incredible Instagramable moments. The Ponte Vecchio is one of the few bridges in Europe which still has buildings built on the actual bridge. You can browse the Ponte Vecchio’s jewellery shops where gold craftsmen and sellers have worked for hundreds of years. Florence is famous for its gold craftsmanship as well as its leatherwork. There are leather goods all over the city in shops and outdoor markets claiming to be handmade in Florence, but be careful what you buy. You might unknowingly end up paying a lot of money for a bag actually manufactured in China or India. The best leatherwork in Florence is done at the Scuola del Cuoio in a workshop built into the back of Santa Croce. The workshop opened in 1950 to teach orphan children a trade that would allow them to earn a living. The workshop still trains highly skilled professional leatherworkers who lovingly create each beautiful piece by hand. There are leather coats, bags, wallets, jewellery boxes and other handmade items and you can watch some of the craftsmen work. Many famous faces from American presidents to celebrities have frequented the workshop.
Art, culture, natural beauty, shopping … the only thing remaining is food. If you don’t like Italian food, you’re in trouble. But who doesn’t love pizza? The food in Florence is unsurprisingly fantastic if you know where to hunt for it, but more on that later. Cooking enthusiasts will go wild in the Central Market which is quite possibly my favourite spot in all of Florence. There are a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish as well as traditional high quality Italian products like olive oil and handmade pasta.
I have yet to meet anyone who has been to Florence who didn’t love the city. Naturally, the city is full of foreigners in the summer, to the point where they quite possibly outnumber the Italians who have fled the heat and crowds to more rural areas. Honestly, I don’t think I have ever heard as many Americans per square mile outside of the United States as I have in Florence. It certainly detracts a bit from the charm of visiting an Italian city but it shouldn’t deter you. There is a reason students, tourists and globetrotters flock to the city. Whether walking the streets in the early hours of the morning or hiking up to the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte and the Piazza Michelangelo for breath-taking views of the city, it is hard not to fall under the Florentine spell. And no matter how much you research the city or plan what you want to see, nothing can prepare you for all of the little beauties you will stumble upon when you’re actually there. The outdoor summertime concerts in Piazza Signoria; the small, lesser known churches tucked around every corner; the quiet side streets lined with iron lanterns – it is these little things that make the city so irresistible.
Top: Ponte Vecchio
Middle: View of the Duomo from the Palazzo Vecchio
Photography by Savannah and Deanna Hayes