“You haven’t seen Italy if you haven’t visited Florence!” Gabriele my Airbnb host was not pleased when I called him to cancel my 24-hour stopover at Florence, Europe’s most photogenic city.
Gabriele refused to relent and convinced me in just three minutes flat that a few hours in Florence was better than skipping the city altogether. And boy, was he right.
I arrive in one of Italy’s high-speed trains that are the lifeline of this country direct from Venice. Grey skies and a faint drizzle – not the perfect welcome and yet I am still hopeful that the Tuscan sun will show up soon. I make a dash to Gabriele’s apartment where this gregarious (most Italians are!) ex-chef-turned-Airbnb-host gives me a list to tick off. The first stop on his list – Piazale Michelangelo.
11:45 am – Views to Die For:
It’s still drizzling and I can only imagine what the views from one of Europe’s most-visited viewing decks would be like on a clear day. Italians always describe Florence as a city of panoramas – it doesn't get better than this.
Piazale Michelangelo is a Florentine piazza that was built in 1869 on a hill just south of the famous city centre. I am tempted to hang back for the sun to finally make its appearance but I hit the road again to my next stop.
12:30 pm – Local Meal:
Florence is in the heart of Tuscany, one of Italy’s legendary food and wine zones. I make a quick stop at a nondescript local restaurant. I make polite enquiries about one of Florence’s signature dishes – Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a T-bone steak that is crafted with beef from the region’s Chianina cattle.
The waiter doesn't believe I can polish off this one-pound steak all by myself and suggests another local speciality – the Panzanella. Leftover bread is cleverly reused in this quintessential Tuscan salad along with fresh olive oil, capers, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes and mozzarella.
1:00 pm – at the Centre of it All:
All roads lead to Piazza del Uomo, Florence’s busy town square where the city’s most historic buildings occupy pride of place. Florence’s instantly recognisable symbol is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, that most locals call the Florence Cathedral.
The cathedral’s most significant architectural feature is its massive dome – the largest brick dome ever constructed. Construction of this Gothic style cathedral commenced in 1296. The dome was added in 1436, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, considered one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance. Florence was one of the key centres of the Renaissance and the city’s museums are a treasure trove of Renaissance era art.
The Cathedral complex comprises of two other marquee buildings – the Baptistery and Giotto Campanile, a tall bell tower that rises to about 85 metres. The highlight of this UNESCO World heritage complex is the façade that was first conceived in the 15th century around the same time that Florence’s most powerful family – the Medicis, began to exert their influence.
3:00 pm – Disappointment at the Accademia Gallery Museum:
Florence’s most legendary art exhibit – Michelangelo’s stunning sculpture of David – ends up being elusive. I wait in the long line and eventually give up after 45 minutes, disappointed I couldn't catch a glimpse.
4:30 pm – Renaissance Treasures:
An unexpected detour enroute to the Ufizzi Gallery leads to one of Florence’s oldest churches. The Basilica di San Lorenzo dates back to 393 AD and is the final resting place of all the principal members of the Medici family.
The Ufizzi Gallery stands as a testament to Florence’s glory days during the Renaissance era. Many Renaissance artistes like Sandro Boticelli enjoyed the patronage of the Medici family and this museum is a treasure trove of renaissance era paintings.
My favourite paintings in this gallery are on everyone’s list – Boticelli’s Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s standout painting Annunciation (1472-1475). The most serious art enthusiasts spend at least half a day at the Ufizzi, I make do with two hours. As I leave the gallery I catch a stunning view of one of Europe’s most celebrated bridges – Ponte Vecchio.
7:00 pm – One Last Walk:
After a frenetic day, I spend my last few hours walking around the Ponte Vecchio. This medieval (closed) stone bridge was once home to butchers and is now filled with souvenir and art shops. One day is certainly not time enough for Florence but I’m still glad Gabriele changed my mind. Sometimes, a sneak peek is better than a deep dive.
I swear on the Ponte Vecchio that I will be back in Florence.
I know this is one promise I won’t break.
Getting there and around: Florence is just 90 minutes by train from Rome. You can plan it as a day trip from Rome if hard pressed for time. It’s best to walk around town; there are also local buses if you need to save time.
Good to know: The 72-hour Firenze card (www.firenzeturismo.it) is a great option if you’re staying longer than a day. It offers access to 72 museums and gardens for just 72 Euros (for unto 72 hours).
(Ashwin Rajagopalan enjoys communicating across boundaries in his three distinct roles as a widely published lifestyle writer, one of India’s only cross cultural trainers and a consultant for a global brand services firm. Ashwin writes extensively on travel, food, technology and trends)