What would you see if you had 48 hours in Florence, had no guidebook and were relying on the advice of strangers? Perhaps not the most informed way of traveling, but word-of-mouth is always the best way to explore a new city. That said, relying on the kindness of locals and strangers, I hit the streets of Florence.
Where to Stay
My unplanned adventure had only one thing set, a hotel reservation. In Florence, reservations are a must, especially in high season. If you are looking for a true Italian experience in taste and style, try the Lungarno chain of hotels. There are four in Florence, and they are equally stunning. The hotels are elegant and the attention to detail from the bedrooms right down to the luxurious lounging areas is evident. This, however, comes as no surprise once you find out the hotel chain is owned by Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo.
I stayed at Hotel Lungarno, which is right on the River Arno facing the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The view is sensational and will inspire you to take photos at both sunrise and sunset. Upon arrival, my room had a beautiful fruit dish with huge grapes waiting for me.
Breakfast was a feast, with a variety of different cheeses, yogurts, fruits, breads, pastries, coffees. Don’t be confused by the red juice; it is not tomato but rather orange juice, made from the ever-sweet Italian blood oranges.
What to See
Florence is a walking city, and once you have a tourist map in hand, everything is clearly marked and easy to find. Take a stroll over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, and check out all the high-end jewelry stores that are one lined up to the next. A perfect time to go is early morning.
At the end of the bridge, if you are walking towards the center of Florence, turn right and visit one of the most amazing art collections in the world, otherwise known as the Uffizi Gallery.
The most efficient way to buy tickets to the Uffizi is to ask your hotel to make a reservation, as there are always what appears to be hundreds of people in line. Booking online is also an option, although both ways you will have to pay a small fee. Don’t get discouraged, the museum is worth the wait and the line moves quickly.
The Uffizi is filled with phenomenal art, and buying a museum guidebook before you enter is wise, as they are easy to follow and are filled with an enormous amount of information. Perhaps one of the most magnificent parts of the building is the ceiling. Although, it’s hard to know where to look first as the museum is filled with world renowned artists such as Botticelli, Correggio, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Ruben and Rembrant.
When you leave the museum, walk towards the center of Florence where you will find the spectacular Basilica di Santa Maria del Flore, Florence’s cathedral church known as the Duomo. The huge boulevards are filled with stunning shops that are sure to tempt your pocketbook. There are also a myriad of choices of restaurants that serve tasty treats ranging from gelato served on freshly baked waffles to pizza and pasta.
The Duomo is huge, about 12,000 feet and is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Adjoining it are Giotto’s Campanile, or bell tower, and the Baptistery. The baptistery predates the Duomo itself, as the earliest version was built in the 4th century. The design, architecture and attention to detail are spectacular. The three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the Historic Centre of Florence.
Across the way from the entrance to the Duomo, is the Baptistery, where people are always lining up taking photos in front of Ghiberti's two gilded bronze doors. These doors are actually replicas. The real ones were moved for conservation’s sake to the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, which is right by the Duomo and where one can also see “The Pietà” by Michelangelo.
A short walk away from the Duomo is the stunning Great Synagogue of Florence, designed in a Moorish style; it is a site to behold inside and out. It was built between 1874 and 1882. There were three architects; Mariano Falcini, Professor Vincente Micheli, and Marco Treves, who was Jewish. The design is a mix of traditions of the Islamic and Italian worlds. It’s truly a masterpiece, as every inch of the synagogue is decorated with mosaics, marble, and all the internal walls are painted with intricate designs from floor to ceiling.
It successfully survived World War II. The Germans tried to blow it up, but the main building withstood their efforts. The Nazis then decided to use it as a warehouse and stable, bayonet marks are still visible on the doors of the Holy Ark. Also, before the fascists fled Florence they mined the synagogue with explosives. Fortunately, the partisans were able to diffuse most of the bombs. However, one gallery fell, but was replaced.
A wonderful way to experience the synagogue is to attend services, and times are easy to find online. The Chabad house is only mere steps away, and don’t be surprised if you run into the rabbi’s son or locals who will happily help you with directions and times.
While you are there, take a few minutes to go to the second floor of the synagogue as you will find the Jewish Museum of Florence filled with torah scrolls, ketubbah’s and a variety of silver Judica items.
Be sure to also take time to notice on your way out a stone monument with the names of 248 Jews who were deported from Florence during World War Two engraved on the face.
Make sure not to leave Florence without spending some time with David, Michelangelo’s sculpture David. The real sculpture is in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze museum. Truly a masterpiece, many tourists find themselves standing in awe for a good half an hour, just mesmerized. The Museum also has a room filled with sculptures that is worth a visit while you are in the vicinity. A museum curator will most likely be yelling, “No Photos,” but no one seems to pay attention. However, if you play by the rules and want a photo of David, there is a huge selection of postcards and books in the shop.
Where to Eat
Right next to the synagogue is a vegetarian kosher restaurant, Ruth’s. If you walk in, chances are the aroma of delicious food will bring you to your knees, so grab a table and check it out.
However, if you are looking for a place where the locals haunt, check out Il Cibreo Café, which is a mere few blocks away. There is a café and restaurant. The café is more casual, has limited choices as opposed to the restaurant, which is expensive and a more elegant affair. The food is not your typical Italian fare, nor is the clientele. Needless to say, I had an extremely interesting and unplanned lunch with Domenico Giorgi, Italy’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and his family.
What to Buy and Where
No trip to Florence is complete without checking out the San Lorenzo market. The market is about a five- to 10-minute walk away from the Duomo and is filled with a wide array of leather goods, belts, bags, scarves, jewelry and murano glass sculptures. Definitely bargain with the sellers, and also know often you can get better prices at the little stands that are not part of the market, but dotted along the streets. Whatever you buy, chances are the only regret you will have, is that you did not buy more.
If brand name shops are more your speed, Florence boasts a myriad options such as Gucci, Pucci, Ferragamo, Valentino, Prada, Armani and Ermenegildo. Some of the streets with highbrow and elegant shops to wander are Via Tornabuoni, the Via del Parione, and the Via Maggio. There are also many winding streets that are fun to explore filled with smaller shops that sell beautiful glass sculptures, clothing, leather goods, wine and books.