Florence in Three Days

The Ponte Vecchio and Arno River in Florence, Italy

After the calm of Montepulciano, Florence was definitely an abrupt change. When we arrived, Matt and Brian dropped Thea and I off a few blocks from our Airbnb, then drove the rental car to a parking lot a mile or two away to the outskirts of the city, where it stayed for the next few days. (Driving and parking in Florence is a giant pain. Even in the residential areas, there are many restrictions. Luckily, Florence is extremely walkable.)

Our Airbnb was on Via Mafia, near Piazza di Santo Spirito located on the south side of the Arno River. Most of the popular sites are clustered together on the north side of the river, so the south side is a bit more mellow. On our first day, we got acquainted with our neighborhood. We stayed on the south side for meals, eating traditional Tuscan food like tomato and bread soup and Steak Florentine. Our neighborhood had a vino sfuso – where you can have wine filled by the jug, a photo booth, and an actual craft brewery. What more could one want?

From the photo booth.
We stopped by the photo booth every night on our way back to our Airbnb.
Patiently waiting for our pics.
Archea Brewery

The next morning, we headed straight for the Galleria dell’Accademia (It’s an extremely popular museum, to avoid waiting in line for hours you can make reservations, buy a Firenze Card, or get in line early when it opens.). You cannot go to Florence without paying a visit to Michelangelo’s David, the star of the Accademia.

If you’re into Renaissance art, I recommend a visit to the Uffizi Gallery too. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is there.

Here’s David – carved from marble and standing 17 feet tall! In 1501, Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he was commissioned to carve this piece.
Notice how his hands are a bit large in proportion to his body? David was intended to be placed way up high on the Duomo, but instead lived at ground level at the Palazzo Vecchio. He’s been in the Galleria dell’Accademia since 1873. Another interesting thing is the interpretation of David’s expression: Some say he has a look of already having slain Goliath, but others say this is the moment where he’s looking at his opponent and about to strike. Either way, he looks awfully calm.
And here he is from behind. :)
See that hallway in the image of David above? That is lined with many unfinished works by Michelangelo, like this one. It’s a great way to see his technique. Doesn’t this guy (it’s actually St. Matthew) look like he’s trying to emerge from the marble?
Student works at Galleria dell’Accademia

After the Accademia, Thea and I wanted to pick up supplies for a picnic at Mercado Centrale, where we had shopped almost daily for our meals when we were in school (Thea and I studied abroad here in Florence twenty years ago.). The market had changed over the years, we remembered fresh produce on the top floor and all the dry goods, meat, fish, and little shops on the main floor. Now the top floor is filled with places to eat, like a food court, but much classier.

Mercado Centrale
Mercado Centrale
Mercado Centrale
Mercado Centrale

Outside of the Mercado Centrale is the San Lorenzo street market. On prior visits to Florence, the market seemed to span over several blocks. It is now much more limited, and the merchandise is extremely repetitious: scarf, leather wallet, belt, scarf, leather wallet, belt. The vendors selling the goods were hardly aggressive – It’s not the lively market it once was. Years ago, Matt was hunting for the perfect brown leather jacket and one salesman in particular made it his mission to find the right one. He tracked us down many streets over to show us the jacket. Matt bought it, of course.

San Lorenzo Market

We took our picnic up to Piazzale Michelangelo, which has a gorgeous view of the city. Midday is rough as far as heat and crowds. It’s much, much better to go up there in the evening, buy a beer from a vendor, and watch the sunset.

Our picnic – Apparently I didn’t take a picture of that gorgeous view? The afternoon light was very harsh.

After lunch we went to the Bargello (Museo Nazionale del Bargello). The Bargello used to be a police station and prison, but now is a lovely, quiet sculpture museum. The most famous piece here is probably Donatello’s David.

Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Donatello’s bronze David. (Probably from the 1440’s.) See Goliath’s head under David’s foot?
Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Late in the afternoon, we stopped by the Irish Pub over in the Piazza del Duomo. Thea and I stopped here for beers plenty of times in college since our apartment was so close, but she hadn’t ever made it to the balcony. It is the best spot in the square.

The balcony at the Irish Pub.
We stayed for awhile –
– Until the light was really nice. How many rounds, you ask? Don’t worry about it!

The next morning we took the Renaissance Walk, a walking tour by Rick Steves. The audio tours are awesome, and they are also written up in his travel guides.

The Duomo – Work began on this church in 1296, but wasn’t finished until 1870. The exterior is gorgeous with green, white, and pink marble. The interior is surprisingly boring. The most noteworthy thing about this church is the dome. The intention was to cover the gaping 140 foot opening with a dome, but no one knew how to build one yet. A man name Filippo Brunelleschi solved the problem and completed the dome in 1436.
The building on the left is the Baptistery. (Taken from the balcony at the Irish Pub, of course!) This was built in the 11th century. In 1401, there was a competition to make doors for the entrance to the Baptistery. Brunelleschi (the guy who completed the dome) entered but was defeated by a man named Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti was 24 years old, but spent 27 years working on the bronze panels for the doors. One set of doors feature 28 scenes from the New Testament. The other set, 10 panels with scenes from the Old Testament. You can see the original doors in the Duomo Museum which is behind the Duomo.
Many sculptures line the exteriors of buildings and squares of Florence. This is Nanni di Banco’s Quattro Santi Coronati (1415-ish)
Palazzo Vecchio – This was the town Hall of the Medici Family. See David? The original was in that same spot before he was moved to the Accademia.
In the Piazza della Signoria, adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, you’ll see the Loggia dei Lanzi, a spot once used for public debate was turned into a sculpture garden by the Medici’s. Here is a sculpture of The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna (1583). (This story taken from Roman mythology was quite popular during the Renaissance.)
The courtyard outside of the Uffizi is lined with sculptures of artists, philosophers, poets, and scientists of the Renaissance.

We’ll interrupt our Renaissance Walk for some gelato. Also, we had made reservations to climb 463 stairs into the dome of the Duomo.

On the way up to the dome at the Duomo.
The view from the top!
The bell tower right next to the Duomo was built by the painter Giotto in the 1300’s. It’s 270 feet tall and you can climb the steps to the top of this too.
Details at the top of the dome.

For dinner, we had reservations at Ristorante Il Latini. The restaurant serves hearty Tuscan food with the option of a family style menu. Thea and I ate here in college and had a wonderful experience. We must have forgotten how incredibly filling this delicious food is –

First course at Il Latini
Yep, we ate all of that.

– Because after dinner we had to walk off our meal. And then walk even more. So we took a meandering route back to the Airbnb.

The Ponte Vecchio – This bridge was built in 1345. Originally the shops that lined the bridge were filled with butchers who would empty their waste into the Arno River. In the 1500’s the Medici’s, perhaps offended by the stench, kicked the butchers out and brought jewelers in – and today the jewelers still remain.
Two more fun facts about the Ponte Vecchio – it’s the only bridge in Florence that survived World War II. A German commander was ordered to blow up all the bridges in Florence, but he intentionally left this one intact. See the upper windows in the bridge? That was a passageway for the Medici’s. It went from the Palazzo Vecchio all the way to the Pitti Palace which is several blocks from this bridge. (Kind of close to our Airbnb)

And that pretty much wraps up our visit to Florence. Next stop: Siena and Orvieto

In case you missed these, check out: When in Rome, Sorrento, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast, and Taking it Slow in Tuscany

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