Florence is synonymous with the Renaissance, and I’d wager most visitors to Florence venture to at least one of its museums to catch a glimpse of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Michelangelo’s David. Not us.
Our time in Florence was punctuated by sandwich stops, cones of gelato and pizza. Our train pulls into Santa Maria Novella just shy of noon. Florence feels busy – busier than Rome, even; its streets and piazzas flooded with people.
We head straight for Mercato Centrale, gratefully accepting a free sample of lime and ginger Coke en route. It’s a feast for the senses: fresh produce piled high; smoked meats hanging on butchers’ hooks; a cacophony of voices in different tongues. We pass stands catering to visitors just passing through, their shelves filled with spices, oils and multi-coloured pastas, and stalls serving up porcini rolls and fresh pasta dishes.
Our stomachs rumble. We make tracks: I Fratellini (Via dei Cimatori 38r), a hole-in-the-wall panini joint is calling. Luckily, there’s a guy distributing menus, so we can weigh up the options while we queue – rather than hold everyone up when we get to the front. We scan the two-page menu: there’s pork in various guises; sarnies with mozzarella, goat’s cheese and sheep’s cheese; some with anchovies and herring; a few vegetarian options. Laurence opts for porchetta (€4) washed down with a glass of red wine (€2); I choose prosciutto and mushroom (€4).
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – more commonly known as the Duomo di Firenze – is our next stop, and by golly it’s a stunner: a sprawling structure with an elaborate pinky-red, white and green marble façade, topped with an enormous brick dome. We queue to go inside, since it’s free to do so. I feel slightly on edge – the queue is slow-moving and marks us out as tourists, and there are more than a couple of shifty-looking characters amidst the throngs of day-trippers. (Fortunately, we make it through our trip without incident.)
We’d marvelled at the exterior, only to be somewhat underwhelmed by the austere, empty interior. We take in the stained glass windows – little portals of colour, high up in the walls – and one-handed clock above the main door, then turn to the frescoed dome.
Biblioteca delle Oblate – a library housed in a former convent – is our next stop. We amble over and locate the café on the second floor, which commands a rather nice view of the cathedral.
We head over to our hotel to drop things off, then set off in search of another snack for the ever-hungry Laurence. All’Antico Vinaio (Via dei Neri 65, 74 and 76) delivers the goods: an ‘inferno’ panini bursting at the seams with pork, rocket and (true to its name) a very spicy sauce.
We pass Basilica di Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world and the final resting place of famous faces including Galileo, Machiavelli and Michelangelo.
Gelato calls. We scout out Gelateria di Neri (Via dei Neri 9), which has a seriously good array of flavours. I pick dark chocolate (a risky choice given my track record with chocolate ice cream) and passionfruit; Laurence goes for dark chocolate and pink grapefruit. It’s easily one of the best gelatos of the trip, and a snip at €2/small cone (two flavours).
We meander up to Piazzale Michelangelo, which ticks all the boxes when it comes to cityscapes. Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the skyline; eruptions of greenery fill the gaps between pastel-painted buildings. We share a Fanta, find a spot on the steps to soak in the view.
Dusk falls as we wander through Oltrarno. When Ponte Vecchio was first built, all types of traders – butchers, fishmongers, tanners – set up shop. Today, it’s lined with goldsmiths and jewellers, the result of a decree passed in the late 1500s by Ferdinand I.
Before we’d even arrived in Florence, we knew where we’d be heading for tea: Gustapizza (Via Maggio 46r). (Thanks Amy for the recommendation!) I have the marinara, while Laurence chooses the porcini-mozzarella special; both are a cut above pizzas back at home. We round the day off with a return visit to Gelateria dei Neri: a cone of coconut and strawberry for me; coffee and banana for Laurence.
- We stayed at Hotel Bavaria (Borgo degli Albizi 26), which was a stone’s throw from Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore and surprisingly cheap (c. £60/night for a double room with a shared bathroom, breakfast included).
- If you’re looking for a wallet-friendly meal, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Gustapizza. We had a pizza and drink each (I had Coke; Laurence had a beer) and had change out of €20. (That’s unheard of in Cambridge, except on 2-4-1 Mondays at The Salisbury Arms.) Pay at the counter, collect your drinks from the fridge, grab a table and wait for your order number to be called. Simples.