10th August 2016
Having been desperate to go to Florence for years and since I only had three days to see everything (actually only two and half days to be more precise), I needed to use my time efficiently. So I drew up a list of all the artworks I wanted to see and where I could find them but, when the realisation came that there was no way I could see them all, I narrowed them down.
Having heard of the monster queues outside Florence’s main attractions I knew I had two choices. Either I could book the main museums in advance (giving me a specific date and time to visit) or I could get a Firenze Card for €72 which would give me access to many museums, galleries and churches for 72 hours and I would be able to queue with the people who had booked in advance – instead in the long line of people with no tickets whatsoever. You can only visit each museum once and so your card will be buzzed in when you enter and you’ll get a receipt to hand to whoever is checking tickets.
Given my list of places to visit, I was sure I could make a Firenze Card worth it. My brothers weren’t too bothered about all the museums but my parents wanted to see the main sights. By the time we faffed around trying to decide (which we were still doing right up until our holiday), the advance tickets had already sold out online so the three of us splashed out on the cards.
You can buy a Firenze card in advance but you have to pick them up from the same spots as you can buy them (and stand in the same queue) so there seemed little point. Instead, on our first morning in the city (after a lovely breakfast on the roof terrace of the Grand Hotel Baglioni), my Dad and I popped to the closest tourist office to our hotel – next to the Santa Maria Novella church and across from the train station. We spent 45 minutes waiting in line to get our cards (FYI: we needed to show one of our passports to buy them) which was frustrating but, on the plus side, this was probably the longest I had to queue for anything in Florence.
In the end, I used my Firenze Card to get into about eight sites so I THINK I got my money’s worth. To be honest, even if I didn’t, the flexibility of being able to go whenever wherever and the shorter queues still made it worth it.
Since the Uffizi Gallery was home to most of the artworks I wanted to see, I was pretty insistent on going there first. My parents wanted to go there too and weren’t going to argue with me so that was our first stop. We arrived at about 11.15am to find long queues already waiting for us. Thankfully the pre-booked ticket/Firenze Card line was shorter than the one for people winging it and much faster moving. They seemed to let quite big groups of us in at a time so we can’t have been standing there for more than 20-25 minutes (I wasn’t timing it but first photo I took inside the gallery is timestamped 11.48!) before we were in the front doors.
Once inside, I found that the gallery was huge. The starting point was on the top floor, where rooms full of paintings were set off corridors full of classical sculptures – many of which were apparently Renaissance restorations of Roman copies of Greek originals. The floor below contained a series of rooms with even more paintings.
The gallery contained a lot of religious artworks. Given my obsession with ancient history, I was particularly interested in the ancient Greek and Roman themed artworks. There were many of these, but their number still paled in comparison. Easily my favourite pieces in the gallery were Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Primervera – both of which were bigger than I had expected and surrounded by selfie-taking tourists. Other standouts included works by both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci – which you could see when you ducked around the crowds of visitors.
Each painting had a couple of short paragraphs about it, which I actually didn’t think were that great. The information nearly always contained details about how the artwork arrived at the gallery but not so many details about the subject matter – which I would have been more interested in. Still, at least there was a bit of information about it as well as about the artist. Unfortunately, the statues in the hallways had very few details and what was there was mainly just in Italian.
I ended up being in the gallery for about two and a half hours – and that was when I was only reading about the paintings I particularly liked. I was exhausted by the end but I thoroughly enjoyed it – even if, by the end, I was spending a lot of time just trying to race ahead of the guided tours that would surround the paintings!
When we left at around 2.30pm, we were very hungry. We wandered the nearby streets, passing several shops selling huge and delicious looking sandwiches but they all had queues and limited indoor seating. We were hot and we were tired. We wanted air-conditioning and chairs so we kept looking until we found Ditta Artigianale – a coffee shop/cafe that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the hipster streets of East London.
Although there were several people inside, we were seated immediately and we started looking over the menu. I settled on a classic Croque Madame (basically a Croque Monseur topped with a fried egg) and a pineapple juice (despite the impressive array of gin bottles behind the counter). This might not have been the most cultural option but it was tasty and I’ve rarely seen a yolk that richly orange – and I used to own a chicken (you can’t get fresher eggs than that).
Once we were done, we headed to another one of Florence’s landmarks. If you are in any way familiar with Florence’s architecture then you will probably picture two buildings when you visualise the city. One will be the lavishly decorated cathedral – the other will be a big brown building with a tower sticking out above it: i.e. the Palazzo Vecchio, in the Piazza della Signoria. That’s the one we went to.
We ventured into the lobby to find a much shorter queue for the ticket office than at the Uffizi, however since we had our Firenze Cards, we didn’t even have to stand in that. Instead we headed straight to the desk to buzz in. We had to queue for considerably longer to use the loos.
Our first stop was below the palazzo, to see an old Roman theatre underneath it. Walkways have been constructed above the ruins so that you can look down on them from above. I hadn’t expected to see this archeological site so it was a very nice bonus. Afterwards, we went into the museum bit, which consisted of multiple rooms, many with impressive sculptures (including Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes) and painted walls and ceilings, for people to explore.
The last section we reached was the tower, which you can climb for amazing views of the city below. The 200-something stairs were pretty tiring in the summer heat (the staircase in Covent Garden tube station has nothing on those) but the views were worth it. All in all, I was here for about one hour and 30-45 minutes – not including the loo queue!
Once we were done, we headed towards the Duomo to meet up with my brothers. We found them at an Irish pub on the square and joined them for a German beer (how very cultural of us). As the boys headed back to crash in the hotel, my Mum and I went back to a gelato place we had passed earlier on the way from the Piazza della Signoria to the Duomo, called Venchi. It had caught our eye earlier as it had a wall covered in chocolate running down it. Admittedly, I’m not sure whether it was real chocolate but the chocolate taps they used to coat the top of our cones (before covering them in nuts) definitely was. The look of this place certainly did set the standard high for gelato and it did not disappoint.
After a bit of a rest back at the hotel (having stopped off for a look at the amazing sculpted doors on the Baptistery of St John on the way), we started to feel peckish and so asked one of the guys at our hotel for some recommendations. He directed us to Vincanto – a restaurant just around the corner from us, next to the Santa Maria Novella church. We arrived to find a large, pretty square, lined with multiple restaurants. We sat ourselves at a table outside Vincanto (as instructed) and glanced over the menu. We were very happy to find that we could get a bottle of wine here for €19 as opposed to the €30 from the night before.
Fancying some comfort food, I went for the pasta with duck ragu. I love pasta, I love duck and I love ragu – I figured it was a safe choice and I turned out to be right. We also ordered two portions of chips which came a bit more crisp-shaped (the waiter had warned us of this) but they were still quite tasty. The only problem was that not only did we have to chase them after we had been served the rest of our food but we then didn’t even get them until after we’d finished.
When we were happily full, we wandered around the square to walk off our meal before heading back to the roof terrace for the hotel for more drinks and more views.