After leaving the grandeur of Rome, I arrived in Florence to find it unexpectedly dull and unassuming. It may have been the overcast and grey skies, or it may have been the shades of ochre and beige that began to gnaw at my senses by the end of the first day.
However, by the time I left I had fallen in love with this city, and I want to share my Florence travel guide and how to survive the beige. Be sure to use my Top Travel Tips for any traveller to ensure a hassle free vacation.
I travelled by high speed train from Rome’s Termini station to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station and purchased the ticket for my journey on the Trenitalia website.
The Frecciarossa trains combine high speed and maximum comfort in the Standard, Premium, Business and Executive services. I opted for the Business Class service and was not disappointed. It was spacious and they also served complimentary sweet and snacks and drinks after departure.
My hotel was located close to the station and after finding the correct exit from the station building, I was there within 5 minutes.
International flights to Florence fly into the Amerigo Vespucci Airport and travelers can reach the city using the shuttle called the Volainbus.
To find a hotel in Florence, I checked the locations of the hotels closest to the train station. The historical centre is serviced by busses but is within walking distance from the train station.
My requirements were as follows:
- Close proximity to the train station.
- Within walking distance to some of the major attractions.
- Ground floor accommodation or a building with an elevator that worked.
- Similar price range to a 5 star UAE hotel.
I found a few hotels that met my requirements and after checking the reviews on TripAdvisor, I booked a room at the family run Hotel Bella Firenze on booking.com. There is a bus stop a few steps from the hotel which goes into the historical centre as well as a bus station for those wanting to visit Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano and other towns. Bookings can be made on request at the front desk of the hotel.
At the time of booking, I had requested a ground floor room if they had no elevator. When I checked in, the owner Robert offered to show me the ground floor room next to the reception area as well as one on the first floor. He wanted to give me the option to choose which one I preferred. Knowing I would hate to climb the stairs with my Rheumatoid Arthritis flaring, I chose the ground floor room.
The historic nineteenth century building has been fully renovated and all rooms have an ensuite bathroom, a fridge and desk area. They also provide a complimentary bottle of wine for guests at check-in. I do not take alcohol but consider it just one of the thoughtful touches by the owners.
During my stay my main contact was with Robert and I found him sincerely helpful and always ready to assist. He recommended a lovely restaurant close by where I enjoyed a few delicious meals, and assisted me with taking the correct bus for my early morning Uffizi gallery visit.
The breakfast room was small and seated about 8 people and had a buffet set up. There were no hot foods served but I found the fresh fruit and yogurts more than adequate for my needs, although there were also cakes and pastries available. Roberto or one of his two sons were also on hand to make coffees to order.
TOP EXPERIENCES IN FLORENCE
For as long as I can remember, Tuscany has been synonymous with excellent produce and superlative food. To ensure that I tasted the best of what Florence had to offer I booked the Other Side of Florence food tour on the Eating Italy website. You can read all about my food tour experience here.
Having had no difficulty finding vegetarian or vegan options on my visit to Rome, I was not particularly concerned about finding food in Florence. I knew I would be unlikely to find halaal meat or taste the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but had a few enjoyable meals at Trattoria Il Portale around the corner from my hotel.
The large cuts of meat aging in the temperature controlled window chillers seemed to mock me whenever I went there for a meal. However, the excellent service by Daniele took the edge off the sting.
I also managed to find an Indian eatery, Ristorante Haveli, down the road from my hotel. It appeared to be frequented mostly by muslims living in or visiting the area, and the food was quite palatable. The owners appeared to be Sikh and the meat was not halal so I stuck to vegetarian and seafood items.
I saw a halal restaurant on my way back from the Piazza one day when I decided to walk on the opposite side to which I went down. I realised that one sometimes misses what is right in front of one’s eyes.
One of my favorite meals was at the Mercato Centrale where I had the most delicious seafood and fish combo. The market is a treasure trove of fresh produce, cheese, olive oils and cured meats.
Painting, sculpture, architecture
You do not have to go very far in Florence to be surrounded by the magnificent treasures and interesting architecture of the Rennaisance. The best thing is you can walk everywhere and do not need to take an organized tour!
- The Firenze card is the official museum pass of the city and costs 72 euros for 72 hour validity. If you think you can accomplish a fraction of the 72 museums and galleries in that short time then it is a bargain. Otherwise I would recommend buying the individual passes for the ones museums and galleries that you absolutely do not want to miss.
- Tickets for the Galleria Degli Uffizi and most other galleries, museums or places of archeological interest can be purchased online prior to travel on the official website for state owned Florentine museums. I collected my pre-booked ticket at the gallery on the day, but at a different door than where visitors without tickets queue. It was a bit confusing because there were no proper directions and they opened later than the advertised opening times. Ask the museum attendants outside if you have any doubts.
- Traversing the Uffizi gallery is a tiring task, so set aside 30 minutes for a coffee or tea on the gallery’s roof top garden.
- The Cattedral of Santa Maria del Fiore or the Duomo of Florence was completed in 1436. The cathedral complex is part of the Unesco World Heritage site that covers the historical centre.
Behold the beige!
Street Art and public spaces
After settling in at my hotel on the day I arrived, I took a leisurely walk to the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella. I wanted to check how long it would take to reach the bridge where I had to cross for the food tour the following day. The piazza was the perfect place to take in the atmosphere and enjoy the quiet afternoon rays of sunshine peeking through the grey skies. Pretty soon I forgot the beige.
A few minutes after sitting down on one of the piazza benches a man came to sit down beside me. He greeted me with salaam and I replied as is obligatory on any muslim.
The one thing that freaks me out as a solo female traveler is strangers talking to me, especially males. I have read so many warnings and travel advisories that self-preservation has become second nature.
I replied very briefly to his comments and questions about my origins and then turned away so that he would not continue talking to me, as it made me feel uncomfortable. I realized even while doing so that my behavior may be considered rude or dismissive, but to be honest, I am not in the habit of consorting with strange men and was not about to start in a foreign country.
As the park filled up, others joined the man sitting next to me and they started a very spirited conversation. At times it sounded like they were shouting at each other, but I realized that that is how it sounds when people speak Arabic. The excitement and fervor often comes across as irritation or aggression when in fact it is not.
I must confess that as I was sitting there an uncharitable thought crossed my mind: ‘No wonder people are afraid of muslims if we seem to be shouting at each other in public, even when it is only a spirited conversation amongst friends’.
During my rambles in the historical centre I also saw the most curious thing… bar and cafe seating set up in the narrow streets, and continued to see it on my walks on the days that followed.
Scattered throughout the city streets are these corner altars or tabernacles on the outsides of private and public buildings, many of which are centuries old and recently restored.
The area under the Pont Devecchio has the atmosphere of a street market with all manner of leather goods and clothing items. I passed by there on the way back from my Food tour, but was too tired and in need of a coffee to haggle with sellers.
Omar, the tour leader on the food tour had recommended Santa Croce as the place to find high quality leather at reasonable prices. Apparently, much of what is sold in the stores and street markets are overpriced and inferior quality leather. You may want to check out the Leather School in Santa Croce for real leather goods produced by skilled craftsmen.
The Mercato Centrale also has a lively street market where one can find leather goods, clothing and cashmere shawls as well as touristy souvenirs and curios of Florence. I bought a few cashmere shawls from one of the traders but wish I had gone to find some of those leather items in Sante Croce.
Florence turned out to be one of those places that grows on one, and I would love to go back to wander down the residential streets on the other side of the Arno, and eat the simple but amazing food.
Do not order a cappuccino or caffe latte after noon because an Italian barista may look at you as if you are daft. Instead ask for a Machiattone… it is similar with a different name!
I did this deliberately after reading about how Italians have rules about what you drink when, because I was curious as to what the response would be. In the more touristy restaurants they did not bat an eyelid, but in the little shop on the corner I thought the barista was going to choke on his words as he repeated my request with incredulity.
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