Italy is the holiday destination that just keeps on giving – from Roman ruins to modern art, Renaissance sculpture to rolling vineyards, beautiful beaches to breathtaking lakes, it’s a tourist’s dream, whatever your idea of a dream holiday might be. Heck, it even has a city on water. And whatever part of the country you visit for a little la dolce vita, first-rate food (and even better coffee) is a guarantee.
Florence, or Firenze, is everything you’d expect it to be, and yet also perhaps not quite what you might expect, all at the same time. If you’re longing for a chilled city break where you can stroll leisurely around charming streets and piazzas while scoffing gelato…Florence may not be for you. Narrow pavements and the tourist hordes mean it isn’t the most relaxing city to walk around (especially while trying to eat gelato).
What it lacks in wide pavements, though, it more than makes up for in art, culture and shopping. There are so many galleries and museums, with some of the world’s most iconic artworks – think Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David – as well as more unusual exhibits, such as the life-like wax anatomical models at The Museum of Zoology and Natural History (tbh, we gave that a miss).
And once you’ve ticked off everything on your list (yes, even those anatomical models if that’s your thing) you can plan in some excursions out of the city, too – Pisa, Bolgona, Siena, Lucca, Arrezzo, Cinque Terre, and even Rome and Venice are within reach from Florence by public transport, although the latter three would be best done over a few days each. We had seven days in Florence and ventured out to Pisa, Bologna and Siena, yet still felt like we’d enjoyed everything Firenze has to offer (which, admittedly, mostly involved pizza, pasta, ice cream and wild boar).
October is a great time to visit Florence – there are obviously lots of tourists, but not as many as in peak season, and the temperature is still around 20-25 degrees, which is practically tropical for us Brits. I tried to fit in with the locals by wearing a jacket and boots, but in the end I went full tourist in sandals, (me-made) short sleeves and a camera hung round my neck.
Things to do in and around Florence
- Shop: Celeste Vintage has a tempting array of designer and non-designer vintage to add to your collection – not picking up something from here is my biggest holiday regret.
- See: After spending some euros at Celeste, head a little further down the road to the Pitti Palace for a different kind of fashion fix at the costume museum there. It’s small but inspiring, and the ticket includes entry to Pitti Palace’s other galleries, too.
- Avoid: Don’t be tempted to pay extra for the ‘fast track’ ticket to get into the Uffizi. We did, and it didn’t seem to make any difference to the waiting time whatsoever – you still have to queue for ages to get in, along with all the other suckers who paid for a so-called ‘fast track’ ticket.
- Visit: If you’re short on time and can only do one day trip out of the city, go to Siena – with its charming cobbled streets, stunning skyline and quaint shops and restaurants, it’s a breath of fresh air after the hustle and bustle of Florence (not to mention an Instagrammer’s dream).
- See: Don’t overlook Italy’s modern art galleries – they’re not shouted about as much, but they’re worth seeing. The permanent collection at Bologna’s MAMbo traces the history of Italian art from World War II to present day, with works by Italian artists as well as others from around the world. It’s quite a small gallery, which is ideal if you’re visiting from Florence and only have a day to explore Bologna, and it has a gift shop full of nice artsy things too.
- Avoid (unless you have time to spare – and a big appetite): In Florence, you’ll probably spot quite a few people tucking into a giant sandwich from All’ Antico Vinaio and, while they certainly are tasty (and giant), the queues are super long for what is essentially a huge slab of bread and cheese you probably won’t be able to finish.
- See: Siena is known for its Palio, a bareback horse race that usually happens twice a year – except we managed to find ourselves there during the Palio Straordinario, a special extra Palio and the first in about 18 years. It’s been described as ‘lawless’, and I’d say that is a fitting description, but it’s fascinating at the same time – this isn’t an attraction done for tourists’ benefit, but a real rivalry between the city’s contradas, or districts, that’s been going on since medieval times, with an atmosphere like a derby football match. While I don’t like the animal rights issues surrounding it (the track has some tight turns and the horses often get injured), it’s a unique thing to experience.
- Eat: We had one of my favourite meals of the trip at Allabona in Pisa, an eco-friendly restaurant that serves local food and wines (I can recommend the sparkling one) and uses biodegradable and compostable plates and cups – wine is still thankfully served in a glass, though.
- See: Famous landmarks often don’t live up to the hype, but Pisa’s leaning tower is genuinely impressive to see in person – if only to watch all the tourists lining up to do that pose (before inevitably joining in yourself – go on, you know you want to).