Are you really crazy about the art from the 13th to the 17th century? Must you see Gothic altar pieces, world famous Renaissance pictures, Flemish, French and German masters of the Baroque? If so, you *must* go to the Uffizi, of course. But certainly you don’t want to wait half a day to get in, you’ve got better things to do!
Call the following number (from abroad): 0039/055294883, every day except Monday (on Mondays ALL museums are closed!) from 8.30 am to 9 pm, you’ll get the Florence museum service and can order a ticket in advance. When you’re there you can go to a special entrance for pre-booked tickets. If you haven’t been to Florence yet, you don’t know how valuable that advice is!
If you decide not to go in you can come with me, I’ll show you which other sights you can see and how to get a feeling for the city and the people.
We’ll start on the Piazzale Michelangelo, the so-called balcony of Florence. There’s one of the two copies of Michelangelo’s David on the Piazza, look at it so you don’t have to queue in front of the museum Galleria dell’Academia to see the original statue (which you can do, of course, if you like, it’s only a suggestion). You have the whole city in front of you, here you can get a feeling for its structure and for the enormous size of the Duomo (Cathedral).
Before we get down, let’s walk up the street for about 300 metres and visit the small church San Miniato al Monte, my favourite one! It was begun in 1018 and finished in 1207, has a wonderful green and white facade, the white stones are marble from Carrara where Michelangelo got his material from, too. (Btw, it’s not ‘Maykelangelo’ in Italian, it’s ‘Meekelangelo’). Inside you can admire the mosaics in the apse from the 13th century. Put a coin into a little slot machine so that the mosaics are illuminated! And have a look at the cemetery behind the church, you’ve never seen anything like it.
Standing in front of the church you also have a wonderful view of the city which costs nothing and is certainly more impressive than the view from the dome of the cathedral for which you have to pay and to queue!
Now down we go, along the bank of the river Arno, when we’ve arrived at the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), we can turn left and go to the Palazzo Pitti which also houses a fine museum of old and modern art including the furniture and knick-knack of the Pitti family, usually there are no queues waiting to get in. Stand in front of the Palazzo for a while and take in its size, here you can get a feeling for the wealth and power of a Renaissance family. It is the biggest Palazzo in Florence, but not the only one, there are many more in the city centre.
Behind the Palazzo Pitti are the Giardini (gardens) Boboli, you have to pay to get in, but they’re certainly worth a visit if you’re tired and have to rest. There are no other parks in the city where you could sit and rest, you can’t get down to the river and sit on the banks, either. Florence means stone, massive stone.
We’re in the quarter which is called ‘Oltrearno’ (the other side of the river Arno), the most famous attraction here is the church Santa Maria del Carmine where the painter Masaccio painted the walls of the Brancacci Chapel. Walking through the streets nearby, you can see many open workshops of carpenters, smiths, bookbinders and people who put gold leaf on wooden picture frames. Look friendly, say ‘Buon Giorno’ (literally ‘Good Day’) and you can watch them for a while.
When we go back to the Ponte Vecchio along the Via de’ Guiccardini we peep into the shops on the left side where stone mosaics are made. The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge with shops on both sides, mostly selling expensive jewellery. When the Arno flooded those shops thousands of rings, chains, bracelets, earrings fell into the water, there was a lot of diving done afterwards!
Now we enter the city proper. To the right is the Piazza della Signoria with the Palazzo della Signoria, the former town hall (the Uffizi are to the right of same). In front of the Palazzo della Signoria is the second copy of Michelangelo’s David. If you like you can visit the Palazzo della Signoria (entrance fee), you’ll see enormous halls with enormous paintings on the walls.
There are some fine restaurants and coffee bars on the Piazza. Be informed before, so that you don’t have reason to grumble afterwards: when you sit down at a table on the pavement, you pay more than when you drink your cappuccino standing at the counter. The reason is that the proprietors have to pay tax to the city council for the space they occupy outside. It’s clear that the space in the heart of a city is more expensive than in the suburbs, so expect a high price or drink somewhere else.
Let’s go back to the street coming from Ponte Vecchio. On the left side is a small street market under a roof on high pillars, it’s the Straw Market. When we keep walking in the same direction, we come to the Piazza Duomo. The Cathedral, the bell tower and the baptistry are separate buildings. You’ll need some time just looking at the outside of these buildings, they’re all clad in green and white, the facade of the Duomo is heavily ornamented.
For me the most beautiful building is the ‘modest’ baptistry, look at the bronze doors, look at the mosaics on the ceiling inside showing scenes from Heaven and Hell. Those were the comics of the Middle Ages. How boring Heaven looks, how thrilling Hell!
From here it’s not far to Via Cavour 1, the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. Few tourists know what that building, now used by the city council, has to offer. There’s a chapel inside with wonderful frescoes, go and have a look. You have to pay again, but then you knew before you came that you’d spend a lot of money, didn’t you? Don’t be tight-fisted when it comes to entrance fees, you can’t do anything against them, you can complain, but that won’t change anything.
Coming out of the building we just turn round the corner and come to the street market San Lorenzo, famous for leather handbags, gloves, shoes, belts and jackets. All stalls display the sign ‘Fixed Prices’, haggling is looked down upon, this is not the south of Italy. Nearly all salespeople know English and they love addressing tourists who, in their eyes, look English or American. Although I speak English much better than Italian I always pretend not to understand a word and start a conversation in Italian. This puzzles them and they take me for a Swiss woman. Although I’d rather be dead than Swiss, I play along, because I’ve found out that in the end I get 10% off for my efforts!
At the end of the street market is a big market hall, the central food and vegetable market of Florence. This is another place to watch the indigenous population and also to find some typical souvenirs, for example dried tomatoes, dried mushroom etc. Behind the market hall there are some good restaurants with reasonable prices, ‘Tourist Menus’ are advisable, because there’s always a good choice and you know the prices beforehand, if you eat ‘à la carte’, you might be shocked afterwards. Btw, pizza was born in Naples, don’t complain if it isn’t too good in the North. If you want to eat pizza nevertheless, you might like to know that Italians never drink wine with pizza, always and only beer.
We’re near the station which is called ‘Santa Maria Novella’ after the church nearby, wonderful frescoes inside!
If you ask me where else there’s something to see for which you don’t have to queue all day long, I’d say: the cloister of San Marco which you reach walking farther down Via Cavour, Fra Angelico painted frescoes on the walls of the cells. On the piazza opposite San Marco there’s the bar with the best cappuccino of the whole city, believe me! They also offer a wide range of delicious pastries.
Another small, but worthwhile museum is the ‘Museo Nazionale o di Bargello’ in the Via del Proconsulo 4 which has mostly statues, porcelain, weapons and medals. But you might be fed up with art by now, so it’s people watching on the steps of the Duomo or relaxing on the lawns of the Giardini Boboli.
When you do the latter you’re near the Piazzale Michelangelo again where we started our tour. You might like to end the day leaning on the railings of the ‘balcony’ of Florence watching the lights of the city go on.