Visiting Florence for the first time, what hits you is how alive the city feels. The narrow, bustling streets and the renaissance architecture create the feel of a city that lives and breathes unlike almost anywhere I’ve visited before.
My boyfriend David is fascinated by the political and military history of Florence, and had never had the opportunity to visit. Alongside my somewhat less academic love of Italian food, this made Florence the perfect destination for us to take our first holiday abroad as a couple.
Florence is undoubtedly a tourist city, so if you are looking for a tranquil Tuscan retreat, this isn’t it. The central Piazza della Signoria, where you’ll find a clutch of gorgeous buildings that served as the political hub of the city in the days of the Florentine Republic, was packed full of tourists, and the shops and restaurants in the city centre reflect this. That being said, unlike many cities swamped with tourists Florence retains a solidly unique feel and identity to it. Its rich history comes across in the statues that you find in every square, in the vaulted churches, in its parks and gardens and palazzos. Wherever you turn, there’s something different and authentic to see and do. David took us around the city looking for various historical landmarks and statues of heroes of the Italian unification, and I’d lead us off in search of cosy lunch spots and skyline views to Instagram. Truly, a match made in heaven.
Perhaps Florence’s most famous feature, its cathedral, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, is an incredible structure, its colossal dome a feat of renaissance architecture and engineering. We didn’t go in – the queue that stretched around the base of the Cathedral must have been a kilometre long, and we didn’t much fancy standing around for hours in the nearly 40°C heat. It was enough though to just walk around and take in the sheer majesty of the whole complex. The walls are covered in sculptures and intricate marble detailing, and it’s easily the most impressive cathedral I’ve ever seen (sorry, York Minster). Otherwise, we spent our time in Florence visiting museums, relaxing in the beautiful gardens on the outskirts of the city, and just wandering the beautiful cobbled streets.
The trip was easy to plan and arrange, though it started on a rather tiring note. We flew from Manchester airport on a horrifically early flight, necessitating a 3am train from York. The fact I’d spent the whole of the previous day packing up my room to move out didn’t help my exhaustion! By the time we landed in Pisa I was shattered but ready to explore. We had a few hours to spare in Pisa before our train to Florence, so we visited Pisa Cathedral and enjoyed our first of many holiday pizzas in a square overlooking the city. Pisa’s small enough to do in a day, but I’d definitely recommend stopping in en route to Florence, if only to get a photo of you definitely, single-handedly holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
I couldn’t write this review without mentioning the food – oh, the food! It goes without saying that we ate a lot of pizza. Many restaurants in Florence offer pizza for only €5 or so, the trade-off being the price of the drinks and pretty much everything else. Thin, crispy crusts covered in mozzarella cheese and anything else you could ask for, while not technically a local cuisine Florentine pizza is a must-have nonetheless. The other thing we loved about Florence’s food is the sandwiches – there are countless small cafes dotted around the city that sell massive sandwiches, with fresh meats and cheeses loaded into warm, delicious bread. At about €3.50 each, they’re a great option. And let’s not forget about the gelaterias, each one boasting a dozen or more flavours, made of real fruits and more flavourful than any ice cream I can remember. Florence is famed for its steak, so on the last night we went to a traditional Florentine restaurant near the banks of the River Arno, All’Antico Ristoro di Cambi, recommended to us by our local Airbnb host. I’m not overly fond of meat, so I opted for a delicious pesto pasta, but David ordered a T-bone steak and told me it was definitely worth the money (about €25 – these steaks are very much a delicacy).
Perhaps my favourite day, ironically, was the one we didn’t spend in Florence. We took the train to the city of Lucca, just northeast of Pisa. What makes Lucca so unique is its stunning medieval walls, almost thirty metres wide with parks and restaurants perched on top (the walls of York, beautiful as they are, pale in comparison). We spent hours walking the walls, enjoying the relative cool that Lucca’s proximity to the coast provides. The city has that iconic Tuscan feel to it – you can look out from the walls into rolling countryside, dotted with cypress trees. The beautiful weather made the whole day absolutely serene. David spent it telling me fascinating stories about Lucca’s republican past, while I achieved my childhood dream of eating pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a single day.
Would I recommend Florence? Absolutely. Although on the pricier end of what I’d usually spend on a holiday (clocking in at about £700 between us for the five days, including spending money) it was undoubtedly worth it, and a perfect trip for two. My advice for anyone planning a trip – don’t be tempted to fly into Florence directly, Pisa’s airport is cheaper and easier and the train out to Florence is well priced and reliable. Also, stay just south of the river – you’ll save some money and get some much needed quiet after a day in the bustling tourist hotspots of the city.
Featured image by Jess Reeve