Florence is my sister’s favorite city in Italy, and my and David’s least favorite.
I know that sounds strange and you probably think I’m crazy. Who dislikes Florence? Everyone waxes poetic about it! With good reason!
But to me personally, on my first and only visit, it felt gritty, unwelcoming, and overrun with American exchange students. In all fairness, part of my poor impression could be due to the contrast between it and Rome, a city I fell in love with and hated to leave. I couldn’t believe how much of the history in Rome was out in the open: buildings, ruins, fountains, world-famous landmarks. From what I gathered during our short time in Florence, its history is more subtle and hidden: sculptures, paintings, museums, academic and cultural breakthroughs. Not that I have anything against those kinds of history, just that I wasn’t prepared to adjust after Rome’s vibrant, engaging, public sights endeared themselves to me.
The weather also might have had something to do with it- two gloomy rainy days and one unbearably hot one. However, probably the best meal and experience of our trip was at a winery/castle outside Florence, so of course it wasn’t all bad.
We stayed at the Hotel Albion, which (though a bit run down) was charming, friendly, and cozy, almost like staying with family or friends. It had shelves and shelves of travel books for guests to peruse, a shabby, old-fashioned bar that reminded me of classic movies, a helpful staff, and walls covered in an eclectic mix of framed art. The rooms were large, colorful, and unique, with brightly painted murals and tiny personal touches that made you feel at home, like coffee makers and candy dishes. It was walking distance from the train station, but on the outskirts of the main areas and attractions of the city.
The best gelato of the entire trip was at Grom. The nougat flavor, which I didn’t notice anywhere else in Italy, was delicious. As was the bacio (“kiss” = chocolate + hazelnut), which was everywhere and quickly became my favorite flavor. A word of warning: do not buy gelato from the convenient places on the busy thoroughfare streets with impressive displays like this:
Yes, they look enticing, and yes, they are easier to find than Grom, which is tucked away on a side street in the shadow of the Duomo, but often the gelato is mediocre, and you may get very ripped off. Which happened to us. Despite the fact that our guidebook warned us of this explicitly. Italian gelato is fantastic and was one of the best parts of our trip, but you will be happier if you confirm the price before you buy, or better yet, hold out for the places that seem to be frequented or recommended by locals or your guidebook.
We went up to Piazzale Michelangelo, where the views were breathtaking, as promised, even on a gray, rainy day.
The Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace was a seemingly endless expanse of lawns, statues, stone walls, staircases, layered landscaping, and paths. We wandered around for about an hour imagining the dinner parties and afternoon strolls that must have taken place when the palace was inhabited. It was a calming and impressive nature break from the busy hustle and bustle, with stunning views of the city.
We walked across Ponte Vecchio, but I personally wasn’t enthralled with the shops or jewelry- it seemed typical and gaudy to me. Sadly (and surprisingly), I wasn’t tempted to buy anything. We wandered through a couple of streets filled with vendors though, and they had some interesting items: scarves, unique casual jewelry like leather bracelets, colorful glass candy dishes, etc. I know it was probably all inexpensive, touristy, and aimed at the exchange students, but there seemed to be some appealing souvenirs here and there.
The inside of the Duomo was, of course, beautiful- candlelit, cavernous, haunting, unbelievable. (Too dark for good pictures on my camera, though.)
We got restaurant recommendations from my sister-in-law, who was studying abroad in Florence. Her favorites were Quattro Leoni, Trattoria Garga, Osteria San Spirito, and 13 Gobbi for dinner. And for pizza: Pizzaioula or Gusto Pizza.
From Florence we took a train to the Cinque Terre, the last stop on our Italian itinerary.