In the 14th century, Florence was a bubbling cauldron of culture filled to the brim with a potent mix of philosophy, art and faith. A mix which eventually overflowed and trickled throughout Italy and Europe leaving the world completely changed.
In its wake, the Renaissance movement was born.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Boticelli, Gallileo, Machiavelli… all these great minds hail from Florence, and any of the post 14th century usual suspects from your history books have a six degrees of Kevin Bacon connection to it. It’s quite simply the birthplace of High Culture.
But why should you care about Florence today? And more importantly, is it a holiday destination that’s worth the hassle, especially if you can’t tell a painting by Rafael from that of Borzolli?
Our answer is 95% “yes!” and 5% “be warned”.
Even if you wouldn’t peg yourself as an art lover, experiencing the great works of the Renaissance as they were meant to be experienced- i.e sans Ipad or history book- is worth it. Others have the same idea and Michelangelo’s David or Boticelli’s Venus regularly attract millions of visitors each year… And therein, lies the problem.
Because Florence is as much a treasure trove of culture and history as an exercise in patience for the modern traveler.
The city gets notoriously crowded with tourists, and its most popular museums and attractions can command very, very long waiting times. To make things worse (or better depending on who you ask) a system of alternating opening and closing dates for museums means the unprepared may be left staring at closed gates if they don’t plan ahead. It can all get overwhelming and confusing very quickly and you may end up loitering the city streets waiting for the crowds to leave.
And you’ll love every second of it.
Dubbed the world’s “open air musuem” the UNESCO heritage city generously displays as much artwork out on the streets as it hides behind four walls. On the Piazza della Signoria, ancient sculptures stand frozen in time revealing themselves to a new generation of visitors every passing century: the triumphant Perseus dangling the head of Medusa, the horror and grace of the captured Sabine Woman and the power of Zeus subduing the Centaur Nessus, all can be appreciated with a gelato in hand and with the kids running about freely.
The city’s architecture is as noteworthy as the art and stretches way back to the Roman period and it’s an amalgam of epochs which the history and architecture student will love to decipher, while others happily admire beautiful things right from the pavement. Of course, masterpieces such as the majestic Duomo- which took approximately 200 years to build- is well worth facing the crowds for a look at the mosaics, frescoes and the rooftop view over the city (the best in Florence).
It’s all so beautiful on the outside that you could just skip the museums and focus on al fresco dining in the streetside cafés, browsing the wares of local artisans and craft shops, mingling with the locals for an Aperitivo or heading to the designer stores and shop till you drop.
But you’d be doing yourself a great disservice and getting only half of the experience.
Visiting the great collections of the Uffizi Gallery (The Birth of Venus), The Academia (Michelangelo’s David) and Museo di San Marco (Fran Angelico) and others is a must, and you’ll kick yourself in regret on the plane ride back if you don’t do so.
Fortunately there are ways to beat the crowd. Florence is noticeably less crowded in Autumn ( September to mid-November) and the weather is pleasant enough to stroll the streets comfortably. If you’re willing to forgo the Tuscan sun, you’ll love the winter period ( mid-November to February) and the tourist cull that it brings. But if you really want to make the most of your trip in any season, staying in a centrally located hotel lets you beat the crowds for an early morning or late viewing session of the museums. What’s more, Florence is a remarkably safe city and the following hotels let you visit the major landmarks at your own leisure and return home within minutes even later at night.
So go ahead and snap that picture of David. It just might be around forever but who knows when you’ll be back in town.