My Favorite Things in Florence, Italy

Travel books and vacation planning websites are filled with "must see" landmarks and comprehensive itineraries covering all of the well-known highlights of popular destinations. In Florence there are, of course, many wonderful, iconic sights and experiences; from Michelangelo's David to the famed Duomo; and world class shopping from Armani to Valentino. But there's much more to a successful vacation than simply adhering to a checklist. Many of my most memorable travel moments are found in small experiences and delightful "finds" along the journey. Here are a few of my favorite things in Florence:

1.  Walking from the train station: If arriving by train, and your luggage has wheels or is manageable to carry, the Florence train station is within reasonable walking distance of most hotels in the main part of Florence. If it's your first trip, I highly recommend walking to your hotel. It's a great way to begin soaking up the ambiance and flavor of Florence. It's not easy to get lost and your path will likely take you through charming covered walkways, past interesting sites to explore in the coming days, and provide you with a bit of geographical grounding to help orient you to the city. It is also a nice way to set a leisurely tone for your visit.

2.  Still waters: The Arno River bisects Florence. Spanned by charming old bridges (including the famed Ponte Vechhio), it is lined with hotels, apartment buildings, and small shops. On a calm day (or even night), the still waters of the Arno provide nearly perfect mirror reflections that are ideal for photographers. So many of my favorite photographs from Florence include these stunning double images.

3.  Museum of Costume: Smaller museums in Florence are up against some major competition (including the famed Uffizi Gallery). Once of my favorite smaller exhibits is the Museum of Costume, one of six museums housed in the Pitti Palace, 5-6 blocks southwest of the Ponte Vecchio bridge.  This textile themed gallery takes visitors through the fascinating history of Italian fashion. And unlike the long lines usually encountered at the Accademia or the Uffizi, we found reservations unnecessary for this delightful find.

4. Flea market fun: Tucked into a typical Florence neighborhood on the south side of the Arno (south east of the Ponte Vecchio bridge) is a modest neighborhood church and the adjacent Piazza Santo Spirito. It is the home of a regular neighborhood flea market. The Santo Spirito market is open most weekday mornings, but on the 2nd Sunday of each month, it's an all day affair. From antiques, to dried fruit; hand-crafted beads to household goods, we found it to be a fabulous way to interact with resident Florentines. Whether bartering for souvenirs or simply soaking in the bustle of the colorful market, it was a wonderful find that enriched our experience.

5.  Fried Polenta: This brings me to another delight discovered at the flea market. Much like county fair food stands in the US, the flea market offered an Italian version of hand-held carnival food. My favorite, by far, was the delicious fried polenta. Deep fired squares of this cornmeal staple are serve hot, fresh and buttery; simply melting in my mouth.

6.  Music of the night: Music in the streets of Florence is like having a built-in sound track to your vacation experience. During the day, you will encounter numerous musicians and small ensembles as you wander the streets. But the music really seems to come alive at night. Sitting on the steps across from the Uffizi in the Piazza della Signoria, with a dozen or so others, a solo musician, neearly unseen in the dark shadows of the night,  filled the air with beautiful ballads. This simple concert, was one of our most romantic experiences in Florence. Keep your ears open and you may find yourself enjoying a similar serenade. 

7.  The Baptistry: OK, so this one is in every guidebook, but in central Florence, this unique eight-sided architectural treasure is dwarfed by the adjacent Duomo. Most visitors walk around the exterior of the Baptistry to view the ornate "relief" door panels dating from the beginning of the renaissance. Yet I found that actually stepping inside reveals the most stunning beauty of the landmark...an awe inspiring display of intricate 13th century mosaic on the octagonal dome. Breathtaking!

There are certainly important and historically significant sights to be seen when in Florence. I don't suggest you forgo marvelling at the works of Botticelli or passing by the Boboli Gardens, but I encourage you to occasionally leave the checklist behind and take delight in the smaller things that will add great richness and texture to your vacation memories.

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