Before all this pandemic nonsense, I went on a group tour in Italy where I had exactly one full day in Florence. First of all, don’t do this. A city like Florence, with its famous history, art, and food, that kind of city deserves at least a few days of your life. It’s the capital of Tuscany, the birthplace of the Renaissance! But as these things go, Florence was in the middle of a too-rushed itinerary, so I tried to make the most of my day. And it ended up being a great day, one that highlighted for me the things that make travel awesome.
I could just tell you what I did, but I think it would be more helpful to coax out whatever wisdom I can from the experience. Hence, I have distilled seven tips for getting the most out of our travels (you know, whenever that’s a thing again).
Tip #1: Get out early and explore
Knowing my time was limited, I got up early to go for a walk and some sightseeing in the city center. This would be a good way to start any day in a new city: getting a feel for the place on foot. I love that feeling of stepping out from the hotel and setting off to explore. It’s always a rush, breathing in the air of somewhere new, filled with possibility.
I made my way toward Piazza del Duomo, the square around the city’s magnificent marble cathedral. Pedestrian and moped traffic was just starting up, cafes were serving up coffee, and the old building facades glowed brightly in the morning sun. I stopped to take some pictures and consult my guidebook.
Tip #2: Get a good guidebook
Yes, I was using a guidebook–Rick Steves’ Italy guide, to be specific. Don’t hate me. It may not look cool, but a good guidebook can save you a lot of time wandering around cluelessly. I followed Rick’s expertly summarized audio tour for a bit, getting his overview of Renaissance-era Florence.
Walking around the square, I saw Brunelleschi’s towering cathedral dome, a wonder in its day and the first dome built in Europe since Roman times. Across from the duomo, I saw Ghiberti’s intricate bronze doors too. The heavy doors to the baptistery are adorned with sculpted biblical scenes that showcase the Renaissance mastery of perspective in art. (Ok, the ones outside are copies, but it’s close enough.)
In just a few minutes, the guidebook brought history and art to life for me. It might sound cheesy, but learning the stories behind these things made them meaningful. Buildings became feats of engineering genius and artistic grace, statues became real people who helped shape the world as we know it. With limited time, a guidebook gives you the shortcut to all this.
Tip #3: Eat the local food
Next was something of an unconventional addition to my itinerary: a food tour. With so many museums and “must-see” historic sites in Florence, a leisurely stroll with snacks seems like a questionable use of time, right? I had pre-booked this reservation way in advance, and honestly I almost cancelled it. But I have learned that getting an inside track to local cuisine is always a good idea. Eating local food is one of the best parts of travel, especially in Italy and double-especially in Tuscany. I decided to keep my reservation.
Let me summarize by saying this tour turned out way better than I expected. It was a masterpiece, a triumph of culinary highlights curated to perfection. When I met our small group across the river in the Oltrarno area, I was wholly unprepared for all the tasty treats and memorable characters that would populate our walk together.
We started out with cappuccinos, as we talked about Italian cafe culture. For many Italians, the neighborhood cafe (they call it a “bar”) is not just about coffee. It’s an important communal space, like a shared living room that you can stop by throughout the day. Nearby, we visited a man our guide referred to as “the king of lampredotto sandwiches,” which tells you a lot about this guy and about this sandwich. A classic of Florentine street food, the lampredotto sandwich features cow’s stomach slow cooked and marinated to perfection. Cow organ meat not an everyday food for you? Trust me on this one, it’s delicious.
Our next stop, though, was something special. Buonamici Pasticceria Artigianale is more than a bakery, it’s a local institution. We met Roberto, who’s been baking in this family shop for more than 50 years. He showed us how he makes cantucci, the mini-biscotti cookies of Florence, by hand. These simple almond cookies come together with just a few ingredients, but they turn into something delicious.
And there was so much more. Chianti wine from a shop with about a hundred kinds of it, aged pecorino cheese from Marzio, “the king of cheese.” I could write a whole post just about this stuff.
Sampling the local food is always a good use of time, even if it means missing out on some sightseeing. Did I see the statue of David? No, I was busy eating a lampredotto sandwich and drinking chianti. It’s not a bad tradeoff.
Tip #4: Leave some space for downtime
By the end of the food tour, I was in no mood to rush around. I had been walking all morning. I had two scoops of beautiful gelato. I just wanted to stroll around a bit, absorbing the experience (and the gelato).
To really enjoy visiting a place, you need a bit of downtime. This is a lesson I have learned, foolishly ignored, and learned again many times. I am always tempted to push the limit, to add one more sight, to get the most out of every moment of travel. It’s a good impulse sometimes. But like adding more scoops of gelato, you can easily overdo it.
After my food-tour-that-was-also-lunch, I made a point not to overdo it. I walked across the Ponte Vecchio bridge, a tangle of little jewelry shops perched above the Arno River that also offers lovely views of the city. I strolled along the river a bit. I took the opportunity to wander and found a few buildings I missed on my morning walk.
Tip #5: Don’t panic
The big activity of my afternoon was visiting the Uffizi Gallery, perhaps the greatest collection of Renaissance art anywhere. You may have deduced that something went slightly wrong with my visit, and if so, you would be correct. Let me explain.
The plan was simple: meet up with a few fellow travelers from my group and get our pre-arranged, timed tickets together. Standard tourist stuff. I waited by the ticket office at the designated time, but as the minutes passed I saw no sign of my companions. I decided to go in alone. I got my ticket and went to stand in the security line, all the while hoping to spot my group somewhere. Perhaps this was too much of a distraction. When I made it to the opposite side of the security checkpoint and reached for my ticket, I could not find it. I talked to the staff, I searched my pockets and all around the floor near the security line. Nothing. Gone. With the last entry time of the day fast approaching, my mind started racing.
It was at this point that I remembered a simple piece of advice: don’t panic. I took a moment to assess the situation. I could keep searching or asking for help, but all of this was using up my precious time for visiting this amazing museum. I decided to run back to the ticket office and try to get another ticket. Embarrassing? Yes, I definitely got some weird looks as I backtracked through the entrance. But it worked, and it actually didn’t take long. For the low price of a second ticket and some mild humiliation, I was soon on my way to enjoy the museum.
Tip #6: Give yourself time to enjoy the big sites
So, the Uffizi Gallery (1) holds a massive collection of art, focused on the Renaissance era, (2) in the city that started the Italian Renaissance, (3) within the beautifully adorned former offices of the Medici family, the main patrons of said art. It’s a world-class place by several metrics. When you find yourself in such a place, you would do well to make the most of it. To rush through is…bad. It’s just bad, okay? If you’re gonna see a place that packs this kind of cultural and artistic punch, give yourself some time.
The Uffizi Gallery is set up roughly chronologically, and that’s how I approached it. The early areas start in the medieval period, when most fine art was produced for the church. Paintings from this time period are pretty unrealistic and two dimensional, with sparkly gold halos for all the saints. Moving forward in time, you can see artists getting the hang of showing realistic 3D perspective. Excitement builds as you see this evolution in painting, especially if you’re an art/history/culture nerd like me.
Eventually, you arrive at a couple rooms filled with paintings by the early Renaissance master Sandro Boticelli. Beautiful figures dance with grace across the canvases, subtle colors and elegant lines make the lifelike scenes glimmer. At times, I found myself almost lost in a painting, hating to look away from the idealized world on the other side of the frame.
Oh, I did eventually find the folks from my tour group. They made it into the museum just after I did. There were no hard feelings. I tried walking around with them for a bit, but I found myself lingering in each gallery and moving at my slower nerd pace. I decided to continue on my own with the help of my trusty audio guide. (Extra travel tip: always get the audio guide, seriously.)
My time in the Uffizi Gallery was like a vivid dream that I didn’t want to wake up from. I floated through each ornate room of what felt like a palace. In this dream, I saw works of other great masters like Da Vinci and Michaelangelo that brightened the rarified world of the Medici family, the world of the Renaissance. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of the sun going down outside, only a faint reminder of the world I would soon return to.
Tip #7: Find your unique adventure
After the Uffizi, I met up with some of my fellow travelers to go out for dinner. We knew of a few reliable places to eat near our hotel, but our guide suggested we could instead check out a new recommendation she got, a restaurant that specializes in organic pasta. We reached an agreement right away: of course, we would try the new place.
I have to say the decision paid off. We passed by some funky paintings and shelves filled with local wine, and we crowded around a long table in the back. I had some beautiful handmade tortelli, pillows of potato-stuffed pasta in a rich truffle sauce and accompanied by Tuscan wine (it’s basically a requirement). As we enjoyed the meal, we swapped stories from our day of sightseeing.
It was the perfect way to end a day in Florence. It’s the perfect way to end a day anywhere, really, enjoying a meal with your traveling companions in a place that’s totally unique to where you are. Sure, you can always get some utility pizza or try to find the restaurant in your guidebook. At some point though, it’s better to seek out your unique adventure. Talk to people, get some advice, take a chance and see what’s out there. Sometimes, you’ll end up disappointed. Other times though, you’ll find just the right place, an unforgettable ending to your day.