As many of my most loyal followers know, last summer Rail Europe sent me on an incredible trip to Italy for free to write about their trains. During that trip I visited Florence again, which is one of my favorite cities in the world. I never had a chance to write about my tips on the blog but I did write about it for Forbes. So I wanted to make sure you had my advice just in case any of you lucky ducks are headed that way this summer.
Florence is probably best known as the birthplace of the Renaissance. But in addition to being home to some of the greatest artistic moments ever created, its architecture, fashion and culture will make you swoon. As small as this city is, though, you could spend days wandering Florence’s narrow streets, soaking in the skyline of charming terracotta rooftops while marveling at museums, and still not have enough time to experience everything it has to offer.
My trip was quite quick (unfortunately) but my husband and I managed to walk 14 miles (thank you iPhone for calculating) and see nearly everything we hoped–even if it wasn’t in a true relaxed, Italian fashion. Here are my recommendations for the first day in Florence, Italy.
Check into Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, the perfect place to spoil yourself before a long day of sightseeing. Just about a 10-minute walk from the center of town, the Four Seasons is an oasis that offers exclusive access to the legendary Giardino della Gherardesca (formerly an entirely private botanical garden). Service and amenities, in usual Four Seasons fashion, go beyond what is expected, and suites are decked out in original frescoes and hand-painted sculptures. Here we are with the chef at the incredible restaurant. This was truly one of the most beautiful settings. I actually teared up when we sat down–it was that beautiful. Also maybe because it was free and it was glorious. Totally worth the splurge though. Have sent plenty of friends there since.
Once you finish admiring your surroundings, have breakfast at Il Palagio (which has a well-curated buffet and a separate one for kids), where you’ll enjoy anything from freshly baked pastries to egg specialties. Afterward, head over to the Palazzo Vecchio to marvel at the magnificent painted hall, Michelangelo’s Genius of Victory sculpture and Dante Alighieri’s death mask (discussed at length in Dan Brown’s book Inferno, which has a Tom Hanks-starred movie adaptation that recently filmed in Florence). Be sure to visit its tower, Torre di Arnolfo, where you can take in sweeping rooftop views of the city. Next, pop around the corner to Florence’s principal Franciscan church,Basilica of Santa Croce, where Italian greats like Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli were laid to rest. If fashion is your thing, you may opt instead to peruse Museo Salvatore Ferragamo or the Gucci Museum. Word to the fashion-wise: The boutique at the latter attraction sells items exclusive to this location, so you can get your hands on accessories that aren’t sold anywhere else in the world.
After you’ve basked in the brilliant artwork, it’s time for some much-deserved shopping. While Milan may be the fashion capital of Italy, Florence is renowned for its high-quality leather. Pick up leather handbags, belts, jackets and wallets for a fraction of what designer brands cost. But don’t just go to any shop — be sure you’re buying from a store with fair prices and quality merchandise like local superstar Massimo Leather (where else can you get a designer-quality leather jacket for less than US$250?).When your energy starts to lag, visit Trattoria Marione, a small restaurant with excellent homemade pastas. Undoubtedly, you’ll need another cup of espresso after lunch for an action-packed afternoon. Some sugar might help, too. Duck into Forno Top, a wonderful bakery next to Trattoria Marione where you can pick up fresh Tuscan sweets. Your next stop is the Uffizi Gallery — a must-see for all visitors. One of the world’s most famous art museums, Uffizi is the home to priceless works of art by Botticelli, da Vinci and Caravaggio. Purchase tickets at least a few days in advance, as lines, even during off-season, can be extremely long. Consider signing up for a tour to ensure you get the most out of your visit; Uffizi is so vast that it can be overwhelming without a guide. Seamlessly book an Uffizi Gallery group tour at the same time you purchase train tickets by using Rail Europe. Or, for a more intimate experience, sign up with Artviva, which offers smaller group tours with English-speaking guides. Michelangelo fans will want to choose a session that also stops at the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the iconic David.
Dine like a true Italian and make late dinner reservations so you’re able to squeeze in a visit to the Four Season’s private Italian spa. Indulge in a couple’s treatment in a separate garden building that features a free-standing bath and view into its own private garden — that’s right, a private garden within a private garden. A visit here is worth the splurge: Many of the therapies are inspired by ancient methods and approved by one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
For dinner, return to the renowned Il Palagio to treat yourself to a feast for the senses. Its alfresco terrace overlooks a magical green space, while the palatial dining room features a grand chandelier, elegant décor and vaulted ceilings. Chef Vito Mollica serves authentic Italian cuisine with a modern twist. Ingredients are sourced from local artisan producers to complement exquisite carpaccios and housemade pastas. Though everything from the kitchen looks mouthwatering, we recommend the tasting menu with dishes like lemon-scented potato gnocchi.
Continue reading on about a second perfect day in Florence, Italy in my Forbes article. Enjoy! Spoiler alert, I tell you where we ran into Julia Louis Dreyfuss at her family dinner celebration! Hint, hint, this is it (below).
And don’t forget to check out my other great tips on Italy travel:
A peek inside the famous Villa D’Este in Lake Como
Top Ten Tips for Visiting Venice