Florence was the second city we visited after Venice. Did I mention that I fell in love with Italy at first sight (see these photos and I promise you will too!) when I arrived in Venice? Well I fell in love with Italy AGAIN when I saw Florence. It was so beautiful that I literally started researching the possibility of moving to Italy (I still do from time to time when I feel like escaping).
Here I’ve summarised a list of 7 Things I’d recommend you to do in Florence – and I have deliberately excluded some of the obvious things like Visit the Uffizi or climb the Duomo. Those you can find in everyone else’s list. But of course everyone has different ideas but hey, why not take a quick look at what I have come up with and maybe I might inspire you to add some to your ‘To Do’ list?
1. Sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo
The famous view of Florence is taken from this location – Piazzale Michelangelo. This is where people go to admire and take photos of the breathtaking panoramic sunset view of Florence. It is also a popular place for wedding proposals. We chanced upon one while we were staking out for the sunset photos.
Piazzale Michelangelo is not in the middle of town. From the main city, it is a short distance away by bus and another 15 minutes climb up a relatively steep hill. You can also walk there from the main city but it may take up around 30 minutes. Use your offline Google maps (download early) to plot your direction. With Wifi, Google maps will suggest buses available to take you there from where you come from.
We took the bus there but ended up going back by foot. The walk back after sundown didn’t feel unsafe but it took a toll on us because of all the walking we did in the day. Go early to Piazzale Michelangelo to get the best spot for your sunset shots but be patient and wait for it. There will be lots of people since this is also a free attraction and a public park on top of a hill.
2. Shop for Jewellery on Ponte Vecchio & Admire the Golden Sunset
They say the most romantic thing to do is to propose in Florence and go ring shopping at Ponte Vecchio. We sort of did that – the shopping bit of course! I knew Florence had beautiful jewellery – especially in Italy where they are famous for their classic Italian designs.
I had fallen in love with a bracelet I saw an ex-colleague wore some time ago and she said she got it from Florence. At Ponte Vecchio, I saw many of this similar bracelets in the shops and found that it was a classic Florentine design. There were many shops that were owned by the same owner along the length of the bridge. Priced varied so it is good to check the prices as you go along. There was VAT refund available and they offered you many variations of the same design in colour, thickness and amount of gold.
It may be possible to try and bargain on the price at some shops. The sales assistants seem quite keen for sales that they would be willing to negotiate with you and offer something within your budget. I am no expert so I just went with a shop I felt comfortable with and the customer service rendered. I ended up getting a bracelet at Golden Dreams for €400 – my birthday present.
The shops start to close at around 6pm – 7pm. So start your day early if you are a picky shopper. You can stroll along the bridge in the evening while you wait for the sunset. It gets real crowded during sunset as many will hang out at the viewing point in the middle.
3. Admire Sidewalk Art on the Pavements of Florence
We stumbled upon some pretty amazing pavement art as we explored the streets of Florence city. I was quite blown away by some of these sidewalk artists as I watched them work the floor like a giant canvas. I am not sure how long the art pieces stay there but from what I can tell, they were temporary pieces meant for that day or two.
They replicated famous paintings using coloured chalks and pastels on the pavement for all to witness. When I was there, the most impressive ones I saw were The Girl with A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer; The Entombment of Christ by Caravaggio; and the most famous painting of Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
I was most amazed by the latter as the artist captured Mona Lisa’s expression and facial features almost exactly as the original. All the art pieces were so lifelike and so impressive – it was such a pity they were temporary and would be washed away by the elements. Donation boxes were placed next to the artists for people to contribute. So please be generous to these brilliant artists as they paint tirelessly on the pavement.
4. Ride or Photograph The Antique Carousel at Piazza della Repubblica
As we ‘got lost’ in the streets of Florence, we stumbled upon a beautiful antique carousel in the middle of Piazza della Repubblica. Apparently this antique carousel dated from the 20th century and currently run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Picci family.
Adorned with shades of gold, red and blue, the carousel featured 20 classic horses and two gold-painted carriages. In the middle were mirrors lined with golden LED lights. Benches were placed in front of it for parents to sit and watch their kids as they went on the ride.
A pity I didn’t take a ride on it (it seemed like it was more for kids) but I did spend at least 10 minutes taking pictures of it and with it! It was one of the most beautiful carousels I’ve ever seen and it was beautifully restored. This carousel makes for great photo opportunities for photographers and those seeking for some personal portrait shots.
5. Visit David at the Galleria dell’Accademia
Okay I’ll admit this would be the most “tourist” activity that made it on this list. But someone once told me, “If you went to Florence and never met David, then you’ve never been to Florence.” So I had to meet David, of course. I pre-purchased my tickets online through the official website so I could speed through the process. To get a good photo of David, you’ll have to go in the morning when it just opened and the big crowds have not yet arrived.
We went as early as 8.15am to Galleria dell’Accademia. It was a pre-fixed time slot from 8.15 – 8.30am for our tickets so buy early to pick your preferred time slot. Our tickets cost us €12 each (in April 2017) and we had to go to a counter to exchange our printed booking for the physical tickets. Take note there are a couple of different queues so go early to suss it out. One queue is for people without booking/reservations while the other was for people with booking/reservations like us.
The sculpture of David is really the main highlight of this museum. It was quite an extraordinary sight. Standing majestically above us at the end of the hallway, the sculpture of David is truly remarkable. I did not expect its sheer size as many pictures I’ve seen didn’t show people in it. So I decided to add one with people for you to see the extent of its size. It amazes me to think this was hand carved so many years ago by Michelangelo.
Take your time to view the rest of the exhibits but none will fascinate you the way David did. Was it worth our €12? You only see David once, and you will only see him in Florence, Italy. So just do it or you will never be able to say that you’ve been to Florence!
6. Meet Artists & Buy Some Art at the Courtyard of The Uffizi
I confess that I never went into The Uffizi. I am not big on art and don’t know most of the paintings in The Uffizi Gallery. So I concluded that I’d paid my homage to art with my visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia. As we ‘got lost’ walking from the Ponte Vecchio, we found ourselves in the Courtyard of The Uffizi also referred to as Piazzale degli Uffizi.
As we walked towards the courtyard, I saw many artists lined up along the street painting and selling their art pieces at rather affordable prices. It was 6-ish in the evening when we visited the area and some of the artists were beginning to pack up. I found myself drawn to the works of a Japanese artist named Hiko Nagahama who seemed to have set up residency painting in Florence.
His works were unique with a Japanese influence – a distinct clean style of watercolour painting featuring mostly cypress trees beside Tuscan houses. I bought a small painting and paid him €10. He was already beginning to pack up so I had to be quick and just selected one. If I had more time, I would have loved to take some photographs of his works and admired more of his paintings.
Chris found another artist along the street opposite from the courtyard whose style we also liked. This artist, Cirigliano Juan Jose, painted very simple pieces of Florence using simple lines and shades of similar tone. He had a lot of sketched works on sale too but I preferred his watercolour. I hesitated and walked away wondering if I should part my €20 for one of his art pieces. I kept thinking about it even when I returned back to our B&B. Then I decided I had to return back to get something from him and so I found him at the same spot another day and bought one of his few watercolour pieces depicting the street of Florence.
7. Ride a Vespa to Explore Tuscany
To me, driving in Italy is scary. Why? As a tourist, the chances of you getting a fine is very high because of all their traffic rules and (not very visible) ZTL zones. Hidden cameras capture your mistakes and slap you with a fine for a traffic violation when you’ve returned back to your home country. I have heard horror stories of fines up to €400 and don’t get me started on rental companies that ‘fine’ you for every dent or scratch on the car when you return.
But riding a vespa seems like the MUST-DO thing on the list of things to do when you are in Italy. I had planned on doing that but was very apprehensive about all the traffic rules that I almost drove Chris crazy before we even rented. We had planned to rent from New Tuscany in Florence but when we visited the shop, the guy warned us of the bus lanes that we needed to avoid. Riding out from his location may also ‘accidentally’ place us in the restricted bus lane if we were not careful. With that, we walked away feeling a bit uncertain about renting a Vespa.
After some back and forth, I found another Vespa rental shop a distance away in Florence that offered free GPS to guide you. That sounded like a great idea since the GPS might be able to help navigate you to where it’s safe to drive. We made our way to MelaVespo by bus to rent a Vespa for our little Tuscany adventure.
The shop was legit and offered us a good Vespa with proper helmets and a GPS with pre-configured routes for us to choose from. The unfortunate thing with this meant that if I want to play it safe, I couldn’t detour too much from these routes. I had intended to check out the Prada Outlet store but it was quite a distance away and not in their pre-set route options. So we ended up selecting the route to Greve in Chianti for an 8-hour rental.
The journey was beautiful. As I rode through the rolling hills of Tuscany with cypress trees that seemed to line every lane I passed, I fell in love with Tuscany. We took lots of photos and videos on our ride and stopped wherever we fancied. The GPS was easy to use and even when we detoured just a bit, it managed to guide us back to our final destination – Greve in Chianti.
Even though I did not manage to follow my originally planned itinerary to see many sites much further from Chianti, it was a good introductory experience riding a Vespa in Tuscany. It was the journey that we enjoyed – the impromptu photo stops; the cafes we discovered; the quick sandwich and coffee on a bench along the way; the old chapel we passed by.
Many times we were cautious about entering certain roads with road signs that were small and unnoticeable. We just hoped to God that we didn’t violate any traffic rules and did not enter any restricted access roads. Looking back, we were grateful we did not contribute to the statistics of tourists who ended up with fines after they returned home.
If you decide to go on your very own Vespa adventure, just note that a valid motorcycle licence and riding experience are required.