In the aftermath of the recent attacks in Brussels, we are all sad and frightened. And for good reason. However, one way to reaffirm our solidarity in the face of yet another tragedy is to continue to travel and explore the world around us, with open minds and clear eyes.
As spring break draws to a close, here is an itinerary based on a trip I took last week to Florence with friends. Luckily, one of us had studied abroad in Italy, and she was able to guide us around, order our meals, and otherwise make our entire trip seamless and totally delightful. Since not everyone has such luck, I thought I would share the wealth. From hidden workshops to tiny sandwich shop-fronts, these recommendations come from someone in the know.
First things first, check in to this Airbnb apartment, just steps away from the famous Duomo. From every window, you will have a first-rate view of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, the neighbouring Baptistery and the crowds in the surrounding piazza. Wake up to church bells and spend hours gazing out onto the beautiful façade, pinching yourself the whole time.
Better yet, the location is perfect for Florence novices. You will never get lost with the dome to guide you home, and the novelty of such an iconic site is slow to wear off. The fourth-floor flat will also force you to get some cardio. After days of Nutella-filled everything, gelato, homemade pasta, paninis and pizza, you will appreciate the workout.
Once you are settled in, take a quick walk to Due Fratellini for lunch. This hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop serves up delicious and fresh panini made from traditional Tuscan ingredients on hot rolls. It is also pretty cheap – just a few euro per order – and provides a good opportunity for people-watching as you will have to eat while standing on the sidewalk.
After lunch, head to the Uffizi Gallery for an afternoon spent with more art than you will know what to do with. Initially built as an office building for the ruling Medici family in the 16th century, the gallery now houses an impressive collection of classical and Renaissance art. Don’t miss the Botticelli room, which houses both The Birth of Venus and, my favourite, Primavera. (The museum’s website suggests that the afternoon is the best time to visit. Expect to spend some time waiting, though the line does move quickly.) Students receive a discount, so tickets are a reasonable €8.
If you are overwhelmed by the gallery’s extensive collection, clear your mind with a stroll across the Ponte Vecchio. On a sunny day, the river will glisten and you can see the rolling hills and Tuscan architecture for miles.
For dinner, move to the Santo Spirito neighbourhood, which is on the opposite side of the river as the Duomo and Uffizi. Less touristy and with a more youthful vibe, this area is full of great restaurants and bars. Il Santo Bevitore is clearly a popular spot, stretched across a number of rooms, with modern décor and a charming staff. (Italian waiters are one-of-a-kind.) They have excellent homemade pasta and pull wine bottles down from high shelves that line the walls per tables’ orders. Reservations are recommended and are definitely worth the extra planning.
Finish the day with gelato, if you have not ordered some already. We returned to Gelateria La Carraia a number of times during our trip, partly because it served more flavours than we could try in one go and partly because it was very conveniently located on a riverside corner.
Start the day off right with a painted cappuccino from News Café. Though it is obviously touristy and seemingly filled exclusively with American study-abroad students, this café is a fun breakfast spot. The barista will great you warmly if you return more than once, and he revels in the performative aspect of his job. Watch as he paints the Duomo or a heart or a cat with cocoa powder and chocolate syrup atop your morning coffee.
Once caffeinated, head to the Scuola del Cuoio, an artisanal leather workshop and complete gem. Created after WWII to provide orphans the opportunity to learn a trade and earn a living, the school continues to train students, many of whom then go on to work for luxury houses like Bottega Veneta. If you are in the market for a card holder or wallet, this is the place to go. Don’t forget to have your new purchase engraved by one of the students on site, a complimentary service that beats any experience in a crowded tourist shop.
Continue the shopping spree at the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy. (Check out the Santa Maria Novella basilica on the way.) Despite the nondescript storefront, this beautiful space is part old-world boudoir, part high-end beauty destination. Even if you leave empty handed, the fragrant interiors alone are worth the trip.
Plan to find lunch (and souvenirs) at the Central Market. On the first floor, there are produce stalls, biscotti stands and mini markets where you can stock up on balsamic vinegar and Amaretti. Upstairs, find an Italian cafeteria with lots of options: seafood, burgers, vegetarian, bruschetta and more. The market is bustling, with a piano that invites guests to play for the crowd and beautiful displays of food wherever you turn.
After lunch, walk over to the Giardini di Boboli, a beautiful park that was once the grounds of the Pitti Palace (also owned by the Medici family). The gardens are beautiful, rising above the city in labyrinthine paths lined with hedges and lush lawns dotted with daisies. Make your way up the steps, resting at the duck pond and taking in the amazing view of the city at your feet. Pro tip: If you study art history (or have ever taken an art history class), screenshot a picture of your MMS class docket and show it to the ticket office for free entry.
After a whirlwind trip in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, end your trip on a high note. Literally. Sesto on Arno, the rooftop bar and restaurant of the fancy Westin Excelsior hotel, looks out onto the Arno river and provides a prime spot to enjoy an Aperol spritz. From 7 to 9 pm, the bar offers a fantastic happy hour. For €18, you can order a drink from their extensive menu and enjoy a wide and continually refreshed selection of aperitivo. Followed by another trip to the nearby La Carraia, you will have a satisfying meal on top of the world.