I haven’t traveled to Florence since I was 12 years old. Back then I was only interested in two things: gelato and shopping. I refused to enter the Duomo. I didn’t want to see the Uffizi. All I wanted to do was eat stracciatella and buy clothes at Benetton.
In the years since then, my tastes have changed a bit. A love of food has supplanted my love of shopping, and my distinct lack of interest in Renaissance art disappeared when I took an art history class while studying abroad in Prague.
Armed with my new interests, I traveled to Tuscany with a completely different agenda than that of my first trip. Thanks to Rail Europe, I took the train from Bologna to Florence, a 40-minute high-speed journey with scenery that mostly featured dark tunnels. It got us there quickly, though, and given how anxious I was to get to Florence, I was glad of it.
When we arrived at the Santa Maria Novella train station in the city center, we walked to our accommodation in Florence. It was an apartment that Roomorama had offered my friends and me for our stay in the city, and its location near the Duomo and the Uffizi was ideal.
Our host met us at the door and gave us an overview of the flat, which was on the top floor of a building on a residential street. The apartment had one bedroom, a huge living room with a second bed and kitchen, and a separate bathroom. It was a good place for us to stay, not least because it was big and a fourth friend joined us for our stay in Florence.
After saying good-bye to our host, we walked down the street to a restaurant called L’Antico Noe. We had read good things about its rustic interior and hearty food, and we enjoyed a feast of fresh pasta dishes and a bottle of Tuscan red as we soaked up the atmosphere.
Leaving the restaurant, we made a quick stop at a gelateria called Vivoli. There we picked up some dessert and a glass of Prosecco on our way to the Uffizi. Yes, this time I was not only excited to see the world’s most famous collection of Renaissance art, but I had even booked tickets well in advance to avoid the massive lines. My 7th grade English teacher, who took me on my last trip to Florence, would be proud.
Really, she would. When my 12-year-old self found out that we would be forced to spend an afternoon looking at Renaissance art, I put up a fight. My teacher turned to me and said: “When you go back to California, you will be embarrassed to tell your friends that you didn’t go to the Uffizi.” Actually, I wouldn’t be. They didn’t know what the Uffizi was. But they do now. And so do I. And I couldn’t wait to visit.
We spent all afternoon at the museum, admiring everything from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to famous works by Michelangelo, Giotto, da Vinci, and Raphael. When our legs were tired, we sat in the sun on the roof terrace, which overlooked Brunelleschi’s iconic Duomo dome in the distance.
After walking all over the museum, we strolled through the Piazza della Signoria and treated ourselves to some wine at an outdoor table in front of a cafe near our apartment. From there we went to dinner at Ristorante La Giostra, a restaurant down the street that came highly recommended by friends of mine that studied abroad in Florence.
La Giostra was packed when we arrived. Every diner in the restaurant was American, which made me a bit nervous. I grew increasingly worried when the waiter recommended the most expensive item on the menu when I asked for a recommendation (the dish also contained white truffles, which were out of season). But when the food arrived and I took a bite of my pasta (not the truffle one), I knew exactly why my friends had suggested the place. Everything was delicious.
After dinner we slept off our food comas and woke up the next morning ready to see—er, eat—more of Florence. To that end, we crossed the Arno River to get to a restaurant called Trattoria 4 Leoni. Set in a quiet piazza off a narrow street, it felt like a hidden gem.
It wasn’t. Like La Giostra, it was packed inside, and with good reason. The food was excellent, and the elegant decor in the dining room was a refreshing break from the usual borderline-tacky Tuscan interiors.
After lunch, we walked across the Ponte Vecchio. Completed in 1345, it is the oldest and most famous bridge in Florence. On either side, shops selling gold and silver jewelry beckoned. Thankfully my interests on this trip didn’t include shopping.
Once on the other side of the river, we stopped at a famous gelateria called Festival del Gelato. It offered more flavors than I had ever seen before, and rivaled the famous Fenocchio in Nice for variety, which was quite a feat.
After choosing from the vast selection, we walked up to the Duomo, the famous cathedral that I refused to enter as a 12-year-old (there was gelato calling!). Into the doors we went, and off my to-do list I crossed the inside of the church. To be honest, the interior of the Duomo was a bit of a letdown compared to the dazzling exterior, but don’t tell my childhood self that she was somewhat justified in choosing ice cream over it.
Outside the church were the famous golden doors of the Battistero di San Giovanni. Designed by Ghiberti in the early 1400’s, they were one of the few non-gelato, non-Benetton things I remember from my first trip to Florence.
From the doors we walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, another of Florence’s famous places of worship. Having read E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, I was excited to see the building that played such a pivotal role in the novel.
We entered for free thanks to it being Culture Week in Florence. What we found was a much more impressive interior than that of the Duomo. We walked around the church, admiring the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and Ghiberti, and standing in awe of Brunelleschi’s famous Cappella dei Pazzi.
Emerging from Santa Croce, we found ourselves in a wide piazza under a gloriously sunny sky. With only a few hours left in the city, we decided to seek out the best rooftop bar in Florence.
And we found it. After some quick Internet research, we discovered the Sky Bar at Hotel Continentale. Located just around the corner from the Ponte Vecchio, the hip hotel had one of the best rooftop bars I have ever been to. Forget a room with a view; this was a deck with a panorama.
As Prosecco gave way to Campari-and-soda, we admired the dome of the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Florentine rooftops below. It was the perfect ending to our trip to Italy, and it made us want to stay forever.
Alas, our train to Pisa Airport beckoned. We made our way to Santa Maria Novella and waved good-bye to Florence with heavy hearts. But as sad as I was to leave behind the great art, beautiful architecture, delicious food, and amazing roof terrace, I was happy to have had a second chance to explore the city. And Mrs. Mell: I’m glad I can tell my friends that I went to the Uffizi.