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The Independent Woman's Guide to Florence

My history with Florence dates back to my childhood. I must have been around ten when my parents took me out for lasagna that was so good that now, five decades later, I still yearn for it.

Each time I visit I search (fruitlessly) for the restaurant with a green awning and a cellar dining space whose name I can’t recall.

Guide to Florence - dome of the synagogueThe blue dome of Florence's synagogue

Florence is divine...

There’s only one word for Florence: art, arguably the best in the world. The Uffizi, the Accademia and many others stuffed with the likes of Michelangelo will all fight for your attention. And it’s all within reach… Walkable.

Don’t worry about taking the bus - except to reach the Piazzale Michelangelo to capture ‘that’ classic shot with the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio in the distance. (Or you could walk, since Florentine food is superb and you’ll be eating plenty of it.)

Guide to Italy - Ponte Vecchio from aboveLooking down on the Ponte Vecchio by Anne Sterck

But it’s not perfect!

Florence has been called pretentious, superficial and snobby - it probably is a bit of each of these but do leave your Manolos at home: it’s a cobblestoned city for flats and you’ll quickly end up with a twisted ankle if you venture out in heels.

Don’t even think of driving: streets are narrow and parking is expensive.

In summer, high season, it can be hot and so crowded your elbows will get a workout. Watch out for counterfeit goods and illegal art reproductions - if you can afford it, it’s a fake. 

Guide to Florence - crowded piazzaDowntown Florence - getting crowded well before high season

Make up your own mind, but before you go

Get yourself into the Florentine frame of mind by reading books and watching a few films. Of the thousands of books about Florence, here are a few worthwhile ones you might have missed: Brunelleschi’s Dome, built without modern technology; any one of William Wallace’s books on Michelangelo, for your coffee table or for a very different take, Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy; the sentimental Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy and of course, A Room with a View by E.M. Forster, one of the 20th century’s top novels (most of us have seen the film but read the book?) I'll stop now - but there are many many more.

Would you rather watch a movie? Here's a selection of films with major Florence visuals.

Once you’re there, don’t miss…

My favorite, Piazzale Michelangelo - there’s something about seeing Florence’s expanse from above; the Duomo naturally, the so-called ‘crowning glory’ of Florence; the Piazza della Signoria, the city’s heartbeat (and a crowded one in summer); the world class Uffizi Gallery; the Palazzo Pitti and the nearby Boboli Gardens. And that’s just a start. Remember though, most tourist attractions are closed on Mondays (and check out this interactive map with Florence's main sights).

Guide to Florence - statues on the Piazza della SignoriaStatue of Hercules and Cacus, Piazza della Signoria in Florence

And now, down to business. The business of art.

If you'd rather not stand in a sweltering line outside or risk not getting in, buy your tickets ahead of time. If you're staying for a few days, get the Firenze Card at one of the tourist information offices (even if you buy it online you'll have to collect it in person). If you're not staying long enough to make the card worthwhile, do get your tickets online for the Uffizi and the Accademia.

Or go see less crowded art. Like the Opera museum in the Duomo, which houses Michelangelo’s (yes, him again) Florentine Pietà.

Tired of all that glorious history? Fight your way across the Arno along the Ponte Vecchio. When you reach Florence's Oltrarno district, wander around the street art. If you’re more the literary type, why not follow in Dante’s footsteps with this itinerary?

Back to school

You can learn Italian, of course, if you’re in Florence for even a week, at the Scuola Leonardo.

I can’t think of a better place than Florence to take Italian cooking classes - if you have half a day you can learn to make pizza (not quite Florentine but Italian nonetheless) and gelato. With more time, this full-day event includes a market tour and a countryside lunch (with Tuscan wine).

Of course this being Florence, art appreciation is inevitably on the menu at the Scuola Toscana, from a half-day Italian language and art history class to a half-year Renaissance Art curriculum.

A few social mores

As befits Italy, style is supreme and you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing flip-flops, gaudy T-shirts or tiny tops and shorts (churches, remember?).

Even if you’re on your own, you might run into a social occasion - in which case you will promptly either give or receive a kiss on each cheek (unless it’s your first meeting, in which case a handshake is fine).

Good table manners, courteous drinking habits and - who would have believed it possible - no more smoking in public.

Women and safety stuff

The 21st century notwithstanding, Italy remains Italy and men will pay (often vocal) attention to women. In their minds they're being more complimentary than rude, so do expect the word ‘bella’ to be bandied around regularly. Be Italian: ignore it and it will (usually) go away.

Safety issues? Few. I wandered around the city at all hours (and at every age) and was unconcerned. Of course, as always - common sense, no dark alleys, not too much bling, especially when there’s no one else around, keep hold of your purse and if you’re going to loiter, do so in a well-lit area.

My biggest fear in Florence? Pickpockets. I separate my valuables (and carry very few) among different purses and pockets.

Speaking of food

Here's what you can expect to eat in Florence: bistecca alla Fiorentina, a slab of tasty mouthmelting steak, crostini di fegato (toast with liver paté) or tripe (not for me!) If you’re not meat-inclined there’s always panzanella (cold tomato stew) or ribollita (cabbage and beans - better than it sounds), and cantuccini (almond cookies) at the end of your meal.

For a lunchtime snack head to the Mercato Centrale, a huge reconverted space with upmarket eateries upstairs. Go early, or you might end up like me, wandering around forever and unable to decide - until closing time! Take your pick, pay for your food (a burger with Florentine beef!) and sit at a communal table, perfect for the solo traveler. Or pick up your staples among the food stalls. 

For a reasonable meal and inexpensive risotto daily special, try Nerbone downstairs.

If you've stuffed yourself at lunch and are in the mood for nouvelle cuisine in the evening, Florentine-style at Ora d’Aria, and watch Chef Marco Stabile prepare it all from his open kitchen. Reserve! Very Italian, but very different.

Guide to Florence - Mercato CentraleThe Mercato Centrale in Florence - plenty of eats by Anne Sterck
Guide to Florence - thick steakBistecca alla Fiorentina - possibly the best beef I have ever tasted

In a shopping mood?

You’re in Florence: buy leather! But I’m a stationery addict so I’ll drop by Il Torchio or Pineider for luscious papers (they also sell fine leather goods). For lovely artisan goodies, head off to Oltrarno and browse around the leather workers and silversmiths.  

Need your travels a little more organized?

If you're really short on time and don't think you'll be able to return, a tour or two can help you see more in less time; just make sure you also take it slow and stroll through the city at your own pace.

You could take a Florence Photo Walk with a local photographer who knows all the best angles (and no, you won’t get thrown out if you shoot with an iPhone). And my fave in any city: a foodie tour.

Enough of the city? (Impossible, right?) Take an organized day trip. You’re already in the heart of Tuscany - this tour will push you a bit further to Siena and the hills of Chianti, to the streets of San Gimignano and the leaning tower of Pisa. If you wake up extra early this tour to Cinque Terre will ferry you between villages and even give you time for a Mediterranean dip. Finally, a wine and food tour of Chianti will have you sipping Chianti all along the Tuscan Hills.

Or if you’re keen to stay in town, hike up to the Piazzale Michelangelo (it’s a steep hike) or cheat a little by taking bus 12 or 13 up, and walk down. 

How about something wildly different?

Sometimes you just need a break from art. Surely one of Europe’s largest armory collections qualifies (the Stibbert Museum), as does La Specola, the city’s museum of natural history and zoology, with its more than 10 million (far too detailed) specimens.

Transport around Florence

Flying to Florence is a pain, or at least I’ve found it so - few airlines, high prices. The budget airlines fly into nearby Pisa airport, where you can catch a shuttle to Florence.

Inside Florence, walk. It’s the best way to get around.

Even if most of what you need is within walking distance, occasionally you may want to hop a bus. Buy your tickets in advance at a kiosk or Tabacchi, but forget taxis, you have to call, not hail them. Please remember to validate your ticket. To go further afield around Tuscany, use the regional buses or take the train, but be aware there are two stations. Most of your trains will leave from Santa Maria Novella although long-distance trains may stop at Campo di Marte to avoid central Florence. And don’t forget to validate your ticket (the fine is NOT worth it). Or - try the Hop-on-Hop-off bus if you have limited time and you want to see as much as you can.

Guide to Florence - Duomo exteriorFlorence's cathedral - commonly known as the Duomo di Firenze - is a Gothic structure started some 800 years ago. It took 140 years to build and is one of Italy's biggest churches, with the world's largest brick dome. The white, green and pink marble on the facade is extraordinary and I couldn't stop taking pictures. The cathedral complex is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Where to stay in Florence

At the rock bottom end are hostels, of course, not a bad choice for the ultra budget-minded. The Plus Hostel is plush and stylish (bath towel, hairdryer) as hostels go and has doubles and private rooms as well (some female-only) dorms - but is more of a party hostel. If you want a women-only dorm make that very clear. For less of a party vibe (as in: no noise after 11pm) there’s the Academy Hostel - you won’t find a better location in Florence. And no bunk beds!

Slightly more upmarket is the Hotel Lorena, with plenty of character and a 24hr reception, and the Relais Cavalcanti, with all-day snacks and free wifi, near the Piazza della Repubblica.

To find a wider range of hotels, look through this list of hotels in Florence from HotelsCombined, which compares costs and finds the cheapest prices.

And finally...

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