We planned a vacation to Italy in May 2013 and were really excited to see more of the country and eat some good food. The challenge was that we could only spare a week due to our jobs, but wanted to see as many of the highlights as we could. During our nine days in Italy (Click Here), we decided to spend four in Florence and use the city as a base to see different parts of the country. We found this to be vastly more relaxing and enjoyable than constantly moving from one town to another. Hopefully our experience is a good guide on what to do in Florence, Italy.
Additional pictures are available in our Italy gallery (Click Here).
This is what we did:
Oh the beauty of high-speed trains in Europe! From Florence’s train station, you can take one of many daily high-speed trains to Venice and arrive there in just two hours. We took a morning train and arrived in Venice in time to enjoy lunch on a nice patio with a canal view. We spent about five hours wandering around the city. It was enough time to check out the waterfront, the market, and the off-the-beaten-track alleyways. We of course made time to enjoy a glass of wine on a patio and to try the local gelato (yum!).
Be warned that Venice will be overrun with tour groups, especially around the Bridge of Sighs and Piazza San Marco. While we have all seen the beautiful photos online of the deserted square, that does not happen in reality. Depending on your tolerance for being jostled by other people trying to get the perfect picture and pigeons, you may find these sights less than you dreamed. They are interesting to see, but may not be the highlight of your trip to Venice.
The best part of Venice is getting lost in the streets and squares not jammed to the rafters with other tourists. The main core is not that big. If you go too far in one direction, you run into a canal. Explore, and get a feel for the “real” Venice – that is what we enjoyed.
We walked from our hotel to the SITA bus station in town and bought tickets for the next bus to Siena. The SITA buses are very frequent so we were leaving the bus terminal within five minutes or so. The bus was comfortable and the ride took just under an hour. We spent several hours exploring the town, including having an obligatory pasta lunch, before heading back on a bus to Florence.
Siena is beautiful, has a picturesque main square, and basically checks all the boxes for a beautiful Italian town. But for some reason, we left feeling underwhelmed. To each their own, as we have many friends that loved Siena and not just because Rick Steve’s told them to love Siena.
On one of our days in Florence, we booked a group wine tour (which turned out to be private – bonus), which included tours and tastings at two wineries and lunch in a small village. It was a very memorable trip. Our guide drove us through amazing Tuscan scenery, tasted good wine and olive oil, and spent about an hour visiting the walled hillside town of San Gimignano. We both loved San Gimignano and preferred it to Siena. If you go, you have to try the gelato at the famous award-winning gelato place in town (Gelateria Dondoli. Don’t be fooled by the many other gelato establishments claiming to be the world’s best). One of the funniest memories of this wine tour was how much wine our tour guide (and designated driver!) drank over the course of the afternoon. It was definitely more than Christine drank and more than either one of us would be comfortable having if driving!
Last but not least, take the time to explore Florence itself. Some people prefer it to Venice, although they’re hard to compare. Walking along the river and across the Ponte Vecchio are necessities. The main square with the Duomo is beautiful but can be crowded.
If you want to see Michaelangelo’s David, you may need to book your museum ticket ahead. But if you don’t get in, comfort yourself in the knowledge that it’s not the real statue anyway. The real one being kept far away from anyone who could damage it. There are many other reproductions around the city which don’t require advance booking, and that you can admire from a patio with a glass of vino in your hand.
The food was good around the city, but we struggled to find a great pizza. Unfortunately, the best pizza we had in Italy on this trip was in a busy plaza beside the Vatican…if anyone finds a pizza place in Florence they highly recommend, please share in the comments section below.
Besides the options listed above, it is also possible to use Florence as a base to visit Pisa. If you’re willing to have a longer day, Cinque Terre is also possible. On our trip, we spent several days in Cinque Terre, then stopped off in Pisa for a few hours on our way to Florence.