Florence is a museum. It’s a chaotic, beautiful, slow, delicious, bureaucratic, welcoming place. It’s full of history and contradictions.
I’m staying in the center on a small side street near the Santa Maria Novella train station. My host’s apartment is where she grew up as a girl, now occupied by her daughter and other guests, variably. Today I met the grandparents.
In the apartment, with its polished wooden ceilings and solid wooden doors and arched gateways, I feel at home, floating above Florence’s street noise.
Outside, I feel a bit lost, mainly because it’s easy to get lost! Cellphone GPS helps, but even so I’ve found myself lost three times. Each time, I encountered interesting places, and I’m finally learning my way around the Duomo and its environs.
A few tips for fellow travelers to Italy:
Consider booking your first night in a hotel. Why? It turns out that hotels take care of some paperwork that you may need to complete yourself otherwise. In my case, that meant spending two hours in a crowded immigration hall instead of at the Uffizi this morning.
This is actually unlikely to happen to you. As far as I can tell (and I am not an expert), it only arises under a specific set of circumstances:
1.) You are staying in Italy for more than eight business days after your arrival; and
2.) You came to Italy via another Schengen (EU) country (this includes connecting flights), instead of getting your passport stamped at an airport in Italy; and
3.) You aren’t staying in a hotel for the first several days (e.g., if you are a guest, staying with family/friends, or hostelling/camping).
Granted, if you ignore this paperwork, nothing is likely to happen. But if you need to go to the police for any reason after your eight days, you could be deported, which sucks and could have other repercussions. I’m staying for a month, so I dealt with the two-hour paperwork process this morning. The whole process made me feel uncomfortable.
Next time I will just book a hotel for the first night.
The Firenze Card
Consider buying the Firenze Card if you can make it work for you. This card provides access to nearly all of the major museums in Florence, plus the Boboli Gardens. It works for 72 hours from the time of activation. This is generally inconvenient because:
1.) You may feel pressured to go to as many museums as possible instead of exploring the city as a whole; and
2.) You could end up with museum overload, where you rush past great art because, “Hey, I’ve already seen 50 Botticellis today and I’m hungry.”
But here is the really good thing about the Firenze Card:
It lets you skip the lines.
If you have seen these lines, which can be hours long, you will know this is a giant benefit. I waited approximately 5 minutes to enter the Uffizi Gallery today and 2 minutes at the Palazzo Vecchio. What is an hour of your time worth? Right. So I got the card. It also comes with a free bus pass; I haven’t used it yet since I tend to walk everywhere, but I like having the option.
I decided to try to spread the Firenze Card’s goodness over four days instead of three, allowing me to maintain a leisurely pace and do non-museum things too. So I activated it Tuesday at 1pm. It’s good until Friday at 1pm.
Tuesday afternoon, I saw the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio and Torre Arnolfo (tower). No lines, so all of this took about 3 hours. Then I meandered through the streets to my favorite gelato place. On my way home, I passed the Basilica de San Lorenzo, so I ducked in there just before closing time. Then I went back to the apartment to upload my pictures, went out for dinner, and returned home to blog and do nerd-related self-directed learning. So far, the Firenze Card is working for me.
The food is amazing if you know where to go: The TripAdvisor top restaurants list is a good start. I’ve tried four of the top 30 so far, plus some other places:
Mario: The owner of the apartment where I’m staying recommended this place near the Central Market, and it may be the best pasta I ever ate. Clearly homemade, al dente to perfection, with tomato sauce that was light, fresh and not overwhelming. Go early because there’s always a wait, but it’s shorter before noon.
Edoardo Gelato Biologico: There’s a huge line most of the time. It’s still worth it. The plain Crema flavor (fresh eggs with vanilla) is my favorite — always a good sign with food — though I loved the now-vanished weekly special, Honey & Poppyseed.
Ete Bistro: Organic bistro just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. Had a delicious spinach-ricotta gallette for dinner, which was the daily special.
Marco Ottaviano Il Gelato Gourmet: It was very good gelato, with great pistachio and Crema del Duca (lemon) flavors, but I preferred Edoardo. Both places far surpassed the gelato I ate in my life prior to Italy.
Amorino: Awesome panini and extremely friendly owner — I had tuna, capers and olive oil on flat focaccia bread.
Central Market food court: The cheese place at the end on the left has amazing fresh ricotta, which I paired with a small roll from the bakery a few stands down. The other cheese place has a wider selection, and I took home a piece of smelly but delicious raw cow milk cheese. The fruit stall has good fruit except for the squishy plum I received, and the yogurt was tasty. I took home supplies for several days because breakfast is not a big thing in Italy. Most people just have a pastry with coffee. I need a bit more substantial food.
On a not-so-great note, during an otherwise-good lunch at Gilli, I was charged 7 euros for a tiny pot of tea holding about 8 ounces of water. That’s about $10 for one teabag and a cup of water. I was planning to buy a pile of chocolates from this place, but I decided not to. Instead I bought a 2-euro pastry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it also was not that great.
I am learning a bit of Italian with the help of Rosetta Stone, about half an hour per day. Each day I understand a little more. Moreover, I have found absolutely everyone to be understanding (or at least tolerant) of my limited-language skills. I’ve also found almost everyone to be very courteous. As a solo traveller, I was a little worried about this, but Florence has been a largely great experience so far.
On to the next day! By the time you read this, I’ll be out of the apartment exploring the city. Ciao!