Traveling from Rome to Florence isn’t just a commute; it’s a leap through time. While a visit to Rome is an adventure to the zenith of Antiquity — imposing structures and ruins that leave much to the imagination, pillars and slabs and arches of an immortal nature — visiting Florence offers a more modern, more dynamic experience.
I traveled north using BlaBlaCar for the first time, a service that pairs passengers with drivers who need to reach the same destinations. I paid 18€ for a ride from Rome to Florence. (The price of a ticket for the fast train, to compare, is approximately 43€, though you also save an hour on travel.) It was a pleasant experience, and I enjoyed my conversations with a couple from Delhi and a girl from Bordeaux.
After the Western Roman Empire fell, Europe went “dark,” as the poet Petrarch noted in comparing the Early Middle Ages to that of the vibrant era that preceded it. That metaphoric light isn’t once again lit until the 14th century, when a revival blooms in Florence, otherwise known as the Renaissance.
Visually speaking, Florence is a eyegastic ocular feast of art and vibrance. I often say it’s like putting the Renaissance into a sock and smacking someone alongside the head with it. From the Duomo di Firenze (the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Giotto’s Campanile and the Battistero di San Giovanni to the colorful buildings along the recognizable bridge Ponte Vecchio, from the statues that surround the Galleria degli Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio to the grand arch that leads into the Piazza della Repubblica, Florence is like the Disneyland of Renaissance offerings: lots of magic in so small a space.
A trip up one of the city towers (either the tower of Palazzo Vecchio or that of the Campanile) offers a panorama of the city that helps illustrate its density. Heading to Piazzale Michelangelo is another option for seeing Florence from up high.
A stroll along the River Arno reminds one of the city’s strategic location, while being a romantic walk as well, and the numerous street artists dressed in costume or those reproducing great masterpieces on the city’s sidewalks recall that this is a city founded and devoted to the arts.
For a break, the Museo del Bargello is a good choice. “The Middle Ages on the Road” is the exhibition during my visit, a poignant look into the travel lifestyles of early pilgrims. The museum offers a peaceful courtyard inside where one can take a break from the packed city streets.
Florence offers cuisine beyond the famous bistecca alla fiorentina as well. The schiacciata is a steal, crisp Tuscan focaccia filled with meat, cheese and sauces that usually goes for 5€ or less. The sandwich shop All’Antico Vinaio is popular and the wait can reach 45 minutes (though sometimes there’s no line at all, so avoid major meal hours). Another specialty is the lampredotto, a panino with cow stomach. I did not end up trying this number.
For drinks, BrewDog Firenze (connected with the Scottish brewery, though the independently run pub features local offerings as well) is a required stop for those who love beer. Lapo, the proprietor, and Danella know a lot about craft beer, and they are more than happy to talk about them. I came here on my last night in Florence and I cannot imagine a better venue to have passed the time with local friends (and another traveler who brought in Heady Topper, rated the number one beer in the world by BeerAdvocate). If you’re looking for an Italian birra artigianale and you like hoppy IPAs like me, try the Spaceman by Brewfist (a brewery in Codogno). It’s delicious.
Trips outside of Florence are a must, as the Tuscan countryside offers so much. I traveled to Siena, San Gimignano and Castellina in Chianti, invited by Walks of Italy for their “Tuscany Day Trip from Florence with Chianti, Siena & San Gimignano” tour. We also visited Tenuta Casanova (in Castellina in Chianti) and Fattoria Poggio Alloro (in San Gimignano), two countryside houses that produce olive oil, wine and more. The former also offers cooking classes to travelers, a worthy option for foodies, and it looked like the participants were having lots of fun when I peeked into the kitchen. Wine, in Tuscany, is not only delicious, it’s also affordable. (Napa Valley, close as it is to my home, is lovely but anything but cheap.) I purchased two bottles for only 15€. That’s the price of a glass of wine in some bars in San Francisco.
The 10-hour Walks of Italy tour is a convenient way to see the surrounds of Florence, especially accommodating because you’re taken in an air-conditioned van (it was a particularly hot day). After a day of fun, you’re brought back to the piazza in the historic center where you started, just in time for the dinner you’ll probably skip since you already ate and drank so much.
Also, I fed a cow for the first time.
I’ve often said that Rome was my favorite city in the world. Perhaps it still is, but the tranquility of Florence (outside the historic center) and its friendly people have won me over. The Tuscans have their own word for “cool,” a word I would more than readily use to describe the city itself: