Florence. The city at the heart of the Renaissance is just as enchanting as I always imagined it – an unmatched cultural hub with a wealth of art and architecture. Walk a few streets away from the tourist traps and  you will find yourself engulfed in welcoming atmosphere of a small town, with winding streets and cafes filled with locals. However, it was not exploring the city that was the real highlight of our trip to Tuscany, it was escaping to the sun soaked countryside, wandering through the vineyards and tasting the wines that have made the region famous.

We took the high speed train from Rome to Florence late in the afternoon. Arriving to Santa Maria Novella station, we looked in vain for an information point and ended up finding a map outside to get our bearings. Waking through the narrow streets to our hostel and seeing all the little cafés packed with people enjoying themselves, I immediately had a great feeling about the city. We made it to the Wow Florence hostel and were impressed with the layout and facilities – it is rare to find one in such a good location. We dropped off our bags and headed out to grab a bite at Florens – the pasta was definitely the best I have had – before having an early night.

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The next day we set out to explore the city – after a short walk we came to the Piazza del Duomo – and saw the incredible Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore. We have seen many, many chapels, churches, cathedrals and basilicas but this one was something special. Rising grey with green detailing high above the city skyline with orange terracotta roof tiles, the cathedral dominates the square, making the opposite Baptistery of St John look tiny by comparison. The Baptistery was undergoing restoration works while we were there – though fortunately we could still see the exquisite bronze doors, years in the making, with panels showing the life of St. John.

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We followed the crowd of tourists south to the Piazza della Signora. Walking through the streets are many hawkers selling everything from caricatures to “selfie” sticks but one very talented lady literally painting the cobblestones caught our eye – sad to think it the artwork would be washed away days later. The square features the Loggia dei Lanzi, which houses many beautiful statues, and is the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio (the “Old Palace”). The palace now holds the Uffizi gallery, which houses a huge collection of art gathered by the Medici family during the Renaissance. Entering into the palace, you pass a replica of Michelangleo’s David and then into a stunning atrium – with frescoes running around the walls and the columns covered in delicate detailing.

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We passed over the Ponte Vecchio, which spans the Arno river, one of the few bridges in Europe which still has shops built all the away across it. What were once butcher shops have now largely been converted into high end jewellery and art stores.

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Walking along the south bank of the river Arno we headed to the best viewpoint in the city – Michaelangelo’s Plaza. Walking along the river bank and up the stairs you see another replica of David and the Florentine skyline dominated by the cathedral.

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For our last day we wanted to do some shopping and  go out into the countryside. Heading into town, we found some local stores selling leather goods and picked up a thin brown leather belt and some sandals. Walking down the main shopping street, we spotted the old family home of Salvatore Ferragamo which had been converted into a store and museum. I had always known about the Italian designer because my mom owned a few pairs and they were her prize possessions. Going into the exhibit I was greeted by old photographs of Salvatore and his family, wood carved shoes with autographs of his clientele.  Unfortunately the museum is not about the man  – rather the artwork that was left behind in his family home.

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For the afternoon we were booked in for a tour of Chianti  and to go wine tasting for the day through Smart Trip. Riding on the bus out of the city we were treated to views of rolling hills covered in vineyards and dotted with stone cottages.

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We went to two different wineries – Panzanello and Il Molino di Grace – and tried different wines like Chianti Classic, Reserve, and Colli, all made with the local Sangiovese grape.  We even tasted Grappa, an alcoholic beverage made from the entire grape – including the skin and stem – tasted like vodka! We finished off a perfect day by exploring the village of Greve-in-Chianti. Hidden away in a square off the main road is the famous butcher, Antica Macelleria Falorni. We wandered through the shop, ducking the meat hanging from the roof and taking in the wonderful smells of meat and cheese before ordering a platter. The meats and cheeses are paired with local honey – amazing! The bus only stops in town for a short time so hurry to the butcher and order the platter to go.

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Arriving back still buzzed from our afternoon, we went in search of some authentic Italian cuisine. The hostel recommended nearby Tito’s – an old family restaurant. Signatures cover the walls and the waiter was hilarious – even grabbing the waitress to dance and spin her on his way over. They must have been expecting us because the wine was already on the table. One warning – just don’t order a cappuccino!

We still weren’t tired so we set out to explore Florence by night. The streets were still packed as we strolled towards Palazzo Vecchio. A long line, a gigantic wall of flowing chocolate and a chocolate filled “vault” caught our eye – which could only mean one thing – gelato. We stopped in at Venchi for a sweet treat to cap the perfect day.

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Aside: As soon as we arrived our hostel recommended we book ahead for both the Galleria de Academia (where you can see Leonardo da Vinci’s David) and the Uffizi gallery (which houses an incredible collection of art collected by the Renaissance rulers the Medicis). We tried to book online but it was already too late – fully booked for the days we were in town. The lines are absolutely insane for both these attractions so don’t make the same mistake – book ahead here. Unfortunately we missed both as a result – just another reason to head back to one of my favorite cities.

Next Stop: Cinque Terre

Written by Aimee C