A Week in Florence and Tuscany

Florence is best in the off-season; the summer months are painfully crowded. If you love art history, this is your chance to dive deep. Tuscany contains a mind boggling number of sights and experiences. The hill towns, like San Gimignano, are incredibly atmospheric (and touristy). Sienna’s duomo is a stunning architectural creation literally cantilevered out over a hill. Get out of town to see the vineyards. Arezzo’s stunning Piero Della Francesca murals are worth the trip alone.

Piazza del Duomo, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
The cathedral, usually called the Duomo, is Florence’s most recognizable building. You are able to catch glimpses of its magnificent red-tiled cupola from just about anywhere in the city center. Construction on the church complex began in 1296 and the work—Brunelleschi’s dome and his Baptistery, and Giotto’s bell tower—was completed in 1426. The interior of this architectural is reserved in contrast with the exterior’s marble Gothic facade and its green, pink, and white stripes. Climb the 463 steps up into the dome for a close-up look at Giorgio Vasari’s fresco, The Last Judgment, and a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Via dei Tavolini, 19r, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
On a cool night in November, walking alone from an outdoor food market in the center of Florence, I decided to indulge my sweet tooth yet again. I stopped for a “snack,” one that I would never eat just before dinner back home yet couldn’t get enough of in Florence...gelato. Eating gelato, with its creamy texture and multitude of vibrant flavors, is certainly one of the food highlights of being in Italy. Florence has plenty of excellent gelato shops, or gelaterie. Perché no! was my favorite choice because of its convenient location right in the historic center, between Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica, and because of its flavors. This combination of persimmon and dark chocolate made eating gelato outside in the cold just before dinner seem perfectly normal.
Via della Scala, 18, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
Hundreds of years ago, at the height of Florence’s Renaissance heyday, visitors to this cultural capital wouldn’t have stayed in the kinds of luxury hotels that now line its picturesque streets. Rather, the well-heeled would have come at the behest of friends, lodging in private homes whose unassuming facades in the best neighborhoods belied their sumptuous interiors and private gardens, outfitted with art and artifacts collected from around the world.

A guesthouse to its core, Casa Howard continues this Florentine tradition; there is neither lobby nor restaurant, and the owner Massimiliano Leonardi di Casalino lives in his own apartment here while in town (note, it can be rented when he’s away). Jennifer Howard Forneris, one of the design-conscious proprietors who has since passed away, was the daughter of renowned textile designer Luciano Forneris. She gave each room its own look, with finds from her and Leonardi di Casalino’s world travels. A media room is the sole common area, and a hammam steam room and an on-site concierge service are the only nods toward traditional hotel services. Insider recommendations are personalized according to guests’ preferences, and the honor bar feels more like a friend’s (well-stocked) fridge.
Via Ricasoli, 58/60, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Most people head to this ex-art school to ogle the world’s most famous nude statue. Michelangelo’s David was carved from a single five-meter-high block of milky-white marble in 1504 and originally stood in Piazza della Signoria. Don’t neglect the other artworks in the gallery, however. They include Michelangelo’s four unfinished Slaves, straining to escape their stone prison, and a fabulous collection of early musical instruments. To avoid endless lines, advance booking is advised.
Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
When you visit the area of the Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Republica in Florence, don’t miss this interesting attraction. From Piazza della Signoria, walk towards Piazza della Republica, and on the left side, you’ll see Piazza del Mercato Nuovo, which means New Market. It is an open building which houses stalls that sell all sorts of stuff from leathers to clothes, to souvenirs. On one side of the building, you’ll find the Fontana del Porcellino (Porcellino Fountain). Go there and rub the wild boar’s nose for good luck. After that, put a coin on the tongue and let it fall with the water into the metal grate below it. It is believed that if your coin falls through below the grate, you will have good luck. I was observing this group of American tourists trying out their luck here. After a few failed tries, one of the woman in the group made a comment about her friends being cheapskates as they have put only a penny. Apparently, the way the tongue is angled, is that only heavier coins fall through the grate. And truly enough, when the woman put in a quarter instead of a penny, it fell through :-) It’s one of those cheap thrills where you wish for good luck. Well, you never know! You might have the Porcellino luck :-)
Via Lambertesca, 18/r, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
You can’t visit Florence without indulging in ice cream once at the very least, but it’s not so easy to find the real deal. Carapina, gelateria of choice for cognoscenti (but often overlooked by tourists), is located a stone’s throw from the Ponte Vecchio, brain child of Simone Bonin who is widely acknowledged to be one of the best ice cream makers in Italy. Sixteen flavors are available at any one time and produced in small batches each day from top-notch local, strictly seasonal ingredients. Classics include pistachio, ‘real’ yoghurt and the bitterest of bitter chocolate but there are more unusual flavors too like the sweet/salty gorgonzola, Parmigiano reggiano or creamy mozzarella di bufala.
Via XX Luglio, 11, 50022 Panzano In Chianti FI, Italy
Dario Cecchini is the most famous butcher in Italy and is probably the only one who recites Dante while carving up his carcasses. His small shop on the outskirts of the medieval village of Panzano is a Mecca for carnivores seeking quality meat (plus curious tourists), and he also has a restaurant—Solociccia—where you can sample some of the best bistecca in the region. If you visit his Antica Maccelleria Cecchini on a Sunday morning, when he works to a background track of jazz and opera, you’ll be offered a glass of wine, a hunk of pecorino cheese, and a nibble of some of his meaty products (like the fennel-flavoured salami called ‘finocchiona’) to ease the waiting time.
6 Piazzale degli Uffizi
Ideally you’d have a whole day to appreciate the world’s foremost collection of Renaissance paintings, housed in the 16th-century headquarters of the Medici court. But for those with less time, highlights include the three great Maestà altarpieces in Room 2, Gentile da Fabriano’s glowing Adoration of the Magi (Rooms 5 and 6), Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino (Room 7), Fra Filippo Lippi’s ethereal Madonna and Child with Two Angels (Room 8), and the celebrated Botticellis in Rooms 10 to 14. Advance booking is advised.
Piazza S. Croce, 16, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
The Franciscan Basilica di Santa Croce, with its striped green-and-white marble facade, dates from about 1294. Inside are the tombs of many celebrated early Florentines, including Dante, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Among the many art treasures are radiant frescoes by Giotto and his pupil Taddeo Gaddi, which decorate the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels, and the newly restored Cappella dei Pazzi, a Renaissance architectural masterpiece designed by Brunelleschi.
Piazza Pitti, 1, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
You will likely see Bronzino’s famous portrait of Eleonora (or Eleanor) de Toledo, in the Uffizi, during your visit to Florence. The Spanish noblewoman who became the duchess of Florence in 1539 when she married Cosimo I de’ Medici was unusual for her time, playing an active role in politics and as a patron of the arts. Her patronage extended to garden design, in its infancy (at least in Europe) in the 16th century. Eleonora commissioned the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace as a green escape from the city; they continue to provide a retreat for travelers today.

Among the earliest examples of the formal compositions that would dominate garden design through the 20th century, the grounds are dotted with classical statues and fountains while straight axes run up and down the hillside with an apparent disregard for topography. A moment in design history can be experienced first hand here. There’s a feeling that the man who planned the gardens (Niccolò Tribolo) conceived a formal plan and then simply laid it atop the site. Principles of garden design were later to shape city planning. The allées of the Boboli Gardens were early models for grand boulevards leading the eye to distant monuments. One of the pleasures of gardens, however, is that you don’t need to know their histories to enjoy the flowers in bloom or the sounds of birdsong and splashing fountains.
Via delle Porte Sante, 34, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
Most people who visit Florence know that walking to Piazzale Michelangelo is a must. However, fewer people know that walking a little higher to the old church of San Miniato al Monte is an even better experience. Amble down the Arno River to Viale G. Poggi, up the green pathways to Piazzale Michelangelo, then continue on until you reach the busy square with a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David at its center. This church facing the square is one of the oldest in the area, a beautiful 12th-century example of Romanesque architecture. Note, especially, the mosaics on the facade and, inside, above the altar; the floor decorations are also worth a look. There is also a small shop next to the church, run by monks. Take in the views from the outside, stroll the grounds, and see the old cemetery. Entrance to the church is free, and if you’re lucky, you might even hear the monks singing.
Il Campo, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Considered one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares, the Piazza del Campo—or, simply, Il Campo—has been at the heart of life in Siena since it began as a marketplace and meeting spot for the area’s villages; the nine-lined, fishbone-patterned red-brick pavement was laid in the 14th century, giving the shell-shaped square more formal boundaries. Today, Il Campo hosts all the city’s major festivals and events, like the biannual Palio horse race, and is home to a variety of notable sites, including the 14th-century Torre del Mangia brick-faced tower, and the Palazzo Pubblico and Civic Museum, with its rich collection of Sienese School masterpieces. The cafés and restaurants around the square provide welcome shade and sustenance—and great people-watching opportunities—after a day spent exploring the city.
Via S. Pietro, 29, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
Active from the 13th to 15th centuries and considered an influence on the pre-Renaissance movement, the Sienese School of painting is identifiable by its themes—always religious, and usually with a focus on Biblical miracles—and its signature style, a dreamy mix of Roman, Gothic, and Byzantine influences that often feature dazzling gold backgrounds. Opened in 1932, this museum boasts one of the world’s largest collections of Sienese School works, as well as a number of Renaissance and late-medieval pieces from Italian artists. Wander through the impressive building—a combination of two 14th- and 15th-century noblemen’s palazzi—to find works like Duccio’s Madonna and Child, Michelino da Besozzo’s Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine (celebrating the “calling” of Siena’s native daughter), and Bartolo di Fredi’s expansive Adoration of the Magi. Paired with a visit to Florence’s Uffizi, coming here offers insight into the differences—and longtime rivalry—between the two cities.
Piazza Antelminelli, 55100 Lucca LU, Italy
Dedicated to St. Matthew, Lucca’s beautiful cathedral was built in typical Romanesque style in the 12th century and has a curious asymmetrical, tiered façade covered with fantastically complex carvings. The dim interior houses one of the town’s great artistic treasures, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, carved by the Sienese master Jacopo del la Quercia in 1408 for the bride of bigwig Paolo Guinigi who died tragically young. A little dog lies bereft at his mistress’s feet…It’s a real tear-jerker.
10/R Via del Monte alle Croci
There are around 600 wines from all over Italy (and 50 by the glass) to choose from at this wood-panelled wine bar which has a pretty terrace overlooking the old city gate of San Miniato in the buzzy San Niccolò neighbourhood. Lunchtimes are good for a relaxed glass of something and a snack in the sun while evenings, when you can order a plate of delicious pasta or a carpaccio to go with your wine, are more crowded. Wines to go are available in the shop next door. .
Piazza del Duomo, 56126 Pisa PI, Italy
Pisa’s famous leaning tower (the campanile of the adjacent Duomo) is part of the Piazza del Duomo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that also includes the Duomo, baptistery and cemetery. Begun in 1173, the tower began to lean almost immediately thanks to soil subsidence. To try to halt the tilt, cables and counterweights have been inserted. A spiral staircase with nearly 300 steps leads to the top of this unique, iconic building.
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