Story by Tricia Edgar
Vacay.ca Outdoors Columnist
FLORENCE, ITALY — It’s almost dinner time, and the church bells are ringing in the city below. My daughter and I are sitting in the backyard of a Florence bed and breakfast, formerly a manor house, drawing. I’m on my dream trip, a visit to the places that Leonardo da Vinci frequented during his life. We’re recreating a few of his activities as we go, and learning how to draw is something that we’re both interested in doing.
I came to Florence expecting to be unimpressed. I thought that I was an adventurer, more fond of wilderness excursions and oddball locations than the usual tourist trips. Our last big vacation had been to a mountaintop farm in Costa Rica, where we’d enjoyed feeding calves and listened to the howler monkeys regale us from their treetop perches. A visit to Italy seemed terribly tame.
In spite of my best intentions, I fell in love. We adored Florence, with its little streets and Renaissance architecture. Yes, there were other tourists — lots of them. But my tourist snobbery evaporated as I trod through the streets where Leonardo walked more than 500 years ago, crossing the Arno river on the Ponte Vecchio.
If you’re visiting Florence for the first time, how can you get ready to be enchanted by this beautiful city? Here are some tips.
1. Book your trip to Italy early. Line-ups are distinctly un-enchanting. We pre-booked tickets for museums in different Italian cities. I got my tickets to see The Last Supper in Milan three months in advance, and even at that time it was a challenge to find a date and time that fit. If you’re heading to the Uffizi Gallery or to the Accademia to see David in Florence, it’s best to have your tickets in hand.
2. Know the schedules. If you’re going to view works of art, plan your visit around the days and times the museums are open. Some museums may not be open on Mondays. If you’d like to view key artistic works, check online to see what shape they’re in. Some works of art may not be available for viewing during certain months, or even years, as they are being restored.
3. Go in the off season. In February, the line-ups were not overwhelming, even though it was still busy. If possible, plan your trip to Florence during times when the crowds will be small. While our B&B was normally $140-plus per night, we got a wonderful off-season deal.
4. Choose your hotel wisely. The suburbs aren’t actually that far away. We very much enjoyed our more suburban bed and breakfast, Ape Rosa Relais. It was delightful to walk in the garden, to have chocolate croissants on the patio, and to enjoy the relaxed feel of the suburban neighbourhood, all the while knowing that downtown was only a 15-minute bus ride away.
5. Explore by train. To those of us who live in urban centres in Canada, where an hour-long drive may only get you part way across the city in heavy traffic, the beauty of the European train system is that it can take you to another city in that hour. If you’re visiting Florence, it’s easy to go on a day trip to local towns such as Siena, Pisa, and Lucca.
6. Just walk. There’s so much to be said for walking around a city, taking in the atmosphere, having a gelato at a streetside cafe. Yes, museums are wonderful, but in an age when you can read tour guides, talk to people in other countries online, and even view tourist sites via web cam, there’s a lot to be gained by just being in the place where you are, watching the people, and tasting the food.
7. Go off the beaten path in Europe. “Vinci? Why?” That’s what I heard from our bed-and-breakfast operators as we tried to figure out how to navigate our way to the small town where Leonardo was born. As always, I love to head off to odd locations on a mission. In this case, we took a day trip to Vinci, a small town that hosts a Leonardo museum and the house where he was born, a three-kilometre walk from the town centre.
8. Have a reason for your trip. You might be visiting Italy to taste the food or to see major works of art. You might be coming to take a class in drawing or cooking. Wherever I’m going, I like to have a purpose, something to hang my hat on for the trip. In my case, it was to trace the life of Leonardo, from his birthplace near Vinci to the house where he died in Amboise, France.
Must-See Sites in Florence
If you’re into art, get tickets to the Uffizi Gallery ($12.50) and the Galleria dell’ Accademia. The galleries have paintings and art by a few artists you may have heard of, including Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
You can’t really miss the Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. In Florence, all roads downtown lead to the Duomo, one of the largest churches in the world. If you’re feeling adventurous, head up the tiny, twisting staircase that’s 463 stairs long and up the nerve-wrackingly steep steps to the top, where you can see all of Florence and the surrounding areas.
The Ponte Vecchio might be surrounded by tourist shops, but that doesn’t detract much from its romance. It’s Florence’s medieval bridge across the Arno river — and gelato awaits you on the other side. Across the Ponte Vecchio, you’ll find the Giardino di Bolboli and the Pitti Palace, the former home of the Medici family. Enjoy the gardens and the view of the city, and go on a walk before venturing downward into the city once again.
Cradled in history and place, we fell so easily into the past in Florence. Walking through the streets and enjoying the atmosphere and the views over the river, I understood why Leonardo had felt so comfortable in this beautiful city. With good planning and an explorer’s sensibility, you can dive deep into this city and its surrounding countryside, enjoying the Renaissance feel of this city nestled in the Tuscan hills.
More About Travelling to Florence, Italy
Airfare to Florence: A round-trip ticket from Toronto or Montreal in May costs approximately $1,800, based on a recent search on Air Canada. From Vancouver or Calgary, the airfare is roughly $2,000. Those rates are based on flights with one connection.
Currency Exchange Rate: $1 Canadian equals 0.75 euros, based on current rates on xe.com.
Distance to Other Italian Cities: Florence is 230 kilometres (143 miles) from Rome, 204 km (127 miles) from Venice, and 248 km (155 miles) from Milan.