How to spend a perfect day in Florence, Italy

In college, I lived in Florence for six months during a study-abroad program. I was completely immersed in the beauty of the city, and even today, Florence holds a large chunk of my soul. I’ve returned several times since then and still dream of moving there permanently. While there are enough wonders in this city to keep you occupied for weeks on end, here’s how I would spend one day soaking up the best Florence has to offer.

Start your day the Italian way, with un caffé (espresso) and a pastry. Have breakfast standing up at the bar for less money and the most authentic Italian experience. In Italy, the cost of espresso is government regulated; even at the most fancy cafes, drinking an espresso while standing at the bar will rarely cost you more than €1.

Fueled by your skimpy Italian breakfast, make your way to the Duomo and get your tickets to climb Giotto’s Bell Tower. Arrive as early as possible (opens at 8:30) to beat the crowds. While you could climb the interior of the famous dome, I much prefer the less crowded bell tower climb, which offers incredible views of Florence and the dome. If the line is long, you can pop over to the Duomo Museum behind the church to purchase a Duomo combo-ticket. The combo-ticket costs €18, is valid  for four days, and includes entrance to the bell tower climb, Baptistery, Duomo Museum, and Duomo crypt. (Note that it does not include the dome climb, however.)

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View of the Duomo from Giotto’s Bell Tower.

After conquering the 413 steps of the bell tower, you’ve earned a reward in the form of some delicious Italian gelato. One of my favorites is Gelateria Carrozze, on the riverfront 30 meters from the Ponte Vecchio (toward the Uffizi) at Piazza del Pesce 3. Try their pistacchio, you won’t be disappointed.

With your gelato in hand, take a stroll across the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge. Notice all the pricey jewelry stores, and imagine that during medieval times, these stalls housed Florence’s meat market. Rather than having to cart away their waste, the butchers simply dumped everything in the river. Convenient for the butchers, not so nice for everyone else. When the Medici rulers started using the Vasari corridor (the enclosed passageway above the bridge that connects the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio) to commute to work, the smelly butcher shops were replaced with more refined gold and silver shops.

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Ponte Vecchio, Florence.

By now, you’re probably starting to wonder what’s for lunch. Back-track along the Ponte Vecchio and make your way to the Mercato Centrale, Florence’s central market in the San Lorenzo neighborhood. This multi-story covered market was constructed in 1874 and houses all sorts of delicious fish, meat, produce, wine, cheese, and even a few cafes. While you can eat at one of the ground floor restaurants, my preference is to assemble a picnic of cheese, prosciutto, bread, olives, fruit and of course wine and enjoy lunch on the steps of the nearby Church of San Lorenzo (watch out for inquisitive pigeons).

Once you’ve refueled, our next stop is the Museum of San Marco, a 15th-century monastery with an incredible collection of early Renaissance frescoes and paintings. The museum shows 43 monastic cells decorated by Fra Angelico, a Dominican monk and painter who was formally trained in the medieval religious style, but who picked up Renaissance techniques. His art is a unique blend of Christian symbols and Renaissance realism.

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The Virgin of the Annunciation, by Fra Angelico. (Image from Wikipedia.)

In the painting above, the subject matter, the Annunciation (when the angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear God’s son) is clearly religious, yet the figures are firmly planted in the realm of Earth. The painting takes place in a courtyard, rather than abstract space or a gold background, as was common with earlier religious paintings, and there’s some movement in the figures’ poses.

In addition to the frescoes in the monk’s cells, the monastery itself is beautiful. Wander the grounds and contemplate the simple, prayer-filled lives of the monks who lived here six hundred years ago.

Our last museum of the day is the Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s famous David statue. During peak season, it’s crucial to make a reservation online to skip the ticket-buying line, or risk not being admitted. (The website is not particularly user-friendly, but it’s better than waiting in an hours-long line.)

While David is the main attraction, the Accademia also houses Michelangelo’s immensely powerful Prisoners (also referred to as Slaves). The Prisoners are four statues that were originally commissioned to decorate the elaborate tomb of Pope Julius II. However, shortly afterwards, Julius died, and funding for the project was cut. As a result, these statues remained in Michelangelo’s workshop, unfinished, where they were discovered after the artist’s death.

 

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The Bearded Prisoner. (Photos are not allowed in the Accademia; this image is from the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze’s website.)

As you can see from the picture above, these statues are referred to as Prisoners because they have never been freed from the marble. Michelangelo was a highly devout man who believed that he was God’s tool, merely chipping away at the stone until the true spirit of the sculpture was revealed. The Bearded Prisoner, above, is the most fully revealed of the four on display at the Accademia (two additional Prisoners are in the Louvre, in Paris).

You can see how highly Michelangelo revered the human form; the Prisoner’s body is much more defined that his face, yet you can clearly feel the emotions of the sculpture. Notice his classic contrapposto pose – all of the Prisoner’s weight is resting on his right leg, causing his shoulders lean to his left, while his hips jut out to the right. The body language is dynamic, and you feel his struggle to break free from the stone. The Prisoners are raw, unfinished, and evocative. David is an incredible work of art, but it’s the Prisoners who truly stir my emotions.

For a picture-perfect view of the city, we’re going to end our day with a bottle of wine up at the Piazzale Michelangelo. While I don’t mind hiking up to this viewpoint on the other side of the river (about 30 minutes from central Florence), if all the walking today has worn you out, catch a bus or grab a taxi.

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Sit on the steps, savor your wine, enjoy the music of the street performers, and marvel at the view of this incredible city.

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