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“We want to see Florence through your eyes.”
The request was to serve as tour guide to four family members ranging in age from mid-century, to teenager, to college senior. The Florence I remember is frozen in the early 1970’s when I spent a year studying Italian and traveling through Italy. The lure of returning to Florence and sharing it with family was a strong pull.
I arranged to meet them in Rome where three of the four were already immersed in soccer camp.
We headquartered at Fiumicino’s Hotel Isola Sacra, explored Ostia Antica, ventured into the Eternal City, and a few days later departed via private driver from UmbriaDriver.com for Florence, where we were joined by my University of Perugia bound nephew.
A Seminar Becomes A Plan
How to prepare for 5 days in Florence with a diverse “tour group” seeing the city for the first time? It was a bit nerve-wracking: first trip since COVID hit, and Italy has rigid and at times conflicting COVID rules. Plus, almost 50 years have passed since I did a “deep dive” into the streets and museums of Florence.
Curiosity, travel books, on-line travel sites and a bit of sleuthing helped. Through the Context Travel site, I found an amazing seminar: Neighborhoods of Florence. This 4-part seminar divided the city into the four quartieri or neighborhoods as seen on numerous color-coded Fiorentine maps. These maps then explore the monuments, churches, museums, artisan shops, restaurants and cafes in each quartiere.
I used this format as my base, whittling it down to: must-sees for first timers; what would appeal to the various age groups; and what would be humanly possible to absorb in the time frame. Anointing myself as tour guide was too stressful. After a lot of internet searching and a few false starts, I found ArtViva, a small but lovely tour company headquartered in Florence. Alessandro, one of their senior, English-speaking guides, whipped my long list into a doable, personalized, 6-hour walking tour of Florence. It was more important that my travelers have an overview of the city rather than stopping in every church or museum.
Dos And A Don’t
It was June 2022. Florence was experiencing l’afa, which translates to weather so oppressive, sultry and highly humid that you can’t breathe. Our hotel, Palazzo Alfieri Residenza D’Epoca along the Lungarno, which I booked through Booking.com, was ideally located for us. It also included a “delicious breakfast” which sealed the deal for the teenager.
We departed Rome Sunday morning, stopping along the A 1 to have lunch at the AutoGrill Montepulciano exit, expertly picked by our driver Gianluca. Autogrill could teach US highway food stops a few lessons. After a no-hassle check-in at our hotel, we headed for the Accademia where I had booked a “skip the line” tour through the Florence Museum. I highly recommend the skip the line tickets, but the company on ViaCavour, selected by Florence Museum was a bust. It did get us in to the Accademia, where we ended up dropping the tour and visiting on our own. Entering the corridor, walking the long hall framed with Michelangelo’s Slaves, then coming into full view of David, the Giant, never fails to take one’s breath away. The wonderful Italian word, mozzafiato – breathtaking – must have been coined for the David.
On Monday, a day when many museums are closed, Alessandro from Art Viva met us at the hotel, and we started our walking tour of the four quartieri. Alessandro worked his magic, adapting the tour to the heat, keeping the diverse group interested with fun facts, and pointing out little known historical places along the way. We started with the Santo Spirito quartiere in Oltrarno, a short walk across Ponte S.Trinita from our hotel. We saw highlights such as the Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, Santa Felicita, Brancacci Chapel and took in the artisan street life.
Crossing the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio, we stopped at the Fountain of the Porcellino in the New Market, rubbing the porcelllino’s snout for luck. Then, off to the Santa Maria Novella quartiere traversing Via Tornabuoni, with its Fifth Avenue shops. Here we took in Palazzo Strozzi, artisan paper and bookbinding shops mingling among Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada outposts and more. All streets led to the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella with its beautiful piazza. A short stop at Santa Maria Novella Profumeria was warranted, not only for the sensory experience but also for the history of Florence through scent.
We made our way to Piazza della Repubblica, sidestepping the Duomo, taking in the Medici Chapel, the San Lorenzo Market, continuing to sites along the way as we headed to the Santa Croce quartiere.
Crossing through and avoiding the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at the Duomo, we walked along Via Calzaiuoli, taking in Orsanmichele, crossing Piazza della Signoria and headed for the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Casa Buonarroti Museum and Aqua Flor, for exquisite and locally produced perfumes. We stopped for lunch and finished our walking tour with a stop at I Mosaici Di Lastrucci, the last “Commesso Fiorentino” workshop that creates stunning artwork with stones using artisan techniques dating back to the Medici. Having a good idea of the city layout, the late afternoon was spent at Caffe Rivoire on the Piazza della Signoria, where we gazed at the Bargello, Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi, and tons of tourists.
Tuesday we had tickets for the Duomo and the Opera del Duomo. A visit to the Gucci museum and the Uffizi for a short guided tour with priority access rounded out the museums. We all loved to walk, so off we went to Oltrarno from Ponte alle Grazie to find the place in the Florentine hills I called home in the 70’s.
Wednesday, we met our driver and headed for the Tuscan countryside that included a short walking tour of Siena (on our own). No, we did not stop at the Duomo, instead we went to the Torture Museum (teenager’s choice). Luncheon in the Chianti countryside, a stop in San Gimignano for a walk around the town and a gelato at Gelateria Dondoli finished the travel day. For our farewell dinner, we opted for a bit of flash ~ at La Loggia, Piazzale Michelangelo. Delicious Bistecca all Fiorentina, lots of laughs, and beautiful views. Thursday was a travel day. Gianluca picked us up at the hotel, stopping in Orvieto where we had time to explore the city and have a leisurely lunch. Before we knew it, we were back at the Hotel Isola Sacra in Fiumicino where we’d spend the night before our Friday morning departure.
Liz’s Check List For Your Florence Trip
Hiring a private driver may seem like a luxury, but it is a tradeoff between no fuss-no muss traveling versus schlepping luggage to train stations, hailing cabs, and dealing with annoying logistics.Umbria Driver owner Gianluca Siena speaks and writes his emails in English.
For hotels, we had great luck with Booking.com. Their cancellation policy and direct payment to the hotel were both plusses.
You will find many good choices for guided tours in Italy. Take advantage of being able to email the guides directly to ask questions. Art Viva was a great choice for us. Their staff is very accessible by email, and they created a special walking tour for us at a great price point. Context Travel has wonderful tours and tour guides. Their online Context seminars are a great way to prepare for your trip. The course I took was taught by Kate Bolton Porciatti. Tours By Locals also offers good options. We did a short tour of the Uffizi with Viator, but do your research. Destination Florence and FlorenceMuseums are large companies, impersonal and farming out the tour to other companies. And always, always, opt for the “skip-the-line.”
A sprinkling of thoughts on dining: Italy seems to have adopted the on-line reservation system. Their version of our Open Table is The Fork – a TripAdvisor company. Its platform covers all of Europe. I had no problem booking our restaurants in Florence through this site.
We had great meals even at Fiumicino Airport, including Docking 9 Ristorante and at the airport hotel – Restaurant at Hotel Isola Sacra Rome Airport. And on the road, you cannot do better than Autogrill. While in Florence, consider View on Art for cocktails and beautiful views of Florence and
Caffe Rivoire for great desserts and people-watching. A fun way to say arrivederci Firenze while eating Bistecca alla Fiorentina is at La Loggia. And if you have time before you leave, visit Fattoria San Donato Di Fenzi, San Gemignano San Donato – a lovely treat in San Gemignano in Tuscany and a delightful capstone to a wonderful visit.
Liz DiGregorio, newest Cuisinette, retired from a career in emergency management. She bought Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1967 and has been cooking ever since. Her love of Italian food is rooted in her DNA. When not re-arranging her cookbook library, she can be found in the garden, English mystery in hand and plotting her next escape from DC.