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Just got 24 hours in Florence? Make the most of it!

Though it sounds like a mission impossible, 24 hours in Florence can be an absolute blast if properly planned. The city – its historic centre declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO – is definitely quite compact with some of the most interesting sites and landmarks concentrated in just a few blocks that makes it perfect to move around by foot only.

Since I have moved to Tuscany, I came through several people that – as part of a rather rushed holiday – had spent less than 24 hours in the main Tuscan city. Though it may sounds really not enough to fully appreciate it, sometimes tight schedules and travel plans don’t allow for much more so making the best of it is the end goal.

Here is a quick walk through Florence to make sure you will leave the city absolutely gobsmacked – no matter how much time you have on your side! Get your map ready…

1. If not flying, Santa Maria Novella train station is generally the arriving and starting point of the great majority of people visiting Florence, being connected with the other main Italian cities by fast trains (Frecciarossa and Italo). Start here, have a look from the outside at the Santa Maria Novella church (just opposite the train station); don’t miss to visit the stunning shop Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella (Via della Scala, 16 – open every day from 9.00 to 20.00), very close to the train station and definitely an institution in its kind in Florence.

2. Head back to the station square and head towards the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo. Visiting San Lorenzo and the Cappelle Medicee solely depends on how much time you have got and what you plan to do next. The area is also renowned for some of the most affordable leather stalls (be prepared to bargain!), selling anything from handbags, suitcases, jackets, shoes etc. Quality varies but you can definitely find a good deal here! Right in the middle of the leather market stalls, you can’t miss the modernly refurbished San Lorenzo market (that reminded me a lot of Mercado San Miguel in Madrid): on the top floor it hosts plenty of food stalls/restaurants (some a bit on the pricey side for Italian standards) and a kitchen school, on the ground floor is a thriving and affordable local food market (opened until 14.00) perfect for some goodies, not overpriced and full of locals doing their daily shopping. A delight for all senses!

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San Lorenzo Curch and Cappelle Medicee
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San Lorenzo Market – ground floor
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San Lorenzo Market – ground floor
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San Lorenzo Market – Cooking School

3. Leave Piazza San Lorenzo behind you, take Via De’ Gori, Via dei Pucci and then take Via Dei Servi on your left, heading north towards the stunning Piazza Santissima Annunziata and the Spedale degli Innocenti. I have visited the area on several occasions and it makes the perfect spot for a nice stroll just a few steps out of the madness of the centre.

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Piazza Santissima Annunziata

4. Head back down on Via dei Servi to the hearth of Florence: Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (“Il Duomo”, as it’s usually called) and the Baptistery. The closer you get and the more you realize the magnificence of the whole compound. At the moment it’s available a cumulative ticket of Eur 15 that includes access to the Cathedral, Dome, Bell tower and Baptistery among others. If you are short on time and have to choose what to visit in Florence, Eur 15 and a couple of hours spent here will be totally worth it. Plus, if you are a bit tight with time you can also book the slot to visit – once you have purchased the ticket – so planning ahead it’s definitely easier.

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View of the Campanile and the Dome
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Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, detail

For lunch, don’t loose too much time in a long meal and get something quick and filling (and truly local) at the Fiaschetteria Nuvoli (Piazza dell’Olio 15/r), a tiny little place with an amazing selection of wine and a very reasonable food menu.

5. Follow Via del Proconsolo, leaving behind the Cathedral and heading south. Once in Piazza Firenze, turn left in Via dell’Anguillara and head straight down until you reach Santa Maria della Croce. Possibly my favourite church in Florence after the Cathedral, the square itself is simply beautiful, with plenty of food options in case you have not eaten before and plenty of back streets to not feel overwhelmed by the crowds – trust me, at the end of the day you will want to escape them!

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Santa Maria della Croce

6. Unless you want to visit Santa Maria della Croce, take Borgo dei Greci and head back to the core of the city, walking by Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria, where there is a copy of possibly the most famous Italian nude man in the world (David by Michelangelo) – that was long before Italy became famous for its porn-actors! 🙂 The square deserves a long stroll around, without missing out on the Loggia della Signoria and on the Uffizi (if you are short with time, you will have to leave them for another time since you may need a full day here) from where you will be able to easily get to the Arno River. On your left, you will get a great view of Ponte Vecchio, possibly one of the most famous landmarks of Florence.

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Ponte Vecchio (picture taken from Ponte della Trinita’)

 

7. Use Ponte Vecchio to cross over the Arno: now you are officially in Oltrarno, that is literally “the other side of the Arno river”, a buzzing neighbourhood with plenty of charm, unique antique shops, vast selections of restaurants for all budgets and overall a much more relaxed and authentic atmosphere than “the other side” – that’s my opinion, of course. 😉

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Oltrarno pictured from Ponte Vecchio
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View of Florence from Oltrarno
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Antique shop in Oltrarno

Though you might be pretty tired at this stage, the ultimate effort will definitely be compensated: a steep climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo will undoubtedly ensure you some of the most amazing views of Florence. If you are here by the sunset, grab a couple of beers and a few nibbles from a local bakery and sit down (with plenty of other people) to enjoy the daily free show. Another option to reward yourself of a long day walking is to get a proper Italian aperitivo in Flo Lounge Bar, just next to Piazzale Michelangelo. For the price of a drink (if I am not wrong it was Eur 10 when I last visited…and their mojito was totally worth it!), you get to enjoy a tasty and well assorted aperitivo (including BBQ meat!) in a great stylish outdoor terrace overlooking Florence (just a note for the boys: even though dress code is not particularly enforced during aperitivo hours, long trousers would be recommended).

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Flo Lounge bar terrace

If you have still got a few hours to spend in Florence and you can wait until it gets dark, the evening lights from the top will be totally worth the wait.

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Heading to Tuscany and need any ideas? Have a look at my other posts on Siena (plenty of insight on the Palio events, perfect if you are planning to visit next summer), San Gimignano, Certaldo and the best tips to travel around the region (including not-to-miss food!).

 

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How to hire a car without the feeling of being ripped off (and a few more tips!)

Anywhere in the world, hiring a car (or a moped or anything else that moves) is definitely one of the best ways to get around and know the country you are visiting. Though I can see many positives in exploring a country by public transport (one above all: getting more in contact with local people by using their same means of transport), there are some places where hiring a car is definitely the best decision: you are completely flexible and able to reach quiet and unspoiled spots. Tuscany is definitely one of those places. Whilst Florence, Siena, Pisa and are easy to reach by using public transport, for many destinations, a car is almost a must: Val d’Orcia, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni etc. Though doable, visiting Tuscany by train and bus can be a bit challenging and sometimes frustrating. Not impossible, but definitely a bit more hard work especially if you want to get off the beaten track.

For this reason, I feel like hiring a car is the best option if you are planning to spend some time in Tuscany. I have been hiring cars both for business trips and during holidays for many years now in Italy, Spain, UK and USA and luckily (fingers crossed) I only had a couple of unpleasant situations but on plenty of occasions I have found myself struggling to get a decent car without feeling to be ripped off at the counter. 😦

What to keep in mind:

  • Discounts, Avios etc: check if with your airline you are entitled to some discounts or if, for being a customer of a specific airline, you have some additional benefits (you may be entitled to use them even though you have not flown with them when hiring a car). An example: Iberia was offering a free additional driver to any Iberia Plus member which is definitely a big saving since generally an additional driver is around Eur 10 per day (I used Easyjet to fly to Pisa and then hired with Avis, using the promotion). On top of that, airlines generally offer very good reward programs if using their partner hire company (Iberia/British Airways partner with Avis). Sometimes, paying a bit more for your rental definitely gives you more benefits 🙂

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  • Go safe: Hertz, Europecar, Avis etc….they are all big names and generally they are synonymous of good service (and generally they charge more!). More staff at their desks (you don’t want to queue for ages after a flight!), more cars available in their parking lots and more offices around the country in case you are planning to pick up a car and drop it off somewhere else. On one occasion where I rented with a smaller company (Locauto), I had to change the car I was hiring and, though I gave 4 days notices to the company, they couldn’t find me any another car in any of their other offices located in 3 different airports so I had to stick with the one I had.
  • Credit card: when it comes to hire a car, companies always ask for a credit card. They may accept a debit card  but always check in advance in order to avoid last minute surprises. In both debit or credit card, they will “block” a considerable amount on your account until the car is returned (“deposit”). Amount varies according to the class of vehicle rented. Take that into account since the money they put on hold won’t be available for you to spent until they release it (which generally is a few days after the rental contract is concluded). Also, in case of presenting a debit card, they might “force” you to take their own insurance – see next point.
  • Insurance: this is a difficult point and I can only tell my personal experience. I am fully recommending insurance4carhire (Car Hire Excess Insurance) that I have been using for over 3 years because 1) I had a claim for a car hire in Spain and the full sum was promptly refunded, 2) it’s a huge saving compare to the full insurance that the rental company offer and above all 3) I feel definitely much safer than going without insurance. For the newbies: when you hire a car, it always come with an excess that means the amount of money that – in case of accident/damage etc – you will have to pay to the car rental company (each company has its own excess amounts). With insurance4carhire, in case of accident/damage, you will pay upfront the excess stated in you rental agreement to the car hire company but the amount will be reimbursed by your insurance soon afterwards (you will have to fill in some forms and submit pictures). If you hire a car a couple of times a year, the saving is impressive since their current insurance for 1 year in Europe is £39,99 (unlimited number of rentals for a max of 60 days each, up to £6,500 excess on damage and theft plus plenty more cover). Definitely worth having a look at the website – especially if you compare it with the insurance offered by any rental company! Claiming is pretty easy and straightforward and their customer assistance was extremely helpful. Note: at the moment, to purchase this policy you must be resident of the UK, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy or Germany. I am sure that for residents of other countries there will be similar insurance company.

Just a couple of final rules to keep in mind before setting off – valid with any car rental, regardless of their name/reputation…

1) It is widely known that, as with everything (restaurants, hotels etc), car rental companies try to get rid first of the less appealing cars or that have got some issues (as small as the issue may be). So, if you are not happy with the car you have been given, politely complain; I am not a pain but I believe that if I pay for something (and sometimes car hire is a fortune!), it needs to be in good condition – it doesn’t matter if I am hiring a Fiat Panda or a Mercedes (the former is more likely!). On several occasions, I have been offered cars not cleaned, with seat belt broken, external fuel cap missing etc. I have learnt to polite refuse the car and try to get another one; it takes minutes and it saves you some hassle later, particularly if you plan to rent the car for more than just a couple of days.

2) Check the car extremely carefully, no matter if the car rental guy is packed with other customers waiting after you. Take your time and check everything, particularly wheels, bumpers, extra wheel and fuel (ask for full and bring it back full). Rushing may cost you money if you miss any existing damage. If there is any existing damage when you pick up the car, check that the car rental staff notes it in your contract and always take pictures of the damage.

3) Always keep the car hire contract in the car!

4) For as much a Fiat 500 looks extremely Italian and cool to hire, remember a couple of things:

a) many Tuscan roads (particularly to reach agriturismo or remote locations) are called “strada bianca” (white road, which basically means unpaved). A Fiat 500 is perfect for the city but not so much for driving off-road and on particularly winding roads (also not great if you are planning long driving throughout the region). 2) the boot is minimal so make sure you can fit your luggage in it before setting off, leaving nothing on display (see next point).

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Fancy a drive off-road and uphill? Make sure you hire the right car! (image from Pixabay)

5) This has always been my first rule since I had a car and even though I am perfectly aware that Tuscany countryside is not Milan (at all!!) or any other big city, it’s always worth remembering an Italian saying that goes “L’occasione fa l’uomo ladro” (that is more or less “opportunity makes the thief”). So, avoid leaving anything on display inside the car and – even worse – open the boot full of luggage in public spaces and then leave the car unattended (this to be particularly avoided in service areas on the motorway). When you leave the car, even though you have locked it remotely, double check the doors to make sure it’s properly closed (thieves do inhibit the transmission of your car remote control and when you think you have closed it,  in reality it’s still open…and it’s not a metropolitan legend, promise!). It literally takes a second and saves more pain later and, as always, better safe than sorry!

 

Other than that…get your Sat Nav set on your next destination and safe travels! 🙂

 

 

(Featured image from expedia.com)