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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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Siena’s greatest tradition…

Yesterday evening was my first time at Palio di Siena. For those not familiar with it, it’s one of the most spectacular events held in Italy, a bareback horse race around the main square of Siena (Piazza del Campo) held twice a year. Attending the trial races yesterday evening and this morning was an absolute amazing experience, even though I am still battling with the mixed feelings related to the fact of attending a horses race event on such a difficult and dangerous track, where undoubtedly horses will suffer and will get injured or worse. So far I have not seen such a thing happen so I have been comfortable in experiencing it but I suppose that the race itself is going to be a total different matter so, at least for now, I have decided to not attend it. It’s a tradition that has been alive for centuries, for which its people are extremely proud and passionate about and I had goosebumps myself from the very first moment I stepped in Piazza del Campo yesterday evening.

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Piazza del Campo getting ready for the morning trial

I didn’t know a lot about Palio before moving to Tuscany and I still have to learn plenty but what I have been learning in the last few weeks from Senesi (people from Siena) keeps fascinating me.

While tourists (including me) may get excited only for the 2 Palio dates (July 2nd and August 16th), for Senesi Palio is not only limited to these 2 days a year: as they like to say, Palio is 365 days a year.

A few interesting facts about Palio, that I recently learnt:

  • Palio is not limited to July 2nd and August 16th: in truth, it should be referred as Palio days since equally important are the 4 days preceding each Palio, busy with rituals and processions and the twice a day race trials (one in the morning and one in the evening). One of the most important moment for each contradaiolo is when the horses are assigned to each contrada by draw ( the so called “Tratta”), a moment that attracts thousands of people in Piazza del Campo. The starting positions are by draw as well.

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  • There are 17 contrada in Siena but only 10 of them take part in each race. Each contrada has got a traditional rival and for each of them winning the Palio is as important as making sure that their rival contrada does not win it. Each contrada is considered a sort of individual small State, run by a Priore, a Capitano with the support of 2-3 contradaioli called “mangini”. Each contrada has its own church and their own headquarter where its flags, drapes, costumes and historical memories are kept.

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  • Forget the fair play: Palio has been and will always be a game of power, plots, threats and bribes, as the Senesi themselves openly admit. Everything is allowed (including bribes and all sort of dirty play behind the scenes) and the only rule of the race is that the jockeys (fantini) can’t interfere with other jockey’s reins but everything else is allowed and should be expected.

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  • It’s the horse that wins the Palio and gets all the honours and celebrations, not the jockey and the horse can win even without the jockey. From the moment jockeys are drawn, they can be changed up to the day before the Palio. The jockeys are paid and they are more a sort of mercenaries not emotionally attached to the contrada and open to bribes and corruption from rival contrada – no wonder why you hardly see them smiling during the trials! An extremely important figure, not to be confused with the jokey is the so called Barbaresco, the horse assistant that during the Palio days sleeps in the stable with the horse and never leaves his side.

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  • The race itself on July 2nd starts at 7:45 PM and lasts just over 90 seconds. All the horses – except the horse drawn last – are kept in the so called “Mossa”, an area in the north-west corner of Piazza del Campo marked by two ropes where the horses are gathered. The race officially starts when the free horse charges the group between the two ropes.
  • Watching the Palio in Piazza del Campo is free. If you have got plenty of money to spend (I have been quoted Eur 450 for a seat on Saturday July 2nd) you can secure a place on one of the “palco” or balconies, definitely a more privileged position to experience the Palio but that will need more investment and undoubtedly more planning.
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Waiting for the morning trial

If you want to take some nice shots during the trial races (I can’t recommend about the Palio day itself since I have not experienced it), keep in mind that the morning trials (9 AM) are generally a lot quieter than the evening ones and you get more chances to secure a place in the front line without having to arrive in Piazza del Campo too early (I was there at 7.45 AM this morning and got a spot right next to the Mossa). If you want to get a good close up of the horses and the jockeys, position yourself near the Mossa where the horses start (keep in mind that where there is a double fence you might get some policemen or the square cleaners to partially obstruct your view).

If you want to get pictures of the horses entering the square, get down to where the Town Hall is, which is also a great spot if you want to have a longer view of the horses racing. This location can get a bit noisy 🙂 but extremely colourful since there are the stands where hundreds of little contradaioli (kids of all ages) wave and sing before and during the race.

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After the trials, the horse is brought back to each contrada’s stable to get washed and rested, followed by the procession of its contradaioli.

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The horse back at the stable (Contrada Istrice)

Though you can’t get right up to the stable, follow them down the streets of Siena for some great people shots. Equally beautiful is just spending a couple of hours walking through the different contrada, picking up the colours and the symbols of each of them.

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It’s official: I am in love with Siena each day more!