Florence, Italy (Our #1 spot in Europe)

Since returning, so many people have asked us which city was our favourite. Without hesitation Jenny and I have always answered; Florence. While we have previously brushed over some highlights of Florence in a previous post, this post will cover different highlights in more depth to help out our fellow travellers that have shared their own tips with us.

So what makes Florence our #1? Its a combination of the following:

  1. Oodles to see; it seems like half the world’s famous art pieces are here (plenty to keep you busy)
  2. Accessibility: the historic centre is small and pedestrian friendly (15-20min walk would get you to most places)
  3. Reasonably affordable; the prices are are a midway point between Western and Eastern Europe
  4. Great vibe; the city feels alive, full of life, beauty and history around every corner
  5. Fantastic local products; from their Florentina Beef right through to their famous bags and other Italian leather goods.

Highlights

The Duomo – This church is gorgeous, with plenty to explore from the bell tower, the huge dome itself, the church interior/exterior, crypt and stunning seperate baptistry with its neck straining but amazing golden mosaic ceiling that rivals the big dome. A whole day of adventures (just make sure you get the museum pass to skip the lines!)

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Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (The Duomo Museum) – Most of the church’s original pieces have now been swapped out and are stored in the Duomo’s museum. Here you’ll be able to see the gates of paradise, reconstructions of the construction process & a number of impressive art pieces including that of Michelangelo. A definite highlight that we recommend!

The Baptistry – Beautiful and striking. The baptistery should not be missed!

 

Michelangelo’s David – If this trip around Europe has taught me anything, its that Michelangelo is actually phenomenal. Michelangelo’s David is no exception -> while you could get away with being the replica in the town centre (outside Palazzo Vecchiowhich is pretty decent), there is just something extra special about this piece!

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Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella (Monastic Pharmacy) – A monastic pharmacy selling to the public since the 16th Century, this place acts as both shop and free museum. Witness the sights, smells & sounds for a full trip of the senses!

Central Market – Downstairs hosts some excellent spots to grab an affordable bite to eat & upstairs holds the restaurant version of a food court – perfect for late night catch ups with friends!

Leather Bags -Florence & leather bags are almost synonymous with one another, a great selection of excellent quality – don’t believe anyone who tries to prove validity with the ‘leather doesn’t burn to a flame’ test (it does), its all about finding the rough back of the leather!

Florentina Steak – Perfect for any meat lovers out there; a T-bone steak served thick and rare with a light seasoning, matched with a local wine. Absolutely delightful! We reccomend checking out Rubaconte Restaurant for a great food/deals! (We had a 1kg steak, with grilled veggies, wine, fresh bread and balsamic reduction for $36 for the both of us)

Uffizi Gallery – Vast & impressive; holding many of world’s top pieces from the likes of Leonardo Di Vinci, Botticelli, Michelangelo & Rembrandt. Give yourself plenty of time to see everything (& harness the power of the Museum Pass to skip those killer lines)

CLET’s studio – We’re big fans of street art, so having seen his work throughout Europe, we were very excited to visit his studio and meet the man himself! A creative talent whose work appeals far and wide & stretches even further.

Vivoli Gelateria – We’ve said it again, we’ll say it again, if you go Florence, definitely check out Vivoli  Gelato Store, the home of the best Gelato we’ve had in europe – be adventurous, try something you normally wouldn’t  😉

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Palazzo Vecchio – The Hall of the 500 is big and grand (with secret messages hidden in paintings), secret passages & impressive sights. This was mostly a highlight (but soon became obvious that the reception staff are not kept well informed of openings/closures – so go upstairs to the entry of the Hall of the 500 to enquire with them before parting with your pretty pennies). Also enquire at the reception about adding on a secret passages tour to your entrance fee, relatively its not much more and meant to be pretty cool!

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Lowlights

Academia  – While seeing Michelangelo’s David is pretty impressive, we hadn’t realised that 1) Academia is reasonably small & 2) that its all religious art (which I’m partial to, but large doses start to become repetitive) – Its only really worth it with the museum pass that will allow you to skip the monster line.

Boboli Gardens – It’s certainly huge, and there are a few things you can spot from Dan Brown’s Inferno, overall we found the garden to be less impressive than we’d expected.

Dante Museum – Dante was a notorious character of Florence’s past & played a central role in Dan Brown’s Inferno; we assumed the museum would be as interesting to match…but how wrong we were…

 

Santa Margherita de’ Cerchi – Right across from the Dante Museum you’ll find a small chapel dedicated to to Dante & his true love Beatrice. Which is famous for having a basket filled with notes pleading for help sorting out their love life next to Beatrice’s grave… overall, we found the church to be a little underwhelming and the size & quality of the basket to overstated.

Suggestions

Get the Museum Pass! Yes its expensive, but so is staying a couple of extra nights to get through everything you want to by lining up. The pass was super straightforward; saving us time and money and allowing us to visit bonus attractions we otherwise would have missed!

Verona & Venice

We made a quick stop off in Verona, a town made famous by Shakespeare of which both Taming of the Shrew and Romeo & Juliet are set. The town itself is very quaint & has an attractive little marketplace square. Make sure you look up in this place because many of the buildings are gorgeous from top to toe!

some gorgeous buildings in verona

some gorgeous buildings in verona

Verona market

Verona market

Arguably the most famous spot in Verona has to be Juliet’s balcony (Spelt with a G in Italy). Many believe to the balcony & courtyard that inspired Shakespeare’s famous scene (although we’ll get back to that in a second). The courtyard itself is lovely and is accessed though a tunnel that is plastered in declarations of love as travellers come to cash in on the romantic action. Below the balcony is a bronze statue of Juliet who’s right breast has become a shiny gold colour from the countless tourists seeking to gain the good luck in their relationships that is said to be granted by rubbing it (as well as the odd excitable teenage boy).

Juliet's Balcony and love note wall

Juliet’s Balcony and love note wall

It’s all very picturesque. Be aware however that the balcony was installed after the play’s rise in popularity, to cater for a tourist market & that Romeo+Juliet is a work of fiction. Other than that it’s a bit of fun & worth a look for the Shakespeare fans out there!

Juliet's Balcony

Juliet’s Balcony

Venice

The city of canals is one of those unique places that everyone should visit once. It offers such a different way of life without cars, without roads – just footpaths and boats. Venice offers a fun game of lose and find: windy burrow streets lend themselves towards getting lost simultaneously offering some great find shops, stalls and restaurants!

St Mark's Square Venice

St Mark’s Square Venice

We managed to check out St. Mark’s Basilica, which offers a free general entry (except for a 2Euro cost to visit the alter & another 2 Euro charge to visit the tomb of St. Mark – St. Peter’s translator). Inside the church itself feels very non-venetian, more Turkish if anything with large golden mosaic domes and a darker feel inside than many of the churches we’ve visited thus far.

St. Mark's Basillica

St. Mark’s Basillica

Inside St. Mark's Basillica

Inside St. Mark’s Basillica

Its also worth noting that they are pretty strict about bringing in backpacks but offer a free bag room around the corner, also like most European churches they are strict about wearing modest clothing but offer free material to wrap around you needs be. Also don’t be putt off by the long line, church visit lines tend to move fairly quickly as people file in & out.

Gondola

On the Gondola

On the Gondola

The Venice gondola is one of those quintessential activities one must partake in when visiting the city. This was hands down my favourite experience of the visit offering some classic Venice views down some tight canals where the footpaths do not reach. It felt very romantic! Our gondolier wore the classic striped top and showed some real skill with the oar. I had wrongfully assumed that the gondoliers used a pole to push the boat along and away from walls so was surprised to see that actually use a large oar that they use in multiple different ways to get the boat to move as they wish. We also managed to get the gondola ride for a great price through Topdeck because of the large size of our group (15Euro pp), which is dramatically cheaper than many of the places I’d seen.

Finally, we also managed to catch a glass blowing demonstration. Having seen basic glass blowing before I had low expectations but was truly blown away (unintentional pun there) as the demonstrator produced an exquisite rearing horse from the molten glass, he even made it look easy – which I know its anything but! Thanks to a sale we also managed to walk away with a couple of earings for Jenny made of the glass.

Glass blowing demonstration

Glass blowing demonstration

Overall I would say that Venice was very enjoyable but would perhaps add that I felt like overall the city seems to be catered for a slightly older demographic. I’d love to come back here when I’m in my 60s for a week with space for shopping in my bag & a good book – that would make for a lovely holiday.

Venice vege market

Venice vege market

Traffic in Venice

Traffic in Venice

Venice Canal

Venice Canal

Rome

Here are a couple of highlights from our recent trip to Rome:

Capuchin Crypt

Basically a museum documenting the history of the Capuchin friars (monks) but the more intriguing part is at the end of the museum where you descend in to the crypt. The crypt contains the mortal remains (i.e. bones) of about 3,700 friars arranged artistically in a series of chambers including on the walls and ceilings by an unknown friar. The final result is macabre but also strangely beautiful and being so centrally located just a few blocks from the Spanish Steps it’s well worth checking out for 35-45min. Entry is 8Euro pp (or group discount of 6Euro pp for 10+ people) The day we visited when it was pouring with rain there was no queue and you can store your bags in the cloakroom free of charge.

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An etching of Jesus thought to be placed by some of Jesus' first followers

An etching of Jesus thought to be placed by some of Jesus’ first followers

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Dave & I in Rome

Dave & I in Rome

Coliseum

An essential part of visiting Rome and easily accessible via the Metro station “Coloseo” which surfaces just across the road. You have a few options for access

– buying your 12.50 Euro ticket from the main entrance which will have a HUGE line of less savvy visitors

– buying your ticket from near the Constantine arch instead, or further down the road at the entrance of the old Roman Forum that are both included in your ticket (both will also get you straight past that big line at the Coliseum entrance)

– or you can join a guided tour outside the Coliseum. We found one by asking a guy advertising the red hop-on bus who pointed us in the right direction. The tourism-industry seems to be quite tight so just ask someone in the area even if they aren’t advertising tours themselves. We paid 25Euro pp for our 2 hour guided tour that covered the Coliseum, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. We thought this was well worth the value as we had no idea that the Roman Forum existed (as do apparently 80% of other tourists) and it isn’t well signposted from the main road. Having a guide also really brings the Coliseum (that doesn’t have a lot of info boards) and the Roman forum to life as they’re a wealth of historical information. We didn’t have enough time to climb up to Palatine Hill at the end of our tour but it looked like a great viewpoint and our guide advised it’s easy to spend a lot of time there so check it out! You can’t buy separate tickets for just the Coliseum, Roman Forum or Palatine Hill, they’re all covered by the single 12.50 Euro Ticket

Orvieto

Just a quick note to say that we briefly stopped off in the old fortified town of Orvieto between Florence & Rome. Orvieto is located atop a hill surrounded by fortified walls.

Cool door knocker

Cool door knocker

The detail on Orvieto's Duomo

The detail on Orvieto’s Duomo

Sights from back streets

Sights from back streets

Orvietto has served as a protective retreat for many popes over the centuries and so contains a Papal residence and museum that you can visit as well as a beautiful cathedral that inspired the Duomo in Florence (Both are called Duomo – Italian for Dome). The Orvieto Duomo has a highly intricate front that highlights scenes from several bible stories & sides/interior that are uniquely black and white striped, making it look like a sideways zebra or pair of old pajamas.

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The local delicacy that you must try is Wild Boar, which is actually wild – I suspected that they may be farmed but apparently not! There are a few shops there that serve it seasoned in Turkish bread. Delicious!

Wild boar is popular in Orvieto

Wild boar is popular in Orvieto

We wish we’d had more time to explore as a couple of the backstreets that we did manage to sneak down were picturesque, suggesting that there is plenty more to see off the Tourist trail!

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Alas we must keep moving! Next Stop Rome & Vatican!

Pisa & Florence

We’re in Italy!

So far we’ve passed through Pisa & Florence. We’re currently driving to Rome!

Here’s a quick update on our last couple of days.

Pisa Pic

We only stopped for about 45 mins in Pisa but had to grab the compulsory leaning tower snap! We had a competition on our coach for the best pic that could be taken with the tower. Above was our entry which landed us first equal (The idea is totally thanks to Jenny).

Our first attempt at winning the Pisa tower challenge before Jenny came up with the Ice Cream idea

Our first attempt at winning the Pisa tower challenge before Jenny came up with the Ice Cream idea

The leaning tower is actually the original bell tower of this church

The leaning tower is actually the original bell tower of this church

Strolling the streets of Pisa

Strolling the streets of Pisa

Florence Vibes

After Pisa we carried onto Florence. We could tell straight away that we were going to love this city, compact, pedestrian friendly, filled with life, history, views and warmth.

Modern art in florence

Modern art in florence

Having read Dan Brown’s Inferno, which is largely set in Florence, also helped to bring the city to life. Below were some of our personal highlights of this visit (I can guarantee there will be another).

This bridge is featured in Inferno

This bridge is featured in Inferno

Piazza della Signoria

This is the main square by the council buildings, the square has more than its fair share of statues. The statue highlights include that of the Medici family (a banking family who ruled Florence for over 300 years before dying out of infertility), Persius killing Medusa (look for the artist’s self portrait on the back of persious’ head) & a replica of Micheangelo’s David (which sits where the original once did, is the same size, made the same way & is almost identical to the orignial according to our guide). Seeing as though the line to see the original was around 3 hours long & we only had a day, we felt satisfied with the replica.

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Vivoli

Instead we did as any sane human visiting Italy would do…we sought out Gelato! Not just any gelato but a store called Vivoli, which according to multiple sources serves the best gelato in the whole of Italy. It wasn’t easy to find. It’s located on a backstreet parallel west of the end of Piazza della Santa Croce. It was however worth the effort. At the store we met an American couple from Washington. DC. Josh & Laurie. Josh who told us that he’d been coming back to Florence every year for 43 years, he said he was surprised that we’d managed to find Vivoli so quickly as in his 43 years of visiting Italy he (along with the other sources) hadn’t found better. He suggested trying the Peach, Hazelnut & Chocolate flavours. I was not disappointed, it literally tasted like I was eating a chilled peach! We stayed talking with Josh and Laurie for a while who’ve kindly pointed out a few insider attractions for future visits!

Gelato with our new friends Josh & Laurie

Gelato with our new friends Josh & Laurie

Santa Croce

We decided to take the slightly less trodden route in Florence, skipping the Duomo & the Baptisery & instead checking out Santa Croce. Santa Croce is well known for being the burial place of several well-known figures in history including Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante & Machiavelli (for all the Polititical Science Geeks out there). Santa Croce also contains the statue that allegedly inspired the Statue of liberty statues of New York & Paris. Additionally it contains some exceptional religious art & has an overall impressive size. In regards to Michelangelo’s tomb, its interesting to note that despite the impressive sculpture memorial and the seemingly tomb-like section, he is actually buried down off the right of the memorial behind a little plaque. Apparently Michelangelo was aware of his fame before his death & knew that a big memorial would be made but requested that his body be buried off to the side because he didn’t want people to make a big fuss over him; gawking at his tomb.

Michelangello's tomb...check out the small plaque on the bottom right where he's really buried

Michelangello’s tomb…check out the small plaque on the bottom right where he’s really buried

Galileo's tomb for all the science geeks out there!

Galileo’s tomb for all the science geeks out there!

Machiavelli's tomb for the political science geeks out there

Machiavelli’s tomb for the political science geeks out there

Huge door! Perhaps this church is a converted air plan hanger?

Huge door! Perhaps this church is a converted air plan hanger?

Bargello

It was upon the suggestion of our traveller friends Josh & Laurie that we checked our the Bargello museum which is often overlooked because of it’s competing larger museums in the city. If you are restricted in time however, it’s worth considering the Bargello. For 7 Euros each we walked in with no lines. The Museum is housed in a large old 3-storied fortified building with an open courtyard in the middle. The Museum holds a few Michelangelo pieces and a quite a number of pieces by Donatello as well as impressive collections of ceramics, religious art and an armory. We managed to push through in an hour, while managing to read quite a number of descriptive plaques but I imagine you could be here for hours! This museum is definitely a hidden little gem.

Thought to be carved by Michelangelo

Thought to be carved by Michelangelo

Child's suit of armour, that is crazy!

Child’s suit of armour, that is crazy!

Inside the Bargello

Inside the Bargello

The inner courtyard of the Bargello

The inner courtyard of the Bargello

Amazing sculptures at the Bargello

Amazing sculptures at the Bargello

We also spend a significant amount of time eating local cuisine (Tortelinni, seafood spaghetti, tiramisu & wine – saving the Florentine steak for next time) and browsing local tanneries for leather goods.

Overall I’d highly rate Florence for equal parts culture, food, and attractions accessibility. We’re already looking for volunteering opportunities around here so we can extend our stay, I have a feeling you’d do the same should you visit.