Italy Part 1: Florence and Tuscany

Hello travelers! In June 2014, my husband and I spent a week and a half in Italy, and it was definitely a vacation we will never forget! This first of two blog posts will cover what we did in Florence and the Tuscany region of Italy. I’m not going to lie, it was a little overwhelming to be experiencing a new culture and language. With that said, I personally think it’d be best to try a country like England, where they actually speak the same language, for a first European vacation. Nonetheless, I found Italy to be a very chill and beautiful place. But how can you not fall in love with the Renaissance architecture, beautiful orange and brown colored roofs, and gelato on every corner?!

I feel like our trip was doomed from the start…after I woke up from our overnight flight to discover I had pink eye…and then by the next day had strep throat on top of that! Trying to enjoy the Tuscan countryside while slowly dying inside is not recommended. But I tried to make the best of it. Thank goodness for my sweet husband and thank goodness for the corner farmacia (pharmacy) which gave me prescription strength antibiotic pills and eye drops! Because, yes, you can do that in Italy!

A night stroll through the streets of Florence!


Where we stayed:

The first 5 days of our trip was spent in the Renaissance city of Florence, or Firenze, which was my favorite of the two cities we stayed in. Florence was all about the beautiful architecture and traditional Italian culture. My husband learned how to navigate the city in a day, and you could basically walk anywhere in 15 min or less. We stayed in a great family-run B&B named La Casa dei Tintori, which I would recommend to anyone! Great location, just a block from the Arno River, and far enough away from the “tourist” center.  The owners were natives of the city and the same age as me and my husband. They made dinner reservations almost every night for us and always had suggestions on what to do in the city.

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Tuscany Day Tour

The first day we were in Florence, we left for a day trip to Tuscany that we booked through Viator. The tour included visiting 3 cities and a 3 course Italian lunch and wine tasting at a GOURGEOUS wine estate in the countryside. Our first stop was the gothic city of Siena that had one of the most awesome cathedrals I’ve ever seen and a big open piazza at its center. The cathedral was completed sometime between 1215 and 1263, and the interior and exterior was constructed of  white and greenish-black marble. Siena is an extremely traditional Tuscan town, and one example of this is the Palio de Siena, a horse race held twice a year in the center piazza where jockeys race to represent their contrade, or city ward.

TRAVEL TIP: As a sign of respect, you should always have covered shoulders when visiting a cathedral, and most will not let you in if you are not covered. Make sure to bring a scarf or cardigan if you’re going sleeveless!

Siena is also home to the oldest bank in the world Banca Monte dei Paschi!

After Siena, we went to our lunch and wine tasting at this great little organic farm in the Chianti region. For lunch, they served us a homemade beef pasta, a salad, and various cold cuts and cheeses, and we tasted 2 red wines and a white wine that were absolutely delicious! The farm sat on 200 acres and had a balcony overlooking this gorgeous landscape! Like this place is what Italian movies and dreams are made of! If you look closely in the distance of the left pic you can see towers belonging to the medieval city of San Gimignano, our second stop on the tour.

After lunch, we headed over to the walled city of San Gimignano, famous for its medieval skyscrapers. The town itself is small but its skyline is dominated by over a dozen towers built by the families of the city as a way to show their status.

After San Gimignano, our last stop was Pisa to visit The Leaning Tower! You always see pictures of the famous Tower, but a lot of people don’t realize that the grounds also hold a Cathedral and Baptistery. If you can get there without security spotting you, the best leaning pics are taken on a little grassy area to the side of the tower. Obviously, security was no where to be found that day because you can see all the people on the grounds. If you’re wondering, “Are people really doing those awkward leaning pics all around the Tower?” YES they are, so just do it too! I got this great shot of the Tower and Cathedral sitting at a gelato shop across the street!

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Leaning Tower and Cathedral

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Tourists being tourists!

This really was a great tour and took up the entire day…about $250 for both of us, but totally worth it! I always suggest day tours to see as much as possible in a short amount of time. If you are looking to get away from everything and enjoy a peaceful vacation, stay in the Tuscan countryside; it is a very different vibe from the cities. If I ever go back, this is what I’ll do!


Florence

One of our favorite places to visit in Florence was the Boboli Gardens across the Arno River. It sits up on a hill and has some awesome views of Florence and the surrounding hills. You can literally see the entire city and get a stunning view of the cathedral. About 10-15€/person, and you can exit and re-enter at any time during the day.

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To get to the Gardens, you will most likely cross one of the many bridges across the Arno River. One of them is the old and famous Ponte Vecchio bridge filled with merchant shops.

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We also loved visiting and climbing to the tops of the Florence Cathedral and Belltower. WOW! One of the most beautiful things to do in the city. The Cathedral contained a huge opening until 1436 when Brunelleschi (supported by the Medici family) completed construction on the Duomo. This is why it’s commonly referred to as Brunelleschi’s Dome. It is still the largest brick dome ever constructed, and it sits in the middle of Florence, so you really can’t miss it! It took us a couple of hours to climb to the tops of both (be prepared for stairs!), and it was about 10€/person for 1 ticket that included the Baptistery, Belltower, and Duomo. So worth it!!!

Florence was so ornate and beautiful; everything has history behind it too. I love how you can be walking through the maze of narrow streets then suddenly they open to a gorgeous piazza center. One night, we just chilled in the Piazza della Signoria and listened to a street performer playing classic Italian music…quintessential Italy right there ya’ll! Florence also has some of the most ornate doors, and I never saw one that looked the same.

My husband and I are not really into museums, but we found places like the gardens and piazzas to keep us busy. We actually didn’t visit the Uffizi Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David, because the museum had a 2 hour line everyday. We would have spent half a day in line when there were a dozen replicas around the city anyways.


Food

Some of you will probably be shocked at this next one, but I didn’t have any amazing food in Florence either; it was just ok or good. I wasn’t expecting to eat food from Olive Garden, but I had way higher expectations for my taste buds! So maybe I just didn’t make it to the right restaurants?? I’m hoping so! The exception was All’Antico Vinaio, a sandwich shop by our B&B that had a 30 min line outside every day for lunch and dinner. The owner recommended it to us and said that locals and tourists alike love this place, and he was so right! It was THE BEST sandwich I’ve ever eaten! Seriously, find this place if you’re in Florence! Gelato, of course, was great, and we made it a point to eat some every day.


All in all, Florence was a beautiful, slow-paced Italian city, and I would definitely go back if I visit Italy again. We spent 5 days here, but I think 3 or 4 day would have been plenty to see the city. I hate that I was sick, because it really affected my time here. If I did it all over again, I would leave more time to relax…sit and read a book by the river or people watch in one of the many piazzas. A lot of vacations are go-go-go, but make sure you always leave room to change up your schedule or spend time wandering. Be on the look out for Rome and the last half of our vacation soon!