We were warned by Italians that Florence was not a “real” city, not a genuinely “Italian” city, and that it was a city “only for tourists.” But that is like saying Miami Beach is “only for tourists.” Even the most touristy cities in the world have real residents with real needs.
I asked Josh to respond to my post and he did.
Firenze is probably best known as an art town. It rose to prominence as the home of the Medici family, and they were patrons of the arts, sponsoring a whole host of famous artists like..yeah. If you’re already yawning, you’re not alone. But never fear, because Florence has a lot of other things going for it. Don’t be a sheep. Don’t stand in line at the Uffizi gallery because somebody else told you this was important. If you’re into art, go for it. But if you’re not, don’t stand there just because you don’t know what else to do with yourself. Feel free to seek out the other rewards of Florence, for there are many. So if you’d rather eat a plate of steamed clams than look at the Birth of Venus, and reckon if you wanted to see a naked dude you’d look in the mirror (or at your husband/boyfriend), this is the Florence guide for you.
Tip #1 – See the place. That’s right. Florence is beautiful. It was one of the richest cities in the world at one point, which means it is gifted with incredible architecture. The narrow walkways of the old town are easy places in which to get lost. The churches and palaces are magical and you can easily spend half a day just walking around with your neck cranked upward staring at the city. For other views, you can go up high and get an overview that will include the hills surrounding the city. There’s the Vecchio Tower, the Duomo cupola, the Duomo bell tower and the popular Piazzo Michaelangelio on the far side of the river, so you’re not going to be spoiled for choice of stunning vistas.
Tip #2 – Eat something. The central market gets its share of tourists, but it is full value. A lot of locals shop here, and this means there’s a lot of delicious everyday food. If you’re smart, you’ll have rented an apartment and will be doing your own cooking. Look for the seasonal produce – on my visit it was porcini mushrooms. There’s always seafood, cheese and deli meats…lots of them. You can try the local tripe stew, ogle skinned rabbits and pig’s heads. This is real stuff, and you’ll probably see Americans getting grossed out at some of the stalls. And because Florence is a normal, living city, you’ll find things you weren’t expecting to find, like the Peruvian vendors with their choclo and aji pancas. Across the street there’s a Sri Lankan shop – get some Maldive fish sambol and a big bottle of Lion Stout to break up the Italian food for a night. While you’re there, get a shot of espresso or a personal-sized wine bottle and relax a little. It’s hard work planning out delicious meals.
Tip #3 – Goooooooooooooooooooooooooool! One sure way to meet the locals is to head out on a night when the local football club, Fiorentina, is playing. Florence is still an important city and their team plays at the highest level, Serie A. Locals take this stuff seriously. They’re trained from birth to cheer for Fiorentina and to have a near-violent hatred of nearby rivals. You’ll see the Florentines huddled around the television in every bar, restaurant and corner store while the game is on. Join them, and feel like you’re not just a tourist for a couple of hours. Just don’t cheer for the other team! If you want a good beer while you’re doing this, watch the game at the Archea Brewery.
Tip #4 – Watch the people. Florence is full of interesting stories, or at least interesting people about whom you can invent stories. The locals are often drawn to and influenced by the art, and therefore love high end design. Clothes, hairstyles, furniture, home decorations, all of these things are beautiful here. The people are just interesting to look at, much more so than in a workaday place like Milan. Then there’s the Africans. These guys have such a crazy journey to get here, coming up from places like Senegal across the desert and the Mediterranean. It’s a harrowing journey for the chance at a better life, and without paperwork many end up hawking things. You probably won’t need anything they sell unless you’re caught out in the rain without an umbrella (they’ll sell you one at a good price), but it’s fun to watch how they have a completely different way of life and social structure to the Italians. And then, if you really must, watch the tourists. You get a lot of different types – students, art lovers, random cruise ship types, and they come from all over the world.
Tip #5 – Get out of Florence. The city isn’t situated in a barren wasteland, it’s in Tuscany. So get out and see this famously beautiful province. You can take a lot of day trips, to places like Pisa, Lucca and Siena, all of which are gorgeous and with enough interesting things that you could spend a night in any of them. Better yet, rent a car and really see the Tuscan countryside. There’s small towns like San Gimignano that are hard to get to on public transport; there’s wineries and of course the UNESCO-recognized, world-famous Tuscan villas. Every town has its own culture and cuisine, and getting to understand each will only add to your Italy traveler street cred.