I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with Florence. When I first went, for a weekend with a friend a couple of years ago, I spent most of the time comparing everything with Rome. Even the positives somehow turned into negatives – “Yes, it’s cleaner, quieter, less chaotic, with less traffic and dog poo than Rome, and yet…it doesn’t have the same beauty or energy.” Even though I essentially liked Florence, and had a perfectly enjoyable weekend of Renaissance art and Chianti, I felt that the city lacked something.
I returned to Florence last week, to spend four days with my family. This time I vowed to be more open-minded, and to enjoy Florence on its terms, rather than constantly comparing it with Rome. I spent more time exploring the Oltrarno (the south side of the river), revisited the Uffizi and visited some less crowded museums and galleries such as the Bargello, San Marco and La Specola. My brother is studying Renaissance history at university, so we were constantly referring to The List and ticking off must-see churches. When we weren’t looking at Madonnas and Child, we were eating pasta and drinking wine in trattorias, or walking alongside the Arno.
It was a lovely holiday, and when anyone asked me what I thought of Florence, I replied that it was “bellissima”. Florence is beautiful, albeit in a less dramatic way than Rome (there I go again), and even if the city itself looked like Slough, it would still be worth a visit for the contents of the art galleries and churches alone. If I got accidentally locked in the Uffizi overnight I would be quite happy – hours in front of the Botticellis and Titians without getting jostled by tour groups and people taking selfies!
But. But. Two conversations I had with Italians summed up my problem with Florence. One evening we went out for dinner with a friend of my father’s, a Canadian who’s lived in Florence for years with his Italian wife, Erica. While I was talking to Erica, I mentioned the lack of bars in Florence.
“In Rome there’s a bar on every street – you know, full of locals drinking coffee at the counter. I hardly see any bars like that in Florence. Is there less of a coffee culture?”
“No,” she replied, “it’s because Florence is Disneyland. It’s only tourists in the centre. All the locals have moved away, or moved out to the suburbs.”
And then, when I came back to work, a colleague asked me about my trip. I said that I’d enjoyed it, but that although Florence was beautiful, somehow it lacked an atmosphere. “It feels…flat.” We both said “flat” at exactly the same time, so that must be the right word.
Florence feels flat. I imagine this wasn’t always the way – no doubt it felt much more vibrant during the Renaissance, or even the nineteenth century, before the invention of mass tourism. When I think of Stendhal swooning or Lucy Honeychurch admiring the view from her window, they seem to belong to a very different Florence – a fantasy Florence. I just can’t imagine getting overwhelmed by 21st century Florence in the same way.
Of course, it’s a very subjective thing, and it seems unfair to accuse Florence of lacking an atmosphere when so many other people clearly adore it. I regularly look expat blogs such as Girl in Florence and wonder if they’ll change my perspective. I’m also willing to concede that Florence has lots of good qualities, and that it’s a great place to spend a weekend, especially if you’re an art lover.
Venice has a magical, dream-like atmosphere. Naples has a crazy energy. Rome has something so intense and complex that I can’t even sum it up in one sentence, but whatever it is, it’s powerful. Florence, for all its beauty, doesn’t have a particular energy or atmosphere. It just kind of sits there, like a beautiful object in a museum that’s there to be admired, and nothing else.
When I’m in a city I don’t know well, I usually have the urge to walk for hours and explore every street, but Florence doesn’t excite me or give me that sense of curiosity. Strangely, I think that even Oxford – a town that I know well, having studied at the university for three years – has more mystery for me than Florence. Could it be something to do with the local to tourist ratio?
I know I’m not exactly selling Florence, but I did have a nice time, and I would happily go again. Here are my recommendations:
See: The Uffizi, obviously. My personal favourites are all the Botticelli paintings, the Titians, Da Vinci’s Annunciation and Piero di Cosimo’s Perseus Freeing Medusa. The Accademia would be worth visiting even without Michelangelo’s David – the Prisoners are impressive too, and I have a thing for medieval Christian art (gold backgrounds and angels side-eying each other). The convent of San Marco has a great collection of paintings by Fra Angelico; I particularly liked seeing the decorated cells. The Bargello has some lovely sculptures and is refreshingly uncrowded compared to other museums in Florence. La Specola makes an interesting change from Renaissance art – a stuffed hippo that belonged to the Medici and some wax models of nude women displaying their internal organs. Apparently the Marquis de Sade was a fan.
I won’t go into the list of churches we visited, or I’d be here all night, but Santa Maria Novella was impressive.
Eat: The food at Il Vegetariano (Via delle Ruote 30) was excellent, but the chaotic self-service slightly spoiled the experience. Trattoria Diladdarno (Via dei Serragli 108) is good for traditional Tuscan cuisine and felt less touristy than other restaurants in the centre. Hostaria del Bricco (Via San Niccolo 8) was strangely empty, considering the quality of the food – the pasta was delicious.
Stay: We stayed at Hotel David, a three star hotel which is rated the third best hotel in Florence on TripAdvisor. Clean, comfortable, friendly staff, nice atmosphere…the only downside is the location, as it’s about a 20 minute walk to the centre. I suppose the advantage is that it forces you to explore some of the quieter, less touristy streets of the Oltrarno, which I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.