Tuesday, July 27, 2010

European stop 2: Florence, Italy

Continuing on our European journey, from Rome we took a train to Florence. We opted for the cheaper ticket, at 56 Euros, which got us there in almost exactly three hours. Buy these tickets in advance. This is the line that connects Rome and Venice, so it's a busy train. Check your ticket to see that you have a seat (carrozza = car number, posti = seat number). There were two American college boys in our seats, and we had to boot them out. Turns out their tickets did not have seat numbers, so they were confused, but they had to sit in make-shift seats in the aisle, which was no doubt not pleasant for their six-hour trip to Venice.

Total time in Florence: 2.5 days, 3 nights

Time-saving tip: 
If you plan to go to the Uffizi Gallery, book your tickets in advance. The ticket office closes at 12:30 on Saturdays, and we arrived in Florence on Saturday, July 3, so we missed the window for booking our tickets in advance. We worked around this by getting an early start Sunday and heading straight to the Uffizi, so we didn't have to wait long, but it would have been nice to simply walk right in as an advance ticket holder.

Hotel River
Lungarno della Zecca Vecchia, 18 - 50122 Firenze
Price we paid per night: $100
Location: Of the eight hotels we stayed in during our trip, this one was the most out of the way, but this hotel faces stiff competition because all our hotels in Italy and Spain were in perfect locations. This hotel, as the name suggests, is located right on the Arno River, directly across the water from the Piazzale Michelangelo, and in between two bridges -- Ponte alle Grazie and Ponte San Niccolo. We just wish the hotel had been about five minutes walking distance closer to the main attractions.

View of the Arno River and the Piazzale Michelangelo (at the top of the hill) from the hotel patio

Room: Nicely decorated and big. We had not only a large bed but also a full-size couch and desk in addition to the wardrobe and bedside tables. The bathroom was spacious, easily three times the size of the bathroom in Rome.
Breakfast included?: Yes. Our buffet breakfast was nearly identical to the one we had in Rome.
Service: Knowledgeable about local restaurants and attractions. Extra willing to help.
TV: We were pleasantly surprised to find a moderate-sized flat-screen TV with BBC News and CNN International.
Internet: Free Wifi in the common areas. The lobby space is beautiful and smells awesome, so it was a nice excuse to hang out there a little.
Overall assessment: Our travel agent Cindy booked this hotel for us, and from this strong start we knew she did a great job with her selections. This place is a great value, and it was much nicer than I would have expected. We only wish the hotel had been a little bit closer to the main attractions, but in the end we have no complaints.

La Canova di Gustavino
Via della Condotta 29r
Genre: Casual, full-service cafe nextdoor to its fancier sibling, Gustavino
How we found it: Lonely Planet Italy book
What we ate: We shared three plates -- salad, bruscetta with mozzarella and caramelized tomatoes, cold cut platter -- and a bottle of Toscano
Total cost: $41
Overall assessment: The bruscetta here stole the show. Drizzled in olive oil with just the right amount of salt and pepper, it was quite memorable. The cold cuts were not as memorable as antipasti dishes we had elsewhere, but it was still a pleasant dining experience. The dining room has a nice Italian ambiance -- you're surrounded by wooden shelves filled with bottles of wine.

Trattoria Angiolino
Via di Santo Spirito 36r
Genre: Full-service Italian, known for its Florentine steak
How we found it: Lonely Planet Italy book
What we ate: A lot of food! We shared a salad, appetizer platter of jamon, 1 kilo of biscetta alla fiorentina (Florentine steak) and a large side of roasted potatoes, and of course a litre of red house wine
Total cost: $81
Overall assessment: This was one of our two "splurge" meals of our trip (the other was our last night of the trip in Madrid), but of all the things we could splurge on, this was worth it. Florentine steak is charred on the outside and fairly rare on the inside. The potatoes were perhaps even better -- perfectly crispy, with great seasoning. I'm glad we had a taste of this special dish while in Florence.

Trattoria La Casalinga
Via de Michelozzi 9r, right off the Piazza Santo Spirito
Genre: Full-service Italian restaurant
How we found it: Lonely Planet Italy book
What we ate: Shared an antipasti de la casa platter, which was actually two platters in one with lots of meat and bruscetta of different varieties, and a litre of house red wine. Entrees: Stephanie: tortellini in a cheese sauce with a cucumber salad on the side; Matt: spaghetti with an arugula salad on the side.
Total cost: $42
Overall assessment: This place offers great value. We ate a ton of food. The antipasti platter stands out the most because of its sheer size. This restaurant was a good experience, nothing overly memorable, but definitely enjoyable.

Florence is a beautiful city that offers good sightseeing variety without feeling overwhelming.

Bardini and Boboli Gardens
Price: 7 Euros (adult ticket)
We did this as our first sightseeing activity during our time in Florence, and it was a great place to start because it offers excellent views of the city (both gardens are located next to each other on the oltrarno, or other side of the river from the main Florence attractions).
Tip: The Bardini Gardens offer better views, have better landscaping, and are less crowded than the Boboli Gardens. If you only have time for one, opt for the Bardini, but your ticket grants you admission to both.
Bardini Gardens
View from the Bardini Gardens
Boboli Gardens

Uffizi Gallery
Price: 10 Euros (adult ticket)
I already mentioned this at the start of this post, but if you don't have advance tickets, be sure to get there first thing in the morning. We arrived at 8:30 and were inside the building by 9:30. Not a horrible wait, but still the longest we had to wait for any attraction in Italy or Spain.
Tip 1: This museum is not well marked at all, so invest in an audio guide, or, better yet, invest in an iPhone app. Before our trip we did not realize that there are audio guide iPhone apps for famous museums and historic sites, but it was at the Uffizi that we saw people listening to their guides on their iPods. Because we brought our iPod Touch with us on our trip we were able to take advantage of this later on during our trip.
Tip 2: Move through the museum in chronological order. It's fascinating to see how the art changes, how one period influences another, and how art can teach us so much about changing views of science, religion, history and morality.
On the patio at the Uffizi
Price: Free
This cathedral is breath-taking from the outside and fairly unimpressive from the inside.
Tip 1: Just like at all cathedrals in Italy, be sure you are dressed modestly, and make sure you cover your shoulders inside the church.
Tip 2: Scale the 463 stone steps to the top of the dome. It's not nearly as tight a squeeze as the walk up the dome at St. Peter's Basillica at the Vatican, and the views overlooking Florence are way better than those overlooking Rome.
I was pretty excited to see the famous baptistry doors I had to write about on an exam in Art History 102 in college...

Piazzale Michelangelo
Price: Free
This is on the oltrarno, and it is an excellent, festive place from which to watch the sunset. (We especially enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversations of American college students "studying" abroad.) We actually did this two nights in a row, and both nights we bought an 8 Euro bottle of prosecco from a vendor at the plaza and waited an hour or so for the sun to set while we enjoyed our delicious beverages. It is an uphill climb to get here, but it is not at all strenuous.
Tip: If you don't make it to see the original David at the Galleria dell'Academia, as we did not, you can see a copy of the David at this spot.

Mercato San Lorenzo
Price: Free
Not too far from the Duomo, this open-air market is full of souvenirs, some good-quality items, some low-quality items. I bought a majorly inexpensive dress and a ceramic plaque of the Florence skyline.
Tip: Walk around the entire market once before buying anything. The market is large but not overwhelming, so you can easily comparison shop for goods and prices. (You can also bargain with the merchants if you're not horribly bad at it like I am.)

All in all, Florence was one of our favorite cities on our trip.

Next up...our time in Venice!

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