If you have ever been to Florence, avoiding the tourists might sound like a plot for the next Mission Impossible movie. Visitors flock to the central Italian city year round, and for good reason. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, there is probably no other place on Earth that packs as much art and history into such a small space.
The downside for a city with such a compact collection of cultural treasures is that the density of tourists becomes extremely high each day. Crowds are unavoidable when so many want to see the same things. However, it is possible to get brief respites from the traveling hordes if you know where to look. Here are some tips for finding your own momentary solitude.
Visit museums wisely
If you only go to one museum while you are in Florence, make sure it is the Uffizi Gallery. It has the most impressive collection of Italian paintings in the world; you will find room after room filled with masterpieces by artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Caravaggio.
Reservations are highly recommended, since those without them can expect to wait several hours in a stationary line while the people who reserved ahead of time breeze right in. If possible, make your reservation for 9:00 a.m. or earlier (the museum opens at 8:15 a.m.). In the early hours the crowds are manageable, but by 10:00 a.m., the Botticelli Room that holds the most famous paintings is filled to the brim with tour groups, and it stays that way for the rest of the day.
Go to the Bargello Museum to see impressive Renaissance sculptures with minimal crowds. The star of the show is Donatello’s David, which is renowned as the first free-standing nude in Western Art since antiquity. The statue is currently undergoing restoration, and the museum made the ingenious decision to perform the conservation work in the gallery in front of its visitors. Serious art history lovers will find the process fascinating to witness. The restoration is scheduled for completion at the end of 2008.
Fans of Fra Angelico should also consider a trip to the underrated San Marco Museum. This unique museum is housed in the monastery where the artist once lived. Visitors peer into each monk’s former bedroom to see the frescoes that adorn the walls.
Take a gelato break
It seems that every guidebook and travel show insists that the best gelato in Florence is at Vivoli. Nestled on a side street near Piazza Santa Croce, the shop can easily be found by looking for the seemingly permanent group of satisfied customers enjoying their gelato in front of it. While it is certainly worth a taste, Vivoli should not be considered the be all and end all of frozen Florentine treats.
When searching for the freshest and tastiest gelato, beware of the countless shops with overflowing display cases. It may look pretty, but you have to wonder how long that gelato has been sitting there. If it is not turning over quickly, there is probably a reason. Also, be cautious about getting a large gelato in a cone. Tourists with gelato streaming down their arms are an all too common sight as it melts faster than they can consume it.
My favorite discovery was Gelateria dei Neri, two blocks behind Palazzo Vecchio. The dark chocolate gelato left me eagerly awaiting my next trip to Florence. Walk back to Piazza della Signoria and have a seat underneath one of the many statues that decorate the square, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David. The best time to do this is at dusk, after the tour groups have retreated back to their hotels. Watch real Florentines unwind from their days while you eat your gelato surrounded by beautiful sculptures. What could be better?
Stroll through a garden
Across the legendary Ponte Vecchio and behind the Pitti Palace lies the vast Boboli Gardens. There is perhaps no other public place in central Florence with such a low density of tourists. That is not because nobody goes there, but because those who do have more room to spread out within the park-like grounds. Admission is unfortunately steep, but it also includes a few of the small museums in the Pitti Palace such as the Costume Gallery, which is worth a quick walk through.
Upon entering Boboli Gardens visitors are greeted by a striking amphitheater with an Egyptian obelisk and 24 statuary niches. From there countless paths lead to classical statues and elegant fountains interspersed between the trees. There are plenty of shady nooks where you can stop to admire the panoramic views of the Duomo and the rest of Florence, or marvel at the lack of crowds. It is impossible to see the entire garden in one visit, so it is pointless to even try. The time you spend wandering the peaceful lanes will provide a well-deserved break from the tourist onslaught.
Day trip out of Florence
It may sound obvious, but one of the best ways to escape the crowds in Florence is to actually leave Florence. One of the easiest and most popular day trips is to the medieval hill town of Siena. You can get to Siena by train, bus or tour. I opted for the bus since it is inexpensive and drops you off closer to the city center than the train.
Compared to Florence, Siena has few noteworthy sights. Piazza del Campo, the town square, contains the town hall and numerous restaurants. The Duomo has sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini, mosaic floors, and the heads of 172 popes carved into the ceiling. Next door, the Duomo Museum features Duccio’s Maestà, one of the most celebrated paintings of the early Renaissance.
Seeing the Maestà alone was worth the trip to Siena, but as a whole I was underwhelmed by the city. Sure, there are fewer tourists than in Florence, but that is because there is much less to do there. I ventured down a few side streets in search of local charm, only to find deserted residential neighborhoods of little interest to me. The shops and pedestrianized walkways were much like the ones in Florence. However, I did get to see supporters of the Genoa soccer team being escorted out the city by police officers in riot gear after their team defeated Siena, so that is one thing that I did not see in Florence. At the very least, the trip gave me a chance to escape the crowds for an afternoon.
During my stay in Florence I also took a side trip to the Cinque Terre, five villages perched on cliffs along the Italian Riviera. This was a on a semi-private tour with Avventure Bellissime. Operating with a maximum of eight passengers, the tour stops at four of the five Cinque Terre towns. The drive from Florence takes two hours; along the way there is a spectacular view of the marble quarries in Carrara.
The tour includes a hike along the Via dell’ Amore, the trail that connects Riomaggiore and Manarola. It is possible to hike between all of the five towns, and serious hikers might want to consider spending a night in the area to complete the entire trail. The views are breathtaking in every direction, and each town is small but colorful. There are approximately two hours for lunch in Vernazza, and I would recommend the trofie al pesto. Trofie is a type of pasta made specifically to go with pesto, a specialty of the Cinque Terre. The tour is pricey, but it is worth the cost because there is no way to see so much of the region in one day on your own.
Have a game plan
When traveling to Florence, you have to be prepared for large crowds. By doing some research before your trip, you can learn the best times to hit the most popular sights as well as the best places to get away from the tourist crush. With a little savvy you can stay a step ahead of other travelers and make your visit to the glorious Renaissance city a whole lot more enjoyable.