Our girls have grown up so much since we moved to London that when we took a recent trip to Florence, Michelangelo’s David was like, “Wow, they’re big in person!” Tell me about it, you giant, beautiful slab of stone. Tell me about it. As they’ve grown, this whole casual travel around Europe thing has gotten easier and more fun. Even so, most of what’s fun is that we’ve abandoned all expectations and learned to show up, take in what we take in, and get out.
Florence was an important — if tricky — place to practice that style of visit. With six bajillion “must-see” museums, you could spend weeks chasing guidebook affirmation. Or you could cross the Arno river to the more relaxed left bank, hike up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic city view that also allows for some major run-around time, and settle in at Trattoria La Casalinga with a big, homey plate of spaghetti and totally decent house wine without the tourist prices. Just sayin’, it’s up to you.
Truth be told, we did our share of museum visits in Florence. Maybe more than our share, as evidenced by the girls’ casual observation on day four: “NO MORE MUSEUMS!” Yeah, we’re still tweaking the balance. I don’t know how I can have seen so many Caravaggio paintings and still know virtually nothing about him, but I shouldn’t be surprised. As well-traveled kids, my sister and I had a side business leading Non-Informational Tours. We couldn’t tell you anything you couldn’t have observed on your own, but we were damn fine at walking backwards with a closed Totes umbrella held above our heads. Plus ça change.
There’s so much art in Florence that it famously spills out onto the streets, from graffiti to annotated street signs to the maddonari who replicate paintings in chalk on the roads. Although an awful lot of what we saw in parts of the city felt oh-so-conspicuously aimed at the throngs of tourists constantly coursing through the streets, it’s still pretty cool to stumble upon such an impressive use of sidewalk chalk. That was a common feeling for us in Florence — that it’s a hard place to escape the cattle herd, but that it’s hard to mind too much in the presence of all that magic.
Thanks to TripAdvisor, we stayed at the Hotel Davanzati on the centrally located Via Porta Rossa. It’s a lovely place run by a charismatic father-son team, with a variety of room types, free breakfast (critical to our sanity, we’ve learned) and a cozy nightly happy hour. We ended up having something of an extended relationship with the owners, since the cleaning staff swept up the soft doll our little one’s been sleeping with since birth and carried it away with the sheets. They didn’t find it for over a week after we’d left, and I got to practice the persistence and negotiation skills I learned in law school. Thankfully their English is exceptional (thanks to “a movie a day since I was 12,” according to the son, now probably 30), so I didn’t have to rely on my deeply unexceptional college Italian. Despite an initial lack of urgency, they did ultimately find and return the doll with a warm smile. All’s well that ends well, and I would definitely recommend the hotel in the end. (Plus, no one but me was really traumatized, as you can see below.)
Of our 15 meals in Florence, 67 of them — including Thanksgiving dinner — occurred at La Bussola, because it was recommended by the hotel and because it was almost directly across the street. The food was delicious but absolutely did not seem like it might have been made by someone’s grandma, which for better or worse is what I tend to look for in Italy. The other 972 times we ate that week, it was gelato, and always at Gelato Carabé. Because I read this article, which said it’s the best. But mostly because, whether or not we are adventurers as individuals, as a family we are a creature of habit. That creature was not disappointed by its daily gelato ritual.A few more food spots to recommend, for convenience more than unbridled splendor: If you’re on the left bank for lunch or later for drinks, check out Zoe. The crowd is young and mostly local, and the casual food is more modern feeling than you might get elsewhere, with lots of salads. We were there for lunch, but I hear the nightlife is a big part of the draw. And if you’re near the Duomo and looking for a tasty, quick bite, the seedy-looking Antica Pizzeria del Duomo, with pizza a taglio (sold by weight) — made us very happy when we were starving. Take that for what it’s worth, but I’d go again. The room downstairs, filled to the low ceilings with graffiti and feeling vaguely medieval, is an odd little experience worth having. And don’t forget the markets, including the Mercato Centrale, for fresh foods and local specialties. It’s another Florentine destination that feels more touristy than we’d hoped, but it’s still worth a visit.
And finally, I’d really recommend a trek up the loooong spiral staircase to the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower. The Duomo itself was closed to stair climbers on the day we went, which is why we “chose” the bell tower, but being able to see the roof of the Duomo from up high ended up being part of the appeal. It’s hella windy up there, as you can see, but we got a kick out of it. Even the five-year-old walked the whole thing and was pretty chuffed about it. She slept well that night, too. Even without her doll.
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