We are leaving Tuscany tomorrow after nine days here – the longest time we have stayed in a single place. It’s been great to have a chance to settle into our Airbnb apartment and fall into the rhythms of being in a neighborhood. The apartment has been perfect for us: on a quiet street out of the tourist fray, but just around the corner from shops and restaurants. It’s also an 8-minute walk from the train station, very helpful since we have taken train trips to Florence to Siena and Lucca, and also since we are leaving tomorrow by train to Milan for one night before continuing on to Paris.
John and I continue to be surprised at the sheer volume of tourists, mostly people in tour groups, and pretty much all of them in the major cities, especially surrounding the most popular attractions at each place. John visited Florence in the summer of 1976 and, at that time, it was possible to just walk up to the ticket window at Gallerie dell’Accademia, purchase a ticket, go in and see Michaelangelo’s David. The first time I went to Florence twenty years later, it was necessary to wait in line in the summer, but only for 10 or 15 minutes. All of that has changed today. Someone going to Florence for just a couple of days without reservations at the Duomo, the Uffizi, or the Gallerie dell’Accademia would likely either have to spend hours standing in line or miss going to those places. Between the issues of simply getting a ticket or reservation to visit popular places and dealing with the sheer numbers of tourists, we’ve had to think about how to spend our time to get the most out of our travel in Europe in ways we hadn’t had to in the past.
Here are some of the things we are doing;
- Taking advantage of reservations and skip-the-line programs: Obviously, taking advantage of making reservations and/or paying a little more for skip-the-line programs is one way to go, in addition focusing on going in the less popular time slots.
- Instead of skipping the line, skip the destination altogether: Sometimes, even if you try to figure out the best time or best way to see something it’s still uncomfortably crowded. We got to the Prague Castle before opening time and still found that it was miserably slammed with tour groups. If that’s the case, maybe it’s better to just do something else. In Florence, the Duomo had a ridiculously long line all the time. We went to Siena instead, waited ten minutes to buy a ticket, and then walked right in to see their cathedral which is, in my opinion, even more remarkable than the one in Florence.
- Avoid the herds by seeking out less well-known places: We went to the Bargello Museum and Gallileo Museum in Florence. I had never even heard of the Bargello, but it had a great collection of Donatello and MIchaelangelo sculptures and was very lightly attended. Ditto for the Gallileo Museum, which traces the scientific contributions of the Italian Renaissance and has a remarkable collection of early scientific instruments, many of which are art works in their own right. It also has Gallileo’s middle finger on display. I’m not kidding.
- Get out of town: Our side trips to Lucca, Siena, and Fiesole were also good ways to leave the crowds behind and we had wonderful days in each.
We also find that using audio guides, or, even better, the newer multi-media guides, are a great way to focus on hitting some high points in the places we visit, providing helpful explanation and context for what’s in the museum or cathedral. A number of places now have smartphone versions of these that can easily be downloaded with a QR reader scan.
We’ve had so many great experiences in Florence and Tuscany, it’s been hard to come up with a list of the ones we’ve enjoyed most, but here goes…
Pasta Making Class: A fun, interactive class in pasta making booked through Airbnb. I’ve always seen the tours and outings on their app but had never booked one. We were ready for a change from visits to museums and churches and decided to do something different for a day. The class was held in the tidy kitchen of Laurence. She is from Paris but has lived in Italy for a number of years now. The class was small – just us and one other couple and their daughter. The entire experience was so much fun AND we got to enjoy the results, along with some nice Tuscan wine and a delicious dessert that Laurence prepared for us.
Our day in Siena. Siena is a beautiful village with an important history in the Tuscan region and a jaw-dropping Duomo (cathedral) and town square. The square is the site of Il Palio a famous horse race that has been held twice each year since the 16th century. We enjoyed strolling through the town and especially loved a tour of their magnificent black-and-white marble Duomo, which is decorated with incredibly beautiful art and sculpture, including Michaelangelo statues and intricate stone frescoes on the floor.
Some really great museums, as mentioned above: the Uffizi, Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Bargello, and the Gallileo museum – all time well spent
Visiting the Market Centrale, near the Duomo. The outdoor market features miles of aisles of leather. Inside and upstairs, there is a touristy food market and downstairs is more of a regular market for buying meat, fish, vegetables, etc., along with a few prepared food places.
Riding bikes on the city wall in Lucca. The city of Lucca is near Pisa and is a wonderful town with an intact city wall that is now popular for walking and bike riding around the top of it. We rented bikes and rode around a couple of times for great views of the old town on one side and the Tuscan mountains on the other. The old town within the city walls is car-free, with the exception of a few small city buses and the occasional delivery van so it’s very pedestrian friendly.
Going up to Fiesole. A short and pleasant city bus ride up the mountain from Florence goes to Fiesole, a lovely little town with an archaeological site from Roman times. Fiesole has great panoramic views of Florence and some lovely walks, one through a park that has caves from an old quarry.
Birthplace of opera composer, Giocomo Puccini in Lucca. The men of Puccini’s family held the post of maestro at St. Michael’s Church in Lucca for 124 years before Giocomo broke the streak by becoming one of the greatest composers of opera ever. The house featured Puccini’s Steinway that he used when he composed La Giocanda and told about his marriage and infidelities and his love of hunting and speedboats.
The food! Of course, the food is always a plus in Italy. Favorites were Il Sabatino and Il Contadina, down-home cooking places with fresh pasta served with simple, but delicious, sauces. Il Sabatino was one of the last restaurants Anthony Bourdain visted before he passed away in 2018.
Wandering the streets of Florence Having more than a week in the city gave us time to just wander, cross into the other side of the city and see the old city wall, visit outdoor markets, walk through a nearby park, and spend a little free time just being in Florence.
So much great gelato! Vivino has the reputation for the best in the city so, of course, we went there. But I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.