Florence in a Day

I couldn't leave out Florence, the (more peaceful) little sister to Rome. After a few days in Rome, Florence was a welcome sigh of relief. As much as I love both cities, Florence is slightly less tourist-crammed and intense, kind of like the San Francisco to Rome's New York. The entire city is walkable, so you get more of a feel of the city and its unbelievable beauty.
This time I'll be giving you several possibilities of things you could do with a day in Florence, narrowed down from a list of my favorites, and once again, I'll start off with lodging:

Le Stanze di Santa Croce - This quaint little B+B in the heart of Florence, next to the Basilica di Santa Croce (a 13th century Franciscan church) is run by the unbelievably welcoming and helpful Mariangela Catalani, a chef, choir singer, traveler and incredible hostess. Every morning at breakfast, she asks about the previous day, and what you plan to do next, always offering amazing suggestions and advice to make your trip that much better. She also offers cooking classes in the kitchen, and will even escort you to the local market to pick out fresh foods she'll help you prepare for lunch. I can't say enough about her excitement and willingness to do anything to enhance your trip, and the rooms are equally perfect. Located on Via delle Pinzochere, 6.

The restaurant I'm recommending is in this same neighborhood, suggested by Mariangela when we asked for extremely traditional local fare.

Ristorante del Fagioli - I simply can't say enough about this establishment. The second you walk in the door, you know you're in for the experience of a lifetime. Peeking into the kitchen as you walk to your seat, an elderly Italian chef bends over hulking pots of simmering goodness, barking orders to his younger counterparts, who immediately jump to ladle sauces that look like they've been boiling in that same kitchen for centuries. The menu is in Italian only, so we asked the waiter (Antonio in the video above) for suggestions, after which he proceeded to bring out plate after plate of random samples, each tasting better than the last. Ribollita, Involtini, Pappa al Pomodoro! So many dishes I'll be attempting to relive in our home this summer, and likely until we return to del Fagioli. Reservations are required, as they only seat their small dining room a maximum of twice a night (dinner only), don't miss this one or you won't know what you're missing! Located on Corso dei Tintori, 47.

Now for a few suggestions of must-see attractions:

1. The Florence Cathedral and Campanile Tower - Designed by Giotto in the 14th century, the Campanile Tower is a 280-vertical-foot monstrosity next to the Florence Cathedral (a massive beast of its own). Not for the Acrophobic or Chlostrophobic, 414 steps inside the tower wind upward through a narrow tunnel to several viewing decks within the structure, culminating on the roof in the most breathtaking view of the city you can find. Worth the burning thighs and shortness of breath, though you're not going to feel up to much walking after this one!

2. Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio - an indoor/outdoor market that's been a gathering point for locals since 1873, you can find everything from textiles to produce to meat and fish, including "traditional" fare for the more adventurous of eaters (tripe sandwich, anyone?).

3. Piazzale Michelangelo - Definitely not an attraction to be attempting the same day as the Campanile Tower above, Piazzale Michelangelo offers sweeping views of the river and entire city of Florence, after an invigorating climb of course! Recommended as a "Place for the lovers" by a helpful taxi driver.

4. Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte - Located directly behind Piazzale Michelangelo, the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte is an 11th century cathedral and cemetery overlooking the whole of Florence. Definitely the spookiest (and coldest) church I entered in my stay in Italy (where there are a whole lot of churches), there was no interior lighting other than that which trickled in from the windows near the roof. You definitely get a sense of how the monks, who have inhabited the building since its construction, experienced places like this before electricity.

5. The Scuola del Cuoio (leather school) of Florence - Located inside the Basilica of Santa Croce, the leather school was formed after WWII by Franciscan monks in order to teach a trade to orphans of the war. Using natural materials and methods handed down by Franciscan artists over centuries, the students are still taught today how to craft leather goods by hand using materials such as eggs, olive oil and gold leaf. These guys aren't messing around. We watched a brief demonstration by one of the students and were awestruck at the ease with which he manipulated the materials to create an intricate pattern in gold leaf. A must see, even if you don't buy anything in the shop, it's worth seeing the process and final product of centuries of knowledge.

6. The town of San Gimignano - A simple bus trip from Florence, San Gimignano instantly transports you to the Tuscany that we all envision when we think of Italy: vineyards, country cottages and tiny stone-walled towns atop hills. Take a walk outside the city walls to be swept into a Disneyesque world of chirping birds, blooming flowers, laundry hung on the line, green grass and endless vineyards. A welcomed breath of fresh air (literally) from the tourist throngs. Also the best shopping of the trip, especially if you're into good wine, olive oil, and handmade ceramics.

Well, that's it folks! My trip to Italy in a nutshell (or you could say, "The Best Parts"). Even if you aren't planning a trip to Italy anytime soon, I hope this inspires the need to get up, get out, and experience the world....someday.

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