Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy is a city I just keep coming back to – and, this time it serves as a base as we begin to plan our wedding in Tuscany in a few years. With changing travel regulations due to COVID-19, it’s obviously been very difficult to plan any type of international (and really, domestic) trip, as we’ve been extremely conscious of our own health and feel a strong responsibility to act in the interest of global public health. Fortunately, as we reviewed vaccination rates and case rates in our planned destinations, we felt confident that if we planned well ahead and did everything in our power to avoid accidental transmission (i.e., being fully vaccinated, taking both PCR and rapid tests, self-quarantining for 5 days before our flights) we would be safe to fly. Ironically, the only way that COVID-19 regulations impacted our trip into the EU was that Portuguese security workers went on strike to protest for better PPE, which in turn led our original flight through Lisbon to be significantly delayed. So, we went with a much more expensive but time-saving Plan B and opted to fly direct into Milan and then take a train into Florence.

On the flight, I found myself reflecting a lot about what this trip means to me. Obviously, it is a very welcome opportunity to relax and feel an additional sense of “normalcy” despite the pandemic. But even more so, I’ve been reflecting on my own privilege, both in terms of having stable employment and funding, but also in more fundamental terms of having the privilege of freedom of movement. It’s something I completely took for granted before the pandemic (“Of course I can buy a ticket to pretty much anywhere…”) but am now acutely aware of – especially given many countries remain in various stages of COVID-preventative lockdown or facing completely unrelated political repression preventing movement. Either way, being able to freely travel and having the ability to do so is an incredible privilege and one I am so, so grateful to have.

Upon arrival in Italy, I was surprised how much things stayed the same despite the “unprecedented times” we’ve globally experienced the past 18 or so months. We simply disembarked, showed our vaccination certificates upon arrival and then went through immigration as normal. No review of the (very extensive!) personal location finder we had to complete before traveling, no temperature checks upon arrival, etc. From there, it was essentially life as normal, although masked at pretty much all times.

Florence, as usual, is timeless and wonderful. Given we’d been up for nearly 18 hours before even arriving, we opted to stick close to the walkable downtown area and revisit some favorite sights while seeking out different sandwich shops.

First up, we did a lovely walk from our hotel to the Ponte Vecchio along the waterfront of the Argo River.

We passed through a lot of tourist sights we’d seen before, so we didn’t focus on any museums or other cultural activities during our first day. That being said, it was great to see many of the main squares busy and as vibrant as they had been pre-pandemic.

Our next course of business was to visit several sandwich shops we’d loved the last time we were in town – and, of course, to try anything else that looked good along the way. Fortunately, or unfortunately, several of the sandwich shops either had huge lines (COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have had an impact on that aspect of travel) or were closed, so we generally just explored downtown Florence.

Along the way, we saw a couple things I hadn’t remembered from previous visits to Florence, including beautiful glassed-in areas where frescoes have been painted directly on the walls (which look to be of varying ages) as well as some amazing, tiled facades.

I also loved seeing some of my favorite pieces of Florence’s architecture – little winding alleyways and beautiful stained glass from its many churches and cathedrals.

Ultimately, we did want to explore a couple areas we hadn’t seen before, and headed to the San Niccolo neighborhood, which is on the opposite side of the river from “downtown” Florence. It’s a cute little area, with great views of Florence’s library and old stately villas; it also has a variety of little shops and sandwich / wine options.

We also saw the old Florence city walls, which then lead up a hill to a large villa and rose garden overlooking the city. Beautiful views all around!

Lastly, we headed back to the hotel and stumbled across another item I’d wanted to see: the Santa Croce church. Much like Il Duomo, it’s a beautiful church with an amazing façade; unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside, but we did enjoy a little aperitif in the piazza (and by aperitif, I mean we went hard with our drink choices: aperol spritz, double espresso and water – I think the restaurant staff thought we were pretty confused!).

On the way back, we passed the beautiful Florence Il Duomo, which is always a great sight.

After that, we headed back to the hotel for an aperitif and to dinner.

When we’ve visited Florence before, we loved eating at a restaurant called Gargani – so much so that we actually ended up going twice in one week. Sadly, despite what Google showed, Gargani has closed for COVID-19 and not yet reopened (it was a bit unclear if it ever would). So, we decided to try dinner at Atelier dell’ Neri, Gargani’s sister restaurant. It was as delicious as we’d remembered – we ordered the branzino carpaccio with grapefruit, fresh burrata ravioli with a simple tomato and olive oil sauce, and a pasta with white ragu made with rabbit, chicken and pork. We ended the meal with a delicious panna cotta as well!

After that, it was back to the hotel for an early bed time. Despite having been awake for about 23 hours at that point and in desperate need of sleep, we had an early morning the following day to start seeing venues in a city about an hour away in Lucca, Italy (see Lucca / Tuscany post for more!).

While I’ve shared some photos of the sights we saw while touring venues across Tuscany in that post, I figured I’d capture some other Florentine memories here since we kept Florence as our “home base” throughout out time traveling the region.

We basically made our first day’s approach our afternoon ritual the next couple days; do a quick walk, find a sandwich shop, and then have a quick aperitif at the hotel or a different bar before heading out for dinner.

On our second day, we struck out: we had intended to go to a restaurant known for Florentine steak, but somehow in the age of COVID-19 and year 2021, they only accepted credit cards. We were running low on a cash and couldn’t find an ATM, and therefore had to scrap that plan. Our Plan B, another well rated restaurant, had great food but unfortunately pretentious service. Thankfully, the Ponte Vecchio is gorgeous at night, so that was beautiful to see on our way home!

However, there were highlights to the remainder of our time in Florence. In particular, one highlight was a restaurant set back in a little alley which specializes in Florentine steak. The whole meal was delicious – we started with a gorgonzola panna cotta (I thought it was really inventive and interesting), a duck ragu and some delicious bucatini, and accompanying wines (including a free natural wine that they offered us!). Then the main event: the huge steak. The Florentine steak is essentially a thick cut t-bone cut very thick (probably 2 inches or so high), cooked just above rare. I was skeptical that it would be cooked through enough that the fat would be rendered, but as always, Italian cuisine surprises me.  Not only was it perfectly cooked, but it was perfectly seasoned, tender, and accompanied with incredible potatoes that were roasted in oil and herbs. Definitely one of the best meals I’ve had in months (the photos really don’t do it justice – we were in a dimly lit alleyway, but please trust these were decadent).

Finally, on the way back to downtown Florence after our last venue tour, we passed the main Florentine city wall and saw signs to “old city of Florence” – since we’d never been, we decided to stop. We somehow managed to park our behemoth of a car off of the main street (pro tip: don’t rent an SVU to drive around Italy) and walked the entire length of the wall before realizing that the “old town” was literally just a church and an old, beautiful building façade (in addition to a couple winding streets that remain within the gates). I see now why we hadn’t spent a lot of time in the area before.

Overall a great couple days in Florence!

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