I’ve done Florence as a quick stop for statues and architecture between Rome and Florence. It’s an okay city that way. David is impressive and the Duomo is beautiful even when it’s crowded with people. But living in Florence was when I fell for it.
I fell in love with sunsets over the Arno. I fell in love with shopping at the Mercato Centrale in the morning. I fell in love with a corner bakery where the pane toscano was still warm in the morning and where I could stop for an arancino in the afternoon. I fell in love with walking down the street and doing my homework at the cafe in the English language bookstore.
But you don’t have to live in Florence to have these experiences. You can find a place to stay in a quiet neighborhood and integrate yourself into it for a few days. Spending one night in Florence can show you so much more than many travelers see. I used to get up at six in the morning and have breakfast, grab a macchiato at a corner cafe, and then slip out to the Duomo and just sit in front of it with a clear view – I could study the art with only the interruption of the street sweepers and the occasional passerby. One morning, I looked around and realized I was alone in the piazza with this gorgeous monument. Being in Florence in the early morning and late in the evening is a completely different experience than Florence at midday. The city empties out and much more beauty infuses itself into an already amazing place.
Just like avoiding peak times, avoiding peak places is an incredible way to get to know the city and the people who live there. I cultivated relationships with Italian shopkeepers who didn’t speak English. It took some effort, but by the end of my trip I had a cadre of Italians that were happy to help me with my language skills. My roommates and I befriended the man who owns Gelateria Cillo, Cillo himself and could count on him to make us smile even at our most homesick. I turned my relationship with my cheese connection at the Mercato Centrale into a person that I’d converse with a couple times a week and who turned on the charm when my friends came to visit, letting them sample liberally and making us recommendations for picnic locations.
It was in Florence that I started learning what my indie travel style is…so it’s definitely possible to go beyond the tourism and find the heart of Florence, which beats with warmth and friendliness.