• Danik Bates

Florence, an ideal base for a short break in Tuscany

Updated: May 7

The so-called birthplace of Renaissance seemed to be a great base to check out Florence (Firenze in Italian) with its surrounding area for a short break in the Tuscany region and after a few days here, I wanted to stay longer but long for a return to this beautiful region of Italy. We choose Florence for its location, transport links to other places nearby and above all, the culture, history and the food. There was plenty of accommodation to choose from and we were quite lucky finding a hostel between the main centre (a few minutes walk away) and the main train station (also a few minutes walk away).

Exploring Florence was totally amazing. That is how we would sum it up. Before arriving here we knew the city was once a big player in trade and finance during the medieval era and that the whole historic centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site but all that aside, we knew art, fashion and architecture was the name of the game here.

We found two beautiful religious buildings here whilst wandering around. One we knew, the other we never came across before. One place where most visitors hit up is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) otherwise known as Florence Cathedral (Duomo in Italian). The building took around 140 years to complete after construction began in 1296 and had a Gothic style to the place, but not in a Gothic sort of style we have seen when we have explored other cathedrals across Europe, like the Notre-Dame in Paris. This cathedral has marble panels in shades of pink and green bordered by white on the facade which makes this unique. Have to admit, on first looks, we were gobsmacked as we never came across this sort of design on our travels before. The building is amazing. To top it off, as well as the facade design, the massive red dome (which was once the largest in Europe but still remains the largest brick dome in the world to be constructed) dominates the skyline of the city and just impressed us. There were no words to describe it.

Next to the cathedral is the Giotto’s Campanile, a freestanding tower which again has a beautiful marble facade. Inside there are seven bells and when they ring, they sure can be heard all over the city. The other religious site which really impressed us and has the same design as the main cathedral is the Santa Maria Novella which is a church located a stone-throw away from the central railway station. The church was the first basilica to be built in the city but as we are not really people who look back on the history of churches, what we find fascinating about them is the architecture and the location they are based. There is a big green space in front of the building and with no high rise buildings surrounding it, a perfect sunset capture is to be had here.



Back to the centre and not far from the cathedral, another building which impressed us was the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and is the town hall of the city, which overlooks the Piazza della Signoria. We just love the clock tower here but also we did enjoy taking a photo of us standing next to a copy of the David statue, one of Michelangelo’s famous works (as well as other tourists who wanted to get in on the act). The city lies on the River Arno and one of the highlights is to check out the Ponte Vecchio (The Old Bridge) which has stood here since the medieval times. Once built, a lot of shops were built on top and were occupied by butchers, but as we were walking on it, we noticed these days there are a lot of art dealers, souvenir stalls and jewellers.

Whilst in Florence we wanted to check out a few of the nearby places. Going by train we first landed in Siena. Sitting on the train, looking out of the window, we took in the beautiful scenery of the Tuscany countryside, passing many rolling hills, small villages and vineyards. As soon as we arrived in Siena, we noticed the old centre was at the top of a nearby hill, so the walk from the train station took about 15-20 minutes. In the Spring heat, it can be quite pleasant but in the summer heat, we wouldn’t want to walk up the hill every day. It must be horrible.

Siena is a beautiful city and we prefer the beauty of this place over Florence. We fell in love with it straight away, with its narrow cobbled streets which wind around the hilltop. The heart of the old city is the Piazza del Campo, an amazing shell-shaped town square and in the heart is the Torre del Mangia (The Mangia Tower) which is the second tallest medieval tower in Italy after the Asinelli Tower in Bologna at 112m (367ft). We found the square to be an ideal spot to get a quick snack from nearby (like a slice of pizza), find a step opposite the tower and just admire the building, square, tower and watch people get on with everyday life.

A few streets away from Piazza del Campo is the Duomo di Siena (Siena Cathedral) which was built in the medieval times and has a very similar facade to that of the cathedral in Florence. We didn’t like the fact that other buildings seem to have been built right next to the cathedral, so now it looks a bit cramped (but then all the locals were probably fighting for space to build their buildings on this small hilltop).

After a day's exploring and towards the evening, we managed to do even more walking and came across an amazing park on another hilltop nearby. From here we were able to look across the city and see the skyline of Siena’s old city. Also from here we were able to see the Tuscany countryside with the sun setting in the horizon. Simply perfect.





The last place we checked out was Pisa, which needs no introduction whatsoever. On arrival at the train station, the place looked like a complete dump. Some of the buildings (which are in use) just look ruined, graffitied on and just plain damn right horrible. To get to the famous sights of Pisa, it is signposted from the railway station and is a straightforward walk, lasting around fifteen minutes. Over the river, our first impressions of the city were not great.

Then it happened. We arrived at Piazza dei Miracoli. Now that doesn’t ring a bell for anyone outside the city of Pisa but say that Pisa Cathedral and Leaning Tower is located here, then everyone for sure has heard of this UNESCO World Heritage listed square. First thing first, we needed to take a tourist photo of us trying to hold up the Leaning Tower (Torre di Pisa). Now come on, some of you must have visited this tower and tried to do the same thing? Who hasn’t? It is so touristy and cheesy to do but it had to be done. The tower itself is a bell tower which is located right behind the cathedral and has stood here since 1173. However, it took about 177 years to build and was done in stages. It was only when the bell room at the top was added, combined with the weak soil and very poor foundations underneath the tower, that it started to sink to one side. Since then, the tower has really moved that much and the builders' (and since then other local’s) attitude is, well, if it’s not falling, leave it. Still can be used. And that is true to this very day, it has not fallen over...yet!

Walking around the small square was nice and pleasant (away from all the tourists like myself near the tower) and we were able to look at the beautiful facades and nip inside the cathedral and the baptistry. It was only when we left the square back to the train station (and looking at other parts of the city as I went whilst trying to find somewhere good to eat and not too pricey), that we were reminded of how horrible the city looked. Pisa for me wasn't our favourite city but we were glad to see the world famous buildings (or should I say, one of the world’s famous building cock-ups). However, in our week in Tuscany, we fell in love with the region and hope to be back very soon (and this time, to check out some of the wines).



This post was our thoughts and ideas on what to do in Tuscany for a brief stay for a first timer and we hope you enjoyed this post and may have taken some ideas. Getting around is easy with the trains, buses and various tour companies which offer services (but we declined offers as we were traveling on a budget), and the region can be done on the cheap. Has anyone reading this post visited Florence and the region? If so, what would you recommend to anyone visiting the area? Would love to read your thoughts and ideas.


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