Florence 88 248.
(photo credit: MASADA SIEGEL)
What would you see if you had 48 hours in Florence, no guidebook and were relying on the advice of strangers? Perhaps not the most informed way of traveling, but word of mouth is always the best way to explore a new city. That said, relying on the kindness of locals and strangers, it took me less then an hour to find my way to a few key sights.
Where to stay
My adventure had only one thing set in advance - a hotel reservation. In Florence, reservations are a must, especially in high season. If you are looking for a true Italian experience in taste and style, try the Lugarno Hotels. There are four hotels in Florence, and they are equally stunning. They are elegant and the attention to detail from the bedrooms to the luxurious lounging areas is evident. This, however, comes as no surprise once you find out the hotel chain is owned by Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo.
I stayed at Hotel Lugarno, which is right on the River Arno facing the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge.) The view is sensational, and will inspire you to take photos at both sunrise and sunset. Upon arrival, a beautiful fruit dish with huge grapes waiting for me in my room.
Breakfast was a feast, with a variety of different cheeses, yogurts, fruits, breads, pastries and coffees. Don't be confused by the red juice, it's not tomato - it's orange juice made from the ever-sweet North African blood oranges, which are red.
What to see
Florence is a walking city, and once you have a tourist map in hand, everything is clearly marked and easy to find. Take a stroll over the Ponte Vecchio, and check out all the high-end jewelry stores lined up. Early morning is a perfect time to go.
If you are walking toward the center of Florence, turn right at the end of the bridge and visit one of the most amazing art collections in the world, the Uffizi Gallery.
The most efficient way to buy tickets to the Uffizi is to ask your hotel to make a reservation, as it seems that there are always hundreds of people in line. Booking on-line is also an option, although either way you will have to pay a small fee. Don't get discouraged; the museum is worth the wait and the line moves quickly.
The Uffizi is filled with phenomenal art, and buying a guidebook before you enter is wise, as they are easy to follow and are filled with an enormous amount of information. Perhaps one of the most magnificent parts of the building is the ceiling. But it's hard to know where to look first as the museum is filled with works by artists like Botticelli, Correggio, Michelangelo, Raffaello, Rubens and Rembrandt.
When you leave the museum, walk toward the center of Florence, where you will find the Duomo Cathedral. The huge boulevards are filled with stunning shops that are sure to tempt your pocketbook. There is also a myriad of restaurants that serve tasty treats ranging from gelato served on freshly-baked waffles to pizza and pasta.
The Duomo is huge, over 1,100 square meters, and is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Adjoining it are Giotto's Campanile, or bell tower, and the Baptistery, where people are always lining up taking photos in front of Ghiberti's two gilded bronze doors. These doors are actually replicas. The real ones were moved for conservation's sake to the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, which is right by the Duomo and where one can also see Michelangelo's Pieta. The Baptistery predates the Duomo itself, the earliest parts having been built in the fourth century CE. The design, architecture and attention to detail are spectacular. The three buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that covers Florence's historic center.
A SHORT walk from the Duomo is the stunning Great Synagogue. The Italian Jewish community is the oldest in Europe, dating back to 161 BCE when Jason Ben-Eleazar and Eupolemus Ben-Johanan came as envoys of Judah Maccabee. Jewish merchants, doctors and bankers started settling in Florence in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
The synagogue was designed in a Moorish style; it is a site to behold inside and out. It was built between 1874 and 1882. There were three architects; Mariano Falcini, Prof. Vincente Micheli and Marco Treves, who was Jewish. The design is a mix of traditions of the Islamic and Italian worlds. It's truly a masterpiece as every inch of the synagogue is decorated with mosaics and marble and all the internal walls are painted with intricate designs from floor to ceiling.
It successfully survived World War II. The Germans tried to blow it up, but the main building withstood their efforts. The Nazis then decided to use it as a warehouse and stable, and bayonet marks are still visible on the doors of the Holy Ark. Before the Fascists fled Florence, they mined the synagogue with explosives. Fortunately, the partisans were able to defuse most of the bombs. One gallery fell, but was replaced.
A wonderful way to experience the synagogue is to attend services, and times are easy to find on-line. The Chabad house is mere steps away, and don't be surprised if you run into the rabbi's son or locals, who will happily help you with directions and times.
While you are there, take a few minutes to go to the second floor of the synagogue, as you will find the Jewish Museum of Florence filled with Torah scrolls, ketubot and a variety of silver Judaica items.
MAKE SURE not to leave Florence without spending some time with Michelangelo's David. The real sculpture is in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze museum. Truly a masterpiece, many tourists find themselves standing in awe for a good half an hour, mesmerized. The museum also has a room filled with sculptures that is worth a visit while you are in the vicinity. A curator will most likely be yelling, "No photos," but no one seems to pay attention. However, if you play by the rules and want a photo of David, there is a huge selection of postcards and books in the shop.
Where to eat
Right next to the synagogue is a vegetarian kosher restaurant, Ruth's. If you walk in, chances are the aroma of delicious food will bring you to your knees, so grab a table and check it out.
However, if you are looking for a place where the locals eat, check out Il Cibreo CafÃ© a few blocks away. There is a cafÃ© and restaurant. The cafÃ© is more casual and has limited choices as opposed to the restaurant, which is expensive and a more elegant affair. The food they serve is not your typical Italian fare, nor is the clientele. I had an extremely interesting and unplanned lunch with Domenico Giorgi, Italy's ambassador to Afghanistan, and his family.
What to buy and where
No trip to Florence is complete without checking out the San Lorenzo market. The market is about a five to 10 minute walk away from the Duomo and is filled with a wide array of leather goods, belts, bags, scarves, jewelry and murano glass sculptures. Definitely bargain with the sellers, and know that you can often get better prices at the little stands that are not part of the market, but dotted along the streets. Whatever you buy, chances are the only regret you will have is that you didn't buy more.
If brand-name shops are more your speed, Florence boasts options like Gucci, Pucci, Ferragamo, Valentino, Prada, Armani and Ermenegildo. Some of the streets boasting high-brow, elegant shops are Via Tornabuoni, Via del Parione and Via Maggio. There are also many winding streets which are fun to explore filled with smaller shops that sell beautiful glass sculptures, clothing, leather goods, wine and books.
Florence itself is work of art. At every turn, there is more to see, whether it be sculptures, buildings, boardwalks, squares or shops. Forty eight hours in Florence wasn't enough to see it all, but 48 minutes was certainly enough time to fall in love with the city and the people, no guidebook needed.