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A Whirlwind 12 Hours in Florence

a day in florence, italy

It’s easy to visit Florence by train! During my week-long stay in Rome, I rode the train up to Florence for a full-day expedition. Here’s how I did it, and how much I was able to do in just 12 hours (which by the way, is never enough for the captivating Firenze).

Booking the Frecciarossa through Trenitalia

The high speed Frecce trains easily connect Rome and Florence with just 1.5 hours travel time. If you were to take the slower regional train, or drive, it’s about a 3 hour journey each way. Let me just say, these trains go fast at 190 mph!  I easily booked my ticket on well in advance, and was able to select my own seat in the business class carriage. Each leg of the trip was €44.50  (about $54 USD). My train left Termini station in Rome at 6:20am and whisked us up to Firenze for a 7:51am arrival I was glad I did business class, because the carriage was nearly empty and I enjoyed a very quiet ride each way.

Frecciarossa train from Rome to FlorenceFrecciarossa train from Rome to Florence

But first….. cappuccino

As soon as I got off the train, I headed straight for News Cafe which was a short walk from S.M.N. station. It was barely 8am, so the sleepy city was just beginning to stir. Street vendors were setting up their booths full of leather goods, and cafes were starting to open the doors. Below, a pretty little Pasticceria window that I walked past on my walk through the city.

Beautiful Pasticceria in Florence, Italy

I discovered this little coffee shop, News Cafe, on Trip Advisor, and knew I had to go there because of the cappuccino art! The talented owner makes incredibly detailed foam art, and his signature piece is the Duomo. I got lucky, because he was there, and he made me what I believe to be Florence’s Most Beautiful Coffee. This little treat got me in the spirit of my Duomo-filled day.

Cappuccino art from News Cafe in FlorenceCappuccino art from News Cafe in Florence

I polished off a cornetto as I sadly watched the Duomo dissolve into the foam. With a proper Italian breakfast under my belt, I paid the ridiculously cheap bill and headed for my next stop of the the day: second breakfast.

Da Nerbone: Bollito Panino

Since my day was so tightly scheduled, I knew I wouldn’t have another chance to visit da Nerbone if I didn’t do it early in the morning. This tiny little place in the Mercato Centrale is famous for their homestyle meats….. both the bollito (boiled beef) and the lampredotto which are available as a panino or on a plate, and it’s very inexpensive. They open early, and it’s perfectly acceptable to tuck into a big roast beef sandwich and glass of wine at 8:45am. I was not the only one there doing just that. Firenze!

I ordered a bollito panino for €3.50 because I’m just not that into lampredotto (tripe)…..but I love the fact that so many other people are crazy about it!  (there are, in fact, Lampredotto stands all over Florence. The Florentines love offal!!) My little glass of red wine was just perfect for a morning snack.  The spicy green sauce that they add to the sandwich is delicious, and I would insist, necessary.  The seating is all communal, and while there are a bunch of tables, it would definitely fill up quickly at lunchtime. I would suggest you go before the lunch rush hits to ensure you don’t have to stand in line and so you can get a seat.

Da Nerbone, Mercato Centrale, FlorenceBollito Panino, Da Nerbone, Florence

Now that I was pretty seriously full, it was time to venture over to Piazza Santa Maria Novella to meet my tour guide, who I would be with for the next 3 hours. 10am-1pm.

Florence for Foodies: Walking History Food Tour

A really interesting thing that I appreciated about Florence is how compact it is. It is very easily walked.  When they say central Rome is easily walked, it is, but it’s on a very different scale and will take a bit longer. Florence is a beautiful time capsule preserved from the 1400s, and everything is just so close. I may have overestimated the time it would take to walk from one site to another, because I ended up being too early. Which is never a bad thing. That said, I arrived pretty early to meet my guide in Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Luckily it was a beautiful day and the 15th-century basilica was one to marvel at. There is an entire history lesson to be enjoyed just standing in this piazza. Italy just blows me away.

Basilica of Santa Maria Novella

Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Florence Italy

Having been in Florence for only a scant 2 hours at this point, but having already indulged in a cornetto, cappuccino, panino bollito and vino rosso, here I was about to embark on another food and history tour!  Florence for Foodies offers several tours, all of which have a perfect blend of food, art, and history. Due to my schedule for the day, the only one I could fit was the Walking History Food Tour from 10-1. It was an absolute gem, and my guide Mimi was more than I could have expected. As an art history masters student, and a native of Florence, she was exceptionally insighted on the things we saw and I was enthralled. The tour was small, just me and another American couple, so with a nearly private tour we set out for the next few hours. The tour featured some light bites and treats that covered some important Italian basics (things you should not go home without trying!), all the while focused on some of the major monuments and art in the city center.

Our first stop was for a coffee and a light breakfast. Little did they know that I was on my third breakfast of the day, but I wasn’t about to say so.  Just a few steps away from our meeting spot is the Caffe Ottaviana, where we enjoyed a caffe latte and a breakfast pastry.  Our guide offered us the choice of a few different flavors, and I think I had lemon.

Caffetteria Ottaviani, Florence

From this point I don’t remember the exact order of things, but we visited many significant landmarks like the massive Pizza della Reppublica, which has an interesting history in Roman origins. Another food stop was for gelato at Perchè no! Our guide explained the differences in real homemade gelato vs. mass produced tourist-oriented varieties, and after at least half a dozen food tours in Rome, all of which preach the gospel of artisanal gelato, I was certain I was well educated on this fact. Zabaione is pretty much my new favorite flavor, and it is always delicious.

Perche No gelato florence italyOne of the very interesting places we visited was the Chiesa e Museo di Orsanmichele, which is now a church and a museum. This is a church that was once a 14th century granary, and it has an amazing history. Our guide Mimi, with her art history background, had us rivited with the history and meaning behind everything in this church. I barely remembered to take photos, but here is one of the altar. One takeaway from our art lesson here was the useage of bright colors in the 15th century. People in those days had no access to bright colors, and the pigments used in these paints were highly toxic, so artists regularly became poisoned and died from exposure to these toxic minerals. But since colors were highly prized and rarely seen, they were revered for religious art.

Chiesa e Museo di Orsanmichele

Next: onto a quick lunch at one of Florence’s oldest spots for a sandwich–I Fratellini. This is a very small shop, barely a hole in the wall. They have a really cool wine rack on the wall outside the shop, with spaces designated with Roman numerals, so that you can remember which is your wine glass. Their panini are simple with high quality ingredients, which makes for an inexpensive lunch! I had the porchetta. You will often find a line here for a quick to-go lunch.

I Fratellini, Florence ItalyI Fratellini, Florence Italy

Of course this tour also covered the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. We walked along the outside, and Mimi pointed out many interesting things about the exterior, and then we also went inside briefly to explore the interior and the cupola. I, in fact had a very in-depth tour of the Duomo coming up later that day, so I was excited to get a preview of this astonishing architectural marvel. Since I was planning on climbing the Duomo, and was a little nervous about it, when I actually saw with my own eyes the staggering height of the cupola, I became dizzy. Just looking up at it from floor level was a little nauseating.

We continued down towards the Arno River, to the amazing Piazza della Signoria, where priceless works of art are just left outside in the elements for hundreds of years. It’s absolutely mind boggling that these statues just remain outside, but the Florentines think nothing of it. The Palazzo Vecchio Museum and tower are something I would love to explore, but this will have to wait until another visit to Florence.

Piazza della Signoria

The wonderments just went on and on, as we kept walking south across the Ponte Vecchio, I was amazed at how such an old bridge could exist for so long. While this was the only bridge across the Arno until 1218, this particular bridge was rebuilt after a flood in 1345, and has been here ever since. In fact, Hitler liked this bridge so much that the Germans did not destroy it in World War II. They did, however, bomb the medieval buildings on either side of the bridge to prevent access. The bridge is still lined today with goldsmith shops as it has been for 500 years, many of them run by the same families.

At this point, a light rain had begun, so sadly my camera was put away for a bit.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Our tour soon came to an end, and we stopped one last time for an espresso and a little treat. It was some kind of pastry with Nutella inside. I cannot retrace our steps to figure out what cafe it was, but it was on the south side of the Arno River.  As we bid goodbye to our guide, she gave us a sheet of paper containing a list of recommended restaurants in Florence. I was so sad that I had no time to visit any of them, but I have kept the list in case I return. I love how the food tours give you advice about other restaurants to try that are authentic, less touristy, and a good value (meaning they don’t overcharge for the tourists).

VIP Duomo Tour & Secret Terraces

My tour with Florence for Foodies ended around 1pm, which meant that I had 1.5 hours until my next tour began at 2:30 up at the Duomo. That left plenty of time for navigating my way back up across the Ponte Vecchio, doing a little souvenir shopping, and exploring the awe-inspiring Piazza del Duomo.

Duomo Cathedral, Florence ItalyDuomo Cathedral, Florence ItalyBaptistry, Florence Italy

There are many, many tours that you can find which will give you the basic information about the Florence Cathedral, and they typically include other stops as well such as the statue of the David, and the Uffizi Gallery. I of course wanted to take ALL the tours, but in 12 short hours I had to prioritize and fit what I could. A food tour was really important to me, so having done that, my next order of business was to climb to the top of the Duomo. I am absolutely fascinated by this architectural wonder, and I wanted to learn everything I could about it. My tour with Cioflorence was exactly that. We were able to explore many hidden parts of the cathedral that are not normally included on basic tours.

We went down into the catacombs and saw the ruins of the original Roman pagan temple and the 7th century church which are buried underneath this massive “new” structure which was begun in 1299.  Then, upstairs our highly educated art history student guide led us through the ground floor of the cathedral, explaining in great detail some of the important features such as the clock, the mosiac floors, and of course Vasari’s Last Judgment, the painting inside the dome. It was really cool to be led behind the velvet rope which contained hundreds of people waiting in line, and as they were kept within certain areas of the cathedral, we were able to get better views.

Then, it was time to go upstairs!

It is 153 steps up to the Terraces before you get a break. From there, it is an additional 310 to reach the top of the cupola for a total of 463 steps. I knew about this in advance, and I planned for it by training on the Stairmaster at the gym for weeks before my trip. Unfortunately I think many people on this tour either didn’t know or underestimated just how many steps that is, and many decided to bail on going all the way to the top. The staircases are dark and narrow, and in many cases are just tiny spirals going up in a narrow tube. Remember, these were stairs only used by workers and builders and were never meant for the public. In any case, it is an experience for your lifetime!! I cannot explain how interesting it is to climb up inside such an amazing example of architecture. The outdoor terraces have been closed to the public for hundreds of years, and were only recently re-opened. These terrances are not open to the public whatsoever. You have to be escorted by 2 licensed guides on a tour at all times.

Hidden terraces of the Florence Cathedral, DuomoHidden terraces of the Florence Cathedral, DuomoHidden terraces of the Florence Cathedral, Duomo

View of the Baptistery from the terraces of the Duomo

Along the way, we were able to see the room where they keep the fascinating tools and equipment that they used to build the Duomo in the 1300s. We also saw a room where they keep the old statues that used to stand along the exterior of the cathedral. They are absolutely gigantic, so that they look large enough when viewed from down at street level.

Finally, it was game time. I was so psyched to begin the climb up into the Cupola. Since we were already 1/4 of the way there, it wasn’t feeling as daunting as I thought it would be. We began the climb and it was fine. Everybody was taking it slow and steady, and remained in good spirits. Soon, we emerged on a landing inside the cathedral, right along the base of the dome and the painting by Vasari. This was a good time to rest as well as view the work of the artist extremely close up. It was dizzying to look up, as well as look down at the altar waaaaaaaayyyyy below.

Florence Duomo frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari.

Eventually the stairways became more slanted on the outside wall as we rose up into the curve of the dome.

We started going steeper and steeper until we were basically climbing upwards, and we could see the 2 layers of the dome on either side of us. Incredible!  For the most part it is only one-way, but there are a few sections where for a short distance you have to take turns to allow up and down traffic to go at different times, but it’s not difficult. Up and up you go, until finally you climb up a small ladder for one small push and you’re out into the open air!!

View from the top of the cupola of the Duomo

It’s just breathtaking (kind of literally and metaphorically.) Once you’re up top, you can stay as long as you like and there are a few benches where you can park and rest. Because remember, you have to go down just as many steps as it took you to get to the top!!  The 360 views are incredible. You’ll be surrounded by people taking photos, and tons of selfie sticks, and I sincerely hope you have one too, because you don’t want to miss out on having a photo of yourself here! I truly have nothing against a selfie stick. As a photographer who takes literally thousands and thousands of photos of other people, and never makes it into any photos myself, I love my selfie stick that I bought in Venice just to prove I exist. Too bad I didn’t have it on this trip. 🙂

Photos from cupola of the DuomoPano photo from Duomo cupola

I made my way  back down 463 steps without incident, and was ready for the next thing!

Michelangelo’s David at Accademia Gallery

Somehow I had planned my tour of the Duomo with the climb perfectly, and after it was over it was time to head to the Accademia for my 5:30 admission which I had purchased in advance. It turned out to be a great time to visit, being within one hour of closing time, as it was not crowded at all. Once I had made my way inside and gone through the security x-rays, it was not difficult to find the David. You just turn the corner and bam! There he is. You pass through the Hall of the Prisoners, lined with unfinished works of Michelangelo’s Slaves, who look like they are trying to pry themselves out of the blocks of stone. Then you arrive at the David, and see one of the most astonishing works of art ever produced by mankind.  I was embarrassed in my ignorance that I did not realize how large this statue is. I guess I somehow missed that fact in my many art classes, but the David is not in fact life-size. He is fifteen feet tall!!

I enjoyed my time there, and since it was not crowded I felt compelled to just sit on a bench and admire the statue at leisure for a while. The Accademia is a smaller art museum, and although the David is the main attraction there, there are plenty of other things to look at if you have the time. Unlike the massive Uffizi, which could apparently take up an entire day. That is an experience that will have to wait until my next visit to Florence.

Michelangelo's David at Accademia GalleryMichelangelo's David at Accademia Gallery

With that completed, it was time to make my way back to the SMN station to catch my train back to Rome at 8:00pm.  There wasn’t enough time to find a restaurant to grab a bite, so instead I just walked back across the city at a slow pace and looked at the many leather booths that spring up daily. Many of them were packing up their wares by this time. I ended up at the train station pretty early. All in all, I was tired, but so happy to have had an amazing visit to Florence. I had conquered a huge personal goal which was to climb up to the cupola of the Duomo, and had seen the world famous statue of the David. Firenze is a remarkable historic city, and I would not hesitate for an instant to return and spend more time. So much left to see!!

Here’s a rundown of the services I used for my quick day in Florence:

Day Trip to Florence from Rome

Parker Street Food & Travel

Eating and Exploring in New England & Beyond