This family took their teens to Italy, first to Florence then Siena and around Tuscany, for spring break and learned that museums can be as delicious as the gelato.
Italy. Just mention that you are going on vacation to Italy and people get that dreamy look in their eyes. Everybody loves Italy. What’s not to love: the art, the food, the scenery, the people…it’s all amazing. We learned all about it on our recent visit there. Here is my account of our four days in Tuscany, with stops in Florence and Siena.
Florence, known as the “cradle of the Renaissance,” is a city that is teeming with tourists and art-history majors. We were there at Easter and could barely walk down the narrow streets. I can only imagine what it’s like during the summer. And, be careful if you step off the sidewalks… the drivers here are crazy.
Get out your walking shoes and traverse the city on foot. Even our hotel, the Hotel Cellai (Via 27 Aprile 14, 52/R, 50129, Florence – Italy; +39 055 489291), was within walking distance of the train station. It was a quaint hotel that’s very centrally located and just a short walk to most of the major museums, shops and historic sites. It even has a great flowered Roof Garden that is the perfect setting for a late afternoon snack (the hotel supplies free coffee and snacks every afternoon), or to watch the sunset. Once we tired of eating big meals out every night, we bought some bread, cheese and prosciutto at a local store and had a relaxing picnic dinner under the stars.
Experiencing the Sights of Firenze
Our first stop was the Duomo (free of charge) and the adjacent Baptistery with its famous gilded Gates of Paradise (though these are a copy; the originals are housed in the Museo). For good views, you can climb to the top of the Duomo, or the Bell Tower next door.
We chose the Bell Tower in order to have a view of the Duomo’s famous dome. Unlike Venice’s Bell Tower, there is no elevator here so you need to climb all 414 steps to the top, but the views of the city are worth it.
Florence is a city for shopping, which we really didn’t do. There are many outdoor markets and vendors selling gorgeous leather purses, coats, belts, wallets, etc. You might want to comparison shop in order to get an idea about the going rates for items and then negotiate for what you’d like to pay. There’s usually room for dealing, especially if you’re paying cash.
The stalls on the Ponte Vecchio are great for window-shopping, unless you’re in the market for gold or silver jewelry. I loved reading the story about the Nazis, who blew up all the bridges in the area during World War II, but spared this bridge because they thought it was too beautiful to destroy.
Check out the Mercato Centrale , open seven days a week from 8am – 12 am, where you can purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses if you’re thinking of having a picnic or want some edible goodies to take home.
Glorious Florentine Arts
Art is the real reason why you come to Florence — the home of Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” Make sure to get advance reservations with a set time for your visit to the Uffizi and L’Accademia (you can ask your hotel to make them). It costs a few extra € per person, but it’s well worth it when you only wait about 20 minutes to get in and everyone without reservations is waiting 2 to 3 hours on a very long line.
The Uffizi is famous as the greatest gallery of Renaissance art anywhere. It was here that we saw paintings by the “Ninja Turtles” of the art world — Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello. I read an article that suggested sending kids on a “Ninja Turtle” scavenger hunt to find examples of each of these great artists for whom the famed cartoon Turtles are named. Even my big kids got a kick out of that. We also saw the works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Titian, Giotto and many more. Among the top 10 at the Uffizi you’ll find Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” Leonardo’s “The Annunciation,” Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” and Parmigianino’s “Madonna.”
At Galleria Dell’Accademia, the main attraction is Michelangelo’s David. Although you have probably seen pictures of it hundreds of times, it’s so much better in person. Up so close, the realism in David’s facial expression, the curves of his muscles, even the rippling veins in his arms are incredible. In addition, you can get close since the museum only lets in 300 visitors at a time so it never gets overcrowded. Don’t even think about taking a video or photos because they prohibit this activity. It is fun to listen in on the English tours if you do not buy the headphones and there’s always someone explaining something.
Also check out Piazza della Signoria, long the center of civic life in Florence and now an outdoor sculpture park. There’s a copy of the David statue (the real one once stood there) and other famous sculptures like Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa.
Don’t miss Santa Croce, what my guidebook called Florence’s “Westminster Abbey” because it holds the tombs of such Italian geniuses as Michelangelo, Galileo, Marconi, and Dante. My youngest son loved the statue that supposedly inspired the Statue of Liberty. We had fun looking for similarities to our lady in the harbor including the broken chain this version is holding and her laurel crown.
Fun Activities Especially for Teens
Gelato and pizza shops in Florence are prolific. Teens might enjoy learning how to make both in a Florencetown Pizza & Gelato Cooking Class. There is a 10 percent discount for students and they can get a Recipe Booklet and fun graduation certificate upon completion.
Boboli Gardens, behind Pitti Palace, is a vast green expanse with an outdoor museum that features ancient and Renaissance statues, grottos, and fountains. In addition, there is a stunningly beautiful terraced area with an 18th-century pavilion called the Kaffeehaus. This is a place where nature, art, science and alchemy meet.
Masterpieces of La Cucina Italiana
While you’re in this area of Florence, you must taste the absolutely best (I’m not kidding you) gelato around at Vivoli (via Isola delle Stinche 7r, 055 292 334) just a few blocks from Santa Croce, tucked away in a back street. We went back several times to sample as many flavors as possible. Our favorites are meringue and anything with chocolate or hazelnut in it — I’m salivating just thinking about it.
We had probably our best meal of the whole trip in Florence at La Giostra at Borgo Pinti 10/18 Rosso, 50121 Firenze FL, Italy 39/055/241341 where they greet you at the door with a glass of sparkling wine and serve a humongous plate of antipasto (free of charge). We definitely didn’t need to order appetizers or dessert, but who could resist. I savored every flavor, so much so that my son noted, “She’s eating with her eyes closed!”
It was that good. We left completely stuffed and needed the walk back to the hotel to work off the meal.
Another great restaurant recommended to us was Il Latini at Via dei Palchetti, 6r, 50123 Firenze FL Italy 39/055/210916. It is a Tuscan trattoria where you get an amazing prix fixe meal served family style.
Florence Sightseeing & Trip Planning Tips
The Florence Tourist Office, has, of course, a great deal of experience in welcoming tourists to the city. Known as the Amministrazione Provinciale Di Firenze or APT, it’s located on Via Manzoni Alessandro, 16, 50121 Firenze (FI), Italy.
Check out their Firenze Turismo website or call them at +39 055/290832 if you have questions while in town and check out Visit Tuscany’s thoughts on traveling with kids if you have younger ones in tow.
Getting Oriented to Florence Neighborhoods
To aid in organizing your sightseeing, here are some notes on the four historical districts of Florence: Santa Maria Novella, San Giovanni, Santa Croce, and Santo Spirito.
The Santa Maria Novella district is a popular first sight because it is the where the railroad station is. It is hard to miss the station’s “Italian rational style”of architecture, the austere look many ascribe to Mussolini, who ruled Italy during the pre-WWII years. There’s a church and museum of the same name that contain many world-class religious artworks, the 16th century Fortezza da Basso, the Palazzo Rucellai dating from 1446, and the house museum Museo Di Palazzo Davanzati, a wonderful example of Florence’s golden years furnished by a noted antiques dealer.
In the San Giovani area, stop into the San Giovani Cathedral, Baptistry and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where you can see the church interior and campanile, or bell tower. The most important works in the museum are by Michelangelo (“Pieta”), Donatello (“Mary Magdalen”, “Cantoria”), Arnolfo di Cambio (“Boniface VIII”) and Luca della Robbia (“Cantoria”). The Palazzo Medici Riccardi from 1444 is typical of privately commissioned Renaissance residences. The Medici family tombs, tucked into a church designed partially by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, are nearby in Basilica of San Lorenzo. Allow plenty of time in this district to visit the Accademia (site of Michelangelo’s David and countless masterpieces), the frescoes in the Convento di San Marco, the renowned Archeological Museum, and one of the city’s most important churches because of its Virgin Mary icon, the Basilica of the SS. Annunziata.
The Santa Croce neighborhood is comprised of the famed Palazzo Vecchio, the ducal residence dates from 1299 which was rebuilt several times. You’ll need an entire day at the Uffizi Gallery, the collection founded by Francesco I de Medici, followed by stroll along the painting-lined Vasari Corridor that connects the Uffizi to the Pitti Palace, passing above the romantic Ponte Vecchio en route. The Museo Nazational del Bargello, built as the home of a local militia leader in 1255, now houses the country’s major collection of sculpture and decorative arts. Other treasures include the monastery designed by Filippo Lippi, Casa Buonarroti, the house of Michelangelo’s heirs containing some of his work, a synagogue and Jewish Museum, and the Basilica of Santa Croce where Giotto’s frescoes are preserved.
The district of Santo Spirito, surrounding the church of the same name, is in Oltrarno. An area of superb Renaissance architecture including the Pitti Palace and surrounding Boboli Gardens is also a fun place to walk around for kids because the storefronts are rich with craftsmen, restorers and antique dealers. The Brancacci Chapel is famous for its frescoes by Masaccio; it is located in the 13th century church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Children may also enjoy the unusual Museo Zoologico La Specola’s large collection of preserved animals and wax figures. Among the many museums and galleries within its grounds, focus on the private collections of the Grand Dukes in the Palatine Gallery.
Siena & Environs in Tuscany
Since it is not too far away, you’ll want to explore the Tuscan countryside. Siena is a walled medieval hill town in the heart of Tuscany, about an hour south of Florence.
One of the main attractions is Siena’s Piazza del Campo, a central square where crowds stroll, sit, sleep, picnic, and people watch. It’s also home to the twice-a-year, bareback Palio Horse Race, 90 seconds each, which has been staged here since the Middle Ages. It will take place on July 2 and August 16, 2019. Warning: It’s hard to find a hotel during the week-long festivities.
The winner of the “coolest church award we saw on our entire trip” goes to the Duomo in Siena, a large gothic cathedral with an ornate masterpiece of a facade and an interior that’s completely covered with black and white stripes like a gigantic zebra. Even the floors are an amazing collection of mosaic panels created by Siena’s top artists and telling biblical stories. Most are roped off to protect them from thousands of feet and sometimes they may even be covered.
We spent just one day here, wandered around off-the-beaten path and found some great views of the city and the neighboring countryside. We also joined the throngs of tourists in del Campo, snacking, people-watching and just lying in the sun on the inclined cobblestones.
We watched the sunset from our balcony at the Hotel Duomo Siena (Via Stalloreggi, 38/53100 Italia; tel +39/0577 289-088)and had a delicious meal at Antica Osteria Da Divo (via Franciosa 29, +39/0577 286-054), sitting under the vaulted ceiling that dates back to the medieval era.
A Day in San Gimignano
Another day trip from Florence is to San Gimignano, a medieval town whose picture-perfect architecture and ambiance are best appreciated before or after the daytrip crowds are there. Be sure to stop by the Ufficio Informazioni Turistiche (+39/ 0577 940008) located centrally at Piazza Duomo, 1, 53037 San Gimignano (SI), Italy for maps and a current schedule of local concerts and events.
A highlight of any visit for families with curious (and brave) children is the Medieval Criminal and Torture Museum at Via del Castello 1, San Gimignano 53073. It is an extraordinary collection of torture devices and artifacts. This exhibition is within view of historic etchings and paintings that illustrate their use.
Regional Tuscany Trip Planning & Sightseeing Tips
Agenzia Per ll Turismo Di Siena (APT at +39/0577 42209) is at Via Termini, 6, 53100 Siena, Italy. The tourist office covers all of Terre Siena, focusing its energy on helping families with children get to know the province and better understand its rich history. On this special website, Hospitality Family Circuit, families can read about the agritourism or farmstays, hotels and B&Bs that reach out to families with local guides for attractions of interest to younger children.
The Gothic architecture is evident everywhere in the city. In addition to Palio and its history, there are the charming residential lanes, best seen after the crowds depart. The four major museums are: Museo Civico on the Piazzo del Campo (site of the famous Torre or tower), Santa Maria della Scala and the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana (both on the Piazzo Duomo) and the Pinacoteca Nazionale (Palazzo Buonsignori – Via San Pietro, 29) or art museum. For a break, duck into the Museo d’Arte per Bambini, at Via dei Pispini, 164 (Tel: +39/0577 46517).
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