My favorite way to sight-see was shaped by how I saw Florence for the first time. I was there with a friend who accepted the offer of a couple of young Italian men to change money for us. It was a risk, but we were rewarded with all the lira we needed plus enough pizza for everyone. Besides that we had the services of two nice young Italian guys who were as much a mystery to us as we were to them as guides for the rest of the day!
A one-day visit to a city as rich in art and history as Florence needs to be based on your interests and how you want to satisfy them. If you’re not into spending your travel funds on a guide, formal or otherwise, arm yourself with a good guidebook and take a sight-seeing tour by bus that will whisk you around the city. You will get an impression of the lay of the streets and points of interest by late morning. After lunch you will be able to choose the areas most interesting to you to spend the rest of the day exploring.
The principal public transportation is run by the ATAF. The best deal is a pass called the Carta Agile which allows you to ride multiple times on the buses. Tickets are available at tobacconists, bars, and newspaper stalls. Once on the bus, tickets are swiped using the machines on board. The central station, Santa Maria Novella Station, is located about 500 metres NW of Piazza del Duomo. There is also another important station, Campo Di Marte, but it is not as well-known as Santa Maria Novella.
The art, sculpture and architecture is the subject of most of the tours available. The advantage to having a professional guide is the official commentary given that helps you feel the impact of what you are seeing. Something as incidental as the deep wells in the stone slab steps leading up to a painting of Christ in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore is an example of how every turn provides a deeper understanding of Florence. The painting is said to have been painted “by no human hand”. That belief still causes pilgrims to crawl up those steps on their knees, (I forget how many) to look at the painting. The steps have become deeply grooved and polished as a result of that homage.
Designed impeccably and overseen by the Medicis, the heart of Florenz consists of various-sized piazzas laid out with elegance. There are many commons through which one can navigate with a map very easily. But whether you choose the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio and its shops, (which figure in operas, theatre and history in general) the churches with centuries of stories to excavate, or the museums and palaces, one easily misses 98% of what there is to experience in Florence. So content yourself with discovering the 2% that will interest and please you the most.
In general, the juxtaposition of large enclosed spaces, the Academy, the Uffizi, the Del Duomo, with outdoor piazzas, gardens and cafes gives one the sense of historical spaces surrounded by a living infrastructure. The influence of the medieval edifices is belied by the civilizing effect apparent as you suddenly come in view of the large outdoor replica of the David, standing on the hill in the Piazza del Michelangelo. He overlooks the city’s fiestas of flowers ‘in all his glory’, as if to proclaim that one can be civilized without being tamed.
The basilica of San Miniato al Monte overlooks, with the David, the largest cemetary in Florence. Wander through the huge grounds and you will see that you recognize many names on the monuments there. Florence was home to countless historical figures. You’ll find names from Da Vinci to Gucci.
From there wander back and forth across the bridges heading north and west, watching the street pupeteers and hearing the vendors. This is where the life of the city presses in and you can buy small souvenirs. Cross back over to the west bank and you’ll be close to the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace. Watch for a deli and pick up a picnic to eat in the park. If you have some money to risk, I recommend seeing through the eyes of someone who lives there, but if your money-changers don’t return, get a good guidebook, get on a bus and go exploring.