What’s it like to Visit Florence right now?

Have you been wondering what it’s like to visit some of the most popular tourist destinations right now, when crowds have disappeared? I’ve been fascinated to hear what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, and what kind of atmosphere the cities have. Our marketing assistant, Liz, moved to Northern Italy last year and has spent the 2020 lock-down in a small town near Bologna. When the inter-province travel restrictions lifted in June she decided to make the most of it and take a day trip to Florence in early July! Here’s her experience:

One of the best things about living in Italy is that all these amazingly famous cities are only a short train ride away! Our train to Florence took just over an hour. (Having grown up in the Southwest, where you can drive 4 hours and still be in the same state, this continues to amaze me!) Masks are required on the train and every other seat is blocked off to facilitate social distance. This means even though we booked our four tickets together, each person had their own two-seat row. 

a street scene in Florence Italy

Travel restrictions and regulations have turned Florence from a tourist hot-spot into a typical bustling city. There were still people enjoying the sunny piazzas, the grand churches, and walking along the beautiful Arno river, but fewer crowds and with a more local vibe. We knew this was going to be a quick visit of walking around the city and seeing things from the outside, so we were excited to find this more relaxed feeling. 

looking at a ornately decorated marble church door on the streets of Florence Italy

When you’re walking around Florence it’s easy to really enjoy the city — there’s beautiful ancient architecture and churches around every corner, and now there is a sense of being a local

Of course, there were some noticeable changes…

a woman in a facemask posing in front of Santa Maria Novelle Cathedral and Il Campinello in Florence Italy

Currently, masks are required inside buildings and after 6pm. Out on the streets, you see a mix of people wearing and not wearing masks. We tended to keep ours on in more crowded spots and walked without them where there were fewer or no people. 

Although most businesses were open, a huge change is that the churches are no longer open on the weekdays. With the exceptions of the Duomo and San Lorenzo, most of the churches around the city were closed. Serendipitously this worked out for us since we forgot to dress in church-appropriate clothing anyway. Florence is a city of churches but if you’re a woman with bare shoulders or bare calves you are not allowed inside.

Our first stop was Florence’s most famous attraction: Piazza del Duomo. It’s famous for a reason — an absolute must-see that makes such a huge impact. Here you could really see the difference in the number of tourists. Having been to Florence once before in the off-season, I was still amazed at how empty it was!

a woman standing practically alone in Piazza del Duomo with the Florence Duomo in the background
a street view of the Florence Duomo and the street artists next to it

There are still the artists selling their renditions of the grand cathedral and although we didn’t have the place all to ourselves, we could take the time to appreciate the facades of these amazing structures. There are so many little details to appreciate as you walk around it.

Most impressive was how easily we were able to see the Gates of Paradise on the Baptistery. These amazing golden doors usually have a huge crowd in front of them so being able to go and look at the details for as long as we liked was a treat. 

a panel of the Gates of Paradise on the Baptistery in Florence Italy
a woman lays down in an almost empty courtyard in front of Santa Croce Florence Italy

Like the Duomo, Piazzale Michelangelo and Santa Croce were practically empty.

Piazzale Michelangelo does involve a lot of stair climbing, especially when the bus schedule has become less….scheduled. But climbing the steps up this hill is so worth it. The view is stunning and we were able to enjoy the many many stairs and views of the city almost by ourselves!

a drawing of the city of Florence and the panoramic view to match

Regardless of the tourist levels, I recommend this view. You’re able to see the whole city laid out, really appreciate the massive size of the Duomo, and glimpse the mountains in the distance. 

looking up at the marble facade of the church San Miniato al Monte in Florence Italy

For an extra level of stunning (and more stairs), head up to Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte. This beautiful church sits just a little way up from the Piazzale.

Of course, it was closed. So when we arrived at the top of the steps the entire courtyard was empty. There’s something very relaxing about sitting in the shadow of a huge old church enjoying the panoramic view of the city. It’s a great spot to recuperate as you prepare to walk back down the hill. 

two photos one of the san miniato courtyard and one of the view of Florence Italy from the courtyard

On our way from the Duomo to Piazza della Signoria, we stopped off at the famous Il Porcellino fountain. Superstition says that rubbing the boar’s snout will bring good luck and ensure a return to Florence! We tentatively touched the shiny snout and then immediately sanitized thoroughly.

three women in face masks touching the bronze pig statue il Porcellino in Florence Italy
closeup of the bronze boar pig statue Il Porcellino in Florence Italy

It was nice to participate in a truly touristy Florentine tradition that stretches back to at least the 1700s. But maybe sanitizing after touching a communal boar is a change we should keep. 

There are some areas of Florence essentially unchanged by COVID. Piazza della Signoria was a bustling town square. There were horses available for carriage rides and lots of people sitting around the steps. Considering the Piazza is adjacent to the Uffizi Gallery (which boasted a huge line) this was unsurprising. However, we were surprised to find the wait time for an un-reserved ticket at the Galleria dell’Acadamia was still over an hour! An hour in the hot sun when you only have a day? We decided to try again another time. It just goes to show – no matter when you’re visiting Florence – book your museum tickets in advance

horse drawn carriages and people in Piazza della Signoria Florence Italy

There was only one place in Florence that truly had that crowded, touristy feel: Ponte Vecchio. Families and large groups traversed the famous old bridge and peered into the glittering jewelry shops on either side.

looking up the entrance to ponte vecchio florence italy

There was a rotation of photo takers getting that stunning view down the Arno river. It was a 50/50 split on wearing masks. We kept ours on while moving through the crowds but took them off to snap a quick pic.

three women posing on ponte vecchio Florence

Almost as soon as we reached the other side of the bridge, the crowds dissipated. Once again Florence felt like a bustling and inviting city.

Overall our day in Florence was well spent, walking around 14k (!) in total trying to see it all! We felt safe and enjoyed being able to see the city with more local vibes. There was a lot of construction and I think the city is taking this time to ensure everything is perfect when all travelers are allowed to visit.

Florence is essentially a timeless city, there are still aperitivos (though sadly without the buffet), there are still piazzas and people sitting and enjoying the beauty at every turn.

delicious cone of gelato in Florence Italy

And most importantly: you can still go for some of the best gelato I’ve had in Italy. 

4 Ways to Skip Security Lines at the Airport

There’s nothing worse than the stress of running late to catch a flight. These days you need to factor in an extra three hours to get to the airport, check in, and get through security. When you land back home, you stumble off an international flight and straight into an insufferably long customs line.

If only you could skip those lines….

Fortunately, you can! There are several programs that address these airport inconveniences. But which should you choose? TSA-precheck, Global Entry, CLEAR, Mobile Passport? It’s difficult to know where to start.

We’ve put together the pros and cons of each service to help you decide:

a busy airport terminal
Waiting in a crowded airport line is the worst! [Photo Credit: Hiurich Granja via Unsplash]

TSA Pre-Check

What is it?
TSA pre-check is a government-run skip-the-line option. When you arrive at the airport enter a special security line for both identity checks and scanning. It’s often significantly shorter than the regular line and will help you arrive at your gate stress-free!


  • Skip the long lines and fast-pass your way through security!
  • In over 200 U.S. airports and with 73 airlines
  • No need to unpack and de-shoe as you go through a separate scanning line
  • Children under 12 don’t need their own membership and can sail through with you


  • You need to make sure you have a pre-check logo on your boarding pass. Sometimes during the booking process, it will disappear, so it’s important to double-check that.
  • No guarantee. As more people sign up there is a risk the line will be as long or longer than the regular line.

How to get it: After applying online go for a 15min in-person interview, background check, and fingerprinting.
It’s a straight-forward process but needs to be completed before you book your flight.

Cost: The initial application fee is 85$ for 5 years. (17$ per year)
The application fee is non-refundable. 
Some credit cards will pay this fee for you. Be sure to see if you qualify.

Verdict: TSA pre-check is perfect if you’re a frequent flier. While there’s no guarantee of a shorter line, the odds are in your favor and it will cut down on the hassle of going through security.


What is it?
CLEAR is a privately owned company that uses your biometrics as identification instead of your driver’s license or passport. Simply go to the CLEAR kiosk, scan your boarding pass, and tap a finger or blink into an eye identifier. Then a CLEAR representative escorts you to the front of security where you’ll join the regular scanning line.


  • Skip the long security line where a TSA agent is checking boarding passes
  • You can sign up at a CLEAR kiosk in less than 10 minutes
  • Easy to combine with TSA pre-check or Global Entry
  • Children under 18 can jump the line with you
  • You can add family members (over 18) for an additional $50


  • You still have to go through the normal scanning line. This means taking off shoes, unpacking liquids etc.
  • Only in 34 airports
  • By far the most expensive option

How to get it: Go up to a CLEAR kiosk at the airport, sign-up, pay, and enter some basic biometric data.
Easy- peasy and no need to do it before booking your flight.

Cost: The most expensive option at $179 per year.

Verdict: CLEAR is good if you’re a frequent flier out of one of the airports they’re currently in. It lets you feel like a VIP being escorted to the front of the line. But if you don’t often fly out of one of their airports it’s not worth the cost.

honeymooners on a boat in italy
TSA pre-check or Clear will fast-track you to the relaxing part of your vacation

Global Entry

What is it?
Global Entry is run by U.S. Customs & Border Protection. It’s perfect for international travelers because its main function is to expedite the return process. Instead of waiting in the customs line after your long flight home, you head to a Global Entry kiosk. Scan your passport or green card then scan your fingerprint and fill out the customs questions. The kiosk will give you a receipt and direct you towards your baggage claim.


  • Skip the long customs line when you’ve emerged bleary-eyed from a long flight home
  • Includes TSA pre-check to make your departure as smooth as your return
  • Applicable for valid passport holders or green-card holders


  • Children require their own membership
  • Currently only in 75 airports

How to get it: Fill out the online application. Then schedule an appointment at one of their locations for an in-person interview, background check, and fingerprints.
It’s a straight forward process but must be completed before you book.

Cost: Application fee of $100 valid for 5 years ($20 per year).
Because it includes TSA-precheck, think of it as an extra $15 to make your return as smooth as your departure.
Some credit cards will pay this fee for you.

Verdict: If you travel internationally this is a great option. You get all the benefits of TSA pre-check plus the benefit of sailing through customs. Because all children need their own membership this is not ideal for families.

Mobile Passport

What is it?
Mobile Passport is a free app designed to speed up your customs process. You simply save some basic passport info to the app. When you land back in the U.S., answer the usual customs questions. Mobile Passport will give you a QR code. Look for the much shorter Mobile Passport line in the arrivals hall, show the CBP officer your QR code and you’re on your way!


  • Skip the long customs line
  • Often just as fast as Global Entry
  • Great for families: it allows you to include everyone’s profile in a single transaction.
  • It’s free!


  • Only available in 27 airports
  • You must still be manually processed by a CBP officer (unlike Global Entry)
  • Only available to U.S. citizens and Canadian visitors

How to get it: Download the app on Google Play or the Apple Store, enter your basic information, and you’re good to go! It’s simple, fast, and incredibly easy.

Cost: Free!

Verdict: Although it’s only available in a small number of airports, it’s worth the download if you’re an international traveler.
Because you can add the whole family to one transaction it’s perfect for families with tired children.

air tahiti plane

So which is best? What should you choose to fast-pass your way through airline security? It truly depends on what type of traveler you are and where you’re traveling from to find the right fit.

With any of these services, your next experience at the airport will be much faster and less stressful. Combine that with a customized vacation designed by Annie’s Escapes, and your travel worries are over!

A Year in Review

This has been a jam-packed travel year for me, but you won’t hear any complaints. The more, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned, because I collect new countries/hotels/experiences like a madwoman! By rough count, 2017’s travel adventures included:  five new countries; visits to and/or tours of more than twenty all-inclusive resorts; three trips to Mexico; my first river cruise; three fabulous travel conferences (two of which I spoke at); and a handful of new luxury hotels in fun US destinations.

If that sounds overwhelming, it kind of is. But out of the whirlwind that was this past year, a few highlights stand out:

Favorite hotel:   The Jefferson, Richmond VA

elegant hotel lobby in VA

I’ve probably been to Richmond a dozen times at this point, as my son is a student at the University of Richmond, but we typically stay at branded chain hotels near campus. This October we treated ourselves to a long weekend at The Jefferson, a five-star hotel in a grand, old historic building in the center of the city. Everything about this property was on point — the service, the rooms, the food, the location, the atmosphere – I simply could not find a single thing that I would change or improve. Very rare indeed!

Favorite all-inclusive resortLe Blanc, Cancun

a beautiful blue infinity pool overlooking the ocean in Cancun

Three visits to Mexico in one year (and more than a dozen properties visited) can leave a bit of a blur in my mind, but Le Blanc stands out clearly. It has everything that I look for in a resort:  a fabulous beach, a decadent spa, gourmet food, impeccable service, spacious rooms, serene décor, and no children, LOL.  (don’t get me wrong…I love children, I have children, but when I want some “me” time at a tropical resort, I don’t want to be surrounded by children.) 

Most intriguing city:  Salzburg, Austria

a small side street in Austria with fairylights hanging down

By intriguing, I mean that I’m longing to return.  We had just the briefest taste of Salzburg on my November river cruise, and it left me hungry for more. More time to wander the pedestrian-friendly streets, nibble on pastries in a café, hike my way up to the fortress, and soak up the Medieval and Baroque architecture. Plus, I didn’t get to see a single hotel! Reason enough to go back.

Most beautiful scenery:  Azores, Portugal

lush greenery surround a lake and small walking path in Azores

For me, the Azores is the very definition of a love/hate relationship. I absolutely LOVED the islands, with their jaw-dropping scenery, natural wonders, fresh seafood, delicious wine, and friendly people.  But the process of getting there (and back) was unbearable. What should be so simple – a five-hour hop from Providence to Sao Miguel — turned into a days-long journey of cancelled flights, cattle-car conditions, last-minute changes, and drives back and forth to Boston. If I could click my heels and transport myself back there I would. But until then, I’m not in a hurry to try SATA Airlines again.

Biggest surprise:  Munich, Germany

two glasses of beer in Munich

Sometimes, the very best thing you can do is to visit a place without any plans, expectations, or pre-conceived notions.  This is exactly what happened with Munich! We had just one night there (maybe 24 hours in total) in November, and all I had done in advance was to book a room at the Sofitel Munich Bayerpost (which we loved!)  We strolled through the city center, watched the vendors set up their Christmas market stalls, drank some delicious beer, ate some delicious German food, wandered into a fascinating museum, took lots of photos, and absolutely had a ball. I would go back again in a heartbeat!

Newfound love: River cruising

the deck of a river cruise through europe

Do you ever worry that an experience (or a place, or a restaurant, etc.) simply CAN’T possibly live up to the hype and the expectation? I do! And I was a little bit afraid that I was dooming myself to be let down with my big 50th birthday river cruise, simply because I was looking forward to it so much. Silly me. If anything, it was even better than I hoped! The food was amazing, the service blew my mind, the ports were fascinating, and the whole experience could not have been more fun. It’s a great way to see Europe, without any stress, and I cannot wait to do it again!

My investment strategy

I don’t live in a fancy house, or drive a fancy car, and you’re much more likely to find me shopping in TJ Maxx than in Nordstroms, but my family is rich in something that matters much more to me than material possessions – and that is experiences.

My kids have kayaked through mangrove swamps in The Keys, climbed waterfalls in Jamaica, and ziplined through the treetops in Alaska. They’ve been to a hockey game in Montreal, a musical in London’s West End, a “session” in a Dublin pub, and a wedding in Poland – and they are still in high school! The things that we’ve seen and done together as a family, the cultures we’ve experienced and the places that we’ve explored have opened our eyes, broadened our horizons, and built a treasure trove of memories that we will share forever.

Sure, my daughter probably would have preferred to have a designer handbag (or a car, for that matter) for her sixteenth birthday, but I can guarantee that she will never forget the weekend that she and her friends spent in New York City instead. And my son would certainly have preferred to find video games under the tree this Christmas instead of a trip to London and Paris with mom and dad, but even he was struck speechless by Notre Dame.

So I will continue to invest in experiences rather than things. And to “drag” my kids along with me every chance I get. Because my time with them is short (my daughter graduates next year, and my son will be right behind her) and I know that I am giving them a gift that’s far more valuable than any possession.

Who am I kidding, though, right? My husband and I probably get more out of it than the kids do! We’re the ones who will be sitting around some day reminiscing about New Year’s Eve on the Champs Elysees, and the time we watched glaciers calve from our balcony in Alaska, while the kids are off having new adventures of their own, with their own families. And maybe THAT is the biggest gift we’ve given them – the desire to see, and do, and explore rather than to acquire.

I hope so!

You provided excellent guidance for us. I appreciated that you really had us think about what was most important to us when we were selecting the right cruise – and not to totally focus on what other people had to say. THANK YOU for helping to make this a memorable trip for our family! It really was a trip of a lifetime!

Clare and Mark (family cruise to Alaska)

The level of service we experienced was out of this world (and we did NOT make it easy on Ann). We weren’t quite sure where we wanted to go, when we would be able to go, or what “vibe” we were going for. After asking us some key questions (what we liked, didn’t like, why, etc.) Ann helped us narrow down our trip details and planned the honeymoon of our dreams. She helped book some of our excursions, answered some emergency questions while abroad and was always available/willing to help. I think it’s safe to say we won’t be using anyone else for future travel planning – Ann is a rockstar!

Carli (Italy and Spain)