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