On a frosty afternoon in January, we arrived in Florence! After 5 hours of driving, we were pleased to pulled up to what would be our home for the next four nights. It was a small Tuscan bed & breakfast villa, located on the outskirts of Florence, called Casa Di Mina. One of the few places within walking distance of the city center with free parking!
Exhausted from the trip, we let ourselves in. We were provided with a gate code and a key left for us with instructions from the property owner. Upstairs, we found our room (1 of only 4 in the building) and settled in. Turns out, ours was the only room with a private bathroom (yessss!).
It was a quiet welcome to Florence. Casa Di Mina was the only place during our entire 20-country-trip where we “checked in” to our room without seeing anyone — not any guests, hosts, owners — not one person in the whole B&B. This place felt like home and was fantastic! After a short rest, we walked to downtown Florence.
The slightly downhill walk from Casa Di Mina to downtown took 15-20 minutes. We gladly welcomed this trek in the frigid January air — not only was it good exercise, but kept us warm. We navigated ourselves through the city wall and down several winding narrow streets until we arrived at the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. This famous medieval bridge passes over the Arno River.
In town for a festival, there were a ton of tourists and street vendors on the bridge. In an attempt to avoid the crowds, we traversed the bridge and headed down a side street along the river. This afforded us an excellent view of the bridge covered in projections of famous works art which changed every 30 seconds. It was so cool!
We strolled around downtown for a while. Poking our heads in shops, admiring the city’s architecture, and watching the street-side vendors and artists attempt to make a buck. We also walked past a few gelato shops that looked absolutely delicious! We caved in and split one for a late-night snack!
We would later learn from a Florence local that the gelato shop’s whose offerings were in large mounds (like in the picture above) were not the real thing. He assured us that if we stick to places where the gelato was covered and flat, we would enjoy it more. Good tip!
The next day, we had plans to follow a free Rick Steves audio tour around town, but the frozen air chilled us to our bones! We managed to make it down to the main square where the tour began. However, we quickly threw in the towel because we were both freezing our butts off. We caught a quick glimpse of the Duomo before we couldn’t stand the chill any longer!
Pivoting, we sought refuge in a warm cafe. We ordered some hot tea and determined a museum would be a warmer alternative for the day. We bee-lined it to the Galleria dell’Accademia and waited outside in line for 20-minutes before entering. Once inside, we entered a long corridor which led to the world famous David, by Michaelangelo. The sculpture was much larger than we realized, standing at approximately 17-feet tall! It really was quite magnificent and we were fortunate to see it up close.
We spent a couple hours exploring the various exhibits in the museum (David was really the centerpiece — the museum is fairly small and had few exhibits at the time). Unfortunately, our reprieve from the arctic air did not last as long as we had hoped. We bundled back up and hit the streets.
Epiphany in Florence
As we walked back towards the Duomo, we were surprised to see a parade come marching in. We soon realized that it was January 6 — Epiphany — a celebration based on the story of the three wise men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. Huddled in a large group for warmth, we watched the parade — admiring the costumes, taking photos, and trying not to freeze.
There were a LOT of people in this parade. They just kept coming and coming, slowly filling the square. After everyone had taken their place, there were a few songs sung by a choir of young kids. Then there was a re-creation of the three wise men visiting the baby in the manger. It was lovely, but hard to appreciate when you can barely feel your toes!
The parade was not yet finished, but we were too numb so we began our trek back to the B&B. On the way, we stopped in Piazza della Signoria, an L-shaped “square” that is home to the Palazzo Vecchio — the town hall of Florence. There are numerous statues surrounding the square, including a replica of David.
Pizza & Gelato Cooking Class
The next day we booked a Pizza & Gelato cooking class through a company called Florencetown. We rendezvoused at their downtown office at the scheduled time and met our instructor Giuseppe. Once the full group had arrived (~20 people) we made our way to the kitchen. Giuseppe talked for a bit about pizza in Florence and how the flour they use is far superior to what we use in America (we agreed). Then he walked us through the pizza making process step-by-step until it was our turn.
The entire process, from start to finish, was an absolute blast! We learned a lot, we laughed, we drank wine, we made new friends, and we ate delicious pizza (some more poorly shaped than others)! We would absolutely recommend this experience to anyone visiting Florence.
If we had to nitpick the experience, it would be the gelato portion. It was done too quickly with the whole group, without a lot of instruction. We understand why it had to be done this way, but it would have been fun to make our own gelato in addition to the pizza. Minor complaint!
At the end of the class, we each received a “Certificate of Proficiency in Italian Cuisine.” Probably a generous title to bestow on most of us, but a fun keepsake nonetheless!
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The next day we got back in our car and drove an hour west to Pisa to visit the Leaning Tower! We even got prime parking across the street. However, there were panhandlers “saving” parking spots for tourists in hopes that they would make some money. We gave them a Euro, only in fear that they might have tried to vandalize the car if we didn’t give them something. A small price to pay.
After parking, we headed onto the grounds. The closer we got to the tower the more surreal it became. We had seen the tower hundreds of times in photos, but to finally see it in person was really something else.
When we got up close and saw how much the Tower was actually leaning. We were surprised that it hadn’t fallen over. There must have been some significant engineering done to keep this thing supported as it sits!
During our visit, they opened up the town wall for people to walk on. This was not a usual opportunity, so we took advantage. There wasn’t a lot to see along the walk, but it did provide for some good views of the Tower.
There wasn’t much else to do in the area, so we took a few more pictures before returning to Florence. We were bummed that the day was overcast and gloomy during our visit, but what can you do. In the future we would recommend driving through and stopping, rather than making it a day excursion to Pisa.
We drove back to Florence and enjoyed the rest of our last day. We walked around downtown window shopping, eating gelato, and enjoying the views. Overall it was a great few days spent in a beautiful area!
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