Florence is a magical city. The red clay rooftops, cobblestone streets, and piazzas around every corner enchant visitors once they step out the door of the train station. Artwork and architecture from some of the most renowned masters of the Renaissance (Michelangelo, Raphael, and Botticelli to name a few) adorn this beautiful city. This is my fourth visit to Florence and each visit I love it a little bit more, and my guess is that you will too. Here is our trip report for what to see in Florence with your kids, but if you happen to visit at Easter, you are in for a special surprise, read on.
Arriving in Florence by train
The train station, Santa Maria Novella, is extremely manageable. If you only plan on visiting for the day (which I wouldn’t recommend, there is too much to see), there is a “left luggage” area where you can leave your bags while you explore the city. Simply present your passport at the left luggage office, next to platform 16. Pay the fee to deposit your bags, take your claim ticket and you are on your way.
Driving in Florence
DON’T DO IT!!!!! If you don’t know this already, consider yourself warned. Drivers in Florence are crazy (locals and tourists alike), and there are restricted traffic zones called ZTLs basically everywhere in the central historic area. You are not allowed to drive in a ZTL during most of the day which is pretty inconvenient for most people. You need a special permit to drive in this area, and most tourists will not have one. There are video cameras everywhere ready to photograph your license plate should you enter “the zone”. My advice: have a taxi drive you into the city if you are coming from the airport, or pick up your rental car outside of the city center after you are finished exploring. Oh, and don’t think you can escape the camera. My friend came home to $1500 worth of camera fines courtesy of her husband who thought the rules didn’t apply to him…
As you leave the train station, walk towards the Santa Maria Novella church, look for Via de Panzani, take this to Via de Banchi and it will take you to Il Duomo in under ten minutes. Or just follow all the tourists. Odds are they are going to the same place as you. This is Florence’s architectural masterpiece and main cathedral. Admission to the basilica is free, but there are additional charges to visit the crypt, the museum, and the baptistery across the way. It is possible to climb to the top of the dome, but for some reason it was closed on the day we visited. A good alternative is to climb to the top of the adjoining bell tower (I think the dome climb is 8€, the bell tower is 6€, so they are pretty comparable). My husband took our oldest son to the top of the bell tower because the wait was quite long and the little guy thought it would be a great time for a major meltdown. So I missed out climbing the 400+ steps, but the pictures prove they had a great view of the city and the Duomo.
The Uffizi Gallery is home to some of the world’s most important art, lots of breakable sculptures, and crowded with people. Most people would question our sanity about taking our kids. Thankfully, our children don’t know any different. We have been exposing them to art museums since they were little, so now they actually enjoy the visit. One of them appreciates the “creativity of the artists”, the other likes the history of the works, and the youngest, well, let’s just say he’s usually likes the museum scavenger hunt I create for him best of all. Reserve your tickets ahead of time or you will find yourself waiting in line for hours. The website is www.firenzemusei.it. Make the reservation and a few days later they will e-mail you a voucher. Bring the voucher with you on the day of your visit. Pick up tickets at the small office across from the main entrance and then you can bypass the long queue. Pick up a map as you enter and rent an audio guide (or better yet, download the Rick Steve’s audio tour to your cell phone). Do not plan on seeing the entire museum, instead pick out the key works you want to see and map out a plan for visiting them. To engage your kids, talk about the paintings, and help them make connections. The place is a maze, so our rule is to stay in the room we enter until everyone is ready to leave. The view from the café on the top level is spectacular, as are the views of the Arno River out the windows. Some of the kids favorite paintings include: “Doni Tondo” by Michelangelo, “La Primavera” by Botticelli and also “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli (I’m sure the naked woman has nothing to do with them liking it, LOL).
Leonardo da Vinci Museum, Via de Servi, 66R
There are two Leonardo museums in Florence, this happens to be the one closest to the Duomo. The museum has replicas of most of da Vinci’s creations (if not all). Everything was hands on, which the kids loved. They really enjoyed the room of mirrors. This was a great introduction to the Renaissance inventor for kids and adults alike.
David statue and the Accademia
I am sure others will disagree, but I feel seeing the statue of David is not a high priority with kids. It’s a very large statue, and the Accademia has a lot of other statues. Since we had visited on a prior trip, we decided not to take our kids. If you absolutely must have your picture taken with a David statue, there is a slightly smaller replica in the Palazzo Vecchio. Hopefully that will suffice and you will save yourself some money along the way.
The gypsies will want to give you flowers, read your palm, and take your money. Run, run away. They will curse you, and your children (and probably their children too), but hopefully none of those curses work. Most are not overly aggressive, but try to avoid them at all costs.
For those who read my other reviews, you were just waiting for this moment. Our two favorite spots were:
Perché No, Via dei Tavolini, 19R Around the corner from the Palazzo Vecchio, this gelateria has been around since 1939 and makes their gelato without preservatives and no artificial colors. They also have some unique flavors. Very refreshing on a warm day.
Grom, Via del Campanile, 2 Right near the Duomo, this is the first gelateria I came across that had a list of all its allergens available in its store and upon further research, on its website, www.grom.it. If you are allergic to something, they can tell you which gelato to stay away from. A gelateria that cares about allergy sufferers, and delicious too!
All’Antico Vinaio, Via dei Neri, 65R/-74R We happened upon this at the right time, right before the lunch time crowd. This sandwich shop is not far from the Uffizi, and is super popular. The sandwiches are baked on delicious focaccia bread and stacked in a case. You pick and choose what you want. One sandwich can easily feed two people and everything was reasonably priced. Fast food Italian style.
Scoppio del Carro
This is why we went to Florence for Easter. Scoppio del Carro literally translates to “Explosion of the Cart.” For several hundred years this procession has taken place. A towering cart upon a wagon, laden with explosives, is led by two enormous white oxen with golden horns and hooves through town. They are accompanied by townspeople in historical costumes, drummers, and flag throwers the latter who will stop at various squares along the route and perform their flag tossing routines to much fanfare. When they reach their final destination, Santa Maria del Fiore (aka the Duomo), there is a lot of uncertainty and anticipation. The cart is parked in front of the cathedral until a priest comes out of the basilica and launches a dove shaped firework towards the cart. This sets off a boisterous, yet dazzling display of fireworks and whistles. I kid you not. This is the Scoppio del Carro. Craziness, crowds, church, and fireworks. This is how they celebrate Easter in Florence, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I don’t believe there is a city in the world quite like Florence, with its wealth of architecture, art, and culture. Each visit is rewarded with new discoveries and adventures unique to this special place. Everyone should have it on their bucket list.