Florence, Italy is a beautiful city with a hidden soul, a soul buried beneath nearly 10 million annual tourists. Struggling to keep its identity and preserve the sites, the city has started hosing down steps to keep tourists from lounging on them and implementing signs that discourage disrespectful behavior.
It’s not a stretch when I say “don’t go.”
The city is drowning in lines of people. The culture is choked out by the masses all trying to do the same thing at the same time.
But, despite everything, it is a place you absolutely should go. The locals are cheery and kind despite the millions of visitors. There are sites that will take your breath away, the food is molto bene and the type of history that turned the course of history is present at every turn.
So how do you do both? How do you visit Florence without adding to the tourist problem?
Florence is an entirely different place in November, mostly because the locals take their city back. From mid-November until the end of April is, hands down, the best time to visit.
Everything is cheaper– from plane tickets to hotels to all of the passes for the sites (most major attractions are 50% off in the down-season.) Florence’s winters are usually mild and either way, it’s not a city you need to see in the summer. The major attractions are all indoors, you’re not missing out on beaches or outdoor wildlife and the main reasons to go to Florence (food, coffee, culture and history) are better experienced without the crowds.
Get up early
If you do go in the summer, the only way to beat the crowds is to become an early bird.
There are multiple benefits. Sunrise provides the perfect light for photographing the major site buildings, like the centerpiece of Florence, the Duomo. Most tour groups don’t start until 9.a.m. so you’ll have the city to yourself if you get up at dawn. And, you’ll experience a slice of local life: watching the locals down espresso shots and hurry off to work, raising the metal storefront shutters, gossiping, and fitting in a smoke break before the crowds arrive.
When your caffeine boost from the morning starts wearing off and the heat and crowds take over, duck into somewhere for lunch or catch up on your sleep with a nap. You might feel anxious and antsy (I need to experience everything now!) but ignore that. You’re not missing out on anything.
Around 6p.m, the streets begin to clear. By this point, tourist groups are exhausted from running site to site and being in the heat all day. You will again, have most of the city to yourself. And there’s no need to worry about catching dinner before the kitchen closes. Most Italians don’t eat their evening meal until 8p.m. or later. Lounge like a local and enjoy.
Cross the river
South of the major river in Florence, the Arno, is the “other side of Florence,” the oltrarno. Most tourists don’t travel to this side of Florence but this portion of the city is worth exploring. Artisan workshops line the narrow streets and offer everything from violins to ironwork to Florentine paper. This quarter of Florence is where you can find a truly unique souvenir.
Speak to a local
Strike up a conversation with the barista serving your espresso or the store attendant in the artisan shop you’re perusing. Italians love to share their culture and most will be more than happy to recommend their favorite places to eat, drink, and visit.
No matter when you visit, be thankful and respectful, use what Italian you know and treat the city and its people with respect. Florence’s soul will bare itself to you and you will never forget it.