More than ten years after I arrived in Florence for my very first study abroad experience, I stood in the little Florentine airport greeting a new group of API students. While I waited, holding up an API sign, I couldn’t help but reminisce.
I vividly remembered the exhaustion from flying all night, the lingering stress of the pre-departure process, and the weight of a suitcase packed under pressure. I recalled the tough moments that often come with travel. This including lost luggage, missed connections, delayed flights, and goodbyes to family and friends. So much time and effort go into the preparation leading up to the moment when you finally land in your host country.
Arriving at the Airport
As I walked with students from the airport to the bus waiting outside, I could feel their excitement to have finally made it to Italy. A smile stretched across my face as I thought about all of the incredible experiences that Florence had in store for them. I knew that no matter what it took for them to get here, it would be beyond worthwhile.
Florence, Italy: the birthplace of the Renaissance, home to art and architectural masterpieces. A city full of impeccable food, fantastic fashion, fascinating history, and more. I’ve heard it described as “Italian Disneyland.” Around every corner lies another attraction, restaurant, or shop. The city overflows with things to do, see, and experience. What better way to kick off a visit to Florence than simply walking around and taking it all in?
Each term, our API Florence students have the opportunity to get their first taste of the city’s treasures with a walking tour from a local guide. Visiting a few Florentine highlights serves as an excellent introduction to this incredible place. (And a perfect antidote to any jet lag or nerves). This summer, I tagged along with one of the groups, and watched as one of my favorite places in the entire world quickly won over more hearts.
Basilica di San Lorenzo
Our tour began at the Basilica di San Lorenzo. With its unassuming and unfinished stone facade, at first glance, it could seem like a dull part of Florence. In reality, the San Lorenzo neighborhood is far from boring. The cathedral steps serve as a resting place for a mishmash of people. You’ll see tourists resting their feet or refueling with a panino, local workers hoping to catch some shade, or young Italian teens meeting up for an evening of escapades. Just up the street, the vivaciousness grows even further with the often chaotic San Lorenzo market.
San Lorenzo Market
Vendors roll their large carts in and out each day to line the streets, selling an assortment of souvenirs. From small leather purses shaped into frogs, elephants, and owls to sweatshirts, scarves, jewelry, jackets. The vendors vie for the attention of passersby, eagerly shouting out deals and discounts. Venturing through the commotion of the open air market leads to a large structure with red and green lattice windows, Florence’s Mercato Centrale.
Inside the central market, a handful of locals shop for groceries. Meanwhile, tourists contemplate how many vacuum sealed hunks of parmigiano reggiano they can fit in their suitcase. Produce stands overflow with whatever’s in season. There are mounds of deep maroon cherries, mountains of carefully flayed artichokes, heaps of zucchini flowers, and vibrant Sicilian oranges.
Butchers showcase a medley of meats: whole legs of prosciutto, pig snouts, hefty filets of steak, plump sausages, and all sorts of spongy-looking tripe. Other booths sell seafood, pasta, cheeses, olive oils, and so on. Upstairs, the second floor of the central market houses a sort of grown up, gourmet cafeteria. There are countless restaurant counters and shared tables.
Piazza del Duomo
We wandered out of the San Lorenzo neighborhood, down the slate colored cobblestones of a typical Florentine street. We walked around families pondering dinner at a trattoria or admiring a peddler’s selection of paintings lined up on the ground. Suddenly, the narrow road opened up into a vast square, the Piazza del Duomo. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, simply referred to as the Duomo, is the most iconic and most impactful landmark in Florence.
No matter how many thousands of times I’ve walked past it, I will always stop, even just for a moment, to admire the outstanding monument. The gigantic brick dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 1400’s, never fails to take my breath away. The Duomo and the grand piazza surrounding it feel like the heart of the historic city center.
Piazza del Duomo serves as a centering point, connecting all the main attractions and exciting things to see. As much as I normally try to avoid tourist traps, every once in a while, sitting at an outdoor cafe in Piazza del Duomo totally warrants an overpriced aperitivo.
Taking a walk through Florence is one of the best ways to acclimate. Once you’re oriented, you have forever to explore, because in large part, Florence will never change. Even still, Florence knows how to limitlessly mesmerize its visitors. It always unveils more and more treasures to discover. It’s the perfect place to get happily lost, turning down charming cobblestone street after street. Each neighborhood and each piazza have a different feel.
Stay tuned for Part Two of my Walk Through Florence where I’ll share about Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza della Signoria! While you wait for part two, learn more about our programs in Italy!