We stayed at Hotel Nord Florence in northern Florence, which meant being about 3-4 miles away from the city center. Since we have a car, this was great with respect to the price of the hotel and parking, but the downside was that this area of town was really not a very good first impression of the city of Florence.
We considered taking the bus into the city center, as some reviews online had complained about driving in Florence, but after some communication confusion trying to buy the bus tickets we ended up driving in anyways. It was totally fine to drive, and not unlike driving in any other city. The drive in took us through more unimpressive parts of the city, before we finally got closer to the city center, where our impression finally started to improve. We parked in the Stazione garage, which is right next to the Santa Maria Novella station. This is a great spot because it is right before you get into the crowded city center streets, and it is very close to Florence's cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Duomo.
Travel Tip: Whether you drive in or take the bus, there is a tourist office across the street from the station (on the way to the cathedral). Stop in to get your free map of the city and any other tourist information you might need.
The walk through the city center was very nice and the atmosphere was very lively, with lots of tourists, stores, and restaurants on the way, and most definitely the Duomo was an awe inspiring sight. We walked towards the cathedral with admiring eyes.
"Santa Maria del Fiore is one of the largest churches in the world. Its dome was the world's largest until the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome (Vatican City), which was completed in 1615.
The eye-catching façade of Florence's Duomo is made of polychrome panels of green, white, and red marble. But this design is not the original. The exterior that one sees today was completed only in the late 19th century." Read more about the history of Duomo here.
We admired the building from the outside only. We did not have pre-purchased tickets, and the general admission line circled around half the very large building. I almost felt bad for all the kids waiting in that line, especially the ones that were still quite far from the entrance.
We knew that the other sight we really wanted to see was the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence. We checked the map and picked random streets to walk through, and on our way we came across Piazza della Signoria. We were able to see quite a few statues, including a replica of Michaelanglo's David. The original David is housed in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze, which we did not visit (In hindsight we probably should have done that! Oops!).
Travel Tip: If traveling to Florence without a detailed itinerary/plan, and without a smartphone and data plan, bring along a travel book which describes the history of the various sights, sculptures, or pieces of art you will come across on the streets. In most places we have travelled, there are usually useful signs with a lot of history and frequently even with English translations in front of major sights. The signage in the streets of Florence is nonexistent. Most of the time, we had no idea what we were looking at, and only after looking online afterwards did we get more understanding and appreciation for what we saw. Hence, us not knowing we only saw the replica of David until later!
We finally made our way across the crowds and laid our eyes on the famous bridge. "Ponte Vecchio is a Medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common. Butchers initially occupied the shops; the present tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. The Ponte Vecchio's two neighbouring bridges are the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie." Read more about the history of the bridge here.
This bridge and the atmosphere around it was our favorite part of Florence. It was extremely crowded, but there is something charming about seeing the bridge and walking across it that can't be quite described in words.
After Ponte Vecchio, we were all starving. Time for some Italian Pizza! We ended up at Ristorante Il Bargello. Pizza and Pasta are, perhaps not so surprisingly, very cheap in Italy, and of course they are delicious. Our waiter was extremely friendly and knew how to speak English quite well. He even chatted with the kids a little bit.
In the evening, we ventured out to the Boboli Gardens. This Garden is "home to a collection of sculptures dating from the 16th through the 18th centuries, with some Roman antiquities".
Travel Tip: The admission ticket to the Boboli Gardens is 10 Euros for adults. Children under 6 can enter the park for free. I would definitely recommend this park for anyone in Florence with kids. Even though it was a paid area, there still was not much signage, so don't expect to know what you're looking at.
We all had fun with the statues in the park. Read more about the various statues here.
Asides from the statues, one of the greatest things about this garden is that after you walk up the steep hill beyond the the Fountain of Oceanus, you get an incredible view of Florence from above.
Both kids were champs and walked up the hill by themselves. Honestly, even if they asked to be picked up, we would likely not have obliged, as it was hot and carrying extra body heat was really not advisable :)
At the top of the hill, we got to see the gorgeous panoramic view of Florence. There were lots of couples on a grassy area overlooking the city. We guessed they must want to be there for the sunset.
We explored the gardens a bit further, and I am so glad we did because we were able to find a different exit rather than having to backtrack our steps. This brought us back towards the river through a series of streets with a very old fashioned feel to them. We had a light dinner, followed by ginormous gelato!
To say we didn't have fun in Florence would be a lie. We had a lovely time, but we did not enjoy the city as much as we thought we would. I understand that the city has a very high artistic value, mainly in museums and churches, and had we come with older kids AND had pre-purchased/VIP tickets to get into the main attractions quickly we would likely have a different opinion. As it was, we were happy to have had the opportunity to visit Florence, but would not recommend it as a destination for traveling with younger kids.
We are really excited to head out to Venice tomorrow. I hope it lives up to our expectations.