Flashes of ochre buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. The exquisite crunch of mozzarella and tomato panini. The heady scent of leather. Florence had made a powerful impression upon me 20 years ago. At long last, I returned to Tuscany this past summer with my family.
So, how do you conquer a city overflowing with history and culture? Context Travel offers interactive 2.5 hour “urban walking seminars” for families. We met our docent in the sun-dappled Piazza della Signoria for a “Symbols and Legends” tour. Elizabeth wasted no time befriending my 11- and 7-year-old. As they perused the Renaissance sculptures, she handed them a chisel and hunk of marble so they could experience the art form. Then we set off. Our tour was structured as a treasure hunt. We walked the ancient streets pausing to uncover hard-to-spot carvings and mythological images that shed light on life in Renaissance Florence. All of the information was recorded in journals supplied by the docent.
We ended up at the Duomo where the importance of the edifice and the Ghiberti doors were explained to the kids in a magical and engaging way. Finding a non-tourist trap restaurant in this area is a challenge. We had one of the best lunches on our trip at Trattoria San Lorenzo, a delightful old-school eatery that serves up fresh pasta and Panini in a snap.
Another wonderful experience is the Secret Doors of Palazzo Vecchio, a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the Medici’s private residences. My kids loved scrambling up musty secret passages and visiting the elaborate ducal apartments. The Palazzo Pitti, Galileo Museum, Uffizzi and Leonardo da Vinci Museum also offer kid-specific guided tours. A hotel concierge can book these tours for guests.
As a fashion gal, scoring top drawer leather is essential in Florence. How, you wonder, to get the kids engaged in such a seemingly boring endeavor? Florence is brimming with outstanding leather houses that sell Madison Avenue quality products. Most of them offer gorgeous “made in Florence” embossed journals. If you ask nicely (and spend enough money) they will stamp gold initials on the leather. So, while mom and dad hunt down wallets, jackets and shoes, kids can score an awesome souvenir. Tucked behind Santa Croce is another must-visit leather emporium, the world famous Scuola del Cuoio. Here, you can visit the traditional workshops and watch craftsmen engrave leather desk sets and weave handbags. Not only can you buy outstanding quality merchandise (I bought two leather bangles and a wallet!), but you can teach the children the difference between handmade and mass-produced objects.
The food is so excellent in Florence that there is no need to pre-plan meals. Major squares and landmarks are generally filled with tourist trap (this is evident by pictures and descriptions of entrees) eateries. My advice is to walk a few blocks away from these landmarks to find the most authentic food. Often, the most humble cafes serve the most delightful dishes.