Whoever says that Americans don’t travel outside of their own country has clearly never been to Florence in June. I promise I’m not exaggerating when I say that literally every corner, every alleyway, every piazza, every museum, and every bridge was teeming with Americans. Generally packs of them, likely freshly sprung from recently docked cruise ships, outfitted in socks and sports sandals and floppy-brimmed bucket hats, and just being so very loud. I can’t tell you how many conversations we (and countless others) overheard, held as they were between parties often on two different corners of a square and seemingly incapable of moving any closer to each other than anything less than shouting distance.
I have to admit this was quite the shock to the system because, up to this point in our travels, we haven’t encountered all that many U.S. travelers, but those that we have met have generally been well-behaved and done their country proud. We thought that perhaps the era of the “Ugly American” stereotype had finally passed.
But it was alive and well during our visit to Florence, much to our dismay—and to the city’s detriment too, I might add. In defense of Yanks abroad, I’ll say that some of the dumpier (but no less obnoxious) tourists we spied could just as easily have been fellow Canadians (and some of them certainly were), and the throngs of visitors that choked Florence’s pretty cobbled lanes came from all corners of the globe, not just the States. Florence is a popular place and, if we’ve learned anything in our travels, it’s that no one country has the monopoly on behaving badly or looking idiotic while abroad.
I’ve said before that—well-behaved or not—crowds aren’t really my jam, and Florence proved to be no exception this. Annoyingly, the thing that was most maddening about our visit to Florence is that it’s so easy to see why it appeals to the people that descend upon it en masse. It’s an insanely beautiful city that positively oozes charm and fills your head with daydreams of la dolce vita at every turn. Like Paris before it, we wandered through the city and felt a bit like we’d fallen into a movie set: Every view—from the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, to the massive Duomo that dwarfs its surrounding square—is gloriously Italian and larger than life. Even with the widest lens, its impossible to get the Duomo in its entirety into a single photo, but despite this, it’s also equally impossible to take a bad photo anywhere in the historic heart of the city.
Florence is also home to some of the best art collections in the world, including one of the most famous statues, Michelangelo’s David. Even though there are replicas scattered around the town and the rest of the Accademia’s collection (largely medieval religious works) is one you breeze right by, it’s worth the admission just to gaze up at Michelangelo’s mindboggling original. The proportions are all wrong—the penis is embarrassingly tiny, and the hands gargantuan—but somehow when taken as a whole, David stands on his pedestal and is the embodiment of the human form perfected. We paid €6,50 each to go stand in front of this statue for half an hour, and we felt it was money well spent.
But through it all, we were constantly battling the crowds of people, and it was exhausting.
We felt we couldn’t take Tony’s first trip to Italy and not visit Florence. Unfortunately, everyone seems to think the same way and they flock to the city in never-ending droves, effectively smothering a city that could otherwise be so alluring. Because travelers can’t seem to resist Florence’s charms, we found the city significantly less charming than we had anticipated and hoped. Unlike Pisa, we felt we could never get a moment’s respite from the crowds, could never find a sliver of peace, no matter how far from the main attractions we strayed. The touts selling irrelevant crafts and clutter (Rastafarian crocheted caps, anyone?) were oppressive, and it was at times hard to appreciate the beauty of the city that surrounded us due to the claustrophobic tides of people that were forever swarming around us.
We were sad to find that Florence seems to be succumbing to the decline that many small cities seem to experience following a huge surge in popularity with undiscerning travelers, as if crushed by the weight of the demand. For instance, the much touted Uffizi gallery may have a tremendous collection, but the museum itself is a joke, with terrible lighting and laughable labels for the works themselves—some of them were seriously just printed on regular paper and crookedly pasted/taped to the wall. Surely Botticelli deserves better?
And the Duomo which is so majestic and commanding from the outside is kind of a huge let-down once you’re inside. There’s some nice fresco action happening up on the ceiling of the dome itself, but for the most part, it’s just a big empty cavern within. I have never seen a more disappointed face than the one Tony displayed when we first wandered inside; all told, we spent less than 10 minutes poking around inside, and were mostly thankful we hadn’t had to wait in an hour-long line for the experience but had just been able to pop in.
We also found the food scene seriously lacking in Florence. Apart from the gelato, which was a delight, I’m devastated to report that we had zero memorable food in Florence, and not for lack of trying. I was actually really excited to eat our way through the city in between all the gelato, as Florence is known for having many unique specialties. It didn’t seem to matter whether we ate at the city’s main food market, San Lorenzo, or tiny osterias, the food was always bland and disappointing. We tried the Florentine delicacies that others raved about—panzanella, lampredotto, trippa alla fiorentina, ribolita soup—and were underwhelmed by them all because they just had no flavor whatsoever.
Our best meal was a splurge lunch where Tony had wild boar pasta, and I had a set menu with soup, a grilled pork chop and beans. The meat was good, the soup was hearty if underseasoned, and the beans woefully overcooked (apparently this is a thing in Tuscany?). Tony’s pasta was fine, but nothing special. We did our research and were assured this was a non-touristy restaurant that served up impeccable Italian fare. For €31, I expect a meal that is more than ok, but I actually always forget about this one until I look at our photos. (In comparison, I still remember visiting the city 9 years ago and having one of the best pizzas of my life; it was simple—just cheese & tomato—but packed with so much flavor.) We never ate anything in Florence that was flat out bad, but the site of Italian culinary excellence it was not. We wound up resorting, once again, to self-catered picnics of bread, meat & cheese, because we just couldn’t handle the disappointment of dining out.
There’s a lot to love about Florence—the swarms of visitors, both new and repeat, attest to that—but we unfortunately found a lot of it left us cold. We wanted to love the city, but just couldn’t get there. I found myself wondering whether the city has changed so much from the one I loved when I first visited or whether it has always been this way and I am simply the one who is different. I suspect it’s a little bit of both. When last I visited, it was my first trip to Italy and I doubt I noticed the crowds because I was part of them, wandering around in wide-eyed wonder and unflattering travel gear. In the last two years, the world has revealed so much of its magic to me, I suppose it’s only fair that some places would lose a bit of theirs to compensate.
Underneath it all, Florence might still be the city that enchanted me at 22, and perhaps we’ll return one day far off in the future and give it another shot. But it certainly won’t be in June, or any summer months, for that matter. That’s when the other tourists—even the Americans—can have it.
Tell Us: Have you ever visited somewhere and been completely overwhelmed and underwhelmed by it all at once? What’s the most crowded destination you’ve ever traveled to?