10 reasons why Florence is your next Christmas trip
MANILA, Philippines – The holidays are wrapping up but some of you might already be planning to do something special next year.
My husband and I found ourselves in Florence, Italy, in mid-December. We couldn’t have picked a better European city to spend precious days of the Christmas season.
If you want to experience Christmas in Europe and have only around 4 or 5 days to spare for a trip (of course you want to be back home for Christmas Day!), I recommend Florence – a small city as packed with wonders as Santa’s workshop is packed with gifts.
Florence is magical even without the Christmas pizzazz. The streets are named after Renaissance geniuses, every corner is a portal to another century, and the food is an education for the senses.
Be sure to pack your coats, leggings, scarves, and gloves because temperatures can fall to 3°C at night, not considering windchill. At this time of the year, it also might rain.
Here are 10 reasons why you should consider Florence as a travel destination during the Christmas holiday:
1. Walkable and small
Worried about fitting enough activities in just 4 or 5 days? Florence is perfect because you can walk practically to any part of the city as long as you’re game for exercise and you have the right footwear for its cobblestoned streets.
Pedestrians (usually with their dogs), not cars, dominate the roads. No air pollution or traffic jams will get in the way of your enjoyment of the city. No need to figure out complicated train systems. But if you don’t want to walk, you can take one of the many buses that go around the city.
2. December is low season for tourists
Gone are the long lines and large crowds that usually populate Florence during the hot months of July and August. It’s easier to get into museums like the Uffizi Gallery (home to Boticelli and Da Vinci paintings) and Accademia Gallery (see Michelangelo’s David for yourself!). Restaurants are less chaotic and you get a better glimpse of how the locals live.
3. The city is itself a museum
If the museum tickets are too expensive for you, no problem, the city is yours for the taking. Everything from the lampposts to the building of your bed and breakfast to the mailboxes are most likely historical.
There’s a church that used to be a public market before someone found a painting of Mother Mary on its walls and decided it should become a place of worship. Drop by Gilli, Florence’s oldest cafe, founded in 1733 and still selling Swiss chocolates.
Windowshop along Ponte Vecchio, one of the oldest bridges and home to Florentine jewelry shops ever since the Medicis drove away the fish vendors and tanneries that originally occupied the bridge.
For this, I suggest you book a one-day or half-day walking tour. We had a good experience with CityWonders.
4. Magical Christmas lights, displays
When the sun goes down, Florence becomes aglow with spectacular lights. When this happens in December, Florence becomes a sparkling Christmas town straight out of your favorite Christmas song.
Walk under arches of cascading Christmas lights hanging over quaint alleys and major streets. There are giant (and real) pine trees in the great piazzas or squares, all beribboned and glittering like a hundred shooting stars.
Florence’ shops put on their Christmas best with cafes displaying chocolate Christmas trees or cream-filled snowmen. Ribbons of pine tree branches dripping with gem-colored ornaments hang over shop doors.
5. Street music
The spirit of Christmas caroling is alive and well in Florence. You’ll find groups of them in public places, clutching candles and song verses.
During our short stay, we encountered 4 different street musician groups, including violinists playing against the walls of the majestic Florence Cathedral (also known as Duomo).
If you want the comfort of 4 walls, you can always buy tickets to the Italian opera. We watched one inside a tiny gem of a church, the Santa Monaca Church (built in the 15th century).
6. Divine food, coffee
Let’s admit it, Christmas is partly about pigging out. Italy is home to some of the best cuisines in the world. Eat ravioli, puttanesca, aglio olio, margherita pizza, and all those other tongue-curling dishes, the way Italians do. Despite the temperature outside, we did not miss the opportunity to try real gelato.
And the coffee…cappuccino, espresso, mochaccino, they all come from here! Perhaps that’s why you'd be hardpressed to find a Starbucks joint in Florence.
Best to ask a local for their restaurant recommendations.
7. The Tuscan countryside is a bus ride away
Etruscan ruins, charming Tuscan villas, stately olive trees, and nature parks are all reachable from Florence if you know which bus to take.
We went to Fiesole, a hillside town around 30 minutes from Florence. We visited the 14th-century San Francesco Monastery where we saw Saint Bernardino’s cell and climbed up a hill where Leonardo Da Vinci launched one of his flying contraptions.
As it is the holidays and low season for tourists, best to check the operating hours of the museums or parks because some may close early.
8. Hear Mass in beautiful churches
Florence was where religious art reached new heights so you can expect their churches to be drop-dead gorgeous.
The Duomo or Florence Cathedral, completed after 600 years using different types of marble, is larger-than-life both in size and history. It continues to hold masses. In fact, while we were there, the Nativity scene was being set up for Christmas Eve.
But I also suggest a smaller, lesser-known church on a hill overlooking Florence. The Church of San Miniato al Monte is also beautifully constructed in marble but has a subtler beauty. When we dropped in around 8 pm, some monks were singing prayers while visitors sat watching at a respectful distance. You’ll also get a breath-taking view of Florence.
9. Christmas bazaars
We were lucky enough to bump into a sprawling outdoor Christmas market while walking back to our hotel one evening.
You’ll find vintage toys, watches, film cameras, coats, vinyl records, soaps, bottled olive oil, artisanal wine, and all manner of quirky items laid out upon wooden tables or shelves.
Not a bad place to do your Christmas shopping. You’re sure to find something for all of your loved ones and you’ll have a great story to tell about where you found it!
10. Shopping paradise
If you have a little more cash, you may want to stock up on products Florence is famous for: leather goods, perfume, textiles, pasta, and coffee beans.
Buy the sturdiest leather sandals and leather bags in one of Florence’s many home-grown shops. Some of themh have been around since the early 1900s and boast great craftsmanship and timeless designs. You can take home packs of pasta to cook on Christmas day or intricately painted porcelainware for your mom’s kitchen.