Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the city is packed with museums. But on a trip with our two middle schoolers, for whom Renaissance art meant very little, we settled on a model any visitor can use to achieve maximum museum exposure with minimum time, with or without kids. The secret is threefold: a small and walkable city, advance planning, and judicious application of rewards.
We were working at the American International School of Vienna and, with our two pre-teens, would sometimes take the night train to Italy for the weekend to eat Italian food and be someplace less uptight than Vienna. I’d spent my junior year abroad in Florence, so I was eager to show the kids a city I love. This meant museums on a very short timeline. So I mapped out a full day of museums and primed the kids with stories from art appreciation and Renaissance history classes. Fortunately, Florence is very small and walkable; 30 minutes would take us between the two furthest stops on our tour. The reward part came in payment of gelato, which truly doesn’t get any better than in Italy, like German beer or Belgian chocolate.
We started at the Galleria dell’Accademia which houses Michelangelo’s David and his Prisoners. David is so massive and so beautiful that Dan and Sarah were stunned, actually, so we were off to a good start. I thought, this ‘five museums in a day’ thing can work! We skipped the Fra Angelico frescoes at the Museum of San Marco only a block away. Best not to press our luck; a little bit of fresco can go a long way.
Next was the church of San Lorenzo housing the magnificent Medici Chapel with its tombs of the famous family and the Laurentian Library on the other side of the church. Both were designed and carved by Michelangelo, and the library is one of his greatest architectural achievements, especially the flowing steps. Consider reading Irving Stone’s 1961 book The Agony and the Ecstasy; a Biographical Novel of Michelangelo, which will immeasurably enrich your experience of Florence. Both these museums are very small, so we had plenty of time left for the Duomo, but only after the first gelato break.
At the Duomo complex we started with Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, After admiring the doors, we explored the statuary in the Duomo museum, and the kids really liked Brunelleschi’s model of the dome. We all climbed the 463 steps up the dome, which was actually fun and a kid-friendly activity that burnt off some energy, not to mention providing stunning views.
Between the Duomo and the Uffizi is the Bargello Museum, full of the very best Florentine Renaissance sculpture. It’s such an uncrowded museum we figured we could add to the count without taking too much time before the gigantic Uffizi. But by then we all needed a lunch break to power through the rest of the day. This was off-season and so the city was not crowded, but one could profitably spend days exploring its treasures. During my year abroad in Florence, we naturally took an Art History class, so I walked the kids through the Medieval and Renaissance galleries. A couple of hours was about their limit. And there you go, five museums in a day!
Even though we had hit our museum quota, we weren’t yet done with our day in Florence. Ponte Vecchio is a stone’s throw from the Uffizi and that involved some shopping and more gelato. Then we walked up to Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking the city as daylight faded, the golden Tuscan light illuminating a view largely unchanged since the Renaiassance. Perfect day.
This museum marathon occurred some years ago, and not in high season. Florence is considerably more crowded today, and even more planning would be required to duplicate this feat. The general consensus seems to be that visitors should book advance reservations, particularly for the Uffizi. But the same general plan will work if you are pressed for time. Alternately, of course, the visitor can take a totally different, more meditative approach to art instead of the five-museums-in-a-day model. This New York Times article “The art of slowing down in a museum” suggests spending 20 minutes before a piece of art that speaks to you. Either way, the museums of Florence are a wonder.
But in our family ‘five museums in a day’ is code for “I’ve earned this reward. Back off!” On a Thanksgiving trip to Budapest, for instance, we stayed in a very nice hotel, one with cable TV which we did not have at home in Vienna. The kids demanded to watch TV ALL DAY, citing this as their reward for ‘five museums in a day’. Done.
Written by Guest Contributor Kathy Fritts for EuropeUpClose.com Kathy Fritts is a retired school librarian who has lived and worked in six different countries. Now she travels for fun and writes to educate and encourage readers to take a chance and enrich their lives by traveling.