By Natalie Pompilio, contributing writer
I know Florence, or Firenze, pretty well. Besides having studied there for a year in college, I’ve returned about 5 times, twice as an informal tour guide for family friends. I can give a decent tour, filled with stories about San Miniato, the Medici and Michelangelo.
So I approached Context Travel‘s walking tours in Florence with a bit of wariness: Could they keep me interested for two and a half hours?
I’m happy to say they did.
My husband and I took two tours with the company: “Florence Evening Introduction,” which was led by Siro, an Italian who spoke nearly perfect English, and “Daily Life of Renaissance Florentines,” led by Molly, a native English speaker. What makes Context different from other tour operators is that most of your guides are subject matter experts, often with advanced degrees in their field. For example, Molly holds a Master’s degree in Italian Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also completed Ph.D. coursework in Renaissance and Early Modern period.
Context Travel’s tours are not the cheapest. But they are small. We had six people on one day, four on the other – and that makes a big difference. You’ll see tour groups so large that the guides speak into microphones and their words are transmitted to the headsets of the accompanying tourists. With Context, you won’t be following around someone with an umbrella, which makes for a more natural experience.
Here are my impressions of each:
“Florence Evening Introduction,” which met across from the Hospital of the Innocents, is a good tour for people who know very little about Florence’s landmarks, most notably the Duomo and its accompanying buildings. Ciro gave us a good background of Brunelleschi’s dome, once the largest of its kind in the world.
Other areas on the tour included: Piazza Signoria with its palazzo and beautiful statues; Ponte Vecchio, the only city bridge left standing over the Arno when the German Army retreated from Florence during WW II; and the “New Market,” where a statue of a boar, il porcellino, stands. Legend has it that if you rub its nose, you’ll return to Florence. As you’d imagine, the nose is a shiny gold compared to the rest of the statue.
“Daily Life of Renaissance Florentines” was a fascinating look at one of the most vibrant time in the city’s history. Molly started us at the Church of Orsanmichele, and her enthusiasm for her topic was contagious. As she led us through narrow streets, she expanded on her subject matter, touching on Dante and Beatrice, the charitable organization known as the Buonuomini, and the art of Giotto.
Of course, the Medici family, which dominated the city for hundreds of years, is discussed in detail. (I’m a collector of random facts, so I loved that Molly went into detail about the Medici family crest, which is still visible throughout the city and countryside. It bears six circles, which could be coins – the Medici were bankers – or pills – the family name means “doctors.”)
The tour included a stop at Palazzo Davanzati, one of the remaining Renaissance-era structures that shows the evolution from the medieval tower house. It ends at the church of Santa Maria Novella, which has a perfume factory attached to its rear courtyard.
Some tips: These are walking tours, so be prepared to walk. I don’t think everyone in our group came with that intention and there was some grumbling about uncomfortable shoes.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the subject matter. You have an expert at your disposal and chances are they’ll have answers for you.
These are in-depth tours of specific subject matters and cost more than most walking tours (the Renaissance tour is 70 Euro and the Evening Introduction is 40 Euro, so be sure you’re interested in a topic before signing up.
Ask your guide for restaurant and other recommendations. They know the city. Molly kindly pointed out places for sandwiches and pizza, circling them on our maps.
Don’t forget to bring your map. The tours start and end at different places.
Natalie | Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her goal is to visit all 7 continents before she turns 65. Watch out, Australia and Antarctica.