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Florence, Italy

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is the cultural mecca of art, architecture, history, science, food, shopping and more.

Despite an abundance of English-speaking college coeds and large groups of camera-toting Japanese tourists, it’s still possible to find the authentic people, places and experiences that make up quintessential Florence.

For us, it all started with Marcella, owner of Casa Rabatti who quickly became our newly adopted Italian grandmother. In Italy, many retirees turn their apartments into guesthouses. This helps supplement income, while also likely providing some much needed company. From day one, Marcella lovingly referred to us as her bambinos (babies). Speaking half English, half Italian, she showed us her framed wall of Christmas cards over the years. Front and center was travel guide Rick Steves with his family. After hundreds of trips to Italy, he still comes to stay there (in fact, she put us in his favorite room.) In the afternoon, Marcella regularly prepared espresso and biscuits for us, asking about our daily explorations. She delighted in hearing our impressions of her hometown.

Florence has so many obligatory sights to see, it can be overwhelming: The Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore (Florence Cathedral), the Renaissance masterpieces in the Galleria deli Uffizi, The David in Galleria dell’Accademia, the famous jewelry-laden bridge, Ponte Vecchio …and the list goes on. And yes, they’re all worthy of seeing.

Once our tourist checklist was complete, we were free to wander and discover the less trodden path of Florence. Which of course, involved good food.

From simple snacks and slices of pizza, to hearty homemade meals and classic gelato, everything we ate seemed to encapsulate the essence of Italy. In Mercato Central, we stocked up on fresh pesto and buttery focaccia for pre-dinner appetizers. At local shop, Divino Di Sara Vestri, we enjoyed the value of a fill-your-own-wine jug (more than a few times). Family restaurants like Osteria del Porcellino and Trattoria Za-Za offered us delicious, traditional dishes. We feasted on Caprese salad, homemade gnocchi, mushroom fettuccini, chicken cacciatore and perfectly cooked risotto.

A splurge at Trattoria Omero for lunch introduced us to Ribollita. We enjoyed this delectable Tuscan bread soup overlooking a panoramic view of the Florence countryside. Sipping on regional wine, we looked out at the landscape dotted with olive trees, vineyards and stately homes. Being the month of February, we had the restaurant practically to ourselves. And our servers couldn’t have been more hospitable and attentive.

Afterwards, we wandered the back streets of quaint neighborhoods. We felt a world away from bustling Florence, just a leisurely 45-minute walk away. Making our way back into town, we stopped at The Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, a beautiful Tuscan Romanesque basilica. After climbing the stairs, we were rewarded with an incredible view of the duomo dominating the Florence skyline.

Amid the silence of rolling hills and a low Tuscan sun, the crowds and coeds were too far away to see. It was simply breathtaking.

Continuing our stroll, we made our way through Piazzale Michelangelo, a 19th century piazza and popular gathering spot. We eventually passed the House of Galileo Galilei where, according to a plaque outside, the famed astronomer and physicist was born in 1564. We grabbed a quick gelato and as the sun began to set, crossed the iconic Ponte Vecchio and marveled at how the botteghe (shops) teetered precariously over the Arno river.

The evening before we left, Marcella told us goodbye since she’d be at church in the morning. Waking up on that Sunday, we took one last look around her humble dwelling. Astonished, we noticed she had left all her jewelry on the front hall table. Most Americans would probably think that’s terribly negligent. But to a trusting soul like Marcella, she thought nothing of it. After all, we were family – her bambinos. That simple gesture right there seemed to sum up authentic Florence at its best.

Lodging: Casa Rabatti  |  Food: Osteria del PorcellinoTrattoria Za-Za, I’ Cche’ c’e’ c’e’, Trattoria Omero | Activities: The Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore,Galleria deli Uffizi, Galleria dell’Accademia, Ponte Vecchio, Divino Di Sara Vestri 

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