One of the most popular day trips from Florence is a visit to the beautiful countryside towns of Siena and San Gimignano. Located about an hour and a half south of Florence, it’s not only easy to reach Siena or San Gimignano but also incredibly rewarding–just check out the view!
Last week, our students from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette made the trip out to these two Tuscan towns for a day filled with beautiful scenery, historic tradition & a taste of the world’s best gelato.
The first part of our morning was spent wandering up and down the hilly streets of Siena as our lovely tour guide Cristina gave us a brief history of the famous contrade, or neighborhoods, of Siena and also a look into the life of Saint Catherine, the city’s patron saint. After quickly ducking into the Church of San Domenico to view the relics of Saint Catherine, it was off to explore the rest of the city’s treasures!
After visiting St. Catherine’s house, the Duomo, and the world famous music institute Accademia Chigiana, it was time to end the tour in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, home of the famous Palio di Siena horse race. While it was a bit too early in the year to catch a glimpse of the race preparations, we all enjoyed the sunshine in the square until it was time to head off to the next Tuscan town on our itinerary.
One short bus ride later and we were pulling up to the imposing gate of Porta San Giovanni, located at the base of San Gimignano. Upon arrival it was time for a quick lunch before everybody’s favorite part of the day–a visit to the world-famous Gelateria Dondoli (also known as Gelateria della Piazza) for a tasty afternoon snack!
Studying abroad in the summertime is a whole different ballgame–you’ve got a limited amount of time to make the most of your experience in Florence. Here are 6 things you need to know in order to have a great summer semester abroad:
6. Make the most of your time in Italy and visit some of the unique regions this country has to offer.
With all of the fun, exciting stuff your program has to offer, the chances are pretty high that you’ll spend little time sleeping and most of your time on-the-go. While your summer program may not allow enough time to jet-set off to other European countries for the weekend, there is plenty to see right here in Italy. Each region of Italy is completely unique and different from each other, from the citrus groves and beautiful beaches of Campagnia & the Amalfi Coast region, to the rolling hillsides and sunflower fields of Umbria. Even a day trip to neighboring Pisa or Lucca or visiting the white beaches of Castiglioncello can provide a much-needed respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
5. Don’t forget to explore your own backyard.
Florence is a pretty amazing city, but when you’re crunched for time and want to see all that Italy has to offer, you often forget to spend time getting to know your new host city. You’ll see the major landmarks on walking tours with your classmates, but it’s worth a closer look to take some time to explore the Oltrarno, bike ride through the Cascine park, visit Fiesole for an afternoon, and just generally enjoy living like the Florentines do.
4. Take advantage of all the cool special events that only happen during the summer months.
From food sagras (little village fairs) to music festivals, there’s a whole bunch of exciting events that only take place in the summer. Don’t miss Calcio Storico, the Florentine historic football (soccer) match, that comes towards the end of summer with the fireworks celebration of San Giovanni, the patron saint of Florence. For all you music lovers out there, everyone from Jack Johnson to The Lumineers to The Arctic Monkeys will be playing the annual Pistoia Blues Festival or Lucca Summer Festival, so be sure to buy your tickets early!
3. Try something new, whether it’s food or cultural or language related.
Tuscany, like all Italian regions, has its own unique traditions when it comes to language, culture & food. Ever been curious as to what Crostini Toscani (the infamous chicken liver paté served as an appetizer) tastes like? Brave enough to try a panino con Lampredotto (cow’s stomach), or shop at the local market and order all your fruits and vegetables in Italian? Trying something new is a great way to connect to the local culture, and will give you some great stories to tell your friends and family back home.
2. Get out to the Tuscan countryside at least once. It’s at its most beautiful during the summertime.
There’s a reason you chose to study abroad in Florence, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Tuscany in the summertime, with its powder-blue skies and rolling green hills dotted with yellow hay bales and tall skinny cyprus trees, is the stuff that dreams are made of. Whether you take a wine day tour or just head off for a hike up in the hills of Bellosguardo behind Florence, you’ll take some beautiful photographs of Tuscany during the summer months if you get out to the countryside.
1. Invest in getting to know your program mates, even if it is only for a short period of time.
Let’s face it–summer programs go by fast. And since you’re probably going to be spending all your class time and many of your scheduled visits with your roommates and program peers, it’s worth it to get to know people. Some of these people will become your best friends and share in many a great adventure with you, if you’re open to making new friends and meeting people during your time abroad. So branch out of your circle of already-established friendships, and talk to that shy girl in your Italian language class, or arrange to meet for an aperitivo with your whole program outside of class time so you can all get to know each other.
Fiona: “It feels like a lifetime ago that I lived in California, ignorant of the everyday bits of life that make Florence special. I love living in Florence. I love Italy. I’ve made friends and good acquaintances here, American and Italian.
I’ve been locked away indoors the past two weeks scrambling to work on final projects for all of my classes. I don’t think I’ll be able to see much of Florence these remaining few days; it’s the sacrifice I make to salvage my academics this semester — it’s been tough balancing this adventure with schoolwork when the outside world is fascinating.
I won’t make this blog post my final good bye to Italy.
I’ve just had so many thoughts go through my head these past many days. In some ways it’s a pity I’ll be leaving just as I feel I’ve gotten the hang of things here, but there are also things I’m excited for when I return home — seeing friends, my boyfriend, and dogs. Getting to mountain bike again, and take the liberty of sleeping in. I’m excited to have access to certain foods too, like good Mexican food and all the gluten-free things that await me at home.
However, I’m also aware of the things I’ll lose; I’ll lose the freedom of stepping out my front door and entering a city of adventure. I’ll miss being able to take a stroll around the city and stopping by my friends’ apartments to say hello or have some tea. I’ll miss seeing my Italian buddies around the city in restaurants and my neighborhood Tabacchi (a small store that sells stamps, loto tickets, cigarettes, candy, water and the like), from which I’d manically buy stamps and water bottles.
I’ll miss laughing at the creeper Italian men with my friends, and maybe even the gypsies (only a little).
What I’m counting on is that I’ll take with me the things that matter. I’ll keep the moments, stories and the things I’ve seen.
Elizabeth: “Studying abroad in Florence has been one of the best times of my life, and I know it will be for many many years to come. I’ve tried new foods and drinks, learned to live without a connection to the internet every minute of the day, and I feel like I’ve gained more knowledge about myself and how I work.
When I first arrived in Florence on the 26th of January, I was so scared and nervous that I wouldn’t fit in with everyone else on the trip, all I knew for sure was that I had Kaitlin with me. I’m so happy that we were able to go through this experience together, and I know that we both learned a lot about each other and shared experiences we will never forget. Kaitlin and Devin, our new roomies, were also friends before coming on this trip, and I think that is why we all got along so well. Although Kaitlin and I have different ideas of fun from Kaitlin and Devin, I feel like we still have so much fun when we’re together. I couldn’t have asked for better friends on this trip.
I also met 3 amazing new people, Lily, Megan, and Rachel, whom I absolutely adore. Kaitlin introduced them to me, and since then, the five of us have been hanging out whenever we can, whether that be having late night deep conversations or laughing along to silly movies. Along with my new friends, we found a new home for our studying, and new acquaintances with the people who work at MUG, our favorite cafe. Dealing with our love for flavored coffee and hamburgers, they have created a warm and kind place where we can go to study or have fun. I’ve met lots of fantastic people other than the couple I’ve mentioned on this trip too, people I would love to keep in contact with and reminisce with over a cappuccino and a croissant.
Leaving Florence will be difficult, I’ve grown to love the feeling of having a home away from home. The giant and impossible to maneuver around groups of tourists, the umbrella salesmen, and the men that stand outside restaurants shouting at you to come in, all things I hate hate and will not miss when I’m back in California, in no way outnumber the great times I had here. I’ll save my favorite moments for my next post.
Dealing with jet lag, homesickness, getting physically sick, and sadness during this trip all made me stronger as a person. I’m so glad to get back to my family, friends, job, and school back at home, but I know I will not be the same person they saw leave, and I’m so glad of that. I’ve changed for the better, and I’m proud! “
Brigitte: “On Sunday morning, I met another student and we walked up to San Miniato al Monte to hear the Gregorian chants, but ended up staying in the main nave and attending mass for Palm Sunday. It’s a good walk uphill and has a great scenic view from the top. The inside of the church is beautiful, the floor is very interesting to look at and the ceiling has detailed designs. It’s one of my favorite churches I’ve visited.
After church we bought pizza at Gusta Pizza and walked around the antique/flea market in Piazza Santo Spirito. There were some very interesting old items and handmade goods being sold. Later in the day we met again to go back to San Miniato al Monte to hear the Gregorian chants. We found the service in an area behind and below the main altar. The voices of the monks were beautiful, it was an awe-inspiring experience.
Before class on Wednesday two other students and I went to the Boboli Gardens. We sat on the grass and had a picnic with another scenic view of Florence. We talked about the trip and how it has changed us. The sun was out and it was a perfect time to get some fresh air.
My roommates and I had a special dinner out since the program is close to ending. All four of us went to a cute restaurant on the side of Il Duomo; they had delicious food. It was strange to think back to the very beginning of the program when we were just settling. We discussed the program ,and how it will and already has affected us. It made us a little sad to think how it’s coming to a close.
My mom has arrived in Florence! I am planning on showing her around to the tourist sites and hidden gems of the city, in between class and homework. I’m glad she gets to experience the city that has been my home for the past 11 weeks. After the program is over we will travel and have more adventures together for another 4 weeks!
I’m sad to have this program end, I’ve had so much fun and learned a lot through it all; but I still have one more week to enjoy it!”
As our student ambassadors to reflect on all they’ve seen and done here in their 3 months studying abroad in Italy, we asked them to submit some photographs documenting Florence and of course, a photo of themselves! It was difficult choosing the best photo among all of the great submissions, but after a heated debate, here are the winners:
Kaitlin J. with her self-portrait in front of the Duomo:
Caption: “Che piccolo!” (How tiny!)
And Fiona O-Young’s picture of a famous Florentine sculpture, around the corner from AIFS school:
This statue is so emotionally gripping and drastic. The twisting figures and the image of a girl being grabbed and about to be taken away (even though in this case it’s not a positive departure; the piece is called The Rape of Polyxena ).
Putting aside the statues mythological content, I can interpret this statue as a call to adventure, which is the beckoning of an adventure to a “hero.”
Joseph Campbell writes:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”
I’m a 19-year-old student living away from home for the first time. I’ve ventured from my common day into what feels like a supernatural wonder. I feel like I’ve been stolen into an adventure, and can sometimes feel a secret burst of exhilaration that I’m living in Florence; I’m living an adventure.
Both of these photos perfectly captured the juxtaposition of life in Florence, with the normally massive size of the Duomo shrunken into a tiny toy-sized object and a beautiful image of some of the artwork that makes Florence into an outdoor museum. Great job, ladies!
Written by: Brigitte F.
Well, the end of the semester is inching closer and closer… And I realize there are still a number of things I have to do here in Florence! Don’t get me wrong, I have seen and visited many places and learned a lot about my Italian hometown. But there are a few typical tourist actions I’d like to complete before leaving. This past week I had to the chance to check a few off!
I walked to the Flea Market in Cascine Park with a few other study abroad students. We found some great buys for cheap prices. We dug through mountains of miscellaneous clothing to discover hidden gems. My favorite booths were the ones with the tables piled with random articles of clothing all for 1 euro each.
I climbed the cupola of Il Duomo!
AIFS offered a ticket for only 5 euro that could be used to: climb the dome of Il Duomo, get into the excavations below the Cathedral, receive entrance into the Baptistery, climb the Campanile and entrance into the museum right behind Il Duomo- Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. It was a great deal! The morning I planned on utilizing the ticket I accidentally slept a little later than I meant to and had to wait in line for a couple hours… but the wait was completely worth it! Two other students and I climbed up the winding, stone staircase all the way to the top of Il Duomo. Man, what an amazing panoramic view of the city. I’m glad I climbed it towards the end of the program because I was able to recognize different buildings and connect memories from throughout my trip with them. It’s amazing how everything looks so much closer together from up there.
We also went into the Baptistery and gazed at the beautiful Byzantine style mosaics and marveled at the fact that the building is about 1,000 years old! It was on one of our slide quizzes for art history so it will be forever stuck in our brains. It was funny to memorize information about these buildings, sculptures and paintings because we pass by them often and can actually see them in person. I love having so much art within walking distance.
After the Baptistery we went into the Cathedral and below the floor into the excavations, Santa Reparata. We walked through ruins of the basilica that Il Duomo is built on top off. It’s an
interesting experience to see history on top off history. In America we’re used to one building being demolished to make room for another, but in Europe they just built on top of old buildings if they wanted to use the space.
And then, time for more stairs! We hiked up the steps of the
Campanile and got another awesome view of Florence and the Cathedral. We got a great leg work-out and beautiful outlook from a historical site!
Afterwards I went into the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, the museum connected with Il Duomo. Unfortunately it’s undergoing construction so only a few things are on display currently. It was still a good visit because I got to see another Michelangelo sculpture- I have to see them while I can! And I finally saw the magnificent Gates of Paradise. I learned about these in my high school art history class and again this semester- it’s so rewarding to be able to view the artwork you study. I feel so much more connected to the art history I have learned about.
I also did an optional extra walking tour of Florence focused around its “curiosities”. We learned about interesting legends, funny stories, ghosts and other Florentine information not as commonly known to tourists and students alike.
Speaking of tourists, it seems that the streets of Florence have grown busy overnight. The weather is getting warmer and visitors are arriving in the city from all over. It’s getting pretty busy here, a huge contrast from when we first arrived in January!
So I’ve got those experiences under my belt… But I still have to go into some more churches and museums before I leave. I could spend a year here and still not experience or see everything; I’m very glad for everything I have been able to do in and out of Florence so far though. I have grown so comfortable and fond of this city. Only two weeks left here!