I get this question a lot from friends, family, and clients and I always tell them that they should come to Florence in the off-season i.e., January and February. Although most will tell you to visit in May or September for the favorable weather, I sincerely believe that the months following Christmas are the most enjoyable time to be here. Rather than retreat into hibernation, as many cities seem to do in these cool, rainy months, Florence comes to life. You have the opportunity to experience the rhythms of the city in the way that the Florentines experience them, punctuated by a quick caffè or cioccolato caldo at one of the local bars. So here are my top four reasons that you should think about visiting Florence this winter.
- Mild Winters: In January and February you can generally expect temperatures in the 50s (fahrenheit) with a rainy day or two. Every once in a while we might get the odd dusting of snow or a cold snap dipping us down into the mid-30s.
However, compared to the Nebraska winters of my childhood, Florence is like a tropical paradise. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but winters here are quite pleasant. Now, I wouldn’t forgo bringing a good winter coat/scarf/gloves as it can still get nippy in the late afternoon and evening, but the temps are perfect for touring around the city. Plus, wouldn’t you rather be galavanting around the city in a fabulous winter coat in January rather than melting in the 95 degree heat in July?
- Very Few Tourists: A typical day in high season would remind you very much of a trip to a theme park. There are thousands of people flooding the streets and piazze of the historic center and every museum/site you want to visit has a line about a mile long. Now of course you can get reservations to the museums, but once inside you are greeted by the whole of humanity as you try to make your way to see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Michelangelo’s David. You are fighting through a sea of selfie sticks, iPads, and camera flashes just to catch a glimpse of Leonardo’s Annunciation. After your museum visit, you wait in the world’s longest line to use the restroom or grab a gelato and you wonder why you didn’t just stay home and marathon the last five seasons of The Walking Dead. Now imagine Florence in January. The historic center has a pleasant amount of foot traffic–a good mix of locals, students, and a few small tour groups. There are almost no lines at the museums–okay, sometimes the Uffizi still has a line, but we’re talking a 10-minute wait rather than a 3-hour wait. You not only have entire works of art to yourself, but entire ROOMS of art to yourself, sometimes entire CHURCHES to yourself. You’ll be (momentarily) living like a Medici. The city is yours.
- Happy Florentines: Although Florentines have a reputation for being among the most standoffish (and even grumpy) of the Italians, they really are quite lovely in the wintertime. I think that the millions of people that come to the city in the high season (April-October) just takes their toll on the locals. Consequently, you’re likely to find them rushing you through your gelato order or barking at you not to use your flash when taking a photo in the museums. However, after they’ve had a bit of a “breather,” you’ll find friendlier shop owners, cheerier waiters, and more accommodating museum employees.
- The Food: There are certain dishes and sweet treats that are generally only served in the wintertime in Florence. Remember, Italian food relies on seasonally-available ingredients and tends to serve things that are appropriate for that time of year (more stodgy comfort foods in the winter and lighter dishes in the summer). In the winter you can enjoy many dishes that utilize cavolo nero, kale’s much more delicious Tuscan cousin. Try ribollita (a bread and bean soup) or cavolo nero con le fette (another cavolo nero dish made with toasted Tuscan bread). You can also find wonderful meat dishes such as lesso rifatto (a spiced beef dish) or baccalà (codfish served during Christmas and Lent). For something sweeter, you can have schiacciata alla fiorentina (a yellow cake often made with a cream filling, served during Carnevale) or castagnaccio (a chestnut cake that is a bit more savory). My favorite treat is cioccolato caldo con panna (hot chocolate with whipped cream), which is generally only served in the winter months. The best hot chocolate comes from Rivoire, an amazing bar located in Piazza della Signoria.
Now if you are only able to come to Italy in the summer months, you’ll still have an amazing time. Florence is a beautiful city no matter how many people happen to be here (or how high the temperatures climb). However, there is a sweeter, friendlier, and much more relaxed quality to the city in the off-season. Plus you can wash it all down with a cioccolato caldo con panna, need I say more?