Welcome to Travel Insider, an occasional feature in which we get the inside scoop on common and sometimes exotic destinations from those who have lived or traveled often there.
The place: Florence, Italy.
The expert: Rona Commins, 72, first went to Florence in 1977 to study opera. In 1988, while teaching in the California State University, Sacramento, music department, she started a summer art and music study program in Florence, returning annually for a month. This is the first summer in 24 years, she said, that she will be in Sacramento in July.
What are the cultural differences between Florence and the United States. How should travelers react?
Italy is slower paced. It is not handicap-accessible because you are in cities from the Renaissance. You feel transported back in time, with torch holders and horse- tethering rings on the sides of houses along narrow, cobble streets. Go with the flow, allow yourself to be a time traveler, and do not expect anything to be like the U.S.
Name one local delicacy that tourists absolutely must try.
Gelato at Vivoli's.
Do you have any tips on the least- expensive ways (airfare, train, ship, car) to get to Florence?
The least-expensive flight to Europe is to London. Intercontinental European flights have been cheap through Ryan Air, (London to Pisa). It is cheaper to fly into Pisa or Rome than into Florence; trains run continually from both airports to Florence. At the Florence airport, there is a public bus to the Florence train station, which is close to everything in the city. Students 26 and younger can get reduced fares on air and train in Europe.
How safe and efficient is the rapid transportation (bus, subway, taxi)?
Florence is a very safe city. The distance from one side to the other is (walkable), past palaces and piazzas at every turn. A bus system runs the perimeter of Florence and onto a few streets within for commuting workers; it's efficient, inexpensive and safe. There is no subway, but there are plenty of taxi stands at historical locations where taxis always are available (and you don't need to pay the extra cost to call one).
What are two places where can you experience the non-touristy Florence?
There are so many of these, I can hardly begin.
1. Piazza Santo Spirito, south of the Arno River, where I taught. After lectures, I took participants to historic locations, museums and palaces. There always is a charming morning market there, selling everything from vegetables to linens to used and new clothes literally everything!
2. Viewing the Medici treasure collection in the Argenti Museum of Palazzo Pitti, also the Medici science collection with wax models of the black plague and human bodies that were used for training doctors in La Specola.
If your in-laws were to have visited you in Florence, where would you have taken them and why?
My husband's mother was Italian, so the most interesting thing to her would have been food! I would take her to Acqua al Due for the assagio (taste). This may be ordered for every course: a plate of antipasti, a plate with various pastas, a plate of main dish tastes, a plate of dessert tastes.
How would you describe the locals' attitude toward tourists in their midst?
Friendly, interested and welcoming.
What is the one place not to miss when in Florence?
Standing in the piazza between the Duomo and Baptistry and gazing in awe! Then see all the other things that are right in front of you: the Bigallo (1351), where orphan children were cared for; Ghiberti's Golden Gates of Paradise (named by Michelangelo) on the baptistry; Giotto's bell tower, the column brought from Pisa. All of this in just one place!
What is the one overhyped place travelers should skip?
Don't skip anything in Florence if you have the time. One month every year for 24 years is still not enough to see all that this fabulous place has to offer. Maybe skip Boboli Garden? No, there are wonderful concerts there!
What is it that made you want to live in Florence?
There's beauty everywhere, and to be transported to another place and time in history when the city was full of some of the greatest artists, musicians, writers and scientists that the world has ever known. To see how today grew out of that explosion of knowledge that was the Renaissance.
Would you ever consider going back, to visit or live?