Florence will always have a special place in my heart. This magical Italian city was my home for four months in college and everything from my amazing host mother to the centuries of intriguing history to the unparalleled renaissance art hiding around every corner makes me dream of going back. These are a few of the places that really stood out to me, and if you are in Florence for a day or a week, I hope this guide helps you make the most of this amazing city.
Places to Start:
- Florence for Free
This great blog has an abundance of great self-guided info that is, helpfully, free. This itinerary (click here) is a great walking tour for an entire day that covers main sights and gets all the famous views without going inside anywhere (aka not taking the time to actually visit museums). They also have a bunch of other self-guided tours for indoor and outdoor friendly weather, so peruse and pick one or a few for your exploration & interests.
Also check out their Yearly Calendar and the Upcoming Events sections when it is closer to your trip to see what things will be happening when you’re there. Some festivals you may want to join in for, and some you may want to avoid!
- Florence in August
When I studied abroad, Suzanne was my amazing art history TA. She is now a full-time Florentine citizen, and a licensed tour guide. As someone who spent a semester getting shown around Florence and all of the amazing art, along with a few other things by her, I highly recommend her combination of vast Florentine knowledge and humor.
Check out all of the different tour options listed on her site, I have a feeling something will peak your interest. If you’re not sure which to choose and know you have two full days, maybe follow the free walking tour when you get there and then meet her the next day for some more in-depth museum and history insights. I’m sure she will have some great recommendations for local activities as well. If you are still on the fence but are definitely interested in a guided tour of something, you could always email her and see what she recommends. Either way I highly suggest her, and other friends who I have sent her way always come back with glowing reviews!
Get in the mood for your trip with a couple of famous movies & tv-shows set in Florence. Most movies located in Italy tend to focus on Rome, but here are a few favorites that give you a glimpse of this fine city:
florence must-sees & Dos:
- The Duomo & The Campanile (bellower)
While I highly recommend a visit inside the Duomo (going inside is free, just don't disrupt mass times), climbing the famous dome is usually on a lot of traveler bucket lists. Erase it. Instead, climb up the bellower. While the view is amazing from both viewpoints, you can actually get pictures with the Dome itself in it from the bellower. The tickets cost the same, the hike is a smidge less cramped, with more regular landings, and the lines are shorter. Overall it's a win-win-win.
If you have time, and want a bit more of an in-depth look at Florentine history, I also recommend the Palazzo Vecchio. With an interesting museum about the home to Florentine power and politics through the ages, this is a worthwhile visit in itself. However, make sure to get the combo ticket so that you can also climb this tower. The view from up here doesn't disappoint, you get a full view of the Duomo, and a chance to catch the Arno in your photos. For photography buffs out there, this is definitely an overlooked view that is worth the climb!
The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge)
This bridge is the only one that survived Nazi invasions. As the story goes, Hitler visited Florence and upon seeing how beautiful the bridge was, ordered it to be saved while he destroyed the rest. This bridge has been the home of butchers, silk merchants, and now to goldsmiths. I wouldn’t recommend shopping here ($$$), but go to the middle lookout point early in the morning or late in the afternoon as shops are opening up or closing down. You can really feel the city waking up or going to sleep as the locals start their day/head home. These are the best times, because the crowds of tourists are nowhere to be found.
- Piazzale Michelangelo
If you have seen a panoramic view of Florence, my bet is it was taken from this famous square. The view at any time of day is beautiful, but catching the city at sunset is always my favorite. You can walk up the stairs directly from the river, or go slightly to the west and climb up through the Rose Garden first. I recommend this route!
The Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno)
This will be where you find Gusta Pizza, Palazzo Pitti / Boboli Gardens, and Piazzale Michelangelo. This is the the part of Florence that has fewer tourists and a more authentic feel. The pathway along this side of river is also very nice to enjoy for an evening stroll with a cone of gelato.
- Visit at least ONE museum
Florence is the home of Renaissance history, with famous paintings, statues, and other gems waiting around every corner. From the Uffizi, home to everyone from Botticelli to Michelangelo to the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo's David, you need to make time for something.
For most of the extremely famous museums in Florence, lines and tickets can be a real problem in the high tourist season (anytime from May to October). If you want to get the most out of your time, I highly recommend getting a guide for one or more of these museums. You'll skip lines and get much more history out of your visit. If a guide isn't really your thing, definitely book tickets ahead of time.
My personal favorite museum that everyone walks by as they go to the Uffizi or to see David is The Bargello. I’m a sucker for sculpture and this old town hall turned prison / police HQ turned national sculpture museum is the crown jewel of Florence if you like sculpture over paintings. Everyone from Michelangelo to Donatello is here, and they can boast a few famous Davids of their own.
If you are a lover of fashion, it would not have escaped your notice that Florence is home of both Gucci and Ferragamo. Both of these famous fashion houses have museums here, but I would recommend visiting the Gucci Museum. Located right on Piazza della Signoria, this museum offers an intimate look into the history of the fashion house and the evolution of the brand.
Go shopping, especially for leather goods
There are a lot of amazing permanent stores scattered throughout the city, but for the average traveler, finding something at one of the outdoor markets will be much more fun. The main two markets are the Mercato Nuovo (famous for their bronze Boar, rub his nose for good luck!) or the San Lorenzo Market (next to the Basilica di San Lorenzo). I like the smaller atmosphere of the Mercato Nuovo, but San Lorenzo may have a bit of a larger selection. From amazing jackets and bags to simple keychains or glasses cases these are great places to get a beautiful souvenir.
- San Lorenzo has the usual street market outside for leather goods and souvenirs, but go inside the large market building to find the biggest food market in the city. It has the most amazing selection of everything, so locals and tourists alike shop here. You can get a quick snack or just take in the variety of all of the things for sale around you. Definitely worth a quick peek if you’re walking by!
Enjoy being outside if you are there in warm weather
One of my favorite things to do is to get the gardens-only ticket from Palazzo Pitti on the south side of the river, get a pizza from Gusta, and have a picnic overlooking the city from the Boboli Gardens. There are so many beautiful tree-lined lanes, statues, water features, and even a grotto. If you want to escape the mass of tourists on a nice day, just spending an afternoon in the gardens here will not disappoint.
Be a true Italian, and go to a soccer game!
The soccer (football) stadium is a little bit of a walk outside of town, but since everything in Florence is close together it's not too bad. The local team is Fiorentina, and watching Italian soccer is like nothing else. There are a few booths around the city that sell tickets, check around Piazza della Repubblica for one. Grab a ticket and dive into an experience in violet... make sure to wear purple!!!
Pizza to die for: Gusta Pizza
Via Maggio, 46R, 50125 Firenze, Italy (On the other side of the Arno, near Piazza Santo Spirito)
Grab a pizza to go before having a picnic up in the Boboli Gardens in the middle of a most likely walking-packed day. The views of Florence are great from there and the gardens are fun to explore. The pizza line can be a bit long, but it moves fast and the wait is worth it.
Lunch like a local student: Pino’s (aka Salumeria Verdi)
Via Giuseppe Verdi, 36, 50122 Firenze, Italy (up the street at the end of Piazza Santa Croce, if you are in the piazza at the far end end from the church looking at the church, turn left)
Amazing sandwiches, with a case full of other goodies to tempt you. Grab something and go relax in the Piazza Santa Croce and people watch for a while.
Gelato, a must: Vivoli
Via dell’Isola delle Stinche, 7/r, Firenze, Italy (After finding Pino’s go back down the same road towards Santa Croce again and when you see a theater, take a right after it. Vivoli should be on the next corner)
Heaven in Gelato form, this was my Host Mom’s personal recommendation, it won’t lead you astray.
If you want to get a real Tuscan feast: Il Latini
This restaurant does seatings, so arrive a little beforehand for the 7pm. Everyone gets seated together at big tables, then the food parade begins. There is no menu, there are simply a number of different courses brought out. They will ask if you want each one, so you just pick and choose. I suggest trying one of everything. Table wine and bread are included, you will get everything from appetizers speaking to local tastes all the way through to entrees and an after dinner drink. Your final bill, while a little high for your average day, will also seem too low for all of the food you have consumed. I brought my dad here, my host mom always recommends it, and many other friends and acquaintances have also recommended/loved it. It’s the best place to get a true taste of Tuscany in a wonderful family setting and for a reasonable price. This is definitely worth a little splurge.
You can make reservations at their website or ask your hotel concierge to call for you, it might be a good idea if you’re traveling with a small group.
I lived with my amazing host mother during my college studies, but when my dad came to visit he stayed in town. That being said, I only have 2 hotel recommendations for Florence. I'm sure the multitude of travel websites out there can provide other insights, but these are mine
Hotel Tornabuoni Beacci - My dad and I stayed here for a few nights while he was in Florence, and the location couldn't be better. Right on Via Tornabuoni, the main high-end shopping street, we were steps from the Arno and Piazza della Repubblica. The rooftop terrace is beautiful, and we could even catch a glimpse of the Duomo dome at night through our window.
Four Seasons Florence - I have never stayed here, and have only heard about it through my host mom. The name alone tells you this is one of the more expensive of the Florence hotel options, but it has a unique benefit that those of you in the higher budget range may want to consider. From above, Florence has a multitude of gardens and green space. However, most of those are private courtyards owned by citizens, museums, or universities. As you may have guessed by now, the largest private garden in Florence is owned by the Four Seasons. In a city full of small lanes and at times oppressive amounts of tourists in the summer, having a private getaway can be extremely appealing.
If you don't want to stay here, you can still get a peek at the gardens by having tea or dinner in one of their restaurants. My host mom mentioned getting tea there occasionally when she wanted to have a glamorous afternoon.
I hope this snapshot of my favorite home-away-from-home inspires you to explore Florence on your next Italian trip. Please use the contact page or comment section for any questions, and to let me know how your Florentine adventures went! Enjoy!
(All photos taken in the Spring of 2013 with an old point-and-shoot camera, purchased pre-2010)