The summer I spent studying abroad in Florence was one of the most amazing and transformative experiences of my life. Florence is a magical place – easily walk-able, and actually much more charming after a few hours of wandering lost through its winding, confusing streets. Florence is home to some of the most beautiful works of art and architecture in the world. Nestled in the hills of Tuscany, the scenery is too beautiful to believe. The people are welcoming and kind, and if you’re brave enough to try speaking Italian, no matter how broken, the Florentines will try their best to help. Waiters will advise you what to order according to season and location. And with the quality of produce coming in from the surrounding farmland, you’re guaranteed to have one of the best meals of your life. Somehow you’ll eat carbs like its your job and never go a day without gelato, but will manage to miraculously lose weight. The Italians just know how to make every aspect of life both pleasurable and feasible. Salesmen in the leather market will yell compliments and semi-inappropriate cat-calls as you walk down the street. The old Italian mamas will glower at anyone showing more than a sliver of skin… and god forbid you wear a bright sundress! The gawking tourists frequently run into altercations with passing Vespas and Alfa Romeos. These characters are what make Florence unique, and the bustle of this small, tourist friendly city is what keeps people coming back over and over again.
In anticipation of my return to one of my favorite cities in the world, I’ve put together a travel guide. While I was lucky to experience the city over the course of several months, I know that most people only pass through for a few days. Florence is a destination best experienced by striking a balance between site seeing and relaxing. You don’t truly get a feel for Florence until it surprises you, and the city is FULL of surprises. This list will give you a good idea of the best tourist destinations, as well as some off the beaten track options.
There are A LOT of tourist traps, especially right around the Duomo. However, you can find some real gems without straying too far from the major sites.
Breakfast: Skip a big breakfast, just grab a coffee. If anything you should pick up some fruit at a local street market or pop into one of a million street-side cafes for a shot of espresso and a pastry. Trust me, you’ll want to save room for lunch and dinner, and the Italians just don’t do breakfast that well. Avoid eggs at all costs.
Lunch: With a full roster of site-seeing, don’t get caught in a sit-down restaurant for lunch. Florence does an incredible panino (the singular of panini) and it’s a great way to sample fresh, seasonal Tuscan produce without the time and cost commitment of a restaurant.
1) ALL’ANTICO VINAIO is an experience that you just can’t miss. Chances are, at some point you’ll be wandering through the Piazza della Signoria. Do yourself a favor and take this opportunity to try the best panini in Florence. All you have to do is follow the small street between the Uffizi and the Palazzo della Signoria, and you’ll run straight into it. There will almost certainly be a line going down the street, but stick it out.. IT’S WORTH IT. The line goes super fast, and you can even pour yourself a glass of wine while you wait. Once inside the tiny little space, try taking a risk and ask one of the charming gentlemen to make you what they think is best. These guys are passionate about their panini and will make you a sandwich that will BLOW YOUR MIND.
2) Da’Vinattieri, is a funky little spot close to the Duomo, yet out of the tourist chaos. Find this little cafe down a quiet alleyway, right next to the chapel where Dante first saw his muse, Beatrice. Try the Coccoli (bread dough balls/fritters) while you are there.
3) Fratellini, is right next to the Church of Orsanmichele. This tiny little spot is yummy and convenient. While I wouldn’t choose this over All’antico Vinaio, if you’re right in the area it’s a great option.
4) Il Masaccio, this place is in a fairly residential area, so don’t go out of your way to stop here. If you’re in the area though, its worth a stop purely for the atmosphere. The sandwiches are super yummy, authentic and diverse. In addition, this is a great place for a mid-day shot of espresso (never anything with milk past morning). The people here are SO nice, if you want the support of some true Italian Mamas as you struggle to speak some Italian, this is your place.
5) Kabobs! Italy’s proximity to Turkey makes for some excellent cross-cultural exchange. Throughout the city, you’ll find kabob shops and stands. While not the stereotypical Florentine cuisine, Kabobs make for a delicious, casual, cheap and filling lunch.
6) Picnic: A great option when less pressed for time, is to stop by a local market or salumeria, and put together a picnic of salami, cheese, bread, artichokes and olives. Add an ice cold Peroni or bottle of cheap wine, and you’re all set. Finally, head to one of Florence’s many parks or piazzas and relax… Nothing goes better with a good salami than a good view.
Dinner: Neighborhood wise, the Oltrarno is the way to go. This area on the south side of the Arno river has some incredible, authentic restaurants that wont come with as much sticker shock. Hang out here for dinner after you visit the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. For dinner I recommend two options: 1) Go with the most old-school, hole in the wall trattoria that you can find 2) Try out the Osteria scene. Osterias are casual restaurants, geared towards sampling wine, and lighter meals that pair well. They offer a great opportunity to try a variety inventive appetizers and meals. Trattorias are where you’ll find the most authentic and traditional experience, with filling classics.
If you’re over by the Duomo near dinner time, you MUST find Trattoria ZaZa. This incredible space is tourist friendly, yet still totally authentic. The huge space is a lot of fun, the food is delicious, and the area is super easy to find.
Alternately, try All Antico Vinaio’s New Osteria experience. It’s small and crowded, but again, these guys work with incredible efficiency and I’m just a devoted loyal freak for life.
While I’m no expert on the dinner scene, here is a great list of dinner restaurants to try throughout the city: 2o top choices. For good options in the Oltrarno area, Pizza pick: Gusta Pizza / Restaurants: Top 10 Restaurants
Wine: Switch off between the cheap house wine and some nice Chianti Classico Riserva, the pride and joy of tuscany.
Gelato: Please do me a favor and at least try to have gelato with every meal. This way you can afford to try some of the crazier flavors. Go for the basil, lavender, champagne, etc. Your risk will be rewarded. Avoid places in high density tourist areas that have huge swirling heaps of gelato… those big heaps have been sitting there for days. Stick to the less ostentatious shops with smaller portions and more natural looking flavors.
1) Gelateria Cillo – Right down the street from All’antico Vinaio, this is a natural second stop. With fresh flavors, tons of options, and a nice little shop that you might be able to find a seat in.
2) Gelateria La Carraia– This is acknowledged as the best in the city. Across the Arno over on the “foody”er side. While there are some inventive flavor options here, their classic flavors can’t be beat.
Need more? Here’s a solid list of options spread throughout the city: Top 10 Gelato
You could spend months exploring all of the art in Florence… in fact, I have, and I still don’t think I covered it all. Your first step in planning a trip to Florence is to decide how heavy of a museum roster you want to commit to. Length of trip will be the biggest factor, but luckily there are a variety of options for every traveller.
Galleria dell’Accademia: If you have more than just a few hours in Florence you MUST pay a visit to this incredible museum. Full disclosure, there is a crazy long line. However, this is where you’ll see The David and (in my opinion) the equally, if not more cool, Prisoners/Slaves by Michelangelo. If there’s one museum to brave a line for, this is it. As a student, I had special line skipping privileges, so I don’t have too much experience with museum passes in Florence. In this case though, I would say that any sort of express pass you can manage is well worth it.
The Uffizi: See Birth of Venus and La Primavera by Boticelli, Venus of Urbino by Titian, as well as works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Carvaggio, and Fra Filippo Lippi, and Della Francesca. If you don’t know who some of those artists are, just believe me… they’re the good ones. Expect this to take anywhere from a few hours to half a day, between the line and the enormity of works inside the building. If you’re not a hardcore art/museum lover, stick to the churches or smaller museums for less stress/less time commitment.
Palazzo Pitti/Boboli Gardens: The building itself is beautiful, with an interesting history of ownership. The rooms are sumptuous and filled with furniture that will make any design geek’s eyeballs melt. While the art is nice, the highlight for me was the costume gallery. If you’re into fashion, the history of Italian fashion exhibit is well worth a stop.
Make sure you leave enough time and energy to explore the gardens. The Boboli Gardens are the real highlight of this stop, and one of the gems of Florence. Along with the beautiful gardens come great views of the entire city.
The Bargello Museum: If you’re enjoying a long stay in Florence, this is a great stop. See Donatello’s version of the David, the precursor to Michelangelo’s famous stud. Get your fill of sculpture, including Michelangelo’s Bacchus (which was so expertly carved, that he tried to pass it off as a Roman antique), as well as works by Bernini, Verocchio (teacher to DaVinci), della Robbia, and Cellini.
Palazzo Medici Riccardo: The Magi Chapel by Benozzo Gozzoli is the hidden gem that makes this building worth a visit. Its walls are almost entirely covered by a famous cycle of frescoes, painted in 1459-1461 for the Medici family, the effective rulers of Florence. Religious allegories are combined with depictions of the Medici family and their allies, giving the viewer a unique insight into Florentine history. Located right near the Duomo and the Accademia, its an easy stop and a breath of fresh air from the crowds.
The Gucci Museum: This was one of the coolest museums I’ve ever experienced… and that’s saying something as an art historian. Right off the Piazza della Signoria, this is an easy stop for an inspiring look into the craftsmanship and evolution of this quintessential Italian brand. See everything from the first Gucci luggage ever made, to Blake Lively’s dress for the Oscars. Bonus: An awesome little gallery space with a great rotation of artists (I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Cindy Sherman’s work).
If you were to visit Florence for just one day, skip the museums and simply travel from one major church to the next.
Florence’s churches are filled to the brim with the most incredible artwork to grace this earth, without the crowds. Each church represents a different sect of Catholicism, and thus has a completely different feel. Go from church to church making sure to walk into the private chapels, each sponsored by one of Florence’s major families during the Renaissance. These families patronized some of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance and beyond — you can see the progression from Renaissance to Baroque art right before your eyes.
Santa Maria del Fiore/Baptistery (The Duomo)- This is the main stop on your Florence tour. Essentially at the center of the city, life begins and ends with the Duomo. Hike up to the top of the Campanile (Tower) for a view of the entire city and a chance to see the inner workings of the most famous, and largest masonry dome in the world, designed by master architect, Brunelleschi. Drop into the Baptistery to see the dramatic ceiling mosaic that inspired Dante’s Inferno. The punishments of the damned depicts evil doers burnt by fire, roasted on spits, crushed with stones, bit by snakes, chewed by beasts. Be sure to read up on the 3 sets of golden Baptistery doors, including the set known as the “Gates of Paradise” for one of the most interesting stories in Renaissance history.
Basilica di San Lorenzo- Considered the “official” church of the Medici family, this is technically one of the oldest churches in Florence. Through Medici patronage, the church was redesigned and used as a showroom for architects and artists such as Brunelleschi and Michelangelo. The Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo is one of the highlights of this incredible church. The Medici family Mausoleums, packed with artwork by the greatest Renaissance artists, pay tribute to a family that long rivaled royalty and eventually became royalty.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella- This beautiful church and monastery is situated just around the corner from Florence’s main train station. It was founded by the Dominicans, know for being the highest educated branch of the clergy. Notable works of art include the Crucifix by Giotto, one of the Renaissance’s earliest masters, and Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, a defining moment in the development of realism and perspective. Within the family chapels one can see the clearest progression of Renaissance art in the city. From each exquisitely painted allegory to the next, you can see the entire history of Renaissance play out before your eyes. A perfect example is the Strozzi Chapel, with frescoes by Ghirlandaio and his then apprentice, Michelangelo.
Basilica di Santa Croce- This slightly more understated, yet vibrant church is home to the Franciscans. They believed that Christianity should be made accessible to all people, whether rich or poor, illiterate or educated. Despite the patronage of many wealthy banking families, this church manages to convey this message of piety and universality through its design and artwork. Notably, Santa Croce is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli, thus it is known also as the Temple of the Italian Glories.
Church and Convent of San Marco- This convent turned museum has two main claims to fame: during the 15th century it was home to two famous Dominicans, Painter Fra Angelico and preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Step into the cloister, for a chance to see the incredible cycle of frescoes by Fra Angelico. Each cell is decorated with a fresco matching in size and shape the single round-headed window beside it, intended to inspire the monks towards a life of piety and contemplation. These frescoes have a pale, serene, unearthly beauty that is well worth a visit. Cosimo de Medici’s influence was so great, that he actually purchased a cell for himself in the cloister, as a place of retreat and safety. San Marco also served as the seat of Girolamo Savonarola’s discourses during his short spiritual rule of Florence, that turned the banking city upside down, in the late 15th century.
As I said before, the real magic of Florence comes in the surprises you find while exploring its many hidden alleyways and old-world shops. Give yourself time to discover the places that mean something to you and only you. Here are some suggestions, based off of the moments that mattered most to me:
1) Visit the Perfumery at Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe, established by Dominican friars in 1612. The building is beautiful and filled with incredible smelling soaps, perfumes, and candles. Be sure to try a spritz of Queen Catherine de Medici’s perfume while you’re there: One of the first mass produced perfumes created. This is a great place for very special souvenirs. (Tip: If you buy perfume, get it shipped to your address, instead of risking a suitcase explosion).
2) Take a hike up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The view of the city is incredible and the walk is nice after all of the pasta and gelato you’ll be eating. An excellent spot for a picnic. Just don’t expect any works by Michelangelo up there.
3) Spend a night at the Opera and get a real, visceral feel for Italian culture. Although there are plenty of options to chose from, I recommend St. Marks English Church in the Oltrarno neighborhood (The church that David Bowie and Iman got married in). It offers a beautiful, intimate setting, catered towards English speakers. During intermission, they hold a small gathering with refreshments in the lobby, where you can actually meet some of your fellow attendees. Seeing the Barber of Seville here was one of the best experiences of my life.
4) Walk up and down the Ponte Vecchio, taking in all of the store fronts and glimmering trinkets. Preferably with gelato in hand. Note: Be VERY careful of pick pockets here.
5) Shop in the leather markets. The smaller version lies near the Piazza della Signoria – Check out the Fontana della Porcellino (A brass pig statue), which visitors rub to ensure their return to Florence. The larger leather market surrounds the Church of San Lorenzo. Bring cash, hide your rings, and start each interaction by proclaiming that you just don’t have ANY money. They expect, and want you to barter hard here and you can get some great deals on excellent quality leather.
6) Take advantage of jet lag and go for a midnight stroll through the city. Florence is both safe and hauntingly beautiful by night. There’s nothing quite like a stroll around the Duomo, without the thousands of shoving tourists to crowd your view. Imagine yourself walking on the same stones as some of the greatest minds in history.
7) Stop and speak to as many people as possible. Florentines are some of the most generous and friendly hosts to tourists. Don’t be intimidated if you know little Italian. Chances are, they probably know a good amount of English. If you try at all, more often than not they’ll help you along and adore you for trying. When words fail, hands and expressions become their own language.