For your first visit you need no less than 2 full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace; however, the attractions – palaces, churches, galleries – are so many that you may want to budget more time.
Distances are walkable in the city center, only Galleria dell’Accademia and especially Piazzale Michelangiolo may require public transport assistance.
Love its Renaissance architecture and its grand piazzas.
Don’t miss: viewing the city’s skyline from Piazzale Michelangiolo – for my money, one of the best panoramic views in the world.
On the other hand: In years past, street vendors covered much of the space that I wanted to admire with their useless wares (the city seemed to get its act together on our last trip).
Worthy attractions: Santa Maria del Fiore and its companions Giotto Campanile and Battisterio; Ponte Vecchio; Galleria di Uffizi, with one of the best collections of paintings in the world; Galleria dell’Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David; Basilica di Santa-Croce, resting place of many famous Florentines; Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens; The Great Synagogue; Basilica di Santa Maria Novella.
Left for another visit: Palazzo Vecchio [did not tour inside]; Badia Fiorentina; Bargello; Palazzo Strozzi; San Lorenzo; Palazzo Medici-Riccardi; San Miniato al Monte.
Last visit: August 2013.
Florence is, without a doubt, a must-see city in one’s lifetime. It would be even more visually arresting if her grand public places were graced by grand fountains, according to my aesthetic preferences. On our visits in previous years, the city also suffered from the glut of street vendors selling useless trinkets and cheap prints, as well as leather knock-offs at basement-bottom prices, – their presence greatly distorted the ambience of the magnificent city. However, on our very latest trip to Florence, we found it almost entirely free of this annoying phenomenon.
Things to See
The Old City is very compact and walkable, the Renaissance palaces are astounding, and there are plenty of sights to awe any visitor.
The main town square, Piazza della Signoria ♥♥♥, is where many walking routes invariably lead to. It is of irregular shape and is, in fact, graced by a famous fountain, that of Neptune. The imposing Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, dominates the square and is reputedly well worth a visit.
There are many statues on the square, including a marvelous covered gallery, Loggia dei Lanzi ♥♥. Among statues that are housed there are works of Cellini and Giambologna, as well as antique Roman sculptures.
Looking to the Loggia from its place by the side of the Palazzo Vecchio is the copy of Michelangelo’s David. If you are not planning to visit the museum where the original has resided for the last 130 years, this is the best imitation available. The original, though, is so tremendous when viewed up close, that you might want to fit a visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia ♥ into your schedule, even though it is a bit away from the city center and may greet you with long wait lines at busy times. There are other artworks at this comparatively small museum, but most of the people – yours truly not an exception – have only one exhibit in mind when they visit.
We explored Uffizi ♥♥♥ in a much greater detail on our very first visit to Florence. Uffizi is truly one of the grandest collections of paintings in the entire world, boasting works by practically every significant artist from 13th through 17th centuries. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is one of undeniable highlights, but any appreciative person will find dozens of masterpieces to be drawn to.
Ponte Vecchio ♥♥♥ is an amazing sight, but it is always very crowded. I personally find that being on it is not as sensory stimulating as looking at it from Lungarno degli Acciaioli or Lungarno Torrigiani (you also get the best view of the Uffizi façade from the latter), unless you happen to walk onto it without realizing that you are crossing the river, which makes for a startling realization when you reach its open middle part.
The Cathedral complex is phenomenal. The Duomo ♥♥♥, Santa Maria del Fiore, reputedly the third largest in the entire Christendom, is one of the most exquisite, capped by its famous Brunelleschi dome. It is awesome to behold from any vantage point. The Duomo’s façade, executed centuries after the original one was destroyed, is simply splendid. The interior of the cathedral deserves fewer superlatives than the exterior, but lingering directly underneath the dome is definitely worth coming in.
Next to the Duomo stands no less exquisite Giotto Campanile ♥♥♥, clad in the same three colours of marble gracing the cathedral. Just as the Duomo, it provides a capital viewpoint from its top, with vistas over the city and beyond. Both lookout galleries are reached by about 400 steps, but from the dome of the cathedral you are looking onto the bell tower, whereas from the tower, you get the singularly best perspective of the dome. If you have strength for only one, I definitely recommend the latter.
The ensemble is completed by Baptistery ♥, believed to be the oldest building in Florence, with its three sets of bronze doors, depicting various biblical scenes. The most popular east doors, colloquially known as Gates of Paradise, are gilded replicas installed only twenty years ago, so that original set can be moved to the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo for preservation. The museum holds a number of artifacts related to the Cathedral complex, but we never found inclination to look in.
Several other large squares are worth strolling around, foremost of them Piazza della Repubblica ♥ and Piazza Santa Croce ♥♥. The latter not only is surrounded by well-preserved mansions, but is also fronted by the Basilica di Santa Croce ♥♥, an incomparable example of Italian Gothic architecture. Beholding this church is a treat of its own; the vast interior is of much interest as well, being the final resting place of many famous Florentines – Michelangelo, Galileo, Macchiavelli, just to name a few.
Tempio Maggiore (the Great Synagogue of Florence) ♥♥ is located a bit further away from center. Built in 19th century as more a monument than a praying house, it combines several architectural styles (Moorish, Ottoman, Christian) in its magnificent – and unique as far as synagogues go – great hall. There is also a Jewish history museum on the premises. Note: Access to the synagogue is limited; make sure to inquire whether you will be able to enter the great hall; the museum by itself is not worth coming over for most of the people. Also: You will be required to leave literally everything but the clothes on your back in a provided locker before entering; there is a very advanced metal detector acting as an entrance.
Palazzo Pitti ♥ is located up the street from Ponte Vecchio across the river from the Old City. It houses several museums, which do not rise to the level of exceptional. The Royal Apartments are lavishly decorated, but are not as impressive as apartments in any number of palaces around Europe. The apartments are reached through the Palatine Gallery, whose twenty rooms could contend with many top painting galleries in the world; there are works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens and many other Renaissance masters. Among the furniture found throughout the gallery and the apartments are a series of resplendent inlaid tables. The Silver Museum and the Costume Gallery are mildly curious, and there are also Gallery of Modern Arts and a Porcelain Museum that we did not visit.
Boboli Gardens ♥, which can be reached through the Palazzo, is a good example of Italian garden, with a number of picturesque spots and good views over the city. Again, we have seen many great parks and gardens around Europe and thought that Boboli was nice, not spectacular.
Piazzale Michelangelo ♥♥♥ (or Michelangiolo, depending on the source) sits high atop the hill south of the Old City on the “other” side of the river Arno. The promenade at the piazza’s edge overlooks one of the most famous and magnificent city views in the world. The skyline is nothing short of breathtaking.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella ♥♥ is at the “edge” of the city core, positioned across the large piazza from the eponymous train station, the common gateway to the city. The location probably works against it, as people tend to rush by the great church on their way to the central sights. We ourselves made time for seeing it only on our fifth or sixth visit to Florence. The church is very well decorated, with vivid frescoes and stained-glass windows. The cloister is open for visitors, but we did not leave ourselves time to take advantage of that.
After half a dozen visit to Florence, we still have plenty of sights to look forward to exploring.
If you are driving into Florence, parking will be an issue. The center of the Old City is largely pedestrian, and street parking is impossible to find. Parking garages are practically non-existent within the central area, so the best bet is to use a garage slightly to the fringes, where the spaces are more likely to be found. Sant’Ambrogio, at the eponymous mercato is a bit too far from the center, unless you plan your day to finish somewhere in the vicinity of Santa-Croce, from which it is about 7-10 minutes away. Stazione Centrale is about 10-15 minutes from Duomo. Mercato Centrale is one of the closest large garages to the center, only about 5-7 minutes from the Duomo, and quite convenient for attractions such as Galleria dell’Accademia or San Lorenzo.
If your target is Oltrarno/Palazzo Pitti, then your task in finding nearby parking may even be worse. I ended up leaving my car in garage Ponte Vecchio, practically by the bridge on Lungarno Torrigiani. It was very convenient – but incredibly expensive; €7/hr for a compact car, €11/hr for an SUV.
Places to Eat
On Piazza Mercato Centrale, we lunched at Trattoria Za-Za ♥. Large menu, adequate service, very nice food. We were a group of 11 people, with some hungry kids among us, and we ordered a large selection of antipasti, primi and secondi. Not one dish elicited complaints, and several were received very enthusiastically. Overall damage was very reasonable: €220, including house wine. Last visit: Summer 2008.
We once picked a random place that we were walking by, on the corner of Via Porta Rossa and Via Pellicceria, a block away from Piazza della Repubblica. It is called La Grotta Guelfa ♥♥, and it served the best mushroom soup that Natasha has eaten in a week (and she tried a few). The rest of the food was first-rate as well. We sat outside and were beneficiaries of very prompt service (no less than four different people attended to our needs at different times). The ambience of nearby palaces added to the appreciation of the meal, and while tourist masses flow around the piazza, they do not really walk close enough to be annoying. Our damage: €75 for a meal for four, including a bottle of wine. Last visit: Spring 2007.
We are normally biased against eateries located on the central squares, as they tend to be overpriced and mediocre. However, in Florence, once by choice and once to escape rain, we had meals at Ristorante Il Cavallino ♥ on Piazza della Signoria. There are no records of our first meal there in 2003, but the last one was not bad at all, if expectedly a bit overpriced. Reasonable menu. Good crostini misti, crostini ai funghi, gnocchi with rabbit ragu, salmon. Right size portions, too. Our damage: €155 for eight people (one small child) with a bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2013.
On our stay in Florence in September of 2003, we recorded the names of another restaurant that we dined at. Ristorante BIBO is on Piazza S. Felicita, a step away from Ponte Vecchio on the Oltrarno side. We did not write down any details of the meal, which, according to our approach at the time, means that it was neither bad nor extraordinary.
There is a gelateria on every corner in Florence, but one of them is considered to be especially famous: Perche No, located a couple of blocks from Piazza dei Signoria. There is a wider range of offerings than in a run-of-the-mill gelateria, but we can’t say that the quality was superior to what we tried in other places; that’s not a knock down on this establishment, but rather a comment on the overall high quality of Florentine ice cream. For instance, we have had gelato twice in as many years in a gelateria by the side of Santa-Croce and came away perfectly satisfied on both occasions. The only exception in our experience has been a random gelateria near Ponte Vecchio on the Oltrarno side, which yielded less than favorable reviews on another occasion. Your mileage will vary.
As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are plentiful on major online platforms. Any location within SS67 “semi-ring” or close to the river in Oltrarno will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest.