When I was eighteen, all the way back in 2010, I lived in Florence for 2 months to learn Italian. I completely fell in love with the city and the language. Since then, I’ve visited a handful of time, most recently in October 2022. Watching a centuries old city change over the course of a decade has been fascinating.
Because walking around Florence is like walking through a living museum. The city is filled to the brink with gorgeous Medieval architecture, amazing art, and every street looks like something straight out of a Renaissance painting.
There are few cities so culturally and historically important as Florence. If you’re a fan of good food, beautiful architecture, and art; then there will be plenty for you to do and see in the Tuscan capital. Whether on a city trip or a tour around Italy, Florence needs to be on your travel bucket list. This post will help you plan the best possible trip, with insider tips and the best things to do in Florence.
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How to plan a more sustainable trip to Florence
Ever since I’ve lived in Florence, I’ve been telling people to visit. It is one of the most visited cities in Italy for a reason, after all. Unfortunately, the city has been somewhat spoiled by mass tourism. In summer, the streets are crawling with noisy, sweaty and rude visitors from all over the world, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the beautiful buildings, posing for pictures and queuing for hours.
But still… underneath all the tourist traps and overpriced goods, still lies that spark, that charm, that beauty. Deep inside, Florence is still one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. I’ve been several times and I think you should go and see it. Just don’t do it in July or August, but go in the early spring (April) or late fall (October), when the crowds are thinner, but the weather is good. Winter is even more quiet, but often rainy and grey. However, there is no bad time to visit Florence. Whatever the season, I would recommend adopting the Italian slow and leasurely way of living. Stay for 4 days, or even a week, and use it as a base to explore Tuscany at your own pace.
A lot of people in Florence depend on tourism for their livelyhood. To make sure that as much of your money goes into their hands, it is important that you spend it in locally owned businesses. Choose locally owned B&B’s, small hotels, and appartments as your accommodation, over big chain hotels. Not only will these be much more charming and authentic, but you won’t be making a millionaire CEO even richer.
Florence is a very walkable place, especially the historic city center. You certainly don’t need to rent a car here! For exploring or staying outside of the main tourist area, the Florence bus system gets you wherever you need to go. Tickets cost € 1,50 for a single 9 minute ride and can be bought from Tabaccherias or on the app. The terrific Italian trains or regional buses can take you to other cities in Tuscany, such as Pisa, Luccha, and Siena. If you wish to explore the countryside a bit more, consider renting an electric car or scooter to keep your emmissions low.
So with your sustainable accommodation and transport booked, it’s time to build your itinerary. Florence is filled with fun activities and beautiful sights, so you’ll likely not get bored. The best way to explore is by simply walking around, but make sure you don’t miss these amazing things to do in Florence:
De Medici Free Walking Tour
As anyone who follow this blog knows, I love Free Walking Tours. They are such a great way to explore a city while learning more about the history. Sure, you could walk around by yourself, but you would have no idea what you are looking at. I like the context that a tour offers, but don’t like to pay a lot. Free Walking Tours run on tips, so the guides are very motivated to make it a fun and informative experience.
One of my favorite Free Walking Tours that I’ve been on was in Florence. Florence Free Tour offers a daily Renaissance and a Medici tour, which cover two of the biggest aspects of Florentine history.
The De Medici’s were once the most powerful family in Europe. They started out as bankers and through strategic alliances, trade and marriages worked their way up to Dukes, Popes and Queens. Their patronage was hugely influential to the development of Florence as a center for business, art and culture. The Medici Free Walking Tour will teach you all about this fascinating family and show you the literal marks they have left on the city.
Climb to the top of the Duomo
The Duomo of Florence rises up over the city, providing a beautiful point of orientation. It lies at a short 10-minute walk from the train station. The white and green marble building is striking, with the Baptisterium and bell tower next to it.
The inside of the Duomo is ornately decorated with a mosaic floor, art, frescoes, and gold. The dome of the cathedral was designed by Brunelleschi, and the intricate design means that you can actually climb to the top of the roof. The steep climb of 463 steps is not for the faint of heart, but it allows you to see the frescoes on the ceiling up close and offers an incredible view of the city from the very top.
Marvel at the Galleria Degli Uffizi
Initially the offices of the local government, the Galleria Degli Uffizi is one of the most famous museums in the world. Filled to the brinks with incredible paintings and sculptures, the Uffizi warrants at least a full day visit for art lovers.
The highlight of the museum is undoubtedly Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, but there are plenty of other masterpieces to admire. You will have to reserve your ticket ahead of time, weeks even in high season. Or book a private skip the line tour.
Walk across the Ponte Vecchio
One of the most famous bridges in the world, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the oldest permanent crossing of the Arno river for citizens of Florence. The original Roman structure was made of wood, and the current stone version dates from 1345.
The bridge itself is filled with jewelry shops that hang over the sides, but that wasn’t always the case. During the time of the De Medici’s, the bridge was a meat market. Butchers had their shops on the bridge and waste dropped directly into the river. You can imagine that wasn’t the most pleasant smell. Because the De Medici’s crossed the bridge every day (by an overhead walkway, to avoid the peasants), they deemed this smell unacceptable. So, they replaced the butchers with jewelers instead.
Please keep in mind that it is absolutely forbidden to place a lock on the bridge! Plenty of people try it as a romantic gesture, but the weight of all the locks damages the bridge and the keys pollute the river water. So, just don’t.
Climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo
Piazzale Michelangelo is a square on the south bank of the Arno. Because it’s elevated, it offers a spectacular view over Florence. It’s a bit of a climb to get there, but the view is worth it. From here, you can see the whole city. It’s especially beautiful at sunset. So bring a bottle of wine and some snacks and settle in for a breathtaking sight. In the summer there’s often music on the square as well as a bar where you can relax with a cocktail. It is hardly a well kept secret, so it gets pretty busy here!
Visit Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens
Palazzo Pitti was the palace of the De Medici’s biggest rivals, the Pitti’s. In 1549, the building was sold to the De Medici’s who built a walkway connecting the palace to their old residence, Palazzo Vecchio. Inside Palazzo Pitti, you can see plenty of beautiful artwork as well as the reconstructed apartments that shows how the wealthiest family of Italy lived.
Right behind Palazzo Pitti lies one of my favorite spots in Florence: the Boboli Gardens. The Giardino di Boboli dates back to the 16th century and stretches over 45000 square meters.
Like other royal gardens, it houses sections in different styles with fountains and green slopes as well as interesting flora. Because the gardens are built on a steep slope, several viewpoints look out of the city and the surrounding countryside.
The gardens are huge, and you can easily spend several hours exploring them. It is also a great place to just hang out on a sunny day.
Visit the Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio was originally the palace of the De Medici family, the most powerful family of Florence during the Renaissance. When they moved to the Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Vecchio became the City Hall. Since then, it has been the seat of the city council, and it is still in use. Parts of the Palazzo are open to visitors, and it’s worth a peek inside as it houses some amazing art. The Salone dei Cinquecento is especially beautiful with an elaborately decorated ceiling and murals. A guided tour is a great way to explore all that Palazzo Vecchio has to offer.
Outside the Palazzo Vecchio, you can see a lot of famous statues. Don’t be fooled though, these are all just copies. The originals are savely stowed in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Where Gallerie degli Uffizi houses some of the world’s most famous paintings, Galleria dell’Accademia has the best sculptures. Here is where you can see original sculptures by Michealangelo, such as the Davide, as well as other beautiful pieces.
Learn about history in the Museo degli Innocenti
Florence is full of art museums, but there are also several good history museums. You can learn plenty during a walking tour through the city, but I think it is worth diving into a particularly interesting part of Florentine history at the Museo Degli Innocenti.
This former hospital and orphanage on the Piazza SS. Annunziata houses a terrific museum with a wealth of information. From the 15th to late 19th century, poor mothers would abandon their newborn babies here into the care of the nuns and monks. Children would be cared for, raised, and educated, before often being reunited with their parents or adopted by other families. Meticulous records were kept of every child, building into a massive archive.
The museum is very well put together with lots of personal stories and details. The top floors also house some original Renaissance art and a café with a lovely view.
Eat and shop at Mercato Centrale
At a 5-minute walk from the Duomo lies the Mercato Centrale, the old city market. It’s a beautiful building from the late 19th century. Inside, on the ground floor, you’ll find a food market with fresh produce, traditional products, local delicacies and food artisans. The second floor is a food court with local and international cuisine. The perfect place to find food souvenirs, try lots of different dishes and have a tasty lunch.
Shops for artisinal products and souvenirs
When you’re walking through Florence, you’ll notice a lot of souvenirs shops. Most of these sell cheap stuff produced in China, like fridge magnets and shot glasses. While these might be fun to collect, they don’t fit with the habits of sustainable travel. Luckily, there are plenty of nice souvenirs and artisinal products that you can buy that support local artists and culture.
Florence, and Tuscany at large, is known for high quality leather goods. Unfortunately, countless tourist shops have sprung up that sell fakes. The subject of leather is controversial in the sustainable travel sphere. On the one hand, it is the literal skin of an animal, but on the other, it is a byproduct that would otherwise be wasted. Vegan leathers don’t contribute to animal suffering, but are often made from fossil fuels. So I say it is up to your personal discretion. But is you’re going to buy leather products in Florence, it is well worth the money to get something artisinal. Not only does it last a long time, if properly cared for, you are also supporting century long traditions and local artisans. You can find some good tips on wat to look out for on the visit Florence website.
For more fashion shopping, don’t be seduced by the fast fashion shops. Most expensive brands aren’t much better when it comes to workers rights either! Your best bet is always going to be local designers or second hand stores. A few great vintage shops have sprung up in Florence where you buy Italian style with a clear concience.
Explore underrated Santo Spirito
Many tourists stick to the historic city center of Florence and only cross the Arno river to visit Palazzo Pitti and Piazzale Michelangelo. This high concentration of tourists is a burden on the historic city center. But luckily, there is much more to see if you venture further out. The Santo Spirito neighborhood is actually one of my favorite parts of Florence. It centers around the church of Santo Spirito and lies just west of Palazzo Pitti.
Santo Spirito is a hip young neighborhood filled with little boutiques and cafe’s. It is a more affordable, but still central, area to stay in Florence. The neighborhood is buzzing with energy and popular among locals. In summer, the Santo Spirito square is a great place to hang out. Great local restaurants and bars line the square and the church steps are used as a stage for concerts.
On Sundays, there is a farmers market on the square where you can shop for organic local products or ingredients to cook yourself a delicious Tuscan meal.
Visit Dante’s House
One of Florence most famous historical figures has to be Dante Alighieri. This writer and poet is basically the father of the Italian language. After the unification of Italy in 1870, a national language was needed. Before that, the country existed of independent kingdoms which all had their own language. The government adopted the Tuscan variety spoken by the Florentine elite as the new Italian language. It was previously a mostly literary language, formalized through the works of Dante.
Dante’s most famous work is the epic poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) in which he describes hell. Dante contributed not only to the artistic and academic development of Italy, but Europe as a whole. He also lived a pretty eventful life. His house in Florence was turned into a museum where you can learn all about this fascinating man.
Eat all the delicious food
Tuscany has a rich culinary history with lots of tasty dishes. Tuscany is home to some amazing wine, truffles and of course: bistecca Fiorentina. In Florence, it can be a challenge to find the gems in between the tourist traps. You can make your trip more sustainable by eating local, seasonal products and supporting small business.
Italy does a great job of protecting their regional, traditional foods and have high standards for agriculture. Quality restaurants pride themselves in using only the best ingredients. You can definitely taste this in their dishes!
If you’re not sure how to find those authentic restaurants in Florence, these tips will help you find the best places to eat
A private food tour with a local is a also great way to explore the culinary culture of Florence.
Here are few specific places I would recommend:
- Gelato: Gelateria della Passera and Gelateria La Carraia
- Sandwiches: I Fratellini and Pino’s Sandwiches
- Cocktails: Manifattura
Visit a winery
Florence also lies next to the Chianti wine region. This is one of the most famous wine regions of Italy and plenty of vineyards offer tours and tastings. A winery tour is the best way to learn about local wines, such as Chianti and Italian wine culture in general. It’s also a terrific excuse to drink some quality wine and explore the gorgeous Tuscan hills.
Most vineyards are quite remote and require a car or vespa to reach. As fun (and challenging) as driving through the countryside is, it doesn’t mix well with drinking. For a more practical and budget friendly option, you can also look for wineries that you can reach by public transport.
If the idea of planning this makes your head spin, you can also book a tour from the city to take you to a few different places in Chianti.
I visited Castello di Verrazzano on my last trip to Florence and I woudl highly recommend it! It’s a centuries old winery, and everything they do is traditional and organic. The grounds and the mansion are absolutely gorgeous, and the wine is delicious.
Take a daytrip to Fiesole
In the hill just above Florence lies Fiesole. This lovely little town dates back to the Roman times and makes a perfect afternoon or morning trip from Florence. In Fiesole, you can explore archeological sites, a few churches and the pretty town itself. But the best thing is the amazing view it offers over Florence. Getting to Fiesole is easy, there is a direct bus line 7 from Piazza San Marco.
See more of Tuscany
The region of Tuscany is the most popular among tourists. The rolling green hills, vineyards, beaches and Medieval towns offer a huge variety of activities. Florence is a great base to explore more of this beautiful region.
The Italian regional train network is great, and it is easy to take day trips to Pisa, Lucca, Siena and San Gimingano. If you want to visit less touristic small towns, you will need an (electric) car. I personally think Pisa is only worth a stop to quickly see the tower. Otherwise, Lucca is a much more charming town. Both Siena and San Gimignano are highly touristic, but beautiful. They get very crowded during the summer, so be prepared.
Florence is one of those cities where you’ll never be bored. I’ve been five times now, and still feel like I have a lot left to explore. But don’t be intimidated, the historical city center isn’t too big for a weekend trip. But if you have more time, book 4-5 days and take a few day trips to surrounding places.
If you’re a history, art, and culture buff, you’ll love Florence. Few cities are as jampacked with museums, famous landmarks, and centuries old architecture. But Florence is also the perfect place to shop and stuff yourself with Tuscan delicacies. Whatever your taste, my list of the best things to do in Florence should help you get started with planning your trip.
Have you ever visited Florence? And did you love it as much as me? Let’s chat about it in the comments.
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