I’ve always had a soft spot for Florence, ever since I lived there for a summer in college while studying the Italian language. I have fond (though at this point hazy) memories of mornings in class, afternoons wandering the streets or heading up to Fiesole, and weekends exploring other parts of Italy.
But since that was a veeerrrry long time ago, I never got around to writing a Florence guide. However, I finally got to spend some quality time in the city recently and decided I needed to remedy that! So below I’ve outlined my tips for what to do in Florence on your first visit (particularly a short one), and some tips on how to get there, where to eat, and more!
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Why should you visit Florence?
I absolutely love Florence (or Firenze, as it’s called in Italy)! While it’s not even in the top-five biggest cities in Italy, once upon a time it was a BIG DEAL.
It was the center of trade and finance in medieval Europe, and the amount of history and culture here is enough for any enthusiast—according to UNESCO, nearly one-third of the world’s art treasure resides in Florence, which is just insane.
The city has been home over the centuries to people like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Dante Alighieri, Florence Nightingale, Amerigo Vespuci (the explorer), and many more. It’s the birthplace of the Italian language, led the way for Europe in things like paved streets, and was the cradle of the Renaissance.
While today it can sometimes feel packed with tourists, Florence is still a completely charming city that you can’t miss. All you have to do is duck down an alley off the main drag to feel like time has stood still for centuries.
What’s great is that since it’s a smaller city, you really only need a day to do Florence well if you’re not visiting the big museums—though you could definitely spend a few days exploring the nooks and crannies of this fun little city. AND it makes a perfect base for tons of different day trips if desired.
Plan a full Italian adventure!
Getting to the city
Firenze is easy to get to, whether by train or flight. The Florence airport (FLR) is a major Italian airport, so you should definitely check flights in and out of there. But if you find a better deal to someplace like Rome, Milan, or Pisa, then the train will get you to Florence easily. It takes about 15 minutes by taxi or 20-30 by bus from the airport to the city center (more info here).
Train travel in Italy is great, and the way I prefer to get around. The Trenitalia website and app is the one I’d recommend for planning trips and booking tickets ahead, and in many cases as long as you’re traveling within Italy then buying day-of isn’t an issue. For reference, the fast train from Rome is 1.5 hours (though more expensive), Pisa’s around an hour, and Milan is about 2 hours.
You can drive as well (for certain types of Tuscan hill town road trips it makes sense), but parking in Florence is a nightmare and it’s easy to accidentally drive through Limited Traffic Zones with heavy fines (at certain times). I *strongly* recommend you not drive in Florence. This website is super helpful for learning more about the zones, hours/days, parking, and more (and here are some parking options).
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What to do in Florence
I feel like I have to preface the fact that I’m definitively *not* a museum person, but Florence is a museum-lovers dream. So with that said, this list does not include the museums, but does include many of the other things that you have to experience on your first time in Florence.
Santa Maria del Fiore (aka Il Duomo)
This is really the symbol of Florence, and might be my favorite cathedral in the world. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, the strong pink and green bands and the incredibly intricate details. It’s the 4th-largest in the world (or 3rd, depending on who you ask), and was the largest in Europe when it was built.
Dedicated to the Virgin of the Flowers, Florence’s cathedral boasts a gorgeous Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, built between the late 13th and 15th centuries. Compared to the exuberant exterior, the interior is more austere. Entrance to the cathedral itself is free, but you do have to pay to enter the Baptistery or climb the belltower or dome.
If you’re looking for a great view, you can climb the campanile (belltower) or the dome itself. The dome is 150 feet in diameter, and the views from up close (and of the city) will give you a true appreciation. Do note, you must book ahead to climb the dome.
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I also have a love and fascination for the baptistery doors. The Battistero San Giovvani (St. John’s Baptistery) pre-dates even the cathedral, and is both amazing inside and has these exquisitely-carved bronze doors showing scenes from the bible.
It’s directly opposite the cathedral doors, so you can’t miss it.
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Giardino delle Rose
Next I recommend you head up toward the Piazzale Michelangelo, an iconic view over the city (and a fave spot of mine to chill on a pretty day).
But on your way up the looong hill, hang a left midway into the beautiful and free garden of the roses (Giardino dlele Rose). It’s got a great view over the city and is full of tons of plants and flowers, including around 400 varieties of roses.
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On a sunny day or during a spectacular sunset, I think there’s no better place to be in Florence. The Piazzale overlooks the city and other than being a steep, short climb, it’s fairly easy to get to.
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Especially because it was an overcast day on my last visit, I had to dig up these oooooold pics from over a decade ago, when we were graced with a beautiful sunset. My friends and I snagged a cheap bottle of wine and sat on the steps of the Piazzale and watched the sky turn pink.
Crappy camera, magical moment.
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Palazzo Vecchio & Piazza della Signorina
If Il Duomo is the religious symbol of the city, I’d say that the Palazzo Vecchio is the civil one. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the building itself (I’ve always been a sucker for crenelations), and the statues in front. It’s got all manner of fascinating history, which you can learn more about here.
It sits within the sprawling Piazza della Signorina, which has so many different things to explore. There’s a statue of Cosimo de Medici, a fountain of Neptune, a copy of Michelangelo’s David, and the Logia, which is a small outdoor gallery full of statues.
Thanks to Culture Trip for the following tidbit about the fountain: “women used to take their daughters here before marriage to show them what a man’s body was like” (DYING. You can read more here). I’ve got a French scandalous fountain statue story for you here, if you’re interested…
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Piazza della Repubblica
So, this isn’t necessarily an absolute must-see if you’re pressed for time. But I’ve got a soft spot for this piazza because my Italian language school was here when I studied abroad…so I spent a LOT of time here! It’s also like a 2-minute detour from your route to other sights, so worth a quick stop.
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Wander the Arno and behold the Ponte Vecchio
One of my favorite things to do in Florence is just walk up and down the Arno River. Especially on a pretty day, the buildings reflecting in the water is just so pretty!
And then there’s the view of the famous Ponte Vecchio. Literally “old bridge”, this is one of the most famous things to see in Florence. From what we know, the bridge was originally built in 966, and the current structure dates back to 1345.
It’s the only bridge across the Arno that the Germans *didn’t* destroy in their retreat during WWII. It used to house lots of different types of shops, but has been all goldsmiths and jewelry shops since the 16th century.
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A few other things to consider…
There are two other churches that are really cool, if you happen to be in the area. One is the Church of Santa Croce, and the other is the Church of Santa Maria Novella.
As I mentioned at the outset, any Florence guide has to mention museums, because the museums in Florence are world-class (just…not my thing). The Uffizi (one of the oldest and most famous museums in the world) and the Galleria dell’Accademia (home of Michelangelo’s “David”) are two you should start with.
Where to eat in Firenze
Ohhh, where to start?? The food in Florence is great, but you do have to work a bit to make sure you don’t just get stuck in a tourist hell. I haven’t had tons of meals in Florence recently (and the restaurant scene changes often enough that that’s important), but below are a few recommendations from my most recent visit.
First off, gelato. It seems like there’s a gelateria every few feet, and sometimes it’s hard to know which ones are good. But here are a few tips for you in choosing one:
- Get off the main path a bit…right near the tourist attractions will rarely be that great
- It’s a bad sign if everything is in English
- Look for a place that says Produzione Propria/Gelato Artigianale
- Look at the color of some of the fruit flavors. If the lemon and banana are bright yellow, run away…the lemon should be a very pale yellow and the banana should be kind of a beige. No neon colors! Think about what things look like in nature.
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I ended up having a late lunch (kind of…second lunch?) next to the Piazza della Republica. I knew I wouldn’t have dinner til after 7p so needed something to tide me over and most places were closed since it was after 3p.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I sat down at Ristorante La Grotta Guelfa for some pizza and wine. I was pleasantly surprised though…my meal was delicious and the service was great.
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For dinner we went to Palazzo Tempi on some friends’ recommendation. We had a yummy salad (I was crazy for greens by this point in the trip!), some cacio e pepe pasta, and one of their famous pizzas. Definitely recommend this place for a lunch or dinner!
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What to buy
The smell of leather is what I associate the most with Florence, and leather is one of the things you should definitely buy in the city if you’re in the market. Wander the stalls of the San Lorenzo Market and see if a belt, purse, or gloves catch your eye. Haggling is expected in the markets, just not in stores.
If you’re looking for something more special or one-of-a-kind, I got a beautiful purse from Dantesca (near the Piazza della Signorina); they have hand-made pieces and I enjoyed chatting with the owner.
Scarves (or pashminas) are also a common purchase, and easy to pack. Painted ceramics are fairly common souvenirs as well, though consider shipping bigger pieces home to avoid breakage in your luggage.
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