Table of Contents
A Florentine Love Affair: Best Things to do in Florence, Italy
If you haven’t been to Florence, you haven’t been to Italy. It’s that simple. The “Athens of the Middle Ages”, Florence was once one of the world’s most important cities during the medieval times. It was the crux of several trade routes, bustling with activity and prosperity. This much is obvious to us until now — as the epicenter of the Renaissance, Florence is an ever-unfolding display of priceless art and architecture. It also has a rich history, with such literary figures as Dante Alighieri and Niccolo Machiavelli molding their literary wit amidst its affairs.
But this is just one of Florence’s facets. As part of the Tuscan region, Florence is the perfect jumping point for a sojourn to the countryside. Tuscany is famous for producing some of the best wines in Italy, with such products as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino. This distinction is highlighted by the fact that the vineyards of Tuscany are also among the most scenic spots this side of the world!
So you see, Florence sights are for everybody. Let’s break down some of the best things to do in Florence, a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Take a Walking Tour
Florence is a compact city, and it is best explored on foot. The thing is, there are so many things to see here that you’d probably get lost as you follow the artworks at every turn! The best way to go about this is through a walking tour (take a look of our suggestion of favorite walking tours in Florence here). Aside from having the benefit of a guide to explain to you why you should be looking at this particular piece of art over the dozens more around the corner, you also get the rare chance to slip past the hundreds in queue for the main attractions. If you pick the right tour, you could also get the chance to slip behind the scenes and view Florence from a different perspective.
Also, many places in Florence tours are best with a small group. The breathtaking Duomo, for example offers something via walking tours that you can’t get as a casual tourist. There are also certain walking tours that include within their itineraries places that only locals know. Whether this is an excellent cup of espresso in an out-of-the-way cafe, or the best aperitivo this side of Tuscany, tours can give you a much-needed local’s eye view of the place.
Being a very touristy area, there are lots of pretty good tour operators in Florence. Get Your Guide is a major one, with exclusive trips through the most iconic spots (and a lot of hidden places only Florentians see). They also have a personalized tour that puts you in step with a local, so you can see the ins and outs of your chosen neighborhood!
Walking Florence Tours to Consider
- Walking Florence Tour of Historical Center
- Renaissance City Walking Tour
- Uffizi & Academia Small Group Walking Tour
- 3-Hour Skip-The-Line City Highlights and David
- Florence: Secret History Tour
Major Attractions Included in Most Florence Tours
Santa Maria Novella Church
I’m going to take a guess and assume you’ll be rolling into Florence via train (which is among the most comfortable ways of travel). You’ll end up at the Santa Maria Novella Station (S.M.N). You’re in luck, because there’s a significant tourist attraction just across the street!
This is the Santa Maria Novella Church, located on the northern riverbank of the Arno. The white-and-green marble of the facade is famous in itself, but the real star here is Masaccio’s Trinity which is located in the church! It may not look like much, but it is the first ever painting in the history of art to utilize true perspective. Pretty sweet, huh?
After this bit of intro, let’s look at one of the most famous and most important sculptures of the Renaissance — Michelangelo’s David. There are many replicas scattered throughout history, but the original is housed in the Accademia Gallery. Aside from the imposing statue at the center, set aside an hour or so to look at the many other works of art inside.
It is highly recommended to buy tickets in advance or book one of those skip-the-line tours as queues can get as long as an hour and a half during the busier periods! The Galleria is almost a kilometer (around 10 minutes away) from the Santa Maria Novella Church. On the way you will pass through some other famous spots like the San Lorenzo market, which we’ll save for later.
This is undoubtedly the most iconic and most outstanding piece of art in the whole of Florence. Officially, it is called the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, but everyone just knows it as the Duomo — the famous cupola is made by Brunelleschi, and is free to enter so you can admire it from the inside. There are also tours that allow you to climb to the towering structure’s very top with a small group. It’s a slight chore but you will be greatly rewarded with a magnificent vista of Florence.
Aside from the Duomo itself, the entire Piazza del Duomo has a set of other attractions. There’s Giotto’s bell tower, and the Baptistery with its magnificent “Gates of Paradise”. These other spots require another ticket (covering all of them), and you can buy them directly from the ticket office on-site.
To get to the Duomo from the Accademia Gallery, head down Via Ricasoli (about 500 meters).
Piazza della Signoria
Another cove of art in the historic center of Florence is just 500 meters away, through the Via dei Calzaiuoli. The Piazza della Signoria is known not just for being the city’s political center for most of its existence, but also for having a collection of notable sculptures. Don’t miss Neptune’s Fountain and the Equestrian Statue, both landmarks of the city. There is also the Loggia dei Lanzi and the Orsanmichele, both nearby and both sporting multitudes of stunning statues
We’re taking a long walk this time (or a short taxi ride, your pick). From your hotel, head over to the Boboli Gardens. It’s best to do this early in the morning, when you can get to enjoy an aspect of Florence too few people see: the green and pristine outdoor views. The gardens are connected to the Modern Art Gallery, so you may want to check those out, too. But even if you’re still full of art from the previous day, you’ll appreciate the well-trimmed greens and beautiful blooms around here.
Ponte Vecchio Bridge
From the Boboli Gardens, head on a stroll towards the Ponte Vecchio. This is around a kilometer away, and the winding route will take you through some of Florence’s oldest and most scenic alleyways — the same places where the ancestral families of the city have lived for centuries! At the end of the kilometer-long walk, the Ponte Vecchio looms calm and steady. Arguably the city’s most enduring landmark, the “Old Bridge” (as the name literally means) has bridged the Arno since the 12th century!
As a plus, the Ponte Vecchio is near one of the best pizza places this side of Italy. Make sure to try Gusta Pizza’s Napoli-style wood-oven pizza for lunch!
Not even 200 meters from the Ponte Vecchio is your next stop, and one that will probably take up a good 2 hours of your day. The Uffizi Gallery houses one of the world’s biggest and most expensive art collections, and the queues here can get really long! Buying your tickets beforehand (or better yet, getting a guided tour) is absolutely a must.
The place around the Uffizi is also pretty remarkable in its architecture, so don’t just hurry through it!
Fontana del Porcellino
If you think the surroundings are familiar, it’s because you’ve been here yesterday! You would have also passed by the Piazza della Signoria in your 5-minute walk to the Fontana del Porcellino. It’s also a great time to go on a last-minute shopping spree, as the route lies amidst some of Florence’s high-end shopping places.
Once you’re done, pass through Via Por Santa Maria and head straight until you get to Piazza del Mercato Nuovo. Turn left here, and you will be greeted with the sight of Florence’s famous bronze boar. It is said that rubbing the boar’s nose guarantees a return to Florence!
Piazza della Repubblica
We’re going to end our Florence tour with the Piazza della Repubb
lica, the place where the city was founded. Today, it is a great park surrounded by beautiful architecture… and it is also home to a really pretty carousel!
Go On a Wine Tour
The beauty of wine tours from Florence is that they also double as scenic day trips. There are lots of wine-producing areas in the Tuscan countryside. Most of them easily reachable from Florence (and the rest just a train transfer or two away).
For example, the classic Chianti Classico area produces some of the best wines in the world. It also houses some of the most raw vineyard sceneries anywhere. You can stop by a wine estate on your wine tour, to learn about the secrets of the earth and winemaking in general. San Gimignano is further away, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that looks like a medieval town frozen in time. Aside from its iconic skyline, it is also famous for the Vernaccia di San Gimignano.
The town also offers a special treat within its vineyards. The aesthetic marvel of “spiral vineyards” is breathtaking to behold! The Giachi family owns one at the San Gimignano. Don’t forget to ask around for the history of the wines here — you’ll be in for an intellectual treat.
Wine tours can also be arranged with a trustworthy tour operator. There are a variety of wine tours from Florence, with wine pairings for everything from history to a cooking lesson. Check out sites like Get Your Guide to learn more!
Consider These Food Tours
- Secret Food Tour in Florence
- Italian Food Market & Cooking Experience
- Florence Food Walking Tour
- Gourmet Food Tour Florence
- Carmignano Half-Day Wine and Food Tour from Florence
- Heart of Florence: Authentic Dinner and Concert
- Florence Night Tour by Electric Bike with Gelato Tasting
Market Day at the Mercato Centrale
Tuscany has many markets and Florence some of the best. This is the central market and the perfect shopping haven for all things truly Italian. It may be tempting to follow the tourist crowds into the San Lorenzo market outside, but ditch that plan and go here instead!
The cast-iron structure is perfect for both foodies and those looking for the farm-fresh produce that Italian cuisine is famous for. The ground floor, you’ll find all kinds of meats — from the basic seafood, pork, beef, and chicken, to the more exotic wild boar and rabbit. Cured meats, sausages, and more are also present. Of course, cheese and olive oil are everywhere!
At the second floor is a food court that gives you a perfect vantage point for a hefty breakfast. Some stalls even have made-to-order sandwiches. Don’t miss Da Nerbone, a local food institution that was founded in 1872. It is a cafeteria-style eatery with Tuscan delicacies. Make sure to come in early for their panino con bolito, as the place is completely swamped at lunch! This is located at the southern corner of Mercato Centrale. There are also many artisan food shops elsewhere, where you can see traditional Italian food made from scratch and using traditional processes.
And of course, a cup of Italian coffee or an aperitivo is just the perfect accompaniment to a meal here! The Mercato Centrale is located between Via Sant’Antonino and Via dell’Ariento.
Shop Til You Drop at the San Lorenzo Market
After you’ve absorbed the local glory of the Mercato, it’s now time to move towards the more touristy stuff. The San Lorenzo market is a large group of stalls surrounding the Mercato Centrale. It is known for its endless variety of leathercraft, which is one of the Tuscan region’s specialties (as it’s not always food-related). Here you can also buy lots of clothing items, and a few souvenirs to take home.
Pro tip — the place caters to the foreign crowd most often, so there are lots of tourist traps. Make sure you’ve made the rounds before even reaching for your wallet! Haggling and bargaining is also a norm here, so don’t be afraid to ask if you think the price can go down.
One cool thing here is that you may ask for a specific type of product and you may end up being brought to a warehouse where they stock these goods before they get to San Lorenzo. Some would just lead you somewhere nearby where they have extra stock, but who knows what you’d end up finding! The San Lorenzo Market is closed only on Sundays and Mondays.
Dine and Be Merry
The food stalls at the Mercato are perfect for those on a budget (trust me, they’re not all that pricey). But if you have some extra to splurge with, there are some places you should visit.
One of them is Caffe Gilli, which has been in business since 1733. That’s way back to the time the Medicis ruled Florence! Located at the Piazza della Repubblica, Caffe Gilli serves some really tasty pastries in an opulent and entirely traditional setting.
Another one is the Borgo San Jacopo, which is a Michelin Star stop on the banks of the Arno. Yes, that Arno River which has some of the most stunning Florentine views anywhere! The outdoor seating is magnificent. Don’t miss the potato spaghetti, whose pasta is made entirely of potatoes (no flour!). Indeed, this place specializes in creating magnificent dining experiences from simple (and often audacious) ingredients. Visit them at Borgo San Jacopo 62/R.
Get a Closer Look at the Local Florence Sights
When you’re in Florence, it’s very easy to get lost in all the architectural and artistic beauty that you may forget how local life is just as fascinating. For a quick look, head over to the Piazza Santo Spirito (16R) which is the center of the city’s artisan section. This bohemian plaza hosts a number of bars and restaurants, plus a street market, all under the gaze of the beautiful Basilica of Santo Spirito. Here you can find everything from antiques to produce, and of course you can find Florentians going about their lively daily business. Make sure to stay for the nightlife to get a different perspective of the place!
And if you’d like to see just how colorful Florence can get, go here on June 24 in time for the festivities of St. John the Baptist! He is Florence’s patron saint, and on this date everything happens in Florence. Everything — parades, games, marathons, fireworks, football matches, boat races, and more!
Getting To And Getting Around Florence
Italy has a very good train system, so if you’re starting from another Italian city you can just hop onto a train and look for the Florence station. If you’ll be coming from overseas, however, you’re most likely going to end up in Vespucci Airport. You might also be travelling via a rented car (as most European tourists) — if so you will take the A1 Motorway which links the northern and southern sides of Italy. This runs by Florence, so it’s easy to follow. If you’re coming from the west coast, the A11 Motorway is your friend.
Another convenient way to get to Florence is via coach, which is an option even if you’re from another country. Eurolines operates international buses from such notable cities as Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Prague, and more. The city is also littered with several drop-off and pick-up points, which also make coaches a good option for travelling around Florence (especially if you’re with your luggage).
That said, it is most advisable to travel around Florence on foot. It is the smallest among Europe’s famous cities, and you can literally walk to any famous work of art from the train station! There are places that require quite a bit of hike, sure, but there’s no better way to appreciate the unfolding displays here at the Cradle of the Renaissance than by walking.
Yes, Florence is a very colorful place, not just one in oil paints and stone reliefs, of history and art. Hopefully this has enlightened you to all the things to do in Florence. This list is but an appetizer — take each turn, travel each road, and you’re sure to find a section of Florence that is as romantic and yet as unique as the last.