The best of Florence

Florence is an extraordinary city filled with culture, history, delicious cuisine and the best leather products in all of Europe…no wonder it’s one of Italy’s (and Europe’s) most-visited destinations and the hub of the Tuscan region. Although I’m a Rome-grown girl at heart, I had the opportunity to live and work in Florence for a year and a half and have been lucky enough to experience many of the city’s best attractions.

Although Florence is not a large city compared to many of it’s Italian neighbors, you could spend months wandering the windy, cobblestoned streets, bargaining for the best price at the leather market, drinking vino on the steps of Piazzale Michelangelo, stuffing your face with Bistecca alla Fiorentina and marveling at the countless masterpieces shrouding the walls of the Uffizi. Trust me…I have.

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Museums

Florence is famous for having some of the most exquisite art museums in Europe and worldwide. Even if art museums aren’t your forte, you’re not going to want to miss a visit to these!

The Uffizi Gallery

Along with the Louvre Museums in Paris and the Vatican Museums in Rome, The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most visited art museums in Europe. This museum holds some of the world’s most precious masterpieces from the middle ages all the way into the modern period. One of it’s most beloved pieces is Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.”

An entrance ticket to this world famous museum only costs 12 EUR, but it’s not the price that stops tourists from seeing the Uffizi, it’s the popularity. If you plan to visit, make sure to make a reservation online at least 10 days in advance.

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Galleria dell’Accademia

Although the Accademia Gallery houses many priceless Italian paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance period, the star of the show has always been Michelangelo’s David. There is a fake David standing in Piazza della Signoria in place of where the original once stood. When a chair thrown out a window of the Palazzo Vecchio landed on David and cracked off one of his arms, it was decided to move the original inside and out of harm’s way.

If you plan on visiting Accademia while in Florence, I would suggest making a reservation online at least a week before.

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Palazzo Vecchio

As the star of Piazza della Signoria, the Palazzo Vecchio houses a beautiful art museum as well as being Florence’s city hall. Palazzo Vecchio is also the former residence of the Medici family and the Vasari corridor spans all the way from Piazza della Signoria, across the Arno by way of the Ponte Vecchio, to Palazzo Pitti on the other side. The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Vasari and Donatello and, if you’re an art buff, it’s definitely worth a visit while in Florence.

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Loggia dei Lanzi 

The Loggia is a building in front of the Palazzo Vecchio that houses one of the first open-air sculpture gardens in the world. Built in the 14th century, the most interesting fact about the Loggia is that all of the masterpieces, with the exception of Michelangelo’s David, are originals.

Shown below are two of the most recognizable statues: Perseus Holding the Severed Head of Medusa (1554) and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines (1583).

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Bargello National Museum

Another fantastic Florentine museum, the Bargello is oftentimes overlooked in favor of it’s better known rivals. As the first national museum of Italy, this museum places a higher focus on sculpture than painting and houses famous works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Verrocchio and Cellini.

The building itself its noteworthy as well. It was built in the 13th century and served as the residence of the chief of police and, later on, a prison.

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Donatello’s St. George the Dragon Slayer.

Casa Buonarroti

Casa Buonarroti is the definition of a hidden Florentine gem. Tucked away on via Ghibellina in the Santa Croce neighborhood, the building housing this museum and monument used to belong to the one and only Michelangelo.

The little museum is also home to two of Michelangelo’s most famous marble reliefs: Madonna of the Stairs and Battle of the Centaurs. At only 8 EUR per ticket, Casa Buonarroti is also one of the most budget-friendly museums in Florence.

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Museum of San Marco

This 15th century convent is the main site for appreciating the works of Fra Angelico, one of the most celebrated painters of the early Renaissance. Inside the museum you can tour the courtyard, the Refectory Hall, the Chapter Hall and, upstairs, the monk’s individual cells, including the living quarters of Girolamo Savonarola.

At only 9 EUR per ticket, the Museum of San Marco was one of my favorite historical landmarks in Florence and a great way to spend a free afternoon in the city.

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Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens

Designed by the famous Italian architect and designer, Filippo Brunelleschi, the original Palazzo Pitti was designed and built in the 15th century for the Pitti family. The palace was greatly enlarged in the 16th century when it was sold to the Medici family.

Today, Palazzo Pitti houses some of the most impressive art collections in Florence, including the Palatine Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art.

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Behind the Palazzo lies the famous Boboli Gardens, the largest gardens in Florence. The development of the gardens spanned over 400 years, from the 15th to the 19th century. Today, the gardens are a magnificent place to wander and enjoy the greenery on a mild day (I would not suggest going in the dead of summer like we did…105 degrees is not wandering weather).

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Gucci Garden

As the leather capital of the world, it’s no surprise that Guccio Gucci himself is Florentine. Located in Piazzale della Signoria in the historic Palazzo Mercanzia, the Gucci Garden consists of a multi-floor exhibition as well as a restaurant by a three-star Michelin chef. The galleries and pieces are exquisitely ornate and sometimes it’s fun to wander through clothing worth more than a house!

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The Sights

Although Florence has some of the most popular museums and celebrated artwork in the world, art is not the only attraction this fantastic city has to offer. Read below to find out my favorite sites and viewpoints in this sensational Tuscan town!

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Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze) and Giotto’s Bell Tower

The most famous site in Florence, and the proud trademark of the Florentine skyline, is (you guessed it) the Duomo di Firenze and the Bell Tower. This power duo has stood together as a symbol of the Renaissance since the 15th century. The most impressive work and the “star of the show” has always been Brunelleschi’s Dome. Constructed in 1436, it is the largest masonry dome ever built and Michelangelo’s inspiration for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

A 17 EUR ticket buys you entrance to the Cathedral Museum, Baptistery of San Giovanni, Archaeological site of Santa Reparata and access to climb both Brunelleschi’s Dome and Giotto’s Bell Tower. When you purchase a ticket in advance, which I would strongly recommend doing, you are able to make a reservation for a specific time to climb the Duomo. Climbing the Bell Tower, on the other hand, usually includes waiting in a line a couple hours long. If you have your heart set on climbing both, I would recommend getting in line at opening time for the Bell Tower and climbing the Duomo later in the day!

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The views from Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio, meaning “Old Bridge” in Italian, has stood in Florence since the 12th century. The Vasari corridor runs above the bridge, connecting Palazzo Pitti all the way to Piazza di Signoria. The bridge has survived countless floods, most famously the flood of 1333 where it was almost completely destroyed, as well as being the only bridge in Florence to survive the Nazi invasion during WWII. 

Today, the bridge is home to many fine jewelry stores and is filled with wandering tourists and locals on the daily.

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Piazzale Michelangelo

My personal favorite spot in Florence, Piazzale Michelangelo is home to the most magnificent views in the entire city. The locals are known to grab a bottle of wine, and a pizza or two, and head here to watch the sunset over the spectacular view of the Duomo. There is usually live music in the summer and it’s the best place to end a Florentine summer day!

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Piazza Sante Croce and Basilica di Santa Croce

Piazza Santa Croce holds a special place in my heart since my little Italian apartment was located a stone’s throw from the stunning Basilica. The Basilica is actually the burial spot of many famous Italians including Michelangelo and Galileo. There is a statue memorial to Dante as well (shown below to the left of the Basilica), but Dante’s remains are buried in Ravenna after he was exiled from Florence.

As stunning as the exterior of the Basilica is, it’s even more impressive inside. The interior is covered in famous frescos, paintings and gold details. For only 8 EUR, I would say it’s a must-see in Florence.

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San Lorenzo Leather Market

Shopping time! Florence is the leather capital of the world, so what would this great city be without a series of leather markets? The best and biggest is San Lorenzo, located near the train station, Stazione Santa Maria Novella. The vendors are always willing to give you a better price if you pay with cash and make sure to never accept the first price they give you. They are almost always able to accept a significantly lower price!

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Mercato Centrale

Almost completely hidden by the San Lorenzo leather market, lies Mercato Centrale, Florence’s largest food market. Head here to try traditional Italian dishes such as cannoli, arancini and neopolitan pizza, as well as international options like dumplings, sushi and imported beers!

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella

Yet another stunning basilica in Florence, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella is sometimes overlooked on the typical tourist itinerary. Originally a convent, it was built in either the 13th or 14th century and is the only church in Florence still complete with it’s original, interior facade.

Entrance costs only 5 EUR and grants you access to beautiful works of art by Masaccio, Giotto, Filippino Lippi, Duccio di Buoninsegna and Ghirlandaio.

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Piazza Santo Spirito and Basilica di Santo Spirito

Don’t be fooled by this basilica’s plain facade! Basilica di Santo Spirito is an incredible representation of renaissance architecture located across the Arno in the Oltrarno neighborhood. During its design, Brunelleschi considered not only the visual aspects of its construction but how the priest would move about the space. Many consider the original design to be some of the best work of Brunelleschi’s career.

The church is free to enter but, be warned for the summertime, it’s one of the only churches in Florence that requires women to cover their shoulders to enter.

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Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte

Located a short walk from Piazzale Michelangelo, Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte was built between the 11th and 13th century and overlooks the entire city of Florence. Similar to Santa Croce, the Abbey contains the remains of famous Italian men, including Carlo Lorenzini, the author of Pinocchio. The church is free to enter and is a spectacular place to watch the sunset, especially if Piazzale Michelangelo’s steps are full.

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Rub the nose of il Porcellino (the Bronze Boar)

The Bronze Boar, il Porcellino, is located near the Ponte Vecchio in the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo. Water flows from the boars mouth and it’s original purpose was to provide water to the merchants trading here. Today, the myth says that rubbing the boar’s nose will ensure your return to Florence.

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Restaurants

For my extensive list of the best eats in the city, check out my post The ultimate guide to [budget] dining in Florence.

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Day-Trips from Florence

As the hub of Tuscany, there is no shortage of historic and beautiful Italian towns to visit from Florence. Below are a few of my favorites.

Fiesole

Only an hour bus ride from Florence’s city center, Fiesole offers some of the best views in Tuscany and is well-worth a visit. The Monastery of San Francesco is located at the top of the hill, and it’s from here that you’ll find the best place to enjoy the view and the sunset.

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Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, translating to five lands, is one of Italy’s picturesque coastal towns. Although visiting is well-worth it, it can be a difficult day-trip to plan from Florence. If you attempt it, make sure to pay careful attention to the train timetables. The only way to navigate between the five towns is by train, and the trains only run until a certain time. After that, you’re pretty much stuck in whatever town you’re in until morning and Airbnbs here are not cheap during the high season.

The easiest way to get here from Florence is by taking the train into La Spezia Centrale. From there, you can take a train to any or all of the five towns.

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Siena

Only a short, 30-min train ride from Florence, Siena is one of Tuscany’s most famous cities for a reason. This spectacular town is filled with historic landmarks, beautiful architecture and magnificent churches. For 14 EUR round-trip, there’s pretty much no excuse not to visit!

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San Gimignano

One of Italy’s historic, hilltop towns, San Gimignano is located in the heart of wine country and is home to 14 stone towers. At the height of it’s power, the town boasted a total of 72 towers! San Gimignano is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a fantastic spot to sample local wines and cool off with some delicious, Italian gelato.

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Venice

The easiest way to get to Venice from Florence is by train to Venezia St. Lucia. The ride is about two hours, by direct train. If you plan to see Venice, I would suggest a day-trip of no more than five or six hours. Although it is interesting to visit and fun to explore the canals, there is not much to see in the actual city besides Piazza San Marco. You will need to budget more time if you visit during Carnevale, but expect the streets to be completely packed with tourists and locals.

Pisa

Another iconic Italian town, Pisa is only a short train ride from Florence and home to one of the country’s most famous landmarks, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. The tower is very impressive to see in-person and the town itself is charming. However, like Venice, you don’t need to budget a lot of time to see Pisa.

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I hope you enjoyed my list of the best to see and do in Florence! If you have any suggestions of your own, feel free to drop a comment below. I love learning new, interesting things to do in a city 🙂 And if you enjoy the blog, don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @madisonsfootsteps. Thanks for reading!

xoxo.

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