The Best of Florence

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 most-visited destinations and the hub of Tuscany. Although I’m a Rome-grown girl at heart, I had the opportunity to live and work in Florence for 18 months 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 its 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. Keep scrolling for for a list of the best things to do in Florence!

For some useful Italian phrases and general information for visiting Italy, head to my post A Guide to the Best Sights in Rome.

Museums

Florence is famous for having some of the most exquisite art museums in Europe and around the world. Even if art museums aren’t your forte, you won’t be able to resist a visit to Florence’s finest.

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 costs €12, 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.

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, the original was finally moved 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 in advance.

Palazzo Vecchio

As the star of Piazza della Signoria, the Palazzo Vecchio is the city hall of Florence as well as a beautiful art museum. 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, to Palazzo Pitti on the other side. The museum houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Vasari and Donatello. If you love art, it’s definitely worth a visit while in Florence.

Loggia dei Lanzi

The Loggia stands in front of the Palazzo Vecchio and 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).

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 formerly served as the residence of the chief of police. Later, it was used as a prison.

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

Museum of San Marco

This 15th century convent is the best place to appreciate 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 monks’ individual cells, including the living quarters of Girolamo Savonarola.

At only €9 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.

Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens

Designed by the famous Italian architect and designer, Filippo Brunelleschi, the original Palazzo Pitti was 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.

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).

Gucci Garden

As the leather capital of the world, it’s no surprise that Guccio Gucci himself is Florentine. Located in Piazza 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!

Churches, Viewpoints and More

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 for my favorite churches, viewpoints and sights in this sensational Tuscan town!

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 Giotto’s 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 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!

The views from Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Il Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio, translating to “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 della Signoria. The bridge has survived countless floods, most famously the flood of 1333 where it was almost completely destroyed. The Ponte Vecchio is also 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 tourists and locals on the daily.

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 beautiful day in Florence.

View on Art Rooftop Bar

Since I’m forever chasing a rooftop, View on Art is my favorite bar in Florence! Although they do serve food, I’ve only gone for a “casual” spritz or glass of Chianti overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome and Giotto’s Bell Tower. View on Art is the perfect place to bring visiting friends and family or to wrap up a trip to Florence with a killer view and a refreshing cocktail.

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, I would say it’s a must-see in Florence.

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 biggest and best 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, but make sure to never accept the first price they give you. Almost all vendors in the leather market are willing to barter for goods!

Mercato Centrale

Mercato Centrale, Florence’s largest food market, is almost completely hidden behind the San Lorenzo leather 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’s 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 to this basilica costs only €5 and grants you access to beautiful works by Masaccio, Giotto, Filippino Lippi, Duccio di Buoninsegna and Ghirlandaio.

Piazza Santo Spirito and Basilica di Santo Spirito

Don’t be fooled by this basilica’s plain facade! In the Oltrarno neighborhood, Basilica di Santo Spirito is an incredible representation of renaissance architecture. During its design, Brunelleschi considered not only the visual aspects of its construction but how the priests 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, it’s one of the only churches in Florence that requires women to cover their shoulders upon entry.

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. 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!

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. Legend says that rubbing the boar’s nose will ensure your return to Florence.

Where to Eat in Florence

For my list of the best eats in Florence, check out my post The Ultimate Guide to Dining in Florence.

Day Trips from Florence

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

Fiesole

Fiesole offers some of the best views in Tuscany and is definitely worth a visit. The Monastery of San Francesco sits at the top of the hill and is the best place to enjoy the views and the sunset. Only an hour bus ride from Florence, Fiesole is easy to fit into any itinerary!

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, translating to five lands, is one of Italy’s picturesque coastal towns. Although I would definitely suggest adding it to your itinerary, it can be difficult to plan. 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 they 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 anything but cheap.

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

Siena

Only a short, 30 minute train ride from Florence, Siena is one of Tuscany’s most famous towns. It’s is filled with historic landmarks, beautiful architecture and magnificent churches. For €14 round-trip, there’s pretty much no excuse not to visit Siena!

San Gimignano

Another of Italy’s hilltop towns, San Gimignano is 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. It’s also the location of the best gelato in the world!

Venice

The easiest way to get to Venice from Florence is by train to Venezia St. Lucia. The ride only takes 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 do in the actual city besides Piazza San Marco. However, you will need more time if you visit Venice during Carnevale. Don’t be surprised if the streets are completely packed with tourists and locals!

Pisa

Only a short train ride from Florence, Pisa is home to one of Italy’s most famous landmarks, The Leaning Tower. 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.

If you’re traveling around Italy, make sure to check out my related posts A Beginner’s Guide to the Amalfi Coast, 24 Hours in Milan, When in Rome…EAT as the Romans DoA Guide to the Best Sights in Rome and The Ultimate Guide to Dining in Florence.

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. And if you enjoy the blog, don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @madisonsfootsteps.

xoxo.

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