There is no way that you will have time to do everything in Florence in one trip - I have been 7 times and spent months there at a time and still have a long to do list for when I return! So here are my absolute must-do's to ensure that you don't leave the city without hitting the highlights.
Number 1: The view from Piazzale Michelangelo
This is my favourite spot in the whole city, if not in Europe. Standing at the top and looking out over this stunning old city, it feels like time stands still. You can see where time has wearied the old town, and yet, somehow where it should blemish, it seemingly thrives in this history. You look out at the Boboli Gardens, across the Pitti Palace and far beyond the duomo, the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, and far into the surrounding hills. And through all that, the Arno runs beneath bridge after bridge after bridge. To me, this is one of the most magical spots in the whole world and if you go at sunset, you'll see the golden streaks of the city just beaming and I hazard a guess, agree with me. No trip to Florence is complete without a trip up to this piazza for me.
You can choose to walk up (word of warning, it is steep but it is a well marked track of stairs that I have done and it is quite the reward when you get up) or it is very easy to take a taxi, a bus or a sightseeing bus to the top.
I'd recommend stopping by one of the supermarkets/grocery stores if you're in the mood on your way to pick up a little picnic. It's a pretty magical picnic spot!
Photos from a couple of my visits - I won't go to Florence without at least one trip up there
Number 2: Explore the Streets...particularly using fun transport
The best thing to do in Florence is just to wander and see what you find/people watch. That said, the more information that you can go out with here, the better because around every corner is a little sneaky bit of history waiting to be discovered. You can explore the streets on foot of course, or I'd recommend hiring a segway or eco-car if you're up for it. There are of course tours that you can take throughout the city but if you prefer to go out on your own adventure, companies in Florence will rent you these modes of transport without being on a tour.
Yes To Go is one of these companies. I've used them a few times and can HIGHLY recommend them! We hired this little eco-car and they brought it to the hotel, showed us how to use it, left us to run our own tour with a little map and came back to pick it up when we were done. Knowing my way around Florence definitely added to this experience as we used this great little car to drive from hot spot to hot spot and knew the roads to take. We even drove up to Piazzale Michelangelo - that was ambitious to be honest but totally worth it - we laughed the whole way up the steep roads wondering if the car would make it and when it of course did, we were treated to the epic views. We got the car on a boiling hot day when it would have been uncomfortable for us to walk the streets for so long - this was our perfect way to get everything in.
We loved it!! It was SO easy and is hands down one of the best days I've ever had in Florence.
Number 3: Spend Some Time in Surrounding Tuscany
Florence can be a great place to base yourself to go and see a lot of Italy from around you. I'll write a lot more about day trips but I would definitely recommend spending time in surrounding Tuscany - especially in the rolling hills sunflower lined wineries - it's just gorgeous out there.
I have been so lucky to have such varied trips through Tuscany. Sure, you can go and hold up the Tower of Pisa for a photo with thousands of other tourists, but personally, that wasn’t my highlight (way too many tourists for me!). I have taken a few day trips that have led me to wineries that have been passed down through generations of family members, drank way too much grappa with a wonderful nonno, visited the Pope’s ancient baths, made cheese by hand (that stank as much as you would assume), learnt about the traditional borders of the Contrade from proud local Sienna residents in the days between the two Palios, and so much more. Tuscany is a region so rich in tradition, particularly as it relates to food and to family and it is such a wonderful area to spend time in.
Number 4: Firenze Gelato Festival
If you are lucky enough to be in Florence during the annual Gelato Festival, you are in for such a treat! Held annually (usually April/May), this event takes place across multiple piazzas due to the insane number of gelato creators from all around the country (and beyond) who come to Florence to display their gelato and have it tasted by the masses. When I was there for it years ago you could buy a gelato pass so that you could go and taste a variety of flavours - it was fabulous! There are so many innovative flavours and creations to enjoy...if you are there for this festival, allocate it a substantial amount of time - it is well worth it!
Number 5: Take a Cooking Class
I hate cooking - just thought I should put that out there for anyone who saw this idea and went ‘no way, not on vacation!’ That said, cooking classes are such a wonderful way to get insight into local cuisine and often to get to meet wonderful people whilst travelling. I may not like to even so much as enter the kitchen in my house when avoidable (hehe) but when travelling, I am first up to jump at a cooking class or any foodie experience.
In Florence, if you are looking for affordable and really friendly, easy to follow cooking classes, I would highly recommend A Tavola Cooking school. They have classes to suit a variety of levels of chef (including super basic for people like me) and also have market tours available if you want to go out and learn about the produce as well. You can also select a class based on how many courses you want to cook so time doesn’t need to be a major factor for you if you don’t want it to be. You cook in a commercial style kitchen especially set up for the cooking school, and then dine downstairs in a great room surrounded by wine whilst eating the fruits of your labour (and drinking wine).
There are lots of cooking schools but I have consistently gone back to this one since I was first introduced to the delightful team there. I also met some of my greatest friends there and so this place is definitely special to me. Would recommend!
Things To Do
There is so much else to do in Florence of course! Here are more of my tips.
Do as many of these as you think you will genuinely find interesting - Europe is packed with some of the world's greatest museums and art galleries but so often I hear people's travel plans riddled with museum after museum to the point that they know as well as I do that they aren't going to enjoy any of them. Rather, go to as many as you realistically want to see in a day and stop there having loved what you have seen rather than over-done too many and not thoroughly enjoyed them all.
The Uffizi - make sure to pre-buy tickets that include skipping the line. The art here is world class and definitely worth a trip.
Galleria dell'Accademia - the main attraction here is to the Statue of David. Though the rest of the museum contains hundreds of sculptures and artworks, David is unquestionably the star of this show.
The Vasari Corridor - Though I have yet to have the opportunity to do this, Art and history lovers may want to embark on the tour of Vasari Corridor which connects the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti and which is lined with art in the elevated old passageway.
The Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens - Though both are interesting, the gardens here really had my heart as a beautiful way to spend a summer's day. They also really won me over as I had the incredible opportunity to see a ballet here in the Pitti Palace courtyard under the stars and that was truly sensational!!
The Palazzo Vecchio Museum and Tower - set in the middle of Piazza della Signoria, this museum features Florentine treasures and is a symbol of political and militaristic prowess in Florence.
Casa Di Dante - This museum is mainly interesting to understand what life in Florence was like back in Dante's time and what inspired him to write in his very impassioned ways. This is the site where he was born and his works are exhibited here.
There are about a hundred museums in Florence - these are some of the more interesting or memorable of those I have been to.
The Gucci Museum - this one really is only for fashion lovers. I went with friends and I was certainly interested in the history of the brand and how it came to be but I wouldn't say that this is an unmissable Florence attraction unless you're a fashion enthusiast in which case, there are some really incredible treasures in this museum.
Go to a Fiorentina Game
Grab your purples and hit up a Fiorentina Game for one of the most authentic experiences in town...especially if you get the cheap seats up back where the crowd is wild and the atmosphere is buzzing! I am not a sport person in the slightest but when friends suggested we go I was happy to tag along and see whether a European soccer game lived up to the hype. My gosh!! It was so exciting! The sea of purple was all encompassing and the screams of the crowd just engulfing - it was a very affordable afternoon with a totally memorable experience at the heart of it and sport fans or not, I would highly recommend it just for an insight into the heart and soul of the country.
A really popular thing for tourists in Florence to do is to climb to the top of the Duomo or the Bell Tower. I have only climbed the Duomo and must admit, I really do not recommend this as an activity and here is why...the most striking part of the Florence view is the Duomo and if you are standing on it...well, you can't see it. See, it's not like the Eiffel Tower where when you stand on it you look out at 10 other major Parisian landmarks. In Florence, there are some beautiful other churches but Florence has one face, and it is that of the Duomo. It is a very claustrophobic and steep climb at times and to be honest, the view is not a patch on that of the view at Piazzale Michelangelo.
So, climbers, climb to Michaelangelo or if you're in the mood for a longer walk (8.5km from Fiesole to Santa Maria Novella), take the bus to Fiesole and walk back - the view from this nearby town is beautiful!
Personal experience and no doubt many people love climbing the duomo, I personally was just disappointed.
Florence has a very active nightlife. If you're looking for a party scene, it is important to quickly find out which night is now popular where - every nightclub in Florence has a night of the week for which they are the 'it' place. For example, Club 21 used to be Wednesday nights (it's been years though...please check with a local for up to date info). Make sure when you're asking about where to go not just to ask where but to ask when...a really cool club will be totally empty on the wrong nights.
I've spoken a few times about using Florence as a base from which to explore Italy. So where are the best day trips? From Florence you can make a great day out of adventures through Tuscany - for example, to Sienna and San Gimignano, or through the Chianti region. Tour groups like Caf tours are popular if you want to go on a big group tour to do that, or if you're young and looking for others your age to do this with, look into Florence for Fun* as a great way to explore from Florence. Beyond these tours though you can also make it in a day to:
- The Cinque Terre
- The Tuscan coast
Though tour groups will take you to almost all of these, you can also just buy a train ticket and go yourself for the day if that is your preference. Especially to somewhere like Lucca, I personally don't think that there is any better way to see the city than just to jump off the train, grab a gelato and see where the afternoon takes you.
You can’t go wrong in Florence - if you do nothing but grab a gelato and sit on the banks of the Arno, or in a piazza people watching, you’re in for a great time.
* When I was 18 and 19 and studying in Florence I took a lot of tours with Florence for Fun and they were fabulous for me then!! I went to Venice, the Cinque Terre, Interlaken and Bern (Switzerland), and on Tuscan day tours with them and they were fabulous trips with lots of people around my age (I was on the younger end of all my trips...they are usually college exchange students) to explore with. On these trips I met fantastic friends who I am still in touch with (including one friend who I met sitting next to on a bus trip to Venice and now will be her Maid of Honour at her wedding next year - I’m telling you, awesome people, friends forever!) and saw parts of the world I may not have explored yet on my own. If you’re a young traveller or a student heading to Florence, look them up - they have like a million different tours, do them =)...ps, this is not sponsored but how can you not sing the praises of a company that introduces you to friends like that?