This guide is intended to be read in conjunction with my guides to Florence food, accommodation and things to do, but I have written this for travellers who like to know a lot before they go and may want just that little bit of extra info. So here are some random observations I have picked up along the way...
Though a city, Florence is small and gets lost between being an Italian 'city' like Rome or Milan from which it is a far cry - it is nowhere near as busy or bustling - and one of the bigger Italian 'towns' like Sienna nearby or even Verona up north.
It's a medium size city meaning that the streets are easy and pleasant to walk around but that there is a hefty sense of commercialism around as you stroll past the stores...which are everywhere in the heart of the city. You'll want to watch out for 'tourist prices' at the cafes in the piazzas but you may also struggle to get a taxi on a Sunday...or really do anything much on a Sunday...a true middle sized Italian city that seems caught between aspects of the old and new.
It's definitely a city where you will want to do as much as possible on foot if you can. Many of the streets are one way which means that the taxis have to go around the longest possible route to get somewhere that you can often get to faster on foot because of the pedestrian cross streets or one way roads. That said, the taxis are not too expensive (although the call out fee does increase the later in the day it gets and is more expensive on weekends) and any restaurant or hotel can always call one for you. You will be given a number or series of letters depending on the company and it will be easy to identify your driver accordingly.
Some of my highlights in Florence - make sure not to miss them!
Piazzale Michelangelo, All'antico Vinaio and Yes To Go Rentals to see the city
Uber, Money and Tipping
As of my last visit (September 2019) we could not yet use Uber there.
With that in mind, staying in the city centre is worth the money. There are hundreds of accommodations in Florence so there is plenty to choose from. In my experience, (and this would be my only strong advice) the buildings are old and so 'old-looking' here is just simply...old. In 2012 my best friend and I stayed in the cheapest 2 star hotel we could find and it was retechet...I learnt my lesson the hard way - especially in the older areas like the San Lorenzo area remember this mantra - old is old. Read my accommodation and area guide here.
Italy uses the Euro and whilst there will be a few places that may take currencies like USD or GBP (eg. a restaurant) in Florence, it is very rare (and means you've gotten stuck in the midst of the tourist zone). You'll want to have Euros in cash with you for sure and most major credit cards are accepted everywhere (have a back up to an American Express - it isn't accepted everywhere).
On that, there are foreign currency exchanges and ATMs attached to or within banks all around the old town of Florence, especially around the streets between the Duomo and Piazza Della Repubblica and also as you head from Piazza della Signoria towards the Ponte Vecchio. If you need to exchange or withdraw money, you will have no trouble doing it in Florence.
Tipping - Italians do not tip in the same manner as Americans, their tipping is closer in similarity to Australians. For example, it is not expected that you will tip in a restaurant but it is a kind gesture to leave approximately 10% IF they have not already charged it on your cheque/bill. Often in Italy you will see a charge on your bill, usually called 'Coperto' for approximately 1-3 euro per person. This is essentially the tip. Most places will charge for water. Some/many will charge for the bread that they put down at the start of the meal. In many restaurants coperto will cover the bread (and will be charged regardless of whether or not you eat it).
Tipping in a taxi (or the like) - it is common for Italians to round up or 'keep the change' but not to tip a percentage of the fare. If you have suitcases you should expect to tip approximately 1-2 euro per suitcase on top of the fee for having suitcases.
At the Uffizi, A Fiat Parade I witnessed and exploring the Piazzas
General Florence Observations
The summer is really hot! You'll want to sandwich this stop on your Italian trip with a beach or water stop if you feel the heat, or, if your budget allows, book somewhere with air conditioning or a pool. The summer days in Florence are seriously hot and the old stones radiate heat from every direction, especially from under your feet. It's perfectly bearable, you just need to be prepared and be sensible in how much you plan to do per day. There are public pools you can visit and beaches you can day trip to (with effort) if you start to melt. The public pool was a hilarious experience for my friends and I (very different to Aus) and we had a blast finally escaping the summer heat...but be prepared for mandatory swim caps.
Book ahead! We will get to this part but there are a lot of tourist attractions for which you can book ahead in Florence and my definite advice is to book. Why waste your time in this stunning city in line at the Uffizi or to see David? With a bit of pre-planning you can pre-buy your tickets and ensure that you can see everything except the end of a very long line...and trust me...the lines can be long!
Especially in peak tourist seasons, many of the restaurants book out or you are left waiting outside for an excessively long time for a table because of the advanced reservations. Open Table can now be used to book a lot of restaurants ahead of time which is free to sign up to online or you can download the app. Some of the restaurants have their own booking system on their websites so if the restaurant is not on OpenTable, check the website or give them a call if you can. Whilst good to book ahead, many of the restaurants can absolutely be booked day of. Read my guide to food in Florence here.
Views of Florence from the banks of the Arno and the top of the Duomo and a sneaky peak of the cooking class I recommend at in Tavola
Most often if you want to do day trips or travel from city to city via train from the Santa Maria Novella station you can buy tickets right up until the day of at the station. Perhaps in peak tourist times the very popular routes will book out, especially on the express trains (for example to Rome or Naples, or to Milan). If you can book a bit ahead, Trenitalia is the way to go. If not, you can go and talk to them during your time in Florence at the train station as well.
I said this in the food portion of this Florence series as well but just in case you don’t get there, big tip - try avoid eating at the restaurants directly in the piazzas. The food is usually hiked up to a tourist price and is rarely of the same quality as the food just a street or two back from the main piazza. Head back into the streets to find excellent food at much better prices.
This tip will sound random but I hope someone one day appreciates it down the line. Pack shoes with a solid base or good sole because the cobblestones will eat the bottom of your shoes otherwise and they will become uncomfortable...especially if you’re there in the heat of summer!
Finally, this piece of advice comes with no health benefits but with all the best of intentions...throw your diet to the wind and eat all the gelato and drink all the wine. You will only look back with regret otherwise.
Practicing the advice from above...dig in everyone =)