Ah, Bella Firenze! This city will always feel like a second home to me after I spent nearly half a year there studying abroad. Quite honestly, Italy is home to countless towns, cities, and sites that it's difficult to narrow your list. But without a doubt, Florence should be on there. Yes, I am very biased 🙂
Florence is a great place to start your trip — the city is quite manageable as it's fairly self-contained (whereas a place like Rome or Venice can require lots of time spent in transport), while still a city and tourist spot, it isn't as fast paced as some of the larger European cities, and for the history — particularly of the Renaissance — it's a perfect base for understanding the architecture, artistry, and culture that began in this region of the country and has seeped throughout the rest of 'the boot'. Also, if you don't speak Italian, maybe haven't traveled to Italy before, starting in a mid-sized place like Florence affords you the chance to get acquainted with the culture in a place where a large portion of the population speaks some English, and you won't be worried about navigating an Italian highway or small hilltop town.
*Now, before you slide past that last part — no matter what country you travel to in the world, do your best to learn basic phrases and show that you care and respect the people who live there. A simple "hello" and "thank you" in the native language can go a long way. Most likely they'll respond to you in English, but that's totally fine! All that matters is that you try.
A Few Days in Florence
Here's how I'd suggest you spend a few days in Florence — both hitting some of the 'must-see' sights and also enjoying some downtime. First, I really recommend that you spend at least 2 full days here. Of course the more time, the better. This is also a walking-heavy city and I've laid out this guide to maximize the amount of time you'll spend traversing the city. I don't want this to just be going from one tourist site to the next, but more of a stroll around the city where you can enjoy the side streets and lifestyle.
Wake up early and grab a traditional Italian breakfast from your hotel or at any bar (cafe) nearby. Italians typically have a cappuccino and cornetto for breakfast. If you're like me and need a bit more to get you going, many bars receive panini along with their baked goods each morning and no one will look at you funny for ordering a sandwich at 8.00am
Line up at the Uffizi
Buy your tickets in advance to decrease your time in line (some ticket options bundle other museums or attractions, which makes sense if you'll get to them). Head upstairs to the Renaissance galleries. This is where you'll find Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rafael, Piero della Francesca and many of their iconic works of art. If you're an art lover like me, spend as much time here as possible. But, if you're tight on time, I'd suggest spending no more than 2 hours here.
Stroll over to Santa Croce
On your way, poke your head into the courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio** (just to the left of the Uffizi). Still the town hall of the city, the rooms inside boast some of the most impressive paintings and interior decor of the Renaissance. This is also the building where the infamous Vasari Corridor begins. And be sure to check out the Loggia dei Lanzi in the piazza, complete with Cellini's Perseus and Medusa.
My favorite panino shop (one that I dream about most days) sadly closed permanently during the pandemic. So while I can't suggest that shop, do grab a panino or quick bite from one of the restaurants or bars between Palazzo Vecchio and Santa Croce. (The fewer English words on the chalk menu outside the door, the more delicious and authentic your food will be!)
Finish your panino and then head inside the serene Santa Croce. This church is home to tombs of several famous figures: Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and memorials dedicated to other famous Italians such as Dante and Da Vinci.
Now, it's time for a treat! Stop by La Carraia for a gelato before heading over Ponte alle Grazie.
Follow Ponte alle Grazie to the end and then turn left. This road will bring you up to the Porta San Miniato and Piazzale Michelangelo. It's an uphill walk so be prepared for the climb, but it is well worth the view of the city. Catch your breath and then head further up the hill to San Miniato al Monte. This church sits at the very top, overlooking everything. If you time it right, you'll catch a glowing, golden Firenze at sunset.
One of the best parts of Italian culture, aperitivo. This is their version of happy hour, but it is so much better than what Americans think happy hour is. Bars turnover from coffee and pastry service to tables laden with dishes prepared at home. Typically, for the price of one drink you'll also get a plate that you can fill (and refill) with whatever you want. Aperitivo can easily substitute for a sit-down dinner, and you'll get to hang out with locals. Loggia degli Albizi does a great aperitivo.
Let's eat! If you held back at cocktail hour and are ready for a sit down meal, stay on the Oltrarno ('other side of the Arno') after watching the sunset above Piazzale Michelangelo. Weave your way in the direction of Palazzo Pitti for a meal at Osteria Cinghiale Biano. You'll want to order the pappardelle al ragú di cinghiale and bistecca fiorentina.
Visit il Duomo
The heart of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore is the pinnacle of Renaissance architecture. You'll want to enter Piazza del Duomo from Via de' Cerretani or Via dei Pecori as though you came from the train station. This way, you'll be met by the most spectacular view of the Duomo's impressive pink and green marble patterned facade. The colorful detailing draws your eyes up to the rose window and crenellations at the top. Pause to really take in all of the details and make a note of the matching Campanile and Baptistery as you walk toward the entrance. Step inside the heavy doors and walk around the nave. Pop down to the museum below the main part of the church for an overview of how this architectural feat was constructed over a period of nearly 150 years.
Do the climb! It really isn't as bad as some guides make it out to be. Yes, it's a lot of stairs, and yes, the stairs are slanted so you'll be bent to one side, but you get the chance to see the dome up close and personal. You can reach out and touch this architectural marvel that has been standing since the 15th century. You'll get to see the frescos inside the cathedral from just a few feet away! And the view from the top? Absolutely breathtaking. From the hills of Fiesole, the tiny green David in Piazzale Michelangelo across the river, to the bare facade of San Lorenzo** — you'll get to see so many of the places you've just been to in person from the air!
Wander around the stalls packed into this market and don't forget to rub the nose of the Porcellino for luck! All of the vendors here are so kind, and you'll be sure to walk away with quality Italian leather. Haggling is also just part of the deal, and they'll appreciate you trying to go back and forth with them. It's less about lowering the price than it is a chance to talk to them, try out your Italian and learn about their craftsmanship.
Ponte Vecchio & Palazzo Pitti
Once you've been outfitted with a new leather bag or gloves, keep walking towards the Ponte Vecchio and point out each piece of jewelry you'd love to have. Follow the street from the bridge until you come upon Palazzo Pitti. (Of course, pause for a coffee or panino whenever you need!)
Admire the lions flanking Palazzo Pitti and step inside this impressive palace. Room after room is filled with artwork, expensive baubles, and luxurious interiors - one of those grand old palaces dripping with wealth from centuries past. If the weather is nice, be sure to include the Boboli gardens in your ticket. They're a gorgeous way to experience the city and if you make it up to Forte di Belvedere you'll have a great view of the Duomo and other landmarks across the Arno.
When the interiors of Palazzo Pitti have worn you out, walk a few streets over to Santo Spirito. The piazza here is lined with bars and restaurants and is a great place to people watch. Order a few pizzas and a cup of house wine from Gusta Pizza and then enjoy live music and a drink at Volume.
Go to bed dreaming of this wondrous city and when you'll be back again!
Whether you're looking for a 5-Star hotel like a Four Seasons or Westin, a B&B, or an AirBnb, Florence has every option you could wish for. When searching, try to find something off the beaten path, away from Piazza del Duomo, Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Vecchio, or other major sites. Quite frankly, you may find a more authentic experience at an independent hotel or B&B. The front desk will be filled with family members or locals who will make your experience memorable with recommendations for places you likely wouldn't find on your own!
**Places to visit if you are in Florence for more than 2 days.
A few other ideas: