Florence is a must-see city if you’re a big museum, art, and architecture person. In that way, it kind of reminds me of New York City. And even if you’re not a huge art person, you can focus more on the staggering array of options for day trips just outside of Florence. As you know, my sister recently visited Italy and after picking her brain, here are her Florence travel tips from when to go, where to eat and where to stay.
1. Avoid Going to Florence in the Summer
This is the most important piece of advice I can impart because it is fundamental to your enjoyment of your time in Florence, if you’re at all like me. When we were in Florence in March, our guide informed us that the already healthy population of Florence more than DOUBLES in the summer. Florence is a medieval city with lots of winding, narrow streets. And the last time I was in Florence prior to this trip, it was the summer. I distinctly remember being so overheated to the point where I got super dizzy and could not find anywhere to sit and cool off because there were just people in every possible nook and cranny of the narrow, often sidewalk-less streets. Welp, I sure learned from that experience! Let my mistake be your lesson, do yourself a big favor, and go in an off-peak season to avoid the crush of sweaty, cranky tourists clogging all the streets, museums, hotels, and restaurants. Not to mention, hotels and tours will be less expensive and more readily available.
2. The Duomo
The most iconic landmark in Florence has to be the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, popularly referred to as The Duomo. It is striking from every angle–from the multi-colored exterior, the remarkable marble interior floors, and the spectacularly painted dome. If you’re physically fit and not afraid of heights, you should strongly consider climbing to the top of the dome for a spectacular view. Be forewarned that even in the off-season, the Duomo will be PACKED with tourists admiring its beauty, so take that into consideration when planning your day. Try to go earlier, to avoid the afternoon crowds so you can spend as much time as you want staring up at the spectacular mural painted on the inside of the dome.
After you’ve gone inside the Duomo, head over to La Rinescente, which is a somewhat posh department store. Head up to the roof and grab a table and enjoy the spectacular view of the Duomo while you sip on a cappuccino.
3. The Baptistry
The Baptistry, located directly in front of the Duomo’s main entrance, is famous in its own right. Until the end of the nineteenth century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here. It’s one of the oldest building in Florence, but nobody is exactly sure when it was built. Check out the famous gilded bronze doors. These are the famous “Gates of Paradise.” Michelangelo supposedly gave them that nickname, and it stuck. Again, get there as early as possible, even in the off-season, you will have to fight off other onlookers to get close.
4. The Uffizi Gallery
One of the most famous and most-visited museums in Florence, and for good reason. It was originally built as offices for the powerful Medici family, the idea was to put the seat of Florence’s power/government under one roof. Over the years, it evolved to display priceless works of art owned by the Medicis. Once the Medici family line ended, it was turned into a museum. It has been open to the art-loving public since 1765. The collection of art is so extensive and the museum is so massive and gorgeous itself, that it reminded me of the Louvre in Paris. They don’t look anything alike, but the experience is similar. To save our sanity and to get the most out of our visit to the Uffizi, we hired a tourguide through a wonderful company called Art Viva to show us around. As it turned out, we were the only ones who showed up for the tour, so it became a private guided tour. Our guide was a lovely, extremely knowledgeable English ex-pat. She knew absolutely everything about everything. There was not a single question about the art, the building itself, or Florentine history that she could not answer. She even commented several times how lovely the museums were in the off-season, when you could actually move around freely. She said in the summer, the museums are so stuffed that you can’t move piece to piece or room to room until someone else moves out of your way.
5. Academia Gallery
We hired the same lovely tour guide to take us to Academia. We actually went on this tour the same day as the Uffizi gallery, so we got all of our art museum-going out of the way on the same rainy day. The Galleria d’Academia is an exceptional place, that is still home to art students, and, of course, the famous David sculpture. Our tour guide remarked that if you go in the summer, you will not be able to get close to the David unless you wait for hours. We were fortunate and walked right up to the David and got to walk around him freely and marvel at his perfection.
6. Ponte Vecchio
This is a famous bridge in the heart of Florence, it bridges the Arno River at its narrowest point. The bridge is believed to have been built for the first time by the Romans pre-1000 AD, and it was rebuilt in the 1300s. It has always housed merchants. Currently, the merchants on the bridge sell jewelry, souvenirs, and other knick-knacks, but it used to house butchers and fish-mongerers. It’s a big tourist area so watch out for pick-pockets here especially! Our tour guide told us that Florentines used to throw their smelly fish into the Arno River, and laughed, thinking it would wash up on the shores of Pisa, their neighbor to the West, with whom they apparently did not get along.
7. Go on a walking tour
We went on a historic city walking tour through Art Viva and absolutely loved it. Our tour guide took us all over the city, telling us all about the history of the city and how Florence fit into the history of the world. You absolutely must do a walking tour if you want to get a feel for the city–you’d miss out on a lot if you tried to see everything on your own.
8. Go on a day trip to Siena, Pisa, St. Gimignano in 1 day
This is a great way to see all three of these amazing places in one quick trip. Siena is an intact medieval city that was nearly wiped out by the Plague, but has come back to life. When we went, there was a Chocolate Festival in the main town square, Piazza del Campo, which is actually shell-shaped and believed by some to be one of the most beautiful medieval town squares in the world. Pisa is home to the famous leaning tower of Pisa, and St. Gimignano is a quaint village that you’ll love wandering around.
9. Do not miss out on the Tuscan countryside
There are loads of tours of the Tuscan countryside. Do your homework before you choose one, but make it a priority to go! The Tuscan countryside is so beautiful and there are so many quaint, unbelievable wineries and farms, you’ll wonder how any of it is real and not a painting. We visited Castello Sonnino Montespertoli and the Fattoria Delle Corti and did two amazing wine-tastings. We had a delicious lunch/wine tasting at Fattoria Poggio Alloro. All of these incredible places were included on our tour and transportation to/from was also included. If you’re a brave soul who wants to head into the Tuscan countryside on your own in a rental car, I wish you Godspeed. For me, I prefer to be shuttled around…I don’t have to stress with directions, and I can enjoy a glass (or four!) of wine without worrying.
10. Stay at the Mulino di Firenze Hotel
This was probably the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in in Europe. Period. It is worth noting that it is about a 15 minute drive outside of Florence’s city center, but we absolutely loved this hotel. It is a sprawling luxury hotel located on the Arno River. A former watermill dating back to the 1300s, it has been exquisitely and painstakingly renovated, modernized and beautified. I love the contrast of the historic character and the modern comforts of this property. Our room overlooked the Arno River and we could see the lovely countryside in the distance. I cannot find enough kind words to describe this hotel and its staff. They were at our beck and call, attentive, and anticipated our needs and whims. The rooms are updated, lovely, and spacious. Make sure to upgrade to a room with a river view when you stay, and enjoy the serene beauty!!!
10a. Ask your concierge for local restaurant recommendations: This is my suggestion for anywhere your travels take you if you want to truly experience authentic local cuisine and culture. Our wonderful concierge sent us to a local restaurant called Trattoria Pallottino and also called and made us reservations. It was filled with mostly locals sharing large tables and there was no English on the menu. Mama Mia–was it bellissimo!!!! This was one of the best meals of my life. We liked it so much, we went back four out of five nights and even went for my husband’s birthday dinner! The decor is no frills, super authentic neighborhood place, but the food is the main attraction here. The bruschetta was life-changing. Make sure you have a reservation, this place fills up and the customers tend to linger over the exceptional food and wine this place offers!
For amazing luxury travel tips for your next trip to Italy, check out our post on Florence, Italy and Prosecco Wine Country that we wrote for Forbes! Or this blog about Venice.