There’s no question that Florence is one of the most beautiful and splendidly Renaissance cities in the world, with a civic centre resembling an open-air museum and a postcard-perfect skyline. Yet many visitors miss out on the best parts of Florence waiting in line for the Accademia Gallery or the Uffizi.
Not that Michelangelo’s David (housed in the Accademia) isn’t worth visiting – if only to marvel at his truly sculpted abdomen.
But plan your time in Florence so that you have a few spare hours to spend strolling along the River Arno, wandering down back alleys of San Marco or haggling for antiques in the artisan quarter of Oltrarno. Just keep your wallet tucked deep inside your pocket while doing so – some of Florence’s inhabitants aren’t so easily distracted by the city’s beauty.
But bizarrely, it’s that human element that is such an important part of Florence’s charm. There’s a raffish quality to Florentines of both sexes, whether they are unconcernedly piloting a Vespa between manically tooting cars or knowingly admiring themselves as they stroll past boutique windows.
And it is this mix of culture and raw sex appeal that has always been Florence’s hallmarks, from the heady days of the Medici family (and the artistes they patronised: da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, the list goes on) to today.
In people and places alike, Florence can be summed up in one word: style.
Florence’s Top 10
10. Ponte Vecchio Florence’s first bridge across the river Arno was built in 1345. Just don’t think about how ancient it is while you’re browsing the shops sitting on top.
5. Boboli Gardens These landscaped gardens are dotted with fountains, walk paths, grottoes, sculptures and picnicking tourists munching on salami.
9. Campanile There are 414 steps (and no lift) between you and the top. Climb them for the most stunning views of Florence you can get.
4. Santa Croce The interiors of this church contain magnificent frescoes, paintings and sculptures. Better still it’s the resting place of a who’s who of Florentines, including Galileo and Machiavelli.
8. The Baptistery Inside you can see mosaics and a marble pavement of the zodiac – once you’ve got past the three sets of heavy bronze doors.
3. Galleria dell’ Accademia Michelangelo’s David is in here. Do you really need another reason to go?
2. Piazza de Duomo If the cathedral, with its bright façade and majestic dome, is the heart of Florence, its sculptures are the aorta – they were made by Donatello.
6. Bargello This former prison now boasts a treasure trove of sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, Cellini and Giambologna.
1. Galleria degli Uffizi Houses the oldest art collection in the world. By the time you get to the front of the mile-long queue, you may have aged considerably, too.
- Santa Maria del Fiore – The dome of this cathedral was built by Fillippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century.
- Piazza della Signoria – This downtown square is home to famous marble sculptures from the Renaissance and the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct.
- Ponte Vecchio – this Bridge over the river Arno was the only such bridge to survive World War II and features numerous shops.
- The Santa Croce Basilica – A Roman Catholic edifice that is also home to the tombs of such Italian greats as Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo.
- The Great Synagogue of Florence – The architectural design of this Jewish temple is based on the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
Florence Art & Cultures
- The Uffizi Gallery – The works of artists and architects such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Donatello are preserved in this museum.
- Palazzo Vecchio – It means "Old Palace" in Italian and is home to many famous statues, as well as the Florence city government.
- Giotto’s Campanile – This freestanding bell tower is notable for its sculptural decorations.
- The Pitti Palace – Contains five entire art galleries and eight separate museums, a treasure trove of Renaissance art.
- Silver Museum – This museum focuses on works made from precious metals and gemstones.
- Pegna – This small supermarket offers Tuscan specialties in cheese, coffee and other Italian food.
- Dolce & Gabbana – Located on the Via Piana dell’Isola, this store sells high-end fashion accessories.
- Mercato Central – The largest food market in Florence is populated by a shocking number of stands and an equally incredible variety of foods.
- La Botteghina – Nearby towns transport their handmade ceramics to sell them from this store.
- Officine Panerai – This old-fashioned watchmaker also keeps a supply of nautical timepieces available for viewing.
Florence Gay & Lesbian
- Cantina Barbagianni – Serves Tuscan food in a romantic atmosphere.
- Florence Baths – Offers a Turkish bath and an outdoor pool during the warmer months.
- Hotel Medici – Gay friendly and close to all the major attractions of Florence.
- Riva Lofts – An Italian buffet breakfast is served up at this open-minded resort.
- Tabasco – The oldest gay club in Florence.
- The River Arno – This short but famous Italian river flows through the heart of Florence and past many of its architectural wonders.
- Senese Clavey – The city of Florence sits amid the basin between these hills.
- Boboli Gardens – This scenic location is open to physical recreation, but includes many sculptures from the Renaissance and Roman times.
- Orto Botanico di Firenze – The University of Florence maintains this botanical garden and charges a fee for entrance on weekday mornings.
- Parco delle Cascine – Florence’s largest park covers 160 hectares.
- Stadio Artemio Franchi – This home to Italian football can hold more than 47,000 spectators.
- Coverciano – This is the central training ground for the Italian Association of Football.
- The Health Centre Vivarium – A public swimming pool also offers other healthy activities.
- La Fiorita Sporting Club – Tennis is popular in Florence, and this sports club specializes in offering tennis to its clients.
- The Circuit of Mugello – This curvy, test-driving location for the Ferrari Company is more than 5km long and hosts several motorcycle races each year.
Florence’s reputation as a walking city is too often ignored by visitors. Hop on a bus for more than five minutes and you’ll be way out in the suburbs, so use nothing more than your feet (and maybe a map) to scope out the best districts.
So you came to see the Church of San Lorenzo? It’s the one obscured by the carts of the street sellers vending souvenirs and peddling various leather goods. The market territory of San Lorenzo is inundated with side-street stalls, and doesn’t so much pulse as it does undulate.
Put your haggling skills to use at the bustling Mercanto Centrale food market and the Via dell Ariento, and make sure you know where your wallet is at all times.
Quiet, green, relaxed… the Oltrarno district is everything Florence’s city centre isn’t. Originally an artisan’s quarter, Oltrarno is still home to a few workshops and a good place to pick up an antique on the Via de Maggio – or a leather jacket if your haggling skills aren’t honed enough for San Lorenzo.
Piazza della Signoria
Florence’s civic heart is invariably swamped by tourists and the sense of confusion is only heightened by the mishmash of architectural styles. Renaissance splendour rubs shoulders with modern atrocities that have been built in the years since a Nazi commander blew up the buildings at either end of the square. Happily the Ponte Vecchio escaped destruction.
The Uffizi Galleries lie nearby, though save some time to escape the stifling summer crowds and explore the tour bus-free back alleys.
Once open countryside beyond the old city walls, San Marco is now home to Florence’s hipsters. This lively hub of good restaurants and bars provides the perfect antidote to a mad morning at the San Lorenzo markets and an afternoon craning over the heads of others at the Accadamia.
Besides David, the San Marco Church and the tranquil greenery of the Botanical Garden in Via Micheli are worth visiting before giving your feet a rest and your stomach (and liver) a workout!
The eastern edge of Florence provides a rare glimpse of the workaday city that tourists generally miss. Besides markets and workshops, the area is dominated by the great Santa Croce church and museum. Other museums include the oversized treasure chest of the Bargello Palace and the Casa Buonarroti, former home of Michelangelo.
Santa Croce is the brightest part of Florence after dark, and not just because of the hordes of trendy bars – many of the buildings are actually illuminated at night.
Florence Eat & Drink
If there’s one thing people know they love about Italy before they even go, it’s the food. Well, maybe also the accent… Happily, you can get both at the many restaurants the city has to offer.
Leo S Asking for a takeaway container might not be the done thing here, but you can still take a piece of Leo S. home with you – many of the artworks are for sale.
Alle Murate Make sure you request a second-floor table. Food is always better served with vaulted ceilings and early portraits of Dante.
Le Fonticine The owner’s own art collection is on display here. He might just be showing off, but it makes La Fonticine bright and welcoming nonetheless.
Enoteca Pinchiorri A meal at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Florence doesn’t come cheap, but Pinchiorri is almost a holiday destination in itself.
Osteria No. 1 From fried calves brains to creamy pasta dishes, Osteria is Florence’s No. 1 for safe and experimental diners alike.
La Giostra You can’t just suddenly decide to open an upscale restaurant and expect it to thrive. Unless, perhaps, you’re members of the Hapsburg royal family. Only 16 tables nestle between 16th century arches. The world’s most famous people don’t have to book in advance. You probably will.
Relais Le Jardin The waiting staff encourage you to linger at one of Florence’s most elegant dining rooms, though diners never need much encouragement.
Cibrèo No pasta? No grilled meat? If it wasn’t for the country-style décor, you wouldn’t believe the dishes were Tuscan at heart.
Taverna del Bronzino Vaulted ceilings, a tree-lined patio and melt-in-your-mouth ravioli. If you’re lucky, you might even get the lone table located in the wine cellar.
Ristorante Belcore The pork dish wrapped in lard might be even worse for your waistline than it is for your wallet, but you honestly won’t care.
The Uffizi’s Flag Throwing Company don’t just wave bits of fabric tied to a stick. Be enchanted by their skill at the Cavalcade of the Three Kings in January.
Florence’s Carnevale in February celebrates so many world cultures that the huge parade passes through about 10 different districts.
Can’t remember what you did at New Year’s? Get a second go in March for the Florentine New Year, which is more about art than alcohol.
A play of the Passion of the Christ takes place on Good Friday. 400 town residents participate, but you can just watch.
Easter Sunday is marked by an exploding cart at noon for Scoppio del Carro. If all goes well it means a lucky year ahead, so try not to lose an eye.
Maggio Musicale Florentino is the great-grandmother of Europe’s musical events, but she’s young at heart. This is the biggest cultural gathering in Florence, taking place in April and June.
June’s Calcio Storico is marked by a ‘Renaissance soccer match’ played by teams from four neighbourhoods. It’s a confusing combination of soccer, rugby, wrestling and 16th century costumes. The party afterwards is legendary.
The Florence Dance Festival has been celebrated for centuries in June and July. Styles of dance music have changed a bit in that time, though.
The Feast Day of San Lorenzo in August is marked by an outdoor celebration, with live music and free lasagne for all visitors. Dinner is served at 9pm – get in early.
They say art should be accessible to all, and in September it is. During Settimani dei Beni Culturali,all state museums in Florence open their doors for free.
When To Go
Winter in Florence is cold and wet, with temperatures dropping to around 2°C (36°F).
Summer gets up to around 31°C (88°F), but it’s the humidity that will really make the city feel like an inferno.
Spring and autumn are the most pleasant times to visit, with temperatures ranging from 5-23°C (41-73°F).
What To Avoid
Pick-pocketing is a huge problem in Florence. You don’t have to strap your cash to your underwear, just be vigilant.
Try to choose only a few museums. Florence’s abundance of art and sculpture can be overwhelming, and it’s better to spend a day wandering the eclectic back alleys than waiting in line.
Avoid visiting any large museums at midday. This is when queues are longest.
Florence is a walking city – you can stroll between the top two sights in less than five minutes.
Bike tours are a great way of seeing the sights and getting a guided a tour without seeming overly touristy.
The bus system is highly efficient, but unless you’ve made an extremely bad footwear decision, you shouldn’t have to use it.
Bike rental shops also hire scooters, but if you don’t park in a marked spot you’ll get yours locked and towed.
The Florentine landscape is made more charming by olive groves in the hills, and the flurry of palaces, museums and red-coloured rooftops dominating the skyline.
Cathedral Square or Piazza de Duomo is the heart of city with the cathedral's majestic dome lording over Florence. Its green, pink and white façade is the city's most famous landmark; the architecture shows neo-gothic style, richly detailed bas-reliefs and sculptures made by no less than Donatello.
To see more of his work and other Renaissance legends, the nearby Uffizi museum holds the oldest art collection the world has seen. Needless to say, the place is packed and queues outside are mile-long during peak touristy season.
The Barghello museum also has quite a collection of sculptures under its safekeeping. This former prison now boasts a treasure trove dating back from the medieval times. Here you can be awestruck by the works of Michelangelo, Donatello, Cellini and Giambologna.
Another church one must see while in Florence is in Santa Croce. Pay homage to Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini and other famous Florentines as their tombs are found in this Franciscan basilica. The interiors of the church also serve as a museum with magnificent frescoes, paintings and sculptures all in display.
Finally, across the Arno River, do pay a visit to the Boboli gardens within the Palazzo Pitti, once owned by the Medici family. Well-worth seeing if not just for the fantastic views of Florence, are the seven museums offering all sorts of fine craftsmanship of the Renaissance period. The gardens are landscaped with grand details such as fountains, walk paths, grottoes and sculptures such as a bathing Venus. Locals are wont to make it as picnic grounds as they sit down with salami on hand and wine in tow.
The biggest cultural gathering in Florence is Maggio Musicale Florentino, a musical event held around April and June. It is also one of the oldest in Europe, big names troop to Florence for this annual spectacle of concerts, big and small. If you want to check out museums without the burden of admission fees, wait for “Settimani dei Beni Culturali” in which all state museums open their doors for free sometime in September.
Religious festivals are also celebrated as the country is devoutly Catholic. In April, Easter Sunday is marked by an exploding cart at noon which is an old tradition in Florence called Scoppio del Carro. An elaborate ox-driven cart is led through a procession then goes up in splinters in the end. Legend has it that locals expect a lucky year ahead if everything goes well in the ceremony. The city's patron saint, St. John, is honoured in one special day in June with processions and fireworks at night.
- Winter (November to February) 2-6°C; cold and wet, with a tendency towards freezing temperatures
- Spring (March to May) 5 - 23°C; pleasant and mild
- Summer (June to August) 15 - 31°C; very hot and humidity is at its highest
- Fall (September to October) 14 - 21°C; weather starts to cool down as compared to the stifling heat of summer
Tourism in Florence is a feast for the senses! The capital of Italy's Tuscan region holds the prestigious honour of being the birthplace of the Renaissance movement. And to this day, art flourishes in Florence, situated on the foot of the Apennine mountains, blessed with warm sunshine. Art lovers take great inspiration from the immortal works of legendary names such as Da Vinci and Donatello,and there are plenty of Florence tours available to showcase their master pieces.
Make Florence your holiday vacation destination if you plan to travel in the best of what the world has to offer in terms of art, music, food and all the finer things in life.
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