The capital of Tuscany, home to many masterpieces of Renaissance art, architecture, numerous art museums, and Michelangelo’s David, Florence, Italy — Firenze in Italian — should definitely be on your must-visit list when you come to this beautiful European country. A mere wander around the city will leave you gaping with awe, and possibly a sore neck from looking up. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982, the whole city is a living museum and a walking tour of Florence will have you admiring its frescoes and unique works of art.
Its airport is small, so it’s best to fly into the larger city of Bologna, or Italy’s capital — Rome. From both cities, excellent high-speed trains connect to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station in excellent time, plus Train Italia — the main train provider — has an excellent app to book tickets and check train times.
I was lucky to be hosted in both Bologna and Florence. Here, I share some fantastic travel tips and my personal travel guide for things to do when visiting Florence for the first time, plus some not-so-obvious tourist activities.
1. Palazzo Vecchio
Art, statues, history — it’s all here in Florence, and where better to start your exploration than the town hall, also known as the Palazzo della Signoria due to its proximity to the Piazza della Signoria. Palazzo Vecchio is a striking palace where art and history combine magnificently with Roman ruins, a medieval fortress, and Renaissance chambers and paintings. It’s also an archaeological site as it sits on top of the ancient theater of the Roman colony of Florentia, dating back to the A.D. 1st century.
This is certainly one to enjoy if art and history is your thing, or even if not — just stand outside and admire the 14th-century architecture.
2. Piazza Della Signoria
Piazza della Signoria is L-shaped and directly outside of the Palazzo Vecchio, showcasing many statues of historical importance to Florence, as well as being a great spot to sit in one of the many cafés that line it. Both locals and tourists flock here to gape at the Palazzo Vecchio, which is also en route to one of Florence’s — and indeed one of Italy’s — most important art attractions, the Uffizi Gallery.
Pro Tip: It gets very busy in the middle of the day, so to avoid being pushed in all directions, keep your possessions in a money belt under your T-shirt just in case.
3. Uffizi Gallery
Adjacent to the Piazza della Signoria is unarguably the most famous art gallery in Italy. Italians are proud of the Uffizi, constructed in the 1500s and housing many ancient sculptures and paintings dating as far back as the Middle Ages to masterpieces by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Raffaello, among many more and also Dutch, Flemish, and German painters.
If you just want to appreciate the building and not spend a lot of time on the art, or leave your companion to it, then head to the cafeteria on the second floor that has magnificent views across Piazza della Signoria and meet each other later.
Pro Tip: Open Tuesday–Sunday 8:15 a.m.–6:50 p.m., last entry 5:30 p.m. Busiest times of the day are 10 a.m.–12 p.m., so either go early or later in the afternoon.
4. Accademia Gallery
Also known as the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, although smaller than the Uffizi, it’s famous as it houses Michelangelo’s David, a 17-foot marble statue of a standing nude male representing the biblical hero from David and Goliath, who has also been considered something of a political figure in Florence.
Art connoisseurs will love the gallery in general for its large collection of paintings by local artists from the 1300s to the 1600s. You’re sure to marvel at the building’s design too, meaning you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of art in order to appreciate this masterpiece.
Pro Tip: Due to its popularity, it’s best to get to the gallery pretty early to avoid lines. It opens from 8:15 a.m. until 7:15 p.m. with the best times to visit early morning or after 5 p.m.
5. The Arno River And Ponte Vecchio Bridge
If for some reason you’re tired of art galleries and museums, then a stroll in the glorious spring and fall weather along the promenade of the River Arno — the river that cuts through Florence and flows eventually into the Mediterranean on the west coast of the country — is a pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon.
There are 12 bridges crossing the river, five main ones in the city center and the most famous being the Ponte Vecchio — built at the Arno’s narrowest point, the only bridge to have escaped destruction in World War II and with the wooden construction dating back to Roman times, Florence’s oldest bridge. Rebuilt with stone in 1345 after a flood in 1333 destroyed the original, the bridge was initially lined with butcher shops for about 150 years in the 1400–1500s but were replaced with gold merchants in the 1600s by Ferdinando I de Medici because the butchers would throw their waste into the river, creating an awful smell.
Today, you can wander over the bridge and still see the remnants of the original merchants, and buy gold jewelry from the shops there.
6. The Brunelleschi Dome
The largest masonry vault in the world, at 45.5 meters (149 feet) in diameter and 116 meters (381 feet) in height, the Brunelleschi Dome was built by Filippo Brunelleschi between 1420 and 1436. The history of the dome and how it was constructed is magnificent. It’s possible to look around the dome — well worth it — and to also climb it.
Pro Tip: Book your tour and climb on separate days. It’s only possible to book online, which is handy as it means you have advance tickets.
7. Mercato Centrale
Rather than always choosing a restaurant, grab a bite to eat at the Mercato Centrale — the Central Market where there are artisan food stalls on two levels selling Tuscan cuisine. Order your food and eat at one of the many tables scattered around. If you have a particular dish you wish to try after consulting its website, it might be best to reserve a table, especially over weekends and public holidays. But the whole concept of the Mercato Centrale is to pitch up and see what you’d like to eat.
You’ll also find local Tuscan meats and cheeses to take home with you, or in the northern corner, a seafood area where vendors sell fish and shellfish from around Italy.
Before or after filling your stomach, pop outside and wander around the outdoor San Lorenzo market where you can purchase leather goods.
8. Food Tour Of Florence
On the subject of food, you shouldn’t leave Florence without taking a food tour of the city. I lucked out by joining Eating Europe’s Florence sunset tour in the original working-class neighborhood of Oltrarno — across the river Arno where our gregarious and passionate guide not only took us to various spots to sample different cheeses, including with rare truffle, appetizers such as stuffed calamari and savory cheesecake, wine tasting accompanied by a traditional Italian delicacy that I won’t ruin the surprise and Tuscan beef peppery stew. We also had the opportunity to learn about the history of our gastronomical delights.
One of our stops allowed us to mix our own Negroni cocktail, reportedly originating from Florence in 1919 when, after having traveled to London and tasted gin, Count Camillo Negroni asked the barman at his favorite Cafe Casoni to replace the soda in an Americano cocktail with gin, and voila, the Negroni was born.
Samples of Tuscan delicacies are what you’ll come away with on an Eating Florence tour… it’s well worth it for a brief and interesting history lesson, too. And, as you finish up your tour, ask your guide for a tip on where to buy the best gelato. You can’t visit Florence without trying this famous ice cream.
9. 25 Hours Hotel Companion Bar
A stone’s throw away from the regenerated area of Santa Maria Novella, a lesser-known and more authentic Florentine neighborhood and minutes from the train station, taking up a whole block is the new 25 Hours Hotel Piazza San Paolino.
Once a convent in the 13th century, and then a pawnshop until as late as the 1990s, this epic conversion project designed to rejuvenate a community area, has a total of 171 rooms, 66 in the original monastery building next to the delightful San Paolino church, a small apartment with private garden and pool and, more importantly for non-guests, the traditionally Italian with an international twist, Companion Bar.
Open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., enjoy your Negroni or specially mixed cocktail of your choice in these unique surroundings and take in the architectural marvel of the building. Enjoy your drink in the historical Florentine way; standing on the pavement in front of the bar as your drink is passed through the buchetta del vino — literally “little wine holes.”
Pro Tip: It’s a good choice of hotel for a base on your Florentine adventure as it’s a traditional district, about a 7-minute stroll to the river, and has taken the theme of Florence to heart with cleverly designed Dantesque Heaven and Hell rooms and suites.
10. Santa Maria Del Fiore
Florence’s Cathedral, the Gothic-style Santa Maria del Fiore, started construction in 1296 and was completed in 1436. It’s a must-visit on your Florence itinerary as it was the largest in Europe when it was completed in the 15th century.
11. Piazzale Michelangelo
Another thing to do when you visit Florence, and a must-visit for any first-time visitor, is to spend time in the Piazzale Michelangelo. Although slightly farther from the city center, i.e., about a mile from the Brunelleschi Dome, the Piazzale is a square across the river offering superb views of Florence and its surroundings.
12. Pitti Palace
Located on the south side of the River Arno, a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Pitti Palace is a huge Italian Renaissance palace divided into five museums. They host a vast collection of works, such as the Palatine Gallery, with art from Florence’s famous Medici family; the Palatine Chapel; and the Gallery of Modern Art, with paintings and sculptures from Neoclassicism to the 1930s.
13. Boboli Gardens
Directly behind the palace, you’ll find the Boboli Gardens. Created by Florence’s Medici family, with its ancient and Renaissance statues, it’s a living museum in itself.
As it’s only 28 minutes by high-speed train to Tuscany’s second-largest city, Bologna, a day trip is well worth it if you’re spending a few days in the region.
Yet more culture, art, and museums await — the difference with Bologna, though, is its vibe. As a student city, it has a more bohemian feel to it, where locals and students alike intermingle well in the community together. There are 400,000 citizens, and 87,000 of those are students!
Bologna is most famous, however, for its UNESCO-designated porticos, or arches. In the city center alone — spanning from the main square of Piazza Maggiore, there are 24 miles of these stone arches that can be explored with a good guide.
Bologna Welcome organized a Portico tour, and I was lucky to have a lovely guide show me around and explain the history. Porticos were originally designed in the 11th century to help create more surface area and room for the private buildings as the city expanded its trading activities and the arrival of more professors and students of the university. They are a meeting point, and as you wander around the city, you’ll see lots of cafes and pavement tables where people congregate to drink their coffee and enjoy life and good conversation. In the past, as Bologna was popular for trading fabrics such as silk since the 1300s, several markets opened under them. It’s no wonder they’ve been designated World Heritage importance as they help preserve the cultural and social fabric of this unique city.
As you’ve seen, there’s so much to explore in Florence and Bologna. Hopefully, this article has whetted your appetite to spend time in this region of Tuscany during your Italian vacation.
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