On any Italy itinerary, Florence is an absolute highlight — the gem of the early Italian Renaissance. In the 15th century, when great artists like Giotto, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo worked there, they created magnificent examples of painting and sculpture that today still fill Florentine churches, civic buildings, grand palazzi, and world-class museums such as the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. Architecture prospered in Florence too — indeed, the city’s signature work of art is the masterful Brunelleschi-designed dome of its cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo.
Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and you’ll need several days to explore it fully. Aside from the most famous sights — Michelangelo’s David, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi — be sure to allow time to wander Florence’s quieter corners, like the exquisite San Miniato al Monte church or the Horne Museum, where you can see sculptures, furniture and paintings collected by Englishman Herbert Horne in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Florence is also a good base for day trips into the Tuscan countryside; you can connect by train to Pisa, Siena, Lucca and other nearby towns.
Florence is home to many Renaissance masterpieces. One of the world’s best-known statues, Michelangelo’s David, is the stunning (and colossal) high point of a visit to the Accademia, where art lovers will find much else to admire as well. A short walk away, a spectacular collection of paintings and murals by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico can be found at the museum (and former convent) next to the church of San Marco. Consider purchasing skip-the-line tickets from Viator in advance to maximize your time.
The city’s Gothic-era Duomo, also known as the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is one of the world’s largest. Entrance to the church is free (expect a long line), but visitors with limited time can buy tickets at the Museo del Duomo behind the church to ascend the dome’s 463 steps for a fantastic view of the city and the neighboring countryside. Views from the terrace of the dome (about halfway up the climb) are equally dramatic. Less energetic tourists can see much of the same view from the rooftop bar and coffee shop of the fashionable department store La Rinascente, located on Piazza della Republica.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo, in the city’s main market district, houses tombs of the Medici family, as well as the tomb of Donatello. The church is part of a complex that includes Michelangelo’s magnificent Laurentian Library and the stunning stairs leading up to it.
The Uffizi Gallery houses one of the greatest collections of (mostly) Italian paintings in the world, including Botticelli’s famous Birth of Venus, exquisite 13th- and 14th-century paintings, and works by Rubens and Rembrandt. Flights of stairs lead to the galleries, but if climbing them is a problem, ask for directions to the elevator. Because visitors are limited in number, it’s a good idea to secure reservations in advance to avoid the lengthy queues — a process that is easy to do online. (See Viator.)
It may be touristy, but you’ve got to see Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence. It’s lined with shops selling mostly jewelry. It’s also a great way to head over to Florence’s “Left Bank” — otherwise known as the Oltrarno. Here you’ll find Pitti Palace (Piazza Pitti), home to multiple attractions including the Palatine Gallery, known for its collection of Raphaels; the Gallery of Modern Art (where the collections, confusingly, date from the 18th through early 20th centuries); and Boboli Garden, which a gorgeous landscaped park/garden.
You could spend several days just visiting the city’s churches, many of which are packed with incredible works of art. In addition to those mentioned above, we also love Santa Maria Novella, with its stunning Romanesque/Renaissance facade and frescoed cloisters; Santa Maria del Carmine, where the highlight is Massaccio’s Adam and Eve fresco; and San Miniato al Monte, an exquisite (and uncrowded) church on a hill overlooking the city.
One of the city’s less-traveled attractions is the Horne Museum, a collection of furniture, sculptures, paintings and household objects gathered in a palace once owned by English collector Herbert Horne.
Another oft-overlooked museum is the Palazzo Strozzi, which hosts a slate of visiting art exhibitions in a 16th-century palace. Check the website (PalazzoStrozzi.org) before your trip to see what’s on.
Pisa, home of the infamous Leaning Tower, is a delightful Tuscan city that’s also on the Arno River — and a short train ride from Florence. You can also take a day trip with Viator.
Lucca is one of the most beguiling undiscovered treasures of Tuscany. This medieval walled city dates back to the time of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and later embraced the Renaissance era. Major sights to see include the Romanesque-styled Duomo; the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi, a collection of tapestries and other art in a historic palace; and the San Michele in Foro, a basilica located on a bustling, fabulously atmospheric piazza. We have to admit, though, that our favorite activities in Lucca include simply poking around the narrow streets, investigating gorgeous gardens, and shopping with locals and tourists alike. Active types can rent a bike and cycle atop the Passeggiata della Mura, the ring of ramparts that enclose the walled city. We also love sipping Lucchesian wine at a sidewalk cafe and lunching at Osteria del Neni.
Beach aficionados should head to the Ligurian resort town of Forte dei Marmi, the area’s most elite summer resort town. It’s also got designer shopping and a whole raft of restaurants along the beachfront. While there, visit the nearby town of Pietrasanta, a hub for artists and sculptors and a simply lovely small Italian town. These villages lie between the Mediterranean Sea and the Apuan Alps, and the white expanse you see near some craggy peaks is not snow — it’s marble. These mountains are the source of much of the marble gracing some of Italy’s greatest monuments. Indeed, Michelangelo sourced some of his from nearby Carrara.
People generally go to Florence for the art and architecture rather than the food (apart from the bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick and delicious cut of beef from local cattle). But beyond the most heavily touristed piazzas, it really is hard to go wrong in Florence.
There are some lovely restaurants like La Posta (near the post office on Via dei Lamberti). Reliable trattorias also abound, usually with menus posted outside.
Right near the Ponte Vecchio, Trattoria Ponte Vecchio is delightful and a great value. We also love Cammillo Trattoria on the Borge San Jacopo in Oltrarno. (It’s convenient after a visit to the Boboli Gardens and the Palazzo Pitti.) Near the Uffizi Gallery is All’Antico Vinaio, which sells huge, fresh sandwiches and reasonably priced Italian wines.
Not far from the Duomo is the Mercato Centrale, or Central Market, where you can browse dozens of stalls for everything from pizza and pastries to veggie burgers and fried calzones.
Add some sweetness to your trip with a scoop or two of gelato from Gelateria Santa Trinita, located just off the Ponte Santa Trinita (the next bridge over from Ponte Vecchio). Dozens of flavors are available, including dark chocolate, yogurt with strawberries and honey, and mascarpone.
Shopping in Florence
Leather goods — jackets, belts, wallets, even key fobs and waste baskets — are all over the city, with a particularly good selection at the “leather school,” which is tucked behind the Church of Santa Croce. Prices can vary, with the highest prices in the area around the Duomo. A caution: Leather jackets purchased in Florence may be beautiful, but stick with classic styles. What’s appealing in the Mediterranean sunlight can sometimes look a little “off” back home.
High-end Italian designer fashions are also available, though at high prices. But the most uniquely Florentine options are the many varieties of hand-marbled paper.
The main area of exclusive boutique shops in Florence can be found on and around Via de Tornabuoni (with shops like Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo and Bulgari, among others) and Via della Vigna Nuova. For antiques and funky artisan crafts, head for Borgo Ognissanti and the Via Maggio, in the Oltrarno neighborhood (the other side of Ponte Vecchio, toward Palazzo Pitti). And, of course, jewelry options abound on the famous Ponte Vecchio.
If you love haggling and hunting for unique finds, don’t miss the San Lorenzo Market, with hundreds of stalls located in and around Piazza San Lorenzo. This is the spot to snag a deal on leather jackets or wallets, or pick up ticky-tacky souvenirs emblazoned with Michelangelo’s David for your friends and family back home.
For designer shoppers, consider taking a tour or renting a car to visit the outlets south of Florence. The Firenze Outlet, also known as the Mall, is absolutely fabulous. The sleek, outdoor shopping area, incongruously located in the heart of the Chianti wine region, features shops such as Salvatore Ferragamo, Valentino, Giorgio Armani, Fendi, Burberry, Gucci and Tod’s — among others. The whole facility is much more elegant than those in the U.S. (there’s a swanky wine bar and cafe on site), and discounts can be as much as 50 percent.There is shuttle service available from Florence. Viator offers an all-day shopping tour that includes a lengthy stop at the Mall, along with other outlets.
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown