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“Florence is NOT just the Uffizi, the David, and the Ponte Vecchio…” Those were the words of Claudio Meli, the general manager of the gorgeous hotel J.K. Place, but I heard similar sentiments over and over during my recent week in Florence, Italy. About 10 million people visit Florence every year, and if you’ve been there, you know that the historic center is not very big, making for a swarm of tourists crowded into its center much of the year.
However, there are many more things to do in Florence besides the most popular sights. Should you visit those, too? Of course! There is nothing like seeing the David in person, the Ponte Vecchio is beautiful, and the Uffizi Gallery is a must for art lovers or those who just want to see some of the “biggies” like the Botticelli room (and if you go to the Uffizi, get this Uffizi Art History Guide for a more interesting and rewarding visit, and try Rick Steves’ Florence Guide or my favorite guidebooks for Europe: (click on the book image for details)
I hope that these suggestions give you a better experience there, one filled with many meaningful moments that add up to a dream trip! Here are my 30 things to do in Florence, some of which are still on the beaten path, and some well off of it.
1) Walk to San Miniato al Monte above Florence
First, walk down the Lungarno (the road that goes along the river) to Viale G. Poggi and take this winding walkway up:
Then stop briefly for the views at Piazzale Michelangelo before continuing up to the church of San Miniato al Monte:
The church is one of the oldest in the Florence area (from 1018) and a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture. It’s free to go inside–highlights are the mosaics above the altar and the small chapel in the back right corner of the church. Walk around the outside of the church, see the cemetery, and take in the views of Florence and the surrounding countryside.
On your way back down, pop in the nearby Giardino della Rose (Rose Garden) at Viale G. Poggi 2.
2) Visit the Palazzo Strozzi museum.
This museum has exhibits of contemporary and historic art by both Italian and international artists. Stop in on a Thursday evening for free admission to some exhibits and the weekly social gathering in the courtyard. People hang out on couches and get drinks and snacks at the café–definitely the place to be seen in Florence on a Thursday evening. Also, check out the bookstore’s nice selection of gifts and books for adults and children. Learn more about this innovative museum here, and find out about the Firenze Card, the best deal for entrance to many of Florence’s museums.
3) What to do with kids in Florence: Arte al Sole day camp
If you’re visiting Florence with your family, consider enrolling your children in Arte al Sole, an art and cultural day camp located at Palazzo Belfiore in Florence. (Or if you’re going to Umbria, try the Soccer al Sole day camp at an agriturismo!) The kids love it because they get to explore Florence with their peers, and the parents love it because they get a little “grown up” time while the kids are in camp.
Children will explore the artistic and natural wonders of this beautiful renaissance city through exciting and engaging activities in art history, fine arts principles, nature walks, sketching and painting, collage, architecture, sculpture, craftsmanship, and science. Each session includes a cooking lesson preparing regional dishes and a fieldtrip to local museums and architectural sites. (And check out 30 things to do in Italy with kids!)
4) Walk along the Arno River and watch the rowers.
Walking along the Arno River is a wonderful way to spend time in Florence–try going down as far as you can in both directions to see the architecture and get away from the crowds. There is a rowing club (“Canottieri Firenze” from 1888) right next to the Ponte Vecchio, so it’s common to see them rowing peacefully down the Arno.
And walk the Ponte Vecchio early in the morning or at dusk.
This bridge does get packed with tourists, but it really is a special place that you should experience once. It is believed that it was originally built in Roman times, but the Ponte Vecchio that you see now was built in 1345.
It has always housed tiny shops, and now jewelry, especially gold, is sold behind beautiful old shop doors.
The views from the bridge at sunrise and sunset are beautiful.
5) Eat at La Cucina del Garga
This place was recommended to me by a local, and I am so glad he suggested it because I loved this place and would eat there all the time if I could…excellent food, great atmosphere, friendly owner, and decent prices. It’s not far from the Duomo, at Via San Zanobi, 33. If possible, call +39 055 475286 to make a reservation and ask to sit in the “painted room.”
6) Climb Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower)
You should save time to climb either the bell tower or the dome of the Duomo for views of the city, but the bell tower may be the better option because it’s less crowded, cheaper, and gives you a close-up view of the outside of the dome. However, if you are particularly interested in the way in which the dome was constructed, choose to climb it instead and see Brunelleschi’s method of spreading the weight out with a herringbone pattern of bricks.
7) Go to the Mercato Centrale
If you love food markets like I do, this is something you don’t want to miss. The Mercato Centrale is an excellent place to see beautiful local food, have a snack, buy picnic supplies, or buy gifts. Learn more about it here.
8) Eat gelato!
I know eating gelato should be automatic when in Italy, but you may find yourself so busy in Florence that you’ll forget to leave time for gelato breaks! Some of the best gelato can be found at Vivoli, Perché No!, Grom, and Festival. This cone with persimmon and chocolate orange was from Perché No!
9) Visit Santa Maria Novella
In my opinion, this is Florence’s prettiest church. The façade is a lovely example of Renaissance shapes (except for the Gothic influence of the very bottom, which was built first). Pay 3 euro and go inside, where painted arches and an airy feeling greet you. The church is full of great art–worth a long look are Masaccio’s Trinity fresco across from the entrance and the Tornabuoni chapel behind the altar, painted by Ghirlandaio’s workshop including teenage Michelangelo. Read more about this church here.
10) Visit the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
This centuries-old pharmacy/herbalist/perfumerie is an interesting part of Florence’s cultural heritage. All rooms are beautifully decorated, even with ornate ceilings. There are so many historical objects related to the production of medicines, natural creams, and perfumes that it is also considered a “museum of tradition.” It’s free, so pick up the information pamphlet, ask questions, and see a unique part of Florence’s history. Open every day 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and located behind Santa Maria Novella church on Via della Scala, 16.
11) Visit an artisan’s workshop
There are many artisan workshops that you can visit, most of which are located on the other side of the Arno River in the Oltrarno quarter. A great example is Bruscoli, a workshop that makes both quality leather products engraved with gold leaf and traditional Florentine paper. The owner, Paulo Bruscoli, is the 4th generation artisan who continues the tradition despite the fact that leather products are increasingly being made by factories. He speaks English, and visitors are welcome (8:30-1:00 or 3:00-7:00, Via Montebello 58R). Fine leather products and items made with Florentine paper are sold at the front of the shop.
12) Eat pizza
Even though Florence is not as famous for its pizza as Rome and Naples are, the pizza is damned good! O’Munaciello (Via Maffia, 31, in the Oltrarno area) is quite an experience; I loved the 7 seasons pizza, which means that it was topped with whatever the chef wanted to put on it. Florens (Via San Gallo 40r, in the San Marco area) was a quick, modern, and inexpensive option.
13) Stay at J.K. Place
This hotel is gorgeous! The beautiful décor, central location, intimate ambiance, excellent restaurant, and friendly, professional staff earned this boutique hotel a spot on Condé Nast Traveler’s Top 20 hotels list for 2012.
14) Buy chocolate at Venchi
I have fond memories of eating chocolate in Italy, so on this visit, I stopped in many cafés to buy chocolates and kept them in my bag for when I needed a little something. On my last day, I discovered this elegant shop, located near Piazza della Signoria. I bought a few bars to bring home for family and selected many small pieces that you can pick out from bins and pay for by the gram. Everything was excellent, even the fruit candies.
15) Drink cappuccino (in the morning only!)
When I studied in Florence many years ago, drinking cappuccino was such an important part of my day that I was crowned “Cappuccino Queen”! But the cappuccino in Italy is so good that even if you’re not normally a coffee drinker, you must give it a try. Remember that standing up at a café is cheaper than sitting down, and that Italians frown upon ordering cappuccino after about 11:00 a.m., when they usually switch to espresso.
16) Experience beauty at the Palatine Gallery
If you want to see beautiful art but don’t want to deal with the crowds of the Uffizi, try the Palatine Gallery instead. Housed inside the massive Renaissance Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno River, the Palatine gallery has works by some of Florence’s masters, including Raphael and Andrea del Sarto, as well as non-Florentines such as Caravaggio, Rubens, and Titian.
17) Go to the Boboli Gardens
The Boboli Gardens are one of Florence’s better known sights, but I am surprised how many people show up in Florence not knowing about them. The gardens are really not to be missed, especially on a sunny day. The sweeping views, endless paths that take you past grand fountains, and surprising grottoes make for an unforgettable outdoor space. You can enter with your ticket to the above Palatine Gallery.
Keep walking to the very top and back of the garden for views of an olive grove and the countryside that surrounds Florence, and pop inside the small but lovely Porcelain Museum.
18) Find tranquility at the Bardini Garden
The Bardini Garden is not nearly as grand as the Boboli Gardens, but it is also much less known. When I visited late in the day in November, I was the only person! The garden offers exceptional views of Florence, and the flowers that were not blooming when I was there must make it very beautiful in the spring and summer. There is also a restaurant and cafeteria with a deck.
You can access the Bardini Garden either from the street in the Oltrarno quarter (Via de Bardi 1r) or by leaving the Boboli Gardens and walking a bit (see the map given to you when you enter the Boboli Gardens). Entrance to the Bardini is included with the Boboli Gardens.
19) Get off the beaten path in the Oltrarno
The Oltrarno is the area of Florence across the Arno River that includes #16-18 above. This neighborhood is less touristy and definitely worth a day of your time for a few reasons. Besides the above-mentioned Palatine Gallery and Boboli and Bardini Gardens, many artisan workshops are located there (see #11), and you can wander the streets just looking for workshops to peek into.
The area has many nice small shops, all less geared towards tourists, that make for great window-shopping (or real shopping!). Finally, this is one place where you can experience a bit of the “real” Florence, where you can see the life of the locals getting early evening cocktails with friends, eating snacks at a tiny bar, or sitting in Piazza Santo Spirito. If you like markets, visit the one at Santo Spirito in the mornings (except Sundays).
20) Go for grandness in the cafés on Piazza della Repubblica
Splurge a little and relax in one of Florence’s grand historic cafés. If you don’t want to pay to sit, order at the bar. The cioccolato caldo (hot chocolate) at Paszkowski is to die for.
21) Visit the Bargello National Museum
The Bargello is one of Florence’s best museums but is sometimes missed by tourists who are not aware of its collection or who miss it because it doesn’t exactly look like an important museum. The building dates from 1225 and used to be a prison. Inside you will be treated to a great collection of art, mostly notably sculpture by the best sculptors of the Renaissance, including of course Michelangelo and Donatello. Seeing sculpture in person is powerful, and these are ones not to be missed.
22) Visit the Pazzi Chapel
The Pazzi Chapel is a place few tourists know about, but it is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture. It was built by Brunelleschi, the same genius who designed Florence’s dome, and showcases the important Renaissance principles of geometric shapes and spatial harmony. It is adjacent to the church of Santa Croce, so pop over after checking out the tombs and frescoes of Santa Croce. Read more about Renaissance architecture here.
23) Peruse the food shops found on just about every small street
We all know about the quality of food in Tuscany, from its cheeses and salami to fresh produce and olive oil. Why not make a little time to visit some of the city’s tiny food shops and pick up some things to try? With shops this inviting, it’s hard not to stop.
24) Step back in time at San Marco
San Marco provides a more serene way to experience the art of historic Florence. It is an old monastery that you can tour to see the monk’s cells and the frescoes on the cell walls. Fra Angelico, a monk and early Renaissance painter, painted these frescoes to decorate the monks’ cells to give them with something holy to concentrate on while praying.
25) See the Early Renaissance at the Brancacci Chapel
This fresco cycle, located in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno quarter, is probably the best place to see the innovations that took place in the early Renaissance. It is stunning, but you have to make reservations (even on the same day), well worth the effort if you can plan ahead a bit.
26) Tour the Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio is the old town hall of Florence, built in the 14th century. Its grand interior, which has seen such a fascinating history of events, has beautifully decorated rooms and courtyards with ornate ceilings, wall tapestries, carved doors, and fine art including works by Michelangelo, Vasari, and Da Vinci (this one was recently discovered behind one of the Vasari walls in the Salone dei Cinquecento).
27) Check out Florence’s door knockers
Seriously? Yes. The door knockers of Florence are impressive but are easily overlooked with everything else there is to gawk at. Try to find a favorite–you might be surprised how many cool door knockers (and doors) you see!
28) Day-trip to Fiesole
Fiesole is a small town in the hills above Florence. Going there is a great way to spend a nice day, or even half a day. You can get there by taking Bus 7 from the Florence train station or at the stops at the Duomo and San Marco in Florence. The town was founded around 800 BC as an Etruscan settlement (the Etruscans lived in this part of Italy long before the Romans), but it was conquered by the Romans in 283 BC. Etruscan and especially Roman ruins are still visible. There are also nice churches, a monastery, and a square where you can enjoy sweeping views of Florence and the surroundings. The tourist office map shows 3 walks around the town and along the Etruscan walls–choose the one that’s best for you and soak up a bit of Tuscany!
29) Pop into Santa Trinita
This unimposing church just off the Arno River is worth popping into to see the work of Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio. Inside the church, the Sassetti Chapel was frescoed by Ghirlandaio and his workshop–it is interesting to note how he used the look of Florence and local people to depict scenes from the Bible. The altarpiece, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” is one of my favorites from the Renaissance. (The church is free.)
30) Walk the city at night
The city center is so small that you can easily walk to dinner, then out to have gelato, then for a walk around the main sights before going back to your room. Historic buildings are lit, making for dramatic views, especially of the Palazzo Vecchio:
Italians don’t seem to like to go home early, so why not join the fun and spend some time outside at night? You can warm up at a café, and if you’re lucky, you may even run into a night market or other outdoor event.
So there you have it: 30 things to do in Florence. Of course there are more, especially because I intentionally left off the city’s biggies: the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Duomo and Baptistery, Santa Croce, and the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi. What suggestions do you have for things to do in Florence?
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