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A stunning view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo
Photograph: Shutterstock.comA stunning view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

The 18 best things to do in Florence

A visit to the Duomo? Feasting on the best pasta around? All that and more are among the best things to do in Florence

Written by
James Manning
,
Paula Akpan
&
Lisa Harvey
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Truthfully, you’re going to fall in love with Florence. It is less a matter of ‘if’ and entirely one of ‘when’. Will it be when you first clamp eyes on the famous Duomo? Will it be the Uffizi galleries that do the trick? If that iconic one-two doesn’t get you, the shopping destinations that double as historical sites will surely get the job done. The best things to do in Florence are a celebration of this famous city, a study in history where the finest hotels are former villas, and the museums are packed with era-defining works. It is easy to forget that Florence isn’t a Renaissance theme park but an actual living city, albeit one that will make you see the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a different light. 

Best things to do in Florence

What is it: The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, better known as the Duomo di Firenze, is the centrepiece of the city.

Why go: You likely already know, have seen or heard all about this famous dome. It was the largest in the world until 1881 and, as long as you don’t mind 463 steps plus some tight spaces, clambering up to the lantern at the very top of the structure will take you to the highest point in central Florence. Not yet out of breath? Head to the adjacent Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower) for another spectacular view of the city and the Duomo itself.

What is it: An absolute treasure trove of Renaissance art.

Why go: Ultimately, to gaze upon one of Botticelli’s finest pieces; The Birth of Venus. If you get in really early, you may just get the fifteenth-century painting to yourself, but don't spend too long at Venus's feet because there are hundreds more iconic works to see. We'd recommend setting aside at least three hours to navigate the horseshoe-shaped gallery and glimpse at all the unmissables. Plus, the venue itself is architecturally fascinating: built in the 16th century and designed by Italian painter Giorgio Vasari, the extending colonnades, linear columns and traditional pediments all contribute to the classical design – a perfect pairing to the astonishing artwork housed within its walls.

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Galleria dell’Accademia

What is it: The home of the famous Michelangelo's even more famous work of art.

Why go: Though there are more historical works of art in the Galleria dell’Accademia than you’ll find in most entire cities, this museum seems to be made specifically to show off David. Even if you aren’t the artsiest person around, you'll want to gaze at the man that 26-year-old Michelangelo carved out of a single abandoned block of marble 500 years ago and detailed right down to the veins in his arm. It’s one of the absolute must-sees in Florence, even if it requires you to wait in line for a bit; it'll be well worth the selfie with David.

What is it: One of the few places where you can take in the whole of Florence in one breathtaking sweep.

Why go: Around the Piazzale Michelangelo neighbourhood, you'll find carts overflowing with souvenirs and no shortage of buskers, but you're here for an unbeatable and spectacular view. Look out over the crumbling city wall in the west, towards the Duomo, Arnolfo Tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Uffizi Gazing out over the sea of terracotta is an unforgettable experience.

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What is it: Chapels built by the famous Florentine family give you everything that the inside of the Duomo doesn't.

Why go: Because the Duomo takes up all the popularity, the second largest dome of Florence is usually overlooked, which is a dang tragedy. From floor to ceiling, this beauty is awash with marble and shimmering jewels straight out of the movies. If you can break your gaze from the gorgeous frescoes, make your way to the smaller chapel for some of the most beautiful statues carved by none other than Michelangelo. The best part? You may even get this place all to yourself because it’s not usually on top ten lists.

What is it: A sixteenth-century pharmacy founded by Dominican friars.

Why go: Not content with being a European capital for art, architecture, political theory and craftsmanship, Renaissance Florence was also known across the continent for its herbalists. Many older Florentines still prefer the erboristeria to the chemist for treating minor ailments, and the more traditional establishments are wonderful to visit even if you aren’t in need of a cure. The most famous is the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, adorned with frescoes and chandeliers, chapels and a history lesson, all while selling beautiful creams, perfumes and even products for your pet.

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What is it: One of the oldest (and best) gelato shops in Florence.

Why go: Did we mention that Florence might have invented gelato in the sixteenth century? Whether the stories are true or not, the city's leading gelaterias are still competing for your pleasure today, starting with Vivoli. They started producing their gelato back in the 1930s when ice had to be shipped down in blocks from the Apennine mountains. Today, there is refrigeration, but that doesn’t mean the flavours are any less decadent. It's a good thing there are so many leather shops around because you might need a new belt after this.

What is it: The most renowned river in Italy after the Tiber. 

Why go: Touring on the water feels more refreshing than roasting under the Florence sun. Toscana SUP gives you the chance to try out paddleboarding on one of the most famous rivers in the world. You’ll be able to pass under the renowned Ponte Vecchio and see the city from the water, without interruptions from the crowds or the heat. Great for those bored of museums, this opportunity should not be missed, plus you'll have a great story and top-tier photos in tow.

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What is it: Two floors of foodie heaven.

Why go: Dodge the fast food places popping up around the centre of town and instead head inside the nineteenth-century Mercato Centrale. Here, you'll find vendors selling wine, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, oil and spices on the ground level, which is frequented by locals as much as tourists. The food court upstairs is a great place for groups that can never agree on what to eat. Expect fresh pasta, Florentine meat or vegetarian burgers, pizza, dumplings, a truffle bar, fried fish, cold cuts and gelato. To really enjoy your meal here, try visiting outside the usual dining times.

What is it: One of the finest places to listen to choral music and find an English-speaking community.

Why go: The choir of St Mark's English Church, located in a part of an old Medici palace, sings an Anglican Mass every Sunday, and the church also hosts concerts and opera sessions. If you’re staying in Florence longer than a few days, check whether St Mark’s is holding any exciting events. They routinely host book signings, round-table talks and other cultural events that really pull the English-speaking community of Florence together.

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What is it: Coffee and pastries in a swanky, historic setting.

Why go: In this city where some things never change, there are plenty of businesses doing things the old way. A great way to experience this is a stop at Caffé Gilli, which has been in business since 1733. Situated on the corner of Piazza Repubblica, you can sip your espresso at the marble counter just like the rest of the Florentines that stop by. Make sure to order and pay at the register first, then head to the bar with the receipt and ask the barista for your coffee (un caffè for a regular espresso, un macchiato for an espresso with a little steamed milk). If you want table service, that’ll be an extra charge; keep in mind that normally, Italians just sip the drink quickly while standing at the bar.

What is it: While everyone flocks to the Boboli gardens, few venture further to the Bardini, which happens to be the home of the beautiful staircase you can see from the Arno.

Why go: If you’re looking for some green space but want to skip the crowds, there are more gardens to wander through than just the jam-packed Boboli. The Bardini has two entrances, one in the San Niccolò neighbourhood just past the Ponte alle Grazie and the other up on Costa San Giorgio. Walk through the olive grove or, if you’re lucky, visit during April when the magnificent purple wisteria arch is in bloom. Even better, at the top of the baroque staircase, you’ll find the same view over the city but can enjoy it while sipping on a glass of wine at the beautiful little bar that is there.

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What is it: A piazza of markets and aperitivo destinations in the district of the Oltrarno.

Why go: Florence is full of stunning public squares but, with all the sightseers, not many will offer you a proper taste of the city’s real cosmopolitan life. For that, cross the river to the quieter Piazza Santo Spirito: home to street markets in the mornings and bars and restaurants full of locals in the evenings, it’s a local’s favourite. Pop into the church for peace and quiet or sit on the steps and people-watch. If you want to catch the most spectacular view, have a drink up on the balcony of Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

What is it: A stunning slice of Tuscan country life, easily accessible by public bus.

Why go: There's no denying the beauty of Florence, but if you're looking to explore further afield on the quieter hillsides, head out to Fiesole. A short journey north of the city by public bus (number 7) will take you to the pinnacle of this hilltop town that overlooks the valley of Florence and offers a stunning view. From the main piazza, you can tour a Roman theatre, the San Francesco convent (where you can even explore the rooms of the monks) or head to the wilder side of town and the hiking trails of Monte Ceceri, where Da Vinci first tried out his flying machines.

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What is it: The go-to for finding the best leather products in Florence is local markets and shops.

Why go: In addition to art, banking and political intrigue, Renaissance Florence was famous for its leatherwork. That tradition survives today, everywhere from the San Lorenzo street stalls to the high-end shops. If you’re set on picking up a new belt or a pair of gloves, you can head to the leather school behind Santa Croce church or find Massimo Leather for jackets and La Pelletteria Artigiana Viviani for handbags.

What is it: The famous building in Piazza Signoria is Florence's City Hall.

Why go: The “old palace” – a name earned after the “new palace,” Palazzo Pitti, was built across the river – is thronging with magnificent artwork and rooms full of frescoes. In this museum, you can see Dante’s death mask and even embark on a tour that leads you through the secret passages built into the palace. Make sure you climb the tower during your visit. On the way up to the top, you’ll be able to see the prison cells where the famous Savonarola was kept before he was executed down in the piazza in front of the building.

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What is it: One of the most incredible and unique museums and collections in Florence, hidden away on the outskirts of the city.

Why go: Few know about the Stibbert museum because of its location outside the city centre, but it’s a lesser-known jewel of Florence that deserves some recognition. After being a private collection for years, Frederick Stibbert donated his villa, gardens and his treasures to the city, and now you can tour his house and see his lavish displays of armour from the Middle East and Japan, artwork lining the walls and furniture all in a museum almost devoid of tourists. Standing in the great hall with a fully reconstructed army complete with their horses in battle armour will take your breath away, and the prized possession of the entire collection has to be the cloak that Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon) wore when he was coronated. This is also a great tour for kids, seeing that they boast a little space for interactive learning.

What is it: A public library that used to be a convent.

Why go: There is a seemingly endless amount of cafés in Florence with incredible views, but sitting in the throngs of tourists, with vendors asking you every five minutes if you need an umbrella or a selfie stick, sometimes takes away from the glamour of it all. If you want to indulge in a beautiful view of the Duomo as you sip your coffee, avoid all of the hot spots and walk down Via Oriuolo to the Oblate Library. If you snake your way through the historic building, you’ll make it to the café with a grand view of the beautiful dome, without the crowds or the tourist lines. If you’re visiting in the summer, you might delight in the live music played out on the terrace during late-night events.

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