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 centerpiece of the city.
Why go: You likely already know 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. If you’re 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. On the same ticket, you cannot miss the Opera Duomo Museum, which has recently undergone an impressive update and is now home to the “Doors of Paradise” that were originally on the Baptistery. Also expect to admire incredible masterpieces from the likes of Donatello, Verrocchio, Michelangelo and more.
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.
What is it: The home of Michelangelo's most famous work of art.
Why go: Though there are more historic 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 most artsy and even if museums usually bore you, 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. There’s something utterly impressive about this piece of history and it’s one of the absolute must-sees in Florence, even if it requires you to wait in line for a bit. Only recently have visitors been allowed to take pictures inside, which means that selfies with David are absolutely necessary.
What is it: One of the few places where you can soak up the whole stunning sweep of Florence in one go – for free.
Why go: Across the river and just above the San Niccolò neighbourhood is Piazzale Michelangelo, which throngs with sightseers, carts overflowing with souvenirs and buskers, but offers an unbeatable and spectacular view. Look out over the crumbling, old city wall in the west, to the Duomo, the Arnolfo Tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi across the river. Gazing over the sea of terracotta, tucked into the valley of hills that turn purple in the sunset, this is surely an unforgettable panorama. If you’re really lucky, you’ll even get a good street musician to set the mood.
What is it: Two floors of foodie heaven.
Why go: Dodge the fast food places that are popping up around the center 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 upstairs food court is a great place for groups that can never decide on what to eat. Expect fresh pastas, 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 as it gets a bit crowded.
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 some 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: 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.
What is it: The go-to for finding the best leather products in Florence are 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 in the daily leather market to 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: 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.
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 gelaterie 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’s 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: Coffee and pastries in a swanky, historic setting.
Why go: In this city where some things never change, there are plenty of businesses still 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: A stunning slice of Tuscan country life that’s 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 even 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 theater, 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.
What is it: The famous building in Piazza Signoria that has been the city hall of Florence and even residence to the Medici family.
Why go: Though many will be in line next door at the Uffizi, most won't know about the beautiful building just next door. The “old palace” – a name earned after the “new palace,” Palazzo Pitti, was built across the river – is thronging with magnificent pieces of 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 that make this place seem like it came out of a storybook. 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.
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: 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, make sure to check whether St Mark’s is set to hold any interesting events. They routinely host book signings, round-table talks and other cultural events that really pull the English-speaking community of Florence together.
What is it: The most renowned river in Italy after the Tiber, the Arno has always defined Florence. Our advice: take out a paddle board for a chance to see the city from a different angle while being active.
Why go: Especially in the heat of summer in Florence, touring can get exhausting but, on the water, it can feel a bit more refreshing .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 or just more active in their daily lives, this opportunity should not be missed, and definitely will give you a story to tell (as well as awesome photos).
What is it: Chapels built by the famous Florentine family that give you everything that the inside of the Duomo doesn't.
Why go: Though the Duomo takes up all the popularity, the second largest dome of Florence is mostly overlooked – but it shouldn’t be. The inside of the famous Duomo is almost depressingly bare after seeing the outside, but the treasure chest that is the Medici Chapel will take your breath away. From floor to ceiling, this beauty is covered in marble and jewels that you thought only belonged to 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 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.