A Guide to Florence

The Tuscan region is covered in hillsides with olive groves and vineyards. Photo by Meg Williams.

It’s hard to put into words exactly how special of a city Florence is. If you follow along on our Instagram, you may have noticed that last spring I spent four months living in the capital of Tuscany surrounded by world-class art, mouth-watering food and spectacular views. When I chose to study abroad in Florence I didn’t realize how quickly it would become a second home to me. At first the city is intimidating. The cobblestone streets are so narrow I often found myself wondering if small delivery trucks would fit down them, or crush me against the buildings in the process. The alleys all look the same, and the buildings are tall enough to make you sometimes feel as though you are in a labyrinth with no escape. There is no feeling more spectacular though than wandering through the endless paths of small streets to stumble upon the Duomo.

The Florence Cathedral was completed in 1436. Photo by Meg Williams.

Tears instantly filled my eyes at my first glimpse of the white, pink and green marble covered cathedral. I found myself on the brink of tears many times during my first week in Florence. I think partially because I was grappling with the idea I would not be home for four months, but mostly because every inch and detail of the city is breathtaking. There is beauty in the the old pale yellow and brown buildings that line each street, the mountains off in the distance and the view down the Arno while standing on the Ponte Vecchio. Florence regularly left me in a state of wonderment. The city is a feast for the eyes. In this guide, I will give you all of my recommendations and tips for my favorite city, starting with how to make the most of your time in Italy.

How to Get There

Every train ride in Italy comes with gorgeous countryside views that are worth the trip alone. Photo by Meg Williams.

One of the worst ways to get to Florence is flying into the airport. Since it is so small, flights in and out are often cancelled or diverted to Rome or Bologna. If this happens to you, the airline will put you on a bus to your destination. The process of finding the bus and making it on time to connecting flights is a big headache that is easily avoidable. There are many international airports surrounding Florence that are often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly into, offer direct flights to and from the United States and are only a quick train ride away from Florence.

The train transportation in Italy is unbeatable. It is fast, reliable and affordable. The two main companies are Italo and Trenitalia. Trenitalia is usually more expensive than Italo. A great way to experience Italy is to fly into Milan. Spend a couple days there then take the train to Venice, Florence and finish off in Rome for a multi-city tour of Italy.

If you do fly into Florence, you have several options to make your way to the city center. The cheapest is the new tram line that just opened up in February. It costs 1 euro 50, and takes about 20 minutes to get to Santa Maria Novella. You can also take the bus. It costs 6 euros and drops you at SMN as well. Airport taxis have a flat rate of 22 euros, and will take you anywhere in the city.

Where to Stay

Don’t forget to stop and enjoy the Arno when you are crossing the city’s bridges. Photo by Meg Williams.

I was lucky enough to stay in a beautiful apartment while abroad which allowed me to have the full Florence experience. Many people think when they go to Florence they have to stay in the city center, but you might not realize how close in proximity everything is to each other. Everything you are looking to see will be a 10-to-30 minute walk from point to point. Staying oltrarno or “across the Arno” is the best way to be immersed in local life and avoid the crowds while only being steps away from the city’s highlights.

These are the five neighborhoods you need to know for your trip.

  • The Historic Center
  • Santa Croce
  • Santa Maria Novella
  • San Frediano
  • Santo Spirito

In the bar, use the icon in the upper-left corner of the map to explore the neighborhood pins below for highlights of each area to determine where you want stay. This map also includes the locations of sights, museums, restaurants and bars listed in this guide.

What to Do

Sights to See

Near the City Center: City center sites are the most popular with tourists.

  • The Duomo: “Daily Duomo” is a real thing, and your vacation will be better by embracing this ritual of visiting the Duomo each day of your trip. It is the most famous and stunning landmark in Florence that wows morning, afternoon and night. Choose one day with great weather before your trip, and book your ticket to climb to the top of Bruneschelli’s dome for the best view of Florence (if you are afraid of heights this is not for you). With your 18 euro ticket you also gain entry to the bell tower, baptistry and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to be used within 72 hours all without waiting in line.

The best time to see the Duomo is at night when many tourists are not around. Photos by Meg Williams.

  • Ponte Vecchio: Literally meaning “the old bridge,” the Ponte Vecchio was once the only bridge to cross the Arno connecting the two sides of Florence. Today the bridge is crowded with tourists perusing store windows filled with diamond and gold jewelry. It is worth walking over to see the shops and arch covered view of the river, but afterward steer clear of this historic landmark, and use one of the many other bridges that aren’t overflowing with people.
  • Piazza della Signoria: On your walk from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio you will find yourself in a large square surrounded by famous sculptures, the Fountain of Neptune and Palazzo Vecchio. This is Piazza della Signoria. While most of the museums in Florence cost money to enter, a stroll through here is completely free, and a great way to get a taste of Florence’s art scene.
  • Piazza della Republica: I like to call this Florence’s fair square. Located right next to the Duomo, Piazza della Republica is the center of where the mainstream and luxury shopping areas collide. This energetic, lively spot is lined by outdoor cafes. It is always filled with men selling roses, Polaroid pictures and glow-up orbs flying through the air. The carousel centerpiece is best ridden at night along to the music of a man playing Ed Sheeran on his accordion. I will always have a soft spot for the excitement coursing through this square at all hours of the day.
  • Piazzale degli Uffizi: Much like Republica, this alleyway outside of the Uffizi Gallery comes to life everyday with street performers covered in white paint and cloth draped to make them look like marble statues. There are also a handful of artists who sit here and sell their original watercolor paintings of Florence. The local art makes for beautiful souvenirs and is very affordable.

Oltrarno: The best time to visit gardens is in the spring when the flowers and trees begin to bloom.

Pack a lunch with cheese, meats and bottle of wine for a Boboli Garden picnic. Photos by Meg Williams.

  • Boboli Gardens: You could easily spend a day or half day exploring these massive gardens once belonging to the Medici family. To enter, you buy either a combined ticket with Pitti Palace entry or a solo ticket. Inside there are many hidden grottos, fountains and flower-lined pathways to discover.
  • Palazzo Pitti: Most famously known for being the home to many of Tuscany’s rulers, including the Medici’s, this royal residence is now comprised of four different museums run by the Uffizi Gallery. Some pieces featured on display in the palace are from the Medici’s art collection.

Bardini Garden is smaller than Boboli, but its well worth a visit to see the wysteria. Photos by Meg Williams.

  • Bardini Garden: This garden is a hidden gem. All of the pictures you see of a vibrant purple wysteria-covered archway in Florence are taken here. The stone staircase in the front of the gardens can be seen from the other side of the river, and when you climb up you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the city (almost as good as the ones from Piazzale Michelangelo). If you have to choose between here and Boboli, I would recommed Bardini. It is much more whimsical and less daunting in size allowing you to explore every corner of it.
Sunsets at Piazzale Michelangelo look like this almost every night and come with the best city views. Photo by Meg Williams.

  • Piazzale Michelangelo & Rose Garden : If you only do one thing oltrarno, a sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo has to be it. You cannot leave this city without spending at least one night here sitting on the steps, listening to live music and watching the sun go down with a bottle of wine in hand. This is the quintessential Florence experience. If you are visiting in the spring, there is a rose garden at the base of the hill that you shold stop at and explore on your way up.

Near Santa Maria Novella:

Buy souvenirs for you friends then head inside for a fresh snack. Photos by Meg Williams (left) and Veronika Bedard (right).

  • Mercato Centrale & Leather Market: Mercato Centrale is one of Florence’s largest food markets and its only food hall. On your way to this culinary hotspot, you will be transported into what feels like another world. This is the leather market. Stalls upon stalls filled with leather bags, belts, shoes and anything else you could imagine line numerous streets. It is really fun to barter here and pick up a souvenir for yourself or your friends before heading inside.
  • Basilica di San Lorenzo & Cappelle Medicee: This church is a must-see stop for Medici history buffs. Many of the royal family members are buried here in decorative tombs alongside walls covered in colorful stone. You will also be able to see a handful of Michelangelo’s sculptures on display here.
  • Basilica di Santa Maria Novella: If you take the train to the city, you will most likely pass by this church while heading to your hotel or Airbnb. Its decorative façade is similar to the Duomo’s and perfect for gazing at. Entrance to the church is inexpensive, and its historic interior is filled with art dating back to the 1400s.
  • Parco delle Cascine: For an authentic view of everyday life in Florence, take some time out of your schedule to relax at Parco delle Cascine. Not only will you be treated with views of the city many tourists don’t see, but you will be surrounded by lush greenery and Florentines going about their day. There is an outdoor flea market here every Tuesday, and a small carnival that comes to life in the spring. It is also the best place to run in the city if you want to workout during your vacation.

Near Santa Croce:

  • Basilica di Santa Croce: After a while, a lot of the churches can start to blend together during your trip. You may wonder what is in one that makes it different from another. Basilica di Santa Croce has a similar façade to that of Santa Maria Novella, but a very different interior. Santa Croce is much more decorative and visually impressive than Santa Maria Novella. If you are only looking to explore a couple of churches, this one should make the cut.

Sant’Ambrogio market is filled with local Florence history. Photos by Meg Williams.

  • Sant’Ambrogio Market: This market is the locals version of Mercato Centrale. It is much smaller and much less crowded. It is surrounded by an outdoor market with anything you could ever imagine. There are people selling clothes, makeup, beads, furniture, old photographs, buttons, flowers, food and more. It is also located right next to famed Florence chef’s Fabio Picchi’s three restaurants: Cibrèo, Ciblèo and Teatro del Sale.
  • Synagogue and Jewish Museum: Stopping at a synagogue may not initially be on everyone’s must-see list, but the story of Florence’s one and only synagogue is very interesting. It was built to stand out and be visible in the city with its green roof and large size. If you want to know more about the history of religion in Florence, you should visit the synagogue.
Museums

Florence is filled with an unbelievable amount of museums. It would probably be impossible to visit every one during a single vacation. It’s also not necessary to feel like you have to see every piece of art Florence has to offer. Figure out before you go what is important to you. Is it art? Food? Fashion? Don’t feel pressured to do things you think you should be doing. These five museums were the favorites among my friends and I during our time in Florence. Click here for a list of more museums in the city .

  • Uffizi Gallery: Tied for the most popular art museum in Florence with the Academia, the Uffizi Gallery is filled with mainly Renaissance artwork from some of the most famous artists of period including Michelangelo, Rafaello and Da Vinci. The museum is made up of many rooms and corridors making it a one of a kind cultural experience.
  • Academia Gallery: This museum is famous for being the home of Michelangelo’s David. If that isn’t enough to make you want to go, I don’t know what is.
  • Palazzo Vecchio: Once Florence’s historic city hall, Palazzo Vecchio is now an art museum. It does cost money to enter, but anyone can view the fresco-covered, open air room for free. It is right through the doors next to the replica David statue. The inside of the museum is breathtaking and ornate. Its walls are covered in gold detail and vibrant murals. Its size is not overwhelming, so it’s good for people who want to see some of Florence’s art, but not make a whole day of it.
  • Galileo Museum: This is a great museum for anyone who loves science and innovation. Galileo’s telescopes, globes and his real middle finger are all on display here alongside many other scientific artifacts.
Fashion fans will love the variety of pieces in Gucci Garden. Photo by Meg Williams.

Gucci Garden: A bit of a wild card choice out of all of the museums in Florence, but its uniqueness makes it worth the visit. The museum part of the store only takes about an hour to get through, but it is visually stunning and very fascinating to see the history of Gucci’s pieces. There are accessories, sportswear, dresses and everything in between on display. If you admire luxury fashion, but cannot afford to be a customer this is a great stop for you.

Tours

Views of the Tuscan hillside in Chianti are picture perfect. Photos by Meg Williams.

Depending on how long you are in Florence, you should consider taking a guided tour that brings you out of the city into the hills of Chianti or another neighboring region. My favorite tour I went on while in Florence was a Vespa and wine tour by Florencetown. We headed out on the Vespas speeding through the Tuscan hillside before stopping at an olive grove for photos. Our next stop was at a winery to learn about the wine making process. We zipped back to our meeting point after our lesson, so we could walk to Diadema winery and taste a variety of their offerings. The tour finished off with an incredible lunch prepared by the Florencetown chefs.

If Vespa’s aren’t your thing, there are so many other wine tours offered in Florence where you get taken from winery to winery on either a bus or small van. We had such a great experience with Florencetown I would recommend looking through their website to peruse the other tours they offer. You can also find popular Florence tours on Viator.

Where to Eat

Breakfast

Breakfast in Florence will not be your traditional idea of eggs and bacon. Instead, Florentines start the morning with a cappucino or espresso, bread, cheese, meat and a pastry. Stop in to any coffee shop you see not directly in the city center, and you will be treated to a great cup of coffee and croissant for only a few euros. Coffee culture is serious in Florence, so make sure you take part in it at least once.

If you’re seeking out a more American-style brunch, there are two cafes in the city that actually serve up incredible eggs, pancakes, waffles and avocado toast.

The Grandma Style pancakes from Rooster Cafe come with fresh fruit. Photo by Veronika Bedard.

Rooster Cafe: Rooster has the most expansive brunch menu in the city with smoothies, bloody marys, bagel breakfast sandwiches, chicken and waffles and everything else you would expect from a must-visit brunch place. The space itself is small, so arrive early in order to avoid a wait.

Le Vespe Cafe: Their everyday menu has traditional breakfast offerings like a breakfast burrito, egg scramble and avocado toast, but if you are looking for eggs benedict or huevos rancheros, you’ll have to visit on a Sunday to enjoy their full brunch menu.

Lunch
All of Panini Toscani’s sandiwched come with a view of the Duomo. Photo by Meg Williams.

If you read my article on street food in Europe, you know there is a lively debate in Florence over who makes the best panini. The two best are Panini Toscani and All’Antico Vinaio, and while the latter is much more famous, Panini Toscani is, without a doubt, the best. You can read more about why here.

Another lunch staple in Florence is lampredotto, a sandwich sold at lunch carts made from cow stomach cooked in broth and served with different sauces. My Italian professor once described it as “delicious if you can get past the slimey texture.” I had every intention of giving it a try while I was abroad, but I chickened out every time.

If you’re not sure what you want for lunch or have a picky group, the food hall upstairs at Mercato Centrale is the most diverse place to get food in Florence. They have some of the best pizza in the city as well as local burgers, homemade pastas, handmade dumplings, sushi, lampredotto, fried food, veggie burgers and charcuterie. It is open from everyday from 8:00 am until midnight.

Dinner

Dinner is the shining star of food in Florence. One of the city’s most famous dishes is bistecca alla fiorentina. It is a giant porterhouse steak served just barely cooked with salt and lemon, and it is delicious. Don’t be scared by the way Florentines cook their steaks. I was always a staunch fan of medium rare, but Florence changed me. You will never have another steak so soft and buttery in your life so embrace it.

At all of these restaurants, except Gustapizza, reservations are a must. Plan ahead of time where you would like to eat, so you can book your dinners before you arrive in Florence. Locals eat later in the night around 8:30 or 9:00. If you can’t get a reservation somewhere you really want to try, it’s possible if you show up right when they open (usually at 7:00 pm) they will give you a table for an hour or hour and a half. This was one of our favorite last-minute dining tricks.

  • La Buchetta: A small establishment well known for steak and their famous “angels and demon” gnocchi. A perfect meal here is as follows: one bottle of wine, an order of gnocchi for each diner and a shared bistecca alla fiorentina. The gnocchi sits in a creamy cheese sauce with a small amount of spicy red sauce underneath topped with herbs and pork cheek. It is one of the most unique dishes I had while in Florence.

Pear and Gorgonzola Ravioli from 4 Leoni (left, photo by Veronika Bedard) & Angels and Demons Gnocchi from La Buchetta (right. photo by Meg Williams)

  • Trattoria 4 Leoni: If you dine here and do not eat their pear and gorgonzola ravioli, you will be missing out. My recommendation is to skip the entrees, start with the ravioli, make your entree the wild boar pasta with a side of artichokes and share the chocolate cheesecake for dessert. It will be the best foodcoma of your life.
  • Vini e Vecchi Sapori: I like to think of this as Florence’s secret restaurant that only a few people know about. They have two seatings each night and very rarely take walk-ins. Usually once the first group sits, they lock the door until it is time for the second wave of diners. They are best known for their duck pappardelle, but everything here is delicious. Sharing a few pastas and entrees is the best way to enjoy Vini e Vecchi Sapori.
  • Osteria Santo Spirito: Most of the time restaurants in Florence will have a signature dish, and it is the reason you keep going back. Ordering Santo Spirito’s truffle gnocchi will either be your favorite or least favorite dining experience in the city. Imagine the heaviest, creamiest baked mac n cheese you can think of. Now switch out the mac for gnocchi and add truffle. That is Santo Spirito’s signature dish. If this isn’t for you, they have many other classic dishes that will go above and beyond in satisfying your pasta cravings.
  • Il Latini: This may be one of the most hyped up restaurants in Florence. If you google best restaurants, Il Latini will surely come up. When I first walked in, I will admit the atmosphere scared me. It is very bare and lacking the funky Italian flare I became accustomed to, but fear not. You will forget about the sparse decor when you order the pasta tasting menu because what’s better than trying all of their daily homemade pasta’s in one sitting.
  • Trattoria ZaZa: Some people might be irked with the inclusion of ZaZa on this list because it is widely regarded as a tourist restaurant. While this is certainly the case, I always loved dining here. The atmosphere is so eclectic and full of character. The servers all have great personalities and are very accommodating. The food is really good, and the menu is much more expansive that most Florence of restaurants making it perfect for a night out with a big group.
  • Duje: Getting to this pizza place will definitely add a few steps to your day considering it is located past Santa Croce. I will admit, I never ate here because I couldn’t get a reservation, but it comes highly recommended by my Italian professor. She said it is the best pizza in Florence, and I believe her.
  • Gustapizza: A hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo is not complete without a stop at Gustapizza after. The best way to enjoy this pizza is outside sitting on one of the bridges or on a bench to people watch. It is really delicious, casual pizza that is comparable to in quality to Mercato Centrale’s.
Dessert

Avoid gelato shops where the creamy treat is piled high in neon colors. Photos by Meg Williams.

Being in Florence and not getting gelato after dinner is like making a peanut butter and jelly without the jelly. It’s still good, but it’s not perfect. Just like the great panini debate, there is also a great gelato debate alive and well in the city. My top three contenders in order from best to almost best are Gelateria La Carraia, Sbrino and Don Nino. You can read a more in-depth analysis of my gelato rankings here, but remember a visit to La Carraia means one of the flavors in your cup must be salted peanuts.

A dessert I did not know was famous in Florence before I went is their version of hot chocolate. It is more like thick chocolate soup in a cup and is often served with fruits or small cookies. My favorite place to get hot chocolate was Hemingway, but in my research it seems they may have closed. I hope this is not the case, but it’s very possible. Another alternative for hot chocolate is Caffe Gili located right in Piazza della Republica. Every cup comes with an amazing opportunity to people watch in the fair square.

Italian cookies were also one of my favorite sweets while I was in Florence. To get them from my favorite bakery, Forno Top, you’ll have to plan your cookies a bit in advance because they close at 7:30 pm. This is such an underrated spot, and they have the best variety ranging from lemon to cinnamon to jam filled. These are a great treat to have around for any time of the day during your vacation.

Where to Drink

When it comes to drinking, I am a creature of habit. Once I find a place I enjoy, it is not likely that I will seek out other bars or clubs. These are my favorite spots in the city to drink and dance. If none of these seem like the place for you, there are so many more bars and clubs to fit any kind of mood you may be in.

Bars
The view of the Duomo from View on Art is especially beautiful at night. Photo by Meg Williams.

Daunbailo: This is hands down my favorite bar in Florence. The small Irish pub is right around the corner from where my apartment was, which is why we initially wandered in. After only a few visits, Beckham, the bartender, became like family to us. He gave us unlimited spicy tortilla chips that were so addictive I couldn’t not have them at least twice a week. Before we even sat down, he would have our first round of drinks poured and ready for us at “our” table. If you want to make any bar your second home in Florence, this is the place to do it. Tell Beckham Meg says hi!

View on Art: Rooftop bars are a dime a dozen in Florence, but most will cost you a pretty penny for even a bottled beer, never mind a cocktail. View on Art is a relatively unknown rooftop bar that serves cocktails only costing about 11 euros. The terrace overlooks the Duomo and hills of Florence.

  • Kikuya: You go to Kikuya for one drink and one drink only, the Dragoon. This beer clocks in at 10% ABV and comes with a lollipop to dip in it. The English pub is a hit with students because of its relaxed party atmosphere that continues well into the night.
  • Rex Café: By early evening, Rex Café is a hipster’s bar paradise with well-dressed bartenders slinging cocktails and conversation. The mood slowly shifts into a club atmosphere as the night goes on, and the small bar fills up with more and more people. No matter what stage of the night you visit, the bar always has a unique vibe that does not fall into the mainstream.
Clubs

By the time I make it to the club, they all kind of seem the same to me. I usually went to the ones closest to my house and because every club has a designated night in Florence, I often ended up at the same three: Space, Blue Velvet and Yab.

  • Space: Florence’s biggest and loudest club that regularly has the worst music. To have a good time here, you should really be feeling yourself. Wednesdays and Saturdays are Space nights. It is free cover until midnight, but always line up ahead of time to ensure you will make it in by then. The bouncer will give you a drink punch card at the entrance of the club. Do not lose this card! You need to return at the end of the night, or else you will be charged 50 euros. Pro tip: keep it in the back of your phone, so it can’t fall out of your pocket.
  • Blue Velvet: The music here is always on point because they often have American students DJing. Entering blue velvet feels like being transported into a swanky, deep blue cave. The club consistently has good vibes and is most busy on Tuesday nights. Although, they rebranded and reopened in September 2019, so this may have changed.
  • Yab: Ambitious party goers are often found at YAB because their biggest night is Monday. I usually took Mondays off, but I came here a few times and appreciated its classic dance club feel. There is nothing surprising or out of the ordinary at YAB. It is simply a good place to drink and dance with your friends.
  • Flò: Everyone from locals to tourists want to go to Flò. It is Florence’s exclusive, VIP club only open for a few months of the year starting in May up at Piazzale Michelangelo. If you look up videos of this club, you’ll understand why people will do anything to get in here. It opened for the season right after I left Florence, so I never got to experience it, but if you like glamorous nightclubs this is a must-visit for you.
This is the final sunset I saw in Florence taken from the Ponte Vecchio. Photo by Meg Williams.

Despite being in a small city, there are endless things to do and see in Florence. Some of my favorite memories were made just by walking along the Arno and really soaking in my surroundings. I hope this guide helps you in planning your trip to this city full of history, culture and romance. If you have any specific questions about your trip reach out in the comments below, and enjoy your trip to Tuscany!

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