By: Felice Picano
For many, Florence ranks as the art center of the universe – it's certainly filled with some of the greatest murals, paintings, and sculpture in Western Civilization – and no trip to Italy, or Europe, for that matter, can be deemed comprehensive unless you've spent at least a few days exploring the streets, art museums, gardens, and villas of this Northern Italian city.
The center of the Italian Renaissance art movement, Michelangelo's adopted hometown, the birthplace of modern politics, the source of modern-day credit . . . . Florence is all of these and more. Even the city's appearance is unique: Deep scarlets and brilliant crimsons cover the walls, ceilings, and roofs, so that, from the air, and nearby hill towns, the city resembles a vast, dazzling, red-and-gold mosaic.
What's more, few places can claim to be as unchanged as Florence since the 15th century. 21st-century visitors can still experience a swath of history, art, and culture in one afternoon here that's unmatched elsewhere in the world. The effect can be overwhelming – and transforming. Just witness the impact the city had on the fictional characters of E.M. Forster and Henry James; in the shadows of the Duomo, in the beauty of the narrow streets and the grand, formal Piazza della Signoria, they discovered passion, violence, art, ecstasy, romance – and sometimes, even themselves.
Indeed, Firenze, as it's known in Italian (for "Flowery One"), tends to enlighten just about any traveler. There are must-see museums like the Uffizi, spectacular art in churches like the Santa Croce and San Lorenzo, and even doorways, like those of the Baptistery, are considered major works of art. Architectural masterpieces also abound everywhere you turn, beginning with the huge and famous Duomo that dominates the city. And, to cap it all off, the city is renowned for producing some of the world's finest leather, gold, and stationary goods.
A three-day visit will give you a solid grasp of Florence's art and architecture, a handful of its major attractions, and Tuscan cuisine. A week should get you outside Florence to the hill towns, where more art, superb valley views, and more good food abounds.
Florence's Centro Storico, or historical center, is set north of the picturesque Arno River. About twenty-five square blocks in size, it's very easy to get around on foot because it's so flat. Also within walking distance is Oltrarno, the area on the south side of the river; tourist interest, with the exception of the Pitti Palace, is generally limited here, mind you. As for the scenic Arno itself, you'll have to content yourself with a view from one its half-dozen bridges – unlike the rivers that bissect many other European cities, the Arno is not generally accessible to the public.
The best way to get your bearings here is by spending a morning doing a guided tour of the main highlights. Although there are bus tours, they make little sense in this walkable town; what we recommend instead is an instructive morning walking tour offered by Florence City Discovery (http://florence.city-discovery.com); you can opt to take one with or without lunch (€35 and €24, respectively). Other ways of getting around include taxis, but they can be very pricey. While you're unlikely to need to take one, the city also has a very good bus system, with lines that go all over the city. Tickets must be purchased at newspaper stands or tobacco shops before boarding the bus – you cannot purchase a fare on board (€1 usually gets you an hour on any combination of buses, but day-long passes, for €4.50, are also available). The straightforward bus routes are posted at the well-marked stops.
Museums & Galleries
There are over fifty museums in Florence and they range in size from the tiny and specialized — think 13th- to 16th-century silverware – to the huge and famous like the Uffizi Gallery. With the sheer number of art venues here, you could easily spend an entire trip trying to see them all. We've covered the absolute must-sees, below.
Before you go, check FlorenceArt (www.florenceart.it) for opening hours, current exhibits, and to reserve tickets ahead of time, which we definitely recommend you do for the Uffizi and Accademia, as you'll get to bypass the lengthy lines. Once in town, you should also make a point of visiting either the Florence City Tourist Office (www.firenzeturismo.it), at Via A. Manzoni 16, or Florence Province Tourist Office (www.provincia.firenze.it) at Via Cavour 1, to pick up a discounted museum "carnet" that will get you entrance to several museums for up to half-off regular prices. While you will find docents and guided tours offered at many museums, they're often in Italian and German only – not English. If you want a guided museum tour, you can book one through Florence City Discovery (http://florence.city-discovery.com); they offer individual tours of the Uffizi and Accademia (€27; 1–1.5 hrs) and a combo tour of both (€49; 3hrs); all excursions include museum entrance fees. Rest assured, also, that most major museums do offer audio tours in English; we recommend taking at least one during your visit to get a full sense of the works' import.
Once the offices of the Medici government, the Uffizi Gallery (Piazzale degli Uffizi; Tues–Sun 8.15am–6.50pm; €6.50, reservation €3 extra; www.uffizi.firenze.it) is probably your best first museum stop – and, of anywhere, the one place you should get an audio guide. Opened to the public in 1591, and built by Giorgio Vasari for Cosimo Medici in 1560, the Uffizi ranks as the first modern museum in the world. There are so many artworks here, it's easy to get overwhelmed; we recommend putting a full day aside (or two half days) to see everything. By following the historical layout of the place, you'll understand what the Renaissance was all about: low, narrow galleries of small, gold-framed, dark Madonnas and Child suddenly give way to Botticelli's wall-sized triptych, La Primavera, a massive pastel as light, airy, and fresh as spring. From there, the masterpieces continue unabated: you'll see works by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Raphael, Masaccio, and so on, until you're spent.
Next on the agenda, though possibly not on the same day, is the Galleria dell'Accademia (Via Ricasol 60; Tues-Sun 8.15am–6.50pm; €6.50, reservation extra €3; www.sbas.firenze.it/accademia) near the Church of San Lorenzo, which is known primarily for housing Michelangelo's famous David as well as his Slaves. These are definitely the high points of the museum, which has otherwise only passable paintings. If you're a Michelangelo fan, this is a must.
Sculpture lovers should also plan on hitting the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Via del Proconsolo 4; daily 8.15am–6pm; €4; www.sbas.firenze.it). Originally the headquarters of the town's top magistrate (and a prison with wanted posters on one façade), the Bargello now houses a stunning collection of works by Cellini, Verrochio, et. al. The collection of Donatello works, in the top-floor Salone del Consiglio Generale (General Council Room), are themselves worth the price of admission. It's also here that you can see the bronze bas-relief panels submitted by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti in 1401, when the city fathers were picking a sculptor for the Baptistery doors; the subject was the Sacrifice of Isaac – see if you can pick the winner (it was Ghiberti).
Across the Arno (in Oltrarno), but still accessible on foot, the magnificent Pitti Palace (Piazza Pitti; Tues–Sun 8.15am–6.50pm; €6.50; www.palazzopitti.it) stands next to the Boboli Gardens, one of the finest parks in Italy. Built by a rival of Cosimo de Medici, the Pitti contains several museums, including one for silver, furnishings, modern art (18th-century and later), and yet another for costumes. We prefer the Galeria Palatina, with its unmissable 17th-century art, including several masterpieces by Raphael and Andrea del Sarto and a dozen by Titian. Left as it was in Medici's time, you'll find the Mannerist decor of the Gallery itself either absolutely wonderful or a lesson in bad taste.
Florence's various churches are as artistically gratifying as any of the city's museums. Few cities in the world can boast the riches of the religious institutions here, and you could easily wander off the street into pretty much any little church in any section of town and come across a perfect Cimabue Madonna or Taddei statue of St. Michael. While we encourage you to stop where you like, several churches are justly famous and are not to be missed; they're covered here.
Chief among them, of course, is the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo; Mon-Wed & Fri 10am–5pm; Thurs 10am–3.30pm; Sat 10am–4.45pm; Sun 1.30–4.45pm; free; www.operaduomo.firenze.it), officially named Santa Maria del Fiore (St. Mary of the Flowers). This is the iconic structure of Florence, built between the 13th and 15th centuries, with Brunelleschi's famous dome added on in 1436. The Duomo was intended to exhibit the city's wealth and power – and it does. From the top of the dome (463 steps up), to the stained-glass windows lining the inner galleries and the dome frescoes themselves, the Duomo is a bona fide show-stopper.
Don't leave the church without visiting the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (Piazza del Duomo; daily 9am–7:30pm; €6; www.operaduomo.firenze.it), at the rear; it contains reliefs by Donatello and Della Robbia and the marble Pieta, what many consider Michelangelo's finest masterpiece. Next to the museum is another must: the 247-foot high, Romanesque tower erected in 1337 that's known as Giotto's Campanile (Piazza del Duomo; daily 8.30am–7.30pm; €6; www.operaduomo.firenze.it); it's a colored marble extravanza with sweeping views of Florence some 414 steps above ground.
< Almost as fabulous as the Duomo is Santa Croce (Piazza Santa Croce 16; Mon–Sat 9.30am–5:30pm, Sun 1–5:30pm; €4), a church alleged to have been founded by St. Francis in the 13th century. Inside, every nave, sacristy, and chapel contains masterworks of sculpture, painting, and decoration, including a magnificent hardwood pulpit with carvings and bas reliefs often noted as Maiano's best work; frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi; and paintings and statues by Taddei, Gaddi, Gerini and Giovanni da Milano. Also entombed here are Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Dante, though we'll forgive you if you rush past their mausoleums to the Peruzzi and Bardi Chapels, where terrific frescos – The Lives of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist – were painted by Giotto, the Father of Renaissance art.
< A final must is the Church of San Lorenzo, the oldest church in the city, and the parish church of the ruling Medici family until the 18th century. Most people come to see the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapels), accessed from the side of the church; they house the marble Princes' Mausoleum (Piazza Madonna degli Aldobrandini; daily 8.15am–5pm; €6). The real highlight though is the new sacristy, which holds Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici's tombs, each topped with a Michelanglo statue (Dusk and Dawn and Day and Night, respectively). Another big draw here is the Biblioteca Laurenziana (Laurentian Library), with its extraordinary marble staircase built by Michelangelo for Cosimo de Medici (Piazza San Lorenzo 9; Mon, Fri–Sat 8am–2pm; Tues–Thurs 8am–5pm; free; www.bml.firenze.sbn.it).
Florence's delights aren't limited to the indoors, mind you. One of the city's best known outdoor spaces easily ranks among the world's most atmospheric (and expensive) places to shop; two other spots make fantastic respites when you're shopped- and arted-out.
For centuries, Florence's tanners and leather makers, dyers and weavers – the commercial heart and wealth of the city – all depended upon water for power and set up trade along the roads leading towards the Arno River. While little is left of that era now, the one place that still evokes that time in the city's history is the 660-year-old open-air Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). This ancient and scenic spot vies with the Duomo for favored city landmark status – it's also the place to buy gold-jewelery, from high-end retailers that encourage carat-worthy shopping.
Surrounded by cafés and trattorias, and filled with chairs, tables, and ice-cream vendors, the superb Piazza della Signoria is among the largest and handsomest squares in Italy and makes an ideal rest stop between shopping and sightseeing. While the Michelangelo David that used to be here has been moved indoors (for protection), you'll still find the equestrian statue of Cosimo de Medici overlooking one end, near Cellini's amazing bronze Perseus. In the center is the famous Neptune fountain that's both revered and reviled by all; consider it the Florentine equivalent of a White Elephant. An excellent place to take it all in is the Rivoire (Piazza della Signora 5r; closed Mon), one of the most popular cafés on the square, with a superb location and to-die-for cioccolata (hot chocolate); if you need a sugar boost, get it here.
Across the Arno, the remarkable Boboli Gardens (Palazzo Pitti; April–Oct daily 7.15am–5.30pm, Nov–Mar daily 8.15am–5.30pm; €4 includes Porcelain and Silver museums) ranked as the world's finest landscaped gardens long before Versailles. The 79-acre expanse is also noteworthy for holding an amphitheater commissioned by the Medici family to stage Dafne, the world’s first opera, in 1589. You can also while away some time at the bizarre and – and somewhat grosteque – Museo Zoologico La Specola (Via Romana 17; Thurs-Tues 9am-1pm; €5; www.specola.unifi.it), a museum filled with various stuffed animals and anatomical waxes; it's a good stop if you have teenagers with you (younger children may get scared by the waxes). DAY TRIPS
If in Florence for more than three days, we highly recommend taking two trips outside the city itself. If you're limited to local transportation, you can still easily reach the hilltop enclave of Fiesole and a duo of Medici Villas. You can also hop aboard a guided tour with Florence City Discovery (florence.city-discovery.com) to the superlative Villa di Poggio, further afield.
For a taste of Tuscan living on a smalltown scale, you can't do better than charming Fiesole, five miles north of Florence via ATAF's bus #7. The hilltop enclave offers magnificent views of Florence and the Arno Valley, and boasts a centuries-old lifestyle that makes a perfect counterpoint to the bustling (and touristed) streets of Florence. It's not just about way of life here, though, as Fiesole is also noteworthy for being home to a remarkably intact 2000-year-old open-air Roman theater that's still used today for summer concerts. It's located near several picturesque Roman Termi (baths) and the sweet Bandini Museum (Via Duprè 1; Apr–Sept daily 9.30am–7pm; Oct–Mar Wed–Mon 9.30am–5pm; €3, €6.20 including Archaeological Museum), a onetime private home that now exhibits a mixed batch of Faience pottery and 13th- to 15th-century paintings. What's more, in a country where remains of pre-Roman civilization are rare, Fiesole also hosts several Etruscan tombs that are open to the public, free of charge; their faded bas reliefs still give an inkling of the differences between the two cultural groups.
A second trip outside Florence might be to the Medici Villas – the marvelous "vacation homes" of the city's ruling family, set in the hillsides around the city. The Villa di Poggio, in Caiano, 13 miles northwest of Florence, is the grandest Medici villa of them all and can be reached as part of a half-day tour with Florence City Discovery (€33; http://florence.city-discovery.com). Erected by Lorenzo the Magnificent, with handsome frescoes of classical subjects and the Medicis "in excelsis" by Pontormo and Andrea Del Sarto, the Poggio also boasts the largest gardens of all the Medici villas.
Closer to Florence, in Castello, are two other villas that can be visited independently, by taking bus #28 from the main train station. Of these, Villa Petraia boasts a medieval tower, several 19th-century rooms, an excellent bronze statue by Ammanati, and outside frescoes depicting Medici family exploits. The gardens are particularly lush and the views of Florence are superb. About 15 minutes along the same road is the Villa Castello, a medieval castle redone by the Medicis. While its interiors are closed to the public, its lovely gardens are open and include a charming, sculpted animal grotto. You'll also find another outdoor bronze Ammanati statue (Nov–Feb daily 8.15am–5pm; Mar & Oct 8.15am–6pm; April, May, & Sept daily 8.15am–7pm; June–Aug daily 9am–8pm; free).
Florence has been on the "grand tour" for centuries, so lodging of all sorts abound. As with most cities of its ilk, your toughest decisions will involve how close to the main sights you want to be and just how much you're willing to pay for that accessibility. In high season, prices are steep generally everywhere, but there are some good moderate and budget options around – and even they tend to occupy former palazzos. To help you choose where to stay, we've outlined our Florence favorites in each category, from budget to luxury.
If you came to Florence to enjoy the spirit of Renaissance, then treat yourself to a luxury stay at the Grand Hotel Baglioni (www.hotelbaglioni.it), a hotel that dates from 1903 and was once home to Carrega Bertolini princes. You'll get a taste of Old World Florence here, as the corridors are lined with historic Florentine photos from the Alinari museum's collection. If you need your American creature comforts while away, the equally posh Grand Hotel (www.starwood.com) is the place to get them. Located right on the Arno, with views up and down the scenic river, and high-tech gadgetry you won't find elsewhere, it's a repeated listing on Condé Nast Traveler's Gold List.
Of the moderate hotels in Florence, we particularly like the Pensione Alessandra (www.hotelalessandra.com), a trendy 27-roomer set in a 16th-century palazzo near the best shopping streets in the city. Another good choice is the longtime literary haven – where Byron, Stendhal, and D.H. Lawrence, among others, have stayed – the Porta Rossa (www.hotelportarossa.com), which takes double honors as the city's oldest hotel. It occupies a medieval palazzo near the Ponte Vecchio and is loaded with ornate frescoes, parquet floors, chandeliers, gold mirrors, beamed ceilings, and giant, freestanding wardrobes.
If you're visiting Florence on a budget, the best bargain in town is the Hotel Constantini (www.costantini.hotelinfirenze.com), set on the second floor of a palazzo within easy reach of the Duomo; while the 14 rooms lack frills, they compensate with classic Renaissance touches and modern amenities like air conditioning, color TV, and private baths, some of which even have marble finishes. This place fills up fast all year long, so book early.
While Florence's nearby neighbors of Pisa and Bologna (among others) are renowned for dreaming up some of the worlds' most inventive meat dishes, chocolates, breads, and truffles, Florence's main culinary repertoire has something of a French flavor, thanks to its Bourbon and Napoleonic rulers. Indeed, don't come expecting stereotypical Italian dishes like pasta or pizza – it's Tuscan fare that rules the kitchens here, which means that, when pasta is involved, it's not likely to be prepared in a way you'd expect. As for pizza, Florentines don't order it, period.
Rather than have a second course of pasta, Florence's proximity to the Po Valley makes rice a major dish, and you should definitely sample local specialities like risi e bisi (rice and peas), ribolitto (a bread, vegetable, and bean soup), and, of course, risotto. Florence is also big on spinach – think eggs Florentine – but broccoli rapi, turnip greens, mustards, cabbage, arugula, (in fact most green vegetables) are also staples of city's restaurants. White beans also abound, and no Florentine will turn up her nose at cannellini laced with escarole or dandelion greens eaten with a thick slice of local bread.
Because of Florence's wealth, beef steaks, rolled beef (braciole), veal dishes, pork loins, and other prime cuts of meat are regularly listed on menus as well. Country dishes of polenta and pasta are often baked in casseroles or spun into frittatas. Rich egg breads, French inspired pastries, local berries, and thick egg desserts like zuppa Inglese are also local favorites. Wines, of course, are plentiful, coming from the adjoining Chianti region, and are as numerous and diverse as California reds.
Among the more expensive dining places in town, Enoteca Pinchiorri is a must (Via Ghibellina 87; +39 055 24 27 57 to reserve; www.enotecapinchiorri.com/) – it's one of most famous in Italy. Try pici con le briciole (home-made spaghetti with anchovies, bread crumbs, and pork skin in a white-bean soup) or, better yet, order from the menu di degustazione (tasting menu). Another Italian standard bearer is Cibrèo (Via Andrea del Verrocchio 8r; +39 055 234 11 00 to reserve), a must for authentic Tuscan fare that's simple but flavorful – at a price.
Restaurants on the moderate side include the Cantina Barbagianni (Via Sant'Egedio 13r; www.cantinabarbagianni.it/), an an intimate cellar with an innovative Tuscan cuisine and a biweekly menu featuring pheasant in white-wine sauce with pears; Il Latini (Via del Palchetti 6r), an always-packed spot with communal tables (great for meeting locals and fellow travelers), and set three-course dinners with unlimited wine refills; and the long-standing Ristorante Casa di Dante (Via Dante Alighieri 4r), the place to sample superb antipasti in 15th-century surroundings.
On the more budget end of things, some of our favorite eating places tend to be the viniaos and osterias found on streetcorners and piazzas. The former are little more than storefront wine shops, but they serve wines by the glass and tempting appetizers that are sufficient for a light lunch or late supper while osterias add tables, waiters, soups, meat and vegetable crostini, and amazing combo panini that go a long way to explaining the origin of Philly cheese steaks and New Orleans muffulettas. Viniaos come and go, but the ones around the Central Market tend to have the most interesting appetizers, usually based on what the proprietor picked up at the market that morning. Our favorite osteria is the Osteria Masticabrodo (Borgo Allegri 58), an early-19th-century local taverna where dishes are simple and traditional.
Other inexpensive places to eat are the local cafés and pasticcerias where you can down a perfect espresso or latte along with famous Italian sweets like naploleons, canoli, almond and hazelnut cookies, and leaf-shaped sfogliatelle. Some cafés also serve homemade ices, ice creams (gelati), and sorbets (sorbetti) – if you've had gelato in the United States, it's way better in Italy! For some truly original ice-cream flavors – like fennel, raisin, artichoke, or tomato – you can't beat the Sicilian-owned Carabe (Via Ricasoli 60r); it also serves coffee and other confections.
If you've ever admired a friend's finely made boots, purse, or stationery – chances are they came from Florence. For a thousand years, Florentines have excelled in couture, leather working, paper making, and gold jewelry. In fact, the shoesmiths here are so renowned that, when the actor Daniel Day Lewis decided to take time away from film-making, he hunkered down in Florence to learn the cobbling trade. If you're prepared to hunt for bargains or pay the asking price, chances are you too will come home with something everyone else wants.
< Two of the best shopping streets in Florence are the Via Calzaiuoli, the Florentine equivalent to Madison Avenue, and Via Tournabuoni, the main address for some of Italy's greatest fashion houses. On the latter artery, you'll find Salvatore Ferragamo, at number 4-14r, where a free footwear museum is also open (weekdays only); Versace, next door, at number 13r; the original Emilio Pucci shop, at 20-22r; Giorgio Armani, at 48r; and, of course, who can resist Gucci, at number 73r? Another shop along this street worth a stop is Seeber Books, at number 68-70r, for its huge section of art books (it also has a decent English-language department).
Streetside shopping aside, three local markets are also shopping musts. We've already mentioned the Ponte Vecchio (above), where gold-jewelers and leather-makers rule the roost, but there are less pricey wares at the outdoor Mercato San Lorenzo that snakes for blocks near the church of the same name (also covered, above). Here, you'll find hundreds of kiosks selling knock-off leather goods, designer labels, souvenirs, and more. A block beyond is the city's main food market, the Mercato Centrale, where over a dozen stalls specialize in a variety of fresh local produce; put together a lunch of fruit, cheese, and bread, and head to the Piazza della Signoria for a picnic.
If you're really serious about shopping, you might also consider a visit to the designer outlet mall outside the city; it features Gucci, Prada, Fendi, and Dolce & Gabbana, among other high-end retailers. Florence City Discovery (http://florence.city-discovery.com) runs half-day and full-day trips (€21 or €28).
When To Go
Top tourist season in Florence is May through September. The weather is sunny, temperatures mild to hot, and everyone's in the streets, cafés, and parks. The performing arts festival known as Maggio Musicale Fiorentino lasts from mid-April through June, filling the Teatro Communale, Teatro Verdi, and other venues with opera, ballet, plays, and symphonic and chamber music from all around the world. It's the most expensive time to visit Florence, but, if money isn't an object, this is the time to go.
For fewer crowds, somewhat lower prices, and weather that’s mostly good, you’ll get the best bang for your buck by going in early April (when there might be showers) or between September and October (when daytime highs are still warm, but evenings are cooler). Fall also welcomes the colorful La Rificolona (Festival of the Lanterns), held annually each September.
Winters can be cold and wet (so wet that the city was actually flooded in 1966!) But recent winters have been drier and there is the benefit of having few tourists and empty museums. Lower airfares last through March – for a truly bargain getaway, try for then.
Best bang for your buck
April, September, and October
There are no direct flights to Florence from the United States. That said, most major airlines make the trip with one stop only (in a major European hub). Italy’s national carrier, Alitalia, stops in Rome; other European carriers, like Air France, stop in Paris, or, as with Northwest, in Amsterdam. While it’s hard to predict which hub you’ll fly into if you fly an American carrier, your best domestic carriers for getting to Florence are: American Airlines, United, Continental, and Delta. Flights from the East Coast make the trip in about eleven hours, including layover; flights from the Midwest, South, and West typically require connecting in New York, Chicago, or DC before continuing across the Atlantic.
It used to be that all international travelers arrived at Gallileo Gallilei airport, outside Pisa, but Florence does now have its own, small, Peretola (also referred to as Amerigo Vespucci) a few miles north of town. This is the one you want to fly into, unless you’re aiming to see Pisa as part of your trip, as trains from Gallileo take 70 to 100 minutes to reach the city’s centrally located train station, Santa Maria Novella (note that the surrounding streets can be unsavory at night). From Peretola, you can catch a SITA bus into town; it departs fairly frequently from morning until almost midnight; the local ATAF bus is even cheaper and more frequent, but takes a lot longer.
Outstanding air-and-hotel packages to Florence aren’t hard to find and will save you plenty. We’d recommend checking out Gate1Travel; Tourcrafters; Go-Today.com; Picasso Tours; and Virgin Vacations. And, although most of these providers do offer high-end hotel options and upgrades, for the ultimate in tailored luxury vacations, we recommend Custom Vacations and Abercrombie & Kent. Finally, posh Italian getaways are also sold to the highest bidder on Luxury Link. For current Italy deals on ShermansTravel click here.