The Sweet Spot: Florence, Italy

by  Christina Garofalo | Oct 9, 2017

Bringing you the world’s best travel destinations — and when you should visit them for the best value.

In the 15th century, Florence was the center for European trade and finance and the birthplace of the Renaissance -- a legacy which lives on through its frescoed basilicas, grand palazzos, and renowned art collection. UNESCO estimates that 60 percent of the world’s most important artworks are in Italy, and more than 50 percent of them are in Florence -- including such iconic works as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Michelangelo’s David.

Today, Florentine aesthetics continue to influence the globe: Major luxury fashion houses, including Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Gucci have headquarters here, and the city hosts the annual Pitti fashion fair, which draws industry professionals from around the world.

This year, the city has embarked on a new "Urban Renaissance," which will include the construction of a tram line connecting Florence city center with the airport, historic building restorations and renovations, and renewed green spaces.

The Perfect Time to Visit

March to April; October to November

Like Rome, Tuscany's best travel months are March through April and October through November. The weather is still pleasant -- temperatures are in the high 50s to 70s Fahrenheit --  so you can still take advantage of outdoor dining and festivals and it will be easier to find reasonably priced bookings, compared to the high months of May and June.  It's also possible to find some deals in August, but the timing (Italians take vacation for the month, meaning businesses may not be open) and oppressive heat make it less than ideal.

The Cheapest Option

December to February
If you can deal with the weather, winter offers the cheapest airfare and accommodations. The average high in December is 55 Fahrenheit, with a low of 37 Fahrenheit -- fairly manageable but it does tend to be damp. However, most of the city's important sights are indoors so you'll only have to deal with getting around in the cold.

Where to Stay

If you’ve tried to find a bargain stay in Florence in recent years, you might notice there are fewer and fewer options. In the last five years, the hotel room supply has grown among four- and five-star hotels and has decreased in properties of lower classification. These three new or newly renovated properties offer good value for their cost.

Milu Hotel
The 22-room Milu Hotel opened last fall (2016) in the city’s central fashion district. The original 14th-century facade is a stark contrast to its contemporary interiors, which include bold furnishings by Italian designers Moroso, Minotti, and Desalto; bright-colored glass screens and tiled walls; and rain showers. A grand staircase, which spans the hotel’s five floors, doubles as a vertical art gallery for contemporary works by the likes of Galia Gur Zeev, Inbar Algazi, and Carmel Ilan (all available to purchase). Other features include a library and a rooftop terrace with views of the city and Tuscan hills. We found the lowest rates from December through February, for about US$160/night in a double-room midweek. Rates in November were priced from around US$220/night, and between March and April that went up to US$250/night -- though, it's still a significant savings from the high season, when a midweek stay starts at nearly $380/night in June.

Hotel Orto De Medici
Earlier this year, Hotel Orto De Medici modernized its 42 guest rooms and suites with neutral tones, four-poster beds, glass-walled bathrooms, and black and white photography. Most rooms have garden views, while superior rooms have private balconies with views of the city and the Duomo. A highlight is the 19th-century frescoed dining room, which has a leafy outdoor terrace where breakfast is served. The courtyard once housed the art school where Michelangelo studied. The hotel is a five-minute walk from Galleria dell’Accademia, and a nine-minute walk from the Florence Cathedral. We found the cheapest rates at US$116/night for midweek stays in January and February. Rates were still extremely reasonable in November, December, and March -- starting at US$140-$150 -- compared to US$274/night, the starting rate in June.

Grand Hotel Minerva
Grand Hotel Minerva is more like an urban resort. Fresh off of a three-year renovation, its 97 guest rooms are luxe and comfortable, with soft colors, contemporary artwork, and locally tanned leather covering the doors and headboards; rooms look out to the courtyard. The suites have frescoed ceilings and views of the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The highlight of the property, though, is the rooftop pool and bar with views across the city center. A short walk from Santa Maria Novella Train Station, the hotel is set on a piazza within walking distance of Florence's main tourist attractions. We found rates as low as US$121 midweek in November for a single room (which, despite the name, does sleep two people). However, these most basic rooms seem to book far in advance. More common were premium doubles, with rates around US$174-$184 between December and February. Rates more than double in the peak months of June and July, when rooms start at US$480/night midweek.

What to See & Do

Florence is home to many palaces, which you can tour. The Palazzo Medici was built in the 1440s for the eponymous family that ruled Florence (and eventually Tuscany) for 300 years. Its rusticated stone facade and “kneeling windows" were later copied for the Medicis’ Palazzo Pitti, south of the River Arno near the Ponte Vecchio. Palazzo Pitti was the chief residence of the ruling families of Tuscany during the Renaissance era. Today, it is the largest museum complex in Florence.

Palazzo Strozzi was constructed in 1489 for Filippo Strozzi the Elder, a rival of the Medici, to assert his family's prominence and political status. And the Palazzo Vecchio, which began construction in 1299, is the city’s present-day town hall, overlooking the copy of Michelangelo's David statue in Piazza della Signoria.

The Uffizi Gallery houses some of the most important works of the Renaissance, including Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Bacchus by Caravaggio. Book tickets in advance for access to the Vasari Corridor, which allows you to walk from the Uffizi to Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river.

The Gallerie dell’Accademia di Firenze (Gallery of the Academy of Florence) is home to Michelangelo's David, arguably the most famous sculpture in the world. It also houses other sculptures by the infamous sculptor, as well as works by other greats.

The interiors of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella are covered in artistic masterpieces, including an early nativity scene by Botticelli. The monastic complex also features a frescoed chapel by Filippino Lippi, and the Chiostro dei Morti (Cloister of the Dead), where tombstones embedded in the walls and floor date to the 13th and 14th centuries.

The 14th century Ponte Vecchio, which connects the Uffizi to Palazzo Pitti, was the only bridge in Florence to have survived World War II intact. It stands as a symbol of the city’s endurance.

Florence is also a rich center for modern and contemporary art. The Museo Novecento is dedicated to the city’s impressive modern art collection, with paintings, video, and installations from the early 20th century to the late 1980s. Street Levels Gallery hosts works by the area’s most prominent street artists, and while you’re walking around, keep your eyes peeled for Clet Abraham’s comic alterations to street signs.  

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has been open since since 1612, when Santa Maria Novella's Dominican friars frequented the perfumery-pharmacy for medicinal tinctures. Today, you'll find wide range of fragrances, skincare products, and ancient herbal remedies.

After a day of sightseeing, retreat to the Boboli Gardens (behind Palazzo Pitti) -- the largest green area in the city center. Highlights include a rose garden, a shell- and gem-encrusted grotto, and unparalleled views over the Tuscan countryside.

While the beauty of the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori (also known as Florence Cathedral) is undeniable, the structure is most famous for its dome. Built without scaffolding, the Duomo was the largest in the world and an architectural feat in its time. Climb the 476 stairs to the top (€8) for a close-up view of the Giorgio Vasari frescoes that cover its interior and the best view of Florence outside. Arrive before 9 a.m. to avoid the inevitable line, or pay extra (€15) for skip-the-line tickets.

Alternatively, climb the adjacent campanile (bell tower). Begun by Giotto in 1334, the 414-step climb up affords similarly staggering city views as the Duomo but tends to have a shorter line and includes a view of the Duomo from its best angle (€6). Note that the top is tight, so if you’re claustrophobic, the Duomo might be a better choice.

While the Basilica di Santa Croce houses the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli, it is equally notable for its art and architecture. As the world’s largest Franciscan church, its sixteen chapels are decorated with frescoes by Giotto and his pupils, namely Taddeo Gaddi, who dedicated 30 years to “The Last Supper” in the refectory.

The octagonal Baptistery, which stands opposite the Duomo, is one of the oldest buildings in the city, constructed between 1059 and 1128. Many notable Renaissance figures, including Dante and several members of the Medici family, were baptized here.

A trip to Italy isn’t complete without a cup of gelato -- daily. Family owned Perche' No, open since 1939, is known for its gourmet seasonal specialties. Vivoli, family-run for more than 80 years, is the go-to for classic flavors (crema, pistachio, chocolate).  

Take a cooking class. MaMa Florence offers single and multi-day courses that range from pizza- and pasta- making to meatballs, market walks, and wine tours. Cucina con Vista, helmed by Florentine chef Elena Mattei, offers classes of up to four students that focus on classic Tuscan dishes, such as crostini alla fiorentina con fegatini (chicken liver pâté on toast).

Tips to Save Even More

Florence is a walking city, so there's no need to factor transit into your budget. If you do want to get around on wheels, Florence has a decent network of bike lanes. Rent a bike from one of the rental stands outside the Santa Maria Novella train station for €10 (or $11.75 USA) a day.

For a true glimpse at the Italian lifestyle, grab a table at a cafe, particularly in the morning or mid-afternoon, and do as the Italians do -- sip espresso and people watch. Remember that caffe is espresso (if you want American coffee, order an americano) and should only cost about 1 euro or a little over $1.

Places with trattoria, osteria, and pizzeria in the name tend to be cheaper than places called ristorante.

While there are endless good restaurants and wine bars, a nice (and cheap) alternative is to grab a bottle of wine, cheese, olives, and ciabatta from a local alimentari (grocery) and picnic in a piazza or at Giardino delle Rose (between Piazzale Michelangelo and San Niccolo), which has impressive views of the city.

Florence has several expansive outdoor markets that are great for shopping and bartering. Mercato San Lorenzo, surrounding San Lorenzo church, is known for its leather goods; while Mercato Centrale and Mercato Sant'Ambrogi are all about food, with everything from cheese to fresh fish and local olive oil and truffles. Opt for a small lunch and fill up on free samples instead.

On June 24, Florentines celebrate the day of their patron saint, San Giovanni Battista, with free fireworks at Piazzale Michelangelo. Grab a bottle of wine and a seat along the Arno River to watch.

Free guided tours are available at several sites, including the Duomo Cathedral, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Maria Novella, and the Brancacci Chapel.  

Catch a free concert at the Piazzale Michelangelo, where the monks at San Miniato have been singing Gregorian chants for hundreds of years (ask at the tourist office for times).

If you’re planning on taking advantage of the city’s museums, consider the Firenze Card (€72 or $84 USA), a 72-hour pass that gives you access to around 30 museums (most of which you can skip the lines).

For better deals on artisan goods, head to the Oltrarno neighborhood, which is far from the tourist center and home of generations of artists producing quality items.

Nearly every bar hosts Aperitivo, Italian happy hour drinks with a free small snack. But Oibò takes it to the next level: From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., drinks are €8 (or $9.40) and accompanied by an all-you-can-eat buffet, including pizza, lasagna, and caprese.

Florence is filled with churches, all of which boast ornate frescoes and architecture, and almost all are free to enter.

On the first Sunday of every month, you can get into many of Florence’s museums for free.

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