My guide of things to do in Florence has all the major sites, and some off the beaten path gems.
Florence was the first city that I lived in. Even though the city only has about 350,000 residents, it felt big to a girl from Maine. I arrived in Florence to study art history, and half of our lectures took place outside of the classroom and in front of the artwork. It was a dream come true, even if the classes were tough. I left Florence with a love of the city, a deep appreciation for Renaissance art, and friendships I still have today.
Over a year ago, I started having reoccuring dreams about Florence, and I took that as a sign that it was time for me to go back. I spent 9 days of my 101-day trip around the world in Florence. I went back to my favorite places, and discovered new spots that opened up, and today I am sharing it all with you.
Things to do in Florence:
The Duomo is Florence’s Cathedral and one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Once you get to wherever you are staying, walk to the Duomo. If you learn where the Duomo is in relation to other things, you won’t get lost.
The Duomo consists of three buildings: the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and a Campanile (the bell tower). The complex of buildings is called “the Duomo” since the dome can be seen throughout the city. Many cities in Italy have a “duomo” the term isn’t specific to Florence.
At the time the cathedral was built, it was the largest cathedral in the world. In order to make sure it was the largest, someone was sent around Europe to measure other cathedrals. The largest was nearby in Siena, and the plan was to build a cathedral a couple of yards larger. So then Siena made theirs larger, and then the Duomo was made larger, and this went on and on until the Duomo overtook the size of the Siena cathedral.
Climb to the top of the Dome
If you climb the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo you will be rewarded with views for Florence and the countryside beyond the city.
I booked a tour that also made a stop at the terrace, which isn’t visited as often, but I recommend it because it breaks up the climb to the top, and the view of the dome from the terrace is wonderful.
The smaller round building in front of the cathedral is the baptistery. Before the 1400s, you were only allowed in a Catholic cathedral if you had been baptized, which meant that people had to be baptized in another building. The baptistery is no longer used for baptisms, but the building is grandly decorated with Byzantine-style gilded mosaics.
The Duomo’s bell tower is a freestanding tower beside the cathedral. You can also climb to the top of the bell tower, but it does have wire fencing around the top so the photo opportunities are better from the top of the Duomo.
The Medici Chapel
This chapel beside the San Lorenzo Market is often overlooked and isn’t as busy as the Duomo or the museums in Florence. The chapel was built for the Medici family that ruled Florence during the time of the Renaissance. There are two main things to see at the Medici Chapel, the chapel itself and the sacristy.
Within the sacristy, you will find some of Michelangelo’s finest sculptures adorning the two tombs. On one, you will find the personifications of Day and Night and on the other, you will find sculptures of Dawn and Dusk.
Michelangelo’s ability to convey emotion through his sculptures is remarkable, and each figure in this series of work seems to have their own personality. They appear so lifelike that they look like people turned to stone, not stones carved to look like people.
The sculptures are smaller than David and much closer to eye level so you can get an up-close look at these detailed marble works. Since this site isn’t crowded admire the sculptures in quiet and take your time. The chapel is small you can easily see it in 30 minutes, and if you are a fan of Michelangelo you need to see this.
This museum is just 0.07% of the size of the Louvre. It has just 9 rooms, but it is still one of the most visited museums in the world. That’s because Michelangelo’s David resides here.
Michelangelo was the fourth artist asked to carve a sculpture of David out of the large block of marble, the first three artists refused. Michelangelo was just 26 when he spent received the commission to carve David, a work that took over two years to complete.
Michelangelo’s depiction of David was a departure from how he was usually represented in art. Usually, he was depicted as a boy wearing armor. Michelangelo drew inspiration from sculptures of Greek gods and created David as a young man, in peak fitness, completely nude. He’s the ideal male form. Men want to be him; women want to be with him.
David was originally displayed outside in Piazza della Signoria, but he suffered damage during battles and weather conditions so eventually moved inside and a replica was placed outside.
Seeing the David replica outside helps you to understand just how talented Michelangelo was. Although the sculptures are meant to be identical, Michelangelo’s seems to be more alive.
Once you see David, stop to see the other Michelangelo sculptures in the collection. The series of works, called The Prisoners (also called The Slaves), were intentionally left unfinished so that viewers could see Michelangelo’s process. Michelangelo said that the figures were in the marble, he just set them free. He worked freehand and chose not to rely on plaster models.
Note: You will want to prebook tickets to go to The Accademia since it is such a small museum and so popular.
The Uffizi is Florence’s largest art museum and home to masterworks by Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Titan.
You will want to make sure that you see Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Caravaggio’s Medusa, and Titan’s Venus of Urbino.
Be sure to stop to admire the view of the Ponte Vecchio from the top floor of the museum, you won’t want to miss it.
If you want a snack, there is a café with a terrace overlooking the Duomo, and they serve the best gelato I had in Florence (and I ate a lot of gelato). I recommend getting the pistachio.
Originally built as a residence for Luca Pitti in the 1400s, Pitti Palace was purchased by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1550. Today the Renaissance palace is home to four museums.
The Palatine Gallery and the Royal and Imperial Apartments are on the first floor and they display artwork and furniture from the Medici collections and give visitors a glimpse into the lavish lifestyle of those who resided in the palace. The museum contains the largest collection of works by Raphael along with paintings by Titan, Caravaggio, and Rubens. The elaborate interiors of the space are easy to get lost in. Most rooms have elaborately carved and painted ceilings.
On the top floor, you will find a gallery of modern art that spans the 18th century to the start of the 20th century.
While you are there, take in the views of the city on one side of the palace, and the Boboli Gardens on the other.
The ground floor is home to the Treasury of the Grand Dukes which displayed furniture and decorative arts, and the Museum of Fashion and Costume which hosts temporary exhibits.
Things to Do Outside
This large garden is behind Pitti Palace, there is a lot to explore and you will want to spend at least an hour wandering through. Directly behind the palace, there is an amphitheater decorated with sculptures. You can get a great view of this from within the palace.
Beyond the amphitheater and up the hill you will find the Fountain of Neptune, a Porcelain Museum beside a formal flower garden, a lane lined with cypress trees, grottos, a basin, and many sculptures.
It’s a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
This garden just a very short distance from the Boboli Garden has some of the best views of the Florence skyline. The garden is divided into several sections that include a grand staircase, fountains, a canal, sculptures, an English wood, fruit trees, and flower beds.
Your ticket to Bardini Garden also gets you into Boboli Garden and it takes just 5 minutes to walk between the two.
Piazza del Michelangelo
Go here for one of the best views of Florence. It’s an especially popular place to view the sunset. Since the piazza is very close to Bardini Garden, the views are similar. You might want to do one or the other.
The Ponte Vecchio is a covered bridge built in 1345 that stretches over the Arno River and it is the only bridge across the Arno that the Germans did not destroy during WWII. Today the bridge is home to pricey jewelry stores.
The best view of the Ponte Vecchio is from the Uffizi. Or, if you aren’t planning a museum visit, you can view the Ponte Vecchio from the two bridges on either side of it. At night you can listen to buskers perform on the bridge.
Other Things to Do in Florence
San Lorenzo Market
The young Italian men calling out “Ciao Bella!” are a thing of the past. Now the market is staffed by people who have emigrated to Florence and who aren’t nearly as flirtatious. The quality and variety of goods found in the market aren’t what it used to be either. You will end up walking through the market at some point during your stay in Florence, it’s a small city and the market is impossible to miss.
I spent one day of my time in Florence at Firenze Rocks, a four-day music festival that is like a mini version of Lollapalooza – but more upscale. There was a restaurant serving caviar and champagne! The festival takes place at a horse racing track and the one-stage festival hosts seven bands each day. My day pass to see bands including The Struts, Glen Hansard, and Eddie Vedder was $85. The venue was a 40-minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio but buses are also available from Santa Maria Novella. Firenze Rocks takes place in early June.
Have Your Photo Taken
I met up with Davide, who I found through airbnb experiences and we went around the city while he took photos, and I love his work! He took the series of photo of me in the floral dress that are included in this post.
Where to Eat in Florence
Eating is one of the best activities that you can do in Florence, here are some of my favorite spots.
There are two parts to the Central Market. The first level is where locals do their grocery shopping, but there are a couple of restaurants mixed in. The second level is an upscale food court with restaurants serving pasta, pizza, paninis, and more. It’s a great place for a casual meal, or to pick up a sandwich to eat on the go.
One of the restaurants within the Central Market, I loved the cacio e pepe here.
La Pizzeria Sud
Also within the Central Market, this place cranks out pizzas at an incredible pace. I like this spot because the pizzas come out quickly and you get to watch the action. Their classic margherita pizza is excellent, but they have a menu with several other options plus a seasonal special.
This panini shop is so popular that there are three locations all clustered together on the same street. The paninis are exceptional because of the special sauces like truffle cream, artichoke cream, and mushroom cream that get added to their sandwiches. Most paninis have just three or four ingredients like prosciutto, cheese, tomatoes, salami, arugula, or artichokes. All come of freshly made focaccia.
The paninis are just 5 euros and they are about the size of my hand, so it’s a great value for money, and it’s one of the most famous eateries in Florence. I went at 10:45, just after they opened at 10:30 and there were just three people in line. When I walked by later in the day there wasn’t a line, just a giant mob of people which seemed to lack organization. Plan to go early to avoid the wait.
Everyone who has been to Florence knows Za-Za’s. It’s just behind the Central Market and since the time I studied abroad, it has become a small empire occupying multiple storefronts and blocks of sidewalk space. The large square umbrellas have been replaced with permanent structures with roofs.
One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed much is the prices, which are very reasonable, and definitely one of the reasons for the restaurant’s popularity. The ribollita is wonderful and I love their pasta.
Grom is one of the best gelato spots in Florence, it is part of a chain so there are locations in other cities too, but it is very good. They have classic flavors like stracciatella, pistachio, and chocolate plus some more unique artisanal flavors like vanilla with biscotti.
When I was studying in Florence and my mother and godmother came to visit, we ended up in a part of the city that I didn’t know very well, so we asked a friendly policeman for a restaurant recommendation. He signaled for his two colleagues to come over and the three of them had an impassioned discussion. Then the officer came back and said, “We have decided. 13 Gobbi.” So we went.
When we walked in my mother remembered it. She had been there 25 years ago with my father. So obviously, I had to go back. I swear the waiter shed a tear when I hold him that story. He also liked me so much that he gave me a never-ending glass of wine. No complaints!
13 Gobbi is a candlelit restaurant that attracts a mix of locals and tourists. They are known for their rigatoni which comes piping hot in a big glass bowl with a tomato sauce with plenty of mozzarella.
Slow coffee is new to Italy. While Italians love coffee, the idea of sitting down to enjoy it with friends instead of quickly drinking it at the bar is new. Ditta Artigianale is one of the new slow coffee joints in Florence and in addition to coffee they have a full menu. I stayed just down the street from the Via dei Neri location and I liked stopping by for the fast and affordable breakfast which includes items like avocado toast, pancakes, and scrambled eggs.
Several people recommended this pizzeria, but I didn’t have time to make it there. I wanted to mention it since trusted sources raved about this pizza.
Side Trips to Take from Florence
If you go to Florence, make sure that you allocate 2-3 days to exploring other parts of Tuscany. You can opt to stay overnight in these places, but they are doable day trips from Florence. You might want to rent a car or you could take the bus or train. Spend the night in these towns or just go for the day. If you don’t want to deal with the logistics yourself, you can find plenty of tours to these towns that leave from Florence.
There are trains that go from Florence to Lucca, Siena, Pisa, and Cinque Terre so these are perfect places to visit if you don’t want to rent a car or join a group tour.
This small walled city is known for it’s beauty and its medieval tower that has oak trees growing on top. I went here when I was in college and thought it was one of the prettiest towns in Tuscany. Biking around the perimeter of the city and walking along the top of the city walls are popular activities.
There are lots of different day trips that you can take to Chianti. I opted to do a bike tour that ended at a winery, since several people recommended biking in Tuscany. One minute we were flying down the hills, and the next we were struggling to climb back up them. It is was a workout but I loved getting to bike past vineyards before sitting down for a wine tasting.
Everyone seems to love Siena. This smaller city has medieval brick buildings, a grand square in the center of town, and a cathedral that was the largest in the world until Florence’s Duomo stole the title.
You might want to plan to visit on a Wednesday. The largest market in Tuscany takes place in Siena on Wednesdays from 8:30-1:30.
You might have heard that this town has a leaning tower? The seven-story tower, which is the bell tower of Pisa’s duomo, is tilted almost 4 degrees thanks to an unstable foundation. In 1990 the tower was tilting 5.5 degrees, and $250 million was spent to reduce the tilt. You can walk to the top of the tower, it’s a total of 296 steps.
Visit Tenuta Chiudendone for a Cooking Class
My friend Carla was in Florence just a week before me, and she stayed at Tenuta Chiudendone, an agriturismo, a working farm that offers accommodations and cooking classes. This was one of the best things that I did in Florence. Our small group met at the train station in Florene and took a quick train ride to the countryside where we were met by drivers who took us to the farm/villa where we met our hosts Francesco and Isabella.
Francesco took us on a tour through his vineyard, olive orchard, and vegetable garden. We picked vegetables and headed to the kitchen where everyone was given an assignment. In an hour we pulled together a feast that was served with tastings of Francesco’s wine and olive oil.
After lunch we all went to the pool. It was a perfect day, it was hard to say goodbye to Francesco and Isabella, it felt like we had been welcomed into their family. My group got along so well that we met up later for drinks and we are still in touch!
A hilltop town surrounded by a wall that dates back to the 13th century, San Gimignano is known for its 14 towers. During the 14th century, families in the town added towers to their homes to display their wealth and at one point there were 72 towers in San Gimignano. Today the historic town center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This series of five villages along the coast have become famous for their beauty. I went in college and a group of us took an early morning train and then hiked between four of the five towns and took the train back to Florence. It’s a long day trip, but still doable.
Where I Stayed in Florence
I stayed in two different airbnbs. I liked staying in two different parts of the city, and I saved money by staying in a more budget-friendly place for a few days.
This airbnb consists of three bedrooms, each rented out separately. I had a private bath and access to a kitchen and dining room. It’s exactly across the street from the Accademia. You can’t beat the price, although I did miss having air conditioning since it was in the 90s.
A two bedroom two bathroom airbnb one block from the Ponte Vecchio, this is a beautifully decorated apartment with an elevator, air conditioning, and a washer/dryer. This would be a perfect place for friends or two couples traveling together.
What to Know Before You Go
It is easy to fly into Rome, then to take the train from the Rome airport to Rome’s central train station, and then take the train to Florence. This might save you money too.
Florence is small and very walkable. When I studied in Florence I never took a taxi or a bus. With that being said, pack comfortable walking shoes.
It gets hot in the summer, so you might want to check to make sure your accommodations have air conditioning.
If you want to visit the Duomo (this includes climbing to the top of the dome) you need to wear an outfit that covers your shoulders and goes to your knees.
Book your tickets for museums and activities in advance since Florence is a popular destination and tickets sell out. Buy skip the line tickets will also save you from waiting in lines for 1-2 hours.