There are many reasons why you should visit Florence. First on anyone’s list is the abundance of Renaissance art and architecture: Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, the hall of treasures at the Uffizi, the doors of the Baptistery – to name a few.
But if you’re not a huge art junkie, there’s still plenty of stuff to do and places to go. Last year I spent a month there, so this guide, while not written by an actual local, should give you a taste of what living in this wonderful city is like.
First, a word about transportation
Modern metropolitan Florence is a major city with hundreds of thousands of people, but all the parts you visit are reachable by foot, bike, and the mostly reliable bus/tram system, which no one pays for (this is a common theme in Italy). In fact, there are adorable mini-buses (pictured above) which are free to ride in the historical center. No need to rent a car; in fact, I strongly advise against renting a car because Italian drivers are fucking insane.
If you want to see art, but not the same ol’ tourist itinerary
You would be doing yourself a disservice by completely avoiding the major Renaissance art museums/edifices, but you can’t be blamed if it gets stale after a while. Florence has a lot of weird, funky art happenings that go beyond Michelangelo and Giotto.
The Giardino Bardini is a 17th century garden and villa on the south side of the Arno, not far from the super-popular Boboli Gardens. While the architecture and gardens fit into the usual Florentine category of “pretty-looking old stuff,” they put on contemporary exhibitions, including a recent reconceptualization of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Centro Pecci is a major contemporary art museum that has sort of a spaceship vibe to it (in other words, it actually looks like a place for modern/contemporary art to be showcased). It’s almost halfway between Pistoia and Florence so take a taxi to get there.
My favorite way to see art in Florence was just to walk around, however. There are some excellent street art collectives in the city – if you know where to look you can find everything from stick figures hanging from red balloons to sheaves of poetry pasted onto walls by the Movimento per l’Emancipazione della Poesia. Google translate will help with that.
Alessandro Dari is a goldsmith with an open studio on the south side of the Arno, hidden away beneath the steep hill that leads to Piazzale Michelangelo. He makes some really weird, beautiful designs – not the sort of thing you could ever afford to buy, but certainly worth the time to marvel at. His studio is a piece of history (like so many places in the city), with high Gothic vaults and an illustrious guest list including Michelangelo and Raphael.
The Orsanmichele is one medieval church worth visiting – even though it’s a few blocks away from the heavily-trafficked Duomo it’s quiet. It also wasn’t originally built as a church; it used to be a grain market. You can still see chutes at the bottom of some of the pillars. From an art history perspective, the early Renaissance Madonna and Child altar painting, plus a series of Gothic sculptures on the outside of the building make it worth the visit.
The Piazza: The Florentine’s Living Room
Florence’s city center is still very much based on crowded medieval planning. What this means is that instead of large, sprawling apartments, people tend to live in more crowded quarters. The piazza, or city square, is where everyone goes to socialize. If drinking directly from a bottle of Lambrusco or sipping an espresso and pointing out funny statues and beautiful people with a friend sounds like the perfect way to spend the day, hopping from one piazza to another is a super fun way to get to know the city.
Piazza della Repubblica, Piazza del Duomo, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce, and Piazzale Michelangelo are great for people watching and are in all the guidebooks because of the art, architecture, views, or some combination of those three criteria. They’re all must-sees and a visit to Florence would be incomplete without walking through them.
Here are six other piazzas worth checking out:
Piazza Santo Spirito is one of my favorite places in the city to hang out. One corner of the square is a monastery and church, whose many steps make for a naturally elevated viewing point. Almost any night of the week you can find groups of students and vagabonds drinking, chatting, and playing music there. There’s a market every morning, where locals buy everything from tomatoes to scarves from the merchants. A handful of bars and restaurants that line the square serve decent food, coffee, and alcohol; Pop Café has particularly friendly staff, good wifi, and is an ideal place to get some work in.
Piazza della Passera, not more than 5 minutes from S. Spirito, is another great spot to hang out. It’s a cozy triangular square that features Gelateria della Passera (locals are partial to their sorbet, but they have a spicy dark chocolate gelato I love) and a few excellent restaurants, notably Cuattro Leoni for a splurge. My cousin Yael studied in Florence back in the Middle Ages (jk, in 2012) and still swoons when she remembers the pear ravioli she ate there. The benches in the middle of the piazza offer you the perfect place to scope out the locals and tourists who pass through in roughly equal number.
Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, on the north side of the city behind the Accademia, has a strange nautical-themed fountain in the center and is a good meeting point. It has a direct line of sight on the Duomo, about a thousand feet down Via del Servi, and the many steps are usually filled with students from the nearby university. Un Caffè is a hole in the wall in the northwestern corner of the piazza, and if you can get a table it’s a neat place to sip an espresso and try to listen to the locals speak in the Tuscan dialect – skipping over the “C” and replacing it with an “H.” ‘Tis delightful.
Piazza Tasso is a really interesting place to hang out, in the Oltrarno neighborhood on the south side of the city. A huge section of the medieval wall, dating back to the 12th century, abuts the square. Al Tranvai, a local favorite, serves local specialties such as rabbit and asparagus soufflé for dinner.
Piazza Gavinana, on the southeastern side of the Arno, is the heart of the Gavinana neighborhood, one of the oldest in the city. Since its farther out of the way, you won’t run into quite as many tourists. My friend Charlie, who studied abroad here, recommends Vecchia Osteria del Nacchero for a great dinner at reasonable prices.
Piazza Sant’Ambrogio isn’t far from Santa Croce and is a great place to start the night. There are tons of bars here that do aperitivo – you really can’t go wrong. If you have the munchies, Jenny (who also studied abroad in Florence) has a soft spot for Sergio Pollini Lampredotto, just to the south of the piazza. Make sure you know what lampredotto is before you try it, though.
It’s not actually a piazza, but the Parco delle Cascine is a really lovely place to amble about. It abuts the north side of the Arno and is full of shady trees and open grass areas. It’s a good place to go for a jog, toss a Frisbee, pet people’s dogs, and possibly be accosted by drug dealers trying to sell you weed (don’t worry, they’re harmless).
Tell me where to eat
Florence does have its share of tourist traps, although it’s not nearly as bad as Rome or Venice. A rule of thumb is that you should probably avoid eating in restaurants right off of the main piazzas. I used to think bilingual menus automatically meant a place was a tourist trap; that’s not always the case anymore, but obviously a restaurant that only has Italian on the menu isn’t trying to cater to foreigners. Here’s a quick guide to ordering in Italian so you can impress the wait staff.
Mercato Centrale has a huge upstairs eating area. It’s definitely on the high end and is aimed at tourists who don’t mind burning a few extra euros. There’s no denying the food is damn good – you’re just paying more for not having to look as hard for quality. On the top floor, I Tramezzini specializes in street food sandwiches; their porchetta is crisp, juicy, and to die for. Meanwhile, Da Nerbone has been around for years, serving humble plates of eggplant pasta, minestrone, and sandwiches at reasonable prices (think 5-6 euros for a plate of pasta). My friend Diane studied in Florence a few years before I went and bugged me to go to Da Nerbone, so I finally went after a week and then returned three more times.
Italians don’t really know what breakfast is; their concept of it is limited to a cappuccino and a croissant (which they call brioche). Sadly, they don’t really understand the concept of croissant either. Except for Caffe Rainer, a bakery-café run by an Austrian guy (presumably named Rainer). Every pastry there is gold; you can’t go wrong.
I have three go-to locations for wood-fired pizza (in other words, the best kind of pizza) in Florence. Fuoco Matto, an upscale pizzeria off of Piazza della Indipendenza makes beautiful pizzas with ridiculous toppings. The arugula and cherry tomatoes they use look so perfect it seems like they were photo-shopped. Gusta Pizza near Santo Spirito, which is always crowded with students because you can get a Margherita there for 5 euros, gives you all the crunchy, crispy, slightly burnt crust goodness with none of the frills of a fancy restaurant, hence the low prices. Simbiosi makes delicious pizzas and has a great wine list; all of their products are organic, yet prices are surprisingly reasonable; the cozy dining room combines rustic exposed wood beams with spacious and minimalist décor and adds that extra je ne sais quoi to the experience.
Ribollita is a must-have if you visit Tuscany; a peasant stew made with leftover bread, chickpeas, kale, tomatoes, and pretty much whatever else is sitting in the cupboard. This article explores some of the best ribollita dishes in Florence; Vini e Vecchi Sapori, not far from Piazza della Signoria, does an excellent ribollita. If you’re up to it, you can try making your own at the Lorenzo de Medici cooking school, in Mercato Centrale.
Panini are another must-eat when you’re in Florence. Sandwichic is in a former tailor shop (hence the ode to fashion) and creates delicious sandwiches featuring uber-locally sourced ingredients. You can point to anything in the shop and they’ll be able to tell you which village in the area supplied the pig for the salame, or where the sheep which produced the cheese grazed. All’antico Vinaio is on a narrow street right behind the Palazzo Vecchio, so it gets a ton of tourists, but their bigger-than-your-face panini are cheap, filled with excellent quality meats, cheeses, and grilled vegetables, and are so worth the inevitable food coma. Scheggi is located a bit outside the city center, near the Stadio Artemio Franchi where Fiorentina, the local football club, play their matches. Since it’s not in a high-profile location the prices are cheaper than what you’d get in the shadow of the Duomo, but the quality is unmistakable.
If you come to Florence but don’t have room for dessert, that would be pretty sad. Gelato is a safe, go-to dessert (just make sure you can spot the good stuff). Arà: è Sicilia is as good as it gets for cannoli, biscotti, and other southern Italian desserts. It’s right across the street from the Accademia so you can’t miss it. If pastries are your thing and you want the smug satisfaction of bragging to your friends that you found a true gem in the city, go hunting for a secret bakery late at night before you turn in. Basically, look for bakeries operating after midnight and see if you can bribe the bakers to hand you a freshly-made Nutella-stuffed croissant before they get sent off with the next day’s order.
Get out of the city!
What are some other things to do in Florence besides museums, eating, and drinking? To be honest, not much. You might get restless if you stay longer than a week. Here are a few suggestions:
Go on a daytrip! Pistoia, Grosseto, Lucca, Arezzo, Siena, Fiesole, San Gimignano, and Pisa are smaller cities or towns that can be easily explored in a day. With the exception of Fiesole, which is at the end of public bus line #7, you must take the train or a private bus line to reach them. I wrote an overview of Lucca, Arezzo, and Siena when I visited in 2015.
Hike part of the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage road similar to the Camino de Santiago. It passes through Tuscany en route to Rome, and the chance to escape the rush of the city might do you some good.
Stay at an agriturismo or volunteer on a farm somewhere outside of Florence. Agritourism is big business in Italy, especially since the Slow Food movement has really caught on. Search Airbnb for high-end agriturismos that treat you like royalty. Or if you want to really earn your bread, check out WWOOFing, Workaway, or even Couchsurfing for permaculture forms and eco-collectives that are looking for volunteer labor. It’s an unforgettable experience; I spent a week picking olives on a farm in the village of Arcidosso and absolutely loved it.
Do you have any other questions about what to do in Florence? Contact me! I’d love to help you out.