Cradle of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is staggeringly beautiful, home to fabulous restaurants, museums, parks and its celebrated fairytale bridge across the Arno. Yet there’s one thing that draws the crowds more than any other: fine art. Botticelli and Michelangelo created some of their most inspired work here, Leonardo Da Vinci spent his formative years in the city, and the Uffizi is one of the world’s greatest art galleries.
Planning Your Trip
Crafting Your Florence Itinerary
What you see in Florence depends on how much time you have, and have much tolerance you have for Renaissance art—there is a lot in Florence. Unless you are a hardcore art aficionado, limit your time in galleries—after a few hours it becomes hard to distinguish one “Madonna with bambino” from another. Connoisseurs would be horrified, but on the tightest schedule it's possible to see a few highlights on a day-trip, while three or four days will allow a fuller exploration of the city.
With one day, get an early start and make for the Uffizi first (book tickets in advance), before heading to the Duomo and the Accademia for an obligatory look at Michelangelo's "David" (book tickets in advance). Stroll south across the Ponte Vecchio for a late lunch in Oltrarno, before admiring the Cappella Brancacci or Santa Croce church. With a few more days you can expand on this basic itinerary, spending a whole day, for example, south of the river, visiting the Pitti and Boboli Gardens, as well as adding a day out in hillside Fiesole. For more ideas, check out our tours and itineraries.
When to go
Florence is accessible year-round, with a high season that runs mid-March (Easter) through early July, from September to early November, and the Christmas period through January 6. Warm and sunny May, June, and September are particularly popular; generally cool January and February are the months to grab a bargain. (August, which can be very hot, was once a cheaper month, but rates these days rarely go down the whole summer.) Here's more on the Best Time to Visit Italy.
Getting there & around
Only a few airlines serve Florence’s Amerigo Vespucci Airport. International flights and most budget airlines use Pisa’s Galileo Galilei Airport, 60 miles west of Florence. Flying to Rome or Milan, it’s fairly straightforward (and fast) to reach Florence by train; Stazione Santa Maria Novella (Florence train station) has excellent connections all over Italy.
The best way to see Florence is on foot—it’s a generally flat city and you can stroll between all the main sights in a matter of minutes. Taxis are fairly expensive and most useful when arriving at the station or airport. You can also rent bikes (try Florence by Bike) or use the app-powered bike-sharing scheme Mobike.
Avoiding the lines
Remember to book Uffizi and Accademia tickets in advance. Reserving a timed entrance slot is relatively straightforward online, and gets you into a much shorter line. If you are planning a museum-packed visit, the Firenze Card can be a good value (it covers 76 museums and sights, but only for 72 hours), but if you only expect to see a few highlights, don’t bother.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Highlights & Activities
The River Arno slices through Florence east to west, with most of the sights lying to the north around the old center, though the district to the south of the river, the Oltrarno, is one of the most intriguing.
Piazza del Duomo
The marble-clad Duomo (cathedral) is the grandest structure in Florence, its celebrated dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th century. Giotto started work on the Campanile, the cathedral’s bell tower, in 1334, and today the steep climb to the top is another city highlight. The Baptistery is the oldest building in Florence, its magnificent bronze doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti (these are reproductions—the originals sit in the nearby Museo dell’Opera).
Piazza della Signoria
This piazza is the city’s civic heart and gateway to the Uffizi Gallery, exhibiting the greatest works of Botticelli (think Primavera and Birth of Venus), as well as showstoppers from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The lesser-visited Bargello Museum boasts Renaissance sculpture by the likes of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti. Around the corner from the Uffizi, the Museo Galileo is a treasure trove of fascinating scientific instruments, giant spheres, and telescopes, with an evocative setting straight out of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
Dominating the piazza with its striking tower, the Palazzo Vecchio (old city hall) acts primarily as an art museum today, adorned with frescoes and Renaissance paintings. To the northeast, the Leonardo di Vinci Museum displays models of Da Vinci's civil and military machines, reproduced from his drawings, all built to scale or in their actual size and in working order. Down at the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio is the city’s oldest and most famous bridge – overhanging shops have lined it since at least the 12th century.
San Lorenzo & the Mercato Centrale
The San Lorenzo Street Market and Italy's largest covered food hall, the Mercato Centrale, lie between the Duomo and the train station. The neighborhood centers on the Medici’s old family church of San Lorenzo and its spectacular Michelangelo-designed tombs (inside the Cappelle Medicee).
Piazza Santa Maria Novella
This large, airy plaza is dominated by the stripy Renaissance facade of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Inside are seminal works by Masaccio, Ghirlandaio and Paolo Uccello. Also on the square, the Museo Novecento exhibits 20th-century Italian art, featuring the likes of De Chirico and Futurist Gino Severini. Just to the south, the Museo Marino Marini displays 180 works of Marino Marini, the Tuscan sculptor whose abstract themes of horse and rider dominate the collection. Don’t miss the Cappella Rucellai next to the museum, a Renaissance chapel housing a marvelous polychrome marble tomb completed by Leon Battista Alberti.
Everyone eventually makes a pilgrimage to the Galleria dell’Accademia for Michelangelo’s David. The sculpture is truly sublime and worth every euro (the museum also contains Michelangelo’s Slaves). The northern district of San Marco is otherwise most famous for the Spedale degli Innocenti (the Renaissance childcare institution designed by Brunelleschi and containing a fine art collection), and the church of Santissima Annunziata. The latter is decorated with the city’s finest Mannerist frescoes. Nearby is Florence’s university and San Marco church, containing a priceless collection of paintings of by Fra’ Angelico.
Piazza Santa Croce
This square is home to the annual Renaissance-style soccer tournament known as Calcio Storico Fiorentino (usually in June). Its church of Santa Croce contains the tomb of Michelangelo and lavish monuments to Dante, Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei. Giotto frescoed two of the side chapels, while the Cappella Pazzi is one of Brunelleschi’s masterpieces.
South of the Arno
Oltrarno district centers on buzzing Piazza Santo Spirito, lined with bars and cafés. Pitti Palace, built in the 15th century for the Pitti family and acquired by the Medici in 1549, acts as an umbrella for eight museums, plus the tranquil Boboli Gardens. The most popular sections are the Appartamenti Reali (Royal Apartments of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany), and the Galleria Palatina, home to the Medici's lavish art collection (particularly works by Raphael).
The church of Santa Maria del Carmine contains the Cappella Brancacci with its phenomenal series of frescoes by Masolino and his student Masaccio. Looming above the city, Piazzale Michelangelo boasts the classic view of Florence, while further up is the ancient church of San Miniato al Monte, with medieval mosaics and frescoed chapels.
Outskirts of Florence
The quirky Museo Stibbert is set in an opulent villa, a blend of exotic castle decor and ornate baroque palace, though its the eccentric collection of weaponry that really stands out. Some six miles north of the city, Fiesole lies 1000-feet up in the hills, offering scintillating views, Etruscan museums, and fresh breezes in summer.
Where to Stay
Reserve accommodation in Florence as far in advance as possible, even in the off-season. HomeAway.com and Airbnb offer plenty of central and suburban apartments in Florence and generally offer the cheapest rates for those looking for bargains. At the top-end the city offers several options, beginning with Palazzo Tolomei, a lavish palace that even claims the painter Raphael as one of its former guests.
Mid-range options include La Dimora degli Angeli, a B&B in one of the city’s busiest shopping districts, and Il Guelfo Bianco, a former noble Florentine family home. For something edgier, try Garibaldi Blu, a fashionable boutique with retro 1970s furniture. Decent budget options include the Alloro, a small hotel with modern rooms inside a Renaissance palace, and Plus Florence north of the center, which offers indoor and outdoor swimming pools and spacious rooms for bargain rates.
Where to Eat
Florentine cuisine is traditionally regarded as one of the best in Italy. Cafe-bookshop Brac morphs into the city’s top spot for vegetarian and vegan food in the evenings, while meat lovers can indulge in the best steaks in Italy at Trattoria dall’ Oste. Foodies will appreciate the pricey but exquisite contemporary Mediterranean cuisine at Senz’ Altro Bistrot and Tuscan classics at Ristorante Brandolino. Il Latini is one of the most popular tourist haunts in Florence, but an essential experience nonetheless, with its cellar-like surroundings, hams hanging from the ceiling, and long communal tables.
Sostanza is the oldest trattoria in the city (1869), and its gargantuan portions of rustic food make it a fun place to eat – the communal tables led to its popular nickname il troia ("the trough"). Da Nerbone is one of several no-nonsense snack bars inside the Mercato Centrale, established in 1872 and serving the best bagnato (boiled beef sandwich dipped in gravy) in town. Sample the Belle Epoque atmosphere (and hot chocolate) at Caffè Gilli at least once, and don’t forget the top floor of the Mercato Centrale for cheap Italian street food.
Topping a very long list for gelato in Florence is Gelateria de’ Medici, just outside the center, though La Carraia and Gelateria della Passera (with water ices such as pink grapefruit or jasmine tea gelato) are just as tempting.
Florence by Night
The contemporary cocktail scene is flourishing at spots like Bitter Bar and Mayday, while the more traditional Cantinetta dei Verrazzano specializes in Chianti and other local vintages. Caffè Sant’Ambrogio is a sociable wine bar popular with locals, as is Santino, which also serves fabulous Florentine-style tapas and cold-cuts. For something special order a sunset Negroni at La Terrazza Lounge at the Continentale, perched on a rooftop overlooking the Ponte Vecchio. For a break from Italian wine, sample the local craft ales at the Beer House Club—and for clubbing at the weekend, make for Tenax, out in the suburbs.