3 Days in…Florence, Italy!
I’ve dreamt of traveling to Florence for much of my life and finally got the opportunity to in June of this year! Florence, the home of the Italian Renaissance, is an incredibly vibrant city and full of so much amazing art and culture. Wandering through the same winding streets that were traversed by the likes of Michelangelo and DaVinci and seeing where they drew some of their inspiration from elicits a sense of enchantment. Over the next three days you’ll be doing a lot of walking, so pack some comfortable walking shoes and make sure to carry water, especially during the summer months, as the Florence weather can be very hot and humid.
- Day 1: Tours by Locals walking tour with the David
- Day 2: Uffizi Gallery & Mercato Centrale
- Day 3: Duomo, Pitti Palace, Dinner with a view
Where to stay: Most of the main sites of Florence are located within walkable distance of one another, which makes the decision of where to stay in Florence quite easy! This simple map depicts the neighborhood boundaries in Florence. We stayed in the Uffizi neighborhood, which I thought was a great, central location for visiting Florence’s sites. Other good, centrally located choices are Duomo, Santa Croce and Strozzi neighborhoods. You may also consider the Palazzo Pitti neighborhood on the opposite side of the Arno River; there’s less to see here in terms of the major sites, but the area was quite charming with many restaurants and boutique shops. Our AirBnb in the Uffizi neighborhood is a great option for a couple; it was a small 3-floor walk-up in a historic building with a kitchen. My only complaint was the lack of air conditioning as Florence happened to be going through a heat wave when we were there!
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know by now that I love to walk as much as possible when I travel! I generally start my first day in any city with a self-guided walking tour, but in Florence we changed it up a bit and opted to set up a tour with a local person. We set up our tour through the website, ToursByLocals.com. There are several tours to choose from (ours was “Best of Florence and the David”), but since the tours offered are private, you can customize the tours in advance or as you go! Our tour guide was Eliza, and we found her to be super knowledgeable about the history and culture of Florence, and she had tons of fun facts and stories to share with us. I think spending the day with a local is a really cool way to get a totally different perspective on a city, and I hope to do more tours like this one in the future! Below, I go over some of the highlights of our tour.
We visited the Ponte Vecchio, which is a bridge built in 1345 that spans over the Arno River. This bridge is unique, in that it is lined on both sides by the shops of gold and jewelry merchants which completely block your view of the river. The gold merchants have existed on the bridge since the late 16th century; prior to that the shops were predominantly occupied by butchers. One interesting fact we learned was that the Medici family had their own private walkway over the Ponte Vecchio (you can see it in the photo below; it’s the tan expanse on the upper level of the bridge). This walkway actually extended all of way from the Pitti Palace on one side of the Arno to the Uffizi Gallery on the other, and was a safe way for the family to quickly and privately move through the city. A second interesting fact we learned was that Hitler visited this bridge in 1939 and was so taken by the panoramic views over the river from this private corridor that he spared this bridge from destruction during WWII.
We were surprised to find so much street art in Florence. Our guide pointed out several examples, such as the painting pictured below. This particular street artist paints beautiful copies of famous paintings (this is a painting of one of the Medici children that can be found in the Uffizi Gallery) and places the subject underwater with goggles! We had a really fun time trying to spot all of his paintings throughout the city!
Another very random find in Florence that our guide pointed out was a public drinking fountain in the piazza where the Gucci Museum is located. There are two faucets at this fountain. The one on the right is normal water, while the one on the left (pictured below) is carbonated water. For real guys, free seltzer in Florence! One thing to note is that this water is highly carbonated. If you fill a water bottle and screw back on the cap and then shake up the water by walking around for a bit, when you go to open it, it’s not uncommon for the cap to loudly pop off like a champagne cork. I startled a few poor, unsuspecting passersby!
Also located in this square is the Palazzo Vecchio which has operated as the city’s town hall since the Medieval period. We didn’t go into the building, but it’s free to walk into its courtyard [pictured below] and great for a quick photo op!
While we were in this area with our guide, we also visited the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is an open-air building constructed in the latter half of the 14th century and is essentially a sculpture gallery with both ancient and Renaissance art. Be sure not to miss the unsettling but impressively detailed Perseus with the Head of Medusa, which was sculpted in bronze in the 16th century by Benvenuto Cellini and is pictured below.
Lastly, our guide took us to see the David in the Accademia Gallery. We learned that Michelangelo was actually the third artist to work on the particular piece of marble that David was sculpted out of. After two failed attempts at sculpting this biblical figure, the marble block was left neglected for 25 years exposed to the elements before Michelangelo won the contract to complete the work. From the time of its completion in 1504 through the late 19th century, the statue stood in the piazza next to the Palazzo Vecchio before being moved to its current location in the Accademia Gallery in order to protect it from the elements.
I honestly didn’t think that I’d be as impressed by the David as I was; it definitely exceeded my expectations due to its grand scale and incredible detail. Our guide informed us that weakness in David’s ankles was recently discovered and a solution needs to be quickly come up with to prevent this great statue from becoming unstable or breaking. The future of the David is uncertain, so I would highly recommend visiting Florence and viewing this masterpiece for yourself as soon as possible.
The Uffizi Gallery was one of my favorite places that we visited in Florence and somewhere that you should not miss! In order to make sure you don’t, I strongly recommend purchasing tickets online in advance of your visit. Not only will this ensure you are able to visit this beautiful gallery, it will also allow you to book a specific timeslot so that you aren’t wasting any of your short time in Florence waiting in line. Here you can find several options for buying tickets with or without a guided tour included. I would recommend the first option (B-Ticket) which is the least expensive option and does not include a guided tour.
In place of a tour, I suggest downloading Rick Steves’ Uffizi Gallery podcast. It provides a comprehensive tour of the gallery with directions on where to walk and which rooms to go into and great background of many of the masterpieces located in the gallery. You can download the podcast here. This was my first time doing a podcast tour, and I thought it was a great and economical alternative to taking a guided tour. I look forward to trying out more of Rick’s audio tours on future trips to Italy!
Originally a private gallery for the Medici family, the Uffizi contains some of the world’s most well-known and beloved paintings, such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Da Vinci’s Annunciation, as well as several sculptures from both the ancient Roman and Renaissance periods. One of my favorite rooms in the gallery was the Tribuna [pictured below], which was completed for Francesco de’ Medici in 1584 as a place to display his favorite paintings and jewels.
In addition to the beautiful artwork found in the gallery, the Uffizi also boasts some of the best views of the Duomo and Arno River [pictured below]!
After spending the morning getting your art fix, head to the Mercato Centrale (“Central Market”) for some sustenance! If you’re familiar with Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, you will find this market to be fairly similar. The market is indoors and two stories; the bottom floor is occupied by butchers, vegetable stands, fish mongers, and specialty shops, and the second level is a food court occupied by vendors with ready-to-eat food options. On the second level, I recommend first walking around the perimeter to familiarize yourself with the food options, then establishing a home base at one of the tables in the center. The tables have servers that will stop over to take drink orders, and for food, you can take turns visiting the vendors and bringing food back to the table. The pizza from the stand pictured below was delicious! In addition to many Italian food options, you will also find several international options, especially Asian cuisines.
The Mercato Centrale food court is open early to late-night (from 8am to 12am), while the hours vary for the first floor vendors.
No trip to Florence would be complete without a visit to the Duomo (a.k.a. Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). The photo at the top of this post was taken from Boboli Gardens (I’ll talk more about this later in the post) and highlights the sheer scale of the cathedral and how it dominates the view of the city. In addition to its beauty, the great dome of the cathedral is also a feat of engineering so monumental that art historians and architects today still can’t quite say how it was built so many years ago by Brunelleschi (who was a goldsmith, not an architect!) without traditional wooden supports and how it has remained standing for 6 centuries. I would highly recommend watching this video which tries to unlock the secret to Brunelleschi’s dome prior to visiting Florence.
It was extremely hot and humid on the day that we visited the cathedral, so we opted to not climb to the top of the dome or the top of the cathedral’s bell tower, but for amazing views of the city and cathedral from above, you should consider doing one of these climbs! You are able to make reservations to climb either (or both) online or at the ticket booth in Piazza del Duomo. I would highly suggest booking a reservation in advance either online or at the ticket booth as soon as you get to Florence, as the dome was sold out on the day we visited (bell tower tickets were still available).
After visiting the cathedral, head across the river to the Pitti Palace, which was home to the Medici family beginning in 1549. We skipped out on touring this palace, but I plan to visit it next time we are in town as it was my parents’ favorite spot in Florence! Tickets in advance are not necessary; you can purchase them day of at the palace.
Next to the palace, you will find the Boboli Gardens. The gardens themselves were not very impressive, but the views of the cathedral from them are unique and not to be missed! An alternate (and free) place with stunning views of the city is Piazzale Michelangelo.
For a special meal on your last evening in Florence, head to La Reggia degli Etruschi and request a table on their terrace. The restaurant is located in Fiesole which is outside of Florence on one of the hills overlooking the city, and the views are STUNNING. In order to get to Fiesole, you can take the number 7 bus line. Information on schedules and bus stop locations can be found at the link mentioned in the “Transportation” section below.
A few last notes:
- Getting there: You should be able to find reasonably priced flights to Florence Airport from the U.S. or other major European cities. In order to get to the city center from Florence Airport, you can take a taxi (15 min) or Busitalia shuttle (20 min). If you’re coming from Tuscany with a rental vehicle, there are drop off locations in the city center or at the airport, as it is unnecessary to have a car to get around Florence. If you’re traveling from another large Italian city such as Rome, the train is a great option for traveling to Florence. You will arrive in either the Santa Maria Novella station which is in the city center or the Campo di Marte station which is a quick cab ride to the center.
- Transportation: Florence does not have Uber. Luckily, the city is very walkable but upon our arrival, we had suitcases and had a far distance to go within the city. We had a very difficult time hailing a cab. As it turns out, you aren’t allowed to hail a cab in Florence! Instead, there are taxi stands in most of the major squares or you can call for a cab (+39-055-4242 or +39-055-4390). In addition, there is a decent bus system that you can find out more information about here, but be prepared for buses to be late. You can buy a ticket on the bus with exact change, but it’s easier (and less expensive) to stop into most news stands to buy bus passes. Make sure that you validate your ticket when you get onto the bus; you can be fined if you don’t and are caught.
- Money: Italy uses the Euro. Credit cards are widely accepted in Florence (try to find one with low or no foreign transaction fees). It’s always good to have some cash for small purchases (like gelato!) – my preferred method to withdraw cash is via bank ATM.