Of the cities that have enjoyed moments as true cultural capitals of the world, Florence is one of the most surprising. A modest trading center, and one devastated by the plague in 1348, Florence emerged late in the 14th century as the “Athens of the Middle Ages.” This was due, in large part, to the ruling Medici family embracing their role of patrons to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, and other artists and writers.
The glories of the Renaissance are found everywhere you look. The Palazzo Vecchio sits beside the Piazza della Signoria, the symbolic heart of Florence, while less than five minutes on foot will bring you to the Uffizi Gallery, a treasury of many of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance. Cross the Arno River over the Ponte Vecchio and you’ll soon arrive to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. This city is definitely, however, more than the sum of its parts. When circumstances led to Milan, Rome, and other Italian cities surpassing Florence in population and commercial importance, the historic heart of Florence remained largely intact. Only a few modern buildings can be found in the city center, much of the medieval streetscape remains, and here you can walk in the footsteps of some of Western civilization’s greatest minds.
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- The Uffizi Gallery ranks alongside the Louvre and the Hermitage as one of the world’s great museums, though its collection is more focused—specifically on Italian art from the 14th to 17th centuries. The entire arc of Renaissance art can be traced through its canvases, with masterpieces by Botticelli, da Vinci, Fra Filippo Lippi, and many others.
- The Galleria dell’Accademia, on the other hand, is a must-stop thanks to one masterpiece: Michelangelo’s David.
- Florence’s cultural highlights include a number of buildings that are iconic landmarks. Foremost among them is the cathedral, or Duomo, which includes contributions from three towering figures: Brunelleschi (the dome and baptistery), Giotto (the campanile), and Vasari (The Last Judgment fresco). Students of garden design, and anyone who wants to simply smell the flowers, should explore the Boboli Gardens.
- Take a break from all the headiness with a visit to the Mercato Centrale, or San Lorenzo Market. On the ground floor you can shop for sun-dried tomatoes, olive oils, and other culinary gifts. In the food hall upstairs, you can savor some of the flavors of Tuscan cuisine.
Florence Neighborhoods to Explore
Piazza della Signoria: The blocks around the symbolic heart of Florence include many of its most famous landmarks—the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, and one end of the Ponte Vecchio. You’ll find many of the city’s top hotels here, though it is also where the many, many tourists who descend on Florence each year tend to be concentrated.
Santa Maria Novella: This neighborhood offers a chance to escape the crowds even though it sits just to the northwest of the city’s historic heart. It’s also where you will find the Mercato Centrale and the Santa Maria Novella church, a basilica with a distinctive façade designed by Leon Battista Alberti. The church’s Officina Profumo Farmaceutica dates back to the 13th century and continues to sell its coveted soaps, candles, and other products.
Santa Croce: Santa Croce, just to the east of the historic center, is a low-key and pleasant neighborhood where few tourists venture. Most of those who do make it there come only to see the basilica that is the neighborhood’s namesake. Its cafes and bars, on the other hand, tend to draw more locals than visitors.
Oltrarno: This neighborhood gets its name from its location—on the “other” side of the Arno. Historically it was an artisans’ neighborhood and to this day many workshops and galleries line its streets. The most famous sights here are the Pitti Palace and, right behind it, the Boboli Gardens.
When to Visit Florence
Florence at the height of summer is often hot and almost always crowded—late spring and early fall are preferable if possible. While Florence is a year-round destination, if you are combining your trip there with visits to wineries and smaller towns in Tuscany, be aware that some businesses do close in the winter.
Food and Drink
Tuscan cuisine is traditionally simple and hearty food, noted for its bean and vegetable soups and non-fussy pasta dishes. Florence’s most famous dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thickly cut t-bone steak, can be found on many menus. If you have a sweet tooth, gelato was (at least according to some) invented in Florence.
Florence’s high culture is the reason to visit the city for many—its museums are home to many masterpieces of Renaissance Italy while some of its churches and palaces are true architectural wonders. The lines at the Uffizi Gallery can be long and purchasing advance tickets is highly recommended. While you will want to see Florence’s most famous highlights, its smaller institutions can offer a respite from the crowds: the Bargello houses important works by sculptor Donatello while the Horne Museum displays the collection of its 19th-century British founder, an avid collector of Renaissance art.
Getting Around Florence
There are no direct flights from the United States to Florence, but it is possible to connect to it through European hubs. From the airport, it is about 20 minutes by taxi or bus to the city center. If you are combining your trip to Florence with another stop in Italy, Milan, Rome, and Venice are all two hours or less from the city by train. The main station is in Santa Maria Novella, not far from the historic heart of Florence.
Historic Florence is compact and given that the narrow streets are often congested, it is often easier to explore on foot. (While there is a good bus network, it really only makes sense to use it if you are traveling beyond the city center.) Taxis are safe and because the distances are short, you are unlikely to rack up a big fare. Note, however, that you can’t hail cabs on the street and will need to find the closest taxi stand.
As with other countries in the Schengen Area of Europe, Americans can stay for up to six months in Italy without a visa. Electricity is 220 volts, in common with the rest of Europe. While you will notice three holes in outlets, the middle one is for a grounding prong. An adapter with two round prongs is all you need to use most U.S. devices. If your U.S. device has three pins or prongs, you should use an adapter that also has the third, middle prong. There are no special health requirements or immunizations required to travel to Italy.
- The Florentine is an English-language newspaper and website covering both news and events of interest to travelers.
- The Paperback Exchange has been a center of the city’s English-speaking community since 1979.
- Finally, the Visit Florence website is an impressively comprehensive resource on the city, and all in English.
Where to Stay, Eat, and What to Do in Florence