The Best Things to Do in Florence
With divine pasta and funny putti, the handsome Duomo and the dreamy young Lotharios leaning on Vespas, with leather workshops and nonnas doing the weekly shopping, Florence offers visitors an urban experience that is equally rich in historic romance and everyday modern life. Join the parade of visitors to worship in the galleries of the Uffizi or watch the parade from a café table beside a busy piazza, but head to this Renaissance stronghold and make your own history.
Piazza del Duomo, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
The cathedral, usually called the Duomo, is Florence’s most recognizable building. You are able to catch glimpses of its magnificent red-tiled cupola from just about anywhere in the city center. Construction on the church complex began in 1296 and the work—Brunelleschi’s dome and his Baptistery, and Giotto’s bell tower—was completed in 1426. The interior of this architectural is reserved in contrast with the exterior’s marble Gothic facade and its green, pink, and white stripes. Climb the 463 steps up into the dome for a close-up look at Giorgio Vasari’s fresco, The Last Judgment, and a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Piazza del Duomo, 9, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Florence’s wonderful Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Cathedral Works Museum) is open to the public with double its original floor space and a new contemporary look. The unique collection of works by masters such as Donatello, Michelangelo, Luca della Robbia, and Lorenzo Ghiberti includes statuary from the Duomo, bell tower, and Baptistery as well as models and other exhibits relating to the building of one of the world’s largest cathedrals. Showstoppers include the bronze panels from the Baptistery’s doors, gleaming from their recent cleanup; Donatello’s emotive Mary Magdalene; the two exquisite cantorie (choir lofts) by Donatello and della Robbia; and a vast scale replica of the Duomo’s original facade, ripped down in 1587.
6 Piazzale degli Uffizi
Ideally you’d have a whole day to appreciate the world’s foremost collection of Renaissance paintings, housed in the 16th-century headquarters of the Medici court. But for those with less time, highlights include the three great Maestà altarpieces in Room 2, Gentile da Fabriano’s glowing Adoration of the Magi (Rooms 5 and 6), Piero della Francesca’s Duke and Duchess of Urbino (Room 7), Fra Filippo Lippi’s ethereal Madonna and Child with Two Angels (Room 8), and the celebrated Botticellis in Rooms 10 to 14. Advance booking is advised.
Piazza Pitti, 1, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
You will likely see Bronzino’s famous portrait of Eleonora (or Eleanor) de Toledo, in the Uffizi, during your visit to Florence. The Spanish noblewoman who became the duchess of Florence in 1539 when she married Cosimo I de’ Medici was unusual for her time, playing an active role in politics and as a patron of the arts. Her patronage extended to garden design, in its infancy (at least in Europe) in the 16th century. Eleonora commissioned the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace as a green escape from the city; they continue to provide a retreat for travelers today. Among the earliest examples of the formal compositions that would dominate garden design through the 20th century, the grounds are dotted with classical statues and fountains while straight axes run up and down the hillside with an apparent disregard for topography. A moment in design history can be experienced first hand here. There’s a feeling that the man who planned the gardens (Niccolò Tribolo) conceived a formal plan and then simply laid it atop the site. Principles of garden design were later to shape city planning. The allées of the Boboli Gardens were early models for grand boulevards leading the eye to distant monuments. One of the pleasures of gardens, however, is that you don’t need to know their histories to enjoy the flowers in bloom or the sounds of birdsong and splashing fountains.
Via dei Vecchietti, 4, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
When people think of Florence, they usually think of Renaissance art and crowded museums filled with altarpieces and “Madonna and Child” images. While the Renaissance is the biggest draw of this historic city, there is a lot more to its art-museum scene. The Palazzo Strozzi is a fine example of a museum that doesn’t just showcase great art but also plays an important role in the community. Inside this Renaissance palace—a work of art in itself—visitors will find temporary exhibitions that cover a variety of time periods and cultures. On Thursday evenings, the courtyard is transformed into a social hub with hip Florentines having drinks and coffee at the café and on outdoor couches. The museum also offers free entrance to the downstairs exhibition space on select evenings and, in summer, hosts movie and music nights. Palazzo Strozzi has also gotten on board with making art an interactive experience, especially for children. Parents can purchase a family ticket which includes kid-friendly activities including workshops, sketching in the galleries, storytelling, and “stroller tours.”
Piazza di Santa Trinita, 5R, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
What began in pre-war Italy as two small workshops in the Palazzo Spini Feroni on Via Tornabuoni has grown into a fashion empire and a brand synonymous with Hollywood glamour. A museum dedicated to the craftsmanship of Salvatore Ferragamo opened in this grand palazzo in 1995. The collection includes the wooden lasts, or forms, that Ferragamo used to shape shoes for stars like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren. Glass cases display some of the company’s colorful and iconic creations—many that seem more sculpture than shoe. There is also a small space that hosts contemporary art exhibitions.
Via Romana, 17, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
La Specola, one of the oldest science museums in Europe, contains a collection of specimens of the natural world—some of which date back to the 16th century. It includes strange and wonderful objects ranging from tiny iridescent green beetles and multicolored butterflies to whale and rhinoceros skeletons. There’s even a hippo, preserved by taxidermy, that was once pet to the Medici family and lived in the Boboli Gardens! The extraordinary, if slightly creepy, anatomical waxes filling the last four rooms of the museum were once used to train Florentine medical students. The frescoes and elaborate pietra dura inlays that decorate the walls and ceilings detail Italian scientific achievements.
Via dei Renai, 37, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
Stefano Bardini, one of the great art dealers of the 19th century, donated his showroom to the city with the strict condition that nothing be changed. The city of Florence initially ignored his wishes and altered the space quite dramatically, but eventually relented. Now most of the rooms are painted an extraordinary shade of blue and the pieces are arranged by size to display the art. The eclectic collection includes paintings, sculpture, and furnishings, as well as small fragments of marble carvings salvaged from buildings. Highlights include an enormous wooden crucifix by Bernardo Daddi and the original bronze of the famous Porcellino, the statue of the boar from the Mercato Nuovo.
1-7 Via de Bardi
In addition to providing a peaceful green space, this remarkable terraced garden near the Ponte Vecchio offers terrific views of the city. Its scale—much smaller than that of the Boboli Gardens—gives it a more intimate feel. In spite of its size, it includes an incredible diversity of garden styles. Climb the grand central staircase and wander from woodlands to an Anglo-Chinese garden, with fountains and sculptures in the mix, as well as visible fragments of the garden’s original medieval walls. The famed 19th-century art dealer Stefano Bardini lived in the Villa Mozzi (now the Villa Bardini) and it is his unique taste and vision that continues to shape this ornate attraction.
Piazzale Michelangelo, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
One of the best views of Florence can be savored from the Piazzale Michelangelo, a short walk across the Arno River from downtown Florence. For a fun afternoon head to the square and enjoy an enchanting panorama of the city, followed by a relaxing alfresco lunch at one of the nearby restaurants. The Piazzale Michelangelo is also worth a visit at night to get a very different glimpse of Florence. The lights of the Duomo and the buildings surrounding it make for a magical nighttime scene.
Via delle Porte Sante, 34, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
Most people who visit Florence know that walking to Piazzale Michelangelo is a must. However, fewer people know that walking a little higher to the old church of San Miniato al Monte is an even better experience. Amble down the Arno River to Viale G. Poggi, up the green pathways to Piazzale Michelangelo, then continue on until you reach the busy square with a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s David at its center. This church facing the square is one of the oldest in the area, a beautiful 12th-century example of Romanesque architecture. Note, especially, the mosaics on the facade and, inside, above the altar; the floor decorations are also worth a look. There is also a small shop next to the church, run by monks. Take in the views from the outside, stroll the grounds, and see the old cemetery. Entrance to the church is free, and if you’re lucky, you might even hear the monks singing.
Via Faenza, 48, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
The history of the palaces and streets and artwork of Florence comes alive during this multimedia theater performance, acted out (in English) in a small baroque church. The show tells the story of two feuding Medici siblings—the last grand duke of the dynasty, Gian Gastone, and his sister, Anna Maria Luisa—and the patto di famiglia, or family pact, that bequeathed the family treasures to the city-state their forebears had ruled for hundreds of years. Long before there was reality television, there was family drama, Florentine style.
Piazza Lorenzo Ghiberti, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Who knew grocery shopping could be so photogenic? In summer, you’ll be tempted to photograph the piles of tomatoes; in winter, the tangles of greens. Wander around to get a sense of what is in season and what you will find on local menus at lunch and dinner. Rows of stalls sell meat, salami, fresh fish, pasta, cheese, and bread. If all that food makes you hungry, look for the Trattoria del Rocco inside the market, a diner that serves lunch created from produce sold on-site. The early bird gets the worm here: Everything is swept up and closed down by early afternoon.
Borgo Santa Croce, 6, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
You will probably smell a whiff of roses emanating from Aquaflor well before you arrive. Inside the stunning 16th-century Palazzo Corsini-Serristori in the Santa Croce neighborhood, Sileno Cheloni creates scents that vividly evoke the Tuscan seaside or pine forests. Cheloni studied with a Sufi master in Cyprus and worked in Milan and Lucca to learn Renaissance techniques before opening this shop, made up of three rooms lined with wooden apothecary cabinets that display glass bottles. Large tables are piled with soaps in scents like tomato-leaf and rose. Spend some time in the Parlor of Essences to create your own unique bouquet or learn about the rare oils that are used to fashion the signature fragrances.
Via della Scala, 16, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
Elevate the normally mundane experience of shopping for medicine-cabinet basics like soap and toothpaste with a visit to one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. In this 13th-century chapel with early Renaissance frescoes, Gothic carved wooden cabinets, and crystal chandeliers, most items are still crafted according to formulas originally created by Dominican monks. A small museum displays equipment once used to make Santa Maria Novella products, as well as a collection of beautifully painted ceramic jars that held the herbs and powders. Linger a little longer in this fragrant world by ordering a pot of herbal tea or a small glass of one of the historic liqueurs in the tearoom.
11r Borgo degli Albizi
The perfect souvenir for the food-loving traveler? Slim bars of chocolate wrapped in paper patterned with groovy midcentury designs. Or a pale blue box tied with a satin ribbon, holding a treasure of pralines, caramels, and squares of dark chocolate. Vestri is a family-run establishment that has been turning out delicious chocolate creations for more than 30 years. The clan owns its own cocoa plantation in the Dominican Republic, which ensures the quality and ethical sourcing of its products. The shop also sells modern confections like white chocolate with salt and sesame, as well as sweets based on ancient Florentine recipes. Take decadence to the next level and indulge in a scoop of creamy gelato affogato, drowned in hot chocolate, while you shop.
Via delle Oche, 4-red, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
This independent bookstore feels like a cozy home, with rooms full of books and comfortable chairs in which to sit and browse. Fans of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code may recognize the shop as the one where Robert Langdon searched for Dante’s Divine Comedy. There is an extensive selection of English-language titles about Florence, Tuscany, and Italy that range from tiny novelty volumes to large coffee-table tomes. Head to the back and you will find a few shelves of secondhand paperbacks that provide material to read that doesn’t require Wi-Fi.
Via S. Giuseppe, 5R, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
This leather workshop is hidden away in a former Franciscan monastery next to Santa Croce. The Scuola del Cuoio was originally founded to provide skills and work for some of the city’s orphans after World War II; masters and apprentices still produce wallets, purses, journals, and jackets. Take a quick tour of the beautiful cloisters, frescoed corridors, and workspace, or sign up for a full workshop and try your hand at making something of your own. Everything is crafted on-site using traditional methods. Be sure to get your purchases personalized with a gold-stamped monogram.
Borgo Santissimi Apostoli
This might be the most photographed store in Florence—the charming but cluttered scene includes strings of dried garlic and chilies, baskets of fresh fruit, colorful ceramics, wooden serving utensils, wild-boar salami, Tuscan olive oil, and handmade copper pots—with displays inside the shop and spilling out onto the sidewalk. This historic establishment, on the ground floor of the old tower of Borgo Santi Apostoli, is so friendly that the owner will pour you wine and offer a few bites of pecorino cheese while you decide how much room is left in your suitcase.
50125, Via dell'Olmo, 8, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
While walking around Florence, have you noticed something different about some of the street signs? Clet Abraham is a French artist who stealthily alters traffic signs with graphic stickers that transform a DEAD END sign into a crucifix or a ONE WAY arrow into Pinocchio’s nose. In the artist’s jumbled studio in San Niccolò, you can learn a bit about his process and purchase a sign of your own. If the original works are too pricey, there are also vinyl stickers and T-shirts bearing his whimsical designs.
Via Ricasoli, 58/60, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
Most people head to this ex-art school to ogle the world’s most famous nude statue. Michelangelo’s David was carved from a single five-meter-high block of milky-white marble in 1504 and originally stood in Piazza della Signoria. Don’t neglect the other artworks in the gallery, however. They include Michelangelo’s four unfinished Slaves, straining to escape their stone prison, and a fabulous collection of early musical instruments. To avoid endless lines, advance booking is advised.
Lungarno degli Archibusieri, 8, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
There are few better places from which to enjoy river views and sunsets than the Ponte Vecchio, built in 1345. Spanning the Arno’s narrowest point, this is the only bridge to have survived the German bombing of the city in 1944. There have always been shops on the bridge; the original butchers and grocers were replaced by sweeter-smelling gold and silversmiths in 1593. Sitting right in the middle is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), the most famous goldsmith of them all.
Piazza San Marco, 3, 50121 Firenze FI, Italy
Housed in the monastery of San Marco, this museum pays homage to the delicate, spiritual work of Fra Angelico who lived and worked here as a monk from 1435-1445. Some of his most celebrated paintings and frescoes are on show here: the famous Annunciation (as reproduced on many a Christmas card) is at the top of the stairs on the first floor and the great Last Judgement alterpiece is in the Pilgrim’s Hospice. He painted frescoes in the corners of the main cloister and also decorated the monks’ tiny cells with the help of his assistants. This is one of my favorite museums in Florence...don’t miss it! Photo by Gianluca Moggi
Piazza S. Croce, 16, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
The Franciscan Basilica di Santa Croce, with its striped green-and-white marble facade, dates from about 1294. Inside are the tombs of many celebrated early Florentines, including Dante, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Among the many art treasures are radiant frescoes by Giotto and his pupil Taddeo Gaddi, which decorate the Bardi and Peruzzi chapels, and the newly restored Cappella dei Pazzi, a Renaissance architectural masterpiece designed by Brunelleschi.
Piazza de' Pitti, 1, 50125 Firenze FI, Italy
The Uffizi Gallery might get more attention, but the Palazzo Pitti across the river is the largest museum complex in Florence. The vast Renaissance palace itself has been owned by the Medici family, used by Napoleon, and repurposed as home to King Victor Emmanuel III. Today you can visit rooms that house Renaissance paintings by Titian, Raphael, and Rubens; a lavish Medici silver and jewelry collection; a collection of fine European porcelain; and a costume collection. An all-in-one ticket grants entrance to each of the museums: Museo Argenti, Galleria Costume, and Museo Porcellane, as well as the Boboli and Bardini gardens.