Before my first visit to Florence, I’d heard and read that one could easily spend a week in the city madly running from museum to gallery and still not hope to see all the art there is to see. Rather than fill me with excitement, that idea made me nervous. I knew I only had three days on that trip (and not even three full days, something like 2.5 days, really), and I just hated the thought of frantically darting around trying to see everything. Thankfully, once I arrived in Florence – and fell completely in love with it – I pulled myself together and had a wonderful time. I’ve been back to visit since that first trip, and I’ve still not seen everything there is to see. In fact, I may never see everything in Florence – but I don’t mind trying.
Now, if you’ve got limited time in Florence like I did on that first trip, you’ll be looking for a to-do list that lets you hit the highlights and not miss anything truly important, right? While everyone’s list of “must-see” sights in Florence is going to contain the really big-deal attractions, those lists are also going to have as many differences as they do similarities. So even though I’m delivering my Top 10 Things to Do in Florence below, I hereby give you permission to tailor it to suit your own needs.
As an aside, I have to say that I knew creating this list of the top 10 things to do in Florence would be hard, but I had no idea how hard. Florence is a city that isn’t easily condensed into short to-do lists, as you’ll find when you visit (or already know from past trips). I could probably change this list in a few different ways and be as content with it as I am now – so if your top 10 list looks different than mine, I just might agree with yours, too.
Top 10 Things to Do in Florence (According to Jessica)
- Tour the Uffizi Gallery
I know this won’t be popular with the art haters out there, but the Uffizi Gallery is definitely my pick for the #1 thing to do in Florence. It’s easily the best collection of Italian paintings on earth, and I think it’s well worth the time if for no other reason than you get to hang out for awhile in a room that’s got enormous Botticelli paintings all over the walls (it’s a surreal experience, like you’re in the paintings). But because it’s just about everyone’s top recommendation for Florence, the Uffizi is also plagued by long lines to get in. You can avoid the worst of the lines by booking your ticket in advance, or by trying to get last-minute tickets at this still-relatively-unknown ticket window. If your time in Florence is short and you can’t get advance tickets, I’m not sure spending 5+ hours in line for the Uffizi is worth it – but this is one art museum that’s worth planning ahead for.
- Eat Two Scoops of Gelato Every Day
This is actually a rule a friend of mine who lives in Italy established for her guests (and as far as I’m concerned it’s applicable throughout the country), but in Florence – where the gelato is known for being especially fantastic – it’s so important I’m putting it on my to-do list. There are gelato shops all over the city (including my favorite Florence gelateria), but before you dive in you’ll want to read more about how to make sure you’re getting good gelato so you don’t end up disappointed. You can also study these gelato flavors and learn how to order gelato in Italy before your trip, but just take care not to drool on your computer as you read. And if you’re one of those people who actually wants to eat a well-balanced diet even on vacation, then in addition to your gelato desserts be sure to try some of the local Tuscan specialties when you’re dining out – like the famous (and famously gigantic) bistecca Fiorentina!
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- Do Some People-Watching in the Piazza della Signoria
There are a couple of great places to people-watch in Florence, but for my money the best one is the Piazza della Signoria – if for no other reason than the artwork surrounding the square is always fabulous-looking, even if the people in the square aren’t! This gorgeous open piazza is the front “yard” of what was once the ruling Medici family’s home – the Palazzo Vecchio, which has a “David” replica standing at its entrance. The Loggia to the right of the Palazzo Vecchio is a fantastic outdoor sculpture gallery, and though the restaurants lining the square are mostly overpriced you should feel free to bring your gelato cone in from elsewhere to enjoy the view while you eat. If you want to splurge on a sweet treat with a view of the Piazza della Signoria, I recommend getting a cioccolata calda at Rivoire (and sit outside if you can get a table). For a bit of the macabre, find the circular marble plaque toward the middle of the piazza that marks the spot where the monk Savonarola (the “bonfire of the vanities” guy) was burnt at the stake in 1498.
- See the Sights in Duomo Square
Another excellent spot for people-watching is the nearby piazza in front of the Florence Duomo, although this one is almost always more crowded (or it just always feels more crowded because it’s not as open). The two big sights here are the Duomo (obviously) and the Baptistery, but the main attraction of the Baptistery is actually on the outside. The set of doors that faces the front of the Duomo was designed by Ghiberti in the early 1400s, and a young Michelangelo thought they were so beautiful that they could be the Gates of Paradise. The original panels are now kept in the Duomo Museum, but the replicas on the Baptistery are still gorgeous and still attract quite a crowd. The Duomo’s relatively barren interior can be a bit of a disappointment after seeing its festive exterior, but most of the art was removed to the Duomo Museum after the 1966 flood. Still, entry into the Duomo is free, so if you need a break from the weather or crowds you can wander around inside. Note that especially in the high season the Piazza del Duomo can be a preferred hang-out for both hawkers of useless crap and pickpockets, so keep an eye out.
- Climb Either the Duomo’s Dome or Giotto’s Tower
Right in Duomo Square you can take advantage of the height of two of its structures to get great views of the historic city center. The dome of the Duomo, designed by Brunelleschi, not only offers a lovely view but also a quick lesson in architecture as you climb the slanty staircase between the two layered domes (the only way to create a dome of that size at the time) – while the top of the bell tower, designed by Giotto, gives you city views that include a close-up of the dome as well. You may want to climb both, but if you’re on a budget do note that both charge a fee. Anyone interested in design and architecture will want to pick the dome for the history, and if you get a chance to read “Brunelleschi’s Dome” before your trip it’ll make the climb even more meaningful. Also, these climbs are enough to give anyone both vertigo and claustrophobia, whether you’ve had them before or not, so proceed with caution!
- Watch the Arno Pass Under the Ponte Vecchio
Although the Ponte Vecchio bridge itself is often wall-to-wall people and full of expensive gold jewelry shops (the likes of which I’ll probably never go into), there’s nothing quite like ending a day in Florence perched in the center of the bridge overlooking the river as the sun goes down. Yes, you may well be shoulder to shoulder with lots of other tourists (not to mention teenage Italian lovebirds who are far more interested in making out than the view), but I can still get lost in the movement of the river. I think about how many thousands of people have stood where I’m standing over the past 600+ years. I think about how the Medicis used to walk along the corridor over the bridge from their palace to their offices so as not to mix with (or smell) the commoners. And I think about how lucky I am to have spent the day in such a glorious city. So whatever you think about as you gaze at the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio, I hope you leave with a smile on your face like I always do.
- Pay Your Respects at Florence’s Famous Graves
Florence is well-known as the birthplace of the Renaissance – not to mention many famous people. Many of its most famous sons were laid to rest in the city, and many of the “celebrity” tombs in Florence can be found in one church – Santa Croce. Among the names you’ll recognize on the elaborate sarcophagi are Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini, Ghiberti, and Michelangelo himself. There’s also an honorary tomb for Dante, although he’s actually buried in Ravenna. Santa Croce is a pretty open church with a distinctive painted wooden ceiling and featuring frescoes by Giotto, but the main attraction is definitely the famous graves. Another spot to go for famous graves is the Medici Chapel, adjacent to the San Lorenzo Church. There, you’ll find two tombs adorned with sculptures by Michelangelo and containing members of the illustrious Medici family. While you may not know their names as well as you know the names of the people in Santa Croce, without the Medici not only would Florence not be Florence, you might not even know the names of artists like Michelangelo, whose art the Medici sponsored. After visiting the Medici tombs, it’s worth the side trip to the Laurentian Library (with its grand and beautiful staircase designed by Michelangelo) above the nearby cloisters in the same church complex.
- Check Out the Sculpture at the Bargello
Yes, there’s a lot of art in Florence. And at least two of the city’s most popular galleries routinely have hours-long lines to get in. But luckily, at this point anyway, the Bargello Museum isn’t one of those, despite being to sculpture what the Uffizi is to painting. It’s housed in a former jail, and it contains some incredible early Michelangelo works you may never have heard of, including a fantastic “Bacchus,” and Donatello’s beautiful (and recently restored) bronze “David,” which Michelangelo saw often during his childhood. Also on display are the two entries in the competition which was held to determine who would design the doors for the Baptistery – you can decide for yourself if the right guy won. Although the pieces in the Bargello collection are world-class, the museum tends to be overlooked by most tourists, so it’s a great option for art lovers who are tired of the crowds.
- Get the Perfect Postcard View from Piazzale Michelangelo
You know that amazing city view you see in all the best postcards of every city you visit around the world? The one that’s basically only possible to re-create if you hire a helicopter or know the person who lives in that incredible penthouse with the view? Well, in Florence, anyone can get that perfect cityscape shot – as long as they know where to go. And you do – head straight for the Piazzale Michelangelo, which overlooks the city from its perch in the hills above the Oltrarno. It’s either a good hike up to the top or a bus route through Florence’s less-scenic neighborhoods to get there, and provided the weather is being kind you’ll be rewarded with the best view of the city you can possibly imagine. The “David” replica at the center of the square lets you add to your fake-“David” count in the city, too. As an added bonus, for those who get to the Piazzale via their own foot power, you’ll get the chance to wander through the Oltrarno (which is the neighborhood on the other side of the Arno river – the name means “beyond the Arno”), which is often overlooked by tourists who cluster around the Duomo. Not up for the hike? Take the bus up the hill and walk back down.
- Take a Stroll through the Leather Markets
Even if you’re not a shopper, taking a stroll through Florence’s famous leather markets is something that’s worth a few minutes of your time. There are a couple outdoor leather markets in Florence, and they’re within walking distance of one another so you can easily visit both – but I like the one next to San Lorenzo Church because after a stroll through the gauntlet of leather stalls outside you can take a turn through the fabulous Mercato Centrale as well. This indoor market, in a building that dates from the late 19th century, is full of countless food vendors selling everything from the makings of the best picnic lunch you’ll ever have to the ingredients that will populate the menus in restaurants all over the city, as well as several places you can order a ready-made meal. And if you need a food souvenir to bring home (olive oil, dried pasta, or shrink-wrapped cheese, perhaps?) this is the place to go. Just be aware that pickpockets target tourists in the outdoor leather market especially, taking advantage of the close quarters and all the ooh-ing and ahh-ing people are doing over the leather goodies, so make sure your valuables aren’t on display.
You may have lost track of all the fake “David” statues by this point in your wandering around Florence, and you may be wondering where the real one is. Well, although it doesn’t make my top 10 list, the real “David” is in the Accademia and – if you don’t think anything but the original will do – it’s worth a visit. The main reason I didn’t include it here is that it’s a hefty admission fee for one piece of art. Yes, there are other things in the Accademia, but none of them compare to the “David” – and most people make a beeline for Michelangelo’s masterpiece and then head right back out again. So, unless you’re not content seeing the replicas of “David” all over the city and you simply must see the real thing, you can skip the Accademia and not feel too badly about it.
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