Things You Should Know About Florence

by Jessica on February 8, 2010

by | February 8th, 2010  

th_florence1When most people think of visiting Italy for the first time, their first “must-see” destinations are what I call Italy’s “Holy Trinity” – Rome, Venice, and Florence. Of those three cities, Rome and Venice require the most preparation (in my opinion) in order to get the most out of them. Florence, by comparison, is easy.

With a relatively compact historic center that’s still big enough to allow tourist crowds to spread out a bit, Florence is a breeze to navigate. With a reputation for good food, Florence can be counted on as a place where you’ll eat well. And with no shortage of top-notch attractions – the kind on many lifetime to-do lists – Florence leaves you with very few reasons to be bored.

Still, there are some things that it’s important to know about Florence. The city is incredibly popular with tourists, and it seems to be full year-round with visitors – either people on holiday or student groups on class field trips – so learning a little bit about how to best use your time in Florence pays dividends (especially when you get to bypass long lines).

Yes, I think Florence doesn’t require as much work in order to fall in love with the city, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also just as easy to be disappointed in Florence if you expect too much from her. So here are some of the things you should know about Florence before you go.

Florence is best explored on foot.

th_florence2The historic center of Florence is not only perfect for walking, there’s really no other way to get around it. Unlike many other cities you’ll visit in Italy, where getting to know the public transportation system greatly enhances your visit (like in Rome or Venice), in Florence you’re unlikely to need to even buy a bus ticket or learn where the buses go. (And whatever you do, do not bring a rental car into the center of the city.)

To be sure, there are parts of Florence that are outside the historic city center, and there’s a great network of buses that runs throughout the whole city – but unless you live in Florence, or have mistakenly booked a hotel in a part of the city that’s far from the center, you won’t need to learn much about the buses at all. The only exception to this is if you don’t feel like walking up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for that postcard view of the city.

Aside from possibly taking a bus up to the Piazzale, then, make sure you’ve got comfortable walking shoes in your suitcase, because you’ll be on your feet a lot. The historic center is pretty flat, and many of the biggest sights are within a short walk from one another. In short, Florence is a joy to explore on foot. And if you book a hotel or hostel room in the historic center (there are plenty of both, many of which are reasonably-priced), you’ll have no need of any transportation other than your own two feet for the duration of your stay.

Florence is stuffed to the gills with world-class art.

th_florence3When you think about Florence, the main things that probably come to mind are the art museums – and with good reason. Museums like the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia are world-famous and deserve a prime spot on your Florence itinerary, and even the less-visited Bargello merits some time (especially if you like sculpture). And that’s not even mentioning all the churches and other galleries and museums tucked around the city that boast lesser-known masterpieces by Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, and Donatello (to name a few).

No matter how much you like art, however, you may think that no one person can absorb that many masterpieces in one visit. And you’re right. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say they spent a full week in Florence and still didn’t see all the art in the city. After the big ticket items, in order to make sure you don’t suffer from art overload, you might want to incorporate some other non-art things into your itinerary – like the perfume museum or the weird museum with the wax medical models, or even just a walk along the river.

This is also a city with a proud history, wonderful food, and a fine top-flight soccer team, so if you’re really tired of the art after a few museums there are lots of other things to distract you in Florence. Just be aware that if you happen to pop into that little church on the corner because it looks interesting and the door’s open, you’ll probably end up seeing more art. It’s kind of hard to escape.

Unless you go to the Duomo. Which brings me to…

In a city crammed with art, the Duomo in Florence is kind of empty.

th_florence4Florence’s Duomo is so decorative on the outside, with its multi-colored marble facade and famous red-tiled dome, you’d be forgiven for thinking the interior was just going to blow you away with its art-tastic collection. Sadly, however, the inside of the city’s main church is fairly barren.

Oh, the intricately-tiled floors are stunning, the frescoes on the interior of the dome are beautiful, and there’s no getting around the majesty of such a huge marble space. But due to a flood in late 1966, the art that once graced the Duomo’s interior is no longer in the Duomo.

Floods from the Arno River aren’t terribly uncommon, but in November 1966 the waters rose so high that some of the art in the Duomo (as well as other churches around the city) was damaged. When the water and mud were cleared, artworks were removed for repair – and then most of them ended up in the Duomo Museum nearby rather than being put back in the Duomo itself. Even those fancy doors everyone tells you to look at on the Baptistery across from the Duomo’s front doors are replicas now (the originals are also in the Duomo Museum).

So while the Duomo’s facade is much-photographed and the interior makes a lovely respite from summer heat or winter rain (and did I mention it’s free to enter?), a visit to the cathedral won’t allow you to check off one piece of art after another the way some other Florence churches and museums will.

Booking in advance to see Florence’s museums is highly, highly recommended.

th_florence5As mentioned earlier, the main things that almost everyone comes to see in Florence are the art museums. And since these museums occupy historic (read: small) buildings, museum officials limit the number of visitors that can be inside at a given time. Put these two things together – and throw in the fact that the city is always crowded with tourists – and you’ve got the makings of some very long lines.

I’ve heard reports of people getting up at the crack of dawn and still waiting 6+ hours in line to get into the Uffizi. This doesn’t have to be your travel tale, however. You can – and should – book your tickets to Florence’s top sights in advance, either online or by phone, to make the most of your time in the city. Yes, you’ll pay a little extra for booking in advance, but if spending a few euro isn’t better than waiting 6+ hours in line, I dunno what is.

>> There’s information about booking tickets in advance on the pages I’ve written about the Uffizi and the Accademia.

If you absolutely, positively cannot handle the idea of buying your tickets in advance, there is one other alternative. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s worth a shot. There’s a semi-secret ticket window that sells last-minute tickets to things like the Uffizi and Accademia. They’re selling the tickets other people have cancelled, so you don’t have as many choices for entry times, but if you visit the ticket window early in your trip to Florence you should be able to get tickets for a time that works for you.

Florence has some of the best gelato in Italy.

th_florence6I may get flack for saying this, but if I had to choose between never getting to see the amazing art in Florence again or never eating the city’s amazing gelato again, I’d be content to look at the art in books. Florence is noted around Italy for its fantasmagorical (don’t try to look that up) gelato, and sampling it all over the city is an excellent way to pass the time.

One of the most famous gelato shops in Italy is Vivoli, on a tiny side-street away from the main tourist thoroughfares. It’s excellent, but not my favorite. My favorite, Festival del Gelato, is actually one that’s right off the main pedestrian drag leading from the Duomo to the Piazza della Signoria.

But the thing is, there are a zillion more gelato shops in Florence that produce exquisite gelato. Some of them are less-than-wonderful, but most of the gelato I’ve tried in Florence has been worth every euro I spent on it. (Whereas in some other cities, I’ve been known to throw away sub-par gelato after a few bites.)

Do yourself a favor and get a scoop at every gelato shop you see. I mean, you shouldn’t take my word for it. And doing your own research in this department is about the most non-arty fun you can have in Florence.

Shopping in Florence means leather.

th_florence7Shopping is a popular activity in Italy for both tourists and Italians. Savvy shoppers know that different regions in Italy are known for different things, and it only makes sense to buy what’s local. In Florence, that means leather.

There are leather shops all over Florence, and two places in the historic center that transform into outdoor leather markets during the day as well. The prices are negotiable at the outdoor markets, and there are exceptional deals to be had (especially if you’re good at haggling), but these markets are also havens for pickpockets – so don’t get too mesmerized by the leather smell and forget that your purse is wide open.

If that leather smell does take over, however, don’t be surprised if you return home with a new selection of belts, purses, wallets, jackets, and shoes. And if you’re so inclined, I wear a size 38 shoe. Many thanks.

If you order a steak in Florence, you’d better have a big appetite.

th_florence8Let’s face it, as much as anyone loves pasta there comes a time when you just want something else for dinner in Italy. In Florence, you’re lucky, because one of the city’s specialties is steak. But before you get too excited about it, make sure you’ve got at least one other person in your dinner party who’s interested in sharing the steak with you – these things can feed 2-3 people.

The Bistecca alla Fiorentina, as it’s known, is usually a T-Bone or porterhouse cut, and it’s huge. When you order a bistecca, you just order a bistecca. Technically, yes – you could order it well-done, but resist that urge. The steak you’ll be served will be rare, but that’s the way it’s meant to be – and cooking it more than that will actually reduce its flavor.

If you don’t think you can stomach a rare steak, then hang out with other people who order one so you can at least have a sample. At which point you may reconsider. And if you’re traveling solo and don’t make friends easily, some places will serve smaller bistecca portion sizes at lunch – so you could get almost the perfect bistecca experience without having to share.

The bread in Florence is salt-free.

th_florence9Getting a basket of bread with your dinner probably won’t be surprising, but when you bite into the bread in Florence you may sense something’s a little off. You may not know what it is, but something’s different. In fact, throughout Tuscany you would have this same experience. Something is missing – it’s the salt.

Tuscan bread is traditionally made without salt, and it’s been this way since the 12th century, according to one popular legend. That legend says that during the historical rivalry with Pisa, the Pisans thought blocking shipments of salt would force the Florentines to surrender in whatever battle they were involved with at the time. Instead, the people of Florence just made their bread without salt.

Whether that legend has any truth to it or not, the fact remains that many recipes today that incorporate Tuscan bread benefit from the bread’s lack of salt. Things like ribollita and panzanella are full of flavor, and the salt-free bread soaks up all the fantastic flavors of the dishes without competing with them.

Recipes using Tuscan bread may be great, but to non-Tuscans the bread on its own usually leaves something to be desired. In other words, impress your friends at dinner with your knowledge about why Tuscan bread is salt-free, but don’t feel bad if it’s not to your liking.

Florence is the birthplace of Stendhal Syndrome.

th_florence10You’ve heard of Stendhal Syndrome, right? Even if you haven’t heard of it by name, you’re probably familiar with it. It’s the idea that seeing so much outstanding art in rapid succession can cause someone to become lightheaded or dizzy. Well, you may be surprised to know that another name for Stendhal Syndrome is Florence Syndrome.

When a French author who went by the name of Stendhal visited Florence in the early 1800s, he experienced (and wrote about) dizziness and faintness when he took in all the art. Fast-forward to the late 1970s when an Italian doctor noticed over 100 cases of the same set of symptoms of other people visiting Florence. It didn’t take long for the doctor to associate the new cases with the French author, and – voila – Stendhal Syndrome was born.

While you’re unlikely to get faint at the overwhelming displays of artwork in Florence, you may get dizzy with boredom if you’re waiting in line outside the Uffizi for hours in the midday summer sun. But you won’t be one of those people, because you read the point above about buying your tickets ahead of time, yes?

photo credits, top to bottom: stevehdc, Jessica Spiegel (& may not be used without permission), Jessica Spiegel (& may not be used without permission), kmaschke, Koze, dennis.tang, Jessica Spiegel (& may not be used without permission), McPig, fabbio, Sarah G…


{ 18 comments }

@AlexBerger February 8, 2010 at 10:30 am
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A fantastic writeup that truly captures the essence of Florence. I found myself nodding along in agreement on just about every point. Great post!

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Jessica February 8, 2010 at 1:25 pm
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Thanks, Alex! Glad you liked the article. :)

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Andrea February 9, 2010 at 12:20 pm
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Thanks for the great tips Jessica! We’re going to Italy in September and we’re staying in a villa in the Chianti region. We have a rented car for the week; do you suggest driving to Florence and parking on the outskirts of the city, or taking a train in? Thanks :)

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Jessica February 9, 2010 at 4:01 pm
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Hi, Andrea:

Do you mean driving to Florence for a day trip vs. taking the train into Florence? If that’s what you’re asking, I think the train’s easier. The train station is a short walk from all the major sights, and the city center is such a pain to drive in (not to mention park in) that taking the train in & out will save you time and headaches.

Have a great trip!
Jessica

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TC February 10, 2010 at 6:19 am
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This is a great article on Florence and it gives some excellent tips.
Brought back pleasant memories of the city and Tuscany.
Thank you.

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Oriana February 12, 2010 at 1:39 am
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great article, i live in Florence and agree on every single point except for the “thanks to the flood” part, but I know what you mean!!! thanks for being so sincere in your writing… Oriana of tuscanycious

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Jessica February 12, 2010 at 10:13 am
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Oh! You’re right, I didn’t mean it that way, Oriana – I changed the wording on that. :) Glad you liked the article otherwise!

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daniel March 7, 2010 at 12:39 am
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Great info. BTW, how to get to Pisa from Florence? What’s the travel distance and time? Planning to visit Italy in May.

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Jessica March 8, 2010 at 8:52 am
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Hi, Daniel – I’ve written a little bit about getting from Pisa to Florence in my article on getting from the Cinque Terre to Florence – because on my “perfect 2-week itinerary” it’s the next stop, and Pisa makes a great 2-hour detour on the way to Florence:

http://www.italylogue.com/featured-articles/getting-from-the-cinque-terre-to-florence.html
http://www.italylogue.com/planning-a-trip/italy-itinerary-the-perfect-two-weeks.html

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Karina March 22, 2010 at 8:55 am
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My husband and I are thinking on going to Florence for out 5th anniversary in November 2011. Love your website, full of information for someone that has never been there.

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Maureen Arnson May 24, 2010 at 1:18 pm
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i’ve barely touched the surface of your site and am finding it extremely informative (and well written!).
Do you know of any place in Florence to see live music? Preferably inexpensive, small clubs w/ local bands. Looking for a sense of the Florence underground, so to speak.
Thanks for all the great tips!

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Jessica May 24, 2010 at 2:44 pm
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Hi, Maureen:

I’m glad you’re finding WhyGo Italy to be useful! With regard to music clubs in Florence, I don’t know anything about the local music scene there, but one expat living in Florence recommends the following two sites as good resources for things that might not be in the usual guidebooks:

http://www.theflorentine.net/
http://www.firenzespettacolo.it/

The latter is in Italian only, but the first one is a good English-language resource.

I hope that helps!

Ciao,
Jessica

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shawn June 6, 2010 at 11:16 am
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Ciao, Jessica – nice website. Loved the article on “what to wear.” I was wondering if you had an recommendations on places to take a good photos of the Florence cityscape. Grazie!

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Jessica June 7, 2010 at 7:54 am
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Hi, Shawn:

The #1 spot for city views in Florence – the one from which all those perfect postcards are taken – is Piazzale Michelangelo:

http://www.italylogue.com/things-to-do/the-most-romantic-piazza-in-florence.html

The main thing is to get onto one of the surrounding hills so you have a good vantage point of the city. There are other places from which this can be done, but Piazzale Michelangelo is probably the closest/easiest.

Ciao,
Jessica

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Jenn marsh February 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm
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we are flying into Venice on June 18th and want to drive from venice to florence, spend a night here then drive to rome. We get on a cruise ship on June 20th. We are young and comfortable driving in busy areas even though we plan to avoid Rome. Would you suggest driving in these areas??? We have heard getting off and on trains is a pain in the butt?? Comments

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Jessica March 3, 2011 at 9:35 am
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I think if you’re sticking to Venice-Florence-Rome, you’re better off sticking to trains. Getting on and off the trains isn’t a pain at all – unless you’re carrying too much luggage! (In other words, this is another great excuse to pack light.) Driving to/from Venice is a pain because there’s only one road in and out of the city, and driving to/from Florence is a pain because it’s a car-free center and the ring roads around the historic center get clogged easily. If you were trying to get out into the countryside, a car would be great. For this itinerary, stick to the trains.

Here are some train travel tips for Italy:
http://www.italylogue.com/planning-a-trip/italy-train-travel-tips.html

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Meri July 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm
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Hi Jessica, Love you tips and tricks. I’m traveling solo in Italy for 3 weeks with only a general idea of where to go and what to see –in essence, I’m winging it! I just discovered your articles and they are extremely helpful for an on-the-road planner like me. Without seeing your guide beforehand, I’m essentially doing your “perfect 2-week itinerary” only stretched out a bit more. Thanks for putting all of the work into this!

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SB August 18, 2012 at 4:04 am
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Your website is by far one of the best guides to Italy there is-there is so much information here I’ve found out about different Italian cities before moving there myself-information that funnily enough haven’t even been able to find elsewhere on the world wide web. Keep up the good work!

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