Even in times when Italy is seeing a downturn in the number of visitors and really craving tourist money, it’s still not what most people would call a cheap vacation destination. This is especially true in the main tourist cities like Rome, Venice, and Florence. But that doesn’t mean everything worth doing or seeing will cost you. In fact, sometimes the best things to do in a city are free.
Unfortunately, many of the best things to do in Florence cost money. Still, there are some very budget-friendly attractions you can enjoy. Here’s a list of the free things to do in Florence – and to expand the list a bit, I’m including not just the stuff that’s always free but also the stuff that’ll cost something but it’s still pretty cheap, so if you’ve got a little money to spend but still want to be frugal you can add some of those sights to your to-do list.
Always Free Florence
This is the stuff that’s always free, no matter what day of the week or time of year it is.
- Walking through the historic city – One of the greatest pleasures of a visit to a city as beautiful as Florence is just walking through the old city center, admiring the architecture, doing some window-shopping, and imagining what life might have been like when all those famous Renaissance artists walked these same streets. And it doesn’t cost a penny, either.
- Visiting the Duomo – Florence’s most popular church is free to enter, although you’ll need to pay if you want to climb into the dome or to the top of the adjacent bell tower.
- Enjoying the view from the Piazzale Michelangelo – This big piazza is now not much more than a glorified car park, but it boasts some of the most stunning views overlooking Florence and it’s free to hang out there (unless you take the bus up, of course).
- Watching the Arno River from the Ponte Vecchio – Any city with a river cutting through it is bound to have several lovely bridges, and Florence is no exception. The Ponte Vecchio is the most well-known of the city’s bridges, and contemplating life as the river passes underneath the old bridge is completely free.
- Checking out the famous Baptistery doors – Although there’s an entry fee to see the inside of the Baptistery in front of the Duomo, the doors are the best-known part of the building – and they’re on the outside. If you’re wondering which doors are the famous ones, just follow the crowds.
- Visiting churches – As is the case with most Italian cities, there are lots of churches in Florence, and many of them are free to visit. You are, therefore, encouraged to poke your head into any open church door as you’re wandering around. You may find unexpected art treasures, or even get to listen in on a service complete with music. And you won’t be charged a thing, unless you want to leave a donation. (Which isn’t a bad idea, actually.) Of particular note are San Miniato al Monte in the hills behind the Piazzale Michelangelo, where you can sometimes hear Gregorian chants if you go to an afternoon service, and Orsanmichele, which started life as a granary before being converted into a church.
- People-watching in the Piazza della Signoria – There are actually a few spots in Florence that are excellent for people-watching, as they’re all popular gathering spots (Piazza del Duomo and Piazzale Michelangelo are two others), but my favorite is the Piazza della Signoria. Not least because of you the open-air sculpture museum listed next!
- Perusing the sculpture display under the Loggia dei Lanzi – This glorious outdoor semi-museum sits to one side of the Piazza della Signoria and features several statues that many museums around the world would kill to have in their collections. (Some of the sculptures are copies, but they’re damned good copies!)
- Counting (several) of the Davids in Florence – Another free Florence activity which you can begin (or continue) in the Piazza della Signoria is noting all of the David statues in the city that aren’t the real thing. To see the real one, you’ll need to pay the admission fee at the Accademia gallery. But there are Davids all over Florence. Don’t miss the bronze one in the middle of the parking lot at Piazzale Michelangelo.
- Browsing the Florence leather markets – Yes, doing any shopping whatsoever is going to cost you money… But just wandering through the leather market to inhale all that leathery goodness doesn’t cost anything. (Just be sure to keep your valuables secure, as this area is notorious for pickpockets.)
- Browsing some more in the Mercato Centrale – If foodie shopping is more your style, then head into the Mercato Centrale near the leather market at San Lorenzo and enjoy the sights and smells for free. And if you’re a budget traveler looking for the makings of a picnic, this is a great place to put together a gourmet meal at a fraction of the cost.
- Rubbing the boar’s nose for luck – Not done browsing? Head for the Mercato Nuovo where you’ll find more of the same kinds of stuff on sale as the leather market above but with one unique feature: a big statue of a wild boar. You’ll notice his snout is about the only shiny spot on his body – it’s well-polished because people rub it, either for luck or (like Rome’s Trevi Fountain) to ensure a return trip to Florence.
- Sniffing around a 14th century perfumery – While getting into the church at Santa Maria Novella will cost you, there’s a peek into history around the corner that’s part of the church complex that won’t cost anything. The Officina Profumo/Famaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has been on this site since the 1860s, but the perfume-making history of the monks who founded it goes back to the late 1300s. Buying anything will obviously set you back a bit, but you can wander the old shop for free and enjoy the incredible frescoes throughout – not to mention the heavy scent of perfume. For some context, ask someone at the desk for a history pamphlet for a self-guided tour.
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Almost Free Florence
As mentioned, there are some places in Florence that don’t charge much for admission, but they’re not free. These may, depending on your budget, be well worth the expense, however.
- Uffizi Gallery – Given how much amazing artwork you get for your money, I think the €6.50 ticket price to get into one of the best museums on earth is a pretty good deal. Just don’t blow it by waiting 6+ hours in line. Book your tickets in advance, or check for last-minute cancellations at the off-site ticket window.
- Bargello Museum – One of the most overlooked museums in Florence, the Bargello is full of sculpture and a bargain at only €4.
- Museo del Opera del Duomo – After the 1966 flood in Florence, most of the Duomo’s major artworks were removed for restoration and never put back. Instead, they’re now in the Duomo’s museum, behind the big church. This is also where you’ll find the original panels of those famous Baptistery doors. (Yep, the ones on the building outside are replicas.) The Duomo museum is €6.
- Climb the Duomo’s Dome – The admission to simply climb up into the dome of the Duomo may seem a bit steep (no pun intended) at €6, but if you consider that you got into the church itself for free then maybe it’s worth it. This isn’t for anyone who’s remotely claustrophobic, however, and those with a fear of heights should think twice, too.
- Climb the Campanile – Climbing the cathedral’s dome gives you a great view of everything… Except the dome! If you want the iconic dome in your pictures, hoof it to the top of the campanile (bell tower) instead for the same €6 fee. Again, if you’re afraid of heights, take it slowly. The stairs are narrow and there’s no elevator.
- Baptistery – While the most famous part of this building is one set of doors on the outside (and really, those are just copies, so the best part – the originals – are in the Duomo Museum), you can visit the inside of the Baptistery for €3 and enjoy the 13th & 14th century mosaics covering everything.
- Archaeological Museum – With all the Renaissance art to inhale, it’s easy to skip the Archaeological Museum in Florence. But at only €4 to get in, and with an interesting collection to check out, it’s worth considering.
- More churches – Even if a church isn’t free, chances are good that the admission to get in and check out the artwork isn’t exorbitant. Santa Maria Novella and San Lorenzo are both less than €3, Santa Maria della Carmine is free but its famous Brancacci chapel is €4, and Santa Croce (where you’ll find the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini) is €4. If you’re trying to figure out which churches have enough “stuff” in them to make them worth the entry fee, look up individual churches online or in a good guidebook to see what’s inside.
- Gelato! – Some call it edible art. I call it a cheap treat that a day in Florence feels incomplete without. Many think Florence has some of Italy’s best gelato, so make it a point to sample widely. At (usually) €2-3 for a couple scoops, it’s a bargain you shouldn’t pass up.
>> These sights are all Michelangelo-related, and include many of the things listed above, but it’s a good list of sights in Florence and you might not realize that many of them have ties to Michelangelo.
photo at top by stevehdc