Welcome to Florence, Italy, rated the number one city destination by tourists from around the world. Whether you have just a few days, a week or even more, there is plenty to keep you busy in Florence and the surrounding countryside.
Florence, or Firenze in Italian, is located in the heart of Italy's Tuscany Region in western Italy, along the Arno River. It is 277 km north of Rome and 298 km south of Milan. It is the capital of the Tuscany Region and has a population of around 400,000 people, with approximately 200,000 more in the surrounding suburban areas.
Florence is an unrivaled repository of art and architectural treasures with masterpieces by geniuses such as Botticelli, Brunelleshi, Cellini, Donatello, Fra Angelico, Ghiberti, Giotto, Raphael and of course, Leonardo and Michelangelo.
The best time to visit Florence is in the Spring (April and May) and in the fall (September and October). June, July and August are not only the hottest months, but also the busiest months of the year. During this time, the streets of Florence are overrun, as the streets were not designed for mass tourism. Fighting the crowds tends to take away some of the joy of wandering through the streets and it can also make it difficult to get tickets to the most popular attractions.
Getting to Florence
Most major airlines can get you there with just one stop. For more options, you can also fly into Pisa, 93km west of Florence and take the express train for the hour-long trip to Florence. For the most flight options, you can fly into Rome. The train trip from Rome is 2-3 hours depending upon your connections.
Florence is a city designed for walking with all the major sites in a compact area. The only problem, as I mentioned earlier, is that the sidewalks are unbearably crowded in the summer.
Florence is not divided into neighborhoods the way many cities are. Most locals refer to either the left bank or the right bank of the Arno River, and that is about it. The following neighborhoods really are just areas centering on a palace, church or square; they are rather arbitrary, but will give you some idea of where the major attractions are.
Centro could include all the historic heart of Florence, but mostly the term is used to describe the area southwest of the Duomo. Centro's Via dei Tournabuoni is the city's most elegant shopping street.
Piazza del Duomo and its surrounding areas are dominated by the tricolor Duomo, one of the largest buildings in the Christian world.
Piazza della Signoria is home to Florence's most photographed statute, Loggia dei Lanzi, with Cellini's Perseus holding up a beheaded Medusa.
Galleria degla Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio to the south is the city's civic heart, best known for their museums.
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) area, located southwest of Piazza della Signoria is Florence's oldest bridge. Built in the Middle Ages, it was the center for leather craftsmen, fishmongers and butchers.
Piazza Santa Maria Novella and the Train Station are located on the northwestern edge of central Florence. Thousands flock to this area to see Michelangelo's tomb whose symbolic figures of Day and Night are among the most famous sculptures of all time.
Piazza Ognissanti is located southwest of Piazza Santa Maria Novella. It is a fashionable Renaissance square opening onto the Arno River. This is where you will find two of the city's most legendary hotels: the Grand and the Excelsior.
Florence is perfect for walking. It is small and compact enough that walking is really the ideal way to get around. It also gives you the chance to soak in all that Florence has to offer. As you plan your ventures and outings keep in mind that Florence has two numbering systems, one in red numbers and one in black numbers. The red numbers identify commercial enterprises such as shops and restaurants. Black numbers identify office buildings, private homes, apartment houses and hotels. Because street numbers are chaotic, it is best to get cross streets and some landmarks to make finding an address easier.
Top Things to See and Do
Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio - Florence's most famous square is Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the historic center and a free open-air sculpture exhibit. The Loggia della Signoria holds some important statues including a copy of Michelangelo's David. Plazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence. This massive, Tuscan Gothic fortress-palace is among the most impressive town halls in Tuscany. It is one of the most significant public places in Italy. The palazzo contains elaborately decorated public rooms and private apartments. Around the piazza are cafes and restaurants.
Il Duomo and Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore - Florence's most popular site is its Duomo (cathedral), the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore. The huge Gothic duomo was begun in 1296, consecrated in 1436, and holds 20,000 people. The exterior, made of green, pink, and white marble, has several elaborate doors and interesting statues. Inside, Brunelleschi's Dome is a masterpiece of construction.
The Baptistry - The Baptistry of John the Baptist, from the 11th century, is one of Florence's oldest buildings. Its exterior is made of green and white marble and has three sets of amazing bronze doors (reproductions - the originals are in the Duomo Museum and are also worth a visit).
Campinile - Bell Tower - The Campinile, bell tower, is in Piazza del Duomo. The first story was designed by Giotto and it is commonly called Giotto's Campinile.
Ponte Vecchio - The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), built in 1345, was Florence's first bridge across the Arrno River and is the only surviving bridge from Florence's medieval days (others were destroyed in World War II). The Ponte Vecchio is still lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry. From the bridge, you will have a great view along the Arno River and beyond.
Galleria degli Uffizi - The Galleria degli Uffizi holds the world's most important collection of Renaissance art but it is also Italy's most crowded museum. The Uffizi holds thousands of paintings from medieval to modern times and many antique sculptures, illuminations, and tapestries. Artists whose works you will see include Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael.
Galleria dell' Academia - Florence's Galleria dell' Academia holds important paintings and sculptures from the 13th-16th centuries. Michelangelo's David, probably the most famous sculpture in the world, is in the Galleria dell' Academia as well as other sculptures by Michelangelo. You will also find an interesting collection of musical instruments, begun by the Medici family.
Boboli Garden and Pitti Palace - Cross the Ponte Vecchio to the Giardino di Boboli, a huge park on a hillside in the middle of Florence behind the Pitti Palace. Here you will find beautiful gardens and fountains and a great view of Florence from the Forte Belvedere.
The Pitti Palace, Florence's largest palazzo, was once the seat of the Medici family. You can visit eight different galleries, including art, costumes, jewelry, and apartments.
Santa Croce - Santa Croce, in Piazza Santa Croce, is the largest Franciscan church in Italy and holds the tombs of several important Florentines including Michelangelo and Dante. The vast interior contains some exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes. One of Brunelleschi's most important works, the Cappella dei Pazzi, is in Santa Croce.
Shopping - Florence has some of the finest shopping in Europe. In Florence, you will find leather goods, paper goods, and jewelry as well as nice souvenirs and art productions. Florence has a number of open-air markets selling food, clothing, and antiques. The most famous is around Piazza San Lorenzo where you will find leather goods, too. Another good place is Mercato Nuovo (Porcellino) on Via Porta Rossa. Mercato Centrale is a great place for food shopping or just looking.
Cafés, Coffee Shops, Restaurants, Wandering and People Watching – My favorite thing to do in Florence is simply to wake up early, get to a small coffee shop and start my day with a hot cup of coffee, a good pastry and watch the town come alive. I check out my map, pick the area I want to discover and can spend the whole day wandering the streets, taking in all that Florence has to offer. I stop from time to time at one of the never-ending number of café's, coffee shops or restaurants to recharge. I marvel at the number and variety of people around me and reminisce about the memories I have already made that day. Before I know it, it is time to hit the street again and I am off to make more memories.
Day Trips from Florence
Tuscany Region – Spend a day touring one of the most bombastic areas of Tuscany, known all over the world for its countryside of unrivalled charm, where woods alternate with vineyards and olive groves, in a landscape dotted with Romanesque churches, farmhouses, villas and castles of rare beauty.
Pisa – Take a drive through the fertile and picturesque Tuscan countryside to the historic university city of Pisa, famous for its architectural beauty. Take a panoramic drive along the banks of the Arno, and then tour Piazza dei Miracoli, with the celebrated Leaning Tower, the Baptistery and other important monuments. Be sure to visit the interior of the Cathedral, it is an unrivalled masterpiece of Romanesque art constructed between the 11th and 12th centuries.
Siena and San Gimignano – Take a beautiful excursion through the delightful hills of the Chianti countryside, and see an ever-changing scenery of vineyards and olive trees.
In Siena, visit the old city centre: walk along the small medieval streets, admire the splendid palaces and end up at the Cathedral where you can visit the splendid interior including the Libreria Piccolomini (library) which was founded in 1495 by Pope Pius III and the adjacent Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana (museum).
Piazza del Campo, one of Europe's most beautiful medieval squares in the world, where you will find the Palazzo del Comune, a palace started in 1297 and finished in the early 1300's.
From Siena, head to San Gimignano, a tiny city that has remained intact through the centuries; situated on a hilltop, it is famous for its numerous towers, frescoes and other art treasures. On your way back to Florence stop and visit the old mediaeval village of Monteriggioni enclosed by its famous walls, still intact.
Favorite Places to Eat
San Michele - Located in an 11th century monastery Villa San Michele, a small luxury hotel, is home to San Michele Restaurant. Perched on the hills about 20 minutes from Florence, San Michele offers you one of the most spectacular views of Florence and one of the most memorable dining experiences as well. The view is only rivaled by the Florentine and Tuscan cuisine and stellar service. For a real treat try the ribollita, a traditional Tuscan vegetable and bread soup, it is the best I had in Florence.
Reservations are necessary. When you make your reservations be sure to request a table with a good view as some are blocked by trees. Plan to be there just before sunset so you can experience both the stunning view during the day and the romantic city lights at night.
Trattoria Za Za also known as Za Za's - Casual, crowded, lively with great food at a reasonable price. Just minutes from Piazza Republica and the Duomo, Za Za's is touristic favorite.
This is the perfect place to go with friends, to meet new friends or just to sit back and people watch. They have seating both in-doors and out. I recommend sitting outside, especially if you like to people watch, there is a lot see!
Za Za's menu is wide and varied with great classics and a few unexpected dishes. Try the three soups special. It is delicious and a great way to experience pappa al pomodoro and ribollita, two traditional soups from the region.
Cantinetta Dei Verrazzano – In the mood for a sandwich, coffee, or a pastry? Then try Cantinetta Dei Verrazzano; never in my wildest dreams did I expect such a charming place existed in Florence.
Do you call it a restaurant, a café, or a coffee shop? To my delight, it was all of the above. Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, is simply a small and charming place housed in a former bakery that caters to eat-on-the-run crowds, small sandwiches, coffee, plates of fresh cheeses, salamis, and "to die for desserts".
Whether you are in need of a quick bite and a coffee or want to unwind at the end of a long day, this is the place. Be prepared to wait for a table or be willing to stand at one of the small bars/counters along the walls. If you love to people watch, this is the place to be. The tables turn over fast so there is always a lot to see.
Paoli - Located just blocks from Piazza Repubblica, between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, Paoli offers you true Tuscan dining in a lively and at times crowded atmosphere.
Housed in part of a 13th century palace with domed ceilings and Fresco painted walls Paoli is casual and offers large servings of fresh salads prepared at your table and true Tuscan pastas and meat entrées.
Try their "pappa al pomodoro", a traditional Tuscan soup made with a mixture of stale/left-over (day old) bread and farm fresh tomatoes. In the past, poorer Tuscans used pappa al pomodoro to make the food they had last longer. To my delight, Paoli serves it now, not as a way to make their food last longer but as a way for you to experience true Tuscan cuisine. I tried pappa al pomodoro at a few different places but by far Paoli's was the best.
Presentation and service is more like you'd expect at home (well, maybe a crowded Italian home) than at a 5 star restaurant, but that just adds to the charm of the experience.
As you can see, bombastic Florence has something for everyone; art lovers, museum buffs, shoppers, diners, people watchers and even those that just want to slip away to a beautiful Italian city to unwind and relax.
Andrew Satkowiak - About the Author:
Andrew Satkowiak is a freelance journalist who writes travel articles for various magazines and newspapers. When Andrew is not traveling, he writes for his website, Bombastic Life. More of Andrew's travel articles, reviews, advice and information can be found at www.BombasticLife.com.