Florence is world renowned for it’s beauty and history which can make it difficult to decide what to see and do with limited time. I try not to rush from monument to monument just so I can grab a photo or say I was there. I need to give myself time to enjoy what I am seeing instead of worrying about checking sights off my list. If you are a like-minded traveler you may enjoy the tips on what I consider the sites that are a must in Florence.
You will find this on every Florence blog, website or travel guide for good reason. The spectacular view of the historic city center is breathtaking. If you are an early riser I recommend an early visit as you may find yourself the only one watching the sunrise at this monument. Sunset is notoriously busy and you will find yourself shoulder to shoulder with the masses trying to capture the perfect selfie.
When friends and family visit, this is the first place we take them. The views help orient you to the layout of the city and is one of the best vantage points to see the famous Florentine skyline. I’d be remised not to ad that Fort Belvedere has a different vantage point that is almost as equally impressive, is located very close to the Piazza, and has recently opened to the public.
There are a few ways to reach the top of the Piazzale Michelangelo. For the brave, you can start at Porta San Niccoló and walk up the zig zag path that leads to the top. The path is beautiful but can be a bit steep and tiring for those planning to walk all day. The best option is to take the number 12 bus. There are alternative buses but this is the line that is easiest to find, and drops you off right at the top. The bus route takes you by the impressive Porta Romana where you can see the immense city gate towering above. You also drive by several beautiful villas before reaching your final destination. If you decide to walk down from the Piazzale to return to the city, I recommend a visit to Antico Mescita San Niccoló. It is very close to the bottom path of the piazzale and is a delicious restaurant located in the San Niccoló church crypt. From there it is a 10-minute walk to another must see, Ponte Vecchio.
This bridge is probably most famous because it is the only bridge in Florence that was not bombed to cover the retreat of the Nazis in WWll. The original bridge is thought to have been built in the late 900’s only to be destroyed by flood about 20 years later. The current bridge has been standing since 1345. It is a rich piece of history that’s décor and atmosphere remains charming despite being such a tourist destination. Ponte Santa Trinita is the next bridge over, just west of the Ponte Vecchio. This is where most people take photos to get Ponte Vecchio as the back drop. If you go to the next bridge east of the Ponte Vecchio, Ponte alle Grazie, you can get equally great photos with much smaller crowds. Having Gelato on the bridges is a popular pass time. I recommend either La Strega Nocciola which is right next to the Ponte Vecchio or La Carraia, which is right beside Ponte Carraia…two bridges west of Ponte Vecchio.
Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo)
The iconic church can not be missed if you are in Florence. It is a symbol of this beautiful city known the world over. For as low as 15 euros you can climb to the very top of the tower. Be forewarned that this is not for the faint of heart, it is a long way to the top in a very confined space. Once you reach the top you are offered the most spectacular 360 degree view you could imagine. If this is on your agenda you must book ahead, as a scheduled time slot must be chosen. Most tickets offer the Duomo as well as Giotto’s bell tower which is located right beside it. The bell tower can also be climbed but is not as enclosed and an appointment time is not neccesary. If buying tickets online make sure to print each page out and bring them along, as you may need to show proof of purchase. Some sites may claim that a virtual ticket is accepted but this is not the case.
Piazza Della Signoria
This beautiful piazza is surrounded by Palazzo Vecchio, The Uffizi, Neptune’s fountain and the house of Dante Aligheri. Many important pieces of history occurred here including the bonfire of the vanities and the original placement of Michelangelo’s David. There are so many wonderful sights in proximity of this location that make it a must see.
While Santo Spirito may not be as grandiose as other parts of the city, it is a must see especially on Sundays. There are often open air markets (on Sundays) and the piazza is a hip destination point for young tourist and locals alike. The church of Santo Spirito is famous for the Christ on a Crucifix sculpture done by Michelangelo. From the piazza you are just 5 minutes away from Piti Palace and the Boboli gardens and our favorite pizza place is around the corner, Gusta Pizza. There is always a line but service moves quick. Don’t make the mistake of finding your own seat as they will sit you once you purchase something. Also, you are not allowed to order to go and then eat your pizza there, save yourself getting kicked out or yelled at and follow their policy (if you have a pizza box at a table they will kick you out).
The mercato is a great place to drop into for several reasons. During the early daytime hours, the ground floor is open with stalls ranging from fresh produce, fish, cured meats, cheeses, spices and everything in between. The are also some great eateries on the ground floor such as “Nerbone”, A local favorite in business since 1872. Upstairs you will find a large food court where you can choose from a wide range of cuisines. Don’t let the amount of tourist fool you, the food here is great. Unlike most restaurants in the city that close every mid day until dinner, Mercato centrale’s upstairs hours can help accommodate your hunger all day long.
Walking or Biking the historic city center
Florence is a perfect city to explore with no agenda. Every street corner you turn, there is something beautiful to see. One day on our way to get Gelato, we happened to walk by the house of Galileo by mistake, and to our surprise there were no huge crowds or signs directing the way. We found Dante Aligheri’s home by accident while roaming around on one of our first days in town.
In a city with such huge iconic markers such as the Duomo or the Arno river it is difficult to get truly lost, which is the perfect reason to wonder around to see what you may discover. The city recently established a ride share bicycle program that charges less than a euro an hour. “Mobike” is the name of the program for anyone interested, and you must download the app and create a profile to access the bikes. Cascine park is a beautiful and large area perfect for biking or strolling in nature and is located just southwest of Santa Maria Novella transit station. Florence is easily navigated by foot but for those wanting to give your feet a rest, at the bottom of this post you will find useful tips on the transit system.
If you happen to by lucky enough to be in town on the first Sunday of the month, take advantage of all the free state museums. Here’s a link to discover them:
Important information on transit
ATAF is the transit system that operates the buses and tram. In addition to transit stations, tickets may be purchased from newspaper stands and tabacchi shops. You may also purchase a ticket directly from a bus driver but they are more expensive and run out fairly early in the day (do not count on the drivers having tickets). Each time you swipe or stamp your ticket, there is no limit on the amount of bus or tram rides within a 90-minute period. If you are within the 90-minute period, do not swipe again. Tickets can be bought for single uses or you may purchase a “carta” which have 10-35 rides at a discounted rate.
A carta cannot be shared, this is a very important fact, because if you are caught riding without a ticket you will be fined heavily. There are periodic random checks by plain clothes officers who give very large fines up to 250 euro. Excuses such as “I’m a tourist” or “I did not know” are never accepted. I’ve witnessed many a tourist being fined. Tickets are not always checked, so if you don’t pay you are basically exploiting the city and the residence who largely conform to an honor system.
I hope these tips help you have a wonderful experience in this beautiful city Briana and I call home.