When I dream of Italy, I always imagine red-tiled roofs, crammed streets filled with tourists and traffic honking to its own beat, and the impressive views of the Piazza del Duomo and Ponte Vecchio. When I think of Italy, I think of Florence. Florence, or Firenze to the locals, is a shrine to the Renaissance, one of my favorite times in history. The city is filled with amazing art, delicious pasta, and more favors of gelato than you can eat in one trip. Florence also serves as the gateway to Tuscany, where tiny medieval villages pop out of golden fields of sunflowers and the wine flows like nectar.
Florence is a city best spent exploring at a leisurely pace while licking gelato out of a cone as the warm sun soaks you in its warmth. Her many world-class art museums will turn any non-art fan into an overnight art aficionado and her over-the-top churches will have you in awe of God’s power.
8 Things You Need to See or Do in Florence, Italy
1. Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore)
You can’t go to Florence without seeing its famous cathedral. The Duomo’s construction began in 1296 based on the design by Arnolfo di Cambio, but was finally consecrated in 1436, after additional contributions by other architects, such as Brunelleschi. The cathedral consists of three buildings: the cathedral, the Baptistery, and Giotto’s Campanile. The Duomo is a UNESCO Heritage site that sees millions of tourists every year. Entrance to the cathedral is free, but if you want to climb to the top of Brunelleschi’s cupola (which I highly recommend!) then you need to be willing to climb all 463 steps through some narrow stairwells and pay about €10. I’m a big claustrophobic, but I was fine. I think I was too in awe of Giorgio Vasari’s fresco on the inside of the dome to notice the tight passageways. The views of Florence at the top is so worth it!
2. Eat Gelato
Italy is famous for its gelato and I personally think Florence has the best. There are so many favors to choose from, but I remember my personal favorite was strawberry. Although, it might have been my favorite because it was the only Italian word that I could remember. Some of the best gelato can be found at Gelateria la Carraia, Vivoli, and Perche No. And now I’m hungry…
3. Ponte Vecchio
You’ve probably seen pictures of this famous bridge set over the Arno River. In fact the bridge can be seen in the movie Hannibal because the movie is based on a true case of serial killings that occurred in Florence between 1968 and 1985. The stone bridge was built in 1345 and its famous shops once included tradesman such as butchers, grocers, and blacksmiths. Today the bridge is full of jewelers and goldsmiths selling overpriced jewelry to tourists. I suggest heading downstream a bit from the bridge and snapping a few photos at sunset and then at night when she is all lit up.
4. Galleria dell’Accademia
One afternoon while strolling around Palazzo Vecchio, you spot a marble statue of nude man and your brain registers with excitement. OMG, that’s Michelangelo’s David! Nope, nice try. That’s a replica as the real David is located inside the Galleria dell’Accademia. The art gallery is home to six other lesser known Michelangelo figures and other famous works of art from artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Andrea del Sarto. Admission to the museum is €8. (And, yes. That’s a true story above. Oops!)
5. Piazzale Michelangelo
If you had to do only one thing in Florence this would be it. I saw the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen in my life sitting on the steps in Piazzale Michelangelo. It is a little bit of a trek to get to the Piazzale, but if you arrive during the “Golden Hour,” you will be rewarded with the perfect time to photograph Florence. Don’t forget your camera!
6. Galleria degli Uffizi
Uffizi is Florence’s mecca for art lovers. The museum holds the world’s most important collection of Renaissance paintings. You’ll see pieces from all the greats, such as Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci, and Raphael. The museum is large and very crowded. It is suggested to buy tickets ahead of time to avoid the long lines. Admission is about €7.
7. Check out the local markets
One thing I love about Italy is the endless markets even in the dead of winter. I had the best raspberries in Florence! Mercato Centrale is a popular indoor market located on Via dell’Ariento that showcases the best food and wine that Tuscany as the offer. Other markets include Piazza dei Ciompi’s Mercato delle Pulci (flea market) and the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio (food market).
8. Sip Espresso of Hot Chocolate at a Café
Florence is home to hundreds of small cafes tucked behind inconspicuous buildings and alleyways. Some are located nearby large squares. I don’t drink coffee, but while in Italy I felt head-over-heels in love with the hot chocolate. Gone are the days of my Swiss mix hot chocolate. Italians definitely have hot chocolate down to a science. Grab a cup or a shot of espresso and sit down and people watch. Florence is meant to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. And for a little secret… take it to go. You’ll save a few Euros.
Florence is a stunning city that is on every traveler’s dream list. It can also be a nightmare to visit during the summer peak tourist months. I visited Florence in January and the weather was mild and pleasant. The crowds were not as thick and I ate more gelato than I can remember. Someday I will be back to explore more of her museums and eat even more gelato.