Florence is one of the cities that I’m absolutely most nostalgic about. I first visited in my teens as part of a family holiday, and returned at the age of 18 with a friend. We spent a week soaking up culture (both by day and night) and I remember being so entranced by the atmosphere of the place. I was in awe of it as one of the most important places in the world for the history of Art in the West, but at the same time a thriving, though slightly shabby, university town that partied pretty hard once the sun went down.
The city has undoubtedly changed in the intervening period, and it’s now firmly on the tourist trail. The city has responded, passing controversial laws to ensure that restaurants source produce locally and celebrate Tuscan cuisine, and also discouraging visitors from sitting on basilica steps through an overzealous street cleaning team. The result doesn’t quite border on sterile, and overall has left the historical centre pretty stunning and a good set piece of the European Renaissance. Thankfully, there’s still some grime to be found, and as with any city, a 15 minute walk outside of the centre brings quieter streets, cheaper wine and better food, all of which is very much appreciated.
As the guide became a bit of a beast (soz) I’ve split it into two parts. The first deals with sights and general info (places to stay, getting there & away etc) and the second covers food and drink.
Enjoy and happy travels!
Arriving in Florence
Florence has its own airport, around 20 mins north of the city, with regular connecting buses. However, most budget airlines fly into Pisa airport, which is a little more of a trek.
At Pisa, you’ll need to get a transfer bus to Pisa Centrale train station, from where a train takes you to Santa Maria Novella station in Florence. Catch your timing right and the whole journey takes a little over an hour, and costs around €9. We’re cheapskates, so naturally took the train, but there is are also a few coaches that run between Florence and the airport direct for around €14, but beware that these don’t stop at the station itself but at a bus park around 10 mins walk north from the station at Piazzale Montelungo. The easiest way to get there (avoiding some pretty busy roads) is to walk all the way down platform 16 in Santa Maria Novella station and follow the signs.
Florence is also super accessible from many other cities in Italy (and of course the rest of Europe). All trains arrive into Santa Maria Novella station, which is walking distance to the historical centre. Train travel in Italy is cheap, quick and a really nice way to see the country – from Florence you can reach Rome or Venice in around 2 hours and for usually less than €20 per person.
Florence itself is pretty compact and all of the main sights are located within the historical centre, so everything is easily walkable.
When I was 18 my friend and I booked into the Albergo San Giovanni right in the centre of Florence (some of the rooms have spectacular views of the Baptistery and Duomo). Returning nearly 15 years later, I was really excited to book into the same hotel.
The hotel is definitely on the budget side (rooms are only €40 a night) and though facilities are basic they’re more than adequate. There are also some really unique things about this place; aside from the fantastic location some of the rooms have historical frescos on the ceiling which make the experience something completely special. For a short low cost break it’s pretty much perfect.
If, however, you feel like splashing out, then you can’t go wrong with a stay at Soprarno Suites in Oltrarno, on the south side of the Arno river. This is the less touristy part of the city, with plenty of lively bars and restaurants in the area.
The 13 room hotel has a totally hipster-meets-Renaissance vibe; rooms are huge with loads of original features such as frescos, double height ceilings and exposed beams, and with large windows that are very Romeo and Juliet. Added to this are some very cool vintage bits of furniture, ginormous beds and some of the nicest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. With rate at around £180 it sounds expensive (especially compared to Albergo San Giovanni) but this is pretty much the going rate in Florence, and you can easily pay more for a stay that’s nowhere near as special.
Florence is a bit like a theme park, as the city in itself is a stunning historic record. I absolutely love to just stroll around the streets, particularly in early evening, when the crowds have thinned and the evening light makes everything look absolutely beautiful. I’m also pretty sure that Florence has the biggest concentration of museums, galleries and historic buildings of any city ever (not an official statistic!) so there are plenty of options to choose from. This isn’t just looking at paintings on walls either, but roaming through gargantuan churches that are centuries old, or admiring grand homes and architectural tributes to the city’s ruling families.
Piazza della Signoria
Piazza della Signoria is the administrative heart of medieval Florence and is a really good place to start your exploration of the city. The square is dominated by the rectangular Palazzo Vecchio, which has served as the seat of the city’s government since the 13th century, and the importance of the square is pretty hard to overstate. The palace has been the backdrop for pretty much all of the gory details of Florentine history, including the very public execution of Girolamo Savonarola, the puritannical friar-turned-leader of Florence in 1498. Basically this is where it all went down.
The Piazza is also home to a wonderful collection of statues, and be clear that none of these are put here by accident. There’s a bit of a theme here of the underdog – David fought Goliath, Judith killed Holofernes – which rings true with the Florentine self perception of being a bit of a rebel and being generally pooped on by its neighbours but ultimately coming good and literally slaying the competition. Of course Judith is my favourite.
Piazza del Duomo
If the Piazza della Signoria is the administrative and legislative centre of the city then Piazza del Duomo is of course the religious heart. Housing not only the city’s cathedral (duomo) but also the baptistery, it’s also the most visited part of the city.
Fun fact: the cathedral remained sans-dome when it was originally built, and the story goes that the ruling Medici family held a competition to design what is still the largest unsupported brick dome in the world. Enter Fillippo Brunelleschi, one of the stars of the Renaissance, who very confidently declared that the challenge was entirely possible, only he couldn’t tell anyone how he was going to do it, they just needed to trust him. And they did, and the rest is history. Brunelleschi was so protective of his designs that he destroyed the blueprints and to this day no one really knows exactly how he built it! What a bastard eh?
The interior is worth a visit to see the spectacular scale of the dome as well as the number of paintings, frescos and sculptures that decorate the interior. Entrance is free, though for obvious reasons there’s usually a pretty hefty queue. The queue does move reasonably quickly, though we found that the best time to visit is just after lunch during the week, when the queue can be non-existent.
You can also separately climb the dome and the adjacent clock tower for views across Florence, but for the cost and queues i’d recommend a separate trip to Piazzale Michelangelo (see below) for the best view of the city. Across Piazza del Duomo is the Baptistery, which is known for its famous east doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti which show scenes from the old testament. The panels here are copies as the originals have suffered a bit over the centuries, but despite that a pretty big crowd does gather in front of the building. Get here in the early evening when the area is a bit quieter to ensure you can get up close.
For a pretty decent example of the power that the Medici family had in the city, the Medici Chapels within the Basilica of San Lorenzo are absolutely worth a visit. The church of San Lorenzo was basically the local church for the Medici, so they would visit and regularly pay patronage to the basilica. The two chapels here had a bit of a dual role – on the one hand acting as mausolea for the family, but also, probably more important showing off just how powerful and rich they were.
The first chapel, the Sagrestia Nuova, was built in the early 16th century by Michelangelo as his first “essay in architecture”, designed as a whole, with each detail, including the individual monuments, carefully considered to contribute to the overall vision. The chapel is surprisingly small and feels like an exercise in restraint – a cube topped by a dome all in white. There are flourishes in the monuments and sculptures and the whole thing feels wonderfully serene and sympathetic to the function of the chapel as mausoleum.
No such restraint next door in the Capella dei Principi, which is absolutely all out glamour. You get the feeling that by this point in time the emphasis was definitely quantity over quality, as if Florence didn’t quite understand just how rich the Medici actually were. However that’s not suggesting that the craftsmanship here is anywhere approaching sub-par. Once you’ve got over the scale of the place, focus on the detail of inlaid stone which completely covers the interior.
If you only have time (or energy) for one museum in Florence then it absolutely has to be the Uffizi. Here you can see one of the best collections in the world of Western Art from the Renaissance period, ranging from the early 15th to late 16th century. Works are arranged chronologically, with the odd gallery dedicated to a specific theme or artist (ie Botticelli) and it’s a fascinating way to see how representations (and ideals around beauty and religion) changed in what was a reasonably short period of time.
Not surprisingly, the museum is hectic on pretty much any given day so you absolutely must book your ticket in advance to avoid the queue, which can be 2-3 hours long! The museum is free entry on the first Sunday of each month, and if you’re going to take advantage of this then arrive early; we started queuing at 7am, doors opened at 8:15am and we were inside by 8:45am.
Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella is an amazing set of buildings located across from Florence’s main train station. Centred around the basilica, the city’s first large-scale church built in 1420, the building is a wonderful example of Florentine Renaissance architecture, but also holds a large number of chapels commissioned by local powerful families.
In attempts to outdo each other, these families filled their chapels with works of art commissioned from the leading artists of the day and as a result the building is stuffed with one of the best collections of 15th century art in the city. My favourite work here is the Holy Trinity by Masaccio (note the renaissance trend of including the artist’s patron in the painting) but the Strozzi chapel by Filippino Lippi is also worth a good chunk of your time. Be sure to also visit the adjoining cloister, which is a wonderfully calm and peaceful place to sit and have a probably much needed time out, right?
A little out of the way, on the northern edge of the historical centre, is the church and convent of San Marco. It’s one of my favourite places in Florence because of the convent, which holds a number of frescos by the Dominican Monk Fra’Angelico, who lived in the convent from the 1430s. The cells themselves are pretty depressing so it’s no great surprise that the frescos were pretty successful at inspiring religious devotion. Some of them are pretty weird too (demons hiding in caves, floating heads, blood-covered skulls…).
Palazzo Medici Ricardi & Chapel Magi
The Palazzo Medici Ricardi is, not surprisingly, the former palace of the Medici Family. The palace itself is a pretty good example of secular architecture from the Renaissance period and cuts a pretty imposing figure. Internally it’s worth a little explore, but its most outstanding feature is the Magi Chapel, entirely covered in frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli.
I like the idea that the Medici were too rich and fabulous for boring old wallpaper so commissioned one of the best painters of the time to completely cover the walls of the private chapel in their own home with completely extravagant paintings. Not extravagant enough? Ok, turn the Procession of the Magi into an event that took place in the contemporary Tuscan countryside, and add portraits of Medici family members and their mates into the scene. It took Gozzoli around 9 years to complete the room.
L’Accademia (the Academy of Fine Arts) is known pretty much purely for being the home of Michelangelo’s David and for that reason is the second most popular museum in the city after the Uffizi. This is a weird one – there is a copy of David in Piazza della Signoria, and to be honest I wasn’t entirely sold on paying the €12 entrance fee just for one sculpture. However there’s something special about this one; the museum was basically constructed around the David so the gallery is perfectly sized and lit to accommodate the sculpture.
The museum also has a small number of unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, known as the “Prisoners” or “Slaves” which are some of the finest examples of Michelangelo’s working practice and pretty spectacularly show figures emerging from marble. There is also a small collection of paintings from the same period so if you’re after a quick overview (plus the most spectacular sculpture in the world) then this one is worth a visit.
Piazzale Michelangelo & San Minato Al Monte
With the exception of the Duomo and adjoining Clocktower (which are a bit of a rip off), there’s a bit of a lack of good vantage points in Florence. However around half an hour walk south-east of the centre, up San Niccolo hill, is Piazzale Michelangelo. This is probably the car park with the best view in the world (again, not an official statistic) and is absolutely worth the hike on a sunny day for a spectacular view of the city.
Whilst you’re there, the tiny little church of San Minato al Monte is also worth a look, as one of the oldest and prettiest churches in the city, dating back to 1018. If you’re lazy (like me) then you can get the bus up the hill, enjoy the view, the church and take an opportunity to explore some of the terrace bars with spectacular views before enjoying a leisurely stroll back down into the city.
Are you exhausted yet? In part 2 (tbf the much more important section) I’ll fill you in on my favourite places to enjoy the other side of Florentine culture – food, wine and Aperol!