Compared with Italy’s other big cities – Rome, Venice, Milan and Naples – Florence is an easy town to visit. The city center is compact, the people are relaxed and the food delicious. Plus, there’s so much to see that you can enjoy the world-class art and architecture with very little pre-trip preparation.
Still, I’m a big advocate of doing research in advance. So allow me to help you.
What you need to know to have a successful visit to Florence:
Pay attention to your flight
If you’re flying in to Florence instead of taking the train (which spits you off essentially in the center of the city) you might not actually be so close to Florence after all. Most flights won’t come in to Peretola Airport in Florence, but to the Galileo Galilei Airport in Pisa.
From there, it’s about an hour and twenty minutes into Florence by either bus or train. Both cost about the same (10-15 euro) but with the train you might have a transfer in Pisa center.
Prepare to walk everywhere
Most Italian cities are best viewed on foot, but in Florence you have to tour on foot. The entire city center is a limited traffic zone (meaning only authorized cars) and taxis cost an arm and a leg and are typically slower than actually walking, since they can’t mow down the crowds of people. There are tiny buses that run through the city, but they’re only worth it if your apartment is somehow located out of the city center or possibly to take you up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo (which is otherwise about a 30-minute hike up a hill).
Many museums close on Mondays
If you’re in Florence on a Monday you’ll find that most of the city’s must-see sites are actually closed. The Accademia, the Uffizi, even Palazzo Pitti are all closed on Mondays. Imagine finding out that you can’t see Florence’s biggest hits just because you had planned to see them on a Monday!
What is open: The Duomo along with its Baptistry and museum, the Bargello sometimes (it closes the first, third, and fifth Mondays of the month) and Palazzo Vecchio, among a few others. To make it even more confusing, the Orsanmichele church happens to only be open on Mondays!
You should book ahead
Especially in the summer!
You have two options here: You can book tickets ahead of time online for individual museums and other sites that you’ve planned on visiting at Uffizi.org, or if you plan on visiting three or more major sites you can buy a museum pass. Choose between the Firenze card or the Amici degli Uffizi pass, which will allow you to skip the lines and enter nearly every museum in the city.
Summers in Florence are crowded and hot
As with all of Italy, summer in Florence comes with throngs of crowds. It’s still beautiful, of course. It still has awe-inspiring architecture and works of art and history – you’ll just have to share it with thousands of other people.
Read about how to avoid the crowds in Italy
Not only that, but Florence is notoriously hot. Buy water bottles in a supermarket (cheaper than a sidewalk café) and stay hydrated. Take a long lunch. Enjoy the shade in the Boboli Gardens. Rest during the middle of the day or head for an air conditioned museum to avoid heat-induced crankiness.
Eat meat, buy leather
Traditional Florentine cuisine is not typical pizza and pasta. Instead, it tends to err on the side of hearty, rustic and meat-filled. Try fresh pappardelle pasta with wild boar ragù or the infamous bistecca alla fiorentina. It’s a T-bone steak so thick that it’s ordered by the gram and usually served for two. Expect it to come quite raw (it’s too thick to cook the center medium-well) and salty – pair it with Tuscany’s saltless bread.
Check out some of my absolute favorite dishes in Tuscany
Not only that, but the city has a long history of leather work and tanning. If you want an authentic souvenir, you’ll have your choice of incredible leather goods to choose from. Verify that it was made in Italy or better yet, head Oltrarno to shop from the local artisans – they can even make you a personal bespoke product.
The churches cost money
Though you can freely enter into most churches in Italy (they say that Rome alone has approximately 900 churches) the major basilicas or churches in major tourist destinations usually do have a fee. The Duomo in Milan was free until just a few years ago – now there’s a two euro fee. In Florence, however, the minimum fee seems to be 5 euro, and some cost even more. Budget it into your trip or else do some research to decide ahead which churches you can’t miss!
Note: Now you can visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Cathedral’s Museum all on one 18 euro ticket valid for 72 hours.
Most of the Duomo’s artwork is now found in the museum
After gaping at the ornate facade and walls of the Duomo, it can be a little shocking to tour the austere interior. The inside of the Duomo is actually quite bare. After the Florence Flood of 1966, when the water from the Arno River rose so high it filled churches nearly 6 feet deep, the works of art that weren’t destroyed were taken down for restoration and the majority are now on display in the Duomo museum.
You need more time at the Uffizi than the Accademia
The David in the Accademia is one of the most captivating statues in the world. Sculpted in white marble by Michelangelo in the 16th century, it’s considered a masterpiece in proportion, beauty and art. The massive Uffizi holds the world’s most important collection of Renaissance art.
If you have to choose between the two (perhaps you only have one day in Florence), know that the line and the minimum amount of time required to truly see anything is longer at the Uffizi.
The entire city is best viewed with a little bit of history
Yes, it’s easy to see beautiful things in Florence. Yes, it’s easy to get around. Yes, there’s art on every corner. But the truth wealth, the true beauty of the city is in its history. Why is Ponte Vecchio important? Why should you want to tour the Uffizi Gallery? How long has that building been around? That painting? That statue? People tease me for my planning, but what is truly awe-inspiring about Florence is its firm grasp on the past. With a minimum of background knowledge you’ll know that past so much better, making what you see in the present so much more incredible.