1) Walk to San Miniato al Monte above Florence

First, walk down the Lungarno (the road that goes along the river) to Viale G. Poggi and take this winding walkway up:

Viale G. Poggi

Then stop briefly for the views at Piazzale Michelangelo before continuing up to the church of San Miniato al Monte:

san miniato al monte

The church is one of the oldest in the Florence area (from 1018) and a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture. It’s free to go inside–highlights are the mosaics above the altar and the small chapel in the back right corner of the church. Walk around the outside of the church, see the cemetery, and take in the views of Florence and the surrounding countryside.

things to do in Florence

On your way back down, pop in the nearby Giardino della Rose (Rose Garden) at Viale G. Poggi 2.

2) Visit the Palazzo Strozzi museum.

This museum has exhibits of contemporary and historic art by both Italian and international artists. Stop in on a Thursday evening for free admission to some exhibits and the weekly social gathering in the courtyard. People hang out on couches and get drinks and snacks at the café–definitely the place to be seen in Florence on a Thursday evening. Also, check out the bookstore’s nice selection of gifts and books for adults and children. Learn more about this innovative museum here, and find out about the Firenze Card, the best deal for entrance to many of Florence’s museums.

palazzo strozzi

3) Walk along the Arno River and watch the rowers.

Walking along the Arno River is a wonderful way to spend time in Florence–try going down as far as you can in both directions to see the architecture and get away from the crowds.  There is a rowing club (“Canottieri Firenze” from 1888) right next to the Ponte Vecchio, so it’s common to see them rowing peacefully down the Arno.

Arno River rowers

And walk the Ponte Vecchio early in the morning or at dusk.

This bridge does get packed with tourists, but it really is a special place that you should experience once. It is believed that it was originally built in Roman times, but the Ponte Vecchio that you see now was built in 1345.

ponte vecchio

It has always housed tiny shops, and now jewelry, especially gold, is sold behind beautiful old shop doors.

ponte vecchio jewelry

The views from the bridge at sunrise and sunset are beautiful.

Arno at night

4) Climb Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower)

You should save time to climb either the bell tower or the dome of the Duomo for views of the city, but the bell tower may be the better option because it’s less crowded, cheaper, and gives you a close-up view of the outside of the dome. However, if you are particularly interested in the way in which the dome was constructed, choose to climb it instead and see Brunelleschi’s method of spreading the weight out with a herringbone pattern of bricks.

campanile

5) Go to the Mercato Centrale

If you love food markets like I do, this is something you don’t want to miss. The Mercato Centrale is an excellent place to see beautiful local food, have a snack, buy picnic supplies, or buy gifts. Learn more about it here.

Italian pasta

6) Eat gelato!

I know eating gelato should be automatic when in Italy, but you may find yourself so busy in Florence that you’ll forget to leave time for gelato breaks! Some of the best gelato can be found at Vivoli, Perché No!, Grom, and Festival. This cone with persimmon and chocolate orange was from Perché No!

gelato

7) Visit Santa Maria Novella

In my opinion, this is Florence’s prettiest church. The façade is a lovely example of Renaissance shapes (except for the Gothic influence of the very bottom, which was built first). Pay 3 euro and go inside, where painted arches and an airy feeling greet you. The church is full of great art–worth a long look are Masaccio’s Trinity fresco across from the entrance and the Tornabuoni chapel behind the altar, painted by Ghirlandaio’s workshop including teenage Michelangelo. Read more about this church here.

churches in Florence

8) Visit the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella 

This centuries-old pharmacy/herbalist/perfumerie is an interesting part of Florence’s cultural heritage. All rooms are beautifully decorated, even with ornate ceilings. There are so many historical objects related to the production of medicines, natural creams, and perfumes that it is also considered a “museum of tradition.”  It’s free, so pick up the information pamphlet, ask questions, and see a unique part of Florence’s history. Open every day 10:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and located behind Santa Maria Novella church on Via della Scala, 16.

florence pharmacy

9) Experience beauty at the Palatine Gallery

If you want to see beautiful art but don’t want to deal with the crowds of the Uffizi, try the Palatine Gallery instead. Housed inside the massive Renaissance Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno River, the Palatine gallery has works by some of Florence’s masters, including Raphael and Andrea del Sarto, as well as non-Florentines such as Caravaggio, Rubens, and Titian.

palazzo pitti

10) Go to the Boboli Gardens

The Boboli Gardens are one of Florence’s better known sights, but I am surprised how many people show up in Florence not knowing about them. The gardens are really not to be missed, especially on a sunny day. The sweeping views, endless paths that take you past grand fountains, and surprising grottoes make for an unforgettable outdoor space. You can enter with your ticket to the above Palatine Gallery.

Boboli Gardens

Keep walking to the very top and back of the garden for views of an olive grove and the countryside that surrounds Florence, and pop inside the small but lovely Porcelain Museum.

porcelain museum

11) Find tranquility at the Bardini Garden

The Bardini Garden is not nearly as grand as the Boboli Gardens, but it is also much less known. When I visited late in the day in November, I was the only person! The garden offers exceptional views of Florence, and the flowers that were not blooming when I was there must make it very beautiful in the spring and summer. There is also a restaurant and cafeteria with a deck.

bardini garden

You can access the Bardini Garden either from the street in the Oltrarno quarter (Via de Bardi 1r) or by leaving the Boboli Gardens and walking a bit (see the map given to you when you enter the Boboli Gardens). Entrance to the Bardini is included with the Boboli Gardens.

bardini villa

12) Get off the beaten path in the Oltrarno

The Oltrarno is the area of Florence across the Arno River that includes #16-18 above. This neighborhood is less touristy and definitely worth a day of your time for a few reasons. Besides the above-mentioned Palatine Gallery and Boboli and Bardini Gardens, many artisan workshops are located there (see #11), and you can wander the streets just looking for workshops to peek into. Also, the area has many nice small shops, all less geared towards tourists, that make for great window-shopping (or real shopping!). Finally, this is one place where you can experience a bit of the “real” Florence, where you can see the life of the locals getting early evening cocktails with friends, eating snacks at a tiny bar, or sitting in Piazza Santo Spirito. If you like markets, visit the one at Santo Spirito in the mornings (except Sundays).

shops Florence

13) Go for grandness in the cafés on Piazza della Repubblica

Splurge a little and relax in one of Florence’s grand historic cafés. If you don’t want to pay to sit, order at the bar. The cioccolato caldo (hot chocolate) at Paszkowski is to die for.

Florence cafe

14) Visit the Bargello National Museum

The Bargello is one of Florence’s best museums but is sometimes missed by tourists who are not aware of its collection or who miss it because it doesn’t exactly look like an important museum. The building dates from 1225 and used to be a prison. Inside you will be treated to a great collection of art, mostly notably sculpture by the best sculptors of the Renaissance, including of course Michelangelo and Donatello. Seeing sculpture in person is powerful, and these are ones not to be missed.

bargello

15) Visit the Pazzi Chapel

The Pazzi Chapel is a place few tourists know about, but it is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture. It was built by Brunelleschi, the same genius who designed Florence’s dome, and showcases the important Renaissance principles of geometric shapes and spatial harmony. It is adjacent to the church of Santa Croce, so pop over after checking out the tombs and frescoes of Santa Croce. Read more about Renaissance architecture here.

Pazzi Chapel

16) Step back in time at San Marco

San Marco provides a more serene way to experience the art of historic Florence. It is an old monastery that you can tour to see the monk’s cells and the frescoes on the cell walls. Fra Angelico, a monk and early Renaissance painter, painted these frescoes to decorate the monks’ cells to give them with something holy to concentrate on while praying.

San Marco frescoes

17) See the Early Renaissance at the Brancacci Chapel

This fresco cycle, located in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno quarter, is probably the best place to see the innovations that took place in the early Renaissance. It is stunning, but you have to make reservations (even on the same day), well worth the effort if you can plan ahead a bit.

Brancacci Chapel

18) Tour the Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio is the old town hall of Florence, built in the 14th century. Its grand interior, which has seen such a fascinating history of events, has beautifully decorated rooms and courtyards with ornate ceilings, wall tapestries, carved doors, and fine art including works by Michelangelo, Vasari, and Da Vinci (this one was recently discovered behind one of the Vasari walls in the Salone dei Cinquecento).

palazzo courtyard

19) Day-trip to Fiesole

Fiesole is a small town in the hills above Florence. Going there is a great way to spend a nice day, or even half a day. You can get there by taking Bus 7 from the Florence train station or at the stops at the Duomo and San Marco in Florence. The town was founded around 800 BC as an Etruscan settlement (the Etruscans lived in this part of Italy long before the Romans), but it was conquered by the Romans in 283 BC. Etruscan and especially Roman ruins are still visible. There are also nice churches, a monastery, and a square where you can enjoy sweeping views of Florence and the surroundings. The tourist office map shows 3 walks around the town and along the Etruscan walls–choose the one that’s best for you and soak up a bit of Tuscany!

fiesole

20) Pop into Santa Trinita

This unimposing church just off the Arno River is worth popping into to see the work of Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio. Inside the church, the Sassetti Chapel was frescoed by Ghirlandaio and his workshop–it is interesting to note how he used the look of Florence and local people to depict scenes from the Bible. The altarpiece, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” is one of my favorites from the Renaissance. (The church is free.)

ghirlandaio

Italy travelling: 20 things to do in Firenze
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