A Quick Guide to Florence, Italy
by Meghan Crawford
Florence, Italy is one of Italy’s most popular tourist destinations. Although summer is peak season, there’s plenty to do and see in the city year-round. In fact, if you’re only in Florence for a few days, it can be a little overwhelming. I’ve put together a quick guide to Florence to help you get the most out of your trip.
What to See in Florence, Italy
With its red-tiled dome and lofty bell tower, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is the most easily recognizable building in Florence. Construction on the cathedral began in the 13th century but the now iconic Duomo, designed by architect Filippo Brunelleschi, wasn’t added until the 15th. It took another 400 years for the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore to be completed. The centuries of work were worth it, though, and millions of visitors flock to admire Brunelleschi’s famous dome every year.
And no wonder. The Duomo is a masterpiece of both art and architecture. Brunelleschi’s revolutionary design features two interconnected shells with no supporting buttresses. More than a hundred years after the dome’s completion, Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari painted the frescoes that are now visible on the inner shell.
Entrance to the Cathedral itself is free, but if you want to see the Duomo up close, you’ll have to purchase tickets in advance. It’s a 463-step climb up to the top, so it’s not for everyone, but the views of Florence from the roof of the Duomo are worth it. Tickets are €18 and also include entrance to the crypt, the baptistry, the bell tower, and the official Duomo Museum.
The first time that I visited Florence, I had every intention of seeing the Duomo. Then I saw the line to get into Santa Maria del Fiore. It was in direct sun and literally wrapped around the square. Still, I might have braved it if the temperature that day hadn’t been 113°F. So, bear that in mind if you’re planning a visit to the Duomo. You’ll likely spend at least an hour out in the elements, waiting in line.
It’s also mandatory for women to cover their shoulders and legs in most cathedrals in Italy. This doesn’t pose a problem during spring or winter when everyone is bundled up, but during the summer lots of tourists prefer strappy or strapless tops and shorts. Keep a light scarf in your bag just in case. It would be awful to wait through that line just to be denied entrance because of a tank top.
Art Museums: The Uffizi and the Academia
Florence was home to countless artists during the creative heyday of the Italian Renaissance. Unsurprisingly, the city still hosts an impressive collection of famous artworks. Sculptures and statues can be seen for free throughout Florence, but the true treasure troves lie within the Uffizi and the Academia.
Michelangelo’s David is perhaps the most famous piece in Florence. Originally installed in the Piazza della Signoria, the political heart of the city, the David was moved in 1873 to prevent any further exposure to the elements. There’s a replica outside the Palazzo della Signoria now, but I highly recommend buying a ticket to go see the original which now sits in the Academia under a skylight specially made for it. There’s plenty of amazing artwork on display in the Academia, but it’s worth buying a ticket for the David alone. It’s that breathtaking.
The other must-see art museum in Florence is the Uffizi. It’s several stories tall and you can spend hours wandering through the various galleries. The crowning jewel in the Uffizi’s collection though is the Botticelli exhibit. Trust me, no photo can replicate what it’s like to see The Birth of Venus in person. The soft flesh tones set against the jewel-bright backdrop and the delicate gold brushwork are lost when captured by the camera. If you don’t have all day to peruse the Uffizi, spend the majority of your time in the Botticelli wing. You’ll thank me.
I visited the Uffizi and the Academia during the height of summer – and the height of tourist season – so the lines were insanely long. Fortunately, I only had to wait in the line to get into the actual museums, having bought my tickets online beforehand. That cut my wait time down from two hours to about thirty minutes.
It’s not famous like the Duomo or Michelangelo’s David, but Florence’s Mercato Centrale is my top pick for culinary tourism in Florence. If you’re a foodie, it’s non-negotiable. An urban project designed to breathe new life into an old covered market in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, Mercato Centrale opened its doors in early 2014. It’s a perfect fusion of old and new – the 19th-century marketplace reincarnated as a culinary stage with the spotlight on local artisans.
The architecture of the building itself is a reminder that this is not your typical market. Designed by Giuseppe Mengoni and built in 1874, the high glass ceiling and intricate iron details and trellises are breathtaking. It’s hard to imagine doing something as mundane as grocery shopping in such a beautiful space. You can, though. In keeping with its roots, the Mercato houses an Eataly grocery store in addition to over 20 artisan food and drink shops. You can also take a cooking class there if the spirit moves you. Mercato Centrale is a culinary hotspot steeped in history, tradition, and beautiful architecture. If that’s right up your alley, make sure to stop by. They’re open every day from 10 AM to midnight.
Finding someplace good to eat in Florence can be difficult. Most of the restaurants near the touristy areas are either expensive or inauthentic. Or both! It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of restaurants in the city. My recommendation for a fabulous lunch or dinner in Florence? Mercato Centrale. There’s still a lot to choose from, but all of the options are of the highest quality. I wish I’d had time to try more when I was there.
My first impression of Mercato Centrale was that I’d just stepped into the world’s fanciest food court. While the layout is certainly similar, the food is far from the generic fare you’d get at your local shopping mall. I’m only one person, so I can’t personally vouch for every single restaurant – including the grocery store and the bookstore, there are 25 shops in total – but everything I did try was fantastic. After wandering around for a half hour or more, I finally settled on pizza from Sud and a glass of white wine from L’Enoteca. I also nibbled off my friends’ plates, trying some pasta from Il Tartufo (seller of all things truffle based) and the best sausage I’ve ever had from La Carne e I Salumi (they specialize in meat and sausages).
Your Trip to Florence, Italy
Of course, there are plenty of other things to do and see in Florence. The Ponte Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens, one of the many wine tours through the surrounding Tuscan countryside. All great options. My guide here is just a whittled down version of my ideal Florence itinerary. If you’re pressed for time, these are the must-sees. And if there’s anything here that you missed, well, there’s always next time. Florence is the kind of city that you just keep going back to.