With its variety of museums and historic sights, charming streets, and delicious restaurants, Florence is a city in which you could easily spend days. So, on your first trip to Florence, be prepared that you will not see everything. Simply soak in as much of this magnificent city as you can and know that you can always come back! In this post, I'll share our itinerary, some delicious places to eat, as well as some of the lessons we learned from misadventures on our first trip to Florence.
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A Little Bit about Florence
Call Me by My Name - Firenze
First of all, if you're in Italy and looking for "Florence" on a map, you're not going to find it. In Italian, Firenze (pronounced fi-ren-say) is the name of this beautiful city and the capital of the Tuscany region of Italy. Very important to know when looking at train schedules.
As a center of medieval European trade and finance, Florence was one of the wealthiest cities of the time. As you wander through the streets and visit the many palaces, you'll certainly see evidence of this wealth. During its history, it was once ruled by the powerful Medici family under the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. From 1865-1870, Florence served as the capital of Italy.
Today, Florence is the capital of the Tuscany region. Often considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, it is home to many Renaissance masterpieces. In 1982, UNESCO declared the historic center of Florence as a World Heritage Site.
Getting to Florence
As the capital and largest city in Tuscany, you can reach Florence easily by various modes of transportation.
Flying to Florence
The Florence Airport (FLR) is a small international airport with flights to/from other destinations in Europe. Only ~5 km from the city center, it's a quick ride on the tramway to reach Florence from the airport.
If you're looking for more flight options, Pisa's airport is the next closest and regional trains run frequently between the two cities. Or, you could fly into Rome and take a fast train to Florence.
Train to Florence
Perhaps the easiest way to reach Florence is by train. Florence's Santa Maria Novella station (Firenze SMN) serves as a major connection hub in Central Italy. As a result, you can find many direct, fast trains from other major cities in Italy.
Booking Train Tickets: On Rail Europe, I found it easy to check out train schedules, pre-book tickets, and choose seats for our train travel around Italy.
Driving to Florence
If you're on a road trip through Italy and would like to drive to Florence, it's easy enough to get to the city. However, be aware that the city center is mostly off-limits to non-residential traffic.
If you're using Florence as a base to explore Tuscany, I'd recommend taking a train to Florence, then renting a car to drive to the hill towns. It's easy to pick up the car at the airport. If you pick it up in the city center, be aware that those offices have limited hours on certain days.
Day-by-Day Florence Itinerary
In this article, I'll share our day-by-day itinerary in Florence, including the sites for which we bought tickets in advance, restaurants we enjoyed, plus some lessons we learned.
Our schedule wasn't the most rigorous and we didn't see all the top things to see. But we got a small taste of this beautiful city and whet our appetite to return one day.
Arriving in Florence
Our Florence adventure began when we arrived on the train from Pisa in the late afternoon. The regional train from Pisa to Florence was honestly the worst train experience we had in Italy. The air-conditioning didn't seem to be working. So, on that hot - 100°F+ (37°C+) - afternoon, wearing a N-95 mask, it was sweltering. It was almost a relief to get back outside.
No Taxis Available
After that train experience, we were hot and exhausted, ready to catch a taxi to our accommodations across the Arno River. What we didn't realize for several minutes as we waited at the taxi queue was that we arrived during a taxi strike. Eventually, a private car driver came over to tell us that tidbit. Then, he offered to drive us to our apartment for an outrageous price. We declined.
Lesson Learned about Buses in Florence
Next, we tried to take a bus. However, the big lesson we learned from this is that you need to buy bus tickets before you queue for the bus at a official retailer or tobacco shop. After missing the bus because we didn't have a ticket, frustration set in.
When All Else Fails... Walk
We decided that our own two feet would serve as a better mode of transportation. So we hiked the ~1-mile (1.5 km) across central Florence dragging our luggage across the cobblestone streets until we reached our VRBO apartment. It was still around 100°F so we were a sweaty mess, but we eventually made it.
Our Beautiful Accommodations in Florence
After a full day of travel (from Cinque Terre to a stopover in Pisa then a walk across Florence), we were pretty much dead on our feet when we arrived at our accommodations. But when the universe throws a bunch of crap at you, usually there's a reward at the end. And our Florence apartment that we booked on VRBO was that reward.
Overlooking the Arno River with stunning views of the Ponte Vecchio, the one-bedroom apartment was bright and spacious. The bed was comfortable, the air-conditioning worked very well, and it even had a washing machine.
The host's mother - an adorable Italian grandmother - lived in the flat next door and welcomed us as though we were family. She continued to look after us our entire stay.
After meeting our lovely host, we showered, napped in our wonderfully airconditioned apartment, and had coffee - all of which was entirely necessary.
Aperitivo at La Cité
Once we felt a bit rejuvenated, we set out to explore Florence - starting with an aperitivo. We didn't plan anywhere in particular, but found a lovely little bar as we strolled along called La Cité. The negroni that I ordered was delicious and we enjoyed sitting by the window and watching Florence life pass us by.
Dinner at I Brindellone
Next, we headed out to find dinner. Unfortunately, we hadn't made reservations anywhere - a common theme to our trip. In most places, it wasn't a big problem. In Florence, however, we were there over a weekend, so it was more difficult to walk in without a reservation. As a result, we ended up starting our dinners quite late - around 9:30-10 pm.
Being in Florence, we were eager to try the 'bistecca alla fiorentina' or Florentine steak. Our meal at I Brindellone was delicious and the liter of chianti helped wash it down nicely. The only thing I'd note is that our steak was cooked more medium than medium rare as I'd expected. If you like your meat more well-done (which I don't) than this might be a good place for you. Most other places seemed to undercook versus overcook.
Night Life at Lovecraft
After dinner we attempted to re-live our younger days with a night cap at a bar that we passed on the way back to our apartment. We reveled in the fact that bars were open past midnight. In Hong Kong, we were still dealing with COVID restrictions and bars were closed at midnight. The cocktails were tasty and we had a great time.
The next morning, however, we were reminded that we are getting old and can no longer function after a night like that.
Day 1 Florence Itinerary
Morning Walk through Central Florence
As the foreshadowing above suggested, the morning of our first full day in Florence was a slow one. We slept in and took our time having breakfast at a local café near our apartment.
Then, we meandered across the Arno River on the Ponte Vecchio to check out the Palazzo Vecchio. The whole historic center of the city was teeming with tourists and my tired, slightly hungover self felt overwhelmed.
For some reason, the number of tourists in Florence struck me harder than anywhere else we visited in Italy that summer, including Venice!
So, after a short walk, I decided it was time for pasta. You can never go wrong with that choice, right?
Lunch at Osteria Vecchio Vicolo
We stopped at Osteria Vecchio Vicolo which is tucked away in an alley near the Palazzo Vecchio. There, we enjoyed a delicious, brightly-colored burrata and tomato salad and a couple of pastas.
Touring the Galleria degli Uffizi
One reason we had to eat lunch a bit earlier that day is because we had pre-purchased our tickets for the Galleria degli Uffizi online. Given the long lines outside the museum, I highly recommend this option to anyone who has a strong desire to visit this museum while in Florence.
The Uffizi Gallery is housed in the U-shaped Palazzo degli Uffizi and is well-known for its vast collection of Italian Renaissance art. You'll also find various ancient Greek sculptures, works by Botticelli, beautiful ceiling frescoes, as well as lovely views of the Arno River from the windows.
Honestly, I'm not an art connoisseur or a museum person. Since it was our first visit to Florence, however, and this gallery was highly-rated, we decided to go. It was interesting, but I also could have skipped it and not feel like I missed out. For art lovers, I'm sure it could be the highlight of a trip to Florence.
Aperitivo at Moyo
After a couple hours touring the Galleria degli Uffizi, we returned to our apartment to change for the evening. It was another hot evening so we grabbed a refreshing Aperol Spritz at Moyo to help us cool down.
What We Missed - Sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo
One of the things I'm sad that we missed on our visit to Florence was walking up to the Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sunset. It's supposedly one of the best places in Florence to watch the sunset and you have magnificent views of the Duomo.
Dinner at Ristorante del Fagioli
Our second attempt trying Florentine steak was a great success. We had to wait a bit but we managed to get in at Ristorante del Fagioli. The pastas were delicious and the steak was cooked a bloody medium rare - just as we like it. It practically melted in our mouths. (Sorry to any vegetarians reading this.) The beans that we ordered as a side dish complimented the steak perfectly.
Pro Tip: If you plan to visit Ristorante del Fagioli, be aware that it is CASH ONLY. Although we knew this when we sat down, we didn't know exactly how much our steak would cost since they charge by the weight. We got nervous after ordering so Jeremy ran to the ATM mid-meal while I sat awkwardly by myself for ~15 minutes. It was a good thing too, because we would have been short by 2€!
Night Time along the River Arno
One of my favorite Florence views was walking along the Arno River at night. The way the city lights twinkled on the river was magical and the reflection made it twice as beautiful.
Day 2 Florence Itinerary
On our second full day in Florence, we had a lot of ground to cover since we'd been too tired on the first day to do much. We squeezed in as much as possible, but if we'd pre-purchased more of our tickets, we might not have missed out on a few things.
Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - Duomo di Firenze
Our first stop of the morning was the lovely Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower). Mostly, you'll just hear it called the Duomo (cathedral).
Designed by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio, construction on this gorgeous cathedral began in 1296 and lasted for around 150 years. The multi-colored marble façade is breathtaking and the red cupola is an iconic sight in Florence.
Buying Tickets for the Duomo
Although the cathedral itself is free to enter, if you'd like to visit any of the other monuments at the Piazza del Duomo, such as the bell tower, dome, or baptistery - you'll need to purchase a ticket. You can either pre-purchase tickets online before your visit or buy them once you arrive at the ticket office.
Several ticket options are available - Brunelleschi Pass, Giotto Pass, Ghiberti Pass - which include a combination of various monuments. We bought the Giotto Pass (20€ pp), which included Giotto's Bell Tower, the Baptistery, the museum, and the archaeological ruins.
Pro Tip: Purchasing a ticket also helps you to skip the long line around the cathedral of people waiting to go inside. Once you purchase a ticket, use the entrance for the archaeological ruins on the south side of the cathedral, across from the ticket office. This line is usually much shorter and leads straight into the cathedral.
Unfortunately, we did not purchase our tickets ahead of time. As a result, the Brunelleschi Pass, which also includes access to the upper cupola, was already sold out when we arrived.
Baptistery of San Giovanni
Our first stop on our Duomo tour was the Battistero di San Giovanni, or Baptistery of Saint Giovanni. Built in the 11th century, this octagonal structure is made with striped white and green marble and is still used today for baptisms.
The Byzantine-style mosaics on the in the baptistery's dome are truly captivating. Depicting scenes from the lives of St. John the Baptist, Christ, and Joseph and a representation of the Last Judgement.
Entering the cathedral, I was a bit surprised at how plain the interior was compared to the lavish façade. I expected something along the lines of Siena's Cathedral, but in comparison, the Florence Cathedral is quite spartan.
The highlights for me were the strange 24-hr clock above the main entrance to the duomo and the beautiful frescoes in the cupola. The duomo clock is an unconventional clock which turns anticlockwise and begins the first hour of the day at sunset, rather than at midnight.
Santa Reparata Archaeological Ruins
Underneath the cathedral in the crypt, you can explore the excavated ruins of the 5th-century church - Chiesa di Santa Reparata - which originally stood on this site. The old mosaic floors are particularly impressive given how old they are.
Giotto's Bell Tower
Climbing the beautiful campanile (bell tower) next to the duomo is a great way to soak in views of the city and the impressive cupola. The tower is 85-m (279 ft) tall and is a steep 414-step climb.
Luckily, there are several floors where you can stop and rest along the way with windows that let the breezes into the tower. We took a break for lunch before our climb so we had enough energy to reach the top!
Brunelleschi's Dome - What We Missed
Since tickets were sold out, we missed climbing the magnificent cupola. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and constructed between 1420-1436, this architectural masterpiece is an iconic sight in Florence.
If you get the chance to climb the cupola's 463 steep, stone steps up a spiral staircase, you'll have a magnificent view of cathedral's interior below and an up-close view of the 16th-century frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari.
Gourmet Sandwiches at All'antico Vinaio
You know those places where you walk up and there's a line, so you know it's good? Well, All'antico Vinaio is one of those places. We waited a half hour for our sandwiches but they were very tasty. Given how large they were, we probably could have split one though.
Gelato at My Sugar
After climbing Giotto's Bell Tower, we needed a refreshing gelato to cool us down. I'd highly recommend My Sugar - one of the best gelatos I had in Italy. The fruity flavors of the lemon and strawberry burst onto my tongue and were perfect for a hot summer day.
Statue of David at Galleria dell'Accademia
No trip to Florence is complete without a trip to see Michelangelo's famous statue - David at the Galleria dell'Accademia. Because of its popularity, this is another sight for which we pre-purchased tickets online (16€ pp). Highly recommend this option!
Honestly, I expected to be underwhelmed by the statue of David, but this is one that lived up to the hype for me. To start, the sculpture was so much larger than I thought it was. Carved from a single block of marble, the definition in David's muscles and facial expression is incredible. Photos do not do it justice so this is a sight not to be missed.
The other sculptures and paintings in the museum are also worth a look and do not take much time to see. If I could do it again, I'd probably just visit the Galleria dell'Accademia and skip the Galleria degli Uffizi. But then, I'm not a museum person.
Aperitivo at Gran Caffè San Marco
After touring the Galleria dell'Accademia, we stopped for a refreshing Aperol Spritz in a misty outdoor patio overlooking the Piazza San Marco.
Touring Palazzo Vecchio
Walking back towards our apartment, we still had a bit of time left in the day, so we stopped at the Palazzo Vecchio. Although we did not have enough time to climb the 94m-high Arnolfo Tower, which I regret, we were able to tour the palace.
The frescoes lining the rooms, which depict battle scenes and Florentine victories, were quite impressive and worth the stop.
Dinner at Trattoria Camillo
After a long and busy day, we ended with dinner at Trattoria Camillo. The staff at this restaurant were so welcoming and friendly - it was the perfect end to the night.
Departing Florence - Our Rental Car Experience
At this point in our trip, our twosome became a foursome as my parents met up with in Florence. They joined us for the middle week of our 3-week long Italy trip.
Our plan was to rent a car in downtown Florence on Sunday morning and drive down further south in Tuscany to visit hill towns, and stay the night in Siena. However, that plan went awry when their train from Milan to Florence was delayed by ~2 hours. Of course, that's the only time on the trip that a train was that late!
Since it was Sunday, the car rental place in downtown Florence closed at midday. And because my dad had booked the car, it was in his name so he had to be there when we picked it up. As a result, we had to pick up the car at the Florence Airport instead.
It turned out to be quite easy to take the tramway from Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence out to the Florence Airport. And driving out of that car rental lot was much easier than it would have been to get out of Florence (as we learned when we returned the car). So, perhaps things worked out for the best.
Where to Stay in Florence
Florence is a relatively small city and is very walkable. So, finding a place to stay that is convenient to the sights and wonderful restaurants is fairly easy. In addition to the many hotels in the historic center (see map below), I'd highly recommend expanding your search to VRBO for apartments.
On VRBO, I found several charming apartments in the heart of Florence that were more reasonably priced than the surrounding hotels. I can't say enough good things about the one-bedroom apartment where we stayed - just across the Ponte Vecchio.
Map of Florence Accommodations
Use the map below to start your search for the perfect accommodations. Filter by your individual preferences and input your travel dates to see what places are available and what their nightly rates are.
How I find great accommodations: To find the best deals, I generally look on several hotel websites (usually Agoda.com and Booking.com for Europe). As a frequent customer, sometimes I find flash deals or special discounts that can save me a nice chunk of money. Then, I also check on VRBO and Airbnb to see if I can find a cute apartment that might work better than a hotel.
Our first trip to Florence was a great mix of exquisite meals and taking in the cultural and historic sights. With so much to do in the city, I think it's impossible to see everything on your first time. Hopefully, seeing our itinerary has given you some ideas and will inspire you as you plan your trip to Florence.
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