Dreaming of crossing Florence, Italy, off your bucket list? We don’t blame you! The Tuscan capital is magical, and Go Ahead staffer Julia was lucky enough to call the city home for four gelato-filled months during college. Read on to see some of Julia’s expert tips for visiting Florence on tour.
If you’re looking for an escape unlike any other, Florence, Italy, is the destination for you. This place quickly became my home in college, and one of the best parts about this city is the size! It’s extremely walkable, and on an average day, I could enjoy a coffee (or a cup of gelato) at a local cafe in between classes. Overall, the best part about living in Florence was immersing myself in the Italian culture and feeling like a local myself.
From the intimate cobblestone streets to the grand piazzas, there is truly something to marvel at around every corner—the city is filled with hidden gems. Whether you’re an art fanatic, a history buff, or an active wanderer, here are some of the top things to do in Florence.
I spent one of my first days in Florence window shopping at the many jewelry shops lining the iconic Ponte Vecchio.
1. View the incredible architecture of Florence’s many churches
Italy’s history has deep roots in the Roman Catholic religion, and like many Italian cities, Florence’s main attractions are its immaculate churches. The heart of Florence contains the iconic Renaissance cathedral Duomo (dome) designed in the 15th century by Filippo Brunelleschi. It sits amongst two other structures; the Bell Tower and the Baptistry, and this magnificent trio never cease to amaze. Arguably the most iconic sight in the whole city, the Duomo can be seen from nearly anywhere. If you ever get lost, try to get to some higher ground and look for the amber-colored dome in the sky to get you back to base!
If you are up for a bit of a hike, make your way to the top of the city’s south end. There you’ll find the Church of San Miniato al Monte. This marvelous structure is one of the oldest churches in Florence, built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Once you’ve climbed the many steps to this church front, you’ll have reached one of the highest points in the city. From here you can see the buzzing city below including remnants of the ancient wall that surrounded Florence in medieval times.
The view of the timeless Duomo from the top of its neighboring Bell Tower.
2. Explore the street markets for handcrafted leather goods
If you’re looking for things to do during free time in Florence, market-hopping is one of the best. Nearly every day, you’ll spot pop-up street markets selling some of the highest-quality goods in Italy. Everywhere you turn in any of the major piazzas (squares), you will find hand-painted street art, elegant scarves, and quality leather goods.
One of my personal favorite markets is the leather pop-up shop set up on Via Calimala (“via” translates to “street”). I never unearthed the technical name for the market, but I like to call it “Leather Land” because you can actually get lost amongst the aisles and aisles of leather shops. If you like to find a good bargain on high-quality leather products, this street market is the place for you!
The steps of Piazzale Michelangelo are the perfect place for a drink with friends while watching the sun set on the city below.
3. Head up to Piazzale Michelangelo and enjoy the views
If you’re into sunsets as much as I am, then you’ll enjoy sitting on the steps of Piazzale Michelangelo to finish off your night. This square is named after Italian Renaissance artist, Michelangelo, and features a replica of one of his most famous sculptures: the David*. (P.S. the real *David sculpture is located in the Accademia Gallery, also located in Florence!) It’s quite a hike to get to Piazzale Michelangelo, so if simply thinking of walking up all those steps leaves you breathless, not to worry—you can take a taxi! This hilltop square is worth visiting no matter how you get there.
Locals and tourists alike come here to watch the sky turn orange and pink, and you get a direct view of the Ponte Vecchio. If you haven’t heard of the Ponte Vecchio, it’s the iconic bridge crossing the Arno River, and it features many high-end jewelry shops (another historical landmark that Florence is famous for). It’s BYOB at this square, so don’t forget your beverages and glasses!
Another day in Florence, another garden view.
4. Cross the Arno River and explore the less-touristy side of the city
Although the north end of the city contains so much to see, once you cross the river into the more residential territory of the Oltrarno neighborhood, there are many hidden gems to be found. One square you’ll find here is Piazza Santo Spirito. On certain days of the week, another pop-up market runs here featuring jewelry, clothing, and even local candy vendors. (Ask a local or restaurant owner in the area what days of the week they fall on.)
If you continue, you’ll also stumble upon several gardens such as the Bardini Gardens or the Boboli Gardens. Like most cities, Florence lacks greenery and wide-open spaces, but once you enter either of these massive gardens, you’ll forget you’re in a city completely. Filled with flowers, tall hedges, giant fountains, and stone sculptures, you will truly feel like you’ve been teleported to a magical land, away from all the hustle and bustle of the city.
Get lost in the secret garden of Florence’s Bardini Gardens.
5. Visit one of the many art museums
For a less adventurous journey and a more mild physical experience, take it slow along the hallways of one of Florence’s many art museums. One can’t-miss spot is the Uffizi Gallery, located adjacent to Piazza della Signoria. This museum features several floors of paintings and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the modern period. It includes the famous painting, The Birth of Venus, from Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. You can spend hours roaming the long halls, viewing all different styles of art while peaking out the windows at the locals below.
Prosciutto, tomato, mozzarella—how about all three? You can’t miss out on an authentic All’antico Vinaio panini.
6. Eat paninis, pizza, gelato... then eat some more!
In case you haven’t heard, Italy has arguably the best food in the world. Made with the freshest ingredients and cooked to perfection, you can find a fantastic meal anywhere you go. One recommendation I have for you is an authentic sandwich shop located on Via de Neri called All’antico Vinaio: a street food lovers paradise. For the affordable price of between five to 10 euros, you can enjoy fresh-cut bread loaded with your choice of thinly sliced meat, cheese, and veggies, made in minutes! Although I have to warn you, the lines can get long here during lunchtime so plan accordingly. They do however have a storefront on either side of the street, so you can choose whichever line is shorter.
Another go-to place to eat is Gusta Pizza located near Piazza Santo Spirito across the Arno. You can’t go to Florence without tasting the simple yet staple food of Italian cuisine—pizza. The ones served at Gusta Pizza are made to order and you can even make a special request to have them bake your pizza in the shape of a heart. Now if that doesn’t just make your day, I don’t know what does!
Of course, you can’t visit Florence without tasting some gelato. The city has some of the best gelato shops in all of Italy, and I loved how inexpensive and fresh it is. In most places, you only need about two euros for a small cup or cone. They have almost any flavor you can imagine and if you can’t find one you like, walk a few hundred feet to another one and see what they have to offer! You simply can’t beat a cold, creamy cup of Italy’s simple yet decadent dessert.
A bittersweet memory from my last night in Florence. Couldn’t leave the city without one last cone of gelato!
7. End your day with an extra-long dinner
Florence is one of the most lively places when it comes to nighttime activities—the city’s arguably more alive at night than it is during the day! If you’re a night owl (like me) you’ll enjoy later dinners at local restaurants where you never feel rushed to leave. Locals usually start dinner after 8pm, but there’s never any pressure to clear the table—even on a busy night at a popular place. Florentines take their time and want you to enjoy yourself, so you might as well order several courses and keep the wine flowing.
Spending some family time at a local restaurant where the courses (and wine) kept coming.
I could go on forever about all of the unforgettable places to see and things to do in Florence, but this should give you a good place to start. If you’re interested in a more immersive experience, check out our Florence: The City Experience tour, which gives you seven whole days to explore Florence with the option to extend your trip to Venice. You can also experience more of the Tuscan region on our Florence, Tuscany & the Italian Riviera tour to see more of northwestern Italy.
View of Palazzo Vecchio, which is located in Piazza della Signoria. A mini-outdoor museum of sculptures by many famous Italian artists lives in this square, too.