6 unique experiences to have in Florence that go beyond an Italian guidebook
When you travel to Florence, you don’t want to only swing by the classic sites. You’re a traveler, not a tourist, after all! You’re looking for those activities that are just as amazing (if not moreso) than what’s in every guidebook. Well, traveler, meet your list of things to do in Florence that’ll show you a more unique side of the city without compromising on the history, views, or culture you came to Italy to experience.
A snapshot from the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower captured by staffer Everett.
1. Climb to the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower, instead of the Duomo
(You’ll get the same amazing views, but the Duomo will be in all your photos)
Do you want the best possible view of Florence? Well, staffer Everett (who lived in the Renaissance City for five months in college) is here to share one of her favorite Florence activities. “Both the Duomo and Giotto’s Bell Tower offer 360-degree views from the most central part of Florence, but my pro tip is to climb the Bell Tower instead of the Duomo,” she said.
“While both climbs require you to walk up more than 400 steps, the Bell Tower requires visitors to climb slightly fewer steps,” said Everett. “Also, the tight stairways of the Duomo may be challenging when you get to stair 326 or so. It was built in the Renaissance, so it’s safe to say the comfort isn’t the calling card of the site! The Bell Tower, however, has small windows that allow a bit of airflow so you can catch your breath intermittently as you huff and puff up to the top.”
The biggest reason to climb the Bell Tower instead of the Duomo, according to Everett? “You can get the actual Duomo in your panoramic photos of Florence once you get to the top,” she said. “These are some of the best pictures I took when visiting this city, with the famous Duomo in the foreground and the landscape of Florence’s streets behind it—all from, essentially, a bird’s-eye view. If you have time to climb both, great! But, if you have to pick one, Giotto’s Bell Tower is the go-to if you’re in search of things to do in Florence, Italy, that offer spectacular views.”
Pro tip: “Afterwards, reward yourself with lunch from the famous All’Antico Vinaio sandwich shop,” said Everett. “They serve a traditional Tuscan flatbread called schiacciata. While the line often stretches down the block, it moves fast, and getting a sandwich to-go is a must-do when you visit Florence!”
2. Sip a glass of Brunello di Montalcino, as opposed to Chianti Classico
(It’s made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, instead of a blend like Chianti, meaning it has a smoother, more buttery taste)
If you’ve heard the words “wine” and “Tuscany” uttered in a conversation, it’s likely that the phrase “Chianti Classico” has followed shortly after. You can always spot this famous wine because of the black rooster stamp prominently featured on the seal. And yes, this robust red wine, made from at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, is a staple in the region, so you should definitely try some while visiting Tuscany. But, if you’re looking for things to do in Florence to experience Italy like a local, order a glass of Brunello di Montalcino when you’re out for dinner, or lunch… we don’t judge.
Like Chianto Classico, Brunello di Montalcino is also a DOCG wine. This is the highest quality classification in Italian wine and means the vino meets the country’s strict production standards. But unlike Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes. This means it has an even richer, smoother feel on your palate, but stands up to the hearty, wood-fired meats found in Tuscan cuisine.
“While I hate to admit it, I don’t love Chianti Classico,” said staffer Emily. “I was hesitant to try Brunello di Montalcino because I always thought the reason the flavor of Chianti Classico never clicked with my taste buds was because of the Sangiovese grapes, but I was so wrong. After trying Brunello di Montalcino while on tour in Florence, it quickly earned a top-tier spot on my list of favorite wines. It has the smoothness of a Pinot Noir, but the big bold flavors you expect of Italian red wines.”
Pro tip: When you visit Florence, pick up a bottle of the Brunello di Montalcino produced by Banfi if you’re out at a wine store. It’ll run you about $30 (but goes for upwards of $70 is the states!) and is worth every single penny. If you have free time in Florence, add the San Gimignano: Medieval Sights & Tuscan Flavors excursion. During this trip to the Tuscan countryside, you’ll sit down at Tenuta Torciano winery. They’re one of the top wineries to visit in Italy and they’ll pour you a hefty glass of their buttery, smooth Brunello di Montalcino. They don’t sell their wines to stores or restaurants, so this is your one chance to try it!
3. Skip sitting at a restaurant and head to a buchette del vino
(These historic wine windows let you indulge in Italy’s wine culture in the most historic and traditional way)
Mealtime in Italy is a cultural institution in and of itself. Your waiter leaves you to linger as long as you’d like. There is no “right” option when it comes to ordering since everything is made with fresh, local ingredients. And the answer to, “Should we have some wine with this?” is always, “Yes.” Well, if you’re looking for unique things to do in Florence, ditch the dinner table and take a stroll down the ancient streets to a buchette del vino, or wine window.
What’s a wine window, you ask? To answer that we have to take it back to the 1600s. This was when the Black Plague was running rampant through Europe. In order to minimize human contact and safely sell wine to Florentines, shopkeepers installed small arched “windows” into the facades of their buildings. They would then pass wine through the opening in the window where a pane of glass would normally be.
Flash forward to 2015 when local residents began a movement to restore and reopen the historic wine windows. There are more than 100 of them in Florence’s historical center alone! Today, one of the fun things to do in Florence is to visit some of the fully operational wine windows all across the city. One of our favorites is located at a restaurant called Babae, which is just outside of Piazza Santo Spirito. You can stop by to be served an aperitivo through their buchette del vino and then pop in to enjoy an early evening bite to eat.
Pro tip: Want the wine window experience, but not really in the mood for a glass of vino? Head to Vivoli Gelateria. They’ll serve you gelato through their more than 600-year-old wine window! Taking part in a unique cultural experience when you visit Florence and enjoying a sweet treat from a gelateria recommended by a Tour Director? Sign us up.
4. Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo, rather than near the Ponte Vecchio
(This hilltop piazza delivers panoramic views you can’t get anywhere else in the city)
Of all the things to do in Florence, you can’t leave the city without watching the sun set over the city. The way the orange glow of the sun illuminates the Renaissance-era monuments is stunning. Most people may head toward the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge since it’s located right on the water. While the Ponte Vecchio is one of the best places to visit in Florence, it’s not our first pick for where to watch the sunset. Piazzale Michelangelo is the place to be when the sun dips below the horizon.
This large square sits high above the city, making the vantage point perfect for watching the sky shift from blue to yellow to orange. One of the best Florence activities is to come here about an hour before sunset to soak in that golden hour glow and listen to the acoustic guitarists play music while enjoying a bottle of wine. There’s a large set of stairs that overlook the city where locals and travelers alike gather. Plus, you’re only a ten-to-twenty-minute walk from most of the top restaurants in the Oltrarno neighborhood. That means you can dip into a trattoria for a hearty dinner after it gets dark.
Pro tip: While the views are more than worth the trek to get to Piazzale Michelangelo, the pathway is uphill and strenuous. Luckily, this overlook is easily accessible by car so you can opt to take a taxi if you want the views without the exercise.
5. Opt to pass by the San Lorenzo leather market in favor of shopping near Santa Croce
(You’ll find more high quality leather goods in a shopping environment with salespeople who really know their trade)
Don’t get us wrong, visiting the leather market is certainly one of the top things to do in Florence, Italy! You should take a stroll through the stalls lining the streets in the San Lorenzo neighborhood, where fast-talking shopkeepers will try to sway you to buy a bag, scarf, jacket, and more from their stand. But, if you’re looking for a shopping experience that relies less on your bargaining skills and more on sifting through racks and shelves featuring high-quality leather goods, head to the Santa Croce neighborhood.
Historically, this part of the city was the center of leather production, and it shows. It’s here where you can sense how high-quality the leather jackets and bags are just by passing the dazzling window displays. We recommend visiting Leonardo’s on Brogo dei Greci. Not only does their showroom have real leather and gold products as far as the eye can see, but you can sit down for a short presentation to learn how they make their products. This is one of the fun things to do in Florence since you’ll get a lil’ history lesson and some insider knowledge (for free!) before buying your dream leather souvenir.
Pro tip: Don’t be swayed by vendors showing you how great their leather smells or how it doesn’t burn when they wave a lighter underneath it. The only way to tell if something is made from real leather is to look for a tag that says Vera Pelle. This means the product is made from genuine leather.
6. Trade (happily) getting lost in the city center for exploring the Oltrarno neighborhood
(It’s where the locals go and where you’ll find more authentic shops and restaurants)
One of the many, many beautiful aspects of Florence is that you can walk just about anywhere in 20 minutes. That means you can pop between seeing famous pieces of Renaissance art and parking yourself in a piazza to people watch, all with plenty of time to spare. In fact, one of the fun things to do in Florence is to just wander around the historic center. There’s always a shop, trattoria, or church right around the corner so you’ll never be at a loss for places to explore. But, once you’ve seen the sites on this side of the Arno, take a walk across the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno neighborhood.
Translating to mean “across the Arno,” Oltrarno was once a working-class neighborhood home to skilled artisans. While it’s now the place locals and visitors come when they’re looking for a trendier, less touristy feel, the neighborhoods’ artistic roots are still strong. One of the things to do in Florence, Italy, is hunt for the workshops where the artisans make their traditional goods.
Our recommendations? Head to Il Torchio di Erin Ciulla to see a bookbinder in action. Pop into La Casa Della Stampa Di Sarubbi Lorenzo to leaf through hundreds of unique maps of the city. Say hello to the artists working at L’Ippogrifo Stampe D’Arte and pick up a hand-painted piece of art for your home. This neighborhood is also filled with more traditional, brick-and-mortar shops if that’s more your speed.
Pro tip: This neighborhood doesn’t lack historic sites, either. Oltrarno is where the Medici, the family of bankers who came to power in the 15th century and influenced the politics of the era, lived. Pay a visit to their main home, Pitti Palace, if sprawling gardens and opulent interior design are your Achilles heel.