It’s no secret that Italy is one of my favorite countries to travel in — during my long trip abroad, I spent two weeks there, the longest of every other country I visited in Europe. And in March 2019, I returned to one of my all-time favorite cities, Florence, to celebrate my mom’s 50th birthday.
Italy is the type of country that’ll instantly put you in Vacation Mode. The food, the wine, and the beautifully preserved cities that take you back in time — everything about it demands you sit back, relax and say “yes” to that third glass of wine.
My days in Italy are usually shaped around eating and drinking (at all hours of the day), with plenty of sightseeing in between. Florence is one of the best cities to enjoy that sweet Italian lifestyle, especially since most of the activities and sites are within walking distance of one another.
Below are my top 10 recommendations of things you can’t miss in Florence.
1. Marvel at Florence’s beautiful cathedral
Florence’s most prominent landmark is its cathedral, known as the Santa Maria del Fiore or the Florence Duomo. It’s the third largest church in the world and one of the most beautiful works of architecture I’ve ever come across.
As expected, the plaza surrounding the cathedral is one of the most touristy parts of the city and can get very crowded. But if you arrive early in the morning and grab a seat at a nearby cafe, you can marvel at the cathedral’s magnificent facade with little to no tourists around.
Trust me, the extra-early wake-up call will be worth it for a few quiet moments with this grandeur.
2. And then climb it
Climbing the Duomo is a great way to see the cathedral from the inside while also getting a spectacular view of Florence from above.
Getting to the top of the cathedral’s dome requires going up 463 stairs, mostly in tight, winding staircases — if you struggle from claustrophobia, you may want to opt out of this one.
You have to reserve a specific time slot ahead of time; tickets can be purchased here for 18 euros, which also includes access to the cathedral itself, the baptistry, bell tower (another climb), crypt, and a museum that shows how the cathedral was built.
With this combination ticket, you can visit all the monuments within 72 hours of visiting the first one.
3. Ponte Vecchio
The Arno River cuts Florence in half, with several bridges stretching between the two regions. The most famous of those bridges is the Ponte Vecchio, or “Old Bridge,” which up until 1218 was the only connection between the two sides. It’s also the only bridge that remained standing after World War II.
Local shops have lined the bridge for centuries, giving it that Lego-like, colorful facade. Now, expensive goldsmiths and jewelers call the bridge home.
Walk across, and make sure to appreciate the bridge from afar, too, at all times of day. It’s a beaut during sunset.
4. Sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo
Do not — I repeat, Do Not! — miss a sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The plaza is located on a hill in the Oltrarno district, across the river from where the Duomo is located, and offers a panoramic view of Florence. The sunset from up here is infinitely better than watching it from anywhere else, but the spot does get packed!
Arrive early and bring snacks and a bottle of wine or two. Grab a spot on the steps, enjoy the view and make friends with your neighbors.
I’ll never forget my first aperitivo. I showed up to a bar at around 7 p.m. and ordered a drink, and was told that I could help myself to the buffet of salad, olives, bread, and pasta laying on the bar top.
At the time I was backpacking around Europe on a budget, so the idea that I could get a full meal and a glass of wine at a super hip bar for around 6 euros blew my mind. Of course, that’s not the point of aperitivo — it’s a social tradition that involves a light drink like an Aperol Spritz and a few snacks to open up your appetite before dinner.
Backpacker budget aside, I have since enjoyed a proper aperitivo. It’s a great way to wind down after a busy day of sightseeing, and it’s offered at bars all over the city. Drink and food deals vary from one spot to the next; here’s a good list to get you started.
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6. Eat Gelato at La Carraia
A visit to Italy is not complete with several scoops of gelato, preferably on a daily basis. My top spot in Florence is the Gelateria La Carraia, located across the river in the less touristy neighborhood of Santa Trinita.
It’s considered one of the best ice cream parlors in the city, meaning there will most certainly be a line. But it moves quickly, and the gelato is always fresh.
Make sure to stop by before your last day in the city — because you’ll most likely want to come back a second (or third) time.
7. Hang out in the Oltrarno
Across the river from Florence’s historic district, a few blocks away from most of the tourist sites, you’ll find the Oltrarno district, a more local neighborhood with tons of bars and restaurants worth trying.
This side of the river is much calmer; most of the streets are lined with small businesses and artisanal shops, and at night, the bars and restaurants spill onto the sidewalks.
Here’s a local tip: Head to the Piazza Santo Spirito for an aperitivo, or grab a pizza to-go at Gusta Pizza and enjoy it with a bottle of wine on the steps of the Basilica di Santo Spirito.
8. See David
You can’t leave Florence without seeing David, the sculpted masterpiece by famed Italian artist Michelangelo.
David is an icon in both the art and travel worlds, and a legendary piece of work in Italy. The 14-foot statue was carved from one single giant block of marble over three years by one of the greatest artists of our time.
The original statue can be found inside an art museum called the Galleria dell’Accademia. But if you don’t make inside the museum, there’s also a pretty legitimate replica of the statue in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria.
9. Eat the Famous Florentine steak
Tuscan cuisine is simple, seasonal and undeniably homey — and there’s one dish that’s particular famous in Florence. That’s the Florentine T-bone steak, also known as the Bistecca Fiorentina, which at about 3 to 4 pounds is so thick it must be cooked on both its back and front sides.
It’s a meal that can easily be split between two people, but being in Florence is reason alone to treat yourself to a feast. You can find the steak almost everywhere, but I’d ask a local for their favorite spots before you go. We had it at the Trattoria La Casalinga, and it was good! But I suspect there are better options out there.
10. Free walking tour
The first time I visited Florence I went on a 2- to 3-hour walking tour, and it really helped put the city layout into perspective.
Florence is a highly walkable city and having a guide show you around the main tourist spots on your first couple of days can really boost your directional knowledge of the place.
Also, Florence is a hotbed of history! The good thing about these tours is that the guide will share a lot about the town’s past, including entertaining stories about all the iconic artists that called the city home. You’ll also learn about the infamous noble Medici family, which essentially controlled the city for three centuries.
And there you have it: The top 10 things to do in Florence, Italy. Have something to add? Comment below!
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