Florence is the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region and a cultural hub for Renaissance art and architecture. You will see many references in Florence to the Medici Family, a political dynasty that ruled Florence for 300 years and used their banking fortune to help foster the Italian Renaissance. Florence is also a hub for delicious and simple Tuscan cuisine. Florence is relatively small and easy to travel by foot and/or public transportation. The major airport is in nearby Pisa, and you can then catch a train into Florence. Being just 3 hours from Rome by vehicle, Florence is also a popular stop for an Italy road trip, and while Florence does see crowds in the summer, you won’t have to contend with cruise ship crowds as in other cities. To help you start planning your Tuscan vacation, we’ve got a list of all the fun things to do in Florence.
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Easily the most recognizable feature of Florence is the Duomo, or the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. The Renaissance dome that looms over the Piazza del Duomo was started in 1296, and took 150 years to build,. Along with two other structures in the complex, the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile, the Duomo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest brick dome ever built. Visitors who want to see the dome up close and take in the amazing view of Florence will need to climb 463 steps to the top, but the close-up view of the interior frescoes is well worth the extra effort. Besides, you likely have some pasta and gelato to work off! For a different view of Florence, you can also ascend Giotto’s bell tower, which has just 414 steps to the top! Both of these can be accessed on a combination ticket for the Museum of the Duomo.
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is one of the world’s most prominent art museums. Uffizi means office, and this Renaissance building was originally constructed to hold government offices, not a museum, hence the odd horseshoe shape. However, the collection was opened to the public as a museum in 1769 and today sees an average of 10,000 visitors per day. The halls of the Uffizi are filled with works by masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, Botticelli and more. Many rooms are dedicated to different artistic periods, such as the Middle Age Halls and the Renaissance Halls, with several prominent artists having their own room.
Home to perhaps the most famous sculpture in the world, the Galleria dell’Accademia draws nearly 1.5 million visitors per year, second only to the Uffizi, and they all come to see David. Carved by Michelangelo from 1501 to 1504 from a huge chunk of marble, David stands over 5 meters tall and weighs more than six tons! As the majority of visitors to the Galleria dell’Accademia come to see David, it’s still possible to find a quiet moment in some of the lesser visited sections of the museum where you’ll find other sculptures by Michelangelo, Botticelli and Giambologna. There is also a musical instrument museum, with the original Stradivari violin.
The Pitti Palace is a Renaissance Palace dating back to 1458 before the Medici family purchased it in 1549 to contain their massive collection of paintings, jewelry and other treasures. Today, it is the largest museum complex in Florence, housing several galleries and museums, including the main gallery, the Palatine Gallery. The Palatine Gallery has over 500 Renaissance paintings displayed throughout 28 rooms. Other galleries in Pitti Palace include the Royal Apartments, the Gallery of Modern Art, the Silver Museum, the Porcelain Museum, the Costume Gallery and the Carriages Museum. As you can imagine, you can easily spend the better part of the day exploring the various museums of Pitti Palace, as well as the gardens. Skip the line tickets are worth the extra buck, so you can spend more time wandering around.
The Boboli Gardens extend out of Pitti Palace, and were designed by the Medici family, basically inventing the Italian garden style that would become so popular. The gardens are filled with ancient and Renaissance statues, fountains, grottoes and pavilions throughout 45,000 square meters. Guided and audio tours are available, or you can stroll the gardens on your own schedule, taking time to relax and enjoy the hillside views over Florence.
While Venice has the Rialto bridge, Florence has Ponte Vecchio. This medieval stone arch bridge over the Arno River is the most photographed bridge in Florence. Atop the three arches sit two arcades filled with mostly goldsmith shops. The Vasari Corridor was partly built over the Ponte Vecchio, as it connects Uffizi Gallery to the Pitti Palace. The Corridor was built by the Medici as a quick way to get around town without being in the streets, and today is lined with artwork and provides a quiet respite from the crowds at Uffizi and Pitti.
Across the Ponte Vecchio from the city center of Florence is the district of Oltrarno, which means “beyond the Arno.” Once the working class area of Florence, Oltrarno has undergone it’s own Renaissance and is becoming one of Florence’s up and coming neighborhoods, a hub for artisan workshops and small boutique stores. Since Oltrarno isn’t on the “must-do” Florence itinerary, it’s still possible to escape the tourists and get a more local taste of Florence. Piazzale Michelangelo offers a panoramic view of the city for those willing to make the steep climb up the hill. Oltrarno also has many restaurants, a few hotels and a growing Airbnb offering for tourists wanting to stay out of the fray a bit.
Piazza della Signoria
The original site of the David sculpture, the Piazza della Signoria is the main square in Florence where you’ll now see a replica David as the original was moved to the Uffizi. Piazza della Signoria is also where you’ll find the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall. The square has several statues, and in the center is the Neptune fountain. The square is also the site of the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, where Dominican followers burned anything deemed sinful.
Cooking Classes and Tours
Tuscany rivals and perhaps even eclipses Provence as a foodie destination, with an added boost from movies like “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The Tuscan region produces grapes and olives, which form the basis of Tuscany’s simple cuisine. Legumes, bread, cheese and vegetables are the centerpiece and visitors to Florence and Tuscany have made cooking classes and tours exceedingly popular. While the cuisine has peasant origins, truffles are also a popular ingredient in local dishes. Of course, if this is your only stop in Italy, don’t miss out on the classics, like pizza, pasta and gelato!
The Central Market of Florence could very well be the first stop on your Florence food tour, or a part of your Tuscan cooking class. Here you can buy fresh produce, cheese, meat and seafood to create your own culinary masterpiece, or you can visit the upstairs food court, which features up to a dozen food stalls, shops and a cooking school. With a wine tasting counter and a beer stand, you can easily turn a trip to Mercato Centrale into a night out on the town!
Fiesole is not so much a day trip from Florence, but more of a suburb. Located on a hillside just 8 km from Florence, Fiesole is popular for visitors wanting to see Etruscan and Roman ruins. You can see the remains of Roman baths and visit a Roman amphitheater that still holds summer music festivals. Fiesole offers nice views of Florence, but also a quiet respite from the tourist path. While less visited than other areas of Florence, Fiesole still has several museums, gardens, churches and walking paths, plus a great selection cafes, restaurants and pizzerias to choose from before descending back down to Florence.
Day Trip to Pisa
Most visitors to Florence will at some point visit Pisa, and its famous leaning tower, during their stay. Whether you arrive at the Pisa airport and transfer to Florence, or just make a day trip from Florence, Pisa is a fun place to spend a day. The high-speed train will deliver you to Pisa in under an hour, where you can then walk to the Leaning Tower in about 20 minutes. If you want to climb the tower, it’s recommended to make reservations ahead of time. Pisa has a HopOn-HopOff bus tour, which is a quick way to see the highlights.
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