We’re often asked how to make the most of a brief opportunity to see Europe’s cities. This month, Rick provides a detailed answer for one of the best: Florence. (If you have suggestions of your favorite restaurants, hotels, museums or other activities in Florence feel free to add a comment at the bottom of this article.)
The museum lover and art history buff will have their own list of what to visit in Florence. But for those who want a brief overview of the city and its art treasures, this short guide will help.
3 p.m. – Check into your hotel and run
We assume you’ve done your research in advance and have booked your hotel so all you have to do is check in, drop your bags and maybe grab a quick shower to get the road dust off before you head out on the town. Grab your map and guidebook before you leave and put on your walking shoes.
Note: of course you’ll have your small tourist map of Florence with you all the time. If your hotel desk can’t supply you with one, the Official Tourist Information Office can give you one.
Ufficio Informazioni Turistiche
Via Cavour 1 rosso – 50129 Firenze
Tel. 055 2760382 – Fax 055 2760383
4 p.m. – Walk across the heart of Roman and Renaissance Florence and climb the Duomo or Giotto’s Bell Tower
The best way to orient yourself to this timeless place is to take a stroll across the heart of the city. No bigger than four soccer fields in length and breadth, this is the heart of the Renaissance! So find your way to the Piazza della Signoria, dominated by the historic “city hall” (the Palazzo Vecchio – literally the “old palace”) with its distinctive bell tower. Take time to peer inside the Palazzo Vecchio if it is open. This is one of Italy’s most important medieval buildings (construction began in 1299). Don’t linger too long, as you may decide to come back and explore more in depth later.
Walk across the Piazza diagonally to your right with the replica of Michelangelo’s David at your back just outside the main door of the Palazzo Vecchio. You are walking across the main square of 15th century Florence. The entire square was an archeological dig during much of the 1990s as authorities documented the ruins of Roman Florence which they then carefully buried again.
Walk north on the Via dei Calzaiuoli (Cobblers Street). Here you are paralleling the ancient Roman “cardus maximus,”
which is marked by the modern streets, Via Calimala and Via Roma. Just 200 meters down Via Calzaiuoli you are at the intersection with Via Speziali and Via del Corso, the ancient “cardus maximus” street from which the entire Roman settlement was measured and constructed. Walk a block to your left on Via Speziali to the edge of Piazza della Repubblica and you are now in the heart of Roman Florentia.
Return to the Via dei Calzaiuoli and continue north to the Piazza San Giovanni surrounding the famous Baptistery and in front of basilica of Santa Maria dei Fiori, the “duomo” of Florence. Your guidebook will lead you through the steps of viewing the famous bronze doors of the Baptistery and the façade of the basilica. But our mission, before the late afternoon light disappears, is to climb either the bell tower or the dome itself. So find the ticket office, get in line and get climbing!
Climbing either of these is a great late afternoon activity. If you should have the benefit of a late afternoon rain shower time your visit for when the rain stops. The air clears and is quite crisp and you’ll enjoy one of the most beautiful views of Italy. Take your city map out and trace the outline of the 16th/17th century walls. Actually, study this map a little before you get to Florence and note the wonderful display of urban development in Italy. Florence is a perfect example of a Roman garrison town at a bridgehead over the Arno River. The square grid of the Roman town is perfectly preserved in the historic city center which you’ve just traversed. Outward from this radiate the medieval roads that would have exited the main gates. Then in the 16th and early 17th centuries another ring of walls was built. These are visible in the wide boulevards that were built here when the walls were torn down in the 19th century (after the threat of invasion passed).
8 p.m. – Time for Dinner
You probably have a long list of places you want to try this evening. But if I were you I would first stop and have a medium sized gelato at one of the gelaterie just off the Via dei Calzaiuoli (you probably saw one of them as you passed).
Then walk east, away from Via dei Calzaiuoli to Via Proconsolo number 55r. The little restaurant here, Le Mosacce, is a great hole-in-the wall for a real Florentine meal.
10 p.m. – Gelato and Santa Maria del Fiore
Stroll east from here to find your dessert – Gelato at Vivoli, famous worldwide. You’ll have to ask directions but you are looking for Gelato Vivoli at number 7, via Isole delle Stinche.
Now find nearby Via dell’Anguillara or Borgo dei Greci and continue east into Piazza Santa Croce. Note the circular or oval shaped street on the map that you’ve just passed? That is the outline of the ancient Roman amphitheater left in the street pattern of modern Florence right in front of Piazza Santa Croce. Enjoy the night view of the Church of Santa Croce.
11 p.m. – Stroll along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio
Don’t head to bed until you’ve had a stroll along the Arno River to the Ponte Vecchio. The street lights and the medieval “old bridge” reflect in the Arno on the exact site of the original Roman bridge. Indeed, the Roman Cardus Maximus runs north as the Via Porta Santa Maria and on the Piazza della Reppublica.
7:30 a.m. – Breakfast and a plan for the day
It’s a shame not to drink espresso or cappuccino in Italy so be sure to ask for one or the other rather than serving yourself the standard “Americano” from the coffee urn at your hotel’s breakfast buffet. Alternatively, you can go out for an “Italian breakfast” but forget the relaxed hour over coffee that you might enjoy in the U.S. Italians would never make breakfast a leisurely or social occasion. They grab a café or cappuccino and pastry on the run in a bar – no sitting, either. Stand at the bar with everyone else. (Have a few extra minutes? Read the paper that the bar is required by law to provide!)
8:30 a.m. – Visit the Medieval Palazzo Davanzati and enjoy Italy’s most famous hot chocolate at Caffé Rivoire.
You should have made reservations for the Uffizi Gallery for 10:30 this morning. So you have time for a quick visit to the Palazzo Davanzati which is a museum of life in medieval Florence. The building itself dates to the early 14th century and the furnishings will show you what home life was like in Florence from the 14th through the 17th centuries. Spend a short hour here then browse the nearby tourist market for those necessary souvenirs. Stroll back through the Piazza della Signoria and stop at the famous café, Rivoire for a cup of espresso or, better, yet, hot chocolate, at their bar. Sit down only if you have a spare Euro 20 bill or two in your pocket. Otherwise, just walk in and belly up to the bar. Rivoire is world famous for having introduced chocolate to Italy so if you’re a connoisseur you’ll want to try this for sure. Standing at the bar you’ll pay normal prices.
10:30 a.m. – Visit the Uffizi Gallery, lunch on their terrace, and then complete your visit – we recommend booking your tickets online.
Hopefully you are awake and ready to tackle the Uffizi Gallery now. Do your homework before you go so you can go straight to the pieces your really want to see. Once you’ve had your fill with those there is plenty to just wander and enjoy. Plan on an hour and a half or so to visit those key pieces, then convene to the cafeteria on the balcony overlooking Piazza della Signoria. Have lunch, enjoy an espresso and get some fresh air on the balcony, then go back to the Uffizi for another hour.
2 p.m. – Try a hot chocolate at the Caffe Rivoire if you didn’t have one this morning or go visit the Palazzo Vecchio just across the square.
The Palazzo Vecchio is the city hall of Florence. If you were thrilled by the climb up Giotto’s Tower or the Dome on the duomo yesterday, we suggest a similar climb up the tower of the City Hall. This will wake you up before you head off to see Michelangelo’s sculptures.
3:30 p.m. – Visit Michelangelo’s famous David at the Galleria dell’Academia – we recommend booking your tickets online before hand
This won’t take you long, nor will it require a lot of museum slouching. But you’ll want to see this, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David. David was brought inside the museum in 1873 from the Piazza della Signoria where the replica now stands. While you’re here, be sure to take a look at his other statues: The Prisoners and St. Matthew. You might get hooked on his work and have to go to Rome to see the Pietá and to Bruges, Belgium to see his Madonna.
Galleria dell’Accademia, Via Ricasoli 58-60, 50122 Firenze
5:00 p.m. – Find a café – it doesn’t matter where – and have a gelato or a cup of tea.
This is the time of day that Italians would take time to sit down and socialize over coffee and a snack.
6:00 p.m. – Walk across the Ponte Vecchio to the Piazzale Michelangelo and on to the Church of San Miniato.
This walk will show you the great view from Piazzale Michelangelo, a “suburban” piazza overlooking all of Florence from the south. It was completed in 1875. Find your way across the Ponte Vecchio or the Ponte alle Grazie and to the Porta San Miniato at the end of Via di San Niccolò and the tiny Via San Miniato. Start up the Via del Monte alle Croci and then take the pedestrian steps up Via di San Salvatore al Monte. Enjoy the view from the top but watch out for pickpockets. The sunset from here is classic if it is the right time of year.
The stairs to San Miniato are just 250 meters south along the Viale Gallileo Gallilei. Don’t miss this little gem of a church which dates to the 12th century.
8:30 p.m. – Dinner in or near Piazza Santo Spirito
Take the bus from Viale Gallileo Gallilei to the Palazzo Pitti and then walk the two short blocks to the Osteria Santo Spirito. This piazza is always alive with local activity, whether music or other street performers, and the restaurant has good views of the piazza.
Piazza Santo Spirito 16r
Tel. 055 2382383
You can eat inside or at outside tables. If it is too crowded there are other trattorie in the area.
10:00 p.m. – Walk back across the Ponte Vecchio and find a gelato before bed
Have you had your gelato today? Stroll the Ponte Vecchio again, through the Piazza della Signoria. Behind the Palazzo Vecchio head down Via dei Neri to the “Gelateria dei Neri” for one last treat.
8:30 a.m. – Visit the Bargello Museum
It is appropriate to visit the historic Bargello Museum as one of your last visits to Florence. This little gem of a museum was the more modest original Town Hall in Florence in the late 13th century. It now houses a premier collection of Medieval and Renaissance sculpture, including pieces by a long list of famous and lesser known sculptors.
11 a.m. – Take your pick of the church of Santa Croce, the Museum of the History of Science or both for your last visit before you leave.
The Church of Santa Croce, not far from the Bargello, is where many illustrious Italians are buried from Michelangelo and Machiavelli to Gioacchino Rossini, the composer.
The Museum of the History of Science contains at least one small remnant of another famous Italian, Gallileo. His upraised middle finger resides in a vase of formaldehyde, defiantly proclaiming his assertion, in opposition to the church, that the earth revolves around the sun. The museum contains many other historic navigational aids and tools for the middle ages and Renaissance.
12:30 p.m. – Time for one last lunch before heading off on your homebound journey.
We like a local restaurant, “I Che c’è c’è” (say “Ee Kay chay, chay” – it means literally “What there is, there is”) though you likely have some on your list that you’d like to try before you leave.
Trattoria I Che C’è Cè
Via Magalotti 11
Tel 055 216589
Have a favorite restaurant, hotel or activity in Florence?