Best of Italy - Rick Steves (2016)
Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world. It’s geographically small but culturally rich—containing more artistic masterpieces per square mile than anyplace else. In a single day, you can look Michelangelo’s David in the eyes, fall under the seductive sway of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and climb the modern world’s first dome, which still dominates the skyline.
A cosmopolitan vibe courses through the city’s narrow lanes. You’ll encounter children licking gelato, students riding Vespas, supermodels wearing Gucci fashions, and artisans sipping Chianti—Florence has long been perfecting the art of civilized living.
FLORENCE IN 2 DAYS
Compact Florence is packed with sights, but crowds and long lines can ruin your day’s agenda. To maximize your time, either reserve the top two sights—Accademia (Michelangelo’s David) and Uffizi Gallery (Renaissance paintings), or get a pricey Firenze Card that allows you to skip the lines. Avoid both sights on Monday when they’re closed, and on the first Sunday of the month, when they’re free but impossibly crowded. Some sights such as the Bargello close early and on Sundays or Mondays.
Day 1: In the cool of the morning, take my Renaissance Walk. Afterwards, depending on your interests, choose among Florence’s many sights: the Bargello (best statues), Medici Chapels (Michelangelo statues), Santa Maria Novella (Masaccio’s 3-D painting), Palazzo Vecchio (Medici palace), Santa Croce Church (famous tombs), Galileo Science Museum, Pitti Palace (art), and Brancacci Chapel (more Masaccio). For lunch, grab a quick bite between sights; you have many options, including Mercato Centrale’s upscale, upstairs food hall.
Around 16:30 when crowds die down, see the Uffizi Gallery’s unforgettable paintings.
On any evening: Linger over dinner. Take a stroll, gelato in hand. Or take a taxi or bus to Piazzale Michelangelo for spectacular city views, and walk back into town for dinner. You can sightsee late at some sights, attend a concert at a church, or drop by a wine bar.
Day 2: See the Accademia (David) and visit the nearby Museum of San Marco (Fra Angelico’s art). Then hit the street markets, wander, or do more museum-going. Stroll to the river and cross the historic bridge, Ponte Vecchio, to the Oltrarno neighborhood for dinner.
With extra time: Fit in a day trip to Pisa (book ahead to climb the famous tower) or Siena (just 1.5 hours away by bus—and magic after dark.
Florence (pop. 380,000) can be intense. Prepare for scorching summer heat, crowded lanes and sidewalks, slick pickpockets, few WCs, steep prices, and long lines. The best of the city lies on the north bank of the Arno River. The main sights cluster around the dome of the cathedral (Duomo). Everything is within a 20-minute walk of the train station, cathedral, or Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). The less famous but more characteristic Oltrarno area (south bank) is just over the bridge. Here’s a neighborhood-by-neighborhood rundown:
Historic Core: The Duomo—with its iconic, towering dome—is the visual and geographical center of Florence; all other sights radiate out from here. The Duomo sits at the northeast corner of the oblong, grid-planned old town. At the southeast corner is Piazza della Signoria—marked by the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (city hall) and adjacent Uffizi Gallery, with the Galileo Science Museum tucked just behind it. These two main landmarks—the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria—are connected by the wide, pedestrianized, heavily tourist-trod Via de’ Calzaiuoli, which bisects the old Roman town. To the west is a glitzy shopping zone (on the streets near Piazza della Repubblica), and to the east is a characteristic web of narrow lanes. This central axis—Via de’ Calzaiuoli—is the spine for Florentine sightseeing and the route of my self-guided Renaissance Walk.
Rick’s Tip: Don’t drive into the city center. Don’t even try it. Florence’s traffic-reduction system is confusing even to locals. If you don’t have a permit, you’ll get a €100 traffic ticket in the mail. The no-go zone is confusing; several streets are classified ZTL (“limited traffic zone”) at only certain times of day.
North of the Duomo: Via Cavour runs north from the Duomo through a nondescript urban zone to the Accademia, with Michelangelo’s David, and nearby, the Museum of San Marco. The western part clusters around the Basilica of San Lorenzo, with its Medici Chapels, and (a block north) Mercato Centrale, with the vendor stalls of San Lorenzo Market. The streets surrounding Mercato Centrale (especially the pedestrianized Via Faenza) teem with midrange and budget hotels, and trattorias catering to out-of-towners. This touristy area is convenient, but insulated from authentic Florence.
West of the Duomo: Northwest of the historic core, things get more urban and dreary. This area, dominated by the train station and Church of Santa Maria Novella, specializes in inexpensive hotels and characteristic eateries. Closer to the river (especially around Palazzo Strozzi) is a posh shopping zone; more affordable shops line Via del Parione and Borgo Ognissanti.
East of the Duomo: Tourists make the 10-minute trek from Piazza della Signoria east to Piazza Santa Croce, facing the landmark Santa Croce Church. Along the way—effectively across the street from the old town—is the Bargello, filling a former police station with some of Florence’s best sculptures.
South of the River: The neighborhood called the Oltrarno neighborhood (literally the “other side of the Arno River”) opens up just across Ponte Vecchio from the main tourist zone. In the middle of the Oltrarno is the giant Pitti Palace and surrounding gardens (Boboli and Bardini). To the west of the palace is the lavishly frescoed Brancacci Chapel (inside the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine). To the east of the palace is Piazzale Michelangelo, perched high upon the hill, with Florence’s most popular viewpoint. Wandering through the Oltrarno, you may catch glimpses of a time before tourism—artisans still have workshops here, and open their doors to passing visitors.
▲▲▲Duomo Museum Underrated cathedral museum with sculptures. Hours: Daily 9:00-19:00, Sun 9:00-13:45. See here.
▲▲▲Accademia Michelangelo’s David and powerful (unfinished) Prisoners. Reserve ahead or get a Firenze Card. Hours: Tue-Sun 8:15-18:50, closed Mon. See here.
▲▲▲Uffizi Gallery Greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. Reserve well in advance or get a Firenze Card. Hours: Tue-Sun 8:15-18:35, closed Mon. See here.
▲▲▲Bargello Underappreciated sculpture museum with Michelangelo, Donatello, and Medici treasures. Hours: Tue-Sat 8:15-17:00, until 13:50 if no special exhibits; also open second and fourth Mon and first, third, and fifth Sun of each month. See here.
▲▲Duomo Gothic cathedral with colorful facade and the first dome built since ancient Roman times. Hours: Mon-Fri 10:00-17:00, Thu until 16:00 May and Oct, until 16:30 Nov-April; Sat 10:00-16:45, Sun 13:30-16:45. See here.
▲▲Museum of San Marco Best collection anywhere of artwork by the early Renaissance master Fra Angelico. Hours: Tue-Fri 8:15-13:50, Sat 8:15-16:50; also open 8:15-13:50 on first, third, and fifth Mon and 8:15-16:50 on second and fourth Sun of each month. See here.
▲▲Medici Chapels Tombs of Florence’s great ruling family, designed and carved by Michelangelo. Hours: April-Oct Tue-Sat 8:15-16:50, Nov-March Tue-Sat 8:15-13:50; also open second and fourth Mon and first, third, and fifth Sun of each month. See here.
▲▲Palazzo Vecchio Fortified palace, once the home of the Medici family, wallpapered with history. Hours: Museum open April-Sept Fri-Wed 9:00-24:00, Thu 9:00-14:00; Oct-March Fri-Wed 9:00-19:00, Thu 9:00-14:00; tower keeps similar but shorter hours. See here.
▲▲Galileo Science Museum Fascinating old clocks, telescopes, maps, and three of Galileo’s fingers. Hours: Wed-Mon 9:30-18:00, Tue 9:30-13:00. See here.
▲▲Santa Croce Church Precious art, tombs of famous Florentines, and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in 14th-century church. Hours: Mon-Sat 9:30-17:30, Sun 14:00-17:30. See here.
▲▲Church of Santa Maria Novella Thirteenth-century Dominican church with Masaccio’s famous 3-D painting. Hours: Mon-Thu 9:00-17:30, Fri 11:00-17:30, Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 12:00-17:00 July-Sept (from 13:00 Oct-June). See here.
▲▲Pitti Palace Several museums in lavish palace plus sprawling Boboli and Bardini Gardens. Hours: Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments, and Gallery of Modern Art—Tue-Sun 8:15-18:50, closed Mon; Boboli and Bardini Gardens, Costume Gallery, Argenti/Silverworks Museum, and Porcelain Museum—daily June-Aug 8:15-19:30, April-May and Sept-Oct 8:15-18:30, March 8:15-17:30, Nov-Feb 8:15-16:30, closed first and last Mon of each month. See here.
▲▲Brancacci Chapel Works of Masaccio, early Renaissance master who reinvented perspective. Hours: Mon and Wed-Sat 10:00-17:00, Sun 13:00-17:00, closed Tue. Reservations required, though often available on the spot. See here.
▲Mercato Centrale Bustling covered market with picnic fare on the ground floor and an upscale foodie court upstairs. Hours: Produce—Mon-Fri 7:00-14:00, Sat 7:00-17:00, closed Sun; food court—daily 10:00-24:00. See here.
▲Ponte Vecchio Famous bridge lined with gold and silver shops. Hours: Bridge always open. See here.
▲Climbing the Duomo’s Dome Grand view into the cathedral, close-up of dome architecture, and, after 463 steps, a glorious city vista. Hours: Mon-Fri 8:30-19:00, Sat 8:30-17:40, closed Sun. See here.
▲Campanile Bell tower with views similar to Duomo’s, 50 fewer steps, and shorter lines. Hours: Daily 8:30-19:30. See here.
▲Baptistery Bronze doors fit to be the gates of paradise. Hours: Doors always viewable; interior open Mon-Sat 11:15-19:00 except first Sat of each month 8:30-14:00, Sun 8:30-14:00. See here.
▲Piazzale Michelangelo Hilltop square with stunning view of Duomo and Florence. Hours: Always open. See here.
The city TI has three branches. The crowded main branch is across the square from the train station (Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, Sun 9:00-14:00; with your back to tracks, exit the station—it’s 100 yards away, near the corner of the church at Piazza della Stazione 4; tel. 055-212-245, www.firenzeturismo.it). Upstairs from this branch, drop by the easy-to-miss “Experience Florence” visitors center, with big touch screens to help you virtually explore the city and plan an itinerary, and a well-produced 3-D movie about the city, offering evocative slices of Florentine life and lingering images of the big landmarks (free, 13 minutes, English subtitles).
The smaller branch is centrally located at Piazza del Duomo, at the west corner of Via de’ Calzaiuoli (Mon-Sat 9:00-19:00, Sun 9:00-14:00, inside the loggia, tel. 055-288-496). They also have a branch at the airport.
A separate TI, which covers both the city and the greater province of Florence, can be less crowded and more helpful. It’s a couple of blocks north of the Duomo (Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, closed Sat-Sun, at Via Cavour 1 red, tel. 055-290-832).
At any TI, you’ll find free, handy resources in English: the Firenze Info booklet, The Places of Interest, the monthly Florence & Tuscany News, and the Florence Newspaper (www.theflorencenewspaper.com).
Sightseeing Pass and Advance Reservations
The Firenze Card is pricey (€72) but convenient. This three-day sightseeing pass gives you admission to many of Florence’s sights, including the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia. Just as important, it lets you skip the ticket-buying lines without needing to make reservations.
Simply go to the entrance at a covered sight (look for the Firenze Card logo), show the card, and you’ll be let in. At some sights, you must first present your card at the ticket booth or info desk to get a physical ticket before proceeding to the entrance.
Cost and Coverage: The Firenze Card costs €72 and is valid for 72 hours from when you validate it at your first museum (e.g., Tue at 15:00 until Fri at 15:00). Validate your card only when you’re ready to tackle the covered sights on three consecutive days. Make sure the sights you want to visit will be open (some sights are closed Sun or Mon; for details, see the “Daily Reminder” on here).
The Firenze Card covers the regular admission price as well as any special-exhibit surcharges, and is good for one visit per sight.
To make the card pay for itself, you’d need to see all of these sights within three days—an ambitious plan: the Uffizi, Accademia, Bargello, Palazzo Vecchio, Medici Chapels, Museum of San Marco, Duomo sights, and Pitti Palace’s Palatine Gallery and Royal Apartments. But the real value of the card is that you can spend more time sightseeing rather than waiting in ticket-buying lines.
The card covers every sight I listed except for Pitti Palace’s Bardini Gardens. For a complete list of included sights, see www.firenzecard.it. Don’t confuse this card with the lesser Firenze PASSport.
You can buy the Firenze Card at either of two TIs (the one across from the train station or at Via Cavour 1 red—a couple of blocks north of the Duomo) or at several participating sights: the Uffizi Gallery’s door #2 (enter to the left of the ticket-buying line), the back entrance of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, the Bargello, Palazzo Vecchio, and the Brancacci Chapel. Lines are shortest at the Via Cavour TI (credit cards only) and the Church of Santa Maria Novella (facing the train station, at Piazza della Stazione 4); if you’re doing the Uffizi first, door #2 is relatively quick. Don’t bother buying the card online, as you have to go to one of these desks to swap the voucher for the actual pass. The Firenze Card is not shareable, and there are no family or senior discounts.
Children under 18 are allowed free into any state museum in Italy, and into any municipal museum in Florence. However, at the Uffizi and Accademia, if they want to skip the lines with their Firenze Card-holding parents, children still must (technically) pay the €4 “reservation fee” (which can be paid on the spot—no need to reserve ahead). Enforcement of this policy varies.
If you only want to see the Accademia and Uffizi, you can skip the Firenze Card and instead make reservations for these two top sights, ideally as soon as you know when you’ll be in town. From April through October and on weekends year-round, the sights can be crowded even late in the day (from Nov through March, reservations aren’t as critical—you can usually enter without significant lines after 16:00). Reservations are not possible on the first Sunday of the month, when the museums are free and very busy.
You can also make reservations for several other Florence sights—including the Bargello, Medici Chapels, and Pitti Palace—though they’re unnecessary. The Brancacci Chapel officially requires a reservation, but it’s usually possible to get one on the spot.
There are several ways to make reservations for the Accademia and Uffizi:
Online: Book and pay for your Accademia or Uffizi visit via the city’s official site. You’ll receive an order confirmation email, which is followed shortly by a voucher email. Bring your voucher to the ticket desk to swap for an actual ticket (€4/ticket reservation fee, www.firenzemusei.it—click on “B-ticket”).
Pricey middleman sites—such as www.uffizi.com and www.tickitaly.com—are generally reliable and more user-friendly than the official site, but their booking fees run about €10 per ticket. (If ordering from these broker sites, don’t confuse Florence’s Accademia with Venice’s gallery of the same name.)
By Phone: From a US phone, dial 011-39-055-294-883, or from an Italian phone call 055-294-883. When you get through, an English-speaking operator talks you through the process within a few minutes, and you’ll end up with an entry time and a confirmation number. Present your confirmation number at the museum and pay for your ticket. You pay only for the tickets you pick up; for example, if you reserved two tickets, but only you can go, you’ll pay for just one ticket (€4/ticket reservation fee; booking office open Mon-Fri 8:30-18:30, Sat 8:30-12:30, closed Sun).
Through Your Hotel: Some hoteliers will make museum reservations (for a small fee) for guests who request this service when they book their room.
Sunday: The Duomo’s dome is closed, and the Baptistery’s interior closes early, at 14:00. The ground-floor market stalls in Mercato Centrale are closed, but the popular foodie restaurants upstairs are open.
A few sights are open only in the afternoon: Duomo (13:30-16:45), Santa Croce Church (14:00-17:30), Brancacci Chapel (13:00-17:00), and Church of Santa Maria Novella (12:00-17:00, from 13:00 Oct-June).
The Bargello and the Medici Chapels close on the second and fourth Sundays of the month. The Museum of San Marco is closed on the first, third, and fifth Sundays.
The following sights are free and crowded on the first Sunday of the month (when reservations aren’t available): Uffizi, Accademia, Pitti Palace, Bargello, Medici Chapels, and Museum of San Marco.
Monday: The biggies are closed, including the Accademia (David) and Uffizi Gallery, as well as Pitti Palace’s Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments, and Gallery of Modern Art.
The Museum of San Marco closes on the second and fourth Mondays. Pitti Palace’s Boboli and Bardini Gardens, Costume Gallery, Argenti/Silverworks Museum, and Porcelain Museum close on the first and last Mondays of the month. The Bargello and Medici Chapels are closed on the first, third, and fifth Mondays. San Lorenzo Market is closed Mondays in winter.
Target these sights on Mondays: the Duomo and its dome, Campanile, Baptistery, Brancacci Chapel, Mercato Centrale, Galileo Science Museum, and churches (including Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella).
Tuesday: The Brancacci Chapel is closed. The Galileo Science Museum closes early (13:00).
Wednesday: All sights are open.
Thursday: All sights are open, though these close early: Palazzo Vecchio (14:00) and off-season, the Duomo (16:00 May and Oct, 16:30 Nov-April).
Friday: All sights are open.
Saturday: All sights are open, but the Duomo’s dome closes earlier than usual, at 17:40.
Early-Closing Warning: Some of Florence’s sights close surprisingly early most days, as early as 13:50 for the following sights—the Bargello (unless it’s hosting a special exhibit, when it closes at 17:00), Medici Chapels (early closure off-season only), and the Museum of San Marco (on weekdays only). Mercato Centrale’s ground floor closes at 14:00 (except in winter, when it stays open until 17:00 on Sat).
Late-Hours Relief: The Accademia and Pitti Palace’s Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments, and Gallery of Modern Art are open until 18:50 (and the Uffizi until 18:35) daily except Monday.
Several sights are open until 19:00 on certain days: the Duomo’s dome (Mon-Fri), the Baptistery (Mon-Sat, except first Sat of month until 14:00), and the Lorenzo Market (daily, but closed Mon in winter).
These sights are open until 19:30: Campanile (daily), and in summer, Pitti Palace’s Boboli and Bardini Gardens (daily except some Mon, June-Aug only). Mercato Nuovo (for shoppers) is open long hours daily.
In summer (April-Sept), the best late-hours sightseeing is at Palazzo Vecchio, which stays open until 24:00 (except on Thu, when it closes at 14:00); off-season, it’s open until 19:00 (Fri-Wed).
Private Tour: Various tour companies—including the ones listed on the next page—offer tours that include a reserved museum admission.
Last-Minute Strategies: If you arrive without a reservation, call the reservation number (tel. 055-294-883); ask your hotelier for help; or head to a booking window, either at Orsanmichele Church (daily 9:00-16:00, closed Sun off-season, along Via de’ Calzaiuoli) or at My Accademia Libreria bookstore across from the Accademia’s exit (Tue-Sun 8:15-17:30, closed Mon, Via Ricasoli 105 red). It’s also possible to ask at the Uffizi’s ticket office if they have any short-notice reservations available (use door #2 and skirt to the left of the long ticket-buying line). Any of these options will cost you the €4 reservation fee. Because both museums are closed on Mondays, the hardest day to snare last-minute, same-day reservations is Tuesday. If you’ve exhausted these options without success, remember you can buy a Firenze Card or take a private tour to see the sights.
The Duomo Combo-Ticket
While the Duomo itself is free to enter, several related sights are all covered by a single €15 combo-ticket: the Baptistery, dome climb, Campanile, and Duomo Museum. Only get this combo-ticket if you don’t have a Firenze Card (which covers the same sights). See here for details.
To sightsee on your own, download free audio tours via my free Rick Steves Audio Europe app (see here for details).
Tour companies offer city tours as well as excursions in Tuscany (such as Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and the Chianti region for wine-tasting); see their websites for details. Several offer Accademia and Uffizi tours, gaining you easy access to these popular sights. (And they often run cooking classes, too.)
Florencetown runs tours on foot or by bike. Their “Walk and Talk Florence” introductory tour includes the Oltrarno neighborhood (€19, 2.5 hours). My readers get a 10 percent discount, with an extra 10 percent off for second tours (if booking online, enter code “RICKSTEVES”; Via de Lamberti 1, facing Orsanmichele Church, tel. 055-281-103, www.florencetown.com).
Artviva offers a variety of tours (18 people maximum), including these popular overviews: “Original Florence” town walk (€29, 3 hours) and “Florence in One Glorious Day” (€99, 6 hours, adds Uffizi and Accademia tours). They offer a 10 percent discount at www.artviva.com/ricksteves (username “ricksteves,” password “reader”; Via de’ Sassetti 1, second floor, near Piazza della Repubblica, tel. 055-264-5033, www.artviva.com).
Good private guides for walking tours and countryside excursions include Alessandra Marchetti, a Florentine who has lived in the US (€60-75/hour, mobile 347-386-9839, www.tuscanydriverguide.com, firstname.lastname@example.org), and Paola Migliorini and her partners, who also offer cooking classes (€60/hour without car, €70/hour in a van for up to 8 people, mobile 347-657-2611, www.florencetour.com, email@example.com).
Theft and Safety: Easy tourist money has corrupted some locals, making them greedy and dishonest; check your bill carefully. Beware of the “slow count”: Cashiers may count change back with odd pauses in hopes you’ll gather up the money early and say “Grazie.” Keep an eye out for slick pickpockets, especially near the train station and at major sights. Some thieves even dress like tourists to fool you.
Medical Help: To reach a doctor who speaks English, call Medical Service Firenze at 055-475-411 (answered 24 hours a day); they can send a doctor to your hotel within an hour of your call, or you can go to their clinic when the doctor’s in (Mon-Fri 11:00-12:00, 13:00-15:00 & 17:00-18:00, Sat 11:00-12:00 & 13:00-15:00, closed Sun, no appointment necessary, Via Roma 4, between the Duomo and Piazza della Repubblica, www.medicalservice.firenze.it).
Visiting Churches: Modest dress is required at the Duomo, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce, Santa Maria del Carmine/Brancacci Chapel, and the Medici Chapels. Be respectful of worshippers and the paintings; don’t use a flash. Churches usually close from 12:00 or 12:30 until 15:00 or 16:00.
Addresses: Florence has a ridiculously confusing system for street addresses. They use “red” numbers for businesses and “black” numbers for residences; in print, addresses are indicated with “r” (as in Via Cavour 2r) or “n” (for black—nero, as in Via Cavour 25n). Red and black numbers are interspersed on the same street; each set goes in roughly consecutive order, but their numbers bear no connection with each other.
Free Water: Carry a water bottle to refill at Florence’s twist-the-handle public fountains (near the Duomo dome entrance, around the corner from the “Piglet” statue at Mercato Nuovo, or in front of Pitti Palace). Try the fontanello (dispenser of free cold water, frizzante or naturale) on Piazza della Signoria, behind the statue of Neptune (on the left side of Palazzo Vecchio).
Internet Access: Virtually all hotels have free Wi-Fi and many cafés will share their password if you buy something. The city’s free Wi-Fi hotspot network covers all the main squares (no registration, good for two hours).
Useful App: For free audio versions of my Renaissance Walk and tours of the Uffizi and Accademia Gallery, get the Rick Steves Audio Europe app (see here).
WCs: Public restrooms are scarce. Use them when you can, in any café or museum. Pay WCs are typically €1. Handy locations include one at the Baptistery ticket office (near the Duomo); just down the street from Piazza Santa Croce (at Borgo Santa Croce 29 red); up near Piazzale Michelangelo; and inside the train station (near track 5).
Getting Lost: The Duomo, the cathedral with the distinctive red dome, is the center of Florence. If you ever get lost, home’s the dome.
This walk gives you an overview of Florence’s top sights. We’ll start with the soaring church dome that stands as the proud symbol of the Renaissance spirit. Just opposite, you’ll find the Baptistery doors that opened the Renaissance. Finally, we’ll reach Florence’s political center, dotted with monuments of that proud time. For more details on many of the sights on this walk, see the individual listings later in this chapter.
Length of This Walk: Allow two hours if you add visits to the interiors of the Baptistery and Orsanmichele Church (but not the other sights mentioned). With limited time, view the Baptistery and Orsanmichele Church from the outside.
Tours: Download my free Renaissance Walk audio tour.
✵ Stand in front of the Duomo as you get your historical bearings.
During the Dark Ages, it was obvious to the people of Italy—sitting on the rubble of the Roman Empire—that there had to be a brighter age on the horizon. The long-awaited rebirth, or Renaissance, began in Florence for good reasons: It was wealthy because of its cloth industry, trade, and banking, notably the powerful Medici, the rich banking family who ruled Renaissance Florence. Locals were powered by a fierce city-state pride—they’d pee into the Arno with gusto, knowing rival city-state Pisa was downstream. And Florence was fertile with more than its share of artistic genius; imagine guys like Michelangelo and Leonardo attending the same high school.
The Renaissance lives on in Florence.
The cultural explosion called the Renaissance—the “rebirth” of Greek and Roman culture that swept across Europe—started around 1400 and lasted about 150 years. In politics, the Renaissance meant democracy; in science, a renewed interest in exploring nature. Renaissance art was a return to the realism and balance of Greek and Roman sculpture. In architecture, domes and round arches replaced Gothic spires and pointed arches. The Duomo kicked off the architectural Renaissance in Florence.
✵ The dome of the Duomo is best viewed just to the right of the facade, from the corner of the pedestrian-only Via de’ Calzaiuoli. Stand near the kiosk.
The Duomo and Its Dome
The dome of Florence’s cathedral—visible from all over the city—inspired Florentines to do great things. (Most recently, it inspired the city to make the area around the cathedral traffic-free.) The big church itself (called the Duomo) is Gothic, built in the Middle Ages by architects who left it unfinished.
Think of the confidence of the age: The Duomo was built with a big hole in its roof, just waiting for a grand dome to cover it. They could envision it—but the technology needed to create such a dome had yet to be invented. No problema. In the 1400s, the architect Filippo Brunelleschi was called on to finish the job. Brunelleschi capped the church Roman-style—with a tall, self-supporting dome as grand as the ancient Pantheon’s (which he had studied).
He used a dome within a dome. First, he built the grand white skeletal ribs, which you can see, then filled them in with interlocking bricks in a herringbone pattern. The dome grew upward like an igloo, supporting itself as it proceeded from the base. When the ribs reached the top, Brunelleschi arched them in and fixed them in place with the cupola at the top. His dome, built in only 14 years, was the largest since Rome’s Pantheon.
Brunelleschi’s dome was the wonder of the age, the model for many domes to follow, from St. Peter’s to the US Capitol. Michelangelo, setting out to construct the dome of St. Peter’s, drew inspiration from the dome of Florence. He said, “I’ll make its sister...bigger, but not more beautiful.”
The church’s facade looks old, but was completed in 1870 (about 600 years after the building began) to celebrate Italian unity, here in the city that for a few years served as the young country’s capital.
Its Neo-Gothic “retro” look captures the feel of the original medieval facade, with green, white, and pink marble sheets that cover the brick construction; pointed Gothic arches; and three horizontal stories decorated with mosaics and statues. Still, the facade is generally ridiculed (some call it “the cathedral in pajamas”).
The cavernous interior feels bare after being cleaned out during the Neoclassical age and by the terrible flood of 1966. (For more about climbing the dome and the Duomo interior, see here.)
Campanile (Giotto’s Tower)
The bell tower (to the right of the cathedral’s front) offers an easier, less crowded, and faster climb than the Duomo’s dome, though the unobstructed views from the Duomo are better. Giotto, like any artistic genius, wore several hats. He’s considered the father of modern painting, as well as being the architect of this 270-foot-tall bell tower for the Duomo, built two centuries before the age of Michelangelo. (For details on climbing the tower, see here.)
✵ The Baptistery is the octagonal building in front of the church. If you decide to go inside, get a ticket at the office across the piazza (Firenze Card holders also need to get a ticket at the ticket office). If you just want to look at the exterior doors, there’s no charge.
Baptistery and Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors
The Baptistery’s bronze doors bring us out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. (These are copies; the originals are in the Duomo Museum.) Lorenzo Ghiberti beat out heavyweights such as Brunelleschi to design the north doors, which show scenes from the Old Testament. (The original entries of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti are in the Bargello.) About the time Ghiberti completed the first set of doors, the Baptistery needed another set of doors for the entrance that faces the church. Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the east doors added a new dimension to art: depth. Here we see how the Renaissance masters merged art and science. Realism was in, and Renaissance artists used math, illusion, and dissection to create it. Ghiberti spent 27 years (1425-1452) working on these panels. That’s him in the center of the door frame, atop the second row of panels—the head on the left with the shiny male-pattern baldness.
The Baptistery interior features a fine example of pre-Renaissance mosaic art (1200s-1300s) in the Byzantine style (more on here).
✵ Head south toward the river, taking the main pedestrian drag...
Via de’ Calzaiuoli
This street, Via de’ Calzaiuoli (kahlts-ay-WOH-lee), has always been the main axis of the city; it was part of the ancient Roman grid plan that became Florence. In medieval times, this street connected the religious center (where we are now) with the political center (where we’re heading), a five-minute walk away. In recent years this historic core has been transformed into a pleasant place to stroll, window-shop, lick your gelato cone, and wonder why American cities can’t be more pedestrian-friendly.
Two blocks down from the Baptistery, look right on Via degli Speziali to see a triumphal arch that marks Piazza della Repubblica. The arch celebrates the unification of Italy in 1870 and stands as a reminder that, in ancient Roman times, this piazza was the city center. (Today the square hosts a carousel and the Rinascente department store, with a rooftop, view-terrace café.)
✵ A block farther, at the intersection with Via Orsanmichele, is the...
Originally, this was an open loggia (covered porch) with a huge grain warehouse upstairs. The arches of the loggia were artfully filled in (14th century), and the building gained a new purpose—as a church. The 14 niches in the exterior walls feature replicas of the remarkable-in-their-day statues paid for by the city’s rising middle class of merchants and their 21 guilds. The interior has a glorious Gothic tabernacle (1359) and a painted wooden panel that depicts Madonna delle Grazie (1346).
Head up Via Orsanmichele (to the right of the church) and circle the church exterior counterclockwise to enjoy the statues. In the third niche is Nanni di Banco’s Quattro Santi Coronati (c. 1415-1417). These four early Christians were sculptors martyred by Roman emperor Diocletian because they refused to sculpt pagan gods. They seem to be contemplating the consequences of the fatal decision they’re about to make. While Banco’s saints are deep in the church’s niche, the next statue, just to the right, feels ready to step out. Donatello’s St. George is alert, perched on the edge of his niche, scanning the horizon for dragons. He’s anxious, but he’s also self-assured. Comparing this Renaissance-style St. George to Quattro Santi Coronati, you can psychoanalyze the heady changes underway. This is humanism. (This statue is a copy of the c. 1417 original, which is now in the Bargello.)
Continue counterclockwise around the church (bypassing the entrance), all the way to the opposite side. The first niche you come to features Donatello’s St. Mark (1411-1413). The evangelist cradles his gospel in his strong, veined hand and gazes out, resting his weight on the right leg while bending the left. Though subtle, St. Mark’s twisting contrapposto pose was the first seen since antiquity. Eighty years after young Donatello carved this statue, a teenage Michelangelo Buonarroti stood here and marveled at it.
The church hosts evening concerts; tickets are sold on the day of the concert from the door facing Via de’ Calzaiuoli; you can also book tickets here for the Uffizi and Accademia (ticket window open daily 9:00-16:00, closed Sun off-season).
✵ Continue down Via de’ Calzaiuoli 50 more yards, to the huge and historic square.
Piazza della Signoria
What a view! The main civic center of Florence is dominated by Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, and the marble greatness of old Florence littering the cobbles. Piazza della Signoria still vibrates with the echoes of the city’s past—executions, riots, and celebrations. There’s even Roman history: Look for the chart showing the ancient city (on a freestanding display to your right as you enter the square, in front of Chanel). Today, it’s a tourist’s world with pigeons, selfie sticks, horse buggies, and tired tourists. For a sugar jolt, stop in at the Rivoire café to enjoy its fine desserts, pudding-thick hot chocolate, and the best view seats in town.
Before you towers Palazzo Vecchio, the palatial Town Hall of the Medici—a fortress designed to contain riches and survive the many riots that went with local politics. The windows are just beyond the reach of angry stones, and the tower was a handy lookout post. Justice was doled out sternly on this square. Until 1873, Michelangelo’s David stood where you see the replica today. The original was damaged in a 1527 riot (when a bench thrown from a palace window knocked its left arm off), but it remained here for several centuries, vulnerable to erosion and pollution, before being moved indoors for protection.
Step past the fake David through the front door into Palazzo Vecchio’s courtyard (free). This palace was Florence’s symbol of civic power. You’re surrounded by art for art’s sake—a cherub frivolously marks the courtyard’s center, and ornate stuccoes and frescoes decorate the walls and columns. Such luxury represented a big change 500 years ago. (For more on the palazzo and climbing its tower, see here.)
✵ Back outside, check out the statue-filled...
Loggia dei Lanzi
The loggia, a.k.a. Loggia della Signoria, was once a forum for public debate, perfect for a city that prided itself on its democratic traditions. But later, when the Medici figured that good art was more desirable than free speech, it was turned into an outdoor sculpture gallery. Notice the squirming Florentine themes—conquest, domination, rape, and decapitation. The statues lining the back are Roman originals brought back to Florence by a Medici when his villa in Rome was sold. Two statues in the front deserve a closer look: Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women (c. 1583)—with its pulse-quickening rhythm of muscles—is from the restless Mannerist period, which followed the stately and confident Renaissance; Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus (1545-1553), the loggia’s most noteworthy piece, shows the Greek hero who decapitated the snake-headed Medusa.
Piazza della Signoria
✵ Cross the square to the big fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammanati that Florentines (including Michelangelo) consider a huge waste of marble. The guy on the horse, to the left, is Cosimo I, one of the post-Renaissance Medici. Find the round bronze plaque on the ground 10 steps in front of the fountain.
The Medici family was briefly thrown from power by an austere monk named Savonarola, who made Florence a constitutional republic. He organized huge rallies lit by bonfires here on the square where he preached. While children sang hymns, the devout brought their rich “vanities” (such as paintings, musical instruments, and playing cards) and threw them into the flames. Encouraged by the pope, the Florentines fought back and arrested Savonarola. For two days, they tortured him, trying unsuccessfully to persuade him to see their side of things. Finally, on the very spot where Savonarola’s followers had built bonfires of vanities, the monk was burned. The bronze plaque, engraved in Italian (“Qui dove...”), reads, “Here, Girolamo Savonarola and his Dominican brothers were hanged and burned” in the year “MCCCCXCVIII” (1498). Soon after, the Medici returned to power. The Renaissance picked up where it left off.
Thirsty? A free water dispenser (frizzante or naturale) is behind the Neptune statue.
✵ Stay cool, we have 200 yards to go. Follow the gaze of the fake David into the courtyard of the two-tone horseshoe-shaped building.
The top floor of this building, known as the uffizi (offices) during Medici days, is filled with the greatest collection of Florentine painting anywhere. It’s one of Europe’s top art galleries (described on here). The courtyard, filled with souvenir stalls and hustling young artists, is watched over by 19th-century statues of the great figures of the Renaissance: artists (Michelangelo, Giotto, Donatello, and Leonardo), philosophers (Niccolò Machiavelli), scientists (Galileo), writers (Dante), poets (Petrarch), cartographers (Amerigo Vespucci), and the great patron of so much Renaissance thinking, Lorenzo “the Magnificent” de’ Medici. His support of Leonardo, Botticelli, and teenage Michelangelo helped Florence become Europe’s most enlightened city.
After hours, talented street musicians take advantage of the space’s superior acoustics.
✵ Exiting at the far end of the courtyard, pause at the Arno River, overlooking...
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), rated ▲, has spanned this narrowest part of the Arno since Roman times. While Rome “fell,” Florence never really did, remaining a bustling trade center along the river.
✵ Hike to the center of the bridge.
A fine bust of the great goldsmith Cellini graces the central point of the bridge. This statue is a reminder that, in the 1500s, the Medici booted out the bridge’s butchers and tanners and installed the gold- and silversmiths who still tempt visitors to this day.
During World War II, the Nazi occupiers were ordered to blow up Ponte Vecchio. An art-loving German consul intervened and saved the bridge. The buildings at either end were destroyed, leaving the bridge impassable but intact. Look up to notice the protected and elevated passageway (called the Vasari Corridor) that led the Medici from Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi, across Ponte Vecchio, and up to Pitti Palace, four blocks beyond the bridge.
✵ Now that you’ve had a full meal of high culture, finish it off with a dessert of the world’s finest gelato. Enjoy.
The Duomo and Nearby Sights
▲CLIMBING THE DUOMO’S DOME
Map: Heart of Florence
North of the Duomo
▲▲MUSEUM OF SAN MARCO (MUSEO DI SAN MARCO)
On and near Piazza della Signoria
Map: Uffizi Gallery Overview
▲▲GALILEO SCIENCE MUSEUM
East of Piazza della Signoria
▲▲SANTA CROCE CHURCH
Near the Train Station
▲▲CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
South of the Arno River
Map: Oltrarno, South of the Arno River
When you see a in a listing, it means the sight is covered in an audio tour via my free Rick Steves Audio Europe app (see here).
The Duomo and Nearby Sights
A single combo-ticket covers all the paid Duomo sights. The main ticket office faces the Baptistery entrance (at #7 on the square) and has a staffed counter (credit cards or cash) as well as ticket machines (credit cards only, requires PIN); there’s another office at the Duomo Museum. You can buy cash-only tickets at the Campanile. Advance tickets are available online (www.museumflorence.com).
The Firenze Card also covers all the Duomo sights; pass holders must stop at the main ticket office to obtain a combo-ticket.
Florence’s Gothic cathedral has the third-longest nave in Christendom. The church’s noisy Neo-Gothic facade (from 1870) is covered with pink, green, and white Tuscan marble. The cathedral’s claim to artistic fame is Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome—the first Renaissance dome and the model for domes to follow. While viewing it from the outside is well worth ▲▲ and described earlier, on my Renaissance walk, the massive but empty-feeling interior is lucky to rate ▲—it doesn’t justify the massive crowds that line up to get inside. Much of the church’s great art is stored in the Duomo Museum behind the church.
Cost and Hours: Free; Mon-Fri 10:00-17:00, Thu until 16:00 May and Oct, until 16:30 Nov-April; Sat 10:00-16:45, Sun 13:30-16:45; opening times sometimes change due to religious functions, audioguide-€5, modest dress code enforced, tel. 055-230-2885, www.operaduomo.firenze.it.
Tours: Themed tours (€30 each) cover the Duomo (daily at 10:30), Baptistery mosaics (Mon, Wed, and Fri at 16:30), and the still-active workshop where Michelangelo carved David (Mon, Wed, and Fri at 12:00). To reserve, call 055-282-226, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to the ticket office next to the Baptistery.
The Duomo and Brunelleschi’s dome
The Duomo is covered on my free Renaissance Walk audio tour.
Rick’s Tip: The Duomo sights don’t take reservations, but you can skip the dome-climb line with a Firenze Card. (However, you can’t use the card to bypass the line at the Campanile or the Duomo.)
▲CLIMBING THE DUOMO’S DOME
For a grand view into the cathedral from the base of the dome, a peek at some of the tools used in the dome’s construction, a chance to see Brunelleschi’s “dome-within-a-dome” construction, a glorious Florence view from the top, and the equivalent of 463 plunges on a StairMaster, climb the dome. The claustrophobic one-way route takes you up narrow staircases and walkways to the top of the dome.
Rick’s Tip: If you’re claustrophobic or acrophobic, skip climbing the dome. Once you start up the narrow staircase, there’s no turning back until you reach the top. The slow climb to the top can feel like torture.
As you’re waiting in line, spend a few minutes studying the precious Donatello sculpture above the side entrance door, called the Porta della Mandorla (“Door of the Almond”): Madonna and Bambino are carried by angels in an almond-shaped frame, above delicately carved barrel leaf and Annunciation mosaics by Nanni di Banco. Even the side door of this cathedral boasts priceless works by masters.
Cost and Hours: €15 combo-ticket covers all Duomo sights, covered by Firenze Card, Mon-Fri 8:30-19:00, Sat 8:30-17:40, closed Sun, last entry 40 minutes before closing, crowds may subside at lunchtime (13:00-14:30) or near the end of the day, enter from outside church on north side.
The dome is covered on my free Renaissance Walk audio tour.
The 270-foot bell tower has 50-some fewer steps than the Duomo’s dome (but that’s still 414 steps—no elevator); offers a faster, relatively less-crowded climb (with typically shorter lines); and has a view of that magnificent dome to boot. On the way up, there are several intermediate levels where you can catch your breath and enjoy ever-higher views. The stairs narrow as you go up, creating a mosh-pit bottleneck near the top—but the views are worth the hassle. While the various viewpoints are enclosed by cage-like bars, the gaps are big enough to let you snap great photos. Still, acrophobes and claustrophobes should beware!
Cost and Hours: €15 ticket covers all Duomo sights, covered by Firenze Card, daily 8:30-19:30, last entry 40 minutes before closing.
The Campanile is covered on my free Renaissance Walk audio tour.
This is the octagonal building next to the Duomo. Check out the gleaming copies of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors facing the Duomo’s facade (the originals are in the Duomo Museum); Michelangelo said these doors were fit to be the gates of paradise. Making a breakthrough in perspective, Ghiberti used mathematical laws to create the illusion of receding distance on a basically flat surface. The doors on the north side of the building were designed by Ghiberti when he was young; he’d won the honor and opportunity by beating Brunelleschi in a competition (the rivals’ original entries are in the Bargello).
Last Judgment mosaic in the Baptistery
Cost and Hours: €15 ticket covers all Duomo sights, covered by Firenze Card, interior open Mon-Sat 11:15-19:00 except first Sat of month 8:30-14:00, Sun 8:30-14:00. The (facsimile) bronze doors are on the exterior, so they are always “open” and viewable.
The Baptistery is covered on my free Renaissance Walk audio tour.
Visiting the Baptistery: Workers from St. Mark’s in Venice came here to make the remarkable ceiling mosaics (of Venetian glass) in the late 1200s. Sit and savor the ceiling, where it’s always Judgment Day, giving us a glimpse of the medieval worldview. Life was a preparation for the afterlife, when you would be judged and saved, or judged and damned—with no in-between. Christ, peaceful and reassuring, blessed those at his right hand with heaven (thumbs-up) and sent those on his left to hell (the ultimate thumbs-down) to be tortured by demons.
The rest of the ceiling mosaics tell the history of the world, from Adam and Eve (over the north/entrance doors, top row) to Noah and the Flood (over south doors, top row), to the life of Christ (second row, all around), to the life, ministry, and eventual beheading of John the Baptist (bottom row, all around)—all bathed in the golden glow of pre-Renaissance heaven.
Brunelleschi’s dome, Ghiberti’s bronze doors, and Donatello’s statues define the 1400s (the Quattrocento) in Florence, when the city blossomed and classical arts were reborn. While copies now decorate the exteriors of the cathedral, Baptistery, and Campanile, the originals are restored and displayed safely indoors, filling the underrated Duomo Museum. The museum also has two powerful statues by Florence’s powerhouse sculptors—Donatello’s Mary Magdalene and Michelangelo’s Pietà), and holds Donatello’s playful choir loft. The museum has just reopened after a remodel—expect changes.
Cost and Hours: €15 combo-ticket covers all Duomo sights, covered by Firenze Card. Daily 9:00-19:00, last entry one hour before closing, one of the few museums in Florence always open on Mon, audioguide-€5, guided tours available in summer, Via del Proconsolo 9, tel. 055-282-226 or 055-230-7885, www.operaduomo.firenze.it.
Visiting the Duomo Museum: Start in the vast main hall on the ground floor. Right off, the hall puts the collection in context. There’s a model of the Duomo’s medieval facade, the statues that decorated it, and Ghiberti’s bronze doors that stood opposite the church.
The Renaissance began in 1401 with a citywide competition to build new doors for the Baptistery. Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378-1455) won the job and built the doors for the north side of the building. Everyone loved them, so he was then hired to make another set of doors—these panels—for the east entrance, facing the Duomo. These bronze “Gates of Paradise” (1425-1452) revolutionized the way Renaissance people saw the world around them.
Also on the ground floor are rooms dedicated to the museum’s most famous statues. Donatello’s Mary Magdalene (Maddalena, c. 1455), carved from white poplar and originally painted with realistic colors, is less a Renaissance work of beauty than a medieval object of intense devotion. The aging Michelangelo designed his own tomb, with this Pietà (1547-1555) as the centerpiece. Three mourners tend the broken body of the crucified Christ. We see Mary, his mother; Mary Magdalene (on the left); and Nicodemus, the converted Pharisee, whose face is that of Michelangelo himself. The polished body of Christ stands out from the unfinished background. Michelangelo (as Nicodemus), who spent a lifetime bringing statues to life by “freeing” them from the stone, looks down at what could be his final creation, the once-perfect body of Renaissance Man that is now twisted, disfigured, and dead. The figures seem to interact with each other, their sketchy faces changing emotions from grief to melancholy to acceptance.
The first floor displays two marble choir lofts (cantorie; by Lucca della Robbia and Donatello) that once sat above the sacristy doors of the Duomo, and Brunelleschi’s model of the dome.
North of the Duomo
This museum houses Michelangelo’s David, the consummate Renaissance statue of the buff, biblical shepherd boy ready to take on the giant. When you look into the eyes of this magnificent sculpture, you’re looking into the eyes of Renaissance Man.
Rick’s Tip: On the first Sunday of the month, all state museums are free. Free admission makes the Accademia impossibly crowded. Avoid visiting on that day.
Cost and Hours: €12.50 (or €8 if there’s no special exhibit), additional €4 for reservation, free and crowded on first Sun of the month, covered by Firenze Card; Tue-Sun 8:15-18:50, closed Mon; audioguide-€6, Via Ricasoli 60, reservation tel. 055-294-883, www.polomuseale.firenze.it. To bypass long lines in peak season, get the Firenze Card (see here) or make reservations (see here).
Download my free Accademia audio tour.
Visiting the Accademia: In 1501, Michelangelo Buonarroti, a 26-year-old Florentine, was commissioned to carve a large-scale work. The figure comes from a Bible story. The Israelites are surrounded by barbarian warriors, who are led by a brutish giant named Goliath. When the giant challenges the Israelites to send out someone to fight him, a young shepherd boy steps forward. Armed only with a sling, David defeats the giant. This 17-foot-tall symbol of divine victory over evil represents a new century and a whole new Renaissance outlook.
Originally, David was meant to stand on the roofline of the Duomo, but was placed more prominently at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio (where a copy stands today). In the 19th century, David was moved indoors for his own protection; he stands under a Renaissance-style dome designed just for him.
Nearby are some of the master’s other works, including his powerful (unfinished) Prisoners, St. Matthew, and a Pietà (possibly by one of his disciples). Michelangelo Buonarroti believed that the sculptor was a tool of God, responsible only for chipping away at the stone until the intended sculpture emerged.
▲▲MUSEUM OF SAN MARCO (MUSEO DI SAN MARCO)
Located one block north of the Accademia, this 15th-century monastery houses the greatest collection of frescoes and paintings by Renaissance master Fra Angelico. Upstairs are 43 cells decorated by Fra Angelico and his assistants. Trained in the medieval style, he adopted Renaissance techniques to produce works that blended Christian symbols with realism. Don’t miss the cell of Savonarola, the charismatic monk who threw out the Medici, and sponsored “bonfires of the vanities.”
Cost and Hours: €4, free and crowded on first Sun of the month, covered by Firenze Card, Tue-Fri 8:15-13:50, Sat 8:15-16:50; also open 8:15-13:50 on first, third, and fifth Mon and 8:15-16:50 on second and fourth Sun of each month; on Piazza San Marco, tel. 055-238-8608, www.polomuseale.firenze.it.
The burial site of the ruling Medici family in the Basilica of San Lorenzo includes the dusky crypt; the big, domed Chapel of Princes; and the magnificent New Sacristy, featuring architecture, tombs, and statues almost entirely by Michelangelo. The Medici made their money in textiles and banking, and patronized a dream team of Renaissance artists that put Florence on the cultural map. Michelangelo, who spent his teen years living with the Medici, was commissioned to create the family’s final tribute.
Cost and Hours: €8 (or €6 if no special exhibits), free and crowded on first Sun of the month, covered by Firenze Card; April-Oct Tue-Sat 8:15-16:50, Nov-March Tue-Sat 8:15-13:50; also open second and fourth Mon and first, third, and fifth Sun of each month; audioguide-€6, modest dress required, tel. 055-238-8602, www.polomuseale.firenze.it.
Florence’s giant iron-and-glass-covered central market is a wonderland of picturesque produce. While the San Lorenzo Market that fills the surrounding streets is only a step up from a flea market, Mercato Centrale retains its Florentine elegance.
Downstairs, you’ll see parts of the cow (and bull) you’d never dream of eating (no, that’s not a turkey neck), enjoy generous free samples, watch pasta being made, and have your pick of plenty of fun eateries sloshing out cheap and tasty pasta to locals (Mon-Fri 7:00-14:00, Sat 7:00-17:00, closed Sun).
Upstairs, the meticulously restored glass roof and steel rafters soar over a sleek and modern food court, serving up a bounty of Tuscan cuisine (daily 10:00-24:00). This is clearly Florence’s bid to have an upscale foodie market to call its own.
On and near Piazza della Signoria
This greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere features works by Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, and Michelangelo, and a roomful of Botticellis, including the Birth of Venus. Start with Giotto’s early stabs at Renaissance-style realism, then move on through the 3-D experimentation of the early 1400s to the real thing rendered by the likes of Botticelli and Leonardo. Finish off with Michelangelo and Titian. Because only 600 visitors are allowed inside the building at any one time, there’s generally a very long wait. The good news: no Louvre-style mob scenes inside. The museum is nowhere near as big as it is great. Few tourists spend more than two hours inside.
Rick’s Tip: The Uffizi is terribly crowded when it’s free, on the first Sunday of the month. Don’t visit on that day.
Cost and Hours: €12.50 (or €8 if there’s no special exhibit), extra €4 for reservation, free and crowded on first Sun of the month, covered by Firenze Card, Tue-Sun 8:15-18:35, closed Mon, audioguide-€6, reservation tel. 055-294-883, www.uffizi.firenze.it. To avoid the long ticket lines, get a Firenze Card (see here) or make reservations (see here).
Download my free Uffizi Gallery audio tour.
Getting In: There are several entrances; which one you use depends on whether you have a Firenze Card, a reservation, or neither.
Firenze Card holders enter at door #1 (labeled Reservation Entrance), close to Palazzo Vecchio. Get in the line for individuals, not groups.
People buying a ticket on the spot line up with everyone else at door #2, marked Main Entrance. (The wait can be hours long—an estimated wait time is posted.)
To buy a Firenze Card, or to see if there are any same-day reservations available (€4 extra), enter door #2 to the left of the same-day ticket-buying line (marked Booking Service and Today). Don’t get into the long ticket-buying line. The left side of the doorway is kept open for same-day reservation buyers.
If you’ve already made a reservation and need to pick up your ticket, go to door #3 (labeled Reservation Ticket Office, across the courtyard from doors #1 and #2, closer to the river). Tickets are available for pickup 10 minutes before your appointed time. If you booked online and have already prepaid, you’ll exchange your voucher for a ticket. If you booked by phone, give them your confirmation number and pay for the ticket. Then walk briskly past the ticket-buying line to door #1. Get in the correct queue—one is for groups, one for individuals.
Expect long waits even if you have a reservation or Firenze Card in hand. There may be a queue to pick up your reservation at door #3, another 30-minute wait to enter at door #1, and a slow shuffle through security.
Visiting the Uffizi: The Uffizi is U-shaped, running around the courtyard. The east wing contains Florentine paintings from medieval to Renaissance times. At the south end, you pass through a short hallway filled with sculpture. The west wing has later Florentine art (especially Michelangelo) and a café terrace facing the Duomo. Many more rooms of art are downstairs, showing how the Florentine Renaissance spread to Rome (Raphael) and Venice (Titian), and inspired the Baroque (Caravaggio).
Medieval (1200-1400): Paintings by Duccio, Cimabue, and Giotto show the baby steps being made from the flat Byzantine style toward realism. In his Madonna and Child with Angels, Giotto created a “stage” and peopled it with real beings. The triumph here is Mary herself—big and monumental, like a Roman statue. Beneath her robe, she has knees and breasts that stick out at us. This three-dimensionality was revolutionary, a taste of the Renaissance a century before it began.
Early Renaissance (mid-1400s): Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano is an early study in perspective with a few obvious flubs. Piero della Francesca’s Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza heralds the era of humanism and the new centrality of ordinary people in art. Fra Filippo Lippi’s radiant Madonnas are light years away from the generic Marys of the medieval era.
Renaissance (1450-1500): The Botticelli room is filled with masterpieces and classical fleshiness (the famous Birth of Venus and Spring), plus two minor works by Leonardo da Vinci. (If this room is under renovation, the paintings are in Room 41.) Here is the Renaissance in its first bloom. This is a return to the pagan world of classical Greece, where things of the flesh are not sinful. Madonna is out; Venus is in.
Classical Sculpture: The foundation of the Renaissance was classical sculpture. Sculptors, painters, and poets turned for inspiration to ancient Greek and Roman works as the epitome of balance, 3-D perspective, human anatomy, and beauty.
In the Tribune Room, the highlight is the Venus de’ Medici, a Roman copy of the lost original of the great Greek sculptor Praxiteles’ Aphrodite. Balanced, harmonious, and serene, this statue was considered the epitome of beauty and sexuality in Renaissance Florence.
The sculpture hall has 2,000-year-old copies of 2,500-year-old Greek originals...and the best view in Florence of the Arno River and Ponte Vecchio through the window, dreamy at sunset.
High Renaissance (1500-1550): Don’t miss Michelangelo’s Holy Family, the only surviving completed easel painting by the greatest sculptor in history (in the Michelangelo Room).
After a break to enjoy Duomo views from the café terrace, head downstairs to find Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, with Mary and the Baby Jesus brought down from heaven into the real world (Room 66), and Titian’s voluptuous Venus of Urbino (Room 83).
More Art on the Lower Floor: On your way out, you’ll see temporary exhibitions and works by foreign painters. It’s worth pausing in Room 90 for works by Caravaggio.
Nearby: The statue-filled Uffizi courtyard and Loggia dei Lanzi are covered in the Renaissance Walk on here and in my free Renaissance Walk audio tour.
Titian, Venus of Urbino
This fortress with the 300-foot spire dominates Florence’s main square. In Renaissance times, it was the Town Hall, where citizens pioneered the once-radical notion of self-rule. Its official name—Palazzo della Signoria—refers to the elected members of the city council. In 1540, the tyrant Cosimo I made the building his personal palace, redecorating the interior in lavish style. Today the building functions once again as the Town Hall.
Entry to the ground-floor courtyard is free, so even if you don’t go upstairs to the museum, you can step inside and feel the essence of the Medici. Paying customers can see Cosimo’s lavish royal apartments, decorated with paintings and statues by Michelangelo and Donatello. The highlight is the 13,000-square-foot Grand Hall (Salone dei Cinquecento), lined with frescoes and statues.
Cost and Hours: Courtyard-free to enter, museum-€10, tower climb-€10 (418 steps), museum plus tower-€14, museum and tower covered by Firenze Card (first pick up ticket at ground-floor info desk before entering museum). Museum is open April-Sept Fri-Wed 9:00-24:00, Thu 9:00-14:00; Oct-March Fri-Wed 9:00-19:00, Thu 9:00-14:00; tower has similar but shorter hours (last entry to either is one hour before closing); videoguide-€5, English tours available, Piazza della Signoria, tel. 055-276-8224, http://museicivicifiorentini.comune.fi.it.
▲▲GALILEO SCIENCE MUSEUM
When we think of the Renaissance, we think of visual arts: painting, mosaics, architecture, and sculpture. But when the visual arts declined in the 1600s (abused and co-opted by political powers), music and science flourished. Florence hosted many scientific breakthroughs, as you’ll see in this collection of clocks, telescopes, maps, and ingenious gadgets. Trace the technical innovations as modern science emerges from 1000 to 1900. Exhibits include various tools for gauging the world, from a compass and thermometer to Galileo’s telescopes. Some of the most talked about bottles in Florence are the ones here that contain Galileo’s fingers. The museum is friendly, comfortably cool, never crowded, and just a block east of the Uffizi on the Arno River.
Cost and Hours: €9, €22 family ticket, covered by Firenze Card, Wed-Mon 9:30-18:00, Tue 9:30-13:00, guided tours available, Piazza dei Giudici 1, tel. 055-265-311, www.museogalileo.it.
East of Piazza della Signoria
The Renaissance began with sculpture—the great Florentine painters were “sculptors with brushes.” You can see the birth of this revolution of 3-D in the Bargello (bar-JEL-oh), which boasts the best collection of Florentine sculpture. Housed in a former police station, this small, uncrowded museum is a pleasure to visit.
Highlights include Donatello’s influential, painfully beautiful David (the first male nude to be sculpted in a thousand years), multiple works by Michelangelo, and rooms of Medici treasures. Moody Donatello, who embraced realism with his lifelike statues, set the personal and artistic style for many Renaissance artists to follow. The best pieces are in the ground-floor room at the foot of the outdoor staircase (with fine works by Michelangelo, Cellini, and Giambologna) and in the “Donatello room” directly above (including his two different Davids, plus Ghiberti and Brunelleschi’s revolutionary dueling door panels and yet another David by Verrocchio).
Cost and Hours: €7 (or €4 if no special exhibits), cash only, free and crowded on first Sun of the month, covered by Firenze Card, Tue-Sat 8:15-17:00—or until 13:50 if no special exhibits; also open these times on the second and fourth Mon and the first, third, and fifth Sun of each month; reservations possible but unnecessary, audioguide-€6 (€10/2 people), Via del Proconsolo 4, tel. 055-238-8606, www.polomuseale.firenze.it.
▲▲SANTA CROCE CHURCH
This 14th-century Franciscan church, decorated with centuries of precious art, holds the tombs of great Florentines. The loud 19th-century Victorian Gothic facade faces a huge square ringed with tempting shops and littered with footsore tourists. Escape into the church and admire its sheer height and spaciousness.
Cost and Hours: €6, covered by Firenze Card, Mon-Sat 9:30-17:30, Sun 14:00-17:30, multimedia guide-€6 (€8/2 people), modest dress required, 10-minute walk east of Palazzo Vecchio along Borgo de’ Greci, tel. 055-246-6105, www.santacroceopera.it. The leather school, at the back of the church, is free and sells church tickets—handy when the church has a long line (daily 10:00-18:00, closed Sun Nov-March, has own entry behind church, plus an entry within church, www.scuoladelcuoio.com).
Visiting the Church: On the left wall (as you face the altar) is the tomb of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the Pisan who lived his last years under house arrest near Florence. His crime? Defying the Church by saying that the earth revolved around the sun. His heretical remains were only allowed in the church long after his death.
Santa Croce Church
Directly opposite (on the right wall) is the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Santa Croce was Michelangelo’s childhood church, as he grew up a block west of here. Farther up the nave is the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), a champion of democratic Florence and author of The Prince, a how-to manual on hardball politics—which later Medici rulers found instructive.
The first chapel to the right of the main altar features the famous Death of St. Francis fresco by Giotto. With simple but eloquent gestures, Francis’ brothers bid him a sad farewell. In the hallway near the bookstore, notice the photos of the devastating flood of 1966. Beyond that is the leather school (free entry).
Exit between the Rossini and Machiavelli tombs into the delightful cloister (peaceful open-air courtyard). On the left, enter Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, which captures the Renaissance in miniature.
Near the Train Station
▲▲CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
This 13th-century Dominican church is rich in art. Along with crucifixes by Giotto and Brunelleschi, it contains every textbook’s example of the early Renaissance mastery of perspective: The Trinity by Masaccio. The exquisite chapels trace art in Florence from medieval times to early Baroque. The outside of the church features a dash of Romanesque (horizontal stripes), Gothic (pointed arches), Renaissance (geometric shapes), and Baroque (scrolls). Step in and look down the 330-foot nave for a 14th-century optical illusion.
Next to the church are the cloisters and the museum, located in the old Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella. Its highlight is the breathtaking Spanish Chapel, with walls covered by a series of frescoes by Andrea di Bonaiuto.
Cost and Hours: Church and museum-€5, covered by Firenze Card, Mon-Thu 9:00-17:30, Fri 11:00-17:30, Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 12:00-17:00 July-Sept (Sun from 13:00 Oct-June), last entry 45 minutes before closing, audioguide-€5, modest dress required, main entrance on Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Firenze Card holders must enter behind the church at Piazza della Stazione 4, tel. 055-219-257, www.chiesasantamarianovella.it.
South of the Arno River
Pitti Palace, several blocks southwest of Ponte Vecchio, offers many reasons for a visit: the palace itself, with its imposing exterior and lavish interior; the second-best collection of paintings in town; the statue-dotted Boboli Gardens; and a host of secondary museums. Focus on the highlights: the painting collection in the Palatine Gallery, plus the sumptuous rooms of the Royal Apartments. The paintings pick up where the Uffizi leaves off, at the High Renaissance. Lovers of Raphael’s Madonnas and Titian’s portraits will find some of the world’s best here. If it’s a nice day, take a stroll in the inviting Boboli Gardens, a rare patch of green space within old Florence.
You can’t buy a ticket for the Palatine Gallery alone; to see it you’ll need to buy ticket #1, which includes the Palatine Gallery, Royal Apartments, and Gallery of Modern Art. Ticket #2 covers the Boboli and Bardini Gardens, Costume Gallery, Argenti/Silverworks Museum, and Porcelain Museum. Behind door #3 is a combo-ticket covering the whole shebang.
Cost and Hours: Ticket #1—€13 (€8.50 if no special exhibits), Tue-Sun 8:15-18:50, closed Mon, last entry 45 minutes before closing. Ticket #2—€10 (€7 if no special exhibits), daily June-Aug 8:15-19:30, April-May and Sept-Oct 8:15-18:30, March 8:15-17:30, Nov-Feb 8:15-16:30, closed first and last Mon of each month, last entry one hour before closing. Ticket #3—€11.50, valid 3 days, not available during special exhibitions. The place is free and crowded on the first Sun of the month, and everything is covered by the Firenze Card (except the Bardini Gardens—an additional €6 for cardholders). The €8 audioguide (€13/2 people) explains the sprawling palace. Tel. 055-238-8614, www.polomuseale.firenze.it.
Visiting Pitti Palace: In the Palatine Gallery you’ll walk through one palatial room after another, walls sagging with masterpieces by 16th- and 17th-century masters, including Rubens, Titian, and Rembrandt. The Pitti’s Raphael collection is the second-biggest anywhere—the Vatican beats it by one. Each room has some descriptions in English, though the paintings themselves have limited English labels.
The collection is all on one floor. To see the highlights, walk straight down the spine through a dozen or so rooms. Before you exit, consider a visit to the Royal Apartments. These 14 rooms (of which only a few are open at any one time) are where the Pitti’s rulers lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. Each room features a different color and time period. Here, you get a real feel for the splendor of the dukes’ world.
The rest of Pitti Palace is skippable, unless the various sights match your interests: the Gallery of Modern Art (second floor; Romantic, Neoclassical, and Impressionist works by 19th- and 20th-century Tuscan painters), Argenti/Silverworks Museum (ground and mezzanine floors; Medici treasures from jeweled crucifixes to gilded ostrich eggs), Costume Gallery, Porcelain Museum, and Boboli and Bardini gardens (behind the palace; enter from Pitti Palace courtyard—be prepared to climb uphill).
For the best look at works by Masaccio (one of the early Renaissance pioneers of perspective in painting), see his restored frescoes here. Instead of medieval religious symbols, Masaccio’s paintings feature simple, strong human figures with facial expressions that reflect their emotions. The accompanying works of Masolino and Filippino Lippi provide illuminating contrasts.
Your ticket includes a 20-minute film (English subtitles) on the chapel, the frescoes, and Renaissance Florence; find it in the room next to the bookstore. (If the film’s not showing, consider the €2 videoguide.) The film’s computer animation brings the paintings to 3-D life, while narration describes the events depicted in the panels. The film takes liberties with the art, but it’s the best way to see the frescoes close up.
Masaccio, Expulsion from the Garden of Eden
Cost and Hours: €6, cash only, covered by Firenze Card; free and easy reservations required if you don’t have a Firenze Card (see next); Mon and Wed-Sat 10:00-17:00, Sun 13:00-17:00, closed Tue, last entry 45 minutes before closing; free 20-minute film, videoguide-€2, knees and shoulders must be covered; in Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, on Piazza del Carmine in Oltrarno neighborhood; reservations tel. 055-276-8224 or 055-276-8558, ticket desk tel. 055-284-361, http://museicivicifiorentini.comune.fi.it.
Reservations: Although reservations are required, on weekdays and any day off-season, it’s often possible to walk right in, especially if you come before 15:30. To reserve in advance, call the chapel a day ahead (tel. 055-276-8224 or 055-276-8558, English spoken, call center open Mon-Sat 9:30-13:00 & 14:00-17:00, Sun 9:30-12:30). You can also try reserving via email (email@example.com).
Overlooking the city from across the river (look for the huge bronze statue of David), this square has a superb view of Florence and the stunning dome of the Duomo. It’s worth the 30-minute hike, short drive, or bus ride.
The best cityscape photos are taken from the street immediately below the overlook (go around to the right and down a few steps). Nearby is an an inviting café (open seasonally) with great views. Off the west side of the piazza is a hidden terrace, excellent for a retreat from the mobs. After dark, the square is packed with school kids licking ice cream and each other. About 200 yards beyond is the stark, beautiful, crowd-free, Romanesque San Miniato Church. A WC is located just off the road, halfway between the two sights.
Getting There (and Back): It makes sense to take a taxi or ride the bus up and then enjoy the easy downhill walk back into town. Bus #12 takes you up (departs from train station, near Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, and just over the Ponte alla Carraia bridge on Oltrarno side of river; takes 20-30 minutes, longer in bad traffic).
The view from Piazzale Michelangelo
The hike down is quick and enjoyable (or take bus #13 back down). Find the steps between the two bars on the San Miniato Church side of the parking lot (Via San Salvatore al Monte). At the first landing (marked #3), peek into the rose garden (Giardino delle Rose). After a few minutes, you’ll walk through the old wall (Porta San Miniato) and emerge in the funky little neighborhood of San Niccolò in the Oltrarno.
One of Europe’s best shopping towns, Florence has been known for its sense of style since the Medici days. Smaller stores are generally open about 9:00-13:00 and 15:30-19:30, usually closed on Sunday, often closed on Monday (or at least Monday morning), and sometimes closed for a couple of weeks around August 15. Bigger stores have similar hours, without the afternoon break.
Busy street scenes and markets abound. The vast open-air San Lorenzo Market sprawls in the streets ringing Mercato Centrale, between the Duomo and the train station (daily 9:00-19:00, closed Mon in winter). Originally a silk and straw market, Mercato Nuovo still functions as a rustic yet touristy market at the intersection of Via Calimala and Via Porta Rossa. It’s where you’ll find Il Porcellino (a statue of a wild boar nicknamed “The Piglet”), which people rub and give coins to ensure their return to Florence. Other shopping areas can be found near Santa Croce and on Ponte Vecchio. At stalls or shops, prices are soft—don’t be shy about bargaining, especially at San Lorenzo.
Leather jackets and handbags, perfume and cosmetics, edible goodies, and stationery are popular souvenirs. For authentic, locally produced wares, look for shops displaying the Esercizi Storici Fiorentini (“Historical Florentine Ventures”) seal, with a picture of Palazzo Vecchio’s tower. You may pay a premium, but you can be assured of quality (for a list of shops, see www.esercizistorici.it).
The area between the Arno River and the cathedral is busy with fashion boutiques; browse along Via della Vigna Nuova (runs west from Via de’ Tornabuoni) and Via degli Strozzi (runs east from Via de’ Tornabuoni to Piazza della Repubblica). A tempting string of streets—Borgo Santi Apostoli, Via del Parione, and Borgo Ognissanti—runs parallel to the river one block inland, from near the Uffizi westward.
Across the river in the Oltrarno, known for its artisanal workshops, a short walk past the tourist crowds takes you to some less-discovered zones: near Pitti Palace, and the main street parallel to the river (Borgo San Jacopo to Via di Santo Spirito). Pick up the brochure “A Tour of Artisan Workshops” from the TI or at participating shops.
For me, nighttime is for dining, catching a concert, strolling through the old town with a gelato, or hitting one of the many pubs. Get the latest on nightlife from The Florentine magazine (free from TI, www.theflorentine.net) or Firenze Spettacolo (sold at newsstands, www.firenzespettacolo.it), or check www.firenzeturismo.it.
Strolling After Dark: Join the parade of locals on their evening passegiata, strolling from the Duomo to the Arno on Via de’ Calzaiuoli, enjoying cafés, gelato shops, great people-watching, and street performers. Pop into a wine bar (enoteca) to sample regional wines by the glass or a plate of meats and cheeses. (Psst. Near the Duomo, find La Congrega Lounge Bar—a tiny retreat on a tiny lane just off the main pedestrian drag, at Via Tosinghi 3/4 red.) End at the Arno, to stand atop Ponte Vecchio and watch the sun set, the moon rise, and lovers kiss.
Lively squares include Piazzale Michelangelo’s marvelous viewpoint, Piazza della Repubblica (with a carousel and street musicians), Piazza Santa Croce (with popular, youthful Moyo bar nearby, at Via de’ Benci 23 red), and Piazza di Santo Spirito (with trendy Volume and Pop Café on this Oltrarno square).
Live Music: Orsanmichele Church hosts chamber music under its Gothic arches (tickets sold on day of concert from door facing Via de’ Calzaiuoli). Santo Stefano Church, near Ponte Vecchio, hosts concerts nearly nightly at 21:15 (on Piazza San Stefano, tel. 055-289-367, www.notearmoniche.com).
The recommended Golden View Open Bar, a river-view restaurant near Ponte Vecchio, has live jazz several nights a week at 21:00 (see here). The Box Office sells tickets for rock concerts and more (Via delle Vecchie Carceri 1, tel. 055-210-804, www.boxofficetoscana.it).
Ponte Vecchio after dark
Sightseeing: Some sights stay open later, such as Palazzo Vecchio, allowing you to extend your sightseeing into the evening (see “Daily Reminder” on here).
Movies: Find English-language films at Odeon Cinema (near Piazza della Repubblica on Piazza Strozzi, tel. 055-214-068, www.odeonfirenze.com).
Restaurants in Florence like to serve what’s fresh. Seasonal ingredients are featured in the piatti del giorno (specials of the day) section on menus. Foodies should consider purchasing Elizabeth Minchilli’s excellent app, Eat Florence (www.elizabethminchilliinrome.com).
Budget Eating: To save money and time, you can keep lunches fast and simple by eating at pizzerias, self-service cafeterias, or the countless sandwich shops and stands (though you may want to avoid the trippa carts selling tripe sandwiches—a prized local specialty).
Picnicking is easy. You can picnic your way through Mercato Centrale. You’ll also find good supermercati throughout the city. I like the classy Sapori & Dintorni markets (run by Conad), which has branches near the Duomo (Borgo San Lorenzo 15 red) and just over Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrarno (Via de Bardi 45). Despar is another handy grocery chain (there’s one around the corner from the Duomo Museum at Via dell’Oriuolo 66).
Mercato Centrale and Nearby
In Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale (Central Market) is a foodie wonderland.
Ground Floor: The market zone, with lots of raw ingredients and a few humble food counters, is open only through lunchtime (Mon-Fri 7:00-14:00, Sat 7:00-17:00, closed Sun). Buy a picnic of fresh mozzarella cheese, olives, fruit, and crunchy bread to munch on the steps of the nearby Basilica of San Lorenzo. The fancy deli, Perini, is famous for its quality (pricey) products and enticing display. For a sit-down meal, head for Nerbone in the Market. Join the shoppers and workers who crowd the bar to grab their €4-7 plates, and then find a stool at the cramped shared tables nearby (lunch menu served Mon-Sat 12:00-14:00, sandwiches available from 8:00 until the bread runs out, closed Sun, cash only, on the side closest to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, mobile 339-648-0251). Its less-famous sisters, nearby, have better seating and fewer crowds.
Upstairs: Under a gleaming glass roof, a dozen upscale food counters let you browse for your perfect meal. Each is labeled with the type of food and proprietor—a Who’s Who of Florentine chefs. Grab what you want—pizza, pasta, fish, meat, salumi, lampredotto, wine—and pull up a stool at one of the tables between the stalls. Higher up, there are restaurants with designated seating and table service: a casual pizzeria on one side, and a more formal place on the other. These eateries are open longer than the traditional, downstairs places—for lunch, dinner, and on Sunday, too (daily 10:00-24:00, www.mercatocentrale.it).
The best ice cream in Italy—maybe the world—is in Florence. But beware of scams at touristy joints that turn a simple request for a cone into a €10 rip-off. Survey the options and specify the size you want—for example, un cono da tre euro (a €3 cone).
All of these places, a cut above, are open daily for long hours:
Near the Accademia: Gelateria Carabè is famous for granite (Italian ices made with fresh fruit). Try a cremolata: a granita with a dollop of gelato (Via Ricasoli 60 red; from the Accademia, it’s a block toward the Duomo).
Between the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio: Grom, near the Duomo, touts its organic ingredients (Via delle Oche 24 red). Creative Perchè No! is near Orsanmichele Church, just off busy Via de’ Calzaiuoli (Via dei Tavolini 19). Mod Carapina, near Ponte Vecchio, has unusual flavors and seasonal ingredients (Via Lambertesca 18 red).
Near the Church of Santa Croce: Gelateria de’ Neri has a wide array of enticing flavors (Via dei Neri 9 red).
In the Oltrarno: Tiny Il Gelato di Filo boasts some of Florence’s best gelato (Via San Miniato 5 red). Gelateria della Passera is classy and popular (Via Toscanella 15, between Pitti Palace and the Brancacci Chapel).
Near Mercato Centrale
If you can’t find what you want in the market itself, consider one of these alternatives on the surrounding streets. These eateries skew to an especially touristy clientele.
Trattoria Mario, serving hearty lunches since 1953, has a simple formula: no-frills, bustling service, old-fashioned good value, and shared tables. It’s cucina casalinga—home cooking con brio. Their best dishes (ribollita, bean soup, amatriciana) often sell out, so go early (€5-6 pastas, €8 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:00-15:30, closed Sun and Aug, no reservations, cash only, Via Rosina 2, tel. 055-218-550).
Pepò, colorful and charming, offers a short menu of Florentine classics, such as melanzane parmigiana (eggplant parmesan) and pollo alla cacciatora (chicken cacciatore). It’s an easy neighborhood fallback where you won’t feel like you’ve settled for second-best (€9-10 pastas, €11-14 secondi, daily 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:30, Via Rosina 4 red, tel. 055-283-259).
Trattoria Gozzi Sergio is a classic neighborhood lunch place, serving basic Florentine since 1915—long before the tourist crush (€6 pastas, €10 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:00-15:00, closed Sun, reservations smart, Piazza di San Lorenzo 8, tel. 055-281-941).
Near the Duomo
Enoteca Coquinarius—hip and welcoming—has a slow food ethic and great €15 salads and €10 pastas (open daily, a couple blocks south of the Duomo at Via delle Oche 11 red, tel. 055-230-2153).
Miso di Riso Vegetarian Bistro serves nothing with eyeballs. You’ll find organic, seasonal, and vegan dishes—especially great salads—and an inviting garden courtyard (€10 lunch plates, €13 dinner plates, Tue-Sun 10:00-23:00, closed Mon, Borgo degli Albizi 54 red, tel. 055-265-4094).
Self-Service Ristorante Leonardo is a quick, no-frills, inexpensive, air-conditioned cafeteria. The food, with lots of veggies, is better than many table-service eateries in this part of town. It’s just a block from the Duomo, southwest of the Baptistery (€5 primi, €6-7 main courses, daily 11:45-14:45 & 18:45-21:45, upstairs at Via Pecori 11, tel. 055-284-446).
Paszkowski, a grand café on Piazza della Repubblica, serves quick, inexpensive lunches. Order a salad, €6 plate of pasta, or cooked veggies (or half-and-half for €7), pay the cashier, and find a seat upstairs. Better yet, eat at one of the tables on the square—you can sit on the right side of the terrace for no extra charge. Full-table service prices are much higher (daily 7:00-24:00, lunch served 12:00-15:00, Piazza della Repubblica 35 red—northwest corner, tel. 055-210-236).
EATaly is part of a growing chain of foodie mini-malls that are popping up in big Italian cities (as well as in New York City, thanks to part-owner Mario Batali). This slick, modern space just a half-block from the Duomo includes an espresso counter; a soft-serve gelato counter and tempting pastry shop; a high-end grocery store; and, in back, a cluster of food counters serving €9-12 pastas and pizzas and €10-16 secondi. It’s a handy place to assemble a gourmet picnic or stock up on edible souvenirs (daily 9:00-22:30, restaurants open 12:00-15:30 and from 19:00, Via de’ Martelli 22 red, tel. 055-015-3601).
Near Piazza della Signoria
Piazza della Signoria, the scenic square facing Palazzo Vecchio, is ringed by beautifully situated yet touristy eateries serving overpriced and probably microwaved food. You’ll find better values off the square.
Colorful Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori serves a fun, accessible menu of delicious €8-10 pastas and €9-15 secondi (Mon-Sat 12:30-14:30 & 19:30-22:30, closed Sun, reserve for dinner; a half-block north of Palazzo Vecchio at Via dei Magazzini 3 red; facing the bronze equestrian statue in Piazza della Signoria, go behind its tail into the corner and to your left; tel. 055-293-045).
Frescobaldi Ristorante and Wine Bar, the showcase of Italy’s aristocratic wine family, is a good choice for a formal dinner. Candlelight reflects off glasses of wine, and high-vaulted ceilings complement the sophisticated dishes. Make a reservation and dress up. The same seasonal menu is available in their cozy wine bar and at a few outside tables, with a lighter wine-bar menu at lunch (€11-15 appetizers and pastas, €19-26 secondi, daily 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:30, air-con, a half-block north of Palazzo Vecchio at Via dei Magazzini 2 red, tel. 055-284-724, www.deifrescobaldi.it).
Cheap, Simple Fare
Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, a long-established bakery/café/wine bar, serves delightful sandwich plates in an old-time setting. Their selezione Verrazzano is a fine plate of four little crostini (€7.50). The tagliere di focacce, a sampler plate of mini-focaccia sandwiches, is also fun (€16 for big plate for two). Add a €6 glass of Chianti to make a fine, light meal. They also have benches and tiny tables for eating at takeout prices (Mon-Sat 8:00-21:00, Sun 10:00-16:30, just off Via de’ Calzaiuoli, across from Orsanmichele Church at Via dei Tavolini 18, tel. 055-268-590).
I Fratellini, a little hole-in-the-wall place, has served sandwiches and a wonderful selection of wine at great prices since 1875. Join the local crowd to order, then sit on a nearby curb to eat, placing your glass on the wall rack before you leave. It’s worth ordering the most expensive wine they’re selling by the glass (€3 sandwiches, daily 9:00-19:30 or until the bread runs out, 20 yards in front of Orsanmichele Church on Via dei Cimatori, tel. 055-239-6096).
Café with a View
Head to Caffè La Terrazza if you’re willing to pay extra to enjoy a drink surrounded by Florentine splendor. Perched on the rooftop of La Rinascente department store overlooking Piazza della Repubblica, you’re paying for one of the best views of the Duomo, which looms gloriously on the horizon (€6 coffee drinks).
Dining in the Oltrarno, south of the Arno River, offers a more authentic experience. While it’s just a few minutes’ walk from Ponte Vecchio, it sees far fewer tourists.
At cooking classes, you’ll typically spend a couple of hours cooking, then sit down to a hard-earned meal. The options listed below represent only a few of your many choices. As this is a fast-changing scene, it’s worth doing some homework online and booking well ahead.
In Tavola is a dedicated cooking school in the Oltrarno, featuring Italian, English-speaking chefs who quickly demonstrate each step before setting you loose. You’ll work in a kitchen, then eat in the cozy wine cellar (€53-73/person, between Pitti Palace and Brancacci Chapel at Via dei Velluti 18 red, tel. 055-217-672, www.intavola.org, firstname.lastname@example.org, Fabrizio).
Both Artviva and Florencetown (listed under “Tours” on here) offer cooking classes and a 10 percent discount to my readers (Artviva: €53-68/person; Florencetown: €85/person for 5-hour class that includes shopping for the food you’ll cook; €49/person for 3-hour pizza- and gelato-making class).
Dining or Drinking with a Ponte Vecchio View
Signorvino is a wine shop with an enoteca (simple wine-bar restaurant) that has a terrace literally over the river with Ponte Vecchio views. It’s a fun-loving place with no pretense yet a passion for quality Italian ingredients. They serve €10 regional dishes, plates of tasty meats and cheeses, and fine wines by the glass. You can also choose a bottle from their fairly-priced selection and drink it at the table. Call to reserve (daily 12:00-23:00, Via dei Bardi 46 red, tel. 055-286-258, www.signorvino.com).
Golden View Open Bar, a noisy and touristy bistro, is good for a salad, pizza, or pasta with wine and a fine view of Ponte Vecchio. Its white, minimalist interior is a stark contrast to atmospheric old Florence. Their impressive wine bar serves a buffet of appetizers free with your €10 drink from 19:00 to 21:30 (jazz usually Mon, Fri, and Sat nights at 21:00). Make a reservation for a window table. They have three seating areas (with the same menu and prices): a riverside pizza place, a classier restaurant, and a jazzy lounge (€10 pizzas, €11-16 pastas, big €13 salads, €20-30 secondi, daily 11:30-24:00, 50 yards east of Ponte Vecchio at Via dei Bardi 58, tel. 055-214-502, www.goldenviewopenbar.com).
On or near Piazza di Santo Spirito
Piazza di Santo Spirito is a thriving neighborhood square with a collection of lively eateries and bars. Several bars offer aperitivo buffets with their drinks during happy hour. Late in the evening the area becomes a clubbing scene.
Gusta Osteria, just around the corner from the piazza, serves predictable Tuscan fare at fun, cozy indoor seating or at outdoor tables (€10-12 secondi, open long hours Tue-Sun, closed Mon, Via de’ Michelozzi 13, tel. 055-289-033). Its cheaper sister restaurant, Gustapanino, is a sandwich bar directly on the square.
At Trattoria Casalinga, an inexpensive standby, Florentines enjoy the tripe and tongue while tourists opt for easier to swallow Tuscan favorites (€7 pastas, €9-11 secondi, Mon-Sat 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:00, after 20:00 reserve or wait, closed Sun and Aug, just off Piazza di Santo Spirito, near the church at Via de’ Michelozzi 9 red, tel. 055-218-624, www.trattorialacasalinga.it, Andrea and Paolo).
These are my favorite restaurants in the Oltrarno. Make reservations for dinner or come early.
Il Santo Bevitore Ristorante, lit like a Rembrandt painting, serves creative Tuscan cuisine. They’re enthusiastic about matching local produce with the right wine and have a good wine list by the glass or bottle (€9-12 pastas, €8-12 meat-and-cheese taglieri, €10-18 secondi, daily 12:30-14:30 & 19:30-22:30, closed Sun for lunch, three tables on sidewalk, Via di Santo Spirito 64 red, tel. 055-211-264, www.ilsantobevitore.com). Next door, sister wine bar Enoteca Il Santino Gastronomia is a cozy hangout for foodies (daily 12:30-23:00, no reservations, Via di Santo Spirito 60 red, tel. 055-230-2820).
Popular Trattoria 4 Leoni creates the quintessential Oltrarno dinner scene, serving Tuscan food with an innovative twist. Enjoy the energy and characteristic seating, both inside and outside on the colorful square. Wines by the glass are pricey, but the house wine is good (€10-14 primi, €12-15 secondi, daily 12:00-24:00, on Piazza della Passera, midway between Ponte Vecchio and Piazza di Santo Spirito, tel. 055-218-562, www.4leoni.com).
Olio & Convivium, a top-end catering company, showcases their artful, slow-food cooking in three intimate rooms surrounded by fine prosciutti, cheeses, and wine shelves. Well-dressed foodies will appreciate the clubby atmosphere (€14-18 pastas, €14-25 gastronomia plates, €20-22 secondi, €18 lunches with wine, €40 and €45 tasting menus, Tue-Sun 12:00-14:30 & 19:00-22:30, closed Mon, Via di Santo Spirito 4, tel. 055-265-8198, Tommaso).
Competition among Florence hotels is stiff. When things slow down, fancy hotels drop their prices and become a much better value for travelers than the cheap, low-end places. Nearly all of my recommended accommodations are located in the center of Florence, within minutes of the great sights. If arriving by train, you can either walk (usually around 10 minutes) or take a taxi (roughly €6-8), as buses don’t cover the city center well.
Florence is notorious for its mosquitoes. If your hotel lacks air-conditioning, request a fan and don’t open your windows, especially at night. Many hotels furnish a small plug-in bulb (zanzariere)—usually set in the ashtray—to keep the blood-suckers at bay. If not, you can purchase one cheaply at any pharmacy (farmacia).
Rick’s Tip: Your hotelier may be able to reserve entry times for you at the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia (Michelangelo’s David). Ask when you book your room.
Near the Duomo
While touristy—and expensive—this location puts just about everything at your doorstep.
$$$ Hotel Duomo’s 24 rooms are modern and comfortable enough, but you’re paying for the location and the views of the Duomo. It’s an extra €20 for a “superior” room with a view (Sb-€115, Db-€165-190, Tb-€230, 10 percent discount with this book if you pay cash, air-con, historic elevator, Piazza del Duomo 1, fourth floor, tel. 055-219-922, www.hotelduomofirenze.it, email@example.com).
$$ Residenza Giotto B&B is on Florence’s upscale shopping drag. In the top floor of a 19th-century building, it has six bright, basic rooms (three with Duomo views) and a terrace with knockout views of the Duomo’s tower. Let them know your arrival time in advance (reception generally open Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, Sun 9:00-13:00; Sb-€100, Db-€139, view rooms-€10 extra, extra bed-€25, 10 percent discount if you book direct and pay cash, air-con, elevator, Via Roma 6, tel. 055-214-593, www.residenzagiotto.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Abbreviations: S=Single, D=Double/Twin, T=Triple, Q=Quad, b=bathroom
Price Rankings for Double Rooms: $$$ Most rooms €160 or more, $$ €100-160, $ €100 or less
Notes: Many Italian cities levy a hotel tax of €1.50-5 per person, per night (often collected in cash; usually not included in the rates I’ve quoted). Room prices change; verify rates online or by email. For the best prices, book directly with the hotel.
North of the Duomo
Near the Accademia
$$$ Hotel dei Macchiaioli offers 15 fresh, spacious rooms in a restored palazzo owned for generations by a well-to-do family. Eat breakfast under original frescoed ceilings while enjoying modern comforts (Sb-€100, Db-€180, Tb-€240, 10 percent Rick Steves discount if you book directly with hotel and pay cash, air-con, Via Cavour 21, tel. 055-213-154, www.hoteldeimacchiaioli.com, email@example.com, helpful Francesca and Paolo).
$$ Residenza dei Pucci rents 13 pleasant rooms spread over three floors. The mix of soothing earth tones and aristocratic furniture makes it feel upscale for this price range (Sb-€140, Db-€155, Tb-€175, Qb suite-€243, 10 percent discount with this book if you pay cash, air-con, no elevator, reception open 9:00-20:00, shorter hours off-season—let them know if you’ll arrive late, Via dei Pucci 9, tel. 055-281-886, www.residenzadeipucci.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Morandi alla Crocetta, a former convent, envelops you in a 16th-century cocoon. Located on a quiet street with 12 rooms, period furnishings, parquet floors, and original frescoes, it takes you back a few centuries and up a few social classes (Sb-€105, Db-€157, Tb-€187, Qb-€207, big “superior” room-€30 extra, air-con, no elevator, a block off Piazza S.S. Annunziata at Via Laura 50, tel. 055-234-4747, www.hotelmorandi.it, email@example.com).
$$ Hotel Europa, family run since 1970, has an inviting atmosphere, a spacious breakfast room, and 12 rooms, most with views of the Duomo, including one with a terrace (Sb-€89, Db-€150, Tb-€180, Qb-€250, 10 percent discount if you pay cash, mention Rick Steves for best available room, air-con, elevator, Via Cavour 14, tel. 055-239-6715, www.webhoteleuropa.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Near the Medici Chapels
This touristy zone has lots of budget and midrange hotels, stacks of basic trattorias, and easy access to major sights. The mostly pedestrianized Via Faenza is the spine of this neighborhood, with lots of tourist services.
$$$ Hotel Centrale is just a short walk from the Duomo. The 31 large but overpriced rooms are over a businesslike conference center (Db-€237, bigger superior Db-€340, Tb-€295, suites available, 10 percent discount with this book, ask for Rick Steves rate when you reserve, 20 percent discount if booked two months in advance, air-con, elevator, Via dei Conti 3, check in at big front desk on ground floor, tel. 055-215-761, www.hotelcentralefirenze.it, email@example.com).
$$ Hotel Accademia has 21 old-school rooms and a floor plan that defies logic. While it’s overpriced and long in the tooth, its location is convenient (small Sb-€70, Db-€145, Tb-€170, 10 percent discount with this book if you book directly with hotel and pay cash, air-con, no elevator, Via Faenza 7, tel. 055-293-451, www.hotelaccademiafirenze.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
East of the Duomo
While convenient to the sights and offering a good value, these places are located mostly along nondescript urban streets, lacking the grit, appeal, or glitz of other neighborhoods.
$$ Residenza il Villino has 10 charming rooms and a picturesque, peaceful little courtyard. Set back from the street, it’s a refuge from the bustle of Florence (Sb-€105, small Db-€120, Db-€135, family suite available, book directly with hotel for best prices, ask for discount with this book, air-con, just north of Via degli Alfani at Via della Pergola 53, tel. 055-200-1116, www.ilvillino.it, email@example.com).
$$ Panella’s Residence, once a convent, is today a classy B&B, with five chic, romantic, and ample rooms (Db-€155, bigger “deluxe” Db-€180, extra bed-€40, book direct and mention Rick Steves to get the best rate, discounts for cash and stays of 3 or more nights, air-con, Via della Pergola 42, tel. 055-234-7202, mobile 345-972-1541, www.panellaresidence.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$ Hotel Dalí has 10 cheery rooms in a nice location for a great price. Samanta and Marco run the guesthouse with passion and idealism (S-€40, D-€70, Db-€90, extra bed-€25, request one of the quiet and spacious rooms facing the courtyard when you book, nearby apartments sleep 2-6 people, no breakfast, fans but no air-con, elevator, free parking, 2 blocks behind the Duomo at Via dell’Oriuolo 17 on the second floor, tel. 055-234-0706, www.hoteldali.com, email@example.com).
$ Oblate Sisters of the Assumption run an institutional 30-room hotel in a Renaissance building with simple rooms, a dreamy garden, and a quiet, prayerful ambience. Time your arrival and departure to occur during typical business hours (Sb-€50, Db-€90, Tb-€135, Qb-€180, cash only, single beds only, family discounts available, air-con, elevator, Wi-Fi in lobby with suggested donation, 23:30 curfew, €10/day limited parking—request when you book, Borgo Pinti 15, tel. 055-248-0582, firstname.lastname@example.org).
South of the Duomo
Between the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria
Buried in the narrow, characteristic lanes in the heart of town, these are the most central of my recommendations (and therefore a little expensive). While this location can be worth the extra cost, nearly every hotel I recommend is conveniently located, given Florence’s walkable, traffic-free core.
$$$ In Piazza della Signoria B&B is peaceful, refined, and homey. Fit for a honeymoon, the 10 rooms come with special touches and little extras, and the service is sharp and friendly. The “partial view” rooms require craning your neck to see anything—not worth the extra euros. Guests enjoy socializing at the big, shared breakfast table (viewless Db-€250, partial-view Db-€280, full-view “deluxe” Db-€300, Tb-€280, partial-view Tb-€300, ask for 10 percent discount with this book when you book direct, family apartments, lavish bathrooms, air-con, tiny elevator, Via dei Magazzini 2, tel. 055-239-9546, mobile 348-321-0565, www.inpiazzadellasignoria.com, email@example.com).
$$ B&B Il Bargello is a home away from home. Hike up three long flights (no elevator) to reach six smart, relaxing rooms. The inviting rooftop terrace has close-up views of Florence’s towers (Db-€115, ask for Rick Steves rate when you book directly with hotel and pay cash; fully equipped apartment across the hall sleeps up to six in real beds but you’ll share one bathroom: €160/2 people, €15 more per extra person; air-con, 20 yards off Via Proconsolo at Via de’ Pandolfini 33 black, tel. 055-215-330, mobile 339-175-3110, www.firenze-bedandbreakfast.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$ Hotel Maxim has a prime location on the main pedestrian drag. While the 26 rooms are straightforward, its narrow, painting-lined halls and cozy lounge have old Florentine charm (Sb-€75, Db-€140, Tb-€160, Qb-€180, book directly with hotel and use promo code “RICK” for 10 percent discount, air-con, elevator, Via de’ Calzaiuoli 11, tel. 055-217-474, www.hotelmaximfirenze.it, email@example.com).
Near Ponte Vecchio
This sleepy zone is handy to several sights and some fine shopping streets, though it lacks a neighborhood feel of its own.
$$$ Hotel Davanzati has 25 cheerful rooms with all the comforts. Enjoy drinks and snacks each evening at a candlelit happy hour, plus lots of other extras (Sb-€132, Db-€199, Tb-€259, family rooms available, these rates good with this book though prices soft off-season, 10 percent discount if you pay cash, free loaner laptop in every room, free on-demand videos, air-con, fridges, next to Piazza Davanzati at Via Porta Rossa 5—easy to miss so watch for low-profile sign above the door, tel. 055-286-666, www.hoteldavanzati.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
$$$ Hotel Torre Guelfa has grand public spaces and a medieval tower with a panoramic terrace (72 stairs take you up—and back 720 years). Its 31 rooms vary wildly in size and layout. Room 315, with a private terrace (€310), is worth reserving months in advance (Db-€250, higher prices for bigger rooms, ask for Rick Steves discount, family deals, check website for promotions, air-con, elevator, a couple blocks northwest of Ponte Vecchio, Borgo S.S. Apostoli 8, tel. 055-239-6338, www.hoteltorreguelfa.com, email@example.com, Niccolo and Barbara).
$$$ Relais Uffizi is a peaceful little gem with 15 classy rooms tucked away down an alleyway off Piazza della Signoria. The lounge has a huge window overlooking the action in the square below (Sb-€120, Db-€180, Tb-€220, more for deluxe rooms, air-con, elevator; from the square, go down the tiny Chiasso de Baroncelli lane—right of the loggia—then turn right on Via Lambertesca and look for entrance on your right; official address is Chiasso del Buco 16; tel. 055-267-6239, www.relaisuffizi.it, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Getting Around Florence
I organize my sightseeing geographically and do it all on foot. Think of Florence as a Renaissance treadmill—it requires a lot of walking.
The city’s full-size buses don’t cover the old center well (the whole area around the Duomo is off-limits to motorized traffic). Pick up a map of transit routes at the ATAF windows at the train station (TIs do not have them); you’ll also find routes online (www.ataf.net). Of the many bus lines, I find these the most helpful for seeing outlying sights:
Bus #12 goes from the train station to Porta Romana, up to San Miniato Church and Piazzale Michelangelo. Bus #13 makes the return trip down the hill.
The train station and Piazza San Marco are two major hubs near the city center; to get between these two, either walk (about 15 minutes) or take bus #1, #6, #14, or #23.
Minibuses run every 10 minutes from 7:00 to 21:00 (less frequent on Sun), winding through the town center and up and down the river—just €1.20 gets you a 1.5-hour joyride. These buses also connect many major parking lots with the historic center (buy tickets from machines at lots).
Bus #C1 stops behind Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza Santa Croce, then heads north, passing near the Accademia before ending up at Piazza Libertà.
Bus #C2 twists through the congested old center from the train station, passing near Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza della Signoria to Piazza Beccaria.
Bus #C3 goes up and down the Arno River, with stops near Ponte Vecchio, the Carraia bridge to the Oltrarno (including Pitti Palace), and beyond.
Bus #D goes from the train station to Ponte Vecchio, cruises through the Oltrarno (passing Pitti Palace), and finishes at Ponte San Niccolò.
Buying Bus Tickets: Buy bus tickets at tobacco shops (tabacchi), newsstands, or the ATAF ticket windows inside the train station. Validate your ticket in the machine on board (€1.20/90 minutes, €4.70/4 tickets, €5/24 hours, €12/3 days, €18/week, day passes aren’t always available in tobacco shops, tel. 800-424-500, www.ataf.net). You can sometimes buy tickets on board, but you’ll pay more (€2) and you’ll need exact change. City buses are free with the Firenze Card (see here).
The minimum cost for a taxi ride is €5 (or €8.30 after 22:00, or €7 on Sun); rides in the center of town should be charged as tariff #1. A taxi ride from the train station to the Duomo costs about €8. Taxi fares and supplements (e.g., €2 extra if you call a cab rather than hail one) are clearly explained on signs in each taxi. Official, regulated cabs have a yellow banner on the door that says Taxi/Comune di Firenze with a red fleur-de-lis, and are marked with official phone numbers (4390 or 4242). Before getting in a cab, mention your destination and ask for an approximate cost (“Più o meno, quanto costa?” pew oh MEH-noh, KWAHN-toh KOH-stah). If you can’t get a straight answer or the price is outrageous, walk away. It can be hard to find a cab on the street; call 055-4390 or 055-4242 to summon one, or have your hotelier or restaurateur call for you.
Arriving and Departing
Florence is Tuscany’s transportation hub, with fine train, bus, and plane connections to virtually anywhere in Italy.
Florence’s main train station is called Santa Maria Novella (Firenze S.M.N. on schedules and signs). The city also has two suburban train stations: Firenze Rifredi and Firenze Campo di Marte. Note that some trains don’t stop at the main station—before boarding, confirm that you’re heading for S.M.N., or you may overshoot the city. (If this happens, don’t panic; the other stations are a short taxi ride from the center.)
Rick’s Tip: Don’t trust “porters” who want to help carry your bags (they’re not official), and politely decline offers of help using the ticket machines by anyone other than uniformed staff.
To orient yourself to Santa Maria Novella Station, stand with your back to the tracks. Look left to see the green cross of a 24-hour pharmacy (farmacia) and the exit to the taxi queue. Baggage storage (deposito bagagli) is also to the left, halfway down track 16 (daily 6:00-23:00, passport required, maximum 40 pounds). Fast-food outlets and a bank are also along track 16. Directly ahead of you is the main hall (salone biglietti), where you can buy train and bus tickets. Pay WCs are to the right, near the head of track 5.
To reach the TI, walk away from the tracks and exit the station; it’s straight across the square, 100 yards away, by the stone church.
To buy ATAF city bus tickets, stop at windows #8-9 in the main hall—and ask for a transit map while you’re there (TIs do not have them).
Getting to the Duomo and City Center: Orienting yourself with your back to the tracks, the Duomo and town center are to your left. Out the doorway to the left, you’ll find city buses and the taxi stand. Taxis cost about €6-8 to the Duomo. To walk into town (10-15 minutes), exit the station straight ahead through the main hall, and head straight across the square outside, toward the Church of Santa Maria Novella (and the TI). On the far side of the square, keep left and head down the main Via dei Panzani, which leads directly to the Duomo.
For travel within Italy, don’t stand in line at a window in the station. Use the self-service ticket (biglietto) machines that display schedules, issue tickets, and make reservations for rail-pass holders.
There are two train companies: Trenitalia, with most connections (toll tel. 892-021, www.trenitalia.it) and Italo, with some high-speed routes (no rail passes accepted, tel. 06-0708, www.italotreno.it). The self-service machines for both companies are bright red, so be sure you select the right one (machines are labeled with the company name). For Trenitalia information, use window #18 or #19 (take a number). The Italo information office and Trenitalia Frecciaclub (first-class lounge) are opposite track 5, near the exit.
The departures listed below are operated by Trenitalia; Italo offers additional high-speed connections to major Italian cities.
From Florence by Train to: Pisa (2-3/hour, 45-75 minutes), Lucca (2/hour, 1.5 hours), Siena (direct trains hourly, 1.5-2 hours; bus is better because Siena’s train station is far from the center), Milan (hourly, 2 hours), Venice (hourly, 2-3 hours, may transfer in Bologna; often crowded—reserve ahead), Assisi (8/day direct, 2-3 hours), Orvieto (hourly, 2 hours, some with change in Campo di Marte or Rifredi Station), Rome (2-3/hour, 1.5 hours, most require seat reservations), Naples (hourly, 3 hours).
The BusItalia Station is 100 yards west of the train station on Via Santa Caterina da Siena. To get to Florence’s city center, exit the station through the main door, and turn left along the busy street toward the brick dome. Downtown Florence is straight ahead and to the right.
Generally it’s best to buy bus tickets in the station, as you’ll pay 30 percent more if you buy tickets onboard. The bus posts schedules for regional trips, and video monitors show imminent departures. Bus service drops dramatically on Sunday. Bus info: tel. 800-373-760 (Mon-Fri 9:00-15:00, closed Sat-Sun), www.fsbusitalia.it.
From Florence by Bus to: Siena (roughly 2/hour, 1.25-hour rapida/via superstrada buses are faster than the train, avoid the slower ordinaria buses, www.sienamobilita.it), Montepulciano (1-2/day, 2 hours, change in Bettolle, LFI bus, www.lfi.it), Florence airport (2/hour, 30 minutes, pay driver and immediately validate ticket, usually departs from platform 1, first bus departs at 5:30).
The autostrada has several exits for Florence. Get off at the Nord, Scandicci, Impruneta (formerly Certosa), or Sud exits and follow signs toward—but not into—the Centro.
Don’t drive into the city center. Instead, park on the outskirts and take a bus, tram, or taxi in. Florence’s traffic-reduction system is baffling even to locals. Every car passing into the “limited traffic zone” (Zona Traffico Limitato, or ZTL) is photographed; those who don’t have a permit get a €100 ticket in the mail (with an “administrative” fee from the rental company). If you get lost and cross the line several times...you get several fines. If you have a reservation at a hotel within the ZTL area—and it has parking—ask in advance if they can get you permission to enter town. The ZTL zone is Florence’s historic center (the core plus much of the Oltrarno)—nearly anywhere you’d want to go.
Using bus-only lanes (usually marked with yellow stripes) is another expensive mistake that results in a ticket in the mail.
If you’re picking up a rental car upon departure, don’t struggle with driving in the center. Taxi with your luggage to the car-rental office, and head out from there.
The city center is ringed with big, efficient parking lots (signposted with a big P). Check www.firenzeparcheggi.it for details on parking lots, availability, and prices. From the freeway, follow the signs to Centro, then Stadio, then P.
If arriving from the north, park at Parcheggio del Parterre, just beyond Piazza della Libertà. They have 600 spots and never fill up completely (€2/hour, €20/day, €70/week, automated, pay with cash or credit card, open 24 hours daily, tel. 055-500-1994). To get into town, find the taxi stand at the elevator exit, or ride one of the minibuses that connect major parking lots with the city center (see www.ataf.net for routes).
Parcheggio Sansovino, a convenient lot for drivers coming from the south, is on the Oltrarno side of the river, right at a tram stop (€1/hour, €12/day, 24 hours daily, Via Sansovino 53—from A-1 take the Firenze Scandicci exit, tel. 055-363-362, www.scaf.fi.it). Park, then ride four quick stops to Santa Maria Novella Station.
Amerigo Vespucci Airport, also called Peretola Airport, is about five miles northwest of the city (open 5:00-23:00, no overnighting allowed, TI, airport code: FLR, airport info tel. 055-306-1830, flight info tel. 055-306-1300—domestic only, www.aeroporto.firenze.it).
Shuttle buses (to the far right as you exit the arrivals hall) connect the airport with Florence’s train and bus stations (2/hour, 30 minutes, runs 5:00-23:30, €6—buy ticket on board and validate immediately). If you’re changing to a different intercity bus in Florence (for instance, one bound for Siena), stay on the bus through the first stop (at the train station); it will continue on to the bus station nearby. Allow about €25 and 30 minutes for a taxi.
The airport’s car rental offices share one big parking lot just a three-minute drive away. Streets around the airport are a dizzying maze, making it tricky to find the place to drop off your car. One option is to drive to the airport, wait for the shuttle bus to show up, then follow that bus to the lot.
By Private Car Service
For small groups with more money than time, hiring a private car service to zip comfortably to nearby towns can be a good value. Consider Transfer Chauffeur Service (tel. 338-862-3129, www.transfercs.com, email@example.com, Marco) or Prestige Rent (office near Piazza della Signoria at Via Porta Rossa 6 red, tel. 055-398-6598, mobile 333-842-4047, www.prestigerent.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, Saverio). Or you could simply hire a taxi after agreeing upon a rate (e.g., €120 from your Florence hotel to your Siena hotel).
BEST OF THE REST: PISA
For nearly three centuries (1000-1300), Pisa rivaled Venice and Genoa as a sea-trading power, exchanging European goods for luxury items in Muslim lands. The city used its sea-trading wealth to build the now-famous Leaning Tower. Many visitors are surprised to see that the iconic tower is only one part of a huge, gleaming white architectural complex, the “Campo dei Miracoli”—Field of Miracles.
Pisa’s three important sights—the Duomo, Baptistery, and Tower—float regally on the best lawn in Italy (no picnicking allowed). The style throughout is Pisa’s very own Pisan Romanesque. Even as the church was being built in the 11th century, the area was nicknamed the Field of Miracles for the grandness of the undertaking.
Day Plan: Pisa is a touristic quickie. Seeing the famous Tower (reservations recommended), wandering through the Duomo, and visiting the other sights around the Field of Miracles can be done in a half-day.
Extend your visit with a leisurely one-hour stroll from the train station to the Tower and Field of Miracles. The two main streets for tourists and shoppers are Via Santa Maria (running south from the Tower) and Corso Italia/Borgo Stretto (running north from the station).
Getting There: Pisa is an easy day trip from Florence, whether coming by train (frequent departures, 45-75 minutes) or car (excellent highways). The city’s close-in Galileo Galilei Airport handles both international and domestic flights (PSA, www.pisa-airport.com).
Arrival in Pisa: Most trains arrive at Pisa Centrale train station, about a mile south of the Field of Miracles. To get there, you can walk for 30 minutes (get free map from TI), take a taxi (€10), or go by public bus (LAM Rossa line, stops across from station in front of NH Cavalieri Hotel, buy ticket in station or on board, ask driver for “Campo dei Miracoli”). If your train stops at the smaller Pisa San Rossore Station, hop off; it’s just a four-block walk from the Tower.
Drivers should leave cars at the big parking lot on Via Pietrasantina—exit the autostrada at Pisa Nord and follow signs to Pisa (on the left), then Bus Parking; from the lot, catch the red-and-orange shuttle (navetta) to the Field of Miracles. From the airport, take public bus (LAM Rossa line, stops first at train station and then at the Tower), or hop in a taxi (€10).
Tourist Information: The TI is about 200 yards from Pisa Centrale train station on the big, circular Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II (open daily, tel. 050-42291, www.pisaunicaterra.it). The airport also has a TI.
Private Guides: Good guides with similar rates (€140/3 hours) are Vincenzo Riolo (mobile 338-211-2939, www.pisatour.it) and Martina Manfredi (mobile 328-898-2927, www.tuscanyatheart.it).
▲▲▲FIELD OF MIRACLES (CAMPO DEI MIRACOLI)
MORE SIGHTS ON THE FIELD OF MIRACLES
▲▲▲FIELD OF MIRACLES (CAMPO DEI MIRACOLI)
Scattered across a golf-course green lawn are five grand buildings: the cathedral (or Duomo), its bell tower (the Leaning Tower), the Baptistery, the hospital (today’s Museum of the Sinopias), and the Camposanto Cemetery.
Architecturally, the Campo is unique and exotic. Traditionally, these buildings marked the main events of every Pisan’s life: christened in the Baptistery, married in the Duomo, honored in ceremonies at the Tower, healed in the hospital, and buried in the cemetery.
A 15-foot lean from the vertical makes the Tower one of Europe’s most recognizable images. See it from the outside for free, or pay to climb to the top. Entry is by a timed ticket good for a 30-minute visit.
Cost and Hours: €18 to go to the top (no children under 8, older children must be accompanied by an adult); daily April-Sept 8:00-20:00 (until 22:00 mid-June-Aug), shorter hours off-season.
The Leaning Tower
Reservations and Tickets: It’s best to reserve your ticket online at www.opapisa.it (no earlier than 20 days and no later than 1 day in advance; choose your entry time and buy your ticket, print out the voucher, and bring it to the Tower 15 minutes before your entry time).
Rick’s Tip: To climb the Tower, make a reservation online at www.opapisa.it. Knowing your time in advance, you can then plan your visit accordingly. If you arrive without a reservation, go straight to one of the ticket offices on the Field of Miracles to buy a ticket. Expect a 2-3-hour wait to ascend.
If you’ll be visiting Pisa without a reservation, try to arrive in the morning to make sure that time slots will still be available later that day. Upon arrival in Pisa, go to the ticket office in the yellow building behind the Tower. You’ll clearly see (on reader boards above the ticket windows) when time slots are available. In peak season, waits of up to 2-3 hours are typical. Be at the Tower 15 minutes before your entry time.
Visiting the Tower: The Tower was built over two centuries by at least three different architects. It started to lean almost immediately after construction began in 1173. Just as the base and the first arcade were finished, someone said, “Is it just me, or does that look crooked?” The heavy Tower—resting on a shallow 13-foot foundation—was sinking on the south side into marshy, unstable soil. The builders carried on anyway. Several attempts were made over the centuries to stop its slow-motion fall, but it finally got so bad that in 1990 the Tower closed for 10 years of stabilizing repairs. Art historians figure it leans today as much as it did some 400 years ago, when Galileo reputedly conducted his gravity experiments here.
Even though your tower climb is technically a guided visit, the “guide” is a museum guard who makes sure you don’t stay past your scheduled time. For your 30-minute time slot, figure about a 5-minute presentation at the start, 10 minutes to climb, and 10 to descend. This leaves about five minutes for vertigo at the top.
Pisa’s Duomo and the Field of Miracles
When it’s time for you to enter, gape up through the hollow Tower to the oculus at the top, and marvel at the acoustics. Then wind your way up along a spiraling ramp, climbing 294 stairs. At the top, you’ll have fine views over the Duomo and the rest of the Field of Miracles.
Begun in 1063, the huge Pisan Romanesque Duomo is the centerpiece of the Field of Miracles’ religious buildings. Budget some sightseeing time for the church’s artistic and historic treasures, including Giovanni Pisano’s early 14th-century marble pulpit, smothered with 400 intricately sculpted figures. A modest dress code is requested, but not really enforced.
Cost and Hours: Free, but pick up an entry voucher at one of the nearby ticket offices (any ticket for Field of Miracles sights also acts as a Duomo voucher; see below), daily April-Sept 10:00-20:00, shorter hours off-season.
MORE SIGHTS ON THE FIELD OF MIRACLES
The Baptistery, Camposanto Cemetery, Museum of the Sinopias, and Duomo Museum share the same pricing and schedule.
Cost and Hours: €5 for one sight, €7 for two sights, €8 includes all the sights; daily April-Sept 8:00-20:00, shorter hours off-season.
Visiting Field of Miracles Sights: The ▲ Baptistery, in front of the Duomo, is the biggest in Italy. It’s interesting for its superb acoustics and another fine Pisano pulpit. The cloistered open-air courtyard of the Camposanto Cemetery (built in 1277), on the north side of the Field of Miracles, is surrounded by Gothic porticoes once decorated with frescoes; in the Middle Ages, important Pisans were buried here in ancient Roman sarcophagi. The Museum of the Sinopias, housed in a 13th-century hospital across from the Baptistery, features the preparatory sketches (sinopias) for the Camposanto’s frescoes. The Duomo Museum, behind the Tower, is big on Pisan art, displaying treasures of the cathedral, paintings, silver, and sculptures (from the 12th to 14th centuries), as well as ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts.
The Via Santa Maria tourist strip is pedestrianized and lined with touristy eateries, easy for grabbing a quick sandwich, pizza, or salad. Pizzeria al Bagno di Nerone is a five-minute walk from the Tower (closed Tue, Largo Carlo Fedeli 26). If you’re walking between the train station and the Tower, you could cobble together a picnic from the sandwich shops and fruit-and-veggie stalls ringing Piazza delle Vettovaglie, Pisa’s historic market square, or enjoy lunch at La Vineria di Piazza trattoria (under the arcades of Piazza delle Vettovaglie).
If staying the night, consider the romantic $$$ Hotel Royal Victoria (Lungarno Pacinotti 12, www.royalvictoria.it), the stately $$ Hotel Pisa Tower (Via Andrea Pisano 3, www.hotelpisatower.com), or the no-frills $ Pensione Helvetia (Via Don G. Boschi 31, www.pensionehelvetiapisa.com).