The 30 things you must do while visiting Florence

Lina Branter | 06/06/2019
Florence's skyline
Florence: a city to discover

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, with so much exquisite art and architecture tightly squeezed into a small, walkable, historical city center, there are a thousand reasons why you should visit Florence, Italy. It’s no wonder the entire city is designated a UNESCO heritage site. Get ready for narrow, cobblestoned streets and elegant palazzos, basilicas full of masterpieces and world-renowned museums. 

As the city hasn’t changed much in 500 years, prepare yourself for all-you-can-eat Renaissance buffet of things to see and do in Florence. Put on your walking shoes to meander through streets that were once frequented by the likes of Michelangelo, Donatello, Dante and Galileo… to name just a few. 

To get you started on your Florence journey, here are some of the most essential things to do and see in Florence, Italy.

Must- sees: Art, cathedrals, museums and gardens

1. Salute the Major Duomo: Il Duomo

Located in one of the most visited squares in the world, the Piazza del Duomo towers above the city like an exquisite egg. Designed by Florence’s own Brunelleschi, it was the largest dome of its kind for centuries and remains a feat of engineering and an architectural masterpiece. After admiring it from the outside, reserve your spot and climb the 463 steps to enjoy the view of Florence from inside the city’s epicenter.

Once inside the ornate, gothic cathedral, take a moment to stop and wonder at the Duomo’s still operational clock, built in 1443 by Paolo Uccello. Make sure you give yourself ample time to contemplate Vasari’s remarkable frescoes of the Last Judgement, completed in 1579.

Although entrance to the Cathedral is free, it costs money to climb up the Duomo. The price of admission also includes: Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower), considered one of the true masterpieces of Gothic architecture, the Baptistry and the Museo del Duomo, where you can see works by Arnolfo, Ghiberti, Donatello and Michelangelo, among others.

2. Pay Homage to Great Minds: Santa Croce

Though the Florence Cathedral boasts immense size and grandeur,  its smaller contemporary, the Basilica of Santa Croce’s lays claim to a truly exquisite exterior. It isn’t just beautiful on the outside — inside the cathedral you’ll find the tombs of some of the world’s greatest and most influential thinkers and artists, including Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli.

3. Mind the Medicis: Basilica di San Lorenzo

Though it was never completed, the Basilica di San Lorenzo is considered one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture. It was designed by Brunelleschi in 1425, who also made the beautiful and austere Sagrestia Vecchia, or old sacristy, inside. Donatello’s work is all over the Basilica. In fact, the famous artist died while sculpting one of the two bronze pulpits. Donatello is also buried in the Cathedral alongside many members of the famous Medici family, responsible for commissioning much of the great work we still enjoy today.

4. The Tempio Maggiore and the history of the Florentine Jewish community

The elegant Great Synagogue of Florence, or the Tempio Maggiore, is well worth a visit. Like many cities in Italy, Florence has a thriving Jewish community that dates back to medieval times. In the 19th century when they began having the same rights as Europe’s Christians, the Florentine Jewish community built a beautiful synagogue as a symbol of their new-found freedom. 

Constructed between 1874 and 1882, The Tempio Maggiore is an elegant homage to the community’s Sephardic Jewish ancestry. Look for the large turquoise cupola on the skyline. Once you’ve finished visiting the beautiful interior, make sure to check out the adjacent Museum of Hebraic Art and Culture to learn about Florence’s Jewish history.

5. The scientific Renaissance: The Galileo Museum, Natural History Museum & Da Vinci Museum

The Renaissance was not all about art. It was also a time of  huge scientific advancements. Florence was at the center of it all. The Galileo museum, formerly known as the History of Science museum showcases a fascinating display of old scientific instruments such as astrolabes and instruments invented by Galileo himself for measuring the heavens. As a macabre and perhaps ironic twist, the museum also has on display the famous astronomer’s middle finger. Given his fraught relationship to the church, it is curious that the finger has not only survived intact but remained stubbornly upright.

Check out the Natural History Museum of Florence, or what used to be La Specola, the oldest public museum in Europe, which opened its doors in 1775. It contains the largest and oldest collection of wax anatomical figures, and a zoological collection containing three million taxidermied animals — 5,000 of which are on display. The Natural History Museum is a hidden gem that gets fewer visitors than many of the other Florence museums, allowing you to peruse the weird and wonderful displays at your leisure.

Last but not least, visit the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum, devoted not to his art, but to his scientific works. The museum has actually constructed many of the drawings and ideas in Da Vinci’s notebooks. Rooms are divided into categories: machines of war, machines for flight, civil engineering machines, etc. It is a small museum, but well worth the visit, especially if you have kids.

6. Don’t miss the Uffizi

When visiting Florence, a visit to the Uffizi Gallery is non-negotiable. Gifted to the city of Florence by the last surviving Medici and open to the public since 1765, the Uffizi is one of the most important museums in the world for its unparalleled collection of Renaissance art. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi are just the tip of the iceberg of what awaits you in the grand corridors of this 16th century building.

7. Galleria dell'Accademia and the Bargello Museum

Don’t stop at the Uffizi, because the museum was overflowing with masterpieces, some of its collection ended up at the Bargello, a former barracks and prison converted into an art museum. Constructed in 1255, the Bargello is the oldest public building in Florence. Here you’ll find even more works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Bernini and Ghiberti among others, as well as a superb collection of ancient ceramics, textiles, tapestries and coins. 

Now head over to the Galleria dell'Accademia where you can meet Michelangelo’s famous David as well as his moving series of marble Prisoners. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the Addacemia’s collection, which features works by many renowned Renaissance artists.

8. Make haste to The Palazzo Vecchio

Overlooking the Piazza della Signoria with its copy of David, the Palazzo Vecchio, or Old Palace, is Florence’s town hall. A medieval fortress built on an ancient Roman theater, the Palazzo Vecchio is a mash-up of three different Florentine eras. Of particular note is the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred). Dating back to 1494, the 177-foot long hall is lavishly decorated with paneled ceilings, gold trimmings, ornate wall frescoes, and statues. Many of the rooms are also decorated by the likes of Michelangelo, Vasari and Donatello.

9. Bridge the gap: Ponte Vecchio

One of the most iconic sites in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, lives up to its name. It first made an appearance in historical records around 996, but this “newest” iteration was built in 1345. Bridging the Arno at its narrowest point, the Ponte Vecchio is an arched bridge with covered shops that look from afar like houses. Though the shops used to be primarily butchers in the 15th century, they now tend more to the tourist trade, filled with jewelers and trinket sellers hawking their wares.

10. Across the river to Palazzo Pitti

Now take a walk across the Arno to the Palazzo Pitti, the 15th century home of the Florentine dynasty, the Medicis. A stunning example of renaissance architecture, the Palazzo boasts richly decorated rooms and masterpieces by Titian, Caravaggio, Veronese and other greats. The Boboli Gardens are connected to the Palace (see below), so don’t forget to take a stroll in the beautiful gardens.

Must-dos: Things to do in Florence

11. Follow the scent: Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella  

Founded in 1221 by Dominican monks who concocted medicines using herbs from their garden, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the world’s oldest pharmacies. Visit the museum that houses historical objects from the Farmaceutica’s long history, including the alchemists’ wise advice on how to combat the bubonic plague. 

Whatever you do, don’t forget to browse the pharmacy’s world-famous and award-winning beauty products — from hand moisturizer made with almond paste, to the perfume favoured by none other than Catherine de Medici.

12. Shop ‘til you drop at the Mercato delle Pulci and Mercato Nuovo

Looking for something unique, historical and Tuscan to take home? Head over to the new quarters of the Mercato delle Pulci, Florence’s flea market located across Santa Croce’s Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio. The market is open every day from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

If you’re shopping for some more touristy trinkets, head over to the Mercato Nuovo, or New Market, also sometimes called the Porcellino Market for the bronze statue of a boar that guards one of the entrances. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, a stroll through the market’s 16th century arcades is reason enough to stop by.

13. The quest for Florentine leather

For centuries Florence has been known as the world’s destination for leather craftsmanship. If you want a lasting souvenir, one of the top things to do in Florence is treat yourself to an amazing leather product. But beware: all leather is not created equal. Find out how to distinguish between the different leather qualities and where to buy them in our Shopping Guide to the Florentine Leather Market.

To learn more about Florence’s illustrious fashion and leather traditions, check out the Gucci Museum, which tells the story of the famous fashion house. Located in the Piazza della Signoria, the museum showcases Gucci’s wares throughout the decades and features gems from the archives such as old advertising campaigns and artisans’ images.

14. Take a hike: Visit San Miniato al Monte and Fiesole

By this time you might be ready to get away from the crowds at the Duomo and the Uffizi. Why not take a hike and get a bird’s eye view of beautiful Firenze from above? 

Just outside the city walls, head toward the Piazzale Michelangelo in the Oltrarno district. Pause for a while and take in the view. Then continue up from the Piazzetta San Miniato or take the path behind the Torre di San Nicolo and climb up the rest of the stairs to the amazing Romanesque San Miniato al Monte Church built between the 11th and 13th centuries. Once you have gazed at the view of the Duomo, step inside the church and admire its ornate naves and crypts. Then go outside and pay homage to Colodi, author of Pinocchio, who is buried in the adjacent cemetery.

Want a longer hike? On a clear day hike up to the little town of Fiesole, a two-hour hour hike from Florence’s city center, for some amazing views of Florence and the Tuscan countryside. You will also find the Monastery of San Francesco and an archeological site that includes an intact, ancient roman amphitheater.

15. Wine tasting in Tuscany

Need to get even further from the Florentine hustle and bustle? Take advantage of the city’s presence in the heart of wine country. Book yourself a tour outside Florence or indulge in a Chianti wine tasting inside the city walls. If you happen to be visiting in September, escape the city for one of Tuscany’s local wine festivals.

16. Visit Oltrarno: Florence’s rive gauche

The literal translation of Oltrarno is “Beyond the Arno”. Though it is still considered part of historic Florence, since the Palazzo Pitti, Belvedere and Boboli Gardens are within its borders, the Oltrarno has undergone massive revitalization in recent years. Get ready to discover a mix of old school artisans crafting and selling their wares, interspersed with some of the city’s coolest restaurants and bars. Make time to wander the streets of the Oltrarno and take in the scene by enjoying an aperitivo and crostini at a local cafe or bar. 

17. Cool down at Piscina Comunale Costoli

Hot? Why not do what the locals do and cool off at the local swimming pool? Check out the Piscina Comunale Costoli or one of the other local swimming holes to refresh yourself after a long day of touring. Pro tip: if you arrive after 3 p.m., the price is reduced.

18. Chill out at the Spiaggia Sull’Arno

If hanging by the pool is not your thing, but you still want some lounging time, head to Florence’s urban beach, Spiaggia Sull’Arno. Grab one of the free lounge chairs for some quiet time, or show up at sunset and sip a cocktail at their beach bar. Expect DJ sets and concerts during the summer as well as the opportunity to engage in beach sports such as yoga, petanque and rugby. But don’t expect to swim… this beach is only for luxuriating.

19. To market: Mercato Centrale and Sant'Ambrogio

The ground floor of the Mercato Centrale still hosts the traditional vegetable, fruit and meat vendors. But if you head up to the second floor, you’ll experience some of the most amazing street food available in Firenze.

For a quieter, more local experience, head to the San’Ambrogio market in the Piazza Ghiberti, about a ten-minute walk from the Duomo. Get ready to feast your eyes on rows and rows of amazing local produce, fresh meat and cheese. Pick up some ingredients and head to the gardens below for possibly the best picnic you’ll ever experience.

20. Picnic in the gardens: Boboli and Bardini Gardens

Time for some peace and quiet. You deserve it. You’ve picked up some amazing food from either the Mercato Centrale or the San’ Ambrogio market and now it’s time to head to some historical green spaces in the city. One of the most famous gardens in the world, the Boboli Gardens represent more than six centuries of Florentine landscape architecture. Roam the beautiful green space dotted with roman statues, fountains, an amphitheatre, and so much more. Don’t forget to visit the grotto that originally housed Michelangelo’s The Prisoners, which are now at the Accademia. Today you’ll be able to take in Giambologna’s famous sculpture, Birth of Venus.

If you’re seeking a less crowded green space, head over to the Bardini Gardens, located only a few hundred metres from the back gate of the Boboli gardens. Originally created by the Mozzi Family in the 13th century, the gardens span ten acres. Take the time to smell the roses in the rose gardens, visit the Bardini museum, or climb up to the Belvedere and grab a coffee at the little café.

Must-eats: What to eat and drink in Florence

We imagine you’re famished after traipsing through the Uffizi and up the Duomo. You’ll want your gastronomic experience to be as authentic as the David in the Academia. But what to eat in Florence?

Like every region in Italy, Tuscany has its own cuisine influenced by local ingredients and history. Tuscan dishes are created from locally-grown produce such as tomatoes, mushrooms, eggplant, rosemary, basil, oregano, olives and olive oil, as well as meat, cheese and bread. Here are some of the dishes to try when in Florence, and some of the places you’ll want to go to get a feel for local cuisine.

21. To Get you started: Crostini and tagliere

Made of small rounds of delicious, toasted bread served with a variety of sauces and salsa — from chicken liver pate to tapenades — crostini are basically Tuscan Bruschetta. Try this appetizer paired with an aperitivo after a long day of sightseeing. If you’re really hungry order a tagliere, a Tuscan meat and cheese board with prosciutto, salami, finocchiona (a Florentine salami made with fennel) and pecorino cheese.

22. Embrace the bitter with a negroni

To truly do as the Italians do, you cannot simply jump into dinner without an aperitivo, or a pre-dinner cocktail (which supposedly staves off indigestion). The negroni, made from one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part bitters, was invented around 1919 at the Giacosa Café. Legend has it that Count Negroni asked the bartender to replace the soda water in his sweet vermouth and Campari drink with gin. The barman complied, adding a slice of orange — and voila, the Negroni was born.

23. Take a deep dive into Tuscan wine

Just outside Florence, the Tuscan hills are draped in long, lines of vineyards. The most famous wine Tuscany produces is Chianti, but the Sangiovese grapes are also turned into Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. If you prefer white, try the Vernaccia di San Gimignano made with the Vernaccia grape. Every wine bar worth its grapes will carry Tuscan wine for you to taste. 

If you want to go all out and have a curated experience, the city offers many wine tasting experiences, such as the one at Piazza del Vino. Better yet, why not make time during your trip for a full-day wine tour through the Tuscan countryside?

24.  Florentine craft beer

If the heat and the miles of walking around the beautiful renaissance city has got you jonesing for a nice, cold brew, Florence also has some amazing craft beer pubs to slake your thirst. Tuscan beer, like the food, is often made with local ingredients such as honey, chestnuts, herbs, and potatoes. Head on over to Il Bovaro, outside the Porta San Frediano, and one of the oldest craft beer pubs in the city. Or stop at Birreria Art. 17, which serves its own craft beer as well unique beers from other micro breweries.

25.  Get adventurous with lampredotto

One of the more popular street meals in Florence, lampredotto originated with the city’s workers, who were cooking deliciously with inexpensive cuts of meat. North Americans may not be used to eating tripe (intestines); we nonetheless highly recommend that you try these seasoned slices of tripe, cooked in broth and served with spicy red or mild green sauce.

26.  A Florentine winter treat: Ribollita al pomodoro

If you’re visiting Florence in the colder seasons, this soup, whose literal translation is ‘reheated”, is just the thing. Made with tomatoes, beans, stale bread and whatever vegetables happen to be kicking around the kitchen, ribollita al pomodoro has become the epitome of Florentine comfort food.

27.  For carnivores only: Bistecca alla Fiorentina

If you like huge pieces of meat, you’re going to love this dish. Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or Florentine steak, is a large, lightly seasoned t-bone steak grilled over roast chestnuts. Be warned: Bistecca alla Fiorentina is serious business. Do not tell the chef how you want it cooked. It is grilled lightly on outside and bloody on the inside — any other way and it wouldn’t be Florentine steak.

28.  Pasta and Tuscan mushrooms: Tagliatelle funghi porcini e tartufo

Of course there’s a pasta dish­ — we’re still in Italy, after all. Made from two local ingredients, porcini and truffle mushrooms, and served over flat, long cuts of pasta, tagliatelle funghi porcini e tartufo is a unique, flavourful dish that is almost ubiquitous in Florentine restaurants.

29.  A gelato a day

When in Florence, you must eat at least one scoop of gelato a day. Florence is famous for having some of the best gelato in Italy. Be selective. Avoid the street vendors with their brightly colored mountains of gelato — they are not the real thing. Instead, try out one of the many artisanal gelaterias in the city such as Grom, Perche’No, Gelateri dei’Neri or Gelateria Dondoli.

30.  A truly Florentine dessert: Schiacciata Fiorentina

Tired of gelato? (It’s not possible.) If you want to try a sweet Florentine staple, try schiacciata Fiorentina — a spongy yellow cake easily identified by the fleur de lys stenciled on its surface in cocoa powder. This cake was traditionally eaten only during Carnivale, but it can now be found in almost every bakery in Florence throughout the year.

Where to stay in Florence

The city centre of Florence is packed in tight, with most of the attractions within walking distance of each other. Deciding which neighborhood to stay in will depend on many factors — your budget, your love of the nightlife, how much time you have, and what kind of experience you want. 

If you want to be close to the action and don’t mind paying a bit more, stay near the Duomo. If you still want to be near the tourist attractions but want to experience a cool, lively neighborhood with a happening nightlife, the Santa Croce or San Spirito and the adjacent San Frediano neighborhoods have got you covered. If you want a quieter, more residential experience try Sant’Ambrogio.

And if you’re traveling on a budget, staying by the train station in Santa Maria Novella or Fortezza da Basso will keep you close to everything without breaking the bank. 

Read our quick guide to types of accommodations in Italy for more information on the types of Florence hotels available.