Florence, Italy is the birthplace of the Renaissance, and in the pedestrian-only city center it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 1500’s. There are no modern buildings, and the narrow, cobblestone streets twist through the city to provide a feeling of true time travel. The major sights are close together and can be experienced in just 2-3 days if you’re willing to travel at a decent pace. Shave off a couple of lesser known sights if you are short on time or want a more relaxing pace for your trip. Even two days will give you a good feel for this charming city.
Day 1 – Travel to Florence/Medici Chapels/Church of Santa Maria Novella
Before I left home I booked my train tickets online with Italotreno, which saved quite a few Euros, and instead of leaving out of the Termini train station in Rome, I opted to leave out of Tibertina, a nearby station, to save even more money. The train is an extremely efficient way to get around Europe, and it was very easy to manage. The smooth and comfortable ride provided scenic views of the rolling hills of Tuscany, and 2.5 hours later I was in Florence. Across the street from the train station is a tourist information office where I was able to purchase my Firenze card. At 72 Euros, the card is expensive, but it grants free access to 72 sites for 72 hours, the bus system is included, and the added bonus is that you don’t have to stand in line – so your precious time is used more wisely.
I booked another Airbnb flat, which was spacious and right in the heart of the city, so after I checked in, I was right back out again. My first stop was the Medici Chapels, where the €9.00 entry fee was covered by my Firenze card, and it holds the tombs of several Medici family members. The Medici family was a wealthy and powerful banking family that ruled Florence during the Renaissance, and the magnificent tombs were sculpted by Michelangelo. I really enjoyed this stop because you can get close enough to the sculptures to really admire the intricate craftsmanship of the chiseled marble statues. Not far from the chapels is the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The €5.00 entry is also covered by the Firenze card, and this Gothic style church was unlike all of the churches I saw in Rome. There were beautifully preserved fresco paintings and stained glass, and I could even walk through the outdoor cloister.
From here I used a Rick Steves walking tour and enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the heart of Florence from the Duomo to Ponte Vecchio. The city is very walkable, and I got well acquainted with it by walking from the Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi, up the Arno river and across the Ponte Vecchio. The city is safe and beautiful at night, so make it a point to go on an evening walk such as this one.
Day 2 – Mercato Centrale/San Marco Museum/Accademia/Duomo/Santa Croce Church
My first stop of the day was the huge Mercato Centrale. This is the place to go if you want fresh food in Florence. With stall after stall of the best smelling spices, fresh meat, potent cheese, and the most eye-pleasing display of fruits and vegetables I’ve ever seen, I decided to pick up my picnic lunch here. There’s even a food court upstairs with a trendy assortment of places to get sandwiches, coffee, and everything in between.
A short walk away is the San Marco Museum (which is €4.00 for entry, but also covered by the Firenze card). This museum was once a convent that housed two famous Florentine monks. The first is Girolamo Savonarola who was a preacher from the late 15th century who tried to plummet Florence back into the dark ages by burning all vanities such as cosmetics, art, and books. The second is Fra Angelico, who painted the thought provoking frescos throughout the convent. Across the street is the Accademia, which costs €11.00 to enter, or is free with the Firenze card. Queue up your Rick Steves audio guide and get your camera ready – this is where Michelangelo’s David is kept, and he is the focal point of the museum. After you get all close-up pictures of David’s smooth marble man-parts that you desire, make sure to check out Michelangelo’s half-finished sculptures. It’s really interesting to see how he attacked the marble and released the figures within. One block from the Accademia is the Piazza SS Annunziata. There’s plenty of shade and steps to sit on, and it’s the perfect place for a picnic lunch.
The Duomo was the next stop on my list, and the church is free to enter, but if you want to ascend the 463 steps to the cupola it will cost €10.00 or is free with the Firenze card. (With the Firenze card you will have to get a voucher to enter the dome from the ticket office across from the Baptistry.) Since this major sight in Florence is free, there might be a line, but it moves quickly and gives you the opportunity to admire the pink and green marble façade. The cathedral’s construction was began in the early 13th century and Brunelleschi engineered the famous dome in the 15th century, but the façade wasn’t complete until the 19th century! After the extremely narrow descent from the dome, part of it where I felt like I was walking side-ways around the dome, I earned an extra gelato by climbing the 414 steps to the top of the campanile (Giotto’s Tower). This structure was completed in 1359 and gives breathtaking views of Tuscany with the famous Duomo in the forefront. With my voucher I was also able to get into the octagonal, gold-covered Baptistery. For hundreds of years this is where all Florentine Catholics were baptized, and the original bronze doors from around 1330 that are located on the east side of the building depict scenes from the life of Saint John for whom the Baptistery was named.
My last stop of the day was the Santa Croce Church, which was about a 10 minute walk away. Entry is €6.00 or free with the Firenze card. This church holds the remains of multiple famous Italians, including Galileo and Michelangelo. The tombs for these two in particular are large and impressive, but there are many other funerary monuments scattered throughout the basilica.
For dinner I enjoyed a famous Florentine steak at Antica Trattoria da Tito. Bring your appetite, and preferably a friend, because the smallest serving of this rare-served steak is about two pounds. Don’t even think about specifying the doneness because the chef in the kitchen knows how to best prepare this dish, and he was right in my case.
Day 3 – Bargello/Palazzo Vecchio/Uffizi/Mercato Nuovo/Pitti Palace/Piazzale Michelangelo
On my last full day in Florence I wanted to go out with a bang and make sure I had a full day. That’s an understatement. My day was jam-packed with wonderful sights. I first went to the Bargello Museum (€7.00 or free with the Firenze card), which was built in the mid-13th century and is a jail-turned art museum for probably the finest collection of sculptures I’ve ever seen. With pieces like Michelangelo’s Bacchus and Donatello’s David, this museum is a delight and definitely worth an hour or more of your time.
The Palazzo Vecchio was next on my list, and the €10.00 entry and €10.00 tower (both free with the Firenze card – get your ticket at the ground floor information desk) were more than I bargained for. With a copy of Michelangelo’s David standing outside, I already knew this site was home to the Medici family and would be beautifully decorated in the Renaissance style, but before I entered I had no idea that the structure was built at the turn of the 14th century as a medieval fortress, and in Roman times there was a theatre built upon this same site. You can even tour the excavations dating back to the 1st century.
No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to the world renowned Uffizi Gallery, and this is where the Firenze card earns it’s keep in my book. With the Firenze card or reservations booked online, the slow-moving line that goes on forever can be skipped. If you don’t have the Firenze card that provides free entry, the ticket price is €8.00 and purchasing online costs an additional fee of €4.00 per ticket. Believe me, you will want more time in this museum and less time waiting outside. With great pieces like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni, and Raphael’s Madonna and Child, the museum is well-organized, moving you chronologically through all of the best artworks from the 13th to the 18th centuries. I entered through door #1 for Firenze pass holders and started my art journey up the stairs and turned on my Rick Steves audio tour. The galleries are on the second floor, so I made sure to look out the windows to get great views of the Ponte Vecchio and Duomo.
As I made my way to the Ponte Vecchio, I walked through the Mercato Nuovo. A market has been in this location for hundreds of years and today you can buy Italian made leather goods and some tourist souvenirs. I put a coin in the snout of the bronze boar statue and rubbed his nose to ensure a return to Florence in the future, and then I headed across the gold and silver shop-lined Ponte Vecchio (old bridge). From there the Pitti Palace was just a short walk away, which is where the Medici family lived beginning in 1549. There are several options for admission depending on the galleries you wish to visit, but I focused on the Palatine Gallery, which holds a stunning collection of Renaissance paintings, the Royal Apartments, which were lavishly remodeled in the 19th century, and the Boboli Gardens, which is Florence’s largest park. All are free with the Firenze card, or would have cost €15.50 without the card. The Boboli Gardens were by far my favorite, providing a peaceful escape through a very diverse garden.
A half hour walk or a short bus ride away is the San Miniato al Monte Church. It was built in 1018 on top of a hill that towers over Florence. Aside from seeing the gorgeous view of Florence, I went there to experience the Gregorian chants that are performed in the evening. With no light but from candles and the last bit of daylight spilling in, the scene was tranquil as the monks began their chant that filled the entire church and bounced off the 1,000 year old walls. What a great experience!
On my way down the hill from San Miniato, I stopped at Piazzale Michelangelo for my iconic photos of Florence with the Duomo in the background. I cannot think of a better way to end my trip to Florence.
In all, Florence is a charming city in the heart of Tuscany that is easily navigable by foot and should not be missed on a trip to Italy. Grab a creamy, delicious gelato (it was invented here) and take a stroll through the city that feels like the Renaissance ended not so long ago. If you have more time to spend in Italy, make sure to check out my other “play by play” posts 4 Days in Rome and 10 Day Italy Itinerary. Grazie!