The 12 Best Things to Do in Florence, Italy
Rome today is overcast and chilly. After walking around all day yesterday in the rain (and the sun...and the heat...and the cold?), Joe and I decided to take it easy today. I'm just back from mass at a gorgeous church - one of Rome’s original 28 tituli from Pope Symmachus in AD 499 - and I thought it'd be a perfect time to update here about our travels.
We stayed three nights in Firenze. We both loved it and I'm wishing I had scheduled more time for us there instead of a full week in Roma. One thing I’ve learned from our stay in Florence & Rome: Italians don’t seem to like going to bed. Another thing is that Italian dogs are so well-behaved!
Our apartment was perfect! I booked the trip with the help of my Aunt Helen, who found the listing for Dante States Apartments on booking.com. It was an Airbnb-style deal where we met the owner and he let us in, showed us around, gave us the keys, and we never saw him again for the duration. In the 14th-century building, our modernized apartment had a good size living area with kitchen, a bathroom with washer, and a huge bedroom. Most importantly, it had Wi-Fi. The location was ideal: literally around the corner from Palazzo Vecchio and walking distance to everything.
And did we ever walk! They don’t call Florence “The Walking City” for nothing. You can get to everything on foot and you could see the whole city in a day. But, a day could never be enough time to do everything the city has to offer. Below, I've compiled a list of the dozen best experiences that we had while in Firenze.
The 12 Best Things We Did in Florence
1) Visit the Duomo
The Duomo is an obligatory stop in an Italian city. But, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is an incredible structure. Construction of the cathedral began in the 13th century and the dome, designed by Brunelleschi, was added in the 15th century at which point the church was consecrated despite its facade being only half complete. It was redone and finally finished in the 19th century with a decorative mixture of pink, white, and green marble - that's 6 centuries of construction!
To contrast the ornate exterior, the interior, which boasts beautiful mosaic floors, is quite plain. Although, it does boast some beautiful frescoes. Entrance is free for the cathedral, although the line can get quite long. You do have to pay to climb the 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi’s cupola.
2) Enjoy Florentine Steak at Il Latini
The noisy, impossibly popular Il Latini restaurant has been around since the 1960s. We arrived at 7 PM, without a reservation, and there was already a line at the door. When the family-style restaurant opened at 7:30 PM, a jovial waiter in a purple polo promised the crowd that there would be room for all of us and started calling reservation names and fitting in parties without reservations as he could. We were seated at the end of a long table next to two women - one Italian, one Australian - who had worked together in Switzerland and were visiting before one relocated to Texas! They were so friendly and interesting, and I loved making unexpected friends.
While we were shown a menu, we opted to go for the €45 fixed price menu. Which entailed endless house wine, antipasti, chicken liver pâté toasts, two delicious pastas, and the largest steak I’ve ever seen. I believe, for another €5, you get dessert as well, but we skipped it and took a walk in search of gelato. Il Latini is a true experience. Definitely full of tourists, but worth it for the 2-inch thick Bistecca alla Fiorentina, endless wine, and generous portions (go on an empty stomach!).
3) Stroll the Ponte Vecchio (& see it from afar)
All of the Florence bridges that span the River Arno were destroyed by bombing during the Nazi retreat in 1944 except the Ponte Vecchio. Legend has it that Hitler ordered the Ponte Vecchio to be spared because he had taken a tour of it at the beginning of the war and the masterpieces from the Uffizi Gallery were being stored in the bridge for safekeeping during the war.
The bridge as we know it was built in 1345. In 1565, Duke Cosimo I de’Medici had the Vasari Corridor built above the bridge to connect the Medici offices at the Palazzo Vecchio with the Pitti Palace. Today, it is crowded and the famous storefronts are full of over priced jewelry, but it is certainly worth a visit and a crossing at least once. I preferred viewing it from afar from the Ponte Sisto, where you can see the unique bridge’s shops built into the side.
4) See the Museo Galileo
Also around the corner from our apt was the Museo Galileo - the science museum! They have a very cool collection of telescopes and barometer equipment. The highlight for me was their anatomical birthing models (breached babies, cords wrapped around necks, etc.) and the highlight for Joe was the electricity machines. Plus, it’s nice to get a break from the abundant (but amazing) Renaissance art.
5) Shop Mercato Centrale
On a tip from our friend, The Gourmand, we headed through the San Lorenzo outdoor market and stopped at Mercato Centrale for lunch. On the first floor above the traditional food vendor stalls is a fancy new food court, market, and school. I had some fantastic pesto gnocchi and Joe and I had our favorite gelato on the trip so far at the Cristian Beduschi Il Cioccolato e Il Gelato stall.
6) Spy Clet's public works around the city
Around town, you can see altered street signs. French artist Clet Abraham who has had his studio in Florence for 20 years has been altering the signs with vinyl stickers. He recently collaborated with a Tuscan municipality to alter street signs in honor of International women’s day. See how many you can find!
7) Take in the view at Piazzale Michelangelo
On our first day in Florence, as if the travel from our hotel in Maranello to Modena to Bologna to Florence and to our apartment wasn’t enough, we decided to walk to most flights of stairs to date on our trip. After climbing the tower at Palazzo Vecchio, we walked across the river and up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo. We didn’t even know what it was or where we were going at the time - we just found a staircase and climbed it. We were rewarded with panoramic views of the entire city from above just before sunset. It was gorgeous and worth both the climb and the crowds at the top.
8) Relax in the Giardino della Rosa
Before we discovered the Piazzale Michelangelo, we moseyed our way into the Rose Garden halfway up the hill. The small garden is beautiful in its own right plus has beautiful views of the city below. We joined the Fiorentini lounging on the grass for a while before heading up to the Piazzale. I could easily picture spending a few hours in the afternoon here if we had had more time!
9) Climb the Tower at Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio, being right around the corner from our apartment was the first thing we stumbled upon while discovering Florence on the day we arrived. We bought a ticket for all three attractions (which you can also purchase a la carte): the Archeological dig underneath the museum, the museum itself, and the tower climb. Each attraction was well worth it!
Funnily enough, Joe and I had watched a documentary about the possibility of a lost Da Vinci behind the frescoes at an Italian palace. Joe recognized the Salone de Cinquecento immediately from the doc.
Not including the two storeys you’ve climbed before arriving at the tower entrance, the tower is a 223-step climb to the top. The views from the top are amazing! You can see all the major sights from the top of Palazzo Vecchio.
10) See the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
This centuries-old perfumery is around the corner from the Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station and behind the Santa Maria Novella church (another must-see). It is a working shop, but visitors are welcome to view the premises and it’s historical objects for free.
11) Explore Oltrarno
My favorite part of town was across the river. Joe and I had our best meal at a restaurant that we found after a few hours of aimless wandering and discovering in the Oltrarno neighborhood. We saw a few studios with artisans at work, found a couple of parks, saw the Boboli Gardens, and, most importantly, escaped the crowds. The mixed grill for two at Trattoria BBQ, which we hadn’t heard of and stumbled upon after working up an appetite, was a welcome find (and so was their tiramisu).
12) Get a sandwich and self-serve wine from All’Antico Vinaio
At any time of day, there was always a line down the block that went right in front of our apartment’s door. One day, we decided to see what the fuss was about and joined the queue for All’Antico Vinaio, a Florentine fast food sandwich shop with self-serve wine. They had a little best-sellers sign at the front of the counter and behind was a group of super friendly sandwich artists. I ordered the Summer and Joe got the Boss. The sandwich comes on schiacciata bread, which one might say is the best part of the meal. But, the spreads, meats and cheeses are perfect and it all comes in a wax paper wrapper to eat on-the-go. We brought ours to the Loggia at Piazza della Signora and enjoyed them under the sculptures and sunlight.
All photos by me (for better or worse).