I recently spent 10 days in Florence. Usually, my trips to Italy take me to 11 cities in 9 days but this was a luxury that I permitted myself because I felt the need to reconnect with this city that, while small, is a treasure trove of art, history, food, and culture. And I fell in love all over again. I woke early in the mornings and wandered the streets in virtual solitude, greeting the waiters who were setting up tables at Rivoire and the courier delivering early morning pastries. I went to museums I hadn’t visited in years, I ate delicious food forcing myself not to reserve to the same restaurant twice (much as I was tempted). I had allowed myself the leisure time to absorb, indulge and truly enjoy the beauty that is Florence. Even if you only have three days, here are my top tips for making the most of your time there.
1 . If you want to climb to the top of the Duomo, you MUST reserve.
The thing about Florence (and Italy in general) is that there are no rules or if there are, they are always in flux and when you think you understand them, they change. Right now, as of the posting of this blog post, you are required to reserve a time slot to climb the Dome. You can purchase your ticket (which includes the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery and the Museum of the Works of the Duomo) for 18 euro at this site: Il Grande Museo del Duomo . The ticket allows you to visit all of these sites in a 72 hour period. Once you have purchased the ticket you can reserve an exact time to climb the Dome. Do note that there are 463 steps, there is no elevator and this is not recommended for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia. While this ticket is also good for the Duomo itself, there are no timed reservations for the church and the lines can get very long.
2. There is more Michelangelo than David. Much more.
Of course, you must see David. Of course, it is a masterpiece but don’t overlook some of the other brilliant works of Michelangelo that you will find around the city, including the Pietà at the Museum of the Works of the Duomo (included in your ticket to climb the Dome – see above) or the magnificent Medici Chapels. The Medici were anything but understated and Michelangelo represented them well. Not only are these works worth seeing, but you will also be able to do so with relative solitude (compared to the Accademia).
Pietà, Museo del Opera del Duomo
3. Yes, Piazzale Michelangelo is worth it.
Seriously. Don’t miss it. Go early in the morning or join the mass exodus of college students who are studying in Florence and who congregate in the Piazzale at sunset for a nightly happy hour. The walk up there is breathtaking (literally) as is the view once you make it to the top. The Piazzale will be crowded. Once you catch your breath, you can escape the crowds and head up even higher to the church of San Miniato al Monte. If you time it right you can hear the brothers say mass in the crypt in Gregorian Chant (6:30 pm or 5:30 pm nightly depending on the season).
4. Pay the sit-down price for the cappuccino (but choose wisely).
There have been a lot of articles recently about tourists who are presented with exorbitant bills for gelato, pizza, cappuccino. While I don’t condone tourists taking advantage of tourists, there is a lesson to be learned: caveat emptor my friends. Caveat emptor. When you go to a bar or caffe in Italy, there are two options: consume your coffee, beer, Aperol Spritz, whatever, standing up or sitting down. If you stand you pay one price — this is how all Italians have breakfast. A coffee and sometimes a pastry accompanied by a quick conversation with the barista before going on their merry way to work. If you choose to sit down at a cafe, however, the price changes, and sometimes significantly. The thought is you are not buying the coffee, you are renting the table. And that table, in a high rent district like the Piazza della Signoria, can be quite expensive. Expect to pay 5 – 8 euro for a cappuccino (versus 1.50 for a standing cappuccino). I am not saying it’s not worth it. Quite the contrary. I think sitting in the Pizza della Signoria at Rivoire and enjoying a caffe shakerato is one of life’s great pleasures. Just be aware.
5. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Cheap leather goods are cheap leather goods.
My advice is to avoid the leather market at San Lorenzo and head instead to the leather school at Santa Croce or to another reputable shop like Peruzzi. You will pay more but it will be worth it.
6. Get up early and visit: Ponte Vecchio, Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Repubblica.
Yes, Florence is crowded. You can pretty much guarantee that it will be crowded unless you visit in January. The historic center is quite small and a large number of tourists are concentrated in a limited area during the day. But for a real treat, get up early in the morning. Hit the streets as the sun comes up, as the city begins to come alive before the cafes are even open. You will be greeted to empty streets, blissfully quiet piazzas and the ability to photograph some of the city’s most iconic monuments without fighting the crowds or worrying that some woman from Des Moines eating gelato will photobomb your picture of the Duomo.
7. Don’t even think of going to the Accademia or the Uffizi without a reservation.
Unless your favorite memory of last year’s Disney vacation was waiting in line for 18o minutes at the Seven Dwarves Mine Train. Maybe you like striking up conversation with fellow line-standers. Maybe you feel that you need to EARN the right to see the masterpieces of the Renaissance. And by earn I mean wait under the Tuscan sun in a line that never seems to move and could quite accurately be equated to Dante’s seventh circle of Hell. But honestly, there is no reason to spend half a day of a three day stay in Florence waiting in line. Please do yourself a favor and reserve a time for your visit. There may still be a wait (there are fire codes to respect) but it will be nothing like the one for those who have chosen to be spontaneous. Spontaneity is for choosing a gelato flavor.
8. If you want true traditional Florentine food, know that it is not for the faint of heart.
I love Italian food, but I don’t love ALL Italian food. Because Italians love their innards and no matter how much I try (ok, I admit it, I don’t try THAT much), I just can’t wrap my arms around the innards. Tripe, chicken liver, sweetbreads are all very popular and found on most Florentine menus. I tend toward the less adventurous but no less delicious – pappa al pomorodo, ribollita, crostini with the year’s new olive oil. There are plenty of delicious and traditional things to eat. If you are an adventurous eater, a lampredotto sandwich is the street food that is not to be missed (so I’m told….).
I stay away from the traditional lampredotto (tripe) but can’t get enough of the crostini with new olive oil.
9. Sometimes the best plan is no plan.
With the exception of the Uffizi and the Accademia (see n. 7 above), Florence is a city to be discovered one street at a time, letting the history and culture unfold before you, taking it in slowly so as to make the most of the experience. You need to stop at that cafe and watch the world go by, linger over a 3-hour dinner, stroll without a destination for an entire afternoon. This is how the true beauty of Florence will be revealed to you. And it will make you want to return over and over again.
Do you share my love of Florence? I would love to hear about your experience and memories. Post a comment below!