Florence: 10 bites of advice from the mad dog
Yes, yes, listicles are so great, and lovely for SEO. So I am going to write one, too. It’s not gonna be great, but I promise it will be an easy read. It might provide you with some useful inspiration about what to do and what not to do when you visit Florence, especially in high season. But how can this be over 4000 words again? Got to work on that. Before I tackle my poor grammar and humongous German-style convoluted sentences that I have a weakness for, here are my 10 hot tips for Florence that will make your trip more enjoyable.
1. Florence is not a city to be seen in a rush
Forty-eight hours are not enough to breeze through the city and take in the art, the restaurants, the views, and the wonderful architecture! Although distances are short, its cultural offerings are massive and go far beyond the Uffizi, the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Duomo.
2. Spend a bit more on nice accommodation close to the centre
Florence is a romantic city. If you grew up in the 1980’s like me, you may remember the Merchant Ivory film ” A room with a view”. You may wait forever for the kiss in a field, but nothing beats a sunset passeggiata or a drink in one of the many bars by the river – or on a terrace with a view.
I thought our AirBnB was okay. At roughly 28EURO per person per night, it was certainly unbeatable in price. And it was just 10 minutes walk from the Duomo, so still central. But I wasn’t exactly looking forward to another night on a camp bed. So, next time, I would spend a bit more and consider something comfortable. A comfy bed wider than 80cm with nice linens, at least! Not sure if this should count as one of my 10 hot tips for Florence as its essentially a no-brainer to favour nice accommodation, but that cheap bed in Florence was particularly uncomfortable.
3.Head away from the Duomo for food and ice cream. Cross the river for more local restaurants and bars
Try to steer away from the packed centre for a bit. Just across several bridges, the Oltrarno Quarter is altogether less frantic, more easy-going, and has a mixed clientele.
You will find the street from Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti packed. The rest of the quarter is refreshingly uncrowded, even in high season. I recommend the excellent Gustapizza (just round the corner from Piazza Santo Spirito), followed by a coffee and watching the world go by on Piazza Santo Spirito which has cafes, bars and restaurants. Nearby are the excellent gelaterias Sbrino and La Carraia, and the streets in Oltraro are generally lined with small restaurants and bars. Please ler me know your favourites if you have any because I’m definitely going back there.
4. For the popular highlights, pre-book! (but do you really want to see them all?)
The Uffizi, the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Cupola of the Duomo, the Campanile of the Duomo… you’d be ill-advised just to turn up.
Pre-book at the appropriate websites (all attractions have their own website). For the Duomo, you can pre-book a reasonably priced timed ticket (18 EURO at the time of writing) which is valid for the bell tower, the Cupola, the Baptistery, the Duomo itself, and the Museum. The interior of the Duomo itself is surpriginly bare, save for the cupola, and if you’re really a cheapskate and just want a glimpse, you could just attend mass.
Consider timing your entry to the Uffizi first thing in the morning, when they open. So you’re among the first to enter and can make a bee-line for the most popular works.
For the Botticelli Room, head to the second floor of the East Wing, Rooms 10-14. Next Door, in Room 15, you should find the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio, as well as other da Vinci works.
Prefer something a bit younger? The West Corridor and its adjoining rooms hold some Flemish painting, the Venus of Urbino by Titian and a Giorgione Venus. For the crazed-looking Medusa by Caravaggio, head all the way down the West Corridor to Room 43. (but if you’re interested in Carvaggio, Rome might be a better bet altogether).
5. Some not-so-popular sights are less crowded but still great
With only 48 hours, and not wishing to spend time in queues, I skipped the famous sights altogether.
We visited the Cappella Brancacci, a small exquisitely frescoed chapel off Santa Maria del Carmine in Oltrarno. Praised as the “Sistine Chapel of the Renaissance”, it does in no way compare with the scale of the Sistine Chapel, and is not nearly as famous, but definitely worth visiting. The frescoes are actually attributed to various painters, as there appeared to have quite a bit of artist fluctuation and rivalry during the decoration of the chapel in the 15th Century. Reservations are required here, and the chapel was surprisingly quiet and the walk there very pleasant, lined with small shops and restaurants.
The Dome and the Campanile of the Duomo might get the most visitors, but did you know the Duomo has an excellent Museum, too?
I also loved the architecture of the Ospedale degli Innocenti. I had no time for the museum but the architecture, another building Brunelleschi had his hands in, is wonderful.
6. If you like churches: this is your place!
Put the following on your walking list:
Brunelleschi’s late work of Santo Spirito for the clean geometry of architecture, standing in contrast to the ornate and monumental Duomo.
The Ognissanti for the pretty Baroque interior smaller artworks by Botticelli, an exquisite painted wooden Cross by Giotto. A predecessor version of the “Last Supper” by Domenico Ghirlandaio can be admired in the refectory next door.
Santa Trinita for the amazing Sassetti Chapel, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s masterpiece.
San Minato al Monte for the pretty mosaic interior and the lovely views over Florence. Just walk up a bit further from the Piazza Michelangelo (good place for that famous view, though can be a bit crowded).
All these churches are free to visit – but donations appreciated. I’ll write a post about the churches of Florence, promise! I got to read up on those Renaissance artist a bit before.
And dedicate a lot of time for Santa Maria Novella. Fairly unassuming from the outside, greeting you when you first leave the station, it is chock-full with artworks. Definitely worth the entry fee.
8. If you like Renaissance Art: this is your city, too!
Where to start… Florence is THE city for renaissance art, thanks to its medieval flourishing wool trade, the riches amassed by the Medici banking family and the wealthy families support of the fine arts.
I don’t know where to start, but you’ll be spoilt for choice, no, you have the agony of the choice here. I know little about art but I totally appreciate it in an aesthetic way, but of you like to see the works of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Giotto (de Bondone), or Sandro Botticelli, head to Florence.
You’ll find them all in the Uffizi Galleries. But if you like to see some art in a less crowded space, try Santa Croce for Giotto (currently scaffolded), the Ognissanti for Botticelli. Ghirlandaio just seems everywhere but the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinita was my favourite, and the Tuornabuoni Chapel (main chapel) of Santa Maria Novella is monumental.
8. Bring your comfiest shoes and walk
Central Florence is small, and although four lines of mini-buses ply its streets, I found it a real pain to buy tickets (some tobacconists and newsstands sell them) or even day tickets.
The bus stops aren’t that obvious, and to avoid hanging round and looking for bus stops altogether, I recommend to just put your comfy shoes on and walk. I covered about 10-12km a day and was rewarded with a lot of blisters, so perhaps bring some blister pads, too. Other than that, walking is great. Bring a water bottle, for there are plenty of drinking fountains all over the old town (in Piazza Santo Spirito, Piazza Santa Croce, in the middle of Ponte Vecchio, in Piazza del Duomo, by Palazzo Vecchio…) where you can refill water bottles – better for the environment, too.
9. Bring money to shop but avoid the tourist markets
Florence is one of the worlds fashion capitals: it may not compare to Milan, New York or London, and is home of a more staid Italian style. The houses of Gucci, Ferragamo or Pucci originate from Florence, and of course every Italian luxury brand will have an outlet in Florence, along with local stalwarts Pratesi, Bevilacqua and numerous artisan leather brands. But there is great shopping in Florence, even if you don’t bring the big money purse along.
For food souvenirs, nowhere is better than the Sant’ Ambrogio Market. Cheeses, salami, all sorts of Italian Delicatessesn you can find here… as per usual, I picked up 2kg of sun-dried tomatoes and very impressed with the quality.
Paper: Just between Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, are two great traditional shops, Il Papiro (which has expanded as far as Palm Beach, Florida, and is the friendlier of the two) and Giulio Giannini.
Be very careful with clothes and leather
Please note that not everything bearing the label “Made in Italy” is made ethically, from Italian fabric – the manufacturing of cheap clothes and leatherware under poor working conditions is a large industry in Tuscany.
Be wary of the sharp leather smell emanating from many shops and market stalls – if the price is cheap, it will have been cheaply made. If the price is expensive, even worse!
I recommend you stay away from cheap street leather ware and only buy from reputable shops. If an animal is killed for its hide, then at least be sure the resulting leather is of good quality and will last a long time. Scuola die Cuoio is great for classic, long-lasting leather accessories of good quality, and the shop itself is calm and breezy.
I skipped on the bling this time, but if I were to go back, I would check out the workshop of Alessandro Dari. If ornate, Renaissance-style jewellery is your thing, you will find something pretty unique here. Ponte Vecchio is traditionally the jewellers quarter, but a lot of the shops offer international brands you would find in any big city, and prices can be very high.
10. Ride the train
Bologna and Lucca are my favourites but high speed trains make Milan, Venice and Rome an easy trip. Even a day trip would be possible if you use the high-speed train. Trenitalia Frecciarossa and Italo trains are the fastest and come at a price but if you book well in advance. I would much rather make a leisurely trip to Bologna, where you will barely find any tourists (but plenty of attractions in this quietly wealthy town with some very good food). Bologna is big on modern art and street artLucca is another laid-back town with a centre that’s totally easy to walk and a medieval square on the site of an old amphitheatre.
My friend actually recommended staying in the town of Empoli on the railway line between Florence and Pisa. Also, Lucca and Siena are easily accessible from here, there are no tourists, and hotel rooms cost a fraction of those in Florence. Oh, and if you like football, the towns club seems to be one of very few “provincial” clubs in the top Serie A.
So, 10 hot tips for Florence or rather some lukewarm fuzzy advice?
Please let me know, and feel free to share your hot Florence tips! If you have a recipe on how to banish the Schachtelsatz, please share, too! Further Florence info can be found here and there. And, if you like this article, please consider to Follow my blog with Bloglovin
I paid a modest 130 EURO for a Friday to Sunday return flight from Berlin to Bologna and back to Berlin from Pisa. Pretty good for Florence in high season, especially considering school holidays had just started in Berlin.
Train/Bus from the Airport
From Bologna, there is a rather overpriced direct coach to Florence, which costs 25 EURO and takes approximately 90 minutes. I took the Airlink Bus to Bologna Centrale (6 EURO) then a local train to Firenze Santa Maria Novella (10 EURO). If you have time, here is your chance to stop over in Bologna, which is a beautiful, low-key city. If you have less time, pre-book your train at Trenitalia, where a high-speed train takes less than an hour to Florence. You’ll better be sure your flight arrives on time otherwise you lose the connection.
Getting to and from Pisa I found much more convenient – there are at least three trains an hour. They cost about 9 EURO per trip but are considerably fast. They require a short walk of 100m in Pisa Centrale to use the light railway Pisamover to take you directly to the airport terminal. Pisa Airport is tiny and has a rather poor reputation for service. It was rammed when I was there, and my late evening flight was delayed due to late arriving aircraft. Security was quick and pain-free at the airport and therefore I cannot really say anything bad about it.
Where to stay
Florence in high season means accommodation in this already over-visited city will be at a premium. We stayed in a private room in an apartment near the Synagogue to the east of the Duomo. I’m still using AirBnB although I had patchy experiences with them. For high summer, their prices were competitive compared to small one-and two-star hotels. We paid about 55 EURO for a twin room and ended up having the entire apartment to ourselves, which was great. Lovely apartment, clean, but the beds were so uncomfortable (mine was like a narrow camp bed) so I won’t recommend it! In all my AirBnB stays in Italy to date, beds were always an issue, by the way. Perhaps they’re just not into good guest beds that much?
If you have any suggestions for good accommodation in Florence, please let me know! I would love to return (on low season) so your tips will be put into practice!
I admit, I did like the look of the Westin Excelsior right by the Chiesa di Ognissanti a lot. But normally a whole holiday costs me less than a nights stay there! Okay, maybe on my honeymoon! It looks top classy, great location, really nice rooms, but it is really expensive. If you want class on a budget, check out the Antiche Dimore di Firenze, a collection of small residences in the centre of Florence, usually for less than 100 EURO per night.
What to See
I’ll post more about sights (other than the obvious) separately, but here are some that I mentioned in the above post:
According to their online presence, you will need a reservation. The Civic Museums of Florence website advises that you can buy tickets through the site. Whenever I tried, I got no availability. I eventually made a reservation by Email. Tickets are 7 EURO per person – a lot, but worth seeing, especially as they severely limit access so it’s never crowded. Santa Croce costs 8 EURO to visit and the most famous frescoes are currently under scaffolds. The queues can be a bit forbidding. Santa Maria Novella charges 7.50 EURO and was really empty when I visited. At first, the church is not looking too appealing, but as you explore side chapels and the museums, this one probably gives you the most value for money.
What about the Uffizi?
Ummm, yeah, the weather was so good, and I did not want to spend hours in a crowded museum to get the most out of my 24 EURO entry fee… so I didn’t visit. As soon as I have a couple more days in the city, I promise! If you do want to see the gallery relatively hassle-free, pre-book. Their off-peak season is November to February, which tells you something about visitor popularity! . Try to go for 8am or late afternoon. Only a limited number of people are allowed in at a time, so queues and visitor numbers tend to be biggest late morning.
And the Galleria dell’ Accademia?
Without wanting to sound like a complete philistine, it’s mainly famous for Michelangelo’s David, which you can admire in copy in the Piazza della Signoria, queues are long and the displays are somewhat crowded and uninspired.
Preferring art in small dose and in situ, I prefer to visit churches and palaces, where the art was intended to be hung, if possible and I was somewhat bothered about the huge crowds rolling through the exhibition halls of those major galleries.
Where to Eat
The short answer is: nowhere near the Duomo or the Piazza di Signoria, although there are notable exceptions, like Gelateria Edoardo right by the Duomo. My bet is to head over to Oltrarno (use the Santa Trinita Bridge and head on) for more local food. We had dinner in a pretty little restaurant called Il Vivandiere on our first night near Santa Croce – great on ambiance, with okay food. Florence in high season is still no excuse for poor food!
Saturday evening, with resturants pretty full, we chanced upon Salsamenteria de Ciompi in Sant’ Ambrogio. How they managed to make it to currently No.38 out of 2184 restaurants on Florence on Tripadvisor I do not know. The food was okay, solid, the pasta really homemade. But I think they might have used up last year’s black truffles. Okay, the dish was only 14 EUROs, but it has put me off truffles a bit.
I went to Gustapizza after mass on Sunday – it was only 11.30 and they had just fired up their oven. It was already heaving but I loved it. Where else can you have a really nice sit-down lunch for less than 10 EURO in Florence? They serve pizza only, Neapolitan-style, very fast, super tasty, quality ingredients. Not the place for your romantic dinner.
I supplemented my carb-rich diet with lots of fresh fruit from S’ant Ambrogio Market and countless espressi and cappucchinos in anonymous bars. Always enjoyed at the bar, where an espresso shouldn’t cost more than 1 EURO and a cappucchino no more than 1.50 EURO. What slightly pissed me off was that Florence was the first place where you had to pay for a glass of water with your coffee.
Florence, for all its touristy-ness, has some pretty decent ice cream parlours! Even Florence in high season has enough ice cream so queues move very fast.
My favourite was Sbrino (Via dei Serragli 32, no website though they are on Instagram). It’s tiny, somewhat off the beaten path, friendly, and decent choice of milk ice cream and (vegan) sorbet. They use all natural flavours, have decent prices, and overall, extreme friendliness. They only opened a few month ago, and no doubt the ice cream connoisseurs will find this place quickly!
Followed by the more famous La Carraia just down the road. Well enough off the beaten path to be less than overrun, good flavours, somewhat less intense in flavour than Sbrino but very natural tasting, and not expensive.
Then came nothing for a while. They say Vivoli is the best ice cream place in Florence, if not Italy, and well, it’s really good! Quite creamy and very sweet. Although quite in the centre, not exactly overrun – or we were just lucky.
After dinner one evening I passed Il Procopio (Via Pietrapiana 60, no website) and had to have a scoop. It was just okay, nothing to write home about.
Last on my list because of their mean portions: Perche No! Their 3.50 EURO cone was measly, though their sorbet tasted excellent.
And that’s all the ice cream I could eat in two days, folks. Did I mention that we went to Sbrino about three times, too? Of course, tastes vary. If you want something so tasty, that it makes you drool all over your postcard/your instagram ice cream post, then head across the river to Oltrarno. Have an ice cream feast at La Carraia and Sbrino!
Where to shop
Florence is full, absolutely chock-full with shops. The centre has all the European High Street chains as well we Italian chains, and, of course, designers. There is even a whole palace dedicated to Salvatore Ferragamo. Besides, you find a plethora of leather shops, more market stalls with leather stuff than you can take, and of cours,e countless souvenir shops, interior shops, shops with weird little bits (crowned skulls are big this year) and true specialty shops. I am a rubbish shopper a the best of times, but I do like well-made things and usually look out for something typical that I might need – and I partially succeeded.
Cosmetics and scent
First, let’s start with that pharmacy… Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Even if you don’t buy, make a visit to admire the beautiful old pharmacy, complete with ceiling frescoes. I’ve used their soaps and toothpastes, and they are good quality, ethically produced and cruelty-free. In my opinion, they are selling out a bit with their line in bathrobes and accessories. The scents, traditional as they may be, are a bit to fusty and old-fashioned for my liking. But you can try everything and make up your own mind.
For slightly lower prices and fresher scents, you might like to try the Farmacia Santissima Annunziata (Via dei Servi 80) in the centre – beware that unlike most tourist and high street shops, they are closed on a Sunday.
What Florence is famous for, is, of course, its leather. You will find countless shops in the centre, all telling you they sell the finest Italian-made leather. But did you know that Italy has sweat shops and slave labour, too? So, when you spot that cheap bag or jacket, it’s probably cheap because it’s fake. Mercato Nuevo, San Lorenzo Market, numerous shops along the tourist paths… browse with extreme caution. You know that a “typical leather smell” can easily be recreated by synthetics, right? I’d buy from a reputable shop. If I buy any leather at all, I restrict myself to one item a year, and for that, I want good craftmanship. I went to the Scuola del Cuio (behind Santa Croce).
Last not least, paper making and decoration has a long tradition in Florence. Spot the multicoloured paper inside old books and old desk trays – yes, that’s Florentine paper. A lot is machine-printed, but you can see and buy traditional paper at Giulio Giannini, among others. That tourist favourite, Il Papiro, has an even larger range or authentic Florentine marbled and printed papers at slightly better prices. They sometimes demonstrate paper marbling, and I found them friendlier, too. They are actually a Florentine company that has expanded as far as the US, but what you buy there, is produced the traditional way in small batches.
Markets and Artisan shops
In the Oltrarno district are many tiny shops, often restorers, antique shops and artisans. I wanted to look for a door knocker, but the shop was already closed. Best to come here during the week or on a Saturday morning.
For food items, I highly recommend the long-ish walk to Sant’ Ambrogio Market. I bought some sun-dried tomatoes at a quality I’d never get in Germany, for the standard 5 or 10 EURO per kilogram. Also plenty of fresh foods ready to consume on-site. There’s even a small thrift section! It’s the best market for food in the centre of Florence. Mercato Centrale is supposedly more touristy, with a whole level dedicated to small restaurants.
I generally use the Rough Guide to Italy* . But you can also get a 2018 Pocket Rough Guide to Florence*. And a series I really love for those off-the-beaten track places, is the “Secret” guides by Jonglez. They are just on sights, no restaurants, no hotels, but full of inspiring ideas! There is, of course, one on Florence*, and I wish I had read that before I went – but I probably would have found it even harder to leave!