Get on your walking shoes because this week I cover three days in Florence, properly known as Firenze. You will clock some serious distance on foot.
The Centrale, or old city center area, holds all of the interest, with the immense, colored marble Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (better known as the Duomo) dominating it all.
Most iconic sights: Florence, as seen from the Duomo, and the Arno River, as seen from the Ponte Vecchio.
Best secondary church: Santa Croce
Favorite Museum: the Uffizi Gallery
Best foodie activities: comparing gelato across the city and sampling foods in the Mercato Centrale
Local specialities: Florentine steak, Ribollita, Paparadelle al Cinghiale, anything with truffle (tartufo.)
The ancient streets wind around centuries-old buildings, opening to surprises in courtyards and alleys. The distinctive Florentine sour smell, wafting up especially in the smaller streets, harkens back to the open sewers of yesteryear. Once you get over the shock of it, you’ll find that the scent evokes the whole city in a sniff.
The Central Tourist District
The Centrale, or old city center area, holds most of the tourist attractions, with the immense, colored-marble Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (better known as the Duomo) dominating it all. The ancient streets wind around centuries-old buildings, opening to surprises in courtyards and alleys. The distinctive Florentine sour smell, wafting up especially in the smaller streets, harkens back to the open sewers of yesteryear. Once you get over the shock of it, you’ll find that the scent evokes the whole city in a sniff.
In Firenze, no church is ordinary, and the best known among them offer ornate interiors, peaceful cloisters, and work by famous artists. The museums house some of the best Renaissance and Medieval art in the world. If you love art, Florence belongs to you.
But first, the basics of your three days in Florence.
Transportation to Florence/Firenze
If you’ve rented a car to tour Italy, you will be unable to drive it into the center of Florence. Only those who live in the central area are allowed to operate vehicles there. If you must have a car as part of a larger itinerary, consider staying outside the city. You can then take the train in.
The Firenze airport is small, with a short runway sometimes subject to winds. For this reason, most air travelers coming from outside Europe need to first connect in another European city. Alternately, you can take a train from elsewhere right to the edge of the Centrale district.
Although I haven’t ridden it myself, Florence now has a new light rail system that goes to the airport. You can also take a bus or a more expensive taxi. Even though you can walk from the train station to most hotels, hauling your suitcases over the cobblestone and through the narrow streets can be a challenge. You might want to consider a taxi, especially if you’re staying on the other side of the Duomo.
What Else You Need to Know
In Florence, especially if you have three days or less, you need to do some advance planning. Since lines can rival those of amusement parks, it pays to buy tickets online before you leave home. You can then arrange the rest of your day around the reserved times.
Choose your hotel location based on its proximity to Florence’s iconic Duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. If the hotel is within a 10-15 minute walk, you’ll likely be able to reach most sights on foot. Restaurants and cafes abound in the Centrale area, so you’ll never be far from a place to eat. Yes, this part of the city teems with tourists, but, hey, you’re a tourist, too. This time, we stayed on the Via Ricasoli at the Domux Home Ricasoli, a half block from the Galleria dell’Accademia.
Although I’ve laid out the below days based my recent trip, you can always swap the days around. Keep in mind that you can overdose on religious art, so vary your activities to preserve your attention span. The restaurants listed below are just some of many that will offer a respite after a long day of trekking around Florence.
The first day out of three days in Florence can be tricky if you’ve just arrived from another continent. You can be ambitious, as we sometimes are, but fatigue can make concentration difficult. Know your limitations. I’ve tried to keep my first-day recommendations to those places that won’t demand hours of attention at a time. Of course, if you’re coming from somewhere closer, then you’ll be able to do a lot more.
The Galleria dell’Accademia and the David
Because you can buy timed tickets in advance, you might want to start your sightseeing at the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David. The museum is small and can be covered in an hour or so. Many visitors go straight to the David, take their selfies, and exit. You paid the admission, however. Stop to admire the powerful Rape of the Sabines by Giambologna, carved out of a single block of marble, and go into the musical instrument museum. Linger in front of paintings by Bronzino, Botticelli, di Credi, and others. The hall of unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, known as the artist’s “Slaves” or “Prisoners,” provide a fascinating glimpse of the artist at work. If you don’t have tickets in advance, expect to stand in line for at least 30 minutes, longer during peak hours.
The Cathedral, Baptistery, Crypt, Campanile, and Museum
After the Galleria, head down the street to the iconic Duomo and its associated buildings. In some ways, you cannot miss the immense, colorful marble structure, but because the streets are so narrow, it often disappears behind buildings just when you need it as a landmark. The piazza around these buildings is perhaps the most crowded spot in Florence.
You can buy tickets in advance, but only the climb to the Duomo is timed. Although entry into the Cathedral itself costs nothing, you’ll have to pay to see the others.
An 18-Euro ticket gives you admission to all associated buildings and is good for 72 hours after visiting the first. (The museum is closed the first Tuesday of every month.) Most people visit the cathedral first, then the other buildings. See below, however, for why I recommend a different plan.
If you’re in good shape, climb the 463 steps to see Vasari’s frescoes inside the dome before you walk out to see the impressive view of Florence from the top. Plan carefully since reserved time slots for this climb cannot be changed and must be purchased in advance. Note that the climb has a separate entrance. If you’re going to climb, I recommend doing it first, before entering the church, since you’ll be held to a specific time. Give yourself ten minutes — more, if you don’t know where you’re going — to walk from the Galleria dell’Academia to the side entrance.
Next to the Cathedral, you’ll find Giotto’s Campanile or bell tower in matching colored marble. You can climb that, too. Make sure you check out the Baptistry opposite the cathedral and its bronze doors. Dante, poet and author of Inferno, was baptized there.
If you still have time and energy, wander down the streets to the Ponte Vecchio, the ancient bridge over the Arno River lined with jewelry shops and art galleries. If you want to purchase gold or a delicate cameo, this may not be the cheapest place to purchase it, but it will provide the best associated memories. Alternately, or additionally, you can head to the Mercato del Porcellino with its famous boar. Rub the boar’s snout for good luck, as countless other visitors do. These stops will add to the Old World charm you find during your three days in Florence.
The Uffizi Gallery
If you see just one museum during your three days in Florence, make it the renowned Uffizi Gallery and its astounding collection, particularly of Italian Renaissance paintings. I find it best to begin the day here while my mind is still fresh, but, of course, a lot depends on the tickets you obtain.
The Uffizi dates back to the 16th century when it was built as the administrative offices for the de’ Medici family’s magistrates. The building screams of old Florentine wealth both inside and out.
You will definitely want to buy timed tickets in advance, either just for the Uffizi or a combination ticket for the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens should you choose to add those to your itinerary.
Expect to spend 2-3 hours in the Uffizi, depending on your attention span.
If you haven’t already visted the nearby Ponte Vecchio, you should do so after you leave the Uffizi since it’s only a couple of blocks away. You can also continue across the Arno River to spend the afternoon at the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens. Otherwise, continue to Santa Croce.
The Basilica of Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce is perhaps the second most impressive church in Florence, not only for its stunning interior but also because of who is buried there. You will find the tombs of Galileo, Dante, Rossini, Michelangelo, and others. Machiavelli and Da Vinci have monuments dedicated to their memories. The side chapels and cloisters provide as much beauty and interest as the nave.
Other Things to Do on Day Two
If you choose to skip the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens — or move them to another day — you have other options available, some near Santa Croce. Art lovers can head to the Bargello Museum and its sculptures. Those interested in the history of science might want to visit the Galileo Museum. Or you can take some time to shop and hang out in a bar or caffe. With only three days in Florence, you should identify your must-sees or must-dos, and go for them.
About a ten minute walk from the Duomo, you’ll find the Basilica San Lorenzo, one of the largest and perhaps the oldest in Florence. You can tell just by looking at the stone and mortar exterior that it dates from centuries ago. Formerly the parish church of the de’ Medici family, you’ll find many funerary monuments dedicated to its members. The church was consecrated in 393, although it wasn’t built to its current form until the 15th century. Brunelleschi of the Duomo fame began the design, and other artists such as Michelangelo and Donatello contributed later.
San Lorenzo enforces a stricter dress code than do the other Florentine Churches. If your shoulders and/or knees are bare, you will be given a white wrap that you must wear while inside the church but don’t need for the other areas. I arrived wearing a short-sleeve, shoulder-covering, knee-length dress, and I was told to tug it lower so that no part of my knees showed.
The ticket line, even in the high tourist season of August, is short and fast-moving. You’ll want to purchase a ticket for both the church and the museum/library, including the chapel. The library ticket also gains you access to the treasures.
The Mercato Centrale, or San Lorenzo Market
At the rear corner of San Lorenzo, you’ll find the entrance to the Mercato Centrale. Although the market itself is covered, vendors hawking leather products and souvenirs line the narrow path to its doors. The two-story structure is a foodie’s heaven. On the first floor, food stalls sell food designed to be prepared at home or taken out. Upstairs, you’ll find an enormous food court selling prepared food, everything from Florence’s famed lampredotto (tripe) sandwiches to more familiar pizza and fresh pasta. It’s a great place to grab an informal lunch and to sample of variety of dishes. Be forewarned, though: finding an empty seat can be difficult.
If you choose to shop in the streets outside the market, keep in mind that leather varies in quality. You probably won’t find the more expensive full-grain leather here, although if you just want souvenirs, it won’t matter. Vendors expect you to haggle. Local artisan leather shops can be found in the narrow streets near the market. If you want to purchase quality goods, learn about full-grain leather and how to spot it. I found a wonderful handbag — full-grain leather and locally-made — from Massimo Leather, a stone’s throw from the market and San Lorenzo on Via Borgo La Noce.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
Not to be confused with the official name of the Duomo cathedral, the gothic Santa Maria Novella sits across from the train station. The church gains its fame from not only being the first great basilica of the city but also for its frescoes. Make sure you explore all the chapels here as well as the outside Grand Cloisters.
What Else to Do on Day Three
Depending on how early you’ve started and how much time you spent in the Mercato Centrale, you may have some extra time to finish up your three days in Florence. Since this may be your last day, it might be a great opportunity to make your final souvenir purchases, sample more gelato, or sit in a caffe with a glass of Tuscan wine or an espresso. But if you want to see more of Florence’s museums, you won’t be far from the Palazzo Medici Riccardi after finishing Santa Maria Novella.
You must eat gelato while you visit Florence. I mean, you must. Multiple times. Although the mouth-watering displays of rippled gelato may tempt you, you’ll get better quality in some of the smaller, more out-of-the-way artisan shops. You can order two or more flavors per cone or cup, depending on the size. Don’t settle for just one flavor. I found my favorite gelato at My Sugar, near San Lorenzo on Via Ginori. The owners make gelato daily and use ingredients purchased from the nearby Mercato Centrale. My favorite flavor? Salted caramel. But you really cannot go wrong with any flavor.
I also recommend Carabe’, which makes Sicilian-style gelato, located between the Galleria dell’Academia and the Duomo on Via Ricosoli. Their pistachio may be the best in the city. I also liked Grom, which might have gotten my top vote if the fresh strawberry gelato had not had a few shards of ice in it. Otherwise, Grom’s flavors and texture were wonderful. You can find Grom near the Arno side of the Duomo, on Via del Campanile.
Where to Eat
The staff of the Domux Ricasoli told us that we couldn’t go wrong if we liked how a restaurant looked and smelled. Truly, I have never had a bad meal in Florence in the six or so times I’ve visited.
For dinner, we loved Rosso Crudo on Via dei Servi. They are known for their steaks, but they also have fantastic appetizers and pasta, including paparadelle al cinghiale. Add a bottle of Chianti Classico Riserva from Banfi to accompany the meal.
La Terrazza del Principe Ristorante
If you don’t mind taking a taxi for a romantic dining experience on a warm summer night, try La Terrazza del Principe Ristorante. Perched on top of a hill south of the Boboli Gardens on Viale Niccolo Machiavelli, the setting is serene as you overlook the hills of Firenze. The traditional Tuscan food is excellent. Don’t leave without trying the buffalo mozzarella on the antipasta alla Meditarranea plate and the taglierini agli agrumi. If you’re with a group, as we were, you can order different dishes to share.
I’ Girone de’ Ghiotti For Sandwiches
For lunch, find a busy panini or sandwich shop. We loved the giant sandwiches at I’ Girone de’ Ghiotti not far from the Duomo on Via de Cimatori. One sandwich was enough for two. They have a small counter downstairs and additional seating upstairs with air conditioning.
Caffe’ Ricasoli for Breakfast
Because my husband had morning meetings, we needed to find a caffe’ that served early enough to get him there in time. We happened upon the Caffe’ Ricasoli just down the street from where we were staying. While I’m sure better places exist, it ended up being perfect for us. Try the pistachio cream croissants and a cappuccino decorated with the lily symbol of Florence.
Typical Tuscan Dinner at Giglio Rosso
We also had wonderful food at Giglio Rosso on Via Panzani, roughly equidistant from Santa Maria Novella, the Duomo, and San Lorenzo. (Don’t search for Il Giglio Rosso because that’s a B&B in a different area.) You can get your ribollita alla fiorentina here as well as flavorful tagliata di manzo con rucola e scaglie di grana, a sliced steak dish with arugula and parmesan cheese. Service, though, was gruff and sloppy. You can order cheap Chianti by the pitcher or go with more expensive bottles.
You can overdose on religious art in Florence, as I did once, but as long as you choose different kinds of stops, you can moderate it. Of course, you do want to see the art since it’s an integral part of what makes Florence so special. To see everything, you probably need five days, but three days in Florence allows you to visit the most important spots while opening your evenings to relaxation and good food.
Debbie Lee Wesselmann