Florence - the birthplace of the Renaissance and the capital of stunning Tuscany, could keep anyone occupied for years. But, if you only have two nights, what all can you fit in?
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*Post updated, June, 2019
Ah, Florence! Italy's great Renaissance city. You could literally spend a lifetime exploring this tiny, yet jam-packed treasure, yet, based on the title of this article, it sounds like you only have a couple nights! Check out these tips and see as much as you can, in a short time!
And, if you can, extend your trip - I know you'll thank me!
How much time should you spend in Florence?
It is easy to spend a few nights in Florence on a trip that's spent mainly in Rome, or Florence could surely be the highlight of a longer trip across multiple cities in Italy. Honestly, I personally could have spent our whole trip in Florence, though I think my Husband would have gotten a bit bored and would have wanted a bit more ancient history on the agenda. (If ancient history is your thing, Rome is your destination).
When's the best time of year to visit Florence?
We visited Florence in late September and crowds were extremely manageable. Perhaps even more importantly, the weather was absolutely perfect. My Husband has visited during the summer years ago and said the crowds were incredibly large. As one of the tourist highlights of Europe, I'd be careful with timing when planning the trip.
Taking the train to Florence from Rome
When should you arrive in Rome, if you're just coming for the weekend? The easy answer on timing is - get there as early as possible! But, in reality, we left Rome for Florence in the late afternoon. It’s a relatively short train ride and we were in Florence in time to split a bottle of wine in one of the cafes around the Duomo. Both the beautiful train ride and, of course, the vino by the Duomo, were definitely highlights of the trip for me.
Florence is an extremely easy train ride from Rome. We splurged on business class tickets which got us two adorable glasses of prosecco and a seat next to a sweet 70-year-old Italian businessman who eavesdropped on my excited rambling with a contented smile and made me happy to be a tourist.
Where to stay in Florence, Italy
I struggled with this one. There are a number of luxurious hotels slightly outside of Florence, in addition to a selection of high-end establishments in town. While I'm all about luxury hotels, for this specific trip, I was in hot pursuit of somewhere deeply historic and I am happy to say I found the perfect combination.
Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo is the hotel I’d craft for myself in my mind, as the perfect hotel, if I had the option. Historic beyond my wildest dreams, yet comfortable, and small with an attentive (but very personable) staff, I can’t think of a better option. Oh, and, I should mention - just as the name implies, it's about 10 feet from the Duomo. It is impossible to have a better location than this.
I'll admit that it was a bit pricey, but, in my opinion, completely worth it for a trip to Florence. Our room was absolutely beyond belief - my husband and I continually said that we felt we shouldn’t have been trusted to be in there without a museum guard. Our room actually featured unprotected 17th-century frescoes. Yes, you read that right. And yes, it not only had AC, but good AC, which you'll want, even in September in Italy.
With an honor bar for a night cap and an included, delicious, over-the-top Italian breakfast with tons of meat and cheese, Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo has everything you’d need, not to mention a splendid history. The palazzo is still owned by the Niccolini family - into which it came through a dowry in the late 19th century. They offer early payment and pre-payment discounts, so keep that in mind. When I couldn’t find availability through their website, I actually ended up booking through Tripadvisor.
Where to eat in Florence
Florence, like all of Italy, really, is full to the brim of excellent restaurants. It can actually be a bit overwhelming.
For a quick espresso and a bite to eat, I loved Caffe Gilli, one of Florence's most historic cafes, which opened in 1733. Yes, you read that correctly! And no, this won't be an inexpensive visit!
For dinner, you can't beat the restaurant recommended by our hotel, Cantina Barbagianni. With a tiny, cozy dining room, attentive service, and an off-the-beaten path location without a tour bus in sight, I'm not sure what more you could want in this beautiful city! I highly recommend the lamb shank, though I'm sure the menu changes daily!
My favorite things to do in Florence
Florence is incredibly compact and easily walkable. Even to this day, its small size continues to surprise me. We never saw the need to hire a car or take a cab, and thus only walked during our two days in the city. I would recommend doing the same, unless you select a hotel that is farther afield than we did. The city packs a massive punch in a minuscule area, and around each corner is a new, small street you didn’t know existed. That said, I'll also admit that Florence was the scene of a small vacation meltdown for me personally, as we had a jammed packed schedule, pushing us from big tourist event to big tourist event. Be sure to build in some time to relax and taste some of that delicious Tuscan wine!
Visiting Florence's Magnificent Duomo
Obviously, the #1 item on your list will be to visit the Duomo. Though all of the other exhibits surrounding the Duomo require a ticket, like many churches, the Cathedral itself is free and no ticket is required. All you need to do is hop in line. We went first thing in the morning, to start our day off on the right foot and see if we could attempt to "beat the crowds." That said, the line gets very long and there seems to be little reason behind why the line does/doesn’t move. Don’t get out of line - just stay in the line. They let people in in very, very large groups. You may be waiting in line halfway around the Cathedral, and then, next thing you know, they're waiving everyone in in front of you, and you're in! But, luckily, the Duomo is massive and of course they have more experience than I in knowing how many people can comfortably fit inside.
The Duomo is a compilation of centuries of design and construction, showcasing significant shifts in building technique. Under construction so long that it actually changed architectural styles, the Duomo transitioned from a Gothic cathedral to the gem of the Renaissance with the addition of Brunelleschi's famous dome in 1436, 16 years after Brunelleschi had begun construction. And then there's the fact that the marble exterior wasn't fully completed until 1887.
Take your time both inside and outside the Duomo. That green and pink marble is really is phenomenal. Climbing to the top of the Duomo is another story and, unfortunately this is not the blog for you on that regard - I am pseudo-afraid of heights/small spaces, so the rickety staircases of major European sights have never really appealed to me. Between the line and time inside, I'd budget an hour and a half. I doubt you'll need all of that time, unless you visit in July and the line is over-the-top, but better safe than sorry!
The Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence
Once you've finished at the Duomo, take the quick jaunt over to Santa Croce, built in 1294. Far less crowded than the Duomo, pop into Santa Croce and take in the beautiful church and surrounding cloisters. Visit the graves of Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Galileo, and a significant memorial monument to Dante (though Dante is not actually buried there). Warning: with the lack of crowds, you may even feel yourself start to relax a bit! WOW.
A ticket is required (8 Euros), but in September, we were able to walk right up and buy our tickets without a line at all.
Exploring the Uffizi Gallery, Florence
I cannot reiterate this enough. Buy tickets in advance, from the Gallery. Florence is filled to the brim with people on short stop-overs. They have a quick list of things to see and this is on everyone's list. It's one of the greatest, and oldest museums in the world.
And of course there's a reason it's so crowded- housed in the former Medici offices, it's an absolute behemoth. It's gorgeous. And you won't see it all. See as much as you can, and when you think your feet are going to fall off, or you aren't enjoying yourself any longer, move along. Be sure to check out the views from the rooftop, and grab a breath of fresh air!
The David, and so much more: Florence's Accademia Gallery
Florence's Accademia is a tribute to all things fine art, with a focus on sculpture, including the famous David. It is just slightly less visited than the Uffizi, welcoming 1.5 million visitors per year. Plan some time into your schedule to get in, even with pre-purchased tickets (which are a must- more on that below), and also to see more of the museum beyond David. The additional sculpture galleries are incredible, whether you're a true sculpture aficionado, or not!
As with the Ufizzi, buy your tickets in advance (also beware of fake website trying to sell you tickets at inflated prices). It is a very small gallery and there is not a huge amount to see. Do not waste more time in line than necessary. In addition to the David, there are a number of rooms showcasing gorgeous works of sculpture - depending on the crowds, and your interest in sculpture, take a peek around. We spent approximately 45 minutes here.
Where to shop in Florence, Italy
Though small, Florence is home to some of the best shopping in the world. From the luxury on the Ponte Vecchio to the birthplace of one of the finest luxury leather brands, Ferragamo, dedicate some time to spending a few. For me, a big purchase at the castle-like Ferragamo headquarters was a must - the service was incredible and it felt like a natural shopping experience (not like an ordeal on the Champs-Elysees). And, of course, if you're looking for their products in the US, they're readily available, though not in the same quantity, and with an import cost. Really, this can fit into any of the days of your visit, though let's be honest - you'll know you'll start shopping the instant you arrive.
Visiting the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens
We started our final day in Florence with a trip across the Arno River to the Pitti Palace, home of the famous Medici family. On an almost unimaginable scale, the stunning palazzo seems to go on forever. The original building was built in 1457, though now it's heavily surrounded by centuries worth of gilded expansion.
Grab yourself and audio guide and get walking! For an additional charge, the Boboli Gardens expand beyond the palace. The museum also contains a nice first-floor cafe, if you're feeling hungry after all that exploration!
I could write about Florence all day - and I'm sure it will earn many more blog posts in the future. Happy Travels! xx
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