Florence holidays are a magical experience that everyone should enjoy at least once in their lives. Our travel guide helps you make the most of your time there.
Florence is key part of any visit to Italy. Never mind London, Paris or Rome, Tuscany’s capital – packed with art treasures, architectural wonders and fabulous food – is Europe’s most dazzling city.
The birthplace of Dante and Machiavelli, it’s also where Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci learned to paint.
It dates back to the year 59BC, when a certain Julius Caesar chose this spot on the banks of the River Arno to set up camp. In medieval times it was ruled by the wealthy Medici family, whose enlightened patronage of painters, sculptors and architects virtually created the Renaissance.
And so much of its glorious history survives that today Florence is one of the world’s truly great cities to visit.
If you haven’t been, you really can believe the hype. And if you have, well, one visit is never enough because there is always more to see. Yes, Florence is crowded and it does get hot in summer, but everywhere you look is Instagram-worthy – and wait until you taste the local gelato…
What to see and do in Florence
Piazza del Duomo
The heart of Florence, this ancient square is home to Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Baptistery of St John, famous for its ornate bronze doors and gleaming mosaic ceilings. But dominating them all is the great cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, a vision in multicoloured marble, crowned by a great brick dome – the largest in the world until modern times.
One of the world’s great galleries, the Uffizi houses a truly vast collection of Renaissance masterpieces including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as well as works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Giotto and many others. Wear your comfiest shoes as you’ll be here for a while (happily though, with online booking now mandatory, the once legendary queues are a thing of the past).
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The Ponte Vecchio
A picturesque 30-metre arch across the Arno, this ancient bridge was originally lined with the premises of butchers and tanners, but now you’ll find goldsmiths, jewelers and souvenir sellers cheek by jowl with a constant stream of tourists. Such is its iconic status that it was the only bridge in Florence not to be destroyed during WW2 – reputedly on the personal orders of Hitler.
Designed for the city’s ruling Medici family, these beautiful pleasure gardens inspired imitations throughout Europe, including at Versailles. Scattered with fountains and statues, Boboli is more like an open-air museum, and its shady avenues offer welcome respite from the summer sun. Enjoy a leisurely stroll – and as you leave, offer the traditional farewell wave to Morgante, the tortoise-riding dwarf.
What to eat and drink in Florence – best restaurants & bars
Osteria Santo Spirito
Traditionally a place serving wine and simple food, an osteria makes a great choice if you don’t have the appetite for multiple courses. The highly-rated Osteria Santo Spirito (on the piazza of the same name) is one of the best places to sample Tuscan favorites such as ribollita (bean soup), coniglio alla cacciatora (rabbit casserole) and cantucci (almond biscuits) with a warming. glass of vin santo.
The ultimate local dish must be the Florentine steak. Traditionally a T-bone of the Chianina cattle breed – though it can also be prepared as a porterhouse – a good Bistecca alla Fiorentina should be 2 to 3 inches thick. You can find this in many restaurants across the city but purists love Trattoria Sostanza, a centuries- old institution near the main railway station.
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Pizzas are all the same, right? Wrong – because Tuscan pizza has a particular melt-in-the-mouth quality that you won’t find anywhere else. Head for the Santa Croce area for the widest range of options. A favorite is Il Pizzaiuolo Osteria, from whose wood-fired oven the simplest Margherita (just tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) tastes like heaven.
Gelateria La Carraia
If you’re visiting in summer, you’ll particularly appreciate the number of gelato bars dotted around the city. Florentines say they invented the unique soft ice cream that’s so popular here, which means it’s rude not to try a few different flavors. Reputedly offering the best gelato in town, La Carraia is so popular that you have to take a ticket to wait for your turn – but it’s worth it.
What to buy in Florence – best souvenirs
Florence is famous for handmade shoes, bags, gloves and belts, and you’ll find examples of this centuries-old tradition at San Lorenzo market (while you’re there, rub the bronze snout of Il Porcellino for luck).
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Want to take home the taste of Tuscany? With its subtle fruity aroma, the local olive oil is too good for cooking. Drizzle over salads or just enjoy it as a sophisticated dip with fresh bread.
Tuscany’s grapes are made into some of the world’s most celebrated reds. Look out for Chianti Classico Riserva – or better still, take a trip out to the Tuscan countryside and visit a vineyard for a tasting.
Florence trip planner
What to expect
There will be crowds (although the pandemic has reduced the numbers somewhat, and for many attractions you now need to book online) but Florence is so worth the effort. And you’ll want to return again and again.
When to go
Avoid school holidays and the heat of June, July and August (locals flee the city in high summer). Spring and autumn are the best times to go but don’t rule out winter. It may be damp, but with so many galleries you’ll find it easy to shelter from the rain.
Taxis are expensive (and don’t even think of hiring a car) but Florence is easy to explore on foot. If you get lost in its maze of tiny streets, just find the nearest piazza and take your bearings in relation to the Duomo (visible from nearly everywhere).
Where to stay
If you want upscale, try the Hotel Savoy (roccoforte hotels.com) or the Relais Santa Croce (baglionihotels. com) But consider a local B&B, many of which are located in historic residences – even palaces – across the city center (florence accommodation .com).
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How to cruise to Florence
Seven-night ‘Mediterranean Medley from Majorca’ cruise aboard Marella Discovery 2, round trip from Palma via Florence and Pisa (Livorno), Savona, Toulon, Barcelona and Valencia, departing April 5, 2022, from £977 including flights.
Eleven-night ‘Christening & Maiden Voyage’ aboard Azamara Onward, from Monte Carlo to Venice via Florence and Pisa (Livorno), Rome (Civitavecchia), Sorrento, Amalfi, Kotor, Ancona and Ravenna, departing May 2, 2022, from £2,035. .