Planning your first visit to fabulous Florence? With probably the highest concentration of art and architecture masterpieces in all of Europe, and its great food scene, gelato, and shopping, Florence will definitely be one of the highlights of your first visit to Italy. Read on to discover the 10 best things to do on your first visit to Florence!
Florence is not only a great destination unto itself, it also makes a great base from which to explore more of Tuscany. It’s the Cradle of the Renaissance, the birthplace of gelato, and quite simply, a city that pulls you in again and again. So while you should definitely aim to fill up the days of your first visit, know that you will not be able to prevent yourself from returning!
10 BEST THINGS TO DO ON YOUR FIRST VISIT TO FLORENCE
The sheer abundance of choices on things to do in Florence can make planning a short visit of three or four days a daunting task. So I hope that by sharing some of my favorite Florence experiences, I can help you plan your Florence itinerary and shortlist what to do on your first visit to Florence.
My list includes a little bit of everything that makes Florence such a bucket-list destination for most travelers: art and architecture, culture and history, great views, and, of course, gelato!
#1 Get Up High for Views of the Red Rooftops
There are many places in Florence from where you can get great views of the famous red rooftops of the city. For your first visit, I’d suggest one of the three favorites: the Cupola of the Duomo di Firenze, Giotto’s Campanile right next door, or the Torre di Arnolfo at the Palazzo Vecchio.
You have to climb 463 steps to get to the top of the Duomo. Your reward? Magnificent views of the city, plus the chance to get an up-close look at Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgment on the ceiling. But be warned, it’s not an easy climb, and if you are claustrophobic, the narrow corridors of the Duomo may not be for you. Reservations are required for the climb to the top.
The Campanile has 414 steps, and offers close-up views of the exterior of Brunelleschi’s egg-shaped dome. Plus, you can enjoy panoramas of the city. There are open platforms every now and then, so this climb is somewhat easier if you have claustrophobia, or you need breaks.
We chose the Arnolfo Tower in the Palazzo Vecchio. There are only 223 steps to the viewing platform! But the reason we chose this one was to get the classic photo of the Duomo and the Campanile next to each other. I came away with lovely photos. Not just of the Duomo, but also of the city rooftops, the Basilica di Santa Croce, the synagogue, and the bridges over the Arno river.
Of course, if you’re up for it, you can climb more than one! Do the Arnolfo Tower on one day and one of the other two on the day you visit the Duomo complex.
tips for your visit:
If you are springing for the Firenze card (see more at the end of the post), the Palazzo Vecchio is a good place to get it, first thing in the morning of day one of three. The lines aren’t insanely long. The card is valid for 72 hours from the first use.
When you come out of the Palazzo Vecchio, make a quick stop in the Piazza della Signoria just outside, to see the sculptures on display . My favorite was Cellini’s bronze Perseus holding high the severed head of Medusa as he stands over her dead body.
#2 Immerse Yourself in Art at the Galleria degli Uffizi
The Uffizi Galleries contain so many great works of art that you’ll want to make a list of your must-sees before you even leave for your trip to Italy, to make sure you don’t miss something you’ve been wanting to see forever! It’s also worthwhile googling a current layout of the galleries to get your bearings ahead of time.
My list of favorites? Doni Tondo by Michelangelo…I loved the jewel robe colors and how realistic he made the folds in the robes! And of course, the muscles in the arms of the Madonna and the Child! The Birth of Venus by Botticelli…isn’t this one on everyone’s list for the Uffizi? I was surprised by how large the painting is in person. The Primavera is gorgeous as well. Annunciation by da Vinci, painted with his master Verricchio. And finally, Caravaggio’s Medusa, for the expression on Medusa’s face!
Tips for Your Visit:
Sometimes during the summer months, the Uffizi Galleries stay open late into the evening on some days of the week. We were able to visit from 5-9 in the evening, which allowed us to cram more into our day!
Give yourself plenty of time so you can take one or more breaks between viewings. There are benches in the corridors where you can sit and take the time to relish what you’ve seen, and prepare for more!
A small group or private guided tour of the galleries is a worthwhile splurge, unless you know a great deal about Renaissance art and art history.
From the windows on the upper floors, you get nice views of the Ponte Vecchio, so take a few quick photos, especially if you happen to be there at sunset.
#3 Visit the Duomo Complex
When we visited, the Baptistery and the Museo del Duomo were both being renovated, but the Duomo complex definitely deserves a place on your list of best things to see and do during your first visit to Florence. Many structures make up this gigantic complex, including the famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore with its famous dome, the Campanile, the Baptistery, and the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.
Even before you enter any of the structures, stand in the piazza and try to take in the enormous scale of the buildings. Admire the pretty exteriors done in pink, green, and white marble. Salute the masters that envisioned these structures and made them reality so many centuries ago. Standing in this piazza, as in so many other spots in Florence, you understand why it’s called the Renaissance City.
In the Museo del Duomo, don’t miss the original Gates of Paradise, the bronze doors covered in gold leaf that originally hung in the Baptistery. Ghiberti’s most famous work, the doors are made up of ten large rectangular panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Also not to be missed is Michelangelo’s The Florentine Pieta, which he originally carved as his own tombstone!
The cathedral is enormous and took over two hundred years to build. The dome, despite its enormous size, was built with no scaffolding at all. And the man that designed it was a goldsmith by trade!
tips for your visit:
A single ticket will admit you to all the structures in the Duomo complex, and you have 72 hours from the time you enter the first one to finish seeing all of them. You can only enter each structure once. If you purchase the Firenze Card, all the sights in the Duomo Complex are included.
Reservations are required if you wish to climb up to the Cupola of the Duomo.
Time your visit for less crowded early mornings and late afternoons. During the day, the Piazza del Duomo and the buildings here get very crowded.
#4 Grab a Green Break in a Garden
If you want to enjoy a little bit of Nature in Florence, escape for a bit to one of the lovely green spaces in the Oltrarno district, across the Arno River.
We toured the Boboli Gardens, right next to the Palazzo Pitti. The gardens are large (over 100 acres!), and include some interesting fountains and garden sculpture.
Walk through the large amphitheater with its perimeter of Roman statuary. Then climb all the way to the top terrace, for a beautiful view of the Pitti Palace and the city behind. While at the top, pop into the lovely Porcelain Museum and tour the formal rose gardens outside.
The Rose Garden is located just below the Piazzale Michelangelo. You can take the bus up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and then find one of the three entrances to the garden. This garden is particularly attractive when the 300+ varieties of roses are in bloom in May and June. In addition, the garden includes lemon trees and Japanese elements that offer interest all year round. It also offers beautiful views of the city.
Closer to the Ponte Vecchio on the Oltrarno side is the terraced Bardini Garden. From the terraces, you get magnificent views of the city. And if you visit when the wisteria is in bloom, your photos will be the envy of all your friends.
tips for your visit:
Combine your garden break with your visit to a nearby attraction for efficiency! Tour the Pitti Palace with the Boboli Gardens, the Rose Garden with San Miniato al Monte and the Piazzale Michelangelo, or a walk across the historic Ponte Vecchio with the Bardini Garden.
If you are not planning to invest in the Firenze Card (more details at the end of the post), look for combination tickets to multiple sights you want to see.
This may be your opportunity to get great photos of Ponte Vecchio if you cross over on one of the nearby bridges.
If you return via the Ponte Carraia on your way back from the Boboli Gardens, stop at the La Carraia gelateria right at the bridge for a scoop of delicious goodness! It’s a must-not-miss gelato place in Florence, but a long walk unless you get it when you visit the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens.
#5 Gaze in Awe at Michelangelo’s David!
Arguably the most well-known sculpture in the world, Michelangelo’s David is housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia. The sculpture originally used to stand outside in the Piazza della Signoria (replaced today by a copy) and was moved to the Accademia Gallery in the late 1800s. Carved by Michelangelo when he was only in his mid-twenties, David was made out of a piece of marble rejected by other artists as being imperfect.
Armed with only a rock and a sling, the youthful David kills Goliath in an epic Biblical encounter. Other artists have portrayed David victorious, but Michelangelo’s David is shown preparing to launch his deadly missile. His face looks focused, his hand holding the rock tense. It is perfection in stone. You can see the veins in his hands and the rippling muscles in his arms and legs.
Your first visit to Florence won’t be complete without a close-up encounter with David. Prepare to be awe-struck!
The Accademia holds other works by Michelangelo…unfinished (by design) sculptures called The Prisoners. We spent all our time at the gallery just viewing The Prisoners and David.
Tips for Your Visit:
Much like the Uffizi Galleries, the Accademia is hugely popular, so expect long lines. Here again, the Firenze Card will allow you to get into a much shorter line. If you do not get the Firenze Card, definitely book in advance.
We visited first thing in the morning, and were able to get a few minutes with David in relative solitude. Timing your entrance for opening time is likely a good idea if you want a few minutes to view the famous sculpture in peace and take some photos.
#6 Gorge on Gelato
Eating your way through the top gelaterias in Florence is a must, and not just on your first visit to Florence either! Florence is reported to be the birthplace of gelato. Whether that’s fact or not, it’s no fiction that Florence is home to some of the best gelato on this planet.
Wherever your activities take you in Florence, keep your eyes peeled for gelato artigianale: the good stuff made with fresh natural ingredients, often right in the shop. Lines out the door (like at La Carraia) will sometimes guide you to great gelaterias, but if you are a gelato afficionado like I am, do your research beforehand for each district of Florence. My favorites? La Carraia, Vivoli, Gelateria dei Neri, Carapina and Perché No? (which means “why not?”) Why not, indeed!
Bonus: You’ll also find great drinking chocolate in Florence. We passed by Vestri a couple of times before we decided to check it out, and we were so glad we did! The cold drinking chocolate, served simply in plastic cups, was scrumptious. Their chocolate bars make wonderful gifts.
READ MORE: MY TOP TEN GELATO PLACES IN ITALY
#7 Explore a Church…or Two!
Museums and galleries aren’t the only places in Florence where you’ll see art masterpieces and relive history. The churches of Florence contain treasures you’ll not want to miss. Of course, the Cathedral of Florence is a must, but there are other churches you should add.
If you have time to visit just one other church in Florence, it should be the Basilica di Santa Croce. It has sixteen beautiful chapels, decorated by various artists. It also contains the tombs of a host of great Italians, including Michelangelo and Galileo. Just outside the church is a statue of Dante, who was born here in Florence.
Another beautiful church is the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. The striking facade is made of green serpentine and white marble. Inside, there are works by many great artists. Don’t miss The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli, and all the beautiful frescoes.
#8 Get a Quick but Delicious Lunch at the Mercato Centrale
Not too far from the Duomo di Firenze is a must-stop spot for lunch, the Mercato Centrale. The bottom floor of the indoor market is devoted to fresh meats, fish, produce, cheeses and the like, but on the top floor is a food court, with lots of vendors and seating.
The setting is modern and open, with a little bit of an industrial feel: lots of steel and glass. Here in Mercato Centrale you can taste many famous Italian specialties: pizza, fresh pasta, prepared meats and seafood, sandwiches, cheeses including buffalo mozzarella, juices, soups, breads, chocolate, and gelato. After you walk around a couple of times trying to decide which of the mouthwatering offerings to get, the signs saying “Italy is Eataly” make perfect sense!
some tips for your visit:
Arrive early to beat the lunch crowds. The food court can get seriously packed from about noon to 2 p.m.
The market stays open all day, so it’s also great for an afternoon or late night snack.
#9 Visit More Museums and Chapels!
From the multitude of museums you can visit in Florence (after the Big Two, the Uffizi and the Accademia are checked off), here are my picks for your first visit to Florence:
The Bargello Museum
It’s filled with beautiful sculptures. The building is a former fortress and prison. Inside, you’ll find works by Michelangelo, Donatello, and Cellini. Donatello’s bronze David is housed here. I loved Giambologna’s Mercury. Don’t miss the panels submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the competition held to determine who would create the doors to the Florence Baptistery.
Museo San Marco
This museum has a lovely facade. It is a convent converted to a museum and the interior is lovely as well, with the cells from the convent now housing works of art. Notable works include frescoes and panels by Fra Angelico. Don’t miss The Last Supper by Ghirlandaio.
Palatine Gallery in the Pitti Palace Complex
This gallery houses a large collection of paintings. Some rooms have almost every square inch of the walls covered with paintings of different sizes. It can get a little overwhelming! Don’t miss Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair and The Veiled Woman. Here also are the sumptuous Royal Apartments, which are definitely worth viewing.
Porcelain Museum next to the Boboli Gardens
This is a really small but delightful museum that’s good to visit when you are exploring the Boboli Gardens. It houses the porcelain used by the families that ruled Tuscany.
Don’t be taken in by the plain stern exterior of the Palazzo Medici. The opulent interior of the erstwhile Medici residence is stunning, with beautiful rooms filled with sculptures and paintings, a lovely courtyard, and an interior garden.
The Medici Chapel
We went inside mainly to view Michelangelo’s famous works, Dawn and Dusk and Night and Day.
The Brancacci Chapel
This little gem is a must-visit for all art and art history lovers. Only a limited number of visitors are permitted in a time slot, so you might have to wait. The chapel houses works describing the life of St. Peter, by Masaccio and Masolino and some by Filippino Lippi. The frescoes are gorgeous, with beautiful colors and composition. I loved my visit to the Brancacci Chapel.
#10 Watch the Sun Set over Firenze
Definitely one of the top things to do on your first visit to Florence is to watch the sun set over the city. The more popular place to hang out at sunset is the Piazzale Michelangelo. But you can go up a little further to the grounds of the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte for just as spectacular a view and far fewer people. You will come away with photos that will make your Instagram feed the envy of your friends! Plus, if you arrive early, you can explore the beautiful interior of the church or listen to Gregorian chanting by the monks.
If you want a bit of the experience at each place, you can start at San Miniato al Monte, and after the sun sets you can walk down to the Piazzale and see the lights of the city come on. The views of the city from both places are just stunning.
Watching the sunset is a lovely way to spend your last evening in Firenze. It’s a memory you will cherish forever.
Tips for Your Visit:
You can walk up the hill all the way to the Piazzale Michelangelo or San Miniato al Monte. The walk starts at the Torre di San Niccolo, and you can choose the easier path via ramps, or the shorter, more challenging route via steps. Either way, it’s an uphill walk. If you prefer, you can take the bus (number 12 or 13) from the city to either location. We took the bus both ways to conserve time.
The Piazzale tends to get very crowded around sunset. Keep your belongings close and your wits about you as you try to get those stunning photos for your Instagram feed!
Getting to Florence
Florence is well connected with other major parts of Italy by train. We came to Florence from the Cinque Terre, taking a train from La Spezia. Trains run between Florence and Venice or Florence and Rome several times a day.
Where we Stayed in Florence
We stayed in a gorgeous bed and breakfast near the Basilica di Santa Croce called 1865 Residenza d’Epoca. It has a great location, just one half mile from the Duomo and close to great eateries and gelaterias. The room was very comfortable and the host served a delicious breakfast each morning. We loved it so much, we will stay here again on our next visit to Firenze!
The Firenze Card
If you plan to cover multiple sights over three days, like we did, the Firenze Card is a worthwhile investment. While it may not save you big bucks over buying independent tickets, the huge time savings and the ability to either walk right in or wait in very short lines make it worth considering. If you are only going to see a few top museums, it might make better sense to do individual tickets. But don’t forget to reserve ahead for at least the Galleria Uffizi and the Accademia Gallery.
Florence is truly a must-visit-at-least-once-in-your-life destination. If you have been, comment below to tell me what you liked best! If you have not, start planning your first visit to this amazing city. My list of top ten experiences will give you a good taste of many facets of Florence. When you leave, like me, you’ll immediately start dreaming about your next visit to Florence!
If you are looking for other places to explore in Tuscany, Siena is just an hour away by direct bus. It’s smaller than Florence, and its medieval ambiance will charm you. Find out how to spend one active day in Siena!
For a lovely drive through the Tuscan countryside, consider the Val d’Orcia. Explore the pretty hill towns of Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano and experience a taste of la dolce vita!
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