Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

First Time in Florence: Travel Tips and Don’t Miss Activities

So you’ve made the big decision to visit Florence for the first time. Maybe you’re studying abroad somewhere in Europe and are taking a weekend trip to the Tuscan capital, or maybe you’ve been saving up holiday time and budget for a well earned two week vacation in Italy. Whatever your travel style, you’ll want to plan your trip so that you don’t miss out on any really important cultural or enogastronomic experiences.

I’ve had a lot of years to think about this and I often answer questions from readers asking what they must do when it’s their first time in Florence. I thought it would be useful to sum up my travel advice here, which – be forewarned – depends a lot on who you are and how long you have to spend in Florence. Let’s look at some of your options.

How long should I stay in Florence?

Florence seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Florence seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

The average stay in Florence is less than three days. For someone who first came for 2 weeks and ended up moving here for life, this seems very short, but as I’ve become a busy employee myself, I absolutely recognize that you don’t always have the luxury of time. Three full days is a reasonable amount of time to see the major sights and to get a bit of a feeling for Florentine culture – especially if your stay is part of a longer Italian trip which allows you to compare cities and experiences. I’ve actually written this itinerary for three days in Florence that covers some churches and museums in an hour by hour itinerary that might be a helpful base for your planning.

If it’s your first time in Florence, I think it’s a good idea to start off with an orientation tour like this one from CiaoFlorence which is a really good price and is offered in the late afternoon – ideal if you’re arriving by plane or train around lunchtime. This will be an opportunity to get yourself oriented on the map, find out the main areas of the city, and hit up your guide for some local tips like where to get the best Spritz.

What day of the week is best to visit Florence?

If your stay in Florence is short, be careful about what day you are in town. This goes for just about anywhere in Italy: Mondays are the traditional days of closure for state museums, as well as for shops (in the mornings) and some restaurants (at night). If you visit on Monday, the Uffizi, Accademia, Bargello and Medici Chapels (which are all state-run) will be closed. The Opera del Duomo museum and the Duomo itself, Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and other churches will be open. My friend Georgette has this great list of what to do in Florence on a Monday, including some restaurant tips, so go check that out on her blog!

The line-up at the Uffizi in the Summer can be very long

The line-up at the Uffizi in the Summer can be very long

Sundays are slightly better than Mondays, though you may not be able to go into smaller churches due to services. The first Sunday of the month, museums are free, so expect long lines (but at least you don’t pay!). Saturdays can be really crowded downtown, and are the only day that locals will be out. The best time to visit Florence is hence mid week! The Uffizi will be least crowded Wednesday or Thursday. Another way to skip lines is to use the Firenzecard or other city pass cards – check out this comparison to see “Is Firenzecard worth it?“.

Know your holidays Holidays! State museums are closed Christmas Day (December 25), New Years Day (January 1) and May 1 – that’s International Workers’ Day, bet you didn’t see that coming! State museums and some city run museums may also be occasionally affected by strike action, which may delay opening, anticipate closure, or close the museum entirely. On the positive side, Easter Monday is a huge holiday (not the Friday), and museums normally closed on Mondays usually open for this occasion. That said, it may be the most crowded day of the year in Florence!

Do I need to go to the Uffizi?

An uncrowded Botticcelli room at the Uffizi in low season

An uncrowded Botticcelli room at the Uffizi in low season

When I first came to Florence, the Uffizi was pretty much at the top of my list of things to do in Florence. But I was studying art history, and could spend many hours happily strolling through museums (believe it or not, my tolerance for this has diminished with age). Many people ask me if they should go to the Uffizi on their first visit to Florence, and my answer varies. It depends on how much time you have here, and what your priorities are. Are you staying only one day? How much do you love art? Is this going to be your only trip to Europe or will you be returning soon? If your visit is short but you will never forget learning about Giotto in art history 101, go to the Uffizi. If you’re staying 3 days or never coming back, go to the Uffizi. If you are traveling with kids, or staying very little time, maybe don’t go. I also advise against going to this museum in the height of the tourist season.

If you are going to the Uffizi, DO by all means go prepared. Do it yourself with my Uffizi Guide, which is a list of important works and how to approach them. Or, make it easier on yourself by taking a Uffizi group tour. The option I’ve linked doesn’t break the bank, and it includes skip the line tickets and a guide who will show you the highlights and make sure you don’t get stuck in the museum for 4 hours without food and water. This is an introductory tour that is ideal for first time visitors, and as you can stay in the museum when it’s done, you have the option of backtracking to see things that particularly caught your eye.

What are the other must-see sights?

The Church of Santa Croce (empty very early in the morning)

The Church of Santa Croce (empty very early in the morning)

Florence offers a huge concentration of art and churches, as well as charming streets and stores to explore. In terms of serious must-sees, I’d count the Uffizi, the piazza near it called piazza della Signoria (where the original David by Michelangelo was placed), the Ponte Vecchio, and the Duomo; you might add seeing the David in the Accademia museum, or the two major churches Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. You can’t do all of these in one day; rather, pick one of these two churches, and one from these two major museums for a busy one-day itinerary.

Lately I’ve mentioned a few times how cool it is to walk up the Duomo and get the view of the city both from its secret terraces and from the top. I really recommend visiting the (still relatively new) Opera del Duomo Museum to also see the sculptures originally made for the Duomo complex, since it’s important to consider the function of the Duomo (that wasn’t just made for the great view from above!).

Duomo Secret Terraces

The Duomo Secret Terraces Tour!

What’s the one food I must taste in Florence?

Recently I had a friend visiting and when it came to choosing which pasta dish to order at a restaurant, she asked me what shape of pasta is particularly Florentine. Interestingly, I don’t think that there is a pasta one associates with Florence the way there is with say, Siena (pici), Liguria (trofie) or Puglia (orecchiette). Maybe that’s because Tuscan food tends to be more vegetable and bean based, or meat based. There’s a long history of Cucina Povera or “poor food” here, dishes that were made with whatever hearty ingredients were on hand. If you’re vegetarian, your must-try dish should be the ribollita, which is a kale and bean soup that traditionally was made the first day as a soup, and the second (and subsequent) days with the addition of stale bread. It’s warm and superb when drizzled with fresh new olive oil (which you’ll find at its tangiest in November). If you love meat, the most famous dish is the bistecca alla fiorentina, Florentine steak, served very much al sangue. But the more adventurous should try the panino al lampredotto, made from entrails and topped with green sauce, available at markets and stands – this is the lunchtime staple of street workers, who you might spot eating this already at 10am.

 

Did that answer your questions? Do you have any more for me? Write them in the comments and I’ll get back to you!

 

Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links from which I may earn revenue. The nice folks at Ciao Florence suggested this topic, and offer you 5% off Florence tours at this link.

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • Kathryn Occhipinti

    Very timely article for me! I will be visiting Florence this summer. Love your comment about the Uffizi gallery. I think a tour is a good idea considering how unending this museum is!

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Absolutely! All the more considering that they keep adding new rooms (I’ve written about 2 new sections in the past 2 weeks). It just keeps getting bigger!