things to do in florence

Best Things to do in Florence, Italy [2021 Travel Guide]

Florence, Italy, is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, and for good reason. Considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is brimming with so much art and architecture, food and fashion, and 500 years of history that the entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. But with such an amazing amount of attractions at your fingertips, it can be hard to figure out exactly what to do in Florence.

The city can also get crowded – it’s a major stopping point on the traditional European backpacker tour, the area is incredibly popular with study abroad programs, and cruise ship day-trippers can flood the narrow, cobblestone streets with little warning. However, there are plenty of ways to get off the well-trodden tourist trail and choose more sustainable tourism options while still hitting all the must-sees on your list. 

To truly live la dolce vita, be sure to take your time in Florence. Savor each bite of pasta, really notice the gentle curves of a statue, and let the sun wash over you while you relax in an inviting piazza. If you really want to experience Italy like a local, this guide is for you!

13 Best Things to do in Florence

Climb to the top of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

things to do in Florence
Photo by Ray Harrington on Unsplash

If you’ve seen one picture of Florence, chances are it is of Il Duomo and la Campanile, the dome and bell tower of the city’s famous Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. Climb the 463 steps to walk along the inner shell of the dome, make another climb to the top of the bell tower for a bird’s eye view of the city, then head down to street level to gaze at the Gates of Paradise, the bronze doors that guard the entrance to the Baptistry. This is one of the top Florence tourist attractions and worth every step, but with all that popularity comes a lot of wear and tear on the historic buildings. A great way to lessen the impact of your visit is with a tour that provides skip-the-line access, which helps control foot traffic in and around the attractions. A guided tour from Florencetown gets you exclusive access to the Duomo’s terraces with a local guide while remaining committed to preserving the city’s heritage and culture in a sustainable manner.

Go on a Tuscan wine trek

Tuscany wine tours
Image courtesy of Out of the Box Florence

Just north of Florence is Fiesole, a delightful little town that provides sweeping views of Florence’s classic red roofs and surrounding hillsides. Most tourists overlook this gem, and the best way to experience the village is on a walking tour with a local guide – this half day excursion from Out of the Box Florence combines a gentle, environmentally friendly walk surrounded by nature and history and tops it off with lunch and a glass of regional wine. Read our full review here

Get to know Michaelangelo

things to do in florence
Photo by Rowan Simpson on Unsplash

You can’t have a guide to Florence that doesn’t mention Michaelangelo’s famous David statue, found in the Accademia (Galleria dell’Accademia). And it is a Florence must-see – it’s shockingly larger-than-life and a true sculptural masterpiece. But to really soak up all things Michalengelo, make a point to stop at the less crowded but equally remarkable Medici Chapels (Cappelle Medicee), where four life-like allegorical statues trace the path of a single day. Located in the Chapels’ New Sacristy, Day, Night, Dawn, and Dusk sit atop the tombs of two members of the powerful Medici family.

Take a guided Uffizi Gallery tour

The Uffizi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi) holds one of the most important collections of Renaissance art in the world and is arguably one of the best museums in Florence. But with thousands of pieces spread over three floors, you can easily get lost among the world-class art. It can also be overwhelming and you run the risk of tiring out before seeing every piece on your list. A guided tour is the best way to experience this museum, especially one that provides skip-the-line tickets that will save you precious time and energy. Check out this one from Context where you will get a crash course on not just the museum’s most prominent pieces, but also many of its overlooked gems. 

Try all the gelato flavors

things to do in florence
Photo by Katie Smetherman on Unsplash

Strolling through town while savoring a midday gelato is, to me, one of life’s greatest pleasures and one of the best things to do in Florence. But not every gelateria is the same! Neon-colors and unnatural flavors like “unicorn” are a sign that the gelato is being made with flavor enhancers and marketed towards children. Look for muted hues and don’t be shy about asking for a taste before buying. My personal favorite flavor? A nice, tart limone!

Relax in the Boboli Gardens

things to do in florence
Photo by Vicky T on Unsplash

Located directly behind the sprawling Pitti Palace, the Boboli Gardens is one of the prettiest places to visit in Florence and a great opportunity to experience nature within the confines of the city. Whether you smell the blooming flowers in the springtime, soak up the “green architecture” in the summer, or walk underneath the changing leaves in the fall, take a moment to enjoy this quiet natural respite. The main entrance to the Boboli Gardens is through Pitti Palace, use this if you’re touring both attractions; otherwise, three other entrances provide direct access into the Gardens. 

See local Florence artists at work

Florence is known for its handmade goods – beautiful leather items, paper goods, and gold jewelry have been carefully handcrafted by skilled artisans for centuries. What better way to see these master craftspeople at work than with a private tour of their workshops! Travel to the “other” side of the Arno River with this Context tour, where you’ll get a unique, behind-the-scenes look at artisans at work using methods that have been passed down through generations. 

Make a toast

You might call it “happy hour” but in Florence, that all-important pre-dinner drinks session is known as aperitivo. You can’t go wrong with a glass of the house wine or a classic Negroni to accompany a delicious selection of small bites, or you could ask for a taste of one of the many microbrews that now dot Florentine drink menus. For a truly local vibe, try Le Volpi e l’Uva if you’re near the Pitti Palace or Procacci near Santa Maria Novella. As they say in Italy, salute!

Find the hidden artwork

Some of the best artwork in Europe is hiding in plain sight – all you have to do is know which church to visit in Florence! Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Orsanmichele, and Santa Trinita all have lesser known, but no less impressive sculptures, stained glass works, frescoes, and statues, featuring works by some heavy hitters like Giotto, Donatello, and Botticelli. 

Watch an epic sunset

things to do in florence
Photo by Xavier Mejorada on Unsplash

Florence was built around the Arno River, and to see the water sparkling with kaleidoscopic color at sunset is one of the most memorable things to do in Florence. There are three ways to do this – walk along the streets that border the river, hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a postcard-perfect view, or take a mini cruise like this one that takes you underneath the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge on a traditional motorless barchetto. 

Stay in an agriturismo

These working farms can be found all over Italy, and spending the night in a Florentine farmhouse is a great way to experience authentic Tuscany.  You will get your fill of locally grown olives, fruit, vegetables, and other delicious produce. With a focus on regional dishes and seasonal food, some will even offer cooking classes, wine or olive oil tastings, and have bikes available to take out for the day. Your digs might be on the simpler side, but staying at an agriturismo is one of the best ways to support the local economy while on vacation. This site lets you filter available agriturismi by location type, desired amenities, and activities offered, and gets you one step closer to your perfect Italian holiday.

Shop and eat like a local

things to do in florence
Photo by Charles Büchler on Unsplash

You won’t have to look hard to find stores selling brand name luxury fashion, but for a truly unique shopping experience and one of the most delicious places to visit in Florence, stop by the San Lorenzo Market. This indoor/outdoor market is actually in two parts – the indoor area, known as Mercato Centrale, is where you’ll find cheesemongers, butchers, and panini shops selling all things culinary. Outside you’ll find dozens of stalls with anything from hand-bound notebooks to beautiful leather goods. Located near Santa Maria Novella, the Market offers the perfect break in a day of art-intensive sightseeing. Come hungry and don't forget to bargain! 

A note about haggling: it is understood that shoppers will try to bargain for goods sold in markets and street stalls. This can be a stressful experience for those not used to the process, so start small by offering one or two Euros under the asking price or by asking for a discount on larger quantities of the same item. Always be polite to the vendor and even if you aren’t as successful as you had hoped, embrace it! It’s part of the fun of traveling in Florence.

Explore Tuscany

things to do in florence
Photo by Luca Micheli on Unsplash

One of the best things about visiting Florence is its proximity to the rest of the Tuscan countryside. But if you only have one or two days to devote to a side trip, it can be hard to know which villages to see and what things to do in Tuscany. These towns are all close enough to visit on a day trip from Florence. 

  • Sienna – go for: medieval architecture, a pedestrian-friendly piazza, and neighborhood pride
  • San Gimignano – go for: the classic Tuscan view, rustic cooking, and that small-town feel
  • Pisa – go for: towers that lean, an under-appreciated cathedral and baptistery (Cattedrale di Pisa and Battistero di San Giovanni)
  • Lucca – go for: a casual bike ride on top of city walls
  • Viareggio –  go for: sandy beaches, colorful umbrellas, and dipping your toes into the Mediterranean 

Pro tip: forgo the rental car and travel by train instead! Taking a train in Italy is a quick, easy, and sustainable alternative to getting stuck in traffic or a confusing roundabout. Trenitalia is the primary train company in Italy and will work with your Eurail pass as you travel throughout Tuscany and on to other destinations in Europe.

Don’t forget! If you buy a regional train ticket from the machine or the walk-up window, you’ll need to validate your ticket before getting on the train – otherwise you could incur a pretty hefty fee! Use the machines found throughout the platforms to get your ticket stamped. You can skip this step if you buy your ticket online ahead of time, but make sure to validate any ticket you buy on the spot. 

Things You Should Know Before Visiting Florence

Coffee culture

Drink your caffé like an Italian! Staying caffeinated is a big deal in Florence, and there are certain “coffee culture” rules and customs that might not come naturally to visitors. Ordering a cappuccino after 11am is not ordinarily done (ask for an espresso if you need a pick-me-up), standing at the bar is going to be a lot cheaper than sitting at a table, and you might get a strange look if you just ask for a “latte” – that’s the Italian word for milk!

When to go to Florence

I personally maintain that there is no bad time to go to Florence, but visiting at certain times of the year can help to offset the overcrowding that occurs during Florence’s high season. Winter months from January-March will have grey and chilly days but less tourists, June and July will be hot and crowded, you’ll find the best deals on accommodation but many Florence attractions and stores will have limited hours throughout the month of August, and November-December can be rainy but travelers in search of Christmas markets and other holiday cheer will abound. If your schedule allows, try to visit during the spring and autumn “shoulder seasons” – crowds will be thinner and the weather will be quite lovely.

What to pack for Florence

Reusable shopping bag – whether you’re picking out some hand made pashminas from the market to give to your friends back home or grabbing a sandwich to eat while people-watching on the sunny steps of a piazza, you’ll want to carry everything in a lightweight, reusable shopping bag. Most stores will not readily give out plastic shopping bags and if they do, it could cost you extra. Check out our recommended bags from Lotus Sustainables! Use our code HIDDENLEMUR10 and receive a 10% discount.

Comfortable walking shoes – Florence is best seen on foot, and chances are you’re going to cover a lot of ground during your visit. But Italians dress nicely, even when they’re running errands. This is the time to invest in a good pair of stylish yet supportive shoes – leave the gym shoes and logo tees at home and try to find a balance between dressing for comfort and dressing to impress. Take the stress out of the search with our guide to finding the best sustainable travel shoes

The language

Florence is in Italy, where they speak Italian, of course! But how much Italian will you need to get around? In all honesty, English is so widespread that you could go your entire trip without so much as a grazie!, especially if you stick to the main Florence tourist attractions and city center. But where’s the fun in that? A little Italian will go a long way. Even if your accent isn’t perfect, any attempt at the language will be noticed and appreciated. Commit a few of these words and phrases to memory and try to use them as much as possible.

  • Si = Yes [see]
  • No = No [no]
  • Per favore = Please [pehr fah-voh-reh]
  • Grazie = Thank you [grat-zee]
  • Prego = You’re welcome [preh-go]
  • Ciao = Hi/Bye (informal) [chow]
  • Scusi = Excuse me [skoo-zee]
  • Mi dispiace = I’m sorry [mee dees-pee-ah-chee]
  • Parla Inglese? = Do you speak English? [par-lah en-glay-zeh]
  • Buon giorno = Good morning [bon johr-noh]
  • Dov’è il bagno? = Where’s the bathroom? [doh-veh ill bahn-yo]

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Mary Spadoni

Mary Spadoni

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