The capital of the Tuscany region in Italy, home to many masterpieces of Renaissance art, architecture and Michelangelo’s David, Florence – Florence in Italian – should definitely be on your must-see list when you come to the beautiful European country of Italy. A simple walk around the city will leave you speechless, and maybe even a sore neck from looking up.
Florence airport is small, so it’s best to go to the larger city of Bologna, or the capital of Italy, Rome. From both cities, excellent high-speed trains connect to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station in record time, and Train Italia – the main train provider – has a great app for booking tickets and checking train times. train timetables.
I have been fortunate enough to be hosted in both Bologna and Florence and share some of the fantastic things to do in beautiful Florence as well as some not-so-obvious sightseeing activities.
Art, statues, history – it’s all here in Florence, and what better place to start your exploration than the Town Hall, also known as Palazzo della Signoria due to its proximity to Piazza della Signoria. Palazzo Vecchio is a striking palace where art and history combine beautifully with Roman ruins, a medieval fortress, rooms and Renaissance paintings. It is also an archaeological site as it sits atop the ancient theater of the Roman settlement of Florentia, dating from the 1st century AD.
This is definitely a place to enjoy if art and history is your thing, or even if not, stay outside and admire the 14th century architecture.
Piazza della Signoria
Piazza – meaning “square”, della Signoria is L-shaped and just outside Palazzo Vecchio and features many statues of historical significance to Florence, as well as being a great place to sit in one of the many cafes that line it and for people to watch. Locals and tourists alike flock here to admire Palazzo Vecchio and head to Florence’s most important art galleries, and even Italy’s, the Uffizi.
Pro tip: It gets very crowded in the middle of the day, so to avoid being pushed around, keep your belongings in a wallet under your t-shirt just in case.
Adjacent to Piazza della Signoria is without a doubt Italy’s most famous art gallery. Italians are proud of the Uffizi, built in the 1500s and home to many ancient sculptures and paintings dating from the Middle Ages to the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Botticelli and Raffaello, among many others, as well as Dutch, Flemish and German painters.
If you just want to appreciate the building and not spend a lot of time on art, or leave your companion behind, head to the cafeteria on the second floor which has a wonderful view of Piazza della Signoria and meet up later.
Pro tip: Open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:15 a.m. to 6:50 p.m., last admission at 5:30 p.m. The busiest hours of the day are 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.
Also known as the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, although smaller than the Uffizi Gallery, it is famous for being home to Michelangelo’s Church. David, a 17-foot marble statue of a standing naked man depicting the biblical hero of David and Goliath, who was also considered a political figure in Florence.
Art lovers will love the gallery in general for its large collection of paintings by local artists from the 1300s to the 1600s. You will also be in awe of the building’s design, which means you don’t necessarily need to be an art fan to appreciate this masterpiece.
Pro tip: Due to its popularity, it is best to get to the gallery early enough to avoid the queues. It opens from 8:15 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. with the best times to visit early in the morning or after 5 p.m.
Walk along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio bridge
If for some reason you have had enough of art galleries and museums, then take a stroll in the beautiful spring and autumn weather along the Arno River promenade – the river that runs through Florence and eventually flows into the Mediterranean on the west coast of the country – is a pleasant way to spend a morning or an afternoon.
There are 12 bridges crossing the river, five main ones in the city center and the most famous being the Ponte Vecchio – built at the narrowest point of the Arno, the only bridge to have escaped the destruction of WWII and with the wooden construction dating from Roman times, the oldest bridge in Florence. Rebuilt in stone in 1345 after a flood in 1333 destroyed the original, the bridge was originally lined with butchers for around 150 years in the 1400-1500s but was replaced by gold merchants in the 1600s by Ferdinand I de Medici because the butchers threw their rubbish into the river, creating an awful odor.
Today you can walk across the bridge and still see the remains of the original merchants, and buy gold jewelry from the stores there.
Visit the food courts of the Mercato Centrale
Rather than always choosing a restaurant, have a bite to eat at Central Mercato – the central market where there are artisanal food stalls on two levels selling Tuscan cuisine. Order your food and eat at one of the many tables scattered around. If you have a particular dish that you want to try after browsing its website, it may be best to reserve a table, especially on weekends and holidays. But the whole concept of the Mercato Centrale is to go up and see what you would like to eat.
You’ll also find local Tuscan meats and cheeses to take home with you, or in the northern corner, a seafood area where vendors sell fish and shellfish from all over Italy.
Before or after filling your stomach, go outside and take a walk outside San Lorenzo Market where you can buy leather goods.
Florence Food Tour
When it comes to food, you shouldn’t leave Florence without taking a foodie tour of the city. I was lucky to join Eat European Florence sunset tour to the original working-class neighborhood of Oltrarno – across the Arno river where our gregarious and passionate guide not only took us to various places to taste different cheeses, including with truffle rare, appetizers such as stuffed squid and a savory cheesecake, wine tasting accompanied by a traditional Italian delicacy that I won’t spoil the surprise of and a Tuscan beef stew with pepper. We also had the opportunity to discover the history of our gastronomic delights.
One of our stops allowed us to mix our own Negroni cocktail, which was said to have originated in Florence in 1919 when, after traveling to London and tasting gin, Count Camillo Negroni asked the bartender at his favorite Casoni cafe to replace the soda in an Americano cocktail with gin, and voila, the Negroni was born.
You’ll leave with samples of Tuscan specialties on an Eat Florence tour… it’s also worth it for a brief and interesting history lesson.
Drink a negroni at the companion bar of the 25 Hours hotel
A stone’s throw from the regenerated district of Santa Maria Novella, a lesser-known and more authentic Florentine district and a few minutes from the train station, occupying an entire block is the new 25 Hours Hotel Piazza San Paolino.
Once a convent in the 13th century and then a pawnshop until the 1990s, this epic conversion project designed to rejuvenate a community neighborhood has 171 rooms in total, 66 of which are in the original monastery building next to the charming San Church. Paolino, a small apartment with private garden and swimming pool and, more importantly for non-guests, the Companion Bar, a traditional Italian bar with an international touch.
Open from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., enjoy your Negroni or specially mixed cocktail of your choice in this unique setting and soak up the architectural wonder of the building. Enjoy your drink in the historic Florentine way; standing on the sidewalk in front of the bar while your drink passes through the buchetta del vino – literally “little wine holes”.
Pro tip: This is a good choice of hotel for a base on your Florentine adventure as it is a traditional area, about a 7 minute walk from the river, and has taken the Florence theme to heart with Dantesque rooms and suites. Cleverly designed Heaven and Hell.
A day trip to Bologna
As it’s only 28 minutes by high-speed train to Tuscany’s second largest city, Bologna, a day trip if you’re spending a few days in the area.
Even more culture, art and museums await you – the difference with Bologna, however, is its ambience. As a student town, it has a more bohemian feel, where locals and students alike mix well in the community. There are 400,000 citizens, including 87,000 students!
Bologna is most famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Site. gantries, or arcs. In the city center alone, from the main square in Piazza Maggiore, there are 24 miles of these stone arches that can be explored with a good guide.
Bologna Welcome can organize a Portico visit and I was lucky enough to have a lovely guide who showed me around, explaining the history. Porticos were originally designed in the 11th century to help create more surface area and space for private buildings as the city expanded its commercial activities and the arrival of more teachers and students from the university. They are a meeting point, and as you walk around the city you will see many sidewalk cafes and tables where people gather to drink their coffee and enjoy life and good conversation. In the past, as Bologna was popular for trading in fabrics such as silk since the 1300s, several markets opened up under them. It is not surprising that they have been designated as World Heritage because they help to preserve the cultural and social fabric of this unique city.
There is so much to explore in Florence and Bologna. Hopefully this article will whet your appetite for spending time in this region of Tuscany while on vacation in Italy.
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