My Florence travel blog is a constant work in progress. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent my study abroad semester in Florence, Italy so it holds a special place in my heart. Like Georgette once said, it’s like Florence can feel your emotion, and I find that comforting. I went abroad during a very difficult time in my life. I was struggling with several issues – all of which were mostly resolved by the time I came home. Florence is a city of healing for me. It is where I learned photography, ignited my wanderlust, and became comfortable in my own skin.
In 2015, I got to share parts of that with my husband as we spent part of our honeymoon in Florence. (Like Aimee I apparently have an unwritten agreement that says my feet much touch Florentine soil at least once a year. It’s worked out for me so far. Florence cannot be all those things for everyone, but I do hope that people can experience parts of “my” Florence. It will always be on my list of places you should go. Thus, this Florence travel blog was born.
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Travel Tips // Getting Around Florence
By Plane or By Train
I have flown directly into FLR at 10:00pm and grabbed a cab to the city centre. Easy enough.
In 2010, I flew into Pisa and boarded the Terrevision bus to Florence Santa Maria Novella (the main train station). We arrived around midnight, so we snagged a cab to our hotel. There’s a taxi line outside the main entrance to SMN. Just exit the platforms and keep walking straight ahead and out the main doors. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, we arrived via train from Rome (easy trip), from Pisa (even easier trip), and from Siena (not-as-easy trip) and grabbed a cab to the St. Regis Florence.
Arrival is basically the only time when I use cabs because cobblestones shred plastic wheels. When I studied abroad, I walked to/from the train station to my apartment with my weekender bag. It doesn’t take more than 10-15 minutes to get most places. Despite throngs of tourists, it’s manageable. It’s even more manageable now that the city center is mostly a pedestrian zone.
In 2018 and 2019, we drove into Florence. In spring 2018, we dropped off the car at the Hertz office right down the street from our hotel. When we came for New Year’s Eve, we used the valet service at the St. Regis. And, when we returned in 2019, we used the valet service at the Gallery Hotel Art. In all cases it, was very easy. They registered our car so we were not charged for being in the ZTL zones. Getting out of Florence from the Gallery Hotel Art was more difficult, but that’s because Tom thought he knew more than the map. We took a very scenic route through the city center. 😉
The best way to experience Florence is to walk. I love ducking down small streets to see where they lead, climbing through winding streets that lead to the Piazzale Michelangelo, and watching the world go by in large piazzas. Florence does all of that extremely well. The city is a complex maze of one way streets. You’ll miss a lot of Florence’s charm if you don’t explore it thoroughly on foot. Wander. Explore. Get lost. You’ll never be far from home because Florence just isn’t that big.
Favorite Hotels in Florence
St. Regis Florence
After realizing that my Florence apartment will never again be my home, I have made the deliberate choice that the St. Regis Florence (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) could be my home away from home. Every single room I have stayed in is beautiful. No two rooms are the same. The staff is, without question, the best in the business. We always feel so welcome by everyone – from the doorman to the front office manager. I love that the location is slightly removed from the crowds. I love being able to listen to the Arno rush by my room. On New Year’s Eve, we redeemed points and we had a room with a Duomo view. I didn’t hate it either. 😉
Whenever I was sad or lonely during my study abroad semester, I would sit on the banks of the Arno. Sometimes I would write in my journal. It would remind me that life is beautiful and there is so much yet to be explored. I’ve always chosen the river view rooms at the St. Regis for that constant reminder. There are plenty of posts that recap the rooms of the St. Regis, but it’s always the first place I check when I start planning a trip to Italy.
Gallery Hotel Art
This might be the best kept secret in Florence hotels. We stumbled upon it when the St. Regis was completely sold out for April and Tom wanted to stay somewhere more central because of my hip issues. Despite its prime location, the room rates are incredibly reasonable. The Gallery Hotel Art is set right off the Ponte Vecchio on a quiet square. Our room (110) did not have any sort of a view, but it was quiet. (I did miss the natural light in the afternoon though.)
This hotel (and a few others) are owned by Salvatore Ferragamo and the design elements are on point. My favorite part is the striped curtains (and the blackout shutters), but the large bathroom with dual sinks and the soaking tub are great, too. The bath amenities smell incredible, and I certainly hoarded them to bring home and relieve my best vacation life. It’s worth nothing that you receive spa privileges at the Continentale, and they literally called someone in when I asked for a massage and they didn’t have anyone available. How’s that for five-star service?
While I’m loathe to admit it (because I love the St. Regis so much), this hotel is beautiful and convenient for sightseeing. You’re less than a 5 minute walk from the Piazza della Signoria and the Piazza della Repubblica. You can be in the Oltrarno in less than 10 minutes. It was particularly nice, given my hip pain issues. If you’re someone who likes being in the middle of everything, the Gallery Hotel Art is definitely worth checking out.
Where to Get Your Culture Fix in Florence
Florentine museum culture can be daunting for even the most fervent art lovers. (I know; I’m friends with some of them.) That being said, I don’t know that you can go to Florence without seeing the museums. I mean, you can… but will you really understand how incredible the Renaissance is without that perspective? Probably not. Here are a few things I highly recommend for people who want to get the most out of their visit to Florence (and not spend all their time in line).
Skip the Line Uffizi Walking Tour – Our guide, William, was incredible. In fact, had we not waited so long in our trip to book this tour, we would have hired him for private tours. The size of the Uffizi is absolutely daunting and we did not have any perspective for Renaissance art. William walked us through various (read: popular) rooms of the Uffizi, helping us understand not only the art but also the political context in which the Renaissance was born. Obviously, we saw the “big” works of art like The Birth of Venus, but William also taught us a lot about what makes Renaissance art different. He showed us how these artists were able to take flat paintings to new dimensions using color.
I found this to be a great introduction to the museum, the time period, and the art. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the Uffizi for the first time. William’s passion for the subject was contagious and he refused to be deterred by the somewhat sluggish enthusiasm by our group.
The only drawback of this tour is that it begins at 1:30; I recommend going on an empty stomach so as not to experience the post-lunch lag. If you decide not to do a tour, buy your tickets in advance or have your concierge reserve them. Don’t spend all day in line. Seriously. Skip the line. It’s totally a thing.
Da Vinci Museum
Museo Leonardo da Vinci – If you are travel with scientists, engineers, or children, this museum is for you! It is small, but they have rebuilt some of da Vinci’s contraptions exactly as his drawings called for and it’s incredible to see how progressive he was for his time period. When I visited the da Vinci Museum, I finally understood what it means to be a “Renaissance scholar.” I know that we like to classify ourselves as “math people” and “non-math people”, but da Vinci proves that you can do both. Art and science complement each other.
Bonus/fun fact: It’s located on via dei Servi and right across the street from my apartment!
Timed Entry Ticket & Accademia Tour – Yet another amazing site that was a block from my apartment. The original David is housed here, so again, you’ll want to buy tickets in advance. Book a skip the line tour/ticket or have your concierge arrange your visit. I’ve seen these lines snake for blocks down via Ricasoli during high season so save yourself the headache. I’ve never not seen a line, regardless of the time of year. This tour provided more insight on the other works in the museum and ended with the David. Nothing truly prepared me for what it felt like to see this piece in person. It’s truly not just another sculpture; it’s hard to imagine how Michaelangelo was able to create it. You need to see this, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of sculpture. It’s truly beautiful.
Museo Galileo wasn’t my favorite museum to visit, but I’ve recommended it to other scientist/engineer types and they LOVED it. You’ll have to decide for yourself. There are some really cool things in here, but there wasn’t as much about Galileo has I had hoped. It’s tucked away on the back side of the Uffizi and offers beautiful views overlooking the Arno. I would go when it’s least likely to be crowded because it could feel pretty stuffy. We found after lunch to be a good time for our visit.
The Palazzo Vecchio sits in my favorite Piazza della Signoria, and I never thought about what was inside. I think someone told me it was city offices, and that was that. One evening, I saw that the doors were open and I found myself inside a beautiful courtyard. When it came time to plan another trip to Florence, I booked this tour of the Palazzo Vecchio. It’s a great tour to get any idea of the historical and political timelines of Florence. You learn more about the Papal rule, the secret hiding places of the Palazzos, and see the huge rooms where political assemblies were held (and Inferno was filmed). As you climb the stairs of the Palazzo, you will learn more about the rivalries between Florence, Siena, and Pisa.
At the end of the tour, you can make your way up the tower to watch the sunset. It is beautiful.
Florence with a View
What Florence travel blog is complete if you don’t include a list of places where you can experience the same views of Florence that the Renaissance painters did? Sunrises and sunsets in Florence are especially magical, but don’t forget to look the other way to see the reflection on the opposite side of the sky.
Piazzale Michelangelo / San Miniato al Monte
Piazzale Michelangelo – I’ve talked about this place before. It remains one of my favorite places to watch the sunset. You can take a bottle of wine, some snacks (hello Eataly – you’re so affordable I can’t even be mad that you took over my favorite bookstore), and enjoy the experience along with a couple hundred of your closest friends (take that for what it’s worth). The sunrise can be particularly beautiful and less crowded, but it requires you to get moving pretty early. The Piazza Michelangelo allows you to experience the vibrant colors of sunset that inspired numerous artists from the Renaissance and beyond.
If crowds aren’t your thing, keep climbing to San Miniato al Monte. It’s considerably less crowded and offers similar views.
Boboli Gardens/Pitti Palace – If you want to feel like you have this place to yourself, go when they open. We arrived shortly after opening, and despite a few school groups, we managed to wander around the gardens for a few hours. At some point, we emerged onto the terrace near the Porcelain Museum and found ourselves staring at the rolling hills of the Tuscan countryside. Absolutely breathtaking. You don’t even realize how far above the city you get and, all of the sudden, you find a completely difference side of Florence. One of my favorite experiences ever. I still love to imagine what it must have been like to live there and have those gardens be your backyard. (I’m quite intrigued by the idea of the Vasari Corridor that runs from the Uffizi but I’ve yet to explore it.)
Andrea at the St. Regis suggested the Bardini gardens to us. It’s definitely less busy than the Boboli Gardens, but the views are just as lovely. In the spring, the wisteria blooms and smells absolutely divine. Just watch out for the bees. (I’m allergic, so it is both beautiful and terrifying.) We really enjoyed spending the morning strolling the grounds.
The Golden View Restaurant and Bar – Again, maybe it’s the nostalgia factor (my friends took me here for my 22nd birthday) but there’s something magical about getting a table overlooking the Ponte Vecchio at night. There’s an extensive menu (something for everyone), live music, energetic ambiance, and a view. What’s not to love? (I’ll own the fact that it might be considered a little touristy. I definitely come for the view though.)
Under-Appreciated Sights of Florence
Basilica of St. Croce – Everyone comes to Florence to ooh and ahh over il Duomo and its dome (and rightly so) but keep walking and find St. Croce. It looks quite a bit smaller than the Duomo, but the inside reveals that you can’t judge a basilica by its facade! In the early morning light, it is positively enchanting. You have to go inside. I also love the artists that hang out in the piazza – they don’t get started until mid-morning, but I find their work to be more authentic than the more touristy areas of Florence.
You will pass this church multiple times and probably never notice it. It boasts one of the most beautiful altar pieces I’ve ever seen. It’s a beautiful place to sit and rest your feet while taking in the fact that it is a former grain storage facility and you can still see the remnants of that. The stained glass is also particularly beautiful. Everything you see in Orsanmichele feels life-like, as though you could insert yourself into the art. It’s truly beautiful. Make sure to walk around the entire church to see all the sculptures in their niches – they were novel for their time because they are actually outside of their niche, rather than inside of it. These artists are truly marvels in their own rights.
Favorite Florence Restaurants
For years, I’ve struggled with putting together restaurants for a Florence travel blog. While I favor authentic flavors, I think it can be difficult to tell people to get out of the city center completely. I think you need to meet people where they are at, and in many cases, that’s going to be on the side of the river with all the tourist sights. I’ve had more than a few “meh” meals, but I’ve also found some delicious meals as well. I’ve also found some kind Florentines who are even kinder when we stumble through in Italian and appreciate their language. (Seriously – try.)
For Bistecca Fiorentina
Trattoria Sostanza – The are two competing restaurants that show up on all the “best of” lists (Buca Mario and Sostanza), but I’ve been coming to Sostanza for over 10 years and they win. It’s not fancy, it’s not elaborate, it’s not big, and it can be impossible to get into without a reservation… but it’s worth camping out for before they open and begging for a table when they do. (Just kidding – you don’t have to beg. They are the nicest and quite friendly.) If you want ambiance, Buca Mario is a solid option… but Sostanza edges them out for us. If you’re not a red meat-eater, their petti di pollo al burro (butter chicken) is solid, too. Many might argue it’s their better dish.
For a Hearty Meal
Aimee and I both agree that Trattoria Nella is worth a visit. (She’s been coming longer than I have been.) We were lucky enough to get the last table around 9:00pm one evening, and I am so glad we did. As far as food, we ordered half a liter of wine (so.much.wine.), the misto Toscano (cheese, salami, etc.) as an appetizer, ravioli all noci (walnut ravioli), and penne Nella (penne with a tomato-herb cream sauce). We really enjoyed our meal. Service was friendly and leisurely. The ambiance was warm and cozy.
We were huddled under umbrellas in the Piazza delle Signornia on our first night in Florence when we were trying to decide what to do about dinner. We were at the point of calling it a night and heading back to our hotel. I took us down a side alleyway and my husband stopped to look at the menu for Buca dell’Orafo. It was busy and he decided to ask for a table. They gave it to us. It was the last one – many people after us were turned away. (Notice a trend?)
I still dream of the primi pasta course – the penne alle carretteria. It’s a penne pasta with a spicy tomato sauce. We ordered it “bis” (to split), but we really should have ordered our own. It was so fresh and delicious. Despite the fact that we thought we weren’t hungry, we opted to split the bistecca fiorentina and roasted potatoes. It was probably one of the most delicious steaks I’ve ever had. I was a little nervous because we forgot to tell them that we like our steak the way Italians like it (rare-medium rare), and most places will overcook steak for Americans. Our fears were completely unfounded. The steak was perfectly cooked and delicious with olive oil. When we finally pushed our stomachs up the stairs, it had stopped raining and we headed back to our hotel for a good night’s rest.
For Quick, Cheap Eats
‘Ino is a little intimidating, particularly if you arrive during the lunch rush. It’s tucked behind the Uffizi gallery and offers delicious, fresh sandwiches on the traditional schiacciata bread. The menu is actually on the wall facing the cash register. Your basic Italian skills will be much appreciated. Tom recommends the prosciutto and pecorino. I recommend anything with the prosciutto. We actually went to ‘Ino two days in a row because I liked it so much. It was so busy that we took it to go and enjoyed it back in our room. (Yet another benefit to staying at the Hotel Gallery Art.)
If you find yourself in the Oltarno, Gusta Pizza is a solid option for a hot meal in Florence that won’t break the bank. Favorited by students (undoubtedly for its prices), there’s usually a line and you’ll have to fight for a shared table (or take it to go). The pizza is served piping hot and always fresh. Be prepared for a line though. The Gusta “franchise” seems to be taking over, and we were disappointed that we didn’t have a chance to try Gusta Panino on our last trip. (It’s right around the corner in Santo Spirito.) If you are looking for a great late night option and you don’t want to wait in line, I think that Munaciello or O’Scungnizzo are good for cheap pizza, as well as a place to sit.
I know I’ve said that I don’t trust any fresh pasta to go places in Italy, but there’s always an exception to the rule. On the first floor of the Mercato Centrale, there’s a fresh pasta place. (Not the one on the second floor. The first floor one.) You can see them make the pasta on the side of the stall. And, when you’re done ogling it, you can buy lunch for 5 euro. This is the best 5 euro meal you will find in Florence. I recommend anything with the tomato and olive sauce. Tom recommends the olive oil and parmesan. Skip the pesto. We’ve been spoiled by the pesto of Cinque Terre and nothing ever measures up. There’s a small counter that you eat at. I could have eaten here for every meal but settled for two.
Bonus: Go find the bakery that offers Occhi di bue. It’s the most delicious cookie. Apricot or Nutella? Both win in my book.
Pro tip: You can skip (most of) the crowds of the San Lorenzo market by entering through the back entrance.
For a Social Meal
My husband really loves tours when we travel and I really love experiences. Cooking classes are a great way to do both and bring a souvenir of sorts home. I’ve taken both a pizza and gelato class and a fresh pasta class. Neither disappoint. These classes are small and very hands on. At the end of the class, you descend into the wine cellar to enjoy your creations with your new friends and wine. It’s a great way to meet other people who are visiting Florence and learn new skills at the same time.
Gelato in Florence
I can’t say that I’ve never met a gelato I didn’t love. There is some seriously bad gelato out there. Here are a few pro tips to you started on your gelato quest though. One, if it’s piled high and brightly colored, keep walking. Gelato should be fresh and fresh gelato doesn’t pile high. Two, expensive gelato is not a marker of good gelato. Be wary of the places charging six euro for a single cone. You’re getting ripped off if you pay that much. There’s a gelato place near Orsanmichele that takes the prices off the sign at night and we watched someone pay 14 euro for a cone to go. FOURTEEN EURO. No gelato is worth 14 euro. (Their price during the day is 6 euro. That’s still too high for a piccolo.
The most expensive gelato that I will tolerate is Edoardo, and he’s right in front of the Duomo.
Gelato is a personal adventure, and I take the journey very seriously. I think you should try multiple places (and flavors) and see what works for you. (There’s one place that is in all the travel guides that I think is terrible.) Tom’s favorite flavors are bacio (hazelnut chocolate) and nocciola (hazelnut). I love both of those, but I also love the fruit flavors. I’ve yet to meet a fruity gelato I didn’t love. I think Tom feels cheated every time I order fruit flavors. That being said, here are a few of my favorite gelaterias in Florence.
Vivoli is a cult classic. It’s near Santa Croce, and I’ve been coming here since 2004. The service is gruff. You pay before you order. If you take too long to decide, they move on. Like many of my favorite Florentine memories, I come to Vivoli for my bacio e nocciola. There’s a bench across the street where I will sit and watch the world go by. I used to say that the beautiful of Florence is that nothing changes, but then the Turkish restaurant below my apartment closed and I was thrown off. Vivoli is a reminder that the best parts of Florence don’t change.
Gelateria dei Neri
Near the end of all the cheap delicious eats on Via dei Neri is Gelateria dei Neri. Like almost every other establishment on Via dei Neri, there is almost always a line at the gelateria. Like Vivoli, I come here for my cult classic of bacio. I think they have the best bacio in Florence. I’m very happy to get un piccolo cono con bacio, solemente and make my way back to the Piazza delle Signoria or to Piazza Santa Croce.
Gelateria Santa Trinita
Right across the Santa Trinita bridge (with the best views of the Ponte Vecchio) is the delicious Gelateria Santa Trinita. This gelateria is the best value in Florence. It’s also my personal favorite. I particularly like the fruit flavors here. Where it’s fragola (strawberry) e limon (lemon), mandarino (tangerine) e lampone (rasperry), or arancia (orange) and fruiti di bosco (mixed berries), I will mix and match fruits until my heart is content. The bonus of Santa Trinita is that you can stand along the bridge and admire the Ponte Vecchio at any time of day, though sunset and evenings are my favorites. (We also counted down the New Year on this bridge – magical.)
A block away from Gelateria Santa Trinita and across the Ponte al Carraia is La Carraia, and it’s Tom’s favorite gelato. La Carraia tends to have more exotic flavors, but they make a really delicious bacio. I wanted to try their green apple, but sometimes you have to make the husband happy. (Believe it or not, we share our gelato… because we eat so much of it in Florence. I stopped counting but Tom gave me a count one day, and I was appalled. Good thing we walk a lot.) The best thing about La Carraia is that they are open until midnight, so whether we’re staying at the Hotel Gallery Art or the St. Regis, we can get a gelato fix. (It’s equidistant from both.)
If you find yourself deep in the Oltrarno, it’s worth finding Sbrino. Sbrino does not open early because all the gelato is made fresh daily. It stays open late and you can find it because of the lights outside (or the line). It has the most imaginative flavors I’ve ever seen in Florence. On our last trip, we tried a white chocolate hazelnut bit of goodness. It was so good that Tom wanted to go back after dinner and get it again. I also think that Sbrino has the friendliest staff of any of the gelaterias.
The Best Souvenir
One of my favorite things we’ve done in Florence is book a portrait session with Cristiano from Facibeni Fotographia. We were not disappointed with the results. He did a fantastic job capturing us at all my favorite places in my beautiful city. These portrait sessions (we booked L’Amour de Paris for our honeymoon and Ksenia in Venice for our 4th anniversary) are some of my favorite souvenirs. It’s a fun way to get advice from a local on places to go, things to see, and what their favorite experiences are, too. Cristiano is actually who convinced us to go to Budapest when we weren’t entirely sure about going (and I’m so glad he did)!
For more Florence Planning
(and tips & tricks):