This beautiful guide, created by Hannah and Meg of Florence for Free, is truly a celebration and a tribute to the art, food, music and dreamy culture of Florence.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must:
The Duomo – you know, that big bump in the skyline. Mainstream as it may seem, Santa Maria del Fiore and its towering dome occupies the heart of Florence and Florentines. The story of the cathedral and the practically miraculous construction of Brunelleschi’s dome seem to embody the entire spirit of accomplishment, innovation and fierce competition that Florence has prided itself on for centuries. In a nutshell, it is the Renaissance, and thus a perfect way to start your stay in Florence. Plus, in the same piazza you can explore the Baptistry and the Campanile. Everything else seems to radiate out from there.
Most people don’t know this, but to get a true taste of the local culture…
Grab a sandwich and a seat on the steps of Sant’ Ambrogio. An easy ten-minute walk from the Duomo, the Sant’ Ambrogio neighborhood sits just far enough from center to filter out most tourists, yet remains close enough to be a vibrant part of the city center. Rickety shutters, shouting nonne, and laundry billowing from clotheslines that crisscross the streets– this is the Italy you came for. Order a sandwich at the street cart on the corner of Via dei Macci and Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio (to get even more local try the lampredotto – cow stomach), and a seat (we suggest the church steps) in Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio. With pristine views of the Florence synagogue in front of you, the ancient parish of Sant’ Ambrogio at your back, and the locals gathering in the piazza to meet at their favorite café and watering hole (Caffe’ Sant’ Ambrogio), you can’t help but instantly feel like a local yourself.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:
Unless you find yourself on the back of a vespa with a cute Florentine, walking is absolutely the best means of transportation in this relatively small, pedestrian-friendly city. In our opinion, cabs are over-priced, busses are claustrophobic, and in a city where every corner is a work of art, why would you want to travel any other way? Just remember, if you come from a car-driving culture (just like us) an hour of elevation at the end of the day will help your feet adjust to being your new set of wheels.
I had my best night’s sleep at:
Our favorite boutique hotel is the Hotel Alessandra. Tucked down Borgo Santi Apostoli, this pensione manages to provide a local, quiet, classically Italian ambiance, despite its very central location just off of the Ponte Vecchio. Charming views, free breakfast, and a staff that feels like family – we wouldn’t hesitate recommending Hotel Alessandra to any friend.
If you’re looking for a place you can truly make your home while in Florence, we would recommend renting a flat of your very own. Worried about falling into a tourist trap? Don’t. We’ve already done that for you. Save yourself the anxiety and use the fraud-free apartmentsflorence.it to find your dream-landing pad in Florence.
A few decades from now, when we have nothing to do but discard of disposable income (girls can dream, right?) we plan on staying in the penthouse suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, just to enjoy the heralded Renaissance gardens on the grounds alone. Oh, and we would also go for the bathtubs, we bet they have really great bathtubs
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:
4 Leoni – Faggotini, bistecca fiorentina, cheesecake. Allow us to break it down for you:
- Primo Piatto: Faggotini. Hand-crafted pasta shaped into beautiful little purses containing a melt-in-your-mouth pear filling. A mild pecorino sauce allows the sweet pear filling to be the star of this dish.
- Secondo Piatto: Bistecca Fiorentina. You won’t be asked how you would like your steak, as anything but very rare is not Bistecca Fiorentina. Allow the waiter to pepper to your liking, and drizzle olive oil over the top. Didn’t think rare steak was for you? I didn’t either. Let Florence change your mind.
- Dolce: Cheesecake. Light and fluffy, yet sinfully decadent, you will have no trouble understanding why 4 Leoni ricotta cheesecake literally brought tears to our friend Claire’s eyes the first time she indulged. The worst part about 4 Leoni cheesecake is being faced with the decision of chocolate or berry toppings. We recommend making it easy on yourself and getting one of each.
Best place to find artisan handicrafts:
The Vecchio Convento, located in the historically artisan neighborhood of the Oltrarno, hosts an artisan market the second Sunday of every month, which, in our opinion, is the end-all be-all for finding hand-crafted treasures in Florence. Outside of providing a venue for artisans to sell their wares, the Vecchio Convento works to preserve and promote the value of hand-crafted goods through classes, tours and seminars.
Local celebration not to be missed:
The Feast of St. John the Baptist or San Giovanni, celebrated every June 24, is the most Florentine festival you’ll find. This celebration of the city’s patron saint is an all-day event. In the morning, enjoy period-dress parades with flag throwing and drum lines, as well as markets selling bedazzled crickets in tiny cages (it’s an inside joke with St. John). That afternoon make sure you’ve secured tickets to catch the final round of Calcio Storico – an vicious variation of soccer played in Florence since the sixteenth century that at times can look an awful lot like Fight Club. The four neighborhoods of Florence spend all year gathering and training their scariest residents (typically ex-cons) for the tournament. Come the week of San Giovanni — Piazza Santa Croce transforms into the sand-filled arena that hosts the brute game. While neighborhoods may divide to cheer for their teams in Calcio Storico, a grand firework display will reunite the city in the name of their common Saint to finish off the festivities that night.
In a city where art bursts at the seams, it is no secret that museums and Florence go together like Michelangelo and marble. With throngs of tourists and non air-conditioned buildings, museuming has the potential to be a less-than-pleasant experience. Luckily, cultural events abound and often include free museum openings with extended hours. Which brings us to our favorite pastime – free night museuming. There is no better way to enjoy some of the world’s most renowned masterpieces than by soft evening light, significantly thinned-out crowds, and no itinerary breathing down your neck. Free admission simply sweetens the deal. Just keep your eye on local papers, fliers, or even Florence for Free so you can take special note of these nights year-round.
Of course, we also enjoy a good night tour of our favorite museum, the city itself. Highlights include outdoor sculpture galleries such as the Loggia dei Lanzi, some of the greatest feats of architecture around every corner, and even a street artist who has turned all of the city’s traffic signs into works of art. As the jewelry shops of the Ponte Vecchio roll up for the night, so does the rest of the city. The Florence that was buzzing with tourists and vespas just a few hours ago is now all yours.
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here:
Florence is surrounded by the celebrated Tuscan countryside. Our favorite way to enjoy it is with what we call a Castle Hike through the city’s surrounding hills. Take bus #10 toward Settignano. Hop off at Ponte Mensola 01 and start heading up. Cross a small footbridge and follow the winding country road up through olive groves and vineyards to the Castle of Vincigliata. Once you’ve had your fill of the picturesque setting of the dream home’s stone walls hike on to Fiesole, where you can hop another bus back to town. The easy two-hour trek comes equipped with paved roads, fresh air, and breathtaking views of Florence below.
For more details and a map of the hike see… http://florenceforfree.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/the-castle-hike/
The art/music scene is alive and well here:
If you call yourself a local artist or musician in Florence, odds are you spend your days and your nights in Santo Spirito. The kitsch and cool neighborhood is the epicenter for up-and-coming artists and musicians. Workshop doors are often left ajar for the curious passersby and coming upon live music from one of the several cafés in Piazza Santo Spirito is almost a certainty. Gallery openings, poetry readings, and shows of young artists and musicians compose the entire social calendar of the neighborhood.
Local cafes not to be missed:
Il Rifrullo: Offering a perfect cappuccino, a delicious brunch, and delightful aperitivo, Rifrullo has us covered at all hours of the day. It’s located snug in the delightful Piazza San Niccolò, another personal favorite. Rifrullo is our go-to café simply because it feels like home. In a culture steeped in the importance of family, genetic or not, you’ll find that choosing your favorite café has less to do with who gets the most creative with the design on the top of your cappuccino (although that is a bonus) and more with the people you meet there.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Florence I would:
We like to focus on the essentials: views and food. We would avoid buying a ticket for anything and let our feet get us around. Our mapped-out walk would go a little something like this:
- Piazza Santa Maria Novella. Adjacent to the Santa Maria Novella train station, gazing at Alberti’s Renaissance masterpiece, the façade of Santa Maria Novella, is a logical place to start.
- Via Tornabuoni. A stroll down Florence’s fashion freeway. As designers such as Ferragamo, Cavalli, and Gucci call Florence their home, window-shopping takes on a whole new gravity here.
- Café Giacosa. Even those who can’t afford the designer duds should opt for a cappuccino break at this posh café.
- Ponte Santa Trinita. We certainly would pull out the camera and snap a few selfies with the post-card perfect view that the bridge offers of its more famous sister, the Ponte Vecchio.
- Santo Spirito. Live music, open galleries, artisan crafts, and hipster hangouts. There’s no better place to relax than the neighborhood of Santo Spirito.
- Gusta Pizza at Palazzo Pitti. We couldn’t possibly just stroll past the wafting scent of wood-fired pizza when exiting the Santo Spirito neighborhood. Instead, we’ll grab a margherita and head a few blocks east to the sprawling front yard of Palazzo Pitti. Grab a seat and enjoy some of the best people watching in town. For history buffs, the area is full of reminders of the Medici, the former residents of this Renaissance palace.
- Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Vecchio is world-famous, and rightly so. Enjoy an eye-full of the dazzling diamonds behind the shop windows that line Florence’s oldest bridge.
- Oltrarno. Exploring the “other” side of the river always delivers a delightful surprise or two. Pop in and out of artisan shops and perhaps grab a gelato on your way up to…
- Piazzale Michelangelo. Head up out of the north city gate to the piazza where all postcard shots of Florence were taken. Grab a seat on the steps, catch your breath, and take in the bella citta.
- San Miniato al Monte: If your legs aren’t shaking too badly, make a final push up to the church of San Miniato al Monte. This ancient monastery is one of the most peaceful places in town. Try to arrive around 5 p.m so you can explore the Romanesque church to the soundtrack of the monks’ hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chants.
- Santa Croce. Coast back into town to the Santa Croce neighborhood, home to the local leather industry, some of the best seasonal markets, and the tombs of Florence’s most famous Renaissance players (Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli to name a few).
- Piazza della Signoria. The next stop is Piazza della Signoria, the political center of the city. A full day could be spent exploring the Palazzo Vecchio, the Loggia dei Lanzi and the Uffizi Corridor alone.
- Gelato. There are a number of gelato spots in city center. Grom and Perche’ No are two of our standard stops.
- Piazza della Repubblica. As the former forum of the Ancient Roman town, birthplace of the Futurism movement, and now the posh place to see and be seen, Piazza della Repubblica is a must.
- Piazza del Duomo. Time for the grand finale. With only 24 hours in the city we would save the best for last. Piazza del Duomo is teeming with history, culture and art. The imposing cathedral has been the heart of the city for nearly 1,000 years. If you want to save the best for last, finish here before heading out to the nearby train station or airport.
For an interactive map of our route see… http://florenceforfree.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/walking-tour-florence-in-a-day/
Finally, we would board the train departing Florence and just sob.
About Hannah and Meg
Hannah and Meg fell hard and fast for Florence years ago while attending graduate school together in the city. With adventurous spirits and small pocketbooks, they had to make do on discovering the city of Florence for practically free. As Florence is a walking town, they spent their days and nights exploring forgotten alleyways, peering into cafes, and concocting stories about what happened behind closed gates and tall walls. Luckily, this approach to city living allowed them to experience much more of their surroundings than many others did while sticking to a standard script. Their wanderings inspired them to create Florence for Free, a travel blog which aims to help students and budget-minded visitors discover Italy without reaching deep into their pockets.
Photos property of Matt Freire
Faggotini photo via Gusto