Florence, the capital of Tuscany. Packed with as many cultural attractions and charming piazzas as one could dream, the city acts as an open air museum, perfect for wandering its medieval streets and letting the imagination run wild. For tourists and locals alike, whether choosing to admire the world’s finest collection of Renaissance art or climb Brunelleschi’s magnificent masonry dome, the tightly knit centre-storico means the city can be tackled with ease. I was wrong when I said Rome makes the perfect layover destination, Florence does.
As always I have outlined my major recommendations under the 5 headings – Sleep, Go, Eat, See and Play. I have then tied these suggestions into my 36 hour walking tour itinerary at the bottom. Enjoy!
Budget Options? (Less than €120)
We stayed at the Ridolfi Guest House which provided an excellent option within easy walking distance to both the centre-storico (historical centre) and the Stazione Santa Maria Novella (central train station). For only 43 euros we had a comfortable room with breakfast and wifi included. Our host was extremely accommodating. Highly recommended!
Mid-range Options? (€120 to €250)
The good news for those who wish to find find something special without breaking the bank, is competition for business can result in some excellent deals. Furthermore, because the area is relatively small by city standards, you can place yourself outside the historical centre to take advantage of better deals without having to sacrifice much in the way of traveling time. Considerations include B&B Emozioni and Hotel David (excellent name)!
High-end Options? (€250 plus)
Those with a little extra (sack of gold) to burn, the Four Seasons Hotel is set in a tastefully designed garden sanctuary flanked by historic buildings reminiscent of the Renaissance period. Its restaurant, Il Palagio, is considered something very special as well…
Trip Advisor provides a useful overview of popular accommodation options within central Florence. I suggest cross-referencing any recommendations you come across here.
Airbnb – Another tool I have recently stumbled upon. If you’re not familiar, airbnb is a website you can use to book a room or apartment, among other unique accommodation types, available for rent. They often provide much better value then hotel style accommodation. The booking process is both safe and easy. Follow this link for more info!
To and From?
Coming from Rome, the easiest option is to take one of the numerous high speed trains (frecce) that run directly between Rome Termini Station and Florence Santa Maria Novella Station. The train takes about 1 hour 30 minutes. For reservations and timetables, check out the Trenitalia website using the above named stations. If you’re coming from any other major European city, the main line from Milan to Rome stops here too (follow the same link for more info).
Around and About?
Florence is a small city with virtually all major attractions within a stone’s throw of one another. Luckily for those short on time this means you can get to know it very well very quickly. WALKING is the easiest, quickest and cheapest way to explore this beautiful town. Need I say anymore? (see below for Layover Escapade’s walking tour itinerary).
My first go-to app nowadays is Trip Advisor. You can download their Florence guide from the Trip Advisor’s City Guides app! It works offline using nothing but your phone signal to place you on the map where you can then search for nearby restaurants and bars among other things. Reviews are included to help you avoid the tourist traps.
Cheaperies? (Markets, Bakeries and Gelaterie)
For some excellent cheap food, go straight to the source and head up the beautiful Mercato Centrale where sampling some of the delectable artisanal cheeses (head to Barroni for the best selection) and cured meats (I recommend seeking out some salsiccia di cingale (wild boar sausage)) makes a meal in itself. Porks corner stand do some excellent sandwiches (FYI i’ve heard mixed reviews about their pasta so best to stick to the pork here) while da Nerbone is very popular for tripe sandwiches.
Outside of that, your best bet includes one of the many bakeries (forno) or sandwich shops found around town. Some favourites include Forno Ivana Bruschi (pizza, foccacia and cuccole), Forno Sartoni (great sweet and savory Florentine breads), All’Antico Vinaio (one of the best sandwich shops in town), La Prosciutteria (divine cured meat and cheese platters), Pugi (best foccacia), Gusta Pizza (Napoli style pizzas), ‘L Trippaio di San Frediano (tripe sandwich stall), Trippaio del Porcellino (another popular tripe stand), Il Cernacchino (unbelievably delicious sandwiches filled with Tuscan stews) and Salumeria Verdi (another claim to the best sandwich shop) to name but a few…
For the gelato-obsessed among you (aren’t we all?), I highly recommend sampling a few scoops from Carapina (some consider to be the best in Italy, let alone Florence… Just be sure to study the seasonal fruit calendar before ordering)! Other favorites around town include Carabe (Sicilian style gelato – known, in particular, for their granites), Il Re del Gelato (another Sicilian style gelato), Gelateria Vivaldi (amazing hot chocolates to boot), Gelateria Santa Trinita (one of the best Artisanal Gelaterie with stunning views of Ponte Vecchio) and Gelateria della Passera (another ‘one of the best’ artisanal gelaterie).
Mid-range Eateries? (Standard Restaurants, Trattorias, Cafes and Food Stores)
Al Tranvai and Trattoria I Due G are both traditional restaurants serving good fare at great prices. Similarly Ristorante del Fagioli has an excellent reputation as one of the best classic Florentine Trattorias. Il Desco is one of my personal favorites (the owners bring in the fresh organic produce from their very own farm in the countryside). Other popular options include L’Osteria di Giovanni (typical Italian restaurant with a focus on Tuscan dishes), Zeb (soups and meats), 5 Cinque (Ligurian savory tarts and salads) and Frescobaldi (popular Tuscan inspired restaurant and wine-bar). Touch Florence is a sleek restaurant serving modern Mediterranean inspired food (with Ipad interactive menus on each table. Cooking classes are also available).
The best coffee, like many things in Florence, is a contentious issue. For locals and tourists alike however, this is most definitely a good thing. You’d be hard pushed to find bad coffee in Florence. Centrally located Chiaroscuro must rate among one of the best based purely on the quality of coffee as must Caffe Giacosa. If you’d like to do a bit of people watching I recommend stopping by the historical Caffe Rivoire located in the beautiful Piazza della Signoria. For a taste of the less touristy local haunts consider a pitstop at either Caffe deli Artigiani or student local, Caffetteria delle Oblate. Cosi is a famous pastry shop should you fancy something sweet with your morning cuppa! Robiglio also make some of the best pastries in town…
High-end fancy-pants Restos? (Special occasion/Fine dining)
Top of the pile in all of Florence (probably), triple Michelin starred Enoteca Pinchiorri is something very special (and very expensive)! This is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ type restaurants. In a similar league, situated on the picturesque Arno riverbank, super swanky Borgo San Jacopo serves up a combination of contemporary and traditional style dishes with a focus on seafood. Luxurious Ora d’Aria, serving up some excellent and creative modern fare, is also worth the additional €€€! I highly recommend the tasting menu. Book well in advance for all of these (dressing somewhat respectably might also be worth your time)!
Personally I feel there is no such thing. You have to tailor you travel experiences to meet your own desires. Those who make a point of seeing Michelangelo’s David or climbing Brunelleschi’s magnificent Dome for the sake of box ticking often miss so much. Trust me – I’ve been guilty of doing this for years! You have to get something out it. By all means go if you feel you will you learn more about the history and culture of Florence or Italy, but please don’t go because that’s what the guide-book tells you. With regards to Florence it’s everything in-between you must see!
I’ve tried my best to give you a little round up of what you might consider during a short stay. At the bottom of this blog I have included a 2-day walking tour itinerary (with map included) in my usual attempt to tie everything together!
Short on time?
If, like me, you live in a world of layovers, three hours queuing in-line on a 24-hour layover simply isn’t worth it. Even if it is to see Michelangelo’s David! Still, you’re going to want to see something between meals…
If you do happen to conform to convention do yourself a massive favour and book your tickets in advance! Follow this link: http://www.florenceart.it/booking/. Two museums of particular note (apparently) include the Galleria Dell’ Accademia (where David stands) and Galleria Delgi Uffizi (considered the world’s finest collections of Renaissance art). Museum lovers should also check out the Palazzo (which is divided into no less than 6 museums).
Like a magnet homing you in from miles away, the exquisite Duomo rises high above the centre-storico. Brunelleschi’s magnificent cupola del duomo (cathedral dome) is best appreciated climbing the 463 increasingly narrow stairway. The 360-degree panorama at the top is jaw dropping. If your short on time however, marveling at it from the ground is no less awe-inspiring. You might also consider climbing the adjacent Campanile bell tower rising nearly as high with similar city views without the (typically) long queues. A ticket to the cathedral cost 10 euros and gives you access to both!
Short on cash?
Sadly most attractions in Florence cost some euros to visit. Having said that, wandering the historical centre and admiring her many beautiful attractions from the outside is no less rewarding. One site in particular, costing only a little in the way of effort, is a hike up the glorious San Miniato al Monte. This stunning 11th century Romanesque church is Florence’s oldest and, perhaps, most charming. Climbing up via Michelangelo’s square affords spectacular city views before you even get there (I should point out the public toilets at the top will charge you in the region of one euro to use them).
For an extended walk along the southern hillsides of Florence, with a single ticket (costing 10euros from memory), you can also explore the beautifully groomed Giardino di Bardini and sprawling Giardino di Boboli (along with access to three museums and the Forte di Belvedere) each with their own unique perspective across the red roofed city…
Guided walking tours or food tours are a great way to engage the city for those short on time without wishing to work out the hotspots for themselves. Most operators organize tours of the surrounding region of Tuscany as well. For some of the best check out the Florence Activities page on Trip Advisor.
As for popular nightlife spots a string of bars can be found scattered throughout the centre storico. In particular the area around Piazza Santo Spirito in Oltrarno is popular among students while more upscale watering holes can be found in the district surrounding Piazza Nicola Demidoff. We had a wonderful afternoon aperitivo (pre dinner drink) at popular wine bar Fuoriporta.
Music lovers should head to the San Marco district and look up either Be Bob music club (live music of all sorts) or Jazz club (a live jazz venue).
LAYOVER ESCAPADES 36-HOUR ITINERARY:
Day 1 – The magnificent Duomo and medieval centre-storico…
After arriving at Santa Maria Novella Station check straight into the Ridolfi guest house before hitting the streets. Depending on your time of arrival consider checking out the master piece that is David at the Galleria Dell’ Accademia. (Some delicious focaccia from the nearby Pugi bakery makes for a sumptuous breakfast). If it’s afternoon already head straight for lunch at the wonderful Il Desco restaurant. From here follow the flow of traffic south till you reach the imposing Duomo. Grab a ticket from the nearby office before carrying your belly full of pasta up the 463 increasingly narrow steps to enjoy some staggering panoramas. (Should you be here during high season I suggest climbing the adjacent Campanile bell tower instead to escape the costly lines)! Afterwards zigzag through the medieval centre-storico stopping as desired for a little shopping or snacking and perfect afternoon cuppa! (For suggestions see my EAT section above). Be sure to stop by the beautiful Piazza della Signoria where David’s replica lives. Should you still have a few hours to kill before dinner the impressive collection at the Galleria Delgi Uffizi will more than keep you occupied. From here continue south till you hit the beautiful Ponte Vecchio – be sure to make a pitstop at the excellent Carapina Gelateria on the way. Cross over the bridge before chilling on opposite Ponte Santa Trinita as you enjoy a classic Tuscan sunset over the Arno. Finish with dinner at the wonderful L’Osteria di Giovanni before your choice of after-hours activities (see PLAY section above).
Day 2 – The southern hillside gardens…
Start day 2 with a fondle of the fruit and veg at the beautiful Mercato Centrale. Sampling some of the delectable artisanal cheeses and cured meats makes up a great breakfast. Alternatively consider grabbing a sandwich for either Porks corner stand or da Nerbone (their tripe sandwiches are particularly good)! Nearby the central market Forno Ivana Bruschi is considered something of an institution – another good option. Once you’ve had your fill wander south (passing by either the Basilica di San Lorenzo or Basilica di Santa Maria Novella) till you hit the Arno. Cross the river and make your way to the spacious Piazza de’ Pitti (Caffe deli Artigiani makes a great pitstop for a midmorning cuppa). Grab a ticket from the corner office to access both the Giardino di Bardini and Giardino di Boboli. Spend a couple of hours exploring both before lunch. (Alternatively spend some time exploring the museums housed in the Palazzo Pitti before lunch, heading to the gardens afterwards). For lunch – depending on how energetic you’re feeling – I have two options. Option number 1: Head to one of the restaurants (we ate at the lovely little 5 Cinque restaurant) on the hidden Piazza della Passera (same location as Caffe deli Artigiani) followed by a couple of scoops from the wonderful artisanal Gelateria della Passera. Option number 2: Head east and stop by swanky Zeb restaurant for one of their pipping hot bowls of Italian soup. From either location head East and make your way up to the charming Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte. Stop by Pizzale Michelangelo for some more staggering vistas. On the way back down reward yourself with an afternoon drink on the terrace of Fuoriporta (Close to Zeb – at the base of the hill on the way up to San Miniato). Finish the day by exploring the Santa Croce neighborhood or, if you didn’t manage it yesterday, viewing the exquisite collection at the Galleria Delgi Uffizi. Should you not have to catch a train home see both my EAT and PLAY sections above for further dinner and drinking options to see out your day.