18 Fabulous Things You MUST Do In Florence

Florence is one of the loveliest cities in all of Europe. Famous for its medieval architecture and renaissance art, Florence has so much to see and do (and eat!).

Typically tourists all stick to a handful of sites and miss 95% of the truly amazing things to see and do here. My best-selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence takes you to more than 101 incredible places the tour bus crowds don’t visit, all within a maximum 20 minute walk from the Duomo. In fact most of these places are just around the corner from where you will be anyway!

But for now let’s look at 18 fabulous things to do in Florence, plus have a quick look at the magnificent Duomo.

Santa Maria dei Fiore, The Duomo of Florence

This one is a no brainer – of course you are going to visit Santa Maria dei Fiore, the Duomo of Florence. This one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and I recommend you walk past it as many times as you can while in Florence!

If you plan on climbing the dome of the cathedral be sure to book the earliest time slot possible. All access is timed entry and it gets packed all day long. The climb is steep and there are about a million steps (or 432) and in places the walls are narrower than your wingspan. Climbing the steps squished in between sweaty, smelly tourists is a total buzz-kill, so the earlier you can go up, the better!

Your OPA ticket to go up the Duomo also gives you entry to the ruins below the cathedral. These are the remains of the former cathedral, Santa Reparata. It is well worth a visit. Your ticket also gives you access to the Baptistery outside the cathedral, Giotto’s Campanile which is adjacent to the cathedral and the Opera del Duomo museum, which is behind the cathedral. All are fabulous to visit and of at all possible need to be on your must see list.

** Be advised the climb up to the dome is very claustrophobic.

1. Cross Ponte Vecchio Before 10 am

The beautiful Ponte Vecchio in Florence

The magnificent Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is one of Florence’s most iconic sights. The problem is during the travel season it gets packed from about 10 am when the cruise ship crowds and big bus tours arrive in town until late in the evening. So if you will be in Florence between May and October try to get to the bridge before 10.

The shutter-style shop doors along the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

If you are staying overnight in Florence you should visit the bridge early in the morning before the shops open (8 am-ish). The shops that line the bridge have been there since the mid 1500’s. They have spectacular old doors with massive old locks, that are wonderful to see and you can only see them before opening time or later at night.

2. Explore Oltrarno

My favorite areas in Florence are on the other side of the Ponte Vecchio in the area known as Oltrarno (other side of the Arno river).

image of Oltrarno streets via MagicPlanet.com

You will see vastly fewer tourists over here. It is filled with amazing little medieval streets full of artisan shops, non-touristy eateries and glorious places to stop for an aperitivo.

Florence is small and safe and you can’t really get lost, so be sure to go explore!

RELATED POST: The Piazza Hidden Behind The Duomo Is Not To Be Missed!

3. Visit Basilica Santa Croce

If you only go inside one church in all of Florence, let this be the one!

Basilica Santa Croce, Florence

Basilica Santa Croce dominates the lovely Piazza Santa Croce, not even a 5 minute walk behind the Palazzo Vecchio. There is lots to see and do here including visiting the leather school behind the Basilica. The Basilica itself is sensational. It quite possibly has the very best church art in all of Tuscany, has the tombs of many notables including Michelangelo, and has beautiful cloisters to walk through when you need a little peace and quiet.

If choosing between going inside the Duomo or Basilica Santa Croce, I would do Santa Croce every time. (And I do visit Santa Croce every time I’m in Florence – it is that fantastic!)

4. Go Walking Early

If you are lucky enough to be staying overnight in Florence I sincerely recommend getting up early and going walking before the tourists arrive. If you hit the streets at 7:30 or 8.00 am all the statues, the art, the beauty will be yours and yours alone.

Breakfast on via dei Ginori after and early morning walk

You get an entirely different appreciation for this gorgeous city when you can see it uncrowded. If out early be sure to visit Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, the bronze doors of the Baptistery that face the Duomo. All day long they are hidden behind layers of tourists so you can hardly see them and definitely can’t get a clean photo of them.

At 7:30 in the morning they belong to you.

5. Eat Panforte

Panforte and cappuccino, the breakfast of champions.

This amazing cake is actually from the Siena area but you will see it everywhere in Florence. Made from dried fruits and nuts, peppery spices and honey, and just enough flour to hold it together. A slice of panforte with your morning cappuccino is about the best breakfast you can have in Florence. Or anywhere else for that matter.

RELATED POST: 14 Foods You Need To Try In Tuscany

6. Buy Leather

If traveling around Italy be sure to buy leather goods here in Florence. Florence leather is coveted and famous all over the world. Everywhere you go you will see leather jackets, handbags, shoes, belts and wallets.

In my book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence I have a chapter on how to buy leather. It tells you what to look out for, terms you need to know, my specific tips to make sure you get a great buy and don’t get ripped off, what you should be buying specifically in Florence, and I also give you my favorite shop to visit for leather.

Paris in 2017 wearing my red leather jacket from Jimmy’s Leather Collection in Florence

My favorite item in my closet is a red leather jacket I got several years ago in Florence. It has been all over the world with me, just keeps getting better and better with age, and still feels like butter!

7. Visit At Least One Museum

Florence has really fantastic museums. Everyone knows about the Uffizi and the Accademia but few know about the others. Which is quite clear when you walk in and see almost no one there!

staircase and well in the courtyard of the Bargello in Florence
The courtyard of the Bargello Museum in Florence

In Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence I tell you about some of my favorite museums that fly below the radar of the tour bus crowd. There really is something for everyone. From art museums to Roman treasures to Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing creations to a super creepy anatomy museum to a museum of weapons – there are so many to choose from! Two of my absolute favorites are the Bargello and the Bardini. I tell you about them in the book, but you can also google the best museums in Florence and add at least one to your travel itinerary.

RELATED POST 5 Things You MUST See At The Bargello Museum In Florence

8. Take The Secret Passages Tour at Palazzo Vecchio

Image of Palazzo Vecchio via ttnotes.com

This is my favorite tour to do in Florence and I take most of my Glam Italia Tour groups on it too. The tour is at the Palazzo Vecchio and takes you inside the walls of the palace to see the secret rooms, secret doorways and escape routes, and secret passages. You get to go up into the rafters about the Salon of 500 (which you see in the movie Inferno) and end up n the Medici apartments and living quarters in the palace.

The tour only takes about 90 minutes but it really is fascinating and fantastic and I have never taken anyone on it who hasn’t been completely blown away by it!

Book the tour at the Palazzo Vecchio box office.

9. Shop.

Florence has some of the best shopping in Italy. And not just the leather jackets, bags and handmade leather shoes. Florence is an artisan paradise, with little boutiques scattered throughout its medieval streets. From housewares to clothing to lingerie to jewelry – you name it, it’s here.

shopping in Florence
San Lorenzo Market in Florence

Plan to spend a little time in the markets and boutiques, do some Christmas shopping, and treat yourself to something special. Just make sure you leave some room in your suitcase for shopping in Florence!

10. Follow The Medici

Florence is the city of the Medici. This family was not only responsible for the Italian Renaissance art movement but also the Renaissance architecture of Florence.

I go into this in depth in Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence. Keep an eye out for the Medici crest everywhere, and be sure to check out their three palaces in Florence linked here.

RELATED POST: 13 Fascinating Facts About The Medici

11. Book A Licensed Private Guide

Rather than be part of a giant big bus tour I am a huge advocate of hiring local guides to show you around. It is extremely difficult to become an official licensed guide in Florence. They have to have a degree, be multi lingual, go through a very intense training program and even then very few are awarded the coveted license.

Stefania is one of the guides on my PDF list below

A licensed guide can take your good travel experience and make it truly outstanding. They always know 1000 x more than just the tour they are taking you on, and pepper your experience with endless anecdotes and insider secrets, point out so many little details you would never otherwise notice and can answer every question you could ever think up. On top of crafting an amazing experience specifically for you and your little group they will also tell you about the best places to stop for an aperitivo, a coffee or a meal.

In Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence I give you a link to download a PDF of the 5 private guides I personally use in Florence for my tours. It has their bio’s, photos, and all their contact info.

Want to know more amazing things to do in Florence? Download my free Secret Florence PDF to get the scoop on my favorite restaurants, chic bars, jewelry shops and more not-to-be-missed places! Get your Secret Florence PDF here

12. Go On An Aperitivo Tour

Aperitivo time in Florence, September 2019

It’s no secret that apertivo hour is my favorite time of day in Italy. In Florence there are some absolutely incredible wine bars to enjoy aperitivo hour – a glass of wine or cocktail served with a selection of nibbles. There are also lots of tourist-centric aperi-trash bars which you should avoid like the plague.

I tell you my personal favorite places to enjoy an aperitivo in the book but another option is to take an aperitivo tour with a licensed guide. These are tremendous. The guides are often fully qualified sommeliers and will not only take you to places you would never otherwise know about – true insider secrets, but will also guide you on which wines to order and which foods to pair with them.

This is a quintessentially Florentine experience and you will love it!

13. Go Up High For Sunset

Florence is a city with exceptional views. I always recommend planning every sunset ahead of time to make sure you have a fabulous view of the colors as the last of the un washes over Florence for the day. I promise you you will never, ever forget it!

Florence view from a rooftop bar

Whether walking up to Piazzale Michelangelo or San Miniato al Monte for the view alone, or going to a rooftop bar for a sunset aperitivo, plan ahead and get there a little early be sure of getting a good spot. (Again, I have a chapter on my favorite places to watch the sunset in the book.)

14. Eat Lampredotto.

Lampredotto is the most Florentine of street foods. You will see food trucks selling them all over town and you really must try one while in Florence!

the most famous street food in florence
Lampredotto with salsa verde in Florence

Find out all about Lampredotto in this blog post.

15. Get Off The Beaten Path

Florence is a very small city and is easy to walk around. You will find that 95% of the tourists all stick to the same handful of places, which means those spots get very overcrowded, but everything else is wide open for you to enjoy exploring. The GPS on your phone will easily guide you back to the Duomo should you get lost, and you will never be more than a 20 minute walk (maximum).

Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence actually has more than 101 fabulous places for you to explore, most of them away from the crowds. The best experiences you will have are the ones that happen off the beaten path, or away from the crowds. From the most sensational art to quiet piazzas to enjoy a coffee in, palaces, museums, churches and shopping, the best of Florence happens just off the beaten path!

RELATED POST: 10 Fabulous Day Trips From Florence By Train

16. Enjoy A Green Space

The Rose Garden in Florence, image via LoveFlorence.com

If you will be in Florence for more than just a day trip I definitely recommend enjoying at least one of the city’s nature spaces. Be it the Boboli Gardens, The Rose Gardens or the Bardini Gardens (for starters!) you just can’t beat a little peace and quiet combined with views of this historical city.

It is really easy to get tourist burn-out is a city with this many day trippers, but even just a short time a

17. Only Eat Artisan Gelato

Did you know that some of Italy’s best gelato is in Florence?

Typically tourists stop at the chain store, factory manufactured gelato spots adjacent to the big tourist sites, places no self – respecting Italian would ever eat at. Yet right around the corner there will be an artisan gelato shop.

image via Gelataria La Carraia in Florence

Artisan gelato is the absolute best in the world. Handmade in small batches, normally on site, and always with seasonal, fresh ingredients. Florentines love gelato and will only eat the real deal artisan kind, so there are artisan shops quite literally everywhere. And in almost every case the real stuff costs the same as the artificial gelato, so you might as well taste the quality version!

My book tells you about my favorite 10 gelato shops in Florence (such as Perche No! and Carraia) and what flavors you really must try. In the meantime this post tells you all about artisanal gelato and why you must only buy artisanal when in Italy!

18. Walk At Night

Florence is a very safe city to go strolling at night. Every evening you will see both locals and fellow travelers out for walks, taking in the beauty of the city and no doubt imagining the centuries of life that have taken place on these very same streets.

By night Florence takes on a magical hue, and is quite frankly, breathtaking. Not only do I recommend a long after-dinner amble, but I also have another piece of advice: look up.

You will be amazed at the frescoes you see on the walls and ceilings of the private palaces and apartments throughout the city, visible from the street only when the lights are turned on inside at night.

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Things To Do In Florence

Why You Need To See The Medici Palaces In Florence

For more than 300 years the Medici family ruled or ran the city of Florence.

They were bankers, politicians and the world’s most prolific patrons of the arts. From the architecture of Florence to the art that fills the city everywhere you turn, the Medici’s impact on the city and on the world of art will last for centuries after you and I are gone.

The Medici had numerous cardinals in the family as well as two popes. In 1513 Giovanni de’ Medici became Pope Leo X and in 1523 his cousin Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII. The family came from modest means but elevated themselves to becoming the hereditary Dukes of Florence then in 1569 Pope Pius V made Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany.

With centuries of drama, intrigue, assassinations and slick political maneuvering, this is one fascinating family.

One way to avoid the crowds in Florence is to take yourself on a walking tour of the Medici Palaces. I have found that my Glam Italia tour groups who have watched The Medici on Netflix get a huge thrill out of doing this. The palace we stay in in Florence is opposite the Medici-Riccardi palace, built by Cosimo the Elder and home to all our favorite Medici (Cosimo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I). At night we look across into the Medici palace and see all the frescoes on the ceilings lit up, invisible during the day.

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The Medici-Riccardi Palace

Our story starts with Cosimo de’ Medici, known as Cosimo the Elder. He married the daughter of a noble family, Contessina de’ Bardi. They lived in the Bardi palace across town but when Cosimo came back to Florence from exile in 1444, newly empowered he decided to build his own palace.

At that time you just built onto existing medieval buildings, but Cosimo had a different idea. He acquired the property diagonally opposite the Basilica San Lorenzo and razed the existing building to the ground. His Michelozzo designed Medici Palace was the first true Renaissance building.

The fortress like exterior with its rough hewn blocks on the first level, evolving into smoother stone on the second and third level was considered grand and quite ostentatious at the time but became the prototype for all the Renaissance palaces in Florence from then forward.

The garden at the Medici Palace

The lovely courtyard with its beautiful garden was the original home of Donatello’s controversial statue of David (now in the Bargello). As you walk through the garden to the inner courtyard, imagine more than a hundred years of Popes, foreign dignitaries, important political figures along with the greatest artist and philosophers of the time all walking these same steps as you!

RELATED POST: 18 Things You MUST Do In Florence

The inner courtyard of the Medici Palace

The palace was home to the Medici until Cosimo I moved to the Palazzo Vecchio. Minor members of the Medici family lived there from then until 1659 when Ferdinando II de’ Medici sold it to the Marquis Gabriello Riccardi.

 It is now a museum. Highlights include the Riccardi family collection of marble, the Magi Chapel and the Giordano Gallery.

The Giordano Gallery in the Medici Palace, Florence

Also of interest, Lorenzo the Magnificent moved the young Michelangelo into the Medici Palace and raised him as his own. For 3 years Michelangelo lived as a brother to the 2 Medici popes, was educated with them, ate meals not only with the family but also the greatest minds of the time. Lorenzo created a world for Michelangelo where he not only benefitted from life at the Medici court but also had freedom and opportunity to rise to his full potential as an artist.

Address: The Medici Palace is on the corner of via dei Ginori and via Cavour, diagonally opposite Basilica San Lorenzo

Visit their website HERE

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Palazzo Vecchio

In 1540 Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici moved his family from the Medici Palace into the Palazzo della Signoria, now called the Palazzo Vecchio. This is the castle-like building in the Piazza della Signoria with the replica statue of David outside.

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

He hired Giorgio Vasari to decorate the inner courtyard and the sumptuous Salon of 500. Cosimo I centralized all the government offices into a new building next door named the Uffizi, or offices. He had Vasari build a passageway that he could walk through from his next home, the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio. This is now called the Vasari Corridor.

Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici
This painting is in theStudiolo of Francesco, a secret room in Palazzo Vecchio

The palace is still Florence’s City Hall but is also a museum. I recommend taking a tour of Palazzo Vecchio, my favorite being the Secret Passages Tour which combines seeing the secret rooms and yes, the secret passages, with a visit to the Salon of 500, the rafters above the Salon of 500 and ends at the Medici apartments. The tour is tremendous and gives fascinating insight into the lives of the Medici.

Inside the Medici apartmentss in Palazzo Vecchio

Address: Piazza della Signoria

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The Pitti Palace

Cosimo I was very happily married to a Spanish blue-blood, Eleanora of Toledo. To Eleanora the palace seemed small and provincial, nowhere near grand enough for someone of her stature to be raising her family, so she bought the biggest private palace, the Pitti Palace, and moved the family in there.

Eleanora of Toldeo, wife of Cosimo I

The story of the Pitti Palace actually starts with the Medici Palace. Luca Pitti was a wealthy Florentine banker who loathed the Medici. When Cosimo (the Elder) built the Medici Palace Luca Pitti decided to outdo him and in 1458 built a bigger palace on the south side of the river. He wanted his windows to be larger than the doorway of the Medici Palace, and he wanted his courtyard to be so big you could fit the entire Medici Palace inside it. That courtyard is now the Piazza Pitti, in front of the palace.

The Pitti Palace. When Eleanora bought the palace it was only the center section. She and Cosimo tripled it in size.

At the time the Pitti Palace was only the center section of the current structure. Luca Pitti ran out of money and died in 1472 before construction was finished. In 1459 Eleanora bought the Pitti Palace and expanded it to its current size. The gardens behind the palace, the Boboli Gardens, were the inspiration for the gardens at Versailles.

The back view of the Pitti Palace.
From this side it looks out over the Boboli Gardens.

The Pitti Palace became the Medici family home until the dynasty ran out of heirs. It was then the home of the new rulers of Florence, the Lorraine-Habsburgs.

Inside the Pitti Palace

The Pitti Palace is now Florence’s largest museum. It is actually a series of museums, with the Medici private art collection, the History of Costume Museum, Porcelain Museum and Silver Museum. Unlike the Uffizi across the river which is perpetually packed with tourists the Pitti gets vastly fewer and is wonderful to explore.

Check out their website HERE

Address: Piazza Pitti

Are you planing a trip to Florence? My free Secret Florence PDF tells you my favorite restaurants, bars, shops and under the radar secrets of fabulous things to do in the Renaissance city, Download your copy HERE

Essential Florence Travel Guide
Discover the three Medici Palaces in Florence

Fascinating In Florence, The Madonna of the UFO

Could UFO’s have been flying over Renaissance Italy?

There is a little extraterrestrial intrigue at the Palazzo Vecchio in the historic heart of beautiful Florence. Up on the top floor of the palace in the Hall of Hercules there is a large tondo (circular frame with the painting inside) measuring about one meter across, featuring the Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist.

Madonna of the UFO, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence
Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist

It’s quite lovely, right? But there may just be a little more to this painting than meets the eye. We don’t know exactly who painted it. It has alternately been attributed to Tondo Miller, Bastiano Mainardi and Arcangelo di Jacopo del Sellaio but no one seems to know for certain who’s work it is. It happens, and this is not the only painting in Florence with an artist we can’t name.

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At first glance it looks like any other Renaissance Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist. It is nice enough but you wouldn’t necessarily stop and swoon over it. In a city with more art within one square kilometer than any other city in the world, this painting is lovely but expected. You can imagine it on the walls of any Florentine palazzo. She is pretty, wears a red dress with a dark cape and a young John the Baptist is there with with baby Jesus. Ho hum.

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But look over Mary’s shoulder and things get interesting. In the countryside behind her we see a shepherd with his small flock and his dog. Look more closely at both the shepherd and the dog. He has his hand raised to his forehead in awe and both he and the dog are looking up to the sky. Follow the line of their gaze and you will see what appears to be a B movie style flying saucer.

Madonna and child with John the Baptist and UFO, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

I’m not kidding! A grey, oval object is moving across the sky, with spiky golden rays emanating from it. Could it be a UFO?

Leonardo da Vinci ornithopter sketches
Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter sketches

The painting is dated to 1510-1520, a time during which there were no flying machines. Leonardo started work on his ornithopter around 1485 but the skies over Italy in those days were occupied only by birds. So what exactly is going on here?

Madonna of the Flying Saucer.
Madonna and Child with John The Baptist and UFO, Florence Italy
the light of God on the left, and mystery object on the right.

UFOlogists are adamant that this is proof that UFOs were being sighted during the Renaissance. Some art historians say the odd looking grey object is an angel appearing as a cloud (I don’t see it – they were realllly good at painting angels back then. Renaissance painters specialized in angels, and none of them were painted as grey blobs with golden spikes coming out of them.) The historians also say the shepherd is shielding his eyes from the light of God and that the nativity star with the three smaller stars in the left hand corner represent Mary’s continued virginity, before, during and after childbirth.

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What do you think? UFO or grey blob of angel? Or could it be something else altogether?

Are you planning a trip to Florence? Would you like to know my favorite secret spots in Florence? My favorite places for lunch and dinner, where to have a drink with a view, the best markets and even a secret jewelry shop behind a hidden door! Get my Secret Florence PDF for free. Download your copy HERE

RELATED POST: 18 Things You MUST Do In Florence

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