Florence is a beautiful, ancient city in Italy's Tuscany region. Walking among buildings and churches that are hundreds of years old, you can encounter an enormous wealth of Renaissance art, from Botticelli to Donatello to Michelangelo.
I recently spent a week in this graceful city, taking in the architectural and artistic treasures. Here are a few tips to help you enjoy a trip to Florence:
1) Take it slow, don't rush from site to site.
There is an overwhelming number of things to see -- churches, museums, gardens and monuments.
The real key to enjoying Florence is not to get overwhelmed, but rather to take it slow, and to develop something like a leisurely stroll through the city. Fortunately, everything is concentrated into a very compact central area, so it is easy to go from one site to another. So go slow, don't rush from one place to another, take time to take in the architecture and atmosphere. For example, in the Palazzo Pitti, spend time absorbing the beauty of the palace itself, rather than looking at each one of the hundreds of paintings stacked from floor to ceiling.
It is far better to wander around strolling through town from place to place, taking in the beauty and grace, looking at the charm of churches and palaces and gardens, stopping to admire a masterwork here and there. If you don't have time to see everything, it is better to miss a few things and to truly enjoy yourself.
2) Uffizi card
One of the best deals in the city is the Amici degli Uffizi card. You can buy the card in the Uffizi Gallery. (Ask at the museum where you can buy it so you don't have to wait in line.) The card costs €60 per person, less for families and students. It allows free and unlimited access to five State museums in Florence and it is valid to the end of the calendar year. Best of all, it allows you to cut the at times huge lines for the Uffizi (home to Botticelli's Birth of Venus) and the Accademia (home to Michelangelo's David). With the card you can go straight into the shorter lines for those with reservations. With the power of free admission and shorter wait times, you can enjoy the relaxed stroll I recommend, dipping into the Uffizi to see a few paintings here or there, stopping in at the Bargello Museum to see a couple of Donatellos, then wandering down to the Boboli Gardens for a relaxing time looking at the view over the city from a park bench.
The Uffizi card is best if you are spending a few days in the city, as it allows multiple entries to the museums, so you can return a couple of times to the Uffizi Gallery, for example. Taking in the whole Uffizi at once is a lot, as there are so many paintings, so being able to return a couple of times is a great plus. Another benefit is being able visit the Boboli Gardens several times, which is a refreshingly wonderful thing to do.
If you are only staying a day or two in the city, it might be a better deal to get the Firenze card ( €50 ) which allows only one entry to each museum over a 72-hour period, but covers a much greater variety of sights (up to 50 at last count, as well as use of the public transit system).
3) The Baptistery
The Duomo, along with the bell tower next to it and the baptistery right in front of it, are together some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. While there is a lot of emphasis put on the Duomo, there is not a lot of attention paid to the Baptistery, which is a shame, as it has an incredibly beautiful interior. Its entire huge ceiling is covered in dazzling mosaics that date from the 1200s.
The entrance to the Baptistery is by one of its side doors, but first you need to buy a ticket. The ticket office is located in a building across the road to the right of the Baptistery, if you are looking with your back to the Duomo. (There is also a handy WC in the ticket office building.)
One of the nicest things about the Baptistery is that three nights a week it is open in the evening, until 10:30 pm, even though this is not advertised anywhere. During the evening opening hours you can buy a ticket directly at the side door. The Baptistery is beautiful and quiet in the evening and you get a very clear view of the mosaics without glare from the windows.
4) The Boboli Gardens
The Boboli Gardens are classical Italian gardens, with statuary, manicured lawns and topiary. They are a quiet and beautiful retreat, and a short walk up the main walkway leads to a romantic panorama across the city. The Gardens are located in the Pitti Palace complex, which is a quick walk across the river Arno from the Duomo. The walk from the Duomo passes over the beautiful Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge over the Arno River lined with jewellery shops.
5) Visit a couple of house museums
There are two beautiful house museums near the centre of town, the Bardini Museum and the Horne Museum. The Bardini Museum (not to be confused with the Bardini Villa) is a collection put together in the 19th century by an art dealer and preserves a wide assortment of paintings, sculptures and decorative arts from the Renaissance. It is housed in a beautiful palazzo and each room is painted a different shade of blue. The Horne Museum is another house museum, decorated to replicate the look of a Renaissance palazzo and has a rich collection of paintings and decorative arts. It is very atmospheric and it is worthwhile spending some time just taking in the beauty of each room.
6) Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio is Florence's original town hall and is replete with gilded ceilings and art treasures. There are room after room of frescoes and gilding, including a room with Bronzino frescoes.
One of the great things about the Palazzo Vecchio is that it is open everyday until midnight and in the evening there are few visitors so you can have the place to yourself. The Palazzo Vecchio also has a number of innovative tours offered including a tour of secret passages. These tours must be booked in advance.
7) The Duomo
You should absolutely spend time enjoying the exterior of the Duomo, it is dreamily beautiful. During my trip, I enjoyed looking at it many times a day. It is especially beautiful around sunset when it is illuminated against a deep blue sky.
During the morning there can be incredibly long lines to enter the Duomo. The best way to avoid these lines is to visit in the afternoon. Nevertheless, in general the interior is not as beautiful as the exterior, though it does have an impressively frescoed dome and intricate floor mosaics in marble. If you are cramped for time, you might decide to skip going inside the Duomo and go to the churches I recommend below.
Note that at the Duomo, as well as all Florentine churches, you are officially required to wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees, though I never had problems wearing standard men's shorts that didn't cover my knees. The guards at the door can sometimes be picky though, especially for women wearing hot pants.
8) Churches to visit: Santa Maria Novella and Santissima Annunziata
There are many churches in Florence, and many of the smaller ones you might come across wandering through the city you can enter without any admission fee. If the front door is open, it usually means the church is open, though there is often a second set of doors just inside the outer doors that are usually closed. Feel free to open the second of doors and go in and look around. If there is a mass going on, though, it is best to limit your visit to a quick (and silent) peak.
Two of my favourite churches are the Santa Maria Novella Church and the Santissima (SS) Annunziata Church.
The Santa Maria Novella Church is close to the main train station (and in fact the station is named after it). It has a beautiful exterior, clad in marble, though not as stunning as the Duomo. The interior is what really shines at this church. It is a huge open space, with chapels graced by beautiful frescoes.
The SS Annunziata Church is located in a beautiful arcaded square. It is an enormous church with coloured marble columns and gilded ceilings and over-the-top Baroque side chapels.
9) Download a schedule and plan for Mondays
There is a very handy schedule that shows all of the major museums and sights in Florence and their opening and closing times. You can download it for free on the Florence Tourism website at this link : click on "Main Museums and Monuments of Florence: Opening Times" to download it.
You should know that the Uffizi Gallery and most of the Pitti Palace are closed on Mondays, along with some other sites, so it is best to plan ahead if you will be in Florence on a Monday. On the other hand, the Museum of the Orsanmichele Church is only open on Mondays. The church was formerly a granary, and the museum, on the upper floors of the church, has extremely high ceilings and is home to a collection of Renaissance statues that once lined the outside of the building.
10) Save on lunch
Food in Florence, as in much of Italy, can be very expensive. Rather than having a meal at a restaurant, I recommend buying some snacks -- such as some prosciutto, arugula and parmesan -- and enjoying a mini picnic as a way to save some money. There are several small grocery chains in the city, one of which is called Conad.
You can visit Florence's smallest museum, the Bigallo, through the tourist information office across from the Duomo. It comprises two tiny rooms filled with paintings and frescoes. Access is granted once per hour during the day.
Enjoy your trip to Florence!
*This article was originally published on Joel Garten's blog: The Beauty of Life. If you have questions about travel in Florence or in Europe, contact Joel Garten through Twitter www.twitter.com/@joelgarten or comment below.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING IN FLORENCE