10 top tips for your first trip to Florence

When Stendhal visited Florence in 1817, he was so moved by a visit to Santa Croce and the sight of Giotto’s frescoes that he was overwhelmed by emotion and felt faint. A trip to the world capital of Renaissance art, can be an intense experience, especially if it’s your first time in Florence. To make the most of your visit, and to avoid succumbing to Stendhal Syndrome, here’s a beginner’s guide to Florence.

1. Brush up on your history before you go

Florence has a rich and fascinating history, dating back to Roman times. Having been founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BC as a settlement for his soldiers, it expanded to become a thriving city in the Middle Ages. By the 15th century it had become one of the largest cities in Europe, dominated by the Medici dynasty and the powerful personalities of Machiavelli and Savonarola. Florentines such as Galileo and Michelangelo would have a long-lasting impact on the sciences and the arts, and their influence on the city can still be seen today.

For a better understanding and appreciation of Florence, you might want to read up on the history of the city before you go. The Stones of Florence (Mary McCarthy) is a good introduction to the art, history and culture of Florence, while Brunelleschi’s Dome (Ross King) tells the fascinating story of the construction of the Duomo.

first time florence history

2. Avoid visiting in the Summer

Florence gets crowded in the Summer, and temperatures can reach 40 degrees celsius (104 fahrenheit). Sightseeing can get tiring in the heat, and the city is much more pleasant in spring or autumn. Visiting in the low season (November-February) can also have its advantages, as Florence is less crowded and more atmospheric.

first time florence winter

3. Book gallery tickets in advance

There are lengthy queues for the main attractions such as the Uffizi, but you can save yourself time and energy by booking tickets in advance online, or joining a group tour of the Uffizi to skip the line. Queues are even longer on the first Sunday of the month, when the main museums and galleries are free, and the Uffizi and Accademia are closed on Mondays, so plan your visit carefully.

first time florence uffizi

4. Try the local dishes

Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as “Italian food”, and every town and region has local specialties. Of course you’ll find plenty of pizzerias in Florence, but you’d be better off trying some regional dishes. Bistecca alla fiorentina (steak) is a must for meat-lovers, and sandwiches with trippa (tripe) or lampredotto (cow stomach) are popular street food snacks. Menus at traditional trattorias tend to be quite meaty, but vegetarians can enjoy ribollita (vegetable soup) or pappa al pomodoro (tomato soup with bread). Wash it down with a glass or two of Chianti.

first time florence steak

5. Visit some underrated galleries and museums

While you wouldn’t want to miss the famous collections of the Uffizi or the Accademia, Florence also has some excellent, lesser-known museums. The Bargello has a fantastic collection of Renaissance sculptures, displayed in an atmospheric 13th century palace, including masterpieces by Michelangelo and Donatello’s David. The monastery of San Marco contains paintings by the the monk and artist Fra Angelico, and you can even peek into the beautifully decorated individual cells. And when you’ve had your fill of religious art, pay a visit to La Specola for a very different kind of museum, where displays include a stuffed hippo that belonged to the Medici, and some disturbingly realistic anatomical models.

first time florence bargello

6. Admire the views

You can climb the bell-tower next to the Duomo for great views of the city, but for the most spectacular views of Florence you’ll have to go beyond the city centre. Cross the river and climb the hill to reach Piazzale Michelangelo, which offers a stunning panorama of Florence and the surrounding hills. You could also take a trip to Fiesole, a hilltop town a few kilometres from Florence, for an even more breathtaking view.

first time florence view

7. Check out the churches

It seems as though every church in Florence has at least a few hidden gems, in the form of medieval frescoes or Renaissance masterpieces. The vast basilica of Santa Maria Novella is unmissable, as the walls read like a “who’s who” of Florentine art, with artworks by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Uccello, Masaccio and Filippino Lippi. Santo Spirito also has an impressive collection of paintings, and a wooden crucifix sculpted by the seventeen year old Michelangelo, while the nearby Brancacci Chapel (part of Santa Maria del Carmine) has been described as “the Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance” because of its groundbreaking cycle of frescoes.

first time florence church

8. Explore the Oltrarno

Many tourists cross Ponte Vecchio to have a look at Palazzo Pitti before returning to the northern side of the river. But the southern side, known as the Oltrarno (“beyond the Arno”) deserves further exploration, with a great selection of restaurants, bars and shops. Visit the beautiful Boboli Gardens in the afternoon, and head to the lively Santo Spirito neighbourhood in the evening for a drink in the piazza.

first time florence oltrarno

9. Go on a day trip

Although there’s plenty to see in Florence, it’s a fairly small city. If you’ve got more than a few days to spare, consider taking a trip to another town in Tuscany, such as Siena or Lucca. They’re much smaller and quieter than Florence, but just as pretty, and there’s still plenty to see and do (and eat, and drink). Tuscany is famous for its wine, some tour companies organise visits to wineries, offering a chance to see the countryside and drink some of the finest local wines, such as Chianti and Montepulciano.

first time florence day trip

10. Leave some space in your suitcase

Florence is paradise for shoppers as well as art lovers. Look for leather goods in San Lorenzo Market, jewellery on Ponte Vecchio, and designer shops on Via Tornabuoni. You’ll find high quality gifts and souvenirs at the beautiful stationery shop Il Papiro, while the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella sells unique perfumes based on 17th century recipes, developed by Dominican friars. Unsurprisingly for such a historical city, Florence is also full of antique shops and markets. Even if you’re not looking to buy, Via Maggio is great for window-shopping, and you’ll find some artistic window displays in the artisans’ and antique shops of the Oltrarno.

first time florence shopping

Rosario Gorgone is Co-Founder of Through Eternity Tours.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Sheri Darby says:

    Wow – I always wanted to go top Florence, but now I have to. It really looks stunning and so much history.

  2. Andrew Petrie says:

    That’s a very helpful tip about avoiding Florence in the summer. No way could I handle 40 degrees C !

  3. Izy berry says:

    Great article and I agree totally with you it is important to check out the history before you go some place because you will understand the importance of the city and you will see history with your eyes

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