Anyone with even the slightest proclivity for Italian food (gelato in particular), Renaissance art and architecture is going to love Florence. Set on the banks of the Arno River, and the capital of Tuscany, Florence is a great place to get your walking shoes on and just wander around the cobbled old town taking in the atmosphere and hopping from café to café during the day and bar to bar in the evening. To get a full feel of what the city has to offer you might want to spend a few days here; but with the scenery, food and wine of Tuscany right on the doorstep, you’d be forgiven for restricting your visit to a couple of days which will suffice if you’re hankering to hit the ro ad.
Although Florence does have its own International Airport (Amerigo Vespucci) which is about 10km outside of the city, the vast majority of international flights (especially the low-cost airline routes) fly into Pisa’s airport (Galileo Galilei) which is, unfortunately, about 50km (about a 1hr 15 min drive) outside of Florence. Of course the good news is that this means that you can visit both cities in one trip, including the opportunity to go and see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. For those of you that are considering doing this I’m writing a separate post on Pisa to whet your appetite.
As most flights fly in to Pisa (and because getting from Amerigo Vespucci to Florence is so easy) I’ll focus on getting from Galileo Galilei to Florence; of which there are two public transport options (taxi options are way too expensive for those of us that travel frugally). The first option is the train. Hopefully by the time you read this the new PisaMover train service will link Pisa International Airport with Pisa Central Train Station (they’ve delayed the opening a whole host of times, so I’m not holding my breath). Assuming however that it’s open then the first step is to jump aboard the new slick train (after buying a ticket to Florence’s Firenze Santa Maria Novella (SMN) central train station) and take the 10 minute ride in to Pisa Central Train Station. From here you can transfer on to a train destined for Firenze SMN which will ‘whisk’ you all the way in to the heart of Florence in about an hour (just remember to validate your ticket in the machines on the platform before you board). One thing to bear in mind is that although the connection from the airport to Pisa is slated to run until midnight, trains into Florence from Pisa Central stop running much earlier. So, if you’re scheduled to fly in on a late flight (like Ryanair, for example) then there is a strong possibility that you’ll be too late for the train connection to Florence and might want to consider over-nighting in Pisa or catching a bus.
This brings me to option number two, the bus. I’ve taken both the train and the bus and in my opinion (unless you’re planning to visit Pisa before your head the Florence) the bus is the better option. It takes pretty much the same amount of time, is cheaper, drops you off at the same train station in Florence, runs later scheduled services than the train and is, in my opinion, less stressful because there are no transfers like the trains (although the higher stress on the train was also possibly because I forgot to validate my train ticket and spent 50 minutes thinking I was about to get fined). There are a couple of options. The first is the Autostradle service which is run in conjunction with Ryanair and the second is the good old reliable Terravision service. I’ve included the web links for both in the additional resources section.
I’m not a massive fan of the hop-on hop-off experience in general (I like to walk) but I do see the virtues of it for getting around some of the larger cities where the sights are more spread out. Florence is probably one of those cities (especially if you are heading out to the South Bank of the Arno or want to visit the Roman ruins in Fiesole). Florence’s tour has two routes and covers pretty much everything you’d want to see, so I’ve included a link to the website in the additional resources section below.
Museums / Galleries: Florence is brimming with museums and art galleries to either captivate or bore you to death (depending if you’re a museum person or not), but I defy anyone to visit Florence without visiting at least one of the two heavyweight galleries the city has to offer; Accademia Di Belle Arti or the Uffizi. The Uffizi is probably one of the most famous museums in the World and houses one of the greatest (if not the greatest) collections of Renaissance art from the likes of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaello. Accademia is most famous for housing Michelangelo’s David (to be honest, Accademia was much smaller than I expected and held little to pique my personal artistic interests beyond David as its focus is predominantly religious art) and as a result tends to draw big crowds and even bigger queues to get in. My advice (unless you’re visiting in the winter when the crowds are lower in numbers) is to reserve tickets ahead of time for both. This will allow you to skip the queues which can on occasion be hours long. Alternatively, you’ll most likely be approached by guides outside to be taken on guided tours. Whilst these can be significantly more expensive they will also allow you to skip the queues and will obviously provide a much improved experience for the art ignorant (like me). I’ve provided ticket purchase options for both in the additional resources section. Neither links are the official websites for the museums but provide much better information than the official websites on how best to arrange your visit.
Piazza Del Duomo: We’ve taken care of the art lovers and now it’s time to quench the thirst of the architecture buffs. If you’re looking to save a few euros but want to experience what Il Grande Mueso Del Duomo has to offer then I’m pleased to say that you can visit the interior of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral for free. But if you want the full experience then you’ll need to purchase a ticket from one the ticket booths around the Piazza (or in the crypt of the Cathedral; it’s not as creepy or ominous as it sounds). The ticket provides admission to Giotto’s bell tower, Brunelleschi’s Dome, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the Baptistery of San Giovanni and Santa Reparata. Some of these, most notably the dome, also require you to reserve a timeslot; so once you’ve purchased your ticket head to one of the electronic booths (which are stupidly difficult to locate, but there is one in the Museo dell’Opera) to reserve your times at no additional cost. For me, the highlight truly is the climb up the dome. Admittedly this won’t be for you if you don’t have a head for heights (or a heart for stairs) but if you do then the views from the interior balcony above the floor of the Cathedral are the first highlight you’ll encounter. But the true ‘pièce de résistance’ is the view across Florence from atop the dome assuming your lungs don’t give up during the climb or vertigo sets in on the steep ascent along narrow corridors.
Pizzale Michelangelo: Pizzale Michelangelo in itself isn’t really anything to write home about; it’s basically a giant square and a bit of a carpark on the south side of the Arno River. But come twilight this all changes as the crowds gather to take in the views across the entirety of Florence as the sun goes down and the orange glow hits the red roof tiles of the city. It seems that everyone knows this is the best spot for a sunset photo and so it can turn in to a bit of zoo; so make sure that you get there early, especially in the Summer months. Once you’re settled then you can buy yourself a beer or a glass of wine and enjoy the views to the sounds of buskers singing horrendous covers of the latest Justin Bieber tracks (ok, not solely Bieber, but you get my point). If you’re going to head to the square then just beware that it does involve quite a few steps to make you way up the hill. It’s nothing too strenuous but if you don’t exactly think of your body as a temple then you might want to give yourself some time to take a few breathers en route.
Piazza Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio: Palazzo Vecchio is probably one of the most grandiose town hall’s you’ll ever visit. Situated on Piazza Signoria, which is a fantastic place for a spot of lunch and people watching (although you’ll pay a premium to eat there given the location), the Palazzo incorporates Roman ruins, a medieval fort and Renaissance Art (particularly impressive are the frescoed walls and ceiling of the Hall of the Five Hundred (Salone dei Cinquecento)). If you do visit then it’s worthwhile to add the theater of the Roman colony of Florentia to your ticket for a small extra amount. This allows you to visit the underground Roman ruins. However, if by this point you’ve had enough of art and architecture then at least stroll around the Piazza; which has been the center the political life in Florence since…..well, for a really really long time. In the winter the restaurants surrounding the square turn on their outdoor heaters and it’s a great place to relax with a glass of red wine and some antipasti and watch the street entertainment.
Ponte Vecchio: Definitely the most famous bridge in Florence, and possibly the most famous sight to see in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio is lined with small Goldsmith shops above which is the Corridoio Vasariano; which is basically a covered walkway built by the Medici’s who didn’t really fancy fraternizing with locals but wanted to be able to get between the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno. If you want to get good pictures of Ponte Vecchio then your best bet is from Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset (assuming you have a decent optical zoom capability) or just up the river on the South side of the Arno on Lungarno Torrigiani.
Palazzo Pitti and Giardino Di Boboli: For all of the beauty of Florence, Palazzo Pitti is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a brutalist-style building i.e. it doesn’t look that pretty in the grand scheme of things – especially when compared to what you’ll see over the course of your stay. The palace and the Boboli gardens house the Palatine Gallery, the Silver Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Costume Gallery, the Porcelain Museum and the Museum of Carriages.
Gelato: I couldn’t write a full post on an Italian city and not mention gelato. All of the activities I’ve mentioned above will probably take a minimum of 48 hours and Florence has a huge amount more to offer that I haven’t even mentioned. But, for me, the best part of any visit to Florence is wandering the old town hopping between bars, restaurants, cafes and gelaterias. In particular my wife is a keen advocate for the latter and so whenever we visit Italy I will undoubtedly spend a portion of my time seeking out the best gelateria in town (for her benefit, obviously). In Florence we were assisted by the Visit Florence website (see additional resources) which provides a handy gelato map of the top ten gelaterias in Florence. Personally, and despite it not being on their list, I’m still massive fan of Venchi.
Airport Bus to Florence Timetable: https://www.travelparkinggroup.com/media/images/transfers/providers-docs/Autostradale-PSA.pdf
Ryanair Airport Transfers Website: https://airporttransfers.ryanair.com/en
Terravision Bus Transfers: http://www.terravision.eu/airport_transfer/bus-pisa-airport-florencebus/
Florence Hop-On Hop-Off: http://www.firenze.city-sightseeing.it/eng/
Accademia Ticket Options (please note this isn’t the official website but is infinitely more useful): http://www.accademia.org/buy-tickets/
Uffizi Ticket Options (again, please note this isn’t the official website but is infinitely more useful): http://www.uffizi.org/buy-tickets/
Duomo Website: https://www.museumflorence.com/