I lived in Florence for four months: I loved every second and never ran out of things to do. That said, Florence is really quite a small city, easily walkable, and I think it can be done properly in just a few days (perhaps more if you want to spend a long time at the museums or go outside the city proper).
So here is my essential Florence list. I would love to go back, even if just for a visit. I could easily do all of these in two days without feeling rushed (although I do already know my way around). I’m filing this away for myself, or to adapt the next time I want to give travel advice (because when it comes to Florence I give it whether asked or not…).
Clearly the most important category. Avoid gelato in the tourist center of the city, especially those with bright artificial colors. It’s absolutely worth finding the gelato places I’ve listed here. Grom Gelato is also a good option, although the lines are longer because it’s known internationally.
- Gelateria Artigianale Dei Neri Di Vivoli Maurizio (simply, Gelateria dei Neri) – Delicious authentic Gelato near the city center, in more flavors than you can imagine. The fruit ones are dairy-free, and hazelnut (nocciola) is an absolute must. I also loved the chocolate orange. Try before you buy, and get a couple of flavors. Sharing is also a good option.
- Il Gelato di Filo – I only had this once, but I wish I had gone back! The chocolate was the best I had in Italy. Perfect.
- Gusta Pizza – Always crowded but great Neopolitan-style pizza and a fun atmosphere. I’d recommend checking the hours and getting there as it opens.
- Gusto Leo Pizza – I loved this pizza, mostly because it was only 5 euro. I like the quality of Gusta slightly better, but this place can’t be beat for consistent, delicious, fast, made-to-order, and cheap pizza. You can eat in or take out.
I ate at very few sit-down restaurants, but two I would recommend are:
- Borgo Antico near Santo Spirito – I had excellent zucchini pizza here.
- Acqua Al 2, a place with good steak with a must-try blueberry sauce (they also have salad, which is what I ate).
If you’re in need of a grocery store I would highly recommend Conad – there’s one by the train station and one on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio. They have cheap bottled water (never buy it from a vendor or a restaurant if you can help it), snacks, and fresh cheese and produce of good quality. As far as I know they’re open all day, which is great when you’re hungry but restaurants are closed for the afternoon. If you’re a fan of hazelnut, try a Duplo candy bar. The best.
For another food (and shopping) experience, head to the Mercato Centrale, or Central Market. Lots of vendors with meat, produce, and specialties – one of my favorites was the dried fruit stand. Along the way you’ll pass the many leather vendors – be warned, the smell is strong!
- Visit the Duomo and revel in the masterful design and scale. You can also climb up to the top through the dome, which is totally worth the money for anyone interested in architecture or splendid views. Visiting off-season will allow you to avoid the lines.
- Stroll the Ponte Vecchio. This can take minutes or hours depending on your interest in jewelry, but it’s worth doing at least once in my opinion. Avoid the snacks and gelato at either end and venture father afield for more authentic and much cheaper nibbles.
- Climb to the Piazzale Michelangelo for the most spectacular views of the city. (Il Gelato di Filo is right on the way!) Then climb slightly father to San Miniato al Monte, which was my favorite church in the whole city, and is free to visit. It’s exquisite.
- The Bargello was my favorite museum. Small, boasting a few key works, great architecture, and not very expensive (4 Euro when I was there). The Uffizi and the Accademia have more well-known works including the David, and more extensive collections, and they have prices to match. They’re also very dry, even as museums go. I won’t be going back to them if I return to Florence, although I am glad I went once.
- The Boboli Gardens were lovely, with tons of space to wander and neat landscape features to admire. Entrance fees were included with one of my classes, so I went several times and really enjoyed it.
Otherwise, wander around the plazas, and go into the associated buildings as you choose- most of these have small entrance fees. Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito, and the Palazzo Vecchio all have plazas that are worth a visit to admire the architecture. Again, avoid the gelateria in Palazzo Vecchio- they are expensive and not really very good.
Slightly farther afield, I took a city bus to Fiesole, just outside the city proper, well up a hill. There are some neat Roman ruins there including an amphitheater. Not a must-see, but something a little extra. There are also lots of lovely gardens at villas surrounding the city. I visited as part of a class, and prices and open times vary for the public, but here are the ones I enjoyed: Villa Gamberaia and Villa la Pietra are both expensive and/or have limited open days and hours. Villa di Castello is free and is closed on a several days a month. Check out all their websites for details!