Hi, we’re Hannah and Meg, and we’re obsessed with Florence. Recently, we took a step back and wondered, “Hey H&M, do you really think everyone wants to pack up their lives and move to Florence?” While we’re shocked the answer isn’t a unanimous YES!, we’re coming to terms with a new reality. Say you’d rather move to a charming town like…Parma, and only take a day trip to Florence. I mean, if you dared me to, I’d move to Parma (again).
So! With the new year comes a new series of day-long itineraries in Florence. They will be for those that have limited time in the city but want to make the most of their visit. We’ll have walks for art-lovers, shoppers, shade-seekers and more. To kick things off, we’re starting with a back-to-basics, 12-hour run-down of free things to do in Florence in moderate (read: not July or August) weather. It’s great way to warm up to the city (as long as you’re wearing walking shoes). Let’s be real, we’ll cut you some slack, but we’re not going easy on you.
Time: 12 hours (give or take as much time you want/need at each stop, suggested times below)
Distance: approximately 7km or 4.5m
Cost: $0 for attractions, moderate $ for meals
9:00 | Stazione Santa Maria Novella
Assuming you arrive by train or bus, you’ll hit the ground running in the northwest part of city center. To be frank, this isn’t the most picturesque part of Florence. Shrug off the clusters of busses, taxis and people and keep your eyes on what looks to be the back of a church straight ahead.
9:05 | Basilica of Santa Maria Novella
You’ve safely crossed the traffic circle. Congratulations! Your reward is an intimate view of one of the most famous facades in the city. Renowned architect Leon Battista Alberti was given the bottom half of this already-started front and told to finish it (much like another Florentine master/masterpiece). Remarkably, he made it all work from the frieze up, taking into account proportions and relationships between the top and the bottom (see the squares?) and then using the scroll shapes to connect the two together.
A Gothic-style Dominican church (you can spy the cloister extending on the left), Santa Maria Novella is also celebrated for the treasures housed inside: Masaccio’s Trinity, Giotto’s Crucifix, and the Strozzi and Tornabuoni Chapels. There is an entrance fee, however, so if you’re keeping this strictly free, venture down Via degli Avelli to Via del Trebbio when you’re ready.
9:20 | Via Tornabuoni & Breakfast
Early in the day is the perfect time to window shop on Florence’s most fabulous street! You’ll feel like a million bucks flirting with Gucci, Prada and Ferragamo first thing in the morning. While you might not be able to afford any of the goods on display, you can pop into Caffè Giacosa and feel like part of the jet-set set, at least for the length of one pasta and cappuccino. Founded in 1815, it has always been a cafe beloved by Florence’s elite. It was recently renovated by Roberto Cavalli, so it’s now more splendid than ever.
10:00 | Church of Santa Trinita
Ride your morning buzz down the street to Santa Trinita, where the Mannerist facade (by famous Florentine artist Buontalenti) belies the older gems found inside. With no entrance fee, this church is a trove of accessible art by the likes of Desiderio da Settignano and, in particular, Domenico Ghirlandaio. The latter’s work in the Sassetti Chapel is not to be missed. He even frescoed a view of Piazza Santa Trinita as it appeared in the late 1400s, which you can compare with the current space upon returning outside!
10:30 | Ponte Santa Trinita
Head over the Arno. Admire its particular shade of green, enjoy the buildings along the banks, and – most importantly – get your camera ready. From the bridge, you can see the incomparable Ponte Vecchio in all its glory. This is the angle you want for a clean composition of the (more) famous bridge. If you’re interested in its fascinating back story, visit here.
10:40 | Piazza and Basilica of Santo Spirito
Now’s the time you might start wondering why we’re taking you further and further from the “main” attractions. You can accuse us of being hipsters, but we would like to first show you the more authentic side of the city. You know, so you can say you knew it before it was cool. Well, to be honest, we’re all a little late to the game – Santo Spirito has always been cool, especially since Brunelleschi and Michelangelo got their hands on it – but that’s of no importance. Read up here on the piazza and neighborhood, then visit the church (free entry!) armed with Hannah’s guide. You’ll be so glad you did!
12:00 | Lunch
Piazza Santo Spirito has an abundance of lunch options. If you’d prefer to sit and soak up the piazza some more, you can enjoy crepes and drinks at Volume or fresh fare at Borgo Antico. Or, if you’re like us and would like to eat but relocate, may we introduce you to the Gusta family? Both Gusta Pizza and Gusta Panino offer walk-up service. Depending on your mood, get a sandwich or a pie to-go and follow the street out of the piazza for two blocks. It’s time for a Pitti picnic!
12:00 – 13:00 | Palazzo Pitti
If it’s one of the cooler months of the year, the open, rolling hill in front of Palazzo Pitti (also known as Eleonora’s front yard) is one of the best places to soak up some sun and people watch. You can also go up to the gates and take a peek into the Boboli Gardens, with full views of Nano Morgante riding a turtle and Buontalenti’s Grotto. If you would like to go in, we can assure you the entrance fee is worth it. If you’re saving your euros, simply let your feet rest before the next leg of the trip. There’s a hike involved, and it’s a doozy.
13:00 | Ponte Vecchio
Walk back to the Arno, where you’ll now approach the Ponte Vecchio head-on. Peruse a jewelry box or two before venturing further along the Lungarno.
13:30 | Lungarno / San Niccolò
Keep close to the river and you’ll end up strolling through the beautiful neighborhood of San Niccolò, marked by a tower facing the Arno. There will be small parks to enjoy, Clet’s studio to marvel at, and a number of delightful restaurants and cafes along the way. Enjoy the easy pace while it lasts. When the time comes to head up to Piazzale Michelangelo, hit those horse stairs running!
14:00 | Piazzale Michelangelo
Almost every panorama photo that you’ve ever seen of Florence (which led to endless dreams of visiting, which then led to you being here right now in this city) was most likely taken from Piazzale Michelangelo. Soak up the wonderful for yourself. It’s worth the steep hike up the hillside.
14:30 | San Miniato al Monte
If you’re legs aren’t shaking too badly, consider taking the final flight of stairs to San Miniato al Monte. We’ve written on multiple occasions why this is our favorite place in Florence (The view! The church! The cemetery!). If you’ve enjoyed the walk so far, trust us on this one and tackle that extra hill.
15:30 | Fuori Porta
After that trek, you deserve a drink – at least an acqua frizzante! Depending on when you arrive at this charming enoteca, you might be able to take part in their lovely aperitivo. Admire the view of the old walls and relax for a bit in this hip corner of the city – you earned it!
16:00 | Ponte alla Grazie
Your third bridge of the day and your final view of the Ponte Vecchio. Take it in while you can and say your farewells to the Arno.
16:05 | Basilica of Santa Croce
This Franciscan basilica is one of the most famous churches in all of Florence. Designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (of Duomo fame), the facade (added later) shares the same colors you’ve seen at Santa Maria Novella and San Miniato al Monte. The open piazza is often the heart of culture in city center, as many concerts and events are hosted here. Inside the church, in addition to priceless works of art by Gaddi, Giotto and more, are the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo (no big deal, right?). Going inside will cost a few euros, but it’s worth it if you have the time, energy, and funds.
If you’re looking for another free activity instead, check out the nearby Scuola del cuoio, the internationally renowned Florentine leather school. Hannah details the interesting spot here.
16:30 | Borgo dei Greci & Via dei Neri | Shopping & Dinner
Time to take a break from all the site-seeing and explore what really matters – Florence’s shops! As the school is nearby, the area is packed with leather factories boasting luxurious jackets, handbags and boots. There are also a number of lovely independent shops that are worth a peek. Once you’ve had your fill and are feeling hungry, duck into one of the number of local restaurants; although, at this hour, many of them won’t be open yet for dinner service. Since we’ve got a schedule to stick to, might I recommend La Prosciutteria? Open all day, this small eatery serves huge charcuterie boards along with deep pours of wine by the glass. It’s a great place to enjoy a Tuscan assortment of cured meats and cheeses, another true taste of Florence.
18:30 | Piazza della Signoria
19:00 | Perche No
Once you come out of your food coma, make your way across Piazza della Signoria towards Via Calzaiuoli. A few blocks up on the right, there is an often overlooked gelateria called Perché No on Via Tavolini. Indulge in a little something sweet before the final send-off.
19:10 | Piazza della Repubblica, Orsanmichele or Casa di Dante
Packed in this small area between the Arno and the Duomo are a number of Florentine treasures that deserve some attention. As the day is winding down, we recommend picking one, but if you’re walking up a storm, you might be able to combo a few of them. Piazza della Repubblica is one of my favorite spots in the city, so I’m partial to a stroll past the carousel, Caffè Gilli and Miu Miu. A walk around Orsanmichele to admire the structure and statues is also great. Or, if you’re a literary scholar, exploring Dante’s neighborhood will get your spirits soaring.
19:30 | Piazza del Duomo
Admit it, you thought for just a second we might forget to show you the Duomo. We’re crazy, yes, but not mean! Almost every day-trip itinerary will have you make a mad dash from the train station straight to Santa Maria del Fiore. The end result is that throngs of people pack the piazza in the late morning and afternoon hours. If you can wait until the evening, the tourists, for the most part, have cleared, and some locals take to the steps to hang out and relax. Plus, the colors on the cathedral, bell tower, and baptistery are truly stunning when lit up against the night sky.
And that dome – that dome! – have you ever seen anything more magnificent? Of course we would want your final view of Florence to be of the incomparable dome. We saved the best for last.
21:00 | Stazione Santa Maria Novella
Time to push off once more! The train station is a relative straight shot from the Duomo. If you’re really pressed for time, there’s a taxi stand in the piazza here, but it shouldn’t be more than a 5-10 minute walk. We know your feet are hurting, but hopefully your heart is overflowing with love for the city. Buon viaggio!