From strolling along the river eating gelato to climbing to the top of the duomo, there’s a lot to love about this Renaissance city
Make the most of the romantic Tuscan capital with our guide to some of the best things to do in Florence
1. Stroll across the Ponte Vecchio
No visit to Florence is complete without a romantic walk across the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge, offering views of the river and city. A bridge has crossed the Arno river on the same site since 966, and the current one was rebuilt after a flood in 1345. There have been shops on it since the 13th century – in 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers were allowed, resulting in the shiny wares and old-fashioned shop-fronts that you see today. Running above the little goldsmiths' shops is the Corridoio Vasariano, built in 1565 when the Medici moved from Palazzo Vecchio on one side to Palazzo Pitti on the other – it enabled them to cross the river while keeping out of contact with the people they ruled.
2. Visit the Uffizi Gallery
Some of the world’s most famous and fabulous paintings are housed at the Uffizi, in the heart of Florence’s historic centre. All centuries are represented, but it is largely known for its collection of Renaissance art, where you can feast your eyes on the likes of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, as well as works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaello, to name a few. It’s almost as famous for its long queues as for its masterpieces, so it’s best to book tickets online first.
3. Climb to the top of the Duomo
Once you’ve seen the impressive and decorative Florence Cathedral from the inside and out, climb its 463 steps to the top of Il Duomo for breathtaking views of the city spread out below you. From a walkway around the base of the cupola, you can admire the frescoes just above you, and look down about 40m into the central part of the cathedral. Not for those with a fear of heights or cramped spaces, but an unforgettable experience.
4. Indulge in gelato
Better for you than ice cream (it’s made with milk instead of cream) and arguably more delicious, gelato incorporates some classic flavours (real chocolate or fresh strawberries) and more unusual ingredients (try the pistachio, frutti di bosco or hazelnut). Mix and match two scoops (or three) to find your favourite combination. You can’t move for gelato shops in Florence, so you won’t have any trouble finding some wherever you are in the city.
5. Enjoy panoramic views from Fiesole
Less than 10km outside of Florence, Fiesole is a small town easily accessible by car or bus. In the 14th century it became the new residence for rich and famous Florentines, who built grand villas surrounded by cypress trees and extravagant gardens. From a hillside that looms 295m above Florence, Fiesole offers a unique panorama of the city, dominated by the Duomo. You can easily make a day of it here, away from the hustle and bustle of Florence, exploring the historical museums and wandering the picturesque streets. Take in the views with a meal as the sun goes down over the Tuscan hills, before heading back to the city.
6. Eat like an Italian
One of the major draws of a trip to Italy is the food. Fresh pasta, seafood, antipasti and, of course, pizza are among some of the most well-known options, with plenty of local specialties to try. Pappardelle (large flat strips of pasta) is especially popular in Tuscany, where it is traditionally served with a meat sauce. Polish off your meal the Italian way with tiramisu or espresso – or combine dessert, coffee and nightcap by ordering affogato – a scoop of vanilla ice cream ‘drowned’ in shots of espresso and liqueur.
7. Take a crash-course in Renaissance sculpture
At the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, you’ll find works by Michelangelo, Cellini, Donatello and Verrocchio, among other greats. The National Museum is located in one of the oldest buildings in Florence, dating back to 1255. The imposing building was formerly a prison and barracks before being converted into a museum that houses three levels of medieval and Renaissance art.
8. See the largest Franciscan church in the world
The vast Basilica di Santa Croce is one of the most compelling sights in Florence. Founded in the 13th century, the huge church has frescoes by Giotto and other masters, and the Pazzi Chapel (one of its 16 chapels) is thought to be one of the finest examples of Renaissance architecture in Italy. It is also the burial place of some of the most famous Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and the composer Rossini – giving it the nickname Temple of the Italian Glories.
9. Soak up the Florentine atmosphere
If museums aren’t your thing, walking around Florence is a delight and an education in itself. The shuttered windows and balconies, and abundance of original Fiat 500 cars and Vespa bikes parked on the narrow streets give the sense of being in a classic film. Walk along the river and stroll through the city’s many piazzas and past grand palaces, where you can see numerous churches, sculptures and other monuments. When you need a rest, take a seat at one of the many outdoor cafés to enjoy a cappuccino and a cannoli – deliciously sweet pastries – while you watch the world go by.
10. Enjoy some retail therapy (or window shopping)
Florence is known for a range of shopping opportunities, including fine Italian leather, high fashion and antiques. Whether you’re looking for a new handbag or an unusual gift or souvenir, there’s a lot to choose from. Find something small enough for your suitcase at one of the many antiques shops, or browse the latest fashions from up-and-coming designers. Even before the city’s famous sculptors were experimenting with working in bronze, silver and gold, Tuscany could boast the fabulous Etruscan gold craftsmen, and the Ponte Vecchio is still the place to find quality treasures.