Florence is the perfect balance of style and substance. Packed with masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture, the beautiful Tuscan city is an essential destination for anyone curious about the foundations of Western culture. Florence-based travel writer Sabrina Crawford explains why everyone should visit the city she calls home.
Once home to Michelangelo, Dante and Galileo, Florence has long been the place for revolutionary creativity and thought. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, the city has been instrumental in creating the foundations of Western culture as we know it today.
The music-filled piazzas, ancient churches, narrow cobbled alleys, green shutters and burnt sienna terracotta rooftops here retain the charm of centuries past, whisking visitors back to simpler times. Here are the top 11 reasons to add Florence to your Italy itinerary. We promise you’ll be glad you did.
There is something truly mesmerising about the lingering orange-red-purple sunsets in Florence, which appear to cast a spell over the city. As the sun begins its evening descent, people gather on the central bridges or take a seat on either side of the long riverbank walls to gaze in awe. Our favourite viewing spot is Ponte Santa Trinita, where you can get a picture-perfect view in every direction: the stellar sunset to the west; an ethereal watery reflection of the city’s oldest bridge, Ponte Vecchio, to the east; and reflections of grand palazzos along the water in every direction. If you’re with someone special, this is the perfect romantic spot to make a wish as you look out to the horizon. And if you’re not, well hey, at least you’ll have a good story to tell the next special person you meet.
Ask any Florentine where you can get the best views in the city, and they’ll point you to Piazzale Michelangelo. There is something rewarding about the climb up the 400-plus stone steps to reach the windswept terrace, but if stairs are not your friend or the blistering heat is too much in the height of summer, you can get a bus from the main train station or hop in a taxi or on a Vespa tour to make the ascent. From the Piazzale, you can see for miles beyond the ancient city walls, taking in the rolling green Tuscan hillside. It’s definitely worth stopping in at one of the terrace bars here to sip a spritz, relax and admire the city’s splendour from way up high. The panorama of terracotta rooftops, grand Renaissance palazzos and the architectural prowess of the Duomo below is a picture-perfect mental postcard you’ll keep forever.
Yes, gelato is pretty much everywhere in Italy – but Florence lays claim to many of the country’s best gelaterias. There are historic classics like Vivoli, tried-and-true local favourites like La Carraia (named for the bridge it sits alongside) and a handful of tiny shops whipping up creative daily flavours. Do as the locals do and take an after-dinner gelato stroll. This is the best hour to window shop, people watch, check out street performers and enjoy all the sights and sounds of the city’s bustling main piazzas after dark. Tasting note: make sure to try Buontalenti, Florence’s signature flavour. It’s named for the 15th-century architect Bernardo Buontalenti, hailed here as the inventor of gelato. Buontalenti was reportedly the first to take frozen cream and add a newly imported secret ingredient to the mix: sugar. Have a scoop in his honour.
As the capital of Tuscany, Florence is also the de facto capital of Italian wine country. While it’s true that every region in Italy has something unique to offer the curious palate, Tuscany is a real winner when it comes to wine. Rent a car in Florence to best explore the famed beauty and fine wines of the surrounding countryside. Zigzag through small hill towns in Chianti, tasting local wines and sampling sumptuous local meats, cheeses and oils to your heart’s delight. By car or organised tour, it’s also easy to visit Florence’s historic arch-rival, Siena, and the nearby medieval towers of San Gimignano. Whatever your route, don’t leave without a trip to the countryside to experience the lush, rustic beauty of Tuscany and to sample the grapes of Chianti, Montepulciano and Brunello.
Aperitivo is a fine Italian tradition. Typically, it means settling into your favourite bar with a spritz or negroni in hand to chat with friends and watch the world go by during the pre-dinner cocktail hour. Florence is one of the few Italian cities where the revamped modern take, the apericena, reigns supreme. This means instead of mini trays of olives and peanuts you’ll frequently find beautiful spreads of cold meats, bruschetta and antipasti are on offer, all included in the price of your cocktail. For the buzziest ambiance, Santo Spirito is our pick. The evening hour on the piazza – packed with tables for drinks or dinner – attracts a mix of artists, students, neighbours and tourists. The buzz here lasts late into the night, when twentysomethings gather on the church steps after hours to drink wine, and mingle with friends.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece – carved from a single, famously discarded and “flawed” block of precious white Carrara marble – will leave you awestruck. No matter how many photos, magnets and T-shirt images you’ve seen, the real David is a truly striking sight. It’s not only the sheer size which is astounding, but the artistry of this hero carved out of the rock. Originally commissioned to adorn Florence Cathedral, the sculpture is today one of the best-known works of Renaissance art.
One of the best reasons to visit Florence is undoubtedly its semi-secret gardens. Filled with fountains, flowers and shady lawns, many of these perfectly manicured oases were once the grounds of stately villas; in fact a few still are. There is nothing like spending an afternoon rambling through the mini mazes, trees, fountains and mythical statues of Boboli, before slowly winding along the connecting pathway to its neighbour, the lush, tranquil garden at Villa Bardini. At the Giardino Bardini, make sure to stop in at the terrace café for a drink and spectacular views of Florence. Spending time lolling about in the gardens here provides the perfect escape from the frenetic, crowded pace of the city, so make sure to pencil in at least one lazy stroll through the Botanical Gardens or an impromptu picnic among the flowers in the Rose Garden.
Palazzo Vecchio is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements. Completed in 1302 as the seat of Florentine government, it eventually served as the Medici family palace, but has since been returned to its original purpose. As such, only portions of the building are open to the public. Inside you’ll find courtyards, salons, artistic works and stunning chambers. Arguably the most imposing chamber is Salone dei Cinquecento, built in 1495 by the Florentine architect Simone del Pollaiolo and today a site for the most glamorous of weddings.
Before the rise of the Medicis, before the height of the Renaissance, and long before there was a unified country called Italy, there was Dante Alighieri. Poet of poets and author of The Divine Comedy – universally considered one of the greatest Western works of literature – Dante is revered as the father of the modern Italian language. His old neighbourhood is here in Florence, and you can visit the site of his house (now a museum), and the small church dedicated to Dante and Beatrice – the object of his poetic devotion. Literary lovers come to Florence from all over the world just to pay homage to the poet, and see the city that inspired him. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the modern-day Dante: a local legend who dresses in period costume and recites the poet’s verse on street corners.
Florence has a long, proud tradition of fine local craftsmanship. The city remains world-renowned as a training ground for master artisans in the fields of leather, jewellery and papermaking. Today, historic workshop collectives and traditional schools are working hard to preserve and pass on ancient Florentine techniques. Meanwhile a growing crop of next-generation creative talent is busy reigniting the flame with innovative designs that blend traditional skills with contemporary taste. Don’t miss the chance to stroll through the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno River). Here, you can visit numerous artisan workshops, local handicraft boutiques and creative collectives. If you feel inspired, book ahead to take an artisan tour or even have a go yourself by signing up for a hands-on workshop.
Florence is home to an eye-popping array of iconic artworks – from the dizzying treasure trove of paintings at the Uffizi Gallery, including works by Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, to Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce. Yet, it’s not only the museums that give Florence its reputation for divine beauty. The stately Renaissance palazzos along the Arno, the sculpture-filled Piazza della Signoria, the soaring bell towers and historic church façades all make this city an interactive city of art. At its heart sits the stunning cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, best known as the Duomo for its dome. Filippo Brunelleschi’s cupola, a gargantuan feat of architectural and creative engineering towers above the surrounding rooftops, dominating the cityscape. Nearly everywhere you go in Florence, you’ll catch a glimpse of the Duomo and be reminded of the wonders of human ingenuity.