One Day in Florence: Top Tips & Must-See Sights
September 06, 2016
One of the questions we’re asked most at Walks of Italy HQ is: What’s the best way to spend one day in Florence? Our first answer is always “Spend more than one day in Florence” – in fact, we recommend spending at least three days in Florence to really soak in the Renaissance charm of this city. However, we also know that a lot of people just don’t have that amount of time. Furthermore, Florence is the most accessible and walkable of the main cities in Italy – if there is one place where you can really make one day count, it’s here. We talked to our friends and colleagues in Florence and put together a guide for how to make the absolute most out of just one day in Florence. You won’t see it all but you will have a day that you’ll never forget.
Planning your Itinerary
This seems basic but we can’t emphasize it enough. If you know you only have one day in Florence, you’ll need to take advantage of the amount of time you do have. The only way to do that is by having a bomb-proof plan for getting in, getting out, and which of the Florence attractions you really want to see. There are three main things to do before you go:
- What time you arrive in the city and what time the last train leaves. If you go for less than 24 hours you need to write down your train times and bring them with you so you can budget enough time to get in and get out.
- Where your accommodation is located and if they’ll let you drop off your bags (if staying for 24 hours). Ideally, you want to stroll off your train, drop your bags at the hotel and get going. Most accommodations in Italy have no problem with this, but it’s worth checking ahead of time. If you need help choosing the right neighborhood for you, check out our guide to where to stay in Florence.
- Museum hours. Many major museums are closed on Mondays across Italy, especially during the off-season. It also helps to reserve your tickets ahead of time, either through the museum website or through tour providers, as buying your tickets at the door often means waiting in long lines.
When we spend one day in Florence with friends we follow a tried and tested formula that looks like this:
1 Must-See Church + picnic lunch + 1 Must-See Museum (or 2 small museums) + 1 Sundown Activity + Florentine Feast = pure bliss
There is some leeway in this formula depending on which spots you choose (more on that below) but if you take our formula and plug in the destinations of your choice you are sure to have a fantastic day. If you aren’t particularly interested in churches, you can always throw another museum into the morning, or if museums aren’t your thing, feel free to sub in another church or two. But whatever you do, don’t schedule more than one large church or museum (or two small ones) per half day.
Things to See in Florence
The Must-See Church
Although Santa Maria del Fiore and its immense dome tend to soak up the spotlight, Florence is home to a bevy of awe-inspiring churches packed with religious, historic and artistic significance. We highly recommend that you see Florence’s most famous church, but there are some other great options that you can see as well/instead.
Here are the main churches in Florence, and why to see them:
Santa Maria del Fiore
This is one of the most famous cathedrals in Italy due in large part to its dome – the largest in the world from when it was built in 1431 until 1888. It’s still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world and architects are still trying to figure out how the architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, pulled it off. The dome climb is one of the more popular attractions in Florence but in high season the line can stretch to over 2 hours. The other main sight in the cathedral complex are the bronze doors on the Baptistery call the “Gates of Paradise”. While undoubtedly impressive, these are actually replicas, the actual doors having been moved inside the Duomo Museum for conservation purposes. If you’ve never been before and only have one day in Florence you should at least walk around the outside of the cathedral to get a feel for its immensity and see the Gates of Heaven.
The Basilica and Cloisters of Santa Maria Novella
This spectacular church near the train station has a lively piazza in front that is always filled with people and street vendors. Inside it’s a treasure trove of art, including one of the first paintings using mathematical perspective – i.e., the accurate portrayal of three dimensions – after the technique was rediscovered during the Renaissance. There are also masterworks by Giotto, Lippi, and a series of breathtaking frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio that are among the best in Italy. There is actually an entire monastic complex here, so you should also take a peek at the lovely cloisters.
The Basilica of Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce is where many of Florence’s brightest stars are buried, including Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. Dante has a memorial, but alas, he was exiled from Florence when he died and so his body is actually buried in Ravenna. The artistic highlight is a set of frescoes by Giotto but there is also a statue commemorating the playwright Giovanni Battista Niccolini that is thought to have inspired the Statue of Liberty. Also keep at eye out for water damage – a 1966 flood inundated the church and there is still a marker to show how far up the walls the waters reached.
The Basilica di San Lorenzo and Medici Chapels
The Basilica of San Lorenzo features works by a who’s who of leading Renaissance artists. Designed by Brunelleschi, and decorated by Donatello, it also holds the tombs of the Medici family, some of which were designed by Michelangelo. His figure depicting Night in the New Sacristy is considered one of the finest he ever chiseled. The Medici Chapels require a separate ticket for entrance, but the tombs are definitely worth the extra charge.
Santa Trinità Church
Although it’s not as famous as the other churches on the list, this little gem features some beautiful frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Lorenzo Monaco. It also has the crest of the Bartholini Salimbeni family, which has a very interesting story associated with it. There are poppies on the crest because their wealth was based on a deal that they achieved partially by drugging some of their rivals with opium-laced wine. Really.
Chiesa di Orsanmichele
This church was built inside an old grain market in the 13th century and it’s one of the most unique in Florence. People mainly come to see it for the ornate gothic tabernacle on the inside and for the statues representing each of the city’s major guilds set into alcoves around its exterior. These aren’t just any statues, either: many of them were created by Renaissance masters like Donatello, Ghiberti, and Verrocchio. Today the statues you see outside are replicas; if you want to gaze upon the real thing head upstairs to the church’s small museum.
Sitting down in a restaurant in Florence, while delicious, will take up a lot of precious for people with only one day in Florence. Instead, head to the San Lorenzo Market for a quick and delicious lunch in a veritable Florentine institution. The San Lorenzo Market is actually comprised of two markets: an outdoor market selling souvenirs, clothing and leather products (one of our favorite areas for shopping in Florence), and the indoor market known as the Mercato Centrale filled with butchers, fishmongers and fruit and vegetable vendors. The entire upstairs, remodeled in 2014, is now a gourmet food market, filled with stalls where you can take your pick of delicious lunch options. Another alternative is to stop at one of the city’s famous lampredotto trucks. Lampredotto is a tripe sandwich that is Florence’s original street food. They aren’t everyone’s cup of tea but these succelent, sauce-drenched sandwiches are one of our favorite foods in the city, and you should at least try one when you’re here.
The Must-See Museums
You could easily while away days exploring the many jaw-dropping Florence museums, but if you only have one day in Florence (and you’ve already spent your morning in churches) you’ll have to choose one large one, or two small ones. The major museums to visit are the Uffizi, the Accademia, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Pitti Palace and adjacent Boboli Gardens, which are also the most beautiful gardens in Florence. Here’s some info on each one to help you decide which to visit.
With the world’s preeminent collection of Renaissance paintings from artists such as Botticelli, Raphael, Da Vinci and more, this is the obvious go-to museum for one day in Florence. However, it’s also enormous, with 101 rooms bursting with art, as well as works lining the halls, the Uffizi can and does cause severe art fatigue in even the staunchest art lovers. Although we adore its encyclopedic collections, which include Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio, Cimabue, Uccello, Lippi, Titian, and so many more, a solid plan is imperative before you go. Make a plan to see certain works or certain rooms so you aren’t overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the museum once you step inside.
Florence’s Accademia is home to the magnificent David – Michelangelo’s masterpiece and probably the most famous statue in the world. Lesser-known but equally impressive in their own way are unfinished statues by Michelangelo that give you a fascinating peek inside the mind of a tortured genius. Don’t make the mistake of thinking these are the only important works in the museum, though. There are numerous other halls featuring paintings by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Orcagna, and more. The collection is smaller than that of the Uffizi and contains fewer works that casual art fans would recognize, but it’s also much more manageable. It’s a great Florence attraction for a relaxed morning or afternoon.
This titanic palace was the seat of power for the Medici family when they were the main engine of the Italian Renaissance, commissioning art and architecture that literally changed the course of European history. It’s as impressive from the inside as it is from the outside – especially the Salone dei Cinquecento – but you don’t necessarily need to spend half of your day in it unless the history of the Medici family is particularly interesting to you.
It’s worth remembering that is also has a tower climb. If you enjoy great views (and don’t mind a lot of stairs) this is a good alternative to the Dome Climb at Santa Maria del Fiore which is usually more crowded. Don’t forget to stroll around the immense Piazza della Signoria and stop to look at the open-air statue gallery of the Loggia dei Lanzi.
The Pitti Palace is not quite as famous among foreigners as the Palazzo Vecchio because of its location tucked away in Oltrarno, but it is probably the more impressive of the two on the inside. Another Medici Palace, (Where they lived after leaving the Palazzo Vecchio) the Pitti is actually 5 museums inside one of Florence’s most impressive buildings. It’s home to a Renaissance art museum, a silver museum, a gallery of modern art, a porcelain museum, and Italy’s only museum dedicated to the history of clothing and fashion. Of the five we typically recommend the Renaissance art museum because it’s housed in the former royal quarters and the rooms are as extraordinary as the paintings. However, the fashion museum and silver museum are also fantastic Florence attractions in their own right. If you are with a larger group this is a great half-day stop because it has something for everyone.
The Boboli Gardens, which are attached to the palace, are among the finest gardens in Europe. Any gardeners or outdoor lovers should make a point of seeing them. If you want to spend a full afternoon at the Pitti Palace, try seeing one of the indoor museums then going to the gardens.
A Florence Sunset
Dusk is an important time in the life of an Italian city, especially during warmer months. The heat of the day begins to lift, the locals come back out into the streets for their daily passeggiate, and thoughts turn to the scrumptious food that will be enjoyed at dinner.
In Florence, you have a couple of great options for enjoying the end of the day – the first and most traditional is to find your nearest wine bar and settle in for an aperativo or pre-dinner drink, usually accompanied by some small plates. Although Florentines are big wine drinkers, you also can’t go wrong with an Aperol Spritz, or if you like your bitter liqueurs, a Campari and soda.
If you have a bit more energy, head to the Oltrarno. After passing over the beautiful and historic Ponte Vecchio get ready for a 20-30 minute hike up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo, where the wonderfully-scenic Basilica di San Miniato sits. Be sure to get there before it closes so you can peek inside. Then watch the sunset from the best view of Florence in the whole city. It’s the perfect to end to an eventful day of exploring.
A Florentine Feast
You shouldn’t visit Florence without sitting down to at least one full meal showcasing the finest foods from the Tuscan Countryside. From thick-cut Florentine steaks and wild boar ragù over homemade pici (a Tuscan style of pasta), to cucina povera classics like ribollito, and panzanella, and seasonal favorites like truffles and figs, there will always be something on the menu to tempt your taste buds. You should be able to sit down for dinner around 7:00pm and make a 10:00pm train without issue. If you are staying the night – even better. Restaurants keep late hours, so take your time. We usually avoid the restaurants near the cathedral in favor of some of the lesser known spots around Santo Spirito in Oltrarno. The street, Borgo San Jacopo, also has some nice, slightly fancier, options.
Read More: Traditional Tuscan Food – Top Dishes To Try
Tips and Tricks
Wake up early
This is another simple idea that is actually one of the “secrets” to enjoying the major tourist attractions in Florence without the crowds. In a small city like Florence the lines into museums and churches during the summer can be as long as any in Disney World, or longer. The only way to beat them without getting skip-the-line tickets through a tour operator is to be the first person in line.
For example, get to the Duomo’s Cupola at 8:00am to wait for the 8:30am opening time. Depending on the day and the season there’s a good chance you’ll be able to climb to the top for a birds-eye-view of the city without waiting in the infamous line that snakes around the enormous cathedral like something out of Dante’s Purgatory. Just be careful, there are 463 steps to climb before you get to the top!
Reserve tickets ahead of time
You have two options here: You can book tickets ahead of time online for individual museums and other sites that you’ve planned on visiting at Uffizi.org, or you can buy a museum pass. Visitors can choose between the Firenze card or the Amici degli Uffizi pass. Both are pricey if you’re only going to spend one day in Florence, but they’ll allow you to skip the lines and enter nearly every museum in the city. If you’re only interested in visiting one or two museums, then the only thing to recommend these cards is the time saved by skipping lines – which can definitely come in handy during high season. The biggest dampener on any day trip to Florence are the long lines that plague the major museums. They’re reliably worse during the summer but can be a pain at various other times throughout the year.
Take a tour
If you only have one day in Florence you should also consider a tour. They are all specifically designed to maximize the number of Florence attractions you can experience in a given amount of time and most will let you skip almost all of the lines in the city – not the one for the Florence Bell Tower though, that line is as dependable as death and taxes. Taking a Florence tour also ensures that you never get lost, though whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of debate. What’s certain is that tours take much of the stress of planning out of a day trip leaving you free to relax and simply enjoy the art, architecture, and culture. With just one day in a city, there’s nothing quite as efficient and effective as a tour.
Read More: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About the Incredible Florence Duomo
by Gina MussioView more by Gina ›
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