Florence, Italy is one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever visited. It’s home to not only the painterly Tuscan landscape and signature terracotta rooftops, but also to a constantly rotating population of study abroad students. The food here ranges from the most traditional Italian to crêpes and excellent ramen. You’ll hear a handful of languages while you’re walking down the street – which you’ll do a lot, since Florence is wonderfully walkable. Oh, and don’t forget there are also some of the world’s greatest works of art.
During our our summer abroad, we spent ten days based in Florence. We wandered through gardens, museums, and along the Arno river. We scouted out the best restaurants and views, and took day trips into the countryside. Here, I’m rounding up our favorite things to do, foods to eat, and places to go – pluck out any ideas you like, then mix and match them into an itinerary of your own.
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In every city, but especially in Florence, walking is the best way to explore. Wake up early for a stroll in the morning light. Cross Ponte Vecchio over the Arno at least once, and wander whenever you can – just look for the Duomo as your guiding landmark.
For a sunset view, walk along the river and follow the winding Giardino delle Rose path up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It has one of the best views over the city, and it’s particularly magical at dusk. If you want a quieter spot, climb even higher to San Miniato al Monte. Bonus points if you bring along a bottle of wine and some pizza for dinner!
Also on the south side of the river, the Pitti Palace stands in front of the sprawling Boboli Gardens. Pack a picnic to eat on the lawn after you’ve searched out all the tucked-away fountains and ornate sculptures.
Nearby is the Bardini Garden that almost feels like a secret. It’s smaller, quieter, more manicured, and one of my favorite spots in Florence. Spend an hour or so exploring the tiers of the garden, then linger over coffee or wine on the terrace overlooking the city.
Nearly everyone passing through Florence will visit the Uffizi and Accademia galleries. They’re home to such incredible works of Renaissance art, you won’t want to miss them either – but to avoid the long lines, go early in the day and reserve your ticket in advance if you can. At the Duomo, spare yourself some time (and claustrophobia) by climbing the bell tower instead of the dome itself.
Even if you’re not looking for souvenirs, shopping in Florence deserves at least a half-day of your time. The indoor Mercato Centrale is a perfect place for a quick meal or to buy groceries for cooking your own dinner. Right outside, you’ll find San Lorenzo market, where you could easily spend hours sifting through the art, leather goods, and flea market finds.
I’m particularly infatuated with Florentine gilded wood trays – not the high-gloss ones you’ll see on many corners, but the vintage kind that you have to really hunt for. There’s more wonderful vintage hunting (this time for clothes) at the shop Street Doing. To wind down with a local-feeling afternoon, buy your lunch at the Sant’Ambrogio market, and enjoy it in the nearby park Piazza d’Azeglio. For a more American style of relaxation, book a pedicure at Maniboo.
The Italian custom of aperitivo – enjoying a drink and a bite to eat at the end of the workday – is a longstanding tradition, and Florence is no exception. Some restaurants will offer a generous buffet of appetizers that’s included in the price of your drink, like Gallery, Kitsch, and Soul Kitchen. It’s a wonderful bargain, and sometimes referred to as a “students’ dinner”; a casual aperitivo dinner or two should save you enough to indulge in one of the fancier rooftop spots on another night.
Enjoying an aperitivo above the city, you’ll find higher prices and smaller offerings for complimentary snacks – potato chips and olives, perhaps – surrounded by beautiful views that you just won’t find at a street-level restaurant. Golden View Open Bar is top of the list in both ambience and price tag, and completely worthy of the buzz it receives. The rooftop at Grand Hotel Minerva has a picturesque swimming pool for guests and a pretty terrace where we enjoyed a bottle of rosé. The public library Biblioteca delle Oblate is something of a hidden gem, with a rooftop that offers a spectacular view over the Duomo and a cafeteria with well priced aperitivi.
At some point, visit La Ménagère, a charming cafe, shop, and restaurant all under one roof. For a truly delicious bowl of ramen, head to Koto Ramen. Try La Milkeria for coffee and crepes, or Ditta Artigianale for a delicious breakfast and an almond milk latte. Arà: è Sicilia serves Sicilian street food and gelato, while its sister Arà: è Sud is a good spot for a nice dinner out.
If you have the time to explore outside of Florence, plan a couple day trips to see the hillside vineyards and medieval towns that are so close by. My advice? Head to the countryside, and out to the Cinque Terre.
To see more of Tuscany’s famous scenery, take a day tour on a Fiat or Vespa, on a bicycle, or rent a car to travel on your own. A Tuscan cooking class – like this one in Chianti or this one near Siena – was one of our favorite day trips in Italy. Click here for my full guide to the Tuscan countryside!
Cinque Terre isn’t technically part of Tuscany, but this string of colourful fishing towns is just an hour away from Pisa by train. Spend a night or two for the full experience, but if you can’t manage more than a day trip, I have a plan for a whirlwind visit. You can find it at the bottom of my Cinque Terre guide – hopefully (unlike me) you’ll avoid getting stuck in Pisa until 2am after a cancelled train. Don’t worry, I had friends and prosecco!
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