Exploring a city as small as Florence in 36 hours might seem like a total no-brainer but despite its small stature, there are plenty of treasures to discover in the capital of the Renaissance. Once you’re done spending a few nights in the Tuscan wine country, tasting wine and visiting charming hill-top villages, take at least two days, if not more, to visit Florence, about which author John Ruskin once mused “You will begin to wonder that human daring ever achieved anything so magnificent.”
Enjoy everything from a world class artistic heritage to more contemporary works and designers, artisan enclaves and street art. Florence is no longer solely a shrine to the Renaissance – instead you’ll discover a thriving food scene and the joy of la dolce vita embedded in its charming back streets. Here’s what I personally recommend you do if you have 36 hours in Tuscany’s vibrant and always evolving capital that I call home.
Friday – A rather nice introduction to visiting Florence
5:30pm – Get acquainted with an early aperitif (or aperitivo) of a glass of bubbles and fragrant truffle-cream panini at local institution Procacci, a prestigious delicatessen on Florence’s highbrow shopping street Via Tornabuoni. Founded in 1885, this place embodies an elegant, old-world feel that has attracted well-heeled Florentines for over a century. It also is a great place to pick up gourmet-minded souvenirs, truffle-infused honey, olive oil and much more.
7:30pm – Sunset ride on the Arno river. There is no better way to get excited about a visit to Florence than seeing the city through the unique perspective along the river Arno. The river has played a large part in local history, providing the water necessary for the Santa Croce tanneries, as well as responsible for several devastating floods throughout the centuries, thus you can imagine the city’s great respect for its riverbanks. Firenze Rafting offers a fun chance to enjoy a beautiful sunset, float by the Ponte Vecchio, and enjoy a sneaky second aperitivo (with piping hot schiacciata and prosecco). Afterwards, dine on the Oltrarno side of the city at cheap & cheerful Trattoria il Sabatino or B.O.r.G.O on Borgo San Frediano.
11pm – call me a night owl but I personally believe that the beauty of the city truly comes alive at nightfall, so skip calling a taxi and make it a point to walk through the city (plus it helps digest that steak dinner) stopping under the majestic open-air sculpture gallery loggia della lanzi in Piazza della Signoria to hear music wafting through the night’s air as a copy of Michelangelo’s David stands formidably nearby.
Saturday – Urban hikes that take on a tasty twist
8:30am – Wake up early and walk up to San Miniato al Monte church, a thousand-year-old basilica perched high above the city with the best view in town, before stopping at the Rose Garden, designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi who also completed Piazzale Michelangelo. Continue down the steps to the San Niccolò area for a quick coffee at Rifrullo before picking up a snack at Forno Pierguidi; stop in at street artist Clet’s studio and then head across the river.
11:45am – Pay a visit to San Lorenzo’s Mercato Centrale, a building (circa 1870-74) designed by Giuseppe Mengoni, the same architect who designed the famed Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II in Milan, to see the hustle-and-bustle of the food stalls, butchers, cheese-sellers, and fishmongers on the ground floor; this is also a great spot to pick up a vacuum-packed treat. Stop at Da Nerbona to split a lampredotto (cow-stomach) panino or go for the boiled beef before heading upstairs to the “primo piano” or first floor to walk through Florence’s modern version of a food court with artisanal food stands for some samples. For lunch in an old-school, family run trattoria go to Trattoria Sergio Gozzi (best to call ahead), serving up a seasonal daily menu along with local favorites such as pappa al pomdoro and pasta al ragu (I recommend the polpette fritte). If you still have space, stop at My Sugar Gelateria on nearby Via de’Ginori for a chocolate and chianti wine gelato, or get a coffee at La Ménagère, a stunning concept bar-restaurant-café on the same street.
3:30pm – After a proper rest since that’s part of vacation too, head towards Piazza Santa Croce to visit Santa Croce Church, the largest Franciscan neo-gothic basilica, where lies so many of Italy’s most famous names: Galileo, Michelangelo and Ghiberti to name a few along with the incredible frescoed chapels (also have a look out for the Arno river flood markers, as Santa Croce was heavily damaged in the 1966 flood). Tucked behind the church is the nearby Florence Leather School (la Scuola del Cuoio), a superb place to see true leather artisans at work.
5:30 – Make your way towards the Arno river which splits the city in two for an early drink or an artisan-made gelato at the charming Piazza della Passera on the Oltrarno side. This is also an area where it is fairly easy to see some of the city’s notable and often colorful street art by Sedicente Moradi, Blub’s L’arte sa nuotare, Clet and Hopnn Yuri. You don’t want to miss some of the Florence’s best artisan workshops (plus contemporary artisans) such as Il Torchio, Jane H. Restoration, Sara Amrhein, Officina Nora and Obo La Bottega, all located in this side of the river.
7:45pm— Head to Osteria della Enoteca on Via Romana (almost directly in front of the Boboli gardens entrance) a lovely restaurant boasting a red-brick, contemporary interior with the traditional wine list to match. This is the place to get acquainted with one of the city’s most iconic dishes, bistecca alla fiorentina or Florentine t-bone steak, they have a special menu dedicated to their various cattle-breeds, otherwise dishes change with the season.
Sunday – Visit Florence’s Cultural Art Heritage from Old to New(er)
8:30/9:30 am – Head to Piazza Duomo to visit the city’s most important 13th century monument and climb up the cupola or Giotto’s bell tower (not for those with vertigo). You can’t miss the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, directly behind the Duomo, to learn about the 750 years of patrimony of the city’s great cathedral.
12pm – If there is an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi that would most definitely be my next suggestion; otherwise head to Piazza Santa Maria Novella to hit up the Museo Novecento, a mecca dedicated to 20th century Italian artists in the confines of a 13th century Palazzo. It holds most notably the permanent Alberto Della Ragione collection, donated to the city of Florence in the aftermath of the 1966 flood, with artworks by Giorgio De Chirico, Filippo De Pisis, Gino Severini, among evolving temporary exhibitions. Nearby at Via della Scala 16 is a must visit, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest pharmacies in the world founded by Dominican friars shortly after 1221 and in business for the public since 1612. Besides reveling in the ornate surroundings, you can pick up a wide selection of ancient herbal remedies, rose tonic water, fragrances, herbal teas and scented candles.
Know before you go
- If you plan on coming with a car, know that in the historical center you can only do that if you’re staying at a hotel that can arrange for ZTL permission to enter, or you could risk a hefty fine. Otherwise, plan on leaving the car (Florence is entirely walkable) at one of the large car parks surrounding the city. We suggest Sant’Ambrogio, Santa Maria Novella or San Lorenzo, or park at the cheap commuter lot at Villa Costanza (between Firenze Scandicci and Firenze Impruneta exits) and take the tram right downtown, it takes 22 minutes and runs every 6-8 minutes.
- Don’t over plan your trip. Not a museum person? That’s ok! There is plenty to do for every personality in Florence including Arno river boat rides, urban hikes and food-based walking tours. Sometimes the best activity is just lingering over coffee in a local square (we suggest Piazza Santo Spirito). Word to the wise: it is well worth hiring a guide or joining a small-group tour to better contextually understand your surroundings, at least for a few hours.
- There is now bike-sharing in Florence called MoBike, you will see the iconic self-locking orange bikes all around the city. They can be rented via their smartphone app for a cool 69 cents per 30 minutes (or 99 cents for the lighter versions), one word of advice: be mindful of where you park it after use.
All photos are by Georgette Jupe