Florence travel guide for first-time visitors

Florence, small and immense and at the same time, is an open air museum grown more beautiful over the centuries; a treasure chest enclosed by ancient walls that safeguard grandiose masterworks of art and architecture so close that you can almost touch them.

From its magnificent position, the city sits at the feet of the Appennine Mountains in a valley that opens onto the Arno Plain. Its buildings and monuments tell stories of art, war and life. Its streets, today crowded with tourists, are the same ones through which Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante and many other of the most illustrious minds of all time, threaded their way.

Florence is a city rich in places to discover but its dimensions are actually quite small. If time is short, 1 or 2 days are enough to explore a large part of the city's marvels.

1. Planning your travel in Florence

If you choose to fly, there are three airports serving Florence and they vary according to which airline you use.

Florence's airport "Amerigo Vespucci" (FLR) is 5 kilometers from the city center. It's connected to all the major Italian cities as well as to numerous European destinations. There's public bus service connecting the airport to the center of town.

The airport most used by all of Europe is Pisa's "Galileo Galilei" (PSA), where almost all the "low cost" flights arrive. There's a shuttle service that brings you to Florence in 70 minutes. Be careful however: traffic can be truly intense on the motorway between Florence and Pisa thus creating the possibility of being late and missing your flight! Probably the best solution is to reach Florence by train, using the airport station.

The third airport is that of Bologna, about an hour's drive away. Again, be careful because some "low cost" airlines, when they say Bologna they actually mean the airport at Forlì - and that's really far away!

Florence is at the center of the major highway and rail junctions in Italy: the choice of arriving by train is without doubt the ideal one. For train schedule information, we suggest you utilize the italian railroad website: www.trenitalia.com.

If you arrive by car, it's a good idea to book in advance a hotel with a parking lot: Florence's traffic is horrendous, parking is difficult to say the least and you can't get into the historical center by car.

When you plan your trip, keep in mind that, in the summer, Florentine temperatures can reach 40° centigrade and in the winter, they can drop below zero, even if snow is a fairly rare occurence. From a climatic point of view, the months between March and September are the best, even though the city is overrun with tourists and schooltrips in that period.

If you only have a short time and the trip around the city needs to be essential, you can dedicate the first day to a long walk through the streets and piazzas and the second day to the Uffizi Gallery.

If you have more days to spend, you can take advantage of doing some sightseeing in the towns around Florence - choose according to your tastes from the infinite number of the more or less famous places Tuscany has to offer: Fiesole, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, Volterra and San Gimignano are all close by, or visit the vineyards of Montepulciano and the Sienese Chianti.

2. Arriving in Florence

Arriving at the Santa Maria Novella train station already means diving into art, just steps away from the beauties of the city center.

Florence can quite easily be visited on foot or by public transportation: the various lines, including those that travel outside the city, you'll find along the side of the station.

So, with all logistical problems being solved, let the tour begin!

It's absolutely indispensable to remember that nearly all the museums in Florence, as in the rest of Italy, are CLOSED ON MONDAYS! Visiting hours are often quite different and there is no single ticket that can be used for all the museums.

The Uffizi Gallery is the busiest building in the entire city, remaining open at certain times of the year until ten o'clock in the evening. The lines to get in are as endless as the ones for the Galleria dell'Accademia, which contains Michelangelo's David: it is very much worth the extra few euros to book an entry ticket in advance if you want to avoid standing long hours in line fighting against time, other visitors and often, even traffic - above all during summer, when you have to add the burning sun to the endless wait! All of Florence's state museums are managed by the same association. It's possible to reserve your tickets at the ticket office of the Orsanmichele church or, if you prefer, online, at our website as well: ItalyGuides.it.

Besides the traditional tours, there are other fascinating things to do, like the "Secret Paths" visit inside Palazzo Vecchio four times a day with the possibility of seeing rooms that are normally "off limits" to the public: entrance to the Palazzo is included in the ticket and, naturally, should be booked in advance.

You'll often have to buy a ticket to enter many of Florence's churches. Access to the Duomo is free while the Belltower, the Dome and the Baptistery have three different entry tickets. If you're courageous and want to try the hike, Giotto's Belltower and the 464 steps to Brunelleschi's Dome will test your athletic preparedness! It usually takes 10/15 minutes to get to the top and since the route is often a tight squeeze and dark, it's not exactly ideal for claustrophobics! But the stress and difficulty are soon only a memory and you'll be well rewarded by the exceptional view from above!

3. Sleeping in Florence

Finding a good place to stay in Florence is easy, even if not particularly cheap. Deciphering the different kinds of places that offer hospitality is somewhat like getting lost in a labyrinth! The offers vary widely: Hotels, Historic Residences, Pensions, Rooms for Rent, Bed & Breakfast, Hostels; the denomination and number of stars are based on the services each offers. Before booking, however, make sure the hotel really DOES provide everything you need, because for example, despite the name, many Bed & Breakfasts don't serve breakfast!

An excellent solution could be to go a little outside the city if you have a car at your disposal and find a hotel or an Agriturismo immersed in the countryside. Naturally, other more economic solutions exist, like hostels; or, for groups and families, the convents with their clean, spartan rooms, although some of their rules are a bit rigid: for example having to return in the evening at a certain hour if one doesn't want pass the night in the open air!

One final detail to keep in mind is that looking for a hotel in Florence could be a little more difficult than you'd think if you don't know about the city's double numbering system. The red street numbers indicate businesses and the numbers in black or blue on a white plate indicate private homes…So be careful because a red 10 doesn't necessarily mean it's near a black 10!

4. Dining in Florence

Vacationing in Florence also means enjoying the local products: the wines, the bread, the olive oil; it can truly be a taste adventure discovering new flavors and experimenting with the endless number of local dishes, accompanied by a vast choice of famous Tuscan wines. If you're looking for excellent "value for money", don't forget to either carefully read the menues displayed at the door or to arm yourself with a good restaurant guide. The more laidback small towns around the city without doubt offer the best food in Tuscany but even a trip of a few days in Florence will enrich your palate—and your visit—with flavorful treats.

If your budget is limited, remember that the cheapest restaurants are those between San Lorenzo and the railway station, while the most expensive and luxurious are around Santa Croce and in Oltrarno. And of course, don't forget to make a reservation, particularly on weekends!

5. Exploring Florence

Don't like to plan? Aimlessly wandering through Florence is magnificent: fabulous works of art appear at every turn in all their splendor! And if you prefer to plan ahead, all you need to know is that the places most visited are concentrated around the area between the station, Santa Croce and the Arno river.

Those that must absolutely not be missed are: the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella that winks at you just out of the station; San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapels in their picturesque neighborhood. The Galleria dell'Accademia and the Museum of the Bargello; the Duomo, heart of the city's religious life and the Piazza of the Signoria, a splendid open air museum, perfect for taking a break at a table in one of the historic cafès.

Immediately to one side of the piazza, the Uffizi Gallery, besides being home to famous artwork, is itself a work of art. A few hundred meters away, Santa Croce, the richest church in Florence, contains the remains of illustrious people like Michelangelo, Enrico Fermi, Galileo Galilei and a memorial for Dante Alighieri.

The area on the other side of the Arno, beyond Ponte Vecchio, is also rich in treasures and marvels but it could take a whole day to explore it all between a visit to the Pitti Palace and a walk in the Boboli Gardens!

Florence can satisfy not only art lovers but shopping lovers: bags and accessories in leather, typical local products and souvenirs, will inevitably take up a large part of your free time!

The many flea markets, like the market of San Lorenzo, the market delle Pulci, or the Mercato Nuovo, offer treasures, junk and good deals! It's a good idea not to stop at the first booth but to keep looking for something better and above all haggle over the price! A useful phrase in these circumstances could be: «E' troppo caro. Mi farebbe uno sconto? (It's too expensive; would you give me a discount?)».

Finally, the best way to say a warm "arrivederci" to Florence could be a trip, either by foot or bus, on the Colli, amidst superb vistas and romantic views of the city; from Piazzale Michelangelo, with its bronze copy of Michelangelo's David, towards San Miniato al Monte, one of the oldest churches in Florence; or on to the more peaceful Forte di Belvedere, far from the crowds.

One last bit of advice: before leaving Florence, walk under the portico of the Mercato Nuovo and don't forget to rub the nose of the famous porcellino for good luck and let a coin fall from its mouth. If the coin drops through the grate, then Florence will bring you good fortune!

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