Don’t be fooled by the small size of the city, there’s no shortage of things to do and see in Florence. Although we all dream of living a life like Frances from Under the Tuscan sun, most likely your time will be limited in the Tuscan capital.
Which unfortunately means you won’t be able to do everything. Don’t fret though because this guide is full of insider tips that will help you make the most out of your time in Florence, getting you off the beaten path to have a more authentic Florentine experience.
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Climb Giotto’s Bell Tower Instead of The Duomo
If you google the top things to do in Florence Italy, chances are that at the top of most lists it will say to climb to the top of the Duomo. While this is a great way to get an incredible view of Florence, the queue to climb the dome tends to be extremely long often wrapping around the side of the cathedral.
Instead of wasting a couple of hours waiting, head around the corner to climb the Duomo’s bell tower. The views are just as good, plus you get a view of the Duomo — which makes for an incredible photo opportunity. (You also get a great view of both the Duomo and Giotto’s belltower if you climb the clock tower at Plazzo Vecchio)
Skip All’Antico Vinaio, and get a Panini at La Fettunta
If you head to the back of the Palazzo Vecchio and towards the Arno chances are you’ll run into a crowd of people lined up for a panini at All’Antico Vinaio. The place has become so popular that they have opened a second shop directly across from the original.
While the hype might make it tempting to wait out the crowd, if you keep walking down the street you’ll find another Panini shop a couple of doors down called La Fettunta. The line will be half the size, if that, and the sandwiches are equally as good, if not better than Antico. Their sciachiatta, which is the bread that makes Italian Panini so delicious, is some of the best I’ve ever had.
Get Fresh Gelato, Not the Tourist Traps
Chances are if you’re strolling down one of the most popular streets in the center of Florence, like Via Roma or Via Panzani, you’ll find lots of stores with beautifully showcased gelato. The high piles of colorful gelato with fruits and other decadent garnishes is a sure sign that this gelato was not made in-house.
The gelato shops that you should be after, keep their gelato in tubs, sometimes in cylinder containers that sit below the surface of the counter or large rectangular containers — but it’s never piled in high piles. A piccolo cono (small cone) should be around 2-2.50 euros. If they are asking 6 for a small cone, you’re at a tourist trap, and chances are the gelato is not fresh.
Mercato Sant'Ambrogio not Mercato Centrale
While Mercato Centrale is a sight to see for its architecture— if you want the true Italian market experience head to Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. This is where the florentines actually come to shop. In the morning farmers from around the area come to sell their produce outside the market hall. Inside you can find all sorts of Italian delicacies— fresh fish, meat, and cheese of course. There is also a restaurant inside that is one of Florence’s best-kept secrets from tourists.
If you’re looking for a memento to remember your time in Florence, you’ll find no shortage of stores selling statues of David, “leather” purses, and florentine paper notebooks. However, these things are mass-produced trinkets that are most likely imported. You’ll quickly notice that every little shop is selling the same products. Plus, these stores are rarely run by Italians. Rather than buy these mass-imported goods, opt to support a local artisan or artist.
After all, the charm of the city comes from the artisan culture that blossomed in the Renaissance and still holds true today. This can mean going to an actual Florentine paper store where they make the paper directly in the back, buying a piece of art from a street artist who spends their days painting, or heading to a real leather workshop to find a unique bag or jacket. There’s no shortage of creators to support in Florence, by doing this you’ll not only support the local community but you’ll also have something truly memorable to bring home with you.
Skip the “Leather Market” and Head to Scuola del Cuoio
Going off of the last tip, if you’re looking to buy leather, which is one of the things Florence is known for, skip the leather market and head to the School of Leather (Scuola del Cuoio). The leather market, which is outside of Mercato Centrale, offers mass-produced leather bags and belts. These are the same products you’ll find all over the city in the trinket souvenir shops.
The Scuola del Cuoio sells unique handmade leather products that are a true form of the Made in Italy quality. The school was founded after WWII by the Franciscan friars of the Monastery of Santa Croce and the Gori and Casini families, in order to give orphans a way to earn a living. The school still hosts students and teaches them the traditional leather-making ways.
As you probably know Florence has the Arno river running through it. While most people spend their time on the “main side” of Florence, which is where the Duomo, Piazza Della Signoria, and Piazza Repubblica are, the other side of the river or the Oltrarno, offers a more authentic look at contemporary Florentine life.
The Oltrarno is filled with little artisan shops, incredible restaurants, and independent stores that hone the true chic Italian style. The neighboring Santo Spirito and San Frediano Neighborhoods are some of Florence’s trendiest, even lonely planet named San Frediano one of the coolest neighborhoods in the world. Exploring this side of the city will open your eyes to why the inhabitants of Florence are so proud to be Florentine.
Relax in the Rose Garden Rather Than Piazzale Michelangelo
If you’re looking for a place to relax and bask in the sun while soaking in the views of Florence, most people will direct you to Piazzale Michelango. While it does offer incredible views of the city, it’s always crowded and noisy with street performers. If you want a more relaxed place to hang out, where you can lay in the grass and enjoy a bottle of wine, head to Rose Garden. It’s located right below Piazzale so it has similar views, but rather than sitting on the crowded stairs you’ll be surrounded by rose bushes, green grass, and greenhouses filled with orange trees.
Go to Piazzale Michelango for Sunrise
You’ll hear that Piazzale Michelangelo is best at sunset, but that’s simply not true. It’s most magical at sunrise. As the sun starts to come up the city is washed over in pastels. Not only is it incredibly beautiful, but you’ll most likely have the place to yourself or maybe a few other early risers. I can promise that it’s always worth waking up early for.
Eat lunch Deli Style rather than in a restaurant
Looking for an authentic Italian experience? Skip going to a trattoria or ristorante at lunch and opt for a deli-style lunch. You’ll pay by the plate so you can try a little bit of everything they have, which normally consists of a pasta dish, some veggies, Tuscan beans, and potatoes. Get a glass of wine with your lunch, and sit in the deli. You’ll get a glimpse into the daily life of the working class and retirees who frequent places like this for their lunch.