Updated: February 4th, 2019
It boggles my mind that I’ve written so little about Florence, Italy–it’s one of my favorite cities on Earth. Actually, in the universe if you want to get technical. Is it because it’s too perfect that I don’t even want to breach the subject? Like my words could never do this city justice? Or is it because Florence is one of those magical cities you have to experience for yourself to fall in love with?
My first ever 2 days in Florence, I was living in Italy but still knew nothing about the city. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Italy in general before I stepped foot in it. Only… a colosseum, the Pope, and that it’s probably where Caesar salads came from?
My loyal travel friend Amanda was dead-set on exploring Florence when she came over to visit and, since that was the airport she landed in, we wasted no time. Well, we wasted a little time because she and our other friend really wanted an iced coffee. Good luck trying to explain that in Italy.
All I knew was she kept talking about some dome. I knew nothing of this dome and very little about the Italian Renaissance in general other than lutes and tight pants and everyone must just eat turkey legs with their hands, right?
Now, I’m a full-blown Florence addict hoping to dig out a little nest of my own there someday. Until then, I shall continue the tradition of 2 days in Florence and help you do the same…
DO SPEND THE ENTIRE FIRST DAY OF YOUR 2 DAYS IN FLORENCE OUTDOORS.
One of the feelings you will get upon arriving to Florence for the first time–besides the unexplainable pull towards chianti and prosciutto–will be the urge to SEE EVERYTHING. I don’t mean visit; I mean actually see… with your eyes.
Your first stop will be the Cathedral of Santa Marie del Fiore (henceforth known as Il Duomo) because it’s only natural–it’s huge. It’s breathtaking. It’s unyielding in its dress code. And apparently it’s famous. But as amazing as it is, you won’t want to go inside… yet. Because right down the street is Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. And then after that is the Uffizi… and then… see my point? You’ll want to take it all in, the same way you’re planning to devour a Florentine steak the size of your torso in just a wee bit. [That size comparison is not an exaggeration.]
So on the first of your 2 days in Florence, stay outside. Visit all the major sights and actually see them. Walk around the city and absorb the whole of it. Almost nothing has changed here since the Renaissance–take a stroll through the streets and imagine you are back in the 1400s. Pretend you’re a beautiful maiden sitting for Raphael or Botticelli… and that the church elders have just put the fear of God in you as retribution for how many ales you consume on a nightly basis. They warned you of contracting the Plague. No, syphilis. Or smallpox! You’ll bleed from your eyes just before you descend into a burning Hell where you’ll live out eternity!
The Renaissance was a… umm… complicated time. Maybe just concentrate on the pretty art and stuff.
DON’T GO IN BLIND.
Don’t be like me. Don’t visit Florence without having at least the slightest clue what the Renaissance was all about [turns out, more than just syphilis, leggings, and creepy haircuts]. Yes, going in blind is a habit of mine that’s worked a handful of times–beekeeping (Am I anaphylactic? Who knows! Let’s find out…), fantasy football, living in Florida, casino gambling–but I don’t always recommend it. Knowing the history of Florence beforehand really helps you to appreciate the city while you’re there. Not one month after your first three or four visits. I make these mistakes so that you can learn from them, people!
You can read books! Start with my article on books to read before traveling to Italy.
You can watch TV shows or movies! Da Vinci’s Demons on Starz is like the Game of Thrones of Renaissance Florence and about 90% historically accurate (if you subtract most of the stuff actually dealing with Leonardo Da Vinci–like, he can’t have been that hot). Actually, everyone in this cast is wicked sexy. (It’s off the air now but Amazon has it!)
Shit, you can even play video games! Assassin’s Creed 2 takes place in Florence and it, too, is strikingly accurate. Trust me, I researched it because I am a huge loser whose friends all live in different states.
DO WALK AROUND THE DUOMO.
To be clear, the Duomo is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore–with the giant red dome on top. “Duomo” is the Italian word for cathedral, “cupola” is the Italian word for dome. I know, right?
This should be your first stop–the Duomo is Florence. The size of this building will blow your freakin’ mind. Knowing that it was built by the hands of drunken Italians in the 1200s? Brain. Explosion. Goo, everywhere.
The Cathedral took almost 200 years to complete and its dome remains the largest brick dome ever built. If you’ve spent any time in Italy then you already know why it took so long. The story of the construction of the dome is actually super interesting, a lil’ bit nerdy, and hilarious. Seriously, READ. THIS. BOOK: Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. The Duomo, along with the bell tower and nearby Baptistery, are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site–a ménage à trois of Catholicism, if you will.
Take a walk around the cathedral and examine the size, the bell tower, the pretty colors of the facade (whose green I’m told matches my eyes perfectly… just saying), and the way Florentine life just goes on like normal in the piazza of one of the world’s most important and grand structures like it ain’t no thang.
Pro tip: On the right side of the Duomo, across the street, there is a statue of Filippo Brunelleschi, the dome’s architect, staring contentedly up at his masterpiece. If you see this statue, consider yourself lucky and take a bloody picture! I’ve tried many times and haven’t succeeded. Last time, it was covered in scaffolding and tarpaulin the way most of Italy is at one point or another.
Don’t worry about what’s inside yet, you’ll find out tomorrow.
DO CHECK OUT THE BAPTISTERY AND THE GATES OF PARADISE.
Florence’s Baptistery, the octagonal building standing in the front yard of the Duomo, is the city’s oldest religious monument (of which there are many). How old exactly? No one really knows but the earliest written account of this building anyone can find dates back to 897. Eight. Ninety. Seven. And just look at how good she looks for her age! But doesn’t she know about horizontal stripes?
Until the 19th century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here including many famous Florence peeps like the Medicis and even Dante himself. Dante! Another example of just how old this place is.
And yes, you can still be baptized here. And you better or you’ll be CONDEMNED TO HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY. But no bigs–I’m leading a caravan with some best friends and ex-bosses if you’d like to hitch a ride with us…? We’ve got Funyuns!
The Gates of Paradise are the bronze set of doors on the side of the baptistery facing the Duomo (prime baptistery door real estate, as a matter of fact) depicting scenes from the Old Testament. Michelangelo is quoted as saying they were so beautiful they could have been used as the Gates of Paradise–he means Heaven, right?
Lorenzo Ghiberti designed and created them after winning a competition for the commission–it probably didn’t hurt that “designer of all the other doors to the baptistery” was already on his resumé. And guess who he beat? Brunelleschi! Nothing like getting whooped in one artistic endeavor to help you create the world’s largest dome and signature Renaissance masterpiece just a few years later. And guess who Brunelleschi beat for that job? Ghiberti! Ohhh danggg! This has Daytime Emmy written all over it.
Pro tip: Visit the Baptistery and the Gates of Paradise with an art teacher. It’ll help you make sense of a lot of stuff. Like what “relief” is.
DON’T BE FOOLED–THOSE AREN’T THE ORIGINALS.
Surprise! Also… disappointment! I hate finding out awesome things I’m looking at are not the originals–it’s like finding out about Dumbledore all over again! (Bravo, Warner Bros.–I seriously had no idea). Wizardus replaceum!
I get it, they need to preserve the priceless original Gates of Paradise. But do they let anyone know this up front? No. Not even in back either. The originals are housed in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (we’ll be visiting there tomorrow) and I only knew that because I was in the museum when my art teacher friend told me. She kept talking about some competition and some golden doors… I don’t know. She talks a lot about “competitions” when we’re in Italy.
However, did I get to see the originals? No! And can you guess why? Correct, they were under restoration and covered with scaffolding and tarpaulin. At least Italy is consistent.
DO CHECK OUT THE FREE OPEN-AIR ART MUSEUM THAT IS PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA.
Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio will be next on your list because they are literally just down the street. Also just down the street? A shop called Frey Wille. If you wanted to name your store Free Willy you just shoulda done it! You’re not fooling anyone.
Piazza della Signoria is and always has been the political center of Florence. The Palazzo Vecchio, that weird shaped building with the off-center tower that delivers quite the blow to my OCD, is Florence’s town hall and houses a pretty interesting museum inside. Which we’ll be exploring tomorrow, sheesh.
The Piazza itself offers visitors a sort of open-air art museum experience with most sculptures from the 1500s (yay free stuff!). Directly outside the Palazzo is the most notable, Michelangelo’s statue of David. Again, this is not the original–the original, Michelangelo-sculpted David is housed inside the Accademia Gallery. (Side note: Did you know Ace of Base’s “Don’t Turn Around” was first sung by Tina Turner? Curses!). However, this is where the original David stood from 1504-1873. So since we won’t be going to the Accademia tomorrow, consider this the next best thing! I prefer my art in situ anyway–helps with that whole pretending-I’m-a-medieval-princess thing I’m so prone to.
Across the piazza from Palazzo Vecchio is the Loggia dei Lanzi, the “open-air museum” of which I speak. Surrounded by columns and covered in arches, this loggia–that’s fancy speak for “porch”–houses massive sculptures seemingly all based on the subjects of murder or rape…? It’s fine art, I swear. I guess just don’t bring your kids here?
Notable works include the Medici lions on the staircase, the centerpiece Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna carved from the largest block of marble ever brought to Florence, and the statue of Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus that was picked up in a vineyard somewhere in the early 16th century.
There’s the Hercules and Cacus by Baccio Bandinelli, The Rape of Polyxena by Pio Fedi, and on the ground near the fountain of Neptune is a round marble plaque marking the exact spot where Girolamo Savonarola was hanged and burned in 1498 for being a heretic. So yeah, it’s like they’re just trying to frighten children.
The piazza is surrounded on all sides by miscellaneous buildings and cafés just waiting to serve you a cappuccino. I prefer mine on the steps of the Loggia… while visions of torture dance in my head.
DON’T…YOU WONDER HOW PEOPLE STAYED SO FIT BACK THEN?
All those sculpted bodies… was that real life? All Renaissance paintings and sculptures would sure have you believe so. How’d they stay so ripped back then? Was it all those “competitions” I keep hearing about? Was the competition for, say… the Gates of Paradise commission actually arm wrestling? Or shotput? I’m pretty sure they have too many muscles–is that a side effect of syphilis?
It’s rare to see a piece of Renaissance art that doesn’t feature six pack abs and quad muscles I didn’t even know existed. Take Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling for instance–God is ripped (obviously), Adam is ripped even though he was just “created” (unrealistic expectations), and even the little babies have bulging biceps! And they say we’re being misled by our media portrayals today. Pshh!
DO WALK ACROSS PONTE VECCHIO.
Ponte Vecchio stands for “old bridge”–but don’t tell her that. It’s said to have been built in Roman times, washed away twice, then rebuilt again… and, thanks to Adolf Hitler himself, was the only bridge crossing the Arno River that was spared in WWII. Hey, other bridges–Hitler’s just not that into you.
The bridge you can get shoved across today was built in 1345 and houses mostly jewelry stores that I’ve never bought a single thing at. Gelato? Yes. But what is today jewelry was at one time raw meat. Why, Ponte Vecchio, what big butcher shops you had! All the better to wash away rotten carcasses down the river, my dear. …Until the Medicis could no longer stand the smell of rotting meat wafting into their secret passageway above the bridge and shut that shit down.
It’s not the loveliest of bridges but it’s rich in history, a must-see during 2 days in Florence, and it gets you to the other side, the way bridges often do. Do some window shopping, enjoy the breeze on the river, take many photos, and thank all that is good and pure there aren’t skinless animals hanging in the shop windows anymore.
DON’T… YOU KNOW THERE’S A SECRET PASSAGEWAY ACROSS FLORENCE?
I’m talking about the Vasari Corridor and yes, it’s true! All my medieval dreams have come true! Well, almost. As soon as I get my dragons though, it’s on.
The Vasari Corridor was built to connect the Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace so the Medicis could get across town safely and secretly. If you didn’t know it existed, you’d never see it. I’ve only seen it in a few spots but this map helps to know where to look.
You can see, above the arches in the center of the west side of Ponte Vecchio, a set of large windows–those were added in 1939 prior to a visit from Hitler so that he could have a more panoramic view. Snob.
DO TAKE A STROLL THROUGH BOBOLI GARDENS.
I know it sounds like a magical garden of fluffy pizza crusts, but it’s not (unfortunately).
The 16th-century Boboli Gardens is hidden behind the ginormous Pitti Palace (not a palace of fluffy pita pockets, unfortunately) and is a super huge garden park acting as another sort of open-air museum. I’m talking was the inspiration for the gardens at Versaille huge. However, from outside Pitti Palace you may never even know it existed. What is this illusion!
Boboli Gardens is full of 16th-18th century sculptures, fountains, shrub mazes, grottoes, flowers and trees, the mysterious Kaffeehaus, and a massive stone bathtub for whatever reason. My favorite part of exploring Boboli Gardens (besides the fact that chasing rabbits through a maze made out of bush walls makes you feel like Alice in Wonderland) are the ridiculous views, something Florence specializes in.
PRO TIP: Boboli Gardens is open every day EXCEPT THE FIRST AND LAST MONDAY OF EVERY MONTH. It took me four years and three tries to finally get into Boboli Gardens. Why am I always in Florence on a Monday?! Knowing this all too well, we were able to squeeze in this visit on the Sunday before a closed Monday.
DON’T MISS OUT ON BOTH SIDES.
APPARENTLY the Boboli Gardens are much bigger than I realized. After our visit to the gardens we kept hearing, “Oh, did you see the … ? And the … ?! And the awesome … ???”
“Uhh, no?” We’d spent a while in the Gardens, thought we’d seen it all, and still missed out on all stuff worth not missing out on. How did this happen? Curse you infinite maze!
“Well when you entered, which way did you go?
“We went left…”
“Oh… yeah you should’ve gone right.”
So there you go, readers. As interesting as the LEFT SIDE of Boboli Gardens was, it’s apparently the RIGHT SIDE that’s the bomb-diggity. Do I know what’s over there to tell you to look out for? NOPE.
DO SOME SHOPPING AT THE OUTDOOR MARKETS.
Shopping! One of the most important reasons for visiting Florence. There are many outdoor markets worth checking out while you’re here. Get your handbags, your scarves, gloves, belts, and anything else you could ever need made of leather. And when I say “leather” I really mean, “uh-LETH-ERR.” It makes you feel buck naked. It’s like a second skin. Although I just buy purses sooo… fully clothed here.
My favorites are the San Lorenzo Market with its indoor counterpart–the Central Market–and Mercato Porcellino (which also goes by the names of Straw Market, New Market, Mercato Nuovo, and probably more I don’t know about). At both you can find all the leather your heart desires, jewelry, clothing, and maybe some touristy souvenirs? But I don’t remember seeing any of that. At Mercato Porcellino you will find the bronze statue of the pig–rub his snout and put a coin in his mouth. If the water washes the coin out of the mouth and into the grate below, you’ll have good luck. I guess luck comes cheap these days.
DON’T ACCEPT THE FIRST PRICE YOU’RE OFFERED.
Duh. That’s the first lesson in Outdoor Foreign Market Shopping 101. Damn, if only that were a real class. I may have to change my major…
I haven’t come across a shop owner who wasn’t willing to haggle. Have fun with it. Wave your hands. Walk away in disgust. Make up elaborate stories. Whatever. I once told a man who was trying to sell me a ring for 20 Euros that he sold me the same ring last week for only 10. “Oh, yes OK, 10.” Umm, why can’t life always be this easy? “But you told me last week you were going to give me a 50% raise, remember?” “But you said I didn’t have to pay rent this month.” “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” GASP! I’m a Jedi!
DO PAY ATTENTION–FLORENCE IS BURSTING WITH UNUSUAL STREET ART.
One of my favorite artists is a Florentine street artist known as Blub 💦 (emoji included). For whatever reason he paints celebrities, other famous works of art, pop culture icons, etc, all underwater wearing snorkel masks. And I dig it. You’ll see it plastered all over Florence and he told me he has a studio where you can purchase prints.
Also, and as I’ve only seen in Italy, you can find art in the most unusual and probably illegal places… My simple mind found it hilarious so I tried to snap them all but finally got sick of taking so many damn pictures because these are EVERYWHERE. Apparently there are A LOT of places you can’t go in Italy…
DO END YOUR DAY WITH WINE JUICE BOXES AND SUNSETS AT PIAZZALE MICHELANGELO.
Uhh yes, wine comes in 1€ juice boxes. And yes, you should most definitely load up. We get ours from the Conad but I’m sure you can find them at any grocery store–Italy wouldn’t want you to go without wine for even a minute.
Piazzale Michelangelo is a large plaza overlooking Florence and, without a doubt, my favorite spot in Florence.
On my first ever day in Florence, the trip from the center of town to Piazzale Michelangelo took no less than three hours (when it should have only taken 20 minutes). We didn’t know what (or, obviously, where) it was just that it was listed as something to check out in Florence. We wandered around indiscriminately like nerds at a pool party. Every so often we asked people on the street how to get there and if it would be worth it (‘it’ being the miles and miles of walking). Even the local Florentines nodded their heads enthusiastically.
We ended up taking a back alley path completely around the perimeter of the city, through people’s backyards and driveways. Don’t ask. I really don’t know. However, when we reached it… MY. GOD.
That was the moment I fell in love with Florence. THOSE VIEWS! I’d never seen anything like it in my life. You can see the entire city and not too different than it was 600 years ago. Not to mention, we were awarded for our hike and potentially illegal trespassing with a sunset more phenomenal than the fact that we actually made it there in time for one.
I had two best friends, my fiancé, a stash of wine juice boxes, and an acoustic guitar playing in the background. Florence, you killed it! At the end of a rushed day through Florence with another coming up, Piazzale Michelangelo is the perfect place to end your night. And I promise it’ll take you less than half an hour to walk back to your hotel.
DON’T EVER FORGET THIS FEELING.
This is the life and don’t you forget it. You’re traveling! You’re in Italy! You’ve seen so much really old stuff today and tomorrow you’re going to see even more. You have nowhere to be but here. No worries. Someone else is at home scooping your cat’s litter box for a change. I’m fully convinced that Florence is magic so don’t ever forget the way you feel while you’re there. You can take it with you anywhere… presumably in one of the four handbags you bought at the market earlier.
DON’T… KNOW WHERE TO STAY?
Our first time staying in Florence we arrived by train with plenty of wine goals but no plans for accommodation. We chose Hotel Aurora because it’s right across the street from Florence’s main train & bus station and was the first place we saw. Keep it simple, y’all. Read reviews on Tripadvisor or go ahead and book your room now!
We requested two rooms which turned out to be two full-sized apartments. Nay, way bigger than full-size because I live in Boston and a full-size Boston apartment could fit in the kitchen of these. And for Italy, these were just downright lavish, for not-so-lavish prices. A huge kitchen, master bedroom, master bath, dining room, and just look at that patio.
You can’t beat the location, the service, and they even have a great breakfast in a cutesy little garden. We even had one of those old-timey elevators where you have to shut the door yourself. Badass.
Our second overnight in Florence we stayed at Hotel Aurora again. This time we were given a room just off the lobby–the modern opposite of the old-timey space of yore. I don’t know what they’ve got going on at Hotel Aurora, but I like it. It’s a surprise every time you stay there. Read reviews on Tripadvisor or go ahead and book your room now!
Get ready for DAY TWO!
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