Love art? Sculpture? Music? Religious architecture? Shopping? Food? Then welcome to Disney for adults. You can see more, do more, learn more, and shop more in 3 days in Florence than almost anyplace else on Earth.
As I said in the Introduction to Florence post, we’re not going to spend a lot of time on the Big 3 attractions in town: the Duomo, Uffizi, and the Galleria dell’Accademia (home to Michelangelo’s David). Much has already been written about these sites, so let me offer some brief, yet very practical advice regarding your visits there:
- Avoid very long waits by booking tickets online via these links for the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia. For reference, viewing the art in the Uffizi can be an all day affair, especially if you combine it with visits to the Palazzo Vecchio next door and the nearby Ponte Vecchio. Seeing the David can be combined with a trip to the Central Market, San Lorenzo Market, and Basilica di San Lorenzo. (See the discussion below.)
- There is no charge to enter the Duomo, so you’ll simply have to show up and stand in line. However, you will need to buy a €15 ticket to access the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome. The ticket will also get you into Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata and the Opera Museum.
The view from the top of the Dome is spectacular, and the climb is incredibly educational and also physically taxing. (Note to the faint of heart: The paintings on the Dome ceiling, only visible on the way to the top, are graphic illustrations of what Hell is like. They are not for the squeamish, prudish, or young children.)
Shopping, Sightseeing, and More
It’s (all too) easy to shop in Florence. And the depth and breadth of what’s available is amazing. Let’s start where the family will have the most fun: in and around the San Lorenzo Market (Mercato di San Lorenzo) and Central Market (Mercato Centrale). They’re in the upper left hand portion of the map below. (Click on the map for an enlarged version.) Plan on spending the morning here, and having lunch in the Central Market.
The San Lorenzo Market consists of hundreds (if not thousands) of outdoor stalls filled with leather goods, silks, stationery, clothing, books, etc. As you expect, everything is negotiable. Also, if prices seem much better than in the stores, that’s because the goods in the market are most likely of lesser quality and probably made in China. You’re not going to find Italian silks from Como. You’re going to find entertainment
If you’re interested in higher quality leather goods, there are better places to shop. (See the post on Santa Croce.) Also, keep in mind that “Pelle” is the Italian word for leather — not a brand that you should pay more for!
The Central Market is a huge indoor wholesale and retail food market where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, cheeses, baked goods, olive oil, etc. Most of these are sold on the main floor. You can also grab some cappuccini and biscotti as you work your way around the shops, stalls, and counters.
Upstairs is another type of gastronomic wonderland, with restaurants galore. Have a coffee or lunch. Sip a beer. Sit and talk to people from all over the world as you enjoy fresh Florentine food. The place gets very crowded, so grab the first seats you can find.
Across the street is the Basilica di San Lorenzo, one of the largest churches in Florence. It is the burial place of all the principal members of the Medici family from Cosimo il Vecchio to Cosimo III. The church is part of a larger monastic complex that contains other important architectural and artistic works: the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi, with interior decoration and sculpture by Donatello; the Laurentian Library by Michelangelo; the New Sacristy based on Michelangelo’s designs; and the Medici Chapels by Matteo Nigetti. Tickets are about €7. (Photo by Sailko)
If the Basilica di San Lorenzo whetted your appetite for Renaissance art, walk a few blocks to the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. It is the oldest great basilica in Florence and the city’s principal Dominican church. The complex contains a wealth of art treasures, funerary monuments, and frescoes by Gothic and early Renaissance masters. Also, you’ll note that the square behind the church is much more open and modern than what’s typical for Florentine piazzas.
Now, walk back towards the City Center and spend the afternoon exploring what Bob calls Florence’s Retail Rectangle. (See and click on the map below.) The more famous global-brand stores tend to be on North-South streets, with local stores on the East-West ones. Take your time and check them all out. The local merchants are very friendly and eager to please – and will probably negotiate. Most will ship and may cover the VAT (value added tax).
The most exclusive stores are on the Via de’ Tornabuoni, on the left side of the rectangle outlined in pink below. (Click on the picture for a full size version.) You’ll find Gucci, Prada, and CÉLINE, among others. My favorite is the Ferragamo store and Museum(!) at the intersection with the Borgo Santi Apostoli. The city’s main shopping thoroughfare is Via dei Calzaiuoli, on the right side of the rectangle. Stores tend to be more mainstream, with many that will appeal to teens and young kids (yes, that means Disney).
On this street is our favorite central Florence stopping spot, the Coronas Cafè. Its Old World style is reinforced by prominent coffee, gelato, and pastry counters. The uniformed staff may seem a bit brusque, but they’re very busy and can be quite friendly, if you smile (and tip them). In the photo, notice how I’m frantically trying to get my blackberry tart back from Noah.
Close to here is the Piazza della Repubblica, one of the city’s main squares. (It is quite large and traffic free, unless you’re on your honeymoon and your husband gets lost and inadvertently drives into it. On a Sunday afternoon, no less, filled with crowds and street artists.) It’s a great place to people watch and a favorite with the entire family.
If you’re ready to people watch and have a Compari & soda or Aperol spritz, there are a number of cafès in the piazza that also serve snacks and pastries. Most have outdoor seating. While it has gotten to be quite expensive due to its reputation and location, our favorite is Caffè Gilli, which has been around since 1733. Have a prosecco and enjoy life!
Want to park the kids while you sit and sip? There’s a carousel in the piazza. There are also street artists, mimes, singers, acting troupes, and musicians. Evenings are especially entertaining, and not to be missed.
When you leave the park, walk east to Via Calimala. Turn right and walk south until you get to a small outdoor shopping area, the Mercato del Porcellino. Procellino means “piglet” in Italian, and the market gets its name from the bronze statue of the boar located there. It’s good luck to rub the boar’s nose. As you can see, Noah is one lucky kid!
Walk one more block south and you’ll come to the Piazza della Signoria on your left. Filled with important art and political history, it is considered to be Florence’s main, and probably most important, square..
The piazza is anchored by the Palazzo Vecchio, a medieval fortress turned Renaissance palace, museum, and home to the Medicis. The Uffizi Gallery is right next store. Besides art and politics, the Piazza is filled with restaurants and cafès. The photo at the top of this post was taken here. As you can see, evenings are a special time to see and be seen in the city’s main squares.
There are some very good, reasonably priced, family-friendly restaurants in the area (see top map). These include:
- Osteria Vini e Vecchi Saporia – A very small and extremely popular place, it’s right off the Piazza della Signoria. The food is simple, traditional, well prepared, and very Tuscan. Lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday. Book ahead, if possible.
- Ristorante Toto’ – Want to watch a happy, hungry, multi-generational Italian family sit around a table and devour steak Florentine for Sunday dinner? Do the kids want pizza and pasta? This warm and friendly place close to the Arno is a good choice. Lunch and dinner. Open every day.
- Trattoria Nella – Typical Tuscan food in a typical Tuscan setting. Also close to the Arno. Reviews have been a bit inconsistent, but appear to be trending up. Close to the Arno. Lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday.
Tips from Noah:
- Everything my Mom said that kids would like is true. The plazas are fun, the gelato and pastries are great. The naked statue of David (replica in the Piazza della Signoria) is funny!
- The Galileo Museum (Museo Galileo) is so cool! They have one of his fingers and one of his teeth there! They also have a bunch of really creepy surgeon’s tools from 600 years ago, and some cool navigation stuff. (Near the Uffizi and right by the river.)
Masthead photo: Evening in the Piazza della Signoria (Paige)