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If you’re spending one day in Florence, Italy, here’s the perfect itinerary to make your (all too short) day trip fabulous.
Let the tourist onslaught begin! It’s time to spend one day in Florence, the Renaissance gem of Italy, where you’ll cross paths with every other tourist in the world – except for the hordes already in Venice and Rome. No matter. A few thousand eager travellers clutching their Rick Steves Florence and Tuscany guidebook shouldn’t get in your way – there are so many great things to do in Florence that the city is meant to be shared.
Rich in art, history and Medici intrigue, Florence is a fabulous destination for day-trippers, shoppers and history buffs – unless, of course, you’re tired, hungry and/or cranky – then all the other tourists will get in your way and you’ll hate them. If this happens take a gelato break immediately. I recommend the Gelateria dei Neri at Via dei Neri 20-22.
This post will show you how to see Florence in a day – although there is so much to see that the more time you can spend here the better. We’ll also go into some juicy bits of history, particularly about the Medicis, the formidable family that ruled Florence during the Renaissance.
Of course we’ll also talk about the best Florence attractions, museums and places to visit. So let’s begin.
One day in Florence
The Cradle of the Renaissance and a Medici stronghold for centuries, Florence is the capital of Tuscany. It’s one of Italy’s most popular destinations. For good reason. Together with Venice and Rome, it’s part of an unbeatable trio of Italian cities, packed with world-class museums, historic architecture, atmospheric street scenes and delectable Tuscan cuisine.
If you have only one day in Florence you’ll be doing a fair bit of museum hopping – but you don’t want to cram so much that you don’t have time to simply stroll around. After all, it’s not called a ‘living museum’ for nothing and you’ll see plenty by meandering through the backstreets.
The itinerary below is jam packed so don’t feel bad if you leave out a museum or two.
Start at the Uffizi Gallery
Museums are always better when you’re fresh so it’s good to start early. And the one museum you won’t want to miss in Florence is the Uffizi Gallery.
The Uffizi is a work of art in itself. The vast building with its long rows of columns was built as an office headquarters for the Medici family in the 16th century. It was designed by Giorgio Vasari who, if you’re into gossipy art criticism, wrote an excellent book called Lives of the Artists.
There are two ways to see the Uffizi without subjecting yourself to that excruciating travellers’ pain known as line-up-agony, and in this popular Italian city you need to do everything you can to avoid long waits. If you have only one day in Florence you can’t be wasting your time (unless it’s in a leather store).
Uffizi without the crowds
The Uffizi Gallery without the lines
One method of skipping the line is to get to here early, blink in horror at the endless row of tourists who got up even earlier than you did (even though you did your hair as fast as you could and wouldn’t let your husband have that second double espresso), then suck it up and pay extra for a Uffizi tour that the touts are offering out front.
The tour is irrelevant. All you want to do is skip the line. But surprise! When Mark and I took this route we ended up having an excellent tour, and you might too. It was actually quite funny and enlightening and didn’t drag on, which meant we still had energy to find the Caravaggios afterwards.
However, on our most recent visit, there were no tours to sign up for, so use this method with caution. (And the same thing happened to us in Milan.) We were only able to join a Uffizi tour at the last minute because two people who had booked online hadn’t shown up.
So now, I practically insist you get a ticket beforehand, especially if you’re trying to squeeze all of Florence into a day.
The best way to see the Uffizi is to buy a ticket with skip-the-line access. You can book an Ultimate Uffizi: Priority Entrance Tour here from $68.49. Mark and I have done Uffizi tours twice now, and learned so much each time.
A cheaper alternative is a get a skip-the-line ticket without the tour from $22.83 and visit the museum on your own.
What to see at the Uffizi
Once you’re in the Uffizi Do. Not. Miss. The Birth of Venus, painted in 1486, or the lovely Primavera (1482), two masterpieces by the painter Sandro Botticelli. These are two of the most famous paintings in the Uffizi, and Botticelli, a painter who lived his whole life in Florence, represents the city as no one else can.
With its pale colours and linear lyricism, Botticelli’s work is almost too romantic to be believed, and during his lifetime he was a hugely successful artist. But perhaps his art was too pretty, and towards the end of his life ‘pretty’ went out of fashion and was considered too decorative to be serious art.
After the artist’s death, his work fell out of favour and stayed that way for a very long time, pretty much until the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century rediscovered his work and redeemed the unabashed beauty of his paintings.
Now we can love Botticelli again. Hurrah.
The Birth of Venus, seen on postcards and coffee mugs around the world, depicts the golden-haired goddess of love and beauty. She’s standing on a giant scallop shell as she arrives on the island Cyprus. It was likely commissioned by one of the Medicis – they were the biggest art patrons of the day.
Who was Savonarola?
If you’re going to visit Florence, it’s good to know a bit about Savonarola, as this fiercely-religious Dominican friar nearly single-handedly destroyed the Medicis, who ruled the city of Florence during the Renaissance.
Savonarola called himself Christ’s ‘useless servant,’ and was instrumental in ousting the Medicis by railing against their power and corruption. So, when you’re walking around Florence, try to imagine Savonarola preaching brimstone and fire and doom, with thousands of citizens being stirred up to anger. Of course the Medicis didn’t go lightly.
Scary times. But we’ll hear more about him later.
Good read if you’re into gruesome history and gripping tales: The Birth of Venus: A Novel by Sarah Dunant.
Learn more with a tour: To dig into the fascinating story of the Medicis you can book a 2-hour walking Florence: Medici Family Tour here.
Paolo Uccello at the Uffizi
Back to the art. Here’s a hidden masterpiece. Because art tours through the Uffizi don’t usually stop at the Battle of San Romeo by the late Gothic painter Paolo Uccello, you’ll likely be able to see one of my very favourite paintings without looking over a sea of heads.
I was amazed how few people stopped to gaze at this evocative painting celebrating the victory of Florence over their bitter enemy, Siena, back in 1432.
Take a look at Uccello’s mastery over perspective in the battle scene. Not just a painter but a mathematician, he understood perspective and foreshortening like no one else did, and was a key figure in shaping Renaissance art. Need I mention those velvety horses?
By studying paintings like these, by the artists who lived and worked here, you’ll get a rich grounding in Florentine history and art, but of course there is so much more to see.
Other top artworks not to miss at the Uffizi include the Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, the Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals by Raphael, and the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci.
The Piazza della Signoria
Right next to the Uffizi Gallery is the Piazza della Signoria. In this art-laden square you’ll feel as if you’ve found the centre of Florence (and so has everyone else, so get ready to start feeling cranky).
Here you’ll get a special treat – the exciting chance to see the faux statue of David not quite by Michelangelo! The real one is in the Accademia.
To understand the importance of the Piazza della Signoria, you need to step into the past. The piazza has been a pivotal point in Florentine politics and its deadly games of power for hundreds of years.
The Bonfire of the Vanities in the Piazza della Signoria
In 1497, Savonarola (the fanatical preacher) held the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities here, burning thousands upon thousands of ‘frivolous’ objects such as books, mirrors, fine clothing and art – in other words, anything that could distract from the worship of God. It was the culmination of years of preaching against the ‘paganism’ of the Renaissance.
He’d already ousted the Medicis, who had fled the city in 1494 after an angry mob had burned down the Medici bank – the family’s financial stronghold.
The Bonfire of the Vanities was the burning peak of Savonarola’s sway over the people. It’s said that even Botticelli threw some of his artwork into the fire. (Good thing he didn’t have access to The Birth of Venus or Primavera!)
But the tides would turn against Savonarola. In 1498 he was denounced as a heretic and burned at the stake. Where? Right here in the Piazza della Signoria. And in 1530, it’s where the Medicis made their triumphant return.
The Loggia dei Lanzi
It would be hard to visit the Piazza della Signoria and not notice the open-air sculpture gallery thinly separated from the piazza by huge stone archways. This is the Loggia dei Lanzi, also called the Loggia Signoria, and by various other names.
Under its vaulted roof, the space is filled with sculptures from both the Antiquities and the Renaissance. It’s a stunning sight, but go closer in for a glimpse of the macabre.
First you might notice a bronze statue of Perseus holding up the severed head of the Medusa. Created by Benvenuto Cellini, the sculpture took 10 years to make and has stood here since 1554.
You’ll also find the marble Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna, which has been here since 1583. Giambologna’s sculpture of Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus, which isn’t much more cheery, was installed here much later.
Also on display is the ancient Roman sculpture of Hercules supporting the body of Patroclus, and the 19th-century Rape of Polyxena by Pio Fedi.
It’s a striking collection of sculpture that crosses centuries and styles, and with its overarching theme of violence, clearly symbolizes the city’s (and the Medici family’s) might.
The Palazzo Vecchio
You can’t see all of Florence in a day, but since you’re at the Piazza della Signoria anyway, take a look at the Palazzo Vecchio, which is directly on the square. The Palazzo Vecchio, the Old Palace of Florence, is a museum, clock tower and Romanesque town hall all in one.
Admittedly the palace, built between 1299 and 1314, looks like a grim sort of fortress from the outside. Inside it’s more lavish, especially the Hall of the Five Hundred, the Salone dei Cinquecento. This impressive chamber was added in 1494 – not by the Medicis who, remember, had been run out of the city – but by their infamous foe, Girolamo Savonarola, for whom the hall was a symbol of the new Florentine Republic.
The biggest room in all of Florence, the Hall of the Five Hundred is 54 meters long, 23 metres wide and 18 metres high. It was designed to hold a council of 500. This way, power over the city would be spread among many, rather than being held by a single family (namely, the Medicis).
It was a short-lived dream. Savonarola had made too many enemies. He was denounced, the Medicis came back and reclaimed the Palazzo Vecchio. They put Giorgio Vasari (the designer of the Uffizi) in charge of redoing the Hall of the Five Hundred on a magnificent scale.
The result? Stunning wall frescoes, golden embellishments, elaborate statues and a lavish coffered ceiling.
Climbing the tower at the Piazza Vecchio
Florence has a surprising amount of towers to climb. If you have excess energy feel free to head up the 223 steps of the Palazzo’s clock tower, the Tower of Arnofo.
Get a Palazzo Vecchio Entrance Ticket with Tower Access here. From $18.26.
South of the Piazza della Signoria is the River Arno and the famous Ponte Vecchio. Ponte Vecchio, which means Old Bridge in Italian, is an old …. well, you get the idea. It’s actually the oldest bridge in Florence.
Spanning the River Arno, the bridge is a photographer’s dream because of the houses built right on it. Today it’s crammed with gold shops, tourists and entertainers but back in 1345, when it was originally built, it was lined with workshops, butchers, tanners, blacksmiths and the like. It’s fun if you’re in the mood, and a madhouse if you’re not.
This is one place (along with Piazza della Signoria) where the tourist crowds drive me batty. Then again, my very presence probably drives other tourists, not to mention the locals, batty as well.
Once you’ve muscled your way into a spot by the river to photograph the bridge, it’s time for a lunch break so walk north to the Mercato Centrale.
The Mercato Centrale, a historic cast iron and glass building, dates back to 1874. Inside you’ll find the Tuscan delicacies of your dreams, from exquisite olive oils and white truffles to regional salami and ox tongue.
One recommended food stall is Da Nerbone. Feeling adventurous? For some traditional Tuscan cuisine try a lampredotto, slow-cooked stomach of cow. Or maybe just a dish of risotto.
Mercato San Lorenzo
One of the most popular things to do in Florence is to shop, and for all your souvenir needs, the Mercato San Lorenzo, next to the Mercato Centrale sells everything from leather bags and jackets to hopelessly tacky keepsakes.
Shopping in Florence
All in all, half of historic Florence is taken up with leather shops, and north of the Ponte Vecchio you’ll find a million gazillion stores. When Mark was shopping for a jacket, we were told that the same jacket was variously made of goat leather, lamb, baby lamb, or calf, depending on which shop we saw it in.
In many of the small boutiques of Florence you’ll find knockoffs of designer leather fashions and some appealing options, but for the life of me I can’t understand why there seems to be the same 10 jackets in every store.
Mark finally found a shop he liked and bought the jacket, but to this day we can’t remember which animal it’s supposed to have come from. (Update: Now he hates the jacket and never wears it, so be careful what you buy.)
Personally, I prefer The Mall, a designer outlet mall 30 minutes outside the city, but if you only have one day to see Florence, you’re not likely to get there. (Unless of course, you have an outlet mall shopping battle with your husband and win.)
The Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David
If you haven’t succumbed totally to a shopping addiction, let’s get back to seeing some of the great art of Florence. East of the Mercato San Lorenzo is the Galleria della Accademia at Via Faenza, 7. The reason you’re here is to see the real sculpture of David, which Michelangelo chiseled out of marble between 1501 and 1504.
Michelangelo was commissioned to make the sculpture when he was only 26, and it was originally meant to be placed high up in the cupola of the Duomo.
Try to ignore the fact that David’s head and hands are really huge (no, come on, they are) in comparison to the rest of his body. Experts will tell you Michelangelo created it this way because of perspective and the way it was meant to be viewed from below, but I’m not 100% convinced. Let’s just agree it’s a masterpiece. Because it is.
Other things to see in the Galleria della Accademia include a plaster model of the sculpture Rape of the Sabines by the artist Giambologna – you saw the original back at the Loggia dei Lanzi – and religious paintings by our good friends Botticelli and Uccello.
In the Hall of Slaves you’ll also find Michelangelo’s unfinished masterpieces the Slaves, or the Prisoners, originally intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
Skip the lines with a Florence: Michelangelo’s David Guided Accademia Gallery Tour. Book here – prices from $45.66.
The Duomo, also known as the Cattedrale Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers, is a pastel vision of magnificence, and really should be part of any one day in Florence itinerary. Although granted, you’re probably getting tired by now. Struggle on. It’s worth it.
The cathedral was planned back in 1296 and took centuries to complete. The showstopper is its massive dome, which was added in 1436. A structural wonder, it was the largest dome that had ever been built, and was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Still today, the orangey-red herringbone brick of the dome is an unmistakable part of the Florence skyline.
It’s the exterior of the Duomo, however, that touches my soul, an ethereal confection of white marble from Carrera, pink marble from Maremma and green marble from Prato, along with intricate carvings and reliefs.
Inside isn’t as ornate. Other than the glowing dome, you could say it’s downright plain and simple. We have Savonarola and his ideas of austerity to thank for that.
If you look to your left you will, however, see a fresco by Paolo Uccello, the Equestrian Monument to Sir John Hawkwood, which was painted in 1436.
Light a moth to a light, however, you’ll probably be drawn immediately to the cupola of the dome. Crank your neck so you can see the enormous fresco of the Last Judgment by none other than Giorgio Vasari. Remember him? He was the architect of both the Uffizi and the Hall of the Five Hundred.
Painting the cupola was a huge undertaking and Vasari died before it was completed, so Federico Zuccari took over. From such a height it all looks very pastoral and heavenly, but the most famous bit is actually the gruesome devil-laden scenes of Hell, where naked bodies are being torn apart, flayed, attacked with pitchforks and carted off by horrible horned creatures.
It’s quite frightening, just very hard to see.
Buy Duomo Tickets Entrance to the Duomo is free, but the lineups can be as frightening as the scenes of Hell. You can save time with a Duomo skip-the-line entry and 30-minute express guided tour. Prices from $28.54.
Climbing the dome
If you’re looking for active things to do in Florence, you can climb up the 463 steps to the cupola. Apparently it’s a must-do activity in Florence. At least that’s what they tell me. Next time I’m going to do it. For sure. It’s one way to get a closer look at the Last Judgement.
While it costs nothing to enter the Duomo, there is a charge to climb the dome. You can book a Florence Dome Climb Ticket here. Price from $47.50 USD.
The Piazza del Duomo
Once you’ve left the Duomo, you’ll be back on the Piazza del Duomo and there are a few wonderful things to see here. Take a look at the Baptistry of San Giovanni, one of the oldest churches in Florence. Built between 1059 and 1128, it has a unique octagonal design. Particularly famous are its bronze doors with their gleaming religious panels.
Another sight on the Piazza del Duomo is Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Campanile di Giotto, an exquisite example of Gothic architecture. It was started in 1334, and after Giotto’s death it was completed by Andrea Pisano.
If you still have any energy left over, you can climb its 414 steps.
More things to do in Florence
Still wondering what to do in Florence? Aren’t you tired by now? If you have superhuman sightseeing skills or have more than a day, I recommend the Bargello Museum, the Basilica di Santa Croce, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. If you have more time you could go to the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The Bargello Museum in Florence
The quiet and peaceful museum at Via del Proconsolo, 4, is home to another renowned statue of David, Donatello’s bronze. Older and smaller than Michelangelo’s David, it’s a strange sultry statue, the first free-standing nude to be sculpted after the Dark Ages. (Read more about these famous David statues of Italy.)
If you’re interested in Bernini statues at all, a highlight of visiting the Bargello Museum, at least for me, is the practically-breathing bust of Costanza Bonarelli, Bernini’s lover and nearly his downfall.
Basilica di Santa Croce
The Basilica de Santa Croce, built in the 13th century, is the resting place of many greats such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo, as well as a monument to Dante.
Here you’ll find a number of art treasures such as Giotto’s frescoes showing the Life of Saint Francis and the Lives of Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist, as well as a gilded relief of the Annunciation by Donatello.
The Pitti Palace
Built for the wealthy Pitti family in 1457, this ornate palace later became a Medici residence. Today it houses several galleries including the Palatine Gallery, the Royal Apartments, the Silver Museum and the Museum of Costume and Fashion.
Behind the Pitti Palace are the beautiful Italian gardens of the Medicis, an elegant green space filled with statues, grottos, fountains, flowers and centuries-old trees. Perfect for a warm sunny day.
Tour the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens: You can sign up for a 4-hour Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens and Palentine Tour here. From $90.18.
The Piazzale Michelangelo
It’s outside the center, but the Piazzale Michelangelo offers one of the best views of Florence. Bonus: You’ll see yet another replica David not quite by Michelangelo. What’s more authentic than that?
Florence at night
And now that you’ve seen as much as possible of Florence in a day, you can sit back in a cafe and sip a Campari or wander at dusk along the River Arno. If you can’t bare to stop exploring, you could sign up for a 2-hour Walking Tour of Florence at Night. Check it out here. Price for 2019 starts at $35.61.
After all that sightseeing you deserve a big meal. And, unless you’re a vegetarian, it’s only right to lust after a Beefsteak Florentine, a dish traditionally cooked on a wood-fired grill and made from local Chianina beef.
One to try is Ristorante da Lino on Via Santa Elisabetta 6r Tel: +39 055 284579. Or, if you want to get into those Tuscan hills, check out Il Fiesolano in Fiesole at Piazza Mino 9r. Tel: +39 055 59143.
Hopefully this travel article on spending a day in Florence has given you a taste of Renaissance history and some great ideas of what to see. From world-class art to breath-taking climbs (I mean, literally, breath taking) and palatial buildings, the wonderful city of Firenze, will take you back in time.
You may be in Florence on a day trip, but if you’re staying overnight there are many hotel options. Here are a few ideas.
Luxury: The luscious Four Seasons Hotel Firenze is a former convent. But don’t expect austerity here. The 2-star Michelin restaurant and 2-level spa bumps your trip into luxe territory. Luxury travel doesn’t get much better than this.
Outside the city: If the tourist crowds are getting to you, consider staying outside the city at a property such as Il Salviatino, a hotel set on the hillside of Fiesole with views of Florence and an appealing outdoor pool.
Central: Near the Uffizi is the 5-star Hotel Bernini Palace. The setting, in a 15th-century palace, is only a 5-minute walk from the romantic Ponte Vecchio.
Central: Even closer to the Ponte Vecchio is the top-rated Portrait Firenze, a sleek deluxe Lugarno Collection hotel with a setting on the Arno River.
Heated outdoor pool: With an outdoor pool, the opulent Villa Cora is 2 km from the historic centre of Florence and not far from the Boboli Gardens.
Affordable: Farther out, but easier on the budget, is the 4-star Starhotels Tuscany. The #2 Tram will take you into the historical centre.
Check out this map view of available hotels.
For more of the best places in Europe to see: visit Top Destinations in Europe