I was privileged to study abroad in Italy for five weeks after my sophomore year of college. My group traveled to a plethora of cities (including Rome, of course), and while I loved the time we spent in each one, Florence left me in awe.
Here is what you need to know before traveling to the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region and the home to numerous masterpieces of Renaissance architecture and art.
Know before you go
While I was packing up my suitcase before getting on our school’s charter bus, I researched what to do in Florence. I am a frugal spender, so I wanted to know the best sites to see, how much I would pay for tours, possible souvenirs for friends and family, and the best money-friendly restaurants for food — but let’s be honest, I wanted to know where to find gelato.
One of my friends had provided me with a travel site, Nomadic Matt, that really helped me plan and feel like I was a local throughout our time in Italy. His tips include the most important part: attending to your budget, whether you’re backpacking or living luxuriously. Wherever you’re going, if it’s someplace new to you, I highly suggest applying some research so you can make the most of it.
If you have limited time there, like I did, you’ll want to make every minute count. One way to do that is to walk a lot — I walked seven miles in one day according to my phone’s health tracker. You’ll get more benefits than just getting your steps in for the day — you’ll get a better feel for the city and its people, the pace of life there, and you’ll be open to new surprises that don’t show up on the radar of other travelers.
After seeing La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona 13 years ago, I became an admirer of church architecture. So after my research, it would have been hard not to visit the third-largest church in the world, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Brunelleschi’s Dome is iconic, and its interior holds a mural depicting the last judgment. Just witnessing the architecture from the outside was like a dream. Completed in the 15th century, this cathedral was dedicated to Mary under the title, the Virgin of the Flower, in 1412. The details on the outside are impeccable, just like the art and architecture on the inside.
While having our dinner on the first night, we had a beautiful view of Ponte Vecchio, one of the most famous bridges in the world. “Old Bridge” has been in place since the 12th century, and it served as the only point for locals to cross the Arno River. The views from the bridge — and of the bridge, itself — are stunning, so I made sure I was taking mental pictures of the views as well as on my camera.
I’ve never been one to enjoy tours of art galleries, but Galleria dell’Accademia changed my perspective. The paintings in this museum are breathtaking, especially Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The artwork here is world-renowned, and you’ve probably seen representations of these works elsewhere, but nothing compares to seeing them in person.
Case-in-point: Michelangelo’s masterpiece sculpture, The David, stands at the end of a long hallway filled with other Renaissance works. Standing at about 17 feet tall, the biblical hero makes you feel tiny as you take in his form. I was amazed how the world-famous artist could make marble look so soft and so detailed (and he was only 26 years old when he sculpted this! NBD).
Need to try
Wherever you are in Italy, you have to get all the gelato you can consume, and there’s no better place to do that than Florence — it’s where the stuff was invented! There is a gelato shop called My Sugar that is close to the galleria. I loved how it had unique flavors, but also the vanilla and chocolate staples.
Additionally, Golden View Open Bar is a fantastic restaurant with views of the Arno River (you can’t get enough of it). It offers vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, and offered prompt service when we dined. My friends and I ordered appetizers so we could all split the cost while enjoying cheese, different meats, and bread.
And after all of those carbs and calories, Florence has numerous bike tours. You get a workout in while also learning more about the city and covering more ground than on foot. It’s a good idea to travel in a group, as mopeds and small cars tend not to watch out for bicyclists or pedestrians.
Make the most of your experience
From cathedrals to art galleries, Florence is full of Renaissance art and architecture. The beauty on display — from the city itself to the artwork within it — is enough to contemplate in a lifetime. This is a city that knows how to patronize the arts, and in turn, art has shaped and defined the city. The same can be true for any visitor: give your attention to the beauty here, and it will speak to you. Beauty opens up within us a space for self-reflection and gratitude, which enriches our lives — that’s something that’s available almost anywhere your turn Florence, no matter the length of your visit.