A friend recently asked me for recommendations on a day trip from Rome to Florence, and it hit me that I’ve never blogged about Florence even though it’s my second favorite city in Italy. Can you do Florence in one day? Absolutely. Should you? Absolutely not. Florence may not have some of the grandiosities you’ll see in Rome or the unique sights of tourist favorites like Venice, but it’s a gorgeous and enjoyable city.
How to do Florence in one day
Florence sits somewhere midway between Rome in the center of Italy and Milan and Venice to the north of Italy. Its closest major city is Bologna, only a 30-minute train ride away. Arriving from Rome would be the second shortest distance there, almost an hour and a half. From Milan, it would take anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours. Venice is about 2 hours away by train. Note that driving would be far slower from any of these cities, more than double the time in some cases, so skip the car rental.
To make the best of Florence in one day, you should take the earliest possible train and arrive in the city when everything is starting to open up, at 8 or 9 am at the latest. Another important thing to plan ahead for is prebooking entrances for any museums or other sites you want to visit. Otherwise, I guarantee you will either spend your day in Florence waiting in neverending lines or you won’t get in anywhere.
Suggested things to do in Florence
Go to a museum or two
Florence has some very important museums and galleries, especially if you appreciate Renaissance painting and sculpture.
The most visited one in Florence, in all of Italy in fact, is the Uffizi Gallery, a collection of works from the Italian Renaissance originally owned by the Medici family. Here you’ll find works from artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, along with perhaps its most famous work: The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. Entrance is €29 including a reservation fee, and is booked online in 15-minute timeslots. This prevents the museum from becoming too overcrowded at any given time.
A smaller but equally important Renaissance museum is the Galleria dell’Accademia. It’s the second-most visited museum in Italy, and for good reason. Along with many paintings and sculptures by Florentine artists, it houses Michelangelo’s David. Unless you’re have a particular affinity for Renaissance art, it can get kind of boring after you’ve seen 2,000 works in one shot. But nothing can diminish the hair-raising astonishment of turning into the final hallway of the museum and seeing David in all his perfect and surprisingly gigantic splendor. Tickets to the Galleria dell’Accademia are €12 but the advance reservation fee makes it €16. Like the Uffizi Gallery, it’s booked in 15-minute timeslots, requiring you to do some planning ahead to ensure you make it for your entrance time.
Visit the Duomo
The Florence Cathedral, the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, is one of the largest and most magnificent cathedral complexes in Europe. Its facade is covered in pink, green, and white marble tiles, making it one of the most visually impressive cathedrals in the country. It stands in the Piazza del Duomo, and its bricked dome can be seen all over the city. Though entrance to the Florence Cathedral itself is free, specific parts of the complex are accessible via an €18 ticket, which covers Giotto’s Bell Tower, Brunelleschi’s Dome, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Crypt of Santa Reparata, and the Museum of the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Note that both the bell tower and dome require a 400+ step climb. Luckily the ticket is valid for 72 hours after its first use, so you don’t need to do both climbs in one day (one of the many reasons I recommend staying longer than one day in Florence). Only the Dome requires you to reserve a visit time. If you have to pick just one, I recommend the Dome, which gives you the external city views as well as the opportunity to see the frescoes of the cupola up close and personal.
Walk around the squares
After you’ve gotten all the prebooked stuff out of the way, Florence is a fantastic city to just walk around and take in a whole lot of architectural wonders. Aside from the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll want to check out the Piazza della Signoria, which is where you’ll find the Palazzo Vecchio. You can tour the museum of the Palazzo, which includes statues and paintings from notable Italian artists as well as the private rooms of the Medici court, in all their royal glory. Of course, visiting in one day might be kind of a lot if you’re also planning to do any museums or the Duomo. You’ll inevitably have to sacrifice something. If you do pick the Palazzo Vecchio, you can visit for €13.50 including the prebooking fee.
If you’re not visiting, the square is still worth a visit as its perhaps the most important in Florence. Aside from the striking fortress-like Palazzo, you’ll find the open air sculpture gallery of the Loggia dei Lanzi. There’s also a replica of Michelangelo’s David at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Another popular square to at least walk through is the Piazza della Repubblica, which used to be the forum of Florence. The square houses some historic cafes like Paszkowski and Caffe Gilli, which is the oldest café in the city. Piazza Santa Croce is another one of Florience’s main plazas, taking its name from the Basilica of Santa Croce which overlooks it. Also flanking the square is the National Central Library, which is the largest in Italy. It’s open to the public in a strict library capacity. They won’t let you in as a tourist.
See Florence from the other side of the river
One other major square that should be high on your to-do list is the Piazzale Michelangelo, which is on the south bank of the Arno River. It also contains a cast replica of Michelangelo’s David in bronze. But the best thing about the Piazzale Michelangelo is the elevated view over the river of the most iconic sights you will have walked through to get there. Getting there also allows you to cross the medieval stone bridge, Ponte Vecchio.
It’s a steep climb up, but it’s one of the nicest views of the city, with plenty of lush greenery to the south of the river and the city’s terracotta-topped sights to the north of it.
Just a few steps away from the Piazzale Michelangelo are the botanical gardens Giardino dell’Iris, which is especially worthwhile in May when the iris is in full bloom.
Eat and drink
Florence is the beating heart of Tuscany, so it would be criminal to leave without having at least one glass of wine and a hearty meal. It’s the most famous wine region in the country and almost all restaurants will have a healthy selection of local wines. Tuscany is also known for its truffle production. In fact, truffle hunting tours are popular from Florence, which aside from showing you how to find them will teach you how to prepare them for cooking. In lieu of truffle-hunting in the woods, you can sit down to a plate of truffle pasta and a nice bottle of red at a local restaurant.
I know this is a ridiculously specific shopping recommendation, but as soon as you step foot in Florence you’ll understand why. Florentine leather production is a tradition that has been passed down for centuries, and there are leather shops all over the city. Some are small family-owned boutiques and some are factory outlets where you can browse a massive selection of leather goods. Instead of taking home a shitty fridge magnet of the Duomo, even a small leather token makes a much better souvenir. You can buy anything and everything from apparel like shoes and jackets to accessories like wallets and belts, which will be sized for you.
Don’t get scammed though. Some leather shops are not authentic, so you should use online reviews and your own senses and some light sleuthing to find out what you’re dealing with. Real Italian leather will either be stamped or have an embroidered tag that says “100% Vera Pelle.” Avoid buying anything that is too stiff or smells like plastic (though some fakers do spray their products with a leather smell). Basically, do you research and use your common sense if you’re about to drop a couple hundred dollars on leather goods.
While you’re shopping, it can’t hurt to take home a bottle of Chianti and some truffle oil.