This Florence travel guide will help you survive the beige that pervades the birthplace of the Renaissance and thrive in the slow and relaxed pace of this most cultured of Italian cities.
After leaving the grandeur of Rome, I arrived in Florence to find it unexpectedly dull and unassuming. It may have been the overcast and grey skies, or it may have been the shades of ochre and beige that began to gnaw at my senses by the end of the first day.
However, by the time I left I had fallen in love with this city, and I want to share my Florence travel guide and how to survive the beige. Be sure to use my Top Travel Tips for any traveller to ensure a hassle free vacation.
If you are visiting other cities you may find my other destination guides helpful too:
- Read about how to make the best of a short stay in the Rome destination guide and about my Roman Taste of Testaccio food tour experience.
- A visit to Venice is mandatory for me and you can read about why you should visit visit before it sinks. I loved my Sweet taste of Venice food tour and I am sure you will too.
What is the best time to visit Florence
The best time to visit any city in Italy is when the weather is still warm but no longer sweltering hot. So either in Spring or early Fall. My favorite time of the year is September when the tourist hordes have mostly gone back to the normal lives. There is place to walk on the sidewalks of the narrow streets and an opportunity to take in the incredible views from the city’s bridges or across the countryside.
Florence weather during September ranges between warm and slightly cool with occasional showers. I always carried an umbrella with me when sightseeing on foot as the showers could come unexpectedly.
How to travel to Florence
I travelled to Florence from Rome by high speed train from Rome’s Termini station to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station. I purchased the ticket for my journey on the Trenitalia website a few months in advance. This ensured I could get the seats I wanted for my journey from Rome and onwards to Venice.
The Frecciarossa trains combine high speed and maximum comfort in the Standard, Premium, Business and Executive services. I opted for the Business Class service and was not disappointed. It was spacious and they also served complimentary sweet and savory snacks and drinks after departure.
My hotel was located close to the train station and after finding the correct exit from the station building, I was there within 5 minutes.
International flights to Florence fly into the Amerigo Vespucci Airport and travelers can reach the city using the shuttle called the Volainbus.
The historical center is small enough to be walkable from end to end, even for someone with impaired mobility like myself. It is also possible and preferable to walk across one of the bridges to Oltarno where the Other side of Florence food tour takes place.
The Firenze card is the official museum pass of the city and costs 72 euros for 72 hour validity. If you think you can accomplish a fraction of the 72 museums and galleries in that short time then it is a bargain. Otherwise I would recommend buying the individual passes for the ones museums and galleries that you absolutely do not want to miss.
The Firenze card can be upgraded to included 72 hours free public transportation on busses and trams in the city. There are bus services to other towns in nearby areas of Tuscany like Chianti, Lucca, and Siena.
Where to stay in Florence
The historic center of Florence is relatively small I decided to stay close to the train station that I was travelling into.
My requirements were as follows:
- Close proximity to the train station.
- Within walking distance to some of the major attractions.
- Ground floor accommodation or a building with an elevator that worked.
- Similar price range to a 5 star UAE hotel.
Hotel Bella Firenze
On my first visit I found a few hotels that met my requirements and I settled on the family run Hotel Bella Firenze because it was affordable, looked clean and charming. Check rates and availability.
- The hotel is located very close to and only a few minutes walk from the Santa Maria Novella Train station.
- There is a bus stop a few steps from the hotel that goes into the historical centre as well as a bus station for those wanting to visit Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano and other towns. Bookings can be made on request at the front desk of the hotel.
- At the time of booking, I had requested a ground floor room if they had no elevator. When I checked in, the owner Robert offered to show me the ground floor room next to the reception area as well as one on the first floor. He wanted to give me the option to choose which one I preferred. Knowing I would hate to climb the stairs numerous times per day with my Rheumatoid Arthritis flaring, I chose the ground floor room. It was surprisingly quiet at all hours.
- The historic nineteenth century building has been fully renovated and all rooms have an ensuite bathroom, a fridge and desk area. They also provide a complimentary bottle of wine for guests at check-in. I do not take alcohol but consider it just one of the thoughtful touches by the owners.
- During my stay my main contact was with Robert and I found him sincerely helpful and always ready to assist. He recommended a lovely restaurant close by where I enjoyed a few delicious meals, and assisted me with taking the correct bus for my early morning Uffizi gallery visit.
The breakfast room was small and seated about 8 people and had a buffet set up. There were no hot foods served but I found the fresh fruit and yogurts more than adequate for my needs, although there were also cakes and pastries available. Roberto or one of his two sons were also on hand to make coffees to order.
Borgo Guelfo III – Check rates and availability
This apartment is located on the other side of Santa Maria Novella station in a residential apartment complex. It felt like a haven from the outside world.
- It is a one bedroom apartment with a sleeper couch and can accommodate up to 4 people.
- There is a small terrace as well as a larger private alfresco dining area in the back yard.
- There are a number of apartments managed by the same company and they have access to a laundry area in the basement with washers and driers. The instructions were useless because the settings were not as described.
- The garden smells of rosemary and there are also olive trees.
- This end of the road has vehicle access but the other end is pedestrian only and has a lively nightlife and food scene.
- The Mercato Centrale is a few blocks away and reachable in less than 5 minutes walk. The Duomo is also within walking distance.
Halaal friendly restaurants in Florence
For as long as I can remember, Tuscany has been synonymous with excellent produce and superlative food. To ensure that I tasted the best of what Florence had to offer I booked the Other Side of Florence food tour on the Eating Italy website. You can read all about my food tour experience on the Other side of Florence food tour.
Trattoria Dall’Oste: Il Portale – Via Luigi Alamanni, 29R, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
Having had no difficulty finding vegetarian or vegan options on my visit to Rome, I was not particularly concerned about finding food in Florence. I knew I would be unlikely to find halaal meat or taste the Bistecca alla Fiorentina, but had a few enjoyable meals at Trattoria Il Portale around the corner from Hotel Bella Firenze.
The large cuts of meat aging in the temperature controlled window chillers seemed to mock me whenever I went there for a meal. However, the excellent service by Daniele took the edge off the sting.
Ristorante Haveli – Viale Rosselli Fratelli, 50144 Firenze FI, Italy
I also managed to find an Indian eatery, Ristorante Haveli, down the road from my hotel. It appeared to be frequented mostly by muslims living in or visiting the area, and the food was quite palatable. The owners appeared to be Sikh and the meat was not halal so I stuck to vegetarian and seafood items.
I saw a halal restaurant on my way back from the Piazza one day when I decided to walk on the opposite side to which I went down. I realised that one sometimes misses what is right in front of one’s eyes.
Mercato Centrale Florence – Piazza del Mercato Centrale, Via dell’Ariento, 50123 Firenze FI, Italy
One of my favorite meals was at the Mercato Centrale where I had the most delicious seafood and fish combo. The market is a treasure trove of fresh produce, yogurt, cheese, olive oils, seafood, spices and cured meats.
Things to do in Florence
You do not have to go very far in Florence to be surrounded by the magnificent treasures and interesting art and architecture of the Rennaisance. The best thing is you can walk everywhere and do not need to take an organized tour!
Uffizi Gallery – Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
- Tickets for the Galleria Degli Uffizi and most other galleries, museums or places of archeological interest can be purchased online prior to travel on the official website for state owned Florentine museums.
- I collected my pre-booked ticket at the gallery on the day, but at a different door than where visitors without tickets queue. It was a bit confusing because there were no proper directions and they opened later than the advertised opening times. Ask the museum attendants outside if you have any doubts.
Traversing the Uffizi gallery is a tiring task, so set aside 30 minutes for a coffee or tea on the gallery’s roof top garden.
Palazzo Vecchio – Piazza della Signoria, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
The palazzo is the Florence town hall and is located on Piazza della Signora. Outside is the copy Michelangelo’s David statue and a gallery of other statues lines Loggia dei Lanzi.
Duomo Florence – Florence Cathedral
- The Cattedral of Santa Maria del Fiore or the Duomo of Florence was completed in 1436.
- The cathedral complex is part of the Unesco World Heritage site that covers the historical centre.
- This is located in the busiest tourist area and if you want to visit the Duomo then it is best to go early as the wait to get inside can be quite long.
- Over the past few years there has been extensive renovations and refurbishment of the cathedral exterior. The marble looks refreshed and bright with all the pollutants removed.
Piazza di Santa Maria Novella and Basilica Santa Maria Novella
- The Piazza di Santa Maria Novella is the perfect place to take in the atmosphere and enjoy the quiet afternoon rays of sunshine peeking through the grey skies. Pretty soon one forgets the beige amid the blue skies and birds.
- The Basilica with it’s white and green marble front was built between the 13th and 15th century. The church has priceless artworks from the Rennaissance period. Tickets may be purchased online on the official website.
A few minutes after sitting down on one of the piazza benches a man came to sit down beside me. He greeted me with salaam and I replied with salaam, as is obligatory on any muslim.
The one thing that freaks me out as a solo female traveler is strangers talking to me, especially males. I have read so many warnings and travel advisories that self-preservation has become second nature.
I replied very briefly to his comments and questions about my origins and then turned away so that he would not continue talking to me, as it made me feel uncomfortable. I realized even while doing so that my behavior may be considered rude or dismissive, but to be honest, I am not in the habit of consorting with strange men and was not about to start in a foreign country.
As the park filled up, others joined the man sitting next to me and they started a very spirited conversation. At times it sounded like they were shouting at each other, but I realized that that is how it sounds when people speak Arabic. The excitement and fervor often comes across as irritation or aggression when in fact it is not.
I must confess that as I was sitting there an uncharitable thought crossed my mind: ‘No wonder people are afraid of muslims if we seem to be shouting at each other in public, even when it is only a spirited conversation amongst friends’.
Where to Shop in Florence
- The Mercato Centrale also has a lively street market where one can find leather goods, clothing and cashmere shawls as well as touristy souvenirs and curios of Florence. I bought a few cashmere shawls from one of the traders but wish I had gone to find some of those leather items in Sante Croce.
- The Via Por Santa Maria leading to the Ponte Vecchio has many small family owned speciality shops selling the highest quality linens and silks. I bought fine table linens as well as exquisite silk scarves.
- The area above the Ponte Vecchio has jewelry shops and the atmosphere of a street market with all manner of leather goods and clothing items.
- Omar, the tour leader on the food tour had recommended Santa Croce as the place to find high quality leather at reasonable prices. Apparently, much of what is sold in the stores and street markets are overpriced and inferior quality leather. You may want to check out the Leather School in Santa Croce for real leather goods produced by skilled craftsmen.
Florence by foot
- During my rambles in the historical centre I saw the most curious thing. Bar and cafe seating was set up in the narrow streets and I continued to see it on my walks on the days that followed.
- Scattered throughout the city streets are these corner altars or tabernacles on the outsides of private and public buildings, many of which are centuries old and recently restored.
Beige, beige and more beige
Florence turned out to be one of those places that grows on one, and I would love to go back to wander down the residential streets on the other side of the Arno, and eat the simple but amazing food.
Do not order a cappuccino or caffe latte after noon because an Italian barista may look at you as if you are daft. Instead ask for a Machiattone… it is similar with a different name!
I did this deliberately after reading about how Italians have rules about what you drink when, because I was curious as to what the response would be. In the more touristy restaurants they did not bat an eyelid, but in the little shop on the corner I thought the barista was going to choke on his words as he repeated my request with incredulity.
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