Get to know Florence with the perfect balance of art, history, views and gelato in just one day.
So you're just here for the day, perhaps even on the spur of the moment, which is really a pity as you'll find you will want to stay longer, but if time is ticking and you must just spend one day here, this is a guide to how to take in the best of the city without wasting time waiting in lines for museums – save the galleries for the next time you're here when you have more time!
Florence is a city best explored on foot, it is the perfect walkable size and there is so much to see at street level. Your walk starts at the Duomo.
8:30am - If you're coming from Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station, make your way down Via Panzani to the Duomo. The cathedral itself does not open until 10am but the best way to experience the cathedral is to climb up the 463 steps to get to the top of Brunelleschi's dome. It will give you the best perspective (literally) on why this building is an architectural masterpiece, not to mention wonderful views of Florence, a close up look at the frescoes and a birds eye view of the cathedral interior.
10:00am - Afterwards, the main thoroughfare of Via Calzaiuoli to Piazza Signoria will take you to Florence's central piazza past the unique church of Orsanmichele – a medieval grain market turned church. The four sides hold fourteen Renaissance sculptures (two of which are by the young Donatello) commissioned by the most important of Florence's commercial guilds. The originals are now held inside on the upper floors (open on a Monday only) but making your way around the church to view each of the sculptures in their niches makes for a great introduction to Renaissance sculpture.
10:30am - Piazza Signoria, just a block or so from Orsanmichele, is the perfect example that Florence itself is one giant open air museum. Admire the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's historic city hall, and the display of sculptures all around it – even if some of these are copies, imagine that until 1873 the people coming into the square were looking straight up at the original Michelangelo's David. The open air Loggia dei Lanzi has some of the High Renaissance's best original sculptures and is also a great spot to sit and look out onto the Piazza. A pit stop at the historic and elegant café Rivoire will keep you going, although remember that Italians drink their coffee and eat their pastries standing at the bar and don't sit down – you will wait much longer to be served and you pay a premium for it as well.
11:00am - From here, head behind the fountain of Neptune to the street called Borgo dei Greci which will take you to the Church of Santa Croce, where many famous Tuscans are buried including Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo. Visit the stunning interior (5 euro entrance fee) with its monumental tombs and frescoes by Giotto, the grassy cloister and Pazzi chapel or, for a bit of shopping therapy visit the Leather School located behind the church (accessible from inside or from Via San Giuseppe) to see real leather artisans in action before crossing the Ponte alle Grazie bridge and heading up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic view of the city.
1:00pm- From Piazzale Michelangelo, the medieval Monastery of San Miniato – the only remaining active monastery in Florence – is only a further 5 minutes walk, with even better views, wonderfully intact mosaics, a stunning, monumental cemetery and a little shop to browse the monks' handmade wares.
1:30pm - Take the steps of Via di San Salvatore al Monte back down through the San Miniato gateway – part of the remaining old city walls that used to protect the city. You arrive in the neighbourhood of San Niccolò – a great area for local bars and casual restaurants. If you dont have time for a long sit down meal, this is good spot to grab a quick but delicious lunch. Try stylish Zeb for wonderful homemade Tuscan soups or fresh panini with cured meats. After, you can even treat yourself to an ice cream from the gelateria across the road.
2:30pm - Walk along the river (Lungarno Torrigiani) towards the Ponte Vecchio. Don't cross it, but feel free to window shop those closest to you – notice the typical wooden shutters and doors of the traditional gold shops along the bridge, and the built-in corridor comissioned by the Medici family that travels above the shops on the eastern side of the bridge, snaking its way around towers and across the street you just came from – this is the Vasari Corridor, built in the mid-1500's.
3:00pm - Continue along the street Borgo San Jacopo and take the third narrow turning on the left, Via Toscanella, down a characteristic little lane of the artisan quarter of the Oltrarno, Florence's “Other side of the Arno.” At the top of this street you will reach another lane called Sdrucciolo dei Pitti – to the left is the Pitti Palace, home of the ruling families of Florence and now a palace-museum with the wonderful Boboli gardens.
Taking the left in to Piazza Pitti (and on your left again) there is a wonderful little wine bar, Pitti Gola, where you can sit outside to enjoy a break in the piazza, glass of wine in hand. They have many local wines by the glass and terrific light snacks to complement the wines.
Continue down the laneway Sdrucciolo dei Pitti to the Piazza Santo Spirito, a local piazza, different in every way to the other squares of Florence. The 2nd and 3rd Sundays of the month fill this piazza with the favourite antique and handmade market of the locals, where you can also find some tempting gastronomical goodies. Take a moment to contemplate the unusual façade of the church of Santo Spirito, Brunelleschi's last and unfinished work. If you want to relax here with a coffee, visit the café Volume, for a bit of the artisan spirit that the oltrarno is so famous for – this used to be the artisan workshop of Alfonso Bini, a wood sculptor, whose works still line the walls.
Now take Via Maggio to the Ponte Santa Trinita bridge – here's another good pit stop for a gelato at this intersection and enjoy the wonderful view of the Ponte Vecchio and the rest of the city from the bridge.
4:30pm - Do not miss the little treasure that is in the Church of Santa Trinita on Via Tornabuoni. It reopens from a long lunch break at 4pm and is free to enter. The right hand corner next to the altar holds the Sassetti chapel, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio when Michelangelo was beginning his apprenticeship with the master in the mid-1480's. It is one of the best representations of Florence during the Renaissance, filled with portraits of famous Florentines such as Lorenzo the Magnificent and his sons (the little blond one later became Pope Leo X), set in scenes with important sights like Piazza Signoria and Via Tornabuoni in the background. Turn on the lights by feeding a 1 euro coin into the box on the left of the chapel. This one little chapel alone is a wonderful peek into the Renaissance at its best.
5:00pm - Now back on Via Tornabuoni, Florence's most elegant shopping street and home to all of the city's most famous fashion designers, take a stroll up towards Palazzo Strozzi for a bit of window shopping and a straightforward walk back towards the station up Via Tornabuoni after this. A stop at Procacci for one of their famous tartufo (truffle) sandwiches and a glass of prosecco is entirely appropriate as a reward after this unforgettable day!