If you're planning a trip to Florence, you're likely set on seeing some of its top attractions, including the iconic structures on Piazza del Duomo and the city's outstanding museums, such as the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia, home of Michelangelo's "David."
But you should also take the time for a deeper dive into Florence, namely its charming and characteristic neighborhoods on either side of the Arno River. Fortunately for visitors, historic Florence is compact and mostly flat, so even if you stay outside the most touristy areas, you'll never be too long of a walk from the action. Whether you're looking for a neighborhood in which to base yourself while exploring the Renaissance city, seeking out-of-the-way attractions or to dine like a local, Florence has a neighborhood just for you.
The Duomo & the Heart of Florence
Even if you choose not to base yourself in the very heart of Florence's historic center, you're bound to spend a lot of time here. Highlights include the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, more succinctly referred to simply as the Duomo, the massive, domed cathedral that is the symbolic and geographic center of Florence. The streets running to the south-southwest of the Duomo are lined with expensive clothing stores, souvenir shops, gelaterias, and restaurants touting tourist menus (buyer beware). The area stretches to the Arno River and includes the Uffizi Gallery, the Piazza della Signoria, and the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. In other words, there's a lot to see here, but it's also crowded and its main streets can be noisy into the wee hours.
In this area, you'll find loads of hotels, but scan their websites carefully and read online reviews before booking. This is one of the most expensive parts of town in which to be based and in a lot of places, you'll pay for location rather than charm, comfort or amenities. We suggest straying a little farther afield for a hotel.
San Lorenzo & San Marco
To the north and northwest of the Duomo, these two neighborhoods are slightly removed from the crowds but offer a bevy of attractions in their own right, including the San Lorenzo leather market, the Mercato Centrale food market, the San Lorenzo basilica with its Michelangelo sculptures, the Museum of San Marco and, most famously, the Galleria dell'Accademia, home of Michelangelo's "David."
There's more vehicular traffic on these streets, so visually, they're less charming than those nearer to the Duomo. But you'll find affordable restaurants where locals eat, as well as more budget-friendly hotels.
Santa Maria Novella
The immediate area surrounding Florence's main train station has little going for it in the looks department — the Fascist-era station sees traffic whizzing past day and night, and is ringed by mostly unattractive buildings housing cheap hotels, cheap take-out restaurants and cheap souvenir stands. A bright spot is the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, a gorgeous 15th-century church packed with significant works of art.
Things improve as one moves west from the station towards the river, where a number of upscale hotels are sited. Whether in a budget hotel or a high-end one, you'll be close to the Duomo and Florence's other main sites. If you choose a hotel on one of the main avenues, especially Via Nazionale or Via Panzani, be sure to request a room away from the noisy street-side.
This area lying west-northwest of the Duomo is characterized by mostly quiet, residential streets and a few important churches, including the Santissima Annunziata, with its exquisite interior, and art-filled Sant'Ambrogio. Florence's national archaeological museum is also on this side of town.
The area is dotted with modest hotels and guesthouses, and simple restaurants favored by local residents. While on the map it might appear a bit of a hike from the city center, its farthest point is not more than 15 minutes on foot from Piazza del Duomo.
To the east of the Duomo and with a large frontage on the Arno River, Santa Croce is one of our favorite neighborhoods in Florence, in part because of its splendid Basilica di Santa Croce, the final resting place of Michelangelo, Galileo and Renaissance amoralist Niccolò Machiavelli. The basilica has a lively piazza out front: prime real estate for sitting down for a drink or a meal. The Bargello Museum, with its outstanding sculpture collection, lies on the western perimeter of the neighborhood.
The streets tucked behind the basilica have a decidedly local vibe and boast a lively nightlife scene. You'll also find hotels of all price ranges in this area. Near sunset hour, follow Via de'Benci towards the Arno and cross the Ponte alle Grazie for a dreamy view of Florence lit up at dusk.
Though it's no longer the "undiscovered" corner of Florence it once was, Santo Spirito, in the Oltrarno district across the Arno River still possesses an earthy authenticity and local character. At just a 12 minutes' walk from Piazza della Signoria via the Ponte Vecchio bridge, it's a best-bet for travelers who want to be out of the tourist fray, but still close to the historic center.
The action centers around lively Piazza Santo Spirito, where crowds from bars and restaurants spill out onto the piazza and impromptu street music concerts are not unheard of. There's great dining all over the neighborhood, and a range of hotels. A few luxury properties on the riverfront offer dizzyingly romantic views of the river and city skyline.
A medieval village amid the Renaissance perfection of Florence is a treat indeed, and San Niccolò delivers. The area is in the Oltrarno, so across the river and to the south and east of the historic center, but still an easy walk from the main sights. It's also the only part of Florence where you'll have to do any sort of climbing. If you want to see the lovely rose and iris gardens or Piazzale Michelangelo, with its sweeping views of the city and surrounding countryside, you have to do an easy, but steady, uphill walk. Those who climb a bit further are rewarded with one of Florence's true treasures — shimmering San Miniato al Monte, with its intricate marble exterior, frescoed interior and soaring wood-beam ceiling.
San Niccolò has mostly B&Bs and Airbnb-type properties and is a perfect choice if you want to experience Florence with a real locals' feel.
West of Santo Spirito, the San Frediano neighborhood is home to several important churches, including San Frediano in Cestello and Santa Maria del Carmine, with its famous fresco cycle. The streets in this smallish wedge of Oltrarno reveal artisan workshops, rustic trattorias, and hotels that are, for the most part, on the budget side. You might feel a little far afield in this quiet area, but you're still just a 20-minute walk from most of Florence's major sights.
Campo di Marte
If you're in Florence for a concert or a soccer match, or you just want to experience a slice of working-class Florence, head to Campo di Marte, site of the home stadium of the ACF Fiorentina soccer (football) team and the Nelson Mandela Forum, a sporting and events complex. The Campo di Marte train station is also here. You're a bit further afield from central Florence, though hotels to the west of the station are still an easy walk from the city center.
If you want a taste of the Tuscan countryside and are content to see Florence on day trips, Fiesole makes a great base, and also offers plenty of sites of its own. There are Etruscan and Roman archaeological sites, beautiful churches and convents to explore, plus great walking in the soft hills around the town. Several former villas have been turned into country hotels and offer swimming pools and green space — both of which are lacking in downtown Florence (which is only a 25-minute bus ride away).