Visitors to Florence need a travel guide that will steer them away from wasteful spending and focus resources on the best experiences. Florence, known to Italians as Firenze, is a popular tourist city rich in history and artistic treasures.
When to Visit
Florence is a place where much of your day can be spent indoors, enjoying the priceless works of art and architecture that made this great city famous. Many find it better to visit in the winter, when crowds are smaller and prices tend to be lower than summer. Spring is a wonderful time to see the rebirth of the city's gardens and the surrounding countryside.
Where to Eat
To skip sampling Tuscan cuisine is no less unthinkable than failing to appreciate the city's great art. Budget for at least one splurge meal. Save up by eating takeout lunches or picnics. Pizza-by-the-slice is a common budget saver here. Cucina Povera cooking, roughly translated "modest kitchen," includes some delicious if unpretentious foods. Recommendations for excellent dining experiences abound here. Locals give the best tips, so don't be afraid to ask for help.
Where to Stay
Hotels near the city center tend to come at a premium, but the inconvenience associated with the outer offerings can offset the added expense. Florence tends to be noisy at all hours, so light sleepers might want to avoid rooms near the main railroad station, or at least request rooms away from the street. Budget offerings abound west of the station. Hostels are easy to find, as Florence long has been a destination attracting backpackers on a tight budget. Other frugal travelers sometimes prefer Bed and Breakfast rooms. Convents and other Religious Institutes are clean and reasonably priced, but expect to pay cash and observe curfews. A recent search on Airbnb.com listed more than 130 properties at less than $30/night.
Most travelers arrive by train. The central railroad station is called Stazione Centrale di Santa Maria Novella and is frequently abbreviated as S.M.N. Here you may also board buses bound for nearby cities such as Siena and Pisa. The airport in Pisa is about an hour from Florence, with frequent ground connections. Distances in central Florence are relatively short, and cars are banned from most of the key tourist areas.
Florence and the Arts
The Uffizi Gallery and the Galeria dell' Accademia are two of the world's most important museums. Unfortunately, it is possible to spend the better part of a day in line for tickets. Online ticket purchases through TickItaly are available for each place. Even with tickets in hand, many visitors spend time in line waiting for entry, since there are limits to the number of visitors permitted inside at any one moment. Arrive early in the day and remember that the Uffizi is closed on Mondays.
Don't make the mistake of spending all your time inside museums or shops. Florence has some beautiful parks, including the acclaimed Boboli Gardens. You'll pay a modest entry fee to wander these well-manicured grounds. Boboli is home to the Pitti Palace gallery, the one-time residence of the ruling Medici family.
More Florence Tips
Use Florence as a base for exploring Tuscany. For obvious reasons, Florence is swarmed with tourists. But there are many other small, fascinating Tuscan towns that are not overrun. Siena also is a popular tourist attraction but is well worth an excursion. Buses make the 70 kilometer (42 mile) trip in about an hour. Look for rapido buses to avoid multiple stops along the way.
Eating with strangers can be fun. Many great little restaurants here make use of limited space to serve as many diners as possible. This often means crowded aisles and being seated with other guests. Enjoy the experience! You might dine with a self-described "artist who has not yet been discovered" who points out several interesting exhibits that otherwise would have been missed.
Learn a few words of Italian. You won't need an extensive study of the language for a short visit, but spend a few minutes learning some useful words and phrases. It's the polite thing to do and it often opens doors that might otherwise remain closed. A few useful words: Parlate inglese? (Do you speak English?) per favore, (please) grazie, (thank you) ciao, (hello) quanto? (how much?) and scusilo (excuse me). Learning the Italian names for food items is also a valuable study.
Take your time exploring the Duomo and other renaissance treasures. It took 170 years to complete the Duomo, Florence's incredible cathedral. Don't rush through it in 15 minutes. Look at the artistry in every corner. This is why you spent your money to come here. Entry to the Duomo is free (contributions accepted), but there is a small charge for entry to the adjoining baptistry.
Best free sites not to miss: The Duomo, and the view from Piazza Michelangelo. You can take a taxi to the top of this hillside park south of the Arno River, or you can climb on foot. In either case, you'll be rewarded with a stunning and memorable view of Florence. It's an experience not to be missed, and it's free!