Florence sits alongside Paris and Venice as one of the most romantic cities in Europe. Its architectural beauty, open air art galleries, iconic Duomo cathedral, cobblestone roads and Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, all contribute to the European magic the floats through the air and the streets of Florence.
Once the capital of Renaissance enlightenment in Europe, the city is renowned for its scientific, artistic, cultural and religious influence on the European continent. Naturally, this means the city is packed full of museums, art galleries, cathedrals and churches, which are set amongst a labyrinth of narrow winding streets that are dotted here and there with cafés, restaurants and gelaterias.
Florence is one of those ‘must see’ cities if you are planning a trip to Italy, and you are really doing yourself and the city a disservice if you don’t find a place for it on your travel itinerary.
I spent three days in Florence soaking up the Renaissance-era atmosphere that lingers in the streets, admiring the amazing architecture and design of the Duomo and Giotto’s Bell Tower, tasting various Tuscan delights, and generally, just being in awe of the city that I was visiting.
When researching and planning my time in Florence, I made myself an itinerary that contained a little bit of everything – history, art, science, time to take in beautiful views of the city, architecture and, of course, food.
I will admit that I am not the world’s biggest fan of Renaissance artwork. After 30 minutes in an art gallery, I often find myself more interested in the picture frames rather than what has actually been painted inside of them. I do however, love a good European building, so my thirst was definitely quenched in Florence.
I’ve provided my general itinerary below, as well as an idea of the time I spent doing each activity. When I travel, I don’t like to be too rigid and find that you always need some flexibility. As such, feel free to substitute (and erase!) what you want to suit your own interests.
There are however a couple of sights that I believe are an absolute MUST if you are visiting Florence, such as the Duomo dome climb. Some of these require reservations, while others don’t, but can still be reserved if you so wish. I reserved the Duomo dome climb (time reservation required) as well as Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Accademia Museum, though it’s not necessary for these two.
However, the queues to enter were long enough to warrant making a reservation, unless you particularly enjoy spending 1-2 hours of your precious holiday time waiting in line! Keep in mind that I visited at the end of February and the wait was still somewhat lengthy at times, even with a reservation. I’m sure in summer you’d be incinerated by the Italian sun and suffocated by all the sweaty tourists waiting alongside you before you even made it near the door!
Here’s a brief overview of how I approached my time in Florence.
3 Days in Florence
- Arrival in Florence
- Piazza del Duomo
- The River Arno
- Ponte Vecchio
- Piazzale Michelangelo
- Accademia Gallery and the Statue of David
- Galileo Museum
- Free time (or visiting Uffizi Gallery, Town Hall, historic centre etc.)
- Duomo Dome Climb
- Duomo Cathedral
- Duomo Museum
- Giotto’s Bell Tower
- Night walk along the river and Ponte Vecchio
Read on for more details.
Day 1 – Arrival in Florence
The first day is all about taking in the city and getting used to your new surroundings. Florence is totally walkable, so Day 1 is a good time to get your bearings of what is where, take in the atmosphere and relax!
Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station → Piazza del Duomo (30 mins – 1 hr)
More than likely you are going to arrive at the main train station in Florence, which is called Firenze Santa Maria Novella Stazione, if you are arriving from another part of Italy. I recommend staying as close as you can to the historic centre of town. You want to be able to go out walking at night without having to worry too much about getting back to your accommodation. This is because Florence is even more magical at night (how is that even possible!!!) It’s also where all the action happens and is the most beautiful part of the city.
Piazza del Duomo (1 hr)
After finding your accommodation, head to the Piazza del Duomo to take in your first glimpse of the Duomo and the beauty of this cathedral. Walk around the Piazza and check out the bell tower and baptistery, both of which sit beside the cathedral. Remember that you cannot enter either of these without tickets, but the church is free to enter (the line will be huge, guaranteed!). Don’t worry though, the time will come to enter all three of these later.
Piazza del Duomo → The River Arno (2-3 hrs)
The streets between the Piazza del Duomo and The Arno, the river that passes through Florence, are jam-packed with designer stores, fashion labels, retail shops, restaurants, gelaterias and cafés. Don’t forget to stroll away from the main avenues; many of the city’s best kept secrets are hidden away down the narrow side streets. Stop, relax, have lunch and drink a coffee or glass of local Tuscan wine.
The River Arno & Ponte Vecchio (2 hrs)
Although the whole of the city is beautiful, the Ponte Vecchio is especially breathtaking. Dating back from the 1300s, the bridge can be enjoyed from a distance, or equally, as you cross it. Ponte Vecchio is both unique and famous for the small shops that line both of its sides. Spend a couple hours around here taking photos and posing with the bridge, or enjoy a gelato from one of the many gelaterias nearby. You are going to need your energy for the second part of the afternoon…
Ponte Vecchio → Piazzale Michelangelo (2-3 hrs)
Florence is just as beautiful when admired from a distance than as it is from within. Luckily for us, the Florentines knew this as well, and so they constructed the Piazzale Michelangelo on the opposite side of the river. First the good news; the views of the city from the piazzale are spectacular. The bad news; there are a fair few stairs that you have to climb before you get to the top. It’s not overly strenuous, but you probably wouldn’t want to climb it again straight away.
I saw many people who had a bottle of wine, Italian snacks, pastries and antipasti with them and who were sitting around the piazzale waiting to watch the the sunset. Since I was alone, I decided that drinking a whole bottle of wine to myself would probably be more depressing than romantic, so I gave that bit a miss. The views, however, I enjoyed just as much.
Piazzale Michelangelo → Piazza del Duomo (3 hrs)
After watching the sunset over Florence, make your way back towards the Piazza del Duomo, the centre of town, for some dinner and walk through the streets after sunset. Now that you know your way around after making the journey up to Piazzale Michelangelo earlier in the day, I’ll leave it up to you to make your own way back!
During my second day in Florence I got my hit of art history and science. I also retraced some of my steps from the day before, purely because I loved walking around the city so much (and also because I got lost trying to find a little bakery selling delicious panini that I had been to the previous day…)
Accademia Gallery and the Statue of David
(2 hrs, 16.50€ online, reservation RECOMMENDED)
Start off the morning visiting the most famous statue in the world, Michelangelo’s David. Housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, the statue is literally the centrepiece of the gallery. I spent roughly two hours in here, though I did my take my time, despite my general lack of interest in Renaissance art. The statue is very impressive and deserves plenty of time to admire; it is after all one of the most famous artworks on the planet. Once you’ve finished taking in David and the art in the remainder of the gallery, head back towards the Piazza del Duomo for a bite to eat.
Galileo Museum (1-2 hrs, 9€)
If you’re less of an art person and more interested in the laws of science and physics then be sure to visit the Galileo Museum. I decided to visit because I had read that it was relatively quite, compared to some of the other major museums. I also needed a break from looking at statues! (I had been in Rome for four days prior, so I was starting to reach my marble statue threshold by this point…)
The museum’s collection contains a wide range of gadgets and intricate instruments used during the Renaissance by scientists and astronomers like Galileo himself. Many of the items look like they belong in a Harry Potter movie; giant, beautifully crafted globes, telescopes, antiquated measuring devices and compasses, alchemy sets and herbal medicinal cabinets are just a handful of items housed here.
Unfortunately many of the collections aren’t well signed and have limited explanations, but there is a free app you can download that gives you much more detail (plus the museum has free wifi so you can use the app hassle-free).
Free time (rest of the afternoon and evening!)
Having walked around the main centre of the city the day before, feel free to explore in a little more depth. If you love photography, now is the time to get yourself lost in all of the laneways and streets (this is what I did!) Another suggestion is to head towards the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza della Signoria. This is where you will find the town hall, which is the other building, besides the Duomo, that dominates the skyline. You are able to walk into and around the beautiful courtyards inside the base of the building free of charge. Outside in the piazza is the open air statue gallery, Loggia dei Lanzi, as well as a replica of the statue of David.
Day 3 is ‘Duomo Day’ and most of your time today will be concentrated around the Piazza del Duomo, which is perfectly okay as there is so much to see and do here. You’ll also get your first glance inside the Duomo!
Duomo Dome Climb (1.5 hrs, 15€ – included in Duomo ticket, reservation REQUIRED)
Having already reserved your time for the Duomo dome climb, head to the left-hand side of the Duomo (when facing the main entrance). Here you will find the entrance for the dome. There is likely to be a queue, even though technically it is for reservations only.
When I was waiting, many people around me had not reserved a time and assumed that you could just climb the dome after queuing up. This is NOT the case. You MUST reserve your time. This can either be done online at the official website when you buy your ticket, or at the reservation machines at the ticket office beside the Baptistery in the main plaza. At the climb entrance, the guards were turning around anyone who did not have a receipt with their reservation time printed on it.
Another thing to note is that the guards are quite particular about the entry times. I had booked my climb for 9.30am, and put myself in the queue just after 9am. By the time I arrived at the turnstile, it was around 9.25am. The guards told me that I must wait until exactly 9.30am. This can be a little tricky to manage, as it is out of your control how quickly the line moves. If the line had been a little slower, I would’ve been able to go in when I first arrived at the ticket barrier.
Instead the guard made me shuffle all the way back through the queue (the exit door was locked and they wouldn’t open it for me) until I found a space just inside the doorway. I wasn’t going to go all the way back to the end of the queue as I had already waited my 20 minutes and besides I had my time reserved anyway, so technically I wasn’t queue jumping.
All that aside, once you actually get inside the doorway, you will have your first view into the church since arriving in Florence. It is decidedly understated, when compared to its orange, green and white exterior. There is also a mountain of stairs to climb to the top of the dome, along fairly narrow passageways (they were originally the maintenance passage ways for the workers and builders). If you don’t like heights and aren’t in the best physical condition, you may decide not to climb.
Once you’re at the top, enjoy the beautiful views of the city and look down to the piazza below you. There is no time limit once you are up here. Take as long as you like and make the most of the experience. A word of warning, there is only one way up and down, and the flow of people is not controlled. You are definitely going to encounter people going in the opposite direction to you. It’s mostly ok, but it can be pretty squishy. I ended up taking my backpack off and holding it since it was easier to manoeuvre.
After heading back to ground level, grab a bite to eat and a coffee and recharge those batteries.
Duomo Cathedral (free)/Baptistery (20 mins, 15€ – included in Duomo ticket)
I didn’t queue to go into the Duomo itself. I managed to time my climb of Giotto’s Tower so that I was finished just before 5pm, and I slipped into the cathedral literally as they were closing the doors for the day (actually, they had just roped of the entrance in front of me, but a group of Italians came up and asked the guard if they could enter, so I snuck in with them).
However, you have some time now before going to the Duomo museum, so you could wait in line to enter the Duomo, or, go through the Baptistery. The queue for the Baptistery moves very quickly – I think I only waited five minutes. The gold ceiling inside is spectacular.
Duomo Museum (2 hrs, 15€ – included in Duomo ticket)
The museum can be reserved (which I did, but in the end didn’t need to use) and will require about 2 hours to see everything. There is a free app to download that includes information on all the displays in the museum. Mine randomly switched to Italian after 10 minutes and I could not change it back to English! Maybe you will have better luck…
The museum focuses on the construction of the dome, the techniques used to build it and the religious significance of the church. It also houses many statues and replicas, which are found on the cathedral’s façade. Be sure to head up the the third floor of the museum where you will find the outdoor terrace. This gives you a lovely view of the back section of the cathedral.
Giotto’s Bell Tower (1 hr, 15€ – included in Duomo ticket, reservation RECOMMENDED)
The bell tower was one of my favourite things in Florence. Like the dome, it provides spectacular views of the city, except this time you can take photos of the dome, rather than from it! There’s a lot (understatement) of stairs in the tower, but there are multiple landings along the way where you can stop and rest. The same one way up and down applies here as well unfortunately.
After the Duomo, the bell tower had the longest queues, so it is wise to book your time in advance. At the entrance to the tower, there is a spot to queue if you already have your reservation – there were four people in line in front of me. The main queue on the other hand, ran the length of the Duomo.
Taking a romantic walk along the river after dinner (Florentine steak?!) and back across the Ponte Vecchio is the perfect way to spend your last evening in Florence. Stop for one last gelato on the way, and enjoy the reflections of the city and bridge dancing on the ripples of the river.
End of 3 Day Itinerary
- The other famous museum in Florence is the Uffizi Gallery. This houses many famous artworks by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Rembrandt. It is recommended to reserve your entrance online for here as well, as its queue can be quite long. I opted for the Accademia Gallery over the Uffizi due to personal interest, but feel free to substitute one for the other, or squeeze it in to some of the free time.
- The Duomo ticket is valid for 48 hours. This means you do not have to visit the dome climb, Giotto’s Tower, the Baptistery and the museum all in one day, especially if you think all those stairs are going to be a bit much. If you print your ticket from home, you can use that to enter through the turnstile (there is a barcode printed at the top). I went to the ticket office to see if it was necessary to collect actual tickets, but the assistant told me that no, the printed copy I had worked as my ticket.
- As in most European cities, the streets in the centre are cobblestones, so ensure that you have comfy shoes. I also noticed that the people in Florence were extremely well-dressed, so if you want to fit in, think about wearing something a little fancier (not daggy trainers and baggy t-shirts for example).
Florence is an amazingly beautiful city, and any time spent here is time well spent. Even if you were to not enter a single museum or landmark, you would still have a wonderful time just enjoying the atmosphere. However, remember that it is one of the most visited cities in Italy, so you will be sharing Florence with thousands of other tourists. Take advantage of the reservations that are available to avoid waiting in long queues. Instead use this time to explore a little further into what makes Florence so special!