To best summarize Florence would be to call it a city of art. It fills the galleries, infuses the local cuisine, spills onto the streets, and even embeds itself in the walls of its monuments. I can also say with certainty that I’m not the first to arrive at this conclusion. Like Paris, I’ve visited this corner of Tuscany for over ten years. Yet, with our family house over 40 miles west of the city center, I haven’t spent as much time really familiarizing myself with the twists and turns of its maze-like streets. During my recent trip, I finally decided to do this incredible Renaissance city some justice. Here is my perfect day in Florence.
Buy Souvenirs at the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy
When it comes to shopping for souvenirs (or gifts for those back home), I like to check the task off my list at the beginning of the day before I get overwhelmed by too many options. A solid choice located less than five minutes from Florence’s main train station is the Profumo-Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella. Contrary to its name, S.M.N. is more of a luxury boutique for cosmetics, perfumes, and an assortment of aromatherapy products, than a traditional pharmacy.
However, with roots extending back to the herbal medicine crafted by Dominican friars in the 13th century, it’s the city’s oldest. The current location alone has been in operation since 1612. While products tend to be on the pricier side, the quality and legacy spanning centuries make it money well spent. A favorite purchase of mine was a terra-cotta pomegranate infused with S.M.N.’s “Melograno” fragrance. Even if you don’t find what you’re looking for, the intricately detailed interior of the boutique is worth a visit alone. Be sure to pay attention. The entrance is easy to miss!
Have Lunch at the Mercato Centrale
Florence’s reputation as a destination to buy leather is no secret. From purses and belts, to jackets and wallets, you can find pretty much anything under the sun. During my mom’s first trip to the city over ten years ago, her takeaway was a white leather jacket she still wears to this day. The San Lorenzo neighborhood is the place to go for those in search of a souvenir built to last.
Towering above the streets crowded with tourists and leather vendors is the Mercato Centrale. Built by the same architect as the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, this 19th century building is divided into two distinct zones. On the ground floor is what I would consider a traditional indoor food market. Vendors sell fresh produce, seafood, meat, and dairy products. Sprinkled in are a variety of specialty shops. Upstairs, over a dozen vendors sell ready-to-eat meals that guests can enjoy in a cafeteria-style dining room. In my opinion, it’s the best place for a casual lunch in the city, especially if no one can agree on what they want to eat. During my two most recent visits, I enjoyed fusilli with pesto, and a tower of steamed mussels and clams in a white wine broth. Besides being delicious, both clocked in under 10€.
Visit the Duomo
It’s safe to say that Florence’s Duomo is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Construction on the current structure began at the end of the 13th century, and wasn’t deemed complete until nearly 200 years later. It’s incredibly touristy, but it’s one of those places you should visit once in your life. Explore both the cathedral and baptistery. Climb up to the dome for the panoramic views of the historic city center. Take pictures. Light a candle for loved ones (if that’s your thing). Take some time and really do it right. Also, there’s hardly a day when it isn’t crowded. It’s just part of the experience.
If you find yourself in need of a snack after climbing all those stairs up to the dome, the perfect pick-me-up isn’t far. My rule of thumb for finding the best food in a city is to stay far away from both major landmarks and franchises. Well, I’m about to break that rule. Located in sight of the Duomo is Eataly, an international franchise dedicated to specialty Italian products. My go-to there is the focaccia barese; a chewy, yet airy loaf of flatbread studded with roasted tomatoes and black olives, all coated in a sheen of olive oil. (I only buy a quarter at a time. It’s easily a snack split between two people, and a meal if enjoyed on its own.) I don’t even like black olives, but I crave this bread.
Indulge Your Sweet Tooth at Gelateria Santa Trinita
I stumbled upon Gelateria Santa Trinita completely by chance in the spring of 2016 when showing a friend around Florence. Located right on the Arno river off the Santa Trinita bridge, this artisanal gelato shop is housed in a former palace. The airy interior (and long line) reminded me of an ice cream shop I lived near in New York City’s Greenwich Village, but once I stepped through the doors, that’s where the similarities ended. A sign above the case told customers that all gelato was made fresh every day, using only the best ingredients. Despite a slightly higher than average price tag, my friend and I decided to splurge, and enjoy the treat on the walk back to the train station. It was the perfect way to end a long day of exploring.
And then, I promptly forgot about it for three years. The experience only came to mind during the planning process of this day. I couldn’t even remember the name, just vaguely where it was located along the river, and that the flavor I tried had fig in it. In short, it wasn’t much information to go on. Yet, by some miracle, while avoiding the crowds of the Ponte Vecchio to cross the river, I stumbled upon it again. To me, luck tastes like a hefty scoop of ricotta and fig gelato (but the pistachio is pretty fantastic too). Speaking of the Ponte Vecchio, it makes an excellent backdrop for some Instagram-worthy photos, that is, if you can manage to wait before taking that first bite!
Explore the Pitti Palace
A stunning example of Renaissance architecture, the Pitti Palace is the landmark that dominates the Oltrarno side of Florence. Purchased by the powerful Medici family in the mid-1500s, the interior of this palace is dedicated to the preservation of their opulent lifestyle and vast collections of art and decorative objects. Other exhibits showcase modern art and fashion history. I highly recommend buying tickets online ahead of your visit to guarantee a timely entrance. While there’s a reservation fee of 3€, it’s worth it considering the epic length of some of the lines I’ve seen snaking alongside the building during tourist season. Speaking of, for those visiting the city outside of high season, ticket prices are reduced significantly between November and February.
The Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti are also highly worth a visit in early spring. Unlike the palace, the Medici family was responsible for the design of the grounds, which later became the model for royal courts all over Europe. With all the grottos, statues, and fountains that dot the landscape, the gardens truly are an outdoor museum. The best way to explore them is to simply get lost. Photo-ops are abundant, and views from the top of the garden over the palace are incredible. A special tip I discovered for any college students studying abroad; a European student ID will get you in for free.
Take in Panoramic Views from Piazzale Michelangelo
Somehow, even after a decade of visiting Florence, I’ve never made my way up to the Piazzale Michelangelo until this March. Designed by architect Guiseppe Poggi in the mid 19th century, the terrace features a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David and a restaurant in a building originally designed to be a museum dedicated to his works. However, the real draw here are the panoramic views of Florence’s historic city center. From this vantage point, it’s easy to pick out the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, and many other notable landmarks.
While the hike up is a bit on the steep side, what’s key to working this attraction into your day is timing. A popular window to make the climb is after lunch (around 1:30), so you beat (some) of the crowds, I recommend heading up around around 12:30. While everyone else is eating lunch, you’ll be taking incredible views of Florence, and won’t have to wait as long for that ideal selfie spot.