I’ll be honest…
Florence wasn’t my absolute top priority when we were planning our trip to Italy. It wasn’t really somewhere that drew me, or a place that I knew all that much about. When we decided that we’d finally go to Italy and combine a few cities into our trip, I was really excited at the prospect of visiting Venice and Rome…
But as it turns out, in the time we had, it just made more sense to combine Venice and Florence, and leaving Rome for another day. Italy as a whole is extremely well connected by train, and getting from Venice to Florence was super simple!
In the end though, there’s no denying it. Florence is a beautiful city!!
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Florence First Impressions
I honestly didn’t really know what to expect from Florence. And, after four incredible days in Venice, Florence had a lot to live up to!
Luckily, it did not disappoint 😊
But, having said that, much like with Venice, there were a few things that I really wish I’d known before we visited Florence. Knowing some of these things ahead of time would have helped us get even more of our time in this beautiful Italian city.
For example, while Florence might not be as quaint as Venice and is perhaps more like a “regular” big city (it definitely feels busy!), I really love how contained Florence is.
Most of the big attractions are very centrally located meaning everything is super easy to walk to!
There are lots of pedestrian-friendly zones (although, cars will show up randomly, driving in any direction they choose, or so it seems…) Actually, there are loads of horse and carriages too, which seemed popular!
I especially loved the main square, Piazza della Signoria.
We had dinner there on many of our nights and thoroughly enjoyed the al-fresco music provided by a youth orchestra that practiced and played by the Palazzo Vecchio most evenings.
The acoustics were fantastic!
What struck me most of all though, is that you can just feel the history of the place everywhere you go.
Unfortunately, the fountain of Neptune was undergoing renovation at the time so we didn’t get to fully appreciate it as it was mostly covered up.
Anyway, those were just my first impressions of Florence.
Read on for my top tips on Florence which will help you avoid some of the mistakes we made or surprises we had, and ensure you get the most out of your visit!
Know Before Visiting Florence – Attractions
1 – Be Prepared To Queue
While Florence Cathedral is free to enter, there is no skip-the-line option available here like there was in Venice for St Mark’s Basilica.
So, be prepared to queue!
Depending on the time of day, you could queue anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours to get into Florence Cathedral
The Cathedral only opens at 10am, and there will already be a lengthy queue at that time. Closing time is at 5pm but they will stop people from joining the line well before closing.
The first time we tried to join the queue was just after 3pm, but they told us to come back the next day!
2 – The Buildings Are Beautiful – On the Outside
No joke: Florence Cathedral, formally the “Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore”, is breathtakingly beautiful.
As is the Baptistry which is clad in the same white and green marble.
Although they were doing some restoration works on the Cathedral at the time and parts were covered by scaffolding, there is no denying the craftsmanship and beauty of this marbled gothic church.
They just don’t make churches like they used to anymore, eh?!
So of course, we queued up (for the second time!) along with about a million other tourists, with great expectations of what we would encounter inside this magnificent building.
To say we were disappointed when we got inside is an understatement.
For all the splendour and grandeur of its facade, the inside of Florence Cathedral is far from spectacular.
Essentially it is a big, empty hall with very few adornments. It does not even come close to the beauty we saw inside almost every other church in Italy, big and small.
This was such a surprise! And definitely something I wish I had known before lining up…
Some stained glass windows, the unusual clock above the entrance and the large artwork in the dome depicting the Last Judgment are about all that’s really worth seeing inside.
If you have a ticket and can access the Crypt of Santa Reparata underneath the Cathedral, that is worth doing as it is certainly more interesting than the Cathedral itself.
The crypt can only be accessed from within the Cathedral though, so you will have to queue in the Cathedral line to access the crypt.
Inside the crypt, you’ll see some of the remains of the original basilica that stood where the Cathedral is now, as well as ruins from walls and buildings dating back to the Roman city of Florentina and various tombstones.
The floor is beautifully made in intricate mosaic designs. Just incredible!
Aside from the cathedral’s interior let down, the famous Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, was also not quite what I had expected.
It is really more a big jewellery store than an attraction worth seeing….
Take in the view from an adjacent bridge, sure. But the Old Bridge itself was crammed with people and nothing but jewellery shops.
Again, a bit of a disappointment after all the hype.
3 – Buy Tickets Well Ahead Of Time
When we rocked up to the ticket office at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo to buy a single access ticket (€18 for access to all 5 monuments within 72 hours of your first visit) we were told that bookings for climbing the Dome itself had sold out days ago.
It turns out they restrict access to the Duomo and only let in a specific number of people each day.
While this isn’t such a bad thing in and of itself, it’s just important to know before visiting Florence that booking your access to the Duomo is absolutely mandatory. There is no additional cost once you’ve purchased the ticket, you just need to get a time slot.
We still bought the €18 ticket which gave us access to the Baptistry, Bell Tower, Crypt and the Museum itself.
But no Duomo.
And, might I add, no discount.
If you’ve got your heart set on climbing to the top of the Duomo during your visit to Florence, make sure you buy your ticket at least 4 or 5 days before you intend to visit.
You can buy your ticket at the Museum in person, or online.
We were also approached by vendors selling tours outside the cathedral which included access to the Duomo, so that is an option if you’re willing to pay more.
However, I would recommend purchasing one online like this one ahead of time, so you know what is included in the tour.
Pro Tip: There are separate entrances for most monuments. The Duomo, the Cathedral, the Bell Tower and the Baptistry all have their own lines that you will have to queue up for separately. The Crypt is within the Cathedral and can only be accessed if you line up as described above and if you have a ticket.
Side Note: The Bell Tower does not offer clean views as it is caged in. I understand that this is for safety reasons, but again, it’s something I wish I’d known before our trip to Florence.
You will likely get a better view from the Duomo. If you can get up there…
4 – Cover Up and Drop Bags
As we experienced during our time in Venice, all churches in Italy require you to cover your shoulders and knees before entering.
Make sure you bring a sarong, or dress appropriately on the day you intend to go inside a church or cathedral.
There are plenty of street hawkers selling scarves and shawls to those in line that are less prepared, so you do have options.
They can and do turn people away for not having appropriate clothing.
As well as that, similarly to other popular sites in Italy, you can only carry a small handbag with you inside the monuments and museum.
There is a cloakroom at the museum where you can drop your bigger bags if needed.
Per the official site: Access to the Cathedral is allowed only if equipped with suitable clothing: it is forbidden entry with shorts, bare shoulders, sandals, hats, and sunglasses. Access to the Dome, the Campanile, and the museum is not allowed with bulky bags and backpacks. The cloakroom is located at the ticket office of the Museum.
5 – Check Hours of Operation
One thing to know before visiting Florence is that each attraction is open at different times, so make sure you check their timetables!
Opening hours also tend to change depending on the day of the week.
The Opera Duomo Museum is closed on the first Tuesday of each month.
State museums like the Accademia, Uffizi, and Palazzo Pitti, are always closed on Mondays.
Pro Tip: The David in the photo below is located in Piazza della Signoria. But, don’t be fooled! The original sculpture by Michelangelo is located in the Accademia Gallery.
While the original David did stand exactly where this replica is now (for no less than 400 years!!), being exposed to the elements took its toll and the decision was made to move David to the Accademia where it could be safely preserved inside.
If you’re a fan of David, there is another replica in Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking Florence too!
6 – Wear Appropriate Footwear
I’m well aware that Italy is known for its high fashion and you may feel the desire to dress accordingly. But, I highly recommend that you do not wear heels.
All the streets in Florence are beautifully cobblestoned.
But, prioritise comfortable shoes.
As well as that, if you’re intending to visit the Cathedral, they do not allow sandals.
In any case, if you’re climbing the 400 or more steps up the Bell Tower, you definitely want to be wearing flat, comfortable shoes.
Know Before Visiting Florence – Food
7 – Menus Are Literal
We didn’t notice this in Venice, but it may well have been the same.
The menus, in Florence at least, were completely literal!!
Meaning, if an appetiser stated that it was a Tomato & Mozzarella Salad, we would literally get slices of each of these two ingredients and nothing else.
8 – Five Course Meals
Menus mostly seemed to have at least five or six different courses; Appetisers, First Course, Second Course, Main Course, Sides, and Desserts!
We didn’t really know whether to order a first or main course. Whether a second course would be smaller than a main. Whether it would be rude to have only one or two courses…
Our tour guide on the cycling wine tour we did as a day-trip from Florence told us that a traditional Italian family meal will consist of all of these courses.
But, they are intended to be shared, and enjoyed over a significant amount of time…
If you are simply having dinner out at a restaurant, it is perfectly acceptable to order only a first course if that is what you want.
9 – Small Coffees
One thing to know before visiting Florence is that coffees are small.
Even if you don’t order an espresso, it will be small.
So if you’re in need of a nice big cup of coffee to start your day, your only choice is to go to an American style chain like Arnold Coffee.
Otherwise, join the locals and maybe drink a few of the small coffees instead!
Have you been to Florence? What did you think?
I’d love to hear what your top tips to know before visiting Florence are in the comments below!
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