While Florence’s city center is dwarfed by Milan’s, its size is deceptive. Known as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence packs endless amounts of history and art into a small space.
As we only had two nights in Florence, we could only see so much. When I travel, I prioritize flexibility over the impossible feat of “seeing it all” — and Florence was no different. In our case, we discovered the huge city market somewhat by accident, but we didn’t make it to the Uffizi or Galleria dell’Accademia. Traveling with time constraints while also embracing the ability to make spontaneous decisions sometimes means that you take the path less traveled at the expense of missing a major tourist attraction. Most of the time, I’m okay with that.
If you’ve only got about 36 hours in Florence and you like to have time to wander, I would recommend this itinerary.
DUOMO DI FIRENZE
While I do value off-the-beaten path locations, I don’t completely dismiss the major attractions. A long-time admirer of Italy, I was no stranger to the brick dome featured in every picture of Florence I’d ever seen.
Gracing the top of the Duomo di Firenze, Brunelleschi’s dome has fascinated me since watching PBS’s NOVA: Great Cathedral Mystery, in which they uncover the engineering secrets that enabled it to be built. The cupola remains the world’s largest masonry dome, and its massive shape dominates the Florence skyline.
While the dome is the dominant feature of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known simply as the Duomo, the facade is beautiful, too. I never knew I was such a Gothic Revival fan until visiting Italy.
Really, from every angle, the cathedral is stunning.
But, we mostly came for the dome.
It amazes me that you’re allowed to ascend this monstrosity, particularly when it appears to defy physics. It’s worth swallowing your fear, however, to admire the cathedral itself as well as the views that await you at the top of the dome.
The dome’s interior, nearly 40,000 square feet of space, depicts The Last Judgment. It was painted by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, along with several other collaborators.
Brunelleschi’s herringbone brickwork is one of the engineering tricks behind the dome’s structural integrity.
Once you reach the top, the red rooves of Florence and the rolling hills of Tuscany stretch out before you — offering fantastic views of the city and the countryside.
While you won’t find any monuments to the Renaissance inside, I loved exploring the Mercato Centrale, Florence’s premier market. Everywhere you turn is a testament to freshness and diversity, both hallmarks of Italy’s food. You can find nearly every type of produce and foodstuff under the sun here, and you can also find a lot of vendors ready to offer you a sample on the spot.
The lower level is all market, with stalls devoted to different vendors and types of food, and the upper level is an eatery. Food shops ring around the edge of the second level, all with counter service, and tables fill the middle. All the shops serve local food, and most specialize in a particular type, whether pizza, pasta, truffles, or pastries.
I opted for a shop that sold plates of food drizzled in truffle oil. But if that’s not your thing, there’s plenty to choose from! It reminded me of Whole Foods’ lunch cafeterias, but with more local (and more Italian) fare. If you’re with a group and no one can decide what to eat, the Mercato offers something for everyone.
THE ARNO AND PONTE VECCHIO
The mighty Arno River is an iconic part of Italy, and Florence has many bridges that span it. Most famous of them all is the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, which dates back to the late 900s, even though it’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times since.
The Ponte Vecchio’s shops themselves didn’t hold much allure for us, considering their high-end nature (mostly jewelry), but we did find a gelato shop at the other end, called Cafe Pontevecchio. My husband had been to Florence before, and he had good memories of this shop. It’s not like I ever had any bad gelato in Italy, but whatever I got here — it was something caramel-y — was amazing.
THE MANY CATHEDRALS OF FLORENCE
You don’t have to try to see cathedrals in Florence. Just walking around the city will ensure you see a good number of them. They are nearly everywhere you turn! You could probably spend several days in Florence just exploring churches.
Around the corner from the Duomo is the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which contains works of Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Michelangelo.
Another beautiful church that we saw was Santa Croce, which looks especially stunning at dusk. Its creamy white facade can be seen even from the top of the Duomo.
Now the #1 Florence attraction on TripAdvisor, the Piazale Michelangelo affords a spectacular vantage point for viewing panoramas of Florence. We made the trek up the hill to see this park based on a friend’s recommendation, but regardless of who tells you to go, it’s easy to see why it’s popular.
In addition to the views, a replica of Michelangelo’s The David statue is housed in the park.
There are multiple segments to the park, including several terraces and a rose garden. But you’ll want to make sure you keep going all the way up to the top, because once you catch your breath from the climb, it will be stolen once again by the full vista of Florence. I recommend the same thing that my friend suggested to us: visit close to sunset, preferably with a bottle of wine in hand.
A view like that makes a place hard to leave. Tuscany, I’m not through with you.