In the first of our series of photo essays on city breaks, Lily Joyce visits the vibrant, artistic Florence and tells you how to visit one of Italy’s most iconic cities on a budget.
Florence is a relatively affordable city but due to the amount of tourists the city greets every year, there are areas where restaurants, cafés and shops take advantage of their convenient locations and charge extortionate prices. Below is an in-depth list of how to spend smartly in the Tuscan capital.
GETTING THERE & AROUND THE CITY
Ryanair don’t fly directly to Florence but they do fly to Pisa and Bologna, two neighbouring cities, which are around one hour and thirty minutes away from Florence. This gives you the option to book a return flight ticket to either city or to book one way to Pisa and the other from Bologna. Journeys can cost around €60 – €80 for a round trip, if you’re smart with your flight logistics. Buses to Florence from these locations can cost as little as €5, and although this makes the journey a little longer than if you were to catch a direct flight, it does save you a nice lump sum in the long run.
Florence is a rather big city but because everything is so close by it’s very easy to walk everywhere. If you stay in the city centre, there is no need to spend any extra money on public transport.
The city prides itself on its vast collections of museums and basilicas brimming with culture and art. If you are staying in Florence for three days or more, the Firenze card, which is the equivalent to a master key for access to all the galleries, museums and basilicas, is a convenient and hassle free option. The card costs €72 and is valid for 72 hours which works out at €24 a day and allows priority access to over 60 buildings in the city. This card saves time and money. Tickets for the Uffizi Gallery alone cost around €24 – €30, regardless of whether you book ahead or buy them at the ticket office. The card also offers a three-day transit pass so if you are staying that little bit out of town, it covers you for your journeys in and out.
WHAT TO DO
As noted earlier, Florence is an artist’s city. The main attractions include galleries, museums and cathedrals hosting works from some of the world’s greatest artists like Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Uffizi Gallery is the heart of the Renaissance, showcasing art from the floor to the ceiling. Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and ‘Primavera’ can be seen in the Uffizi along with some works by Caravaggio. The rooftop terrace also has a great view over the Dome of the Duomo.
The Academia gallery hosts the famous ‘David’ sculpture by Florence’s own Michelangelo along with many other sculptures from other artists. There are two lines to enter the Academia – one for those who don’t have a booking and another for those who pre-booked and those who have a Firenze card. Don’t be daunted by the queues – if you have a Firenze card or have booked in advance, the line moves quickly.
Pitti Palace is adorned with the riches of the Medici family who were the most powerful family in Florence during the height of the Renaissance. In here you’ll find old and modern art exhibitions throughout the palace. The Boboli Gardens are located at the back of the building and offer great views of the city and also a quiet retreat for some down time.
The Bargello is situated in the impressive Palazzo del Bargello. Famous works such as ‘Bacchus’ and ‘Apollo’ by Michelangelo and Donatello’s bronze ‘David’ reside in the museum.
The Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, AKA The Duomo, is the most prominent building in Florence, with its ornate architecture and sheer size making it one of Italy’s largest churches. The Duomo offers two locations for a bird’s eye view of the city either from the top of the dome in the main building or one from the top of the bell tower. The bell tower is the better option as it’s much quieter and gives you a view of the dome as well as a 360-degree view of Florence.
The Ponte Vecchio Bridge is lined with shops on both sides and with buskers dotted throughout strumming classical Italian music. Avoid buying anything in the stores as they’re aimed at tourists with money to spend. You can also grab a wonderful view of the bridge from anywhere along the Arno River.
Visit Piazzale Michelangelo, a square atop a hill which boasts a panoramic view of the city. Catch the number 12 or 13 ATAF bus (tickets cost about €2 per person and are valid for 90 minutes) from the Santa Maria Novella train station to the top of the hill. You’ll get a beautiful 20 to 30-minute ride over the Arno River through the Florentine countryside to the scenic square overlooking the city, complete with a replica of Michelangelo’s ‘David’.
TIP: In July 2014, the Italian government launched an initiative offering free admission to museums, galleries and cultural sites on the first Sunday of each month. Though the top tourist attractions tend to get packed out, it’s a rare opportunity to visit world renowned galleries such as the Uffizi and the Academia for free.
WHERE TO STAY
PLUS Florence hostel is situated near the Santa Maria Novella train station and charges €16 a night to sleep in a dorm room. It’s within walking distance of all the main attractions, provides free Wi-Fi and also has indoor and outdoor pools.
Hostel Santa Monaca is situated near the Basilica di Santo Spirito. Here you can pay up to €52 for a private twin room or as little as €12 in a 16 bed dorm.
If hostels aren’t your thing, Airbnb listings in Florence offer central apartments for around €25 a night if you book early. Some listings charge less for midweek stays too.
Trattoria Mario – A firm favourite amongst locals, a meal costs from €8 – €15. There is usually a waiting list so head over to give your name to the Maître D’ before you get hungry and go back out and explore the nearby Basilica di San Lorenzo.
Da Nerbone – Located inside the Mercato Centrale this is another local favourite for takeout paninis. Grab one of their trademark sandwiches to eat while people-watching on the steps at piazza di San Lorenzo. Prices are between €7 and €12.
Coquinarius – An off the beaten track restaurant with a sprinkling of tourists and locals. The menu consists of cured meat dishes and delicate pasta. Make a reservation or arrive early to ensure you get a table. Prices on the menu go from €12 to €25.
Trattoria da Rocco – A bustling restaurant with more locals than tourists, which is always a good sign. Dishes are very simple and start from €4.50, definitely one of the best bargains around.
Finisterrae – located along Santa Croce square, this place offers a wide selection from pasta to pizza. An average meal would cost around €15. Avoid any of the main piazzas if you are looking for a reasonably priced cup o’joe. You can be charged up to €5 for a small cup of coffee whereas some cafés further afield charge as little as €1.
Volume Café – Located along Piazza Santo Spirito, this place caters for the hipster, with mismatched leather armchairs and old books lining the walls. Americanos are served small and strong at the cost of €1.
La Loggia degli Albizi – Known for its reasonable prices and friendly atmosphere, this is a firm favourite amongst locals and tourists for coffee and pastries for breakfast.