Ahh, Florence. The birthplace of the Renaissance, the capital of beautiful Tuscany. It was once home to the likes of Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, the Medici, and just last fall – me. Every day from August to December of 2016, I was lucky enough to stroll those famous terracotta-colored streets and check out the local foods and pastimes in Florence.
Oh, and I did some studying, too.
Amidst all that exploring, I built a list of my favorite things to do, see and eat in Florence.
For anyone planning a trip (or pretend planning, no judgement here), here’s a list of my favorite, must-do, can’t-miss things in Florence.
Best of Florence, Italy
Best Pizza: Gustapizza
It might be a little off the beaten track, but that’s where you find the good food in Italy, anyway. Located on Via Maggio, next to Piazza Santo Spirito, Gustapizza has become a favorite among locals and students for fresh, classic pizza.
I first heard about it from a friend who insisted I check it out. So, on my next trip to the Oltrarno, I saved time for a little lunch excursion. I didn’t realize that the pizza didn’t come by the slice, so to make sure I didn’t miss out on trying what I’d heard was the best pizza in Florence, I ended up ordering a full pizza.
And I ate it all.
Pro tip: take the pizza out to eat on the steps of the church. You never know when the locals will stop by to chat!
Best Pasta: The Pear Fiocchetti with Asparagus Cream Sauce at Trattoria 4 Leoni
Eating this pasta was an honest-to-God spiritual experience.
My roommate came across this place and this dish during our second-to-last weekend in Florence. She loved it so much that she went back for more (and took me with her!) the very next day. I’d never tasted anything like it before, haven’t been able to match it since, and truly believe that you’d be missing out if you went to Florence and didn’t try it.
Best Gelato: Badiani Gelateria Pasticceria
Badiani has been serving up freshly made gelato and pastries since 1932. It’s the birthplace of bountalenti (a fan-favorite flavor in all of Italy now) and of the semifreddi (flavors that are only semi-frozen – think chilled Nutella). And with the number of flavor options – there’s always something new to try.
Sometime during my first week in Florence, my host mother took my roommate and I on a drive around town. The last stop on the adventure was to be a cup of gelato. She told us about Badiani, and said that it was a favorite of hers, her family’s, and all her friends’. We ended up trying another place that night because Badiani’s was too packed (that’s when you know it’s good) and my roommate and I decided to head back another day. There were many trips back after that.
My last trip there was right after I took my last final exam. I left the classroom with an odd feeling – the test had been alright, but I’d be leaving Florence so soon, and that moment was one of my very last in the school. I found a handful of my friends sitting in the landing area right outside the classroom. Some discussing their tests, others discussing travel plans back home. It felt like a moment that would be better spent over some gelato.
“Hey! Does anyone want to go to Badiani?” I asked, presenting the question that had become such a common part of our vernacular by then.
I was met with a chorus of affirmations.
We gathered up a few more friends, making for a sizeable group. We talked and laughed and reminisced all the way up the street, over the train tracks, and down Viale dei Mille. I found myself making a new friend too, even on the very last day.
We went to the counter to order our cups, many of us getting a size bigger than normal, just to savor the last Badiani that much more. By then, we were all pretty experienced in ordering gelato in Italian, making for a vastly different and smoother scene than it would have been three months prior.
We took our cups and little plastic “spoons” to sit under the tent outside. It was December, and much colder than it was when we’d arrived, but still nice enough to enjoy the fresh air. We clustered around black metal garden furniture, chatting and laughing, and sharing stories of our separate adventures from the past few months.
I looked around and realized that I wouldn’t be seeing many of them, or any of them, for that matter, in the foreseeable future. The initial wave of sadness hit, but then it was replaced by a strange feeling of calm. Sort of like how I was starting to feel about leaving Florence.
I’d miss it all, so, so much. I mean, how often do you get to hang around in Italy, enjoying gelato with a group of friends you’d met just a few months ago? Or do anything that I’d done over those past few months, really. But it was happening. It had happened. And I was thankful that it did. I was a part of it, once, and nothing last forever. All I could do then was smile, enjoy the company, and enjoy the gelato.
Best View: Piazzale Michelangelo
Florence (and lots of tourist-popular cities, I noticed) is full of buildings and hills to climb to see the “best view” of the city. You could climb Giotto’s Campanile (the bell tower), Brunelleschi’s Dome (on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), or even take a bus out to Fiesole (a neighboring town situated on a hill with a view of all of Florence). However, for the all-time best view of the city, I’d say the Piazzale Michelangelo takes the cake. Why? You can see *all* of the highlights of the city – including the ones that you’d otherwise climb to see the rest of the city. And the sunset? Absolutely incredible.
Make a night of it! Cross to the Oltrano with about an hour til sunset, grab a gelato or glass of wine at one of the places at the top, or check out the monks of San Minanto Al Monte sing mass in Gregorian chant. Then, watch the sunset before having dinner at the Piazzale or at one of the many awesome places at the bottom of the hill.
I might not be an art historian, but I am a self-proclaimed museum enthusiast. In the beginning of the semester, I picked up a list of Florence museums and scheduled my Tuesday/Thursday classes in the afternoon – leaving my mornings completely free to explore two (or sometimes more) museums per week. Admission is much less than museum ticketing here in the U.S. (think ~5 euro per museum) and most you can see in under two hours.
Of the many great museums in Florence, more than a few of them hold the most notable art treasures in the world. The Uffizzi, Academia, and Palazzo Pitti and Vecchio are not to be missed. But they’re the most famous, and you can read about them anywhere. And you didn’t come here for expert art advice, anyway. So here’s a sampling of my favorite museums in Florence, and my reasons why I loved them so much.
This was the first museum I went to in Italy. Classes hadn’t even started yet – it was the tail end of orientation week when I discovered it. The girl I’d met at the Florence airport and I had just finished with one of those get-to-know-the-city activities that the school put on, and we found ourselves on the other side of the Arno with an entire afternoon ahead of us. So, first thing’s first – we got gelato. Then, in the midst of some destination-less meandering, we stumbled upon the sign for this museum.
“Want to go in?” I asked.
“Why not!” she said.
It was so full of such a diverse assortment of artifacts that were older than I can wrap my mind around still today.
Museo Nazionale di San Marco
One evening at dinner, I asked my host parents which museum I should check out first. It was my first Tuesday-morning museum excursion, and frankly, I didn’t know where to start.
“I’m looking for something sort-of close to the school, don’t want to accidentally be late during the first week,” I told them.
“Check out the Museo San Marco – in Piazza San Marco,” my host mother said.
So, that’s what I did.
It was just a 10 minute walk from the school, right in a neighboring Piazza. It was full of artifacts and artwork from early Christian artists, and I even got to explore what was once the living quarters of a Dominican Order.
This is one of the more famous museums in Florence, due to the number of famous Renaissance statues it holds. The building itself dates back to 1255. What I liked most about it though was figuring out which statues were meant to signify which stories. I was taking a class on classical mythology, and so many of the art in that museum was inspired by those stories. It was mind-blowing to realize that the stories I was reading in my class in 2016 were read and loved by artists all those years ago.
This one I loved because it was so different from all the others. Florence is, of course, famous for its art history. Therefore, there are a lot of art museums there. And while I do love a good art museum, by the time I made it to the Galileo Museum, I was in desperate need of a change of scenery.
Plus, I was missing my science-loving friends back home, and lots of the displays reminded me of them.
Ospedale degli Innocenti
This was actually one of the last museums I visited before my “museum weekend.” (I saved lots of the larger, more famous museums for the very end of my trip because in November/December, it would no longer be tourist season and the lines would be significantly shorter.) I’d saved it for one of the last trips because I wasn’t sure how interested I’d be in it. It’s main focus is on one specific Florence orphanage that had previously occupied the building that the museum now lives in, so my expectations were rather low. But between all the interactive exhibits and humanizing stories, I found myself caught up in this little piece of Florence history.
In one room, there were hundreds of tiny drawers, each holding some small trinket. The trinkets were usually left with the child when he or she was dropped off at the church’s doorstep as a baby, and could be used to identify the child’s parents later in life. After peeking at about 20, I found a child that shared my birthday.
Little Guiseppe. 05. 05. 1832.
Perhaps the best museum in all of Florence is the city of Florence itself. Everywhere I went there was something new to see, or some remnant of ancient history to marvel at. From the lively markets to the old, ornate churches – all the way to the spirited interactions between locals and tourists alike, there was always something to do, see, and learn.