What an unforgettable trip! And not just because Matt popped the question. Here’s our full week’s itinerary for Florence including basilicas, roofop bars, day trips to Siena and Bologna, and lots of coffee and pasta.
Day 1 – arriving in Florence
I don’t really need to go into too much detail on the first night since everything’s already been said in my post The Day Matt Proposed!
We landed in Florence at about 8 (the flight was only an hour and a half but there’s an hour time difference) and got the shuttle into the centre, where our airbnb was only a 10 minute walk from the station, down winding cobbled streets teeming with Italians out for a Saturday night drink. After our host showed us around, we did a spot of unpacking and got dressed up to go for dinner.
Dinner: Trattoria Zà Zà
After Matt proposes (NBD) we go for dinner at Trattoria Zà Zà on Piazza del Mercato Centrale, evidently popular from the queue of people in the street outside. We only have to hang around for five minutes before the waitress finds us a table, where we order prosecco.
We order bruscettas with truffle shavings, and for mains I choose gorgonzola gnocchi, and Matt goes for Siena pici pasta (thick spaghetti with Tuscan sausage ragu).
Everything was delicious, although have you ever had gnocchi drowned in sauce that is essentially melted blue cheese? The flavour is sensational but also quite overwhelmingly rich.
Day 2 – Florence central
Our plan for our first full day in Florence was to hit all the key tourist attractions. But first, breakfast 😉
Breakfast: La Ménagère
La Ménagère is a very trendy cafe / restaurant / cocktail bar / plant shop with an achingly cool industrial aesthetic in two adjacent arched cellars on Via de’ Ginori. When you first enter you’re met with a cart loaded with succulents, parked in the middle of a minimalistic kitchen and homewares shop. Behind this is a counter covered with flowers and plants, and scattered all around are sofas and coffee tables.
Behind the shop is the beautiful restaurant, with plants hanging from the ceiling and light streaming down through the glass roof. The cellar nextdoor holds the cocktail bar and cafe, where Matt and I grab a table and order each a cappuccino and croissant with apricot jam.
Don’t come here if you’re in a rush, the service is not speedy. Luckily we were on holiday so we sat back and appreciated our eclectic surroundings.
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
The duomo crept up on us all at once. We turned the corner of a street and there it was! In fact, we really enjoyed how close it was to our airbnb all week, and had to walk past it a few times on our way home. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, whether it’s reflecting the orange tones of the setting sun, or lit up at night, it’s always beautiful.
There’s so many striking features of this cathedral that it’s hard to know where to look – the massive bulbous red dome, the completely separate bell tower, or the elaborate gothic façade in white, pink and green marble. The colourful marble pattern actually continues consistently around the bell tower, the body of the cathedral and the baptistry, creating a family of church buildings which you can enter with different tickets.
Work to build the huge cathedral started in 1294 and didn’t finish until 1436 (the black death seems like a good reason to procrastinate), when the enormous dome was finally completed.
We decided not to buy tickets – which you need to climb the tower and enter the baptistry – and instead joined the queue for to go inside the cathedral. The queue was extremely long, but we managed to make it through with the help of some insanely delicious caramel gelato from Cafe De La Paix.
I’ll be straight with you, we weren’t greatly impressed once we got inside. The outside is definitely more impressive, and we mainly focused on the fresco of the dome once we got in.
Perhaps if the queue was shorter we wouldn’t have been as bothered by the minimalist interior, but compared to other churches and cathedrals we saw over the course of the week, it wasn’t much to write home about.
Lunch: I Fratellini
Lunch was an absolute find – I Fratellini on Via dei Cimatori, practically a hole in the wall where you order fresh focaccia bread with any fillings you like. We went for the speciality – proscuitto, crema di formaggio and rucola, which was completely delicious and just what we needed.
Piazza della Signoria
Next up was Piazza della Signoria, where Palazzo Vecchio towers over the square making it one of the most recognisable sights of the city. The Palazzo used to be the residence of the Medici family before they moved to the Pitti Palace south of the river, across the Ponte Vecchio – hence the name.
Unfortunately Neptune’s Fountain was cordoned off for cleaning (this was something was came across a lot on our trip – almost every attraction had scaffolding somewhere), but the copy of Michelangelo’s statue of David was in full view.
Loggia del Mercato Nuovo
Next we knocked off a few sights in the area, starting with Loggia del Mercato Nuovo, a historic market founded in the 16th century under a detached arcade. Originally the vendors at this market sold silk and other luxury goods, but nowadays it seems to be almost 100% leather.
If you manage to visit when the market is closed and the stalls have been packed away, you can find the pietra dello scandalo at the centre of the square – a wheel shaped marble etching in the floor that symbolises the Florentine republic.
Piazza della Repubblica
The Piazza della Repubblica was actually the original site of the Roman forum, the centre of the Roman city of Firenze. Nowadays the square is home to many historical literary-cafes, visited by artists and scholars, and the spaces are often used for exhibitions and displays. While we were passing through we came across a parade that seemed to honour the big families of the city, but after lots of research we still haven’t been able to find out what this was celebrating!
Top tip: Whilst your on Piazza della Repubblica, it’s worth nipping into
Rinascente Firenze department store. If you make your way to the rooftop cafe on the top floor, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of the duomo. Unfortunately it was under construction while we were there. Credit to my friend Emma for this recommendation.
Piazza di Santa Maria Novella
We stumbled across this piazza almost by accident, and it ended up being one of our favourite spots in Florence! The narrow streets around it open up into this massive space, ringed by restaurants and overlooked by the elaborate facade of Santa Maria Novella church. Come here for a nice peaceful break from the bustling city.
Drinks: SE·STO on Arno Rooftop Bar
It’s time for some fake confidence here guys. For a fancy evening drink with an amazing view, head to Piazza Ognissanti where you’ll find the Westin Excelsior Hotel. Stroll confidently inside, nodding casually at the staff in their posh uniforms, and find the lifts on the left at the back. Press the button for the SE·STO on Arno bar. You’ll be seated by the staff and get to enjoy this wonderful view over the river as you drink your €15 aperol spritz.
Alternatively you can take one look at the menu and do a runner, like we did.
Dinner: Lorenzo dei Medici
We were really tired after our day walking around Florence, so for dinner we ordered takeaway pizza from Lorenzo dei Medici. I had a Della Casa, half salami and olives, half four cheese calzone, and Matt had a Maialona with ham, sausage and salami.
Day 3 – Siena
You can actually get a bus all the way from Florence to Siena for as little as €5, and it takes the same amount of time as the train (an hour and a half), but we decided not to do this as I often get travel sick on bus journeys.
The train leaves Florence from Firenze S. M. Novella, where you can buy your ticket from any of the self service machines on the day you travel (you won’t save any money by booking in advance). You can’t get an open return, so the best thing to do is just get your ticket back from the station at the other end. Just make sure you get your ticket stamped by one of the machines on the wall of the platform before you get on the train.
Day 4 – Florence south
On Day 4 we decided to explore the south of the river, so we crossed Ponte Santa Trinita and made our way to the area known as Santo Spirito.
Santo Spirito has a really nice domestic vibe – you can tell locals actually live here. The main communal area is Piazza Santo Spirito, a square ringed with bars and full of market stalls, dominated by the large yellow face of Basilica di Santo Spirito.
The area has a really interesting history. It was associated with early humanism in Florence, and was seen as the most rebellious quarter due to it being the home of many powerful families living side by side with some of the poorest unskilled labourers. Over the centuries the square has seen a political assassination, as well as riots, revolts and squashed uprisings.
I was really keen to try out one of the local bars, so we chose Volume in Piazza Santo Spirito, a very trendy live music bar that seems to also dabble in woodwork? The service was classically Italian, and by that I mean she ignored me standing at the bar for as long as possible and then couldn’t understand my terrible Italian accent.
Our cappuccinos were not only delicious but also super cheap -one of the perks of being in a less touristy area.
After our coffee we had a few plans of things we wanted to see in the area: all of which failed. We couldn’t get into the basilica because Matt was wearing shorts and I was wearing a short dress. We trekked over to Piazza del Carmine to see Cappella Brancacci, but it was closed. We headed down to Piazza Torquato to see the Giardino Torrigiani – but after literally following the walls all the way around the garden it turns out it’s not open to the public!
Lunch: I’Raddi di Santo Spirito
After all our seemingly pointless walking we were hungry for lunch, so we chose this tiny little place (another recommendation from my friend Emma) and ordered some freshly made cheese and ham ciabatta sandwiches.
If you’re in the area looking for food apparently Gustaosteria next door does some of the best pizza in Florence.
Giardino di Boboli
The Boboli Gardens are part of the Pitti Palace, the Renaissance home of the Medici family. It now holds a whole bunch of museums including the Royal Apartments, a modern art gallery, Silver Museum, Porcelain Museum, Costume Gallery and Carriages Museum.
The Boboli Gardens behind the palace are some of the first and most famous formal 16th century Italian gardens, with statues, fountains, grottos and viewing platforms. Being on the side of a hill, it definitely puts the active in activity – after climbing up and down the long steep promenade I was pretty exhausted. It’s worth baring this in mind if you’re trying to pace yourself.
The grotto was one of my favourite sections, although conversely Matt didn’t like it at all! It’s decorated with stalactites and I have to admit, the “grown from the earth” effect I think they were going for does leave it looking a little.. mouldy.
We finally made it to Ponte Vecchio, arguably the most famous sight in Florence. The most notable feature of the arch bridge is clearly the shops built along it. Historically the shops were mostly butchers, but in 1593 they were prohibited to an attempt by the Medici’s to enforce the prestige of the bridge that led from the centre to their palace. Goldsmiths swooped in and jewellery shops seem to hold a monopoly to this day.
Piazzale degli Uffizi
From the Ponte Vecchio we made our way up the river and back into Piazza della Signoria via the Piazzale degli Uffizi, where the gallery was being refurbished but the queues still went on for miles. We’d actually decided not to go in the Uffizi gallery, since we’d both visited when we were younger with our parents, and the tickets are so expensive!
Loggia dei Lanzi
Instead we spent some time in Loggia dei Lanzi, an amazing outdoor gallery filled with statues that are all in incredible conditions considering they’ve been outside in all weathers for the last however many centuries.
Dinner: Ristorante Pensavo Peggio
This was one of our favourite dinners of the week. Ristorante Pensavo Peggio has a great vibe, with a super cute upper level and photos of all the famous people who’ve eaten there. We ordered bruscetta and caprese salad to start, I had Siena pici pasta (thick spaghetti with Tuscan sausage ragu, the same thing Matt had on our first night) and Matt had four cheese gnocchi. The service was great and the pasta was just divine.
Afterwards we got gelato from Gelateria Producto Artigianale, and watched a live band performing in Piazza di Santa Maria Novella.
Day 5 – Bologna
Time for another day trip! It’s worth buying your tickets online for the fast train from Florence to Bologna – ours cost about €38 each for a return. The good news is the train is so flipping fast it only takes half an hour! The train to Siena by contrast covers only about a third of the distance but takes three times as long.
Day 6 – Florence north
For our 6th day in Florence we decided to visit all the sites that were closest to our airbnb. We were pretty tired after all our days of walking much further than we’re used to, so we took it a bit easier.
The Medici Chapels stick out from the Basilica di San Lorenzo. To get in you have to queue around the side of the church at the separate chapel entrance and buy a ticket.
The larger of the two chapels is the Capella dei Principi, with a 59m high dome and colourful marble floors and walls. The structure hasn’t really been changed or updated since it was built in 1602, and pieces have started falling from the roof! There’s a project underway to reinforce the dome and make it safer, so there was lots of scaffolding when we were there.
The smaller chapel is called the Sagrestia Nuova and was designed by Michelangelo. I was really fascinated by these two sarcophagi, with sculptural figures of the four times of day – night and day, and dawn and dusk.
Coffee: La Ménagère
Before queuing to get into Basilica di San Lorenzo we decided to go back to our local coffee bar, La Ménagère, for an mid-morning refuel.
In the cloister of the Basilica di San Lorenzo, just behind where you buy your tickets, you’ll find the Laurentian Library, holding more than 11,000 manuscripts and 4,500 early printed books. Matt was very interested in this, specifically in the staircase leading to it which were designed by Michelangelo. Annoyingly it closes at 1pm, so we just missed it, but we managed to peek at the stairs through the glass door.
Basilica di San Lorenzo
We’d passed the Basilica di San Lorenzo everyday to get to and from our airbnb, so we were excited to finally see what was inside. It’s one of the largest churches in the city, commissioned by the Medici family.
If you like old things, head to the Old Sacristry designed by Brunelleschi, where several members of the Medici family are buried. There’s also two bronze pulpits which are the last works by Donatello.
Also near our airbnb was the Mercato Centrale, otherwise known as the Mercato di San Lorenzo. It building itself harks back to the 19th century when Florence was the capital of Italy. The roads surrounding it are filled with stalls selling leather goods, jewellery and tourist souvenirs. Inside vendors sell mostly food, including raw fruit and veg, meat, fish, nuts and spices. Upstairs you’ll find a very modern food court.
When in Florence, eat as the Florentines do, right? For lunch we headed to Da Nerbone, a well established local haunt in the back left corner of the ground floor of Mercato Centrale. The traditional Florentine dish that we were told we must have, was lampredotto. We copied the people around us and had ours in panini bread.
What is lampredotto you ask? It’s a typical Florentine dish made from the fourth and final stomach of a cow. Yep, it’s tripe. Slow cooked in vegetable broth with herbs and stuff. It’s slimy and greasy and GROSS.
My Sugar Gelateria
Unfortunately Matt and I felt slightly nauseous after our tripe paninis, so we decided gelato was needed for medical reasons. My Sugar on Via de’ Ginori came to the rescue.
Il Museo di San Marco
Next up on our itinerary, an art museum in the northern quarter that lives in a medieval Dominican friary. The first section of the museum holds frescos by Fra Angelico who lived in the community for many years.
The friars’ dormitories on the upper level of the building are really worth seeing. 44 cells, each one with a painted fresco by Fra Angelico “for the exclusive contemplation of the friar occupying the cell”.
If you’ve still got some energy left after this you can check out the botanical gardens next door, part of the Natural History museum connected with Florence University. We decided to spend some chill time at our airbnb before going out for the evening.
Drinks: Bar Santa Maria Novella
For drinks we decided to find somewhere in our favourite piazza, and ended up in Bar Santa Maria Novella just by the modern art museum. We had a couple of rounds of Aperol Spritz for €8 each, with free aperativo on the side including breadsticks and mini margherita pizzas.
Dinner: Briscola Pizza Society
Our appetite for pizza not yet quenched, Matt found a trendy pizza restaurant popular with local students, Briscola Pizza Society. They had a cool sharing section of the menu where you could order small versions of different flavours, and since we’d already filled up on aperitivo this suited us very well.
Day 7 – Florence east
For our final day in Florence we made a plan to explore the east side of the city, starting with some local markets.
Found in one of the oldest boroughs in Florence, Sant’Ambrogio Market is open everyday except Sunday from 8am to 1pm. In the streets outside you’ll find fresh fruit and veg, clothes, and plant stalls. It’s chaotic and busy and full of locals.
The building itself is like a smaller version of Mercato Centrale, with just one floor, filled with butchers, fishmongers, and all kinds of other fresh produce sold over counters.
We wandered up and down the aisles inspecting all the fridges, enjoying the authentic local atmosphere and watching families do their shopping.
Coffee: Caffeteria del Vecchio Mercato
Our coffee that day was from a tiny little Cafe/Bar inside the market, called Caffeteria del Vecchio Mercato. Locals were crowded around, perching on stools and leaning against the bar. Here more than anywhere, we felt we were getting a real Florence experience.
Mercato Delle Pulci
Next door we found Mercato delle Pulci, which is basically just a massive antiques fair. If you like old dressing tables, paintings, vintage signs and boxes of other peoples’ random crap, then this for you. Otherwise, maybe don’t bother.
Basilica di Santa Croce
Next to the duomo in Siena, I think Basilica di Santa Croce was the most impressive church we saw on our holiday. It’s the burial place of some crazy famous Italians, like Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini.
Inside, the basicila has sixteen chapels, decorated by Giotto. The area around the altar stands out from the surrounding white washed walls, with colourful golden frescos and beautiful stained glass windows.
If you venture through the various doorways around the basilica you’ll find other cloisters and chapels, many holding incredible historic artworks, most notable possibly being the Crucifixion, a wooden crucifix painted in 1265 by Cimabue. It was badly damaged in a massive flood in the 1960s, that killed many people and destroyed hundreds of manuscripts and pieces of art. Today the restored crucifix hangs high in the air to protect it from future floods.
To get out of the basilica you must exit via the old convent. Before you go it’s also worth visiting the Cappella dei Pazzi, designed by the same architect as the Cathedral dome.
Lunch: Arà è Sud
For lunch we were really craving some arancini, which we hadn’t had yeton our holiday. We found a Sicilian restaurant called Arà: è Sud, which specialises in Sicilian street food. Along with two glasses of red wine we loaded up on caprese salad, bruscetta and two flavours of arancini.
We definitely underestimated how big the dishes would be, and by the time we got to the arancini – massive towers of cheesy rice inside a thick crust of breadcrumbs – I was totally defeated.
You know what’s not good to do before you climb up the massive hill to Piazzale Michelangelo? Fill up on fried rice.
We definitely saved the best for last, and I’m so glad we did. Piazzale Michelangelo looks out from the south bank of the river, giving you amazing panoramic views of the whole of Florence. We were able to spot many of the places we’d visited that week, including Basilica di San Lorenzo, Basilica di Santa Croce and of course the duomo.
After admiring the view for a while we went to sit on the steps – which to be fair also have a great view.
If you’ve put the effort in to get all the way up here, you may as well keep going! That’s right, instead of schlepping home, it’s time to climb even further.
Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte
Hidden behind the trees further up the hill from Piazzale Michelangelo is San Miniato al Monte, a small basilica standing at the highest point of the city that dates back to 1018.
Inside the church very little has been changed since it was first built at the start of the 11th century. Even the floor is still the original from 1207. There’s a mosaic in the apse from 1297, and a fresco above the alter from 1387. Basically, this place is super old.
We didn’t quite time our visit right, but if you’re there during the summer you can hear the monks chanting every day at around 5pm.
For our last evening we decided to stay in and eat all our favourite Italian foods. After a session in our local supermarket we laid out our haul of gorgonzola cheese, parma ham, focaccia bread, cherry tomatoes and chianti wine – best decision ever.
Our week in Florence was definitely one of our top holidays together, up there with Lisbon and Seville in terms of food to eat, places to go and things to see. Food is always a highlight for me, so obviously lots of homemade Italian pasta was always going to be great.
What else… fab day trips that were really easy because of the convenient trains, and of course all the beautiful buildings. What a romantic place to have your engagement, wouldn’t you say?