In which we pay a whistle-stop tour to one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and try not to empty our wallet.
Capital city of Tuscany — and home to an embarrassment of eye-meltingly gorgeous Renaissance architecture — it might not surprise you to know that Florence is quite a popular little location. Based on Londonist's trip to the Tuscan capital, here's what get up to, without shedding toooo many euros.
Getting to Florence
Numerous direct flights depart from London City, Gatwick and Heathrow — with the flight time circa 2 hours 10 minutes. Bargain flights are available, although not so much in peak period. From Florence's airport, it's a thrifty (€1.50) and breezy (around 20 mins) tram ride into the city centre. Why can't all airport transfers be that simple?
Florence need to know
- Is Florence cheap then? From our personal experience, the average plate of pasta costs circa €10-€15 euros, and a spritz is around €7. Not extortionate by London standards, but it all soon adds up. Museums are steeper than the European average, too.
- Hark! What is that strange, foreign accent you hear lilting across the piazzas? That'll be Americans. They ADORE Florence.
- Accommodation: If you're not splashing the cash in spenny hotels overlooking the Arno, you're realistically going to be Airbnbig it; there's a solid selection of centrally-located apartments. One of the cooler parts of town in our opinion is Santo Spirito, a wedge of the city just south of the Arno, laced with various boutiques, bars and trattorias. If you're going to Florence to propose, you'd better style up your trip with a stay somewhere swankier, like the Hotel Savoy.
- Medicis: This lot crop up everywhere you go, and are basically the Italian Renaissance version of the Roys from Succession. Banks, palaces, galleries, gardens — they owned the lot. Some were even popes.
Eating and drinking on the cheap in Florence
Mamma mia, are you in for some good food here! And if you know where/how to look, it needn't cost you all that much:
- Mercato Centrale: Florence's central food market is a game of two halves: upstairs you'll find an array of tasty but touristy restaurant outlets. Downstairs is where the thrifty action is; pull up a stool at one of the stalls to tuck into a freshly-made lampredotto (that's stewed tripe in ciabatta, and far more delicious than it sounds), or a ridiculously unctuous dulce de leche. The market is also a fine spot to pick up fresh fruit and picnic grub.
- Sandwiches: Yes, Florence does fab pizza and pasta, but what it's really about here is the sandwiches. Lampredotto hawkers aside, it's worth queuing up for the likes of All'Antico Vinaio, which almost comically loads its ciabattas with deli meats and cheeses (although prepare to queue). Overall winner in our book is Semel, to the west of the centre, where we demolished a chicken meatball and artichoke number, washed down with a €2 wine. There's also an excellent food market — the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio — in the square... you know, in case you wanted more food.
- Gelato: Gelato in Florence costs as little as €2.50 for a cone with two scoops, and comes is as many scrumptious flavours as there are statues of naked people around here. Gelato aficionados count Gelateria della Passera and Gelateria Pasticceria Badiani among the most lickworthy, but tbh all the gelato we had tasted divine. It was invented in Florence, after all.
- Other cheap eating tricks: Florence's trattorias are spit 'n' sawdust madre and padre outfits, peddling homemade soups, meatballs, wild boar pasta and the like. These days, they're not all especially frugal. For better value, look out for trattorias doing lunchtime deals, or head further out of the centre — somewhere like Trattoria Sabatino. As for aperitvo — free finger food served with your early evening bar drinks — this didn't seem as commonplace to us as in, say Rome or Turin, but a quick Google reveals plenty of aperitivo spots. If you eat enough of it, maybe you'll even save yourself having to buy dinner. Don't be afraid to cram inside the little enotecas in the early evening — like our fave, Fratelli Zanobini — a historic little place, where value chianti is poured alongside free bar snacks.
Seeing the sights on the cheap in Florence
Florence is a compact city, eminently walkable — and you can tick off plenty of its sights without paying a penny including:
- Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (aka the Duomo) — as well as a heap of other churches, including the Basilica San Miniato al Monte, a gorgeous Tuscan Romanesque thing on a hill to the south of the city (easily walkable from the centre).
- Ponte Vecchio (imagine the old London Bridge but all the tenants are jewellery boutiques)
- All of the glorious piazzas with their glorious statues and glorious fountains, including the Piazza della Signoria, with its statue of Neptune. Glorious.
- Le Cascine Park (Florence isn't exactly great for green space, but here's somewhere you can catch a breather).
- Porcellino — Florence's answer to the Trevi Fountain/Manneken Pis/Peppa Pig
Three of the major paid-for players are the Uffizi Gallery (packed with a glut of renaissance works, including Botticelli's The Birth of Venus), the Pitti Palace, and the Boboli Gardens (actually the gardens of the Pitti Palace). If you want to see all of them, the three-in-one PassePartout ticket is for you (it lasts for five days). Weirdly it's slightly more expensive to book it in advance, although in theory this lets you jump queues. If you're strapped for time/money, just do the Uffizi and the Boboli Gardens (the Pitti has some magnificent ceilings, but arguably has less wow factor than the Uffizi).
And here's something worth knowing: If you happen to be in town on the first Sunday of the month, many of the big museums open for free. So time it right, do some cramming, and you can get a lot of your culture for nada.
We need to talk about David: Michelangelo's world-famous statue of the hench giant killer is not included in any of the above: that's in the Accademia. If you're set on ogling the real David, you'll need to fork out over €20 for the pleasure. But! If you don't mind seeing a replica David instead, you can ogle one in the Piazza della Signoria (close to the Uffizi), and another — bloody massive — one in the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Speaking of which...
Majestic views of Florence
The Duomo is THE icon of Florence, and you should go inside — especially as it's free to do (just be ready to queue). Heading up the tower, though, will cost you almost €20 (which also includes other ticketed parts of the Duomo). So if you're going up there MAINLY for the views, consider a thriftier/savvier option:
- For our money, the best view of Florence is from the Piazzale Michelangelo. The rusty-roofed panorama from up here is dreamy, plus there's that hulking great statue of David we mentioned. Just below the Piazzale is the stunning Giardino delle Rose, which as the name suggests, is blooming gorgeous in season — and frequented by picnickers and artists.
- Florence's rooftop bars in themselves aren't necessarily cheap, but if you count the price of a drink as your ticket to a fab view, then you might see it as decent value. We loved the Loggia Roof Bar on Piazza Santo Spirito (it was nice and quiet too), although the View on Art Rooftop Cocktail Bar can't be beat for views of the Duomo.
- (Some websites recommend catching the bus to Fiesole and admiring Florence from afar. Maybe do this if you have a half/whole day to blow, but where the bus drops you off gives you a pretty distant view, and you'll need time to walk to viewpoints with more wow factor. Just our opinion.)
A thrifty day trip to Pisa
Pisa (of skew-whiff tower fame) is just an hour on the train from Florence — and most certainly warrants a jaunt if you're in town longer than two or three days. Trains are regular and cheap (less than €10), and you can tick off Pisa Cathedral, Pisa Baptistery, and that there Leaning Tower in one fell swoop — and without paying a penny thankyouverymuch. (Going inside these attractions will cost you though.). As soon as you're outside the orbit of the Leaning Tower, things are far more reasonably priced than Florence. We ended up sipping €4 negronis in Piazza delle Vettovaglie, about 10 minute's walk from the tourist attractions. Now that's more LIKE it.
Other things we really loved in Florence
- Piazza Santo Sprito: a pretty church square just to the south of the river, which comes alive with (free) music in the evenings. While we're talking about free music, you can also listen to buskers belt out snippets of opera around the city — although of course bung them a few euros if you can.
- The craft beer scene: while most people will be chugging negronis/gelatos all holiday, hopheads will be relieved to know there are a few decent craft outlets here — of the ones we tried, by far the best were King Grizzly (a small craft beer bar not far from the Duomo), and Archea, which makes its own (very good) brews close to Santo Spirito. Prices are around the same as London.
- Haggling: it's encouraged on the markets here — which is good news if you're in the, well, market for a nice new leather satchel. Just don't start toooo low, otherwise you're liable to offend the stallholders. So we're told.