Packed Suitcase | Best of Florence, Italy: Where to Go, Stay and Eat
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Best of Florence, Italy: Where to Go, Stay and Eat

Best of Florence, Italy: Where to Go, Stay and Eat

In college, I studied abroad in the city that started the Renaissance: the magnificent Florence, Italy. I spent my time there living the good life: wandering the cobblestone streets, visiting markets and museums, sampling gelato from every notable place in town and eating enough pizza and pasta to feed a small village… balanced amongst my intensely dedicated studying, of course.

Recently, several friends and colleagues have visited Florence, and I, the ever-helpful travel guru that I am, would find myself putting together a “here’s where to go/stay/eat” type email with my top tips to experiencing the very best of this amazing city in a short amount of time.

Well, my Packed Suitcase friends, today I’m pulling back the veil and sharing my tips to insider’s Florence with you, too. Enjoy!


It’s a given that Florence’s historical city center is the place to stay. This is one town that’s perfect for the weekend or extended trip, because it’s actually fairly small. Save the money and skip the car rental, because you should be able to walk everywhere worth going during your visit.

Try to stay within these two prime locations


My absolute favorite area to stay is the Oltrarno, which means “the other side of the Arno.” (*It’s down at the bottom of the map across the river). Not only is it known for being a little quieter and more intimate, but it’s where all of the unique artisan workshops and storefronts are located. (Plus, it’s got some of the best restaurants in town!)

Staying on the Oltrarno side is just a mere 5-10 minute walk to the Duomo and – just think! – every time you cross the river you’ll walk across the Ponte Vecchio or another gorgeous bridge. (Can you say “photo op”?)

View from the Ponte Vecchio at Sunset
If you crave a little more action, try staying in the true heart of the historical center – the area surrounding the Duomo. You’ll be closer to Michelangelo’s David, but you’ll also have more noise, more crowds and more touristy shops/ restaurants.

I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you of the one area I wouldn’t recommend staying: directly around the train station (Santa Maria Novella, to the left of the top circle). While convenient if you have jaunts planned to Venice or Rome, train stations always tend to be a little shadier, and our beautiful Florence is no exception.

Also, if you go too far past Santa Croce, you’re getting a bit far from where the action is. Part of the fun is getting to walk everywhere comfortably. 

*Note: For actual hotel reviews, feel free to look at, Lonely Planet or Expedia, etc.

Whether your interest lies in art, history or shopping for Ferragamo’s, Florence has something to satisfy every interest. 

Must-see art spots:
• The Accademia, to see Michaelanglo’s “David” in the flesh. (*Be sure to reserve your spot before you get there to avoid waiting in long lines.)

• The Uffizi Gallery, to view works from Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Giotto, Raphael, Cimabue, and, the Florentine Golden Child himself, Michelangelo. My favorite is Botticelli’s “Primavera.” (*Try to book tickets in advance for this museum, too.)

Botticelli’s “Primavera

• Right outside the Uffizi Gallery is the Piazza della Signoria’s Loggia dei Lanzi, a free open air sculpture gallery chock full of Renaissance art, like Cellini’s “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” (1554) and Giambologna’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women” (1583). The piazza’s square is also home to the striking “Fountain of Neptune.” (1565)

Giambologna’s “The Rape of the Sabine Women” in the Loggia dei Lanzi

Fun Florence Art Fact: Would you believe me if I told you that Florence has not one, not two but THREE David statues scattered around Florence? (They really do love their Michelangelo, don’t they?)

1. The Real Deal: Accademia   

2. Imitation, but in good company: Piazza della Signoria 

3. Imitation, but with a great view: Piazzale Michelangelo

If history’s what you crave:

• Be sure to include the Basilica of Santa Croce in your itinerary. This church is the final resting spot of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and other Italian greats. And if that’s not enough, there’s also art from Donatello and Giotto… the entire place just makes me awestruck.
Santa Croce, and an artist’s market
• For fans of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, visit the Casa di Dante. It’s the house (now a museum) that the notable poet is said to have lived… well, at least before he was banished due to political discord with the Black Guelphs in 1302.

A “Thank Goodness” Florence History Fact: The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence that was preserved (and not destroyed) by Germans during World War II.


For great views of the city:

• Climb to the top of the Duomo, or its neighboring bell tower, Giotto’s Campanile.

• Or, why not grab a bottle of vino and bring it along for a nice uphill stroll to the Piazzale Michelangelo to enjoy the views of the city at sunset. (Here’s my video of my journey:)


If shopping’s more your bag:
• For inexpensive souvenirs, one of the many outdoor markets is the way to go. You’re likely to stumble across them as you walk throughout the city, but my top pick is the San Lorenzo Market. There’s where I buy my weight in pashmina scarfs or ties to bring home as gifts.

• For high class fashion, look no further than the Via de’ Tornabuoni. With storefronts like Versace, Gucci and Ferragamo, think of it as Florence’s Rodeo Drive. (The nearby Via della Vigna Nuova, with Valentino, Armani and Pucci, ain’t too shabby either!)

Not-so-fun Florence Shopping Fact: While it might be appealing to have your very own Prada purse knock off (at least you can tell your friends it’s from Italy?) stay far, far away from the peddlers selling fake designer goods. In an effort to protect the Italian designers and fashion economy, the police won’t hesitate to fine you upwards of €10,000 Euros if you’re caught buying fake Fendi’s on the street.



If you do nothing else, be sure to come to Florence with a hearty appetite, because the food truly is amazing! While you really can’t go wrong with wherever you choose to nosh on, here are some of my faves:

Trattoria 4 Leoni, on the Oltrarno side by the river… you might need reservations for this one, but it’s worth it. (I dream about the pear-filled pasta. Amazing!)

Pasta bows stuffed with pear, in an asparagus and cheese sauce (Fiocchetti di pera in salsa di taleggio e asparagi)

Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco is another hidden gem, also on the Oltrarno. You’ll find it full of locals, and this “white boar” spot won’t disappoint.

Pasta with a hearty ragu of long stewed boar and olives

• For great ambiance, grab a table at one of Piazza della Signoria’s many cafes. While you’ll pay more to eat in the popular piazza, it’s worth the price to get a prime people-watching spot.

Vivoli has long been considered to be the “best gelato in Florence” but Gelateria de’ Neri and Perche No! are also solid choices. (Why not taste test them all? You’re on vacation, after all!)

Try flavors like Stracciatella (cream with crunchy chocolate bits), Gianduia (chocolate hazelnut), Frutti di Bosco (fruits of the forest) and Amarena (cream with cherry pieces).


Fun Florence Foodie Fact: Did you know that the traditional bread made in Florence isn’t made with salt? It’s a tradition dating back since the 1100’s and is said to be because back then there was a pricey tax on salt. So pricey, in fact, that the bakers of Florence rebelled and decided that their bread would henceforth be sans salt.

Of course, the end result is a dense, bland, generally unappealing bread barely fit to soak up your delicious sauce, but you have to respect the Florentines for sticking to their convictions, right?



  • Mandy Kilinskis
    Posted at 13:39h, 15 September

    I'm ashamed to admit that wasn't very enchanted with Florence. Perhaps it was because it was bookended by Rome and Venice, and I ran through the city in two days.

    However, I will absolutely agree that San Croce is one of the most awe-inspiring basilicas in Europe. The entire church is beautiful, as are the different tombs inside. I'm a big fan of Galileo's.

    Thanks for the rundown and I'll be sure to reconsider a trip there!

  • Packed Suitcase
    Posted at 14:55h, 15 September

    @Mandy- I think so often when people travel to Italy, they pack their itinerary so full that it becomes one big whirlwind.

    Florence is a great city to savor if you can try to slow it down.

  • Torrey
    Posted at 14:32h, 25 January

    LOVE this informative article from a first-hand perspective. I am heading to Florence June 25, 2013 for the first stop of many in Italy and Greece for my honeymoon! I am sure to print this article and carry it along.. follow my adventures at my blog “Life’s Too Short” :

    Our honeymoon itinerary: Florence – (maybe Pisa daytrip) – Drive through Tuscany – see San Gimignano, wine tasting, to Siena – Drive south to Naples and spend a few days exploring the Amalfi Coast/Sorrento/Ravelllo – maybe spend a night on Capri – Drive back up to Rome.. spend a few days before flying to Athens. Greek Island tour by ferries!: Mykonos, maybe Naxos if there is time, Santorini, and Folegandro… BAck to Athens to return home to Chicago! Wish us luck!

    -Torrey Szofer, 25, Chicago