The Ultimate Guide to Florence, Italy

From a taking a class on Tuscan wines to planning happy hours for her internship, Annika Meyer jam packed her six weeks of study abroad in Florence, Italy. It’s safe to say that I was drooling over this sorority sister’s Instagram, and I asked her all her Florence tips and tricks. I chatted with her about the best Florence finds, day trips and key Italian phrases.

Q: If I’m headed to Florence, what things should I be sure to add to my itinerary?

Piazza del Michelangelo

This is one of the most beautiful overlook views of Florence from across the Arno river. From the piazza you get the most amazing sights of all of the important Florence landmarks such as Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and Piazza della Signoria. I suggest heading to Piazza del Michelangelo right before sunset to make it up there in time to watch the bright orange sun set behind the mountains in the background behind Florence. 

La Carraia Gelateria 

This was my favorite gelato shop in all of Florence. They have two locations, the original on the south side of the Arno river across Ponte Alla Carraia and the other on Via De’ Benci right down the street from Basilica di Santa Croce. I probably visited the Via De’ Benci location about 10-15 times during my 6 weeks, that’s how much I loved it. What kept me coming back was the delicious white chocolate pistachio flavor and gluten free cones. 

Mercato Centrale 

This spot is in the indoor central market in Florence, and you can walk through it for hours admiring all the produce and fresh products for sale. Upstairs you will find many restaurants to enjoy a quick lunch before going outside and walking through the lines of booths of street vendors selling anything and everything from leather goods to silk scarves to tourist souvenirs in the Mercato di San Lorenzo.  

Galleria dell’Accademia 

It’s best known as the home of Michelangelo’s sculpture David. It would be a shame to go all the way to Florence and not visit one of the most famous statues in the world while you are there. 

Filippo Bruenelleschi’s Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore 

It’s a steep and narrow 463-step climb to the top of the Duomo. I was huffing and puffing by the time we made it to the top, but boy, does that view take your breath away. Not only does the climb take you to the outside with a 360 view from the center of Florence, but it walks you through the inner rim of the dome up close to the incredibly detailed fresco paintings of the inner dome. 

Q: Florence is a gem, of course, but if I want to see more of Italy, what are some of the best day trips from Florence?

Florence has rich history and also a great central location, which easily allows traveling to other cities for the day. There were many times during my six weeks that I hopped on a train at Santa Maria Novella train station and would travel somewhere to just spend the day and be back in Florence that evening. Day trips are a great way to see a lot of different cities but save money by not having to pay for accommodations for the night. 

Cinque Terre

The first Friday of my trip my whole group hopped on a train at 7:30 in the morning to head to Cinque Terre, a string of five seaside villages on the Italian Riviera coastline. In each of the five towns, colorful buildings cling to steep terraces and harbors filled with fishing boats. Each of the villages can be traveled between by a regional train system or by the Sentiero Azzurro cliffside hiking trail that links the villages by foot and offers breathtaking seaside views. 

From Florence it took around 3 hours to make it to the Northern most village, Monterosso al Mare by train. We paid around 40 euros for a same day round trip ticket. The train from Florence to Monterosso al Mare was not direct, which meant we had to change to a different train once we got to the Pisa Centrale station. I was nervous about switching trains and making sure that our group made it to the right train to Cinque Terre, but having a connecting train ended up being nothing to worry about at all. 

There is something for every type of person visiting the villages of Cinque Terre. For the more relaxed type traveler, I’d suggest checking out the beachfront at Monterosso al Mare. You can lounge under an umbrella on the beach and swim in the Mediterranean. For the more adventurous type traveler, I’d suggest purchasing the Cinque Terre hiking pass for 9 euros that gives you access to all the hiking trails between the villages.With this pass, I hiked from Monterosso al Mare to Vernazza. I’m going to be honest; this hike was pretty strenuous. It took me two hours to get between the villages, but the gorgeous views were well worth the workout. 

With the hiking pass, you get access to the regional train between the villages, so when I made it to Vernazza and was tired of hiking, I walked around and explored a little before hopping on the train back to Monterosso al Mare. Each village contained similar looking colorful buildings, but each town had its own uniqueness to it. Everywhere I looked was like looking at a postcard. 

Siena 

One of my friends had told me about an event that happens twice a year called the Palio di Siena. A horse race where ten horses and races riding bareback and dressed in appropriate colors represent 10 of the 17 contrade, or city wards. The Palio I went to on July 2 is called the Palio di Provenzano in honor of the Madonna of Povenzano, a Marian devotion particular to Siena. 

A thick layer of dirt was laid down to create the track in Piazza Del Campo. The race is preceded by a parade of the contrade with flag wavers in medieval costumes. Once the parade goes through the city, spectators head to the center of Piazza Del Campo to watch the race. The parade was so large that it took 2 ½ hours for all 17 contrade to make their way through the city and around the entire racetrack. Once the horses entered onto the track and got lined up, the race began and ended all within 90 seconds. The horses zoom around the piazza, and the first one to cross the finish line after 3 laps is the victor. It was the coolest thing to see how much tradition and culture went into the Palio. The race didn’t even last more than 2 minutes, yet by the end of it there were fans of the losing contrade crying that they lost. 

Siena is a quick 3-hour train ride from Florence and costs around 18 euros round trip. 

Thinking about a trip to Rome?

Q: Learning a language takes a lot of time and effort. Is it possible to get around Italy without knowing Italian?

I came into this trip knowing little to no Italian other than ciao, and to be completely honest, you can make it through a trip in Italy without being able to speak a single word of Italian. Most people will see that you are American and automatically know to speak to you in English. 

Q: Phew. But if I want to learn a few phrases, which ones are most helpful?

Q: Other than brushing up on the local language, what else should I do before I leave?

Research events before you go. The Calcio Storico final match is something that is so important to the local Florentines that they don’t sell tickets online in an attempt to allow locals to get tickets to attend the match. Because I researched before I left, I knew exactly when and where I needed to go to in order to purchase ticket in person. Doing a little research prior to a trip goes a long way. 

Q: From my travel experience, I’ve learned that life abroad isn’t exactly what I’d expected, and I’m curious to know what surprised you most about living in Italy.

Although this doesn’t pertain to everyone, I was pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to eat with an allergy. I have Celiac Disease, which means I must follow a strict gluten free diet. One might think, how can anyone who can’t eat wheat go to a country that lives on pasta and pizza? Italy is one of the most educated countries when it comes to the gluten free diet and Celiac Disease. Almost every restaurant you visit in the larger cities of Italy such as Florence and Rome had extensive gluten free menus or at least a general knowledge about gluten free diets and were able to help me navigate the menu to find something I could eat. 

More tips on eating gluten-free abroad.

Another surprising thing about Florence and Italy in general was how many of the restaurants close in the middle of the day after lunch until dinnertime. Almost all restaurants would close between 2:30-4:30ish. It took a while to figure out timing of eating because I was used to eating later in the day but had to adapt because of restaurants being closed between lunch and dinner.

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