As the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and an epicenter for high culture, Florence has become one of the artistic treasure troves of the world. You can barely walk along the streets and piazze without running into famous works (or their replicas), and the myriad museums are rivaled in number by dozens of churches that house priceless artwork and frescoes all their own. But this city is so much more than that: you can sip regional Chianti at the many cafes and bars, enjoy traditional Tuscan cuisine in trattorias and ristoranti, and view spectacular live performances of everything from music to theater. This is a city of purely Florentine sights, tastes, and customs, and if you allow yourself to embrace that culture, you’ll no doubt leave feeling like a true fiorentino.
Florence’s distinctive Duomo is perhaps the most helpful feature for wandering tourists—it’s easy enough to find your way back here, so learn the route from the Duomo to your hostel and you’ll never be lost. Near the Uffizi Gallery and the Arno River, Piazza della Signoria is perhaps the best part of the city to wander. The Santa Maria Novella train station will likely be your first introduction to Florence, and the decision to venture east or south will color your earliest impressions of the city. By “San Marco,” we mean pretty much everything between Piazza San Marco and the northern edge of the old city. Santa Croce is Florence’s student and nightlife center and a great place to go exploring. West Oltrarno is the cool, artsy half of the Oltrarno, the area on the south side of the Arno. The most common reason to trek to East Oltrarno is for the unbeatable view from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
This section can be summed up in a single word: Renaissance. Part of being in Florence is reaching the day when you’ve officially seen more of Jesus’s face than your own mother’s. You may be surprised by just how few Renaissance artists strayed from the biblical theme, but they’ll still manage to wow you again and again. Because the art collection is so vast, attempting to see too much too quickly will leave you with nothing but a devalued moosh of crucifixes and semi-attractive women. It’s best to choose a few select spots and take your time. When you’ve had enough Medici and Michelangelo for one day, there are a handful of unusual spots that aren’t rooted in the 16th century.
There is no time to waste while in Florence so don’t use it trying to decide what to see next. Here is our list of top sights in Florence to help you spend more time seeing and less time deciding. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
The first meal of the day in Italy generally isn’t anything too elaborate: la colazione may consist simply of coffee and a cornetto (croissant). Lunch (il pranzo) can go either way: in rural regions you may find it to be a hugely elaborate affair that precedes a nap and separates the two halves of the workday. However, most Italians will just grab a simple panino (sandwich) or salad. The last meal of the day, la cena, is generally the most important, and starts at approximately 8pm. It can continue through most of evening, as it may contain any or all of the following courses: an antipasto (appetizer), a primo (starchy first course like pasta or risotto), a secondo (meat or fish), a contorno (vegetable side dish), a dolce (dessert), a caffè (coffee), and often an after-dinner liqueur.
Italian-style coffee, or espresso, is famous, though the blend of coffee beans used is often from Brazil. The beans are roasted medium to medium-dark in the north, getting progressively darker as you move toward the south. Caffè macchiato is topped with a bit of steamed milk or foam; cappuccino is mixed with steamed, frothy milk; and caffè latte is equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Other varieties include the frowned-upon caffè americano, watered down and served in a large cup, and caffè coretto, a kicked-up version that includes a bit of strong liqueur.
Leading the world in both wine exports and national wine consumption, Italy is a country that values a good vino. Every year, over one million vineyards cultivate grapes for rosso (red wine) and bianco (white wine). The difference? Red wine includes the skins of the grapes in the fermenting process, while white wine does not. Try such regional beauties as Barolo, a classy (read: expensive) staple of Piedmont made from red grapes that are fermented for over 20 years, or Frascati, a cold, clean Roman white.
One of the many things the Romans did for us was leave behind an enormous artistic legacy. They did a good job of borrowing from the Ancient Greeks, with architectural motifs like columns, domes, and precise geometry being all the rage. The Roman taste for flair made its way into household art: sumptuous frescoes of mythical stories covered wealthy Romans’ walls, while mosaics decorated the floor.
The Middle Ages started out pretty unoriginally, as far as architecture goes: the “in” style, Romanesque, mimicked the Romans’ rounded arches, heavy columns, and windowless churches. Of course, when the hot new Gothic movement brought airy vaulted ceilings and giant stained-glass windows from France, the dark and heavy Romanesque style moved to the not list. Despite architecture’s new, less gloomy beauty, sculptors and painters continued to specialize in dead or dying Christians.
All that began to change during the Renaissance. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, depicting the goddess rising from a seashell, marked the beginning of a new age for art. David, one of the most gawked-at nude statues of all time, did the same for sculpture, thanks to artist Michelangelo. Michelangelo also painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, arguably one of the greatest works of all time, then declared to Pope Julius II, “I am not a painter!” Painter, sculptor, or Queen of England, the guy was an artistic genius. The other three ninja turtles’ namesakes,Raphael, Donatello, and Leonardo (da Vinci) also left their marks on the Italian art scene. Raphael was a prolific painter, Donatello specialized in relief sculpture, and Leonardo… well, the man merits a whole paragraph to himself.
Genius, artist, inventor, sculptor, and author—Leonardo was, in short, the ultimate Renaissance Man. Some of his ingenious sketches have proven themselves to be perfectly viable plans for flying machines, testifying to their creator’s visionary imagination. The Italians weren’t always great at hanging onto his work, though, which is why you’ll find his most famous painting in the France chapter.
By the end of the Renaissance, artists had nearly perfected the representation of a scene: the perspective, shadow, and human figures they painted were all completely realistic. Once this got boring, the natural next step forward was to depict how the artist really felt. This new approach to painting characterized a style now referred to as Mannerism. The most famous painter of this style, Tintoretto, gained a reputation for his temper, earning himself the nickname Il Furioso.
From this time forward, art began to move and develop in a less uniform fashion. The Baroque style combined Renaissance grandeur with the emotional affect of Mannerism to create powerful but naturalistic works, best exemplified by Naples’s Caravaggio. Rococo came a little later and focused on light motifs like seashells and clouds, leading to some ridiculously elaborate decorative art, particularly in Venice. The 19th century saw two of everyone’s favorite -isms: Impressionism and Neoclassicism. The latter was particularly inspired by the interest in Ancient Rome that followed the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The most notable 20th-century Italian movement was Futurism, which admired speed, violence, and the industrial city. Not surprisingly, many Futurists were supporters of Fascism. Recent Italian art has veered away from particular -isms, but, despite the country’s reputation for masterworks of the past, many galleries like Venice’s Punta della Dogana and Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna focus on works that continue this thriving artistic legacy into the present day.
A friendly bunch, Italians have their own ways of doing things. If you want to fit in, you might need a small course in Italian etiquette. Chances are, with four million visitors each year, they’ll still know you’re a tourist, but at least they’ll think you’re a polite one.
Italians place a lot of emphasis on first impressions, so don’t get yourself into a mi scusi situation. When meeting someone for the first time, a handshake is the way to go—air kissing (left side first!) generally comes with more familiarity. The Italian people are known to stand pretty close, so get ready to readjust your personal space boundaries. When it comes to clothing, Italians find having bella figura (good image) very important and tend to value quality over quantity. Short skirts and shorts are slightly more risqué in Italy than America—revealing tops are a little less so.
In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, tips of 5% are customary, particularly in nicer restaurants. Italian waiters won’t cry if you don’t leave a tip—just get ready to ignore the pangs of your conscience later on. Taxi drivers expect the same kind of tip, but it is unusual to tip in bars. Bargaining is appropriate in markets and other more informal settings, though in regular shops it is inappropriate.
It is (hopefully) not necessary to inform you that the primary language spoken in Italy is Italian. Prevalence of English-speaking varies wildly. If your trip will focus on sights like the Colosseum, you will probably be able to get by without speaking a word of Dante’s tongue. Once you head away from heavily touristed areas, however, it is much more unusual to encounter English-speakers. To attempt to initiate an English conversation, politely ask “Parla inglese?” (PAR-lah een-GLEH-zeh). Those with as much Italian experience as Dominic Decoco should endeavor to learn at least a few Italian phrases. Feel free to improvise: your high school French or Spanish knowledge might actually turn out to be much more useful than you thought. And the universal language of point-and-gesture also sometimes does the trick. Whatever the result, end your conversation with a courteous “Grazie” (GRAHT-see-yeh.)