I traveled to San Miniato, Florence, Venice and Milan with Dan, my mother, Dan’s aunt, our friend, Pryor, and her mother in November and our second stop was Florence (or Firenze in Italian!) for three days and three nights! Dan and I had been to Florence once before (eight years ago in the Summer) but it was most of the group’s first time in Florence, so we focused on Florence’s main tourist sites! Plus, Florence’s main sites are pretty amazing and warrant a new visit at least every 8 years!
I was initially iffy about traveling that far north in November (and in the off-season) but we had good weather, cheap Emirates flights and the tourist crowds were substantially lower (and much more bearable) than in the Summer. If you do travel in November (or really any off season), be prepared for slightly shorter hours at major sites, restaurants closing at least one day of the week and less tours offered by tour companies, all of which will probably not impact your vacation in any fashion. I recommend double checking opening hours and booking tours and tickets ahead of time to ensure that you get in at your desired date and time! Here’s our itinerary, day by day, which covered the basics, and a day trip to Tuscany, in 3 days!
Day 1: Florence’s Main Sites.
We arrived in Florence in the late morning via train from San Miniato and immediately checked into our hotel, Residenza Castiglioni, located just a five minute walk from the train station. One huge surprise to me in Florence is the renovation of the area around the main Florence train station, Santa Maria Novella. Eight years ago, I recall Santa Maria Novella being gritty , dirty and just not a place that I would want to stay. However, this time around, Santa Maria Novella was totally different – clean, safe and filled with lots of shops, restaurants and people! Definitely do not shy away from staying in this area; its a super easy walk to the train station and totally safe.
After check-in, we went for coffee at News Cafe, conveniently located directly across the street from our hotel. News Cafe is kind of a trendy, hipster cafe, but the barista makes the MOST awesome cappuccinos with the most awesome Florence-inspired designs. For example, he drew the Duomo on mine – what welcome to Florence!!
After our amazing coffee, we walk to the Duomo – Florence’s most well-known site. For those unfamiliar with Italian churches, the term “duomo” means cathedral and almost every city and town has a “duomo.” Generally speaking, Florence’s and Milan’s are the most famous “duomos” and each are often referred to outside the respective city as the “Duomo.” Keep that in mind when referencing the “duomo”! In Florence, a visit to the Duomo is not just a visit to the cathedral, but a visit to an entire complex, consisting of the Duomo (aka the Florence Cathedral), the super-famous orange dome capping the cathedral, its bell tower (Campanile di Giotto), the Baptistery of St. John and the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (a fabulous museum). I am going to write a post about the ins and outs of visiting the Duomo complex (its a tad confusing) but for know, just know that most visitors will want to visit all of the sites and climb the dome and spend about 2.5 hours here (longer in the summer to climb the dome on the Duomo)! Don’t worry, if you’re not into these sites, the Duomo complex is surrounded by lots of shops and cafes (albeit slightly overpriced!).
Since we purchased our tickets to the Duomo complex online, we skipped the ticket line and immediately started our tour with the Baptistery, the oldest building in the Duomo Complex and the one with the beautiful gold doors (Michelangelo’s Gates of Paradise)!
After the Baptistery, we visited the cathedral and the museum, which is very modern and really well done! It is also a nice, indoor escape from the Duomo complex! We ended up skipping our plan to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome because the line was an hour (in November!).
After the Duomo complex, from the Piazza del Duomo, we took a right on Via dei Calzaiuloli and walked all the way down to Piazza della Signora (a 10 minute, flat walk). Via dei Calzaiuloli is probably Florence’s most famous pedestrian-only shopping street. Via dei Calzaiuloli is great for people watching, and during the holidays it is decorated with lights and beautiful window displays! Definitely worth a walk, especially since its between Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signora. On this street, you will find a mixture of international chains and local Italian shops.
Via dei Calzaiuloli spills right into Piazza della Signora, another of Florence’s most famous tourist destinations. While I am sure an empty Piazza della Signora would be a beautiful sight to see, most days its really just a crowded tourist destination filled with restaurants and shops. We had lunch here and it was by far the worst meal of the trip, although I did get some great souvenirs at a random stand set up on Piazza della Signora. In any case, Piazza della Signora is worth a 15 minute walk-through for pictures and to say you have been there!
After lunch in Piazza della Signora, we walked a bit further, past the Uffizi Gallery and down Piazzale degli Uffizi to Ponte Vecchio – Florence’s most famous and gorgeous bridge! Ponte Vecchio is a medeival stone bridge crossing the River Arno that is now filled with jewelry shops. It was the only bridge in Florence not to have been bombed during WWII and it is really gorgeous! Be sure to see it up close and afar. Great views are to be had from the end of Piazzale degli Uffizi and from inside the Uffizi Gallery!
After our sightseeing-packed day, we grabbed dinner and went to bed to prepare for the next day! And on that note, our sightseeing was done between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., as in November the sun sets around 4:30 p.m.!
Day 2 – Day Trip from Florence
We spent our second day in Florence on a full day “winter wine tour” through the surrounding Tuscan countryside with Grape Tours of Tuscany. Since we did not rent a car, joining an organized tour was an easy way to get out of the city and left the logistics to someone else! Our tour visited two wineries, at which we both tasted lots of wine and ate way too much food! I am going to write about our wine tour in a separate post, but here are some pictures!
If wine tasting is not your “cup of tea,” there are many day-trip options from Florence, with a tour or on your own. Some of the most popular are day trips to Pisa, Lucca or Cinque Terre (only in the Summer months)! If you are in Florence for more than 2 full days, I recommend a day trip (or at least a half-day trip) to a surrounding area!
Day 3 – Museum And Shopping Day!
I dubbed our third day Museum and Shopping Day (#godblessdan)! We hit both of Florence’s most famous museums, the Galleria dell’Accademia (the Accademia) and the Galleria degli Uffizi (the Uffizi Gallery) on the same day! While I was a bit concerned about seeing both museums on the same day, we broke them up and it worked out well. I would also note that we only did this because both museums are closed on Monday, which just happened to be our other full day in Florence. I would not recommend this itinerary with children, but it worked out well with adults!
To accomplish seeing both museums with a break in the middle, we started our day promptly at 9:00 a.m. at the Accademia Gallery – home of the David statue (and not much else). To avoid lines at the ticket counter, you can pre-purchase your tickets online before you leave. We did this, and I highly recommend it, especially in the Summer. Also, the best times to go are in the morning or late afternoon, in order to miss the day-trippers! Since we went early, we were treated to (generally) unobstructed views of David!
As I mentioned, David is by far the main attraction at the Accademia Gallery. However, its other works of art are worth a look, especially its sculpture room down the hall from the left of David. The entire museum is quite small, and I only recommend allotting 1 hour for your visit to the Accademia.
After a not-terribly crowded visit to the Accademia (score!), we walked 10 minutes to the Basilica di San Lorenzo. The Basilica di San Lorenzo is one of Florence’s largest churches and the burial home to the Medici family, Florence’s most famous family. We skipped entry to the church and instead, proceeded to visit the San Lorenzo markets! The entrance to the San Lornezo markets is right next to the basilica!
If you like shopping, a visit to Florence’s markets is probably on your itinerary. With regard to the San Lorenzo market (also known as the San Lorenzo leather market), know that it has reverted to a lot of street stands with immigrant Italians selling knock-off products. While some great stuff can be found, be ensured that you are not getting the best quality (nor even the real thing in some cases!). Despite this, we made some good purchases, including some small leather goods (leather quality = iffy), some vintage Italian posters, ceramic wares and general tourist trinkets! This isn’t the place for someone looking to spend a lot of money on a great product but instead, more for the tourist looking for souveniers and/or gifts.
Setting aside your thoughts on the San Lorenzo market, you must go inside the Mercado Centrale, the indoor market in the center of San Lorenzo market. Mercado Centrale is a legit European market, selling all sorts of things that are not available in the US. And the second floor is a fabulously modern food court, selling all sorts of Italian meals! This is definitely a great place for lunch, as there is something for everyone, from wine, to sandwiches, to pizza, to dessert! I had this amazing eggplant pizza!
After lunch at the Mercado Centrale and a stop at our hotel, we walked across town (about 20 minutes) for the second part of our shopping and museum day! Our first stop was Basilica di Santa Croce. Like the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Basilica di Santa Croce is one of Florence’s major churches, this one of the Franciscan denomination, and it is the burial place of some famous Italians, including Michelangelo and Galileo! We skipped the interior of Santa Croce and instead, went around the left side to visit one of Florence’s last leather producers, the Scuola del Cuoio (Florence Leather School). While not cheap, the Scuola del Cuoio hand makes gorgeous leather producst on location, and they will personalize any of their products for free on site!
After our leather purchases, we ended they day with a tour of the Uffizi Gallery. Again, we purchased our tickets online in advance and entered promptly at 4:30 p.m. The Uffizi Gallery contain lots of stunning works of art and can keep you busy for between 1 and 2 hours (or more), depending on interest. Whether or not you are into art, not to be missed are the outdoor view point overlooking Piazza della Signora and the window overlooking the Ponte Vecchio!
After shopping and museum-ing all day, we were ready for our early morning train to Florence the next day!
Day 4 – Train from Florence to Venice (and McDonalds!)
On our final morning, we had breakfast in our hotel and then caught the train to Venice! Since the train station is so close to Residenza Castiglioni, it was an easy walk, even with our luggage. Our train was slightly delayed, so we were able to pick up the new Nutella burger – the Sweety con Nutella – from the McDonald’s at the train station! Honest review: it was a bit disappointing, but certainly worth a try.
In planning a trip to Florence (or even Tuscany or Italy in November), I will point out that most Christmas markets are not yet open. Italian cities generally decorate for Christmas the first week in December and most Christmas markets open the first Saturday in December. Also, while this should be obvious, Italy does not celebrate US Thanksgiving. Nothing closes on US Thanksgiving, and no one serves a turkey dinner. If you are looking for this in Italy over US Thanksgiving, you need to look REALLY hard and plan in advance. Instead, I recommend doing something fun and Italian on Thanksgiving, rather than a traditional American turkey dinner. For example, we did a food tour of Venice! Best Thanksgiving meal ever. Despite the lack of a Thanksgiving dinner, Florence was a great place to visit in November, and I highly recommend it!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Residenza Castiglioni: Via del Giglio, 8, Florence, Italy. T. 39 055 2396013. E: email@example.com. Great, safe location in the heart of Florence. Decent breakfast provided every morning. Definitely make reservations ahead of time, as Residenza Castiglioniare only has a few rooms.
News Cafe: Via del Giglio, 59, 50123 Firenze, Italy. T: 39 055 265 4310. Small cafe selling coffee beverages, snacks, aperitivo, and lunch. Reservations definitely not required. Ask for Florence-inspired cappuccino art (no extra cost).
Duomo Complex: Piazza del Duomo, Firenze, Italy. T: 39 055 2302885. Buy your ticket online before you go – lines are loooooong, especially during high season. Joint tickets to the Duomo, Baptistery, Bell Tower, the Dome, Crypt and the Museum are €15/person. Note – you can choose a time to ascend the dome and/or bell tower but you will still need to wait in line (it was an hour on a random Monday in November (major off season)). Dress appropriately (nothing too revealing) as this is a working cathedral. The complex is open everyday, but certain monuments are shut down on various days and/or hours. Check the website for most recent information.
Piazzale della Signora: Piazza della Signoria, 50122 Firenze, Italy. Open all hours. Free.
Ponte Vecchio: Ponte Vecchio, 50125 Firenze, Italy. Open all hours. Free. Most shops are open 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Grape Tours: Via dei Renai 23R (Tuscany in a Bottle store front). T. 39 333 7229716. We did the Winter Tour, which visited two vineyards, and cost € 140/person. Ample wine and food was included. Definitely book in advance, at least by a few weeks. Even our “off season” winter tour sold out.
Accademia: Via Ricasoli, 66, 50122 Firenze, Italy. T. 39 055 215449. Open Tuesday – Sunday, 8:15 a.m. – 6:50 p.m. €8,00/person. Tickets can and should be purchased in advance here. To pick up tickets, take your print out, arrive 15 minutes prior to your entrance time and collect your tickets in the shop directly across the street from the entrance. After your pick up your tickets, you can skip the line. If you are late, your tickets are good for entrance up to 15 minutes after the entry time, but no longer.
Basilica di San Lorenzo: Piazza di San Lorenzo, 9, 50123 Firenze, Italy. €5,00/person. Open generally 10:00 – 5:00 p.m., closed many Sundays.
Mercado Centrale: Via dell’Ariento, 50123 Firenze, Italy. Free. Open 10:00 – 12:00.
Basilica di Santa Croce: Piazza di Santa Croce, 16, 50122 Firenze, Italy. €8,00/person. Open Monday – Saturday 9:30 – 5:30 p.m. and Sunday 2:00 – 5:30 p.m.
Florence Leather School: Via S. Giuseppe, 5R, 50122 Firenze, Italy. Open daily 10:00 – 6:00 p.m. No website. Last stamping of initials on leather products at 5:00 p.m.
Galleria degli Uffizi: Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6, 50122, Firenza, Italy. T. 39 055 23885. Open Tuesday – Sunday, 8:15 a.m. – 6:50 p.m. €8,00/person. Tickets can and should be purchased in advance here. To pick up tickets, take your print out, arrive 15 minutes prior to your entrance time and collect your tickets in the office across the street from the entrance (I think it is Entrance C). After your pick up your tickets, you can skip the line via the main entrance. If you are late, your tickets are good for entrance up to 15 minutes after the entry time, but no longer.
ON A BUDGET
Florence is a FABULOUS budget city! With lots of study abroad students and visitors from every part of the world, Florence is full of student bars and restaurants and inexpensive accommodations. You can easily find them with a quick Google search! If you are not a student, I strongly recommend the Mercado Centrale. The Mercado Centrale offers great food at excellent prices!!