Sunset over Florence - by Steve (creative commons)

Sunset over Florence – by Steve (creative commons)

Florence. The Renaissance capital, the heart of Italy’s most popular region, and the origin of those famous fainting spells known as Stendhal syndrome. This city in central Italy is on nearly every visitor’s itinerary, particularly first-timers to Italy, and there are many good reasons that is the case. Sadly, Florence can also be overcrowded, expensive, and off-putting to some. I’m here to help you see Florence’s good side without feeling faint.

Modern Florence is often filled to the brim with visitors – from foreign tourists to Italian schoolkids on field trips – and you’re less likely to faint from awe at the admittedly mind-boggling collection of artistic masterpieces in the city than from the long lines to get in the door to see them.

I know perfectly reasonable people, people who adore Italy, who cannot stand Florence. They had a bad experience with crowds there, probably their first visit, and that tinges every return trip. Let’s see if we can’t help you avoid that with some of the basics covered below, shall we?

How to Get to Florence

Italy’s major airports are in Rome and Milan, and if you’re flying from outside Europe it’s likely most of your options will have you land in one of those cities rather than flying directly to Florence. But if your travel plans are all in Tuscany, you may want to look into flights that’ll get you right there.

Perhaps surprisingly, the major airport in Tuscany isn’t in Florence, the capital – it’s in nearby Pisa. Pisa International Airport (PSA) is about 50 miles from Florence, and you have a couple good options to get into Florence from the airport once you’ve landed.

  • Treno-Bus PisaMover – The PisaMover will eventually be a slick automated train service from the Pisa Airport to Pisa’s central train station. At the moment, it’s under construction (slated to open in late 2015), which means the PisaMover’s current incarnation is as a bus. The bus stop at the airport is outside the Departure Terminal Check-in A, and between the hours of 06:00 and midnight buses leave every 10 minutes. It’s a short eight-minute trip to the train station in Pisa, and then you’ll need to get on the next train bound for Florence. Those leave roughly twice per hour during the day, and a one-way ticket can be as little as €8 in second class. Pisa-Florence takes roughly an hour by train.
  • Coach Services – There are a couple of companies that operate coach services connecting Pisa’s airport with Florence’s city center. Terravision starts at €4.99 one way, with a trip time of about an hour and fifteen minutes. The Terravision bus stop at the airport is outside Arrivals, line B1. Autostradale charges €7.50 one way (€5 for tickets purchased online), with a travel time of about an hour and fifteen minutes.
  • Taxis – It’s a 50-mile trip, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a taxi all the way to Florence. You can, however, take a taxi into Pisa and then take the train to Florence from there. Taxi stands are in front of the arrivals terminal, and the average fare from the airport into Pisa is €6-10 Monday-Saturday during the day. After hours, on Sundays, and on holidays there is a surcharge. Be sure the driver turns on the meter before you drive away.

Florence has its own airport, too, although it’s small and not nearly as well-served by airlines. Florence Airport (FLR) is also commonly called Peretola Airport, after the neighborhood in which it’s located. If you’re flying from within Europe, you should look into flying directly to Florence. But since there aren’t any flights from outside Europe, it’s likely to be easier for international travelers to fly into Pisa instead. Lucky enough to fly right into Florence? Then here’s how to get from the airport into the city center.

  • Coach Services – The ATAF company runs “Vola in Bus” services from the Florence Airport into the city center, starting at 05:30 and departing every half-hour (the last one leaves the airport at 00:30). A one-way ticket is €6, and the trip takes about 20 minutes.
  • Taxis – There’s a €20 flat rate for taxis from Florence’s airport into the city center (including the main hotels), which is good from Monday-Saturday during the day. After hours the fee is €23, and on Sundays and holidays it’s €22. Luggage costs extra, too.

What to Do & See in Florence

As mentioned, Florence can have an intoxicating effect on people. It can also epitomize everything that we hate about tourist traps. And it can do those things simultaneously. Florence is touristy for a reason (actually, for lots of reasons), so if you can accept that you won’t have the city to yourself, you’ll be off to a great start. And unless you’ve got unlimited time, you should probably also get used to the idea that you may not get through your must-see list. There’s just that much to see and do in this multi-layered city.

Most of the main sights are in the historic center, which is flat and easily walkable – that helps immensely when you’re looking at a long to-do list. The primary obstacle to seeing everything you want to see in Florence in a short visit is the volume of other tourists who also have the same to-do list. There is nothing so frustrating when you’re on holiday than standing in line for hours, fuming about wasted time and then unable to really enjoy the attraction once you get inside. In other words, even if you’re a non-planning sort of traveler, you’d be smart to book tickets (with specific entry times) to Florence’s major attractions in advance if at all possible.

And as for what those attractions are, here is an incomplete list of some of Florence’s most popular sights – there are more details on these, plus some of Florence’s weird attractions, in my article on what to do and see in Florence:

  • Cathedral (Duomo)
  • Uffizi Gallery
  • Accademia Gallery
  • Baptistry
  • Giotto’s Tower
  • Duomo Museum
  • Ponte Vecchio
  • Bargello
  • Pitti Palace
  • Boboli Gardens
  • Piazza della Signoria
  • Santa Croce Church
  • San Lorenzo Market
  • Piazzale Michelangelo
  • Palazzo Vecchio
  • Orsanmichele
  • Medici Chapels

This is far from an exhaustive list, and doesn’t even begin to cover the modern city outside the historic center. If you’re lucky enough to have a week or more in Florence, you’re apt to find even more fascinating elements to the city that most visitors never see. And that’s what makes a place feel like it’s your own – even when you know better.

Guided Tours in Florence

Where to Stay in Florence

I’m a fan of staying right in the historic center of Florence, since that’s where you’re likely to spend all your time – and thankfully there’s a variety of accommodation options in all price ranges even in the city center. Hotels with a view of something like the Duomo or the Arno River will have a higher price than those tucked into back alleys away from major attractions, but if you’re in the center you’re within walking distance of just about everything anyway – so it’s easy to save money if you don’t mind not having a view.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about Florence accommodation:

  • Star ratings for hotels in Italy don’t correspond to the ones you may be familiar with. Historic buildings that have been converted into hotels naturally have smaller rooms, and this means they have fewer stars – even if they’re top quality and have a good location. Don’t be afraid to check out two- and three-star hotels if the location looks good.
  • Accommodation on the opposite side of the Arno from the Duomo – the area called the “Oltrarno” – may be less expensive.
  • There are hostels in Florence as well as hotels, and some have private rooms, which is another great way to save money on lodging.
  • For those staying longer than a few days or traveling with a group, you might want to consider an apartment rental instead of a hotel room. These can be an especially good idea if you’re keen on having your own kitchen – either to experiment with Tuscan cooking or to save money by making some of your own meals.

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