With three trips to Florence under our belts (the last time for ten days), I've challenged myself to write what could be done in just one day. Many travelers find themselves in that position-- either on a day trip from a cruise ship docked at Livorno or because of using Florence as a jumping off point for elsewhere in Tuscany. If this is you, I hope you will be encouraged to come back to beautiful Firenze, as we did.
A special note for art lovers -- If hitting the ultimate art gallery in Florence is your thing and above all else you really MUST see classics like The Birth of Venus by Botticelli or Doni Tondo (Holy Family) by Michelangelo, then you'll want the Uffizi Gallery. Otherwise, skip to my list of suggested sites. There is so much else to see in Florence (art by the masters abounds in palazzos and churches) that I'd consider skipping it until your 2nd trip to Florence, but let your heart and passions take you where you must go.
Quick Tip: The queue can be long to get in the Uffizi and it generally takes 2-3 hours to visit. Buying a ticket online can save you time as can using a quickie audio guide like that from Rick Steves (It's free, uses a downloadable app, and includes a map of the complex). We used his app on our first visit to the Uffizi and it got us to where we wanted to go quickly. Bookings are not always necessary (but will save time) but are required on weekends and holidays. The Uffizi is open 8:15 am to 6:30 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.
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Quick Tip: You show either the printed version of your receipt or a digital version on your phone. Go to door 3 of the Uffizi 15 minutes before your booking time to collect your tickets. Cost is currently 20€ for a single ticket (that also includes admission to the National Archaeological Museum and the Museum of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure but on a one-day trip, I would not do these). If staying longer than one day, consider the 5-day ticket that includes the Uffizi, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens for 38€. On our first visit, we purchased the Firenze card since we were there more than three days. For 72 Euro, you are able to visit up to 72 museums in 72 hours from the start of usage (see how much there is to do in Florence? No wonder we've been there 3 times).
On a 1-day visit, is the Firenze Card worth it? That depends upon what you want to see and if the cost helps you pack in more in the day. The card helps you skip lines at many sites although with some ( like the Uffizi and Boboli Gardens), you still should book online ahead of time. I probably wouldn't bother with it.
Recommended short list of sites --
Trim or flip the itinerary based on your time in the city, ability to walk, and personal taste. See map, below.
The Piazza del Duomo -- This plaza is the heart of historic Florence. Crowds may abound but it is necessary to start here to feel the soul of the city. The iconic dome of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, has become the symbol of Firenze.
The somewhat shaky video below is from my first trip to Florence (or Italy for that matter) in 2014. I still remember the feeling I had walking toward the Piazza, hearing the bells as the dome came in sight. At the time, I was more concerned with grappling with emotions than with Instagram-quality video.
In or surrounding the plaza you'll find various sites to visit: the Cathedral, Brunelleschi's Dome, Giotto's Bell Tower, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Santa Reparata and the Opera del Duomo Museum. You will not have time for all of them, not if you want to visit some other sites.
To truly see some of the rest of Florence and its history, I suggest you:
Walk around the perimeter of the Cathedral and take it all in.
Walk to the Baptistery, then examine the large front doors. These are copies, with the originals in the Operal del Duomo Museum (on the other side of the Piazza), but still well worth the look.
Buy a ticket for the Bell Tower* (there will likely be a line out the door but it moves somewhat fast, usually). It's over 400 steps to the top (no elevator), but there are ample places to stop, take photos, rest, or turn around. The photo at the top of this post was taken from about half way up the tower.
*Buy a ticket for the Baptistery while at the tower, if you have time. It doesn't take long to do. My favorite is the scary depiction of the devil on the ceiling--it's a good thing infants can't see more than a few inches.
Quick Tip: Because the Cathedral and the Baptistery are places of worship, there is a dress code that requires appropriate clothing. This means covered knees and no bare shoulders, sandals, headgear or sunglasses.
Visit the inside of the Cathedral (free). There is an optional climb to the top of the dome. Whether you take the time to do this is dependent on what else you want to see and how long your day is. The Cathedral is free and there will be lines, but they move quickly. * Please note, while the Cathedral is free, the climb to the Dome is not. In additional, they offer three different ticket combos for the various possibilities at the Duomo. Buy what works best for you. See here. Know that the museum is included in all combo tickets and while it has many fascinating and historical exhibits if you linger there you may have to cut something else from your schedule.
Spread your wings and move elsewhere. Two plans of action: 1) Toward the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River, or 2) toward the Mercato Centrale. I'd likely head toward the Mercato, as the 2nd floor is a food court for lunch.
Map of key points mentioned.
Head northwest of the Piazza del Duomo/Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore--
Mercato Centrale -- this two-storied market abounds with sights, sounds, and smells. Take it all in. Buy some cheese, fruit, flavored salt, or dry salami on the first floor to take back to your cruise ship or on your train trip. Walk upstairs to have a quick meal at the food court. You'll find something for every taste and can enjoy a glass of vino or an aperol spritz while seated. Like us, you might enjoy seeing a few four-legged visitors with their humans. Italians take their dogs everywhere. It's open until midnight.
Shopping outside near San Lorenzo. You'll pass a large number of merchant stalls in the streets near the Mercato. Make sure to ask for items specifically made in Firenze rather than China. Look at labels and know you can negotiate for price (or not, if that's not your style). You'll find an abundance of scarves (my weakness) and leather goods.
Now (unless you've chosen to do Santa Maria Novella--see options at the end of this post), walk south/southeast toward the river, specifically toward the towering Palazzo Vecchio.
For Dan Brown fans-- His Inferno novel has many scenes involving chases across Florence. One of the most memorable to me is when Robert Langdon and Sienna are running through the Vasari Corridor. It was built originally by Cosimo I (a Medici as well as the Duke of Florence) as a way to surreptitiously walk from the town government center (the Palazzo Vecchio) to his home across the river at the Palazzo Pitti. The route winds through the Uffizi and exits near Boboli Gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti. Alas, most of it is closed but you can see part of it as the top level of the Ponte Vecchio as it crosses the river. It's scheduled to reopen in May 2022 after upgrades and renovations. (Now I have a reason to go back).
Piazza Della Signora-- As you are walking toward the Ponte Vecchio, make sure to stop in the Piazza della Signora in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Enjoy the sculptures and iconic views of the Palazzo. Make a note to come back and visit the Palazzo Vecchio on a return trip.
Cross the Ponte Vecchio -- Note the abundant jewelry shops with front displays that glisten in the sun. Most of these were butchers' shops or fishmongers during the Renaissance. Quite the smell to have to walk over back then.
Pitti Palace -- Keep a watch on the time and act according to your constraints. Tuesday through Sunday, the Pitti Palace is open from 8:15 am to 6:30 pm. There are several museums here for your entry fee, but the ones you'll most enjoy in your short time is the Palantine Chapel and Imperial and Royal Apartments.
Boboli Gardens -- Behind the Palace are the Boboli Gardens (because why not have a fantastic sculpture garden when you are fabulously rich). Time may not allow you to visit here (separate admission of about 10 Euros) but mark it as a place to return (we've been there twice, as we couldn't see everything on the first trip). In summer, the gardens are open until 7 PM. During "shoulder season" when daylight savings time is in effect, the gardens are open until 6:30 PM. They close at 5:30 PM during the winter.
Quick Tip -- The gardens are quite hilly in a few places (although the gravel paths are smooth and compact) so if you are exhausted at this late stage of the day, you may want to skip it. If you REALLY want to see the gardens, you can flip this itinerary and first head across the river rather than toward the Mercato Centrale after your start with the Duomo area.
IMPORTANT-- You have my permission to stop as often as you want during the day for a gelato break because Florence is known for its gelato. I read that one mom promised her kids a gelato after every 10 paintings of Mary and Jesus. That's a lot of gelato when one is in Florence visiting museums and palazzos replete with great art. Go for it, even if you have no kids in tow.
OPTIONAL SITES: Look at your time and consider your interests. Near the Mercato:
Consider a visit to Capella Medici (Medici Chapel) which is not far from the Mercato. The amazing inlaid walls, floors, tombs, and chapel abound with lapis, jade, gold and other precious stones. Generally, this is open in the afternoon, later in the week and will take you well under an hour. This is one of my favorite places in the city, as it's very unique.
Skip the chapel if you would rather see something like Santa Maria Novella (not too far from the Mercato) where scientific endeavors are built into the architecture, using the sun to shine at noon through a pinhole onto the floor. This church also has the oldest apothecary in the world and a nice place to buy scented soap or perfume for a souvenir.
A few blocks east of the Duomo is Church of Santa Croce where Galileo and Michelangelo are entombed. So much to do in Florence that I missed this church the first two times I was visiting.
Enjoy walking off the gelato!