5 unmissable things to do in Florence

Few destinations are as dreamy and romantic as Italy. And when it comes to history, culture, and outstanding food, Florence (Firenze) just might take the cake. Here's a handful of unmissable things to do during your city break to Florence...
Santa Trinita bridge and Ponte Vecchio. Photo: Shutterstock
Santa Trinita bridge and Ponte Vecchio. Photo: Shutterstock

Insight Guides can help with the planning, organising and booking of your trip to Florence. Simply contact our local expert with details of the length of your trip, budget and places you would like to visit and they will plan your personalised itinerary. For inspiration, browse Insight Guides ready-made Italy trips, which are all fully customisable. 

While many first-time visitors to Italy give Rome the most attention on their travel itineraries, I'd argue that the country's best charms are hiding a little over an hour north in Firenze...

Florence is a tale of two cities, rich in both historical wonder and contemporary attitudes. One minute you're touring an ancient cathedral, the next you're in a high-end boutique swooning over designer shoes. And then there's the food...oh, the food.

1. Eat at Trattoria Zà Zà

Before leaving New York for Italy, I checked in with my best friend, who'd lived in Florence for six months a few years before. When I asked her what her number one travel recommendation was, her answer came with no hesitation: Cafe Zà Zà. Upon our first visit, I quickly understood why. Formally known as Trattoria Zà Zà, this little ristorante dishes out some of the most authentic, and downright delicious, Italian fare I've ever tasted. Although, please don't ever tell my Sicilian grandmother I said that.

Located right in the centre of Florence, Zà Zà has a bit of a split personality. The interior is all stony brick walls, dim lighting, and candlelight, creating a vibe that's all at once romantic and a touch gothic. Alternatively, you can dine al fresco. The open-air outside seating provides front row seats to Piazza del Mercato Centrale, perfect for people-watching or just soaking up the Florentine buzz all around... picking up snippets of Italian from passersby, tourists plotting their next stop, or local salesmen hawking leather jackets.

As you'd expect, the menu is what makes Zà Zà such a hidden gem. The calamari changed my life. Okay, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it was pretty fantastic.

2. Wander over the bridges

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I actually never crossed Florence's iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge during my week-long trip to Italy. I did, however, meander across the Santa Trinita, which some might consider to be Ponte Vecchio's baby sister. From a distance, the two appear almost side by side, both covering the Arno. Santa Trinita's construction is a throwback to the Renaissance, creating a graceful, sophisticated structure that connects Florence to Oltrarno (which roughly translates to "beyond the Arno"). Enjoy an in-depth walking tour of Florence as part of Insight Guides' Florence: A Trip Back in Time itinerary

Once you cross over, the atmosphere is noticeably calmer; there are thinner crowds and a slower pace. After sightseeing for two days straight, my husband and I found solace in Oltrarno's serenity; wandering into little stationary shops, picking up knick-knacks from local boutiques. For more tips, Georgette over at Girl in Florence offers up some fabulous tidbits about life beyond the Santa Trinita.

Portolan chart by Diogo Homem, 1563. Biblioteca Nazionale, Florence.Portolan chart by Diogo Homem, 1563. Biblioteca Nazionale, Florence. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

3. Visit the National Central Library

Florence's National Central Library, formally known as the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze, makes for a lovely quick stop for travelling bookworms (or really anyone who enjoys grand architecture and a bit of history: the building, over three centuries old, happens to be the biggest library in all of Italia). Add a stop on your trip with Insight Guides: Day 4 of our Florence holiday provides an entire leisure day, giving you the chance to spend a whole afternoon here, browsing and exploring.

Parts of the interior are actually surprisingly modern, minus the marble columns and Galileo's Dome; an intricate, and quite lovely, Renaissance throwback. There's also a multileveled cylindrical space leading up to a gorgeous glass ceiling. The shape reminds me a bit of the Guggenheim in New York City, albeit much more romantic and far less contemporary.

The library itself is actually home to a tremendous collection of Galileo's writings. According to The European Library, it represents one of the organisation's most valuable manuscript collections: 347 boxes of fully restored works the famous scientist penned himself. Historical wonder aside, Florence's National Central Library reminds me of the New York Public Library: it's a celebrated landmark that goes underrated by many tourists.  

4. Dine at Acqua Al 2

Wonderfully quaint and positively brimming with old-world charm, Acqua Al 2 is a teeny little ristorante serving up some of the most authentic Tuscan cuisine around. Located on Via della Vigna Vecchia, it's got a strong homegrown feel, almost as if you've been invited into the chef's private quarters for an enchanting dinner party. The interior is done up in rustic Tuscan style, complete with strings of little white lights dangling from the arched ceilings, old wine bottles on display, and olive-green walls adorned with decorated flatware: a little kitschy, but oh-so-warm and cosy.

My husband and I stumbled into this hide-away restaurant at the recommendation of a dear friend, who went on and on about the fantastic food. When it came time to order, we had a tough go deciphering the menu, which was entirely in Italian. The fact that our waiter didn't speak English ended up serving as an unexpected treat: we ordered blindly, leaving the night's dinner up to fate. We were soon presented with the most succulent filet mignon I'd ever tasted. We stayed late into the evening, polishing off bottles of wine and stuffing ourselves silly before walking back to our hotel in the moonlight.

Farm of olive groves and vineyards in Tuscany.Farm of olive groves and vineyards in Tuscany. Photo: Shutterstock

5. Escape to the neighbouring vineyards

You could easily while away all your hours in the charming metropolis of Florence. But to experience Tuscany at its best, I recommend wandering off the beaten track, beyond the city lines and out into the stunning countryside. About an hour south of Siena, you'll find rolling hills as far as the eye can see. The impossibly tall cypress trees are everywhere; vertical spikes of green that dot the landscape. Toscano is also known for its wide expanses of wild sunflowers, which typically bloom between June and August. Time your trip right with the help of Insight Guides' experts, whether you want to see sunflowers in full bloom, the vineyards bursting with fruits or fields of mesmerising poppies: submit a trip request and get your holiday planning off to a start. 

Planned solo, my visit was ill-timed. I found myself here in early September, but this ended up shelling out a different kind of reward... I made it just in time for the grape harvest.

My journey began in Florence, where my husband and I met up with an absolutely fantastic wine expert named Rebecca Christophersen. Along with two other couples, the six of us piled into her little white van and headed for the winding Tuscan hills outside the city. A little over an hour later, we disembarked at San Polino vineyard, a family-run winery that churns out organic wine. Brunello di Montalcino is the house specialty.

The estate itself is made up of 2.5 hectares of vineyard, and we had the luxury of wandering throughout the fields, picking (and eating) ginormous sweet grapes as we went along. After a thorough tour of the process, we settled in for a few glasses of red before tucking into a homemade lunch of freshly picked local tomatoes, just-baked bread, and some of the most divine olive oil I've ever tasted. The day was spent filling our bellies, drinking our fill of vino, and making new friends before the Tuscan hills swallowed up the sun. 

This blog was originally published on October 26, 2016

Ready to take your trip to Florence with Insight Guides?

Insight Guides can help with the planning, organising and booking of your trip to Florence. Simply contact our local expert with details of the length of your trip, budget and places you would like to visit and they will plan your personalised itinerary. For inspiration, browse Insight Guides ready-made Italy trips, which are all fully customisable. 

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