9 Things You Need to Do in Europe's Best City, According to Someone Who Lived There

Florence, Italy
Photo: Federico Ciamei

I went to Florence, Italy in 2013 to study Art History and Italian, with romantic dreams of ancient streets and cathedrals, Renaissance art, Tuscan sunsets, and endless amounts of pizza and gelato filling my head.

It was the first time I had ever lived outside of America, and as high as my expectations were going into the trip, Florence did not disappoint. I only spent six weeks there, but I fell harder and more quickly in love with the city than I have with any other. On my last day, when my mother came to whisk me away to Venice, I cried an embarrassing number of tears on the Ponte Vecchio.

Firenze captivated me just as it has so many others. That's why Travel + Leisure readers named Florence the best city in Europe in our World's Best Awards 2019 — far from the first time it's taken this title. For those who have yet to see Florence and wonder if it really is worth the hype, please allow all of us to assure you that yes, it is.

If you're planning a trip to the City of Lillies and want to know where to find the best gelato or where to get the more spectacular view of the sun setting over the Arno, I've got you covered. Below, the nine things you absolutely must do in Florence.

1. Eat at Gusta Pizza

This was the go-to pizza place for my class of 20 or so college students — and the study abroad group who went to Florence the year before us, and the study abroad group who went to Florence before them. The menu is small, but well done, with the pizzas costing between five and eight Euros and the toppings ranging from the classic margherita to calabrese and Napoli. Because the restaurant is busy and a bit cramped, order your pizza to go and take it — along with a plastic cup of Chianti — to the Piazza, and sit in silence as you savor the melding of fresh ingredients and perfectly baked crust.

2. Take a cooking class

If you want to bring the taste of Florence home with you, take a cooking class. My classmates and I signed up for a lesson at Gigliocooking school, led by owner and chef Marcella Ansaldo. Over the course of an evening, we donned aprons, rolled up our sleeves, and learned the fine art of Italian cooking. In the end, we all came together to enjoy what we had made — gnocchi with pesto sauce for dinner, tiramisu for dessert. You'll leave at the end of the evening with a recipe in hand and the know-how to recreate one incredible meal.

3. Sign up for a wine tasting class

At just 20-years-old, Florence was my first real introduction to wine. Not knowing anything about Italian wine — or wine in general — I eagerly signed up for a one-hour cheese and wine tasting at La Divina Enoteca. There, you will get to sample a delicious selection of the region’s local flavors, including Tuscan olive oils, cheeses, salame and prosciutto, and wine, all under the guidance of an award-winning sommelier.

If you have time to visit a winery in the area, do. I went on a day trip with a student travel agency to the nearby Chianti region. After hiking past picturesque vineyards, we took a tour of local winemaker Lorenzo Sassolini’s wine cellar in Panzano, followed by an incredible spread for lunch: generous portions of cold cuts, bread, and olive oil; two plates of pasta; four glasses of wine; and a shot of grappa. While you have to be a student to go on this particular excursion, there are plenty more winery tours that take off from the city, like TripAdvisor’s second best wine experience in the world.

4. Grab gelato at Gelateria La Carraia

Having eaten gelato just about every day, I became quite the expert on all the best gelaterias in the city — and Gelateria La Carraia was by far my favorite. Here you can get traditional flavors like stracciatella, limone, pistacchio, nocciola, and fior di panna (chocolate chip, lemon, pistachio, hazelnut, and cream of milk), as well as flavors I didn’t see anywhere else, like frollino al limone and arachidi salate (cookies and lemon creme and salted peanuts). A small cup will run you just two Euros, and they don’t skimp on the scoops. It's right next to the Arno, so bring your gelato to the river for that Instagrammable moment.

5. Climb to the top of the Campanile di Giotto

While the 463-step climb up Brunelleschi’s Duomo — the Dome, or Cupola — is certainly worthwhile, the nearby Campanile di Giotto — the Bell Tower — offers the same stunning views of the city with one major exception: an unparalleled look at the Duomo from above. Your ticket to the Duomo will get you inside the Campanile, so take advantage of both — just be sure to take a rest between climbs.

6. See Michelangelo's David

The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is no stranger to great works of art. From the Uffizi Gallery to the Pitti Palace and Galleria dell’Accademia, work by artists such as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Titian, and Rubens can be admired in world-famous museums around the city. Thanks to my Art History class, I got to dive deep into all the art museums and cathedrals — but nothing blew me away like Michelangelo’s David housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia. There are two replicas in Florence — one in Piazzale Michelangelo, the other in Piazza della Signoria — yet neither compares to the marvel and delicate beauty of the original. The line to the museum can get quite long, so consider booking your tickets through the museum’s website in advance, and get there early.

7. Explore the Boboli Gardens

Behind the Pitti Palace, its 111-acre gardens are in the classic Italian Renaissance style. You could easily spend a whole morning or afternoon here, the lush landscape offering beautiful views of the city, in addition to statues, an amphitheater, a grotto, fountains, and a lane of cypress trees. It is said that Royal European gardens, including Versailles, were inspired by this open-air museum. To visit, you can purchase a 10€ ticket online, or buy a three-day ticket to the Uffizi, Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens for 38€.

8. Sample some of the local cuisine

And I’m not talking about pizza and pasta here. Florence’s regional specialties are meat-focused, such as Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the Florentine Steak, and Finnochiona sandwiches, which feature Florentine salami with fennel seeds. If you’re feeling adventurous, try ordering pasta with cinghiale, wild boar, or head to a street vendor and get a lampredotto, a sandwich made with tripe.

9. Watch the sunset at the Basilica San Miniato al Monte

While you might be tempted to stop at Piazzale Michelangelo, continue to climb the steep stairs up to the Basilica San Miniato al Monte. The lovely church sits atop a hill that overlooks the city, offering a quiet respite from the crowded Piazzale below (and arguably more arresting views). At 5:30 p.m. on Sundays and weekdays in the summer (4:30 p.m. in the winter), you can watch and listen to Gregorian monks chant during Vespers. Head outside afterwards for the most beautiful sunset you will ever see.

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