This is not one of those articles where I claim that you can “see Florence in five and a half hours!” Because we all know that’s impossible, don’t we? But if Florence is one of your stops on your Mediterranean cruise, then that’s about all the time you’re going to have there. Let’s assume you’ll arrive around 10:30am and depart promptly at 4pm. So….what can you do in five and a half hours in Florence?
If you want to concentrate on the world-class art in Florence, then I recommend you focus your attention on one or two museums (and keep a close eye on your watch), with a 1 hour break for lunch. The Uffizi Gallery has an amazing collection of works by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, and more. But if you want to see Michelangelo’s David in all his glory, you need to visit the Accademia. Whether you choose one or two museums, you should definitely reserve your ticket(s) in advance, because you don’t want to squander time waiting in line.
If you would rather experience Florence’s gorgeous architecture, hit up an attraction or two, do some shopping, and enjoy some local food, here’s an itinerary that I know you can do in 5.5 hours, because I did it:
You will start and end your tour in the Piazza Santa Croce, home to several excellent leather shops and restaurants of varying price ranges, as well as the magnificent Basilica of Santa Croce. It’s centrally located in the old part of the city; many tourist attractions are within walking distance. If you’re feeling a bit peckish, now’s a good time to grab a quick bite to eat. (Trust me, you’ll need some fuel to do all the walking you’re about to do.)
As you’re facing the Basilica, look to the buildings on your right and find a doorway marked with a simple sign that reads “Bar – Pizzeria – Ice Cream”. This is a small and inexpensive, family-owned cafe that serves very good paninis and gelato. Get yourself a panini (save the gelato for later). If you don’t already have a bottle of water with you, buy one here.
Next, check out the Basilica, the largest Franciscan church in the world. It costs 8 Euros to go inside to see the famous tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli (among others). You won’t have a lot of time to dally here, because you have a schedule to keep. I’d give it 30 minutes max (or save it until the end of the day). Before you leave the Piazza, hit up the restroom at one of the leather shops; they’re free and clean and you don’t have to buy anything to use them.
From here, whip out your trusty map and make your way to the Duomo. There are a number of streets you can take that will lead you here from the Piazza. If I recall correctly, my route took me up Via Giuseppe Verdi and along Via Ghibellina, but there are many ways to get there. After a short while, you will see the dome of the Duomo and the Campanile di Giotto (Giotto’s Bell Tower) looming above other buildings, and you won’t need your map any more.
Be sure to stop outside for photos, and then enter the structure of your choice for a grueling climb to the top for some of the best views in Florence. I recommend climbing the Campanile, which is less crowded (quicker), less expensive (6 Euros), has fewer steps to climb (414), and allows you to include the Duomo in your scenic photos of Florence.
At the top, stop to catch your breath and enjoy the stunning views of the city. If you’ve timed it right, you will reach the top just before noon. At noon, while gazing out over the rooftops of Florence, you will hear all the clock towers in the city begin to chime.
After a bit of rest, head back down to exit the Campanile. You will emerge from the Tower, blinking, into the bright sunlit square, your legs shaking from the effort of the climb. Take a seat on the steps across from the Baptistry of St. John (The Battistero di San Giovanni), an octagon-shaped building from the 11th Century. It is one of the oldest buildings in the city and famous for its bronze doors, which are covered in reliefs. Dante Alighieri (author of The Divine Comedy) was baptized here. If you have a zoom lens, you won’t even have to fight the crowds to get pictures of the door from the steps where you’re sitting.
Once your legs don’t feel like limp spaghetti any more, get up and make your way to the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. If you take Via de Calzaiuoli from the Duomo, you will pass through Piazza Signoria and past its impressive Fountain of Neptune. This fountain was commissioned for a wedding of one of the Medicis and features Neptune, Scylla and Charybis, seahorses, and more. Take a moment to appreciate it. After all, you didn’t have to pay museum admission to see it!
Keep walking toward the river. Ah, there’s the Ponte Vecchio before you! Take some time to wander down the river for pictures of the bridge before crossing it. Stop to admire the rowers in their sculls gliding up and down the river. Look down, and you may see people sunbathing on lounge chairs beside the river.
On the bridge, you’ll see little shops selling jewelry, leather goods, and other souvenirs, with an occasional space between buildings for views of the river.
Wander a bit beyond the bridge on the other side of the river, but not for long. You’re headed back to Piazza Santa Croce for lunch. Walk along the river on your way back (for the views) and then turn left on Via dei Benci to return to the Piazza. By now, you should be more than ready for lunch and a bit of a rest.
Remember that panini shop you ate at this morning? Directly across the square from that is Ristorante Finisterrae, where you can sit outside in shade or sun and enjoy a plate of pasta while people-watching in the Piazza. Don’t have dessert here, though. Go back across the Piazza to the panini shop with the gelato and get a cone to go. The chocolate is good.
If you still have time before your bus departs (and you should), you can either go inside the Basilica (if you missed it earlier) or check out some of the stores on the Piazza. I recommend Misuri or Galleria Michelangelo. Galleria Michelangelo has artisans who work on-site, in the store.
If you’re very lucky, you might catch a gold-stamping demonstration here, where gold is stamped into an exquisite bracelet that looks like it’s made of diamonds, not gold. They can also customize leather goods with the gold stamping (for instance, if you want your initials on something). Even if you’re not much of a shopper, this process can be fascinating to watch. And if you are a shopper, I can think of few places better than Florence to buy leather.
There. You’re done. In five-and-a-half hours, you’ve managed to see some of Florence’s major landmarks, gotten a birds-eye view of the city, sampled some of the city’s food, seen quite a lot of architecture and some public art, had a walk along the river, and perhaps done some shopping and witnessed a local artisan at work.
All in all, not a bad way to spend a day.