Last month I spent seven nights exploring Tuscany.
Four of those nights were at a beautifully renovated ground-floor Florentine apartment just steps from the Basilica di Santa Croce.
Whilst we did make a couple of day trips from Florence, to the walled city of Lucca and the medieval hilltop town of San Gimignano, we spent the majority of our time in Tuscany, in the Tuscan capital itself.
If you can afford to it’s very easy to spend A LOT of money in Florence. The majority of the city’s museums, galleries, and churches charge an admission fee, and then if you want to avoid queuing for hours to enter, you can add an extra €3 or €4 euros on top – per ticket.
And then there’s the cost of eating out (an evening meal at a budget trattoria will set you back approximately €20 and a small coffee can cost as much as €3). Add shopping into the equation (the city is filled with boutique shops selling an abundance of hand-crafted leather goods, perfumes, jewellery, and ceramics) and you could leave with a severe dent in your rapidly diminishing bank account.
But seeing as though neither my mum nor I are particularly flush with money (in fact the majority of my trips are completed on a pretty tight budget), we decided to build an itinerary of (mostly) free sights and activities. And what we discovered was that there are actually a lot of cool things you can see and do in Florence without spending a single cent.
#1 Take an early morning stroll around the Piazza del Duomo before the hoards of tourists begin to arrive
Florence’s Duomo opens at 10am, so if you aim to visit the Piazza del Duomo before the queues start to form at around 9am, you’ll find it largely devoid of tourists.
It’s a great time of day to capture snippets of local life in the city, and the early morning sun does a beautiful job of picking out the detail on the exterior of Florence’s most magnificent structure.
#2 Have a browse around the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio
I didn’t actually visit Florence’s Mercato Centrale so I’ve no means of comparison, but I’m told the Sant’Ambrogio Market offers a more authentic Florentine experience. We certainly saw more locals here than tourists.
If you’re renting an apartment like we were, the Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio is a fantastic place to pick up some fresh, inexpensive produce. And, compared to purchasing your ingredients for dinner from a nearby supermarket, you’re supporting local farmers by shopping here.
Saturday is the best day to visit, when farmers travel here from around the region to sell their produce.
#3 Visit Florence’s oldest perfumery-pharmacy and try to resist spending a small fortune inside
You’ll find erboristas throughout the city but the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is something else.
With beautifully decorated high arched ceilings and chandeliers, there are multiple rooms to explore here, selling beautifully packaged soaps, perfumes, herbal remedies for various conditions and ailments, and even scented shampoo for your cherished four-legged friend.
Products in here aren’t cheap though. Despite vowing not to spend any money on ‘things’ on this trip, I was seriously tempted to treat myself to a bottle of one of the most beautifully-scennted “Sandala” (Sandalwood) perfumes I’d ever smelt. The fact that the assistant informed me that it’s usually a scent worn by men didn’t put me off, but the €90 price tag did.
#4 Gaze up at the beautifully ornate Basilica di Santa Croce
Santa Croce is Florence’s most delightful neighbourhood in my opinion. It’s much less busy than other parts of the city, and has more of a local flavour. So I was very pleased that Santa Croce was where we were based for the duration of our stay, and even more overjoyed when I discovered that the beautiful Basilica di Santa Croce was literally steps from our apartment.
Construction began on this Franciscan church in 1294, but the beautiful polychrome marble facade wasn’t added until 1863, and it’s this that makes the church truly spectacular. The huge carved wooden doors are pretty impressive too.
Hidden in a courtyard behind the Basilica di Santa Croce (but definitely worth a visit) is the Scuola del Cuoio (leather school) where you can watch craftspeople fashioning leather goods by hand.
The finished products are also on display in the attached shop, but you’ll need a small fortune to purchase any; even a tiny leather keyring with your initial on it will set you back €15.
#5 Go to jail
Florence’s old city jail (1883-1985) has now been partially converted into flats (how would you feel about living in a former prison cell?) and the courtyard and surrounding buildings play host to a number of Florence’s cultural events. But that said, the place is still instantly recognisable as a jail, with many of the original cell doors still intact.
Although there didn’t seem to be a lot going on when we visited (low season/wrong time of day?), we loved Caffè Letterario, a buzzing cafe-bar and art space that’s frequented by Florence’s bohemian crowd.
#6 See how many of Blub’s creations you can spot around the city
Those who are regular readers of my blog will know how much I love street art, so after reading about the Florentine street artist simply known as “Blub”, I was keen to spot some of his work around the city.
Blub paints icons of the past wearing diving masks with the aim of presenting “a mix between the past and the contemporary world.”
#7 Wander along the River Arno to marvel at Florence’s iconic Ponte Vecchio
Yes it’s probably the most touristy activity in Florence (along with visiting the Duomo), but the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) does have a certain colourful, rambling appeal.
The bridge, in its current form, has been spanning the Arno since 1345, and is the only bridge in Florence that wasn’t destroyed by the German army in World War II.
One of the things you probably won’t notice as you stroll across Ponte Vecchio, weaving your way in and out of the crowds as you pass uninterrupted rows of goldsmiths and jewellers at either side, is that there’s actually an elevated covered passageway (known as the “Vasarian Corridor”) above the jewellery shops on the eastern side of the bridge.
This passageway is around one kilometre long, and was built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari, in order to connect Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. This corridor allowed the Grand Duke, his family, and staff to travel from one palace to the other without having to walk among the people they ruled.
#8 Cross the river to explore the Oltrano neighbourhood
Located over the opposite side of the Arno to Florence’s major sights, Oltrarno is the traditional home of the city’s artisans.
Although many of the original workshops have become designer boutiques (with prices to match), the streets here (away from Ponte Vecchio) make for a peaceful wander, and the Piazza Santo Spirito is a great spot to take a coffee break and watch the world go by.
Although we didn’t eat over this side of the river, I’m told the Oltrano neighbourhood is as rich in culinary options as it is in culture, with restaurants using locally-grown organic and artisanal ingredients.
#9 Head up to the Piazzale Michelangelo for some of the best views of the city
Located on the same side of the Arno as the Oltrano neighbourhood and offering spectacular views of the city and its five bridges, Piazzale Michelangelo can be reached by heading over the Ponte alle Grazie, taking a left on to Via di San Niccolò, and then following the road as it heads uphill.
As the road turns into a series of wide stone steps, you’ll arrive at the Giardino delle Rose, an attractive sloping rose garden that marks the halfway point and is great place to take a break for a while before continuing on your way.
As the name suggests there are roses aplenty here, as well as a small scattering of quirky statues, and views down on to the city below.
Piazzale Michelangelo gets pretty busy, particularly just before sunset, so take your photos, and then cross the road and continue uphill to the Abbazia di San Miniato al Monte.
This is one of the few churches in Florence that’s free to enter. And I totally recommend that you do; the interior is utterly beautiful.
There are also far fewer tourists up here, and although Piazzale Michelangelo is probably a better place to take your bridge shots from, the views from here are otherwise just as good.
Getting to Florence
It is possible to fly direct to Florence from the UK, but we found flights to Pisa were a lot cheaper. We bagged return flights to Pisa from Liverpool airport for £40 each, using the Skyscanner app. From Pisa there are three trains per hour to Florence. The journey takes one hour and costs €8.40 per person one-way.
Where we stayed
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