Some cities enjoy moments when a variety of factors propel them to a unique cultural flowering. One of those cities and one of those moments was Florence in the 15th century, when Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were just the most prominent of the many artists and thinkers who worked in the city—and changed Western civilization in the process.
That glorious Renaissance period continues to draw travelers to Florence in droves. In few other places in the world are so many masterpieces of art—and architecture—found in just a few square miles. It takes about a half-hour to walk from the Galleria dell’Academia in the north, across the Arno, and end at the Porto Romano in the south, and along the way, you’ll pass many of Italy’s most important buildings as well as galleries containing some of the world’s most important paintings and sculptures.
If that makes Florence sound appealing, it is—arguably too appealing. So this itinerary includes some less-expected recommendations as well as tips to help you beat the lines at top attractions. Start your journey by booking a flight on Lufthansa from one of the airline’s 19 U.S. gateways. With its warm approach to hospitality and onboard service, as well as its signature German efficiency, your trip will start on the right note.
After you land at Florence’s airport, make your way to the city’s historic core, roughly a half-hour by cab or train. The moderately priced Hotel Continentale opts for a contemporary aesthetic and has a location that can’t be beat, on the north bank of the Arno River next to the Ponte Vecchio. If you want to escape the crowds at the end of each day of sightseeing, the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze might be a better choice. The hotel is located to the north of the city in a 16th-century palazzo that occupies 11 acres of formally landscaped private grounds.
Head to historic Caffè Gilli on the Piazza Repubblica for a pick-me-up—coffee, snack or lunch—and look at its lavish interior. Then continue across the Arno to the Palazzo Pitti, a palace built by the Medicis.
You’ll spend much of your time in Florence in museums, but rather than jump right into that after traveling, ease into your cultural itinerary with a visit to the Boboli Gardens, located behind the palace. The gardens were first planted in the 16th century and became a model for many other gardens in Italy and Europe generally, including those at Versailles. Take in the fountains and grottoes, the ancient oaks and the elegant rose garden, and the views of Florence from its higher points. Look out for its most famous statue, of a dwarf astride a tortoise, near the exit.
Dine tonight at Cucina del Garga, one of Florence’s top restaurants for more than three decades. The dining room is decorated with colorful contemporary art, while the menu focuses on traditional Florentine dishes: risottos, pastas, slow-cooked pork, and breaded veal.
There’s no reason to wait in the long lines at the Uffizi, one of the world’s most celebrated museums, or the Accademia, where the David statue resides—as you can make advance reservations through the official website for Florentine museums. You then exchange your receipt for an actual ticket when you arrive.
Originally built as offices—hence the name, Uffizi—the building was later converted to a museum, which opened to the public after the last Medici heirs died in the 18th century. The museum’s Italian works include paintings by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino. Some northern European artists are represented too, most notably Dürer and Rembrandt. The rooftop café is an ideal place to get lunch and take a break before tackling the riches of this vast collection.
After your visit, spend some time getting lost in the streets around the Piazza Repubblica. Florence is famous for its leather—Ferragamo, Roberto Cavalli, and Gianfranco Lotti are among the homegrown brands. On and around Via de’ Tornabuoni, you can find their boutiques along with other designers who aren’t household names—yet.
For another sort of retail therapy, seek out Santa Maria Novella, a pharmacy based in a stunning 13th-century chapel that continues to sell lotions, soaps, and herbal supplements created by Dominican friars. It’s worth stopping in to admire the wood paneled ornate rooms even if you don’t intend to purchase anything.
Make your way south across to the Oltrarno and get to know the Arno’s other side, known for traditional artisan workshops and, increasingly, Florence’s hippest indie shops and hangouts. iO Osteria Personale on Borgo San Frediano, for one, can feel like a breath of fresh air, with its chalkboard menus and exposed brick walls. The kitchen here focuses on smaller, lighter portions and seasonally inspired variations on classic dishes, like chestnut tortelli. For a memorable nightcap, it’s a five-minute walk from iO to Mad Souls & Spirits, the most creative cocktail bar in town.