by Steven Brenner
Overview of the city
I can’t stress enough how easy it is to visit Florence – it’s small, it’s flat, it’s more pedestrian than car-centric, and everything you want to see is within walking distance. You won’t need public transportation or taxis and you won’t need to worry too much about whether you’re central enough.
To a Florentine, the city would encompass a much greater area than I will detail here, and the neighborhoods have specific names that I’m not using, because essentially I want to give you the very simplified, practical version of Florence, designed for someone who knows nothing about the city and wants to get their bearings.
You’ll probably enter the city by the main train station, Santa Maria Novella (top left circle), which is at the upper, western edge of the city center. About a 10 minute walk away, towering over the center of the city, you have the Duomo at Piazza Santa Maria del Fiore (middle blue circle). South of that you pass Piazza della Repubblica and then hit the Piazza della Signoria (with the statue of David copy), then the Uffizi, then the river Arno which is crossed at this point by the Ponte Vecchio (bottom circle).
That whole walk, to give you an idea of size, should take under 30 minutes.
Just beneath the Ponte Vecchio is the Pitti Palace and to the east of that, the Boboli Gardens. This whole area south of the Arno river is known as the Oltrarno (it means “across the Arno”).
As this map above shows, Florence is not a particularly large city, and the neighborhoods are fairly the same in terms of architecture and the density of shops/cafes and restaurants, but there are some variations to the different areas that I’ll point out that might help you choose which area is the best for you.
South of Santa Maria Novella
If you’re on the cheap, this is a pretty logical place to stay. It’ll probably take you about 5 minutes to get over here from the station and then about 10-15 minutes to get pretty much everywhere else in the historic center. There are some narrow streets, but cars are still allowed over here. Lots of people on bicycles. A mix of aging locals, immigrants, hotels, and a general bustling vibe. It’s also home to the historic Erboisteria Santa Maria Novella, and some good, cheap eats (some ethnic, some traditional).
Where to stay:
Tre Gigli – double rooms from €70 a night in high season.
Casa Corsi – double rooms from €75 a night in high season
Behind SM Novella
About a 5 minute walk behind the station, going away from the center, this is a good choice if you are traveling by car, or want to save even more and don’t mind adding 5-10 minutes on to all that walking you’ll be doing. The area, for the most part, loses some of the vibe of the rest of the city, and has some newer buildings that kill the architectural landscape a bit, but the plus is that the accommodations over here are more modern and functional. It feels mostly residential and quiet, despite being so close to the station. It doesn’t have that sketchy train station atmosphere that many train stations do, but if you really want to be on a small, cobblestone street, you’ll have to go a bit further in (and pay a bit more). If you favor a room that’s more modern, this might be a better option for you.
Where to stay:
Residenza Giulia – double rooms around €102 a night.
Bed and Bed Cassia - double rooms for €55 night in high season
Fortezza da Basso and the Mercato Generale
This is a very residential, quiet part of Florence, with a number of ethnic food shops peppered here and there. There are more cars, but not much congestion of traffic. The buildings are older, typically Florentine. Once you get to the Mercato Generale you have some serious old-school Florentine food – more tripe sandwiches than you can shake a stick at. On the north of this circle you have the Fortezza da Basso which was a fort built in the 1500′s and is now a convention center. From there you’re looking at a 10 minute walk to the Duomo and the Mercato. It’s an obvious choice for anyone coming to Florence for a convention, but it’s also a good way to be away from the crowds and traffic and people around the train station without adding too much space between you and the stuff you want to see.
Where to stay:
Casa di Barbano – €92 for a double room in high season, with breafkast.
Gianna’s B&B – €100 for a double with breakfast in high season.
Pretty much everything in your guide book is here. One way to reach this area from the station is to go through Via Faenza, a very touristed street, made more crowded by hotels and pensioni thanks to it being a Rick Steves’ preferred, budget area in Florence. It’s a mixed bag of good restaurants and tacky tourist souvenir stuff, lots of hotels and internet cafes. Architecturally speaking, it’s still old-Florence and a narrow, quaint streets and feels just like anywhere else in the center, but without the glamor. The street essentially ends at the Duomo, so it’s a good budget option for being just outside the “center”.
I consider the center the few blocks from the Duomo at the north to the Ponte Vecchio at the south. There’s a few main streets that are wider and have taxis and literally swarms of people. Often in the summer you can barely walk down these streets. Florence doesn’t absorb tourists all that well, given that the center is so small, and it can be quite overwhelming in high season.
Accommodations are generally more upscale here. Restaurants are pricier and you’ll see lots of boutiques and high fashion.
Where to stay:
Casa Billi - doubles around €65 a night in high season
Bencidormi - artsy doubles at €95 a night
Cimatori B&B – traditional, charming doubles at €115 a night
Literally meaning “across the Arno”, the Oltrarno is my favorite area. A bit harder to get to with bags for new arrivals (maybe a 20-30 minute walk), but once here you’re in a real neighborhood. Better, cheaper food. More local culture and less crowds. You can walk to the Ponte Vecchio in about 5-15 minutes depending where you are. There’s usually some savings for staying around here as well. As for sites, just south of the Ponte Vecchio you have the Pitti Palace and then the Boboli Gardens behind that (to the east). Via Maggio is a main street that runs away from the river and cuts through the Oltrarno. Going further west you have Via dei Serragli, which can take you to all sorts of good local restaurants, and then crossing through the Oltrarno is Via di Santo Spirito and Borgo San Frediano. In the center of all this is Piazza Santo Sprito with a daily fruit and vegetable market in the morning. This is the area of the vanishing artisans that I’ve written about here and is much more easy going and less touristy than the other side of Florence.
Where to stay:
Casa di Annusca - €68 euro doubles and a nice little garden where breakfast is served
Ponte Vecchio Suite – 2 bedroom apartment for €160 a night for 4 guests