Florence is easily one of the most touristy places in all of Europe. You can’t blame people for picking Florence as a must-see destination in Italy though: It’s an absolutely gorgeous city and it’s a dream to visit — for anyone who loves art, architecture, history, food, and scenic views.
Florence is the essence of what Italy dreams are made of. It’s every bit as beautiful as you’d think. It looks just like the movies, but better. And that’s what people come for. Millions of people.
This is what the Piazza del Duomo looks like at 10 am in the morning. On a Thursday. In March.
It’s impossible to avoid touristy crowds in Florence, because the tourists are where the good things are. But there are a few ways to avoid the craziest crowds from time to time. My mom and I traveled to Florence in March and it was already ridiculously crowded, but here’s what I learned — I’m sure these points are even more valid for the busier seasons in Florence:
Get up early. Like, really early.
I know if you’re on vacation you probably want to sleep in and enjoy a long breakfast with several coffee refills. I get it (especially needing more than one coffee in the morning). But if you’re starting the day off with a lazy morning in Florence, you’re never going to have the city for yourself for at least a little while.
This is the kind of morning commute snapshot you can only take at 8 am in the morning
If you want to see tourist-free Florence, there’s sadly no other option than the early morning hours. During the day the piazzas are swamped with tourists from all around the world, at night you can hear the tipsy giggling of 20-year-old study abroad girls from the States annoyingly echoing through the ancient streets.
But in the very early morning hours, you might get lucky enough to have the city and all the important sights for yourself just for a second. One magical second (with perfect light!) that makes not sleeping in absolutely worth it, I promise.
My mom and I made it into Santa Maria Novella around 9 am and it was just beautiful to have those ancient cloisters to ourselves in the golden morning light. And aside from a few school classes (Italian schools apparently always have their field trips in mid-March), we could even enjoy a still fairly empty church around that time.
I made my mom pose here, because the light was so perfect and there was no one around!
From our experience, arriving early in Florence was always worth it: Mercato di San Lorenzo is for example also considered very touristy, but if you can’t make it to the less central markets like Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio, I would also recommend coming here really early to stock up on picnic foods and edible souvenirs.
The upper “food court” floor won’t be open when you come around 8 am, but seeing local restaurant owners buy their goods absolutely makes up for it. If grocery shopping in the morning won’t make you feel like a local, I don’t know what will!
Here’s my mom again, being all Eat-Pray-Love at the market
Seek out unusual sights.
Of course, the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio belong on a Florence itinerary, but Florence has so many less crowded places to offer! If you opt for a quirkier museum or a less popular church, you might get lucky enough to be sightseeing by yourself for a little while. Florence has so many museums, palazzos, and churches, and I’m convinced it’s not that hard to find one that suits you!
My favorite “hidden” sight though was actually in the middle of everything but the tourists just walked past it: The Palazzo Davanzati. This Renaissance palazzo had been on my art history radar for years now, but many guide books (luckily) barely mention it.
Whereas the famous (and always crowded) Palazzo Vecchio was owned by the most influential city rulers, Davanzati is “just” an upper class family palazzo that still shows an almost unfiltered view of what living in Florence looked like in the 14th century. The best part was probably seeing what an ensuite master bedroom looked like during that time — I must say, not the comfiest toilet I have seen.
In case you ever wondered what a 14th century living room in Italy looked like
It was so cool to see a palazzo interior like this — I have been studying the palazzo architecture for years, but I only really understood the living situation after visiting this place. (The students on their field trip down there were obviously more impressed with their phones.)
What makes this palazzo so valuable for art historians are the frescos — many of the rooms have painted walls with all kind of motifs. The parrot room for example really made me consider redecorating at home, because parrots look surprisingly cool on walls!
My original reason to come here though was the second story bedroom, which has a fresco telling the very dramatic love story of the Châtelaine de Vergy. The story is an Old French / Old Italian poem about a forbidden love, a cheating lover, a jealous wife, a loyal dog, and many secrets — ending in a suicide and a brutal beheading scene at a festive banquet. Courtly drama at its best!
The Châtelaine de Vergy frescos (my photo doesn’t do them any justice!)
I always love me a catchy love story and this one is better than any soap opera (I’m dark, I like stories with no happy end), but I still haven’t figured out why people would have this story painted on their bedroom walls — especially knowing that this bedroom was designed for the family’s newlyweds. This palazzo is a great less frequented sight to solve some art historical riddles, and it only costs 2 Euros to get in as well!
Go on a museum tour with Walks of Italy.
My main reason to come to Florence was visiting the world-famous Uffizi Gallery and seeing Michelangelo’s David. During my last years as a professional art historian it had been pretty embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t been to the famous museums of Florence yet. Full disclosure though: I’m not a real expert on Renaissance art and I was kind of dreading the crowds in the museums and waiting in line for hours.
But when I found out that Walks of Italy, whom I went on an amazing food tour in Rome with last year, offered a Florence In A Day Tour including all the important art, museums, and everything in-between, I knew I had found the perfect way to get my art history geek on in Florence without losing my mind.
The most important lesson I learned in the years in academia is that you actually know nothing and can always learn so much more. And to be completely honest, I have very little knowledge of early modern, Renaissance, and Baroque art — plus, I can’t even read the Italian academic literature to do something against my lack of knowledge. That’s why I was really looking forward to having a knowledgeable guide (and fellow art historian!) to explain everything to me.
Our guide Costanza was super smart, but had an impressive way to explain art historical concepts in a way without using the pro-lingo, but I still knew always knew exactly what she was referring to. And all the geeky things aside, I appreciated it so much that she obviously had an even bigger statue crush on David than I did.
Costanza kept referring to David as “the most handsome man in town” and really, how could she not? Just look at him! Isn’t he just flawless?
The funniest thing in the Accademia, the museum where the most handsome man in town can be seen, was a little toilet encounter: I found this bathroom graffiti in the ladies room and had to keep myself from creepily saying “Girl, I hear ya!” aloud in my toilet stall. I mean, I get it, he’s dashingly attractive.
When I showed this graffiti snapshot to Costanza she just casually shrugged her shoulders: “Oh, it happens.”, she said with a very understanding voice — and I was just glad that I was really not the only girl inappropriately drooling over a (very good-looking) piece of marble.
But from abs back to art: Visiting the Uffizi Gallery, the other big museum on our Florence In A Day itinerary, felt surprisingly familiar to me — I kept seeing paintings and thinking “Oh hi! You’re here too!?”, because so much of the really good stuff is to be found in this museum. Walking through the corridors there was almost like walking through all the art historical lectures I attended in the last years.
Oh hi there Botticelli!
Oh hi there Caravaggio!
Oh hi there Titian!
Of course, Walks of Italy couldn’t jinx the crowds away, but not having to wait in line for a second, because everything was so well organized, and relying on not missing a single sentence due to having a headset when I disappeared in the crowds again (that happens to me all the time — I’m very short and not assertive at all), made this museum visit the most comfortable one you could have in a touristy city like Florence.
One more reason to love the Uffizi Gallery: The views over Florence are amazing!
Thanks to this guided tour I got to see all the art in Florence I had been dreaming of seeing all those years — and not only the art inside the museums but also all the “outside art” that I would have missed while squeezing past selfie stick vendors and horse-drawn carriages: The Donatello replica at Orsanmichele, the Rape of the Sabine Women on Piazza della Signoria, and the famous Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Oh hi there Ghiberti!
I’m pretty sure I would have missed way too many of these treasures just by zigzagging through the crowds just watching my step, thus I couldn’t be more relieved that I had Costanza there to point them out to me!
Take a Turn Behind a Sight. And then Another One.
If you you just need a break from all the touristy craziness, it’s luckily not that tough at all to find normalcy in the city center. You just need to take a turn away from the next big sight. Walk a little and then take another turn — and you’ll most likely end up in a street where people have laundry hanging from their balconies or a piazza where kids are playing soccer.
Empty street and door knob reflections in Oltrarno!
I experienced this in Florence like never before: Tourist crowds seemed to never leave the beaten path — if you just walk a little further down that street or into that park, you can easily find a glimpse of the Florence that lies beyond all the selfie sticks.
Piazza Torquato Tasso had a very local feel and really great gelato!
Prepare mentally. And stay calm.
For some things on your itinerary you just have to prepare before, because you won’t have a chance to avoid people. I heard the view from Piazzale Micheangelo was supposed to be amazing so I made sure that we would be there by sunset. Once we arrived at this famous viewpoint we learned that we were way too late though: If you want a sunset watching spot you have to come early and fight for it.
Young exchange students come here to pregame and every single seating spot on the stairs as well as every little inch along the balustrade was taken — I couldn’t even squeeze past to take a proper photo of the Piazzale.
What you think a sunset in Florence looks like.
What a sunset in Florence actually looks like. On a Thursday. In March.
When coming to Florence, it’s important to mentally prepare for what you’re getting into. Stay clam, be polite, and always remind yourself that all these people came for the same reasons you did — you can’t blame them for being there!
Have you been to Florence?
Did you find a way to avoid the crowds?
Note: Walks of Italy kindly hosted me on their Florence in a Day tour, but all opinions and major statue-crushing are 100 % my own.