Picture of a bicyclist in Florence, Italy

Visitors and Florence locals walk past the city's Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, which is crowned by the famous Brunelleschi Cupola.

Photograph by Dave Yoder, National Geographic

The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence boasts a wealth of museum masterpieces, most famously Michelangelo’s "David" and Botticelli’s "The Birth of Venus," but there’s plenty of culture to experience that doesn’t involve pricey admission or epic waits.

Attractions

Towering over the cityscape, the Duomo—officially, Santa Maria del Fiore (known as the Virgin of the Flower, an allusion to the lily, the symbol of Florence)—as it appears today took centuries to complete. The first stone was laid in 1296, and the new façade by Emilio De Fabris was completed in 1884. Today it's one of the largest churches in the world. Admission is free (open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. on Saturday; and 1:30 to 4:45 p.m. on Sundays and religious holidays). Mass is held on Sundays at 7:30 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. Lines can be long, but they move quickly. A more intimate look at the dome—an architectural feat built without scaffolding—requires climbing 463 steps and will set you back 10 euros (U.S. $14), a price that includes access to the bell tower, the baptistery, and the crypt within the Duomo complex. You also get to bask in Giorgio Vasari's "Last Judgment" frescoes and get a bird’s-eye peek at Florence.

Until the 19th century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized at the Baptistery of St. John. The octagonal monument is distinguished by its geometric, colored-marble exterior and detailed interior mosaics. Admission is 5 euros (U.S. $7) but admiring its famous bronze doors (with replica panels), carved with scenes from the Bible, is free.

Follow the main street from Piazzale Michelangelo to the steps of the Abbey San Miniato al Monte, which is one of the highest points in Florence. Michelozzo’s Cappella del Crocifisso (1448) is the centerpiece of the Romanesque basilica. Frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi decorate the crypt behind it. Wander the abbey’s cemetery (Carlo Collodi, author of Pinocchio, is buried here) and stay for sunset, when the golden light reflects off the terra-cotta roofs of the city below. Admission is free (open from 7 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.; 3:30 to 7 p.m. on weekdays in winter; and 7 a.m. to sunset in summer). Masses are throughout the day on Sunday and holidays; 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. masses are in Gregorian chant.

Culture

It’s hard to put a price on a Botticelli, but at about U.S. $30 a pop, tickets to the Uffizi Gallery can hit your wallet hard, especially if you’ve got kids in tow. Fortunately, a new national policy now allows all minors under 18 (with valid ID) free admission to state museums, including the Uffizi, Accademia Gallery (hello, "David"!), the Pitti Palace (arguably the best value at about U.S. $9 for full admission; don’t miss the Boboli Gardens), the Bargello National Museum, and the Museum of the Medici Chapels. Previously restricted to E.U. minors under six, the freebies can soften the blow for families. Prebook reservations online to avoid lines.

Florence is full of public art. Whether the real "David" is in the cards or not, you can’t miss the Piazza della Signoria—the city’s historic hub—where a replica of Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece presides over the main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio. Keeping the outdoor "David" company is Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus holding the head of Medusa and Bartolomeo Ammannati’s "Fountain of Neptune," among others.

This may be Renaissance central, but the contemporary art scene is thriving. Biagiotti Art Project is a nonprofit space that promotes young, emerging artists who work in everything from painting to installations (Via delle Belle Donne 39r). Galleria Alessandro Bagnai represents more established artists like Florence native Sandro Chia (Palazzo Ricasoli, Piazza Goldoni 2).

Families

Like Paris and London, Florence now has its own urban beach. In nice weather, the wide swath of sand on the Arno River, near San Niccolò, teems with bikini-clad locals playing volleyball or lounging barside. A playground, Ping-Pong tables, and umbrellas make it family-friendly.

The antique wooden carousel on the Piazza della Repubblica isn’t free, but it's darn close. Two bucks will buy your tot a ride on one of the 20 horses or two gilded king’s carriages—and priceless snapshots. Open November through May from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A former game reserve and farm that belonged to a member of the Medici family, Cascine Park is the largest park in Florence, with acres of sprawling grounds along the Arno. There are playgrounds for kids, a small zoo, and a public swimming pool open in the summer.

Food and Drink

Florentines take their happy hour snacks seriously. Forget beer nuts: Here, wine bars lay out generous aperitivi (also called apericena locally)—from cured meats and grilled vegetables to cold pasta and risotto dishes—to nibble as you sip your vino. It’s feasible to make a small meal of these spreads for the cost of a glass of wine or negroni and sometimes a small surcharge. The romantic Fuori Porta in San Niccolò is a cozy enoteca specializing in local wines. Kitsch in Piazza Beccaria is famous for its expansive buffet. In the summer, some hotels welcome nonguests to their rooftop terraces. Try the Grand Hotel Minerva for a lovely view of the city.

Outdoors

The best free activity in Florence may well be people-watching. Once you peruse the jewelry and souvenir shops along the Ponte Vecchio (the medieval stone bridge over the Arno River), get off the beaten path and head to Oltrarno, a neighborhood on the left—and less touristy—side of the Arno. Get lost in the warren of narrow cobblestone streets, wandering in and out of artisan workshops. Rub shoulders with local arty types at the daily morning market (closed the second and third Sundays of the month, when artisan and antique markets are held) in the Piazza Santo Spirito.

Even if you’re not in the market for, say, tripe or pig ears, the imposing central market in Piazza del Mercato Centrale (Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.)—obscured by the San Lorenzo flea market that surrounds it—is a cultural experience. Outside of the main building is a large tent with fruit and vegetable stands but inside is the real show, with butchers showing off their wares, from rabbits and wild boar to cured meats and local cheeses. Here’s where you can provision a picnic or pick up a reasonably priced bottle of local olive oil to bring home.

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