Travelling in Florence, Italy in the Low Season

by | Feb 7, 2024

Florence, Tuscany, Italy during the low season at the Duomo.
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Featured image: Florence in the low season is beautiful, especially during the holidays! | Photo by SeanPavone on Envato

Slowing down in Florence over the holidays 

by Carolyn Ray

It’s Christmas Eve in Florence. I’ve just arrived on the train and am rushing to get to my rented apartment in Oltrarno, on the far side of the Arno River. After a long day of travel from Belgium, I am tired. I am frustrated. I stop and look around. Why is everyone walking so slowly? Don’t they have anywhere to be? Then it hits me – I’m in Florence, the city where Michelangelo’s David stands in solid marble. Where Dante, ‘the father of the Italian language’ was born in 1265. Where the House of the Medici, under the influence of Cosimo de Medici, ruled Florence and inspired the Italian Renaissance in the first half of the 15th century. 

Everywhere I look, there is beauty. It’s in the white lights hanging across cobblestone streets. It’s in the brightly lit presents that dominate the main squares. It’s even in the quaint shops decorated with garland and lights around every entrance. I watch as a charming marionette show draws a crowd. There’s music but also a vibrant hum of French, Spanish, Japanese and English. Stylish couples are strolling arm in arm, gesturing and smiling. Families are standing in circles hugging and chatting with each other as their kids run around in the streets. With a deep breath, I walk forward slowly, matching the pace of those around me. Ciao Florence! It’s time to slow down.

Florence at Christmas time

Over the next two weeks, I take some time for me. I stroll leisurely through Florence’s cobblestone streets and wander around piazzas, shops and restaurants. Everything is welcoming and charming. The weather is mild and my leggings, sweater, scarf and lightweight jacket are more than enough. Of course, I can’t resist buying a stylish hat from the family-owned business Grevi, which has been making hats by hand for almost 180 years. I find that mornings are the best time to get out for a coffee in my local piazza, with afternoons spent in galleries, churches and museums. 

Florence’s version of Fifth Avenue is Via Tornabuoni, a luxurious street that runs from Piazza Antinori to Santa Trinita Bridge, which is very close to my apartment. I wander by stunning displays from Gucci, Ferragamo and Prada. In the Hermes store, I am awed by the beautiful ceiling. On the side streets, vendors sell colourful silk scarves, jewelry and handmade leather bags. All the restaurants and patios are open, and while some have heaters, the sunshine makes eating outside warm enough, even on New Year’s Eve.

Florence’s oldest bridge, the 13-century Ponte Vecchio, was once home to fishmongers. Today, jewelry shops line each side. Looking up, I see the Corridoio Vasariano, the private passage used by the Medici family that runs from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti, on the other side of the Arno. Built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari, it will reopen to the public after several years of restoration in Spring 2024. During the holidays, the bridge is covered in vibrant light displays of flowers, with classical music playing. On New Year’s Eve, it’s where everyone gathers to watch fireworks, the light display on the bridge and drink prosecco. It’s truly magical.  

Charming Christmas decorations adorn the streets in Florence, Italy
Christmas decorations adorn the streets in Florence / Photo by Carolyn Ray
Ponte Vecchio Bridge seen in Florence in the low season, at Christmas time
Ponte Vecchio bridge at Christmas / Photo by Carolyn Ray

Florentine piazzas to explore

There’s nothing better than people-watching in Florence.  The cafes aren’t crowded, and it’s easy to get the best seat right up front.   Here are some of my favourite people-watching piazzas. 

Piazza della Signoria, after the Uffuzi

All roads lead to Piazza della Signoria the centre of Florence. It’s dominated by the Vecchio Palace, the fountain of Neptune, the outdoor version of the David, the Gigglino and the Uffuzi Museum, which holds some of the world’s greatest treasures, including Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”.  This was once the ‘office’ of the Medicis and it’s a must-see in Florence. I spend a full day strolling the halls and enjoy a cappuccino on the cafe on the rooftop, which has wonderful views. I booked a ticket in advance and there was no lineup to get in, or at the cafe. 

On New Year’s Eve, I am introduced to the iconic Rivoire Cafe during an  apertivo food tour and return on New Year’s Day for a cappuccino. This historic coffee shop was founded by Enrico Rivoire in 1872, who was King Emanuele Filiberto I’s master chocolatier. In the evenings it becomes a cocktail bar. 

Piazza della Signoria in Florence, Italy
The Neptune Fountain in Piazza della Signoria / Photo by Givaga on Envato

Piazza del Duomo, after walking 463 steps

Just a five-minute walk away is the marble Duomo, with its Cathedral, Dome, Baptistry and Bell Tower. It’s here that I climb 463 steps to the Dome, which offers unparalleled views of Florence. Be warned, if you choose to climb to the top it’s very tight the entire way, with no room for turning around. While entrance to the Cathedral is free, the lineups are very hours long, particularly in the mornings. 

You can purchase a ticket for the entire complex in advance for €30, (note there is no discount for seniors), or go on a group tour with Viator for $99, as I did. My tour had a guide, no lineups and included The Galleria dell’Accademia (Accademia Gallery) where I stood in awe of Michelangelo’s David. Well worth it to avoid the lineups. 

This piazza seems to be busy all the time and I quickly learn to avoid the cafes, which are very expensive. My tour guide suggests Toscanino, on the roof of La Rinascente department store, for spectacular views of the Duomo.

View from the Duomo looking out to Florence
Views from the top of the Duomo / Photo by Carolyn Ray

Piazza di Santa Croce to see how the flood impacted Florence

I first read about the Basilica di Santa Croce in Sarah Winman’s book Still Life, our August 2023 JourneyWoman Book Club Book of the Month, which documents one of the most important moments in Florence’s history — the flooding of the Arno River in November 1966. At its highest, the water reached over 6.7 metres (22 ft) in the Santa Croce area. During the 1966 flood, the water levels were above the doorways and people came together to save its masterpieces, which include thousands of pieces of art from the 13th to the 20th centuries from artists such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Donatello. Watch the documentary “Days of Destruction” narrated by Richard Burton to learn more and see original photography of this event. 

The inside of the church is filled with Agnolo Gaddi’s frescoes. It’s also the final resting place of Michelangelo Buonarotti, who died at age 88 in 1564. In 1787, a monumental tomb for poet and philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli, who was originally interred in his family’s chapel in 1527, was unveiled in the Church. Curiously, there is a tomb for Dante who died in 1321, but his remains are in Ravenna. Tickets are €8, with no discount for seniors.

Piazzale Michaelangelo, for the views of Florence

Walking up to Piazzale Michaelangelo is worth it for the stunning views of Florence. This is the place where everyone sits on the steps to see Florence’s famous sunsets. You can walk the winding road or hop in a golf cart for 10 euros each way.  There’s not much more up here, which was fine with me. I just loved watching the sun set. 

Flood line in Piazza di Santa Croce
In Piazza di Santa Croce, where there’s a sign marking the flood waters  / Photo by Carolyn Ray
Carolyn Ray at Michelangeou Piazza, Florence
The view from Piazza Michelangelo / Photo by Lobachad on Envato

Two honourable mentions: Piazza Santo Spirito and Piazza Del Carmine

I stayed at an Airbnb in Oltrarno, and while I didn’t enjoy my apartment, I loved the area. Located on the south side of the Arno, this area has a reputation as an artists’ district.  The real reason I wanted to stay there, however, was after reading Sarah Winman’s novel Still Life, which is set in this area. I could just imagine Ulysses and Evelyn walking through Piazza Santo Spirito or Piazza del Carmine. Winman reportedly ate dinner at  Il Brindellone, which inspired her to write the book, so I made it a point to stop by. I loved Piazza Santo Spirito with its church, tolling bells and cafes lining the square, making it the perfect place for lunch.  

On New Year’s Eve, all the piazzas had local entertainment, bands and strolling musicians.  That was fortunate because there was no sign of organized fireworks — instead, every person in Florence seemed to set off their own, making me jump out of my skin.  Despite its enormous reputation for art and culture, Florence really is a small city, and these piazzas are where real life happens. 

The church in Piazza Santo Spirito
The charming church in Piazza Santo Spirito / Photo by John Samuel via Wikimedia Commons

Other places to visit in Florence in the low season

Before arriving in Florence, I met with our 2021 JourneyWoman Award winner Alessandra Alonso, a Florence native, who shared her favourite places with me. I didn’t get to all of them, so invite you to try them! 

  • The covered Mercato Centrale is worth a visit – outside the stalls are no longer as genuine and traditional but inside on the first floor there is now an excellent mix of street food, food stalls and drinks. 
  • The most genuine market, and where we shop regularly is San Ambrogio just a short stroll from the main centre. It is a food market in and outside with lots of still genuine sellers and wares. If you like steak go inside and ask For the butcher Luca Menoni. They have a terrace above the shop and you can order some wonderful meat for lunch!
  • If you walk across the Arno and up towards Forte Belvedere, the landscape of olives trees and gardens is gorgeous with the old walls of the city.
  • Brandimarte is the most wonderful silversmith with years of history in via delle belle donne…worth walking in just for the superb craftsmanship!

Find even more things to do in Florence here!

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As the CEO and Editor of JourneyWoman, Carolyn is a passionate advocate for women's travel and living the life of your dreams. She leads JourneyWoman's team of writers and chairs the JourneyWoman Women's Advisory Council and Women's Speaker's Bureau. She has been featured in the New York Times, Toronto Star and Zoomer as a solo travel expert, and speaks at women's travel conferences around the world. In March 2023, she was named one of the most influential women in travel by TravelPulse and was the recipient of a SATW travel writing award in September 2023. She is the chair of the Canadian chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC), Women's Travel Leaders and a Herald for the Transformational Travel Council (TTC). Sometimes she sleeps. A bit.

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