When I first found out I’d be traveling to Italy, I didn’t actually intend to stop off in Florence. Because the reason behind my trip to Italy was solely to attend my dear friend’s wedding in the Tuscan countryside, I didn’t plan to do any real sightseeing. But this is me we’re talking about. So after I purchased my plane ticket, I couldn’t help but book one night in Florence.
Funny thing is, that one day in Florence ended up turning into multiple days of hanging out in Florence – in one form or another – during the near two-week period I spent in Italy. Let’s just say I had some flight-cancellation DISASTERS during my trip. And while those were expensive and a pain, they did enable me to spend more time in Florence than I had planned. And in the end, I actually learned a thing or two about budget travel in Florence.
Because I didn’t think I was going to have all that much time in the city, I didn’t hit the major (but time consuming) attractions such as the Uffizi Gallery, the Galeria da Academia or the Florence Cathedral (Duomo).
Instead, I spent much of my time walking around Florence, exploring its cobblestone alleyways, admiring its historical architecture and eating lots of caprese paninis and pecorino cheese.
I’ve always been a budget-minded traveler by nature. And while I did spend a fair amount of money on my incredible Airbnb rentals (see more below), I did learn that there are plenty of cheap and even free things to do in Florence.
Here are a few cheap and free things to do in Florence:
1. Don’t sit and drink coffee… stand instead
You’ll notice that a lot of Italians don’t sit and drink coffee. They stand. That’s because if you opt to stand at many restaurants in Florence, your bill will be significantly less. An espresso should only put you back €1, but that’s really only the case if you stand and sip. If you sit down – especially in touristy restaurants – an espresso can cost €3-5.
2. Admire the Florence Cathedral (aka Duomo) from the outside
The Duomo is one of the most popular things to see in Florence – and it is absolutely breathtaking. Sure, I would have loved to admire it from the inside and out. But because I was in Florence during Easter (an incredibly popular time for tourists), I took one look at the line and decided, without hesitation, to skip it.
The line can honestly take up to two (and even four!) hours. I personally didn’t feel like wasting hours in line just to go inside and to the top. Instead I just admired the 15th-century church from the outside. But if you’re willing to brave the crowds the views from the top are supposed to be spectacular.
3. Take advantage of a nightly apertivo in Florence’s restaurants
Apertivo is basically Italian happy hour – and it’s awesome. From around 7-9pm every night, restaurants around Florence will offer apertivo. Basically, you get a free drink (beer, wine or aparol spritz) and all-you-can-eat appetizers. For €9 Euro I got an aparol spritz and had my fill of a selection of about a dozen delicious appetizers. FYI, the drink alone would have cost me €7, so it was quite the deal. This goes on all over the city. It’s rad, and it’s also a great way to sample different local dishes.
4. Hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo for sunset
My Italian friend here in Beijing gave me the best travel tip: to hike to Piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun set. And I did just that. We bought a bottle of wine and set out on the picturesque (and steep!) hike to Piazzale Michelangelo. I recommend getting there a bit before the sun sets because it can get really crowded, especially when the weather is nice. Claim a seat on the steps overlooking the Arno River, bring a bottle of wine (and cups) and enjoy the view. It is amazing.
5. Order your food for take away
Because Florence is super touristy, restaurant prices are a bit higher than usual, especially around the major tourist sites. But if you’re on a budget one option is to grab a panino or a pizza (to go) and sit and eat it outside in a square or on the river.
A panino (remember it’s panino for one and panini for two) should only put you back around €4-6 and cheap pizzas go for around €7-10. Because the weather was so nice out when I was there, I noticed a lot of people doing this. Why eat in a restaurant when you can so easily put together a great little picnic and enjoy your surroundings?
6. Your money will go further with an Airbnb
Just from browsing online, your dollar – or shall I say euro – appears to go way further on Airbnb than on other hotel booking sites. For the price of a seriously crappy-looking hotel room with bad reviews, we got a sick one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen for around €100 a night (during the high season). It was literally right across the street from the river and this was the view from the bedroom and living room (see above). The Airbnbs in Florence are something special, so I highly suggest giving them a browse.
Get $35 off your stay if you use this Airbnb link to sign up to a new account. This is only for a new sign up, but you can always make a new account if you already have one.
7. Buy wine in the store, not in restaurants
Wine in Italy is so cheap and so good. Because I’ve spent the past four years living in Asia, good (and cheap) wine is a true rarity. Suffice it to say I went wine crazy in Italy. And while a cheap glass of great wine will only put you back €5 at a restaurant, it can add up. So if you’re on a budget, you can just head to the supermarket and get a great bottle of wine for the same price.
8. Walk along the Arno River for spectacular views
It might seem obvious, but the riverside is seriously delightful. It’s a great place to meander along and snap photos, but it’s also a popular spot to hang out when the weather is nice. We spotted quite a few people hanging out on the river’s banks sunning and watching the sunset. Those people seemed to have the right idea.
9. Take the airport shuttle to/from downtown Florence
The first thing I learned flying in and out of Florence (or attempting to) was to skip the taxi stand and instead head straight to the airport shuttle. The VolaInBus stops right outside of the airport (just walk outside, turn right and you’ll see the bus stop at the end of the short road).
The shuttle costs €6 and runs every 30 minutes. It takes you to the train station, in the heart of the city, in about 20-30 minutes (depending on traffic). Because Florence’s city center is super small, chances are your hotel will be within walking distance. There’s even a handy cell phone shop, which sells SIM cards, across the street from the train station.
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Have you been to Florence? Do you have any tips for doing Florence on a budget?