Gawking at awe-inspiring art and architecture from most street corners is part of daily life for Florentines. As one of Europe’s most elegant outdoor museums, their Renaissance city is "free sightseeing" nirvana.
Visiting the Tuscan capital is generally good-value for money, but for the budget-conscious there are ample things to enjoy that don’t cost a single cent. Locals tend to visit museums in winter: state museums, including the Uffizi and Accademia, are free during the Festa di Anna Maria Medici (18 February) and the first Sunday of each month from October to March.
You don’t need religion to appreciate the priceless artistry and craftsmanship inside Florence’s historic churches and basilicas, many of which are free. The landmark Duomo is for starters (but not its cupola or rooftop terraces).
On left-bank Oltrarno, few visitors miss the panoramic grounds of Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, but don’t ignore the beautiful Capella del Crocefisso (with works by Michelozzo, Agnolo Gaddi and Luca della Robbia) inside and mesmerizing sea of monumental graves in its 18th-century cemetery hidden behind.
The highlight of Chiesa di Santa Felicità is the balcony inside the church, used by the Medici to attend mass here and accessed by the famous Corrdoio Vasariano, the covered passageway built for the Medici so they could walk in comfort – well away from the Florentine riff-raff – between their three urban palaces. Across the water, the church where Botticelli was buried and an unusual church made from the city’s old 13th-century old grain market are well worth a free poke-around.
Florentines are immensely proud of their cinematic sunsets – for good reason. In summer particularly, the skyline show unveiled from the panoramic heights of Piazzale Michelangelo is up there on the list of "world’s most Instagrammed sunset locations". Other hillside spots to gorge on spectacular views of Brunelleschi’s flame-red cathedral dome embroiled in a fiery marbled-ink sky of orange, red and pink hues are the terrace of Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, Forte Belvedere and between roses at Giardino delle Rose.
Out-of-town hotspots are the hilltop village of Fiesole and Monte Morello near Sesto Fiorentino (both €1.50 by bus from central Florence).
Below on the scenic banks of the River Arno, follow the lead of savvy, budget-conscious Florentines: buy a bottle of wine and head to the hottest seats in town – the smooth, stone platform created by the east-facing bridge supports of Ponte Santa Trinità. Sit above the swirling water and toast the sun as it sinks behind the romantic, star-lit Ponte Vecchio further down the river.
Renaissance comic strips
Florence is famous for its Renaissance frescoes – effectively comic strips of the day providing social commentary and religious inspiration for the illiterate masses. Some of the finest frescoes are squirreled away inside free-to-explore Basilica di Santa Trinità where murals painted on freshly laid lime plaster depict the lives of Francis of Assisi and the Virgin Mary; it’s well worth popping a €0.50 coin in the slot to illuminate the dimly lit side chapels.
Florence’s best fresco illustrating the Last Supper can be admired for free inside the Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia, painted on one wall of a refectory for Benedictine nuns, inside a 14th-century monastery in San Lorenzo.
Contemporary street art
It’s not all antique biblical musings, heroic battles scenes, Roman soldiers snoozing on the job and cruel persecutions. Contemporary street artists keep Florence’s art scene on its toes with confrontational comment on current political affairs, pandemics, all sorts.
Kick off a free DIY street-art tour at the Oltrarno studio of Clet Abraham where, if you’re lucky, you can spot the French-born rebel at work, hacking a No Entry or Stop street sign with his signature sticker inlays.
Then lose yourself in the back lanes of this artsy, made-to-meander neighborhood. Keep your eyes peeled for Clet’s hacked street signs, stencil art by Hogre, and outline drawings of matchstick figures holding up red balloons in various guises by ExitEnter. Blub, whose caricatures of historical figures wear goggles and diving masks, is fantastic fun to spot – his art is tagged as L’Arte Sa Nuotare (Art Knows how to Swim). End at the Streets Levels Gallery, host to free urban street-art exhibitions, cultural events and other hip happenings.
Florence brims with art and beauty and, at times, tourists – but its green spaces are harder to find. With the exception of blockbuster Boboli and Bardini, most city gardens are free to roam and come with the added accolade of being the favorite green retreats of discerning, serenity-seeking locals. Top free choices in our "Most fantastic gardens and parks" round-up include rose-scented Giardino delle Rose, springtime-spectacular Giardino dell’Iris and the sprawling Parco delle Cascine.
Squares and bridges
In the Unesco-listed centro storico (historic centre) every piazza has a fascinating tale to tell. But no square is quite so dramatically storied as Piazza della Signoria – and it’s completely free. Stand on the spot where preacher-leader Savonarola set fire to the city's books, paintings, musical instruments and other art on the "Bonfire of Vanities" in 1497.
Snap fake David guarding the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio (on the very place where Michelangelo’s original stood until 1873). Admire bronze satyrs and divinities frolicking around Neptune on a horse-drawn chariot in the monumental Neptune’s Fountain. The square’s magnificent finale is Florence’s finest outdoor museum, a 14th-century loggia packed with breathtaking Renaissance sculptures.
From Piazza della Signoria, it is a free scenic walk through the forecourt of the handsome Uffizi to the River Arno and Ponte Vecchio – Florence’s old chestnut of a free tourist sight that remains one of the city’s signature "memorable moments".
With its architectural grandeur and romantic light that turns the Arno and its bridges into a portfolio of Turner canvases, Florence is a city designed with the modern-day flaneur in mind. Its historic center is a delight to stroll at leisure. But more serious walkers should take a hike along one of three ecological walking itineraries designed to spread out the historic center’s burdensome tourist crowd. Firenze Greenway’s trio "green ways" are themed (architecture, landscape, characters) and interactive, and take in parks, gardens, out-of-town Medici villas (free admission) and other off-beat sights you wouldn’t otherwise find.
Mountains more free walking and biking routes can be found with Feel Florence, the city’s green tourism hub recently created to ease the tourist burden on honeypot Florence and encourage visitors to dip into the unexplored – often outside and free.
Florence’s rich calendar of festivals and cultural celebrations oozes free entertainment. One of the hottest dates is Easter Sunday’s spectacular Scoppio del Carro when white oxen pull a firework-filled wagon through town to Piazza del Duomo where a dove-shaped rocket sets the cart ablaze.
Summertime’s seasonal Estate Fiorentina ushers in four months of free open-air concerts, DJ sets, cinema screenings, literary salons, exhibitions at the hilltop Forte Belvedere (free admission) and pop-up cultural events city-wide. Check also the summer agenda of experimental arts center Manifattura Tabacchi. Spearheading the thrilling rejuvenation of Florence’s Belfiore suburb from its HQ in a 1930s cigarette factory, it hosts free concerts, aperitivi, gardening workshops, all sorts.
Lap up local life without spending a cent at the city’s smorgasbord of open-air markets – simply browsing stalls piled high with fresh produce, flowers, knock-off leather goods, antiques et al and observing the inevitable chaotic street scene is entertainment in itself. (And, should you be tempted to buy, know you’re in the right place to land yourself a good deal.)
Visitors gravitate to Mercato Nuovo and the street stalls around San Lorenzo’s Mercato Centrale for cheap leather, but we recommend the markets where Florentines shop for weekly supplies and gifts: Mercato Sant’Ambrogio for food, under the arches on Piazza della Repubblica for flowers on Thursday, antiques and flea market Mercato delle Pulci for a piece of old Tuscany, and Tuesday morning’s massive Mercato delle Cascine for pretty much everything but the kitchen sink.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.