How to Save Money and Avoid Crowds in Florence

view of florence from san miniato, tuscany, italy

A trip to Florence doesn't have to involve breaking a budget or battling crowds. Read how to enjoy the city's artistic wonders in peace while also saving money. 

Florence is home to some of the world’s greatest artistic and historical treasures. Yet high ticket prices and hordes of tourists can prevent even the most seasoned traveler from fully appreciating what the city has to offer. Fortunately, you don’t have to abandon your budget nor spend all your time surrounded by tour groups while there. Here are four activities to do in Florence that avoid crowds and save you money.

TOUR THE CITY AT NIGHT

Florence’s usually-crammed streets and piazzas are largely free of tourists at night, making this the perfect time to admire its famous sites—especially in the summer months, when the days can be uncomfortably hot. I recommend looping between Ponte Vecchio, Piazza Santa Croce, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, Piazza del Duomo, Orsanmichele, and Piazza della Signoria. The last two sites are personal favorites worth elaborating on.

Located on Via Calzaiuoli, the thoroughfare connecting Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria, the exterior of the church of Orsanmichele is decorated with statues by some of the most important fourteenth-century artists.* Of particular interest are Donatello’s St. George (southeast corner of the building—note the fine marble relief at his feet), Ghiberti’s St. John the Baptist (left side of front facade), and Verrocchio’s Doubting Thomas (center of front facade).

*The statues on display are modern copies of the originals, which are now distributed throughout Florentine museums.

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Base relief from Donatello's St. George. Orsanmichele, Florence. CC by 2.5--photo by Sailko.

About 100 yards away is Piazza della Signoria, the historic center of Florentine public life. Looming over the L-shaped square is the Palazzo Vecchio. Having served as the headquarters of the Florentine Republic during the Renaissance, it is now the town hall. A nineteenth-century copy of Michelangelo’s David stands in front of the Palazzo’s entrance, where the original once was. To the left is Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, also a copy. Girolamo Savonarola—the fifteenth-century friar whose fanatical preachings against secular art an culture inspired the famed Bonfire of the Vanities, during which countless artistic masterpieces from the Renaissance and Middle Ages were destroyed—was once imprisoned in the palazzo’s tower, only to be burned alive later in the piazza below (look for the metal disk in the pavement marking the spot).

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Palazzo Vecchio at night. Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

On the southern side of the piazza is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open-air, arched space filled with ancient and Renaissance sculptures. Two statues worth noting are Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa and Gianbologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, positioned under the left-most and right-most arches, respectively.

Note on nighttime safety: Florence is very safe for tourists, especially when compared to cities of similar size. Violent crime is almost unheard of, with the vast majority of offenses being petty theft. To minimize risks, stick to main streets and don’t remain out after bar time (2 AM).

DISCOVER THE SASSETTI CHAPEL

Located in the church of Santa Trinità on Via Tournabouni, the Sassetti Chapel (Capella Sassetti) is one of Florence’s most under-appreciated artistic achievements. Admission to the church is free, and there are few visitors.

The chapel is to the right of the church’s altar. It houses the tombs of the wealthy banker Francesco Sassetti, and his wife, Nora Corsi. Between 1482 and 1485 the famed Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio decorated its walls with a series of frescoes depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Ghirlandaio used contemporary cityscapes and people to fill many of the scenes. For example, in The Confirmation of the Rule—located on the upper back wall—one can clearly see the Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi in the background, while both Lorenzo de’ Medici (at the head of the stairs) and the future Pope Leo X (climbing the stairs) can be found in the foreground. In the scene directly below is a view of Piazza Santa Trinità from the fourteenth century, which you can compare to the current space after your visit.

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Fresco of The Confirmation of the Rule by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinità, Florence.

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The Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinità, Florence.

The chapel’s altarpiece is another work by Ghirlandaio—The Adoration of the Shepherds. Inspired by the Flemish paintings brought back by Florentine bankers working abroad, the panel is famed for its attention to detail—with every object having a symbolic meaning—and its fine portraiture. It is flanked by kneeling donor portraits of Francesco and Nora, also by Ghirlandaio. Their tombs, sculpted by Giuliano da Sangallo, rest opposite each other in the side walls.

Santa Trinità is open Monday through Saturday from 8 AM-12 PM and 4-6 PM, and on Sundays and holidays from 8-0:45 AM and 4-6 PM. I recommend bringing change for the chapel’s coin-operated lights.

ESCAPE TO PIAZZA SANTO SPIRITO

Piazza Santo Spirito is the perfect place to escape to for an inexpensive dinner, an evening drink, or some highly-entertaining people watching. Located on the southern side of the Arno, just ten minutes from the Palazzo Vecchio, feels more like Williamsburg than Florence.

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View of Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence. CC by-SA 4.0--photo by Lorenzo Testa.

The piazza is a rectangular space lined with coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and the eponymous church of Santo Spirito. The surrounding area is residential, and there are few hotels nearby. Most of the people one sees are local.

Piazza Santo Spirito has a well-deserved reputation for being the hipster part of Florence (as much as that is possible in a country as traditional as Italy). The shops are quirky and the crowd is very alternative. Observe how the people there dress—often wearing brightly-colored vintage t-shirts, skinny jeans, and converse hi-tops—and compare it with the somber and conservative outfits worn by most Florentines.

For an inexpensive meal in a unique setting, stop by Volume. Located on the eastern side of the piazza, this wood shop turned coffee house/bar is incredibly eclectic. Board games, intricate wooden sculptures (remnants of the space’s past life), and a juke box decorate the interior. From 6:30-10 PM Volume provides customers with a budget-friendly dining alternative—the aperitivo. Simply pay for a cocktail, and enjoy a complementary plate of olives, bread, chips, and vegetables. Nearly Cabiria provides a more substantial aperitivo (think pasta, pizza, salad, and cuts of meat) in a less-eclectic environment from 7-9:30 PM. Both spots are incredibly popular, so arrive early.

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A misplaced glass at Cabiria, Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence.

Art lovers should not miss the church of Santo Spirito, located at the northern end of the piazza. It is based on plans from the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, who also designed the dome of Florence’s cathedral. While the exterior is rather austere, the interior is filled with an array of sculptures, frescoes, and panel paintings. Much of the original artwork remains in place, unlike most other Florentine churches, where museums and private collectors have taken their share.

A beautifully-sculpted wooden crucifix, attributed by some to Michelangelo, hangs in the sacristy. According to legend, a seventeen-year-old Michelangelo sculpted the wooden figure for the church’s leaders after they allowed him to study the anatomy of corpses from the adjacent hospital.

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A peaceful corner in the Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence.

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Michelangelo's Crucifix in the sacristy of Santo Spirito, Florence.

Entrance to church is free. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 AM-12:30 PM and 4-5:30 PM, and on Sundays and holidays from 11:30 AM-12:30 PM and 4-5:30 PM. It is closed to non-religious visits during mass and on Mondays. Check here for the most up-to-date hours.

REFLECT AT SAN MINIATO AL MONTE

Perched atop a hill overlooking Flonrece is the church of San Miniato al Monte—my favorite place in the city. The church was built between 1018 and 1207. It is named after Saint Minias, a third-century Roman solider who was beheaded outside the gates of Florence for being a Christian. According to legend, Minias’ decapitated body then picked up its own head and carried it to the spot the church now occupies.

Perched atop a hill overlooking Flonrece is the church of San Miniato al Monte—my favorite place in the city. The church was built between 1018 and 1207. It is named after Saint Minias, a third-century Roman solider who was beheaded outside the gates of Florence for being a Christian. According to legend, Minias’ decapitated body then picked up its own head and carried it to the spot the church now occupies.

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The marble-encrusted facade of San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

San Miniato is a stone structure decorated inside and out with multi-colored marble arranged in highly-detailed, geometric patterns. The ceiling is made of painted wood. Just below, rays of sunshine leak from thin windows, illuminating slivers of the floor and walls. A marble choir screen and pulpit, both of which are ornamented with intricate designs and small sculptures, divide the interior space in half. A golden mosaic of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Saint Minias covers the apse.

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Looking out on the Duomo from inside San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

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Light beams on the walls of San Miniato al Monte, Florence.

Below the choir is the crypt. It is a dark, forest of columns supporting a low, arched ceiling. The floor is made of marble tombstones, on which are written the dying wishes of the Florentines whose graves they cover. A few wooden benches line the space and another, smaller, choir is tucked into the back. Monks from the abutting monastery perform daily vespers here (at 5:30 PM in the summer or on Sundays, and at 4:30 PM in the winter) Listening to monks recite their daily prayers in a space time seems to have forgotten is a highlight of any trip to Florence. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Admission to the church is free. In the winter it is open from 7 AM to 1 PM and 3:30-7 PM, and in the summer it is open from 7AM-sunset. Check here for up-to-date times.

To the left of the church’s facade is a shop where you can buy honey, candles, and liquor, all of which is produced in the nearby monastery. Below this shop is a nineteenth-century cemetery housing a number of famous Italians, including Carlo Collodi, author of Pinocchio.

Standing with the church at your back, visitors are provided with the best view of Florence’s skyline (see cover image). There are never crowds, unlike at nearby Piazzale Michelangelo, so you can peacefully watch the sunset or take as many unobstructed photos as you like.

As you can see, a trip to Florence does not have to involve breaking a budget or battling crowds. Sites like San Miniato, Piazza Santo Spirito, and the Sassetti Chapel allow visitors to enjoy Florence’s artistic heritage in peace while also saving money.

Have you been to Florence? What was your experience like? Do you have any tips to save money and avoid crowds while traveling? Share in the comments below!

Top photo: CC by 2.0--photo by Yannboix.

2 Comments

  1. June 23, 2016 / 2:13 pm

    Wonderful recommendations! I agree, wholeheartedly. Nice photo of the Michelangelo in Santo Spirito. I was scolded by a security guard when I tried to take a photo! While you’re in the neighborhood, check out the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. If interested, I’ve written about it in my blog, http://www.dianadinverno.com/#!Face-of-the-Renaissance/rrfqp/571bfcb00cf2dd6f7fca3ee9. In my opinion, the views from San Miniato are the best in Florence.

    • Andrew Scott
      June 25, 2016 / 12:36 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Diana! Yes, I was fortunate to find that photo, as I too was unable to snap a good picture while there. :( The Brancacci Chapel is another incredibly-underrated site, which I’m shocked more people do not visit–especially considering how influential it was for many Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo. I will be sure to check out your blog.

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