Last updated 13 February 2021
It's no secret that Florence is one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations, and with good reason!
From Michelangelo to Brunelleschi, da Vinci to Machiavelli, this Tuscan city has played a pivotal role in shaping Western civilization as we know it. The culture alone will have you staying at least a week - but what about those practical considerations?
If you're visiting Florence for the first time and aren't sure where to stay, we can help. Here are some of our favorite neighborhoods in the city.
Let me start by acknowledging that there are two sides to the Santa Maria Novella neighbourhood- the north side near the train station, which isn't that nice, and the southern part which lies between the church of Santa Maria Novella and the river. For first-time visitors to Florence, I definitely recommend the southern side. If in doubt about where to stay, base yourself near the Piazza Santa Maria Novella, which is located between the cathedral and Ponte Vecchio (the main bridge).
The great thing about this area is its easy proximity to Florence's major attractions, while still being a charming and relatively quiet place to stay. If you stay near the Duomo, you’ll find yourself rushed off your feet whenever you leave the building. In Santa Maria Novella, you’ll have a much quieter experience, while still having everything you need at your doorstep.
From the piazza, you're within a 10-minute walk of the Uffizi Gallery and Ponte Vecchio and only five minutes from the Duomo. In Santa Maria Novella itself, you’ll find the beautiful church, as well as some hidden gems like the 600-year-old pharmacy, which still operates today.
It’s also a lovely neighbourhood, with tree-lined streets, cafes and a range of good hotels. It’s not the cheapest place to stay in Florence (head near the train station if you want a bargain), however accommodation is more affordable than right by the Duomo. There are a few boutique hotels between the piazza and the river. Overall, if you’re looking for a pretty neighbourhood in easy walking distance from the major attractions and good cafes and bars, this is a great choice.
Both San Lorenzo and San Marco are on the northern side of the old town, with convenient access to the major landmarks. While still relatively touristy, many locals live around in these places so staying here can give you a little taste of the local culture.
If you want to stay in a hostel, San Lorenzo is a good place to start, as there’s a variety on offer. Situated on the northern side of the tourist area, it’s also the home of the city’s major market, Mercato Centrale. As a result, San Lorenzo is not the quietest neighbourhood in Florence – the streets are lined with stalls and the leather market is in full swing. But there are a range of good restaurants and you can always find cheap and delicious food in the expansive Mercato Centrale.
San Marco is near the university, so there are lots of young people, cafes and cheap bars. It’s a great place to stay if you’re relatively young yourself and want to meet locals in Florence. There's also language schools and lots of exchange students, mostly from the US, so English is widely spoken and it's easy to hang out with English-speaking young people here. It’s also an easy walk to the Duomo with a range of art galleries and smaller museums close by. As a bonus, the Academia which displays Michelangelo’s David is in this area too. If you’re planning on seeing it, be sure to arrive early as the queue grows quickly!
East of the Duomo, Santa Croce gives you a taste of an Italian village right in the middle of Florence. While being incredibly close to the main attractions, there are markedly fewer tourists around here, meaning your stay will generally be a calmer and quieter. The nearby Mercato di Sant’Ambrogio is a must while you’re in the neighbourhood. It’s Florence’s second market with a range of fresh produce, artisan foods and the occasional crafts and is well worth a visit.
Piazza Santa Croce is a great place to people watch and stare at the remarkable Santa Croce Basilica. The piazza also comes alive at night, when many people gather here to chat and sip some wine. Santa Croce is also still a lively neighbourhood, with many good nightlife options. If you want to eat and party during your time in Florence, you’ll find some of best restaurants and bars right on your doorstep, often with a view. If you want some good food while avoiding the tourist traps, this is the place for you.
Once you’ve seen the sights in the centre of town, spend some time exploring this little piece of Florence. With historic tombs, the church filled with works by artists like Donatello and Giotti, and La Scuola di Cuoio, a renaissance workshop, there’s plenty to see and do in this area. And, if you’ve had enough of Renaissance art and history, you can always attend a football game at the nearby stadium.
On the other side of the Arno from the Duomo and the historical centre, you'll find the lovely neighbourhood of Santo Spirito (the wider neighbourhood is called Oltrarno). Filled with restaurants and cafes, there are squares for children to run around in and it's very close to a few very nice (and large) parks. This is one of the gathering places for people who live in Oltrarno and there’s a distinct local flavour here. It's also an easy walk across the bridge into the town centre to see the historical attractions, so not too hard with a pram or for little legs.
There’s a lot to see and do in the surrounding areas. The Boboli Gardens is really close by, with museums and palazzos for the adults with lots of green space up the hill. The Pitti Palace at the foot of the Boboli Gardens has a huge selection of Renaissance paintings and the Gallery of Modern Art is just across the road. Despite its relatively plain exterior, it’s also worth visiting the Basilica di Santo Spirito – inside you’ll find a Baroque alter and some incredible art. The Otrarno area was historically where artisans worked and there are still a lot of interesting little shops in the area.
Staying in Santa Spirito, you’ll get a more local experience of Florence, without people attempting to sell you things as you walk down the road. While it is a longer walk to some of the attractions, there’s lots to keep you busy and you don’t need to worry about losing small children in the crowds.
For a longer stay, I recommend the northern part of the old town, from Piazza di Santa Caterina D'Alessandria to Piazza della Libertà. This area is just inside the boundary of the old city walls, but outside of the major tourist centre. It's peaceful and quiet, while still being close to the tourist centre and an easy walk from most of the other neighbourhoods covered about in this post.
A well established part of Florence, many of the streets are lined with old palazzos which have been converted into apartments. We lived in one of these for a little while and loved the location. It's about a 10 minute walk to the cathedral, 20 minutes to the bridge and without the crush of tourists, with some nice restaurants and bars close by. We also got into the swing of Italian life, buying bread and pastries for a tiny bakery on the corner and downing espressos at the cafes. There's also a decent-sized supermarket in this part of town, which is good if you're staying a while and need more than the bare essentials. As well as the squares, there are a couple of local parks where you can relax in the sun with gelato.
If you want to venture slightly further afield, Le Cure is just outside of the old town. A lovely area with 19th Century architecture, it's a residential neighbourhood, chaotic with everyday Italian life, rather than tourism. The Piazza delle Cure is the centre of the neighbourhood (as piazze generally are) and can be quite busy with traffic. However it's also home to the local market and a good gelato shop. There's also a lovely park in this area if you need to escape the busyness of the city.