Overlooking the City
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On any Western Mediterranean itinerary, Florence is an absolute highlight -- the gem of the early Italian Renaissance. In the 15th century, when great artists like Giotto, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo worked there, they created magnificent examples of painting and sculpture that today still fill Florentine churches, civic buildings, grand palazzi and eventually world-class museums such as the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia. Architecture prospered in Florence, too -- indeed the city's signature work of art is the masterful Brunelleschi-designed dome of its cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo.
No question -- Forence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. However, for cruise travelers with just one precious day on a six-hour port of call, it's impossible to see it all.
We should note that, as lovely as Florence's famous River Arno is, it's nowhere near big enough (and its bridges are far too low) to allow any kind of ship inside the heart of the city -- and here we include low-slung river vessels along with more traditional cruise ships. As such, it can be confusing to see a cruise itinerary that calls in Florence when ships actually dock at the huge commercial port of Livorno, a good hour-plus drive from the Renaissance City.
Indeed, the charmless city of Livorno (it was badly bombed during World War II) serves as a jumping-off point for day trips elsewhere. And while Florence is no doubt the richest destination of all, Livorno's north Tuscan locale means that other cities -- Pisa, with its famous leaning tower; the walled city of Lucca; and San Gimignano, with 14 of its medieval towers still intact -- are also options.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Sardinia • Sete • Seville • Sorrento • St. Tropez • Taormina • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Leather goods -- jackets, belts, wallets, even key fobs and waste baskets -- are all over the city, with a particularly good selection at the "leather school," which is tucked behind the Church of Santa Croce. Prices can vary, with the highest prices in the area around the Duomo. A caution: Leather jackets purchased there may be beautiful, but stick with classic styles. What's appealing in the Mediterranean sunlight can sometimes look a little "off" back home. High-end Italian designer fashions are also available, though at high prices. But the most uniquely Florentine options are the many varieties of hand-marbled paper.
At least basic English is spoken in most tourist spots, but phrase books can come in handy.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro. There are plenty of ATM machines and exchange bureaus in town.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in the city of Livorno's commercial port.
There's absolutely no reason to -- it's a working cargo port with no services.
Getting To Florence: If traffic isn't a huge factor, it takes about an hour and 15 minutes to drive to Florence from Livorno. Taxis line up outside the ship; we were quoted a one-way price of 160 euros (your best bet is to negotiate a round-trip fare so the driver will wait around for you). Taxi drivers will also happily offer daylong tours of Florence and Pisa. However, Florence is a small city, and the traffic can get clogged. With a map, though, it's not difficult to find your way around. For more info, visit www.tuscanybytaxi.it.
Otherwise, ships typically provide shuttles to Livorno's Piazza Grande; the train station is then a 15-minute cab ride away. Getting to Florence by train takes about an hour and a half, and there are several "early morning" departures. Trains return to Livorno from Florence's Santa Maria Novella Station -- check the train schedule just prior to your cruise. One-way fares cost about 8.50 euros (first class) or 5.50 euros (second class). Info: www.fs-on-line.com.
Most cruise ships offer "shuttle service" (one motorcoach to and from Florence) for those who want to travel independently. Because of the distance and the likelihood of traffic problems, we've found these to be a good deal (plus, on our recent "shuttle" on a Crystal cruise a guide accompanied our ride -- and was most helpful in offering recommendations).
Hertz and Avis offer outposts there -- reservations are highly recommended -- though each sets up a table at the dock. One warning: Driving can be challenging, and even though they advertise that it's easy to park in Florence, that's simply not true. Unless you're planning to visit other Tuscan spots, such as Lucca or San Gimignano, we'd recommend using your ship's motorcoach transportation.
Getting Around In Florence: Florence is a walker's town. Its historic areas are compactly laid out, but be careful. Its drivers (from waspish Vespas to cars) are not necessarily welcoming to pedestrians!
Watch Out For
Just as you would in any town heavily populated by tourists, beware of pickpocketing and petty theft (and Vespa-snatching thieves). Depending on the time of year, shops tend to close from 1 to 3:30 p.m. for lunch. Beware of traffic, particularly motor scooters, which often are driven at high speeds by drivers careless of pedestrians. And, before booking your cruise, make sure the ship's call at Florence is not on a Monday, when major museums and galleries are closed.
Florence is home to many Renaissance masterpieces. One of the world's best-known statues, Michelangelo's David, is the stunning (and colossal) high point of a visit to the Accademia (Via Ricasoli 60, closed Monday; open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:15 a.m. to 6:50 p.m.), where art-lovers will find much else to admire, as well. A short walk away, a spectacular collection of paintings and murals by the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico can be found at the museum (and former convent) next to the church of San Marco.
The city's Gothic-era Duomo (Monday through Wednesday and Friday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Sunday from 1:30 to 5 p.m.), also known as the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, is one of the world's largest. Entrance to the church is free (expect a long line), but visitors with limited time can buy tickets at the Museo del Duomo behind the church to ascend the dome's 463 steps for a fantastic view of the city and the neighboring countryside. Views from the terrace of the dome (about halfway up the climb) are equally dramatic. Less energetic tourists can see much of the same view from the rooftop bar and coffeeshop of the fashionable department store La Rinascente (2, Piazza della Republica).
The church of San Lorenzo, in the city's main market district, houses tombs of the Medici family, as well as the tomb of Donatello. The church is part of a complex that includes Michelangelo's magnificent Laurentian Library and the stunning stairs leading up to it.
The Uffizi Gallery (www.uffizi.org) houses one of the greatest collections of mostly Italian paintings in the world, including Botticelli's famous Birth of Venus and exquisite 13th- and 14th-century paintings, as well as works by Rubens and Rembrandt. Flights of stairs lead to the galleries, but if climbing them is a problem, ask for directions to the elevator. Because visitors are limited in number, it's a good idea to secure reservations in advance, a process that is easy to do online.
You've also got to see Ponte Vecchio, the most famous bridge in Florence; this one's lined with tourist-oriented shops selling mostly jewelry. It's also a great way to head over to Florence's "Left Bank" -- otherwise known as the Oltrano. Here you'll find Pitti Palace (Piazza Pitti), home to multiple attractions including: the Galleria Palatina (open Tuesday - Sunday 8:15 a.m. - 6:50 p.m.), known for its collection of Raphaels; and Boboli Gardens (Tuesday - Sunday 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m., open sporadically on Monday) which is a gorgeous landscaped park/garden, with a cafe within the grounds.
Been There, Done That
Pisa, home of the infamous Leaning Tower, is a delightful Tuscan city that's also on the Arno River -- and the closest tourist spot to Livorno.
For designer shoppers, the relatively new Firenze Outlet, about 30 minutes south of Florence, is absolutely fabulous. The sleek, outdoor shopping area, incongruously located in the heart of the Chianti wine region, features shops such as La Perla, Salvatore Ferragamo, Valentino, Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Emanuel Ungaro, Fendi, Burberry, Gucci, Frette and Tod's -- among others. The whole facility is much more elegant than those in the U.S. (there's a swanky wine bar and cafe on site), and discounts can be as much as 50 percent.There is shuttle service available from Florence; call the Information Centre at 011-39-055-865-7775 for details. We recommend renting a car; take the A1 motorway towards Florence, pass the city and take the exit marked Incisa, then follow the signs. The main area of exclusive boutique shops in Florence can be found on and around Via de' Tornabuoni (with shops like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, among others) and Via della Vigna Nuova. For antiques and funky artisan crafts, head for Borgo Ognissanti and the Via Maggio, in the Oltrarno neighborhood (the other side of Ponte Vecchio, toward Palazzo Pitti). And, of course, jewelry options abound on the famous bridge of the Ponte Vecchio.
For serious Prada fans, the Prada Outlet is as famous for being hard to find as for the great deals you can discover. It's located in Montevarchi (also south of Florence); call 011-39-055-91-901 for directions.
Lucca is one of the most beguiling undiscovered treasures of Tuscany. This medieval walled city dates back to the time of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and later embraced the Renaissance era. Major sights to see include the Romanesque-styled Duomo, built in the 13th century; the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi; and the San Michele in Foro, with its bustling, fabulously atmospheric piazza. We have to admit, though, that our favorite activities in Lucca include simply poking around the narrow streets, investigating gorgeous gardens, and shopping with locals and tourists alike. Active types can rent a bike and cycle atop the Passeggiata della Mura, the ring of ramparts that enclose the walled city. We also love sipping Lucchesian wine at a sidewalk cafe, and lunching at Osteria del Neni.
Beach aficionados should head to the Ligurian resort town of Forte dei Marmi, the area's most elite summer resort town. It's also got designer shopping and a whole raft of restaurants along the beachfront. While there, visit the nearby town of Pietrasanta, a hub for artists and sculptors and a simply lovely small Italian town; we had a memorable nouvelle Italian lunch at Con Che (Via del Marzocco, 82). And just a note: These villages lie between the Mediterranean Sea and the Apuan Alps, and the white expanse you see near some craggy peaks is not snow -- it's marble. These mountains are the source of much of the marble gracing some of Italy's greatest monuments. Indeed, Michelangelo sourced his from nearby Carrara.
People generally go to Florence for the art and architecture, rather than the food (apart from the bistecca alla Fiorentina, a thick and delicious cut of beef from local cattle). But, there are some lovely restaurants like La Posta (near the Post Office, Via De'Lamberti, 20/r. Phone and fax: 055 212701). Reliable trattorias also abound, usually with menus posted outside. A friendly one, featuring Tuscan specialties, is Osteria del Caffe Italiano near Santa Croce (Via Isola delle Stinche, 11/13r, telephone 055 289368).
Right near the Ponte Vecchio, Trattoria Ponte Vecchio (Lungarno Archibusieri 8) is delightful and a great value. We also love Camillo Trattoria on the Borge San Jacopo 57 in Oltrarno. (It's convenient after a visit to the Boboli Gardens and the Palazzo Pitti.)
Beyond the most heavily touristed piazzas, it really is hard to go wrong in Florence.
Staying in Touch
Internet Train has a number of cyber-centers throughout Florence; among them are the Stationze Central (Piazza Stazione 14/38) and the Astor Caffee (Piazza Duomo 20).
Editor's Note: Due to an anti-terrorism law passed in Italy in 2005, all passengers wishing to use the internet in a public facility must present an internationally recognized document (or a passport) to the establishment providing public communication services.
First-timers should definitely take their ships' sponsored Florence Highlights tour for a great introduction to the city.
Typically, tours are also offered for Pisa, Lucca and San Gimignano.
For More Information
On the Web: www.firenze.turismo.toscana.it
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
The Independent Traveler: Italy Exchange
All images except "Overlooking the City" appear courtesy of the Italian Government Tourist Board. "Overlooking the City" photo appears courtesy of Carolyn Spencer Brown.