Are you looking for an affordable vacation in the amazingly beautiful city of Florence Italy? Look no further! Here’s my guide to the best free things to see and do in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance.
Florence is my favorite art cities in Europe. It’s an amazing place to wile away a long weekend taking in world class Renaissance art and the Medici palaces. Florence also makes a great base for day tripping throughout Tuscany.
That being said, Florence isn’t exactly inexpensive. There are so many things to see and do in Florence, for art and culture lovers. The museum fees can really mount up, cutting into your travel budget.
But, if you do more than scratch the surface, you’ll find that Florence has a fair number of perfectly free things to do outside the orbit of its pricey and illustrious treasure-houses.
Florence is essentially a living museum with art sprinkled everywhere. If you know where to look, you can have a more affordable Florence vacation.
Most significantly, many (but not all) of Florence’s churches and cloisters open their ornate doors for free. Inside, you’ll find some stellar Renaissance art and frescos, including works by such luminaries as Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghirlandaio.
It also costs nothing to wander in Florence’s piazzas and parks, where you’ll find even more art on display.
Florence’s Free Attractions: Best Free Things To See and Do In Florence
Let’s take a tour of Florence’s free wonders. Here’s my list of 21 free attractions in Florence where you can see amazing art and architecture without spending a dime. We’ll visit frescoed churches, majestic cathedrals, elegant palaces and piazzas, and intimate museums.
Some of these free attractions in Florence are well known sites. Others are secret spots and hidden gems in Florence that only locals may know. They should all be on your bucket list or itinerary for Florence, especially if you’re not a first time visitor to Florence.
1. Piazza del Duomo
The lively Piazza del Duomo is Florence’s cathedral square. It’s filled with glittering marble facades.
The piazza is home to the Duomo Complex — Florence Cathedral, the Baptistery, Giotto’s Bell Tower, and the Duomo Museum. Florence Cathedral is the most prominent landmark in Florence. It’s nicknamed the Duomo and dominated by Fillipo Brunelleschi’s iconic dome.
The Duomo is elegantly “frosted” on the outside with pink and green marble. You can enter the interior for free. (There’s a fee to climb the dome.) It’s a bit austere inside.
But you can admire the stained glass windows designed by masters such as Donatello. And Paolo Uccello’s colossal painted clock face with frescos of four prophets.
You can also see the copies of Ghiberti’s famous doors, including the Gates of Paradise, on the outside of the Baptistery. The originals are in the Duomo Museum.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
2. Piazza Santa Croce
For another amazing free thing to do in Florence, head to the Piazza Santa Croce. It’s worth it just to see the facade of the gorgeous Basilica of Santa Croce.
Santa Croce has one of the greatest assemblages of paintings, sculptures, and funereal tombs in existence. It’s the world’s largest Franciscan church, home to celebrity tombs, Giotto frescos, and Donatello sculptures.
It’s 6 euros for access to the entire Santa Croce complex — the basilica, the museum, the cloisters, and the Pazzi Chapel. But, if you’re on a budget, you can still see a lot just from the exterior.
Originally, like the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Santa Croce had a rough hewn stone exterior. In 1857, the architect Niccolo Matas was commissioned to create the beautiful neo-Gothic facade.
Like the Duomo, it features pink, green, and red marble polychrome panels contrasted with polished white stone. To the left, stands the statue of Dante Alighieri, the famed Italian poet who wrote the The Divine Comedy.
The rest of the lively square has beautiful buildings, palaces, cafes, and shops. One of the square’s more interesting buildings is the Palazzo Cocchi-Serristori.
It’s a 16th century Renaissance Palace with an elegant facade, designed by Lorenzo the Magnificent’s favorite architect, Giuliano da Sangallo. The Leather School of Santa Croce is also nearby. In winter, there’s a Christmas market in the piazza.
Address: Piazza Santa Croce
3. Santo Spirito Church
Santo Spirito is Brunelleschi’s second church in Florence, after the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It’s a hidden gem, sitting in a shabby chic piazza in the trendy Oltrarno district. If you’re hungry when you arrive there, stop in at Gustapanino for a panini.
Built in 1440, the church is a pivotal work of the early Renaissance. Brunelleschi was one of the first architects to use perspective and geometry. He broke away from outdated medieval church styles.
Brunelleschi thought beauty resided in harmony and mathematical perfection. He was inspired by the classicism of ancient Rome. He created an unassuming exterior and a rather severe interior. Brunelleschi used a latin cross (like a small t) floorpan.
The main altar, an out of place Baroque affair, is at the center of the crossing square. Three sides of Santo Spirito have a continuous succession of 40 identical semi-circular chapels. The massive pietra forte Corinthian columns give the church a monumentality.
Santo Spirito houses a wooden crucifix attributed to Michelangelo. It was carved when the sculptor was only 17.
It’s been restored and now hangs 22 meters high in the sacristy. There are also some notable frescos in the Bini-Capponi Chapel. And art lovers should inspect Domenico di Zanobi’s Maddona of the Relief in the Velutti Chapel.
Address: Piazza Santa Spirito 30
4. Orsanmichele Church
Orsanmichele is a well preserved and important 15th century Florentine church with an exuberant Gothic facade. It’s eccentric looking. Orsanmichele rises up like a three story brown rectangle.
But the church-museum is vastly underrated. It’s a veritable treasure trove of International Gothic and Renaissance sculpture.
Orsanmichele is a sort of street view museum. Orsanmichele was originally Florence’s central grain market. It was converted into a church in 1380.
The facade has 14 niches or tabernacles. Each one houses a statue created by the best artists of the time, including Donatello and Ghiberti.
The exterior sculptures are now copies. The monumental originals in the Orsanmichele Museum on the top floor of the church (open for free only on Mondays). Inside, the church has a spectacular bejeweled Gothic Tabernacle altar, with the painting Madonna della Grazie.
Address: Via dell’Arte della Lana
5. San Lorenzo Market
Fancy some shopping? Head to the San Lorenzo Market, which is open 9:00 am to 7:00 pm Tuesday to Saturday. This free market runs from the Basilica of San Lorenzo down the Via Ariento to the Via Nazionale.
There are two separate markets. The Central Market is a two level food hall. Meat and fish are sold on the first level, leaving a pungent smell in the air. Fruit and vegetables, along with trendy gourmet shops and eateries, are on the second level.
The other part of the San Lorenzo Market is an open air outdoor market with a plethora of stalls. The vendors sell leather goods, clothing, souvenirs, etc.
Address: Piazza del Mercato Centrale
6. Stroll Across the Ponte Vecchio
Dating from 1345, the Ponte Vecchio, or “old bridge,” is Florence’s only bridge to survive WWII. The Nazis destroyed all Florence’s other bridges. The only reason Ponte Vecchio escaped unscathed is that Hitler had a soft spot for the bridge. Instead of destroying it, he destroyed the buildings at both ends.
The romantic Ponte Vecchio looks like a jumble of houses suspended over the Arno River. It has three arches topped with a mishmash of charming shops. In an urban setting, space was at a premium, so the bridge became a sort of mall for Florentine citizens.
Originally, the Ponte Vecchio housed unglamorous butcher shops. But the Medici didn’t like escorting their aristocratic guests and diplomats over the bridge with the wafting stench.
So they swamped the butchers for goldsmiths. Today, you’ll find tony shops selling upscale leather goods, jewelry, and antiques.
7. Sculptures of the Piazza della Signoria
The piazza is a large L shaped space that’s the center of Florentine life and politics. it’s a meeting spot buzzing with activity. Many beautiful sculptures by Italy’s greatest Renaissance artists are on display .
Each statue in the Piazza della Signoria represents a different chapter in Florence’s long history. The statues tell stories of murder, rape, religion, mythology, and key moments in art history.
You’ll find a 19th century copy of Michelangelo’s David, Donatello’s Marzocco and Judith and Holofernes, Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Cosimo I, and the Ammannati’s giant Neptune Fountain. These are museum quality pieces that you can see for free.
Address: Piazza della Signoria
8. Sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanza
At the south end of the Piazza della Signoria is the Loggia dei Lanza. It’s a beautiful airy arched gallery built in the 14th century. It adjoins the famed Uffizi Gallery.
Originally, the loggia was used to host public meetings and hold ceremonies. Later, it was transformed into an outdoor sculpture gallery.
The most notable sculptures in the loggia are Cellini’s sublime Perseus and Giambologna’s complex spiraling Rape of the Sabine. The latter is Giambologna’s defining masterpiece. It likely is the most famous Mannerist (late Renaissance) sculpture in existence.
The two statues are originals. Hopefully, they will be moved into the Bargello Museum soon, before irreparable damage from the elements sets in.
Address: Piazza della Signoria
9. The Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno in Sant’Appollonia
If you don’t want to wait in line to see Michelangelo’s David, just a few steps away is one of the finest and best preserved Last Supper depictions in art history. It’s also one of the world’s only true masterpieces that can be seen for free.
The creator, Andrea del Castagno, was part of the second generation of the early Renaissance period. As a painter, he was inspired by sculpture, particularly by the work of Donatello.
Castagno’s giant gem of a fresco is in the Convent of Sant’Appolonia, a former nunnery. It’s a free museum, funded by the Italian state, at least for now. When you walk through the unassuming door, you leave your signature with the custodian.
Castagno’s fresco covers an entire wall in the convent’s refectory or dining hall. Last Supper paintings appear almost exclusively in the dining rooms of friars and nuns. Unlike like Leonardo’s famous The Last Supper in Milan. Castagno’s Last Supper is incredibly well preserved.
It’s a fairly traditional rendering of the Last Supper. But Castagno uses linear perspective. The protagonist (Jesus) and the antagonist (Judas) take center stage.
The betrayer Judas (no halo) is banished to the spectator’s side of the table. The rest of the apostles are identified by name on the plinth at their feet.
Above the fresco, to complete the tableaux, you’ll see Castagno’s Crucifixion, Deposition, and Entombment. Unfortunately, these paintings aren’t well preserved.
The upper part of the wall is exposed on its outer side, so centuries of weathering damaged the frescos. In contrast, The Last Supper was backed by another building and hence survived.
Address: Via Ventisette Aprile 1
10. Ghirlandaio Frescos in the Basilica of Santa Trinita
The Romanesque Church of Santa Trinita was founded as early as 1177. Renovated many times, it’s now gussied up with a 16th century Baroque facade. Santa Trinita is a hidden gem in Florence, off the main tourist circuit. It’s overshadowed by the surfeit of more famous churches in Florence.
But it’s well worth a visit. Inside, in the Sassetti Chapel in the right transept, you’ll find Early Renaissance frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio was one of the preeminent artists of the Early Renaissance and an early mentor of Michelangelo. You’ll need some euros to light up the paintings (box is on the left wall).
In the Life of St. Francis, Ghirlandaio paints portraits of then-famous Florentine luminaries and power brokers against the backdrop of the city. Ghirlandaio also makes an appearance, painting himself as a shepard on the altarpiece.
In Francis Receiving the Order from Pope Hornorius, you can see vignettes from the Piazza della Signoria and the Loggia dei Lanza. It also features portraits of Lorenzo the Magnificent (on the right with black hair) and his family.
Santa Trinita actually has 20 chapels. Aside from Ghirlandaio, there are works by Lorenzo Monaco and Neri di Bicci. After you’ve admired the frescos, head to the Ponte Santa Trinita. This is the best place to snap your photos of the Ponte Vecchio.
Address: Piazza di Santa Trinita
11. San Miniato al Monte Church
The beautiful and well preserved Church of San Miniato al Monte is Florence’s crowning glory. It’s perched even higher and with a better view than the Piazzale Michelangelo lookout point.
Building began in 1018. Like Florence’s Baptistry, the church is over 1000 years old. The pretty marble-clad church is absolutely free to visit.
The church takes its name from Minias, an Armenian prince who was Florence’s first martyr. Legend holds that Minias picked up his decapitated head and flew over the Arno to the church site. San Miniato Church is dedicated to the saint.
San Miniato has Florence’s emblematic white and green marble facade. It’s a harmonious piece of Tuscan Romanesque architecture, a very unique building in Florence.
When you walk through the turquoise doors, you’re greeted by a spectacular interior. Every inch of the church is covered in mosaics, gold leaf, or geometric patterns.
There’s a spectacular mosaic decorating the half dome in the apse. The marble floor is decorated with zodiac signs.
Address: Via delle Porte Sante 34
12. Sunset From the Piazzale Michelangelo
When you’re done admiring the pretty San Miniato, head down to the Piazzale Michelangelo. Piazzale Michelangelo is one of Florence’s best viewing points. You can see a postcard worthy view of the entire cityscape of Florence.
Like the Piazza della Signoria, the square has a monumental copy of Michelangelo’s David, delivered by nine pairs of oxen in 1873. It points directly to David’s original location in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Piazzale Michelangelo isn’t ancient. In fact, it’s a fairly recent addition, designed by Giuseppe Poggi.
It was built in 1869 as part of the redevelopment of Florence. In addition to the David, there are bronze copies of the four allegories from the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo.
Address: Piazzale Michelangelo
13. Bardini Gardens
But are virtually unknown. Hence, the gardens are much less crowded if you have tourist phobia. They’re open from 8:00 am to 7:00 pm daily.
The scenic gardens belonged to the Mozzi family in the 13th century. The Bardini Villa and gardens were acquired by famous art dealer Stefano Bardini in the early 20th century. They opened to the public in 2005, after a massive restoration.
With the climb, the Bardini Gardens contains acres of olive trees, cypress trees, gardens, canals, and fruit orchards. It’s the perfect serene environment to take a relaxing stroll, soothe your soul, or read a book on Renaissance art.
The gardens’ most famous spot is the whimsical Wisteria Tunnel, a fantasia of purple flowers. If you go to the Bardini Gardens in mid-April/May, the flowers will be in peak bloom.
Legend holds that Marco Polo brought the wisteria from China in the 17th century. There are also lovely azaleas, irises, and roses.
The Bardini Gardens also boasts another one of the best viewing spots in Florence. For a panoramic view of the Florentine cityscape, take the Baroque stairway up to the Belvedere Terrace. Click here to take a Google Street View tour of the Bardini Gardens.
Address: Costa S. Giorgio 2
14. Stibbert Museum Garden
Next to the Stibbert Museum (which charges an 8 euro fee), you’ll find the Stibbert Garden. It’s a romantic English style garden with quirky architectural elements.
The garden is filled with caves, temples, and fountains. You could stop here as part of a day trip from Florence to nearby Fiesole.
There are two ponds with a variety of aquatic life. Apart from admiring the flora and fauna, there are two temples.
One is a Hellenistic temple. The other is an Egyptian Temple, built by Stibbert himself between 1862-64. Both temples recall the 19th century taste for antiquities.
Address: Via Frederico Stibbert 26
15. Strozzi Palace
The Strozzi Palace looks like a small rectangular fortress. It’s very symmetrical, with a stone facade that changes from rough hewn (on the bottom) to refined (at the top), much like Florence’s Medici-Riccardi Palace. The interior courtyard is impressive, surrounded by an arched stone arcade.
The palace remained in the hands of the Strozzi family until 1937. Now, it’s Florence’s largest space for contemporary art exhibitions.
If you want to see well-displayed art, this is your place. Every Thursday evening from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm, you have free entry to the Exhibition of Contemporary Art.
Address: Piazza degli Strozzi
16. The Chiostro dello Scalzo
The little known Cloister of the Scalzo is a meditative space in Florence just around the corner from San Marco Monastery. It’s a blissfully empty space without the cacophony of crowds at Florence’s usual hotspots. This small hidden gem isn’t always open, so check the website for official hours.
The cloister itself was designed by the celebrated architect Giuliano da Sangallo. Amid the elegant architecture are the beautiful frescos by the High Renaissance and Mannerist painter Andrea del Sarto.
Del Sarto was known as the “faultless painter,” according to his friend and fellow painter Fraciabigio. Michelangelo was a del Sarto fanboy and del Sarto went on to teach Giorgio Vasari.
The frescoes are in monochromatic pigments, called the grisaille, style. It focuses the viewer’s attention on the beautiful drawing techniques employed.
They depict twelve scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist and the four allegories of Charity, Hope, Justice and Faith. The frescos were painted at various times from 1509-1526. Sarto’s style is marked by a sophisticated informality and natural expression of emotion.
Address: Via Cavour 69
17. Votive Cloister in Santissima Annunziata
The Votive Cloister, or the Cloister of the Vows, is in the Michelozzo-enlarged Basilica of of Santissima Annunziata. The free-to-visit cloister is decorated with some of Florence’s finest Mannerist frescos.
A recent 5 year restoration reinstated them to their former vibrancy. The frescos were painted by, among others, Andrea del Sarto (Procession of the Magi), Pontormo (The Visitation), and Fiorentino (Assumption of the Virgin Mary).
The rest of the church interior is decorated in an unrestrained over the top Baroque style. In a flamboyant side chapel, there’s a painting of the Annunciation that’s thought to be miraculous.
The friar-artist was having difficulty completing the Madonna’s face. After a nap, he awoke to found it beautifully completed. The painting went on to become an object of cult worship, helping to transform the tiny church into a grand basilica.
Outside the church in the spectacular Piazza Annunziata, you’ll find the final work of the sculptor Giambologna. It’s an equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I.
Address: Piazza della Santissima Annunziata
18. Santa Maria Novella Old Pharmacy
While there’s a fee to enter the beautiful Church of Santa Maria Novella, you can visit the ancient pharmacy in a chapel right next door. Founded in 1221, its official name is the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
It’s the world’s oldest apothecary still in operation. And it’s housed in a stunning building with vaulted ceilings, frescos, and ornate gilding and stucco.
In this ancient place, Dominican monks once slaved over herbal remedies and potions in the 13th century. They doused themselves in blended vinegar to protect them from the plague. In the 16th century, Catherine de’ Medici brought the pharmacy’s perfume, Eau de la Reine, to her French court.
Today, the pharmacy is a luxury store hawking beauty products with a cult following. Its products are handmade using Old World techniques. There’s also a small museum where you can view antique pharmaceutical instruments and pottery.
Address: Via della Scala 16
19. Buonomini di San Martino
This 700 year old church is an important medieval complex. The church, which can be visited for free, was known for the Confraternity of the Buonomini di San Martino. Buonomini literally translates as “good men.” A confraternity was an association of lay people who gathered together to pray and do charitable works.
Saint Martin of Tours is the saint most often associated with charity. Legend holds that he divided his cloak in two to share it with a beggar.
In the Buonomini’s oratory, the saint is represented in 2 frescoed lunettes, while 8 other lunettes represent the various works and good deeds of other charitable Buonomini men.
The lunettes were painted by an unknown artist in the school of Domenico Ghirlandaio in the early 1480s. They are similar style to, to the frescoes in the high chapel of Santa Maria Novella (which isn’t free).
Address: Piazza San Martino (off Via Dante Alighieri)
20. Church and Museum of Saint Salvatore of Ognissanti
Near the Arno River is one of the most fabulous churches in all of Florence —Ognissanti. The church and the convent were decorated by the greatest Florentine masters of the times: Giotto, Botticelli, and Ghirlandaio.
The church was built in the 13th century. But later completely remodeled in the 17th century in a Baroque style. Botticelli is buried here, along with his muse, Simonetta Vespucci.
There is some top notch art work for free viewing in the church. The church originally Giotto’s famous Ognissanti Madonna and Child Enthroned.
But that painting was moved to the Uffizi Gallery. You can still find Botticelli’s beautiful St. Augustine in His Study and Ghirlandaio’s St. Jerome and His Study, Madonna della Misericordia, and Lamentation.
Founded in 1251, Ognissanti was part of a monastery that, initially, was open to men and women. The monastery was devoted to evangelical perfection, modesty, and manual labor. During Cosimo I’s reign, Franciscans took over the monastery in the 16th century.
The monastery was permanently closed in1866. Today, it’s a museum. Y
ou can visit the cloisters, the chapter house, and the refectory. The museum’s claim to fame is Ghirlandaio’s fresco of The Last Supper on the back wall of the refectory. You can only see it or four hours (9:00 am to 1:00 pm) on Mondays and Saturdays
Address: Borgo Ognissanti 42
21. Free Sundays
Florences state museums are open to visitors for free on the first Sunday of the month during low season between October and March. Despite it being low season, the lines can still be long.
There are other free days as well, set by the individual museums themselves. Click here to see the list of state museums openings. It’s a fantastic opportunity, if you’re traveling on a budget.
If you have dollars to spare, here are my guides to the must see attractions and museums in Florence that charge admission:
If you’d like to visit Florence on a budget, pin it for later.