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Mary Riddle headshot

Why You Should Travel Slowly Through Florence, Italy, and How to Do It

By Mary Riddle
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy. (Image: Jonathan Körner/Unsplash) 

Florence, the capital of Tuscany, has been a destination for art enthusiasts since the Renaissance. While the pandemic shuttered the tourism industry in Florence for more than a year, tourism has since bounced back, bringing with it both an economic boom and overwhelming crowds.

Overtourism is rife in Florence and regions throughout Italy. With a population close to 361,000 residents, Florence typically receives between 10 million and 16 million tourists each year. But with a bit of extra planning, travelers can experience the splendor of the region while also being conscious of their social and environmental impacts by touring in smaller groups, spending more time in one place and shopping locally.

Sustainable travel is small and slow

There is a reason Venice introduced entrance fees for travelers to the city who are not staying the night: Large groups that flood the city from cruise ships or bus tours for only a few hours before leaving for their next destination crowd out locals and leave behind a trail of litter and smog, without offering any meaningful economic benefit to the city. Crowds are infamous in Florence. Giant tour groups of 50 or more regularly take over entire city blocks at a time, and tour buses pollute the air as they idle along busy thoroughfares.

When it comes to tours, smaller is better. Florence boasts countless beautiful sites with fascinating histories, and there is no shortage of tours for curious travelers wanting to learn more. However, large group tours are notorious for disrupting the quality of life in cities, overwhelming the capacity of local businesses and restaurants and making it difficult for locals to go about their daily lives. 

When possible, opt for small group tours. Instead of aiming to see every historical site in Florence and the surrounding region, plan to stay in one area for longer. For those wanting to get outside of the city center, bike tours are a great way to see the region without adding to the traffic congestion. Florence by Bike offers bike tours in and around Florence for all skill levels and group sizes. 

Supporting Florentine artisans

Florence has been a home to artists and artisans for centuries, and no trip to Florence is complete without a visit to an artisan's workshop. While the Oltrarno neighborhood is famous for its artisan population, tourists should not skip the artisan shops in Sant’Ambrogio. For hand-built ceramics with motifs inspired by the Tuscan countryside, MudMoiselle is a must-see. Just down the street from MudMoiselle is the workshop of Cecilia Falciai, who specializes in “scagliola,” an Italian art form that utilizes inlaid handmade pigments to give a mosaic-like effect. 

Florence is famous for fashion. For a sustainable twist on Florentine couture, consider visiting Essère Atelier, where designer Ilaria Tolossi makes dresses, blouses, skirts, trousers, and more by hand from natural fabrics. Many of the fabrics she uses come from excess textiles that other clothing manufacturers and fashion houses would have thrown away. 

Enjoying the flavors of Florence

Eating at locally-owned restaurants for meals is a great way to support the local Florentine economy. For an authentic, high-quality meal, avoid restaurants directly adjacent to tourist sites where servers are standing outside with menus. Try Dalla Lola in the Oltrarno neighborhood for a taste of modern Tuscan cuisine. The menu changes regularly, but a recent lunch at Dalla Lola included fried tortellini with a cocoa-mayonnaise dip, gnocchi with caramelized onions in a miso sauce, and a tart citrus panna cotta served in a lemon peel. 

Gelato is another Florentine specialty, but tourists should be careful to avoid gelaterias that showcase mountains of gelato piled high at eye level. High-quality gelato melts quickly, so seek out gelaterias that keep their gelato under lids, or not heaped up over the level of the freezer. My Sugar makes its gelato flavors fresh daily, often featuring seasonal produce from a nearby market. They also utilize unexpected ingredients from other parts of the world, and their "sesamo nero," or black sesame, flavor is a particularly delicious example of a traditionally-crafted gelato inspired by global flavors. 

Finally, some of the best pizza in Tuscany can be found in Fiesole, a small town overlooking the city of Florence and a quick bus ride from the city center. Buca delle Fate utilizes fresh, often organic ingredients. And the owner, originally hailing from Calabria, also enjoys featuring spicy Calabrese sausages and hot oils on the pizzas. A recent option included a pizza with truffle sauce and fresh arugula. The pizza chef is always happy to make pizzas in a heart shape to delight any young children in attendance.

The problem with short-term rentals

The choices travelers make for their accommodations have big impacts on local communities. As in many parts of the world, the explosion of short-term rentals created a housing crisis across wide swaths of Italy, driving up rent and causing a scarcity of affordable homes. For example, the number of Florence-based apartments listed on Airbnb increased to more than 14,000 in 2023 from less than 6,000 in 2016, according to the city of Florence. Meanwhile the average cost of rent increased by 42 percent and was up 15 percent over the last year alone. The housing shortage has hit low-income Italians in particular. Last year, Florence instituted a ban on new short-term rentals in the city center, but the ban was challenged in court.

Conscious travelers can avoid exacerbating the housing crisis by opting for family-run hotels or farm stays, known in Italian as “agriturismi.” Choosing these options supports the local economy without contributing to the housing crisis. Many smaller accommodations offer bikes for guests to borrow, allowing travelers to further mitigate their environmental impact.

For travelers looking to stay in a serene rural environment and enjoy some of the best wines in the region, there is no better option than Querceto di Castellina. About a 45-minute drive from Florence, Querceto di Castellina is a winery and agriturismo that offers wine tastings, cooking classes, and for the fortunate visitors who can snag tickets, summertime wine dinners that feature local musicians and artists. 

Responsible travel for a more sustainable tourism industry

The Florentine economy is dependent on the millions of travelers who come to the city every year to experience the beauty of “la dolce vita,” or “the sweet life.” But as overtourism threatens the vitality of the industry and quality of life for the locals, it is crucial that tourists travel consciously and make choices that support the vitality of Florence and the surrounding region.  

This article is part of Travel Month in our 2024 Sustainable Living Challenge, where we unpack accessible ways to see new places and get around your hometown with a lighter impact on the planet. Learn more and take the challenge here.

Mary Riddle headshot

Mary Riddle is the director of sustainability consulting services for Obata. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. She is currently based in Florence, Italy.

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