Venice or Florence? Which Italian Bucket-List Spot Is Best?

Venice or Florence
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis
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If you’re considering Venice or Florence for your Italian adventure this year but can’t quite pick the city for you, you’ve come to the right place. This guide will delve into both towns to highlight seven key things. From the general vibe of each city to the sort of sightseeing you can look forward to in both, it’ll pick out some of the main considerations among travelers heading to the land of risotto and Roman ruins.

The truth is that both places are pretty darn incredible. There’s Venice, the fabled City of Canals, carved through by mighty waterways and decorated with opulent Renaissance palaces. Then there’s Florence, the onetime stomping ground of Michelangelo, where colossal art galleries roll on past the impossibly romantic Arno River. We’ve got wanderlust for both!

The best thing would be to check off the two in the same journey. There are now fast trains linking Venice and Florence in a little over two hours. But, if that’s simply not an option and you have to pick, read on for some insights that can help you make the decision…

Venice or Florence for sights and attractions?

Uffizi Gallery
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Florence rolls down the Arezzo hills of northern Tuscany to meet the winding Arno River. As it does so, it offers up a glimpse of some of the most romantic and iconic sights in the country. Top of the list is surely that illustrious Duomo, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower. It looms high above with its tiled domes and marble-fronted façades, showcasing Giotto’s Campanile (perhaps the world’s loveliest belltower?) and hiding works by Michelangelo, no less.

Talking of Michelangelo, you can venture from the cathedral going north to hit the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze in San Marco, where the legendary statue of David is housed. Alternatively, go in the other direction, where the Uffizi Gallery hosts even more priceless work by the likes of da Vinci and Botticelli. Finally, Florence also comes with the gorgeous Ponte Vecchio bridge (a photo op if there ever was one) and lookout points at the Piazzale Michelangelo that take in the serrated Tuscan mountains and the city alike.

Venice hardly needs an introduction. For sightseers, there’s barely a moment to blink as you weave down the Grand Canal and under the carved Ponte di Rialto bridge where Shakespeare set some of his scenes.

The whole city converges on the mighty Piazza San Marco, which reigns as the largest medieval city square in Europe. Begin there, because the landmarks come thick and fast – the campanile towering overhead, the great Doge’s Palace on the side, then St Mark’s Basilica and its orientalist motifs and filigreed domes. Escaping all that, you can cross to the glass workshops of Murano, sun yourself on the city lidos, or spy out collections at the Leonardo da Vinci Museum or the National Archaeological Museum Venice (both are excellent).

Winner: Draw. Sorry, but these are two of Italy’s most iconic cities, filled with some of Italy’s most iconic sights.

Venice or Florence for food?

Florence bridge
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Of course, food is a major consideration when you’re planning that jaunt to Italy. The good news is that both of these cities offer a taste of the Mediterranean kitchen that you’re looking for. However, they aren’t carbon copies of each other. Nope, one draws on the rustic region of Tuscany, known for its simple peasant cooking and rich wine, while the other pulls in influences from the Alps and the Adriatic Sea.

The flavors in Florence are all about the hearty countryside of the surrounding region: Tuscany. Expect big game meats, rich red-wine sauces, highland herbs, along with heavy pastas and crispy breads packed with porchetta. It’s not for nothing that this part of the country is hailed as a culinary mecca, so be sure to sample some local stuff:

  • Lampredotto – Don’t be put off by the fact that this crispy-bread sarnie is made from a cow’s fourth stomach. It’s a salty, filling surprise after it’s been broiled in veg broth and doused in herbs.
  • Pappa al pomodoro – Two of Tuscany’s top ingredients go into this thick soup: Bread and tomatoes. It comes with a strong seasoning of basil and thyme and can be served hot or cold.
  • Tagliatelle funghi porcini e tartufo – The Tuscan capital is one of the top places to sample the bounty of the forest, which is why this pasta dish is packed with mushrooms and truffles. It’s best eaten in August when the porcini is in season. 

There’s a more delicate balance of flavors up in Venice. Seafood from the Adriatic joins the bubbly tipples of the Prosecco region (heard of that?), and there are hints of German and Austrian cooking to boot. Some of the dishes you simply must sample while wandering the famous City of Canals include:

  • Sarde in saor – Vinegar-doused sardines fished from the Adriatic.
  • Risotto al nero di seppia – Combining squid ink from the sea and the rice harvest of the Veneto area, this strong and punchy dish is typical of Venice.
  • Spritz – Not a dish but a drink, the ubiquitous Spritz is now the tipple of choice for skiers and sun worshippers all over. It was actually invented in Venice, though, so sample it as the locals d – with Campari instead of Aperol.

Winner: Florence – Tuscan food is just something else!

Venice or Florence for general vibe?

Grand Canal in Venice
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Venice has been in the headlines a lot in recent years because of over tourism. Locals have decried the floods of travelers and the environmental damage being done to their floating city by massive cruise ships that pull up in the summer months, and regulations have since been put in place to stop such large vessels entering the town. But it’s not just the ships – Venice is one of the most-visited city break destinations on the continent, drawing millions upon millions to its water-logged streets.

You can certainly see that. Perhaps here more than anywhere else in Italy are the hordes of photo-snapping folks more noticeably, largely because there’s not loads of space on offer between the Adriatic and the sloshing canals. Unless you visit in the middle of winter then you simply have to get used to places being packed and a certain lack of local authenticity. But then there’s really nowhere on the planet quite like Venice.

Florence does have an old core that’s a real magnet for tourists. It lies on the north side of the Arno River, roughly going from the banks to the center of San Marco area. However, it’s hardly ever as busy as Venice and is still an indelibly lived-in place. Yes, there are queues ringing around the Uffizi Galleries and the Accademia Gallery but you can still find space in an al fresco café to people watch with just the locals for company.

On top of that, Florence is actually the beating hub of Tuscany and an important economic and university town to boot. It’s got areas that buzz with everyday life in a way that the archipelago of Venice could only dream of. Check out Sant’Ambrogio for the regional markets selling cheese, wine, and crunchy bread. Go to San Frediano for cocktail joints in old warehouses.

Winner: Florence. Venice is VERY touristy. Florence feels much more like a real, lived-in Italian city.

Venice or Florence for nightlife?

Cocktail in Florence
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There’s some decent partying to carry you through in both of these towns. However, we’d say it’s just a bit livelier in Florence overall…

Yep, the capital of Tuscany has a trio of neighbourhoods that give it some extra energy once the sun has disappeared behind the Arezzo mountains on the horizon. The first is Santa Croce, really the main artery of the party scene in the city. There, you can wander the Via de Benci and the Corso de Tintori – both are long runs of eateries and cocktail bars. Later, move over to the hipster-student favourite San Frediano for edgier venues and more gritty rock pubs. There’s also Santo Spirito, which is great for al fresco drinks and aperitivo on the piazzas.

Don’t totally discount Venice for nightlife, though. The town does have some great choices. The best of them is the heart of the student district on the western side of the Grand Canal. Cue the wide, open Campo Santa Margherita, a rare, paved square that’s nowhere near the waterways but comes rammed with vibrant beer halls and wine taps. The party scene continues northwards from there going all the way to narrow Salizada San Pantalon. You can also find some good nightlife by the markets under the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi by the Rialto Bridge.

Winner: Florence.

Venice or Florence for ease of travel?

Venice sightseeing
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Florence has an airport but it’s not the biggest in Tuscany. Look for it in Peretola on the north-western side of town. A number of carriers jet in, including premium flag carriers like Lufthansa (with a handy connection to the hub in Frankfurt) and Air France (with a similarly handy link to CDG).

There is a noticeable shortage of low-cost flights on offer into Florence, though, as the budget end of the market is mainly directed to nearby Pisa. That said, be sure to check out Vueling, who have affordable flights in from Gatwick, Madrid, and Prague to name just a few. We’d say the very best way to arrive in Florence is on a high-speed train. They come in daily from Venice (yep!), Milan, and Rome and can hit 300km/hour. Driving is also made easy because the main motorway that runs the spine of Italy, from Calabria in the south to the South Tyrol in the north, runs right through the city.

Venice certainly isn’t as central for those coming by car from, say, Rome. It’s tucked into the far north-eastern corner of Italy, a long (but beautiful) 6-hour drive from the capital. However, it does boast two major airports. The first is mainly given over to low-cost carriers like Ryanair and easyJet. That’s in Treviso to the north.

The other – the sprawling Venice Marco Polo Airport – is for larger carriers and hosts arrivals from the Middle East and North America, as well as loads of European hubs. There’s also another fantastic way to get to Venice: Boat. Ferries come in from Croatia and Greece alike and offer a way to link up other sun-splashed countries on the Adriatic with this incredible cityscape.

Winner: Draw. Venice has boats and two airports, but Florence is more central in Italy.

Venice or Florence for budget?

Rialto Bridge
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

We’ll just go right ahead and say it: Neither Venice nor Florence are great destinations if you’re traveling on a budget. Both towns are up there with Rome and Milan among the priciest spots on the whole of The Boot. Of course, there are ways you can cut the cost – eating in local markets, staying in hostels – but you might be better off considering a smaller regional town further south in Italy if you’re on a really tight shoestring.

Venice, especially, is notorious for its inflated rates in the middle of the season. They skyrocket when the cruise ships (which are now supposed to have stopped completely) and the package tourists arrive en masse. We looked for a hostel stay for a single night in August back in 2018 and there was virtually nothing below €80 ($93)!

A lot of the problem is that Venice’s old town (the area known as the Venice Lagoon) is limited by the size of the islands. There’s no space for new development and new hotels. That’s both part of the charm but also keeps the accommodations in a captive market. The only alternative is to stay over in Mestre on the mainland but remember that you’ll have to catch the train each morning to see the main sights.

It’s a similar story in Florence, where the main UNESCO downtown area is home to hotels that can quadruple in price during the main season between May and August. Thankfully, Florence isn’t on an island, so you can break a little south or north to find some cheaper stays that are still near the landmarks – areas like Sant’Ambrogio and boho San Lorenzo are both good options.

You can also get to more local neighborhoods like Campo di Marte and Santo Spirito by foot, where the eateries will cost just a fraction of what they do in the center.

Winner: Florence, because at least you can escape the uber-pricy tourist areas on foot.

Venice or Florence for history?

Photo by Martin Katler/Unsplash

You’re not going to be short on history whichever one of these cities you choose to go to. Both have played very important roles in the development of modern Italy. Both are chock full of fascinating sights and attractions that tell of great golden ages. Venice is famous for its onetime trading empire, which stretched as far as the eastern Aegean Sea. You can visit the place where that was run from by dropping into the Doge’s Palace on Piazzetta San Marco. Nearby St Mark’s Basilica showcases incredible eastern design influences, while the striking Correr Museum is also there, offering collections that chronicle the history of the city itself from the earliest years.

Florence was established by a certain Julius Caesar some 2,000 years ago. However, its golden age was when the Medici rose to power in Italy throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They are the people who brought riches to the town and constructed many of the fantastic palazzos and churches seen today. It was also them who made Florence a hub for artists, which is why you can come here to see masterworks like The Birth of Venus and Michelangelo’s David. Florence is also a fine jump-off point for seeing many of the historic Etruscan-era hilltowns of surrounding Tuscany.

Winner: Draw. Both towns have oodles of history.

Venice or Florence for day trips and exploring Italy?

Dolomites
Photo by Joseph Richard Francis

Lots of travelers will see a ticket to Venice or Florence as a steppingstone into the Italian countryside. We can hardly blame them. Yes, the cities are awesome for culture buffs, but there’s so much beckoning once you break away from the UNESCO sites that it’s hard to ignore the draw of the daytrip.

Let’s start with Venice. Smaller outings here can whisk you away from the bustle of Piazza San Marco to the quieter outskirts of the Venice Lagoon. Perhaps a trip to Murano – the city’s famous glassmaking quarter – is in order? Or would you prefer the glitzy walks of the Venice Lido for sunbathing and swimming? They can both be reached on the local vaporetto taxi boats, so are super-easy to plan. For those eager to escape further afield, consider:

  • Prosecco (1.5-hour drive) – Wine lovers can head east to sample the tipples in this growing region on the Slovenian border.
  • Belluno (1.2-hour drive) – Welcome to the Dolomites. This charming mountain town is on the cusp of some of the most dramatic hiking territory in the world!
  • Padua (0.5-hour drive) – Two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and some of the most stunning frescoed churches and palaces in Italy make Padua one for the art lovers.

Florence is the gateway to northern Tuscany, which is one of the most romantic and wonderful corners of the whole of Italy, no doubt about it. Go south to see rolling farms speckled with Mediterranean cypress trees. Go north to hit the Appenines for wild swimming, hiking, and eco farms. Some of the highlights in this region include:

  • Pisa (1.5-hour drive) – See the Leaning Tower of Pisa in another of Tuscany’s most alluring destinations.
  • San Gimignano (1-hour drive) – Prepare to be enchanted by this fairy-tale hill town. Espresso on the piazza, anyone?
  • Chianti (1.2-hour drive) – The red-wine mecca of Italy, Chianti is a fertile valley between the mountains and the hills that has some of the best cellar doors around.

Winner: Draw. It’s Tuscany versus the Alps.

Venice or Florence for romance?

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Here’s a tricky one, since both of these Italian towns are known for their romantic side. Honeymooners hitting Venice will be faced with an overload of heart-string-pulling things to do. Hardly a day goes by when there’s not a proposal near the Rialto Bridge, while long, languishing lunches on frutti de mare pasta near the Venice Lido can be followed by relaxing punt trips in a traditional gondola. There are also plenty of uber-lovely hotels in Venice for romantic travelers, like the Hotel Danieli ($$$) and the exquisite Hilton Molino ($$$).

Florence has the looks and the charm to match all that, but you will need to forgo the gondola rides in these parts. Instead, a honeymoon to this Italian city will be about seeing the priceless artworks of the Uffizi Gallery and then scaling the lookout points of Piazzale Michelangelo to see the sunset on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the River Arno. The other real draw to Florence is that you can stay in greater Tuscany where there are lovely agriturismo hotels with farm-to-table eateries and swimming pools.

Winner: Venice but only just. Remember that Florence is a ticket to Tuscany, one of the most romantic parts of Italy.

Venice or Florence for families?

A boat in Venice
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There’s no doubt that every member of the family will be wowed by Venice. The town is one you’ll never forget. Little ones and older generations alike are often totally enchanted by the maze of canals and hidden piazzas. Then they spot the larger sights – the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s Basilica and others – and those enchantments hit new highs. On the downside, Venice is VERY expensive for family holidays and can be hard to get around if you’re traveling as a full crew.

Florence doesn’t have those latter issues so much. Yes, it’s still pricy but nowhere near the level of Venice during the main holidaying seasons (when you’re most likely to be on the road if traveling with kids). You also get some fantastic chilled-orientated draws here, like the Galileo Museum, which focuses on the amazing discoveries of its namesake back in the 16th and 17th centuries. The other reason we like Florence for families is the food. Venice is more orientated towards seafood and expensive dining. Florence is a chance to sample the hearty pastas of Tuscany, which tends to be better for all age groups.

Winner: Florence, but not by a HUGE distance.

Venice or Florence for solo travelers?

Ice cream in Italy
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If you’re going it alone and want somewhere that’s easy to reach, loaded with top hostels, and well-suited for meeting other people, then Florence should be your pick here. We’ve traveled alone to Venice and noticed a distinct lack of quality dorm accommodation aimed at solo globetrotters (we ended up staying in an old nun’s convent for $25/night – not ideal!). Florence, though, has proper backpacker stays with common rooms and on-site bars. They are great for mingling with other travelers and fining company to explore with.

On top of that, it can be harder to tap into the more local scene in Venice. Much of it carries on over in the new town area of Mestre back on the mainland, while the main nightlife hubs are quite far from the tourist hotspots of St Marks. In Florence, they are worked into the fabric of the city, and you can simply wander from one neighborhood to the next to sample local trattoria, find student bars that buzz on weekends, and family-owned restaurants that will give a warm welcome no matter if you’re alone or in a big group.

Winner: Florence. It’s the more lived-in and backpacker-ready city here.

The verdict

So, will it be Venice or Florence? We think you’ll be amazed by both these locations. However, they are quite different.

Venice is a northern Italian city that’s got strong links to the sea, with seafood-infused dishes and salty canals instead of cobbled lanes. Florence is a buzzy, lived-in metropolis with a center that brims with amazing art and architecture. It’s also the gateway to uber-romantic Tuscany.

Overall, we’d say it’s totally down to personal choice, although the best option of all would be to hop on the high-speed train and experience both places in the same jaunt.

How long should I spend in Venice or Florence?

We think three or four days is just about perfect for vacationing in both these towns. They each have an abundance of art and churches, handsome street scenes and great galleries. A long weekend is usually enough to get through all the highlights without getting overwhelmed. After that, you could consider extending your trip by adding on adventures to places nearby, whether that’s the Dolomites from Venice or the rolling hills of Tuscany from Florence.

What’s the best time of year to visit Venice or Florence?

The peak season in both these towns is the middle of the summer, but we wouldn’t actually say that’s the best time to come. That honor goes to the autumn. The months of September and October remain warm in Italy but are way less busy than the time from June to August. They also see harvest festivals hit Tuscany and the cruise ship traffic drop away in Venice.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.