The cradle of the Renaissance, Florence sits along the banks of the Tuscan River, tucked among the Tuscan hills. One of the world’s most popular destinations, extraordinary architecture and art can be discovered around every corner. The cobbled streets are home to centuries-old fresco-filled churches, grand palaces and incredible art museums where one can marvel at works by the masters like Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo, including the famous sculpture of David. There are plenty of modern delights too, with this city a shoppers’ paradise with chic boutiques selling a wide range of fashionable items and all sorts of leather goods. Romantic views can be enjoyed from multiple vantage points, including the bell tower of the Piazza del Duomo, Piazzale Michelangelo, and the terrace at Borgo San Jacopo restaurant. Of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg, with countless things to do in Florence, including these.
The Duomo, officially Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, is Florence’s iconic symbol. It was constructed between 1296 and 1436 although its green, red and white façade is more recent, added in the late 1800s. It’s topped by the world’s largest brick dome, a groundbreaking element by Brunelleschi. Climb to the top to see its unique double-shell construction, enjoy a close-up view of the interior and its frescos, and a breathtaking view over the city. The cathedral complex includes the Baptistry with its renowned golden doors, called the “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo. Giotto, one of the founders of Renaissance architecture, designed the free-standing bell tower. Be sure to visit the Duomo Museum, Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo as well, where you’ll learn how the Duomo was built and see Donatello’s Mary Magdalene along with the original Doors of Paradise by Ghiberti. You’ll need separate tickets for the museum and various parts of the cathedral.
The primary reason to visit Academia Gallery (Galleria dell’Accademia) is to see Michelangelo’s famous work, David, which is housed in a room by itself. While most people take a look at it and leave, the institution also houses the artist’s never-completed Slaves and his St. Matthew sculpture. There are works by other Renaissance greats as well, including Uccello, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio. Other than David the most significant collection is the Colossus, with Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines its crown jewel providing a frequently portrayed and significant historical scene from antiquity. Paintings on the left wall include the Trebbio Altarpiece by Botticelli as well as St. Stephen, St. James and St. Peter by Domenico Ghirlanddaio, widely regarded as the greatest painting of the six on the left wall. On the right wall, you’ll see the panel painting that shows the Virgin Mary ascending into heaven known as the Assumption of the Virgin by Perugino.
The world’s No.1 treasure-house of Italian Renaissance art and one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world, Galleri degli Uffizi was built in 1541. It features many one-of-a-kind works with the dizzying array arranged in a palazzo by the river, starting with the ancient Greeks and running through the 18th century, though the most extensive portion dates from the 12th through 17th centuries. There are many highlights, such as an entire room of Botticelli, including the Birth of Venus, and you’ll also be able to marvel at the works by multiple other artist legends in addition to Botticelli, like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Giotto, da Vinci and Raffaello. The institution is particularly known for its outstanding collections of sculptures and paintings from the 14th century and Renaissance era. It houses an invaluable collection of ancient statues and busts from the Medici family, which adorns the corridors, made up of ancient Roman copies of lost Greek sculptures.
Ponte Vecchio is one of the city’s icons and the only bridge to survive the German occupation during the Second World War. Completed in 1345 as the first segmental arch bridge constructed in the West, it was an outstanding engineering achievement during Europe’s Middle Ages. It’s most notable for the shops that are built along it, with farmers, tanners and butchers originally occupying the shops. Today, tenants include art dealers, souvenir sellers and jewelers. The upper gallery connects neighboring Pitti, Uffizi and other palaces while the lower gallery provides the space for shops. While the bridge is closed to vehicular traffic today, it is crossed by many pedestrians due to its notoriety and that it connects places of high tourist interest along the river’s two banks. That includes Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo on one side, with the area of Santo Spirito and Palazzo Pitti in the Oltrarno on the other.
There are many memorable day trips that can be taken from Florence, thanks to its prime location in the heart of Tuscany. It’s also quite well-connected by train and bus to several enticing cities and villages. Pisa is best known for its Leaning Tower, the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral that can be seen rising behind the cathedral. It’s possible to climb the tower and you might want to enjoy a stroll along the Arno in addition to visiting Piazza Dei Cavaleri. The village of Fiesole is closer, making it easier to reach from Florence, and features ancient Roman and Etruscan ruins. Siena is best known for Piazza del Campo, Europe’s prettiest square and the one that hosts the famous Palio di Siena horse race along with a magnificent duomo. The small hilltop village of San Gimignano is known for its 14 medieval towers that create an awe-inspiring skyline that can be viewed when approaching.
One of the best views around can be enjoyed from Piazzale Michelangelo. The city’s most famous viewpoint, you’ll enjoy a stunning panoramic view over the city, including Santa Croce Church, the Duomo, Tempio Maggiore and Palazzo Vecchio. Downhill from San Miniato, the view isn’t as expansive, but you will have a clearer view of the iconic monuments. The square was dedicated to Michelangelo and features a bronze replica of David in its center. There are many cafes and restaurants for unwinding while enjoying the views. Or grab some Italian ice cream for a refreshing treat as you take it all in. While this is a fabulous spot for catching the sunset, be aware that the square can get quite crowded. If you want to avoid the masses, a short walk downhill will bring you to the San Niccolo neighborhood, a more tranquil setting for dinner and drinks.
Palazzo Vecchio is an imposing 14th-century fortress and one of the most famous symbols of the city. Built in the form of a castle with a soaring, spiky tower between 1299 and 1314, it was originally the residence and workplace of the officials of the republic. Visitors can climb the tower to enjoy a breathtaking panorama. The large Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundreds), is the city’s largest room. The imposing chamber is 75 feet wide by 170 feet long, built in 1494. The fortress also includes the apartments of the Medici pope, the offices of the Town Hall and the Museo dei Ragazzi, a children’s museum. It offers fun interactive tours like “Encounters with History” conducted in English that are geared for kids, but most adults enjoy them too. Participants get to explore secret passageways as well as meet and talk with Galileo Galilei or Giorgio Vasari.
One of the liveliest squares in Florence, with street artists, musicians, markets and festivals often held here, Piazza della Repubblica was originally the site of the ancient Roman forum at the crossing of two main roads, the decumanus and the cardo. During medieval times, it was the heart of the city and hosted the central market. During the Renaissance era, the city’s Jewish community was forced into the square by Cosimo I de’ Medici, establishing the Jewish ghetto. Jewish culture and life thrived despite restrictions, with Jewish schools, synagogues, a bathhouse for rituals and much more built here. In 1861, after Italy united as a kingdom, the ghetto was abolished and Florentine Jews received citizenship. The square was razed to the ground and rebuilt several years later with just the Column of Abundance which marks the meeting point of the old roads serving as a reminder of the past.
If you have an interest in wine, don’t miss a visit to wine country with the Tuscan countryside offering a serene escape that includes charming medieval villages and lush rolling hills covered with vineyards. A wine-tasting tour can bring you to the region’s many vineyards and wineries while traveling the scenic roads with views of olive groves, cypress trees and countless grape vines. Many excursions include wineries in the famous Chianti Clasico region where you can tour the cellars and discover how wine is produced using traditional methods. This region, as well as the Chianti and Vernaccia regions, are easy to reach on your own by car or bus, but it’s best to book a guided tour, most of which include tastings of both wine and olive oil at two or more vineyards. A variety of local Tuscan specialties such as fresh cheeses, cured ham, salami and bruschetta may be included as well.
It might be hard to imagine when you look at its old façade today, standing among the hustle and bustle, but when Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393 AD by Saint Ambrose of Milan, it stood outside of the city walls. It’s among the oldest and largest churches in all of Florence as well as being home to many “firsts” in the world of architecture and art. In the 15th century, it was the church of the Medicis. As such, it’s filled with Donatello’s works, with Donatello a friend of the family and beneficiary of their patronage. The artist is buried right here in the crypt near Cosimo Medici. You’ll see art created by many Florence greats like Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. Both the basilica and the Medici Chapels can be visited as part of the same complex, although they require separate tickets.
Mercato Centrale, also known as the San Lorenzo Market, is a foodie’s dream. A two-story complex, it opened in 2014 to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the iron and glass architecture built in 1874. Designed by Giuseppe Mengoni, also responsible for Sant’ Ambrogio market here in Florence and Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, it’s open daily from 8 a.m. to midnight. Keep in mind that the outdoor portion closes earlier and vendors on the ground floor usually pack up around 2 p.m. The ground floor stalls feature all the makings for fine Tuscan fare, like fresh produce, meats, cheeses and spices. On the upper floor, there’s an epicurean food court with everything from Florentine gelato and Neapolitan pizza. The building’s surrounds host a wealth of stalls too, with items like ceramics, leather goods, gifts and clothing. It’s a great place to pick up picnic provisions, souvenirs, or to enjoy an entire meal.
Known as the “Great Synagogue of Florence, Tempio Maggiore is one of the most important and largest synagogues in Southern Europe. It was constructed between 1874 and 1882, in a blend of Moorish Revival and Italian Romanesque style, made of travertine and pink pomato stone with a dome flanked by towers. Tempio Maggiore has since served as a template for many synagogues built across the globe. The central dome is sheathed in copper and has oxidized over time to the characteristic greenish hue that stands out on Florence’s skyline. It sits in a garden filled with exotic plants surrounded by cast-iron railings while the interior is flooded with golden light and decorated with painted arabesques by Giovanni Panti. A two-story museum is on-site too, with the upper floor focusing on the city’s Jewish community, including private devotion and domestic life, while the ground floor is dedicated to Florentine Jewish history.
The magnificent Boboli Gardens sit right behind Pitti Palace, which features exhibits that reveal the experience of aristocracy such as the Porcelain Museum and the Museum of Costume and Fashion. It includes the Medici’s royal apartments along with their treasury and incredible art collection with more Raphaels than anywhere else on the planet. The gardens are the highlight, however, with the Medici family establishing the layout in Italian garden style which became a model for many European courts. The outdoor museum features ancient and Renaissance statues as well as large fountains like the Fountain of the Ocean and the Fountain of Neptune. The layout was further developed by the Habsburg-Lorraine and Savoy dynasties who extended the boundaries flanking the city walls. The Lemon House was built by Zanobi del Rosso in the 18th century, while Kaffeehaus, an 18th-century pavilion, sits in a strikingly beautiful, terraced area and provides a rare example of Rococo architecture in Tuscany.
Fontana del Porcellino, or piglet fountain, is a baroque-era bronze fountain of a boar, sculpted and cast by baroque master Pietro Tacca for Cosimo II De Medici. The fountain was modeled after a 2nd-century BC Hellenistic marble boar that can be seen on display at Uffizi. Its biggest claim to fame is as a good luck charm, something that dates to the early 18th century when visitors would rub the boar’s nose to ensure their return to Florence. After rubbing its nose, they would place a coin in the jaws of the animal and drop it while making a wish. If the coin falls into the grate below, they say it will come true. As the fountain was broken into many times in order to steal the coins, the original was relocated to the Bardini Museum with a replica at Mercato Nuovo now in its place, still attracting many in hopes of getting their wishes granted.
Basilica di Santa Croce is the world’s largest Franciscan cathedral and one of the finest examples of Italian gothic architecture. Construction was started in 1294 and was finished nearly 150 years later, with the exception of the campanile and striking façade topped by a blue Star of David which were added in the 19th century by Jewish Italian architect Nicolo Matas. Matas requested that he be buried alongside his peers, with many famous Italians buried here like Michelangelo, Bruni, Galileo and Rossini, but due to religious discrimination, he was buried under the threshold of the church. You’ll see masteries of Tuscan gothic and proto-Renaissance painting, including frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi in the Baroncelli Chapel and the Peruzzi and Bardi chapels there are frescoes by Giotto. There are examples of sculpture by masters like Donatello, Rossellino, da Fiesole and more, while the Pazzi Chapel by Filippo Brunelleschi, is one of the finest examples of early Renaissance architecture.
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