A trip to Florence is not just a trip to a beautiful Italian city. It is a journey in time, history, art, romance and culture. Being the birthplace and the cradle of the Renaissance, the entire city is a showcase of the movement that lifted Europe from the Dark Ages. Botticelli, Bronzino, Michelangelo, Medici, Donatello, Galileo are just few of the notable artists whose creations are exhibited not only in the world-top museums, palaces, churches and galleries of Florence but also outdoors in piazzas, gardens, bridges and streets. The presence and heritage of the famous and powerful Medici family that ruled Florence for hundreds of years, are interwoven with all that you see in Florence today. It is the ultimate historical and cultural experience !
However, Florence is not only an enormous outdoor art museum attracting mainly art, history and architecture enthusiasts. It is a bustling and contemporary city with natural beauty and great shopping, culinary and nightlife scene.
And of course, Florence is the capital of the Tuscany region of Italy which is a world famous destination for its beautiful countryside, medieval towns, fine art and amazing food and wine. So you can perfectly combine your visit to Florence with a trip to discover this spectacular region as well.
We spent 3-4 days in Florence but believe me it is not enough if you want to explore most of the things the city has to offer. Especially if you want to visit museums, you need to plan in advance your visit (recommended) or spend a lot of time in the waiting queues.
So, let me share the list of what we consider as the best attractions of this amazing city.
1. Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo or often called Duomo is simply the heart of Florence, located in the historical center. It is a big square gathering some of the most impressive constructions of Italy forming a stunning showplace of sublime architecture and artwork. It is definitely the best starting point to explore Florence.
The main structures are the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore, the bell tower Giotto’s Campanile and the Baptistery. Apart from those architectural marvels, Duomo is full of restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops.
1.1 Santa Maria del Fiore
The most dominating structure is the Santa Maria del Fiore, the domed cathedral that is probably the symbol of Florence, one of the most famous churches of Italy and the fourth biggest in Europe. Its construction started in 1436 and finished in the 19th century. The most impressive structure is admittedly its immense Renaissance Dome that was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and stands out over the city’s skyline. You can buy a ticket and climb the 463 steps to its top and enjoy a panoramic view of the city and outlying valley.
Its exterior and gothic façade made of red, green and pink marble are also monumental. Visiting its interior is free but the waiting queue is a bit long. However, here you will be able to admire paintings, sculptures, stained-glass windows, frescoes, mosaics made by the most famous and significant artists in the history.
1.2 Giotto's Campanile
Adjacent to the dome, you will see the second most dominant landmark of the Duomo and that is the Giotto’s Campanile, a 81-meter bell tower whose construction started in 1334 by Giotto di Bondone, continued after his death by Andrea Pisano, who followed Giotto’s plans, and finished by Francesco Talenti in 1387. Inside the Campanile, you’ll find detailed relief carvings and sculptures as well as replicas of the 16 original life-sized statues created by artists such as Pisano and Donatello. Finally, you can also climb on its top and enjoy the view to the dome and the city.
The Florence Baptistery, also known as Baptistery San Giovanni or Saint John’s Baptistery, is the third structure of Duomo’s complex. It is one of the oldest buildings in Florence dating back to the 11th century. It has an octagonal shape and its exterior is made of green and white marble and has three bronze doors, with the most famous one being the “Gate of Paradise” which was designed by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti and feature carved depictions of scenes from the Bible.
2. Ponte Vecchio
Spanning over the river Arno, Ponte Vecchio is made of graceful arches topped by a number of old house-like shops selling mainly jewelry, keeping the tradition. The scenery is beautiful and you will want to capture it with your camera from several view points, each one revealing an alternative side of its beauty.
The purpose of the bridge was to connect the two sides of the river so that the Medici could pass from Palazzo Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. To avoid walking through the streets, the architect Vasari was assigned to build a private passageway, which is now known as Vasari Corridor and houses a unique collection of artists’ self-portraits spanning several centuries.
3. Piazza della Signoria
The Piazza della Signoria is the political, historical and artistic center of Florence, located very close to the river and Ponte Vecchio. Festivals, concerts and other events are held here during the year. You can spend days exploring it !
The main structures are the Palazzo Veccio, the Uffizi Gallery, the Loggia dei Lanzi, many statues and the Neptune Fountain designed by Ammanati.
3.1 Uffizi Gallery
Whether you are an art-expert or not, visiting the Uffizi Gallery, the most famous and visited museum in Italy, is an absolute MUST. Here you will find the biggest collection of Renaissance art and see with your eyes the masterpieces of Michelangelο, Botticelli, Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaelo.
The best way to visit it is with a knowledgable guide so that you can better understand the history, significance, beauty of the artifacts and how the Renaissance movement transformed the western art landscape.
What is also recommended it to book you visit in advance and buy and Skip the Line ticket that will save you a lot of valuable time.
3.2 Palazzio Vecchio
One of the most dominating buildings in the Piazza della Signoria is the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace), a medieval building which has a huge bell tower and a square design which looks like a castle. On the front facade, there are a lot of statues representing various important personalities. The most famous one is the Michelangelo’s David, which is a replica of the original one (the original is in the Accademia).
It was built in the 12th century, and used to house the powerful Medici family. Today it is a museum and the city town hall. In the interior, there is an impressive gallery of artifacts such as paintings, sculptures, frescoes, carvings.
Climbing on the top of the bell tower you can have a great view of the city with main highlight the impressive Duomo.
3.4 Loggia dei Lanzi
Loggia dei Lanzi is an arcaded structure, located next to the Palazzo Vecchio and serves as an outdoor sculpture gallery from Renaissance and Ancient art. Most of the statues are copies of the original ones. The most famous ones are Cellini’s Perseo holding Medusa’s head and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines.
4. Galleria dell’Accademia
Galleria dell’Accademia is another very important and famous museum in Florence. While there is a big collection of historical art work, the main highlight that attracts a huge volume of visitors is the original Michelangelo’s David sculpture.
5. Santa Croce
After having admired the magnificent work of the city’s inhabitants who have influenced the Renaissance artists, it’s time to visit the church of Santa Croce where many of them, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Ghiberti, Rossini, Machiavelli are buried.
It is located in the Piazza Santa Croce, in the working-class neighborhood a bit west from the Florence’s historic center. Around this region, there are a lot of good local restaurants and little shops.
Its exterior is similar to Duomo, with a front facade that includes pink, green and red marble polychrome panels contrasted with polished white stone.
Apart from being a mausoleum of those great names, Santa Croce is also art-filled with many treasures of Renaissance art. Donatello’s Christ Crucified is considered one of the finest examples of Florentine Renaissance humanism. The frescoes in Cappella Bardi, Cappella Peruzzi, and Cappella Baroncelli are also very famous landmarks.
6. Basilica di San Lorenzo
Situated at the center of the city’s main market district, the Basilica di San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches of Florence and was the burial place of all the principal members of the powerful Medici family that ruled Florence for many years during the Renaissance.
It was constructed under the designs of the Medici family. The façade of this church was never completed, giving it a rustic appearance. The interior is beautifully decorated with many frescos, sculptures and Renaissance art-work.
7. Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens
The Palazzo Pitti is a very large, mainly Renaissance palace situated on the less crowded south bank of the Arno river. It was built in the 15th century and was originally the residence of Luca Pitti, an ambitious banker who wanted to build a palace more glorious than the Medici’s Palazzo Vecchio. Based on the legend, “he decided to employ the most brilliant architect of the times, whom he ordered to make the windows as big as the doors of the Medici residence and create an internal courtyard that was large enough to contain the whole of the Medici’s palace on the Via Larga”. However, he never managed to see it completed and it was eventually bought by the Medici family and became the main residence of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Today, it is a largest museum complex in Florence. A grand square sits at the front of the palace and perfectly frames the symmetrical front facade. Inside the palace, there are a myriad of different galleries that are all richly decorated, but also contain a host of Renaissance artwork.
Behind the Palazzo Pitti stretch the Boboli Gardens that were created by the Medici family in the 16th century. It is a beautiful garden with several terraces, statues, fontains, caves and labyrinths. You can have a great view over the Palazzo Pitti and the city.
It is the perfect place to escape from the city and enjoy the perfect combination of the natural beauty and art-work.
8. Piazzale Michelangelo
Piazzale Michelangelo is one of the most famous Italian terraces and offers the best panoramic view of the city encompassing all its magnificent marvels, such as Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce and of course the dominating Duomo, all framed against the River Arno.
It is located across the river in the Oltrarno district, on a hill very close to the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens. You can either reach it by bus or on foot. The best time to visit it is late afternoon so that you can enjoy the best sunset view of the city.
Very close to the piazzale, you can find a very charming 11th century church called San Miniato al Monte which is less touristic. Its front facade is similar to Florence Cathedral, decorated with green and white marble. Its interior is just as decorative and features some amazing frescos, artwork and marble columns. On most days at 5:30 pm, monks still observe a Gregorian chant. It is also the perfect place to admire the town from the top without crowds.
9. Mercato Centrale (Central Market)
Apart from the artworks, Florence is also a very popular dining destination. The Mercato Centrale, located in the heart of San Lonerzo, is the best place to have an overview of its gastronomy. It is the largest and most famous market in Florence, divided in two floors.
On the ground floor there are vendors selling fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and typical Tuscan food, such as tartufo, fresh pasta, olive oil, wine, pesto, prosciutto, spices and many others.
On the first floor, there is a food court with a lot of restaurants and seats where you can taste Italian delicacies. It is open until midnight !
10. Oltrarno Neighborhood
While Florence is mostly known as the Renaissance capital, famous for its art, architectural, cultural sights, there is also an alternative side of the city that is not so well known but it is a real treasure. I am talking about the Oltrarno neighborhood, whose name means “beyond the Arno” and it is located on the south bank of the Arno river very close to the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens.
It is a very cool and lively area with a lot of less touristic restaurants, popular among locals, a place to have a more authentic Florentine experience !
Piazza Santo Spirito is among the most famous spots where you can enjoy a stroll.
A few Tips
- Where to stay: Of course in the historic center so that you are in walking distance with most of the sights. Oltrarno could also be a great option if you prefer a more local, quiter and less expensive experience.
- Food: Florentine T-bonne Steak is the most famous local dish. Lambredotto is not just a typical florentine street food but a lifestyle, a ritual. Of course pizza, pasta, focaccia and ice-cream ! For a great selection of recommended restaurants check out the site of the owner of the place we stayed.
- Transportation: Walking ! Florence is flat, the main landmarks are very close and there are so many hidden corners to explore on your own. Cars are not allowed to enter the historical zone so be very careful if you can have a car. Heavy penalties apply.
- Shopping: Florence is famous for its leatherwork. You have to be careful though since leather shopping can be overwhelming. I the San Lorenzo market you can easily realize it. Casini, in front of the Palazzo Pitti, is probable one of the most famous for its wide selection and uniquie pieces. Pratesi is the original leatherhouse shop founded in 1948.
- Museums: There are many museums and the admission tickets are a bit expensive. If you are planning to visit many, you should consider buying the Firenze Card, which gives you access to almost all museums. In any case, especially for the popular museums (e.g. Uffizi), you better buy the the Skip the Line ticket and book it online in advance.
- Arrange a tour to Tuscan ! If you don’t want to rent a car, a very reliable company is the Caf Tours.