Several million tourists come every year to discover its wonders. Florence is the cradle of the Italian Renaissance that shone all over the world. The capital of Tuscany is an exceptional tourist destination and particularly appreciated by lovers of art and architecture. One of its most emblematic sites is the Duomo, a magnificent cathedral whose terracotta dome was designed by Brunelleschi and the bell tower by Giotto. Another emblem: the Ponte Vecchio. There is also the trio of masters: Michelangelo’s David, admired at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, visible at the Uffizi Gallery. To these incomparable works are added the palaces, churches and historical squares sponsored in their time by the prestigious Medici. You should visit Palazzo Vecchio, which houses the town hall and above all a huge museum, the Medici chapels and many other wonders. You can also walk through the San Lorenzo leather market and then reach the Mercato Centrale, a wonderful covered market behind the scenes of divine Tuscan cuisine. But know that it was at Santa Croce Basilica that Stendhal suffered from the affliction of seeing an overload of works of art, now known as Stendhal syndrome. You have been warned! Your tour guide will give you many other details and tips to make the most of the pearl of Tuscany and one of the most spectacular sites in the world.
Here are the best things to do in Florence:
The Duomo and the baptistery both stand on a large rectangular area of two separate but interconnected squares. Santa Maria del Fiore is the fourth largest cathedral in the world, after St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul in London and Milan Cathedral.
2. GALLERIA DEGLI UFFIZI
The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most visited and prestigious museums in the world. It houses a magnificent and invaluable collection of works of art from the Medici, and has been enriched over the centuries by legacies, exchanges and other donations. Opened to the public in 1765, the museum is still an opportunity to discover the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance.
3. GALLERIA PALATINA
The Palatine Gallery, within the Pitti Palace, contains prodigious works from the Late Renaissance and Baroque periods. Among the thousand paintings on display, those of Raphael (such as Madonna del Granduca), Andrea del Sarto and Titian deserve a lot of attention! The other great Italian masters are also on display: Botticelli, Perugino, Veronese, Caravaggio or Tintoretto. It should be noted that the paintings are still, with a few exceptions, in the same places as those chosen by the Medicis. The first opening to the public dates back to 1833.
4. GALLERIA DELL’ACCADEMIA
The story begins in 1563, when Cosimo de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, founded the first art academy in Europe, then called the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). Michelangelo was one of its first teachers. In 1784, Leopold II decided to add a museum, the Galleria dell’Accademia, adjacent to the Academy of the Arts of Drawing, whose purpose was to offer students examples of historical works for subjects of study.
5. BATTISTERO SAN GIOVANNI
The Baptistery of St. John stands as a splendid anthology in marble, mosaics and bronze of Florentine art. No doubt, one of Florence’s wonders. It is essential to enter the oldest monument in Piazza del Duomo, even if most visitors only linger on its well-known doors. Until the end of the 19th century, all Florentines were baptized there.
6. MUSEO NAZIONALE DEL BARGELLO
The austere and imposing palace of the Podestat (palazzo del Podestà), built by the architect Lapo Tedesco in 1255, is a fine example of medieval architecture. It houses a splendid courtyard decorated with the different coats of arms of the podestats who lived there, as well as a must-see museum: the Bargello.
7. MUSEO DELL’OPERA DEL DUOMO
This large museum brings together the treasures once contained in Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s bell tower, the Baptistery of St John and the crypt of Santa Reparata. After 3 years of colossal work, it has become a jewel of modernity and, since October 2016, has been offering a spectacular scenography worthy of its masterpieces.
8. GIARDINO BOBOLI
Adjacent to Pitti Palace and Fort Belvedere, Boboli Gardens belong to the closed circle of parks to welcome at least 800,000 visitors per year. Historically, for the value of the landscapes they offer and for the collection of sculptures, from Roman antiquity to the 17th century, it is easy to understand why they are so attractive.
9. BASILICA SANTA CROCE
Considered the pantheon of the great Italians, the Basilica of Santa Croce (or Holy Cross) is home to great geniuses. Michelangelo, Galileo, Alfieri, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Rossini and others have their graves here. The building is also an important example of Gothic art, decorated by the frescoes of Giotto and his successors. Renaissance sculptures attributed to Donatello, Rossellino, Desiderio and others create a unique atmosphere. Today, it is still the largest Franciscan church in the world. Its construction in Florence began in 1294 according to Arnolfo di Cambio’s plans. Built at the expense of the people and the Florentine Republic, it stood on the foundations of a small church built in 1252 by the Brothers, shortly after the death of Saint Francis, outside the city walls. The remains of the old building could not be located until 1966 when, following the floods that invaded and devastated the city, part of the pavement of the current church collapsed.
10. PONTE VECCHIO
The origins of this emblematic monument of Florence date back to 120 AD, when it allowed the passage of the Via Cassia, an ancient Roman road, on the Arno. The floods of the river regularly destroyed the structure, until the construction in 1345 of a real stone bridge with three arches. This remodelling allowed the installation of shops: butchers, fishmongers and tanners, who took advantage of the flow into the Arno for hygiene reasons.
11. PALAZZO VECCHIO
The symbol of the city’s power and one of the finest examples of medieval public architecture. With its 311 feet high tower, the palace overlooks Piazza della Signoria, which forms a veritable museum of outdoor sculpture. Built between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century on the project of Arnolfo Di Cambio, the palace was enlarged in the 15th and 16th centuries. The palace, the seat of the Seigneury, temporarily housed the Medici during the time of Cosimo de’ Medici until they moved to Palazzo Pitti. At that time, the Palazzo della Signoria took the name of Vecchio and Vasari worked there. A visit to the museum allows you to admire the richness of the rooms, the frescoes on the ceiling and above all the incredible Hall of the Five Hundred. The latter has given birth to many meetings of the Council of the Republic, ordered by Savanarola. The paintings on the walls, painted by artists from Michelangelo’s workshops, describe the battles against Pisa and Siena. The decoration was done by Vasari. Impressive and sumptuous at the same time!
The world’s largest masonry dome, with 37,000 tons of bricks and tiles perched 375 feet above the ground. A characteristic feature of Roman architecture, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral illustrates Florence’s desire to be the new Rome, at the same time symbolizing the city’s domination over Tuscany.
13. MUSEO SAN MARCO
This exceptional site is a former Dominican convent that has been open to the public since 1869. Consecrated in 1443, it has welcomed such outstanding personalities as Fra Angelico, Girolamo Savonarola, Fra Bartolomeo… and was enlarged by Cosimo de’ Medici. Housed in the 15th century convent, the work of Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, the favourite architect of Cosimo “The Elder” de’ Medici, the museum pays tribute to Beato Angelico (known as Fra Angelico) who, during his stay there, painted frescos on the walls of each of the 44 cells. Images that are now considered icons. Fra Angelico’s wonderful Annunciation is visible there, as well as other works belonging to him from Florentine churches and religious institutions. See also, in particular, the grandiose and touching Crucifixion inside the chapter house which is of great value.
14. SPEDALE DEGLI INNOCENTI
Created in 1419 to heal and raise orphaned or abandoned children and provide them with work, the hospital was founded in the Republic’s time by the rich entrepreneurs of the wool corporation. The first institution of its kind in Europe, it is now an example of harmonious and rational architecture, designed for care and rest. On the left side of the portico, we can see an inscription on the small closed window. This one recalls the so-called wheel that worked until 1875, wher mothers abandoned newborns they did not want or children they could not raise. Even today, the name of the Innocents, in every sense of the word, refers to this origin. From the pretty central vestibule, one can access the lodge above the portico (formerly the children’s living room). Between the arcades are the ceramic medallions of Lucca della Robbia, representing swaddled children: it is the symbol of the hospital.
15. PALAZZO STROZZI
This imposing 15th century palace was commissioned by the banker Filippo Strozzi and symbolizes the wealth of Florence at that time. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful palace of the Florentine Renaissance. Filippo di Matteo Strozzi wanted to provoke Lorenzo de’ Medici in the field of architectural mastery and rigour without exacerbating his sense of power. The palace is therefore not exuberant with apparent richness. It is not full of sculptures by great names, but its balance and dimensions are admirable. Beautiful temporary exhibitions enliven the palace.
To the right of the Duomo facade, almost 278 feet high, stands the Campanile, the bell tower of Florence Cathedral, and an eloquent testimony to Florentine Gothic architecture of the 14th century. Designed by Giotto, the city’s official architect, the bell tower was only partially built by him during the last three years of his life (1334-1337). The great painter Giotto di Bondone could only execute the lower sculpted register of the building. It is composed of seven hexagonal panels on the west, south and east sides, representing man’s march towards perfection (the number 7 is the biblical symbol). Andrea Pisano, until 1348, and finally Francesco Talenti finished it in 1359 by adding magnificent bas-reliefs and an original terrace.
17. CHIESA E MUSEO DI ORSANMICHELE
There was once an oratory dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Since then, there has been a portico that was enlarged and consolidated in 1337, as the current two-storey structure was built above it to store wheat in the event of famine. In 1380, because of the increasingly intense devotion to an image of the Madonna placed on a pilaster in the portico, the arcades on the ground floor were closed. The portico was thus transformed into an unusual church with two naves, which is now the worthy setting for a splendid marble tabernacle in Gothic style. Among the statues that adorn the exterior of Orsanmichele are those of Lorenzo Ghiberti in bronze, on the side of Via dell’Arte della Lana, representing Saint Matthew, at the corner of Via Orsanmichele, and Santo Stefano. Those of Donatello – Saint Georges – and Verrocchio – a group with the Christ and St. Thomas – towards Via dei Calzaioli have been replaced by copies. A few steps away, stands the imposing Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria.
18. CHIESA SANTISSIMA ANNUNZIATA
The church is built on the oratory of the Servite Order (Servi di Maria), founded by seven young friars to whom Mary appeared in 1235. They then founded, as the ultimate renunciation of the world, the monastery of Monte Senario at the top of Fiesole. Michelozzo built the first cloister in the middle of the 15th century. The main body of the church, begun in 1440 by Michelozzo and Pagno Portigiani, was then modified by Alberti, who created the powerful platform that can be seen on the right side. From the sober facade on the square, decorated with the arms of Pope Leo X and the frescoes of the young Pontormo, you can access three different settings: on the right, the chapel dei Puccio de San Sebastiano, on the left the vast cloister of the Dead decorated with the frescoes of Andrea del Sarto (Madonna del Sacco), in the centre the first cloister, or chiostrino dei Voti, entirely decorated with frescos of the masters of Florentine mannerist painting from the early 16th century: Rosso Fiorentini, Pontormo, Franciabigio and Andrea del Sarto who, with the Nativity of the Virgin, painted the most faithful portrait of his wife Lucrezia del Fede, unfortunately unfaithful according to Vasari.
19. BASILICA SAN LORENZO
Basilica consecrated in 393 and built in its present form in 1419 by Filippo Brunelleschi. Although rebuilt several times, Basilica of St Lawrence is considered the first Renaissance-style religious building in Florence. Its façade, naked and rustic, should have received a marble covering by Michelangelo. Today, it is therefore a church with a sober, unfinished, almost raw facade, and a strong contrast with the richness of the wood. Its absolutely pure proportions inside undoubtedly make it possible to recognize Brunelleschi’s genius. Near the altar are two bronze pulpits attributed to Donatello.
20. BASILICA SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
Florence’s first basilica, begun in 1246, completed in 1360 and consecrated in 1420, this Dominican church has an architectural style. It happily combines Florentine Gothic and Cistercian styles. The perfect facade, created by Leon Battista Alberti (1456), can easily deceive visitors by appearing to them as a Renaissance church. It alternates green and white marble, a decoration typical of Florentine churches. The six arched niches on the lower part of the façade are decorated with the coats of arms of the families buried here. The bell tower of Santa Maria Novella, built in 1330, reaches nearly 226 feet in height.