The Renaissance had birthed its roots in Florence to give the city extraordinary charm, filling cinematic streets with exquisite architecture, frescoed interiors, art museums and sculpture work everywhere. Featuring the likes of Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci, the city is perhaps the world’s leading collector of period art. Tangled in the webs of history and art are museums that expound on both artistic talents and scientific growth; fashion and food matching with equal flair. And when one has had their fill of this sensual city, they simple have to look beyond to the rolling Tuscan hills and amber sunsets. Without further ado here's the best things to do in Florence:
Climb up Giotto’s Campanile
On par with the Duomo’s stunning design, Giotto’s Campanile is the epitome of Gothic architecture in all its angular, tiered glory. Yet where many structures we have seen are loaded with hulking gargoyles, deep carvings and darker elements, the Campanile is mostly light marble with blue and terracotta accents. Of the five levels, only parts were completed between 1334 and 1343; the rest were continued after Giotto’s death in 1343 up until 1359. Sculptures were incorporated into the façade of the second tier while motif panels cover the rest to show off Renaissance influences. Even better; visitors can climb the tower’s 414 steps for views over Florence and the Duomo, marking it as an art piece and aesthetic platform.
Marvel at The Duomo
The heart of Florence and center of the old quarters, Florence’s Duomo is an unrivalled site within the city. Constructed in 1436, this cathedral would go on to elaborate on its beautiful façade, with works lasting until 19th century. White and red marble coat its front while pink and green polychrome designs mark it up in intricate symmetry. The detailed but clean lines are a sharp contrast to the sun-tanned tiles of the half and full domes; the latter is a breathtaking viewpoint if you’re willing to climb some stairs. Look out for other attention pieces such as the fresco of the Last Judgement, and the large clock face.
Win glorious views from Piazzale Michelangelo
What better than free views at an open and romantic plaza? Drop by Piazzale Michelangelo when weather forecast proclaims a clear day to see Florence’s most famous landmarks. The verdant plant life blends with the yellow and tan palette of the buildings to offer a warm town vibe – you’ll see the Arno River and iconic Ponte Vecchio, the immense dome of Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. You’ll see how the city is tight-knight and buildings of distinct Italian flavor. You’ll also get to see how the city shines during sunset, a striking image of reds and orange as the sun sinks low and the streetlamps light up.
Study inventions at Da Vinci Museum
Leonardo da Vinci is a famous name in the art world thanks to the Mona Lisa; others also recognize it as the psychological cog behind the movie Da Vinci Code. What people tend to overlook is Da Vinci’s penchant for both art and engineering. Visit the museum to learn about his inventions, fascinating machinery that reveals much about his talent for innovation. Interact with these wooden ‘models’ and study at length that codexes that combine machines with elemental sources.
Smell the flowers at The Rose Garden
The Piazzale Michelangelo is a recognized viewpoint but did you know of another spectator’s space just below it? Stop by the Rose Garden to literally smell the roses; this velvety and aromatic flower spilling from all corners of the garden. Admire its bloom up close before turning your eyes outward for more urbanscape. There’s a special charm in enjoying Florence’s skyline while surrounded by natural beauty. Visit in May or June when the roses are in bloom; or, its open year-round so you can easily drop by on your way up to Piazzale Michelangelo.
Detour up to San Miniato al Monte Church
San Miniato al Monte gazes down over the old city quarter with clear views of the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. Located hilltop on the far end of Arno River, the church is a two-in-one attraction and viewpoint. Look past the gleaming exterior for an interior full of spectacular artwork. Frescoes feature heavily between marble columns, and the monument dedicated to Cardinal James is worth looking at too. When you’re done scouring the church, take your time admiring the panoramic sweep outside.
Admire statue masterpieces at Bargello National Museum
Bargello National Museum is located within a relic; admire the impressive stonework and carvings that mark this Middle Age castle and fort. Crenulations and guard towers make the grey casting all the more imposing. The museum collection itself is largely Renaissance in style, showcasing sculptures and art works of that period. Its most famous include Lombardo’s bust of Christ, Michelangelo’s Bacchus and the full-bodied David by Donatello.
Absorb Jewish history at Tempio Maggiore
Take a break from catholic churches and step into the Great Synagogue, which sets itself apart from the red-domed buildings with a turquoise arch instead. A monumental structure inaugurated in 1904, it took inspiration from Greek architecture and Assyrian motifs. Marble furnishings from 16th century complement polished columns and gilded arabesques. Pay close attention to the detail work on the walls and arches of its galleries! The Synagogue is also key to understanding Jewish history in Rome, their later segregation and reconciliation with the Popes.
Shop for souvenirs at San Lorenzo Market
San Lorenzo Market is one of those tourist-filled spaces that guidebooks recommend but locals don’t – we’re saying you should visit anyway. While it isn’t the place to stock up on the quality leather that Florence is known for, it offers cheaper goods (both in quality and pricing) and plenty of souvenir stalls for fun trinkets to commemorate your visit. The colorful bustle also makes it a great location for photo ops. Since it is right by Mercato Centrale, do a complete walk through!
Explore the heart of Florence: Piazza del Duomo
As the name might suggest, the main square of Piazza del Duomo houses some of the city’s most iconic architectures – Giotto’s Campanile, the Duomo, The Baptistery of St. John and Loggia del Bigallo. It is also a thriving commercial center that floods over with crowds regardless of the day. Peruse the various shops around the quarters, which feature high-end stores to souvenir stalls and cozy eateries. With many shops set in dated buildings with arched entryways and vaulted ceilings, it makes for a truly fascinating shopping experience.
Admire the Basilica di San Lorenzo
A far cry from the shiny exterior of the Duomo, the Basilica di San Lorenzo evokes a more time-worn vibe due to its dusky stone work. Commissioned by the powerful Medici family during the Renaissance, it does retain the characteristic terracotta dome of the time. Its true value lies within the vaults, which is home to the tombs of the Medici family. Exquisite burial site aside, the basilica also houses a myriad of sculptures and art works. The intricate frescoes and gold-white gilded ceiling of the dome interior is a highlight that will have you snapping away on your camera.
Circle around the Palazzo Vecchio
Sharing the same designers as Duomo and the Church of Santa Croce, Palazzo Vecchio matches in grand statement. Once a palace, this 1299 structure is a historical monument complete with decorated rooms such as The Hercules Room and The Room of Cybele; it also highlights a trajectory of important families and figures with its line-up of their coat of arms on its exterior. This town hall and administrative building can be spotted a mile away thanks to its striking bell tower, which sits astride a hulking structure of medieval design.
Bask in tranquility at Boboli Gardens & the Porcelain Museum
Take a break from Florence’s majestic streets and bask in its surrounding nature instead. Just offside Palazzo Pitti is the sprawling estate of Boboli Gardens, extending some 45,000 square meters. The tiered garden offers clean lawns, hedges as walls and secreted groves dotted with several ponds and a fountain. Statues are abundant too, neatly placed in imitation of people hanging out in this serene space. To double the charm, visit the Porcelain Museum tucked at the back. Not only are the porcelain wares stunning handicrafts; its tiny garden paints gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. It’s all valley and villas as far as you can see.
Tour the stunning Uffizi Palace and Gallery
Art and history collide at Uffizi Palace and Gallery, which enchants with its classic design. Columns and arches call to mind ancient Greece and Rome, but marble statues and ceiling paintings fast forwards us into the Renaissance period. One of Italy’s most significant art museums, it features pieces by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Titian and Raphael that span various mediums. Of the most famous works are Da Vinci’s The Baptism of Christ and The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio. Learn much about the artists but also the inspiration behind each work by spending a few hours exploring the gallery!
Hike to Fiesole
Some views are worth sweating it out for. Do schedule in an hour and a half to two hours of hike time to reach the town of Fiesole. You’ll be gifted top-down views over the sprawl of urban Florence, to be able to spot major landmarks rising above the dense city. It is also a glimpse of ‘other’ Tuscany, the rolling hills and lush foliage that sit so prettily behind brick and mortar.
Stare at anatomical figures at La Specola
We won’t bore you with historical details of La Specola, although take note of its status as the oldest scientific museum in Europe. What makes it so fascinating is the collection of 18th century wax anatomical models. Even better, you get an eye-opening gallery of taxidermied animals including the Medici Family’s pet hippopotamus. Science-oriented visitors can marvel at dated scientific instruments and read up on Italy’s contribution to the field. It is altogether an interesting glimpse into what scientists were curious about in the past.
Glimpse inside of Santa Maria Novella Church
Stock up on historical architecture and local stories at Santa Maria Novella Church, another landmark known for the trademark polychrome and white marbling design. Right by the main railway station, it is one of the most accessible attractions in town. Do take a tour inside to see the various chapels where prominent Florentine families of the Renaissance era were enshrined. The walls and ceilings are also decorated with elaborate frescoes, master pieces by the likes of Ghiberti and Botticelli.
Stay a short stint at Piazza della Signoria
Bringing together people and art, Piazza della Signoria is an important square hemmed in by stately buildings and sculpture work. Palazzo Vecchio is the crowning jewel, grand turrets and clock tower and mired with statues of David and Hercules. The Fountain of Neptune is equally regal, a bold figure surrounded by his retainers. The building of Loggia dei Lanzi offers dramatic arches that open up to the streets, containing Renaissance sculptures of Perseus, Hercules, Menelaus and other mythical heroes. Settle in for a short stint of people watching as well, as the chic and fashionable browse the high-end stores in surrounding buildings.
Admire Ponte Vecchio from Vasari Corridor
Poised along Arno River is Vasari Corridor, originally constructed for nobility who didn’t like walking outdoors. About a kilometer long, the passageway connects Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti, spanning the length of Ponte Vecchio. Look out of its arches for views of this unique bridge, or walk through its minimalistic interior in appreciation of displayed art works. These rare self-portraits date back to the 16th century, taking you through Florence’s modern history.
Eat local at Mercato Centrale
If you want to see it all but only have time for one market stop, Mercato Centrale is your choice. The city’s most popular market by far, it is loved for its eclectic mix of food stuff. Friendly stall owners man the colorful displays of produce and raw goods on the ground floor, while a level up are restaurant-bars and cafés. Enjoy the best of Italian cuisine at the cheese and wine bars, or salivate over oven-baked pizza and hand-made pasta. Everything is fresh and flavorful.
Admire and tour the Basilica of Santa Croce
Like the Duomo, the Basilica of Santa Croce is known for its front façade. Following the pattern, the pristine white marbling is overlaid with pink, green and terracotta polychrome designs to stand out from the plain buildings around it. But its red roofing camouflages it from up top, although the sharp jut of the bell tower belies its religious grounds. More than just a picturesque church, many renowned artists and scholars of the Renaissance period are enshrined here, such as Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Spare some time to touring its interior for more historical background.
Hunt down art around Palazzo Pitti
Palazzo Pitti might not have the fountain-filled glamour of Piazza della Signoria, but this 1400’s palace wears grandeur on a different scale. The front square and symmetrical design evokes an imposing air, browned bricks hiding the residence of former royalty and nobility. Now one of the largest museum complexes in Florence, Palazzo Pitti has opened the gates for visitors to admire its collection of Renaissance art. The famous painting of Veiled Lady by Raphael faces tough competition against the other frescoes in the Jupiter Room; other works by Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian and Vernonese are spread out in other galleries.
Tour around Galileo Museum
Nestled in medieval Palazzo Castellani is the Galileo Museum, which celebrates both the great thinker and consequent scientific discoveries. Boasting over a thousand scientific instruments, the museum draws from the collections of the Medici and Lorraine families. It even features original telescopes and lenses that belonged to Galileo. A detailed tour will walk you through ancient worlds, development of chemistry and strategic warfare, as well as other unusual scientific items.
Browse the lively set up of Mercato delle Pulci
For a more off-beat market experience, check out Mercato delle Pulci! There is no flea market in Florence as eclectic as it – you’ll find a range of art prints, jewelry, antiques, vintage furniture, books and more miscellaneous goodies. It is open every day, making it a great itinerary filler. If you happen to be in town the last Sunday of the month however, the market upgrades with an additional hundred stalls to outstrip its everyday offerings.
Shop and stroll across Ponte Vecchio
If we’re talking about unusual architecture, Ponte Vecchio makes the cut. A historical bridge with no clear date of conception, Ponte Vecchio cuts across Arno River to be both pedestrian crossing and shopping street. Where the bridge opens up in the middle to show views down the river, the flanking sides see shops built into the bridge’s structure to extend over water. Small vendors and stalls offer up jewelry, kitschy souvenirs and art – truly something you don’t see every day! It is also an experience walking along Vasari Corridor and snapping shots of the bridge.
Wander the neighborhood of Santo Spirito
Remove yourself from the touristy spots for a taste of local, off-beat flavor. The neighborhood of Santo Spirito is just far away from the bustle, nestled on the opposite side of Arno River and in the vicinity of Boboli Gardens. Prep for a charming walk in a quieter locale, streets lined with cozy cafés and indie bookstores. It is also home to the quirky Mercato Fierucola if you’d rather not maneuver through the crowds of Mercato Centrale.
Soft, supple and sophisticated – Italian leather is a classy treat and Florence is known for producing some of the world’s best leather goods. Scour the boutiques for a leather jacket or bag; it may be pricey but well worth the investment. Alternatively, you can hit up the markets for cheaper quality products but also at lowered prices. Just know that good leather can last decades so make your pick carefully. It’s definitely not a single-wear purchase!
Visit the Baptistery of St. John
Florence never runs out of architecture stunners – the Baptistery of St. John is another scene-stealer. While it sits right in front of the Duomo, it is altogether a separate building. Still, take note of its iconic Florentine design. The intricate pattern work is copied over from the other buildings to make this historical building one of series. Façade aside, take note of its bronze doors which depict religious scenes and virtues through illustration. Elaborate Byzantine frescoes can be enjoyed inside as well, detailing the Last Judgement and other biblical stories in gold edging.
Scout out the Galleria dell’Accademia
Learn more about the history of Florence at the Galleria dell’Accademia, where art reflects much of the 14th and 15th century going-ons. Teeming with Renaissance art, it is known for its plethora of sculptures by various artists, of which Michelangelo reigns first in terms of fame. More importantly, the gallery is known for hosting the original sculpture of David. If the stunning array of sculptures and paintings isn’t enough to hold your attention, turn your eyes towards the hall dedicated to musical instruments.
Day trip to the Villa Medici at Pratolino
Just outside city borders is what used to be the sprawling estate of Villa Medici at Pratolino, its gardens sculpted to near perfection. While this Renaissance villa has long fallen apart, its legacy survives in the 35-feet tall Appennine Colossus. Erupting from rock is the weathered face of an old man; but it isn’t just a rock. The mammoth statue is in fact a building with a fireplace! If you want a hidden gem, seek out this giant.
Day trip to San Gimignano
If you dream of Tuscany’s dusky hills and picturesque towns, only a visit to San Gimignano will satisfy that desire. One an important trade town, this intimate region is a medieval wonder that settled into a cradle of soft hills. Enjoy some of the country’s best gelato while collecting stories from the locals. Make sure to take a detour to Chianti wine country to round off the blog-perfect Italian getaway.