Birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence, or Firenze is the undisputed cultural capital of Italy. One of the most historic cities in the world, Florence draws some of the highest tourists in all of Italy ranking only behind Rome, Milan, and Venice. This jewel of a city is the regional capital of Tuscany, and lies in the middle of Italy, being very well connected by rail, road, and flights to Rome, Pisa, and other major cities of Europe. Today, this bustling cosmopolitan city is home to over 383,000 inhabitants, with over 1.5 million residents in its larger metropolitan region.
With its rich treasure trove of architecture, art, and sculpture, Florence today attracts over 13 million visitors annually. While tourism creates the financial backbone that supports the city’s economy, Florence is also a strong manufacturing base for furniture and chemicals, its most popular export being the stylish Vespa scooter that has wowed the world for decades. With world-class cuisine, an unending list of places to visit, and extremely friendly locals, Florence has something for everyone and is an obvious must-visit in everyone’s bucket list.
With so much to see, let us check the must-visit places in Florence:
1. Florence Cathedral
The Florence Cathedral or Duomo is the city’s most iconic landmark and looks spectacular in its white, pink, and green marbled exterior facade and brilliant red cupola. Construction of this grand edifice commenced in 1296 and took 150 years to complete. Its exterior grand façade was an addition much later in the 19th century. After the somewhat dazzling exterior, the interior to the Duomo seems a bit sparse in nature, many of its treasures being removed over the last five centuries, though a large part of these are still housed in the nearby Duomo Museum. The walls inside the dome are decorated with frescoes by Giorgi Vasari, depicting the Last Judgement and is an imposing masterpiece.
2. Giotto’s Campanile
Located just near the Duomo, Giotto’s campanile – or bell tower – is mistaken by many as a continuation of the Duomo itself. This is because the tower has a gothic architecture similar to the Duomo and is decorated with white, green, and pink marble in polychrome designs similar to the Duomo. Nonetheless, this five-storied structure is a separate attraction by itself. It was constructed between 1334 to 1359 and as the name suggests, was designed by the Italian master Giotto. However, Giotto died in 1343, after which this edifice was completed by Talenti. Decorated with splendid sculptures and paintings, the campanile is yet another of Renaissance Florence’s unmissable spots. Climb up the 414 stairs not just to tick this off your bucket list but also to get some breath-taking views of the sprawling city and a close up of the neighboring Duomo.
3. Palazzo Vecchio
What the Duomo is to religious Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio is to administrative Florence. Besides the Duomo, this fortress-palace dominates the skyline with its Torre di Arnolfo tower overlooking the city. Built towards the end of the 13th century, the Palazzo Vecchio was the outcome of the same architects who designed the Duomo. Almost looking like a medieval palace with crenelated walls, it was designed to house the city government. Even today, this majestic building houses the Mayor’s office and the local municipality. Similar to the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio is decorated with murals by Vasari who depicted gripping battle scenes here showcasing the victory of Florence or Pisa and Siena.
4. Ponte Vecchio
One of the oldest bridges of Florence is the Ponte Vecchio. Historical archives date this bridge to the end of the 10th century, though there are no clear and exact records of its origin. Spanning the Arno river, the Ponte Vecchio is sadly one of the few historical bridges that survived the German invasion during the Second World War. Today, this bridge is a walking delight, particularly due to the row of shops on both sides of the bridge, selling jewelry, arts and crafts, and your share of souvenirs to take back home. The shopkeepers here will regale you with their stories, including how the shops and their trade have been passed down from generation to generation. Some even say that the jewelers were brought in on the bridge, way back in the 16th century by the prescient and environment-conscious Medicis to replace the butchers who had the noxious habit of throwing away animal leftovers into the river.
5. Basilica of Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce is almost like a smaller version of the Duomo. Constructed during the same period and sporting very similar polychrome design looks with pink, green, and white marble, the basilica is smaller but more inviting and delectable. But what it misses in scale is made up of its precious tombs inside – including the likes of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, among many other Renaissance luminaries.
6. Baptistery of St. John
The Baptistery of St. John completes the troika of the Duomo and Giotto’s Campanile and is housed in the same precincts of the Piazza del Duomo. One of the oldest structures in Florence, this is where Dante Alighieri was baptized along with many other Renaissance masters. This octagonal structure has the same polychrome looks like the other two buildings and is noteworthy for its three sets of bronze doors depicting religious scenes. However, what will mesmerize you is its internal décor – a Byzantine styled grand mosaic fresco on the ceiling, glittering in gold and depicting Biblical scenes, including a visage of the Christ similar to the Aya Sofia in Istanbul.
7. Uffizi Palace and Gallery
For art lovers, the Uffizi Palace and Gallery is the most important museum in all of Italy. Located close to the Piazza Della Signoria, it has one of the greatest collections of Renaissance art anywhere in the world and is strewn with masterpieces of Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Titian among many others. The building is a jewel in itself, designed with marble pillars and statues, and was started by Vasari as an office for the magistrates of Florence (hence the name, Uffizi, which translates to Office in Italian). Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Da Vinci’s Adoration, And Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac are some of the many treasures in this art gallery.
8. Basilica di San Lorenzo
Not far from the Duomo lies the Basilica di San Lorenzo, one of Florence’s oldest churches and also, the parish church for the Medici family. Though not as flamboyant as the Duomo in looks, the Basilica is still a large and imposing building and is capped with Florence’s characteristic terracotta tiles. It is most noteworthy as the burial place for the most powerful members of the Medici family, whose patronage and trades ensured Florence’s rise to Italian dominance. Frescoes and artwork decorating this building include works of Donatello, Fiorentino, and Verrocchio.
9. Piazza della Signoria
The Piazza Della Signoria is located south of the Piazza del Duomo and together constitutes the heart of Florence’s tourism hub. The plaza’s most important structure is the Palazzo Vecchio, with its grand clock tower, and the impressive statues of David and Hercules. To the left of the Palazzo Vecchio lies an artistic fountain dedicated to Neptune, while on the right lies the Loggia Dei Lanzi – adjacent to the Uffizi Gallery. This building is noteworthy for its intricate Corinthian columns and the statues of many Greek heroes including Perseus, Hercules, and Menelaus.
10. Galleria dell’ Accademia
Though small in size to the point that you might end up missing it, the Galleria dell’ Accademia is the second most visited art gallery in all of Florence, after the Uffizi. The reason – it houses the statue of David by Michelangelo, hailed by many as his masterpiece in stone. Other works on display include paintings by Uccello, Botticelli, and del Sartre, besides a fine collection of old and unique musical instruments.
11. Palazzo Pitti
Located south of the Arno river close to the Ponte Vecchio, the Pitti Palace was once the residence of Luca Pitti, a wealthy banker, until it was procured by the Medici family. Over centuries of housing royalty, it has amassed a huge collection of art, many of which are on display here, making it the largest museum in Florence. It houses a treasure of Renaissance art such as the Veiled Lady by Raphael in the impressive Jupiter Room. Other masterpieces here are attributed to Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, and Veronese.
12. Boboli gardens
The Boboli gardens are located just behind the Pitti Palace and were originally designed for the Medici family. One of the first large scale examples of the Italian garden, the Boboli have inspired many a royal garden across Europe. Covering over 45,000 sq. meters, the gardens are among the largest in all of Florence and is a visual open-air treat, with statues and gardens, including the popular Buontalenti grotto built by the artist of the same name, and the fountain of Neptune by Stoldo Lorenzi.
13. Piazzale Michelangelo
Close to the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens lie the Piazzale Michelangelo on a hill, south of the Arno river, offering sweeping views of the skyline of Florence with the grand Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio, standing tall. If there is one Instagram-able location that you have to go to in Florence, this is the one! A bronze statue of David stands in the center of this square while artists and curio vendors can be found at its sides.
14. Church of Santa Maria Novella
Located right next to the main railway station of Florence, the Church of Santa Maria Novella has a beautiful polychrome faced design reminiscent of the Duomo and the basilica of Santa Croce. Within this church lies a number of chapels dedicated to the many wealthy trading families of Florence who helped the city build its wealth during the Renaissance. As with many other edifices of prominence in Florence, the Church has frescoes from many Renaissance masters including Botticelli and Ghiberti.
15. San Miniato al Monte
Yet another charming church that shares the quintessential Florentine polychrome looks is the San Miniato al Monte. Standing atop one of the highest points in the city on the far side of the Arno river, it is hailed to be one of the finest specimens of Romanesque structure in all of Tuscany. It offers stunning views of the city and includes a resplendent tomb and memorial to Cardinal James. Also noteworthy is a brilliant mosaic of Christ and St. Miniato.
16. Piazza del Duomo
The Piazza del Duomo lies in the heart of Florence and is the starting point of almost all tourist trails to the city, given the Duomo, Giotto’s Campanile, the Baptistery of St. John, and the Loggia del Bigallo are all within walking distance. Besides sightseeing, the plaza is a bustling centre full of cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops, making it a must-see in your itinerary.
17. Corridoio Vasariano
The Vasari Corridor was created to provide a walkway to the Medicis from the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio – wealthy aristocrats from that era, much like today’s celebrities, were loath to walking in the public! The corridor thus stretches between the two palaces moving along the Arno river, crossing it on the Ponte Vecchio. The Corridor is a walkway of artworks – though many of these were damaged over time, a lot has been renovated.
18. Forte di Belvedere
The Belvedere Fort sits on the grounds of the Boboli Gardens and is the second largest in the city. Yet another development funded by the Medicis, this fort was built by Buontalenti in the late 16th century. It was designed to protect the city’s government and the Medicis in the event of a war, while also serving as a garrison to guard the Pitti Palace nearby.
19. Statue of David
Considered by many to be Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the statue of David is celebrated for the brilliant display of the male human anatomy. It is such a draw that many Florentines consider this statue to be the city’s version of the Mona Lisa. The original statue is housed in the Galleria dell ’Accademia, a replica stands at the Palazzo Vecchio, while yet another bronze cast is on display at the Piazzale Michelangelo.
20. Bargello Museum
A former barrack and prison, the Bargello Museum is located within walking distance of the Piazza del Signoria. Some of the most treasured statues in its collection include David by Donatello, a bust of Christ by Lombardo and Bacchus by Michelangelo.