11 Things to See and Do in Florence

The magical city of Florence: Birthplace of Renaissance. Steeped in history, brimming with artistic treasures, and about as stylish a city as you can get.

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As you walk through its labyrinth of streets, it’s impossible not to think about all of the painters, sculptors, designers and philosophers who have walked the same route through the centuries. Brimming with fine art, fine food and fine wine, there’s no escaping the almost magnetic appeal of Tuscany’s largest city.

Nearly every building is of great significance, and every gallery is filled with absolute masterpieces. It’s a place you could visit over and over, and discover something new each time. In fact, perhaps the only conundrum you have when visiting Florence is narrowing down what you absolutely can’t miss.

To help you in this endeavour, here are our favourite and most unmissable things to do and see in romantic Florence.

1. Duomo

DUOMO Florence_Villa Italy RentalsIn a city that is widely regarded as the epicentre of architecture in Europe, the Duomo (Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore) is considered a stand-out. Designed by renowned architect Brunelleschi, the beautiful red tiled cupola (dome) is one of the most instantly recognisable icons of Florence. Climbing the 463 steps to the top of the dome will reward you with a truly awe-inspiring view out over the city.

Construction on the cathedral commenced in 1296 on a design by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio. It took 150 years of work before it was inaugurated. Event at this time it was incomplete. It was two centuries later that Brunelleschi put his mark on the design.

Today the iconic landmark with its spine-tingling pink, white and green marble facade, is one of the most popular attractions in Italy, if not Europe. The interior is equally impressive, with over 40 exquisite stained glass windows and frescoes by Vasari and Zuccari.

To learn more about the Duomo, head to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (The Opera del Duomo Museum) where the history of the Duomo and how it was built is exhibited. Some of the interior sculptures are also housed here, to keep them free of pollution and decline.

2. The Uffizi

Renaissance art has been described as “the noblest of ancient traditions”, and it’s certainly one of the most influential styles in art history. Emerging out of Italy, Florence especially is synonymous with the style, and there’s no better place to see some of the greatest Renaissance masterpieces than at the Uffizi Museum.

 

Video courtesy: Art and Travel by Dave

Occupying the first and second floor of a building designed by Giorgio Vasari in the 16th century, the gallery is a mausoleum to Italy’s greatest artists and sculptors.

The collections are masterfully organised into chronological order. And while Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is probably the most famous painting in the gallery, there are hundreds of other stunning works to observe. Absolute must-see pieces include Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus; Titian’s Venus of Urbino; Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels, as well as works by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Leonardo di Vinci and, of course Michelangelo.

3. Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens

You’ll need a day to absorb everything the Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace) has to offer. The grandioso palace designed by Filippo Brunelleschi for the Pitti family in the 15th century is a collection of museums rolled into one.

The building itself is magnificent, the original central building was extended and altered dramatically when it was sold to the Medici family, who added the central plaza and two separate wings to the original edifice.

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A magnificent example of Renaissance architecture it is, but it’s what’s housed inside that makes the Palazzo Pitti a must-see during your stay in Florence. Working our way up, on the ground floor visitors will find the Treasury of the Grand Dukes which exhibits the most spectacular collection of Medici possessions including precious jewellery, silverware and precious objet d’art and decoration.

On the first floor, the Palatine Museum displays works from 16th and 17th century artists including Raphael. On the top floor the Gallery of Modern Art displays a collection of 19th and 20th century Tuscan artworks.

Behind the Palazzo lies the Boboli Gardens and on the upper slopes, the Palazzina del Cavaliere houses the Porcelain Museum and the Palazzina della Meridiana houses Museum of Costume and Fashion. So much history in one small corner of Florence!

The Boboli Gardens themselves are a must visit in Florence. A peaceful natural spot in the heart of Florence. The gardens are perhaps the finest example of Italian garden design in the world. Said to have inspired many famous gardens, such as that at the Palace of Versailles in France.

Here you can enjoy a relaxing stroll through captivating green spaces, and of course this is Florence, so you’ll also see famous sculptures and landmarks, such as the Grotta di Buontalenti (Grand Grotto).

4. Basilica di Santo Spirito

Located in the Oltrarno district on the other side of the Arno River is the Basilica di Spirito Santo. This little church blends into Florence so perfectly that you might pass by without noticing its presence. Indeed many visitors to Florence fail to even cross over the river, which in our opinion is a mistake.

Originally an Augustinian convent, the original structure was constructed in the 13th century and was located outside of Firenze’s city walls. The building that stands today is another of renowned architect, Brunelleschi’s creations. Although he passed away before the church was finished and the design – felt too radical for its time – was tempered to soften the lines.

The exterior we see today dates back to the late 18th century and is distinctly minimalist. No statues, decoration or coloured marble here. What you should note are the coats of arms that sit atop each window. These denote the families whose chapels sit inside.

Inside the church is divided into three aisles with graceful columns running along the pews. The interior appears as minimalist as the facade, but there are a few items that are far from simplistic. The Baroque altar is one, which is decorated with fine statues. The spoiled fresco, Crucifixion and Cenacolo by Andrea Orcagna was hidden for hundreds of years, but can now be viewed in the church.

There is a stunning stained glass window by Italian Renaissance artist Perugino, and perhaps most astonishing is a beautifully carved sculpture by Michelangelo, which was considered lost for many years, but then found disguised in another chapel. It had been hidden in plain sight during the French occupation.

5. Basilica di Santa Croce

The Basilica di Santa Croce, or The Temple of the Italian Glories as it is also known, is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and the resting place for Florence’s greatest ambassadors: Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, to name a few.

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The colossal structure dating back to the late 13th century is brimming with artistic and architectural treasures. Frescoes by Brunelleschi, Giotto and Donatello, and magnificent sculptures adorn the interior.

To one side of the church there is an artisan leather school, where you can watch the students handcraft bags, jackets and other leather goods using traditional instruments. You can even purchase their creations. A visit is highly recommended.

6. Museo Nazionale del Bargello dedicated to Medicee chapels

With numerous masterpieces located in one of Florence’s oldest and most interesting buildings, the Bargello National Museum is an absolute must-see in Florence. The building itself dates back from the mid thirteenth century and has had a number of civic uses through the ages, including a prison and the meeting place for the Council of the Hundred, which Dante took part in

It became a museum in the mid-19th century and now contains the largest collection of Italian sculptures from 14th to 16 centuries in the world. Including an early example of David in marble by Donatello, and also a bronze version. The works sculpted from local Carrera marble are particularly unmissable.

7. The Palazzo Vecchio Museum and Tower

A visit to Palazzo Vecchio is like taking a time travel machine and stopping off during the Roman occupation, the Medieval age and Renaissance era. What better way to understand the history of Florence than spending a few hours immersed in this great building?

The main building sits atop the archaeological ruins of the theatre of the Roman colony of Florentia, which dates back to first century A.D. You can visit the site separately or buy a pass to visit both.

Video courtesy: galantecarlo

The Palazzo Vecchio is Florence’s town hall and since its conception it was always intended to house the city council. During the 14th century the building was enlarged by the Duke of Athens. An imposing fortress-style facade hid the opulent halls and apartments inside.

Perhaps the most impressive of all is the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred). The 54 metre room has immense historic and artistic importance. It’s jaw droppingly beautiful, with frescoes, sculptures and murals adorning the room from floor to ceiling. Leonardo da Vinci painted the mural, Battle of Anghiari. Michelangelo painted the Battle of Cascina on another part of the wall (neither of these works were completed).

When the court of the Medici family took over the Palazzo in the mid-16th century, further masterpieces were added by Vasari and Donatello.

This so much to see in the Palazzo Vecchio and there are several guided tours that mean you won’t miss out on anything, such as The Tour of Secret Passages, the Medici Tour or the Tour of the Piazza della Signoria (where the copy of David is installed) and Palazzo Vecchio.

8. Farmacia Santa Maria Novella

After visiting the Church of Santa Maria Novella, which you absolutely must, we highly recommend a trip next door to the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella.

One of the oldest pharmacies in the world: established by Dominican friars towards the end of the 13th century. The pharmacy was originally closed to the outside world, but when news spread of the wonderful medicines and remedies that were grown and made within the walls, the pharmacy became open to the public. During the 17th century, its fame grew and was visited by people from Russia, China and the Indies.

 

This is an amazing place decorated with frescos, mosaics, and marble floors that are testament to the age and importance of this once humble monastic pharmacy.

Today there are various rooms selling fragrances, herbal teas, ancient liqueurs which originate from the conception of the pharmacy. One example of this is Alchermes, a red liqueur used to make the Italian dessert, Zuppa Inglese.

If you are in the vicinity of Farmacia Santa Maria Novella in the morning, stop off for a home-made tea or infusion in their Farmacia tea rooms.

9. AquaFlor Firenze Perfumery

Florence’s love for the finer things in life extends beyond food, architecture and art, with the city also offering some of the most unique and beautiful perfumeries in the world. For a luxurious experience and an unforgettable memento of your stay in Florence, head to Aquaflor Firenze, a historic perfumery where you can blend a unique signature scent.

10. Ponte Vecchio

It seems every feature of Florence has been carefully and lovingly designed and crafted, and the city’s elegant bridges are no exception. The most captivating of all is Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), which spans the Arno River.

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Not only is the Medieval bridge a beautiful and iconic landmark in Florence, it’s particularly famed for being part closed with rows of shops. The bridge has incredibly survived the test of time. Still standing after floods, wars, and the Arno river bursting its banks.

The original intention of the bridge was as a defensive barrier. However, there have been shops along the Ponte Vecchio since the 13th century. The bridge acted as a marketplace housing butchers and fishmongers. Towards the end of the 16th century Ferdinand I decreed that the bridge could be used by goldsmiths and jewellers, and to this day there is a gorgeous selection of jewellery shops and art dealers.

Take a boat trip along the Arno river for another aspect of this historic bridge.

11. Piazzale Michelangelo

It’s perhaps the most famous square in Florence, thanks to its stunning panoramic views. Although not quite as good as those from Villa Dimora Bellosguardo. Located in the Oltrarno District not far from the Botanic Gardens, the Piazzale Michelangelo   is the place to go to soak up the beauty of Florence’s most famous views.

And the view! Video credit: Traveller 87

From the vantage point, you will be treated to a mesmerising view over the river, crossed by historic and picturesque bridges, as well as the rooftops including the famous Duomo dome.

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