It’s very easy to stand in the heart of Italy’s most famous Renaissance city and wonder where to start your exploration and the idea of picking the best sights in Florence can be as daunting as the sightseeing itself.
Having just visited for the third time, here’s my suggested top 20. For those who have a bit more time or interest to scrape below the surface, I’ve also included a good number of related sights.
There are many guides out there that will provide much more detailed descriptions of the individual spots than the list below. The information here is aimed at the casual tourist who has little in-depth knowledge of the Renaissance period. The points I have chosen to highlight are the points that stuck me as most fascinating about each sight…I hope you will find them interesting, too.
It’s also worth noting that many of the sights go under several names. I’ve tried to use the most common English name and the formal Italian name.
1. The Duomo (Brunulleschi’s Cupola)
Inside and out, the dome of Florence’s main cathedral (Catthedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) is stunning both visibly and architecturally. You can see the paintings on the dome from inside the Cathedral (admission is free) but if you have the stamina and the legs, climbing the 463 steps to the top provides great views out over Florence and superior views of the famous ceiling fresco painted by Brunulleschi.
(Side note: I’m serious when I say you need a fair bit of fitness – on my first trip to Florence with my mum we joined the long queue, as English people are prone to do, and before we knew what we’d signed up for, we were hiking the stairs. My mum was in her 50s and a self-confessed chain smoker. I thought I was going to witness her untimely death, not what I’d had in mind when I bought the tickets to Italy as a Christmas gift. Fortunately, she is safe and well back in England with no future plans to re-attempt the climb.)
Tip: Go early or go late because if you visit along with the daytrippers and cruise crowd you will queue for hours just to enter.
2. Giotto’s Bell Tower (Campanile di Giotto)
While most people head to the Duomo and the climb, there is an equally impressive sight and climb close by. Just around the corner from the Duomo, Giotto’s Bell Tower is another impressive hike (414 steps for this one). The main benefit of this climb is that you get panoramas that include the Duomo.
3. Arnolfo Tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (Arnolfo Torre di Palazzo Vecchio)
If the queues at the Duomo don’t impress you, this is the tower with the fastest entry (at least when I was there) and the one that, in my opinion, provides the best views out of all of the tower climbs – you can see the Duomo, the Bell Tower and the Arno River. This climb is 223 steps, but the number is deceptive as you need to climb two stories inside the Palazzo before the tower climb begins.
Tip: Don’t miss the prison cells on the way up – hardly examples of humane living.
If you’re in the mood for a challenge, try climbing all three towers in one day. I achieved a strange sense of satisfaction from completing them all without collapsing in a heap!
4. Academy Gallery (Galleria dell’Accademia)
This is the place where the world’s most famous statue lives – Michelangelo’s David. The queues to see this gigantic sculpture are as horrendous as David is impressive. There are so many naked sculptures around Florence that by the time you see David up front and personal, you’ll be so immune to his indecency that you’ll be more captivated by the size of his hands which, unlike other parts of him, are huge.
Yes, there is a replica outside the Palazzo Vecchio and no that weather-beaten version is not comparable with the pristinely kept original.
Once you’re done with David, give some time to the rest of the exhibits that include works by Bottichelli.
Tip: If you don’t want to queue for David (lines can take up to 3 hours in summer), consider buying your ticket online for a small fee (€4) or, if you plan to see more sights in the city, consider the Firenze Card. It’s the city’s sightseeing pass and if you follow this tinerary, you’ll save money by buying the card. I’ve written a detailed article comparing the cost of using the Firenze card versus buying single tickets.
5. The Bargello Museum (Museo del Bargello)
This museum was a complete surprise to me and probably one of the my favourite museums in Florence. The building is comparatively small, so easy to get around and has fewer people than the Academy and Uffizi, but best of all it contains some of the earlier sculpture works of Michelangelo and Donatello. Who’d have thought it – David didn’t get fully naked until Michelangelo set to work on him (art buffs, please fell free to correct me on my timing)!
6. Vecchio Bridge (Ponte Vecchio)
If David is Florence’s most iconic sculpture, then the Ponte Vecchio is the city’s most iconic sight. A sunset stroll comes with a warning – beware the glint of softening light on the jewels that sparkle in the myriad shop windows. I was nearly lured in more than once.
Tip: Fill each hand with a gelato cone and you’ll be so busy keeping up with the melting cream, you’ll escape with your wallet contents intact.
7. Signoria Square (Piazza della Signoria)
Florence is one of those city that sadly comes with multiple euro signs. However, there are a fair number of free sights and this Piazza is one of the more interesting. As people clamber over each other to get a shot in front of fake David, very few people realise that they are standing in the location where the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities took place.
8. Uffizi Gallery (Galleria degli Uffizi)
I took a nap in the Uffizi. Sprawled out on a set of sofas exhausted to the point of madness with paintings of Madonna and Child. At one point, a woman came and took a photograph of me as though I were a modern masterpiece ‘Indiana Jo with Renaissance Art Saturation’.
I’ve included the Uffizi in this list as the sheer volume of work by such famous artists merits a place on the list, but the truth is it was one of my least favourite spots. Why? Because after three full days of seeing one work of oil on canvas after another, the hundreds of works in this sprawling museum pushed me over the edge. I’m embarrassed for my confession, but the truth is what it is.
Tip: Work in plenty of time to do this gallery justice and go early in the morning rather than late at night – hopefully that way you will have a better experience than I did. Otherwise, the sofas about three-quarters of the way from the end are very comfortable!
9. Palazzo Vecchio Museum (Museo di Palazzo Vecchio)
I had much more time for the Palazzo Vecchio museum than I did for the Uffizi. Possibly because I saw it when I was fresher but more likely because of the sheer vastness of the Hall of Five Hundred (Salone dei Cinquecento) with its ceiling high paintings depicting the wars with Sienna and Pisa. That said, I did see one tourist sat playing Candy Crush instead of looking at the art around her. Perhaps she had reached her Renaissance burn-out, too. Still, it’s hard not to be captivated by the statue of one man literally having another by the…parts you shouldn’t grab (in the hall on the far right, giggle).
10. Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni)
This striped, octagonal structure that sits opposite the Cathedral entrance attracts almost as many visitors as the Duomo itself, yet few are interested in the interior. Instead, the main draw is the Porta del Paradiso, the bronze doors on the east side (nearest the Cathedral) designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti that Michelangelo claimed were so beautiful that they could be the Gates to Paradise.
Tip: The Baptistry is arguably more impressive outside than in, but if you have the Duomo combined ticket, entry is included. Check out the large concrete area on the floor, which is where baptisms of the likes of Dante took place.
11. Opera Museum (Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore)
Well, here’s a little known secret – as the masses crowd around the Baptistry to get a shot of the famous Gates of Paradise, the shrewd sight seers cross to behind the Duomo and enter the Opera Museum where the original bronze doors are stored (behind glass for preservation). The museum is included in the Duomo card so can be visited as part of the same ticket.
12. Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti)
Huge, grand and even if you’re reaching Renaissance saturation, the Pitti Palace is a great place to stroll around just to get a feel for how the other half (or, in this case, the Pitti family and later Cosimo I and the Savoys) indulged in the game of life. Lavish, opulent and dripping with excess, I enjoyed pretending I was a princess for a few hours as I imagined living in the rooms that make up the apartments replicating what life was like when the Savoys were resident (Appartamenti Reali).
13. Boboli Gardens (Museo Giardino di Boboli)
And breathe…when you want to take a step out of the Renaissance, the Boboli Gardens are the answer. Sure, there are statues and grottoes that are historically interesting, but lolling under a shady tree with a picnic walked off by a stroll under the alley of cypress trees, the gardens are ideal for unplugging (from your Audio Guide) and recharging in nature.
Tip: Don’t wear you’re favourite pink heeled shoes for a 3 hour amble around the gardens with their many stairs and steep hills…though you were probably not going to anyway!
The gardens are accessed through the Pitti Palace – you can buy single tickets for each or a cheaper combined ticket for both.
14. Michelangelo Square (Piazzale Michelalangelo)
Another of Florence’s best, free outdoor spaces, Piazzale Michelangelo may be plagued with coach loads of tourists, but the panoramas of the city are the best you will see without putting your hand in your pocket for your euros. Sunset or after dark is the best time to see the city lit up. There is a fair hike up there (thank you Mr gelato man for not tripling the price of your wares – I would have paid whatever you demanded I was so hot and bothered after the walk). Alternatively, you can catch the C12 bus from the train station.
I couldn’t help recall the scenes from E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, set in Florence, when I stood here.
15. Santa Croce Church (Basilica di Santa Croce)
Out of all of Florence’s religious buildings (that I saw), this was by far the most impressive from the inside. Enormous in every way from the length to the height and the vastness of the crucifixion hanging by the altar. Most fascinating is the wealth of tombs of Florence’s famous past residents including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.
16. Duomo Cathedral (Catthedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore)
I’m very likely going to be struck down by Florentine lightning for putting the Cathedral so far down this list. Of course, the vivid and striking exterior is a stunning sight, but step inside and you’re met with a contrasting starkness. As interesting parts of Florence go, the interior of the Cathedral isn’t compelling for the average visitor (other than the dome, which can better be seen by the walk to the top, as mentioned above). However, when in Florence…you may as well pop inside.
Tip: Cover your shoulders and knees. There are varying levels of strictness in Florence’s religious buildings, but especially in the Cathedral you should assume a strict application of the definition of decency and go prepared…alternatively you can buy one of the over priced disposable capes they sell at the end of your long wait that screams ‘Tourist Rip Off’ but will have you handing over cash so you don’t have to rejoin the queue.
17. Galileo Museum (Museo Galileo)
Scientific instruments, telescopes, globes and even the middle finger of the famous scientist (euwgh!) are kept at this museum. Perhaps its most appealing aspect is that the museum offers something a little different amonst the sea of religious paintings.
18. Costume Gallery (Galleria del Costume)
Forming part of the Pitti Palace, the Costume Gallery is another way to dip out of the Renaissance for a while. Featuring original dresses spanning centuries up to the modern-day and including designs from the likes of Versace, the gallery is a fascinating way to pass an hour amidst Heavenly air conditioning.
Beware: unless you have the combined Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens ticket, the Costume Gallery is part of the garden ticket despite being located in the palace. A con to get you to buy the combined ticket? I presume so, but a reality nonetheless.
19. Dante’s House (Museo Casa di Dante)
Dante‘s presence is still heavily felt in Florence even today – I met a group of college students from the USA who had come to Florence for a semester to specifically study the great mind behind the lengthy poem ‘The Divine Comedy’, a significant work he wrote while in exile from his beloved city. If you’re a Dante fan, a visit to the home of this famous poet will fascinate.
Tip: Dante’s gruesome death mask can be seen in the Palazzo Vecchio while copies of the Divine Comedy can be seen in the Academy.
20. Dante and Beatrice’s Church (Chiesa di Santa Margherita)
Around the corner from Dante’s house is the church that he used to frequent and where he apparently met his true love, Beatrice (before going on to marry another to whom he had been promised). There is a basked in the small church where people place love notes, wishes and thanks in the hope that Dante and Beatrice will hear them. If you’re unlucky, you’ll visit at the same time as a 52 seater coach of people arrive. Squishy and smelly!
After days of cramming in the sights it was once again time to leave Florence certain I’d done nothing more than peel another layer of petals off the bud of the city’s many sights. So, I headed to the pig in the square and, as superstition dictates, I rubbed the snout to ensure my return to Florence. But, I’m sure that as long as Ryanair remains in the sky, my path back to Florence is always guaranteed.
If you’d rather take a tour than plan your own trip, I’ve used Viator before and find their tours to be great value, easy to book and, best of all, there’s a huge range of tour types from one to several days long and covering a huge range of interests from walking tours to Vespa rides to cooking lessons.
You can see all of Vaitor’s Florence tours here.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to take a longer tour through Italy, Intrepid Travel is one of my favourite group tour companies – you tend to get a more loca experience of a country than you would on most package trips.
You can see all of Intrepid Travel’s Italy tours here.
If you have any other sights you think should be on this list or tips for my next trip to Florence, let me know in the comments below.
Grazie mille to Simone Mooij. This post was all the more difficult to pull together when my memory card corrupted. But it was all the easier to complete because of Simone’s kind donation of photos. Unless otherwise stated, the lovely images above belong to Simone and cannot be reproduced without her permission (which is likely to be given in exchange for vino rosso bearing the Chianti symbol). Salute, Simone!
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