Florence Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

For centuries, the Italian city of Florence has captured the imagination of travelers who have come in search of insights into its rich artistic heritage. Referred to as the “Cradle of the Renaissance,” the Tuscan capital is an art lover’s paradise that is home to some of the most famous masterpieces of the western world.
Florence Travel Guide
Table of Contents

A living testament to the role of Florence in the Renaissance, the Galleria degli Uffizi museum is a must-visit, which houses one of the greatest painting collections in the world by Masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Botticelli.

Pitti Palace is another world famous Florentine museum worth visiting. The largest palazzo in Florence, it hosts different galleries featuring the art, jewelry, costumes and apartments of the Medicis.

At the Galleria dell’ Academia, you can admire the exquisite Statue of David by Michelangelo, one of the most famous sculptures in the world, along with other sculptures by Michelangelo.

Sightseeing visitors can enjoy the Basilica di Santa Maria Del Fiore, a beautiful gothic cathedral noted for its expressive colors, distinctive dome, elaborate doors and interesting statues, and which is also the largest brick dome ever built.

At the Santa Croce church, you can admire the vast interiors that display exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes. The largest Franciscan church in Italy, Santa Croce also holds the Cappella dei Pazzi, one of Brunelleschi’s most important works.

Stroll in the Giardino di Boboli, a beautiful expanse of rich, extravagant pleasure set in peaceful gardens that boast some of the most photogenic views of Florence. Then visit the Ponte Vecchio or “Old Bridge” – another of the most famous landmarks.

A splendid mix of Medieval and Renaissance architecture, Florence boasts a quaint characteristic and a personality all of its own. With all its magnificent attractions, it’s no wonder then that many who pay a visit to Florence find it hard not to fall under this captivating city’s spell.

1. Galleria degli Uffizi

Galleria degli Uffizi is one of the most important museums in the world for Italian art, and in particular art from the Renaissance period. When it was built, the museum was Europe’s first modern museum and is today an art lover’s paradise.

Situated close to the Piazza della Signoria, the museum is housed in a long narrow building that was designed to serve as the Uffizi or “offices” of the magistrates of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. Today, the Uffizi Gallery holds much of the private collection of the Medici’s, the Florentine first family.

Well represented at the Uffizi are all the famous names from Italy’s rich artistic heritage, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Raphael and Giotto. Some of the masterpieces you can expect to see here include: Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael; Birth of Venus by Botticelli and Venus of Urbino by Titian.

During the mid-16th century, Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici commissioned the construction of a Renaissance version of an office building. Following his death, the Uffizi was completed under the guidance of his son Francesco I, who began using the building’s long corridors to display the art collection of the Medici. This is how the Galleria degli Uffizi was born.

One of the notable features of the gallery is the Vasari Corridor, a hidden walkway that was built for the Medici family in 1564, and which connects the Palazzo Vecchio and the Gallery with the Pitti Palace apartments. The corridor is over 1km long and was commissioned by Cosimo I to celebrate the marriage of his son Francesco.

This private corridor enabled the Medici to freely move between their private residence and the seat of government without requiring an escort or having to walk on the street among the “commoners”.

In addition to the splendid views of the city afforded from the circular windows of the corridor, its entire length houses a selection of 17th and 18th century paintings, including a unique self-portrait collection of painters. Visitors are able to see the corridor on special tours given only on reservation.

The Galleria degli Uffizi museum is a must-visit for all travelers to Italy, especially art lovers. Take your time enjoying a glance at the paintings, the views of the city and the ambience afforded by timeless treasures. Serious art lovers may need to visit the Uffizi at least twice to see the gallery’s collection in all its glory.

You may also want to get the audio guide during your tour, simply because there is so much art that you would want to know the details about. To avoid the long lines, be sure to reserve tickets to the museum in advance.

2. Palazzo Pitti

Palazzo Pitti or Pitti Palace is one of the historical landmark buildings in Florence. The Palace was built by Luca Pitti, a rich banker who lived with his family there from 1470 onwards. The interiors of Pitti Palace are ornately and sumptuously decorated with elaborately frescoed ceilings, stylish stucco work on the trimmings and walls, in addition to the general pomp, opulence and splendor of the furnishings.

The building was designed to look glorious from inception due to the fact that the Pitti family was in competition with the powerful Medici. They therefore wanted their new home to be more imposing than the Medici family palace. Pitti Palace was set far back from the pavement and features an enormous open square out front which makes its appearance even more impressive and noticeable.

The fortunes of the Pitti did not last long however, and in a twist of fate, they ended up having to sell their palace to the very same Medici rivals they had been competing against.

In 1550, Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany bought the building. It then became the most majestic palace in Florence that still manages to provoke an awe-inspiring feeling when you cross the Ponte Vecchio and see it to your left.

The Grand Dukes of Tuscany then resided in the building, which was also used by Napoleon during his reign over Italy. It was also home to the King from 1865 to 1871 when Florence was the capital of Italy. Pitti Palace was transformed into a museum in 1833 by Leopold II, one of the last Grand Dukes of Tuscany.

Today, Pitti Palace houses a number of important museums, such as the Galleria Palatina, the Royal Apartments, Modern Art Gallery, Costume Gallery, Porcelain Museum and the Silver Museum, which is also known as the Medici Treasury.

Galleria Palatina is really a 2-fold museum – the building itself and the artworks it contains both being attractions in their own right. Over 500 artworks make up the Galleria Palatina.

The Modern Art Gallery boasts a simple elegance in its minimalist style, and mostly features artworks from the 1800s, as well as pieces from the 1900s. Be sure to check out some of the most striking themes in the museum which include the Macchiaioli painting movement, the unification of Italy and the celebration of Florence and Tuscany.

The Royal Apartments are a sight of cozy lavishness, with rooms that tend to follow a specific color-scheme. This produces a beautiful effect as every color has a varied tone palette which is finished off in delicate gold trimming.

The Costume Gallery is a museum for clothes, fashion and accessories. Here you will be taken on a journey that reveals how dressing styles changed and evolved between the year 1600 and the 1920s.

The Museo degli Argenti or the “Silver Museum” features collections of several types of precious objects that once belonged to the Princes and Dukes of Tuscany and Florence. Visitors will enjoy taking a peek at the exhibits which include valuable silverware, cameos, gems, jewelry, silver and gold table settings as well as beakers, platters, vases, drinking horns, ebony pieces, liturgical pieces and semi-precious stones.

3. Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

Consecrated in 1436, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore is the fourth largest church in the world. It took over 140 years to build the cathedral whose name translates to Saint Mary of the Flower, and which is commonly referred to as the “Duomo”. Flower refers to both Jesus and Florentia, the Latin name of the city of Florence.

The cathedral was begun in 1296 with the aim of competing with and outshining the impressive basilicas of neighboring Pisa and Siena. Looking at the Florentine cathedral today, visitors cannot deny that this goal was achieved. The largest brick dome ever built, the Duomo can hold 20,000 people.

The Duomo is covered entirely in 3 shades of marble: white, pink and green, all of which were sourced from Tuscany. Because of its striped and geometric pattern, the church has been described as “wearing pajamas.” This neo-Gothic façade was completed in the 19th century, 400 years after the cathedral was consecrated.

While the cathedral is for the most part constructed in the Gothic style, it features other architectural styles due to its long period of construction. The sides of the cathedral display blind rounded arches which are typical of Romanesque buildings, while the windows and doors have pointed arches representative of the Gothic style.

The most emblematic feature of the cathedral is of course the dome or cupola by Brunelleschi, which is wholly Renaissance. The dome is the most admired feature of the Florentine cathedral with is the epitome of classical elegance.

The Basilica is an architectural masterpiece that dominates the Florentine skyline and offers an exquisite example of harmony in decoration. More than just an extraordinary work of art, it is a source of pride and a symbol dear to the people of Florence. The best way to capture the grandeur of this cathedral is by viewing it while walking to the top and simultaneously moving farther away from the building.

4. Capelle Medicee

Capelle Medicee or the Medici Chapels form part of the monumental San Lorenzo complex. If you’re a Michelangelo fan, you will absolutely love the Medici Chapels. This is because the chapel is one of the only architectural designs completed by Michelangelo, and the museum houses at least 7 sculptures by the Renaissance master.

La Sagrestia Nuova or the New Sacristy is the most heralded section in the Medici Chapel Museum. This is basically a Michelangelo feast of architecture, sculpture and design. The small domed building was constructed between 1521 and 1524 upon the request of Cardinal Giulio de Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII. The building was intended to serve as a mausoleum for the Medici family.

The New Sacristy represents one of the only complete constructions that enable you to view Michelangelo’s genius as an architect, rather than as a sculptor or painter. Upon completion of the building, Michelangelo then worked on the sarcophagi and sculptures.

The New Sacristy building was inspired by the design of the Pantheon in Rome and is in fact a much smaller scale replica of the Pantheon dome, whose beauty, harmony and elegance Michelangelo greatly admired.

Cappella dei Principi or the Chapel of the Princes is the second important part of the Medici Chapel. Constructed between 1604 and 1640, this chapel has a high dome and is very large, which gives it an extremely sumptuous feel. This chapel belonged to the secondary line of the Medici family who were more eager to flaunt their wealth and power, hence the lavishness of this chapel.

While the opulent display of the Cappella dei Principi was designed to serve as the final resting place of the Medici’s, the enormous sarcophagi are empty and only function as funerary monuments or cenotaphs. This is because most of the Medici family members were in fact buried in the Medici Chapel Crypt.

The Opificio di Pietre Dure or Workshop of Semi-Precious Stones was set up in Florence for purposes of executing the part of the Medici Chapel that is decorated with Florentine mosaic works. This remains the most extravagant use of Florentine mosaics anywhere in the world.

For nearly 200 years, different stone pieces were meticulously pieced together to form the smooth uniform images you will see inside the Chapel today. Visitors can also admire the frescoed dome of the Chapel that is decorated with scenes from both the Old and New Testament.

For a brief period in 1530, the Medici Chapel served as a hide-out for Michelangelo who had fallen out of favor with the Medici rulers.

During a political struggle in which the people of Florence called for a more democratic Florentine republic, the artist sided with rebelling citizens in opposition to his Medici benefactors and was placed on the “black list”. Michelangelo then hid out inside an underground room inside the Medici Chapel where he took to doodling on the walls.

The third important part of the chapels is the Medici Chapel Crypt, which leads to both the New Sacristy and the Chapel of Princes and is where the majority of the Medici family members are buried. In addition to the many tombs contained here, there are a number of glass cases that enclose reliquaries of saints and valuable relics.

Inside the Crypt, there is also a large statue of a lady sitting on a stately chair. This is Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, the last heir to the Medici family who left the immense artistic wealth of the House of the Medici to the city of Florence when she died in 1743. There is also a gift shop at the crypt and visitors can rent an audio guide here to explain all the sections of the museum.

5. Il Battistero di San Giovanni

Situated in the Piazza San Giovanni, Il Battistero di San Giovanni or the Baptistery of Saint John is one of the oldest religious monuments in Florence. The baptistery was named after John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, and is located at the front of the Duomo, which for centuries was the civic and religious heart of Florence.

The building is built in the Romanesque style with white and green marble, and is topped by a pyramid shaped dome with eight triangular sides. The octagonal shape of the baptistery is attributed to the number 8 which has a symbolic meaning to the Catholic Church. Eight is the number associated with regeneration, and in particular, the 8th day is for rebirth that occurs through the rite of baptism.

The most famous features of the Baptistery are its 3 sets of bronze doors that include the Ghiberti masterpiece – the Gates of Paradise, which depict episodes from the Old Testament.

Legend has it that it was Michelangelo who gave the name the “Gates of Paradise” to Ghiberti’s second set of doors. Upon seeing the finished work, Michelangelo allegedly exclaimed “these doors are so spectacular they could be the gates of paradise!” Whether this is true or not, the Gates of Paradise are today considered the first major work of the Florentine Renaissance.

The doors were made between 1425 and 1452, taking 27 years to complete. The use of perspective is one of the most distinguishing traits of Renaissance art and Ghiberti was able to achieve this in his sculptures of Jacob and Esau. He did this primarily by placing classical Roman columns in the background and floor tiles in the foreground to bring the eyes of the viewer towards the main image.

Ever since they were installed, Ghiberti’s doors have been regarded as masterpieces deserving of fierce protection. During the Second World War, they were removed and hidden for safe keeping.

The other doors of the Baptistery illustrate the life of John the Baptist, as well as depict the life of Jesus. The doors were constructed between 1330 and 1452 from 3 sets of square panels each recounting an episode from the bible. These bronze sculpting works are often cited as the official beginning of the Renaissance in Florence.

It is noteworthy that art commissioned during the 14th and 15th centuries by religious institutions were typically designed to “teach” the people. Because most people were illiterate at the time, they could “read” the bible only through images.

Although it was officially consecrated by Pope Nicholas II in 1059, San Giovanni became officially known as a baptistery and no longer a cathedral only in 1128. From then on, it began to take on its current decoration of internal mosaics and external marble.

Ancient relics such as a pagan sarcophagus were built into the exterior wall of the building as a way to remember the history of the site, as well as the Roman origins of Florence.

The interior décor of the baptistery was inspired by Roman buildings such as the Pantheon. These include Roman sarcophagi, Byzantine mosaics and Romanesque arched windows, in addition to funeral monuments to a Medici family member.

Visitors can admire the Byzantine style mosaic ceiling, the most notable part of the baptistery interiors. The mosaic dates from the 1200s and offers a very detailed account of “Universal Judgment” through several layers of symbolism that took more than 100 years to complete.

Also take a peek at the intarso floor of the baptistery, in a combination of both floral and geometric patterns of different colored stone pieces joined together so closely to produce a finished product that appears to be one singular piece. The Florence Baptistery was the first to use the “canopy bed” style in a funeral monument.

In addition to being a religious and historical symbol, the baptistery is also a site for christenings. Throughout history, a number of well known Tuscans and Florentines have been baptized inside the baptistery, the most famous being Dante Alighieri, the poet who referred to the building as “my beautiful San Giovanni” in his Divine Comedy.

Other notable individuals include Lisa Gherardini, the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Niccolo Machiavelli.

6. Galleria dell’ Accademia

The Galleria dell ‘Accademia is a spacious and elegant museum in Florence that is an absolute pleasure to take a stroll in. At the Galleria dell ‘Accademia, there is only one star: David. Of course, there are plenty of other attractions worth seeing, but the main reason why most people visit the gallery is to take a peek at the Michelangelo masterpiece: the Statue of David.

Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he created his artistic tour-de-force. It took him 3 years – from 1501 to 1504 to create the likeness of the biblical hero.

A special annex was built to the gallery just to house this sculpture. There is also a hall leading up to the statue which is lit up in a way that tremendously adds to the experience of seeing David. Visitors to this museum are bound to be astonished by the beauty of this high Renaissance sculpture work.

But there’s much more to the Galleria dell ‘Accademia than its stellar David. On the ground floor you’ll find a wonderful section dedicated to antique musical instruments which belonged to a collection owned by the Medicis. There is also a section for sculptures that features a collection of plaster casts by 19th century sculptors.

The gallery also has a section on paintings, which covers Florentine art from the 13th to the 19th century, and also features a valuable collection of Russian icons from the 1700s. One of the most significant rooms in the gallery is dedicated to paintings focusing on the school of Giotto, the pre-Renaissance master, spanning the 1200s and the 1300s.

7. Museo di Palazzo Vecchio

A visit to the Museo di Palazzo Vecchio or the Palazzo Vecchio museum affords visitors a walk through seven centuries of Florentine history inside rooms where many significant events occurred.

The museum is situated in Piazza Signoria inside the Palazzo Vecchio, the most historic building in the city. Dating from 1299, Palazzo Vecchio is also one of Florence’s and indeed Italy’s most admired and recognizable palaces. The Palazzo Vecchio museum has three important sections: the Salone dei Cinquecento, the Monumental Apartments and the Ancient Quarters of the Republic of Florence.

The Salone dei Cinquecento or the Chamber of 500 is the largest room in Italy, measuring 175 by 75 feet. The 500 refers to the fact that the room was designed to fit up to 500 council members who would attend meetings as city representatives. You could write a book about this one room alone. Massive and monumental, this single space contains more history than many museums in their entirety.

While this is one of the most famous parts of the museum and its most visited section, the room is not merely used for its aesthetic value. The room is also functional in that it is used frequently for day-to-day functions in Florentine life such as for concerts, cultural and political events. Its raised ceiling with painted panels gives the room a greater sense of grandeur, and the frescoed walls complete its majesty.

In 1505, both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were commissioned to work on two wall murals within the Salone. Each artist was set up to work separately on a different side of the room and paint frescoes depicting different battle scenes in Florentine history.

Because Michelangelo and da Vinci were rivals, having to work on opposite sides within the same room is likely to have sparked the fires of competition in both who sought to out-do the other.

However, neither artist managed to complete their commissions. Leonardo abandoned the project in frustration because he had used oil-based paints that wouldn’t dry; while Michelangelo was called to Rome by the Pope and forced to abandon his fresco.

The Monumental Apartments are another key part of the Palazzo Vecchio museum in which you can tour the rooms established by Cosimo I in homage to past members of the Medici family.

The rooms were also used as the ducal residence of the Medici family during the reign of Cosimo I, and feature frescoes of images depicting military successes, diplomatic meetings, alliances forged, weddings, births and christenings of family members.

The second floor of the museum is also home to a mysterious painting nicknamed “Madonna with UFO” because of the presence of a flying object in the sky in the painting of the Madonna with Child. Also within the painting is a man with a dog pointing to this object in the sky!

The Ancient Quarters of the Republic of Florence comprise the third part of the Palazzo Vecchio museum. This section contains the offices that were used by the Florentine Republic, which are also the oldest rooms in the building.

The Palazzo Vecchio museum differs from many Florentine museums in that it is the building and its history that are on display, rather than artworks placed in rooms. Therefore, if you are a history buff, you will particularly enjoy this room – just as much as the art lovers.

Sculptures by Michelangelo and paintings by Florentine masters make the museum certainly worth the visit. It is highly recommended that you obtain as much information about the museum as possible to help you better appreciate your tour. Consider taking an audio guide, if not a guided tour.

The museum also offers great views of the Santa Maria del Fiore and its magnificent Duomo that you can enjoy from the window of the Hall of Justice.

8. Santa Croce

Santa Croce is a Florentine basilica most known for the famous Italians buried there. Referred to as the church of “Italian Glories”, the basilica is the final resting place of renowned Italians such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo Galilei.

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Michelangelo’s is the most lavish tomb, although he almost didn’t occupy it. When the artist died in 1564 in Rome, the then Pope requested that he be buried inside St. Peter’s Basilica. However, his remains were sneaked back to Florence where the artist had expressed his wish to be buried.

In addition to the more significant memorial tombs, there are many floor tombs as well inside the Santa Croce. There is also a memorial to Florence Nightingale, who was named after the city that so inspired her parents during their vacation to Italy during which time she was born.

Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world and home to some of the loveliest artistic gems in Florence. The church is a cornucopia of art work by the significant masters from the 1300s to the 1500s and beyond, and boasts a series of 13th century frescoes by Giotto that for centuries have been admired by both artists and scholars.

Construction of the church began in 1294 on an earlier site of worship set up for Franciscan monks. The building was designed in a Gothic spired style, by the same architect behind the Duomo. The church was consecrated in 1433. During the 19th century, a neo-Gothic façade was added to the church. Franciscan monks still occupy a big part of Santa Croce today.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the church was not just a place of worship, but also a center for cultural learning. Both Dante and Pope Leo X spent their early learning years inside the vast church library, in the presence of respected philosophers and theologians.

There are 16 private chapels situated along the two sides of the church which served as private places of worship. These were sponsored by wealthy families so that they could have their own section of the church for individual prayer and services, and could have them decorated by the artist of their choice.

Within the Santa Croce is Pazzi Chapel, one of the most prestigious gems in Florence and a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. The unique thing about this chapel is that it was designed and built within the confines of already standing buildings – the church and convent. This is a testimony to the genius of master architect Brunelleschi who achieved a building of uniform elegance and symmetry.

The church also contains the oldest example of Florentine stained glass in its windows, as well as the finest example of a Renaissance pulpit. The pulpit by Benedetto da Maiano is sculpted in white marble and is regarded as the most accomplished and beautiful pulpit to ever be executed during the Renaissance.

The work is exceptional due to the ability of da Maiano to produce authentic renderings of animals, trees and expressive faces by chiseling into stone. The 5 panels on the marble pulpit depict episodes in the life of Saint Francis.

Be sure to check out the Bardi Chapel. This is probably the most famous of the Santa Croce chapels due to its Giotto frescoes painted during a later period in the life of the artist, when his craft attained its pinnacle. Visitors are sure to be fascinated by the serenity, simplicity and poetic expression that is characteristic of Giotto works.

At the front of the basilica is the Piazza Santa Croce, a huge square that was formerly surrounded by the houses of the poor and used for massive religious ceremonies. The Square is today one of the hot spots in the city of Florence. Today, impressive palaces surround the piazza and the square serves as an open air market, a venue for concerts and performances, as well as medieval football matches.

9. Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio or “Old Bridge” is situated along the pedestrian zone towards Palazzo Pitti south of Piazza della Repubblica. Until 1218, the bridge was the only one across Florence’s Arno River. The present-day bridge was rebuilt following the flood of 1345.

Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge across the river Arno that the Germans did not destroy while fleeing during the Second World War. They instead demolished the medieval buildings situated on each of its sides to block access.

Since the 13th century, shops have been present on the Ponte Vecchio. Initially, there were all sorts of shops including fishmongers and butchers. Later tanners set up shop on the bridge, but their industrial waste began to cause a stench in the area. Ferdinand I decreed in 1593 that only jewelers and goldsmiths be permitted to have shops on the bridge.

By night, the shops’ wooden shutters give the appearance of wooden chests and suitcases, and make it a suggestive route for the typical Italian evening stroll, the passeggiata. Ponte Vecchio is itself a very romantic spot in the city of Florence which offers great views over the river, as well as the bridge itself.

10. Giardino di Boboli

Giardino di Boboli or the Boboli Gardens are a superb example of the classic Italian garden. The gardens comprise a green park with symmetrically trimmed hedges, meadows, ponds, statues, fountains and gravel paths. Boboli is in fact the backyard of the Palazzo Pitti and used to be the private outdoor playground of the Grand Dukes, before it was transformed into a park and opened to the public.

Boboli Gardens feature a mysterious labyrinth of hedges and cypress trees that wind through hilly terrain. The garden is also an open air museum with monuments and sculptures that date back to the Roman antiquity, along with 16th and 17th century statues.

The gardens offer fantastic views of Florence, with some that will leave you feeling like you are almost floating above the Duomo. The outstanding views are due to the hilly location of the gardens which keep rising.

At the gardens you can view an amphitheater, an Egyptian obelisk dating from 1500 BC, original Roman statues, Renaissance statues such as Giambologna’s Jupiter, a lemon house, as well as vast lawns and cypress lined alleys.

There are also several grotte or caves which are decorated with intricate carvings and mosaics, and which contain statues, fountains and waterworks such as the famous Grotta dei Buontalenti.

For more great views over Florence and its monuments, be sure to visit the garden’s charming 18th century coffeehouse in rococo style with terrace. Stand on the terrace and enjoy the spectacular scenery or sit inside and sip a steamy cappuccino as you take in the grand views.

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