Even among the most touristic cities in the world, there is no doubt that Florence occupies a place of honor. The annual number of tourists in it, which stands at about five million people, is three times more than the number of residents in its entire metropolis. This ancient city, which was home to some of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and still inspires many artists and intellectuals, manages to surprise every time. It is packed with tourists at any time of the year, although of course it also has its relative highs and lows.
There is so much to do in Florence, that it is highly doubtful that one trip to it will be enough for you. If you plan to include in your trip also visits outside of it, in Tuscany or any other part of Italy, then your options are even more limited. It is important to remember that Florence, like Venice, Rome, and Milan, has a rich and varied history even without connection to the history of Italy as a country. This is a city that was an independent country throughout much of its history, a rich and prosperous country from which ideas came out for the rest of the Western world (and not only). Florence is especially suitable for art and history lovers, but not only.
Florence, as mentioned, has a rich and varied history, one that includes both international and local heritage. The city, which began in the first century BC and which over the years was the commercial and economic capital of the European continent, gathered visitors, statesmen, armies, and intellectuals of the first order. They all left their mark on it, especially in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the architectural and artistic wealth of Florence, for its multitude of buildings, sculptures, paintings, and personalities who worked there, it is difficult to find competitors.
Many important Italian cities have a “duomo” – that is, a dome – which is the central church of the city. However, the dominance of Florence’s Duomo is unquestioned, towering majestically over the city, as if the city belonged to it. This is one of the most monumental buildings you will see on a trip to Italy, certainly compared to the houses next to it. This comparison can best be seen from Piazzale Michelangelo, but don’t miss out on getting to the piazza of the Duomo and seeing it up close.
The Duomo was built over about 150 years (!), between the end of the thirteenth century and the middle of the fifteenth century, by a large number of architects and builders who patronized it throughout its history. Obstacles such as the lack of budget, the black plague, the death of its architect, and more, all resulted in delays in construction. However, the architectural achievement of the Duomo (the entire dome was built without scaffolding, and is considered the “mother of all domes”) was worth the wait. The neo-Gothic facade of the building, together with the exterior design of the cathedral (in which it is hard not to see the Muslim-Turkish influences), she received only in the middle of the 19th century.
This description is intended to explain why it is so worth visiting the place, even though there is not much chance that you will be able to avoid it. All the streets of Florence’s old town lead to the Duomo, so it’s best to just flow with them. In addition, near the cathedral, there are several other sites worth visiting, so it is worth devoting at least half a day to the place, if not more.
Although it appears to be part of the Cathedral of Maria del Fiore (Cattedrale di S. Maria Del Fiore), which is the official name of the Duomo’s cathedral, Giotto’s bell tower is a separate structure and was built independently of the cathedral itself over 25 years in the 18th century. 14. Giotto’s style, considered the first of the Italian Renaissance artists, is displayed here in all its glory, even though the construction of the tower was continued by his heirs after his death. The tower rises to a height of about 85 meters, and you can climb to its top using more than 400 steps. For those who make the effort, a spectacular panoramic view of Florence awaits, right in the center of the city.
Both the colorful cobblestones (the originals are displayed in the Duomo Museum – Museo Dell’Opera Del Duomo), both the complex decorations, and the beautiful stripes, all of these present to the visitor the beginnings of Renaissance art in the city in all its glory.
Right in front of the main entrance to the Florence Cathedral and the Duomo, is John’s Baptistery. He is not there by chance. This is the place where all those who shortly after entered the cathedral and had their first mass were baptized into Christianity. However, the baptistery itself is the least interesting part, and what is more interesting are its doors, known as the “Gates of Paradise”.
The gilded doors (the ones in the building today are a replica, the originals are displayed in the Duomo Museum) were designed by the Italian Renaissance artist Lorenzo Ghiberti in the middle of the fifteenth century, and they are considered a true wonder and a breakthrough in the art of sculpture. He worked on them for almost thirty years, and what sets them apart is the description of space and the creation of perspective in the design of the carvings in them. In the ten squares on the doors, various events from the Jewish Bible are shown chronologically, starting with the creation of the world and ending with King Solomon’s conversation with the Queen of Sheba.
The nickname “Gates of Paradise” was coined by the famous artist Michelangelo, who referred to the scene of Eden depicted inside the baptistery. It is not necessary to be religious in order to appreciate the quality of work and the multiple investments that went into these doors.
Piazza Repubblica is one of the three main squares of Florence (along with Piazza Duomo and Piazza Signoria), and it was the commercial heart of the city (while the other two are the religious and political centers, respectively). This is the place where the city’s forum was in ancient times (similar to the Roman forum), the place where the Jewish ghetto was for almost 300 years of its existence, and the central square of Florence when it was the capital of Italy, for five years in the 19th century.
Today, the square has a lot to offer, both for history buffs and entertainment enthusiasts. You will find fairs, changing exhibitions, many cafes, a movie theater, and more. Among other things, there are the historic cafes Cafe Paszkowski (Paszkowski), Gilli (Gilli), and Gambrinus (Gambrinus), and near the latter is also the famous Gambrinus cinema.
Palazzo Vecchio (because that’s what everyone calls it) was and still is the administrative center of Florence for centuries, and the beginning of its construction coincided with that of the Cathedral of Maria del Fiore. The comparison between the two buildings emphasizes the artistic transition point at which they were built since while the cathedral is built in the Renaissance style, Palazzo Vecchio is very reminiscent of medieval construction. The almost-square structure, the bell tower, the wall that adorns the roof, and the massive amounts of solid colored stone that make it up, all remind us of a medieval-sea castle, like which there are quite a few throughout Italy.
The palace was at first the center of the Republic of Florence (which existed in the 13th and 14th centuries), and then the rulers of Florence lived there for generations. It was only during the reign of the famous Medici dynasty in the 16th century, when they moved to Palazzo Pitti, that the palace received its current name. Although it still functions as the city hall today, Palazzo Vecchio is also a museum open to the public. You will find a variety of rooms decorated with beautiful frescoes (some of them made by the well-known Vasari), meticulously designed courtyards (especially the first one), a Saturn balcony with a view south of the Arno River, and more.
The palace is in Piazza Signoria (the name of the government of the Republic), and everything about it illustrates its importance as the central square of the Republic of Florence hundreds of years ago. Several important buildings surround it, such as the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi, the replicas of the statues of David and Neptune’s fountain, the loggia (Loggia dei Lazi) which contains sculptures from both the Renaissance and antiquity and many more.
This ominous name, which describes the covered courtyard to the right of the church to the Palazzo Vecchio, was given to it due to it being the abode of the German mercenaries who lived here during the time of Cosimo I of the Medici family in the sixteenth century. The portico is also known as the Portico of the Signoria, after the square where it is located.
The building is open to the Signoria square through three high arches, between which are carved figures representing the four “virtues”. The uniqueness of the portico is in the variety of sculptures that inhabit it, the oldest of which dates back to the first century AD. Among other things, you will find magnificent sculptures by Giambologna and Cellini, well-known Renaissance sculptures. Among the scenes depicted in the sculptures in the portico are famous mythological events such as Perseus holding Medusa’s head, the abduction of the Sabines, Hercules’ victory over Nessus, and more.
The Ponte Vecchio is a special spot in Florence, one that you won’t want (and probably won’t be able to) miss. It is the ideal combination between old and new, between history buffs and shopping enthusiasts. The visit can take two minutes or three hours, depending on you.
This bridge, which has undergone several incarnations since Roman times (the current one was built in the mid-14th century), connects the northern and southern parts of Florence, crossing the Arno River at its narrowest point. Today it is built of stone, with a large number of stalls and jewelry and art shops on its first floor, where you can purchase the best local and international jewelry. The prices here are extremely high, which is not surprising considering the popularity of the place and its history. The second floor of the bridge forms part of the Vasari Corridor, which connects Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, and was built by Giorgio Vasari for Duke Cosimo I of the Medici family, in the sixteenth century.
This bridge is of such great historical importance that the German army avoided destroying it when it retreated from the city in 1944, even though it destroyed all the other bridges in the city.
If you want to get out of the crowded old city of Florence, the first recommendation is to cross the Arno River to its southern bank using the old bridge and reach Palazzo Pitti and the nearby Boboli Gardens. The palaces and gardens of the Medici family in Tuscany, and Palazzo Pitti is one of the main ones, are recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Palazzo Pitti has a rich and glorious history, and a considerable number of very important personalities have lived there throughout history. It was built by the Florentine noble Luca Pitti in the mid-15th century, and the Medici family bought it and moved into it in the mid-16th century (after they left the Palazzo Vecchio). During the following centuries, among others, the Medici sons, Napoleon Bonaparte and King Vittorio Emanuele II, the king who united modern Italy, lived there during the time when Florence was the capital of Italy (according to the union of Rome with the rest of the Republic).
Today the palace is the largest museum complex in Florence (and as you understand, this is no small feat), and it includes a large number of museums and galleries. You can visit most of the galleries while visiting the museum, which is organized according to the rooms of the palace and not according to exhibitions, as is customary in other museums. Here you can see rare works of art by the great artists of the Renaissance, Baroque, and later periods, the royal shard apartments and the many tools used by the Medici family and their heirs in the palace, the carriages of the dukes, and many other exhibits.
These beautiful gardens, which are adjacent to Palazzo Pitti and can be accessed directly from the palace, are a perfect example of Italian Renaissance gardens. They are built along defined axes, rich in paths, trees, and fountains, and provide travelers with plenty of views, public squares, and artificial caves that provide privacy. The garden was built and furnished with sculptures by the great artists of the 16th century, including Giorgio Vasari and Bernardo Buontalanti. An artificial aqueduct brings water from the Arno river near the palace, in order to supply the many fountains of the gardens.
A walk in the gardens is a particularly refreshing experience for those who have spent whole days in the hustle and bustle of Florence, as they provide a calm atmosphere, lots of greenery for the eyes, and panoramic views both of the city and the river and their surroundings. You can stroll along the gravel paths of the gardens, imagine the prestigious events and aristocrats who spent a lot of time here, and take a break from the architecture and art that surrounds you from all sides in Florence.
In addition to the gardens themselves, at their upper end is the porcelain museum of Palazzo Pitti. This is a tiny museum with a small number of rooms, where there are a lot of vessels and porcelain sculptures from different periods. The museum is not particularly fascinating, but if you are already in the gardens then it is recommended to pass by for a short visit.
Besides the porcelain museum, the Belvedere Fort, built in the 15th century and designed to protect the southern side of the city, is also located in the gardens. It is the second largest fort in the city and an incredibly photogenic place. You can wander through the Renaissance corridors, take pictures of the beautiful view and feel like real strategists.
The opera house of Teatro della Pergola is the oldest opera house in Italy, and it has been standing since its construction in 1656 until today. It is a center of attraction for both history and art lovers as well as music lovers, as it is still active today and is recognized as a national heritage site of the Italian state. The opera house is in the center of the city and has two halls. The largest of their buildings has 1,500 seats, while the smaller one (the Saloncino), which used to be the ballroom and is on the second floor, hosts smaller performances with only 400 people.
You can find performances there even today, as the place hosts more than 250 performances, plays, and concerts throughout the year. The range of performances held there is particularly wide, although most of them focus on the world of theater and drama. Opera concerts are held there as part of the annual opera festival held between the end of April and the beginning of May, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
The Great Synagogue of Florence is one of the most impressive buildings in the city, and it stands out even when looking at the city from above. Its turquoise-colored domes (it used to be copper colored), its arches, its impressive height, and more, all of these make it a structure you would want to visit regardless of its Jewish history. It was established at the end of the 19th century, with the abolition of the Jewish ghetto in Piazza Repubblica. Its construction was the inspiration for the construction of similar synagogues in Rome and Turin. The interior of the synagogue is just as impressive as the exterior, and it includes a magnificent prayer hall, an exceptionally large ark, and many decorations in the Sephardic style. It currently serves the Jewish community of Florence, a small community (although the third largest in Italy) of about 1,200 members.
Besides the synagogue itself (which is active on Saturdays and holidays), you will find the Jewish Museum of Florence, as well as memorial plaques for the Jews of Florence who died in World War I, during the Holocaust, and in the War of Independence.
Besides historical sites, Florence is full of beautiful, interesting, delicious places and those that are just fun to spend time in. It does not mean that these places have no history (and some have a history of many hundreds of years), but that their historical aspect is not the main part of the experience when visiting them.
We have mentioned her several times, so this is the opportunity to introduce her. This small square (Piazzale in Italian, although it is not small at all) is a center of attraction for tourists coming to Florence, especially at sunset. And for good reason. The square, located at the top of a not very high hill overlooking the ancient center of Florence, provides a panoramic view of the city that few places can compete with. From the piazza, you can see the entire ancient center, the Duomo towering over the city, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Great Synagogue, Giotto’s bell tower, and many other sites mentioned here (and some not). This is a first-rate romantic site, certainly at dusk. During the tourist season, you will also find here quite a few street artists and food and drink stalls, that take advantage of the crowds of tourists who come to the place.
Besides the view, you will also find a number of impressive sculptures there that will remind you where you are. A replica of the statue of David (after all, this is Michelangelo’s square), surrounded by four smaller bronze statues representing the different parts of the day (day, dusk, night, and early morning).
It’s the perfect place for those who don’t want to squeeze in with the crowds in Palazzo Pitti’s Boboli Gardens (although they aren’t always busy). It is also a beautiful example of Italian Renaissance gardens, which have only recently been opened to tourists and are therefore extremely well preserved. They are located close to Palazzo Pitti, as part of the complex of Villa Bardini. The gardens have three magnificent complexes, each of which was built and designed at a different stage in their history, between the 17th century and the present day.
These gardens are the perfect place to relax after a long walk in a city full of tourists. The olive vineyards, the arch made of wisteria flowers that bloom in mesmerizing purple in the spring, and the baroque garden overlooking the city, all create a suitable setting for your vacation. At the on-site bar, you can order a cold beer, to make the experience perfect.
This is the ideal entertainment place for lovers of food and markets. If you find it hard to see the international fast food chains taking over the old center, then this is the place for you. This market has been operating since the 19th century and is a feast for the eyes and nose. Here you will find Florentine and Tuscan sellers offering their wares, which include meat, fish, locally produced cheeses, spices with strong aromas, and other vegetables, literally. Whether you choose to eat this product or not, there is no doubt that this is an unusual experience and one that will take you out of the gloom of the centuries-old museums and buildings for a while.
If you longed for a piece of countryside in all the hustle and bustle of Florence, Givat Paisola is for you. The hill, which is within the territory of Florence and can be reached from the city center by bus (line 7), is a Tuscan gem that will make you forget the tourist rush you are in the last few days. This is a perfect place to wander slowly, admire the Franciscan monastery (you can enter the monks’ rooms and admire the interior of the building), watch Florence with a panoramic view, visit the local Roman theater, and more.
For those who like the terrain, you can go from here to shorter and shorter routes on the nearby Monte Ceceri, which is full of hiking trails. We will reveal to you that this is the place where Leonardo da Vinci conducted his first experiments with the aircraft he devised, the fruit of his feverish and fruitful mind.
It may sound like another museum, but it is not. At least not completely. This huge library is inside a former monastery from the 14th century, right next to the Duomo. It was previously called the Municipal Library of Florence until in 2007 it was decided to honor the memory of the historic monastery and name it after him.
The first entry in this library is of course its books. It is home to more than 100 thousand volumes, about 40 thousand of which are accessible to the public. You will find a variety of genres and styles, including ancient and new writings. There are also sections for children and youth, as well as a conference room and more.
In addition to that, there is a charming cafe, which is highly recommended to sit in for an afternoon coffee with a view of the ancient center of the city. After you sit once or twice in the cafes lining the streets of the old center, and after they approach you at least once every three minutes with an offer to buy a selfie stick, a rose, a magnet, or anything else, you will realize that you need a quieter place. This library cafe is the perfect solution to this situation.