Florence, Italy (Firenze)
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Since the early nineteenth century Florence has been celebrated as Italy's most beautiful city. Stendhal staggered around its streets in a perpetual stupor of delight; the Brownings sighed over its charms; and E.M. Forster’s Room with a View portrayed it as the great antidote to the sterility of Anglo-Saxon life. The pinnacle of Brunelleschi’s stupendous cathedral dome dominates the cityscape, and the close-up view is even more breathtaking, with the multicoloured Duomo rising beside the marble-clad Baptistry. Wander from here down towards the River Arno and the attraction still holds: the river is spanned by the mediaeval, shop-lined Ponte Vecchio.
For art lovers, Florence has no equal in Europe. The development of the Renaissance can be plotted in the vast picture collection of the Uffizi and in the sculpture of the Bargello and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Equally revelatory are the fabulously decorated chapels of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella, forerunners of such astonishing creations as Masaccio’s superb frescoes in the Cappella Brancacci.
The Renaissance emphasis on harmony and rational design is expressed with unrivalled eloquence in Brunelleschi’s architecture, specifically in the churches of San Lorenzo, Santo Spirito and the Cappella dei Pazzi.
While the full genius of Michelangelo, the dominant creative figure of sixteenth-century Italy, is on display in San Lorenzo’s Biblioteca Laurenziana and the marble statuary of the Cappelle Medicee and the Accademia, every quarter of Florence can boast a church worth an extended call, and the enormous Palazzo Pitti south of the river constitutes a museum district on its own.
If you’re on a whistle-stop tour, note that it’s not possible to simply stroll into the Cappella Brancacci, and that spontaneous visits to the Accademia and Uffizi are often difficult.
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From the extraordinary sight of Brunelleschi’s church dome to the mediaeval streets of the City Centre, here are the best things to do in Florence.
Stepping out for the first time in Florence, it’s almost impossible not to gravitate straight towards the square in the centre, the beating heart of Florence, Piazza del Duomo, beckoned by the iconic form of Brunelleschi’s extraordinary dome, which dominates the cityscape in a way unmatched by any architectural creation in any other Italian city.
Yet even though the magnitude of the Duomo is apparent from a distance, and even though you may have seen it in a thousand photos, the first full sight of the church and adjacent Baptistry still comes as a jolt, the colours of their patterned exteriors making a startling contrast with the dun-coloured buildings around them.
In the seventh century, the seat of the Bishop of Florence was transferred from San Lorenzo to the ancient church that stood on the site of the Duomo. In the thirteenth century, it was decided that a new cathedral was required to better reflect the wealth of the city.
In 1294 Arnolfo di Cambio designed a vast basilica focused on a domed tribune; by 1418 this project was complete except for its crowning feature. The conception was magnificent: the dome was to span a distance of nearly 42m and rise from a base some 54m above the floor of the nave. It was to be the largest dome ever constructed – but nobody had yet worked out how to build it.
The key to the dome’s success was the construction of two shells: a light outer shell, and a thicker inner shell. Its completion was marked by the cathedral's papal consecration in 1436.
Alongside Italy’s most impressive cathedral dome is perhaps its most elegant belltower. The Campanile was begun in 1334 by Giotto, who was no engineer: after his death in 1337 Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti took over the teetering, half-built edifice, and immediately doubled the thickness of the walls to stop it collapsing. The first storey is studded with two rows of remarkable bas-reliefs: the lower row, The Creation of Man and the Arts and Industries, was carved by Pisano himself, the upper by his pupils. The figures of Prophets and Sibyls in the second-storey niches were created by Donatello and others. (All the sculptures are copies – the originals are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.)
Generally thought to date from the sixth or seventh century, the Baptistry is the oldest building in Florence, and no building better illustrates the special relationship between Florence and the Roman world.
Throughout the Middle Ages the Florentines chose to believe that the Baptistry was originally a Roman temple to Mars, a belief bolstered by the interior’s inclusion of Roman granite columns.
The pattern of its marble cladding, applied in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, is clearly classical in inspiration, and the Baptistry’s most famous embellishments – its gilded bronze doors – mark the emergence of a self-conscious interest in the art of the ancient world.
In 1296, the Opera del Duomo was created to oversee the maintenance of the Duomo. In the early fifteenth century it took occupation of a building at the east end of the cathedral, which now houses the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a superb museum that reopened in late 2015, after a €50 million rebuild that doubled the exhibition space.
The show-stopper on the ground floor is a huge hall containing a reconstruction of Arnolfo di Cambio’s facade of the Duomo, adorned with many of the sculptures that occupied the facade’s niches before it was dismantled in 1587.
Opposite are Ghiberti’s stupendous “Doors of Paradise '' and the Baptistry’s original North Doors, also created by Ghiberti. At some point these will be joined by the originals of Pisano’s South Doors. Also on the ground floor you’ll find a room devoted to Michelangelo’s late Pietà, which was intended for his own tomb.
Read more: The 7 best museums to visit in Florence
The main route south from Piazza del Duomo is the arrow-straight Via dei Calzaiuoli, a catwalk for the Florentine passeggiata. Halfway down the street is the opening into Piazza della Repubblica.
The square was created in order to give the city a public space befitting the first capital of the newly united kingdom of Italy, but it wasn’t until 1885 that the old market and the disease-ridden tenements of the Jewish ghetto were finally swept away, by which time Florence had been displaced by Rome.
It’s a characterless place, notable solely for its size and upmarket cafés, and the freestanding column is the solitary trace of its history: once surrounded by stalls, it used to be topped by Donatello’s statue of Abundance, and a bell that was rung to signal the start and close of trading.
Attracting well over two million visitors a year, the Galleria degli Uffizi is the finest picture gallery in Italy, housed in what was once government offices (uffizi) built by Vasari for Cosimo I in 1560. After Vasari’s death, work on the building was continued by Buontalenti, who was asked by Francesco I to glaze the upper storey so that it could house his art collection.
Each of the succeeding Medici added to the family’s trove of art treasures, which was preserved for public inspection by the last member of the family, Anna Maria Lodovica, whose will specified that it should be left to the people of Florence and never be allowed to leave the city.
In the nineteenth century a large proportion of the statuary was transferred to the Bargello, while most of the antiquities went to the Museo Archeologico, leaving a gallery of paintings supplemented with some classical sculptures.
Towards the southern end of Via dei Calzaiuoli rises the block-like church of Orsanmichele. From the ninth century, the church of San Michele ad Hortum (“at the garden”) stood here, which was replaced in 1240 by a grain market and after a fire in 1304 by a merchants’ loggia.
In 1380 the loggia was walled in and dedicated exclusively to religious functions, while two upper storeys were added for use as emergency grain stores. Its exterior has some impressive sculpture, including St Matthew, St Stephen and John the Baptist by Ghiberti (the Baptist was the first life-size bronze statue of the Renaissance), and Donatello’s St George.
All these statues are replicas – nearly all of the originals are on display in the museum entered via the footbridge from the Palazzo dell’Arte della Lana, opposite the church entrance.
Whereas the Piazza del Duomo provides the focus for the city’s religious life, the Piazza della Signoria – site of the mighty Palazzo Vecchio and forecourt to the Uffizi – has always been the centre of its secular existence.
The most lavishly decorated rooms of the Palazzo Vecchio are now a museum, but the rest of the building is still the HQ of the city’s councillors and bureaucrats, and the piazza in front of it provides the stage for major civic events and political rallies.
The piazza’s array of statuary starts with Giambologna’s equestrian statue of Cosimo I and continues with Ammanati’s fatuous Neptune Fountain and copies of Donatello’s Marzocco (the city’s heraldic lion), his Judith and Holofernes and of Michelangelo’s David.
Conceived as a partner piece to David, Bandinelli’s lumpen Hercules and Cacus was designed as a personal emblem of Cosimo I and a symbol of Florentine fortitude.
Probably designed by Arnolfo di Cambio, Florence’s fortress-like town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio, was begun as the Palazzo dei Priori in the last year of the thirteenth century, to provide premises for the highest tier of the city’s republican government.
Changes in the Florentine constitution over the years entailed alterations to the layout of the palace, the most radical coming in 1540, when Cosimo I moved his retinue here from the Palazzo Medici and grafted a huge extension onto the rear.
The Medici remained in residence for only nine years before moving to the Palazzo Pitti; the old (vecchio) palace – which they left to their son, Francesco – then acquired its present name.
The Museo Nazionale del Bargello, which is both an outstanding museum of sculpture and a huge applied art collection, is installed in the daunting Palazzo del Bargello on Via del Proconsolo, halfway between the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio.
The palazzo was built in 1255, and soon became the seat of the Podestà, the chief magistrate. Numerous malefactors were tried, sentenced and executed here; the building acquired its present name in the sixteenth century, after the resident bargello, or police chief.
Long after Florence had declined from its artistic apogee, the intellectual reputation of the city was maintained by its scientists. Grand Duke Ferdinando II and his brother Leopoldo, both of whom studied with Galileo, founded the Accademia del Cimento (Academy of Experiment) in 1657, and the instruments made and acquired by this academy form the core of the excellent Museo Galileo.
The first floor features timepieces and measuring instruments (such as beautiful Arab astrolabes), as well as a massive armillary sphere made for Ferdinando I to demonstrate the veracity of the Ptolemaic model of the universe. Some of Galileo’s original instruments are on show here, including the lens with which he discovered the four moons of Jupiter.
On the floor above there are all kinds of exquisitely manufactured scientific and mechanical equipment, several of which were built to demonstrate the fundamental laws of physics.
Several streets in central Florence retain their mediaeval character, especially in the district immediately to the west of Piazza della Signoria. At the edge of this quarter stands the Mercato Nuovo, whose souvenir stalls are the busiest in the city.
Usually a small group is gathered round the bronze boar known as Il Porcellino, trying to gain some good luck by getting a coin to fall from the animal’s mouth through the grill below his head.
For an immersion in the world of mediaeval Florence you should visit the fourteenth century Palazzo Davanzati, nowadays maintained as the Museo Davanzati.
This huge house is decorated in predominantly mediaeval style, using furniture from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries gathered from various Florentine museums, most notably the Bargello.
The coat of arms of the wealthy Davanzati family, who occupied the house from 1578 until 1838, is still visible on the facade, and you can admire their impressive family tree in the entrance hall.
Upstairs are several frescoed rooms – the Sala dei Pappagalli (Parrot Room) and the Camera dei Pavoni (Peacock Bedroom) are particularly splendid – as well as some interesting reconstructions of day-to-day life in the house, with chests full of linen in the bedrooms and household utensils, tools, looms and spinning wheels in the third-floor kitchen.
Via Porta Rossa culminates at Piazza Santa Trìnita, close to the city’s most stylish bridge, the Ponte Santa Trìnita, which was rebuilt stone by stone after the retreating Nazis had blown up the original in 1944.
Santa Trìnita church was founded in 1092 by a Florentine nobleman called Giovanni Gualberto (scenes from whose life are illustrated in the frescoes in the alcove at the top of the left aisle), but piecemeal additions have lent it a pleasantly hybrid air.
The interior is notable above all for Ghirlandaio’s frescoes of scenes from the life of St Francis in the Cappella Sassetti, which were commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, general manager of the Medici bank.
On the steps below them are the humanist Poliziano and three of his pupils, Lorenzo’s sons; the blond boy, at the back of the line, is Giovanni, the future Pope Leo X.
The Roman colony of Florentia was established in 59 BC and expansion was rapid, based on trade along the Arno. In the sixth century AD the city fell to the barbarian hordes of Totila, then the Lombards and then Charlemagne’s Franks.
In 1078 Countess Mathilda of Tuscia supervised the construction of new fortifications, and in the year of her death – 1115 – granted Florence the status of an independent city. Around 1200, the first Arti (Guilds) were formed to promote the interests of traders and bankers in the face of conflict between the pro-imperial Ghibelline faction and the pro-papal Guelphs.
The exclusion of the nobility from government in 1293 was the most dramatic measure in a programme of political reform that invested power in the Signoria, a council drawn from the major guilds.
The mighty Palazzo della Signoria – now the Palazzo Vecchio – was raised as a visible demonstration of authority over a huge city: at this time, Florence had a population around 100,000, a thriving mercantile sector and a highly developed banking system (the florin was common currency across Europe).
Strife within the Guelph camp marked the start of the fourteenth century, and then in the 1340s the two largest banks collapsed and the Black Death struck, destroying up to half the city’s population.
Read more: Why Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance
Florence has many hotels but demand is almost limitless, which means that prices are high and the tourist inundation has few slack spots.
Low season is defined by most hotels as meaning mid-July to the end of Aug (the weeks during which nearly all Italians head for the beaches or the mountains), and from mid-Nov to mid-March, except for the Christmas and New Year period; between March and Oct, booking ahead is in effect obligatory.
Boutique hotels and B&Bs have sprung up all over the city, operating under several different labels: places calling themselves a relais or a residenza d’epoca are generally smart B&Bs, often located in historic palazzi.
The historic centre stands as the heart of Florence and is a popular place to stay among visitors. This area is home to medival-buildings-turned-hotels, beautiful residenze and higher-end B&Bs.
Located on the opposite side of the Arno River, Oltrarno offers a more relaxed and authentic Florentine experience. This bohemian neighbourhood is renowned for its artisan workshops and a slower pace of life and is filled with huge hotels overlooking the piazza, some with fantastic frescoed ceilings, and a clutch of decent, cheap hostels too.
To the east of the historic centre, Santa Croce boasts the magnificent Basilica di Santa Croce, which houses the tombs of notable figures such as Michelangelo and Galileo. The hotels here are pricey but excellent, swaying from boutique stays to sublime slices of hitsory.
Adjacent to the train station, Santa Maria Novella provides a convenient area to stay, particularly for those arriving by train. It has some stunning luxury properties on the river, several upscale hotels, and eighteenth-century townhouses that have been redesigned in super-cool retro-modernist ways.
Browse the best hotels in Florence.
As you’d expect in a major tourist city, Florence has plenty of restaurants, but – unsurprisingly – a large number of them are aimed squarely at outsiders, so standards are often patchy.
But the situation is nowhere near as bad as some would have it – in fact it’s been improving in recent years, with the appearance of several stylish and good-value restaurants.
Bear in mind also that simple meals are served in many Florentine bars and cafés, so if you fancy a quick bite to eat rather than a full-blown restaurant meal, here’s where to go.
As elsewhere in Italy, the distinction between Florentine bars and cafés can be tricky to the point of impossibility, as almost every café serves alcohol and almost every bar serves coffee.
That said, there are some cafés in which the emphasis is on coffee, cakes and ice cream – these are the places listed below, along with places that are devoted exclusively to ice cream.
Around Piazza Santa Croce in the historic centre, you'll find a wide array of restaurants offering traditional Italian dishes, including mouthwatering Florentine steaks and regional delicacies. The area also boasts several bars and clubs
Oltrarno is home to numerous trattorias, osterias, and wine bars where you can savour authentic local specialties.
The Mercato Centrale is a must-visit destination, housing an array of food stalls and eateries offering fresh ingredients and delectable street food. The surrounding streets are lined with inviting trattorias and pizzerias.
This bustling hub has everything from casual pizzerias to upscale restaurants that require advance booking.
If you're in search of a more sophisticated and elegant dining setting, Via de' Tornabuoni is the place to be. Known as the high-end shopping street, it is also home to upscale restaurants and chic bars.
In Florence, most of the major sights are within a few minutes’ walk of the Duomo, and the increasing pedestrianisation of the historic core makes walking a pleasure.
Most of the major sights are within a few minutes’ walk of the Duomo, and the increasing pedestrianisation of the historic core makes walking a pleasure. You can get right across the city centre from Santa Maria Novella to Santa Croce in about 30 min, without rushing.
The frequent Autolinee Toscane buses are the best option for crossing town in a hurry or visiting the peripheral sights. Most routes that are useful to tourists stop by the train station.
The best time to visit Florence is spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) due to the pleasant weather and reduced tourist numbers
Spring usually has temperate weather, ranging from 15°C to 25°C (59°F to 77°F), and fewer crowds. Autumn is much the same but with beautiful autumn foliage.
Summer (June to August) brings hot and humid weather, with temperatures reaching 30°C to 35°C (86°F to 95°F), and thousands of tourists as events and museums get packed out.
Winter (December to February) has mild temperatures around 10°C (50°F), fewer crowds, and discounted prices, though some attractions may have limited hours.
Find out more about the best time to visit Italy.
To fully immerse yourself in the rich history, art, and culture of Florence, you will need three to four days to explore the city. This is long enough to visit theDuomo, the impressive Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia Gallery (housing Michelangelo's David), and the picturesque Ponte Vecchio.
It’ll also give you time to take leisurely walks through the streets of the historic centre and to explore the charming neighbourhood of Oltrarno, including the grand Pitti Palace and the enchanting Boboli Gardens.
Unless you’re driving into the city, your point of arrival will be Santa Maria Novella station, just a few minutes’ walk from the heart of the historic centre: rail and bus connections from the three airports that serve the city all terminate at the station, as do international trains and buses from all over Tuscany and Umbria.
The most popular airport for Florence is Pisa’s Galileo Galilei (Wpisa-airport.com), 95 km west of Florence. A small number of international air services use Perètola (or Amerigo Vespucci) airport 5 km northwest of the city centre.
The Volainbus shuttle to central Florence departs from immediately outside the arrivals area, but it’s quicker to use the T2 tram line, which runs to Piazza dell’Unità, very near Santa Maria Novella station.
Bologna’s Marconi airport)– about the same distance from Florence as Pisa – is an alternative gateway. Aerobus shuttles depart from outside Terminal A to Bologna’s main train station, from where regular trains (journey time 1hr) run to Florence.
Florence is the hub of the Tuscan rail system, and nearly all trains arrive at the main Santa Maria Novella station (“Firenze SMN” on timetables), a few blocks west of the Duomo. A few trains use Stazione Campo di Marte, over in the east of the city, from where there are regular trains and buses into the centre.
The main operator is Busitalia, which has a terminal on the west side of the train station at Via Santa Caterina da Siena. Various other companies also use this terminal, but CAP buses use the adjoining Via Fiume. For any town that has a direct train service to Florence, there’s no discernible advantage to taking a bus.
Only residents and authorised drivers are allowed to park in central Florence. There’s a small amount of metered parking space at Piazzale Michelangelo, which is not a long walk from the centre.
Otherwise, unless you’re staying at a hotel with reserved spaces, you’ll have to use one of the city’s fee-charging car parks. North of the Arno, the car parks near the centre are underneath the train station.
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