Overflowing with history, amazing architecture, priceless art and culture, Florence is a captivating city steeped in heritage. Often called “Rome Light”, Florence is the city of the Medici and the birthplace of Renaissance.
In the first century BCE, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar aptly renamed this former Etruscan town Florentia, meaning ‘destined to flower’. Florence flourished between the 13th and 17th centuries AD. The Medici family, who ruled over Florence during the 15th century AD, patronized many of the city’s most spectacular landmarks, buildings and monuments, most of which remain in excellent condition. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and other Tuscan masters created their masterpieces here, and Florence (Firenze) grew to become the unrivaled authority of Renaissance art, literature and culture. Florence is the provincial capital of Tuscany, and from 1865 to 1870 served as the capital of the new Kingdom of Italy. The narrow, winding lanes of the compact city are home to classic, timeless creations of art which take you back in time to the Renaissance era.
General Visit Information
Florence has fairly pleasant weather, with warm summers and cool, breezy winters. May and October are the best months to visit, but you should be prepared for tourist crowds and queues at any time of the year.
Aeroporto di Firenze-Peretola, the nearest airport is just 5km from the city centre and well connected internationally. The main railway station Firenze Santa Maria Novella is conveniently located at the city centre.
The centre of Florence is pretty compact, and the best way to see it is by foot. You can start off with a quick Walking Tour of the Historical Centre () of Florence. The Florence area features a well-networked public transport system, with several rail lines, tram ways and orange or purple ATAF buses. To visit the Tuscan countryside, rent a car for convenience. The A1 Motorway links Florence to major Italian cities such as Bologna, Milan, Naples and Rome. The A11 Motorway leads to Lucca, Pisa and various coastal towns.
Things to do in Florence
- Piazza della Signoria
The No. 1 thing to do in Florence is to visit the Piazza della Signoria, the medieval hub of political power.
The 13th century Gothic Palazzo Vecchio with ornate ceilings and frescoed walls was the seat of Florentine government during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Visit the opulent Ducal apartments upstairs that were occupied by Medicis, and get great views over the city from the campanile and the battlements.
The adjacent Palazzo degli Uffizi has the renowned Uffizi Gallery, which is home to Italian masterpieces from the Medieval period to the Modern, with an unrivalled collection of Renaissance art by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Raffaello and Caravaggio. The original project with plans to demolish at least 43 houses and towers in order to build the new palace of the “Uffici” or offices was shelved as Cosimo de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, realized that this would be too expensive, but eventually they were incorporated into the new construction by architect Giorgio Vasari. The Piazza degli Uffizi is usually crowded during the summer with outdoor exhibitions, street artists and performers who entertain tourists queuing up to get in.
The Piazza della Signoria also displays a unique outdoor gallery of sculptures, including the imposing statue of ‘Il Nettuno’, the fountain of Neptune, and a copy of Michelangelo’s famous Statue of David. The original, a 5m tall statue carved from a single slab of marble, is kept at the Galleria dell ‘Academia, which also has other well known statues, paintings and carvings on display, well worth seeing. Under the loggia at the piazza is a collection of other famous statues including The Rape of the Sabines, Hercules and the Centaur Nessus, by Giambologna and Cellini’s bronze statue of Perseus. Close by is the mounted figure of Cosimo I Medici, and the bronze plaque that marks the spot where the priest Savonarola was hanged and burned for heresy in 1498.
- Ponte Vecchio and Oltrarno
Alongside the Uffizi is the River Arno, with its many bridges. The most famous of these is the 14th century arched ‘Old Bridge’ Ponte Vecchio that houses goldsmiths, jewelry workshops and the Signoria open arched gallery. At the northern end of the bridge is a covered colonnade, which was built as a secret passageway for the Medicis as they walked between the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The original occupants were butchers who discarded their scraps into the Arno, which gave rise to such stench that the Medicis could not bear it, so the Grand Duke Ferdinando I ordered them to move out and invited the goldsmiths to move in. This is the only bridge on the Arno that wasn’t destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, and looks fabulous during sunset.
On the other side of the bridge is Oltrarno, which literally means “Over the Arno”. This is where the 16th century Palazzo Pitti stands. It was originally built by Brunelleschi for a wealthy banker, eventually became home to the Medici family and now houses several important museums and galleries on various items such as silver, porcelain and Renaissance clothing as well as more modern artworks from the 18th to 20th centuries AD.
The adjoining Boboli gardens with beautiful fountains and walkways offer breathtaking views and make a great place for a relaxing break. Designed in the mid 16th century, there are the typical grottoes and garden follies of the Renaissance aristocracy. The Santo Spirito Oltrarno area also has several cafes for a quick bite.
Soaring high above the city skyline, the Cathedral of Florence, Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore is the fourth largest cathedral in the world. Completed by Brunelleschi in 1436 after 150 years of construction, the splendid red-tile terracotta dome with intricate interior frescoes is an architectural marvel, and offers stunning views if you can climb the 450 steps to the top.
Giotto’s 82-m high Campanile with a pink, white and green marble façade is next to it. Many of the original works that were used to decorate the exteriors and interiors of the church and campanile are kept at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, behind the cathedral. There are many pieces by Michelangelo, including his Pieta that he partially destroyed and was later completed by a student.
Opposite the Piazza del Duomo, the Baptistery de San Giovanni, built in 1128 on the foundations of a Roman temple, is one of Florence’s oldest monuments of Romanesque architecture with bronze doors at the Gate of Paradise, which are a replica of the original ones by Lorenzo Ghiberti kept at the Museo dell’Opera.
- Other Things to See
Florence has some magnificent palaces, such as the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi and Palazzo Strozzi. The Cappelle Medici and the San Lorenzo e Biblioteca Laurenziana are other famous buildings.
The Piazzale Michelangelo has a bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David, and sometimes hosts public events in the summer. Situated in the parklands up behind Piazzale Michelangelo, the Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte has some extraordinary 13th – 15th century frescoes in the interiors and is totally worth a visit.
The classical Teatro Comunale opera house is a good place to catch a performance.
Among other places, the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial pays homage to those who lost their lives protecting the town during the Second World War.
Exploring Florence is a good start to a wider Tuscan experience and a great way to become acquainted with the history and culture of the region. Tuscany’s countryside is unparalleled anywhere else in Italy, offering delectable produce, fresh meats and outstanding wines for your personal indulgence.
Tuscany, its towns and cities are full of beautiful Renaissance architecture and the art here is stupendous. The Tuscan countryside is a gourmand’s delight, with delectable produce, fresh meats and exceptional wines. Florence’s surroundings such as the hills of Chianti, the Careggi, Fiesole and Settignano are literally covered with wine and olive trees. Indulge in a Chianti Food and Wine Tour (). This is a breathtaking area scattered with wine-growing estates spread out around ancient castles, ‘magioni’ and country villas. Take a tour to the vineyards and sample classic Tuscan wines such as Chianti, Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino, or visit olive groves and buy pressed olive oil to take home. Sample some of the finest wines and learn the art of evaluating wine from connoisseurs.
As a first-time visitor, if you have the time, you could walk to Fiesole or take the bus to the top of the hills. It offers magnificent views of the countryside, in the midst of architectural treasures such as the Dome, the Roman Theatre and the Convento di San Francesco. On the second Sunday of every month, Fiesole hosts an antique market in the central square.
One of the prettiest medieval towns near Florence is San Gimignano which is known for preserving 14 out of its originally 72 Romanesque and Gothic towers.
To indulge yourself the Italian way, revitalize at the natural hot spring spas on the mountains of Bagni di Lucca.
From Florence, a short drive along the A11 will lead to the historic towns of Pisa and Lucca. Seina is near Florence, but merits a long stay over a couple of days.
A thriving commercial hub boosted by tourism, Florence is noted for its jewelry, leatherwork and ceramics. Take a Luxury Shopping Tour () and spend an exciting day shopping to you heart’s content.
The Santa Maria Novella area has high-end shops, and the headquarters of luxury fashion houses such as Versace and Ferragamo. Real Ferragamo aficionados should visit the Museo Salvatore Ferragamo on Via de Tornabuoni, displaying more than 10,000 works of art he created throughout his illustrious career. One of the oldest pharmacies in the world, Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella on Via della Scala offers lotions, potions and herbal remedies in a charming setting with an old world ambience.
The narrow lanes and streets of Florence, particularly around Santa Croce and Oltrarno hide little, authentic leather and perfume workshops.
Via Maggio and Borgo Ognissanti have some fine Florentine antique shops.
The Piazza del Mercato Centrale also has a few market stalls selling leather goods, souvenirs and other items.
On the Piazza della Repubblica, among the high end hotels and cafes are stalls selling leather belts, wallets and handbags. Head along Via Calimala from here to find the loggia with more market stalls, some of which sell fake leather goods. Here you will find ‘Il Porcellino’, the bronze statue of a boar, which is believed to grant wishes to people who drop coins through its mouth. Also rub its snout to ensure you return to Florence some day 🙂
For dirt cheap second-hand items and flea markets, go to Piazza dei Ciompi or San Lorenzo Market. Beware of cons and fake leather, and be patient to bargain well.
The vibrant Mercato Centrale is a delight for foodies, with olives, meats, cheeses and fresh vegetables.
Florence and its Tuscan countryside are full of trattorias serving hearty Italian food with wine. Bistecca alla forentina, prime Fiorentine T-bone steak with leave you speechless.
There are also quite a few tripe comfort foods, such as the trippa alla fiorentina and lampredotto. For lighter antipasti, you could have the affettati misti with a Chianti. Try the Teatro del Sale on Via de’Macci or Antica Trattoria da Tito on Via San Gallo for an authentic Florentine dining experience. Experience the culinary culture of the cradle of Renaissance on this sumptuous Food Tour ().
Visit Florence to experience the joyous Italian way of life, and you’ll never want to leave.