Florence – Firenze in Italian – is, without a doubt, a must-see city in one’s lifetime. Its historic core is compact and very walkable, the Renaissance palaces are astounding, and there is plenty to awe any visitor to this UNESCO World Heritage site.
The main town square, Piazza della Signoria ♥♥♥, is where many walking routes invariably lead to, graced by a number of important attractions, such as the Neptune Fountain and the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall that may be interesting to explore for some. There are many statues on the square, including a marvelous covered gallery, Loggia dei Lanzi ♥♥. Among the works housed here are sculptures by Cellini and Giambologna.
Looking at the Loggia from its place by the side of Palazzo Vecchio is the copy of Michelangelo’s David. If you are not planning to visit the museum where the original has resided for the last 130 years, this is the best imitation available. The original, though, is so tremendous when viewed up close, that you might want to fit a visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia ♥ into your schedule, even though it is a bit away from the central cluster of sights and may greet you with long wait lines at busy times. There are other artworks at this comparatively small museum, even as most people gravitate to the headline exhibit.
Uffizi ♥♥♥ is one of the grandest collections of paintings in the entire world, boasting works by practically every significant artist from the 13th through 17th centuries. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is among the undeniable highlights, but any appreciative person will find dozens of masterpieces to be drawn to.
Ponte Vecchio ♥♥♥ is an amazing sight, and is crowded at all times except very early mornings. I personally find that being on the bridge itself is not as sensory stimulating as looking at it from Lungarno degli Acciaioli or Lungarno Torrigiani (you also get the best view of the Uffizi façade from the latter) unless you happen to walk onto it without realizing that you are crossing the river, which makes for a startling discovery when you reach its open middle part.
The Cathedral complex is among the most phenomenal anywhere in Christendom. The Duomo ♥♥♥, Santa Maria del Fiore, is a most exquisite piece of architecture, capped by its famous Brunelleschi dome. Its façade, executed centuries after the original one was destroyed, is simply splendid. The interior of the cathedral may deserve fewer superlatives than the exterior, but stepping directly underneath the dome will definitely cause the jaws to drop.
Next to the Duomo stands no less exquisite Giotto Campanile ♥♥♥, clad in the same three colors of marble gracing the cathedral. Like the Duomo, it provides a capital viewpoint from its top, with vistas over the city and beyond. Both lookout galleries are reached by about 400 steps but from the dome of the cathedral you are looking onto the bell tower, whereas from the tower, you get the singularly best perspective of the dome. If you have strength for only one, I definitely recommend the latter.
The ensemble is completed by Baptistery ♥, believed to be the oldest building in Florence, with its three sets of bronze doors, depicting various biblical scenes. The most popular east doors, colloquially known as Gates of Paradise, are gilded replicas installed only in the 1990s so that the original set could be moved to the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo for preservation. The museum holds a number of artifacts related to the Cathedral complex.
Several other large squares are worth strolling around, foremost of them Piazza della Repubblica ♥ and Piazza Santa Croce ♥♥. The latter not only is surrounded by well-preserved mansions but is also fronted by the Basilica di Santa Croce ♥♥, a fabulous example of Italian Gothic architecture. The vast interior of the grand church is of much interest as well, being the final resting place of many famous Florentines – Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli, just to name a few.
Tempio Maggiore (the Great Synagogue of Florence) ♥♥ is located a bit further away from the center. Built in the 19th century more as a monument than a house of worship, it combines several architectural styles (Moorish, Ottoman, Christian) in its magnificent – and unique as far as synagogues go – great hall. There is also a Jewish history museum on the premises. Access to the synagogue is limited; make sure to inquire whether you will be able to enter the great hall; the museum by itself is not worth coming over to for most people. You will be required to leave literally everything but the clothes on your back in a provided locker before entering.
Palazzo Pitti ♥ is located up the street from Ponte Vecchio across the river in the Oltrarno district. It houses several museums, which do not rise to the level of exceptional. The Royal Apartments are lavishly decorated but probably a notch below many other palaces around Europe. The Palatine Gallery displays works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, and many other Renaissance masters. Among the furniture found throughout the palace are a series of resplendent inlaid tables. The Silver Museum and the Costume Gallery are mildly curious, and there are also the Gallery of Modern Arts and the Porcelain Museum that we did not visit.
Boboli Gardens ♥, which can be reached through the Palazzo Pitti, is a large Italian-style park, with a number of picturesque spots and good views over the city. On balance, just nice rather than spectacular, even if they are part of the serial World Heritage site of Medici Villas in Tuscany.
Piazzale Michelangelo ♥♥♥ (or Michelangiolo, depending on the source) sits high atop the hill south of the Old City on the Oltrarno side. The promenade at the piazza’s edge overlooks one of the most famous and magnificent city vistas in the world.
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella ♥♥ is at the edge of the city center, positioned across the large piazza from the eponymous train station. The location probably works against it, as people tend to rush by the great church on their way to the central sights. We ourselves made time for seeing it only on probably our fifth visit to Florence. The church is very well decorated, with vivid frescoes and stained-glass windows. The cloister is open for visitors as well.
After half a dozen visits to Florence, we still have plenty of sights to look forward to exploring. Among them: Badia Fiorentina; Bargello; Palazzo Strozzi; San Lorenzo; Palazzo Medici-Riccardi; San Miniato al Monte.
Accommodation-wise, any location within SS67 “semi-ring” or close to the river in Oltrarno will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Florence. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Worthy of specific recommendations are: Trattoria Za-Za (on Piazza Mercato Centrale), with a large and varied menu, served both outside and in several different interior rooms; or La Grotta Guelfa (on the corner of Via Porta Rossa and Via Pellicceria), where great ambiance and great food make for an excellent combination.
There is a gelateria on every corner of Florence, but one of them is considered to be especially famous: Perché no!, located a couple of blocks from Piazza dei Signoria. There is a wider range of offerings than in a run-of-the-mill gelateria, but we can’t say that the quality was superior to what we tried in other places; that’s not a knockdown on this establishment, but rather a comment on the overall high quality of Florentine ice cream.
Most destinations in Tuscany are within an hour or so drive from Florence, making it a pretty good base for exploring the entire region. This article provides notes for Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano, Volterra, and a number of other places.