Italy has one of the richest and farthest-reaching histories in all of Europe, and today, the country’s coasts, countryside, towns and cities all have secrets to tell of its complex yet captivating past. While Rome was the seat of the infamous Roman Empire, Florence was where the Renaissance was born, a pivotal cultural movement led by artists, writers and thinkers that brought Europe out of the Middle Ages and into modernity.
Florence has been home to many royal and noble families, most notably the Medici family, a wealthy dynasty who ruled the city for 350 years. Their legacy is preserved throughout the city and thanks to their appreciation, collection and preservation of art, so is much of the artwork that brought us into the modern world.
In fact, Florence holds one third of the world’s artwork from the most renowned artists in history, like Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo, which reside in its many museums and palaces. With so much to see and do in Florence, it’s hard to know where to start, so we’ve compiled a list of the best of the best of this incredible historic city.
Stroll over Ponte Vecchio and along the Arno River
The Arno River, which laces through the middle of Florence, has inspired artists for centuries with its unmistakable charming old Florentine buildings brown, yellow and orange in colour with wonky green shutters which line the river on each side.
A visit to the city isn’t complete without a stroll along its paths and famous bridges, including the Ponte Vecchio, recognised by the houses piled haphazardly on top of it. For centuries this bridge has been a marketplace for Florentine butchers, tanners, farmers selling fresh produce, and more. Today, however, you can find some of the country’s finest jewellery sellers and art dealers, as well as a top selection of souvenir shops.
Discover the history of Florence in Piazza della Signoria
The Piazza della Signoria is where the Florentine Republic was born and it has remained the political centre of the city ever since. Marking its importance are grand palaces and statues, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David, the Loggia dei Lanzi and the famous Palazzo Vecchio, a Romanesque structure complete with a watch tower and parapets.
The palace now serves as the city hall, as well as a fascinating museum displaying the halls, apartments, chambers and terraces as they were originally decorated. Don’t forget to look up at the ceilings which feature frescos by Florence’s famous residents, Da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Explore Piazza del Duomo and the historic centre
Piazza del Duomo is the focal point of Florence, with many notable buildings in it including the Florence Cathedral, Baptistry of St. John, Giotto’s Campanile, and three different palazzos. Together with the surrounding cobbled streets enclosed by the city’s 14th century walls, the piazza encompasses Florence’s UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
The area is a treasure trove of exquisite art and architecture with something exciting to discover around every corner. As well as the splendid well-preserved Florentine architecture, the historic centre is a great place to find some of the city’s best cafes, bars, markets and shops, the best of which can be found on Via dei Calzaiuoli, a 400m-long street filled with high-end stores and boutiques.
Gawp at the gorgeous Florence Cathedral
Dating back to the 13th century, Florence Cathedral is the most iconic historical structure in Florence and the third largest cathedral in the world. It rises high above the buildings that surround it with a great domed roof designed by the famed Brunelleschi dwarfing the city below, and its green, pink and white paneled gothic exterior catches the eye from afar.
In contrast, the interior is quite simple in design, but it is highlighted by the magnificent fresco on the domed roof representing The Last Judgement, and the impressive mosaic-like marble floor which matches the cathedral’s detailed exterior.
Admire the artistry of Giotto’s Campanile and the Baptistery of St. John
Standing next to the Florence Cathedral at 84.7 metres is the breathtaking free-standing bell tower known as Giotto’s Campanile, and the age-old Baptistry of St. John.
With matching white, green and pink marble with tall arched windows, Giotto’s Campanile is designed in the same gothic style as the cathedral. It’s possible to climb the bell tower, and although the ascent may not be an easy one, the views from the top are more than worthwhile.
The Baptistry of St. John, meanwhile, is a hexagonal Romanesque masterpiece; known as the most historical building in Florence, it was built long before the cathedral or bell tower.
Revel in the Renaissance in Uffizi Palace and Gallery
Uffizi Palace and Gallery sits just next to the Piazza della Signoria and its long and narrow courtyard opens out onto the Arno River. The palace is worth visiting for its impressive architecture alone; it is split into two main wings lined with tall pillars, which connect by an ornate enclosed bridge.
The palace originally belonged to the Medicis, the most powerful dynasty in Florentine history, but now it houses some of the world’s most important collections of art, especially from the Italian Renaissance. Artworks include Woman with a Veil by Raphael, Birth of Venus by Botticelli, and Raffaello Sanzio’s incredible self-portrait.
Find Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia
Galleria dell’Accademia may not be as big as Uffizi Gallery, but it holds some of the most impressive and celebrated artworks by Florentine artists, many of which were commissioned by the powerful Medici family. Artists displayed here include Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto, Allessando Allori and Orcagna.
However, there is one artist in particular that draws the crowds to this gallery – Michelangelo. Here you will find a collection of his most famous statues including Prisoners, St. Matthew, and of course, the legendary David, a life-like depiction of the biblical character which has stood there since 1873 as a symbol of strength and defiance.
Wander around Oltrarno and the Boboli Gardens
While the north side of River Arno is the city’s historical centre, Oltrarno, on the south side, is the trendy cultural centre teeming with restaurants, galleries and boutiques. You can spend hours simply meandering through the streets of Oltrarno, soaking up the atmosphere, admiring the street art, and perusing around its shops.
Oltrarno is also where you’ll find Palazzo Pitti and the fabulous Boboli Gardens, a beautiful Italian-style garden filled with cypresses, terraces, statues, fountains, a lemon house and even an ancient amphitheatre. Whether you want to admire the artistry of the incredible landscape, or simply get away from the city buzz, the gardens are a must-visit.
Delve into Florence’s largest museum Palazzo Pitti
Once home to an Italian king and many other dynasties, Palazzo Pitti is now divided into four museums holding an exceptional collection of Italian art and artefacts. The Treasury of the Grand Dukes is where you will find fascinating trinkets collected over centuries by previous occupants, while the Palatine Gallery holds the Medici family’s personal collection of paintings.
Meanwhile, in the Gallery of Modern Art and Modern Costume and Fashion, you can discover how art and fashion have developed in Italy since the renaissance. If, however, you only visit one of the museums here, it should be the Imperial and Royal Apartments, which give you an inside look into the lavish lives of Italy’s most influential people.
Enjoy the views from San Miniato al Monte
For the best views of this historic city, the skyline of which is defined by the impressive domed roof of the Florence Cathedral, make your way to San Miniato al Monte. This basilica may be small, but it is often thought of as one of the best examples of Romanesque structures in Tuscany, and one of the most scenic in Italy.
White and green geometric marble patterns run from the outside in, where you will also find a treasure trove of art and religion. From the basilica, head to Piazzale Michelangelo where you can also admire a replica of Michelangelo’s David and slurp on a gelato or two.
Go exploring in the Tuscan countryside
Florence is one of the most beautiful, historical and artistically rich cities in the world, but let’s not forget that it’s also surrounded by some of Italy’s most sensational scenery.
So, if you take a trip to Florence, make sure you also take a trip out of it, as you will be greeted by smooth rolling hills and fields filled with cypress trees, lavender, olives and grapes. Stop off at nearby villages to get a taste of true rural Italian living, as well as some true Italian cooking at the local restaurants.
Eat traditional Italian food at San Lorenzo Market
People visit Italy for three main reasons – history, art, and food. Lots and lots of food. As well as pastas and pizza, Florence is known for producing delectable cured meats, cheeses, and olive oil, all of which can be bought from local producers at the San Lorenzo Market, a two-story food market selling everything from fresh flowers to fast food.
The first floor is a marketplace selling fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses, and the second floor is a gourmet food court selling all things Italian, whether it be pasta, pizza, or gelato. San Lorenzo is also a wonderful outdoor market where you can pick up some great local souvenirs too.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.