Things to Do in Florence
If you want to catch those iconic, sweeping views of Florence you've seen in postcards, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. From an elevated position overlooking the city, the fabulous views take in the city's fortified walls, the River Arno, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and, of course, the round red dome of the Duomo.
During the day, drink in the views as you stroll along the Renaissance promenade, overlooked by yet another copy of Michelangelo's David. Return in the evening for magical views of Florence floodlit at night.
You'll catch glimpses of the red-tiled dome of the Duomo, or Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori, peeping over the rooftops as soon as you arrive in Florence.
The 13th-century Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio was responsible for building many landmarks in Florence but this is his showstopper. The beautiful ribbed dome was creatively added by Brunelleschi in the 1420s.
The building took 170 years to complete, and the facade was remodeled to reflect Cambio’s design in the 19th century.
Inside the Duomo, your eyes are inevitably drawn upwards to that soaring painted dome and lovely stained-glass windows by such masters as Donatello. Visit the crypt, where Brunelleschi's tomb lies, or to the top of the enormous dome itself for stupendous views over Florence.
Florence’s spacious Piazza della Signoria has long been one of the city’s main meeting points. The Palazzo Vecchio, which anchors one side of the square, was once home to the rulers of the Florentine Republic, and today still serves as the city’s town hall. This square, then, was often used by those seeking favor (or protesting) their government.
Today, the Palazzo Vecchio houses a museum along with the town hall, and the Piazza della Signoria is lined with other major attractions. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio you’ll find a copy of Michelangelo’s famous “David” statue (in the place where the original once stood). The open-air gallery that is the Loggia dei Lanzi contains a collection of sculptures. And to one side of the Palazzo Vecchio is a fountain with a huge statue of Neptune.
The Piazza della Signoria was the site of the 14th century “Burning of the Vanities” led by the monk Savonarola, and it’s also where Savonarola was later hanged.
Central Florence is split by the Arno River. The main sights - the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Accademia - are on one side of the river, while the neighborhood known as the Oltrarno is on the other. “Oltrarno” actually means “beyond the Arno,” or “the other side of the Arno.”
Among the attractions in the Oltrarno are the massive Pitti Palace, to which the ruling Medici family moved after leaving their residence in the Palazzo Vecchio, and the sprawling Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti. You can also visit the Santo Spirito Basilica (designed by Brunelleschi, who designed the cathedral’s famous dome) and the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (with the fantastic Brancacci Chapel and its Filippino Lippi frescoes). Keep going through the flatter part of the Oltrarno and you’ll eventually head up staircases and narrow streets into the hills overlooking the city. You know that postcard view you keep seeing all over town? You can see it for yourself from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Designed by the renowned architect Giovanni Mengoni in the late 19th century, Florence’s Mercato Centrale is a cavernous, two-storey market hall that’sl full of Tuscan foods. The biggest market in the city, on the outside it’s all iron and lots of glass. Enter on the ground floor to see rows and rows of meats and cheeses including mounds of fresh buffalo mozzarella, and food bars where you can stop for a snack or a panini. The northern corner’s where to buy fish and shellfish, while the second floor is given over to vegetable stands.
All kinds of foods can be bought here, from fresh bread to pasta and pizza, gelato and chocolate. There’s also the popular Chianti Classico wine store, which you can arrange to have any wine you buy shipped home. You can also sign up for wine tasting classes or head to the market’s cooking school.
Historic Palazzo Vecchio ('old palace') has been at the political heart of Florence for more than 7 centuries. With its late-medieval crenellated roofline and soaring defensive tower, it dominates the lovely buildings and sculptures of Piazza della Signoria in the heart of Florence.
The striking building was built in the early 1300s, and was redecorated by the ruling Medici family in the 16th century. Inside you can imagine how life at the top was lived in Renaissance Florence by touring the luxuriously decorated chambers.
From the courtyards to the chapel and private rooms, you’ll see elaborately decorated ceilings, frescoes by the celebrated Renaissance painter Vasari, and statues by such luminaries as Donatello and Michelangelo.
Climb to the top of the tower for stupendous views of Florence and the Arno valley.
More Things to Do in Florence
The Pitti Palace was built by rivals of the powerful Medici family in the mid-1400s. A century later, the Medicis took over the huge Renaissance palace, and it was the home of Florentine rulers until the early 20th century.
Today the massive palace houses a number of picture galleries and museums, and is surrounded by gardens and ornate fortifications. To see the entire collection would take days if not weeks, so choose your favorites and plunge in!
A tour of the royal apartments reveals the Medicis' taste for over-the-top decor. An impressive collection of Renaissance masterpieces is housed in the Palatina Gallery, with works by Raphael, Titian and Rubens.
To see the Medicis family's silverware, head to the Silver Museum, or take a stroll around the Renaissance Boboli Gardens, with its statues and grottoes.
Standing tall over the city of Florence, Brunelleschi’s Dome is an architectural feat, the most prominent part of the Florence Cathedral, and a symbol of Florence itself. Located in the city's historic center, the cathedral complex that holds the dome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole area is known to locals as the “Duomo” or dome, after the structure. Designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1436, it took sixteen years to build. And at 45 meters wide, it is the single largest masonry dome in the world.
Brunelleschi came to the rescue when, after over 100 years of cathedral construction, there were plans for to add a dome but no idea how to erect one. He went against existing construction norms and resolved to build a dome without wooden scaffolding — one that would support itself as it was built. It was an engineering and design marvel at the time, and the fact that it still stands tall more than 600 years later is a testament to its masterpiece.
The Piazza della Repubblica is a public square in the center of Florence that sits on some of the city’s most important historic sites. It was once the city’s Roman Forum — then subsequently its market and old ghetto, after the forum was extensively built over in the early Middle Ages. The present square was established in the 19th century Risanamento during the period in which Florence was briefly the capital of a reunited Italy. The expansion of the square meant the demolition of many significant structures.
The square was revitalized after the war, and today is the home to many street performers and artists as well as historic literary cafes and traveling exhibitions. Sitting in the piazza you can see the Colonna dell'Abbondanza (Column of Abundance) and the Arcone, the most prominent remaining structures of the past.
Florence's most famous and popular market is the aptly named Mercato Centrale – but it's by no means the only market in the city. Another ideal spot to pick up picnic supplies, see what's fresh before you browse local menus or simply enjoy the colors of an Italian food market is the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio (Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio).
Also known as the Sant'Ambrogio Market, the site is home to stalls that sell many of the same sorts of items seen at the Mercato Centrale – fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, fish, cheese, spices and other sundry pantry essentials. In a couple areas of the market, you'll also find vendors selling clothing and household items.
Because the Mercato Centrale is the more famous market, the Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio offers a slightly less touristy experience. It's in the historic center, so it's unlikely to be tourist-free, but you may find more locals than visitors browsing here.
Built over a former Benedictine monastery garden and grain market in the late 14th century, the wrongly often-overlooked church of Orsanmichele was designed along Gothic lines, with ornate tracery around the doors and windows. Each of the wealthy trade guilds in Florence were commissioned to provide statues of their patron saints to fit the 14 niches in the exterior walls but the project lingered on and was eventually completed with exquisite works from such Renaissance masters as Ghiberti, Della Robbia, and Donatello. Replicas now fill the niches while most of the originals have been restored and are displayed in the two-floor museum above the church, where the original Gothic architecture is exposed, giving views of wooden vaulting and decorative brickwork.
The pretty Piazza Santa Croce is a public square in central Florence located just to the east of the Piazza della Signoria. The square gets its name from the main building facing the piazza, the Santa Croce Basilica.
The Basilica of Santa Croce is a 15th century Franciscan church in which you’ll find the tombs of many famous Florentines. Those buried at Santa Croce include Michelangelo, Maciavelli, Rossini, Ghiberti, and Galileo. The church’s interior also features some noteworthy Giotto frescoes.
Two other buildings of note facing the piazza are the Palazzo dell’Antella and the Palazzo Cocchi-Serristori. The former is a one-time residential palace with a 17th century facade covered in detailed murals, while the latter was a smaller private home built in the 15th century from a 14th century structure. In the Piazza Santa Croce itself there is a statue dedicated to Dante.
Although Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and lived in the neighborhood, he never actually occupied the building now known as ‘Dante’s House’, a 14th-century labyrinthine townhouse with a small museum attached that is filled with reproduction memorabilia dedicated to the great Italian poet. There is a model of 13th-century Florence, a reconstruction of Dante’s bedroom, illustrations of his poems and reproductions of early manuscripts of his magnum opus The Divine Comedy, which was written after he was banished from Florence for backing the wrong side in political intrigue. As an exile from his home city, he was forced to wander around northern Italy for several years before ending his days in Ravenna in 1321. Although there is nothing on display that actually belonged to Dante, the museum does a decent job of recreating his life and times and goes some distance to explain the convoluted political system of the era.
One of the oldest buildings in Florence, it's thought that the octagonal Baptistery stands on the site of an ancient Roman temple. It may even have been built as early as the 5th century. The striking Romanesque cladding of white and green marble was added in the early 12th century.
Inside, the Baptistery features gold mosaics, marble columns and tombs. Look up to catch the best views of the gilded mosaics covering the cupola.
Perhaps the Baptistery's most famous attraction is its trio of gilded bronze doors, decorated with panels. Examine the panels up close to admire their incredible details.
A visit to the enormous Basilica of San Lorenzo leads to things you may not expect from a church. What ties the church to its unexpected turns, however, is something very Florentine - Michelangelo.
In the 15th century Basilica of San Lorenzo are the tombs of the Medici, located in the New Sacristy (also designed by Michelangelo), which are adorned by Michelangelo sculptures. The two main tombs in the chapel are those of Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. Lorenzo’s tomb has figures representing Dusk and Dawn, while Giuliano’s features figures representing Day and Night.
The unexpected sight is the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo. The incredible curved stone staircase leads into a great reading room where even the desks were designed by Michelangelo. Other works of art inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo include some bronze works by Donatello and an altarpiece by Fra Filippo Lippi. You can get a combined ticket to visit both the church and the library.
The most famous bridge in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, or old bridge, dating from the mid-14th century. But just downstream from the Ponte Vecchio is another beautiful bridge, the favorite of many Florentines - the Ponte Santa Trinita.
Although Italy and Germany were allies during World War II, Nazi troops destroyed every single bridge in Florence spanning the Arno except for one - the Ponte Vecchio. The Ponte Santa Trinita was turned to rubble. When the bridge was rebuilt in 1958, some of the stones used were from Ammanati’s 16th century bridge, recovered from the Arno after the war. The rest of the stones were quarried from the same place Ammanati went to get stone in 1567. Even the statues of the four seasons were recovered from the river, although the statue of “Spring” remained headless until her head was found in the river in 1961.
Despite the name, Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has nothing to do with opera music - “opera” also being the Italian word for creative works, in this case the artwork that was once inside the cathedral.
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is located conveniently right behind the Duomo, for which most of its collection was originally created. Inside you’ll see an unfinished Michelangelo pieta that he had apparently started as a piece to decorate his own tomb. He was later so unhappy with it that he broke it, but it was later put back together by a new owner. The face of Nicodemus is said to be a self-portrait of the sculptor.
Other highlights of the museum collection are Ghiberti’s original bronze panels from Florence’s Baptistery. The doors you see on the Baptistery today are excellent reproductions, but the originals are kept in air-tight containers to prevent further damage.
Work on this beautiful basilica began in 1294, though the facade and bell tower are 19th-century additions. The world's largest Franciscan church, it houses 16 chapels and famous frescoes by Giotto.
On the inside, the church is a classic example of Tuscan Gothic. Take a walk around the immense and lofty interior to spot Michelangelo’s tomb by Vasari, the Giotto frescoes in the Peruzzi Chapel, the Gaddi frescoes, porcelain details by della Robbia, and work by Donatello.
Along with Michelangelo, other famous names buried or commemorated in Santa Croce include the Renaissance architect Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, Machiavelli, Marconi, and Dante.
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