Things to Do in Florence
One of the grandest sweeps of architecture in Florence, the Pitti Palace was built in the 15th century. Its gallery includes a huge collection of paintings dating from the 15th to 17th century, and occupying the whole left wing of the first floor, one of the most significant groups of works is by Titian and Raphael. You’ll also see important works by Rubens, including the Four Philosophers and the Allegory of War, and pieces by Caravaggio and Velazquez. In fact, there are over 500 works on show in all.
And it’s not just canvases that you’ll see; the Palatine Gallery is also known for its frescoes. Laid out according to the personal tastes of its collectors from the House of Medici, rather than by painting school or by chronological order, the gallery has been open to visitors since the day Leopold I of Lorraine opened it back in 1828. There is also a cafe in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace.
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.
Built in 1564, the Vasari Corridor was designed to enable the Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici to move between the Pitti Palace where he lived, the Uffizi where he had his offices, and on to the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine government. Almost one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) long, the elevated corridor passes overhead from the Uffizi, across the Arno River over the top of the shops lining the Ponte Vecchio, through the church of Santa Felicita until it reaches the Palazzo Pitti.
Built in just five months, Vasari Corridor was a major feat of both architecture and civic power.
The Vasari Corridor is lined with self-portraits by artists, nearly 1,000 paintings, dating from the 16th century. Access to the corridor is only by guided tour.
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.
This ancient home grants a peek into history going back to the Middle Ages, and is a way to experience the wealthy merchant homes of the Renaissance era. It was built by the Davizzi family in the mid-14th century and later purchased by the Davanzatis in the 16th century. With three towers and five stories, it is decorated from floor to ceiling — complete with period furniture and frescoed walls. There are both medieval and Renaissance architectural elements, allowing for a comparison of the two styles and the history of the transition.
The traditional layout of the home makes it a magnificent example of a medieval Florentine home. Some of its highlights include a central courtyard, stone and wood staircase, and underground gallery. Historic art, lace, furnishings and even coats-of-arms throughout the palace demonstrate the trends and styles as they have progressed through the ages.
In pride of place at the center of the busy Piazza della Signoria, the Fountain of Neptune has long been one of Florence’s most memorable landmarks, set against a backdrop of the grand Palazzo Vecchio (Town Hall). Inaugurated in 1565, the striking artwork is the masterpiece of sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati and was commissioned to celebrate the wedding of Francesco I de’ Medici and Johanna of Austria.
The elaborate bronze and marble statue portrays a 5.6-meter-high image of Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea, with the face of Cosimo I de 'Medici, stood on a high pedestal above the water, around which Satyrs and horses frolic. Despite sustaining considerable damage over the years, including losing one of its hands to vandals back in 2005, the statue has now been painstakingly restored and remains a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists.
More Things to Do in Florence
Giotto's elegant bell tower (Campanile di Giotto) flanks Florence's Duomo and Baptistery, rounding off Piazza del Duomo's prime attractions. Designed by Giotto in 1334, the Gothic tower is faced in the similar nougat-hued marbles of the Duomo. The design features five distinct tiers decorated with arched windows, sculptures and geometric patterns of different colored marbles.
Take a close-up look at the lovely plaques decorating the tower at ground level, sculpted by Pisano. The originals are housed in the nearby Duomo Museum.
More than 400 steps climb to the top of the 82-meter (25-foot) bell tower, for wonderful views of Florence and the River Arno.
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.
Built in the 16th century in Florence’s Boboli Gardens, Buontalenti Grotto is the largest grotto in the city. Named after the architect who oversaw its construction in the late 16th century, it was commissioned by Grand Duke of Tuscany and has since featured Dan Brown’s bestselling novel.
A curious-looking place indeed, on both the outside and inside the grotto’s covered in man-made stalagmites and mythical mosaic creatures including sea goats. Buontalenti Grotto is divided into three rooms with the first, and biggest, styled in the most natural way as a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. There are also a few anthropomorphic creatures created out of stones and shells thrown in there for good measure. The next room is similarly decorated to the first, and includes frescoes depicting Minerva and Giunone. The third room is also known for its impressive frescoes, but here you’ll also see a green marble fountain and a ceiling painted to resemble a sky full of birds.
In a corner square of Florence, Loggia dei Lanzi is an open-air museum containing some of the world’s greatest works of art. Known most for its collection of Renaissance art statues, which many consider to be masterpieces, it contains works such as Cellini’s Perseus, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, and an ancient Roman statue of Menelaus that used to be part of the Ponte Vecchio.
Originally intended to be a space for public ceremonies, construction on the area began in 1376. It was designed in a late Gothic style, a predecessor to the emerging Renaissance style. It is named for the Swiss personal guards (‘lanzi’) of emperor Cosimo I, who were once encamped here. The loggia opens to the street under three wide arches, seamlessly integrating with the rest of the city. The arches are supported by Corinthian capital, creating a canopy over the sculptures. It remains completely free and open to the public.
Housed in the medieval splendor of Florence’s Palazzo della Podestà – once a barracks and subsequently the city’s courts of justice – the National Museum opened in 1865 and showcases an abundance of glorious Renaissance artworks. As befits the oldest public building in the city, it has a fortified façade and a maze-like interior with fine halls, balconies and loggias overlooking an arcaded courtyard with walls smothered by the coats of arms of medieval aristocracy. Displayed in a series of vast apartments are collections of medieval gold work, 16th-century weaponry, a series of bronze animals made for the Medici family and hand-crafted tapestries, but the undoubted star of the Bargello’s collection is the statuary from big names of the Italian Renaissance, which has its birth in Florence. On display are the bronze relief panels created by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti when they were competing for the commission of the baptistery doors in Florence duomo (cathedral) in 1401.
The Medici chapels (Cappelle Medicee) are two architectural gems flanking the Basilica of San Lorenzo in the heart of central Florence. Brunelleschi designed the basilica for the Medici family in the 1400s, and it became the family church and mausoleum.
The New Sacristy is the more famous of the basilica's two chapels. Designed by Michelangelo, it stars his reclining funerary statues, Night and Day, Dawn and Dusk. The simple design features a somber color scheme of gray and white.
The tall domed Princes' Chapel is a riot of multicolored marbles and semi-precious gems, filled with carved niches, statues and armorial plaques. The chapels' richly carved tombs are empty, as the deceased Medicis now lie in the crypt beneath.
Pop inside the basilica to see Donatello's pulpits, the cloisters and the famously sweeping steps designed by Michelangelo leading to the Laurenziana Medicea Library.
Florence is a city filled with quaint squares, picturesque landscapes and plenty of old-world architecture that’s ripe with European charm. This is particularly true amid its famous squares, and travelers agree that few are as beautiful as Piazza della Santissima Annunziata.
A massive bronze statue of Ferdinando I de’Medici on horseback stands at the center of the square, with two notably strange fountains on either side. Visitors can relax in the sun and lounge as locals wind through the square on a busy afternoon, or duck into the Santissima Annunziata church, which was built in the 15th century and gave the square its name. Ospedale deli Innocenti—the oldest orphanage on the continent—also flanks the square and offers travelers a unique opportunity to explore the city’s past. Ceramic glazed reliefs of swaddled newborns line the façade and visitors can check out the circular stone where women could leave their unwanted newborns without fear of repercussion.
This 13th century pharmacy opened by Dominican friars now operates as a soap and perfume shop that resembles a museum, detailing the history of scent and fragrance. It is housed in the original building crafted in ornate detail. With an impressive array of herbal elixirs, perfumes, and soaps made with ancient techniques, a stroll through the pharmacy grants a historical perspective on smelling good. Friars first opened the pharmacy in 1221 to make and store concoctions for use in their monastery. Still in operation, it is one of the oldest known pharmacies in the world. The pharmacy is attributed with creating the first “eau de cologne” for Catherine de Medici, created in the 16th century and known as the “water of the queen.” Visitors can still purchase the scent in its original formulation; it is known simply as “Acqua di Santa Marina Novella.” It is also famous for its potpourri, which uses a blend of local plants and natural products and is still handcrafted on site.
Even if you’re not a fashion addict, you’ve likely heard of one of Italy’s many fashion icons - Salvatore Ferragamo. Not every visitor to Italy can afford to bring home Ferragamo designer shoes, but you’ll be pleased to know that anyone can check out the historic collection of his shoes at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum.
The Ferragamo Museum, opened in 1995, is housed in the Palazzo Spini Feroni on Piazza Santa Trinita, a 13th century former residential palace that Ferragamo bought in the 1930s to serve as his company headquarters and workshop. The museum’s collection started with a staggering 10,000 shoes created by Ferragamo from the 1920s until 1960, and has grown after his death. Exhibits are rotated every couple of years, and there are also temporary exhibits on display from time to time.
Italy is still at the forefront of the fashion world, but its history stretches back far enough that there are now multiple museums dedicated to Italian designers. The Gucci Museo, opened in 2011, is in Florence.
Gucci’s first store opened in Florence in 1921, and today the Gucci Museum is in the 14th century Palazzo della Mercanzia on Piazza della Signoria in the city center. The museum collection covers three floors of the palazzo, and is arranged not by year but by theme. The “Travel” theme on the ground floor is a nod to one of Gucci’s early design inspirations - the fancy luggage at London’s Savoy Hotel. Other themes include “Flora World,” “Evening,” and “Sport.”
The Gucci Museo also houses a cafe, a library of art and design, and a bookshop. The museum store sells items you’ll find nowhere else. The museum is open daily from 10am-8pm, and there’s a €6 admission fee.
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