Florence offers the visitor so much to do and see on Italy tours, that it takes time to do justice to all the exceptional attractions. Known as “The Cradle of the Italian Renaissance,” Florence is considered a cultural, artistic, and architectural gem.
I have been to Florence several times and each visit has revealed something new and interesting. This is a city of some 350,000 inhabitants and is very easy to get around. Located in Tuscany province, Florence is divided by the River Arno, and at first, it seems all the major attractions are on the north side of the river, but this is not the case. You need to spend some time on the south side of the river too. For the purposes of orienting yourself, consider the attractions of Florence in 3 distinct parts: north of the river, south of the river, and outside the centre of the city. Florence is a very walkable city, with many streets catering to pedestrians only.
Two of my favourite structures are the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio. If you don’t check them out, you have missed the very essence of Florence. Let’s start with the Duomo, the city’s cathedral and largest church. The architecture alone galvanizes visitors on Italy tours to immediately whip out their cameras once they set eyes on it. I was fascinated by the exterior more than the interior. It is pink, white, and green marble that has been used on the façade, plus the lovely campanile (bell tower) and large red dome designed by Brunelleschi. I found the interior to be rather sparse and I understand most of the art treasures normally found in churches of this nature have been removed elsewhere in the city over time. The main attraction is the mosaics on the floor. A stairway takes you down to the crypt and gift shop.
The campanile is located adjacent to the Duomo. This hexagonal tower is something to stand and study, as it is rich in sculptural decorations which depict the history of mankind as well as much more. It was designed by Giotto in the 14th century. Like the cathedral, it is Gothic in style and is decorated in green, white, and pink marble. A popular thing to do is climb the 400 steps to the top and be rewarded with a panoramic view of the rooftops of Florence.
The Ponte Vecchio
The pedestrian-only Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) can be teeming with tourists, but it’s worth braving the crowds to not only check out the high-end jewellery and antique shops which are situated all along one side of the bridge, but to also look at the view over the river to both banks. It is quite ornate, being made of medieval stones, and the present bridge dates back to the 14th century. To really take it all in, it is better viewed from the banks of the river.
The Uffizi Gallery
According to the Florence Tourism Board, there are 72 museums/art galleries in the city. Along with the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi is probably the most renowned art gallery anywhere – certainly the most visited gallery on Italy tours. This is because it contains a collection of priceless paintings mainly from the Renaissance period. Some of the major works of art include paintings by Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt. It is highly recommended that you reserve a date and time in advance to visit, especially during the summer months, or else you could be waiting in line, possibly for hours. This also applies to many of the other galleries in Florence.
I was fortunate to have been given an invitation to the Vasari Corridor, which is an elevated, enclosed passageway that connects the Palazzo Pitti with the Uffizi Gallery, crossing the river above the Ponte Vecchio. It is used to exhibit the Uffizi’s famous collection of self-portraits. The passageway contains over 1000 paintings dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a very unique space but is closed to the general public, making access to it very exclusive. You can visit the Vasari Corridor through a private group tour.
This gallery is where you will find the iconic sculpture of Michelangelo’s David. It is the gallery’s centrepiece and will possibly surprise you when you see how large it is. Carved from a single block of marble, it is Michelangelo‘s most famous work. There are other sculptures by Michelangelo and a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists from the 13th to the 16th centuries, plus a further collection of Russian icons. By the way, if you don’t have the opportunity to get to see the David sculpture, there is a replica not far away in the nearby Piazza della Signoria.
One more gallery, then we can move on. The Pitti Palace is located at the south end of the Ponte Vecchio. This was, at one time, the palace of ruling families of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and is a very attractive building. However, it is its contents that attract visitors. It is actually the largest museum complex in the city and is made up of several galleries. There is the Palatinate Gallery, which has over 500 paintings, mainly from the Renaissance period. The Royal Apartments has paintings and period furniture. The Gallery of Modern Art contains works ranging from the 19th to the 20th centuries. There is a Silver Museum, a Porcelain Museum, and a Costume Gallery. And if that is not enough, there is a Carriage Museum featuring carriages used in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Giardino di Boboli
I quote the Florence Tourism Board, “More than a garden, more than just a ‘green lung’ in Florence, the Boboli Gardens is one of the greatest open-air museums in Florence.” This is a park with old oak trees, sculptures, fountains, and a place to simply relax. As you walk around the gardens, you will discover the Amphitheatre decorated with statues based on Roman myths, an Egyptian Obelisk brought from Luxor, the Viottolone, a steep avenue with a series of terraces flanked by cypress trees and statuettes, the Garden of the Cavaliere reached by a staircase from which you can enjoy a view of elegant private Florentine manors, and the Kaffeehaus, an 18th century building which houses the aforementioned costume gallery of the Pitti Palace.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and the Basilica di Santa Croce
The Santa Maria Novella Church is the city’s main Dominican church. Once again, the exterior catches your eye with its striking green and white marble façade. However, inside is a treasure-trove of artistic masterpieces with frescoes from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. The interior of the church is vast and was designed by Brunelleschi. The Basilica di Santa Croce is the main Franciscan church in Florence. It is the burial place of prominent people such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and the composer, Rossini. Once again, it contains art treasures. It has 16 chapels which well-to-do families originally built and decorated. There are a bell tower and a crypt.
The Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio is the “city hall” of Florence, overlooking the Piazza della Signoria, with its copy of Michelangelo’s David statue. It is a very striking building which, as you walk around the centre of Florence, will make you look at it more than once. While it functions as a city hall, it is also a museum. Take a stroll around its inner courtyards where you will come across gilded columns, a copy of a fountain by Del Verrocchio (the original is inside the palace), and walls painted with several city scenes. This wonderful building, with magnificent rooms and some great art, houses a large collection of works. A guided tour will take you through hidden rooms as well as the main ones.
The San Lorenzo Market
If you are looking to purchase good Italian leather goods, go to a reputable leather shop. However, if you are looking for a bargain, the San Lorenzo Market in the Central Market is the place to head to. The items are probably imported but are genuine leather. You can pick up some amazing bargains. It is also a great place to wander around and shop with the locals, plus there are a number of good restaurants in the vicinity.
Teatro del Sale
Teatro del Sale is actually both a theatre and performance venue as well as a renowned Florentine restaurant. I attended a performance of classical music here once, and as I entered the theatre, I immediately felt I had been taken back a hundred years in time. The auditorium was very ornate and intimate. I didn’t try the adjacent restaurant but I understand it is something very special.
I am a sucker for neighbourhoods where you can hopefully “do as the locals do.” In Florence, Oltrarno (meaning the other side of the River Arno) is a district on the south bank which definitely should be visited on Italy tours. Here you will find it less hectic. To me, the heart of Oltrarno is the Piazza Santo Spirito, a beautiful square lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants. It is where the locals go to eat and drink. At night, it really comes to life. In the centre of the square is a large octagonal-shaped fountain which has a marble decoration in the middle. At one end of the piazza is the Basilica di Santo Spirito, built on a design by Brunelleschi in 1444, inside which, yet again, are art treasures. The Piazza Santo Spirito regularly hosts many markets and fairs, all of which contribute to its reputation as a lively and happening place. Every weekday, local artisans sell vintage objects and food products. On the 3rd Sunday of the month (except July and August), there is a handicrafts market. Elsewhere in Oltrarno, try exploring on foot through the narrow medieval backstreets and discover old churches, small boutique shops, and intimate restaurants for the evening.
One of my favourite places in Florence on an Italy vacation is the Piazzale Michelangelo. Dedicated to Michelangelo, this square features a bronze replica of the Statue of David. Located just outside the city centre, it can be visible from there. It is a square perched on the top of a hill from which you get the most fabulous and stunning views of Florence. The Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, and the banks of the River Arno are all very visibly laid out below. This viewpoint can be reached on foot, but be prepared for a longish uphill walk or you can go on a tour or on a local bus.
Forte di Belvedere, as it is known locally, is the second largest fortress in Italy. It is located in the southern hills of the River Arno and on the highest hill behind the Boboli Gardens. From a military point of view, this 16th Century fortress is located at the most strategic point, overlooking almost the entire city and surroundings. Today, the fort hosts seasonal art exhibitions and also offers sweeping panoramic views of the city. Outside of exhibition times, however, the fort is closed.
Fiesole is a small town situated 8 kilometres/5 miles outside Florence which can be reached by local bus. I highly recommend heading there on Italy tours, if only for the absolutely fabulous views of Florence and the surrounding scenery, as Fiesole is located high on a hill overlooking the city. In the 14th century, it became known as the new living quarters for rich and famous Florence inhabitants to build their villas surrounded by cypress trees and lovely gardens. It was here that Leonardo da Vinci first experimented with the concept of flying. There are other reasons to visit Fiesole on a trip to Italy. The Roman ruins include the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, Roman baths, and 8th Century BC Etruscan stone walls. You can spend time exploring its historical museums, gardens and villas, picturesque streets, churches, and parks, after which, you can relax at one of the many cafes and restaurants. If time allows, visit the cathedral built in 1028 and the Benedictine monastery of San Francesco.