As the birthplace of the renaissance, Florence, Italy was home to the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli, Dante, Galileo and countless others geniuses. Art lovers will never be bored strolling Florence’s winding streets and admiring the many world class art collections the city has to offer. Here’s a sampling of the best:
Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery)
Not to be missed, the Uffizi houses a phenomenal collection of Italian paintings like Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” and masterpieces by Raphael, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Titian, Giotto, Da Vinci and Rubens, among many more. Be sure not to miss the Botticelli room, or the gothic altarpieces. (The Uffizi can get crowded, so it’s best to make a reservation in advance.)
The perfect thing for art history buffs is to take a tour of the Vasari corridor which includes admission and a tour of the Uffizi with no waiting in line. You’ll be whisked through an out of the way staff entrance directly into the museum before heading into this famed secret hallway commissioned by the Medici. Connecting the Uffizi with the Pitti Palace, the Vasari corridor is lined with paintings (mostly portraits) and a few sculptures. It crosses over the Arno river, even cutting through a church.
This is the home of the original David, Italy’s most famous sculpture. You’ll see copies of The David outside Palazzo Vecchio and overlooking the city at Piazzale Michelangelo, but this one is the real deal. Soaring 17 feet tall, circling The David from below is an unforgettable experience. Lining the corridor that leads to The David are Michelangelo’s Slaves. Each in various states of completion, these pieces have a powerful raw energy about them. Although the Accademia also houses renaissance paintings, the Michelangelos are definitely the stars of the show.
Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace)
This grand renaissance palace has housed several noble families, but is principally known as the home of the Medici family, who unofficially ruled Florence, and fostered the birth of the Italian Renaissance. Their love of art is apparent in the countless treasures that line the walls of the palace. The most breathtaking part of the palace are the royal apartments where you’ll find room after room of rich textiles, decadent marble, and stunning ceiling frescoes accented by abundant gold flourishes. Gold frames are stacked floor to ceiling showcasing masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens among others. A perfect compliment to all this luxury are the manicured Boboli gardens, filled with sculptures, fountains and pruned hedges.
Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapels)
Located inside the church of San Lorenzo are the Medici family tombs, decorated with Michelangelo’s famous sculptures “Night and Day” and “Dawn and Dusk”. Equally compelling is the opulent Cappella dei Principi, a vast domed chapel filled with marble. Some of the marble pieces are so ornate they look like paintings, but if you look closely you’ll see they are composed of finely inlaid marble. Floors and ceilings with cut marble designs compliment the frescoed ceilings and lavish tombs. Truly a sight to behold.
Churches in Florence are showcases of renaissance architecture, art, and history. The first church you should visit in Florence is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, or The Duomo. Be sure to climb the Campanile (Giotto’s bell tower) or Brunelleschi’s dome for spectacular panoramas. The adjacent baptistry is famous for its medieval golden mosaics and bronze doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti (“Gates of Paradise”) and Andrea Pisano.
The Franciscan basilica of Santa Croce houses the tombs of famous Florentines like Galileo, Michelangelo, Rossini and Machiavelli as well as more great art, while the Dominican basilica of Santa Maria Novella is home to Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity,” mentioned in every art history book.
Two more important churches in Florence are Orsanmichele, a former granary decorated with famous sculptures like Donatello’s “St. Mark” and “St. George” and Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno district on the other side of the Arno river. Originally designed by Brunelleschi, who died before the basilica was completed, what you see today is quite different from his original plans.
Best Places to Savor Panoramic City Vistas
This is hands down the most magical place watch the sun set in Florence. You won’t be alone in seeking out this spot, so be prepared for crowds. This is one of the highest points in the city, and nothing beats this setting: the Arno river tinged in pink light, snaking through the city beneath a backdrop of purple mountains punctuated by the infamous Duomo. Don’t forget to have a look at the bronze copy of Michelangelo’s David while you’re up here.
A favorite Florentine basilica is San Miniato al Monte, just a few minutes walk from Piazzale Michelangelo, with equally gorgeous and peaceful city views. Legend has it that after St. Miniato was beheaded, he picked up his head and climbed all the way up this hill to the site of today’s basilica.
Brunelleschi’s Dome & Giotto’s Campanile
An essential Florentine experience is climbing the winding (and claustrophobic) stone staircases that lead up to the highest two points within the city center. From the dome, you can enjoy endless vistas of rooftops fading into the horizon, sprinkled with iconic monuments. From Giotto’s Campanile, aka the bell tower, you get similar panoramas that include the dome. Nothing beats the feel of the wind in your hair as you gaze down on this timeless renaissance city.
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)
Ponte Vecchio is beautiful at any time of day, but mostly so at twilight when the lights begin to come on in the shops and cast their glimmer on the Arno river. A stroll along Ponte Vecchio is essential, but for the best city views head one bridge over to the Ponte alle Grazie bridge where you’ll have a head-on view of romantic Ponte Vecchio.
Getting to Know Florence
FlorenceTown offers a variety of fun tours that range from cooking courses to walking tours, wine tours and bike tours.
Walk & Talk Florence
A great way for first time visitors to get a handle on the city is to take a walking tour. All tours in Florence are by default art history tours, so you’ll get a great overview of the history, art, and culture that makes Florence tick.
Pizza & Gelato Making Cooking Course
While in Italy, why not learn how to make pizza from scratch from a pizzaiolo, or professional pizza chef? This cooking class teaches you how to make thin-crusted Italian pizzas beginning with just flour and yeast. But why stop at pizza? You’ll also learn how to make Italian gelato. Best of all you’ll get to taste all your creations!
Vasari Corridor & Uffizi Gallery Tour
Art lovers and history buffs will swoon at the opportunity to traverse the legendary Vasari Corridor. Built by Giorgio Vasari in just five months for the Medici family, this secret passage leads straight from the Uffizi Gallery to the Pitti Palace via a corridor lined with world-class artwork and small round windows that look down on the city. Escorted by guards, you’ll have a chance to traverse the Arno river and cut through the church of Santa Felicita, completely unseen.
There’s so much to see and do in Florence that you could easily spend months here. It’s one of those cities that you’ll want to return to time and time again. So take it slow, relish the experience and assume you’ll be back.
More Florence, Italy Guides
For more insider tips, check out part 2 of our Florence, Italy guide, which highlights the city’s unforgettable culinary stops and mouth-watering gelaterie!
Mangiamo! Great Places to Eat in Florence Italy (Part 2 of 3)
Missed Part 1 of our Florence, Italy guide? No problem, see it here:
Florence Italy: La Città Più Bella (Part 1 of 3)