Florence Travel Guide
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Florence is one of the most visited cities in Italy for both first-time and experienced travelers. The picturesque capital of Tuscany, Florence (Firenze, in Italian) is known for its Renaissance art and architecture and the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Marcel Proust called it “a miracle city enbalmed.”
Florence’s skyline is defined by the monumental Renaissance-era cathedral, the Duomo, as well as by the Palazzo Vecchio, a medieval building with a crenelated tower. Florence’s cityscape is a compact and cozy collection of medieval and Renaissance structures, austere palaces, broad public squares, and intimate alleyways, not to mention churches, museums, restaurants, cafes, bars, and gelato shops.
The Arno River splits Florence into a right and left bank, the latter of which is known as the Oltrarno (“Beyond the Arno”). The Ponte Vecchio, famous for the jewelry vendors that line both sides, is Florence’s most iconic bridge.
It is hard to overstate the significance of Florence and its influence on the culture and history of Italy.
Moreover, the most famous names of the Renaissance, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Botticelli were born or lived here. All three of them, including many more of their contemporaries, left behind the incomparable art on display in museums like the Uffizi and the Accademia.
Top Things to See and Do in Florence
Though the city is fairly small, there is an awful lot to see and do here. The beauty is overwhelming to the point that it inspires a psychological condition known as Stendhalism, Stendhal Syndrome, or Stendhalismo. The phrase is named after the French writer Stendhal who is said to have experienced hallucinations and fainting when visiting Florence.
Of course, you can have a more easygoing visit to Florence. When planning your Florence itinerary, put the must-see sites on your schedule first, then sprinkle-in visits to smaller attractions as your schedule allows. Make sure you give yourself ample time to eat, drink, people-watch, and stroll through the piazzas.
Duomo, Baptistery, Belltower, and Duomo Museum
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is the symbol of Florence and the easiest-to-find attraction in the city. Its distinctive terracotta dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. The Duomo is a lot more fascinating from the outside than it is on the inside—the interior is not as decorative as the exterior.
The Duomo is part of a complex of religious buildings that is common in Italy. In addition to the church, there is a baptistery (battistero), a bell tower (campanile), and a museum.
The octagonal Baptistery of Saint John is one of the oldest buildings in Florence, dating from the early 12th century. It is notable for its “Gates of Paradise” bronze doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Dante and other notable Florentines, including members of the Medici family, were baptized here under the gold mosaic ceiling.
The bell tower was designed by Giotto and is the perfect place to get a view of the Duomo and the city below.
The museum, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, is behind the church and houses many of the original statues, paintings, carvings, and fixtures from the Duomo and its complex.
One of the best museums in the world, the Uffizi Gallery contains some of the most recognizable paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance.
You will want to give yourself several hours to visit the Uffizi. I recommend you purchase timed tickets online as long lines are common, both to buy tickets and to enter the museum. By buying your ticket in advance, you save yourself having to wait in another line. If you don’t buy your ticket in advance, you can purchase a ticket at the museum or from the ticket office at a few other museums in town, including the Pitti Palace and the Bargello. The biggest drawback here is that you will have to take whatever time is available and that may not fit with your travel schedule.
Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia
One single jaw-dropping work of art draws crowds to the Accademia—Michelangelo’s David. The towering statue, set on a pedestal in the center of a light-filled hall, is truly a masterpiece and you can inspect it from every angle. Michelangelo’s four unfinished sculptures of slaves/prisoners are also on view here as are numerous other works of art from lesser-known artists.
The David is incredible to see in person. Note that there are several other copies of the David in the city, the most famous of which are in Piazza della Signoria (where the work originally stood) and in Piazzale Michelangelo. These are hardly comparable to the original. But they give you a sense of the scale of the sculpture.
Other Attractions in Florence
Add these other Florence attractions if your itinerary allows it. They are all more than worthy of a visit but don’t merit “must-see” status unless you have ample time in your travel schedule.
Churches and Religious Sites
- Santa Maria Novella. 13th-century church with Renaissance masterpieces. Near Florence’s central train station of the same name.
- Santa Croce. Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Rossini are buried here, among many others.
- San Lorenzo. Parish church of the Medici family. Contains the Medici Chapels.
- Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. Famous for its early Renaissance fresco cycle by Masaccio.
- San Marco Monastery and Museum. Notable for the frescos painted by Beato Angelico. Home monastery of firebrand Dominican preacher Savonarola.
- Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. Imposing stone palace on Florence’s left bank filled with artistic and royal treasures. Its Boboli Gardens are a classic ideal for Renaissance landscaping.
- San Miniato al Monte. Romanesque church high on a ridge above Florence. Popular place to hike to.
- Bargello Museum. One of the first museums in Italy, with sculptures by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna, and other big names.
- Orsanmichele. Medieval grain warehouse turned church with statues by famous Renaissance sculptors.
- Palazzo Vecchio. City Hall of Florence with a distinctive central tower. The center of secular Florence for centuries.
- Ponte Vecchio. Famous bridge across the Arno known for its gold workshops.
- Piazza della Signoria. The main square of the city. Here you will find the Loggia dei Lanzi with its Renaissance sculptures, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the starting point for many tours of Florence.
- Piazzale Michelangelo. Large piazza above Florence with a fake David statue but with sweeping views over the city and countryside.
Top Tours in Florence
- Florence In A Day With David, Duomo, Uffizi & Walking Tour. Full-day tour that covers all the main highlights.
- Best of Florence with Special-Access Florence Duomo Tour, David & City Stroll. Three-hour tour in the city center with line-skipping access to Florence’s Cathedral sites.
When to Visit Florence
Florence is a fantastic city to visit year-round, as there is plenty to do both indoors and outdoors.
Festivals and Holidays in Florence
Spring is the best time to visit Florence for traditional events:
- March 25 – Feast of the Annunciation aka Florentine New Year
- March 25 – National Dante Alighieri Day
- Easter – Scoppio del Carro
- May – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
- June 24 – Feast of St. John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint and Calcio Storico, a soccer match played in Piazza Santa Croce
See the Italy calendar for details on public holidays in Italy.
Weather in Florence
Summer is the high season in Florence, starting from mid-May and running through September. August may be slightly less crowded due to the absence of Florentines, who leave for their summer holidays. Early May and the month of October are typically the best times to visit the city thanks to milder weather.
Books About Florence
The best book about Florence’s most prominent feature — the Duomo. Ross King writes about the architecture and the drama that surrounded the construction of Florence’s magnificent dome.
The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert
A definitive guide about the Medici, the famous family that influenced and shaped the history, art, and architecture of Florence. This is one of the most famous histories written by Oxford scholar Christopher Hibbert, author of more than 50 books.
The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
A contemporary of the Medici, Machiavelli wrote this classic book of political theory in the 16th century.