Birthplace of the Renaissance movement and home to many spectacular pieces of artwork and sculpture, Florence is the capital of Tuscany. Explore this stunning city of culture and the history under the shadow of the famous terracotta dome of the Duomo.
Florence, or Firenze if you want to get into the Italian spirit, is a historic and cultured city. Located in central Italy on the Arno River, the city is around 50 miles (80km) east of the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and 145 miles (230km) northwest of Rome. It is a feast for the eyes with so many examples of stunning architecture and an array of statues and sculptures to admire.
The city of Florence is just over 2000 years old. It was founded in 59 BC by Julius Caeser as a settlement for veteran Roman soldiers to dwell. Its location was chosen at a spot along the Roman road leading from Rome to the north of Italy and Europe beyond. Due to the residents that were to live here, the city was designed like an army camp with linear streets coming off a central square (now the Piazza della Repubblica).
From approximately 1000 AD onwards, Florence began its golden age, specifically in its art and architecture. Throughout the middle ages, the city had an important influence on the cultural development of Europe. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance architecture movement.
For centuries, Florence was dominated and ruled over by the Medici family whose power and influence can still be seen across the city today. Brothers Cosimo and Lorenzo de’Medici were 15th century figureheads in Italy across both the political and cultural fields. Their descendants would become four popes; Leo X, Clement VII, Pius IV and Leon XI, two wives of French Kings; Catherine De Medici marrying Henry II and Marie de Medici marrying Henry IV, a future king. Between 1569 and 1737 many Medici men passed down the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany from heir to heir. This family commissioned the building of many architectural masterpieces of Florence including the Basilica di San Lorenzo.
We travelled to Florence via coach from the cruise port of Livorno (tours also operate from the Italian cruise port of La Spezia) which also included a 45-minute stop-off at Pisa. The 58 mile (93km) journey took about an hour and a half but the views whilst we were travelling were fantastic. We were lucky enough to have a knowledgeable tour guide onboard with us who gave us additional information along the way.
As is usual for this area of Italy in the summer, the weather was hot and sunny with clear skies. However, Italy was facing their hottest summer in a decade; it was not the average 32°c for August but instead a not quite so pleasant 48°c at the height of the day. At times it was a killer! But with lots of museums and attraction tickets booked we were glad of some shade and air conditioning.
There’s a lot to do and see in Florence so planning ahead is a sure way of not being disappointed. However, if you’re open-minded and happy to wander through the beautiful streets and see where the adventure takes you, there is still plenty on offer; delicious food, stunning architecture and culture around every corner.
Before visiting we had watched a BBC documentary called Italy’s Invisible Cities. This hour-long programme explored buildings using 3D technology, discovering how these buildings were created and some of the architectural secrets hidden within them. This really piqued our interests further as well as giving us some additional knowledge before heading over to the famous city. If possible, we would recommend a watch! So with our heads filled with abundant knowledge and excitement to explore, we set out into the city's blazing sun to begin our day of adventure.
When looking at images of Florence as a city, there is one main icon that makes up the unmistakable skyline. The Il Duomo di Firenze, as it is known, is a beautiful, dominant and significant building in so many ways. The third largest cathedral in the world (or 4th depending on how you measure your cathedrals), it is built on the site of a previous cathedral and is the third in the city of Florence.
Just walking around the perimeter of the basilica gives you an idea of its size. There is something new to see from every angle - take note of the effect of weathering and pollution on the green and pink marble panels. The exterior walls are all covered in these panels which are edged in white, with the baptistery in the same design. These features were added in the 19th century when the original gothic style was deemed outdated and a new design was needed. This new style was to compromise the original designs of the cathedral with new ideas, leading to the current neo-gothic marbling that can be seen today.
The cathedral was completed in 1466 after 170 years of workmanship. At the time of building it, it was the largest dome in the world and the biggest cathedral in Europe. The overall dimensions of the building are phenomenal; 8300 square metres (89,340 feet) of building with the dome towering at 114.5 metres (375.7 feet). The dome alone used 4 million bricks, weighing over 40,000 tons. At over ten stories high, incredibly it is the largest masonry structure in the world. If this sounds imposing today, imagine the impression it must have made on medieval Italians!
Of course, the huge terracotta dome is one of the most famous in the world. Not only a breath-taking interior and famed exterior, but a structure surrounded by mystery and intrigue as it was built without scaffolding and no one is quite sure how this was done. The blueprints were destroyed or lost centuries ago, opening up a worldwide debate and a case study for all architecture students attempting to solve the riddle.
The Duomo is made up of five key elements and a museum. Visiting all five will take up most of the day; booking times allow 2 hours between certain venues to ensure that visitors get plenty of time at each venue. However, tickets can be used for 72 hours which is helpful. A ticket can be purchased online for less than €20 giving access to all 5 areas and avoiding the need to queue, which is well worth investigating before starting your trip. If you decide to visit last minute, check times as it is closed on the first Tuesday of the month.
You can enter the cathedral for free if you wish to just look around the ground floor; be warned that this queue is generally rather long but moves relatively quickly. If entering in this way in a group (4 people or more) then you will need to pay for an audio guide. This is to reduce noise pollution within the cathedral and allows more people to be inside at one time. Therefore, more people in, less people queuing! You will also need to remember that appropriate attire is required if visiting this religious building; respectful clothing containing sleeves and knee length bottoms are a must, and hats and sunglasses will also need to be removed.
If you want to get to know the streets of medieval Florence, play Assassins Creed II as this features lots of gameplay in the city. You can climb up the domed roof of the famous Duomo, roam the streets or scale the scaffolding of the Bell Tower. If you’ve already been, it’s a strange one as you are able to navigate around the missions much more easily as you will be familiar with the layout of the city.
If history is your thing then why not watch the Netflix drama Medici: Masters of Florence? Starring some big names such as Robert De Niro and Richard Madden, the series depicts the life of the Medici family in the 15th century. Although not 100% accurate (there is some artistic license taking place here) this is a great way to learn a slice of history with the added entertainment value.
The Dome is magnificent from every angle and given a lifetime, you still wouldn’t be able to take in all the detail within it. All sides of the octagonal, inner dome depict Giorgio Vasari's frescoes of the Last Judgment (1572-1579). In order to get up close to the dome you will need to book a tour. It’s not for the faint hearted and those with medical conditions or a fear of heights or closed spaces should do further research beforehand. If you’ve ever climbed St Paul's Cathedral in London you’re on the right lines - just add the stifling heat into the mix!
The climb up to the top involved squeezing down narrow passages and climbing the 463 steps! Luckily, halfway through this expedition is the balcony and the base of the dome. From here you can see the frescoes in more detail as well as being able to admire the cathedral below. As you move around the balcony, you will get different views of the artwork - you may be standing underneath heavenly scenes or maybe the devil himself. The very top section of the dome is almost an optical illusion as the Angels here look like they are really perched upon a ledge helping the great and good up to their salvation.
The passages are narrow corridors and steep flights of stairs used by the builders and were never intended to be seen by the general public. However, from within them you can begin to see the structure of the dome, with its outer dome being supported by the smaller, inner dome. There’s a fair bit of waiting around in these corridors as you have to allow those coming down to pass but it’s a great opportunity to take in the clever building techniques that can be seen from here. Once you finally reach the lantern at the top of the dome, the 360 degree views of the city help you to appreciate Florence from a new angle - its design, its expanse, its beautiful buildings, and it might even help you to plan the rest of your stay. It feels like you are in a giant map with the roads spreading out all around you.
Coming down the steps and corridors isn’t any easier than going up. You will have to pass those waiting to go up for a start! The one positive experience of coming back down is that with each corridor you travel down, they get wider again! All in all it’s a bucket list landmark that is worth the hard work once you are at the top - and for less than €20 per person you can afford a well-earned gelato at the end!
An intriguing looking building from the outside, The Baptistery is truly a place of worship. The exterior shows the octagonal roof and the wonderful bronze doors, covered in Bible stories but giving no clue to the magnificence of the interior. The interior ceiling, although significantly smaller than that of the Duomo’s, holds its own against its neighbour. The frescos here tell many stories and it is clear that many centuries ago, illiterate worshippers would have been able to follow many stories and readings from these images. Take the time to sit, recline and take in stories from Genesis, of Joseph, Mary, Christ, St. John and the larger more dominating Last Judgement.
Whether you are of the Christian faith or none at all, this building will impress you and it is definitely worth a visit. A guide to help identify the stories on both the door and dome are included in the leaflet given to those who have tickets for the Duomo complex. It was certainly helpful for us and a great memento to go in our scrapbook when we got home - as well as helping us to identify the scenes we had taken photographs of and locate them in the building.
One of the most famous parts of the whole baptistery are the Bronze doors of which there are three sets. At seventeen feet tall and full of stunning imagery, they aren’t easily ignored! The earlier southern doors were made by Andrea Pisano in the 14th century and consist of two doors, each with 14 panels. Combined, these 28 panels depict the life of John the Baptist (the upper 20 panels) and the eight Christian virtues (the lower 8 panels). The north doors were created by Lorenzo Ghiberti, again with 28 panels. These panels tell the story of the life of Christ and the four evangelists.
The more magnificent of the doors are the eastern doors which are known as 'The Gates of Paradise'. Created between 1425 and 1452 by Florentine goldsmith and creator of the northern doors, Lorenzo Ghiberti, the doors depict scenes from stories of the Old Testament. These doors contain only 10 panels, which are larger than the panels featuring on the other two sets. Framing the doors are two strips of decoration, which include 24 protruding heads of prophets and oracles, including the creator of the doors himself, Ghiberti. Make sure you have a look for it, using a tourist guide obtained at the entrance to the building.
Whilst the Uffizi Gallery is famous for holding some of Florence’s (and the world’s) paintings and sculptures, the Opera Duomo museum contains a wealth of artefacts and sculpture of holy significance.
The museum spans three floors and is split into 25 rooms. There is an interactive app available for the museum which is free to download. We didn’t know about this at the time but wish we had as it would have helped us to find our way around and explain the artefacts in more detail.
For us there were two stand-out areas of the museum. The first was the exhibition about the building of the dome and how this might have been done. Chris, of course, reckoned he had this figured out from the start despite centuries of experts still only able to come up with a theory on how it might have been possible! The second was the large room on the ground floor - the Salone del Paradiso - which due to its size, emanates grandeur and an element of awe and wonder. It is filled with large sculptures and artefacts and seems to be a never ending façade of white marble. There is certainly plenty to see!
There is a rooftop terrace within the museum which allows you to see the cathedral from yet another amazing angle. This one is quite dominating, as you come out onto the small terrace with the huge building looming directly over you. It feels as if it might land on top of you at any moment.
As with any good landmark, you can find a lovely café and gift shop here too. Packed full of books, art and cultural keepsakes, it’s far classier than your usual souvenir shop in case you want to take something home that isn’t emblazoned with an Italian flag! Here you can find a stunning collection of jewellery, much of which has been handcrafted and is of a wonderful quality; a great place to go if you are looking for a unique gift or keepsake of your travels.
Keep an eye out for details of events and tours happening for the dates you are planning to visit. The museum holds many different workshops for you to take part in, helping you to discover even more. With spaces in the museum for temporary exhibitions, as well as the regular pieces you can find here, there is always something new being added to the already loaded itinerary on offer.
The Arno River which runs through the city is a helpful landmark when finding your way around. There are many bridges crossing over it and stopping at one of these is a must. The most iconic and important bridge in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio meaning ‘old bridge’. It has shops built along both sides of it and is famous for being the only bridge in the city not destroyed by the Nazis during their retreat from the Allies.
One of the best views of the bridge is from one of the bridges either side of the Ponte Vecchio. From here you can see the three main arches spanning the river and above them the 3 high arches rising above the bridge giving a glimpse of the tourists and shoppers crossing there. The main arch spans 30 metres (98 feet) and the slightly smaller two arches span 27 metres (89 feet) each. The bridge has some other impressive dimensions; 84 metres in length (276 feet) and 32 meters in width (105 feet). However, this is harder to imagine when on the bridge itself due to the buildings and many people crowding the area.
Ponte Vecchio has been occupied by shops since the 13th century. Originally there were all types of shops here including butchers, fishmongers and tanners whose waste caused quite the stench! Nowadays the shops are mainly jewellers and the occasional art dealer - much less nauseating! Of course a walk across the bridge is essential but window shopping is advised unless you are feeling particularly flush! It’s a very busy bridge, with lots of tourists in an affluent area so having your wits about you and an eye on your wallet is advisable.
Popular culture now encourages lovers to add locks to bridges in cities that they have visited. However, be warned! Whilst the Italian’s are famed for their passion and love, they don’t take kindly to having padlocks put on their favourite bridges! If you are caught fixing a lock to the Ponte Vecchio you will be receiving a €160 fine rather than a beautiful romantic moment with the one you love!
When admiring the Ponte Vecchio from a distance, you will also see part of the ‘secret passage’ known as the Vasari Corridor. This was built as a means of crossing the city by a wealthy Duke who wanted to be able to commute from his Palace, on one side of the river, to the Government Palace on the other without having to mix with the general public. The bridge is a good place to track it or follow it as it is more easily seen here but it does run to the Uffizi Gallery if you want to start there too!
The corridor is almost 1km long and was built in 1564. It was restored in the 1970’s to be opened to the public but can now only be visited by appointment. The passageway from the Uffizi contains over 1000 paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. So not only is it a monumental urban footpath travelling through the historic heart of the city, but it is also a secret and hidden art gallery.
The corridor was used by the Medici family for many years but these were not the only tyrannical fans of the Vasari Corridor. Benito Mussolini was also impressed with it and hoped to impress Adolf Hitler when he visited Florence. He invested considerable resources into his preparations for the foreign visit. This included extensive redecorating and the demolition of three original windows to create one large viewing gallery for the Nazis who arrived in Florence on May 9th 1938.
The overall impression during the visit must have left its mark on Hitler. As the German’s were retreating across Europe towards the end of the second world war, their army routinely blew up bridges in an attempt to halt the advancing allied armies. However, in Florence all of the bridges but the Ponte Vecchio succumbed to this fate and it is believed that there were specific instructions from Hitler to only destroy the buildings on the bridge rather than the bridge itself. Maybe he wasn’t so heartless after all?
The Basilica of the Holy Cross can be found in a piazza beside the Arno River and to the South East of the more famous Florence Duomo via a short walk through more quaint side streets. It is noteworthy, not only for those like us who enjoy seeing magnificent architecture, but also as the final resting place of many famous Italians including Michelangelo, Galileo and Rossini.
The church’s façade is impressive and is similar in its colours to that of the Duomo with greens, pinks and white all being predominant. The pattern and detailing here is worth sitting and admiring whilst you are in the Piazza di Santa Croce. There is a pleasing symmetry to the design that is gratifying on the eye - added to its positioning within this historic piazza, it just all seems to make sense.
We were impressed, and as the queue to get in here was significantly shorter than that of the Duomo, we decided to make a visit and see if the interior could match the exterior. Of course we weren’t disappointed! The Italians do churches so well and whilst there is a more flamboyant feel to the colours and designs compared to other places, there is a holiness that can’t be described. This can be said for all of the places of worship we have visited in Italy.
The main area of the church is huge, with arches flanking each side and an awe-inspiring alter bathed in a rainbow of colours. There are small chapels (16 in total) coming off in all directions and each has examples of artwork which although breathtaking in quality, seem to be intensified by the proportion of the pieces in the space that they are in. There truly is a surprise around every corner.
If you want to find the tombs of some of the famous inhabitants it may be a bit of a treasure hunt! Michelangelo is buried near the front entrance to the right at the start of the side aisle. It is said that he chose this spot himself so that on Judgement Day (when the dead fly to heaven) the first thing he would see would be the magnificent dome of the Duomo through the church’s open doors. By the front entrance to the left you can find Galileo Galilei; it took 95 years from his death before he was buried in the church. His advanced scientific beliefs prevented him from having the Christian burial usually given at the time.
Whilst the Duomo is the jewel in Florence’s crown, the Santa Croce shouldn’t be dismissed as an unattractive, unimportant little sister. It is intriguing, captivating and plentiful in its gifts of historical, cultural and artistic delights.
Located between the Duomo and the Arno River, the Piazza della Signoria is one of the central points in the city. The square is in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, now the city hall, and is the original location of the Florentine Republic. Today, the piazza is still a political focal point and meeting place for locals. You will also find a throng of tourists here with so much to see and many great photo opportunities.
Despite its name, the square is actually L-shaped with many notable buildings flanking its sides. As well as the Palazzo Vecchio, with its looming tower, is the famous Uffizi Gallery (one of the reasons you will find so many tourists here), Palazzo Uguccioni, Palace of the Assicurazioni and a 14th century palace that is now the home of the Bureau of Agriculture.
Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) is a fortress-palace which was built from 1299. The interior is impressive - you might even go as far as mind-blowing! The main hall is 54 meters (177 feet) long with a width of 23 meters (75.5 feet) and a height of 18 meters (59 feet). The walls are adorned with the most magnificent frescos and artwork, which when paired with the colossal dimensions of the room, are a sight to behold.
The Fountain of Neptune can also be found in the square. Built by Bartolomeo Ammannati between 1563 and 1565 from marble and bronze, it was designed to show Florence’s dominance of the seas. The central figure of Neptune stands at 4.2 metres (13.78 feet) and is flanked on either side by Scylla and Charybdis - Greek mythical figures apparently and not STD’s although you could be forgiven for the mistake!
The Piazza della Signoria is a great place to get cultural with statues and sculptures all around you. The best part is, you don’t have to pay! The Loggia dei Lanzi is an area joining the Uffizi Gallery by large, wide arches which opens up a mini side-square to the street creating its very own outdoor art gallery that can be accessed by all.
Beneath the covered area you can find a collection of stunning Renaissance art and sculpture, built between 1376 and 1382. The Florentines loved it and it was suggested that the entire square should be flanked with this architectural design. Its covered area could house important events such as officials being sworn into office and its roof could be used by the Medici family to oversee events taking place in the square below.
In the Loggia dei Lanzi you will find the Medici Lions; two marble lions, one from the 2nd century and one made later at the end of the 16th century. These famous statues (once a pair of garden ornaments for the Medici family) have been copied and reproduced by many countries and can be found in key locations all around Europe. Some of the other notable pieces to see here include Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines (1574–82) and Hercules beating the Centaur Nessus (1599).
Of course, if you are visiting Florence you must also see the famous statue of David. If you want to see the original you can head over to the Galleria dell'Accademia in the city. But a copy of Michelangelo’s masterpiece can be found in the square, a symbol of the Republic overthrowing the tyrannical Medici family regime.
Tuscan cuisine is all about simplicity. The key ingredients are bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms and fresh fruit. You won’t find heavy sauces on the menu here but instead dishes cooked with olive oil and many with the Tuscan staple of beans. A further use of olive oil is as a salad dressing or an accompaniment with bread.
A perfectly typical example of a Tuscan dish is ribollita, a soup meaning ‘reboiled’. Made using bread, tomatoes, cannellini beans and seasonal vegetables and herbs, it is a winter staple in the Florentine diet. However, if visiting in the summer months, why not try Pappa al Pomodoro; a tomato soup made with bread, tomatoes and olive oil. Again, this is a quintessential Tuscan dish that won’t leave you disappointed. If you’re in the mood for something a bit meatier then a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a T-bone steak, is a must. It comes from a Tuscan breed of cow called Chianina cattle which is prized for its high quality meat.
Some areas in Italy have banned the coperto service charge but this and other charges still routinely appear on menus, so be careful if you're on a tight budget. Charged per person, you can avoid paying an exorbitant coperto by checking restaurant menus before entering. If there is no menu posted outside, ask the host for one before being seated. The coperto is typically listed in tiny print either at the very top or bottom of the menu. They're usually pretty crafty at concealing it, so keep your eyes peeled!
Brought up from childhood on drops of dark Robusta roasts, Italians tend to demand coffee that is bitter, scalding hot, and made in a hurry. As a visitor, we would recommend you order your coffee directly at the bar to avoid paying a service charge for being served at a table, which often doubles your bill. When you enter a cafe, locate the cashier and place your order, then take your receipt to the bar to collect your beverage of choice. Italians don’t linger over coffee and an espresso only takes a minute to drink, so it’s easy and enjoyable to drink standing up.
If like us you enjoy a traditional English tea, your choices in and around Florence are quite limited. Italians just don't have the knack of making tea, and you won't find it served in many restaurants or cafes in and around the city.
If cocktails are your thing then there is only one drink to sample whilst in Florence. The Negroni is a Florentine original created in the city around 1920. Many have claimed to be the father of this delicious nectar but it is commonly believed to have been the handiwork of Luigi Scarselli who combined the ingredients of a regular customer at his bar, a nobleman called Count Negroni. Served with soda water and half a slice of orange, this combination of one part gin, one part vermouth and one part Campari makes a characteristically fruity flavour that is unmistakably the taste of Florence.
Florence is a beautiful, classic Italian city with something of interest around every corner. Its lack of city-centre traffic helps it to be a place for appreciating the traditional beauty of the many streets and allows you to almost forget what period of time you are in. You can’t help but experience the many influences from the Renaissance period. In fact, you can see all of the great artists of the period here (you can mark off all four of the Turtles if you are playing Ninja Turtle Bingo in Florence!) And of course, who can visit Florence without a trip to its famous Duomo?
Need further inspiration for your future travels? Are your plans leading you further across Italy? Have a read of more of our adventures by exploring our other blogs or check out our social media pages for photos and handy tips. Have you already been to Florence? We’d love to hear back from you and share your own experiences. Follow us on social media, drop us photos, edits or updates or maybe you’ve found something new and exciting that we should be aware of?
Happy travelling and ciao for now!
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