No trip to Italy is complete without a visit to Florence, the capital of the Italian region of Tuscany. Considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is famous for its art, architecture, and cultural heritage. Although there is certainly much more to see in Florence above and beyond the ten sights I have included here, this list is a great start for the first time visitor.
No matter what you decide to see on your visit to Florence, it is sure to be one of the more memorable experiences that you will have on your trip to Italy. Florence is very walkable and visitor friendly and it's possible to see the entire city on foot without using public transportation.
The Duomo, The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore
As you walk around Florence it's hard to miss the famous Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, otherwise known as the Duomo. Begun in 1296, the structure was not completed until 140 years later in1436. The beautiful exterior of the cathedral is made of green, white and pink marble and dominates the historic center of Florence.
If you can get to the Duomo early you can get on the first guided tour of the day, which I highly recommend. The tour, which lasts about an hour is informative, takes you places not accessible to the average tourist, gets you access to the rooftop terrace and then on to the top of the Duomo for amazing views of Florence.
The Duomo complex also includes The Baptistery and The Campanile (Bell Tower). The Baptistery is actually a few hundred years older than the Duomo and dates back to the 11th century. Named for John the Baptist, the building is also made of green and white marble.
The entire complex, which includes the Cathedral, the Bell Tower, and the Baptistery, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982.
Visit the Uffizi
One of the premier museums in the world, the Uffizi, is a must see on your visit to Florence. The Galleria degli Uffizi holds the most important collection of Renaissance art in the world including thousands of paintings, sculptures, and tapestries.
To avoid the long lines buy your tickets ahead of time or plan your visit for late afternoon when the crowds are apt to be a little smaller. Plan on spending a minimum of two to three hours in the Uffizi and certainly longer if you are a true connoisseur of fine art.
The Uffizi was established in 1581 and accommodates over two million visitors each year. The museum contains 45 rooms of artwork and literally thousands of individual pieces including works by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio.
Climb the Duomo
Climbing to the top of the Duomo, while admittedly not for everyone, was another one of those must do things on my list. Hey, your already here so you might as well climb the 463 steps to the top. We did this as part of the tour that was offered through the Basilica, which I highly recommend.
The views of Florence from the rooftop terrace were great, but from the top of the Duomo we’re talking spectacular. You have an unobstructured 360 degree view of Florence and the city is even more beautiful from this vantage point.
Chill out in Piazza della Signoria
The most famous square in Florence is undoubtedly the Piazza della Signoria. It contains many important statues including a replica of Michelangelo’s David and the Fountain of Neptune.
The town hall of Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio, is also located here in Piazza della Signoria. This piazza is a great place to just sit and people watch so grab a seat on the wall of the Loggia dei Lanzi and take it all in. I highly recommend you grab a gelato first.
And to avoid a scolding by the local police please keep your shoes on! We were actually asked by the police to put our shoes back on after we took them off to relax for a few minutes. Go figure!
Visit the Accademia
Home to Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, the Galleria dell’ Accademia should not be missed.
The Accademia is home to many other important paintings and sculptures, and this museum also has a rather interesting collection of musical instruments that was begun by the Medici family.
While I did not think that I would be overly impressed by the statue of David I must admit that I was very wrong. It is much larger than I anticipated and the detail on this sculpture it is truly unbelievable.
Be sure to get your tickets to the Accademia before hand as the lines can be very long depending on the time and day of your visit.
This century’s old bridge is the most famous of Florence’s six bridges that span the Arno River and dates back to Roman times. Today, the bridge is a hub of shopping with jewelry, art and souvenir vendors lining the bridge.
Spend some time just strolling around and over the bridge and be sure to take numerous photos of this famous and historic site.
Visit the Boboli gardens
Located on a hillside across the Ponte Vecchio and behind the Pitti Palace is the huge Boboli Garden Park. The gardens were laid out in the mid 16th century and have been enlarged and restructured numerous times since.
The gardens today cover 11 acres and offer excellent views of Florence. If you enjoy beautiful gardens, sculptures and fountains then plan on spending a few hours strolling through the park.
Visit the Basilica di Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce is the largest Francision Church in Italy and is located in Piazza Santa Croce. The church contains the tombs of many famous Florentines including Michelangelo and Dante. The church also contains sixteen chapels, many of them beautifully decorated with frescoes.
While the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore gets most of the attention in Florence this Basilica is not to be missed if you have time.
For the best views of Florence make the hike or hop on the bus and head for the Piazzale Michelangelo. This famous square with its stunning view of Florence is located across the Arno River and up the hill.
The square, dedicated to the great Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, contains copies of some of his works including his most famous sculpture of David. For a spectacular nighttime panoramic view of the city of Florence and The Duomo make a visit at night.
Santa Trinita church
This unimposing church just off the Arno River is worth popping into to see the work of Renaissance master Domenico Ghirlandaio. Inside the church, the Sassetti Chapel was frescoed by Ghirlandaio and his workshop–it is interesting to note how he used the look of Florence and local people to depict scenes from the Bible.
The altarpiece, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” is one of greatest from the Renaissance time. (The church is free.)
Tour the Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio is the old town hall of Florence, built in the 14th century. Its grand interior, which has seen such a fascinating history of events, has beautifully decorated rooms and courtyards with ornate ceilings, wall tapestries, carved doors, and fine art including works by Michelangelo, Vasari, and Da Vinci (this one was recently discovered behind one of the Vasari walls in the Salone dei Cinquecento).
Renaissance at the Brancacci Chapel
This fresco cycle, located in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno quarter, is probably the best place to see the innovations that took place in the early Renaissance. It is stunning, but you have to make reservations (even on the same day), well worth the effort if you can plan ahead a bit.
Renaissance proportions at the Pazzi Chapel
The Pazzi Chapel is a place few tourists know about, but it is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture. It was built by Brunelleschi, the same genius who designed Florence’s dome, and showcases the important Renaissance principles of geometric shapes and spatial harmony.
It is adjacent to the church of Santa Croce, so pop over after checking out the tombs and frescoes of Santa Croce.
Visit the Baptistery
Visit the inside of the Baptistery and take in the gold mosaic ceiling and marble floors. The ceiling has a common Medieval theme: the Last Judgment. As Christ judges, his left hand indicates those who will go to hell, while his right hand lifts to help the saved journey to heaven.
Visit Santa Maria Novella
This is Florence’s prettiest church. The façade is a lovely example of Renaissance shapes (except for the Gothic influence of the very bottom, which was built first). Pay 3 euros and go inside, where painted arches and an airy feeling greet you.
The church is full of great art–worth a long look are Masaccio’s Trinity fresco across from the entrance and the Tornabuoni chapel behind the altar, painted by Ghirlandaio’s workshop including teenage Michelangelo.
Walk up to San Miniato al Monte
This is one of favorite things to do in Florence, especially in the late afternoon. First, walk down the Lungarno (the road that goes along the river) to Viale G. Poggi and take the winding walkway up. Then stop briefly for the views at Piazzale Michelangelo before continuing up to the church of San Miniato al Monte.
The church is one of the oldest in the Florence area (from 1018) and a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture. It’s free to go inside — highlights are the mosaics above the altar and the small frescoed chapel in the back right corner of the church.
Walk around the outside of the church, see the cemetery, and take in the views of Florence and the surrounding countryside, especially at sunset. Stop in the small shop to the left of the church where the monks’ wares are sold.
Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
This centuries-old pharmacy/herbalist/perfumerie is an interesting part of Florence’s cultural heritage. All rooms are beautifully decorated, even with ornate ceilings.
There are so many historical objects related to the production of medicines, natural creams, and perfumes that it is also considered a “museum of tradition.” It’s free, so pick up the information pamphlet, ask questions, and see a unique part of Florence’s history.
Where to eat gelato in Florence
I know eating gelato should be automatic when in Italy, but you may find yourself so busy in Florence that you’ll forget to leave time for gelato breaks! Some of the best gelato can be found at Vivoli, Perché No!, and Grom, all in the historic center.
This cone with persimmon and chocolate orange was from Perché No! :-)