Florence (Italian: Firenze) is the capital of the region of Tuscany in Italy, with a population of about 366,500. The city is a cultural, artistic and architectural gem. The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence was the home to powerful families, creative geniuses and scientific masterminds who left their legacies in the city’s many museums and art galleries.
Florence is filled with many churches stuffed with some of the finest art in the world: Santa Maria del Fiore, San Miniato al Monte, San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Trinita, the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, Santa Croce, Santo Spirito, SS Annunziata, Ognissanti, and more.
Then there are the art galleries. The Uffizi and the Pitti Palace are two of the most famous picture galleries in the world. But the heart and soul of Florence are in the two superb collections of sculpture, the Bargello and the Museum of the Works of the Duomo. They are filled with the brilliant, revolutionary creations of Donatello, Verrochio, Desiderio da Settignano, Michelangelo, and so many other masterpieces that create a body of work unique in the world. And, of course, there is the Accademia, with Michelangelo’s David, perhaps the most well-known work of art anywhere, plus the superb, unfinished prisoners and slaves Michelangelo worked on for the tomb of Pope Julius II.
To get a great overview of the city, you have plenty of choices: climb the dome of the Cathedral or Giotto’s Bell Tower which is much easier or head for Piazzale Michelangelo a large parking lot on the hillside just south of the center of town, or climb a bit further to the church of San Miniato al Monte, a sublime 11th century masterpiece, with superb Renaissance sculptures. At vespers, the monks add to the beauty with chants. Unsurprisingly the historic centre of Florence has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Santa Maria del Fiore topped by Brunelleschi’s dome is the third largest Christian church and dominates the skyline. The Florentines decided to start building it in the 1200s. At the outset they were unsure how they were going to do it. It was “technology forcing”, not unlike like the American Kennedy Administration’s decision to put a man on the moon. The dome was the largest ever built at the time, and the first major dome built in Europe since the two great domes of Roman times: the Pantheon in Rome and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In front of it is the medieval Baptistery, where every Florentine was baptized until modern times. The two buildings incorporate the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance in their decoration. In recent years, most of the important works of art from those two buildings and from the wonderful Bell Tower, designed by Giotto, have been removed and replaced by copies. The originals are now housed in the spectacular Museum of the Works of the Duomo, just to the east of the Cathedral:
- Santa Maria del Fiore. Also known as the Duomo di Firenze is the city’s beautiful Gothic cathedral, the symbol of the city. Brunelleschi’s huge dome was an engineering feat of the Renaissance. A statue of Brunelleschi is sited in the piazza, with his figure looking upwards towards his dome. It is possible to climb the Dome (entrance on the side of the church), which has 464 steps. Usually has a long lineup. edit
- Giotto’s Tower (Campanile di Giotto). Adjacent to the Duomo, you can climb the tower for a magnificent 360-degree view of the Duomo, Florence, and the surrounding area, and requires some tenacity to climb 414 steps. edit
- Baptistery. Famous for its bronze doors by Andrea Pisano (14th century) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (15th century) and a beautiful interior the vault of which is decorated with 13th century mosaics (the only medieval set of mosaics in the city). edit
- Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Museum of the Works of the Duomo), Piazza del Duomo 9 (Directly behind the dome end of the cathedral). The Cathedral Museum, with artworks formerly in the Duomo and surrounding religious buildings, including sculptures by Donatello, another version of the Pietà (different from that one of Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Vatican, Rome) by Michelangelo, and the losing entries in the famous contest held in 1401 to design the doors of the Baptistery. Models and drawings of the Cathedral. Worthy. Currently under going reconstruction and will re-open October 29, 2015. edit
Old Town Centre
- Palazzo Vecchio. Old city palace/city hall, adorned with fine art. The replica of Michelangelo’s “David” is placed outside the main door in the original location of the statue, which is a symbol of the Comune of Florence. The site displays an important collection of Renaissance sculptures and paintings, including the Putto, by Verrochio, and the series of murals by Giorgio Vasari at the Salone dei Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Houndreds) – the hall which used to display the now lost Renaissance masterpiece, that is, the so-called Battaglia di Anghiari, by Leonardo da Vinci.
- Ponte Vecchio. The oldest and most famous bridge over the Arno; the only Florentine bridge to survive WW2. The Ponte Vecchio (literally “old bridge”) is lined with shops, traditionally mostly jewellers since the days of the Medici. Vasari’s elevated walkway crosses the Arno over the Ponte Vecchio, connecting the Uffizi to the old Medici palace.
Santa Croce. Contains the monumental tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante, and many other notables in addition to artistic decorations. There is also great artwork in the church. And when you’re done seeing that, a separate charge will gain you admission to the Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce, where you can see a flood-damaged but still beautiful Crucifix by Cimabue (Giotto’s teacher), which has become both the symbol of the flooding of Firenze in 1966 and of its recovery from that disaster. The Pazzi Chapel, a perfectly symmetrical example of sublime neo-Classic Renaissance architecture is also worth visiting.
- Santa Maria Novella (near the train station). A beautiful church with great artwork, including a recently restored Trinity by Masaccio. Also, the Chiostro Verde, to your left when facing the front entrance of the church, contains frescoes by Paolo Uccello which are quite unusual in style and well worth seeing, if the separate entrance is open. Off of the church’s cloister is the wonderful Spanish Chapel which is covered in early Renaissance frescoes.
- Orsanmichele. A beautiful old church from the 14th century, which once functioned as a grain market.
- San Lorenzo. The façade of this church was never completed, giving it a striking, rustic appearance. Inside the church is pure Renaissance neo-classical splendor. If you go around the back of the church, there is a separate entrance to the Medici chapels. Be sure to check out the stunning burial chapel of the princes and the sacristy down the corridor. The small sacristy is blessed with the presence of nine Michelangelo sculptures.
- San Marco Convent. Houses frescoes by Fra Angelico and his workshop. Fra Angelico painted a series of frescoes for the cells in which the Dominican monks lived.
Remember that restaurants have separate prices for food to go or eaten standing up versus sit down service; don’t try to sit at a table after paying for food or coffee from the restaurant’s to go booth. Also ask always beforehand for the price if you want to sit at a table. Otherwise you might be uncomfortably surprised. Cappuccino al banco i.e.
Florence’s food can be as much of a treat to the palate as the art is a treat to the eye. There is good food for any price range, from fine restaurants to take out food from window stands. The best price/quality ratio you will find outside the historical center where normal Italians go to eat. The worst ratio is probably in the neighbourhood of Mercato di San Lorenzo where there are a lot of tourist restaurants, while many of the best restaurants in the city are found in the Santa Croce district. In some, requests for pizza may be met with a rebuff. For local pizza look for small shops near the Duomo.
The best lunch places don’t always turn out to be the best dinner places. Dinner in Florence really starts sometime between 7PM and 9PM. If a place looks like they’re preparing to close before 8PM, it might not be the best option for dinner. Reheated pasta is not very tasty.
Typical Tuscan courses include Bistecca alla fiorentina which is huge t-bone steak weighing from 500g to 1,500g. Crostini toscani are crostini with tuscan liver pâté.
There is also a uniquely Florentine fast food with a 1,000-year history – lampredotto, a kind of tripe (cow stomach, or calf for preference, but a different part than the more familiar white “honeycomb” kind, dark brown in color; the name comes from its wrinkled appearance, which apparently reminds locals of a lamprey fish). The trippaio set their carts in the public squares in the center, dishing out the delicacy straight from the cauldron in which it is being boiled with herbs and tomatoes, chopping it and slapping the portions between halves of a Tuscan roll; the top is dipped in the broth. A mild green parsley- or basil-based sauce or a hot red one goes with it.
There are many gelato (Italian ice cream) stands; some connoisseurs consider the better Florentine gelato the finest in the world. Often gelato is made in the bar where you buy it. Because of this there are many exotic flavors of ice cream like watermelon, spumante or garlic. It’s hard to find a gelato place open very late, so after dinner might not be an option. Near the Duomo though, there are a few places open after 10PM.
Tuscany is also the wellspring of cantuccini, also called biscotti di Prato. (Please note that in Italian, the singular of biscotti is un biscotto). It’s traditional to enjoy them after a meal by dipping them in Vin Santo (“Holy Wine”), a concentrated wine made from late-harvested grapes, but you can also buy bags of them in stores throughout the city and eat them however you like.