We traveled to Florence for eight very enjoyable days in early March. It was absolutely wonderful. It is so nice to have enough time to explore this city in depth. There was even time for two day-trips out of the city. This was our first time in Florence and we wanted to savor it. We have had the opportunity in the past for one day excursions to Florence from cruise ships or to add on a day or two in Florence to another itinerary, but we were so glad we waited to do it up right!
Four important tips for planning your Florence itinerary:
- Most of the major attractions are closed on Mondays, and they have opening and closing times that change with the seasons and day of the week, so be sure to double-check websites when planning your itinerary. If that seems too difficult, you can pre-arrange tours to take you to the big sights and that worry is gone. Just book the tour and show up at your “meeting point”.
- Some of these sights, like the Duomo, The Uffizi, the Accadamia and sometimes the Pitti Palace are extremely popular and gaining admittance might be a bit challenging. I would recommend either booking a guided tour that includes tickets or booking your reservation/tickets on-line well in advance. This will also save you wasting precious hours of your vacation waiting in lines. You have better things to do! (see #4 for a suggestion!)
- On the first Sunday of every month, the museums are free. This isn’t as good as it sounds, because it leads to crowding. Beware of the first Sunday!
- The food here is amazing! Take time to savor it 🙂
These were our favorite places to tour:
The Uffizi was the big tour of our first day in Florence. After a fabulous pizza lunch at Caffe Donnini on the Piazza de Repubblica, we met with our walking tour guide at ArtViva tours to visit the extremely famous Uffizi gallery. You can see details of their tours at the artviva website Our guide was was Hilda, and she did a great job! The Uffizi is said to be the most important Renaissance art museum in the world. The collection is very large, and I highly recommend having a quality guide take you on through. The collection is just so vast that it is nice to have a little help finding your way, and to make sure you don’t miss some of the truly spectacular works of art here. The guide will also have your tickets pre-purchased and this will save you time waiting in the long lines.
These are two of the most famous paintings in the Gallery, but there are honestly too many for me to name here.
There really is an overwhelming amount of spectacular art in this museum. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Titian, Giotto, Raphael, Botticelli… the list goes on and on. The Uffizi needs to be right up at the top of your list when you tour Florence. Unfortunately, it is at the top of most folks’ lists, so plan ahead and reserve your tickets or tour well in advance.
Another tip for your Uffizi visit: When you are done touring the galleries, head up to the rooftop cafe for a cappucino or light lunch. The view is amazing!
The Duomo Museum , or Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is very interesting. We toured on our own, using our guide book, but there is so much here that you might do well to take a guided tour. The museum has been recently renovated and you can easily spend a couple of hours here. When you first enter, you see where they have recreated, to scale, the original facade of the Duomo church. Here you will also see the original doors to the Baptistry, created by Ghiberti and Pisano. You will see sculptures by Donatello and Balducci, more reliquaries including Saint John the Baptist’s fingers and St. John’s jawbone. You will see Michelangelo’s unfinished Pieta which was meant to be placed at his own tomb in Rome. He mutilated it when he found it was not up to his standards and then it was put back together by his students. I found this very touching. There is a hall with Pisano and Donatello’s statues of the prophets and a very interesting exhibit on the Duomo and Cupola construction. I liked seeing the beautifully adorned choir lofts by Luca Della Robbia and Donatello because as a choir member it is fun to imagine that sort of a stage! There are also all sorts of crosses and vestments and religious items to see.
The Duomo Church is the centerpiece of Florence and beautiful to see. The lines can be long and, relative to other Florentine churches, there is not as much art contained within. You can get a ticket to climb to the top of the dome or if you want to climb a few less steps, with less crowds, PLUS be able to look AT the Duomo, you can climb the Campanile (bell tower) designed by Giotto.
An interesting fact about the construction is that this church was built with a big hole on top where the dome would go. A dome of this scale and type had never been built before. There was a huge hole in the roof for over 100 years!!! Brunelleschi solved the riddle of how to create the dome and it was the first of its kind.
One more factoid for you! The original facade of the church was dismantled in the 1500s because it was considered hopelessly out of date. Corruption and scandals followed and a new facade was not in place for over 300 years! Wow!
The Bargello Museum is not at the top of most people’s Florence to-do lists, but it is well worth the hour or so it will take you to tour through to view the great Renaissance sculpture collection. Here you will find some of Michelangelo’s less famous works, and interesting trio of David sculptures, by Donatello, Verrocchio, and an older Donatello. You will also see works by Brunelleschi, della Robbia, Ghiberti, Cellini, Giambologna and more. We bought our tickets and followed Rick Steves’ Guidebook’s recommendations for viewing the collection. It was just the right amount of guidance for us in this museum. If you haven’t tried these books, you should!
The Bargello was originally Florence’s Town Hall, then a police station and later a prison. It is kind of a cool place to check out even without all this fabulous sculpture.
The first sculpture we saw was Michelangelo’s Bacchus. It is interesting to compare this one to his very muscular and imposing David, which you MUST go see at the Accadamia.
There are a good many more great sculptures in the Bargello to view. I found the trio of Davids fun to compare. One by young Donatello (marble), one by an older Donatello (naked with hat), and one by Verrocchio (with the sword and curly hair).
The Accadamia is where you go to see Michelangelo’s giant David statue. This is another must-see location in Florence. David is spectacular, but there is more to see here. There is the collection of Michelangelo’s unfinished “prisoners”, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Gianbologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, as well as some paintings by Botticelli, Fillipino Lippi, and more. We spent about an hour here touring on our own, following our handy Rick Steves guidebook’s instructions for touring. It was one of the highlights of this trip.
A visit to the Museum of San Marco can easily be combined with the Accadamia. They are very near each other. San Marco is where you will find the biggest collection of Fra Angelico paintings anywhere. He was a monk here, at this 15th century monastery, and painted frescoes in the monks’ cells upstairs. The infamous Savonarola lived here and you can see where he lived. He was the famously intolerant religious leader who ordered the “Bonfire of the Vanities” where Florentines burned their valuable possessions (vanities). The museum is well worth the 45 minutes to an hour it will take you to tour.
The Medici-Riccardi Palace was built in 1444 and was home to the Medici family for a while, and then the Riccardis. You can tour the rooms where the families lived. The big draw here is the beautiful, small chapel upstairs. It has fantastic frescoed walls depicting the adoration of the magi set in what was at the time a modern Tuscan setting. Michelangelo lived with the Medici family here during his teenage years and Leonardo worked here as well.
The San Lorenzo Basilica was the home church of the Medici family and is nearby to their palace, as you might expect. The Church was designed by Brunelleschi, who also designed the Duomo. You will notice that there is a dome on this church that resembles the much larger one on the Duomo. The pope stopped funding for this building during construction, so the facade was never completed. The interior is very nice and has two pulpits created by Donatello and Filippo Lippi.
There is also a museum and Treasury here that you can tour. Not terribly extensive, but interesting.
The Palazzo Davanzati is a medieval tower house that will give you a feel for what a 14th century dwelling might have looked like. It is somewhat furnished and interesting to walk through. We really enjoyed the decorated walls. They look as if they are wall papered, but it is actually paint. You can tour this place in an hour or less.
The Pitti Palace should be right up there towards the top of your list, too. To get there, you walk across the charming Ponte Vecchio bridge and walk through the Oltrarno neighborhood. This was the palace of the Medici family. Here you can tour the Royal apartments, except of the first Sunday of the month when they are closed, so no Royal apartments for us. However, the highlight of the Pitti Palace is really the Palatine Gallery and its incredible collection of art. The gallery is interesting in that the art is hung in a willy-nilly sort of way. It is not layed out at all as you would find in a museum, rather as the Medici’s wanted it. Here you will see a lot of top-tier artwork, Raphael, Titian, Lippi, Boticelli, Cortona, Rubens, Van Dyke, and so many more. Some frames are empty, as paintings from this museum are regularly lent for exhibitions around the world. I promise we didn’t have anything to do with the painting missing from that frame behind me!
The Pitti Palace also has a Costume exhibit you can tour. I expected more period clothing, but it was mostly modern, and didn’t really interest us. So we headed out to the Boboli Gardens behind the palace. These gardens are VERY extensive and beautiful. They are meticulously maintained and well worth and hour or so of your time to explore. It would also be a great location for a picnic if you have the foresight to plan ahead.
We didn’t have the foresight to plan a picnic, so after several hours at the Pitti Palace, we had a nice late lunch of Pizza and a little vino at a nearby restaurant in the Oltrarno section of town. Cafe Bellini is right across from the palace and it was very good!
The Brancacci Chapel is not very far from the Pitti Palace, so if you have time in your day, you should check it out. People come here to see the beautiful frescoed walls painted by Masaccio and Masolino.
The Medici Chapels are worth a visit for the interesting architecture, the reliquaries and other valuable artifacts and, of course, the Michelangelo statues.
The first thing we saw when we entered was an exhibit of valuable church items, many of which were reliquaries. These fascinated me in a creepy sort of way. Each contained a “bit” of a saint. Usually bones. If you look closely at the photo, you will see the bones. Kind of gets you thinking…
Upstairs, in the new Sacristy, you will find the tombs of Lorenzo II and Giuliano Medici. They are adorned with Michelangelo Sculptures. Lorenzo has Dawn and Dusk and Giuliano has Night and Day. There is also the tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was intended to be the most magnificent, but was left unfinished and has a sculpture of Madonna and child.
The Santa Maria Novella Church is located near the train station, and like everything else in Florence, is easily reached on foot. It is loaded with art and has a beautiful green and white facade. A highlight is the Crucifixion by Giotto. There is also art from Masaccio, Ghirlandaio, Brunelleschi, and Filippino Lippi. A visit here will probably take you less than an hour.
The Church of Santa Croce was really interesting. Our hotel was nearby and we walked past many times, but didn’t realize the significance of this church. We took a free English language guided tour offered by the church. I would recommend this, because there is a lot that you would otherwise miss out on.
In this church, you will find, among others, the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, Macchiavelli and Rossini. There is the Donatello Annunciation sculpture from 1433. You will also find the Crucifix by Cimabue (damaged by one of the terrible Florentine floods, but somewhat restored). This crucifix is said to be the first one which depicted Christ as suffering on the cross. Here you will also find the robe of Saint Francis, the Bruneleschi chapel, and a monastery . We toured for over an hour. Mark stayed for an additional hour taking photos, while I went and had a little vino… it had been a long day of touring!
Last, but certainly not least, one of our favorite activities in Florence was the walk up to Piazelle Michelangelo. It is way up on a hill overlooking the city of Florence. Many people like to head up there at sunset for a little vino or coffee and an incredible view of beautiful Florence. It is very lively and pretty up there. You will see street musicians, a couple of cafes and also a small church up above on a hill. San Minion Church. You can go through the church for free and it is quite nice. This is about as nice a way to end your day in Florence as I can imagine. Don’t miss it! (If the climb up the hill seems too much you can take a cab or public bus).
I hope you get the chance to visit Florence one of these days, and if you do, I hope this has been helpful information! If you would like help making arrangements, Europe is a specialty of mine, and I book vacations here frequently! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss!