There are so many things to love about Florence, especially its walkable historic centre. See how easy it is to visit all the major sites, plus some lesser-known gems using these behind the scenes tips to explore Florence.
What to See
Florence offers up such a bountiful bouquet of art and architecture that it’s hard to know where to start. The temptation is to try and see them all, but time and reality quickly step in and force you to pick and choose. Florence, like most of Italy’s major cities, is overrun with tour operators offering skip-the-line tickets and guides with varying qualifications. The best way to avoid hefty up-charges and long lines is to book in advance, directly with the museum or site you are interested in. Many of the major museums, including the Uffizi Gallery and the Galleria dell’Accademia, have timed entry tickets available online or by phone at b-ticket.com. If you make a phone reservation, you can arrive 10 minutes early and pay on-site.
Start with what must be Florence’s most famous statue of 1501, Michelangelo’s David, in the Galleria dell’ Academia. The 14-foot-tall shepherd boy is illuminated by the skylight he was placed under in 1873 when he was moved indoors to protect him from the elements. Although his golden crown did not survive, his gaze is as steady as ever, and the details of his perfect form remain. Get the earliest reservation you can to beat the crowds. The Galleria is also home to an impressive collection of antique musical instruments and casts of famous Greek and Roman sculptures.
Going to the Chapel
Florence’s centrepiece is the massive Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known simply as the Duomo. At one time, it was the largest church in the world, and the story of how Brunelleschi won the competition to build its famous dome has become part of art history lore. Its 1887 Gothic Revival façade of multicoloured bands of marble seems rather dull compared to what it once was, and to get a good idea of what the church could have looked like, pop into the Opera Duomo Museum, just behind it.
This state-of-the-art museum which opened in 2017 has created a life-sized three-story copy of the façade that was torn down in 1587, including the original statues and ornate carvings. The original gold doors of the Baptistry by Ghiberti, the Gates of Paradise, can be found in the same hall, gleaming as they did in 1401, after a complete restoration. Kids will love the hands-on section of the museum. Fans of Michelangelo will be impressed with his Pieta, presented like the masterpiece it is, alone in an unadorned room. Your ticket includes access to the Baptistry and a timed reservation to climb the dome and the bell tower, which is difficult to obtain elsewhere. The museum also often partners with other venues to provide admission at reduced rates.
All Locked Up
There are 72 museums in Florence, including gems like the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum where you’ll find over 10,000 of the designer’s kinky boots and shoes. It’s easy to get distracted, but steer a course for the Bargello Museum. The 13th-century building, with its original stone courtyard, impressive staircase and formidable defensive tower, is one of the oldest palazzos in Florence. Once a prison and the home of the Chief of Police (the bargello), you’ll feel transported back in time as you roam its corridors. The main floor holds Renaissance sculptures, including four of Michelangelo’s early works and a magnificent bronze Mercury that looks ready to take flight. Upstairs, the Salone di Donatello showcases the first Renaissance bronze, Donatello’s delicate nude David. With his laurel trimmed and beribboned hat, this David from 1440 balances one foot gently on Goliath’s head, quite a contrast to Michelangelo’s take on the subject, 60 years later. Other rooms hold miniature sculptures, Venetian glass, Renaissance jewellery and busts of prominent Florentines, all gathered from private collections.
The magnificent collection from the Uffizi Gallery will be on every art lovers list, and early risers will avoid the tour groups. Cosimo I de’ Medici also liked to avoid a crowd, so he built the Vasari Corridor above the shops on the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) to connect the Uffizi with his new palace, the Pitti. The Vasari Corridor is not open to the public at the moment, although plans are ongoing to do so. As you stroll past the gold shops, remember to thank Cosimo for removing the town butchers from the bridge and replacing them with jewellers to get rid of the smell.
Many people are unaware of the vast collection in the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno and pass it by. There are four outstanding museums here: the Treasure of the Grand Dukes; the Palatine Gallery (hung floor to ceiling with works by artists like Tintoretto, Rubens, and Caravaggio) in the stunning Imperial and Royal Apartments; the Modern Art Gallery and the Museum of Fashion and Costume. A recent exhibition here featured fashions by the world’s most celebrated designers riffing on the theme of animals, fish and insects.
If you’re in search of a view, there are two splendid choices on the south bank of the Arno. The first is the Boboli Gardens, the 16th-century formal gardens directly behind the Pitti Palace that became the model for gardens throughout Europe. The caves, fountains and gardens are accentuated with modern sculptures and the view over Florence is one of the best in the city.
To capture the “golden hour” at sunset, climb San Miniato hill, past the rose garden, to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It seems that all of Florence gathers here in the afternoon to have an aperitivo, or gelato and watch the sun go down from the expansive terrace. From here, you’ll be able to trace your path from the roof of the Duomo, over the Ponte Vecchio and along the banks of the glittering Arno River. Look behind you, and you’ll see Michelangelo’s David again, in bronze this time, surrounded by sightseers enjoying the panoramic view of the city and planning their next visit.
Debra Smith writes from Calgary, where she lives with her husband and her cat who acts like a dog. Follow her adventures on Instagram @where.to.lady