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The Renaissance was one of the most culturally, artistically and economically influential periods in world history. The Renaissance had its birthplace in Florence, Italy, and its concepts spread throughout Europe.
Florence has managed to preserve quite a number of Renaissance works leading UNESCO to assign the entire historic centre of Florence a World Heritage site. A large percentage of the main Florence landmarks are contained within this walkable historic centre. Here I will outline the main landmarks that are a must-see.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, queues for landmarks mentioned here are lengthy.
For Italy travel information, check out my Solo Travel in Italy post.
- FLORENCE CATHEDRAL & DOME
In a city where stunning art and architecture are the default, it takes something special for a building to be the top attraction. That something special is Brunelleschi’s iconic red brick dome sitting on top of Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore, better known as Il Duomo.
While the interior sports a minimalist look (by Florence standards), the exterior is a mesmerising pattern of coloured marble. Building work began in 1296 with the dome constructed between 1420 and 1436. Access to the cathedral is free. Tickets for the dome and Giotto’s bell tower are obtained from the nearby ticket office.
The Baptistery of St. John the Baptist (Battistero di San Giovanni) is an octagonal-shaped structure located across from the main entrance of the cathedral. It predates the cathedral and was where Catholics of Florence were baptised for centuries. It continues as a baptistery, albeit on a limited basis.
Its architectural style is Romanesque and its doors have exquisite designs. Entrance to the Baptistery is with the combined Opera del Duomo ticket.
- SAN LORENZO CHURCH/BASILICA DI SAN LORENZO
This was the parish church for the influential Medici Family, and many members of this family are buried here. This church has a plain brown brick unfinished façade and is a complex consisting of a church, cloisters, library, sacristy and chapels. Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Donatello have all left their mark on this complex.
- MEDICI PALACE/PALAZZO MEDICI RICCARDI
This opulent palace was the home of the famous Medici family until it was sold to the Riccardi family in 1659. Construction began in 1444 at the behest of Cosimo the Elder.
The stones on the façade are of mixed sizes. The façade also has a seating area built into the side on Via de’ Gori. It has a permanent collection of art along with temporary exhibitions. Advance booking advised.
- PIAZZA DELLA REPUBBLICA
Florence was said to have been founded by the Romans. Piazza della Repubblica is the site of the original Roman Forum.
In Renaissance times, money lenders set up their benches in the square. When a client defaulted, the banker broke the bench in a concept called banca rotta and is where the word bankrupt stems from. Today the square is an entertainment focal point and is great for people-watching.
- PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA
Another of Florence’s people-watching sites, Piazza della Signoria was the focal point of Florentine political power for centuries. The Fountain of Neptune is the main sculptural work here. The Loggia della Signoria is a covered platform that contains a number of statues.
The main building on the square is the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. This brown stone building has an off-centre large clock tower and a statue of David copy at the entrance. Construction began in 1298.
The government of the Republic of Florence operated from the Palazzo Vecchio as did the national government when Florence was temporarily the capital city of unified Italy prior to Rome taking the mantle. A walkway connects Palazzo Vecchio to the adjacent Uffizi Gallery. There were no queue of crowds accessing the Palazzo Vecchio.
- UFFIZI GALLERY/GALLERIA DEGLI UFFIZI
The Uffizi is one of the world’s great galleries, given its large collection of Renaissance works. Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned the building in 1560 as offices – uffizi is the Italian word for offices.
Some of the famous works on view here are Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Annunciation, Michelangelo’s The Holy Family, and Piero della Francesca’s Diptych of Duke Federico da Montefeltro and Duchess Battista. The wall-mounted statues of famous artists near the entrance are worth taking a close look at.
- PONTE VECCHIO
This bridge spanning the Arno River is another one of the well-known Florence landmarks. The history of this three-arched bridge is sketchy but the current construct was built in the 14th century.
Since its inception, a variety of retailers and tradespeople operated from Ponte Vecchio. Since the 16th century, only goldsmiths and jewellers have been permitted to operate.
- GALLERIA DELL’ACCADEMIA
Like The Uffizi, Galleria dell’Accademia is also one of Europe’s most notable and varied galleries. It houses a mix of paintings from various periods, sculptures, musical instruments and historical documents. However, the gallery’s most distinguished work is the hugely popular statue of David by Michelangelo.
- ROOFTOP TERRACES
More of an experience than a landmark, Florence at a slight altitude is as mesmerising as it is on terra firma. Florence’s red-tile skyline is dominated by Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome with a backdrop of mountains.
To see the red tiles absorb the evening sun and encounter no queues, head to a rooftop bar for a memorable experience. Alternatively, head to the hilltop square of Piazzale Michelangelo on the southside of the river for the quintessential view of Florence’s skyline.
FLORENCE TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
How many days do you need in Florence?
That depends on what you want to see and whether you will take days trips to other parts of Tuscany. Because of the crowds, all of the above Florence landmarks will take 2-3 days to see. Even without the crowds, Florence is a city with so much detail it needs to be savoured rather than skimmed.
Best time to visit Florence?
Unless hot weather and crowds are your thing, avoid the high season months of July and August. June and September are good if you intend swimming on the Tuscany coast. April, May and October are equally good months for a Florence city break.
Getting to Florence
Florence is known by its Italian name on transport timetables: Firenze. The main train station in Florence is Santa Maria Novella, often shortened to SMN Firenze on timetables and boards. It’s one of the busiest train stations in Italy so has excellent connections to the rest of the country.
Journey lengths by train from Florence to other cities are listed below. The faster the train the more expensive the ticket.
- Pisa Centrale – 1 hour
- Bologna Centrale – 40 minutes to 3 hours depending on train type.
- Rome Termini – 1.5 to 4 hours depending on train type.
Florence’s airport is small so only caters for a select number of national and international destinations. Pisa Airport is much larger and is the gateway for the bulk of tourists travelling directly into the Tuscany region. As Pisa Airport is linked to Pisa Centrale by an automated train shuttle, it’s possible to buy a train ticket combining both rail journeys.
A number of bus stations are located near Santa Maria Novella train station:
- SITA bus station serves local destinations such as San Gimignano via Poggibonsi, and Siena.
- Piazza della Statione serves larger urban areas such as Rome, Pisa, Bologna.
Where to stay in Florence?
Florence is built on the River Arno. Most of the main attractions are located on the north side of the river including the bulk of the historic UNESCO-listed centre. If your main goal is to see these attractions then stay as close to the historic centre as possible.
If you are planning to do some day trips it may be best to stay near Santa Maria Novella station. It’s a 10-15 minute walk from this area to the historic centre.
While Florence is one of the most visited cities in Italy, Booking.com has over 5,000 accommodation listings in the city to suit all budgets and travellers.
Is Florence safe?
I travelled solo and felt safe at all times. As a city that is popular with tourists, take the usual precautions regarding pickpockets.
The historic centre of Florence is an exceptionally beautiful area. Simply meandering along the streets absorbing the vibe is an attraction in itself. But if Renaissance art and architecture interests you, then Florence will be of particular interest.
The Renaissance was all about rediscovering the pleasures of the human experience. With so many traces and relics of the Renaissance still in existence, Florence may be the perfect antidote to the mundanity of modern living.