Visiting The Historic Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, The Complete Guide

Here’s my guide to visiting the Palazzo Vecchio. The palace is the civic heart of Florence and one of its most hallowed historic sites.

The Palazzo Vecchio is a doughty medieval fortress on the outside. In contrast, on the inside, it’s a resplendent Renaissance palace filled with artistic treasures.

It’s one of Florence’s most important landmarks. In some ways, Palazzo Vecchio explains the entire history of Florence.

cityscape of Florence with the Palazzo Vecchio
cityscape of Florence with the Palazzo Vecchio

The palace dates from the 13th century. Like the Duomo, it was originally designed by famed Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio.

With its crenellations and tower that points to the sky, Palazzo Vecchio is a symbol of Florence.

Steeped in history, the Palazzo Vecchio was Florence’s seat of power, the home of the City Council that governed the Republic of Florence.

Pinterest pin for guide to the Palazzo Vecchio
Pinterest pin for guide to the Palazzo Vecchio

The palace sits in the Piazza della Signoria, a beautiful square that’s essentially an outdoor art gallery.

Inside, you can explore the grand Hall of the Five Hundred, admire Michelangelo and Donatello sculptures, and gaze admiringly at beautiful frescos at every turn.

Let’s take a tour of the Palazzo Vecchio and explore its history and what to see inside.

Palazzo Vecchio and the Tower of Arnolfo
Palazzo Vecchio and the Tower of Arnolfo

The Rise and Fall of the Medici

The Palazzo Vecchio is synonymous with the Medici family. They used the palace as both their seat of government and private residence until they moved into the Pitti Palace.

READ: Guide To the Medici Palaces

The first real Medici power broker was Cosimo the Elder, a man who was both an avid art patron and a Machiavelli-like politician.

He sponsored early Renaissance artists like Donatello and Ghiberti. Over 37 years, Cosimo created a dynasty that would endure for centuries and produce four popes.

Perhaps the most powerful and influential Medici was Cosimo’s grandson, Lorenzo. Lorenzo became known as Il Magnifico, or the Magnificent.

Lorenzo was a true Renaissance man — savvy politician, connoisseur of arts, music composer, and even a romantic poet. His second son became Pope Leo X.

a bust of Lorenzo the Magnificent (who was considered very ugly) greets you at the entrance of the Uffizi
a bust of Lorenzo the Magnificent greets you at the entrance of the Uffizi

Lorenzo the Magnificent essentially kicked off the golden age of the Renaissance, when Florentine arts were at their apex.

Sandro Botticelli was a Medici court painter. Leonardo and Michelangelo were also both members of Lorenzo’s court for some time.

In 1537, Cosimo I came to power, becoming the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. In 1539, he married the beautiful Eleanora di Toledo.

It was a love match. Cosimo fell for Eleanora when they met for the first time in 1536. Deeply pious, he was reputedly faithful to Eleanora — a true aberration for that age.

In 1540, the pair moved into the Palazzo Vecchio and began redecorating. What you see today is mostly the effort of Cosimo I.

By all accounts, the pair were happily married. Eleanora was considered a “first lady” by modern standards, traveling with her husband and helping rule the city.

Bronzino, Eleanora di Toledo, 1545 -- in the Uffizi Gallery
Bronzino, Eleanora di Toledo, 1545 — in the Uffizi Gallery

Today, Cosimo is probably best known for building the Uffizi Gallery, the Vasari Corridor, and the Convent of San Marco.

READ: Complete Guide To San Marco Monastery

The descendants of Cosimo I ruled into the 18th century in relative stability. But decay had set in.

This generation of grand dukes ruled by force, and reduced Florence’s reputation as a cultural capitol. The last Medici died in 1743. She bequeathed all of the Medici treasures to Florence.

If, like me, you’re fascinated by the Medici family, you can take a Medici-themed tour in Florence. You can take a 2.5 hair guided walking tour of the top Medici-related attractions. Or a 2 hour guided tour focusing on the Medici’s art and history.

Palazzo Vecchio

History of the Palazzo Vecchio

The palazzo itself has a fascinating history. In 1298, Florentines decided to build a palace to house the governmental entities of the republic.

They hired Arnolfo di Cambio, architect of Florence Cathedral and the Basilica of Santa Croce.

In the 16th century, Cosimo I turned the Palazzo Vecchio into the official ducal residence. The palace was then known as the Palazzo della Signoria.

courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio
courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio

When Cosimo moved to the Pitti Palace, he renamed it Palazzo Vecchio, or old palace. Today, the Palazzo Vecchio still houses the city hall.

The Palazzo Vecchio is the setting for key moments in Florence’s history. It was famously the scene of one of Renaissance Florence’s most infamous attempted coups.

In 1478, the Pazzi family and Pope Sixtus tried, but failed, to oust the ruling Medici family. They plotted to kill both Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano.

the plaque in the Piazza della Signoria, which marks the spot of Savonarola's execution
the plaque marking the spot of Savonarola’s execution

Giuliano was murdered. Lorenzo escaped and exacted revenge. In just a few hours, the killers and conspirators (including the pope’s nephew) were captured.

They were hung from the second floor ramparts of the Palazzo Vecchio. Incensed, the pope excommunicated Lorenzo.

The palace is also linked to the rise of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola.

Savonarola denounced the excesses of clerical and despotic power. He told Florentines the apocalypse was coming and to save themselves through self censorship.

Fra Bartolommeo, Portrait of Savonarola, 1498
Fra Bartolommeo, Portrait of Savonarola, 1498

The doomsday preacher eventually ousted the Medici and established a theocracy in Florence for several years. But Savonarola went too far.

In the 1497 “Bonfire of the Vanities,” he destroyed works of art in the Piazza della Signoria. The pleasure loving citizens of Florence had enough and didn’t want their cultural legacy destroyed.

In 1498, Savonarola was defrocked and imprisoned in the Palazzo Vecchio for heresy. After being tried and convicted, he was executed in the Piazza della Signoria.

A circular plaque near the Palazzo Vecchio’s entrance marks the spot of Savonarola’s execution.

Vasari frescos in the Hall of the Five Hundred
Vasari frescos in the Hall of the Five Hundred

Guide To The Palazzo Vecchio: What To See

Why visit the Palazzo Vecchio?

Because it’s so much more than just a museum. The palace is living breathing history. Let’s step through the entrance — guarded by a replica of Michelangelo’s David and Bandinelli’s Hercules — and take a peak inside.

Here’s what you can’t miss at the Palazzo Vecchio.

1. The Michelozzo Courtyard

In contrast to the rather dour rusticated exterior of Palazzo Vecchio, there’s a surprising playfulness inside.

You begin in the charming courtyard, designed by the famed architect Michelozzo in 1453.

frescos in the ornate courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio
frescos in the ornate courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio

He was hired to give the palazzo a makeover when Cosimo’s son married Hapsburg Princess Joanna of Austria in 1565.

The courtyard has intricately carved and gilded columns, beautiful grotesque style ceiling frescos, and sculptures.

Grostesque frescos became fashionable in the Renaissance after the discovery of Domus Aurea, also known as Nero’s Golden House. The ancient palace of Emperor Nero was filled with a fanciful mix of animal, human, and plant frescos.

To welcome Joanna, Cosimo had Giorgio Vasari decorate the courtyard walls with frescos of Hapsburg estates in Austria.

Unfortunately, they’re not in very good condition due to being exposed to the elements.

Palazzo Vecchio courtyard, with Verrocchio's famous putti statue
Palazzo Vecchio courtyard

In addition, Vasari was in a hurry when he created them. Like Leonardo with The Last Supper, Vasari painted the scenes in fresco secco (dry fresco) not the more durable fresco buon (true fresco on wet plaster).

In the center, an iron putti tops a fountain by artist Battista del Tadda. The putti and his dolphin are a copy of the original carved by sculptor Andrea del Verocchio, which was moved inside the place.

The water that playfully squirts from the dolphin’s nostrils comes from the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti.

READ: Guide To Verrocchio’s Art in Florence

Hall of the Five Hundred in Palazzo Vecchio
Hall of the Five Hundred

2. Hall of the Five Hundred

The first floor of the Palazzo Vecchio was for public meetings. It’s dominated by the Hall of the Five Hundred, the Salone dei Cinquecento. The name derived from the 500 man assembly that met there when Florence was a republic.

The Hall of 500 is the largest room in Italy built for a palace. Savonarola commissioned it in 1494.

He sought to establish a more democratic government because he thought the Medici were despots. Consistent with his reforms, Savonarola created the Council of Five Hundred to govern Florence.

In Savonarola’s hands, the hall was monastic and spartan. In the mid 16th century, Cosimo I commissioned Giorgio Vasari to lavishly decorate the place.

In particular, Vasari painted a massive fresco cycle depicting the The Battle of Marciano, in which Florence triumphed over rivals Pisa and Siena. Vasari also painted the 39 gilded ceiling panels, which tell the life story of Cosimo I.

gilded ceiling in the Hall of Five Hundred
gilded ceiling in the Hall of Five Hundred

But before Vasari came Leonardo da Vinci. Some scholars believe that a long lost Leonardo is hidden behind one of the Vasari frescos — The Battle of Anghiari.

What happened to it?

In 1503, the Signoria (or city council) commissioned Leonardo to paint a massive fresco in the room celebrating Florence’s victory in 1440 over Milan in the Battle of Anghiari. Leonardo created a cartoon of the battle with horses and riders fighting to the death.

Leonardo painted the 15 x 20 central panel, but never finished the commissioned fresco. Unfortunately, Leonardo experimented with paint (adding wax), as he did with The Last Supper in Milan.

And he used braziers to increase drying speed, which made the paint run. Frustrated by the failed experiment, Leonardo abandoned the project. (As he frequently did with commissions.)

READ: All the Paintings of Leonardo da Vinci

Peter Paul Rubens, Battle of Anghiari, 1440
Peter Paul Rubens, Battle of Anghiari, 1440

Still, people came to admire Leonardo’s unfinished fresco. Other Renaissance artists thought it was Leonardo’s best work yet and made copies.

There’s a famous version by Peter Paul Rubens in the Louvre.

Fifty years later, in 1563, Vasari was commissioned to repaint the unfinished walls. Vasari was a great admirer of Leonardo.

Legend holds that, instead of painting over Leonardo’s work, Vasari built a false wall over the fresco to preserve it. Then, he painted The Battle of Marciano on the false wall.

Vasari, Battle of Marciano
Vasari, Battle of Marciano

Vasari even left a cryptic clue. On a flag on his fresco, he wrote the phrase “He who looks will find.”

Only 15 known Leonardo’s exist, making this possibility tantalizing.

In 2012, an air gap was discovered behind Vasari’s painting. Siting historic documentation, an art diagnostician got permission to drill tiny holes through cracks in the wall housing Vasari’s work.

The project was backed by the National Geographic Society and had the support of the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi. Traces of pigment that matched Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari were found.

But then a hew and cry began. Some art historians didn’t want the Vasari frescos, recently restored, to be damaged in any way.

Cosimo I as the center of the universe in one of the ceiling panels
Cosimo I as the center of the universe in one of the ceiling panels

The project was shut down. Still, Florence’s mayor remains interested in discovering the lost Leonardo.

Another masterpiece of the Hall of Five Hundred is Michelangelo’s Genio della Vittoria, or Genius of Victory, sculpture.

It was carved for the Tomb of Pope Julius II, another project that didn’t come to fruition. It was found in Michelangelo’s house when he died and donated to the Medici family.

READ: Michelangelo Trail in Florence

In the unfinished sculpture, a young man stands victorious with his foot on a vanquished foe. It’s a symbol of Julius II, who was known as the “Warrior Pope.”

The model was one of Michelangelo’s students, Tomasso dei Cavalieri. Michelangelo was in love with Cavalieri and wrote romantic poetry for him.

paintings in the studio of Francesco I
paintings in the studio of Francesco I, with his portrait in the medallion

3. Studio of Francesco I

The Studio of Franceso I is a secret side room that’s an annex to the Hall of Five Hundred. It’s vaulted and shaped like a Florentine chest or jewelry box, with no windows. It was considered one of the first and finest examples of a cabinet of curiosities.

Built in 1569-70, the studio is decorated floor to ceiling with Mannerist paintings by Vasari and a dozen others. The paintings front 20 functioning cupboards.

The portraits of Cosimo I and Eleanora are by the late Renaissance Mannerist painter Bronzino.

From a peep hole, Francesco would spy on meetings in the Hall of Five Hundred. Behind two of the painted panels lie a private alchemy room and a secret staircase. The study was disassembled in its time and only reassembled in the 20th century.

4. The Medici’s Private Rooms

On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici. They consist of elegant apartments, a reception room, small chambers, and a private chapel.

Apartments of Leo X

Each of the rooms in this apartment is dedicated to an illustrious Medici family member — Cosimo the Elder, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo I, Pope Clement VI, and Leo X.

The rooms were designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati and frescoed by Vasari. The frescos depict scenes of political ad military success.

These rooms mirror the rooms above in the Apartment of the Elements. They were meant to compare the rise of power of the Medici (deities on earth) with the deities of heaven.

Apartments of the Elements

The Apartments of the Elements, Sala deli Elementi, is newly renovated and simply gorgeous.

It consist of five rooms that make up the quarters of Cosimo I. They are decorated with gorgeous mythological paintings created by Giorgio Vasari and his workshop in 1556-66.

The most stunning room is the Room of the Elements. Its paintings are allegories of the ancient elements of air, water, fire and earth.

Other rooms are dedicates to Saturn’s wife, the goddess Ops, and their descendants.

You’ll spot a Capricorn, the symbol of Cosimo I. It was also the symbol of the Roman Emperor Augustus. A capricorn is a sea goat, a mythological creature with the body of a goat and tail of a fish.

For a fine view of Florence, you can also step out onto the Loggiato di Saturno in Cosimo’s quarters.

grotesque frescos in the apartment of Eleonora di Toledo
grotesque frescos in the vault of the Apartments of Eleonora di Toledo

Apartments of Eleonora

You should also visit the Apartments of Eleanora di Toledo, Cosimo’s wife.

On the way, you’ll walk past a terrace with a stunning view of the Hall of Five Hundred. You can see the ceiling from a closer perspective.

The first room is the Green Room, a stunning room with grotesque frescos. It owes its name to the landscape paintings that once decorated the walls, now replaced with a green hue.

Eleonora had her own chapel, which features beautiful frescos painted by the Mannerist painter Bronzino, including The Deposition of Christ.

Other rooms in her apartments have ceilings frescoed by Vasari. The frescos depict scenes of classical heroines in honor of Eleonora.

One room contains a copy of Leonardo’s lost Battle of Anghiari.

the Hall of Lilies
the Hall of Lilies

5. Hall of the Lilies

The Hall of Lilies is stunning example of early Renaissance interior decoration. The greatest Renaissance artists of the day, who had recently returned from decorating the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, were commissioned to decorate it.

The hall has spectacular gilded coffered ceilings with gold on blue fleur de lis, the symbol of Florence.

In the Hall of Lilies, you’ll find another precious treasure, the groundbreaking Judith and Holofernes sculpture by Donatello. It was commissioned by Cosimo the Elder. A copy of the sculpture is in the Piazza della Signoria for free viewing.

Judith and Holofernes is an Old Testament story, in which a heroic woman defeats a warlord who’s besieged her town in Israel. She does this by seducing, inebriating, and decapitating him.

fresco of St. Zenobius by Ghirlandaio, 1482-85
fresco of St. Zenobius by Ghirlandaio, 1482-85

Judith and Holofernes carried forth the Medici’s underdog theme. The statue was first placed in the Medici garden.

When the Medici had a short exile from the city, the citizens moved the statue into the Piazza della Signoria. The original was moved to the Hall of Lilies in 1888.

On the east wall is a fresco series by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It’s a classical composition with faux painted architecture.

READ: Guide To the Best Art in Tuscany

video of the frescos in the Hall of Salviati
video of the frescos in the Hall of Salviati

6. Hall of Salviati

The Hall of Salviati is named after a noble Florentine family who once owned the palace. It’s on the second floor of the palace and was used as a reception room for guests.

Bernardino Poccetti painted the elaborate frescos that decorate the room. They depict scenes from the life of Cosimo I. Allegorical figures and motifs represent the accomplishments of the Medici. 

The fresco is intended to exalt Cosimo I, who also vanquished Florence’s enemies. The chamber also has a beautiful Casetonne-style ceiling covered in gilt.

secret passageway in the Map Room
secret passageway in the Map Room

7. Sala Delle Carte Geographiche

On the second floor, you’ll find the beautiful Map Room. Built by Vasari, it houses Cosimo’s private collection of 16th century maps. The maps chart everywhere in the known world from that century.

Working with an actual cosmographer, Vasari designed a room with constellations painted on the ceiling, wooden cupboards with geographical maps painted on leather panels, and portraits of famous men from history.

In the center stands the famous globe Mappa Mundi, the largest in the world when made in 1581.

This area of the Palazzo Vecchio is currently under renovation and closed. But the are graphics on display in the lobby that show you replicas of the maps.

excavations of the Roman Theater of Florentina
excavations of the Roman Theater of Florentina

8. Roman Theater of Florentina

Via an underground passage, you can take a peak at the ancient Roman ruins of the Theater of Florentina from the 1st century AD. Palazzo Vecchio was built atop the ruins.

The first remains were excavated in 1876. The semi circular theater seated around 15,000.

The ruins opened to the public in October 2014. To visit, you normally need to make an advance reservation. Right now, the theater is closed due to the pandemic.

view of the Duomo from the Tower of Arnolfo
view of the Duomo from the Tower of Arnolfo

9. Tower of Arnolfo

If you’re up for a climb of 418 steps, the Tower of Arnolfo offers panoramic 360 views. You enter via the Museum of Palazzo Vecchio, with a combined ticket for Palazzo Vecchio or for an additional small fee.

On your hike up, you’ll pass a prison cell known as the “Little Hotel.” This is where Cosimo and Savonarola were briefly imprisoned.

This is a great alternative to the long queues at the Giotto Bell Tower. No more than 35 people can enter at once.

On busy days, you’ll be limited to 30 minutes. In bad weather, it’s closed. The tower is steep and cramped, so you need to be fit to venture up.

READ: Guide To The Best Viewpoints In Florence

Michelangelo, David, 1504 -- copy in the Piazza della Signoria
Michelangelo, David, 1504 — replica in the Piazza della Signoria

10. Piazza della Signoria

Palazzo Vecchio is located in the Piazza della Signoria. The square is the center of Florentine life and politics, a meeting spot buzzing with activity. And it’s a jackpot of free outdoor street art.

Many beautiful sculptures by Italy’s greatest artists are on display in front of the Palazzo Vecchio or adjacent to it in the Loggia dei Lanza.

The loggia is a beautiful arched gallery built in the 14th century. It adjoins the famed Uffizi Gallery.

Originally, the loggia was used to host public meetings and hold ceremonies. Later, it was transformed into an outdoor sculpture gallery.

Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1545 -- in the Piazza della Signoria
Benvenuto Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1545

Each statue in the Piazza della Signoria represents a different chapter in Florence’s long history. The statues tell stories of murder, rape, religion, mythology, and key moments in art history.

At first, the reigning Medici were reluctant to put statues in front the Palazzo Vecchio. They feared their rivals might use them as battering rams on the palace.

But as the Medici’s power and influence grew, they began to decorate the Piazza della Signorina.

It was a politically astute move. The Medici effectively turned a political hub into an outdoor museum, all the better to make the people comfortable with their wielding of power.

the Vasari Corridor, which connects Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti
the Vasari Corridor, which connects Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti

11. Vasari Corridor

Built in 1564 by the omnipresent Vasari, the Vasari Corridor is a one kilometer elevated passageway above the Ponte Vecchio. It was commissioned by Cosimo I for the marriage of his son, Francesco I, to Joan of Austria.

The Vasari Corridor connected the Palazzo Vecchio (government headquarters) to the Pitti Palace (the Medici’s official residence). It served as a private walkway for the Medici and high ranking individuals.

This way, they didn’t have to deal with the riff raff of Florence. The Vasari Corridor was unique for its time.

The corridor is home to the portrait collection of the Uffizi Gallery. There’s over 1000 paintings, including works by Filippo Lippi, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Delacroix.

frescos in the Room of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the Leo X Apartments
frescos in the Room of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the Leo X Apartments

The Vasari Corridor is currently closed, with a 10 million euro renovation ongoing. It’s scheduled to open to sometime in 2023. My guide said she’s skeptical it will open then.

In the interim, you can walk in the Grand Duke’s footsteps on YouTube here.

Is The Palazzo Vecchio Worth Visiting?

The Palazzo Vecchio is definitely worth your time and a visit. You can step into an ornate Medici Palace.

You can admire stunning frescos and sculptures by the best artists of the time. And the Tower of Arnolfo is one of Florence’s best viewpoints.

Another good thing about the palace is that, unlike other Florence attractions, it is open late at night until 11:00 pm. So you save it for pre or post dinner viewing.

sculpture of Leo X Blessing by Baccio Bandinelli
sculpture of Leo X Blessing by Baccio Bandinelli

Tickets & Tours For Palazzo Vecchio

If you’re visiting Florence in high season, I would definitely pre-purchase a ticket. Click here to book a skip the line ticket with a time slot reservation.

You can also book a guided tour of the palace. There is a guided secret passages tour with lunch. This guided 2 hour tour covers the palace and the Piazza della Signoria.

Another popular 2 hour guided tour includes the palace and a climb of the Tower of Arnolfo. You can also book a private guided tour.

the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria
the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria

Practical IGuide &Tips for Visiting the Palazzo Vecchio

Address: Piazza della Signoria

Hours: Friday to Wednesday 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, Thursday 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, From April to September, Mon/Tue/Wed/Fri/Sat/Sun 9:00 am to 11:00 pm.

Entry fee:

You can get combination tickets for the museum, archeological site, and the tower. Check prices here.

Pro tips:

Expect to spend at least 90 minutes touring Palazzo Vecchio.

On my last visit, I was astonished at how long it took to exchange my pre-paid voucher for a paper ticket. The office seemed exceedingly disorganized, understaffed, and they were checking names off a hand written list.

view of the Tower of Arnolfo from the courtyard
view of the Tower of Arnolfo from the courtyard

It took me approximately 30 minutes to get inside the ticket office and procure my actual ticket. The result was I almost missed my designated time slot entry. If you’re in the same boat, plan ahead and budget time for this process.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the Palazzo Vecchio. You may enjoy these other Florence travel guides and resources:

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