Guide To the Must See Sites and Attractions in Florence Italy
Here's my complete guide to the must see historic and cultural sites, attractions, and landmarks in Florence Italy. Florence is an overwhelmingly beautiful city, the "Cradle of the Renaissance." With the best Medieval and Renaissance art in Europe, Florence is a veritable art lovers paradise.
Florence is a city that's alive, sensual, and romantic. You can be seduced by Botticelli and awed by Michelangelo, in a time tunnel experience. Not surprisingly, Florence's entire city center is a designated UNESCO site.
Let's peak behind the elegant facades and tour Florence's must see sites. We'll visit frescoed churches, majestic cathedrals, elegant palaces and piazzas, and world class museums. And walk the same flagstones as Leonardo, Dante, and Galileo.
The 23 Best Must See Sites in Florence
Here are my picks for the best attractions and destinations in Florence, for art and history lovers.
1. Uffizi Gallery
Florence is synonymous with the Renaissance period of art history. The Uffizi is its premiere gallery, and the third most visited site in all of Italy. For art lovers, the Uffizi is a place of pilgrimage.
The Uffizi houses the collection of the Medici, a wealthy family of art patrons that ruled Florence for three centuries. The museum has seminal works from the 13th to 18th centuries.
Some of the world's most famous paintings are in the Uffizi -- Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Primavera, Titian's Venus of Urbino, Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation, Caravaggio's Medusa and Bacchus, Piero della Francesca's unflattering portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, and Raphael's Goldfinch Madonna.
The Uffizi consists of 45 halls of art spread over two floors of the palace. If you have limited time, you should focus your efforts. The must see halls include the Hall 2 (Giotto), Hall 8 (Lippi), Hall 10-14 (Botticelli), Hall 15 (Leonardo), Hall 35 (Michelangelo), Hall 66 (Raphael), Hall 83 (Titian), and Hall 90 (Caravaggio).
Address: Piazzale degli Uffizi 6
2. Galleria dell'Accademia
After the Uffizi, the Accademia Gallery is Florence's most visited museum. People flock in to see what is probably the world's most famous sculpture, Michelangelo's commanding statue of David. The 17 foot sculpture is considered the embodiment of male beauty, a Calvin Klein-like model of physical perfection.
David was commissioned for Florence Cathedral. The city intended to place the statue high above in a niche. But they decided that David was too beautiful for that location.
Instead, David was placed outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence's seat of government. Originally, parts of David were gilded. But the gilded surfaces were lost during the statue's exposure to the elements. In 1873, David was moved inside to the Accademia.
Michelangelo's Prisoners grace the Hall of the Prisoners at the Accademia. They are four unfinished male nudes that were originally intended for the Tomb of Pope Julius II. You can see Michelangelo's approach to carving; the figures appear to be emerging from the marble.
Other must see Accademia masterpieces include Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines, Pacino di Bonaguida's Tree of Life, Jacopo di Cione's Coronation of the Virgin, and Daniele da Volterra's Bust of Michelangelo.
Here's my complete guide to seeing Michelangelo's David and how to skip the line at the Accademia.
Address: Via Ricasoli 58-60, near Piazza San Marco
3. National Museum of the Bargello
The Bargello dates from 1255. It was first a prison and then the seat of government in Florence. In 1865, the Bargello opened as a museum by royal decree.
The Bargello houses an amazing collection of Renaissance sculptures. The most important works are in the Michelangelo and Donatello rooms. Those include Michelangelo's first major sculpture, Bacchus, and his Pitti Tondo, Donatello's acclaimed Bronze David and St. George, and Bernini's Bust of Costanza.
Commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, Donatello's Bronze David is a daring depiction of a biblical theme. It's the first freestanding nude sculpture since Greco-Roman times. But it's not a heroic rendering.
A nubile David is peculiarly depicted wearing no clothes except for a hat and boots, perhaps to suggest his underdog status. The statue is affectionately nicknamed "Puss 'N Boots."
The Bargello also houses the Competition Panels. In 1401, Florence held a competition for a set of bronze doors to be made for the Baptistry of the Duomo. Artists submitted bronze samples. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were the finalists, with Ghiberti winning the competition.
For more information, here's my guide to the Bargello's must see masterpieces.
Address: Via del Proconsolo 4
4. The Duomo, Florence Cathedral
Florence Cathedral is the most prominent landmark in Florence. It was built over 172 years, beginning in 1296. The Commune of Florence hired architect Arnolfo di Cambio, a man responsible for building much of 13th and 14th century Florence.
Florence Cathedral is nicknamed the Duomo. It's also called the Cathedral of Santa Maria della Fiore, or St. Mary of the Flowers. There was no such saint in real life. But Florence, or Firenze, means lily flower. So the city cathedral took on the symbol of Florence.
Florence Cathedral is Gothic in style, but not in the light and elegant way you think of Paris' Notre Dame. It's made of brown sandstone and beautifully faced with pink, green, and white marble.
Filippo Brunelleschi's magnificent terra cotta colored dome, begun in 1418, is the highlight. Brunelleschi was the perfect balance of architect and engineer, visionary and traditionalist. His dome was almost as wide as the Pantheon in Rome. It's still the largest brick dome ever built.
While Florence Cathedral is elegantly "frosted" with colored marble on the outside, inside Florence Cathedral is austere and almost empty. You might even wonder if it was ever finished.
The Duomo has an absolute must visit museum, the Opera del Duomo Museum. It's housed in the Piazza del Duomo at the back of Giotto's Bell Tower, and offers a nice view of the dome from its terrace.
The first thing you see when you walk in the museum is the Hall of Paradise. The hall contains a magnificent reconstruction of a Duomo facade that was torn down in 1587 to make room for a Renaissance facade (that was never completed). The reconstructed facade has exact replicas of the sculptures that once adorned it.
The other must see masterpieces in the Duomo Museum are Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, Michelangelo's unfinished Florence Pieta, and Donatello's Penitent Magdalene. One of Michelangelo's last masterpieces, the pieta is currently being restored behind glass walls.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
5. Giotto Bell Tower | Campanile
Florence's Bell Tower is adjacent to the Duomo, but still a separate building. When the construction of Florence Cathedral dragged on, the city decided to build something quickly for the citizens.
In 1334, the city hired a big gun, Giotto, the best artist of the 14th century. But at that time, artists rarely doubled as architects. It's unclear how much design influence he really had.
Giotto died three years later. An architect named Francesco Talenti stepped in to finish the job. He was later named chief architect of Florence Cathedral.
If you have a passion for panoramic views, you should climb the 414 steps of the tower. The steps are narrow, which makes for a cramped but rewarding experience.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
6. Baptistery of St. John
The Baptistery sits in front of the main facade of Florence Cathedral. Dating from 1059, it's over a thousand years old. To locals, the Baptistery is Florence's most significant monument. Yet, it seems like an underrated gem.
The Baptistery is octagonal in shape, inspired by ancient Roman mausoleums. It has three magnificent sets of bronze doors. On the eastern side are the famous golden "Gates of Paradise" designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and nicknamed by Michelangelo. The originals are now housed in the Duomo Museum.
On the north side, you'll find another set of Ghiberti doors, created in 1403-24. The doors depict scenes from the passion of Christ. They were the result of the famous 1401 competition among artists I mentioned above, which basically kicked off the Renaissance era.
On the south side, the doors date from 1330. They were designed by Andrea Pisano, a student and collaborator of Giotto. They show scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The Pisano doors were recently renovated.
Inside the Baptistery, the high altar houses Florence's most precious relic, an index finger of John the Baptist. This relic drew crowds for centuries. The Baptistry is lined with ancient Roman columns of gray granite, likely repurposed from the ancient Roman Forum down the street.
The highlight of the Baptistery is a stunning golden Byzantine style ceiling fresco. The mosaic tells the story of the Last Judgement, the apocalyptic tale where Jesus determines who will go to heaven and hell. Jesus is 19 feet tall. There's a shockingly low number of people depicted as heading to heaven.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
7. Ponte Vecchio
Dating from 1345, the Ponte Vecchio, or "old bridge," is Florence's only bridge to survive WWII. The Nazis destroyed all Florence's other bridges. The only reason Ponte Vecchio escaped unscathed is that Hitler had a soft spot for the bridge. Instead of destroying it, he destroyed the buildings at both ends.
The Ponte Vecchio looks like houses suspended over the Arno River. It has three arches topped with a jumble of charming shops. In an urban setting, space was at a premium, so the bridge became a sort of mall.
Originally, the Ponte Vecchio housed unglamorous butcher shops. But the Medici didn't like escorting their aristocratic guests and diplomats over the bridge with the wafting stench. So they swamped the butchers for goldsmiths. Now, you can buy expensive jewelry on Ponte Vecchio.
8. Vasari Corridor
Built in 1564 by architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari, the Vasari Corridor is a one kilometer elevated passageway above the Ponte Vecchio. It was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici (the first Grand Duke of Florence) 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.
Inside the corridor, you'll find the portrait collection of the Uffizi Gallery. There's over 1000 paintings, including works by Filippo Lippi, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Delacroix.
The Vasari Corridor is currently closed, with a 10 million euro renovation ongoing. It's scheduled to open to the public via a special ticket in 2021. In the interim, you can walk in the Grand Duke's footsteps on YouTube here.
Address: Via della Ninna 5
9. Palazzo Vecchio
This rather homely medieval fortress dates from the 13th century. Like the Duomo, it was constructed by architect Arnolfo di Cambio.
Steeped in history, the Palazzo Vecchio was Florence's seat of power, the home of the City Council that governed the Republic of Florence. The Palazzo Vecchio is now a museum. It sits in the famous Piazza della Signoria, which is studded with many famous sculptures (or copies thereof), including Michelangelo's David.
On the first floor of the palace, you can visit the Hall of the Five Hundred, awash with frescos by Vasari. On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici, with recently restored frescos in the beautiful Apartment of the Elements. You'll also find Donatello's groundbreaking Judith and Holofernes sculpture in the Hall of Lilies.
The Palazzo Vecchio was famously the scene of one of Renaissance Florence's most brutal tales. In 1478, the Pazzi family tried, but failed, to oust the ruling Medici family in a coup. They plotted to kill both Lorenzo the Magnificent (Cosimo's grandson) and his brother Giuliano.
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 another key moment in Florence's history, 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.
The doomsday preacher eventually ousted the Medici and established a theocracy in Florence. 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.
If you're up for a climb of 400 steps, the Tower of Arnolfo offers 360 views. You enter via the Museum of Palazzo Vecchio, with a combined ticket for Palazzo Vecchio or for an additional small fee.
Address: Piazza della Signoria
10. Basilica of Santa Croce
Although a bit out of the way, the Basilica of Santa Croce is a must visit site for lovers of Renaissance art. It dates from 1280. The basilica has one of the greatest assemblages of frescos, painting, sculptures, and funeral tombs in the world.
The highlight are the frescos by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel and the Peruzzi Chapel. There are also frescos by his students Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi. The ones by Agnolo are well preserved and have been recently renovated.
Santa Croce is also the resting place of storied Renaissance luminaries. You can find funeral tombs for Michelangelo, Ghiberti, Galileo, Dante, and Machiavelli. Santa Croce also houses the famous Cimabue Crucifix. The artifact was damaged in a devastating flood in 1966, but has been somewhat restored.
If you want more information, here's my complete guide to visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce complex.
Address: Piazza di Santa Croce 16
11. Basilica of San Lorenzo Complex
While Santa Croce holds the superior art collection, the Basilica of San Lorenzo is more famous. San Lorenzo was the official church of the Medici family. Michelangelo himself designed the simply stunning Medici Chapel between 1520-34.
The chapel's coffered dome is similar to Rome's Pantheon. The walls are clad with pink green, gold, and white marble. There are two tombs decorated with allegories of the passage of time carved by Michelangelo -- Dusk, Dawn, Day, Night. Night is regarded as one of Michelangelo's finest works.
In 1527, Michelangelo returned to Florence to defend republican forces during a civil war. When Florence fell, Michelangelo retreated into a secret room below the Medici Chapel until he received confirmation of a pardon from Medici pope Clement VII.
Michelangelo's secret room wasn't discovered until 1975, when a museum director spotted a trap door. The room contained charcoal sketches and doodles by Michelangelo on the walls, identified because they replicated his known works. The room is scheduled to be opened to the public in 2020.
The other thing to see in San Lorenzo is the Chapel of the Princes. This is the main mausoleum for the Medici Family (Michelangelo's Medici Chapel holds only the the remains of two lesser known Medici). Cosimo de Medici commissioned it in 1568. But construction only began in 1602.
The chapel walls are clad with polychrome marble and precious stones. The cupola of the chapel features a fresco by Pietro Benvenuti. The sepulcher for Lorenzo the Magnificent is adorned with Michelangelo's Madonna and Child sculpture.
Here's my complete guide to visiting the Basilica of San Lorenzo complex and the Medici Chapel. Be aware that you have to buy a separate ticket for the Medici Chapel because it's a separate state museum.
Address: Piazza di San Lorenzo 9
12. Church of Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria Novella was founded in 1279 by a Dominican order. The basilica has a similar design to the Duomo and Santa Croce, with polychrome and white marble create a striking front facade.
The interior is a true marvel. It holds one of the most famous paintings in Italy, the Holy Trinity by Masaccio. Masaccio was an early Renaissance superhero, who tragically died young of malaria at only 27.
You'll also want to visit both of the Strozzi Chapels. The Filippo Strozzi Chapel is to the right of the main altar. The other Strozzi Chapel is to the left up a flight of stairs.
The Filippo Chapel contains precious frescos by Filippino Lippi, an early Renaissance luminary. The frescos, dating from 1502, depict the life of the apostles Philip and James. The choir contains another series of frescos by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his young apprentice Michelangelo.
The other Strozzi Chapel belonged to another branch of the Strozzi family. It was decorated by Andrea Ocrana in the second half of the 14th century.
Another highlight of Santa Maria Novella is the Chapter House, erected circa 1350, called the Spanish Chapel. It's a bit of a hidden gem in Florence. It's a room completely covered with frescos by Andrea di Bonaiuto. The fresco cycle celebrates the spiritual and intellectual achievements of the Dominican order.
Address: Piazza di Santa Maria Novella 18
13. Orsanmichele | San Michele in Orto
Designed by Francesco Talenti and others, Orsanmichele is a well preserved and important 15th century Florentine church. It's eccentric looking. Orsanmichele rises up like a three story brown rectangle.
But it's a treasure trove of Renaissance sculpture -- a sort of street view museum. Orsanmichele was originally Florence's central grain market. It was converted into a church in 1380.
Inside, the church has a spectacular bejeweled Gothic Tabernacle altar, with a painting of the Madonna della Grazie. Legend holds that those who prayed before her were granted miracles. The original painting was lost and replaced with a 1497 painting by Bernardo Daddi.
Orsanmichele is most noted for its incredible sculpture, decorating the exuberant Gothic facade. The facade has 14 niches, each one housing a statue of a patron saint commissioned by Florence's guilds. Created by the best artists of the time, the exterior sculptures are now copies, with the monumental originals in the Orsanmichele Museum on the top floor of the church.
By far, Orsanmichele's most famous sculpture is Donatello's St. Mark. It's the first truly Renaissance piece of art (sculpture was more advanced than painting). St. Mark marked a revival of classical themes and naturalism. St. Mark was even given a receding hairline. Donatello's famous St. George was also once at Orsanmichele, but was moved to the Bargello Museum.
Orsanmichele also has three sculptures by Ghiberti -- St. John the Baptist (the first significant Renaissance statue in bronze), St. Matthew (Ghiberti's most important sculpture), and St. Stephen. And also a famous sculpture by Andrea Verrochio, Doubting Thomas. Verrochio was Leonardo da Vinci's teacher.
Orsanmichele is right in the center of Florence, just minutes from the Palazzo Vecchio. But it's a bit of a hidden gem, where you can escape the crowds. Right now, the Orsanmichele Museum is only open on Monday and Saturday morning.
Address: Via dell'Arte della Lana
14. Pitti Palace
The magnificent Palazzo Pitti is located across the Arno River, in the off the beaten path Oltrarno district that's now Florence's trendiest neighborhood. The palace is one of Florence's most stunning architecture gems. Built in 1457, it was designed by Brunelleschi and built for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a Medici rival.
But, like everything else it seems, the palace soon became Medici property. In 1549, Cosimo de' Medici's wife purchased the Pitti Palace. It became the Medici's principal private residence, the family's third palace in Florence. The Medici expanded it and placed 8 art galleries in its interior.
The most important museum is certainly the Palatine Gallery. It occupies the left wing of the first floor. The gallery houses an impressive collection of over 500 paintings, chock a block on top of each other amid lavish furnishings. There are works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, and other European and Italian painters.
Be sure to check out Botticelli's and Lippi's Madonna and Child in the Prometheus Room. Two of Andrea del Sarto's massive Assumption of the Virgin are in the Iliad Room. And, one of my favorites, Artemisia Gentileschi, has another version of Judith in the Saturn Room.
The Royal Apartments showcase styles from three different eras of ownership. You'll find Baroque frescoed ceilings, gilded inlaid work, Rococo stucco, and red damask decorations. Definitely not to my taste, too over the top ostentatious. But amid the cacophony, there's a beautiful Caravaggio painting, Knight of Malta.
If you want to know more, here's my guide to visiting the Pitti Palace.
Address: Piazza de' Pitti
15. Strozzi Palace
The Strozzi were one of Florence's wealthiest families. They were exiled from Florence in 1434. But, after accumulating more power, they made a triumphant return in 1466.
Once home, the Strozzi's first mission was to build a mighty palazzo as a symbol of their strength. They wanted to eclipse the Pitti Palace.
The palace looks like a small rectangular fortress. It's very symmetrical, with a stone facade that changes from rough hewn (on the bottom) to refined (at the top). The interior courtyard is impressive, surrounded by an arched stone arcade.
The palace remained in the hands of the Strozzi family until 1937. Now, it's Florence's largest space for contemporary art exhibitions. If you want to see well displayed art, this is your place. The Palazzo Strozzi holds three major exhibitions annually.
Address: Piazza degli Strozzi
16. Boboli Gardens
The historic Boboli Gardens is the backyard of the Pitti Palace. It's the largest green space in Florence. The Boboli Gardens sprawls over 11 acres. The gardens are effectively an open air museum, with hundreds of nooks to explore.
re laid out in the Italian style, with beautifully worn Renaissance statues and fountains. The famous Fountain dell'Oceano and the Bathing Venus were sculpted by the underrated Giambologna. After Michelangelo, he was the next best sculptor of the time.
The Grotto Grande, also known as the Buontalenti Grotto's, is a fascinating place. In 16th century Tuscany, it was the fashion to build decorative grottos reconstructing natural caves. The grotto once had a fresco by Michelangelo (now in the Accademia) and has copies of his four slaves.
An interesting sculpture is the modern Cracked Face Statue, Tindaro Screpollato, by Igor Mitoraj. The bronze face is huge, with green streaks running through the cracks that look like tears. The crumbling visage symbolizes both human fragility and strength.
In Renaissance times, the Boboli Gardens was the sole province of the Medici. Now, other citizens are granted access. You can enjoy the pristine greenery and have a great view of the Duomo.
Address: Piazza de' Pitti 1
17. Piazzale Michelangelo
Piazzale Michelangelo is one of Florence's best viewing points. You can see a postcard worthy view of the entire cityscape of Florence. Like Piazza della Signoria, the square has a monumental copy of Michelangelo's David, delivered by nine pairs of oxen in 1873.
Piazzale Michelangelo isn't ancient. In fact, it's a fairly recent addition, designed by Giuseppe Poggi. It was built in 1869 as part of the redevelopment of Florence. In addition to the David, there are bronze copies of the four allegories from the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo.
How do you get to the Piazza Michelangelo? Take bus #12 (from Boboli Gardens), bus #13 (from Ponte Niccolo), or the HopOn/Hop Off Bus. More effortlessly, you can just take a taxi. There's also a parking lot, if you have a car.
If you want to make the hike from downtown Florence, wear comfortable shoes. You can start after crossing the Ponte Vecchio. There's a serpentine path from Piazza Poggi. Or you can follow the 2 kilometer Via Michelangelo from Piazzo Ferruccio.
18. San Miniato al Monte Church
When you're done at the Piazzale Michelangelo, you should walk 5 minutes and visit the spectacular and well preserved Church of San Miniato al Monte. It's Florence's crowning glory, perched even higher and with a better view. Building began in 1018. Like the Baptistry, the church is over 1000 years old.
The church takes its name from Minias, an Armenian prince who was Florence's first martyr. Legend holds that Minias picked up his decapitated head and flew over the Arno to the church site. San Miniato Church is dedicated to the saint.
The relics of Minias are often said to be buried in the church crypt, which features frescos by Taddeo Gaddi. But that's inaccurate. The bones were sold off to raise money for the church. So I'm not sure what's in the crypt besides chicken bones.
San Miniato has Florence's emblematic white and green marble facade. It's a harmonious piece of Tuscan Romanesque architecture, a very unique building in Florence.
When you walk through the turquoise doors, you're greeted by a spectacular interior. Every inch of the church is covered in mosaics, gold leaf, or geometric patterns, with a spectacular mosaic decorating the half dome in the apse. The marble floor is decorated with zodiac signs.
The monks of San Miniato still sing Gregorian chants at Vespers, in a small chapel at the back of the church. Anyone can go and listen. They usually chant at 5:30 pm in the summer and 4:30 pm in the winter.
Address: Via delle Porte Sante 34
19. Museum of the San Marco Monastery
In 1437, Cosimo de Medici decided to rebuild a crumbling convent complex. He hired the architect Michelozzo. The walls were decorated by Fra Angelico and his workshop. San Marco is now a haven of uplifting tranquility and home to some of Florence's best sacred art.
Fra Angelico was a devout monk who, with Giotto and Donatello, helped transform the art world and usher in the Renaissance. His humanistic pieces, with delicate palettes, led him to be dubbed the "Angelic Painter" or Il Beato (the Blessed). Giorgio Vasari described Fra Angelico as a "rare and perfect talent."
The highlight of the San Marco Museum is the Sala dell' Ospizio, where the most important Fra Angelico paintings are housed, including The Last Judgment, The Crucifixtion and Saints, and The Annunciation (at the top of the stairs).
There are also seminal works by Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo's teacher, including a Last Supper fresco in the Refectory. Legend holds that the cherries arranged on the tablecloth spell out a rhyme.
You can also visit the plain room where the fanatical monk Savonarola, the scourge of the Medici, lived and worked. Also stop in to peer at the simple cell where Cosimo de Medici came to meditate. It's decorated with Fra Angelico's Adoration of the Magi.
Here's my complete guide to San Marco Monastery.
Address: Piazza San Marco 3