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  • Joanne Herd

8 Things to Do on Your First Trip to Florence

Updated December 5, 2023

The first time I visited Florence was during my senior year of high school. I’ll be honest, I knew nothing about the city. I’d never even heard of it.

Somehow, through my 12 years of education, I'd never learned that Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance.

Actually, I'm not sure we even studied Renaissance history.

I remember studying the ancient history of Greece and Rome, American History from the Pilgrims on, and European history specifically relating to the 20th century and WW1 and WWII, but somehow the Renaissance was missed.

I'd heard of Michelangelo, but I didn't know he was from Florence. I'd heard of The David, but would have told you it was in Rome if you'd asked.

As far as I recall I'd never seen a picture of the Duomo, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture. I had no idea that Leonardo da Vinci had lived and worked in Florence.

The trip I took was a guided tour, starting in Paris, traveling down to Nice, and then hitting Florence, Rome and the Amalfi coast.

I wasn't a huge fan of Paris at the time. Being the first city of that size that I'd visited, it seemed crowded and dirty. I enjoyed Nice, and then I realized we'd be going to Florence for the next couple of nights.

"Florence?" I remember thinking. "What on earth is there? Can't we just skip it and go on to Rome? The things I want to see are all in Rome."

But I'm so glad we stopped in Florence. For some reason that I can't explain, I fell in love with the city.

It stirred me in a way that no other city, before or since, has. It became an infatuation.

After I got home I read books on Florentine history. I dreamed of going back. I checked flight prices to see if there was any way I could afford to return with the $7.50 per hour I was making working retail after school and on weekends.

For the next couple of years it didn't look like I'd be headed back any time soon. Then I realized there was something I could do that would let me not only visit, but live in Florence for a while.

I could study abroad.

I spent a few days researching programs, selected one, and sent in my application. Yes, it really only took a couple of days. When I actually make a decision I move fast.

Once I was accepted I got ready to spend a semester in a city I'd only visited for two days. A city where I didn't speak the language, understand the culture, or know how to get around.

All I knew was that I loved it.

For three and a half months I lived with a host mom and a roommate, studied Renaissance art and architecture, took class trips to places like Rome, Venice, Pienza and Montepulciano, and it was everything I had hoped for.

I got an internship giving tours of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Florence cathedral. I learned some about Italian cooking, including how to make an amazing pesto genovese, and I tried wine tasting. I took Italian language classes, some of which I still remember and use each time I'm back in Italy.

I'll admit, it was hard, too. I'd never really been away from home before. I went alone, with a program that wasn't sponsored by my university, so I didn't know anyone. But it was worth every hard moment, and I left more in love with the city that I was when I arrived.

While most of my classmates were taking low-cost airlines and jetting off to a different European destination every weekend, staying in hostels and seeing as many places as they could possibly fit into a couple of days, I stayed in Florence.

I walked the city, visited many of the less-known places, and made myself truly at home.

I went to operas and ballets. I stumbled across numerous historical festivals, including

one that involved a pair of white chianina cattle walking through the streets harnessed to a cart with a cask of wine on it. That was an interesting sight!

I bought a museum membership, so when I didn't have anything to do I could go to one of the many museums and spend a few hours wandering around. I even had a favorite Titian painting in the Palazzo Pitti that I visited more than once.

In other words, I got to know the city in a way that few people have the opportunity to do.

And now I get to share that knowledge with you.

If you're getting ready for your first trip to Florence, here are the must see sites if you have a few days.

In future posts I'll be sharing the things to see if you have more time, and the hidden sites that most people miss or never have time for.

Santa Maria del Fiore

No trip to Florence is complete without a visit to Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly know as The Florence Duomo or the Florence Cathedral.

You can't miss it, the 376 foot dome is the tallest in the city and dominates the skyline. Built by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1436, it remains the largest masonry dome in the world.

The cathedral dominates the Piazza del Duomo. While you're in the area take the time to see the Campanile di Giotto (Giotto’s bell tower) and the Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistry of St. John). Together the buildings are the centerpieces of the Duomo complex, Piazza del Duomo, and the religious heart of the city of Florence.

Piazza della Signoria

One of the three main piazzas of Florence (the others being the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Repubblica), the Piazza della Signoria is where you'll find the replica of Michelangelo's David standing outside the Palazzo Vecchio. One of the masterpieces of Renaissance art, the original can be found in the Accademia Gallery.

The highlights of the piazza include the Palazzo Vecchio, with its 311 foot tower; the Fountain of Neptune, commissioned by Cosimo I de' Medici in 1559; and the bronze equestrian statue of Cosimo I, erected in 1594.

Don't miss the Loggia dei Lanzi, the covered area to your right as you're facing the Palazzo Vecchio. It's one of Florence's best open-air art exhibits.

Under the Loggia (the Italian word for a covered area or porch) you'll find several famous sculptures. Take some time to view Benvenuto Cellini's bronze of Perseus with the Head of Medusa, and two Giambologna sculptures, Rape of the Sabine Women and Hercules and the Centaur.

If you walk down the left side of the Palazzo Vecchio you'll find one of my favorite little streets in Florence, the Borgo de Greci. If you follow it to the end you'll be in the Piazza Santa Croce, but if you walk just a little way down the street you'll come across one of my favorite shops, Signum, on the left side.

If you've ever wanted to write with a quill pen and bottle of ink, this is the shop for you! You can also find hand-bound books and journals, seals and sealing wax, and a variety of small gifts and collectibles. It's possible that I have a collection of quill pens and ink that I bought here...

Palazzo Vecchio

You'd never know to look at it, but the Palazzo della Signoria, better known as the Palazzo Vecchio, sits on top of the ruins of a theater from the Roman colony of Florentia, dating back to the first century AD.

If you have the time I recommend purchasing a ticket to go into the Palazzo Vecchio, and if you do you should get the ticket that includes access to the archaeological area. It's quite interesting, and amazing to think that the city was built on top of buildings that still survive underground all these centuries later.

The Palazzo Vecchio is the seat of government, and has been since it was built in 1299. During the reign of Cosimo I in the 16th century the interior of the Palazzo was largely reconstructed and decorated, resulting in the Renaissance style you see today.

The main room is the "Salone dei Cinquecento", or the Hall of the Five Hundreds. It is the largest room in the city of Florence, and the most important room in the Palazzo when it comes to artistic and historic value.

Had the original plans for the room come to life it would be one of the most artistically significant rooms in the world today. Originally planned for the walls were giant paintings by two of the world's most celebrated artists, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Each was intended to paint a giant battle scene on opposite walls. Leonardo was to paint the Battle of Anghiari, and Michelangelo the Battle of Cascina.

Today all that exists of Leonardo's work are some small, partial preparatory studies that are believed to have been intended for the work. There is also a painting by Peter Paul Reubens in the Louvre, which is believed to be a copy of a full preparatory study by Leonardo that is now lost.

Michelangelo completed a full preparatory drawing, known as a cartoon, for his work as well. While the original has been lost, the cartoon was copied by several artists, the most famous version being completed by Michelangelo's pupil Sangallo.

Also of interest in the Palazzo Vecchio are the beautifully decorated Apartments of the Elements, the Apartments of Eleonora of Toledo, and the Hall of Priors. There are various other chambers and chapels, as well as the Hall of Maps.

In the center of the Hall of Maps you'll find the Mappa Mundi, a six-foot tall globe that was the largest rotating globe in the world at the time it was created. You can also see maps of many other parts of the known world, as it was believed to exist during the Renaissance. Some are quite accurate, others not so much.

If you'd like a view over the city, some of the best can be found by climbing to various parts of the Palazzo Vecchio. The ramparts are the easiest to reach, with a lovely view over the square and the city.

If you're up for the climb you can also climb the tower. At the top of the tower, just above the level you end your climb at, is a small room or cell known as the Alberghetto. The name literally means very bad hotel.

In that cell two famous men have been imprisoned. The first was Cosimo il Vecchio (Cosimo the Elder), who was later exiled, and the second was Savonarola, who was then burned at the stake in the square below.

Uffizi Gallery

One of the world's great museums, the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) is a must-see for anyone who enjoys art. It's one of the oldest and most significant museums in Europe.

In its collection you'll find works by Italian artists such as Botticelli, Giotto, Cimabue, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaello.

It is the second most visited museum in Italy, behind only the Vatican museums, so you'll want to make sure you pre-book tickets online prior to your visit. You can also book a guided tour to make the most of your time and see the highlights of their vast collection.

One of my favorite parts of the Uffizi Gallery is the courtyard in the center, just off the Piazza Vecchio. It's free and openly accessible, with sculptures of the most famous figures of Italian art, architecture and literature.

When I took a Renaissance art history class during my semester in Florence, one of the TA's told me that the best way to make sure you're ready for your final exam is to go to the Uffizi courtyard. Stand in front of each artist's statue, and if you can accurately recite their major works, the years they were completed, and their significance you're ready and will pass your final exam.

Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is one of the most well-known and photographed sites of Florence.

The current bridge has stood since 1345, when it was built after the previous bridge was washed away in a flood (not an uncommon occurrence on the Arno River). It is also the only bridge in Florence that wasn't bombed by the Germans as they fled the city in 1944.

It was the age and narrowness of the bridge that saved it from destruction. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, was ordered to destroy all the bridges over the Arno, but to save any considered "culturally significant".

However, he knew that even the culturally significant bridges could support an army marching through. All, that is, but one. The Ponte Vecchio would be unable to support the weight or size of the Allied tanks, meaning that it would be impassible even if it remained standing.

To slow the advancing army he ordered the buildings on the streets leading to the bridge to be destroyed, but the bridge itself was spared.

The bridge also survived another event that caused extensive damage in the city, the catastrophic flood that occurred on November 4, 1966. The flood claimed 101 lives and destroyed millions of works of art, books and manuscripts and is considered the worst flood of the city since 1557.

The Ponte Vecchio is one of only 4 bridges in Europe with shops on both sides, and is arguably the most well known. The others are the Rialto in Venice, the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, England, and the Krämerbrücke, or Merchant's Bridge, in Erfurt, Germany.

There have been shops on the bridge since the 13th century. Initially most of the shops housed butchers and fishmongers, but over time several leather tanners moved into the shops as well. The tanners workshops created a stench that deterred many people from crossing the bridge.

To solve the problem, Ferdinand I decreed in 1593 that only goldsmiths and jewelers would be allowed to have shops on the bridge, and the tradition of selling gold and jewelry on the bridge began.

Today the bridge is still an excellent place to shop for gold or jewelry to take home as a souvenir of your time in Florence. While some pieces run as high as tens, or even hundreds of thousands of euro, you can find pieces to suit almost any budget.

Accademia Gallery

The Galleria dell’Accademia, or Accademia Gallery, is best known for its collection of sculptures by Michelangelo. The centerpiece of the museum, and the work that most people go to see, is The David.

The David was carved by Michelangelo between 1501 and 1504. He completed it when he was only 30 years old. The sculpture was originally intended to sit on the roof of the Duomo, but by the time it was completed it had become obvious that there was no way to hoist the six-ton colossus to the roof.

Instead it was decided that the David should stand outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it was installed in 1504. It stood there until 1873, when it was moved to the Accademia, and a replica was put in its place outside the Palazzo Vecchio in 1910.

Along with the David you can view other Michelangelo's sculptures, including his four slaves or prisoners and his unfinished sculpture of St. Matthew.

Also in the Accademia Gallery collection are works by other famous Italian artists, including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pontormo, and Andrea del Sarto.

San Lorenzo

From the outside, San Lorenzo is not the most impressive church in Florence. Its facade, intended to be completed by Michelangelo, never came to fruition. That means all you see from the outside is a rough, brown stone front with no ornamentation.

In fact it's one of the most significant spaces in Florence. Originally consecrated in 393 AD, it's quite possibly the oldest church in the city. It even served as the Florence Cathedral for a while, before that title was transferred first to Santa Reparata, and later to Santa Maria del Fiore.

San Lorenzo maintained a high standing in the city, however, due to the fact that it was the parish church for the Medici family. More than simply a church, it is a complex of buildings that includes a beautiful cloister, a crypt where both Cosimo di Medici and the artist Donatello are buried, a library, a sacristy, and the Medici Chapels.

When you visit you'll start by entering the cloister. The peaceful green garden is a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the area around San Lorenzo.

After you pass through the cloister you'll enter the museum, which houses a collection of reliquaries and liturgical instruments. This is also where you'll find the crypt, or cellar.

In the crypt you'll see a huge pillar, which supports the altar in the church above. Within that pillar is the grave of Cosimo di Medici, symbolizing his role as the pillar of both the Medici family and the church itself.

As you move on to the Biblioteca Laurenziana, you'll see a beautiful staircase designed by Michelangelo. Within the library you'll find two rows of desks and benches, also designed by Michelangelo. These benches held thousands of manuscripts acquired by the Medici family, with the contents of each bench listed on its side.

The manuscripts themselves were chained to the benches to ensure they couldn't be stolen or put back in the wrong place. If you needed a different book, you would move to the bench where that book was kept instead of bringing the book to where you were sitting.

The main church was built by Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect responsible for the construction of the cathedral dome. The simple, grey and white interior creates a light and peaceful space.

The Old Sacristy, called that following the construction of the New Sacristy in 1510, is considered to be one of the best examples of early Renaissance architecture. Much of it was the work of Donatello, who worked for 15 years to create the stucco reliefs on the walls.

The final area of San Lorenzo, and the most ornate, are the Medici Chapels. The large dome you see from the outside of the church is not the dome over the altar, as would be customary. It is actually the dome of the Medici Chapels.

In the New Sacristy you'll find more Michelangelo sculptures, including his beautiful works that crown the tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano di Medici. On the tomb of Lorenzo you'll find the allegorical figures of Dusk and Dawn, and on the tomb of Giuliano are the figures of Night and Day. You'll also see a Michelangelo Madonna and Child over the altar.

The adjoining Chapel of the Princes is the most impressive room in the complex, and is the burial place of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany. The walls and floors are covered in marble and colorful stone. The ceiling was originally intended to be covered in lapis lazuli, but was never completed and was later frescoed in 1828 by Pietro Benvenuti.

Santa Croce

Florence is a city filled with names of men who changed history. Names like Michelangelo, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Niccolò Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei. Men who rocked and shaped the world as we know it today.

Normally men like that would be given the distinction of a burial place in the cathedral, but that's not the case in Florence. Instead you can find their graves in nearby Santa Croce.

Like San Lorenzo, Santa Croce is a complex made up of multiple buildings and spaces. Some of those spaces include the Basilica itself, the Medici Chapel, three separate cloisters, and the Pazzi Chapel. It also still contains a convent that houses the Franciscan friars who live there.

The cloisters are some of my favorite spaces, simple and beautiful, full of fresh air and light. Most people don't take much time there, but I like to linger a bit and soak in the peace after the busyness of the church itself.

Off the main cloister you'll find the Pazzi Chapel, one of the best known chapels in the Basilica complex. It was designed by Brunelleschi and is considered an excellent representation of Renaissance architecture.

It was commissioned by Andrea de' Pazzi, a member of one of Florence's wealthiest and most influential families, in the early 1400s. It was intended to serve both as the family chapel and as the Franciscans' chapter house.

Within the main church you'll find many ornate, frescoed chapels. These frescos make Santa Croce one of Florence's most colorful churches, and are a significant contrast with the sparsely decorated Duomo.

The main church is also where you'll find the tombs and memorials to some of Florence's most notable citizens. Among them are Michelangelo, Niccolo Machiavelli, Galileo Galilei, Dante Alighieri, and Florence Nightengale.

Santa Croce holds a wealth of art. Sculptures, frescoes and paintings abound everywere you look. The collection contains more than 4,000 works by some of Italy's most celebrated artists. Cimabue, Giotto, Taddeo and Agnolo Gaddi, Orcagna, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Della Robbia, Bronzino, Vasari and Canova are just some of the artists and architects whose work is part of the bascilica complex.

The bottom line: The top things to do in Florence

There is far more in Florence than you can see in the few days that most itineraries allow. These places just scratch the surface of what the city has to offer.

If you have time there are so many churches to visit, like Santa Maria Novella, Santo Spirito, San Miniato al Monte, and San Marco, all of which contain a wealth of history and art.

There are also many other museums, my personal favorite being the Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens. From there it's an easy trip up the hill to the Bardini Gardens, with some of the best views over the city.

And, of course, there's the view of the sunset over the city from Piazzale Michelangelo, which should be experienced at least once.

No matter where you choose to go and what your interests may be, you'll find plenty to see and do in Florence.

If you're looking for Italy travel tips, check out my other Italy travel blog posts.


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