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There is so much to see and do in Florence, from world famous museums and art galleries to magnificent architecture and to-die-for-food you’d just about have to move there to experience it all. If you don’t have that luxury, be sure to put these 18 things to do on the top of your must-experience list.
Climb the bell tower of the Piazza del Duomo
Florence’s famous cathedral sits in the heart of the city. Construction began in the late 13th century, and the dome, which dominates the exterior, was added in the 15th century. After viewing the Duomo, and visiting the inside of the cathedral, you should complete the experience by climbing to the top of the bell tower and soakingup the amazing vistas of the piazza and city beyond. Giotto’s bell tower is one of the four main monuments on the Piazza del Duomo. A fine example of 14th-century Gothic architecture, it stands nearly 300-feet-high and is considered to be the most beautiful campanile in the entire country. Building of the freestanding tower started in 1334, under the supervision of artist and architect Giotto di Bondone – after his death, notable architects Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti helped to complete it. Original artwork created for the bell tower includes works by Donatello and Pisano, and can be seen in the cathedral museum.
Browse the Galleria degli Uffizi
The Galleria degli Uffizi, built in 1541, is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. It features unique, one-of-a-kind works from famous artists like da Vinci, Botticelli, Raffaello and Michelangelo, with the greatest gallery of Renaissance art on Earth. Its extensive collections includes work from all centuries, though the largest portion dates between the 12th and 17th centuries. It’s considered a must-experience for anyone visiting Florence, and welcomes over a million visitors each year, which means reserving a ticket in advance is a must to avoid a potential wait of as long as five hours. Be sure to allow enough time to savor each and every piece, and remember to gaze up at the incredible fresco-filled ceilings along the hallway.
Visit San Lorenzo Market
The San Lorenzo Market, which is actually two separate markets, one indoors focused on food and one out, lining the surrounding streets of the Mercato Centrale, sells clothing, pottery, a variety of leather items and a wide range of souvenirs. This is an ideal place to find that perfect gift to bring home to friends and family at an affordable price, though you’ll also find plenty of high-end goods, including trendy fashions and leather jackets. Indoors, on the ground floor of the Central Market are fishmongers, butchers, fruit and veggie vendors and specialty shops that sell local foods like meats, cheeses, olive oils and a whole lot more. The first floor is a perfect place for lunch with the food court hosting plenty of outstanding stalls, including a number of which where you can pick up a farm fresh meal.
Wander through the Oltrarno
The Oltrarno is a section of Florence that sits just across the river from Piazza Della Signoria. Compared to the rest of the city, it has a more intimate, small town-feel and is often referred to as its “hippest neighborhood.” It’s quickly becoming the place to see and be seen, offering wonderful sights that many tourists miss. The neighborhood is filled with history and art heritage that can be found in museums, churches, monuments, palaces and parks.
Santo Spirito is a gorgeous example of pre-Renaissance architecture, dating back to 1481, known for its turbulent history which is documented inside the church for visitors to admire alongside the artworks that adorn the chapels. The frescos by Filippino Lippi in the chapel transept are a sight to be seen – if you only have time to visit one monument here, it should be this one. Check out the Old Bridge, Boboli Gardens and the many shops with handcrafted goods, along with wood carvers, goldsmiths and gilders that carrying on a century-old tradition of spirit and techniques.
View the frescoes at Santa Maria Novella
The Church of Santa Maria Novella is also not-to-be-missed, with a soaring frescoed chapel sitting alongside it. Architecturally, it’s considered one of Tuscany’s most important Gothic churches, but it’s the interior that’s exceptionally extraordinary. It holds stunning works of art from Masaccio, Ghirlandaio and Giotto, among others. The Strozzi Chapel is dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and scenes of his life are portrayed in magnificent frescoes by Filippino Lippi, who began working on the chapel in the late 15th century. It was finished in 1502, and as Lippi died in 1504, this was one of his last works. The facade of Santa Maria Novella is not only the oldest of all the churches in the city, but it is also the only church with its original, planned facade still in place today.
See the paintings that changed the course of art history
The paintings at Capella Brancacci are said to have changed the course of art history. It hosts one of the most lauded masterpieces of Renaissance works: the fresco cycle of scenes from the life of St. Peter, mostly painted in collaboration by Masaccio and Masolino during the early 15th century. The frescoes in the upper register include Adam and Eve in the Earthly Paradise, and Original Sin by Masolino, and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Earthly Paradise with the Tribute Money and the Baptism of the neophytes by Masaccio. Also by Masolino are the Preaching of St. Peter with the Healing of the lame man and the raising of Tabitha. In the lower register, Masaccio painted the two scenes on the end wall, St. Peter curing the sick with his shadow and the Distribution of goods, with the death ot Ananias.
Experience aperitivo like the locals
Similar to the American happy hour, aperitivo in Florence involves well-dressed locals wanting to see and be seen in the city’s trendiest bars. It lasts for a glorious couple of hours, typically between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., as most Italians eat lunch later in the afternoon, and have dinner at 9 p.m. or sometimes later. Just about any decent bar will have snacks, but the offerings differ greatly, from peanuts or chips to elaborate buffets that feature some of the best finger foods you’ve probably ever had. Don’t expect 2-for-1 drink specials, Italy’s aperitivo is all about the food, though it often includes cuisine paired with alcoholic drinks. Drink prices range from about €8 to €10, for which you get to eat your fill from a buffet with finger food ranging from nuts and olives to bruschetta, salami and cheese, couscous and cold pasta salads, pizza and mini-panini.
Admire Michelangelo’s monumental David
At the Accademia Galleria, you can marvel at Michelangelo’s David under a skylight that was designed just for him in the 19th century by Emilio de Fabris. The artist was just 26 years old when he accepted the challenge with enthusiasm to sculpt a large scale David in 1501, though he was already a famous artist. He was said to have worked tirelessly for three years to create this masterpiece of gleaming white marble. What the Florentines saw that day in 1504 when it was finished, was a masterpiece with no equal. The 17-foot statue depicting the Biblical hero who was a favorite art subject in the city, also came to symbolize the defense of civil liberties embodied in Florence. Viewing it up close, you’ll be able to perceive Micheangelo’s passion for human anatomy and his in-depth knowledge of the male body, from David’s watchful eyes, to the pulsing veins on his hands and flexing thigh muscles in his right leg.
Take a picture of Florence’s oldest bridge
Ponte Vecchio opened back in 1345, and is the city’s oldest bridge by far. No visit to Florence would be complete with taking time to walk across it, and while it tends to be packed with tourists, it’s special enough that you should experience it once. The best time to be here is early in the morning to watch the sun rise, and while the bridge itself isn’t much of a looker up close, mainly because of the many overpriced jewelry shops and crowds, from a distance, the medieval craftsmanship looks quite impressive. Head down to Ponte Santa Trinita to get the best picture.
Dine al fresco
Another must-do in Florence is dining al fresco. While lots of local eateries offer outdoor eating areas, a number of them are true standouts, including Panini Toscani, a hidden gem tucked behind the cathedral where you can sample several cheeses and meats before building your own perfect sandwich, choosing from a variety of breads and an assortment of toppings. The outside seating offers spectacular views and great people watching too. Romantic views of the ponte Vecchio can be had from the little terrace of the Borgo San Jacopo restaurant and you can gaze at the city’s skyline from the Bardini Museum’s adjoining restaurant, MoBa.
Sample the city’s best gelato
While the city’s best gelateria (ice cream parlor) is up for debate, Vivoli, near Santa Croce, is often named as the best of the best. It’s also said to be the oldest gelato shop, opened back in 1929, first as a cafe and meeting place for locals, later dedicating itself to gelato. You can choose from different sized tubs, and you can even have more than one flavor per tub. It comes in a variety of flavors, all light and creamy. Gelateria La Carraia, is another top pick. Located on the Oltrarno side right off the Ponte alla Carraia, the gelato here is ultra creamy, soft and delicious. If you can’t decide which flavor you’d like, get a tasting cone for just one euro and sample a few.
See the famous graves at Medici Chapel
The Medici Chapel, located adjacent to San Lorenzo Church, is known for its many famous graves, including crypts and chapels that contain tombs of the Medici family, along with major sculptures by Michelangelo. Two tombs are adorned with the artist’s sculptures, and contain members of the illustrious family. While you may not know their names as well as the likes of the legendary sculptor, without the Medici not only would Florence not be Florence, you probably wouldn’t have known who Michelangelo was at all, the man whose art the Medici sponsored. After visiting the Medici tombs, you may want to head to the Laurentian Library nearby which features a grand staircase designed by Michelangelo and sits above the cloisters in the same church complex.
Spend time soaking up the sunshine in Florence’s gorgeous gardens
When you first come into Florence, it initially may seem like everything is made out of stone, as there are few trees and very little green to be had in the city center, which is surrounded by endless stone buildings. But if you look closer, you will find some wonderful spots for spending time outdoors. In between all of the visits to museums, cathedrals and indoor sights, take a break outside in some of the city’s loveliest gardens. There are lots of tiny gardens in the center, hidden away in courtyards, along with larger gardens that are ideal for soaking up the sunshine, like the Rose Garden, a garden park in the Oltrano district on the southern slopes of Monte alle Croci overlooking the river Arno, and Florence’s central historic district. The 2.5-acre garden was inspired by French gardens and has a natural, rustic feeling along with over 350 types of roses as well as the Japanese Shorai Oasis, which was gifted to Florence from Kyoto, its twin city.
Bardini Gardens includes highlights like the tunnel of wisteria, the Baroque stairs, six fountains with mosaic treatments and Villa Bardini, while Boboli Garden, located just above, is Florence’s most famous garden. Highlights among its 11 acres include the Porcelain Museum, Neptune’s Fountain, the Viottolone cypress alley, Buontalenti’s Grotto, Cypress Lane, Isolotto’s basin and an amphitheater.
Explore the Leonardo da Vinci Museum
At the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci, located a block from Piazza Duomo, visitors flock to see life-size models of the artist’s ideas and inventions, from a glider to a tank, all carved from wood. It’s the perfect place to go if you hope to appreciate the range of Leonardo’s creativity. The illegitimate son of a 25-year-old notary, Ser Piero, and a peasant girl named Caterina, da Vinci lived from 1452 through 1519, and he continues to be the symbol of the Renaissance and its rebirth. He was not only a diligent scholar of anatomy, relentless inventor and designer, he dedicated his attention to the arts, including music, painting, architecture, sculpture, and choreography. A true genius, he was one of the few whose work and talent was appreciated during his own lifetime and not only after his death.The museum will bring you back to the da Vinci days, and a world where he was able to envision and draw machines for a wide variety of purposes in his notebooks. It hosts the machines that have all been built to size, and are totally functional. Some are interactive displays, allowing visitors to handle them and figure out how they work.
People watch in Piazza della Signoria
There are several great places for people watching in the city, but one of the best is arguably Piazza della Signoria. Not only can you watch people walk by, but the artwork that surrounds the square is absolutely mesmerizing. The open piazza is considered to be the “front yard” of what was once the Medici family’s home, and at the entrance, there is a replica of David. To the right, is an outstanding sculpture gallery known as the Loggia. Near the middle, is a circular marble plaque marketing the spot where the monk Savonarola was burned at the stake in the late 15th century. Of course, there are lots of eateries lining the square as well, mostly overpriced, but you can also bring a meal or gelato over to dine on while enjoying the scene.
See the sights in Piazza Duomo
Another fantastic people watching spot is the nearby piazza in front of the Florence Duomo, a cathedral-flanked square with monumental buildings designed by Giuseppe Nagoni in the 19th-century. Located in the heart of the historic city center, while it’s often quite crowded, it’s still a must-visit, with its highlights being the Duomo and the Baptistery. The highlight of the Baptistery is on the outside, with its set of doors facing the front of the Duomo designed by Ghiberti in the early 15th century. A young Michelangelo thought they were so beautiful that they could be the Gates of Paradise. The original panels are now located in the Duomo Museum, but the replicas on the Baptistery are still extremely striking.
Experience some of the best shopping on the planet
Florence was voted the top city in the world by Conde Nast Traveler in 2014, and much of the reason for the selection was its highly concentrated shopping experience. While shopping here has a reputation for catering to the wealthy, you’ll find plenty of affordable options too – and, in some cases, amazing bargains. You don’t have to skimp on quality to find a good deal whether you’re shopping in a unique boutique, market or department store. In this shoe and handbag capital of Europe, you can even get a high quality pair of Italian leather shoes for as little as $30, or fur-lined gloves from about $35. Of course, if you have lots of cash to spare, you’ll find plenty of ways to spend it. Gucci Museo is a monument to the Florentine fashion house and includes the Icon Store, which is the only place in the world you can buy the limited edition Icon Collection. It’s definitely not for the budget-minded, with unique one-of-a-kind bags priced at over $20,000 along with a few relatively more affordable items like a silk Flora scarf that was originally designed for Grace Kelly – you can buy the version taken from the artist’s proof for less than $500.
View a sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo
Piazzale Michelangelo is the most famous square in Florence and offers a jaw-dropping panoramic view of the city. A perfect way to end a day exploring, you’ll find it in the hip Oltrarno district. Head here just before dusk to take in one of the most glorious sunsets in Italy, and enjoy a view that’s been famously reproduced on countless snapshots and postcards over the years.