Florence is more than just another place to visit. It is a flame that reignites your inner artist or poet. Perhaps in all of us there is a passion for beauty and genius – for deeper connections with people – for celebrations of the bounty of marvelous food brilliantly prepared, accompanied by great wine. It is in Florence, “Cradle of the Renaissance,” where these inner gifts reemerge for a life well lived and beauty fully absorbed. Your holiday in Florence will claim its spot in your mind and memory well after you return home, and you will forever be the better for it.
Prepare to be awed as you fly into Florence, locate your lodgings, and head towards the river for your first view of the Ponte Vecchio. Plan to spend at least five days here (more, if possible), residing on the left bank of the Arno River, called the “Oltrarno” (Oltr-Arno- “other side of the Arno”), within a short walk to the Ponte Vecchio. Here you will become 21st-century “neighbors” of the Medici, around the corner from their opulent Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. You will be close to restaurants and bistros too, as well as to neighborhood grocery stores that offer an abundance of luscious produce, delectable deli items and freshly baked bread, along with excellent and very affordable local wines.
By staying near the river on the “other” side, you will be within a short walk to two convenient bridges, one of which is the Ponte Vecchio, that will take you quickly to the busier side of the river where the dome of the Duomo dominates the skyline. As you walk along “your” side of the river, or lunch at a window table at the Golden View, you will have before you the full spectacle of the Ponte Vecchio, with the imposing Uffizi Gallery bordering the river across the way, and the Duomo dome behind it.
Start Your Florence Visit with the Bridges and Piazzas
There is no better way to learn any city than by seeking out its main bridges (if it has a river), as well as its major squares or piazzas. Florence has the most photogenic bridge of them all, the Ponte Vecchio (“old bridge”). It is likely that what inspired you to visit Firenze (Florence) in the first place was seeing one of the many stunning images of the Ponte Vecchio.
The Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge across the Arno until 1218, and it will be your primary route across the river during your stay in Florence. And what a delightful pathway this will be, coming and going, with its views and its intriguing shops.
There have been shops on the Ponte Vecchio since the 13th century. Initially these were shops of all types, including butcher and fishmonger shops that created an offensive stench in the area. So, in 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers would be allowed to locate their shops on the bridge. This ruling was “in order to improve the well-being of all as they walked over the bridge.”
As well as learning the bridges, you will need to master the Piazzas. Florence is a city of narrow, serpentine streets, bordered by tall canyons of buildings. So, whenever you approach a Piazza, you will feel like you are bursting forth into a vastness of wide-open space. These expansive town squares have been used for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years as gathering places for the populace. It was in the piazzas that important news was announced, and preachers delivered their messages. And it was in the piazzas that public executions were held.
Piazza della Signoria will be your place to start learning the piazzas of Florence, located directly outside the Palazzo Vecchio, palatial home to the obscenely wealthy Medici family. This square is filled with sculpture and fountains, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David (the real David is now preserved and displayed at Galleria dell’Accademia). The Dominican priest, Savonarola, staged his vehement burnings of books and art in Piazza della Signoria. And it was here that he himself was burned after his reign of terror ended.
Piazza della Republica comes next, surrounded by majestic arcades, with an imposing triumphal arch as an entrance, and a Merry-go-Round. This square was the Forum during Roman times. Now it is a favorite place for outdoor dining at one of its canopied restaurants, with plentiful opportunities to people watch.
Piazza Santa Croce was once a gathering place where public meetings were held, and Franciscan monks preached to the crowds. This square is now home to local artists, showing and selling their creations, and many charming local shops. Meetings and monks now have been replaced by street entertainers.
Piazzale Michelangelo, with its bronzed replica of Michelangelo’s David sculpture, is perched high up on a hill in the Oltrarno, offering one of the most panoramic views of the city. As you sit on this hilltop, high above the Oltrarno neighborhood, you will be at eye-level with the iconic red roof of the Duomo across the river. Return here late in the day to see one of the most stunning sunsets in Florence.
See Some of the “Must See” Sights
Take ample time to attend to the “must see” sights of Florence. Start with these five:
The Duomo and Baptistery: The 13th-century Duomo had no dome until two centuries after it was built, when construction of such an architectural marvel became possible. Walk inside to take in the celestial vastness of its interior space, and to marvel at the carpet of mosaics covering the tile floor. This structure was designed to shock and awe. Sit at an outdoor table for lunch, in full view of the intricate white, green and pink marble mosaic of the exterior. You will need at least a full hour to take this in.
Make time to study the three sets of gilded bronze doors on the exquisite octagonal Baptistery. The first set of doors, facing south, were designed by Pisano and took 6 years to complete. Ghiberti’s north doors required 21 years of work, then another 27 years to complete the east doors, for a total of 54 years of work by the masters to create the doors that now stand before you. For the east doors, Ghiberti employed the recently discovered principles of perspective to give depth to his compositions. Michelangelo declared these doors to be the “Gates of Paradise.”
Palazzo Vecchio, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens: Imagine the lifestyle of the wealthy and powerful Medici family as you visit their place of business in town center, Palazzo Vecchio, and their opulent residence across the river, Pitti Palace, surrounded by the lush Boboli Gardens.
Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned these two locations, work and home, to be linked together by a private passageway, the Vasari Corridor, positioned above the city streets and crossing the top of the Ponte Vecchio. This passageway spanned a full kilometer, from the seat of government in Palazzo Vecchio to the Medici home in Pitti Palace, exiting beside the famous Grotto of Buontalenti in Boboli Gardens. This private corridor allowed the family and their guests to move freely and safely back and forth, observing the people below while they themselves remained unnoticed. A small carriage for two took the Medici and guests back and forth along the passageway when they preferred not to walk.
Medici Chapels: Add one additional Medici monument to your “must see” list-the Medici Chapels. Visit the sumptuous octagonal Chapel of the Princes, another lavish testament to the greatness of the Medici. The crypt beneath this chapel became the mausoleum for this notable family. Michelangelo himself worked on the sculptures of the sarcophagi, completing the statues of brothers and co-rulers Duke Giuliano and Duke Lorenzo. The master sculptor also created remarkable allegorical statues of Dawn and Dusk, Night and Day, as well as the Madonna and Child.
Michaelangelo’s David at Galleria dell’Accademia: Your visit to the Galleria will focus on the glorious sculpture of David. Stand beneath this towering marble masterwork, pristine and aglow under a circular skylight. It will take your breath away. Spend some time just to take this in. But also explore the other intriguing works by Michelangelo, including the Hall of the Prisoners that leads up to the David statue. The pieces on display here are ones that Michelangelo never completed. His unfinished work creates the effect that each of these figures is trapped for all time inside his own block of marble.
Uffizi Galleries: Enter the Uffizi (arrange in advance for an assigned time!), then move up the grand staircase to the gallery, with its frescoed ceilings and labyrinth of rooms crammed full of masterworks. Follow the U-shape of the building, veering off into the side rooms to see the displays. Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned Vasari to create this grandiose building beside Palazzo Vecchio to house the offices of government. A secret entrance to the Vasari Corridor lies behind an unmarked door on the first floor.
This building that was once the locus of Florentine government, is now home to a vast treasure chest of art. Find the large works by Botticelli first (Halls 10-14)- Allegory of Spring and Birth of Venus. Locate the portraits of Michelangelo and Raphael (Halls 35 and 66), and also Leonardo da Vinci’s one-and-only panel painting. From the far end of the corridors, pause to look out the windows to spot San Miniato, high on the hill across the Arno, just above Piazza Michelangelo. Look more closely at the Ponte Vecchio to see the windows of the Vasari Corridor that runs along the top of it.