There is so much to see that it’s difficult even to attempt a summary. But here are some of my favorites. Note that opening times of the museums and churches are often unusual. You should be very careful to pay attention to opening times when making your plans so as to avoid disappointment! This site is a good source of opening times and advance tickets.
You can find pictures here.
This relatively small museum has what is probably the finest collection of Italian Renaissance art in the world. And you can get through the high points in a couple of hours.
The Uffizi has long hours. Since a number of other important sights close early, you might consider visiting in the afternoon. On the other hand, it is also quieter in the morning (before 10).
These days, you can book online for a specific admission time – I highly recommend doing this. Lines during high season can be long – over an hour.
There are a lot of sites with “Uffizi” in the name – this looks like the “official” one:
Here are some highlights (from my biased perspective):
- Giotto’s Madonna: The Byzantine Madonnas which were Giotto’s model showed Mary as a figure suspended in space, with a divine baby she didn’t make eye contact with. Giotto was the first to paint Madonna in a blue dress, the first to show the outline of an actual knee under her robe, and the first to show her actually looking at her baby. With this glorification of the individual over the religious, the Renaissance was born.
- Birth of Venus (aka Venus on the half shell) (Botticelli): Supposedly learned men gathered around this painting to discuss its classical allusions. Sure they did.
- Primavera (Allegory of Spring) (Botticelli): Everyone is pregnant.
- Portrait of Duke of Urbino and his wife (Piero della Francesca): A portrait of husband and wife, painted on opposite sides of the same frame. The wife’s ashen countenance is a mystery – did her pallor signify that she was already dead by the time the painting was finished? Or was it fashionable to have really, really pale skin?
- Venus of Urbino (Titian): As Mark Twain was said to have remarked, “What is she doing with her hand?” This painting is said to be the inspiration for Manet’s Olympia, but the two works are very different. Titian’s Venus is definitely available; Olympia wants you to show her the money first.
- Portrait of a Cardinal (Raphael): By Raphael’s day, painters were crazy about light. Raphael shows the cardinal sitting by a window, bathed in sunlight coming from an unseen window. If you inspect the gold ball on the edge of the seat’s arm, you can see a tiny reflection of the window – perhaps the painter’s little joke?
- I could go on, but it’s more fun to find your own favorites.
This is a sculpture museum located in a Renaissance palazzo; it’s not large and usually it’s not too crowded. It has a few Michelangelos, and the original statue of Mercury (aka “the FTD guy”) by Giambologna. There are also wonderful works by Donatello, the della Robbias and Desiderio di Settignano (the best Florentine sculptor you’ve never heard of, because he died young). Open 8-2.
Monastery of San Marco
Fra Angelico, the painter monk, lived here and decorated the monk’s cells with depictions of the life of St. Francis. Fra Angelico is known for his colors, especially his blues and his amazing fluorescent pink, a color not seen outside of painting until the 20th Century. His famous Annunciation is in this museum. Open 8-2.
The cathedral is more remarkable for the pink and green marble façade, and for the magnificent dome of Brunelleschi (the largest of its day), than for its relatively bland interior. One of Michelangelo’s three Pieta sculptures was originally inside this church, but it’s now in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Note that the grandly named Tomb of Dante isn’t. Dante was banished from Florence, for political reasons, for the last 20 years of his life, and he died in Ravenna. Shortly after the poet’s death, the city of Florence, realizing their mistake, constructed a tomb for Dante, and rather peremptorily ordered Ravenna to return “their” bones. Ravenna refused, and Dante’s remains remain in Ravenna to this day.
Entry to the Duomo is free, but there is an admission charge for the Baptistery (next door), the Museo dell’Opere del Duomo (on the other side of the Duomo from the Bapitstery), and the Campanile (belltower). There is also a bewildering array of combination tickets.
The Baptistery is actually older than the Duomo. For a long time, anyone who was born in Florence could be baptized here. The medieval mosaics on the interior are quite stunning. The famous Doors of Paradises are now replicas – the originals are in the Museo.
Do not miss the Museo – it has some of the best art in the city, is relatively small, and is a heck of a deal (only 6 euros when we were there in 2012). Highlights include a late Pieta by Michelangelo, several important works by Donatello, and the originals of Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise, recently completely restored. Best of all, the art is laid out such that you can see it at close range. You can walk all the way around the Michelangelo, and you can see the Doors at various levels through an ingenious spiral staircase. The museum also has pictures and models of older versions (and older designs) of the Duomo – the current façade dates only from the 19th C.
If you want a view, you can climb up either the famous Brunelleschi Dome or the nearby Campanile (belltower). The Dome climb is tougher (500 steps, no elevator), but it goes through the interior as well as the outside – you can look down on the church from inside the Dome.
This Franciscan church is probably the most important church in Florence after the Duomo. Galileo and Michelangelo are buried here, and there are important works by Donatello, de Settignano, and Giotto (the life of St. Francis). There is also a 19th C statue of a lady holding a torch which you will find strangely familiar (the sculptor was Bartholdy’s teacher). There is an admission charge (which makes sense because the church is really a museum). The audioguide is good.
If you go, be sure to visit the Pazzi Chapel – go out the door on the far side of the altar into the interior courtyard. The Chapel, designed by Brunelleschi and decorated by Della Robbia, looks unfinished, but isn’t – a “minimalist” design which looks strangely modern. The Pazzi family were rivals to the Medici and led a bloody rebellion in which they conspired to kill all the Medici at once (in church even — there’s nothing new under the sun). They failed to kill Lorenzo di Medici, and ultimately the rebellion failed and the Pazzi were banished.
Santa Maria Novella
This Dominican church is near the train station, with some wonderful frescoes by Ghirlandaio. Although these frescoes are inspired by religious themes, they include many scenes of daily life which make them easy to understand. (I swear one of the people in the frescos looks like Jerry Brown – the young version). There is a small admission charge for the church – don’t pay extra for the museum.
This lovely church, near the Santa Trinita bridge, offers more spectacular frescoes by Ghirlandaio. Admission is free, but bring coins to turn on the lights illuminating the frescoes.
Another free church, offering a recently restored crucifix by Giotto, and frescoes by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio; Botticelli (real name, Filipepi) is buried here. The fresco of St. Jerome features a pair of eyeglasses on the desk – unusual for the time. The church also has a plaque commemorating Amerigo Vespucci, who worshipped here – a useful reminder that the great era of Florentine art overlapped the Age of Exploration. If you visit on certain mornings (I think Tuesday and Saturday), you can visit the “Cenacolo” (Last Supper) of Ghirlandaio in the refectory next door – it is believed to be one of the inspirations for da Vinci’s more famous version in Milan.
Santa Maria della Carmine
In the “Oltrarno” district (other side of the Arno). The Brancacci Chapel (small admission charge) has spectacular frescoes by Masaccio and Masolino. You can book tickets online here, which I recommend. We didn’t have any problem getting in without reservations in October, but I’ve heard they sometimes sell out in high season.
An exquisite small church designed by Brunelleschi in the Oltrarno district, just a few minutes walk from the Carmine, and sitting on one of the prettiest squares in the city. The church has a recently restored crucifix by Michelangelo which features a startlingly nude Jesus.
A uniquely Florentine institution, this “business district” church was designed for the city’s merchants to use during the day. In addition to attending services, contracts were often signed here. The second story was once a grain silo (which accounts for the unusually low ceilings); now it’s a museum. The church features a spectacular, one-of-a-kind altarpiece by Orcagna. Admission is free.
The outside of the church is decorated with statutes by leading Florentine sculptors, each of which was commissioned by one of Florence’s major guilds. Many of the statues have religious themes, although some (like the one of the 4 merchants) might as well be the guys next door. You can see the originals of the statues in the second-floor museum (which is free, but is only open on Monday).
The “old bridge” makes for nice photographs. Most of the stores are expensive jewelry shops (although there are some cheaper ones toward the ends). Window-shopping is free.
Piazza della Signoria
The “town hall” square is one of the most famous in the city, featuring many of its most iconic statues. Many of the statutes (like the David) are copies, albeit high-quality ones.
This beautiful square offers a panoramic view of Florence, which is especially nice at sunset. You can reach it on foot by climbing up the hill from the bridge of San Nicolo. The church of San Miniato al Monte, one of the oldest churches in the city is just a bit further up the hill. The interior has medieval decoration (beautiful mosaics and marble in geometric designs.). (It’s a bit of a hike all the way up to San Miniato, so you might want to take a cab, at least on the way up.)
The Boboli Gardens get all the press, but I think these gardens are nicer, and, since they are on the other side of the Arno, you get nice views of the historic center of the city from across the river. If you happen to visit the Boboli Gardens, you can buy a combined ticket for both gardens. Open 8:15 to dusk.
This is the museum where Michelangelo’s David lives. Unfortunately, the rest of the museum is rather undistinguished, and there are usually long lines to get in (which is why I haven’t been there in a while). I’ve been told that lines are sometimes shorter about ½ hour after opening (people line up right before opening time, but after ½ hour they’ve all gone in). Note that the statue of David in the main piazza (Piazza della Signoria) is a copy.
We didn’t eat out much in Florence, but we liked Camillo, on Borgo San Jacopo (near Santo Spirito on the other side of the river). They are particularly noted for Bistecca Fiorentina (Florentine T-bone, usually 1 kg, which they will happily split for 2).
If you happen to visit the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmine church, go to Trattoria del Carmine across the square — a simple, pleasant trattoria. Cibreo is a well-known Florentine restaurant. We didn’t eat there, but we did enjoy the Trattoria Cibreo, which shares kitchen facilities and offers simpler, cheaper versions of the dishes in the main restaurant.
There’s much, much more, but I’ll let you discover it for yourselves.