Florence, Italy is the capital of the beautiful Tuscany region and filled with must-see Renaissance masterpieces. As such, this article is a bit longer than usual. Getting to Florence is easy by air (Vespucci Airport) or rail (60 minutes from Bologna, 90 minutes from Rome, 120 minutes from Venice). For lodging, I like the Tourist House Ghiberti B&B for its excellent pricing, room size, and location right near the famed Piazza del Duomo.
The Duomo, which is actually the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, is crowded but offers a lot to see. I highly recommend getting advanced tickets, because while admission to the Cathedral itself is free, a ticket is required to gain access to the Dome, Bell Tower, Baptistery, Crypt, and Museum. Tickets are good for 72 hours and allow you access to each particular site one time. Beware that a reservation time is mandatory for Brunelleschi’s Dome and in busy seasons these are booked out more than a week in advance, so you may miss out. Reservations are not available for the other sites and there may be a line, so go early if possible. At least you’ll be able to admire the amazing colored marble facade of the Cathedral while waiting.
The Cathedral itself is simply beautiful. Begun in 1296, this was the largest church in the world until St. Peter’s in Rome was built. The Dome wasn’t completed until 1463. It was the largest at the time and used techniques that were groundbreaking. Climbing the dome gives you an up close look at the construction. The narrow path consists of 463 steps, so it is a definite workout. At one point, you can walk into the interior base of the Dome to see the wonderful The Last Judgment painting that decorates it. Once outside at the top, you are rewarded with incredible city views. I love to climb domes and towers and this was one of the greats!
Next it’s time to climb Giotto’s Bell Tower, completed in 1359. If your legs are tired, remember you have 72 hours. This climb is slightly easier at 414 steps, but even narrower and more repetitive. At the top, you get great views on the dome and similar views of the city. This is a must-do substitute if you are unable to get a Dome climb reservation.
Now that you’ve visited the top, visit the bottom. The Crypt of Santa Reparata shows the remains of the earlier cathedral the Duomo was built upon. You can still see vibrant mosaics from the 700s and parts of frescos before ending at Brunelleschi’s tomb. Right outside the cathedral, you’ll find the old Saint John’s Baptistery. I marveled at the bronze carved doors by Ghiberti, octagon-shaped construction, and mosaics inside. The original baptistery doors are located in the nearby Museum dell-Opera del Duomo, covered with your ticket.
When finished at the Duomo, treat yourself to some gelato. It was invented in Florence, after all. Since you’re in a land of great churches, there are two nearby basilicas worth a quick visit. The Basilica of San Lorenzo is a large church from 1470 that houses the tombs of many Medici family members. This church is plain-looking from the outside, but I suggest a visit because Michelangelo designed and built the internal façade. The Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, from 1420, sits in a lively location and is blessed with a beautiful façade and great Renaissance frescoes.
Hungry? Your next stop should be Mercato Centrale, a collection of individual food shops with hot or cold meal offerings. You eat at community tables in the center. The selections are amazing, as is the quality. After a meal, head to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. Advanced tickets can save you up to an hour wait, as this is arguably the most popular museum. The presentation of David is impressive and you get to view from all angles. Equally wonderful are the unfinished works, which look like figures trying to free themselves from the block of stone. To end the day, get dinner at Zio Gigi between the Ghiberti hotel and Duomo. It is unassuming, relatively inexpensive for the quality, filled with locals, and gave me the best meal I had in Florence. Most notable was the giant bowl of steamed seafood, including razor clams, that I still dream about to this day.
Spend the next day (or split this into two easier days) visiting the sights on and south of the Arno River. First, head to the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, a fortress founded in 1299. I strongly recommend going inside, but you don’t need to pay extra for the tower if you did the Duomo climb. Consider the Secret Passages Tour, which guides you through spectacular chambers, an impressive map room, and secret corridors. You'll have time to explore the other rooms afterwards.
Then, head to the famed Uffizi Gallery on the bank of the Arno. I highly recommend the combination ticket that gives you entrance to the Uffizi, Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens. They’re places you’ll want to visit anyway, you’ll save money, and the ticket is good for 72 hours. The Uffizi is an intimidating gallery with numerous rooms packed with works that would be prime focal points in other museums. Be sure to see The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (Hall 10/14). Other masterpieces include works by Leonardo da Vinci (Hall 15), Michelangelo (Hall 35), Raphael (Hall 66), Titian (Hall 83), and Caravaggio (Hall 90).
Next, walk along the bank of the Arno to the landmark Ponte Vecchio. Some of the best photo opportunities are on this view from shore, as once on the bridge you'll just see throngs of tourists and jewelry shops. Once on the south side, I recommend Trattoria Bordino for lunch. I love the ambience inside. The food was fresh, the service was excellent, and the homemade desserts were a fantastic finale. Then, head to the Pitti Palace. This former Medici palace consists of four museums, but you’re here for the Medici’s so I recommend focusing on the treasury collection and the Royal Apartments. Both are filled with great art and furnishings.
Having had your fill of museums, head to the Boboli Gardens that are right behind the palace. These beautiful gardens feature statues, grottos, and fountains galore. After strolling the grounds, head east to Piazzale Michelangelo. Or, take the bus since it’s on a hill. I think the best views of Florence are from here. You’ll see the complete Florence skyline. Red tile roofs, church domes, and palace spires in panoramic splendor. I grabbed a drink and snack from the café to enjoy the views a little longer.
On your way back after you cross over the Arno, there is one more great basilica to see if you’re so inclined. The Basilica of Santa Croce, built in 1443, features Giotto frescoes, a stunning altar, and many chapels. In the 1800s, it got upgraded with a new bell tower and a beautiful new façade. This covers what I believe are the must-see sights of Florence, but the real magic is strolling the streets and finding your own small adventures.