The historic centre of Florence is best explored on foot and if you only have a day to explore, don’t waste it standing in line for museums or galleries (and those are some big lines), get walking instead. Start at the Duomo.
The Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore (Saint Mary of the Flower) is one of Italy’s largest churches and the fourth largest in the world – after St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Paul’s in London and the Duomo in Milan. Completed in 1436, the exterior of the church is covered in elaborate Gothic-style, marble panels and Brunelleschi’s red dome (which you can see from most parts of the city) is the largest brick dome ever constructed. Once inside the cathedral, be sure to make your way to the large (45 metre wide) dome and look up. The inside is painted with an enormous (3,600 meter) representation of The Last Judgement, started in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari and finished in 1579 by Federico Zuccari.
Entrance to the basilica is free but if you have the energy (or the time to stand in a line) you can pay €10 to climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome. You can also climb to the top of Giotto’s Bell Tower, adjacent to the cathedral.
From the Duomo, head down Piazza S. Giovanni and take a left onto Via Rome, past the traditional merry-go round in the Piazza della Repubblica. Continue along Via Calimala to Loggia del Mercato Nuovo. Constructed in the middle of the 16th century it was originally intended for the sale of Florence’s famous straw hats but today the market is mostly made up of leather and souvenir merchants. The main attraction at the market is the Fontana del Porcellino (fountain of the piglet), who looks more wild boar than piglet. Visitors are encouraged to place a coin in his mouth for good luck (if it falls to the grate below your wish will be granted) or rub his nose to ensure a return visit to Florence. Retrace your steps onto Via Por Santa Maria until you get to the H&M (love a good H&M). Take via Vacchereccia to the Piazza della Signoria.
The piazza is the site of infamous Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497. It’s also home to the impressive Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall), the Fountain of Neptune, a replica of the statue of David (which from 1504 to 1873 used to be the actual statue) and the Loggia dei Lanzi (a kind of open air sculpture gallery) which includes Medici’s Lions, and a somewhat graphic depiction of Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa.
Head behind the status of Hercules and Cacus to the entrance of the Uffizi Gallery, home to an unrivalled collection of Renaissance art including works by Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The courtyard (Portico delgi Uffizi) separating the two wings of the gallery is lined with 24 statues of Italian scientists, artists and statesmen. At the end of the courtyard you will pop out next to the Arno River and to the right, the Ponte Vecchio.
Everyone comes to Florence to see the Ponte Vecchio. Originating from Roman times (possibly 996), the bridge spans the Arno River at its narrowest point and has always hosted shops and merchants. Originally butchers, most of the shops are now goldsmiths and jewellers, under order of the Ferdinando l de’ Medici since 1593. When closed, the stores resemble little wooden suitcases. Keep an eye out for a Giovanni da san Giovanni painting of Mary and two children about halfway across the bridge above the Vacheron Constantin shop.
Once you’re across to the other side it’s time to choose your own adventure.
If you’re short of time I’d suggest you go with option one, the other two will require at least 2-3 hours. Have fun exploring!
- You can take a right through the artisan streets of Oltrarno.
- You can continue on Via de Guicciardini towards Piazza dei Pitti (Pitti Palace), the palace where 3 ruling families of Tuscany lived and then up towards the Renaissance gardens of Giardino di Boboli (entry is €7).
- You can take a left and continue along the riverside on Via de Bardi and towards the Giardino Bardini and the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Other highlights to consider:
- Basilica de Santa Croce. (Piazza di Santa Croce) Italy’s Westminster Abbey, the Basilica is the final resting place for some very famous Italians – Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo and Rossini.
- Mercato Centrale in San Lorenzo. Inside is the place go for food, outside are numerous stall selling leather goods and souvenirs. Upstairs are restaurants and trendy eateries, downstairs is a market (only open Monday to Saturday).
What are your favourite places in Florence?