Following along on my trip, I travelled from Nice, France to Genoa, Italy for a quick overnight by train. After 24 hours in Genoa, it was time to board the train again for the 2 1/2 hour journey south to Florence, Italy. I was greeted with a 30 minute delay and no free wifi. Hello Italy.. I digress…
Florence historic center
Florence is the governing capital of the Tuscany region but also serves as a home to the massive Duomo – The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – and many major pieces of art such as Michelangelo’s “David”, DaVinci’s “Annunciation” (among other works) and Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. The area really fostered these Renaissance artists and therefore some of their crowning achievements remain here. In more recent pop culture, Florence was featured prominently in Dan Brown’s “Inferno”. At points I thought back to the book and realized how much it felt like the book provided more narrative than a walking tour.
Florence is compact and lies alongside the Arno River with the river effectively splitting the city in two parts. The north is the historic center, home to many art galleries, restaurants galore, the Duomo, and the majority of tourists stay near among the narrow medieval lane ways and cobblestone streets. The southern side of the river is more quaint and home to Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens. These areas were built and inhabited by the wealthy Medici family which ruled Florence in the 14th. They were said to be the wealthiest family in Europe and 4 Medici members rose to status as pope during their reign. The Medici controlled their eponymous Medici Bank which was believed to be the largest in Europe. Their power ended in the 18th century with Tuscany going bankrupt but their legacy left a lasting imprint on Florence. Another Medici legacy – to a finance dork like me – is that they are credited for inventing double entry bookkeeping – how exciting!
Now that you know a bit about the history of the region… here are some things to do in Florence. I’ve split it up with north / south of the river because it may be better for trip planning and easily splits the city.
SOUTH OF THE ARNO RIVER
Visit the Boboli Gardens
The Boboli Gardens are adjacent to the Palazzo Pitti, the home of the Medici Family, and are located on the southern side of the Arno river only about a 15 minute walk from the historic center. The gardens are filled with pods, fountains, and sculptures galore. Bring a small picnic lunch and you can get lost for a few hours on a nice day.
It’s easy to get lost amongst the many lanes and the stunning marble artworks – the shade is also a godsend on a hot day in Florence
The central fountains of Boboli Gardens
Neptune’s Fountain – unfortunately off due to a summer drought
Ascending to the top of the park rewards you with views over Florence and the Tuscan hillside
After (or before) spending time exploring the vast Boboli Gardens you can take the opportunity to explore the Medici Palace. These days it’s a museum that has art and relics taking you back to the time the Medici ruled. A very well-organized (and air-conditioned) museum. I spent an hour or so wandering around cooling off from the heat. Museum buff’s could easily make this a half day or more activity.
Palazzo Pitti viewed from the Boboli Gardens lookout
I really enjoyed the sculpture and canvas art on display throughout the museum. There are other areas dedicated to the clothing of the time with actual pieces maintained. All I can say is I have no clue how women wore that much stuff in summer.
Also featured in the collage above, but I thought I would separate it out because I found this piece really funny
While nothing special in its own regard from an architectural standpoint, For Belvedere is the historic fortress sitting above Florence and was constructed in the 1500’s. Ruts in the cobblestones show hundreds of years of use with tracks from the many hose drawn carriages coming in and out of the fortress.
Entry is free and they usually have some form of outdoor art exhibitions going on. Well worth the hike up the hill and much more peaceful than the Piazza de Michelangelo which I will touch on next.
Some of the art exhibition on the drill plaza and expansive views of Florence – the massive Duomo sticking out above the city skyline
JJ meet Duomo
Home to one of the three (yes three) David statues in Florence. This one is a bronze cast and is showing Its’ age a bit.
David en verde
The views from Piazzale Michelangelo are breathtaking and worth the several hundred stair climb from the riverbank. However, also breathtaking are the fumes from the hordes of tour buses and also the harassment from vendors selling any dumb tchotchke you could imagine. Personally, I thought he fortress was more peaceful.
The views did not disappoint
Looking down the Arno at the many crossings from north and south – the covered bridge is the Ponte Vecchio or “gold bridge”
Taking in the sun
A slightly unexpected discovery on the south side of the river was a riverfront cafe with outdoor area for sunbathing. It was roughly opposite the Uffizi Gallery. From what I can tell topless was ok but fully nude not allowed. If you feel like a day at the beach, go here.
Crossing Ponte Vecchio – “Gold bridge”
Whereas crossing the bridge is uneventful on every other crossing, the Ponte Vecchio is maddeningly packed. This is the oldest, and originally the only, crossing over the Arno. These days it’s home almost exclusively to gold shops. As roughly the most direct route between the shopping area of the historic center and the Palazzo Pitti it’s packed. Go once to check it out – but maybe avoid midday.
So many old people – moving at glacial pace
NORTH OF THE ARNO RIVER
As I mentioned before, the north is home to the historic center and much of what visitors will be exposed to in Florence. Figure north is art/culture/accommodation and south is history/nature.
The Accademia Gallery
I didn’t go, but this is the home of the original version of Michelangelo’s David. From what I heard from other visitors, they could have easily put the contents of the Accademia in the larger Uffizi but what’s the fun in that? Only one long ass line to wait in? Go about an hour before opening to be in the first group to see the David statue and his micro penis. Interesting fact, sculptors in the Renaissance intentionally made the manhood smaller for modesty purposes as much of the art was commissioned by the Catholic Church.
There is also a replica of the David at the original location outside the Palazzo Vecchio located not too far away. If you were counting that’s the location of the third David in Florence – if you don’t count the several thousand you see at each souvenir shop.
Gallery is closed Mondays.
The Uffizi Gallery
The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most famous museums in Europe and home to countless works of art. I, however, prioritized sleep, being outdoors, and hating lines. There’s a theme here. I didn’t go. I heard it was great from others and will save it for when I’m more geriatric like the hundreds of people sweating it out in line. In the corner of the shot above is the Galileo Museum which I also heard was quite good.
Gallery is also closed Mondays.
Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – “The Duomo”
While duomo only refers to the dome on the Cathedral, many just refer to the whole building colloquially as “The Duomo”. The cathedral is the largest in the city and decorated ornately outside in a blue and while color platte that you will see replicated at smaller churches around the city. Construction started in 1296 and wasn’t completed until 1436. That’s right – 140 years. This is the focal point of the historic center and the most well-known building in the region. Construction of the dome didn’t start for over 100 years and was one of the great architectural puzzles and accomplishments of the time. Some guidance was taken from the dome of the pantheon in Rome but given the height it remained a puzzle. The fact that it was completed in the 1400’s with no modern technology is astounding.
Entry to the Cathedral is free and they still hold services here. However, dress code is strictly enforced and no short shorts or bare shoulders are allowed. Thankfully, many street vendors are readily available to sell you an overpriced scarf to cover up with.
You can also climb to the top of the dome where there is a viewing platform to see above the center of Florence. Cost was €8 but the true cost is the line which in midday can be up to 4 hours long.
Pictures do little justice to show the sheer scale and size of the building.
Ornate decoration throughout
Interior of the dome
Technically separate to the Cathedral, Giotto’s Bell Tower. You can climb this for €6 (€2 less than the dome) and the line rarely exceeds 30-45 minutes.
Cheesing it up
Hmm – Do I climb it?
Plaza still packed at night with the Cathedral lit up
As you can see, it’s very easy to sped a few days in Florence. I didn’t even touch on the food – which was incredible and the cheapest for any major city in Italy. I also did a day trip to Pisa which I will cover separately. My thought is that 4 days was ideal to spend in Florence to not feel rushed or feel like there was little left to do. I think most museum buffs could spend a week here and be very happy.
If you have any questions about things to do in Florence, feel free to drop me a line.
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