Central Florence is split by the Arno River. The main sights - the Duomo, the Uffizi, the Accademia - are on one side of the river, while the neighborhood known as the Oltrarno is on the other. “Oltrarno” actually means “beyond the Arno,” or “the other side of the Arno.”
Among the attractions in the Oltrarno are the massive Pitti Palace, to which the ruling Medici family moved after leaving their residence in the Palazzo Vecchio, and the sprawling Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti. You can also visit the Santo Spirito Basilica (designed by Brunelleschi, who designed the cathedral’s famous dome) and the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (with the fantastic Brancacci Chapel and its Filippino Lippi frescoes). Keep going through the flatter part of the Oltrarno and you’ll eventually head up staircases and narrow streets into the hills overlooking the city. You know that postcard view you keep seeing all over town? You can see it for yourself from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
Built over a former Benedictine monastery garden and grain market in the late 14th century, the wrongly often-overlooked church of Orsanmichele was designed along Gothic lines, with ornate tracery around the doors and windows. Each of the wealthy trade guilds in Florence were commissioned to provide statues of their patron saints to fit the 14 niches in the exterior walls but the project lingered on and was eventually completed with exquisite works from such Renaissance masters as Ghiberti, Della Robbia, and Donatello. Replicas now fill the niches while most of the originals have been restored and are displayed in the two-floor museum above the church, where the original Gothic architecture is exposed, giving views of wooden vaulting and decorative brickwork.
Giotto's elegant bell tower (Campanile di Giotto) flanks Florence's Duomo and Baptistery, rounding off Piazza del Duomo's prime attractions. Designed by Giotto in 1334, the Gothic tower is faced in the similar nougat-hued marbles of the Duomo. The design features five distinct tiers decorated with arched windows, sculptures and geometric patterns of different colored marbles.
Take a close-up look at the lovely plaques decorating the tower at ground level, sculpted by Pisano. The originals are housed in the nearby Duomo Museum.
More than 400 steps climb to the top of the 82-meter (25-foot) bell tower, for wonderful views of Florence and the River Arno.
At first just a busy square and basilica in the middle of Florence, at a closer glance the church and museum reveals much about the city. It was decreed to the Dominicans in 1287 by the Florentine Republic, to decorate as the new church was being built on site. The piazza quickly became a popular public gathering place, home to artists, theater, festivals, tournaments, and more. It later became the sight of the carriage race, or Giambologna show, which took place between the basilica and the Hospital of San Paulo.
Today the piazza remains central to Florentine life. It faces the intricately designed green and white marble facade of the basilica, which was built in the 13th and 15th centuries and is considered a masterpiece of Renaissance art. As it was recently renovated and surrounded with hotels and restaurants, it is popular with visitors as well — particularly at night when the square is spectacularly lit up.
This ancient home grants a peek into history going back to the Middle Ages, and is a way to experience the wealthy merchant homes of the Renaissance era. It was built by the Davizzi family in the mid-14th century and later purchased by the Davanzatis in the 16th century. With three towers and five stories, it is decorated from floor to ceiling — complete with period furniture and frescoed walls. There are both medieval and Renaissance architectural elements, allowing for a comparison of the two styles and the history of the transition.
The traditional layout of the home makes it a magnificent example of a medieval Florentine home. Some of its highlights include a central courtyard, stone and wood staircase, and underground gallery. Historic art, lace, furnishings and even coats-of-arms throughout the palace demonstrate the trends and styles as they have progressed through the ages.
In pride of place at the center of the busy Piazza della Signoria, the Fountain of Neptune has long been one of Florence’s most memorable landmarks, set against a backdrop of the grand Palazzo Vecchio (Town Hall). Inaugurated in 1565, the striking artwork is the masterpiece of sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati and was commissioned to celebrate the wedding of Francesco I de’ Medici and Johanna of Austria.
The elaborate bronze and marble statue portrays a 5.6-meter-high image of Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea, with the face of Cosimo I de 'Medici, stood on a high pedestal above the water, around which Satyrs and horses frolic. Despite sustaining considerable damage over the years, including losing one of its hands to vandals back in 2005, the statue has now been painstakingly restored and remains a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists.
A visit to the enormous Basilica of San Lorenzo leads to things you may not expect from a church. What ties the church to its unexpected turns, however, is something very Florentine - Michelangelo.
In the 15th century Basilica of San Lorenzo are the tombs of the Medici, located in the New Sacristy (also designed by Michelangelo), which are adorned by Michelangelo sculptures. The two main tombs in the chapel are those of Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. Lorenzo’s tomb has figures representing Dusk and Dawn, while Giuliano’s features figures representing Day and Night.
The unexpected sight is the Laurentian Library, designed by Michelangelo. The incredible curved stone staircase leads into a great reading room where even the desks were designed by Michelangelo. Other works of art inside the Basilica of San Lorenzo include some bronze works by Donatello and an altarpiece by Fra Filippo Lippi. You can get a combined ticket to visit both the church and the library.
Designed by the renowned architect Giovanni Mengoni in the late 19th century, Florence’s Mercato Centrale is a cavernous, two-storey market hall that’sl full of Tuscan foods. The biggest market in the city, on the outside it’s all iron and lots of glass. Enter on the ground floor to see rows and rows of meats and cheeses including mounds of fresh buffalo mozzarella, and food bars where you can stop for a snack or a panini. The northern corner’s where to buy fish and shellfish, while the second floor is given over to vegetable stands.
All kinds of foods can be bought here, from fresh bread to pasta and pizza, gelato and chocolate. There’s also the popular Chianti Classico wine store, which you can arrange to have any wine you buy shipped home. You can also sign up for wine tasting classes or head to the market’s cooking school.
Built in the 16th century in Florence’s Boboli Gardens, Buontalenti Grotto is the largest grotto in the city. Named after the architect who oversaw its construction in the late 16th century, it was commissioned by Grand Duke of Tuscany and has since featured Dan Brown’s bestselling novel.
A curious-looking place indeed, on both the outside and inside the grotto’s covered in man-made stalagmites and mythical mosaic creatures including sea goats. Buontalenti Grotto is divided into three rooms with the first, and biggest, styled in the most natural way as a cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. There are also a few anthropomorphic creatures created out of stones and shells thrown in there for good measure. The next room is similarly decorated to the first, and includes frescoes depicting Minerva and Giunone. The third room is also known for its impressive frescoes, but here you’ll also see a green marble fountain and a ceiling painted to resemble a sky full of birds.
In a corner square of Florence, Loggia dei Lanzi is an open-air museum containing some of the world’s greatest works of art. Known most for its collection of Renaissance art statues, which many consider to be masterpieces, it contains works such as Cellini’s Perseus, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, and an ancient Roman statue of Menelaus that used to be part of the Ponte Vecchio.
Originally intended to be a space for public ceremonies, construction on the area began in 1376. It was designed in a late Gothic style, a predecessor to the emerging Renaissance style. It is named for the Swiss personal guards (‘lanzi’) of emperor Cosimo I, who were once encamped here. The loggia opens to the street under three wide arches, seamlessly integrating with the rest of the city. The arches are supported by Corinthian capital, creating a canopy over the sculptures. It remains completely free and open to the public.
Housed in the medieval splendor of Florence’s Palazzo della Podestà – once a barracks and subsequently the city’s courts of justice – the National Museum opened in 1865 and showcases an abundance of glorious Renaissance artworks. As befits the oldest public building in the city, it has a fortified façade and a maze-like interior with fine halls, balconies and loggias overlooking an arcaded courtyard with walls smothered by the coats of arms of medieval aristocracy. Displayed in a series of vast apartments are collections of medieval gold work, 16th-century weaponry, a series of bronze animals made for the Medici family and hand-crafted tapestries, but the undoubted star of the Bargello’s collection is the statuary from big names of the Italian Renaissance, which has its birth in Florence. On display are the bronze relief panels created by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti when they were competing for the commission of the baptistery doors in Florence duomo (cathedral) in 1401.
The Medici chapels (Cappelle Medicee) are two architectural gems flanking the Basilica of San Lorenzo in the heart of central Florence. Brunelleschi designed the basilica for the Medici family in the 1400s, and it became the family church and mausoleum.
The New Sacristy is the more famous of the basilica's two chapels. Designed by Michelangelo, it stars his reclining funerary statues, Night and Day, Dawn and Dusk. The simple design features a somber color scheme of gray and white.
The tall domed Princes' Chapel is a riot of multicolored marbles and semi-precious gems, filled with carved niches, statues and armorial plaques. The chapels' richly carved tombs are empty, as the deceased Medicis now lie in the crypt beneath.
Pop inside the basilica to see Donatello's pulpits, the cloisters and the famously sweeping steps designed by Michelangelo leading to the Laurenziana Medicea Library.
Florence is a city filled with quaint squares, picturesque landscapes and plenty of old-world architecture that’s ripe with European charm. This is particularly true amid its famous squares, and travelers agree that few are as beautiful as Piazza della Santissima Annunziata.
A massive bronze statue of Ferdinando I de’Medici on horseback stands at the center of the square, with two notably strange fountains on either side. Visitors can relax in the sun and lounge as locals wind through the square on a busy afternoon, or duck into the Santissima Annunziata church, which was built in the 15th century and gave the square its name. Ospedale deli Innocenti—the oldest orphanage on the continent—also flanks the square and offers travelers a unique opportunity to explore the city’s past. Ceramic glazed reliefs of swaddled newborns line the façade and visitors can check out the circular stone where women could leave their unwanted newborns without fear of repercussion.
This 13th century pharmacy opened by Dominican friars now operates as a soap and perfume shop that resembles a museum, detailing the history of scent and fragrance. It is housed in the original building crafted in ornate detail. With an impressive array of herbal elixirs, perfumes, and soaps made with ancient techniques, a stroll through the pharmacy grants a historical perspective on smelling good. Friars first opened the pharmacy in 1221 to make and store concoctions for use in their monastery. Still in operation, it is one of the oldest known pharmacies in the world. The pharmacy is attributed with creating the first “eau de cologne” for Catherine de Medici, created in the 16th century and known as the “water of the queen.” Visitors can still purchase the scent in its original formulation; it is known simply as “Acqua di Santa Marina Novella.” It is also famous for its potpourri, which uses a blend of local plants and natural products and is still handcrafted on site.
Even if you’re not a fashion addict, you’ve likely heard of one of Italy’s many fashion icons - Salvatore Ferragamo. Not every visitor to Italy can afford to bring home Ferragamo designer shoes, but you’ll be pleased to know that anyone can check out the historic collection of his shoes at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum.
The Ferragamo Museum, opened in 1995, is housed in the Palazzo Spini Feroni on Piazza Santa Trinita, a 13th century former residential palace that Ferragamo bought in the 1930s to serve as his company headquarters and workshop. The museum’s collection started with a staggering 10,000 shoes created by Ferragamo from the 1920s until 1960, and has grown after his death. Exhibits are rotated every couple of years, and there are also temporary exhibits on display from time to time.
In a city filled with famous art, San Marco Museum has the distinction of holding the largest collection of sacred art in Florence. Some of its more significant pieces include the works of Mariotto Albertinelli and Fra' Bartolomeo and a large fresco by Giovanni Antonio Sogliani, as well as Fra' Angelico's famous Annunciation on the upper floor. The monk’s cells are lined with beautiful frescoes meant to spur spiritual reflection. Another section displays a fascinating arrangement of sculpture and architecture, with a collection of old bells and fragments of demolished city center buildings.
The museum is housed in a former Dominican convent that was restored by the architect Michelozzo in the period of the De Medicis. Its light-filled library contains a collection of historic illuminated manuscripts, as well as a present day convent library with books on philosophy and theology.
Entering the neighborhood of San Frediano means historically passing through the Porta San Frediano, which was once a door to the walled city, leading to one of Florence’s most popular residential areas in the present day. The trendy area has a variety of culture, cuisine, and art that contribute to its cosmopolitan feel. The neighborhood is home to many artisans that have kept their workshops here for decades. It has been compared to the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Many will cross the bridges on the river from the historic city center to enjoy a greater variety of food and drink in a less expensive price range.
After crossing through the Porta San Frediano, the Chiesa San Frediano in Cestello becomes visible. The 17th century church was built on the site of an older monastery, Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was founded in 1450.