Whether you’ve organised a relaxed itinerary or vow to experience it all in one go, from urban palazzos to Renaissance churches and bustling squares, there are some absolute must-see attractions in Florence that you can’t miss.
The Tuscan capital has no equivalent; scour the land and you won’t find anywhere quite like it. While its history spans millennia, a well-planned visit reveals that the inner circle of its rulers, writers and architects was so small and exclusive that their names are synonymous with the city. From palaces, churches and gardens to ateliers and bell towers, there is plenty to explore in the city of the Italian masters. To make the most out of your trip, be sure to include these must-visit sights.
Among the oldest cathedrals in Florence, the Basilica di San Lorenzo was consecrated in 393, at which point it was located outside the city walls. It was a Medici family stronghold, and there’s a wealth of storytelling to explore on a tour of the church. For example, the Chapel of the Princes reveals an innovative design as well as an ambitious plan to smuggle the Holy Sepulchre from Jerusalem and place it in the centre. The Basilica is as much a museum as a place of worship, with sculptures by Donatello and Michelangelo, the 15th- and 16th-century Medici Chapels and the church’s Filippo Brunelleschi-designed dome.
Leonardo da Vinci claimed that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but his art and inventions provide more than just a window into his entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. The artist’s designs introduced new worlds beyond the canvas, and even furthered the study of the universe. On a tour of the Da Vinci Museum, visitors can experiment with interactive displays and embark on a journey into da Vinci’s genius mind with various models that demonstrate the study of gravity, mechanics and design. Audio guides are available.
Located inside Palazzo Castellani, the Galileo Museum is home to one of the most important scientific collections in the world and is a scientific research centre for Italian and international scholars. A visit to the museum reveals a collection that spans 500 years of instruments, inventions and displays, from the Renaissance period to the 19th century, and even includes Galileo’s famous telescope. Everything from antique globes and celestial spheres to microscopes and special lenses can be found in the museum’s wide-ranging collection.
Housed in one of the oldest buildings in Florence, the Palazzo del Bargello, which dates back to 1255, the Bargello Museum’s walls have witnessed important events in Florence’s civic history, including meetings of the Council of the Hundred, in which Dante himself participated. Tickets to the national museum include a tour of its two halls and courtyard, with works by Donatello (including the early marble David and the later bronze sculpture), unique panels by Brunelleschi, masterpieces by Michelangelo and Bacchus, Roman and Byzantine treasures and Renaissance jewels all on display.
Established by the Medici family, the Boboli Gardens are something of a crossroads between nature, architecture and science. A combined ticket for the Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti includes entry to the open-air museum. Amid majestic landscaping are 16th-century sculptures, Bernardo Buontalenti’s famous grotto, sanctuary gardens, fountains and exemplary architecture. Across the neat levelled gardens, visitors picnic, relax and wander along pretty pathways. The views over Florence and the surrounding Tuscan hills from the Boboli Gardens are unmissable, and spring is a particularly beautiful time to visit, when the flowers are in full bloom, as is autumn, when the leaves start to change colour.
Standing in front of Michelangelo’s famous David sculpture is an unforgettable experience. Visitors slowly circle to observe every angle of this masterpiece in marble, which is found at the Galleria Dell’Accademia and is 5.17 metres (17 feet) tall. The massive marble slab that was used to create David remained untouched for 25 years before the statue was commissioned in 1501, when the artist was just 26 years of age. Michelangelo’s David is depicted before his battle with Goliath, at the instance between choice and consequence. The biblical hero’s eyes exude an expression of warning, and the sculpture is placed facing Rome to represent the defence of the Florentine republic’s civil liberty.
The shining crown of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore is a civic centrepiece from the late 13th century that took 200 years to complete. Built on the remains of a seventh-century church that is visible during a tour of the crypt, the exterior features emerald green and pink marble slabs, while the interiors exude a rather subdued aesthetic to allow the artworks to stand out. The Duomo includes frescoes of Giorgio Vasari’s Last Judgement (1572), scenes of Florence by Dante (1465) and mosaic works spread out like immense carpets. The stately dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi.
This seemingly silent medieval fortress contains a hidden inner world where history, art and politics converge. The Palazzo Vecchio is an everlasting symbol of the city state’s civic power, playing host to the supreme governing body for centuries. Constructed in 1299 on the ruins of an ancient Roman theatre, the fortress belonged to the Ghibelline Uberti family before their expulsion, and became the residence of Cosimo I de’ Medici. Today it houses Florence’s town hall and a museum with Roman ruins, Renaissance paintings, lavish secret halls and the striking Salone del Cinquecento (Hall of the Five Hundred, 1494), whose frescoes and stories demand a guided visit. Don’t miss the palazzo’s hidden passages and Arnolfo’s Tower, but be warned that the latter involves a climb of 416 steps.
Accessible as part of a single ticket to the Duomo Complex, Giotto’s Bell Tower is a fine example of Gothic architecture. The 85-metre (279-foot) tower is adorned in marble and features hexagonal panels and lozenge reliefs (diamond shapes) that represent the universal order, as well as statues of kings, patriarchs and prophets made by sculptors Andrea Pisano and Donatello. Climb up the 414 steps for panoramic views over the terracotta-coloured city.
Home to some of the world’s most outstanding collections of ancient sculptures and paintings, the Uffizi Gallery is a treasure trove of unique works dating from the Middle Ages to the Modern period. Pre-booked tickets and comfortable shoes are the way to go here. The journey through the gallery’s priceless works of art includes masterpieces by Giotto, Piero della Francesco Botticelli, Correggio, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, as well as works by German, Dutch and Flemish painters.
Although it’s one of the oldest museums in Italy, the National Archaeological Museum of Florence features spacious halls and modern showrooms. The exhibitions here appeal to all ages, offering visitors the opportunity to explore the history of human civilisation through archaeology. Inside is an impressive collection of Etruscan sarcophagi and Roman relics that date as far back as 450 BC, private collections of the Medici and Lorena families, ceramics from Ancient Greece and an Egyptian collection with more than 14,000 artefacts.
Piazza Santa Croce has been a centre for public gatherings and events in Florence since the 14th century, and seasonal markets and Florentine football matches (with the form of football known as Calcio Fiorentino) are still held here today. Perhaps equally as famous as the square it sits in is the world’s largest Franciscan church, the Basilica of Santa Croce, which truly merits a visit. The original structure was built in 1212, when St Francis of Assisi first visited Florence. Beyond the marble facade is a Franciscan church with 16 chapels and the Temple of the Italian Glories, the resting place of many of Italy’s great creators, including Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei and Machiavelli.
Purchased by the Medici family in 1550 as the official Grand Ducal residence, the Palazzo Pitti is a symbol of the family’s prominent rule over Tuscany, which included the dynasties of the House of Lorraine-Habsburg and the House of Savoy. With a prime position at the foot of Boboli Hill and connected to Boboli Gardens, the palace houses Florence’s largest museum complex, with treasures from the Grand Dukes, the Palatine Gallery, a Modern Art Gallery and the Museum of Costume and Fashion.
This 13th-century church is one of the most important Gothic-style structures in Florence and deserves a spot on every traveller’s itinerary. The interior holds precious works of art including Giotto’s Crucifix, Masaccio’s The Trinity and Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel – all financed by the most important historic Florentine families. The church was built on the site of a 9th-century oratory and took 80 years to complete before its consecration in 1420. Interiors feature clever and harmonious designs to elongate the space, as well as fine works of art conceived by masters of the time.
According to local legend, in a series of huddled houses near Torre della Castagna stands the birthplace of Dante Alighieri, born in 1265. Rebuilt in the 20th century using historical references, Dante’s home, located in the heart of medieval Florence, is now a museum and centre of study that highlights the life and work of the man himself, one of Italy’s most brilliant thinkers. Guided tours and workshops walk visitors through highlights of the poet’s life.
A mysteriously resilient bridge – historic documents refer to its first appearance in 996 – Ponte Vecchio was rebuilt in the 14th century after a flood that devastated Florence, was spared by Hitler during World War II and survived another flood in 1966. When the Medici family moved to Palazzo Pitti, they decided to build a connecting route from Ponte Vecchio that was hidden from the public and ordered the construction of the Vasari Corridor in 1565, which still runs above the bridge. In 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers be allowed to open shops on the bridge, banishing butchers, fishmongers and tanners. Look out for the bust of Benvenuto Cellini, a 16th-century goldsmith, who is honoured on the bridge. Ponte Vecchio remains strong and is a beloved spot for photographers and romantic walks.
Inaugurated on 24 June 2014, Museo Novecento is dedicated to modern and contemporary art from the 20th century. Rotating installations are featured in the open courtyard, while inside, a permanent collection showcases works by important Italian artists, many of them included in the Alberto Della Ragione collection – Giorgio de Chirico, Gino Severini, Giorgio Morandi and Felice Casorati, among others. The museum also offers workshops and guided tours.
Mercato Centrale is located above Florence’s oldest indoor market, San Lorenzo, which is set in one of the city’s most vibrant districts. The contemporary food market is housed within a place of great historical and architectural importance in Florence, in a beautiful building constructed in 1874 by architect Giuseppe Mengoni during Italy’s Rinascimento (rebirth), when Florence was the capital of Italy. The decision to construct such a market house represented the ambition of Florence and reaffirmed its cultural influence. The market today introduces discerning visitors to a cultural container of honest produce and quality-first cuisine made exclusively by local artisans. Dubbed by its creators as “a rebirth that returns artisans to the heart of the food scene”, the focus is on fresh and simple food that meets the highest standards, all the while allowing space for social and cultural events.
The Baptistery of San Giovanni is one of the city’s most fascinating architectural gems. The structure’s exact age is unknown, but legend tells that it was a pagan temple, a belief that is supported by ancient fragments and inscriptions and marble slabs from the ruins of Roman Florentia. The marble-clad church combines a clever mix of faith, history and art within its unique octagonal layout and concealed dome, whose interior was decorated with mosaics by Jacopo Torriti in the 13th century. The highlight of the church is Lorenzo Ghiberti’s (1425–52) magnificent bronze doors, found on the eastern side. Referred to by Michelangelo as the “Gate of Paradise”, each of the 10 scenes is a window into stories from the Old Testament, with relief sculptures that capture several scenes in a single frame.
Located on the left bank of the Arno, Piazzale Michelangelo was built on the hills above the city in 1869, at a time when Florence was the capital of Italy. Designed by architect Giuseppe Poggi, the panoramic terrace is dedicated to the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo, and offers uninterrupted views of Florence in all its splendour. The scene is particularly picturesque at sunset, when the entire cityscape unfolds and historic landmarks glisten in the red sun.