Explore Art and History in Florence’s Best Museums and Galleries
Florence is world renowned as one of Europe’s great capitals of art – here are the best museums and galleries to discover in the birthplace of the Renaissance.
The Tuscan capital is deeply proud of its Renaissance past – with its antique frescoed palazzos, church-filled piazzas and horse-drawn carriages roving the centre, the city seems almost suspended in time. Its museums and galleries provide a glimpse into Florence’s history, when art, architecture, philosophy and science flourished and thrived.
Originally designed by artist-architect Giorgio Vasari to house Florence’s government administration, the opulent Uffizi (‘offices’ in Italian) is a marvel inside and out. Widely considered one of the greatest museums in Europe, it’s a veritable temple to Renaissance painting, and is the first stop for most visitors to Florence. Wandering these long halls is a lesson in art history; it’s home to a staggering array of masterworks, including Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation, as well as works by Caravaggio, Titian and Michelangelo. The galleries also feature important classical sculptures from Ancient Rome. As the galleries can be extremely busy, ensure you book ahead with timed-entry tickets. If you’re in Florence for a weekend of cultural sightseeing, consider the combined 72-hour ticket that includes the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens.
More than a church, more than a museum – the Duomo is the city’s most recognisable building, a striking, important cultural monument in the city. The multicolour marble cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, topped by Brunelleschi’s famed dome is a Renaissance masterpiece of architecture and design. Access to the cathedral is free, but it’s worth the ticket fee to visit the complex, which is home to many of the city’s greatest historic treasures. The 72-hour ticket includes entry to Giotto’s dizzying, light-filled bell tower; the baptistery; the cathedral and crypt; and the Duomo Museum. The museum is often unfairly overlooked – it has recently undergone an ambitious expansion, and inside you’ll find the cathedral’s original sculpture-laden facade by Arnolfo di Cambio, works by Michelangelo and Donatello, and Ghiberti’s original, awe-inspiring gilded baptistery doors.
Spend the day exploring the Palazzo Pitti, which is home to the Medici Apartments, the Palatine Gallery, the Treasury of the Grand Dukes, the Museum of Costume and Fashion and the Boboli Gardens. This massive Renaissance palace dominating the Oltrarno houses four museums and the gardens, so it pays to get here early and decide what you’re most interested in seeing ahead of time. The Museum of Costume and Fashion features painstakingly preserved Renaissance garments and innovative exhibits. History buffs won’t want to miss the palatial splendours of the Imperial and Royal Apartments, former residence of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany and the Savoys, who were sovereigns during Florence’s brief stint as the capital of Italy. Make sure you leave plenty of time to enjoy the lush, sculpture-filled wonderland of the surrounding Boboli Gardens.
Florence’s city hall, with its skyward-reaching signature tower, looks more like a castle from a Medieval fairytale than an active seat of local government.Step inside for a walk through Florentine history, which includes a visit to the Hall of the Five Hundred, which some believe houses hidden wall drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, the Hall of Lilies adorned with frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio, and the fascinating Hall of Geographical Maps. Climb the tower for stunning views overlooking the Arno River, and take time to wander through Piazza della Signoria afterwards. This square boasts the city’s most impressive fountain, the mammoth Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati and Giambologna, and the Loggia dei Lanzi, an outdoor sculptural wonderland.
Anyone who knows Florence knows that many of the city’s greatest treasures are found in its churches – first among them being Santa Croce. Home to the jaw-dropping frescoes of Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi, Vasari’s Last Supper and the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli, a stroll through the aisles here is like a walk through the fabled halls of Florentine history. In the basilica, you can also learn about the Florentine flood of 1966 – when the rapidly rising Arno River ravaged the city, severely damaging many precious artworks – and marvel at the painstaking restoration that followed. Enquire ahead about the fabulous and free volunteer-led tour in English (included in the entry ticket), and don’t forget to visit the scenic courtyard.
Though they may be small, the Medici Chapels are a mini-masterpiece. Pre-eminent merchants turned bankers and longtime rulers of Florence, the Medicis commissioned Michelangelo to build the New Sacristy in 1520 as a family tomb, connected to the family church, San Lorenzo. The adjoining Chapel of the Princes, built later by collaborative design, is an opulent marble and gemstone mausoleum symbolising the Medicis’ long and powerful legacy. The chapels and crypt house the remains of many of the Medici clan, including Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother Giuliano, and Cosimo the Elder, the first Medici ruler of Florence who was dubbed ‘Pater Patriae’, father of the country. Take time to linger at Michelangelo’s haunting statues of Dawn and Dusk and Night and Day.
One of the oldest buildings in Florence, this former courthouse-turned-prison-turned-museum merits a visit for its bizarre history and architecture alone. The Bargello’s imposing Medieval tower and crest-lined courtyard brim with the spirit of the tumultuous political and family rivalries that forged Florence. Today, the Bargello also houses the city’s best sculpture collection. Upstairs, you’ll find two very different bronze interpretations of David from Donatello and Verrocchio, as well Il Marzocco, Donatello’s famed lion symbolising the power, pride and independence of the Florentine Republic. You’ll also find glazed terracottas by the della Robbia family and a parade of important sculptures by Benvenuto Cellini, Giambologna and Michelangelo. The most striking of these is an unfinished figure that, despite its lack of completion, gives a glimpse of the mind and the hands of a master at work.
Most visitors come to this gallery for one reason and one reason only: to see Michelangelo’s magnum opus, David. Yes, the tickets are costly and the lines are long without a reservation, but it’s absolutely worth it. Originally commissioned for the Duomo, Michelangelo’s towering marble statue of the biblical hero has become an iconic symbol worldwide, synonymous with both Florence and the Renaissance. Standing at a staggering five metres (17 feet) and famously carved from a single ‘flawed’ slab of white Carrara marble, David is a timeless testament to Michelangelo’s enduring genius.
The tiny church of Santa Maria del Carmine in the Oltrarno is easy to overlook when planning your itinerary. However, inside lies the Brancacci Chapel, where you’ll find the handiwork of three famed Florentine 15th-century painters: Filippino Lippi and the master-apprentice duo of Masolino and Masaccio. Art students flock to the chapel, which has been called the Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance, to study the pioneering use of perspective, variations and evolution of style, colour palette and painting techniques of the era. History lovers can search the frescoes for the faces of important Florentine figures hidden in the crowds. Bear in mind that the chapel and church have separate entries. Plan ahead, as the chapel has varying hours and requires timed-ticket entry.
For a museum that’s a little out of the norm, head to Ferragamo. Hidden beneath the famed shoe designer’s signature shop on Via Tornabuoni, you’ll find a museum dedicated to the life and creative work of original proprietor, and shoemaker to the stars, Salvatore Ferragamo. Here, you can trace Ferragamo’s rise from young shoemaker in Naples, to a factory worker manufacturing cowboy boots in Boston, to Hollywood designer. When Ferragamo returned to Italy, he decided to open his namesake shop in Florence. These halls display his footwear as works of art, showing one-of-kind, custom-made heels from the 1920s-1950s created for starlets such as Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo and Audrey Hepburn alongside photos, sketches, models and tools for shoemaking. Themed exhibits showcase various rotating designs from the archive’s collection.