Things to Do in Florence
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Built in 1564, the Vasari Corridor was designed to enable the Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici to move between the Pitti Palace where he lived, the Uffizi where he had his offices, and on to the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine government. Almost one kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) long, the elevated corridor passes overhead from the Uffizi, across the Arno River over the top of the shops lining the Ponte Vecchio, through the church of Santa Felicita until it reaches the Palazzo Pitti.
Built in just five months, Vasari Corridor was a major feat of both architecture and civic power.
The Vasari Corridor is lined with self-portraits by artists, nearly 1,000 paintings, dating from the 16th century. Access to the corridor is only by guided tour.
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.
More Things to Do in Florence
One of the grandest sweeps of architecture in Florence, the Pitti Palace was built in the 15th century. Its gallery includes a huge collection of paintings dating from the 15th to 17th century, and occupying the whole left wing of the first floor, one of the most significant groups of works is by Titian and Raphael. You’ll also see important works by Rubens, including the Four Philosophers and the Allegory of War, and pieces by Caravaggio and Velazquez. In fact, there are over 500 works on show in all.
And it’s not just canvases that you’ll see; the Palatine Gallery is also known for its frescoes. Laid out according to the personal tastes of its collectors from the House of Medici, rather than by painting school or by chronological order, the gallery has been open to visitors since the day Leopold I of Lorraine opened it back in 1828. There is also a cafe in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace.
Florence's most famous and popular market is the aptly named Mercato Centrale – but it's by no means the only market in the city. Another ideal spot to pick up picnic supplies, see what's fresh before you browse local menus or simply enjoy the colors of an Italian food market is the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio (Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio).
Also known as the Sant'Ambrogio Market, the site is home to stalls that sell many of the same sorts of items seen at the Mercato Centrale – fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, fish, cheese, spices and other sundry pantry essentials. In a couple areas of the market, you'll also find vendors selling clothing and household items.
Because the Mercato Centrale is the more famous market, the Mercato Alimentare Sant'Ambrogio offers a slightly less touristy experience. It's in the historic center, so it's unlikely to be tourist-free, but you may find more locals than visitors browsing here.
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.
Despite the name, Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has nothing to do with opera music - “opera” also being the Italian word for creative works, in this case the artwork that was once inside the cathedral.
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is located conveniently right behind the Duomo, for which most of its collection was originally created. Inside you’ll see an unfinished Michelangelo pieta that he had apparently started as a piece to decorate his own tomb. He was later so unhappy with it that he broke it, but it was later put back together by a new owner. The face of Nicodemus is said to be a self-portrait of the sculptor.
Other highlights of the museum collection are Ghiberti’s original bronze panels from Florence’s Baptistery. The doors you see on the Baptistery today are excellent reproductions, but the originals are kept in air-tight containers to prevent further damage.
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.
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.
Behind the massive Pitti Palace lies the enormous Boboli Gardens - both were once the private domain of Florence’s ruling Medici family, but today they’re both open to the public. The Boboli Gardens are not only typical of formal Italian gardens of the 16th century - they’re actually some of the earliest examples of the style. Along with the manicured lawns, blooming plants, and fountains that you’d expect from a garden, these also have a fine collection of 16th-18th century sculptures on display in different parts of the grounds. The Boboli Gardens were originally started for the wife of Cosimo I de Medici in the 1540s, and were added to later in the 16th century and again in the 17th century. Notable features include tree-lined pathways, sculpture-filled grottos, and an amphitheater with an Egyptian obelisk at its center.
With its massive dome patterned in colorful designs, the Great Synagogue is an architectural marvel and significant synagogue of Italy. Historically Florence has always had a small Jewish community, with the first synagogue dating back to the 13th century. The Great Synagogue, however, was constructed from 1874 to 1882 financed by a local Jewish citizen who sought out to create a synagogue with beauty that would rival the other structures of Florence. Today it is still one of the largest in Europe. There is also a small Jewish museum with relics on display.
The synagogue features influences from both Italian and Islamic traditions. Its oxidized bright green copper roof makes the dome stand out in the city skyline. The interior features striking alternating layers of granite and travertine, with three large arches framing the entrance. Many draw comparisons in style to the Hagia Sofia of Istanbul.
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