Just across the Ponte Vecchio from the Duomo of Florence is Palazzo Pitti, now home to six different museums. The imposing, brown fortress-like palace was built in 1458 by Luca Pitti, a banker. It then sold to the Medici family in 1549. It became the home of Florence's ruling families who filled it with artwork, jewels, costumes and carriages. In 1919, it was formally given to the people of Italy.
While it is Florence's largest museum complex, it is not its most visited. The signage isn't great, the ticket window staff aren't terribly friendly and there's a steep, stone hill to climb toward the palace that is treacherous in the rain. Travelers accustomed to museums that are customer service oriented will have to change their expectations when visiting Palazzo Pitti. Yet the collections are outstanding and warrant a lifetime of visits. A little bit of patience will be greatly rewarded. I hope this guide will breakdown the mysteries of the Palazzo Pitti.
The Boboli Gardens are the most popular spot within the museum complex. You enter via the main entrance, but through a portico on the left hand side. Once you purchase your ticket, you'll pass through the courtyard of the Palazzo Pitti which then leads to acres of gardens. Begun in the Renaissance and continued to be enhanced through the 19th century, these are sculpted pleasure gardens where hedges, fountains and sculptures intertwine.
In a stone city that is not so kid-friendly, this is a great place to let them run and play. However, I do not recommend a visit for those who are mobility impaired or simply don't want to do a lot of walking that includes steep hills and stairs. I do recommend the Boboli Gardens to art students who can sit and sketch on the grounds all day long.
Inside the Palazzo is the Palatine Gallery which houses a collection of paintings that rivals the collection just across the Arno at the Uffizi. If you want to see famous Renaissance works of art without waiting on line, the Palatine Gallery should be first on your list. Paintings hang on the wall as they were when this was a private residence so you may want to purchase the audio tour. Otherwise, like a visit to the similarly curated Frick Collection in New York, it's fine to wander and take in works by Caravaggio, Giorgone, Raphael and Titian.
If Renaissance art is not your thing, well ... you might be pretty miserable in Florence. But inside the Palazzo Pitti is the Gallery of Modern Art. There you'll find an exquisite collection of paintings by artists called the Macchiaoli, the Italian faction of Impressionist painters. Not many of their works are exhibited outside of Italy and fans of Impressionism are sure to be amazed by their beauty.
One ticket gets you into both the Palatine Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art.
If it's high tourist season in Florence and you want to escape the crowds, consider a visit to the Museo degli Argenti (the Medici Treasury), the Porcelain Museum or the Costume Gallery, all of which are included in one ticket. These museums hold the opulent treasures of the later generations of the Medici family including jewelry, carriages, cameos and dresses.
The hours are for these museums are complicated and change throughout the year, so be sure to check online in advance of your visit.