Florence is one of the most popular travel destinations in Italy and is very often on the itinerary for first-time visitors along with Rome and Florence. One of the wealthiest cities during the Italian Renaissance, Florence is home to classical works of art, historic architecture, and of course, natural beauty as well as a rich history of culinary excellence.
This capital city of the Tuscany region has a large number of impressive sights and attractions, including some of Italy's best museums and its most beautiful cathedrals and churches. Along with its picturesque streets and squares, elegant buildings and bridges, colorful markets, and excellent shopping areas, you'll also find some of the best restaurants in the country in this thriving urban center.
Fortunately, Florence's centro storico (historic center) is compact, flat, and walkable. Meaning you'll be able to easily take in all of the city's top attractions—from its world-famous sites to some lesser-known discoveries.
Florence's most popular site is its Duomo (cathedral), the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the Duomo began in 1296, but it wasn't consecrated until 1436. Its exterior, made of green, pink, and white marble, has several elaborate doors and interesting statues.
Inside the cattedrale, there are dozens of paintings and sculptures of tremendous historical and cultural significance, so give yourself some time to take it all in. While you're there, try to count all 44 of the stained-glass windows designed by notable Renaissance artists such as Donatello, which depicts Jesus, Mary, and some of the saints.
The main attraction of this massive structure is Brunelleschi's Dome, a masterpiece of architecture and construction. You'll definitely want to buy a ticket to climb the 463 steps to its top.
Learn About the Construction of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
Set on Piazza del Duomo to the right of the church, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo houses many of the original works and blueprints from art and architecture related to Florence’s Duomo complex.
The original versions of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s panels for the Baptistery doors are here, as are exhibits of Duomo architect Brunelleschi’s plans and Renaissance-era tools used to build the Duomo.
The Baptistery of John the Baptist, from the 11th century, is one of Florence's oldest buildings. Located in both the Piazza San Giovanni and the Piazza del Duomo across from Florence Cathedral and the Campanile di Giotto, its exterior is made of green and white marble and has three sets of amazing bronze doors, the most famous of which are the "Gates of Paradise," designed by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti.
You can buy one ticket that allows you to visit all the attractions within the Duomo complex, including the Baptistery. However, the massive exterior doors with scenes from the Bible and the interior dome's mosaics that show even more Biblical depictions make the Baptistery worth a visit all on their own.
The Campanile (Italian for "bell tower") is also in the Piazza del Duomo. Principal architect Giotto di Bondone began work on the structure in 1334, and the lower level is commonly called Giotto's Campanile, even though he died before the structure was completed.
Inside the Campanile, you'll find intricately detailed relief carvings and sculptures as well as replicas of the 16 original life-sized statues created by artists such as Andrea Pisano and Donatello (the originals are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).
If you climb the 414 stairs (there's no elevator in this Gothic tower), you'll be rewarded not only with great views of the Cathedral and its dome but of Florence and the surrounding area.
Florence's most famous square is Piazza della Signoria, the heart of the historic center and a free open-air sculpture exhibit. The Loggia della Signoria holds some important statues, and a copy of Michelangelo's David stands on the square.
The piazza has been Florence's political center since the middle ages and is the site of both Florence's town hall and the medieval Palazzo Vecchio. Inside the Palazzo are elaborately decorated public rooms and private apartments that are open to tourists.
The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge), built in 1345, was Florence's first bridge across the Arno River and is the only surviving bridge from Florence's medieval days (others were destroyed in World War II).
The always-crowded Ponte Vecchio is still lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry. From the bridge, you'll have a great view of the Arno River and beyond.
Florence's Galleria dell' Accademia holds important paintings and sculptures from the 13th to 16th centuries.
Along with works by important Renaissance artists like Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and del Sarto, you'll also find one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Michelangelo's "David," at the Galleria dell' Accademia. There is also an interesting collection of musical instruments here, which was started by the Medici family.
It's generally a good idea to book your tickets ahead of time if you plan to stop by this popular destination; ticket lines to see the statue of David can be quite long. While admission is free, booking your ticket in advance online gives you access to a shorter line for ticket holders.
The Galleria degli Uffizi holds the world's most important collection of Renaissance art, as well as thousands of paintings from medieval to modern times and many antique sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestries.
Also known as the Uffizi Gallery, this famous institute houses the works of artist such as Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael. With all these artists in one place, allow plenty of time to fully appreciate all of their collected works, so set aside at least a few hours if you plan to visit.
The Uffizi is Italy's most crowded museum so it's a good idea to buy tickets ahead of time to avoid long ticket lines. The gallery also features free admission on the first Sunday of each month, but expect higher than normal crowd levels if you attend that day.
Across the Ponte Vecchio, you'll find the Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Garden), a huge park on a hillside in the middle of Florence. Located behind the Pitti Palace, with its beautiful gardens and fountains offer a great view of Florence from the Forte Belvedere, this famous park is great for a picnic before stopping into the palace for a tour of its many galleries.
The Palazzo Pitti, Florence's largest palace, was once the seat of the Medici family. Originally the home of a banker named Luca Pitti, this massive building houses the living quarters of its past inhabitants as well as eight different galleries that are full of art, period costumes, and jewelry.
Petti Palace is open for tours on Tuesdays through Fridays from 8:15 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. but is closed on Mondays as well as New Years and Christmas days. Tickets are required to explore the palace, but discounts are available if you combine your visit with other museums in Florence.
Santa Croce, in Piazza Santa Croce, is the largest Franciscan church in Italy and holds the tombs of several important Florentines including Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli. Additionally, the vast interior contains some exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes, including one of Brunelleschi's most important works, the Cappella dei Pazzi.
Families and individual guests can enter the complex of Santa Croce from Largo Bargellini, just around the corner from the Piazza Santa Croce, where you'll find the ticket booth. The complex is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. as well as on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligations from 2 to 5 p.m.
Florence has some of the finest shopping in Europe, offering everything from leather goods and fine food to jewelry, souvenirs, and fine art. Whether you want to visit a luxury retailer or high fashion boutique or explore some of the open-air markets selling local goods and antiques, there's plenty of ways to shop in Florence year round.
For open-air markets and antique sales, look around the famed Piazza San Lorenzo area, and across the Arno, Piazza Santo Spirito is the place to go for produce as well as vintage clothing, accessories, antiques, and pottery. Meanwhile, the Mercato Nuovo (Porcellino) on Via Porta Rossa and the Mercato Centrale also are great places to find local fashions and delicacies.
Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence is an outdoor terrace on the south (or left) bank of the River Arno. Its position high on a hillside above the Arno means visitors who make the climb (or take the bus) are rewarded with breathtaking views of the city.
The Piazzale is named after Michelangelo Buonarotti and is adorned with bronze copies of some of his most famous sculptures. The view at sunset, when the skyline of Florence is spread out before you, is one of the most unforgettable in Italy.
While you're waiting for the sunset, wander around Giardino delle Rose and Giardino dell'Iris on either side of Piazzale Michelangelo or head over to the Basilica di Santo Spirito, a residential district featuring dozens of cafes and restaurants.
Piazza Santo Spirito
This lively piazza and the Santo Spirito neighborhood that surrounds it form part of Florence's "Left Bank," a colorful, slightly bohemian area favored by local residents as well as visitors seeking a slice of authentic Florence.
By day there are produce vendors and interesting shops set up around the piazza, and by night, crowds from bars and restaurants spill out onto the main streets and nearby sidewalks.
The Basilica di Santo Spirito, rather plain from the outside, contains several important works of art and is open to the general public most days out of the year. Next door, you'll also find the Museo della Fondazione Romano, which houses "Cenacolo di Santo Spirito," a piece of art by Andrea Orcagna.
San Miniato al Monte Abbey
If you've made the climb to Piazzale Michelangelo, continue on another 10 minutes or so to the Abbey of San Miniato al Monte, a beautiful 11th-century abbey where, on most days at 5:30 pm, monks still observe a Gregorian chant. The interior is every bit as lovely as the green and white marble exterior, so take the time to go in and look around.
The 13th-century building that houses the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, or more simply "The Bargello," was once a police barracks and a prison. Today it's a sculpture and decorative arts museum with works from Michelangelo, Donatello, Verrocchio, and Giambologna.
Located in the historic Palazzo del Podestà and established in 1865 by royal decree, the National Museum of Bargello was Italy's first official national museum. You'll find fewer crowds at this museum than at other big museums in Florence.
For a bit of art history outside of Michaelangelo and the other famous Renaissance artists, visit the San Marco Monastery Museum to see the works of Fra Angelico, an Early Renaissance painter and monk, as well as the home of his predecessor, the revolutionary monk Savonarola.
Now open as a museum, San Marco Monastery was once the home of Fra Angelico, who painted several of his best-known frescoes on its walls and in its humble cells. Visit the rooms of both Savonarola and Fra Angelico, which contains several of their personal effects as well as a famous portrait of Savonarola painted by their fellow monk Fra Bartolomeo.
Florence's National Archaeological Museum houses collections of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian works of art, much of which was amassed by the Medici family.
The museum also has one of the best collections of Etruscan artifacts, including the priceless Chimera of Arezzo, an intact bronze statue of a mythological lion with a snake for a tail and a goat head protruding from its side.
Part of the Tuscany Museum Complex, admission is required to explore the National Archaeological Museum of Florence, but you can pair your entry with entry to other nearby museums for a discounted price.
Visit the Dead at the Medici Chapels (Cappelle Medicee)
Florence's ruling Medici family was known for their ruthless ambition and grandiosity, and this was as true in death as it was in life. Constructed to house the remains of several of the royal family, Cappelle Medicee is an elaborate mausoleum for the Medici dukes that features enormous tombs with sculptures by Michelangelo.
There's no place else in the world where you can observe the Renaissance master's work this close up, and the tomb sculptures, including allegories of Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk, are among his most contemplative works.
The museum is open year-round on Mondays to Sundays from 8:15 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. but is closed on the second and fourth Sunday of the month, on first, third and fifth Monday of the month, New Year's Day, May 1, and Christmas Day.
Browse the San Lorenzo Market
This large indoor and outdoor market has a lot of seemingly everything—from produce and clothing to leather goods and cheap souvenirs.
The outdoor portion of the market starts at Piazza San Lorenzo and offers hundreds of stalls packed with merchandise. The indoor market, or Mercato Centrale, is foodie heaven, with stalls selling locally-sourced produce, meats, and cheeses as well as a dining hall where you can pick out lunch or a snack from one of a dozen or so gourmet vendors.
Head to the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella for perhaps the most unique gifts—for yourself or friends back home—in all of Florence. Affiliated with Santa Maria Novella church, the Officina Profumo is one of the oldest apothecaries in the world and still makes perfumes, soaps, and elixirs according to centuries-old recipes developed by monks.
A trip to the Officina is part shopping spree and part museum visit, as the fancily packaged soaps, creams, and perfumes are as tempting as the ancient bottles and fixtures are interesting.