Florence is one of the most popular travel destinations in Italy, and very often it, along with Rome and Florence, makes up the itinerary for first-time visitors. One of the wealthiest cities during the Italian Renaissance, Florence is home to classical works of art, historic architecture and of course, natural beauty. And then there's the food.
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. Then there are interesting, picturesque streets and squares, elegant buildings and bridges, colorful markets and excellent shopping areas.
Florence's centro storico (historic center) is compact, flat and walkable—much of it is closed to cars, anyway. Here are the top 20 attractions in Florence, from its world-famous sites to some lesser-known discoveries.
01 of 20
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. Count the 44 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.
02 of 20
The Baptistery of John the Baptist, from the 11th century, is one of Florence's oldest buildings. 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. The originals are in the Duomo Museum.
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 their scenes from the Bible, plus the mosaics showing more Bible scenes on the dome in the interior make the Baptistery worth a visit all on its own.
03 of 20
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 are 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.
04 of 20
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.Continue to 5 of 20 below.
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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.
06 of 20
Galleria degli Uffizi
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.
Artists whose works you'll see include Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael. Having all these artists in one place means you'll want to allow plenty of time to fully appreciate all of them. The Uffizi is Italy's most crowded museum so it's a good idea to buy tickets ahead to avoid long ticket lines.
07 of 20
Florence's Galleria dell' Accademia holds important paintings and sculptures from the 13th to 16th centuries. Michelangelo's David, probably the most famous sculpture in the world, is here, as well as several other Michaelangelo sculptures. There are works by other important Renaissance artists as well, including Uccello, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli and del Sarto.
You'll also find an interesting collection of musical instruments here, which was started by the Medici family. In large part because of the popularity of David, it's a good idea to buy your tickets ahead of time.
08 of 20
Boboli Garden and Pitti Palace
Cross the Ponte Vecchio to the Giardino di Boboli, a huge park on a hillside in the middle of Florence behind the Pitti Palace and you'll find beautiful gardens and fountains and a great view of Florence from the Forte Belvedere.
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 eight different galleries, full of art, period costumes and jewelry, as well as the living quarters of its past inhabitants.Continue to 9 of 20 below.
09 of 20
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.
The vast interior contains some exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes, including one of Brunelleschi's most important works, the Cappella dei Pazzi.
10 of 20
Florence has some of the finest shopping in Europe, offering everything from leather goods and fine food to jewelry, souvenirs and fine art.
There are numerous open air markets selling food, clothing and antiques, including famed Piazza San Lorenzo area. The Mercato Nuovo (Porcellino) on Via Porta Rossa and the Mercato Centrale also are great places to find local fashions and delicacies.
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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.
12 of 20
National Museum of Bargello
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. You'll find fewer crowds at this museum than at other big museums in Florence, meaning you'll have a chance to really enjoy your visit and study the works of art in a peaceful environment.Continue to 13 of 20 below.
13 of 20
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 (see above) are here, as are exhibits of Duomo architect Brunelleschi’s plans and Renaissance-era tools used to build the Duomo.
14 of 20
Museo di San Marco
Visit the San Marco Monastery Museum to see the works of Fra Angelico, an Early Renaissance painter and monk. Fra Angelico lived at San Marco, a monastery where he painted several of his best-known frescoes on walls and in its humble cells. San Marco was also the monastery where the revolutionary monk Savonarola once lived, before he was executed on Piazza della Signoria. In the museum, you can visit his rooms, which contains several of his personal effects as well as a famous portrait painted by fellow monk Fra Bartolomeo.
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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 and by night, crowds from bars and restaurants spill out onto the main piazza and nearby sidewalks. The Basilica di Santo Spirito, rather plain from the outside, contains several important works of art.
16 of 20
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze
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.Continue to 17 of 20 below.
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Medici Chapels/Cappelle Medicee
Florence's ruling Medici family was known for their ruthless ambition and grandiosity, and this was true in death as in life. This elaborate mausoleum for the Medici dukes features enormous tombs with sculptures by Michelangelo. There's no place else in 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.
18 of 20
San Lorenzo Market
This large indoor and outdoor market has a lot of seemingly everything—from produce to clothing to leather goods to 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.
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Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Head here 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, soap 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.
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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 Gregorian chant. The interior is every bit as lovely as the green and white marble exterior, so do take the time to go in and look around.
Updated and expanded by Elizabeth Heath