Whenever I think of Florence, I like to remember my favorite scene in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. When the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, first enters the Basilica of Santa Croce without a guidebook, she feels lost and alone.
Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and trancepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.
Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.
We should all be more like Lucy when we’re in Florence—that most intimidating of cities. As her companion, the outspoken Miss Lavish says, the “true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”
With that in mind, put the guidebooks aside. “Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”
An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:
Walk in Lucy’s footsteps and visit the Basilica of Santa Croce
The colorful marble stripes on the front of this Franciscan church may be Victorian—described by Forster as a “black-and-white façade of surpassing ugliness”—but the interior dates to the dawn of the Renaissance. There are frescoes by Giotto and Gaddi, as well as tombs and cenotaphs dedicated to many great Italian men, including:
- Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer;
- Dante Alighieri, known for his Divine Comedy;
- Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince; and
- Michelangelo Buonarroti, the renowned sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, who designed the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, created the iconographic statue of David before his battle with Goliath, and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Take your time to wander about Santa Croce, then be sure to see the wonderful church museum that’s adjacent, just through the cloisters.
LOCATION: Piazza Santa Croce, 16
HOURS: Monday-Saturday, 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM; Sundays and Holy Days, 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM
COST: Full price ticket, €6; reduced price ticket for children, €4
RULES: Appropriate dress; photography is permitted without a flash, no tripods
WEBSITE: Basilica di Santa Croce
Shop for leather goods at the venerable Scuola del Cuoio
Florence is justifiably famous for its leather. You can shop the San Lorenzo street market* for fun and inexpensive items of questionable origin, or visit any number of the high quality boutiques in town, including Madova, Roberta, Peruzzi, and Frizzoni, but my own personal favorite is the Scuola del Cuoio. Their products—ranging from belts and wallets to stunning purses—are meticulously handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including deer, ostrich, python, and alligator. For a memorable experience, you can also visit the workshop and watch as an artisan monograms your purchase in gold or silver leaf.
* Update: As of January 2014, the San Lorenzo street market has been indefinitely moved to Piazza del Mercato Centrale and its surrounding streets.
LOCATION: Enter through the Basilica di Santa Croce, or through the garden that surrounds the apse, at Via San Giuseppe, 5r.
HOURS: Fall/Winter, Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Saturday, 10:30 AM – 6:00 PM; Spring/Summer, Daily 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM.
WEBSITE: Scuola del Cuoio
Cross the Ponte Vecchio and explore the antique galleries and artisan shops of the Oltrarno
The name “Oltrarno” simply means the “other side of the Arno.” From sculptors and wood carvers to gilders, bookbinders and goldsmiths, the small shops you’ll find along the maze of streets between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Santo Spirito may seem a world away from the hoards that congregate in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, but getting there requires nothing more than an easy walk across one of Florence’s beautiful bridges.
While the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie were both destroyed by the Nazis near the end of World War II and later rebuilt, the Ponte Vecchio—or “Old Bridge,” in the middle—was spared. Like Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome, the Ponte Vecchio is an iconographic symbol of Florence.
Before you cross the bridge to the Oltrarno, be sure to stand back along the riverbank to admire the shops that hang pell-mell from the sides. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests.
GETTING THERE: Explore the area on your own (The New York Times and National Geographic both offer useful itineraries), or book a walking tour with a guide.
NOTE: For a full day, combine a stroll about the Oltrarno with a visit to the Pitti Palace or the Boboli Gardens, or even late afternoon vespers at the church of San Miniato al Monte (see #4 below).
WEBSITE: Welcome to Oltrarno
Climb Giotto’s bell tower for a breathtaking view of the city
Getting to the top of the cathedral’s campanile in Florence requires 414 steps, but the view overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs more than makes up for the effort. You can see San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno. Best of all, Giotto’s bell tower will give you an unparalleled look at Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous dome.
If you make it to the top and back, be sure to reward yourself with a few scoops of gelato. The delicious Grom is nearby, on Via del Campanile, at the corner of Via delle Oche.
LOCATION: Piazza del Duomo. Enter via the stairs in the nave of the cathedral, or outside on the south side of the cathedral
NOTE: There is no elevator. Visitors must climb 414 steps to reach to the top of the bell tower, but unlike the trek to the dome, the staircase is wide and headroom is ample, making it a better choice for those who are claustrophobic.
HOURS: Daily, 8:30 AM – 7:30 PM
COST: €6, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available
WEBSITE: Museo del Duomo
See the Gates of Paradise and glimpse the fiery pits of Hell at the cathedral’s baptistery
Michelangelo once called Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the baptistery doors the “Gates of Paradise.” Here in Piazza del Duomo, those panels, which depict scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible, are reproductions of the originals that were installed in 1452, but they are stunning nonetheless.
Inside the baptistery, the scene is somewhat different. The lush ceiling mosaic depicts a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched and a choir of angels overhead, but what you’ll notice most is a disturbing image of “The Last Judgment.” Look carefully and you’ll see Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner, while others meet an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles.
If you save your visit for a sunny day, you’ll also see rays of sunshine slanting through the room’s narrow windows. When the gold leaf on the glass tiles capture the light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.
LOCATION: Piazza del Duomo
NOTE: Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors can be seen nearby at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
HOURS: Monday – Saturday, 12:15 PM – 7:00 PM; Sunday and the first Saturday of the month, 8:30 AM – 2:00 PM
COST: €4, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available
WEBSITE: Museo del Duomo
Museums, museums, museums!
It’s hard to think of a city with more enticing museums than Florence.
You can see Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, compare Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia to Donatello’s David at the Bargello, marvel at the world’s largest collection of artists’ self portraits in the Vasari Corridor, stand before Benozzo Gozzoli’s stunning frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the San Marco monastery, or indulge in the splendors of the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio.
There is never time enough to visit museums in Florence, but be sure to wile away the hours at one—if not all—of these:
- The Uffizi Gallery and Vasari Corridor
- Galleria dell’Accademia
- Museo Nazionale del Bargello
- Museo di Palazzo Vecchio
- Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
- Palazzo Pitti
- Cappella dei Brancacci
- Cappella dei Magi, Palazzo Medici Riccardi
- Museo di San Marco
- Palazzo Davanzati
COST: Admission fees for individual museums vary, but consider buying a Firenze Card which provides queue jumping access to 60 different churches, museums, and historical sites at a cost of €72. The card, which is valid for 72 hours, also includes public transportation, use of the city’s wifi network, and dedicated Android iPhone, and iPad apps with built in GPS. Another option is the Amici degli Uffizi pass, which costs €60, but is valid until the end of the year. For useful tips on which to buy and why, click here.
Hear Benedictine monks sing in Georgian chant at the church of San Miniato al Monte
The basilica of San Miniato al Monte is a beautiful Romanesque church in its own right. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, it has a long, graceful nave and an adjoining cloister and cemetery. But once you’ve visited the grounds thoroughly, consider staying for vespers, an evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic church during which the local Benedictine monks sing in Gregorian chant. It can be a wonderfully serene moment in an otherwise intense and overwhelming city.
LOCATION: Via delle Porte Sante, 34
TIME: On Sundays and Feast days, the monks accompany Mass with Gregorian chant at 10:00 AM and 5:30 PM in the crypt. In the summer, Gregorian chant also takes place during vespers at 5:30 PM on weekdays.
NOTE: If you go, please—I beg you—be polite enough to stay through the entire service. There is nothing worse than a tourist who drops by, only to wander out a few minutes later.
COST: Free, but a small donation to the church is a welcome gesture
WEBSITE: Basilica di San Miniato al Monte
Rub the snout of Il Porcellino for good luck and a future return to Florence
Il Porcellino is the statue of a wild boar located under the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo, near Piazza della Signoria. Legend has it that if you place a coin in his mouth and allow it to fall into the grating below, it will bring good luck. And if you rub his snout, you will ensure your return to Florence someday. Needless to say, it’s been polished to a brilliant shine by thousands of tourists.
I’ve visited the little piglet myself on the final night of each of my trips to Florence, and I know it works because I always come back.
LOCATION: Piazza del Mercato Nuovo
COST: Free, aside from the coin you use for luck! The proceeds are collected and distributed to local charities.
Stop and listen to a street musician
From Italian pop to accordions and classical guitar, it seems that there’s always live music on the streets of Florence, especially in the evenings on the Ponte Vecchio, and in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica.
Stop, listen, enjoy. It’s free.
And if you like what you hear, tip them a Euro or two. Or better yet, buy their CD to bring those lovely Italian memories home. Listening to Claudio Spadi sing “A te” or “Acquarello” in the middle of a cold, Vermont winter always brings a smile to my face.
WHERE: In the summer, you can usually find local musicians on the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Repubblica, and often in Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Croce, and Piazza Santo Spirito.
WHO: My personal favorites? Here are some videos of performances by Claudio Spadi and Luca Sciortino, Justyna Maria Janiczak, and Piotr Tomaszewski
Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo
The panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, high on a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, is magnificent. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow, and like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.
To see the city at its best, go in the evening and stay for the sunset. It’s a sight you’ll long remember.
LOCATION: Viale Michelangelo
GETTING THERE: Aside from a taxi or rental car, there are three options for getting to Piazzale Michelangelo:
1) Walk along the banks of the Oltrarno to the footpath that winds up the hill. Please note that there are many stairs and they are steep;
2) Take the number 12 bus from Santa Maria Novella train station; or
3) Reserve a sunset limousine tour with a company such as I Just Drive, which costs €18 per person and requires a minimum of four people.
Where to stay when in Florence
My personal choice is always the Hotel Davanzati at Via Porta Rossa, 5, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.
A Photo Gallery of Florence