Today we’re continuing our Tuscany Adventures with a walking tour of Florence, Italy.
When I last visited Florence, I only had two full days in the city, but was still able to see a lot in a short amount of time. Florence is compact and very walkable. Most of the major sites are within half a mile or so of The Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore).
The only thing that will confuse your tour of Florence is the narrow and interweaving streets that are not on a grid. It is important to keep a mental record (and take pictures with your phone) of landmarks to help you remember how to get from point A to B.
A Walking Tour of Florence Italy…get your map here.
I used a DK map that come with my DK Eyewitness Guide to Florence and Tuscany and it helped me stay on track.
- Your Google Maps can be a guide, but it also can get confused by the narrow streets, bridges and other GPS mis-signals. We ended up wandering across the Ponte Vecchio Bridge when we need to be on the other side of the river because Google Maps got confused. Use it as a tool, but not your ultimate guide.
- Most people in Florence are happy to answer questions and help you if they can. I was impressed by how friendly and welcoming the city is.
Pro-tip: When on a walking tour, I recommend investing in a good front-pack or fanny pack (I love the fanny pack – who cares if it screams tourist) because this ensures you see your purse/gear in front of you at all times and makes it easy to grab your camera. Many museums ask that you put your pack in front to avoid hitting paintings/statues so investing in a Kavu, Eagle Creek or Osprey Bag is worth it. I use Osprey and it is light and easy to carry.
- While Florence is safe there are certain areas where professional pickpockets target tourists so have bag in front of your helps guard your stuff.
Shopping from street vendors: The area around San Lorenzo has an abundance of shops and street vendors, but as our local guide pointed out:
- Make sure to ask for a receipt as you may been to show it within 100 or so yards of the stall. This is to ensure that there is no black market sales.
- Only purchase from certified street vendors. Some will walk up to you on the street and peddle but are not tied to a licensed booth – DON’T BUY from them.
- Store the price is usually set, but with street vendors you can haggle a bit. The first price is usually over the top and you can bargain down a bit. For more tips click here.
What to wear: Italians love fashion, but don’t compromise comfort on your walking tour to wear those high heel stilettos you just bought at Gucci. Instead invest in comfortable walking boots or running shoes (I love Brooks because I have high arches). Your feet will thank you.
- Make sure to layer, especially in the winter months. In January it went from a biting wind chilled morning to a mild fifty-five degrees with sun by lunch.
- Also be respectful that when entering churches, especially in the summer you need to have your arms covered. You are stepping into HOLY Ground after all.
So are we ready to start our walking tour? I’ll cover some highlights today and then we’ll do in-depth tours of specific sites in future posts…
When I was in Florence we stayed near San Lorenzo Church and The Mercato…it is a central spot and a good start to our virtual walking tour.
If you are in need of coffee or breakfast – step into The Mercato Centrale – where on the bottom level you’ll be able to purchase the finest in food, wine, olive oil, fresh fruit, meats and more…the second level is a world-class food hall with countless restaurant stalls serving every Florentine and Italian delight you can imagine.
- We ate lunch there and honestly it was amazing but overwhelming. As a foodie I needed time to digest this culinary heaven and the crowds were so busy I found myself just getting a gelato. I personally recommend visiting at an off time so you can enjoy all Il Mercato has to offer.
- Church of San Lorenzo: We’ve indulged in an espresso and croissant filled with pistachio at Il Mercato…we’re going to walk through the drag of street vendors towards The Church of San Lorenzo.
- This is one of the oldest church foundations in Florence – with roots to the 390s. It has been added on and remodeled many times, with the latest rendering by none over than the master architect of the nearby Duomo, Filippino Brunelleschi.
- Brunelleschi is truly a Father of the Renaissance – he was the first to document the discover of linear perspective that changed art and architecture forever. Learn more here on a feature I wrote on Art Expeditions.
- Brunelleschi was commissioned to rennovate/rebuild San Lorenzo in 1419, but lack of funds and other hiccups slowed the construction and shifted the original design. In 1442, The Medici Family stepped in to fund the project. Brunelleschi died in 1446, but his successors Manetti and Michelozzo followed his vision.
- It was initially completed by 1459
- San Lorenzo was the family church of the powerful Medici Family. The Medici were deeply religious (for the most part, with a few wanderers) in spite of their work in banking, which was frowned upon as usury by the church. They funded many church projects to both help the church and show that banking wealth could be used for good (and power too)
- The Medici Family are mostly buried in this church
- Interior decoration features works by Donatello and Michelangelo, Fra Filippo Lippi (altar piece – Anunciation), Verrochio (teacher of Leonardo Da Vinci), Bronzino and others
- The facade seems a bit plain but is magnificent inside.
2. Nearby, across the street a few doors down, you’ll see a massive building called The Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. This was the original palace of The Medici and seat of their power until they moved across the Arno River (Oltrarno) to the Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace).
- The Medici lost the palace temporarily during a power shift, but eventually regained it. They then sold the palace to the Riccardi family, who eventually sold it to the state of Italy and it is now an awesome museum.
- During the Medici’s life in the palace they filled these halls with great art including Donatello’s David!
- If you have time book a tour here – they often have great exhibitions.
3. The Duomo, Baptistery and Giotto’s Tower
This is arguably the highlight of Florence and the center of the city’s spiritual and social life for over 1000 years.
We’ll be exploring The Duomo, Baptistery and Tower soon, but here are some fast facts:
Baptistery: The Baptistery is right beside the Duomo and Giotto’s Tower. It is one of the oldest buildings in Florence completed in 1128 AD in Romanesque Style. It has an octagonal shape and unique colors of marble that are also repeated in Giotto’s Tower and The Duomo.
- Today we think of getting baptized in the church, but originally most baptisms took place in a separate building called the baptistery and you couldn’t enter the church until you were baptized. It is said that to be a true Florentine you much be baptized in The Baptistery of St. John
- St. John the Baptist is the Patron Saint of Florence
- Why this baptistery is so important is it’s role in the beginnings of The Renaissance.
- In 1401 a competition was announced to create a new set of doors to the east side of The Baptistery. The competition called for a sample – The Sacrifice of Isaac. Four finalists were in contention, but Ghiberti won – although they also asked Brunelleschi (he was tied for first place) to help. Brunelleschi didn’t want to work with Ghiberti and so it goes that Ghiberti created these ‘Gates of Paradise’ doors…it took 21 years to complete and along with works by Masaccio (painter) and Brunelleschi was one of the first to use linear perspective and launched The Renaissance.
- I recently featured artist and architect Giotto on my Art Expeditions blog (read here)
- Every major city needed a campanile (bell tower) to warn of attack and announce it was time for Mass (church) – Giotto’s is masterful in design and as the Florentine’s like to say – “it was built straight and doesn’t lean like Pisa.” Italians have a fierce and friendly competition.
- The Duomo (Officially known as Cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore) was initially planned in 1293 as a grand project to rival all of the cathedrals in Europe (especially their rival city-states of Pisa and Siena – oh competition is a human condition). Florentines thought big and wanted to do something different than the more common Gothic and Romanesque style Cathedrals. They wanted to have a large domed cathedral that was unlike any being built at the time.
- The problem – they didn’t have the technology. After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, much of the knowledge of Roman engineering was lost. Not simply because it was a ‘dark age,’ but the blueprints and resources that were available were literally destroyed by the Barbarian invasions and when the masters who had that knowledge were dispersed and died out, it was lost.
- The Renaissance in a sense was rediscovering not only Classical Ideals but also engineering and technological foundations that were lost in the collapse of Western Rome.
- They started building the in early 1300s until direction of Arnolfo Cambio who created a Domed design, but they didn’t known how to finish it. So they build the church, but the area for the dome’s roof was exposed for years. It took over 140 years to finish the project…and only when
- Filippo Brunelleschi figured out a way to build the dome, which is still an engineering marvel today
- The Florence Duomo has over 4 million bricks and is the largest brick dome in the world.
4. Piazza della Repubblica and Orsanmichele…
We’re going to walk down Via Roma (road) towards the fairly modern (19th-century) Piazza della Repubblica, which for a time was the seat of government when Florence was briefly the capital of Italy in the late 1800s. Today this area is a fun square with a carousel, and lots of good restaurants and cafes. There is even The Apple Store, which I wonder what Leonardo Da Vinci would think of…
Not far is a unique and beautiful church museum, Orsanmichele. This actually used to be a grainery (storage for grain and goods) until a miracle by The Blessed Mother happened there and it was converted to a church. It was rebuilt partially in 1404 and features works by Donatello and others. Some of the works like St. George that line the exterior are copies (exact) (This St. George is in The Bargello Museum). You can tour the museum to see famous statues and learn about this interesting church history.
5. Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria
The original heart and soul of The Republic of Florence. The Piazza is known for its massive statues including a copy of David.
- The original David stood here until it was moved to the Accademia Galleria in 1873 to protect it from the elements. The statue of David is a sign of The Republican ideals of Florence and as a protector of the city. Ironically a towering fountain statue of Neptune modeled after Lorenzo de Medici is right nearby (Amanatti Neptune’s Foundation 1563-65)
- The Piazza has a multitude of famous statues including:
- Cellini’s Perseus which was commissioned by The Medici
- Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus (1534)
- Giambologna – Rape of the Sabine Women (1583)
- So many more
6. The Uffizi – The Art Gallery of The Renaissance
As an art historian and painter The Uffizi was a piece of heaven on earth for me and really deserves a full day if you enjoy art…but regardless of your art background there is something amazing to discover at The Uffizi.
- The Uffizi means ‘offices’ in Italian as these were the official government offices of The Medici…
- The collection is the most comprehensive of Renaissance art in the world with masterpieces by
- Lippi (father and son)
- Leonardo Da Vinci
- Carvaggio (Baroque era) and so much more!!!
- Pro-tip: Beat the line and purchase ‘skip the line’ tickets in advance from The Uffizi website, or I recommend searching Viator or another tour site for a guided tour of The Uffizi with an Art Historian.
- They do offer an audio guide on your phone as well.
7. The Ponte Vecchio: Just outside The Uffizi, you’ll meet The Arno River and the Old Bridge (Ponte Vecchio) which is medieval and filled with history.
It is one of the only bridges to survive The Nazi’s destruction of bridges across The Arno as they retreated from Allied troops. It is said it survived because Hitler himself stayed in a suite in the Bridge (area of Medici apartments). It is a reminder of the resilience of Florence and the hardships of war.
Choose your own adventure: At this point you can cross The Arno and tour the Pitti Palace (second home and estate of The Medici) with The Palatine Galleries (featuring masterworks by Titian and others) and Boboli Gardens or…you can stick on the ‘Duomo’ side.
8. Santa Croce: This is a bit out of the way, but walk along the Arno (left facing the River from Uffizi side) and walk to the Via de’ Benci – you can follow your map to this gorgeous church that houses works by Giotto and others. Learn more here.
I’m starting to get hungry for a snack – you? Let’s meander the side streets past Michelangelo’s House (Casa Buonarroti) and west then a few streets across to Florence’s oldest gelateria – Vivoli. Indulge in this sweet and irrestible Florentine treat.
9. Bargello: Not far you’ll see looming tower that is The Bargello Museum. This once served as a prison and headquarters for The Captain of the Guard. Today it is the National Museum of Sculpture in Italy.
- See Donatello’s Bronze David – the first semi-nude sculpture since antiquity
If you are hungry for more than gelato – there are tons of local restaurants lining the streets – enjoy pasta, pizza and an Aperol Spritz or glass of Chianti
10. Accademia: We’re going to walk about fifteen minutes to The Accademia Galeria, which is home to the most famous sculpture in the world – Michelangelo’s David.
- Make sure to order ‘skip the line’ tickets – or better yet take a guided tour to learn about the artistry of David and other gallery pieces
- This museum also features other works by Michelangelo as well as St. Ceceilia, Masaccio, Botticelli and more.
11. San Marco: Discover the beautiful frescoes of Fra Angelico and the fiery history of controversial preacher Savonarola here.
12. End your day with a delicious Florentine meal – I recommend the steak.
You can break this up into multiple days, but hopefully gives you a good intro to Florence…there is so much to see in this glorious city.
Until next time arrivederci and don’t forget to subscribe for updates
We are also on facebook.