I have visited many beautiful Italian cities, each one with it’s own charm and importance, however it wasn’t until this summer when I stepped foot into Florence, that I was captivated by the city. For those who do not know (yet), I am very passionate about history – I simply love to learn about the olden days, and walk in the footsteps of scholars, painters, warriors and queens.
Florence, has been described many things, by countless travellers – for me, it is a bridge to the past. At first sight, the city is like any other metropolis, huge, dirty and filled with tourists due to the summer season; yet once you look beneath the first most obvious layer – you will unravel the city’s essence. There are very few skyscrapers and modern looking buildings, rather history is preserved in the facades and buildings, as it once was. A maze of narrow cobble stoned streets, lead you through traditional trattorie, boutiques and galleries before meeting in an open piazza (square) – all scattered throughout the vast city; each street telling its own tale.
Florence’s history dates back to 59 BC when the Romans discovered this beautiful valley next to the Arno River and called it “Florentia” meaning “flourishing city’. Centuries of influences have passed through the new city, however it was the affluent family of bankers, the Medici, who have truly shaped Florence by inspiring the Renaissance period, through their love of art and progress.
This post highlights the historical sights my family and I visited, and I have spared no details, so this post may seem lengthy! Our hotel “Grand Hotel Adriatico” was very conveniently located only 5 minutes away from San Lorenzo Square and the Cathedral, so let’s start there 🙂
PIAZZA SAN LORENZO
This lively square lies only a few steps away from the majestic Cathedral, and encircles the Basilica di San Lorenzo with the library of the Medici family which holds an incredible collection of writing across the decades. The square is surrounded by cafe’s and hotels as well as hosts a market called “Mercato di San Lorenzo” where craftsmen display and sell their handmade products.
PIAZZA DEL DUOMO
The Piazza del Duomo complex holds 3 significant historical components to Florentine’s history including: Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, the Baptistery and Giotto’s bell tower. The impressive Cathedral is the 4th largest in the world and took over 200 years to fully complete. I was absolutely starry eyed as I admired the intricate details of the facade, and wondered, how men in that time period could create such a masterpiece with basic tools. 3 different colours of marble from Carrara (white), Siena (red) and Prato (green) were used to design the facade using vertical and horizontal bands. The “Cupola” (dome) which encapuslates the Cathedral was added 100 years after the initial building, by the genius architect, Filipo Brunelleschi. Inside, an incredible fresco depicting Judgement Day by Giorgio Vasari, stands tall over the visitors.
The Baptistery of St. John, is one of the oldest in the city and many notable members were baptized there, including the Medici family and Dante Alighieri. Massive in size, its facade displays impressive and intricate designs utilizing the 3 coloured marbles from Carrara, Prato and Siena (like the Cathedral). Renaissance architect Andrea Pisano built 3 gorgeous bronze doors in 1330 which portray stories of St. John the Baptist’s life.
Giotto’s bell tower completes the UNESCO protected piazza, stands 84.7 metres tall and has 7 large bells with the smallest weighting 237 kg and largest 5,385 kg. The architect Giotto was commissioned to design the tower and used the same pattern and marble as was used in the Cathedral and Baptistery. Visitors can enjoy spectacular views from the tower after climbing 400 steps to the top.
SANTA MARIA NOVELLA CHURCH
The church dedicated to Santa Maria Novella is located in the same name square “Santa Maria Novella Piazza” – and is one of the most important Gothic style churches in Tuscany, holding countless precious frescoes. The peaceful piazza is surrounded by hotels with rooftop terraces, offering a spectacular view while enjoying an aperitivo. In the evenings, local musicians and entertainers serenade the crowds, and we enjoyed the light music from a nearby gelato shop.
The “Palazzo Vecchio” (Old Palace) represents 3 historical eras with its Roman ruins, medieval furnishings and Renaissance art, and takes visitors on a time travel to the past. The Medici family have turned the Palazzo into their residence and commissioned the most brilliant artists to lavishly transform it’s walls. Every single floor served a purpose whether it was intended for guests, family or state affairs such as the grandiose “Salone dei Cinquecento” (hall of 500) – covered with beautiful art by Giorgio Vasari. Paintings on the left side of the wall depict stories of the Battle of Pisa while paintings on the right reminisce the Battle of Siena. The entire ceiling is also laced with paintings commemorating historical events and people – and each room had the official family crest of the Medici family. I was also very impressed to visit the Hall of Maps which displays maps painted in leather from around the world during 1563, (placed on wardrobes where important documents were kept), surrounding a large leather globe. The design of the room was intended to reflect not only world maps, but also paintings of the different plants and animals from each region, while a constellation of stars cover the ceiling – reflecting the cosmos. Sadly, this project was never fully completed as the artist Giorgio Vasari passed away and it was unfinished. This room also has a hidden passage leading to a chamber where leaders could directly witness what happened in the “Salone dei Cinquecento”. I was absolutely astounded by how much precious art is displayed in the Palazzo and marvelled at how much vision the Renaissance painters had to transform such a project into reality. Visitors can also climb the top of the tower (416 steps) to enjoy stunning views of the city from the museum.
PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA
One of my favourite places in the city, the Piazza della Signoria, was the centre of political and social life in Renaissance Florence. It is surrounded by a plethora of historical landmarks such as the “Palazzo Vecchio” (Old Palace), Uffizi Gallery, Loggia dei Lanzi (open sculpture gallery), and beautiful sculptures which represented key historical and political events. Apart from the fact that it breathes history, the piazza is filled with cafes, restaurants, gelaterie, and is a great place to enjoy summer nights. We feasted on Tuscan classics at Il Bargello Ristorante, while listening to an open air orchestra perform classics under the stars.
Located right next to the Palazzo Vecchio is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most precious art galleries, holding some of the world’s most renowned works. It resembles a treasure map initially as we climbed 2 flights of untouched Renaissance stairs until we caught a glimpse of the frescoes. The Medici’s family architect, Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to design this impressive building to serve as the offices of the Florentine Republic. The Uffizi is an art lover’s paradise, and one visit is simply NOT enough to soak in all the precious works, or to learn truly about their hidden meanings. The gallery beautifully portrays art chronologically so that visitors can understand the transition of the different art periods. While I do love and appreciate art, I have never truly taken enough time to learn about the details which the artists portray … until I laid eyes on Sandro Botticelli’s ” La Primavera” (Spring) and “Birth of Venus”. His skillful use of colour, tiny details, elegant figurines, and portrayal of motion are true masterpieces.
The other fascinating sight is Giorgio Vasari’s famous corridor which leads from the Uffizi through the top of the “Ponte Vecchio” (Old Bridge) to the “Palazzo Pitti” – the Medici’s residence across the Arno River. The link which served as a means for the Medici family to move freely between the city and their residence without any escort, is 1 km long and took only 6 months to complete.
“Ponte Vecchio” or “Old Bridge” is one of the most characteristic bridges I have ever crossed. Rather than being decorated with sculptures, this bridge is filled with merchant shops, selling mainly jewelry and fine leather. Since the 13th century, the bridge was filled with shops, however nothing fine and sparkling like today, rather, served as butcheries and tanneries, with all the waste being discarded into the Arno River ( I am certain you can imagine what kind of stench that caused). It was the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand I de Medici who ordered a decree in the late 1500’s that only goldsmiths and jewelers were allowed to have shops on the bridge, in order to improve the overall well-being of all who crossed the bridge.
BASILICA OF SANTA CROCE
One of the most impressive churches in the city, is the “Santa Croce” (Holy Cross) which holds precious frescoes and is the final resting place for many notable people including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. It also has a memorial to the famous poet Dante Alighieri who published “Divine Comedy” in a dialect all Italians could understand (from Latin), and is regarded as the “Shakespeare of Italy”. The church is located in Piazza Santa Croce, one of Florence’s largest piazzas, popular among all ages to relax with a good book, or catch up with friends over an aperitivo.
GIARDINO DI BOBOLI (BOBOLI GARDENS)
A wonderful place to truly admire the city views is just across the Arno River at Boboli Gardens, located on the grounds of the Medici’s Pitti Palace. Dotted with centuries old vegetation and offering a sancturary from the hot Florentine sun, the gardens were a prototype of green architecture and inspired many Royal European garden landscaping, including Versailles. From the courtyard behind Pitti Palace, staircases lead up high above the city through the amphitheatre style landscape, filled with sculptures and fountains including an original Obelisk from Luxor and the famous Neptune’s Fountain. The climb up is rather challenging on a hot day, however the view from above, is breathtaking and offers perfect views of Florence. Higher above, we climbed winding staircases to visit the Museum of Porcelain – the Medici’s impressive collection, preserved through time. From this point, a 360 degree bird’s eye view of the entire city is at your feet with Florence on one side, and rolling hills, filled with Cyprus and olive trees, forming the lavish Tuscan scenery on the other.
There are so many more beautiful historical sights to be visited in Florence such as the Gallery of the Art’s Academy – home to Michellangelo’s “David”, which I simply was not able to visit in the short span of my 5 day trip. I have however, marvelled at the world’s most prized art pieces, delighted in a bridge to the past, and walked in the footsteps of maestros- I can’t describe Florence in any way other than, simply magnificent.
- Grand Adriatico Hotel – excellent location and service
- Visit Florence – perfect research before visiting
- Visit a City (Florence) – great for planning itineraries
- Ciao Florence Tours – great variety of tours in the region
- Uffizi Gallery – art lover’s paradise
- Museums of Florence – great portal for the museums and ticket purchases
- Amazing round up of rooftop terraces to admire the sights of the city, click here!
- Great short documentary about the Boboli gardens, click here!
Note: in the summer time – Florence is absolutely packed with tourists! Plan your trip well ahead of time and I recommend you purchase all your museum tickets in advance. Florence has an amazing program called Firenze Card which allows unlimited access to the museums within 72 hours as well as access to the priority lane (which is super helpful as crowds are intense) for just 72 Euro. Click here for more details.
Disclaimer: All views are my own and all photographs are © My Pink Diary, unless otherwise stated.