Florence, Italy is an iconic, ancient city that really encompasses the true heart of Italian food and culture. It’s crowded, busy, and colourful, and is a mandatory stop for anyone visiting this beautiful country. The biggest highlights, fortunately, can be crammed into one (very full) day. Here are my top 5 sites in Florence to experience, even if you only have a day to visit!
5. Palazzo Vecchio
The Palazzo Vecchio was built in 1299 as a fortified palace for the magistrates of the commune. During the mid-sixteenth century, the palace was home to Cosimo I de’ Medici, the second Duke of Florence.
The palace is still in use today as Florence’s city hall, but many sections are now open to the public as a museum and archaeological site. In fact, the hall was built upon the ancient Roman ruins of a 1st Century AD theatre, the remains of which can be viewed from the basement level. The interior rooms boast impressive frescos, murals, gold detailing and imposing sculptures.
You can also tour the secret passages, visit the private apartments, and walk along the battlements. The building is right in the Piazza della Signoria square, which makes it conveniently close to other attractions on this list.
The entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio is easy to spot. It’s the one with the statue of David replica in front:
Reduced € 8.00
Museum ticket + Tower and roundabout walk
Entire tour € 14.00
Reduced € 12.00
(Average visit time 1.30 hours, including the Ronda Walk)
4. Basilica di Santa Croce
Full price € 8.00
Reduced € 6.00 for children 11 to 17 year (under 11 is free)
Family ticket: full price ticket (€ 8.00) for adults and free admission for children younger than age 18
Headsets rental: € 1.50
3. The Ponte Vecchio
The Ponte Vecchio is Florence’s oldest stone arch bridge, and one of the most recognizable attractions in the city. It’s thought that an ancient Roman bridge once spanned this section of the Arno River. The bridge was even mentioned in a document from 996 AD. A flood destroyed the original wooden bridge. A stone bridge replaced it, but another flood destroyed that bridge as well many years later. It was rebuilt again in 1345.
The shops you see along the bridge today first appeared in the 13th Century. Originally, butchers, tanners, and fishmongers ran these shops. The industrial waste these shops produced created quite the stench across the length of the river! These shop owners also threw waste into the river, polluting the water. Eventually, in 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers could run shops along the Ponte Vecchio. They were much less smelly and created a much more desirable aesthetic. Today the bridge is lined with jewellers, goldsmiths and souvenir shops.
2. Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Baptistery of San Giovanni
The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as the Florence Cathedral, is one of the largest churches in the world. But interestingly, there seems to be some argument as to where it falls on the list of largest churches. The official website claims it’s the third largest, while the Visit Florence website gives it fourth place. Other websites, like the World Atlas, place it lower on the list at 13. Regardless of how it ranks to other churches and cathedrals though, this one is still quite a spectacular structure.
Construction began in 1296, and completed around 1436. White, green and red marble decorate the church’s exterior. However, this wasn’t the original exterior. The original exterior, designed by several artists, never reached completion.
Medici court architect Bernardo Buontalenti removed the incomplete facade in 1587–1588. A design competition turned into a corruption scandal, further delaying the completion of the exterior. In 1876 the current exterior was added, and it was completed in 1887, as you see it today.
You can explore the crypt underneath the church, which exhibits the remains of the previous cathedral of Santa Reparata. The 4th Century mosaic floors are still in marvelous condition:
You can also climb the top of the cupola, which affords wonderful views of Florence. However you need to book your spot in advance of climbing the 463 steps to the top.
The Baptistery of Saint John is just outside the cathedral, decorated in the same style of multi-coloured marble bands. Constructed between 1059 and 1128, this is considered the oldest religious monument in Florence.
Up until the end of the 19th Century, all Catholics in Florence got baptized here. Baptisteries were often an octagonal shape, such as this one. This baptistery was built on the remains of a previous one.
While entrance to the cathedral is free, if you want to visit the baptistery, bell tower, crypt of Santa Reparata, or climb the cupola, you will ned to purchase an OPA Pass for € 18.
The ticket gives access to all the monuments within 72 hours of visiting the first one. You can only visit each monument once with the ticket.
You must have a reservation for the climb up the Dome. It’s also a good idea to book a reservation for climbing up the Bell Tower and for the Museum, but it’s not mandatory. Reservations are free to book.
1. Uffizi Gallery and Piazza della Signoria
The Uffizi Gallery is the number 1 draw in Florence. It’s arguably one of the most famous museums in the world, and houses some of the most spectacular art and sculpture you’ll ever see under one roof.
Giorgio Vasari designed the Uffizi building in 1581 for Granduca Francisco de’ Medici, son of Cosimo I. Originally the building was intended for offices and as a meeting place for the magistrates, since it was adjacent to the Medici Palace. The gallery is now home to famous artworks by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Raffaello, Leonardo da Vinci and more. Just a few of the most well-known pieces here include Medusa by Caravaggio, the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, and one of my personal favourites, the Laocoön and his Sons by Baccio Bandinelli.
Due to its popularity, however, the queue to get in is usually quite lengthy. If you don’t want to stand in line for hours, you can (and should) purchase your tickets in advance.
Reduced Price: European Union citizens aged 18 to 25
As for the Piazza della Signoria, this is a large public square just outside the Uffizi Gallery. Numerous sculptures and fountains decorate this large open area, which is a great way to pass the time as you’re waiting to get into the Uffizi.
For more detailed information on many of the sculptures in the piazza, check out my previous post here.
The piazza also boasts numerous restaurants and cafes to satisfy your hunger in between sites. But I would recommend avoiding this general area for food. Major squares such as the piazza are tourist traps, and it’s common for restaurants to overcharge gullible tourists. Instead, walk a few blocks off the beaten track and find a quieter street to grab a bite.
This blog post is now available on GPSmyCity here: 24 Hours in Florence, Italy