Florence is one of the cities which have influenced the cultural and art history of Europe significantly. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has produced and attracted a sheer countless number of the greatest European artists. Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci are only the tip of the iceberg consisting of artists like Giotto, Botticelli, Vasari, Donatello or Ghiberti. It only makes sense that the whole city is a piece of art, in which those Florentine artists each left their mark. And this is also the reason why every year more tourists stream into the Tuscan capital, in whole armadas of traveling coaches.
Even though it doesn’t make a lot sense to rush from sight to sight in groups of hundreds. Like I said, the whole city is a complex piece of art and should be experienced as such. There are numberless streets, corners and grand views to be discovered. During a weekend trip it is impossible anyway to see all that Florence has to offer; to appreciate all the sights or to visit the many great museums. It’s better to limit yourself and also take your time just to stroll through the city and get a feeling for it. The historic center is clearly laid-out and with a map you can quickly memorise the layout, which has stayed essentially rectangular since the foundation of the Roman colony Florentia in 59 BC, according to the typical Roman military camp (castrum).
Since walking is the way to get to know Florence, let me take you on a walk through the city along the most important sights, as a foretaste, substitute or memory.
It’s best to split the walk into two days, there is much to see.
Duomo Santa Maria del Fiore and Baptistery
Let’s start in the visual center of Florence: the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. No matter how many times I walked past this giant building, it always was almost unreal to encounter such dimensions coming out of the narrow streets; the enormous cupola proclaims the magnitude of the cathedral to all sides.
The building of the new cathedral was already begun during the Gothic in 1296, on the site of a smaller early Christian church. The cupola was planned in the decisive design from 1368, even though they didn’t know how then. In 1418 only Filippo Brunelleschi came up with a technical solution for the biggest free-standing cupola the world had ever seen, which was then realised until 1466 after Brunelleschi’s death. Ghiberti and Giotto were also involved in the building of the cathedral; the former was responsible for the Campanile, the free-standing clock tower.
The Baptistery of Saint John directly in front of the cathedral was already built between 1059 and 1150 and belongs to the oldest and most important buildings of Florence. The typical green-white design of the front, which includes ancient elements at this time already, became the model for the famous (early) Renaissance of Florence.
The entrance to the cathedral itself is free, however most visitors are a little bit disappointed by the big emptiness, because most of the statues and decorations were moved to the museum.
There is a combo ticket for Campanile, Baptistery, cupola and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which is valid for two days, so you don’t have to climb up the cupola and the Baptistery both on one day (for the visit of the cupola it is obligatory to register for a certain time online or in the ticket shop). It is worth it! The views from the Campanile and the cupola are grand, the interior of the Baptistery more than worth a look and the cathedral museum exhibits first class architecture most prominently by Ghiberti, Donatello and Michelangelo and illustrates the history of the cathedral vividly.
Piazza Santissima Annunziata to San Lorenzo
From here you can wander a little bit through the alleys and watch how the cathedral dominates the view through the streets from afar. During your walk through the city you should keep an eye open for the street art on every corner. You can do a scavenger hunt after the street signs of the artist Clet or the small blue paintings with scuba masks by Blub.
On the left end of the cathedral the Via dei Servi leads in a straight line to the Piazza Santissima Annunziata with the church of the same name, Museo Nazinale Archeologico and the Ospedale degli Innocenti, a historical orphanage built by Brunelleschi. The orphanage houses an excellent museum, which leads its visitors through a specific aspect of the history of Florence in a very interesting way.
On the end of the piazza we turn left and come straight to the Piazza San Marco with the well worth seing San Marco Church, which was originally built in the 14th century, altered during the Baroque and it received its neo-classical front in 1780. From here buses to Fiesole leave regularly (number 7).
On sunny days you can refuel some sun on one of the benches before we head south in the direction of the cathedral again. The broad Via Camillo Cavour leads to the Palazzo Medici Riccardi on the right side. The palazzo was built in the middle of the 15th century by the Medici as their family residence. Later they sold it to the Riccardi family, hence the name. The collection of the museum inside is no match for those of the bigger museums, but the palace itself is certainly worth seeing. Opposite of the palazzo in plain sight lies the church San Lorenzo with the Medici-Chapels.
San Lorenzo may not be as impressive as Santa Croce or Santa Maria Novella on first sight, but it is historically important and a second look is worth it. San Lorenzo belongs to the oldest early Christian churches of Florence; it received its current look around 1421 after a design by Brunelleschi. There is a separate entrance to the Medici-Chapels at the end of the church (under the red dome). The members of the most important Florentine family, the Medici, were buried here in chapels befitting their station.
From the Mercato Centrale to Santa Maria Novella
After all that walking it’s time to get a snack. For that we head right at the Medici-Chapels into the Via dell’Ariento and walk a few meters until we reach the Mercato Centrale, the market hall of Florence from the late 19th century. On the first floor we get whatever we like to eat or drink and then we are on our way, there is not much to see here.
The Via Sant’ Antonio in front of the market hall leads in a straight line to Santa Maria Novella, one of Florence’s main churches, close to the train station. The church, which was started to be built in 1246, is a feast for the eyes outside as well as inside. So you should go and see the inside, see the grand architecture and the masterful frescoes, most prominently by Ghirlandaio and Massaccio, by whom you can find the famous Trinity Fresco (1425-28) inside, which entered the history books as the first piece of art using a central perspective since ancient times.
The open square with its two obelisks in front of Santa Maria Novella invites the impressed visitor to linger a little bit.
When we turn towards the city center to the south east again, it’s time for a coffee break. There’s no need to rush. Coffee here is, like everywhere in Italy, great and cheap; even cheaper when you drink it at the bar, called al banco. There are cafés and restaurants on every corner once you enter the inner city.