What To See
Florence's elegant sights are conveniently clustered.
For eye-watering attractions you won't need to venture far from Florence's centre, a medieval wonderland containing the graceful span of Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo's skyscraping dome, the gilded splendour of Basilica di San Lorenzo and the well-hung Uffizi Gallery.
Not only is Florence's duomo the city's most iconic landmark, it's also one of Italy's 'Big Three' (with Pisa's Leaning Tower and Rome's Colosseum). Its famous red-tiled dome, graceful campanile (bell tower) and breathtaking pink, white and green marble facade have the wow factor in spades.
Begun in 1296 by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio, the cathedral took almost 150 years to complete. Its neo-Gothic facade was designed in the 19th century by architect Emilio de Fabris to replace the uncompleted original, torn down in the 16th century. The oldest and most clearly Gothic part of the cathedral is its south flank, pierced by Porta dei Canonici (Canons' Door), a mid-14th-century High Gothic creation (you enter here to climb up inside the dome).
When Michelangelo went to work on St Peter's in Rome, he reportedly said: 'I go to build a greater dome, but not a fairer one.' One of the finest masterpieces of the Renaissance, Florence's famous cathedral dome is indeed a feat of engineering and one that cannot be fully appreciated without climbing its 463 interior stone steps.
The dome was built between 1420 and 1436 to a design by Filippo Brunelleschi. Taking his inspiration from Rome's Pantheon, Brunelleschi arrived at an innovative engineering solution of a distinctive octagonal shape of inner and outer concentric domes resting on the drum of the cathedral rather than the roof itself, allowing artisans to build from the ground up without needing a wooden support frame. Over four million bricks were used in the construction, all of them laid in consecutive rings in horizontal courses using a vertical herringbone pattern. The final product is 91m high and 45.5m wide.
The climb up the spiral staircase is relatively steep, and should not be attempted if you are claustrophobic. Make sure to pause when you reach the balustrade at the base of the dome, which gives an aerial view of the octagonal coro (choir) of the cathedral below and the seven round stained-glass windows (by Donatello, Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti) that pierce the octagonal drum
Look up and you'll see flamboyant late-16th-century frescoes by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari, depicting the Giudizio Universale (Last Judgement).
As you climb, snapshots of Florence can be spied through small windows. The final leg - a straight flight up the curve of the inner dome - rewards with an unforgettable 360-degree panorama of one of Europe's most beautiful cities.
After the visual wham-bam of the facade and dome, the sparse decoration of the cathedral's vast interior, 155m long and 90m wide, comes as a surprise - most of its artistic treasures have been removed over centuries according to the vagaries of ecclesiastical fashion, and many are now on show in the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore. The interior is also unexpectedly secular in places (a reflection of the sizeable chunk of the cathedral not paid for by the church): down the left aisle two immense frescoes of equestrian statues portray two condottieri (mercenaries) - on the left Niccolò da Tolentino by Andrea del Castagno (1456) and on the right Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello (1436) - who fought in the service of Florence in the 14th century.
Between the left (north) arm of the transept and the apse is the Sagrestia delle Messe (Mass Sacristy), its panelling a marvel of inlaid wood carved by Benedetto and Giuliano da Maiano. The fine bronze doors were executed by Luca della Robbia - his only known work in the material. Above the doorway is his glazed terracotta Resurrezione (Resurrection).
A stairway near the main entrance of the cathedral leads down to the crypt, where excavations between 1965 and 1974 unearthed parts of the 5th-century Chiesa di Santa Reparata that originally stood on the site.
The steep 414-step climb up the 85m-high campanile, designed by Giotto, offers the reward of a view nearly as impressive as that from the dome. The queues here are usually much shorter, too.
The first tier of bas-reliefs around the base of the campanile are copies of those carved by Pisano, but possibly designed by Giotto, depicting the Creation of Man and the attività umane (arts and industries). Those on the second tier depict the planets, the cardinal virtues, the arts and the seven sacraments. The sculptures of the Prophets and Sibyls in the niches of the upper storeys are copies of works by Donatello and others; see the originals in the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce
The Museo dell’Opera di Santa Croce features a Crucifixion by Cimabue, restored to the best degree possible after flood damage in 1966 when more than 4m of water inundated the Santa Croce area. Other highlights include Donatello’s gilded bronze statue St Louis of Toulouse (1424), originally placed in a tabernacle on the Orsanmichele facade; a wonderful terracotta bust of St Francis receiving the stigmata by the della Robbia workshop; and frescoes by Taddeo Gaddi, including The Last Supper (1333).
Piazza di Santo Spirito
Florence's most lively, yet laid-back and local piazza is lined with good cafes and bars spilling out onto the square beneath the facade of Brunelleschi's basilica. It attracts a mixed crowd of students, layabouts, artists, slumming uptowners, savvy foreigners and dodgy hash dealers.
The first documentation of a stone bridge here, at the narrowest crossing point along the entire length of the Arno, dates from 972. The Arno looks placid enough, but when it gets mean, it gets very mean. Floods in 1177 and 1333 destroyed the bridge, and in 1966 it came close to being destroyed again. Many of the jewellers with shops on the bridge were convinced the floodwaters would sweep away their livelihoods; however - fortunately - the bridge held.
They're still here. Indeed, the bridge has twinkled with the glittering wares of jewellers, their trade often passed down from generation to generation, ever since the 16th century, when Ferdinando I de' Medici ordered them here to replace the often malodorous presence of the town butchers, who used to toss unwanted leftovers into the river.
The bridge as it stands was built in 1345 and was the only one saved from destruction at the hands of the retreating Germans in 1944. What you see above the shops on the eastern side is the infamous Corridoio Vasariano built rather oddly around - rather than straight through - the medieval Torre dei Mannelli at the bridge's southern end.
Basilica di San Lorenzo
In 1425 Cosimo the Elder, who lived nearby, commissioned Brunelleschi to rebuild the basilica on this site, which dated to the 4th century. The new building would become the Medici parish church and mausoleum - many members of the family are buried here. Considered one of the most harmonious examples of Renaissance architecture, the basilica has never been finished - Michelangelo was commissioned to design the facade in 1518 but his design in white Carrara marble was never executed, hence the building's rough unfinished appearance.
In the austere interior, columns of pietra serena (soft grey stone) crowned with Corinthian capitals separate the nave from the two aisles. Donatello, who was still sculpting the two bronze pulpits (1460-67) adorned with panels of the Crucifixion when he died, is buried in the chapel featuring Fra' Filippo Lippi's Annunciation (c 1450). Left of the altar is the Sagrestia Vecchia (Old Sacristy), designed by Brunelleschi and decorated in the main by Donatello.
A lengthy queue marks the door to this gallery, built especially to house one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance, Michelangelo's original David. Fortunately, the most famous statue in the world is worth the long wait. The subtle detail (not quite as illuminated on copies) of the real thing - the veins in his sinewy arms, the muscles in his legs, the change in expression as you move around the statue - is impressive. Carved from a single block of marble already worked on by two sculptors before him (both of who gave up), Michelangelo's most famous work was also his most challenging - he didn't choose the marble himself, it was veined and its larger-than-life dimensions were already decided. And when the statue of the nude boy-warrior, depicted for the first time as a man in the prime of life rather than a young boy, assumed its pedestal in front of Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria in 1504, Florentines immediately adopted it as a powerful emblem of Florentine power, liberty and civic pride. Michelangelo was also the master behind the unfinished San Matteo (St Matthew; 1504-08) and four Prigioni ('Prisoners' or 'Slaves'; 1521-30) on display here. The Prisoners seem to be writhing and struggling to free themselves from the marble; they were meant for the tomb of Pope Julius II, itself never completed. Adjacent rooms contain paintings by Andrea Orcagna, Taddeo Gaddi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli.
Behind Palazzo Pitti, the Boboli Gardens laid out in the mid-16th century according to a design by architect Niccolò Pericoli are a prime example of a formal Tuscan garden and they are great fun to get lost in: skip along the Cypress Alley; let the imagination rip with a gallant frolic in the walled Giardino del Cavaliere (Knights' Garden); dance around 170-odd statues; meditate next to the Isoletto, a gorgeous ornamental pool; discover birdsong and species in the garden along the signposted nature trail;</strong> or watch Venere (Venus) by Giambologna rise from the waves in the Grotta del Buontalenti, a fanciful grotto designed by the eponymous artist. Other typical Renaissance garden features include a six-tier amphitheatre, originally embellished with 24 niches sheltering classical statues surrounded by animals; an orangery (limonaia; 1777), which stills keeps around 500 citrus trees snug in winter; and a botanical garden. The 17th-century maze, a Tuscan horticultural standard, was razed in the 1830s to make way for a driveway for carriages. Don't miss the monumental 'face' sculpture (1998) by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj (b 1944), who lives in Pietrasanta near Carrara today.
At the upper, southern limit of the gardens, fantastic views over the Florentine countryside fan out beyond the box-hedged rose garden where the Museo delle Porcellane (Porcelain Museum) is located. This is home to Sèvres, Vincennes, Meissen, Wedgwood and other porcelain pieces collected by Palazzo Pitti's wealthy tenants.
Piazza del Duomo & Around
Pictures don't do justice to the exterior of Florence's Gothic. While they reproduce the startling colours of the tiered red, green and white marble facade and the beautiful symmetry of the dome, they fail to give any sense of its monumental size. Officially known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, its construction begun in 1294 by Sienese architect Arnolfo di Cambio, but it wasn't consecrated until 1436. Its most famous feature, the enormous octagonal Cupola (dome) was built by Brunelleschi after his design won a public competition in 1420. The interior is decorated with frescos by Vasari and Zuccari, and the stained-glass windows are by Donatello, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti. The facade is a 19th-century replacement of the unfinished original, pulled down in the 16th century.
Beside the cathedral, the 82m Campanile was begun by Giotto in 1334 and completed after his death by Andrea Pisano and Francesco Talenti. The views from the top make the 414-step climb worthwhile. To the west, the Romanesque Battistero is one of the oldest buildings in Florence. Built on the site of a Roman temple between the 5th and 11th centuries, it's famous for its gilded-bronze doors, particularly Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gate of Paradise
Surprisingly overlooked by the crowds, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo on the northern (street) side of the cathedral safeguards treasures that once adorned the Duomo, baptistry and campanile and is one of the city's most impressive museums. Ghiberti's Gate of Paradise panels (those on the Baptistry doors are copies) and a Pietà by Michelangelo are in the collection here.
Food and Drink
Chef Annie Féolde applies French techniques to her versions of refined Tuscan cuisine and does it so well that this is the only restaurant in Tuscany to possess three Michelin stars. The setting is a 16th-century palace hotel, the wine list is mind-boggling in its extent and excellence, and the prices reach the stratosphere. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A guidebook favourite built around melt-in-your-mouth crostini, Tuscan meats, fine pasta and roasted meats served at shared tables. There are two dinner seatings (7.30pm and 9pm); bookings mandatory.
Set under the vaulted ceilings of a medieval palazzo, your feast begins with the art on the walls, including the earliest known portraits of Dante and Boccaccio. Then there’s the food – a contemporary take on Tuscan cuisine with a feisty southern Italian kick, such as the sea bass in ginger sauce and buttery salt cod with spinach. Chefs beaver away behind glass, and remnants of Roman Florence lurk in the cellar. Wine – an insatiable passion of charismatic owner Umberto Montan – is yet another draw.
L'Osteria di Giovanni
It's not the decor or eclectic choice of wall art that stands out at this wonderfully friendly neighbourhood eatery. It's the cuisine, staunchly Tuscan and stunningly creative. Think chickpea soup with octopus or pear- and ricotta-stuffed tortelli (a type of ravioli) bathed in a leek and almond cream. Throw in the complimentary glass of sparkling prosecco as aperitivo and subsequent Vin Santo (with home-made cantucci - hard, sweet biscuits - to dunk in) at the end of the meal and you'll return time and again.
Le Volpi e l'uva
The city's best enoteca con degustazione (wine bar with tasting) bar none: this intimate address with marble-topped bar crowning two oak ageing wine barrels chalks up an extraordinarily impressive list of wines by the glass on its blackboard. To attain true bliss indulge in the most divine crostini topped with honeyed speck perhaps or lardo, a platter of boutique Tuscan cheeses (try the Rocco made by Fattoria Corzano e Paterno) or other delectable antipasti.
Cabiria, a popular cafe by day, converts into a busy nocturnal music bar that continues on way past your bedtime. In summer, the buzz extends onto Piazza Santo Spirito, which becomes a stage for an outdoor bar and regular free concerts.
The locals call it a 'cooking bar' and they certainly seem to think something is cooking here. Apart from a light and easy buffet lunch, a trendy set gather in this postage stamp-sized redoubt for the evening aperitivo, spilling out onto the pavement terrace (in spite of the traffic). From 22:30 on it's cocktail time, and Sunday night is particularly festive.
A firm favourite among expats and foreign students, this small busy space has a tiny wooden decking terrace facing the Baptistery and a much sought-after terrace for two up top.