Florence was the center of the Italian Renaissance and rebirth of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. There is so much to do in this small village; iconic bridges, secret corridors, viewpoints, churches, museums, and gardens. Not to mention one of the heartiest cuisines in Italy.
This article is dedicated to the things to do in Florence.
There are so many things to do in Florence we broke it up into 5 categories. Use the menu below to put together your ideal itinerary in Florence.
Top 10 Outdoor Monuments & Attractions in Florence
1. Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio is an excellent example of a medieval bridge in Florence. It is built from stone and supported by archways. It is unique today due to its shops and stores built on the sides of the bridge and the famous Vasari Corridor that can be seen above the shops.
The Vasari Corridor is an incredible structure if you think about it. The Medici, who practically ruled the Republic of Florence, built a hallway to connect their home, Palazzo Pitti, with the town hall, Palazzo Vecchio.
The bridge is mostly occupied by jewelers today and is mostly overrun by tourists wanting to purchase something from “on top of Ponte Vecchio in Florence,” which I admit is pretty cool to say.
The jewelers are not there by accident either. This bridge used to be inhabited by farmers of all sorts but the Medici propagated the idea that these types of shops make the bridge and city look fit for peasants. The farmers were forced out which eventually turned into a decree in 1595 excluding them.
Location: Ponte Vecchio
2. Sunset in Piazzale Michelangelo
Have you ever seen one of those incredible pictures of Florence and the Duomo and wonder where it came from? The answer is Piazzale Michelangelo. Named after the famed Renaissance sculptor himself with a replica of David out of Bronze in the center.
You can enjoy the view during the day or ideally at night. If the conditions are right you’ll see one of the world’s best sunsets.
Location: Piazzale Michelangelo
3. Duomo & Brunelleschi’s Dome
The Florence Cathedral is a must-see attraction and it would be very difficult to miss if you are visiting. It is located in the center of town and visible from much of the city. It is named the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore which translates to the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower. One could assume that the name refers to the Giglio or Red Lily/Iris – the flower and symbol of Florence.
The name Santa Maria del Fiore is seldom used in Italy however. Most would simply refer to it as Il Duomo. The Duomo is designed in a very Tuscan/Florentine style. Green and white marble that brings life to its facade and surfaces. It differs greatly from the Basilica of Rome in many ways. One is that it is completely detached from other buildings so you can walk 360 degrees around it.
The dome, its literal crowning jewel, was the first of its magnitude since the Pantheon. Many thought it was unable to be done but the Medici family pressed on and Filippo Brunelleschi brought it to realization.
By far the most famous moment in this cathedrals history was the murder of Giuliano dè Medici on Sunday April 26 1478 by the Pazzi family who attempted to dethrone the Medici from power. The idea was to murder both Giuliano and Lorenzo the Great but they failed to kill Lorenzo and were banished from Florence.
Address: Piazza del Duomo
4. The Gates of Paradise
The Baptistry doors of Florence are attached to the Baptistry of St. John in Florence which is directly in front of the Florence Cathedral (Il Duomo). It is so close to the Cathedral and has such a similar design that it appears to be the same structure but it is a church of its own and considered a minor Basilica.
The structure is one of the oldest in Florence dating back to the late 11th century. The building is recognized in popular culture for three sets of doors but mostly the east doors which are the best. The doors were designed and constructed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and his workshop and took 27 years to complete.
The main reason being that they were done in the early 15th century when art was excelling at a breakneck pace. This was basically when the Renaissance was becoming the Renaissance. Many new techniques were being developed including better uses of space and perspective. Ghiberti was already a local celebrity for his designs on the north doors and these would be his masterpiece.
His time was worth it – these doors are commonly referred to as the Gates of Paradise which was coined by Michelangelo himself. Vasari, one of Florence’s greatest artists and art critics described them in his book Lives of the Artists as, “undeniably perfect in every way and must rank as the finest masterpiece ever created.”
undeniably perfect in every way and must rank as the finest masterpiece ever created – Giorgio Vasari
Location: Piazza San Giovanni
5. Mercato Centrale
Mercato Centrale, as you may have guessed, is the central market of Florence. It is a mix-mash of things from panino places to butchers and even beeswax. It is separated into two floors.
First Floor: Traditional Italian style stahl vendors. Here is where you’ll find all types of Italian produce, meats and even Osteria style restaurants.
Second Floor: You’ll go from the 16th century Medici to the 21st century by going up the escalator to the 2nd floor. Welcome to the types of places our current Italian youth enjoys – modern and cool. Yes, it is great for westerns to go to Italy and feel like we are connected to the past but trust me, the Italian youth appreciates modern touches. The second floor is really cool. Filled with hyper-focused restaurants that serve a particular style of food. Its cafeteria style. You grab food, sit down, eat, and clean up after yourself.
Surrounding Mercato Centrale are the covered markets. While there are some decent items in these markets, I mostly look to avoid them. That said, if you’ve never been to a European outdoor market it is a cool experience you should check out but keep your wallet safe in every sense of the word.
Sean’s Recommendation: I would personally eat downstairs at Da Nerbone since it is a quintessential part of eating in Florence. Then, go upstairs to grab your coffee and consider it for lunch the next day if you are in town.
6. Visit Piazza di Santa Croce
Santa Croce is one of Florence’s most famous Basilica and the chosen burial place of none other than Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli – that says a lot. Why?
The exterior of the Basilica is beautiful but the interior is decorated by some of Italy’s greatest artists from Giotto to Brunelleschi and Vasari. You can go and should go inside but it is also recommended to appreciate it from the Piazza. There are a few places to eat and get a coffee and you’ll have a beautiful view.
Address: Piazza di Santa Croce
7. Piazza Signoria & Palazzo Vecchio
Piazza Signoria is without question the most important square in Florentine history. One could argue that Piazza del Duomo has more architectural significance due to the church, but Piazza Signoria has been the home of Florentine government until at least 1299 AD.
Signoria refers to the name of the government that led the Republic of Florence up until the Italian Unification in the late 19th century. The government is led by Priori who were Florentine oligarchs or nobles that led the Republic. So while it was a Republic, it was not a democracy.
Palazzo Signoria, in Piazza Signoria, is named after the government and has been the center for political gatherings for the better part of a millennia. The structure built in 1299 was ordained Palazzo Signoria prior to the name being changed to Palazzo Vecchio. Vecchio means “old” in Italian so you really can’t build a building and name it the old palace from day one.
Eventually, the Medici became the most powerful family in Florence due to strong ties with the Vatican and their banking channels throughout Europe and monopolized the Republic into a set of cronies. While it was a little corrupt, they financed Europe out of the dark ages and into the Renaissance. Mostly by using their funds for many public art projects that spread wealth throughout the land. At this point, they moved the government into their residence, Palazzo Pitti, and Palazzo Signoria became Palazzo Vecchio.
Today, the government is run from Palazzo Vecchio where the city council makes civic decisions. The main square is decorated with statues, fresco and fountains. It is a wonderful place to walk through and great for photos. While there you should check out:
Loggia dei Lanzi – This is a covered stage-like area famed by archways on two sides. It is home to many open air sculptures that you can see without spending a dime.
Copy of David – One of the many copy’s of Michelangelo’s David.
Equestrian Statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici
Fountain of Neptune – Large statue on the corner of Palazzo Vecchio. Neptune in center surrounding by bronze statues on four corners. Can you find the dolphin? Without a dolphin it is not Neptune!
Palazzo Vecchio is attached to the Uffizi Gallery. If you are in this area consider combining it with a guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery. Guides in Florence tend to have a particular passion for the city which makes doing tours a real delight.
Location: Piazza della Signoria
8. Giardino Bardini (Bardini Gardens)
Oltrarno is the Florentine equivalent to Rome’s Trastevere. It literally means “the other side of the Arno”. It is located on the south side of the Arno and can be reached by crossing any of Florence’s bridges. It is home to some really cool viewpoints of Florence including the Bardini Gardens.
The gardens are part of a renaissance villa of the Bardini family. It has phenomenal views of Florence and a beautiful garden to get lost in. The gardens are famous for two main attractions. A wisteria tunnel which is best viewed from April to October. Also, along the medieval staircase that carries you to one of the best views of Florence.
Address: Costa San Giorgio 2
Admission: 10€ adults | Free 17 and under
9. Rub the Boar’s Nose (Il Porcellino)
Il Porcellino in Mercato Nuovo is a bronze copy of a bronze copy of a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze statue of wild boar. Hard to digest? Let me explain.
The Greeks like creating statues our of Bronze and were undoubtedly superior “creators” of art over the Romans. When the Romans conquered Greece, Romans were superior warriors, they underwent Hellenization which basically means acting like the sophisticated and artistic Greeks. They would make marble statue copies of the greek bronze statues and often melt the marble to make weapons.
The Medici, a famous Florentine family, associated with wild boar as Tuscany is overrun by them and many Florentine dishes are made with boars meat. They procured the Roman marble copy in the 17th century and they or another family commissioned Pietro Tacca to create a bronze copy of the statue and turned it into a fountain.
The fountain was very popular and and like many fountains it has been surrounded by superstition. I’ve read significantly online and many writers cover the superstition incorrectly. Luckily, I am Italian and know this very well.
Rubbing the boars nose has very little to do with the tradition but is now almost compulsory to getting the boar ready for what is next. You are supposed to be put a coin in the boars mouth and let it roll off its tongue into the water below. There is a very find grate over the water system and if the coin falls through it brings good fortune.
Address: Piazza del Mercato Nuovo
10. Piazza della Repubblica
Florence being a small city is really defined by four overly large squares on the north side of the Arno. Piazza Signoria, Piazza di Santa Croce, Piazza del Duomo, and Piazza della Repubblica. In Roman times, this was the location of the cities forum. Yes, Florence has existed back until at least Roman times. Via Cassia, an ancient Roman road still used today, crossed through ancient Florence.
Later it became the city’s ghetto but that was removed during the Renaissance to become a more prominent commercial square. Finally, during the Italian Unification when the individual kingdom united to become a patriated country Florence was established as the capital for a brief period from 1865-71. While this was a short period, it was enough time for the city to see some significant public works projects which were not welcomed by locals.
There were many palaces, shops, and even structures of significance that were torn down to build what once was Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II, the name of the first King of Italy. Locals weren’t very happy but the nail in the coffin is etched into a plaque on a triumphal arch built in Piazza della Repubblica. The English translation is, “The ancient center of the city restored from age-old squalor to new life.”
After WWI the piazza was renamed piazza dell Repubblica which is the current name. What should you do there? Go to Caffè Le Giubbe Rosse and have a slightly-overpriced coffee outside!
Wait..what was the Italian Renaissance?
Before we get to the top ten things you should see in Florence, let’s get one thing straight. Florence is often called the “City of the Renaissance,” so what would visiting Florence be without knowing exactly what the Renaissance really was?
The period of the Renaissance took place from the 14th to 17th centuries and refers to a “rebirth” in art, culture, and literature. After the barbaric Middle Ages, it was time for an era focused on creativity and education, and that’s just what happened. This is the time period when Florence’s famous artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Botticelli came into play.