Florence or Firenze, as its known by the locals, is an amazing city full of art, great food and architecture. It is often credited with being the birthplace of the Renaissance, and for good reason- Donatello, Michaelangelo , Da Vinci, Galileo and Caravaggio all worked and created art here. It was this city where the world changed from the Medieval flat paintings of Madonnas with haloed babies to beautiful realistic Baroque art with almost photographic quality. If you’ve never been to Florence and it’s on your bucket list, chances are you’ll end up here one of two ways: either on a tri-city tour with Venice and Rome, or a one day stop in neighboring Livorno on your Mediterranean cruise. So, how do you squeeze 500 years of art and history into a single day? The quick answer: you don’t. However, you can supercharge your trip and catch many of the highlights of the city in one day. Here’s how you do it:
1. The Duomo- Also known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (yeah, that’s why I call it the duomo) is a UNESCO site and the center of the city. Many credit the creation of its famous dome with being a contributing factor to kicking off the Renaissance movement. The church was under construction for over a hundred years and it’s plans included an ambitious dome larger than that of the Roman pantheon. Brunschelli, a local designer won the task of figuring out how to build the part of the cathedral that everyone thought impossible. He and Donatello visited Rome and studied the construction the Romans used, invented a machine for lifting the 4 million bricks used and completed the dome. This started a revival of Roman architecture and was a catalyst for the reinvention of cement and progressive art. This famous church complex is a must see and the symbol of Florence. The Baptistry building contains the famous bronze doors also designed by Bruneschelli and is one of the most photographed places in the city. Admission to the basilica is free unless you’d like to go to the top. Make sure you check out the inside view of the dome from below. It’s style is reminiscent of the Sistine chapel.
2. Gallerie dell’ Accademia – is the home of David, Florence’s most prized sculpture as well as one of the most recognized pieces of art in the world. Michaelangelo was the third artist to work on this marble behemoth, but he truly made David his own. The statue is a “must see”. The museum also has a collection of plaster casts including Rape of the Sabine, some medieval pieces and some unfinished Michaelangelo statues. You can breeze through this intimate museum in about half an hour if you’re on a time constraint. Other than David, the statue room is the most interesting with scores of marble heads and funerary pieces . You have to go through the whole museum to get to the exit, so it’s doubtful you’ll miss anything.
3. Ponte Vecchia- this bridge is a couple of blocks from the Uffizi and is also an endearing symbol of the city. According to some, the bridge was spared destruction by the Nazis after Hitler had viewed it on a tour with Mussolini. Whether the bridge is as beautiful as some say, is surely in the eye of the beholder. Now it’s mostly an outdoor jewelry mall, but there are great views of the Arno river and makes a nice rest stop on the way to Piazza Pitti.
4. Uffizi museum- this gem of a museum is Italy’s answer to the Louvre. Originally an office building for the Medici family in the 16th century (Uffizi=office), it now houses several must see paintings including world renowned Boticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus. Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Rafael are also represented. You can spend two hours here pretty easily even if you’re moving quickly.
5. Santa Croce- What’s the next best thing to meeting Michaelangelo in person? Visiting his grave. The story goes that the famous artist lived in Rome for 30 years before his death. was buried in Rome, his body stolen and then shipped to Florence. So, this isn’t just the grave of the famous sculptor. It’s the resting place of the dug-up-bootlegged- stolen-body of Michaelangelo. Machiavelli is also buried here, as well as Galileo (you know… the guy from Bohemian Rhapsody?) Marconi, the Italian inventor of the radio is also in this amazing cathedral. If you have an issue with walking on graves, you’ll have to get past it. The whole floor seems to be made of marble memorial panels marking the famous and fallen.
6. Italian sandwiches- forget gnocchi or pasta e fagioli, the top two must-do restaurants in Florence are sandwich dives. Stacking them fast and furious, such eateries as SandwiChic, and Panini Toscani sate the endless queues of hungry patrons with truffle spreads, spicy meats, eggplant, arugula and other fresh ingredients piled high on chewy ciabatta striated loaves. Choose wisely and the young Italian boys will cheerfully fill your order. Thirsty? There’s lots of local Chianti choices to wash down your meal.
7. Piazza della Signoria- you’ll be hard pressed to find a display of more public statues than you’ll see in this vibrant square- if you can’t get in Gallerie Dell’ Academie to see the real David, you can always see his doppelgänger standing in this piazza. There’s Neptune’s fountain and dozens of random works of art clustered together throughout the square.
There are plenty of other museums and piazzas to keep you busy if you have more time, but if you get an early start and follow my list, it’s likely you’ll be able to hold a conversation with most anyone about Florence’s tourist spots. If you have to do 10 countries in a week, you might as well know what you’re talking about!
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