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Visit Florence, Tuscany

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Visit Florence, Tuscany

Situated on the banks of the Arno amid the Tuscan hills, Florence is celebrated for its art, history and architecture. The powerhouse of the Renaissance, today the city is a living gallery. The ochre dome of the Duomo dominates the skyline, while the Accademia and Uffizi museums house works such as Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Primavera.

Relatively compact and easy to explore, Florence is a city of stately palazzos and elegant piazzas, connected by narrow, winding lanes full of cafes and artisan shops. It’s a place where even the smallest church, tucked out of the way down backstreets, can contain an artistic masterpiece.

Florence is a genteel city of galleries and churches, where fine art lovers are in their element. I like visiting the smaller, lesser-known art museums, like the Bargello, to study celebrated pieces without the crowds.

Italy specialist Claire

Things to see and do in Florence

Climb to the top of the Duomo

The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Florence’s Duomo, was commissioned around 1294 to demonstrate the city’s wealth and status. Nineteenth-century Florence gave it a neo-Gothic facelift of pink, white and green marble.

The dome was a 15th-century addition, the design of a young architect named Brunelleschi, who had previously lost out to his contemporary Ghiberti in a competition to create the cathedral’s baptistery doors. His creation is arguably the most technically impressive and visually striking example of Renaissance architecture in existence.

If you’ve the head for it, climb up into the heart of the dome. It offers a close-up view of Vasari’s frescos portraying the Last Judgement on the dome’s interior, before you head outside for panoramic views over the city. The campanile (bell tower), designed by Giotto, stands separately at one end of the cathedral. It’s equally worth the climb for a view that includes the Duomo.

Explore the lesser-visited sights of Piazza del Duomo

The baptistery

Baptistery of St John, FlorenceThe cathedral’s baptistery is said to be the oldest building in Florence, thought to have originated as a 6th- or 7th-century Roman temple. Different generations of Florentines have since sought to embellish it.

Ghiberti designed the gilded bronze doors, known as the ‘gates of paradise’ — the originals are now on display in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, with replicas in their place. Inside, a mosaic of a human-devouring devil is said to have inspired Dante’s vision of hell in his Divine Comedy.

Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Though most visitors bypass the museum, it safeguards precious relics from the Duomo, baptistry and campanile, such as a statue of Mary weeping over the body of Jesus by Michelangelo. He originally intended the pietà to be used on his own tomb. One day, in a fit of artistic despair, he’s thought to have partially destroyed it.

Donatello’s raw, harrowing statue of a penitent Mary Magdalene also features, along with choir lofts designed for the cathedral by Donatello and della Robbia. Brunelleschi’s original engineering equipment, used in the construction of the dome, is also on display.

Explore the Palazzo Vecchio on the Piazza della Signoria

Piazza della Signoria

The medieval square of Piazza della Signoria takes its name from the Signoria guild council, which has governed Florence since 1293. Over the centuries, it’s been a silent witness to many of the city’s most dramatic events.

It was here that religious zealot and Dominican friar, Savonarola, staged his bonfire of the vanities. Protesting against Florence’s sinfulness and apostasy, he called for citizens to burn manuscripts, priceless paintings, tapestries and other ornaments. Later, he was hanged from a cross and burned in the same square and his teachings outlawed.

Palazzo Vecchio

The fortress-like Palazzo Vecchio, on the east face of the piazza, was occupied by Cosimo I Medici in the 16th century before he moved his retinue to the Pitti Palace. Inside, it’s riddled with labyrinthine secret passageways that speak of the Medici dynasty’s Machiavellian grip on Florence.

The Palace’s museum lets you walk the corridors of power — don’t miss the gargantuan Hall of the 500, where 15th-century council assemblies were held. The palazzo is currently the seat of Florence’s city council.

Follow the art trail at the Uffizi, Bargello and Accademia Galleries

Uffizi Gallery

Michelangelo at Uffizi gallery, FlorenceThe collection of Renaissance artwork held in the Galleria degli Uffizi was mostly bought or commissioned by the Medici family. It was donated to Florence by descendant Anna Maria Ludovica on one condition: the art must not leave the city. Today, the Uffizi holds the paintings while the statuary is now located in the quieter Bargello art museum.

The list of artists exhibited within the Uffizi’s grand rooms reads like a roll call of Western masters. Greats like Fra’Angelico, Botticelli (including his Birth of Venus), Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, and Raphael all feature. One of the collection’s lesser-known artists is Italian baroque female artist Artemisia Gentileschi. In her visceral and violent Judith Slaying Holofernes, her figure of Judith is thought to be a self-portrait.

Visitor numbers are limited and lines can be long, but this does have the advantage of reducing Louvre-style overcrowding.

Accademia Gallery

The Galleria dell’Accademia lies just off the Piazza San Marco. Its most famous resident, Michelangelo’s David, stands under a purpose-built glass dome. He originally graced the square outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where a replica now stands in his place.

Scholars admire the sculptor’s understanding of anatomy and scale but notice how his hands seem much bigger in proportion to his head. The statue was originally to have been displayed on a rooftop where, seen from below, the proportions would have made more sense.

The museum also contains Michelangelo’s Prigioni (either prisoners or slaves), initially intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The four writhing forms are unfinished and seem to struggle to escape the marble. Nearby, the first-floor cells of the Museum San Marco, a former 15th-century religious complex, feature some of the best examples of frescos by Fra’Angelico.

Bargello

The Bargello, a 13th-century police station and former barracks, is situated just north of the Palazzo Vecchio. Among its sculptures is Michelangelo’s androgynous Bacchus, who (appropriately) looks like he’s reeling from too much wine.

Discover Florence’s historic Basilica Santa Croce

The colossal 14th-century Franciscan Church of the Holy Cross is the final resting place for many of Florence’s leading lights. Behind its marble neo-Gothic frontage lie the tombs of Michelangelo and Ghiberti, as well as the astronomer Galileo. His discoveries so riled Rome’s Inquisition that he was initially denied a Christian burial.

Look out for the memorial to the exiled Dante, who is buried in Ravenna, despite efforts to bring the Florentine poet home.

The piazza in front of the basilica was sometimes cleared for worshippers at times when the church was full. Throughout the Middle Ages, it hosted jousting and festivals.

Cross the Ponte Vecchio to Oltrarno

Ponte Vecchio Bridge, FlorenceIn 1944, the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) was the only bridge left standing by the Nazis following their retreat from Florence. It separates the historic central area of the city from the Oltrarno district — literally meaning the other (altro) side of the Arno.

This side of the bridge tends to be quieter, and its maze of streets conceals many artisans’ workshops where the city’s historic crafts live on. We can arrange for a guided walking tour of these small shops, including a stop at a papermaker.

The Ponte Vecchio itself was originally home to grocers, fishmongers and butchers who would throw the unwanted by-products of their wares into the waters below. The stench became so bad that in the 16th century the bridge was turned over to gold and silversmiths.

The Vasari Corridor stretches across the top of the bridge and can be spotted snaking out of the side of the Uffizi. This covered walkway above the stalls allowed the Medicis to pass between the Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi and Pitti Palace in comfort.

Stroll in the gardens of the Pitti Palace

Oltrarno’s sprawling Pitti Palace was home to city’s ruling families from the Medicis to the Savoys. Donated to the state in 1919, it’s now a museum complex. The Palantine Gallery is the biggest draw, containing opulently furnished apartments from the Medici and Savoy periods.

Outside, the Boboli Gardens spill down the hillside behind the palace. They’re a calm expanse of landscaped hedgerows, ponds, fountains, shaded groves and beds of lavender. More incongruous is Buontalenti’s grotto, with its fantastical Mannerist sculptures made out of stalactites and shells, which look as if they’re melting.

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Audley Travel specialist Cara

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