By Katy Hyslop
You have just arrived in the Renaissance capital of the art world with a couple of days to spare, so where do you go and what highlights can you see in such a short time? This is the guide for you to get the maximum out of a short stay in Florence.
Now is probably a good time to familiarise yourself with the central city, if it’s late summer it will be beginning to cool down and hopefully the crush of the tourist crowds will be starting to diminish. The centre of Florence is easy to walk around as the streets are narrow and most are closed to traffic.
Starting off around the main station there is the Piazza Santa Maria Novella with the church that gives the train station its name. Opposite the church there is the Piazza Nazionale and a road which leads down to the Piazza del Mercato Centrale. Here there are a few market stalls selling leather goods, souvenirs and other items. The 2 famous buildings to see here are the Cappelle Medici and the San Lorenzo e Biblioteca Laurenziana.
You will see the Duomo before you reach the piazza it resides in as you walk down Via Borgo San Lorenzo. The squat building in front of the cathedral is the Baptistery, built on the foundations of a Roman temple. The golden doors facing the cathedral are replicas of an original set made by Lorenzo Ghiberti and regarded by Michelangelo as the “doors to paradise”. But the sight most visitors are bowled over by is Brunelleschi’s dome, the cap on the already impressive Chiesa Santa Maria del Fiori. Standing guard beside it is the campanile, or bell tower built by Giotto.
The view from the top of the Duomo is incredible on a clear day and well worth the trek to the top. Entry to the church itself is free but there is a charge to make the climb. You can also climb the bell tower but run the risk of the bells going off at some point and there is no lift if you need assistance to get back down.
Many of the original works that were used to decorate the exteriors and interiors of the baptistery, church and campanile are house inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, behind the cathedral, the museum rooms that catalogue the history of the buildings. There are many pieces by Michelangelo, including his Pieta that he partially destroyed, which was finished later by a student. The original baptistery doors are housed here along with Duomo plans from Brunelleschi, statues and bas relief’s by Donatello and others.
Walking down Via Roma you will reach Piazza della Repubblica, the edges are taken up with expensive hotels and even more expensive cafes. There are some stalls selling various touristy type things, including more belts, wallets and handbags. Keep walking down Via Calimara until you reach the loggia that houses more market stalls. Here you can test your skills at spotting a fake leather item although you don’t want to make this too obvious. Better still you can drop a coin from the mouth of ‘il Porcolino’, the bronze statue of a boar, and make a wish.
Looking straight ahead you will see what resembles a crowded street rising up at the end of Via Porta Santa Maria. This is actually a bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, the ‘Old Bridge’, which was the only one spared by the Nazis in WWII. The original shops were butchers, dropping their leftovers into the Arno below. The stench got up the Medici’s noses in the 16thC so much that Grand Duke Ferdinando I ordered them to move out and the more aesthetically pleasing goldsmiths to move in. This is also one of 3 bridges in the world to house shops.
Make your way back to the northern end of the bridge where there is a covered colonnade heading left alongside the river. This was built as a secret passageway for the Medici’s as they walked above the populace between the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. At the far end of the walkway you can look back to see the rear of the shops as they overhang the river below.
Behind you is also the entrance to the Piazza Degli Uffizi, a three sided piazza filled with statues and busts of famous artists from over the centuries, and of course home to the world famous Uffizi Gallery. The collection inside is second only to that of the one held at the Vatican in terms of artistic significance. Giotto, Fra Angelico, Lippi, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo… the list goes on. The gallery is closed on Mondays and needs at least half a day to get around, as well as to be booked in advance if you wish to view it in summer. The piazza is commonly filled during the summer with outdoor exhibitions, street artists and performers, mainly to entertain the long meandering line of tourists queuing up to get in.
Carry on through the narrow piazza away from the river until you reach Piazza Signoria. This wide open space is most recognisable by the statue of David, a copy put there in 1873 as the original had to moved inside the Accademia to protect it from the elements. Underneath the loggia is a collection of other famous statues including The Rape of the Sabines, Hercules and the Centaur Nessus, by Giambologna and Cellini’s bronze statue of Perseus.
The main space is overlooked by the rather imposing statue of ‘Il Nettuno’, the watery figure of Neptune standing at the opposite end of Palazzo Vecchio. Close by is the mounted figure of Cosimo I Medici and the bronze plaque that marks the spot where the priest Savonarola was hanged and burned for heresy in 1498. For the super sleuths there is a another sculpture to look out for. On the wall of the Palazzo Vecchio is the carved outline of a mans face. One legend tells that Michelangelo, in a fit of pique, was proving to Donatello he was able to sculpt great works of art, even with his hands behind his back.
Inside Palazzo Vecchio the entrance shows ornate ceilings and wall decoration for this building was once the seat of Florentine government during the 13th and 14th Centuries. For a fee you can view the opulent apartments upstairs that were occupied by Medicis and other notables as well as reach the battlements for another view out over the city.
The remainder of the evening can be best spent wandering the narrow streets and enjoying a meal from one of the many restaurants and trattorias. Later on there is the night life as many bars and clubs open up after 10pm and carry on until very early in the morning.
Florence is a tourist magnet all year round so an early start is essential if you don’t wish to spend countless hours queuing. A surefire way to avoid this is to part with a little extra cash in the busy summer months and pre book your tickets online or over the phone. You then pick them up at a designated time from the ticket office with your booking number. This way you can easily get to see the Uffizi and possibly another museum in the same day. To do this simply log onto www.firenzemusei.it or www.weekendafirenze.com or book through your hotel.
The Uffizi opens at 8.15am, closing at 7pm, with the artworks divided between a series of rooms all featuring a certain artistic style or period. The gallery is not restricted to just greats of the Italian renaissance but the collection also includes works by German and Flemish artists. To appreciate much of the work you would need to devote at least several hours to get round.
Either as an afternoon escape or a morning alternative there is also the Galleria Dell’Accademia, most famous for its prize possession, Michelangelo’s David, the original sculpture that stood in Piazza della Signoria. The 5m tall statue was carved from a single slab of marble which some tales relate as having a fault line running through it. Michelangelo was said to have found it at abandoned at the rear of the artisan school and decided he would use it to create a symbol of Florentine spirit.
The Accademia also has other well known statues, paintings and carvings by many artists on display, well worth an hour or two looking around.
For a plesant way to round off the day there is a walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo from the southern river bank, where you will find yet another copy of Michelangelo’s David, a bronze version overlooking the city. A great place to watch the city change colour at sunset and sometimes there are public events held in the piazza during the summer.
If there is still enough energy left to view one more church Chiesa di San Miniato al Monte is worth the extra effort. Situated in the parklands up behind Piazzale Michelangelo the exterior is one of the best examples of Tuscan Romanesque architecture while the interior is home to some extraordinary 13-15th C frescoes.
Depending on your time table you may have time for another set of museums or just a gentle stroll in the park. Head up to the Pitti Palace, another Brunelleschi creation for a wealthy banker that was eventually taken up by the Medici family. Inside are a series of museum rooms all dedicated to various items such silver, porcelain and renaissance clothing as well as more modern artworks from the 18th and 20th Centuries.
When the art intake has finally reached its limit there is respite in the shape of the Boboli gardens to the rear of the palace. Designed in the mid 16th C it contains typical grottoes and garden follies of the renaissance aristocracy. A chance to leave the narrow streets and tourist crowds for a while.
Your time in Florence is at an end but you may still have a chance to do a bit of that last minute shopping before bidding farewell to all the masters.
About the Author
Katy Hyslop has spent the past 6 years travelling, tour guiding and generally hanging around the European tourism industry. She is now based in Italy and in charge of keeping the crew under control at Plus. If you want to know more on what to see or where to stay in Florence click here.